My blog

The human face of innovation

I was at Wired Health this week, taking advantage of the opportunity to listen to experts talking about the impact of new technologies as they apply to modern medicine. As you might expect, it was informative and inspirational in equal measure, and I have come away equipped with a deeper understanding of correlative imaging and citizen science (check out @EtchACell), the real role that AI is already playing in helping patients understand what their symptoms might mean, and the disease-modifying potential of microbes in the human gut.

But as a communicator, what really struck me was the humanity of what was being presented, because underneath all the sexy science and cutting edge technology, lay very personal experiences which had been the catalyst for innovation.   Bruce Levine (@BLLPHD), who kicked off the event, proved to be a powerful communicator, explaining CAR-T therapy in the most compelling and clear way, using everyday language to bring extraordinary science to life. Not just that, but I loved the way he thanked the patients who had participated in clinical trials for their contributions and courage, telling us their stories alongside the story of the way in which this new cancer therapy was developed and approved.

The Hon. Dorcas Makgato, Minister of Health and Wellness, Government of Botswana (@DorcasMakgato) spoke without notes and held the room spellbound – not just by the content of her speech and the refreshing clarity of approach she’s taking, to drive change through investment that must deliver robust economic returns, but also by the force of her personality. She was utterly human and totally authentic.

One of the projects her department has invested in is the work being done by Peek Vision (@PeekTeam).  Founder Andrew Bastawrous told us how the experience of being labelled lazy at school when in fact all he needed was a pair of spectacles had inspired him first, to qualify as an eye surgeon and second, to go out and deliver eye-care in sub-saharan Africa. A few statistics that really caught me – did you know that worldwide, 1 in 3 people can’t see just because they can’t get spectacles? And, one of the key factors that led to his developing a low-cost smartphone ophthalmic tool that’s revolutionised the diagnosis of reversible blindness in remote, hard to reach rural areas, was the realisation that 80% of people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to a mobile phone, where only 50% have access to clean running water.

And Tania Boler (@taniabeeb) of Elvie (@helloelvie) spoke eloquently about now being a special moment in the evolution of the femtech industry when three factors are coming together to drive change: first, the growing empowerment and activation of women through the #metoo and #timesup movements – we’re no longer content with the status quo and are prepared to fight for what we deserve; second, the revolution in technology itself; and third, the paradigm shift currently taking place whereby individuals are now taking much more responsibility for their own health. And that’s quite apart from the incredible success she’s having using biofeedback technology to help women support their pelvic floor.

I can’t do justice to what was a very full day at Wired Health, and there are plenty of people who’ve blogged in greater detail about the content, but for me the unifying thread was not the technology, but the personal stories behind every breakthrough. Every single one of those entrepreneurs and pioneers had a story to tell about their own experience, or the experiences of someone they loved, and that’s what drove them. It’s easy to get lost in all the whizz-bang of AI, VR, spatial genomics (have a look at humancellatlas.org) and forget the humanity behind extraordinary innovation, but this year Wired Health and its speakers did a really good job of reminding us. Can’t wait for next year.

Three things…

How’s it going with all those resolutions you made? You know, the ones where you were going to get to the gym four times a week, eat seven portions of fruit or vegetables a day, give up alcohol and sugar, and be nice to everyone you meet? Those ones. Chances are that whilst you’re probably still doing okay(ish) now, barely a week into January, by the end of the month most people are falling by the wayside, and by the time you’re halfway through February those promises will feel like distant memories.

The thing about New Year’s resolutions is that they’re often about deprivation, and there are usually far too many of them for any normal human being to stick to. Making new habits is hard, no matter which self-help books you’ve read that promise to make it easy to keep going with radical changes, so maybe there’s another way to look at it.

After years of well-intentioned but ultimately pointless resolution-making, this year I’m taking a different approach, streamlining the whole process into three key commitments – and guess what, they’re not all about me and the changes I want to make, they’re about promises I’m making to myself, to the teams I work with and the companies I engage with.

Let’s take them in turn. My personal promise is to be kinder to myself. In practice that’s going to mean making sure I’ve got a good balance between commitments to work, writing my novel (draft 3, since you ask) and juggling family demands, along with remembering to relax and have a bit of fun. Could be any of us, right?

For the people I work with, as individuals and teams, whether it’s as a consultant, a mentor or a leader, I’m going to ask them to be brave. 2018 is the year to step out of your comfort zone and do something different, maybe it’s something that scares you or means learning a new skill, or perhaps it’s about asking yourself the ‘so what’ questions. It might even be about being brave enough to say  ‘this isn’t for me’.

Being brave is just as important for companies and organisations as it is for individuals, but it seems to me that sometimes what companies need more than courage is someone to challenge their thinking in a constructive way, so that’s my company promise this year. It’s going to be about broadening business horizons, thinking about what the future holds and how organisations might need to adapt to best exploit what opportunities lie ahead.

I’m going to come back to these themes of kindness, bravery and constructive challenge throughout the year, and I’d love to know what your three words would be, if you could sum up what you want to happen in 2018 for you, the people you work with and the company that you’re part of.

Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

 

Workplace Wellbeing

It’s unlikely that you’ll have missed it, but just in case, today is World Mental Health Day and the theme this year is all about wellbeing in the workplace. To their credit, numerous high profile individuals, including Lloyds Bank chief executive Antonio Horta-Osorio and Geoff McDonald from Minds at Work (and former Global VP of Human Resources at Unilever) have been open about the difficulties they’ve encountered, largely driven by stress in the workplace.

Many big companies and professional organisations have called for a greater focus on mental wellbeing, but the stigma associated with asking for help is enormous. According to the PRCA, 59% of PR and communications practitioners say they’ve experienced mental illness, yet only 37% would approach their managers to talk about the challenges they’re facing.

As leaders, we have a responsibility to create the right environment for people to flourish and that means cultures which enable individuals to openly seek help when they need it, hopefully before they reach a crisis point.  It’s not rocket science – to be compassionate, to look out for people’s welfare and to identify those who need support – but it’s also not something that’s focused on in management skills training. There’s always an element on how to manage performance (usually how to give constructive feedback, swiftly followed by how to manage underperformers out of the business), but not on how to help people who really need it.

And, because once the subject of mental ill-health comes up in businesses, HR departments get anxious about legal liabilities and confidentiality in a way that physical illness doesn’t seem to provoke, it’s all conducted behind closed doors. People ‘disappear’ from work, returning a few weeks later surrounded by rumours, unless they decide to be open themselves about what’s happened to them, all of which adds to the stigma.

Let’s train our young managers and leaders on how to spot people who’re burning out, but more than that, we need to keep talking and sharing our experiences. Presenteeism continues to be a curse in our industry, particularly for the ambitious, so highlighting the successes of flexible working and insisting that people balance their lives is an important leadership task. Yes, we can lead by example, but we also need to take action so that at all levels, our teams are able to manage their working pattern and preserve their physical and mental health as they build their careers.

Want to take that first step? Having been fortunate enough to hear Geoff McDonald speak very eloquently about how to create “mentally and emotionally healthy and human workplaces where individuals can flourish and organisations prosper” I can thoroughly recommend Minds at Work as a good place to start: www.mindsatworkmovement.com

Let me know how you get on.

 

Marcel and AI – the future of agencies?

First up, a couple of disclaimers. I used to work at Publicis some years ago, and still have some extremely fond memories of the place and the people. And secondly, what I know about Marcel so far, the AI system Publicis has just announced it’ll be spending all its award entry and sponsorship money on for the next year, is what’s publicly available.

Still, from what I can see, the majority of the reaction to Marcel has centred on the likely impact that missing out on awards might have on the motivation of creatives across the business. If they aren’t going to be recognised by winning awards, how can they judge their success, so the argument goes. Marcel is described by Publicis as a ‘professional assistant system’, which will incorporate detailed profiles of every member of staff in order to pull together teams to address specific client needs, the idea being that staff can ‘bid’ to be involved in client briefs.

Hmm. Let’s just take another look at that, shall we? Whilst it’s heralded as a natural next step in delivering the “Power Of One” approach that has supposedly done away with individual P&Ls to facilitate cross-company working (tell that to the poor souls presenting quarterly numbers for which they are being held accountable by the way), in my opinion the real promise that Marcel makes is to remove the need for managing directors and business unit leaders altogether. Well, if you have the technology to match people to opportunities across geographies, time zones and markets, what’s the point of having managing directors to manage those people? If the promise of the work itself is strong enough, one presumes, there will be no need for traditional leadership of any kind.

It kind of fits, though, with what’s happening across the communications business as a whole. The exodus of mid-level and more experienced account handlers from the PR and medcomms business continues as people walk away from the always-on demands of agency roles to freelance. They don’t seem too bothered about any lack of personal development or growth opportunities, in fact some see not having to participate in company-led initiatives as an advantage. Loose collectives or groupings of freelancers happy to work together on projects directly with clients are springing up all over the place, as our work becomes increasingly commoditised.  It becomes about the ‘stuff’ we deliver rather than the value of the thought behind it.  To be fair though, talented creatives and planners have long been able to name their price in the freelance market, picking and choosing the work they want to do and the hours they want to work.

The days when clients relied on agencies as their institutional memories are rapidly disappearing, as the value of long-term relationships is continually degraded. In the race to cut costs, most agencies now have to repitch regularly even when the client is happy, because that’s what procurement requires. The influence of procurement on agency selection increasingly forces marketers to view all creative agencies as much the same, and the only way to differentiate between services becomes about chemistry and teams rather than the ability to do the work to a higher standard or think differently.

What Marcel offers, in my view, is the opportunity to remove even that differentiation. It promises to use predictive technology to match talent with client briefs, wherever it’s located. The problem for me is about seeing ‘talent’ (or as I like to call them, people) simply as a series of building blocks, albeit with varying characteristics, rather than in all their rich diversity. Amongst other things, this limited view provides procurement with the opportunity to more clearly specify which blocks it wants to buy, at what price. So, I foresee a future where procurement will specify the use of x hours of y shaped talent at z price (not that different from what happens now), and the beauty of individual creativity will be lost in translation. If you’re a freelancer, you’ll be forced to fit into that mould too, whether you’re under the radar or not.

And if you don’t fit those specifications, if your creativity isn’t quite the right ‘shape’, or if you need a different kind of opportunity to grow your skillset, well that’s tough because there won’t be a manager or a leader in place who gets you and is willing to fight your corner.  In the race for flexibility, we are at grave risk of losing our individuality, the ability to engage with and support real creativity that’s different and chafes at being put in boxes.  Winning awards is often the result of creating environments that nurture difference, that encourage creativity and enable people to be themselves.  You can’t wish winning teams into existence just by picking people from all over the world and shoving them together to answer a brief, they need leadership and support, and technology alone won’t deliver that.

Maybe I’m wrong, hopefully I am, but my worry is that Marcel heralds a future where the importance of the individual contributor within agencies becomes meaningless, certainly from an account handling and management perspective. And once this AI system has got enough data on board about what makes a successful campaign, how long will the individual creative be safe? Whatever happens we can’t get this particular genie back in the bottle, because where Publicis leads, others will almost certainly follow.  In ten years time, perhaps the hottest shops on the block will be agencies that offer a return to ‘old school’ working, with teams all together in one place rather than scattered to the winds.   What do you think?

Nearly there…

After weeks of frantic election campaigning here in the UK we’re nearly there, and whatever your voting intentions tomorrow, you’ve got to admit that campaign managers from all sides have had their work cut out keeping their candidates on track, in control and on message.

Maybe it’s just me, but there have been times when I have yearned for candidates and party spokespeople to set aside their soundbites, stop using the techniques so painstakingly learned to avoid people’s questions, and instead speak to the electorate as human beings. Yes, it’s important to stay on message, but that doesn’t mean trotting out the same stock phrases out over and over and over again in response to numerous different questions. “Strong and stable” made sense the first time I heard it, but as time went on and every Conservative Party spokesperson hitting the airways used it, the phrase lost its meaning and became risible.

Don’t agree? Well, it certainly gave the opposition room to counter-attack with “weak and wobbly” every time manifesto promises were clarified and amended in response to public criticism. Oh, and by the way, do stop answering every question with “let me be clear”, it begs the question of why you weren’t clear in the first place. Why not drop the barricades a little and use your own natural speech patterns – unless of course you spend your time in the pub continually interrupting people and shouting “let me finish…” whilst completely ignoring the question you’ve been asked. No? Thought not.

Now, when I have gone into pitch for business, one of the key things we’ve done to prepare is to make sure we’ve got the facts at our fingertips. So, when going into a radio or TV interview to talk about say, the cost of policing, it’s a good idea to have written the numbers down in big letters where you can see them, so you don’t have to make up the answers on the fly (and get found out when you get it wrong – repeatedly). Also, on this same topic, maybe learn from your mistakes so that if you’re invited onto another programme to talk about perhaps local election results, you don’t make the same error all over again. In fact, if this is your candidate, I’d be taking them off the airways altogether  – oh…

In the communications world, there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes on issues management – looking at where problems might lie for brands and businesses in order to defuse them before crises happen. So, if your own personal beliefs seem to be at odds with the mainstream, or even your own party’s policies, it’s worth taking time as a candidate to think through how you might respond to challenges about them. Just ignoring the issue simply makes it worse, and gives the appearance of not caring what people think about your views – as does a long period of silence followed by an unconvincing denial. We don’t all have to agree on everything, but pretending you do when you don’t can be fatally damaging to your reputation.

I worked with an HR manager years ago whose mantra was that you should take time to understand the intention behind people’s behaviours, because it was almost invariably good, even if the execution left a lot to be desired.  It was a good lesson, and worth applying in this instance, because I don’t believe any of the campaigners and their advisers went into politics with the intention of misleading or alienating the electorate. But I’d give anything to hear a politician today dropping the front, speaking like a human being, admitting when they’re wrong and talking about what really matters to them, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

So, some last minute advice to all the candidates today – lose the rhetoric, speak from the heart and remember what it is to be human. There’s an appetite for change, and those who can actively listen, engage openly and acknowledge other’s views in debate rather than simply blindly defend themselves are likely to make more headway in today’s environment.

 

 

Lessons to be learned?

As we brace ourselves for the election here in the UK, I thought it would be interesting to see what lessons our politicians could learn from three recent examples of how not to communicate.

First of all, the furore over the almost immediately withdrawn Pepsi ad featuring one of the ubiquitous Kardashian sisters. If you didn’t see it during its “blink and you miss it” moment of fame, the ad featured Kendall Jenner disarming a potential riot by presenting a beleaguered policeman with a can of fizzy drink. Made entirely in-house, without the benefit of any professional external counsel, the problem with the ad was that it was seen as trivialising the civil rights movement, prompting a sarcastic quote from the daughter of Martin Luther King amongst a torrent of other criticism. Bernice King tweeted a photo of her father being confronted by a police officer at a protest, saying “If only Daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi”.

I’m willing to bet that had an agency creative come up with this idea (and let’s face it, the path to the right idea is paved by the ones that get discarded along the way), someone on the team would have pointed out the obvious pitfalls way before it got to the client.  It’s a great example of how groupthink can blind perfectly sensible people to the reality of how the outside world will interpret their actions. Mind you, once they realised they’d got it wrong, Pepsi pulled the ad and apologised absolutely everywhere to absolutely everyone, so full marks for getting that bit right at least.

Next, of course, there’s the United Airlines saga, which saw a paying passenger quite literally dragged out of his seat in order to make way for United flight attendants. To the protests of other passengers, he was hauled up the aisle like a sack of potatoes – all of which was captured on film and uploaded via social media within a matter of minutes. This was compounded by an official statement which spoke of “re-accommodating” passengers, failed to apologise and was then followed by leaked internal emails which appeared to blame the passenger in question for not giving up the seat that he had paid for.  It’s laudable to want to protect your staff, but seriously, did nobody from the CEO’s office even watch the videos before sitting down to write the press statement?  As a communicator, one of the most important things to do in a crisis is to take a step back and look at events through the eyes of an ordinary person, not someone bound to the organisation you work for. It doesn’t help to just blindly defend yourself and your people in circumstances like these. Be a person – a real person – and act like a real person would.

Last but not least, there is the shameful example of Sean Spicer, White House Press Secretary, seeking to explain why missiles had been fired into Syria by dint of ‘ranking’ the misdeeds of dictators. This was, it appears, his way of establishing just how bad Assad really is in the opinion of the current US administration.  Leaving aside the idiocy of this approach, and the vile nature of the comparisons made, did it never occur to him that the people watching and listening might also be aware of the lessons that history teaches us? Or that such attempts to categorise suffering merely serve to insult those who have experienced it?  It is foolish in the extreme to discount the intelligence of your audience, the depth of their knowledge and the intensity of their engagement.

Shocking as these three examples are, coming hot on the heels of each other they do provide important lessons for politicians as we move towards a June election: 1. Think about how the outside world, the real world, will view your actions and revise them accordingly; 2. Be human – put yourselves in the shoes of others, empathise, understand when to stand down, say you’re sorry and find a new way forward; 3. Never underestimate the people you’re talking to – chances are they know more than you do, and they certainly won’t hesitate to tell you when you’ve got it wrong. If nothing else, it’s going to be an interesting few weeks.

Fake It Until You Make It

I’ve read quite a few articles recently about Imposter Syndrome, something that apparently many women in particular suffer from. The theory is that regardless of how successful you are, on the inside you regard yourself as something of a fraud – even though to the outside world you seem to be a high-flyer.  It is rooted in low self-esteem, and it can get worse the more successful you become, and the more you mix with other talented individuals.

It’s all about comparing yourself with others and finding yourself wanting – not a pleasant place to be.  Instead of being able to accept that you might, just possibly, be good at what you do, Imposter Syndrome means that you tell yourself that no matter what you achieve, those achievements are somehow fraudulent compared to those of others.

Well, I’d like to propose a different approach. How about, instead of deciding you’re successful despite your shortcomings, why not just decide to be successful and then worry about whether or not you deserve to be afterwards. In short, I’m recommending the “Fake it until you Make it” approach. Act as if you are already a winner, already on the path to success and soon enough you probably will be.

Last year I went to a masterclass on how to write a bestseller, run by The Guardian. One of the speakers was Clare Mackintosh, whose first novel “I Let You Go” hit the bestseller lists right off the bat. I’m over simplifying this, obviously, but she talked about how she’d essentially just “decided” that she was going to be a writer, quit her job and then got herself work as a freelance journalist by telling editors that she was already working as a freelance.  What Clare did was to become a writer through the power of living a writer’s life, rather than wait for someone else to tell her that she was one.  I found her really inspiring because of the clarity of her vision and the decisiveness of the actions she took. Also, her books are incredibly well written and definitely worth reading.

When my business partner and I set up our own communications agency, we didn’t agonise for months about whether or not we would be successful, we got stuck in and acted as though we were already there. That confidence meant that clients were able to trust that we’d deliver, right from the off and I am sure was a huge part of our ultimate success. We used to talk about it being our “field of dreams” strategy – you know, if you build it, they will come (and they did…).

I know this sounds obvious, but if you’re feeling like an imposter, try not to give in to the self-doubt. When you’re not feeling confident, try acting as though you are until you’ve developed the skills and tools you need for that confidence to be real.  You’d be surprised how quickly that can happen.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that we are all of us to one extent or another playing roles that we feel are expected of us, so spend your energy making sure you’re performing with confidence instead of agonising about what others might think.  It’s like wearing a dress that you secretly think is a bit too short. Style it out and nobody will know that you’re worried it’s too short, they’ll just be wowed by how fabulous you look.