Out of a former post office tucked away in an industrial section of Boulder, CO, startup Mod Robotics develops toys for children to help them learn and thrive in an increasingly complex world. Though the popular mantra of KISS (Keep it simple, stupid) rings true with many of today’s business professionals, Eric Schweikardt, Mod Robotics founder with a PhD in Computational Design, would argue that keeping it simple might actually cause future generations to become less capable of managing the realities of a highly technical world…
Boulder Colorado is a micro-culture, a unique place where you can still find hippie communities going strong along pale dirt roads, abutted against hiking trails that disappear into the trees. I was in Boulder to meet with two of the partners at Techstars, David Brown (also a co-founder) and Ari Newman. Both share an electric vibrancy that buzzes in the intensity of their eyes and the stillness of their postures. They are deep listeners, with algorithmic-process brains. They are living in the future…the film canisters of their brains capture more frames-per-second than the average brain. They shared five core values for success, which is basically “Karma wins.”
1. Give first. This might seem obvious in the realm of Karma, but remember Techstars is a tech accelerator program for start-ups meant to create millions if not billions of dollars in return on investments. This would seem antithetical to building wealth, but it works for Techstars…
I was sitting on the roof of a high-rise in the SoMa district of San Francisco, across 10th street from Twitter’s HQ. I was meeting with Wayne Sutton, the co-founder of Change Catalyst, an organization with a mission to increase diversity and inclusion within the tech profession. It was hot up there, much hotter than it was down on the street-level. I figured the temperature disparity must be a metaphor for something. From our vista we could see the hills and waterfronts of the bay area, and I imagined I was looking at the landscape through Trulia and all I could see was millions and millions of dollars all around us.,,
I waited for Maria Christina Gonzalez Noguera (who goes by “MC”) in the sunny lobby of an interactive agency in Union Square NYC. At the time, MC hadn’t yet started her new role as SVP of Global Affairs at Estee Lauder, and my office was in NJ, so meeting someplace central was ideal. As she exited the brushed-steel-door elevators whoever was in the perimeter slowed their step and turned their attention towards her. The cluster of hip-clad and smartly faced agency folks knew someone with clout had just entered their sphere. MC has a room-altering presence, a forceful combination of effortless grace, muted seriousness, and sparks of levity.
Each year since 2007 PR Week creates and posts a “Power List” of the most powerful and influential people in PR. From 2007 to 2010 the list topped at 25. From 2011 to present the list has expanded to include 50.
If you gather up the lists and look at the individuals chronologically from 2007 through to 2015 the results resemble the board game “Chutes and Ladders.” I specifically wanted to see how the 2007 winners fared throughout the years, and then wanted to see how the current batch of winners wound their way to their current positions. The below is a back-of-the-napkin, data-visualization analysis.
Here’s a quick guide to read the images…
- Grey lines represent a continuous position on the list from year to year
- A black line means that person laddered-up to the top position
- A red line means that person exited the list after their position
- An orange dotted line means the person was off the list for this period of time, but returned
- A green dotted line means the person handed-off their position to a new/different person at their company (As example, in 2013 Harris Diamond passed the Weber Shandwick baton to Andy Polansky, and Leslie Dach handed the Wal-Mart baton to Dan Bartlett)
- An “X” next to a name means they were one-time listees
2007 Power Listees and their Trajectory:
More individuals seem to “chute” than to “ladder,” potentially due to the expansion of the list in 2011. What’s also visible is the bunching of the top leaders. Most of the top leaders maintained a position within the top 10 year-over-year until 2013, when some of their replacements took over the roles. Though many of the replacements trended back up.
2015 Listees and their Paths to Glory
A different story appears through this data-visualization, though some of the principles remain. One key remaining principle is the top people on the Power List tend to remain at the top. You can see that a new wave of individuals emerge in 2012 and incrementally ladder their way to the top 10. The dramatic churn of individuals between 2010 and 2012 is also apparent, with a few years of list stability until this year, then there is a new wave of disruption in the list. Still, this new disruption is more of a changing of seats than people dropping from the list. Many of the people from 2014 remain on the list in 2015.
Areas of high drama in this visualization include:
- The ascension of Dan Bartlett to the top position
- The descent of Katie Cotton, the handoff to Steve Dowling, who retakes a top spot
- The rebound of Rachel Whetstone
- The rebound of Donna Imperato
- The descent of Margery Kraus from top 10 to bottom 5
There’s a lot more than can be derived from this data, such as the impression that women fare worse then men, and that strong brands hold their positions even through leadership changes (Wal-Mart, P&G, Fleishman-Hilliard). The above was my first take on this data.
- I once worked for a venture capital group that owned the celebrity index Popex. I wonder if a tool/game like that would be a valuable add-on to this list.
- I captured the above data points within excel, then used PowerPoint to create the images.
The Light Phone is an early indicator of a greater shift towards “Simply.” In this shift, however, we will not give up the feature-rich and deeply intelligent mobile devices (such as tablets and smart phones). What will happen is a smarter way to use the embedded technology within these devices, plus the power of the cloud, to create micro and macro networks of tools and services that create an increasingly personal response from technology.
Think in modules and nodes…the home becomes a node, the car becomes a node…the smartphone becomes a node. Networked to these connective points will be a new series of tools and services. The smart home, with tools such as Nest or Hue, are established indicators of the potential of node-based “Personal Networks.” We’re shifting from the Personal Computer to the Personal Network. (Thinking of this philosophically, this trend mimics the impact of Social Networking on our culture…this shift in physical technology could be a reaction to the shift in the intangible technology of Social Networks).
In the era of Personal Networks, we could be realizing one of the century old (if not older) design principles of “clean and functional” and also satisfying an initial tenet of technological advancement…Simplicity.
So what does this mean?
It means your smartphone will become a node, an anchoring point in your Personal Network. A tool, such as the Light Phone, would be a simple-function expression of one of the technologies embedded in your phone. Way back in 2013 Google and BERG were developing a tool called the Connbox, “…a prototype device that connects live chat in a more physical way.” It seems this device (and BERG) were too early. BERG closed down in 2014. (A potential pitfall of BERG was their interest in developing tools that were less about simplicity and more akin to quirkiness).
The great potential of a Simple Personal Network will be its ability to harness the power of technology without the weighty burden of complexity. It will allow the freedom to choose to utilize the deepness of cloud services if you want, while also being able to chose the opposite. To be “light,” and simply use a phone for a voice call.
Brand storytelling is the majority now, where is the emerging opportunity?
While we are deep in the era of brand storytelling, the next wave is emerging. Many of us in the storytelling profession are eagerly shifting our brands and clients away from static “push” marketing and towards the dynamic and agile verve of brand storytelling and “engagement.” Yet, even as we shift our brands into the new world the next step has already arrived. It’s the nature of our time, the cycles evolve and decay quicker.
The Next Step
The next step is about taking real actions. Doing something and taking actions that spur the genuine stories brand storytellers aim to create. Think of “taking action” in comparison to the current mode of ideation and using creative resources and strategic inputs to develop stories. Your new aim should be to do something your communities would gain value from (anywhere on the spectrum from creating a joyful moment to providing well being to delivering customer satisfaction). The action you take will need to make a genuine impact, and it needs to relate to who you are and what you do.
Creativity and insight lead the way forward
Creativity is still one half of the strategic yin-yang, insights are the other, but your role now is to not only think up and develop the best story, or the stickiest story, or the cleverest one…the role now is to create and develop the actions that spur the stories to be told, shared, and remembered.
We have updated storytelling mantra to guide us
Show, don’t tell. Do, don’t show.
Growing up in and around NYC, the Subways and trains become part of a rite of passage. Taking the subway by yourself becomes a milestone, a badge of honor, in one’s pre-adolescent development.
The signs and symbols which guide and direct you took on greater subliminal meaning. They became icons of the culture you were developing in your young mind, tied to your maturity, signposts to your freedom. In some cases the transit symbols became labels for the genuineness, the claim of being from or part of NYC. In the 80’s there was a great punk-rock band called “Token Entry.” The icon for their band branding was the token entry symbol from the subway. Everybody who was “hip” wore that shirt. It interesting to note that approximately 20 years post-Token Entry the MTA sells distinctive t-shirts which show the numerical or alphabetical symbol of the train line of your preference.
But, looking deeper, there was a “hidden driver” in place to seed and spark these symbol adoptions to occur. In the case of the New York City Transit Authority symbols this hidden driver were two designers: Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda.
“In 1967 the New York City Transit Authority hired Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda of the design firm Unimark International to design a signage and wayfinding system that would solve the problem underground…The work they delivered, the 1970 New York City Transit Authority Graphic Standards Manual, succeeded in that goal and, perhaps unintentionally, the Standards Manual became one of the world’s classic examples of modern design.”
An original version of this manual was uncovered recently and there is a Kickstarter to have it scanned and printed in a limited edition. The two current designers who discovered this rare book initially launched a website about their unique find with photographs of the book’s pages. The site was overwhelmed with interest, which led them to create the printing project via Kickstarter.
The “wave” of impact from these simple designs has lasted decades. It has undulated, but each time the wave peaks it appears higher than before. I’m curious to see how this book will impact new generations. In the meantime I’ve seen handfuls of utilizations, including the new team of designers hired to redesign NYC parking signs, and the “way finding” sign team, that follow the guidance of this book rather then take a new direction.
I loved my Token Entry t-shirt, or maybe I loved the well designed symbol that had a look and feel to last centuries.
We are within an overlap of two eras:
Disruption (as an era) has shaken off the emotional force of Nostalgia, specifically off the back of Progress. One goal of Disruption was to remove the emotional connection to the past and replace it with a rational celebration of the new (similar to Modernism). As example, retro design, remakes of “classic” films and TV shows, and turning childhood books into movies are symptoms of the friction Nostalgia creates between the past and the future. As example, critics loved the first generation iPhone (no one complained it didn’t have the same look/feel of old phones), but vendors still arose to provide retro gadgets to modify it so it would. Disruption has worked incredibly hard to separate Nostalgia from an appreciation of what’s “Good.”
Post-Disruption is an era with a focus on building stronger foundations in the new global reality created by Disruption. It’s an adoption of the the lasting forces of Disruption as a new normal, but within two distinct paths towards the future:
- Neo-Modernism Design Driven: To continually reinvent the present through new systems and technologies in the service of solving issues (both global and local). This requires both solving current high-profile technological issues (health, energy) plus inventing new opportunities and markets (innovations) and therefore magnetizing communities around these new innovations
- Neo-Renaissance Nutriment Nourishment: To provide foundational support (both global and local) that fosters the betterment of livelihood. Similar to the above, but with a focus on the basics. It is a new investigation of how to build a “Good” future (social and economic) that learns from historical lessons without the friction of Nostalgia to impede progress
Looking at our current experience, these two forces are unbalanced…maybe they aren’t meant to be. The force of Design is outweighing Nourishment. Both are growing. Either way, people, governments, and businesses should be considering these two paths when planning for the next five years, and beyond.
The proprietor of the local bagel shop is a wise communicator. I admire and learn from his soft-style marketing and sales techniques. They can be adopted/integrated as part of a core Social Communications strategy.
There is typically a long line from the front door to the back of the store. The counter to order your bagel and other items is at the back. Customers walk past all of the offerings before they reach the counter (sort of like exiting through the gift shop at amusement parks).
All throughout this process the proprietor engages with the customers. Sometimes it’s a simple, “We’ll be right with you folks!” other times it’s, “Don’t forget dessert, your family wants dessert!” My favorite part of this routine is the in-the-moment (real time) marketing “experiments” posted on the cases.
This weekend there were two:
1. New York Met’s Special “Sweep” sandwich. The Mets had just swept the Yankees in four games; kind of unheard of in these parts. For Mets fans this is sweet revenge as the Yankees typically gain the lions share of praise in the NYC area.
The proprietor chose to create a real-time product, using ingredients he already has on hand, that fits within his menu.
Here’s the other one. This one is more experimental. In this experiment the proprietor is inventing a new offer through a mixing of two current products:
2. The Coney Island Stuffed Knish.
Branding a knish as “Coney Island” is a whole other discussion (see Mrs. Stahls), but the proactive ingenuity of combining two current offerings into one to test its reception is something that we can all do on a regular basis. Plus it adds some unique flavor to our communications plans. Call it a mash-up. A mash-up message.
Here are the key take-aways from the bagel shop when seen through the lens of a social communications professional:
- Display your advocacy (don’t hard-sell your services): The proprietor doesn’t broadcast the types of bagel and prices to his customers. He assures his customers that he cares about them.
- Be in the moment: Discuss current events through the lens of your comms plans and brand narratives.
- Mash-it-up: Refresh older items by reframing them through a mash-up into something new.
And there’s one last one…
- Be personal in a personal way: When a customer is paying for their transaction the proprietor makes sure he says something unique and uplifting to his customer. Though he’s been shouting messages for all to hear, at this moment he quiets his voice to create a connection with his customer. He shifts his perspective, playing the role of a fellow customer, “oh, you got the humus, that humus is delicious, good choice.”