Category Archives: Just stuff

How to make a hit advert

Forget John Lewis, Marks and Spencer, Debenhams and all of the other serial advert offenders in producing cliched fodder for the Christmas.

If you want to make a great advert, make something that YOU would want to watch. Forget the focus groups, forget the demographic analysis – instead, make the advert that you would be proud of, even if you never made anything else for the rest of your life.

Make an advert that appears to human emotions; make an advert hat appeals to our ambitions, our dreams … and then get the best people you can to make it.

North Face did exactly that. Bravo.

It is called Imagination.

Other than that you don’t need to know anything else – just watch it.

North Face executed perfectly – and they perfectly nailed one of the most difficult elements of a great video – the music. If you get the music right, you add the missing piece to your masterpiece, but occasionally you pick the PERFECT piece of music and you create something very, very special. The track used is “Because of Me” by the Avalanches. This innovative and underappreciated track that samples a 1959 recording called “Why Can’t I get It Too” by the Six Boys in Trouble.

Timeless. Well done all involved.



Making AI personal with ‘The Dadbot’


Image: Computer generated fragmented blue head
Credit: Pobytov/GETTY IMAGES, BBC Website

AI captures a dying father’s memory

From BBC site: Californian James Vlahos had a great relationship with his father, so when he was told his dad was dying he had to do something to preserve his memory. He got hold of specialist software, and started typing up some of the things his dad had said to him and made what he calls a ‘Dadbot’.

You can listen to this fascinating 20 minute program on BBC iPlayer – the program starts at about 9 mins.


This is a touching and fascinating program that explores a new area of AI that could have many interesting applications. Whilst AI has been shown to help predict dementia before the onset of symptoms, the Dadbot may offer a useful tool in helping people engage with dementia sufferers, or perhaps to capture knowledge from aging relatives or employees and make this available to a much wider audience.

Today, much of the AI discussion focuses on corporate <-> consumer use cases (such as powering recommendations and Alexa answers), where AI is improving the customer (consumer) experience, or augmenting human capabilities with user+AI use (such as helping increase the accuracy of medical or airport scanning) but we have seen more limited development outside of commercial use.

As these interfaces are opened up, research is published and AI is made accessible to a wider audience we will see the potential for new human+AI<-> human uses. I use the word human, rather than user because these connections are emotional rather than functional. This offers potential for AI to be used to help empower those with disabilities, using AI to help improve their interaction with other people. Human-centric AI uses with no clear revenue stream are never going to attract the funding levels of those that can show the potential for massive profits, but each small project moves us forward.


Silver bullets and other mythical creatures

I started writing this post 5 years ago. It was a post on the Hilton Barbour blog about Silver Bullets that originally got me thinking, but the post stayed stuck in that neverland of unreleased world-changing ideas called ‘drafts’.

A discussion about a new project I saw in my company reminded me that I had written something about this. Perhaps I could point to a nascent post from years past to demonstrate my insight. Alas, not.

I never posted it, so instead of pointing to wisdom and foresight, it stays reactionary. Unless that is you are reading this in 2022 and think, “smart guy – he saw this 5 years ago”. Even if this happened, I think I’d still be frustrated that I didn’t publish in 2012 and look insightful by a whole decade.

Anyway … time to ‘publish and be damned’.

The myth of the Silver Bullet.

Those mythical solutions that fix all known problems.

Perhaps we could write a list of attributes that companies can test their projects and ideas against – the Magic Bullet test.

Does it …?

  • Save money
  • Save time
  • Increase efficiency
  • Provide a competitive advantage over any other choice
  • Connect A to B and C and D
  • Simplify everything
  • … and so on … until you realise this list is essentially ‘solves all our problems’

For now, ignore the cost … because this will be BIG.

Magic bullets are never cheap, but hey, against those benefits it must be good value for money. Yes, it means that a load of other things won’t happen, but this project is going to solve ALL our problems.

Check your project against the list and if you get a high enough score which can mean it solves all our problems – then DING – you have a magic bullet project.

At that point, the smart people should stand up, bring the discussion back into the real world and say, “Sir, you have a silver bullet project … we need to stop this madness“.

The smart people won’t of course.

We then enter the real world version of ‘The Emperors New Clothes‘, as it becomes increasingly obvious that the strategy/project has no realistic chance of success, but no one wants to say so. Nobody wants to jinx the plan. And so the dance continues. A chance to define a practical (but less exciting)  solution is missed, time is lost and the failure continues – with the magic bullet sucking up all available budget.

So if you spot what you think is a magic bullet, how do you call it out (without putting your job on the line by questioning this amazing idea)?

Answer: You ask for evidence. You seek validation of the claims.

This can be done in a positive way, but it absolutely needs to be done.

“This is a great idea, but how do we know this will work”.

The response to this will be to dismiss your question, as near heresy, but stay the course … your next point is what matters.

After listening to the response, you come back with the safety value.

“That’s great, so we should expect to see this [add defined outcome] by [date] and [add second outcome] by [second date].

What you are doing is putting in a simple safety value(s) that if this condition is not met you can ensure that the project is subject to the governance as other projects. You are not questioning the project, but merely putting in some simple qualification criteria that it needs to meet. If you are right and the project is anything close to a magic bullet, you will have minimised the cost of failure – or better still, forced a re-evaluation. The good news is that if the project is successful (and you were wrong) then it doesn’t matter – the project can continue.

So what is the point you ask?

Surely there is nothing special or unusual here?

But there is – a characteristic of a magic bullet project is that it typically seeks to exempt itself from measurement and validation. It is that special and important that the normal rules don’t apply. Which is all the more reason that the measurement and validation need to be there.

This all reminds me of The TV program, The Last Leg. Perhaps it would all be so much easier if we gave everyone a bullshit button and let them vote.

Magic bullet program. BULLSHIT.


A business book actually worth reading

Most business books are not worth reading. Fact.

If they are not trying to wrap up common sense as ‘invaluable original insights’, they are picking selectively from history to define a company narrative that bears little resemblance to reality, but conveniently shows the writer as a visionary and skilled leader.

Don’t believe the hype.

And furthermore don’t waste your money.

1) If the businessman was good, then they are already rich and don’t need the money. The book’s writer (not the businessman) will have been paid anyway. Only a foolish ghost writer would want to be paid by sales.

2) If you are ambitious, then you are better off spending your time on ‘doing’ rather than trying to replicate someone else’s route to success.

Occasionally though a good book does emerge.

The test of a good business book for me is not that it gives you the answers, or provides ‘secret tips’ that are supposedly unknown such as, ‘be nice to your customers‘ but that it sets me buzzing with ideas. A good book has sets me thinking about what I can do; not in the future, but now; THIS VERY MOMENT. A good business book has me reaching for a pencil and has me scribbling in margins and writing notes at the back.

There is a second test that even fewer books meet. Can it explain the ideas in simple pictures (or models if you went to business school). The reason that this is important is because it gives you a way to compare organisations. It helps move discussions to being objective.

So what is the new book that has met my two simple [but widely failed] tests?

It is called “Zero to One” and is written by Paypal founder, Facebook backer and billionaire Peter Thiel. For a taste of his thinking, this Wall Street Journal piece is worth a read. I’m not going to review the book, as there are lots of these already, but I will say that in passing the two tests it does join a very select group.

So why the recommendation?

When I joined Microsoft many years ago in 2001, one thing that I continually remember hearing was to ‘think big’ or ‘change the world’. This idea was later captured brilliantly by Hugh MacLeod in the famous Blue Monster cartoon. Since that time I have never come across any book that actually captured this concept.

Until now. This book from Thiel pretty much nails it.

Certainly worth £11. If you don’t like it, then give it to your local library and perhaps let it inspire the next Thiel if this is not you.

A drone camera that fits on your wrist

Drone and wearable technologies are both truly transformational technologies … but what happens if you bring these together?

Called Nixie, this brilliant device is a personal photographer that combines a quadcopter with a hi-def camera that can be worn on your wrist.

The project is one of 10 awaiting a decision from Intel for funding. Given the interest in this, I don’t think that further funding will be an issue.

Real innovation comes from rethinking problems. This is just the start of things to come.



It’s all about the talent, but then it always was

Walking into a leading university library yesterday there were two stacks of books ready by the doors all ready for the incoming ‘freshers’. They weren’t text books or details on where to find the best parties. The books were titled, ‘The top 100 employers’ and ‘The top 300 employers’ or something very similar.

The purpose of the guides is to establish the names and brands of the companies into the minds of ambitious students at the start of their course. This has one purpose – to help ensure that the best talent applies to you and not to your competitor.

It couldn’t be further from the harsh reality facing job seekers a few miles away at the Job Centre, or the millions scanning online job adverts (some of which may actually be genuine) in the hope of finding fulfilling employment at something other than the minimum wage. [Good luck with securing pay above the minimum wage if you are looking in the Job Centre by the way, but  you are looking in the wrong place for that.]

If there was ever a lesson to the new students that hard work matters, then it was facing them as they walked into the building that will consume many hours of their life over the coming years as they struggle to meet deadlines, avoid charges of plagiarism and push the boundaries of how long caffeine can keep you awake in the hope of securing the grades that will unlock  interviews to those advertised careers.

It all makes sense. Pay well, offer good working conditions and know that you have the best talent that there is.

But as I walked back to my car I wondered why other companies set their sights intentionally low. Flicking through the books and looking at starting salaries there is clearly a relationship between pay, prestige and success.  It is logical that the best companies pay the best salaries, but why do second tier companies pay less (up to 30-50% less) thereby removing any realistic potential of attracting the best people. Surely it would make sense to pay more – or at least equal the best and recruit the very people that you would be competing against. You would pay more, but is the person not able to generate additional revenue or profit to cover that differential?  It could start a price war, but surely that is already there – with the second tier companies having conceded before they start.

When Google find that the difference in performance between an average employee and a exceptional employee can be as much as 300x, then why is the pay so close?

Is the issue that the second tier players have resigned themselves to that position? They pay an acceptable level, and get acceptable people?

Or that the the ‘politics of envy’ limits starting salaries as they are higher than existing employees and this would create problems?

Or that it is simply unaffordable? This could mean that the company is unable to realise the cost differential from the additional pay.

Regardless of what the reasons are, the lessons for students are clear, go for the best paying company. This is no guarantee of a happy union, but you know that your employer wants you more than the competition, and that is not a bad reason for joining. That is not the only factor in picking an employer, but joining a company that pays less than you could get would be settling for second best?

I’m searching for some companies that have intentionally disrupted the market, by hiring A list calibre from the start – you can list most technology successes here, but have any established second tier companies done this by switching to a ‘hire A list strategy’ and been successful?

Updated: 24Sept14 to correct minor typos.

Virgin let staff take as much holiday as they want

At last a large company starts to inject common sense into its HR policies by allowing staff to take as much holiday as they want*.

They aren’t the first. Netflix has offered this for a while, but fast growing internet companies are always going to be seen as ‘special cases’ and therefore ignored by CEOs in many ‘traditional’ companies. Virgin is not only an established company, but has a diverse set of businesses, so this matters a lot more. It is much harder for business leaders to argue that they are different when they are competing against Virgin companies.

The big picture shift here is not the holiday policy itself, but the evolution of work and employment practices. It is a welcome shift towards a higher trust knowledge based relationship that recognises that people are not resources to be managed, but are each valuable assets that are a key part of the business.

In a world where many knowledge workers still have to complete time-sheets, but are expected to answer phone calls out of hours and complete work in their own time then it is a welcome step forward.

A quick tip for HR managers and directors who are reading this. If you don’t understand why your department name is an anachronism and needs to change, then you won’t understand why the best candidates are not applying to your company.

Time to change.

* Of course there are caveats, but the statement and commitment is still important.