Don’t do the shiny thing

(Originally posted to LinkedIn)

A few weeks back I spoke at the inaugural One Question conference in London. The premise of this new event is simple but refreshing: one question, many perspectives. I for one appreciate the focus this brought to the day, and that it allowed me to carve out a really clear response based on the point of view I was asked to represent.

The question at hand was: how do we successfully marry humanity with technology?

When I thought about these two worlds colliding through the lens of what I do at H+K, I considered how we use both to generate amazing creative work. For me, the humanity is the idea; and the role of technology is to enhance or make it better. It shouldn’t be the other way around.

My story began back in March at SXSW. My favourite session was J.J. Abrams’ ‘Through the eyes of Robots & Murderers’, which focused on the very same topic as the first One Question – the relevance of the human factor in digital communications.

What J.J. was really interested in talking about though was empathy.  When asked how storytelling would be improved by technology, his answer was quite simply that it wouldn’t. His take was that if you can’t put yourself in the position of the person you’re telling a story about, or the person watching, no amount of tech will help you make the story better.

And this was the core of my point for One Question. Yes, technology has made telling stories more accessible and easier to share –  but it can be distracting.

Thing is, when it’s done right, technology can create empathy in spades. I referenced REWIND founder Sol Roger’s work with VR Together (an organisation promoting ideas, projects and technologies in VR that have the impact to positively affect human lives) as an ideal example of this. Particularly, the use of VR snowscapes to help speed up and ease the recovery of burn patients. There are many others in the same space; the UN’s first ever VR experience ‘Clouds Over Sidra’ that explores the world of a 12-year old in Syria, and the National Autism Society’s immersive video (below) for its ‘Too Much Information’ campaign as two key examples.

But my session wasn’t about good and bad uses of VR and immersive tech. That’s too easy a target. VR is either great, like the New York Times’ VR app that takes its reporting in to a completely new space when it comes to creating empathy. Or it’s utterly rubbish, like CNN’s screening of one of the democratic debates last year (which was universally panned for just putting journalists ‘closer’ to a few people standing around in suits).

I actually think we’re guilty of getting distracted by technology on a much smaller scale.

I then pointed to two examples from Land Rover. The first was Adventuregram; a modern version of a ‘choose your own adventure’ story powered by Instagram. As shown in the demo below it used the image tagging function to ask people to make a choice between two or three routes, then directed you to additional different feeds to progress. A clever use of the platform for sure, but Mat Morison’s analysis of it showed that (using likes as a proxy) it got on average 15 times less interaction that typical branded content. Why? Because even though with my media hat on, this is smart experimentation, it feels a bit like being clever for clever’s sake – rather than consider how people naturally behave on the platform.

But here’s where things get sticky for me. The second example (also in the video below) was a similar interactive story called Solitude in Sawtooth. This time it feels somewhat more intuitive. Here, the experience exists within a single feed, and asks you to spend more time there by featuring a series of images and video clips that tell the story. Looking at the Likes, it fares little better than the original, but for me this is a far better bit of innovation.

In fact, I had an argument about ‘creativity for creativity’s sake’ on Twitter back when this came out, but my opinion is still the same – if we constantly berate people for playing about and testing the limits of what can be done, we’ll never get anywhere.

Another thing my One Question session allowed my to do was indulge in answering a question that’s bugged me for years. WHY IS THERE A QR CODE IN THE BACK OF MY CADBURY DAIRY MILK? My Dairy Milk Marvellous Creations Rocky Mallow Road to be precise.

So I bought one, downloaded a QR scanner (because after all, I’m in the UK – not China, where QR codes are standard procedure for delivering information). It wouldn’t scan. To give the code the benefit of the doubt, I downloaded a second app. Still nothing. I then removed the chocolate from the wrapper, and finally with a near-perfectly flat surface, saw success.

What I was directed to really surprised me. It was a TRUE moment of joy; a beautiful Vine (RIP) of a baby blowing raspberries. Totally on-brand, totally in sync with what Cadbury represents. I loved it. So why did it take me more than ten minutes to get there?

While your ‘average person’ would have given up long before, I’d stuck it out. But what a shame! Moving beyond the initial clip I was served, I found an entire hub full of viral moments of joy, curated by Cadbury. Of course, I have no idea how the brand is using this elsewhere in its comms or what the objective is. But with a simple URL, I could have found that clip almost instantly. Why make it harder for me? There must be a reason the brand’s printed them on its bars since 2011, but I’m still at a loss as to why.

I’ve been talking about social platforms for over almost 12 years now (scary). We as an industry are always bitching about people misunderstand new platforms, about how people overlook them as being ‘just for kids’. Snapchat is one of those for me, but in fact for the opposite reason. 80% of its users fall inbetween the ages of 14-18; it truly IS a community built by and for youth. But my beef with the Snapchat situation is that there’s a misinterpretation of the content, and the role it could potentially play in shaping the views of a generation. Of course there’s a lot of drivel in there, it’s a private network after all, but for me there’s real potential in there to create empathy through shared experiences.

At One Question I called out the platform’s use of Live Events to show people’s perspectives on specific themes to the rest of its community. A curated view of an important moment, not from media or ‘influencers’, but from everyday kids, distributed at scale. Snapchat’s Passport series is a window into the way other cultures live, the anniversary of ten years since Hurricane Katrina deals with a delicate subject through the eyes of people who’ve lived it, and even the behind-the-scenes stuff at music events like the VMAs present a different view.

Empathy doesn’t have to be about sadness; it’s just about looking at something through someone else’s eyes for a while.

The thing I hoped to leave the audience with was quite simple; do the human thing first. Come up with the idea and use tech to help, make it easier, better or enhance it.

I referred to Marks & Spencer’s very first Adventures in Imagination ad. A beautiful bit of work. Stunning in fact. A unique, impactful idea brought to life by people working for 18 months to get the right shot, with a dash of modern lighting technology and editing techniques, but no post production animation. The perfect example of what I wanted to get across.

Let’s do what we do best and come up with irrational, off-brief, bizarre ideas and use the technology we have available to us to make work shine, rather than be led by it.

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