WARC Brainy Bar 3

brainy-barIt was standing room only at the third Brainy Bar event.

Run by Walnut in conjunction with WARC, the idea is for clients, vendors and agencies involved neuroscience (the “brainy” part) to get together in Creston’s bar (the “bar” part) to share case studies and best practice.

It’s an admirable shared vision: people from different fields working together to create more effective communications.

There was lots of good stuff, but my main take-outs from the evening were:

1) Ads that evoke an emotional response are more effective

Dr. Cristina De Balanzo from Walnut introduced the evening. I was too busy drinking my G&T to take many notes but did biro down that Emotional campaigns yield better long term results, as Binet & Field proved in their IPA meta-analysis in 2015.

2) Work with natural human tendencies to ensure your ads are memorable

Heather Andrew from Neuro-Insight explored techniques to create effective TV advertising, based on work from a range of clients including ThinkBox. Many of the studies involve getting people watching TV ads whilst wearing EEG headsets and measuring emotional engagement and long term memory encoding. Granular feedback of what works within a 30 second TV ad is really useful when creating future executions:

  • Great ads should not only to evoke emotion but build long term memories. The latter part is vital if you want to influence future behaviour – not just create great entertainment.
  • Great brands develop associations in your brain over time. She used the “brand room analogy” – your brain has “rooms” – brands you know well are “completely furnished”; brands you know less well are “sparsely furnished”. The aim is to build associations (furnishings) then trigger these at relevant times (switch the light on).
  • Triggers can be quite subtle – shapes, colours, smells, music can then trigger these associations and “turn the light in the room on”
  • Andrew focussed on how her research had revealed that subtlety is a surprisingly powerful tool:
    • Showcasing rather then overt selling means people are more open to your messages;
    • There is a human tendency to respond to stories, puzzles, people. Make your brand part of one to encourage long term memory encoding. The example was the Diet Coke Break campaigns which bring together a similar cast of characters and situations;
    • Human interaction always encourages a reaction in any ad: correlating with better recall. For example peak point for long term memory encoding was the kiss in the John Lewis “growing older” execution.
  • A great technique: picking elements proven to correlate with long-term memory encoding from pre-tested TV ads and using these “flashbulb” images to lead outdoor campaigns Increasing effectiveness based on real data, not intuition.

3) Use the neuro toolkit to test, learn and optimise – just like you do with any other method

Thom Noble (NeuroStrata) gave a detailed overview of how he triangulates different methods in the neuro toolkit to add value for clients. He combines measures of standout (aka salience – where the eye is drawn to when you look at an image) and emotion (aka implicit response – a timed measure of the strength of associations you have when exposed to a product/brand) to evaluate comms.

He talked us through a programme of research with CGI design agency, Saddington Baynes establishing the parameters of good car advertising, establishing “what good looks like” for static and CGI car ads. Using a series of controlled tests – he investigated parameters like car colour, trim level, car facing left/right, the car being static or in action, with a driver or not etc.

Some evidence was surprising. For example, it is better to have the car image on the left, and text on the right as our brains process this combination more intuitively.

The outcome was database evidence relating to what works relating to car imagery. This moves beyond gut reactions, providing a new understanding of cause and effect. You can imagine how useful this is when creating a new campaign – reverse engineering rather than starting from scratch.

In summary

As a former comms agency researcher I was pleased to see how these methods were used to augment intuition: empowering creatives – not side-lining them. Thanks to all involved.

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5% of my waking hours

Like many people I spend too much time on my smartphone.

As a researcher I like to think I’m relatively aware of my behaviour. I consciously limit my time staring at it, stroking it or waiting for it to bring me jolt of joy in the working day. If you’d asked me a couple of weeks ago I’d have said smugly “It’s under control”. In the spirit of understanding I downloaded the Moment app which tracks phone use.

Surprise surprise: I was far more reliant on it than I thought. I averaged over an hour a day of screen time, picking my phone up 30-35 times a day.

Moment smarthphone tracking

It’s a useful reminder that our perception is unreliable: actual behaviour is different to self-reported behaviour. When it comes to new tech, I’d argue we are particularly prone to error. We’re learning on the go.

It’s also a prompt to think about the social context of phone use. I don’t intend to be rude. But – like anyone having a conversation whilst scrolling through a feed – I probably am. The technology which connects you to others can also isolate you from them.

There are other unintended consequences. Professor Mary Aiken referred to an ethnographic study on the Today Programme last month as she launched her book The Cyber Effect. Researchers observed parents and their kids in a cafe. Parents were looking at their screens 60% of the time: neither speaking nor making eye contact. She made the obvious point here: the way our children behave depends on the example we set to them. The question parents should be asking is not “at what age should kids be exposed to smartphones” but “at what age should kids be exposed to their parents’ smartphone use.”

As Sherry Turkle and others have observed: phone world puts you first. It promises you’ll never be bored, you’ll always be heard and that you can put your attention wherever it suits you. Is it any wonder most people have more screen time than they intend? Something which I managed to live happily without for the first 30 years of my life now accounts for 5-7% of my waking hours. Joy.

Given I was limiting my screen time already, what is the solution? If unplugging or exercising self-control aren’t options, there’s plenty of paid solutions to help us to use tech more wisely. Browser blockers which limit access to the web; paid versions of apps like Moment give you tips to reduce phone use based your patterns of behaviour.

If all else fails, we can outsource virtue.  It just doesn’t feel like much of a solution to me.

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A Lament for the Millennials (2): UK house prices vs. average student debt upon graduation 2000-2015

A previous post looked at the challenges young people face when trying to make a start in life.

I looked into how house prices and student debt upon graduation have changed over the past 15 years.

In the period 2000-2015:

  • Average UK house prices increased 2.4x – from £80k to £194k
  • Average student debt upon graduation is projected to increase 14.9x – from £2,960 to £44,035

Student debt vs house pricesCombined with stagnating wages and limited pension provision there is an ever increasing wealth gap between the generations. This surely must rise up the political agenda as young people realise the profound implications of economic trends and government policy.


Sources:   Nationwide house price index: http://www.nationwide.co.uk/about/house-price-index/download-data

Student loans company: http://www.slc.co.uk/media/5420/slcsfr012014.pdf

Sutton Trust: http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/payback-time-report.pdf

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Reference bias: what does “good” look like?

A recent study by Heckman & Kautz ranked nations according to their self-reported conscientiousness. They then cross referenced the average number of hours a worker in that country actually works each year (see below).

National rank in conscientiousness vs. average number of hours worked annually

Reference bias_Heckman & KautzOverall there is little correlation between how conscientious people in each country think they are, and the reality of how much they work. As the authors state: “The results are surprising. South Korea ranks second to last in terms of conscientiousness but first in the number of hours worked.” France on the other hand put in 40% fewer hours each year than the South Koreans yet rate themselves as far more conscientious. Thanks to the Stirling Behavioural Science Blog sharing the paper.

It’s a reminder that measuring abstract concepts in surveys can be a challenge. If participants have to interpret what a concept like ‘conscientious’ ‘happy’ or ‘lazy’ means they will all reference different norms. This “reference bias” makes comparisons misleading.

What’s needed is a common frame of reference. Academics use “vignettes” (short written descriptions) to help anchor responses and give more standardisation across cultures. There is a great list of these here for anyone interested. “Ken” for example, is the anchor point of 5/5 happiness on a happiness scale – and sounds like great company:

“Ken loves life and is happy all the time. He never worries or gets upset about anything and deals with things as they come.”

Whilst commercial constraints are going to prevent the average market researcher developing vignettes for every survey, when you’re measuring abstract notions they reduce subjectivity. I’m resolved to giving them a go.


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Are we all anthropologists now?

Anthropology – the study of humanity using observational techniques – is an inspirational, thought-provoking subject for researchers. February’s Radio 4 series “From Savage to Self” was a good primer on its origins and history. Thanks to Dr Nick Southgate for recommending it.

I learned most from the episode which focussed on commercial anthropology. It argued that practices taken from anthropology have seeped into everyday life – hence the title We are all anthropologists now. Quite a bold claim when you think about it.

Host Dr Farrah Jarral interviewed ReD Associates’ Claire Straty after a long day’s fieldwork.

As she described her work, Straty described the all too familiar gap between what participants say and what they do, illustrating the role of ethnography. Her purpose as a commercial ethnographer?

“We seek to find asymmetries. Between how a client sees the world and the lived realities of the people that these companies serve. There usually is a big gap between those two things and it is my job to go and find what that asymmetry is.”

Jarral pressed her on the rigour of her practice. Straty’s typical fieldwork period is 2 consecutive days, which is slightly more practical than the 12-15 months required for typical PhD thesis. Whilst narrower in its focus, in her view applied ethnography is no less valid: she describes it as more productive and more gratifying than academic practice.

There’s a theme here. Read any academic commentary on ethnography and it soon becomes apparent that there is hostility to commercial market researchers claiming to use ethnographic methods. Professor Danny Miller from UCL is clear: there are no shortcuts to understanding. You should enter your study with no hypotheses so not to bias your observations. You understand the community you are embedded with holistically, and this generates understanding of your topic of interest.

Whilst no comparison can be made to being embedded within a community for a year or so, any market researcher used to conducting both qualitative and ethnographic methods will know the nuanced understanding that spending extended periods of time with participants brings. Even spending a day with a participant – about five times the length of a focus group – gives much more than five times as much depth. For me the benchmark therefore isn’t academic ethnography but “in and out” techniques typical of market research which used in isolation provide limited context or immersion.

The tension between the academic and commercial world is unlikely to recede soon. We might find academia overly rigid, but we should understand their objections and use the word ethnography with respect.

For anyone interested in what academic anthropology can achieve, a team from UCL have just published ‘Why We Post’ – a global research project looking into the cultural norms of social media usage across nine countries. The findings are a challenge to the notion that people use technology in the same way – norms seem to differ wildly within and between countries. UCL have done a fantastic job in making their work accessible, with a great website compete with video, downloadable ebooks and lay summaries. Kudos to them.

Figure: Social media platforms used by English school pupils, from the ‘How the world changed’ ebook published for the ‘Why We Post’ research project


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A lament for the Millennials

Storming victory … a shot by Sony world photography awards L'Iris d'Or winner Mitch Dobrowner.

Photo credit: Mitch Dobrowner

The world Millennials inherited from their baby boomer parents is big on self-actualisation. You get to choose your identity in 21st century Britain.

This freedom is paralysing. When there’s a hundred paths to choose from it’s harder to find your way. And when you’ve made your choice you don’t always feel satisfied.

That is the millennial’s paradox.

No previous generation has been presented with so many choices.

No previous generation has had such elevated expectations.

No previous generation has lived through an internet age redefining work and social interaction.

There are many contributing factors.

Individualism won 

Millennials (18-30s) are the children of Thatcher and Blair. They were brought up being told how special they were by parents and advertisers. The drip-drip reinforcement of “this is your moment” “ready when you are” have it your way” “you’re worth it” has led some to claim we are facing a narcissism epidemic.

Collective identities embraced by previous generations – left/right binaries for example – don’t feel right. Paul Mason talks about how politics is more about the network (occupy, single issue campaigning) than the hierarchy (membership of a political party). Party politics feels compromised in an era where you support a mixed bag of issues based on your individual identity – not your class identity.

Graduating into the no pay economy

Remember the “milk round”? The idea that graduates were a prized asset, short on supply & courted by employers seems absurd in 2015. We are in the age of internships and the “no pay economy”. People who grew up being told they could be anything living in a society with decreasing social mobility.

Oversupply has led to academic inflation: a degree secured me a job. The typical graduate I interview has a Masters & a portfolio of relevant work experience. Broken career trajectories are common. I’ll leave the commentary on house prices & pension provision to others. ‘Enjoy the now’ is a rational response.

Living in an era of mass surveillance  

Private mistakes are public in the era of the smartphone: I would argue this changes adolescence. Young people are self-censoring their behaviour as they don’t want to be made foolish in retrospect. Statistics show youthful indiscretion peaked a few years back (undoubtedly caused by a range of factors, but still). Who knows how we’ll look back on our social media age. An experiment in mass surveillance about which we’re curiously relaxed?

An onus on appearance

Merged on/offline lives mean people are far more aware of their appearance. Some of these influences are gendered.

Millennials live in a world which offers fewer roles for men. Knowledge economy jobs have replaced traditional roles. For a subsection of our society, hyper masculinity is the response. Lost boys reasserting their identity. Walk down a high street on a Friday night in Bangor, Durham or Gloucester and you’re hemmed in by a uniform individuality of bronzed-biceps and diamond-shaped backs.

A lot has been written about female beauty expectations, their origins & pernicious influence. 1 in 9 British women are on antidepressants right now. Whilst this is multi-factorial I’d argue it’s related.

Technology separates as much as it brings together

When a teenager wanted to ask someone out 20 years ago they phoned a landline, then spoke to a parent who passed over the phone. There were two lots of small talk to get through. It was character building.

This is all rather quaint in a Snapchat-WhatsApp world. Romance is mediated now, emboldened. There’s anecdotal evidence phone calls are avoided in lieu of texting: “Phone calls suck and they give me anxiety” – just about sums it up.

A two-dimensional, controlled, asynchronous conversation is easier, less nuanced and more controllable. It’s not a good training ground for real life in all its unpredictability. It’s also not conducive to kindness, as people forget “the text bubble on their phone is a real person.” Consent workshops organised for Freshers at our universities in 2015 are emblematic of what’s changed.

The web can make things too easy 

You can download a musical taste in a minute. You can have a new wardrobe delivered to go with it the same day. The same tasks would have taken weeks in ’95, and months, years even in ’75.

This matters. Psychologist Robert Bjork’s concept of desirable difficulty is an interesting analogy:

“…when teachers try to facilitate learning by making it as easy as possible, this may increase the immediately observable short-term performance, but it decreases the more important long-term retention. In short, we often seek to eliminate difficulties in learning to our own detriment.”

Ease can rob you of motivation, make you listless. The pain of the search adds to the pleasure of the reward.

So what?

Economic, political, technological, social and psychological factors are combing to create a historically unique time to become an adult. It isn’t all bad. But we should acknowledge the challenges.

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Retail in Japan: a visitor’s impression

I’m just back from Japan. One of the first things to hit me was how different the shops were. Being a sad case I took a few snaps to share with the team. Here’s my tourist with a smartphone view on Japanese retail.

Limited space: crowded floor to ceiling fixtures and loads of POS in electricals and chemists, and telescoping shelves in the 7-11 chiller.

Lack of space

Crammed fixtures in electricals and chemists, extendable shelves at the 7-11

Will it vend? It must vend! Vending machines abound. Beer, cigarettes, drinks, newspapers… How about champagne and fruit? You can even pay with your Oyster card in the station.

Vending champagne - why not? Pics courtesy of Inside Japan Tours

Vending champagne – why not? Pics courtesy of Inside Japan Tours

Different norms on ranges: This is an Island nation with a parallel development cycle for products (Galapagos Syndrome) – including 15 varieties of Kit Kats and a lemon variant of Orangina, Lemongina.

The ones that stood out for me were at convenience store Lawson:

  • The on-the-go hot drinks fixture with too many coffee cans to count;
  • The standalone energy drinks / vitamin drinks fixture;
  • All the clothing you’d ever need if you had just pulled an all-nighter and needed to stay in the office (vest, shirt, underwear, tie)
Hot drinks and energy / vitamin drinks fixtures at Lawson Hakone

Hot drinks and energy / vitamin drinks fixtures at Lawson Hakone

 Value retailing is prevalent here too: The 100 yen store (c50p) and the 300 yen store (c£1.50). Lots of Halloween promotions here – their masks and facepaints looked pretty awesome. Daiso is a good example and had neat, well stocked shelves – it didn’t feel like a jumble sale.

Presentation / attention to detail: I’d anticipated beautiful bento boxes arranged with military precision. Fruit was the only food that was expensive. This market stall presented in Tokyo had individually shrink wrapped items, and I stumbled across a 25 quid presentation box in a department store (a “branded fruit gift” I was told).


Market stall, fruit presentation box and sushi bento boxes

Some packaging surprises: sake in juice boxes, cartons, glass cans, bottles

Sake packaging 4 ways

Sake packaging 4 ways

Surprisingly there was little digtal POS: staff ratios seemed better than UK stores

Digital POS

My favourite shop? Don Quijote, an Aladdin’s Cave discounter selling everything from groceries to electricals to clothes. Open 24/7 in Shinjuku.

Don Quijote Asakusa

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Oasis vs. Prudential: two very different honesty plays

The current Oasis campaign made me smile, pull over and take a photo.

Oasis "advertising doesn't work on you"

Oasis “advertising doesn’t work on you” execution

The battle for consumer attention is unrelenting. It’s increasingly hard to cut through no matter what your medium. The Millennials Oasis are trying to influence are more than likely glued to their smartphones not inspecting the new 6 sheet at the bus stop.

It’s impactful and cheeky. It’ll be at the back of my mind the next time I’m at the drinks chiller. They’re like a trusted peer sharing a secret, inculcating warmth or reciprocity.

But even in our post-modern, media-savvy era it’s pretty bold. Where do Oasis go from here? Creative options may be somewhat constrained in future when you’ve taken honesty to its logical extent. That’s not to mention the consistency issue. The sugar content of soft drinks is a hot topic for consumers and campaigners like Jamie Oliver: honesty might prove a difficult policy to maintain.

Prudential’s US TV campaign was brought to my attention this week by the excellent Freakonomics podcast. They too are making an adult-to-adult honesty play. This time it’s about facing up to life’s realities: we’ll live longer than we expect, and have less saved than we need. So far so boring.

Two elevating factors are:

Prudential/Droga 5: using visual metaphors to communicate intangible (boring) life realities

Prudential/Droga 5: using visual metaphors to communicate intangible (boring) life realities

It is somewhat surprising state of affairs: as Stephen Dubner says it is almost “advertising as public service announcement.” This is a corporation taking learnings from behavioural science about how we make decisions – like present tense bias – and making us engage with them to encourage us not to limit our long-term happiness. This is truth-telling and we feel like trusting them after seeing the ads. They’re invoking at least 3 of Cialdini’s 6 principles of influence here.

My question is: is this advertising the category, the brand or the product? I’d love to see results on the campaign’s effectiveness. If I was a few years older it might trigger investigation. But would it trigger investigation with Prudential?

In summary: two honesty plays, two audiences and two very different communication goals.

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Event: Leeds Institute for Data Analytics (LIDA) Research Forum, University of Leeds, Friday 10 July

I popped up to Leeds Uni last week to attend the LIDA research forum. This was part launch event (showing off their purpose-built research facility, complete with “safe data room” and training suite) and networking event (an opportunity for the Big Data community to collaborate).

LIDA is a multimillion pound initiative to “connect academic research from all disciplines with external partners in business, government and the third sector; matching the world class capabilities of University research with the needs and opportunities of local organisations.” Its success relies on interdisciplinary working: blending different backgrounds, datasets and worldviews to create intellectual synergies that might otherwise go unharvested.

Infographic: the Social Geography of Supermarket Grocery Purchasing in Leeds (Consumer Data Research Centre)



And whilst there were a number of interesting speakers, it was Professor Andrew Morris’ talk on Data intensive biomedical and health research which captured my imagination. An engaging presenter, he focussed on tangible outcomes resulting from big data in healthcare scenarios – turning what could have been a rather dry topic into an enjoyable half hour.

The challenge for healthcare

  • Bill Gates is quoted as saying Healthcare is the last major industry not to be transformed by the information age. Healthcare operates at just 60% efficiency according to McKinsey.
  • The ageing population creates a chronic disease challenge. Most elderly people have multiple illnesses (multimorbidity) but healthcare has a single disease focus. The patients he sees in his diabetes clinic on a Friday more often than not have just seen other consultants for example in ophthalmology and cardiology earlier in the week. Sequential and siloed care.
  • Austerity means “double jeopardy” in the NHS: the need to deliver better quality care at reduced cost.

The opportunity

  • It takes around 17 years for a biological discovery to be translated through clinical trials & innovation into great care. Using data can accelerate this process. The two gaps in translation are embracing technology for machine learning and data analysis.
  • He talked about the first digital revolution being about connectivity. America ‘won’ this – the fact most of us have used Google, Facebook or Apple in the past hour is testament to this.
  • The second revolution concerns data analytics: how we use data in real time across public services to enhance peoples’ lives & drive economic benefit. The UK is uniquely well placed to ‘win’ this because of our strengths in cross-disciplinary working. Interdisciplinarity (don’t you love that word?) relies on having organisations the right size – “being small enough to get the right people in one room” – easily possible in commissioning areas like Scotland or Yorkshire.

Morris gave a couple of great examples from NHS Scotland:

  • Using our unique NHS number to link data & follow the journey of care. Bringing together emergency care records, primary care records and a nationwide radiology archive to create a longitudinal serial database. The combined power of the database gives real time information to all hospitals (patients/prescribing/digital imaging). The outcome? Clinicians make better decisions. A diabetes specialist, his ambition is to reduce the number of amputations and eradicate blindness as a result of diabetes in Scotland before he retires.
  • Harnessing data-rich imaging records (e.g. CT scans). They have moved to a single supplier for scanners, and these are calibrated to produce a single data record across multiple sites. The outcome? 1 in 4 diagnoses are improved for patients presenting at hospital with heart pain.

He ended on an inspiring note: Moore’s law means that computing power will only improve. In 2003 it took 300 scientists 15 years and $3 billion to map one genome. In 2015 it takes 3 scientists a single day and $1000. Real-time, adaptive personalised medicine is now a less distant prospect.

So much of the discussion around big data is – let’s face it – dry, intangible and navel gazing. Morris’ presentation certainly wasn’t, and was the highlight of the day.


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Summer reading

Summer is here: the work-related reading in my suitcase alongside the latest Jack Reacher barnstormer is…


Don’t make me think: a common sense guide to web usability by Steve Krug

An idiot’s guide to web usability. It’s full of practical advice and written with in an engaging style with lots of visual examples. Although this edition was published in 2005 the fundamental principles still apply. The advice on having a clear visual hierarchy was immediately useful to me advising clients on their online display advertising and homepage takeover strategies. You can pick up a second-hand copy for a pound on Amazon. Give it a go: I can see it being an invaluable library resource for our team.

The age of earthquakes: a guide to the extreme present by Douglas Coupland, Shumon Basar and Hans Ulrich Obrist

This one’s a bit left field. Combining the zeitgeist-capturing brainpower of Coupland (Author of Generation X) with the skills of curator Obrist and editor Basar it’s as much an experiment in print publishing as a handbook for the digital age.

aoeTheir thesis is that the internet has changed us: how we absorb information and lay down the long-term memories which are the essence of our selves, our identities. It has also changed our world: with much of daily human activity taken up creating and exchanging information. Unintended consequences abound – our changing perceptions of time and how patient we feel; the structure of the economy; even the structure of the planet as ice caps begin to melt as a result of significant additional energy consumption.

Despite being a bit of a mind-melter you can read it in an hour. Marshall McLuhan would have loved its ideas and buzzwords. Aclassification, anyone?

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