2021. The Year of Humanity’s Burn Out.

One of the defining experiences of the pandemic has been the constant anxiety grating at our conscience, not letting us recharge completely – the burnout. The overwhelmed medical fraternity experienced it. So did the migrant workers orphaned from the mai-baap sarkaar. The anxious and overworked security guard felt it. So did the digital worker straining his will along the extended hours of zoom calls. The overworked workers felt it who were saddled with extra workload of all the others who had been fired (sometimes opportunistically to improve short-term margins). So did the unemployed who were truly ‘full time’ occupied with the efforts, concerns, fears and preparations of getting a job/ making a living. Kids felt it who couldn’t go out to play nor could afford quality digital education. So did the women who lost their jobs, were saddled with double the household responsibilities than normal and had to run their uniquely dysfunctional homes even as the regular support systems evaporated.

2021 is truly the year of burn out.

A role to play

We must make sense of our lives. Without the anchor of ‘meaning’, we suffer an existential seasickness as we float uncertainly in the ocean of possibilities. The pandemic tsunami tore at the foundations of our indentity. Who are we if we are not working/ pubbing/ travelling/ minting money…?
Without someone else to tell me/ buy from me/ look at me/ yell at me, do I even matter?
stock market is up, billionaires are in space, acquaintances have been promoted… I MUST be doing something terribly wrong!?

Routines and habits

For many of us, as we retreated into our shells, we lost our rhythm. We realise that the rhythm is not set by us. It is set by the sun, by the weather, by the people around us, by our roles, by our surrounding. As we retreat from them all, we lose our rhythm. Day segues in night. Minutes into hours into weeks. The weight of all the things not-done weighs heavily on our conscience and makes it even harder to return to that rhythm of the previous principled life. Without rhythm, there’s no recuperation, no action, no meaningful progress. There’s just stasis, a hibernation without rest.

The blurred boundary

Public and private; as video calls seeped into our homes and soaked up all its grimy details.
Night and day; as we retreated from the natural world.
Digital and real; as we doomscrolled and revenge-shopped and daydreamed with an existential urgency.
Appropriate and inappropriate; as social mores had to be invented for a new reality of video calls.
Reality and unreality; as we lost our bearings about our place in the world, about our thesis of the world, about trust in our leaders.

Things we mistake/ conflate with freedom

Capitalism taught us HOW to desire, how to socialise, how to express one’s freedom.
Outdoors, SUVs, Drinking without abandon, Eating-out, parties, travelling obsessively, Drinking unhealthy colas, eating shitty burgers, Buying new clothes…. Are we free if we are not doing these things?
People tried to answer that question by buying things, experiences online. Only to discover that buying is a cheap, unsatisfying substitute to what those things actually were only a means to. We misunderstood symbols for the real things. We discovered that there are two kinds of people – one for whom the symbols are enough and that they live in that metaverse. And the other who realised the distinction.

The uncertainty

Cascading uncertainties. Climate change. inequality. fast pace of change with technology and pandemic fuelled new orientation of markets.
There is no certainty in the meta-narratives with these big changes happening around us.
There is no certainty in the micro-narratives of our own little bubbles. the changes are very visibly altering our lives.
The uncertainty, that until now lurked at the edge of our conscience, has taken a solid and heavy presence in our psyche. It is here to stay.

“Insights” as revelations of hidden optionalities

As the world moves faster and drags the advertising industry along with it, the concept of ‘insight’, which resolutely stood at the centre of the advertising industry for long, is appearing blurred.

Often, we find ourselves in meeting rooms sharing a scratch of the head, “what’s an insight, anyways?”. Here’s my take.

What is an insight?

Firstly, when we talk about insights, we are talking with the purpose of effective inception – an ‘a ha’ moment to convince someone of something. (Unlike insight in literature or art where the only subjectivity that matters is that of the creators. And therefore, advertising is not art.)
It is purposive.
It seeks a response/ influence.
It requires an ‘other’ to incept in.
An insight that cannot trigger response is not useful.

Secondly, insight is relative. What is insightful to me might not be insightful for you. What is insightful for me now might not be insightful for me when I am older.

Thirdly, insight illuminates the beyond. People don’t find what they know, insightful. So, the playground of insight starts beyond their knowledge, their feelings, their experiences.  

Simply put, I find something insightful if it was something that I didn’t know before.
I find something exhilarating if I had not experienced it before.
I feel I have grown, only after experiencing something, often a failure, that makes me reassess my previously held beliefs.

Insights push the boundaries of knowledge, feeling, being.

To create an ‘a ha’ moment, we need to drive the person right beyond the edge of his knowledge, his beliefs, his perspectives.

So, it is not enough to know what your consumer knows, feels, believes in. We need to know what the limits of those ideas in their mind and heart are. We need a humanist perspective to expand their boundaries of tolerance, beliefs, knowledge (which is relevant to the brand in question).

Insights as the revelation of a hidden option

A precise purpose of the ‘insight’ then is to convince the consumer to push their boundary; to step beyond their normal; to step beyond their range of feelings. An insight makes an option accessible, that they didn’t know of, or couldn’t access, or didn’t think they deserve it.

An insight is an invitation and encouragement to expand the boundaries of our lives. It propels us to seize an opportunity hidden to us for so long.

An ostrich, an Albatross, a beaver and a phoenix walk into a pandemic…

Ostrich buries its head in the sand.
(actually doesn’t. but metaphically does)
Brands that never got out of the PSA mode. Brands that actually could do something useful, but instead chose to eject platitudes out of their insincere mouths (with those ‘unprecedented times’ and ‘we are here for you’ ads). The Marie-Antoinette of Brands who managed to be tone-deaf inspite of having actual humans running the show.
And then there are brands that actually do amazing commercials – commercials that move you, spur you into action. You wish you had done such ads. But then you realise who the ad is for. A platform of misinformation, an enabler of autocracies (Sheryl Sandberg actually wrote ‘I am fine with this.‘ when shutting down voice of Kurdish minority seeking support while getting bombed by the Turkish strongman. Well, listing all of facebook’s misdeeds would turn into a tome. Read Antisocial Media by Siva Vaidhyanathan instead or An Ugly truth by Sheera Frenkel & Cecilia Kang.)

The majestic flying beast falters.
The mighty flying beast, The Albatross, unaccustomed to walking on ground, much less the uncertain and treacherous ground of pandemic, falters, gets taken advantage of, is jeered at. His giant wings coming in the way of walking, it falters where it could soar.
Airline brands, lifestyle brands, hospitality brands even Healthcare brands… The uncertainty and ugliness of the times cost some businesses heavily, without their own fault. Fate was unkind to them. Many of them chose to be mute when it comes to branding and communications. And it was a wise decision. The time demands us to be useful, to be silent comrades. So when brands could, they did try to be useful. Like hotels turning into health infrastructure, factories manufacturing ventilators, and that’s something to be proud of. No matter the weak sentiment now, the weak performance in stock market for such businesses now, they stand to be repaid in gratitude when situation eases. They need the ramp of digitization, tax breaks to take off again. Hopefully, they will get the help they need in time.

The beaver soldiers on.
The beaver keeps building what he was building before the pandemic. He is stoic and agile. If his dam gets damaged, he promptly gets back to repairing it. There’s no place for sentimentality or pause for him. He has domesticated his feelings and is on work-mode, all the time.
We need the stoics. The FMCG, retail, logistics companies and brands that ensured that the people staying home have access to all necessities and the ones who are desperate find some support, some subsidy.

These are institutions like Tata that stood by their employees unreservedly. These are also brands that pivoted with emerging challenges like Marico prioritising easy to make food categories or FMCG players expanding their hygiene offerings.

These brands find a way to keep going on. They reframe the conversation, and respond to emerging situations as necessary.
These brands also aid in escapes. escape is vital in recovery. As we recover from the pandemic, we need humorous and inspiring escapes. (BurgerKing, Cheetos, etc.)

Here are some examples.

Check out the cannes Lions winner playlist to see more good work.

The phoenix soars out of ashes.
The phoenix that rose in the ashes of pandemic. Well, the metaphor is slightly skewed here. Here, the ashes are external not Phoenix’s own. the phoenix is an opportunist siezing the day, dragging the world ahead in its wake.

Digital platforms. Green energy. Surveillance economy. Meme stocks. The pandemic was a gulf stream of accelerated trends.
When it comes to brand and comms – check out Tesla’s stunts or food aggregator apps’ social presence.

Which acts/ campaigns were phoenix in your perspective?

Greenwashing extinction

Mastercard’s greenwashing campaign

Donation from this campaign per new card: $1
The average value of a typical gift card: Guessing, more than $100 at least.
CLV of a typical credit card: US$ 3,600 – US$ 48,000
(Fairly rough estimate courtesy of a Quora user. This campaign and gifted cards will likely lead to new user acquisitions beyond the actual card bought. So the likely payoff is much higher.)

PR value: Priceless

Credit card companies are at the very center of the capitalist structure that endangers ecologies by promoting unsustainable growth in consumption.

So this campaign ends up precipitating exactly the opposite of what it intends. It is encouraging needless consumption (worth hundreds of dollars more than the donated amount) while it talks about conservation efforts (which get $1). Do the math.
It gives mindless consumers an easy way out of their guilt.

If this is not Greenwashing, please tell me what is.

Can the ad agencies please stop greenwashing for award considerations?
Also, please tell me if this campaign doesn’t exist, just because someone thought the wordplay on ‘expires’ is amusing.

This is another good reason to do away with Advertising awards. They incentivise disingenuous shit like this.

“Raising awareness”

Do campaigns like these that aim to ‘raise awareness’ really make a dent?

The key questions to know if the campaign has its heart in the right place are –

  1. Who is it aimed at?
  2. What is the Behaviour change/ Call to action?
  3. Who benefits the most out of the exercise?
  4. Consider the total budget of the campaign. Is this the best use of the money for the stated goal?

This campaign is aimed at credit card users among the elite of the world. The call to action is to buy a gift card. 99% of benefit goes to the credit card company. (1$ is nothing compared to CLV of a typical credit card user). The best use of the money, IMHO, would have been to straight away donate the entire amount (the creative agency fees, the cost of PR, the future cost of award entry etc) to the NGO in question.

A better brand would have ensured that –

  1. the campaign be aimed at people whose behaviour change/ act would actually make a meaningful impact for the cause.
  2. The behaviour change is permanent or atleast long enough to see the change through. A better brand would have clear objective of change. Even if the objective is not measurable, it should atleast be definite.
    How many people’s / animals suffering are we a alleviating? What useful information are we spreading among the affected?
  3. The campaign should actually benefit the people it is supposed to be helping more than the brand, in some concrete way. Otherwise it’s just a narcissistic play.
  4. the client should think through about their intentions and costs. Is it the best way to spend this money on this cause?

I know that this campaign was probably born in an agency which thought ‘expiry’ wordplay was interesting. The client was on-board because it didn’t seem like a costly affair to do and might actually help the brand appear more humane. they would have said, ‘what’s the harm?

The brand might not get harmed. but the world does get harmed.
With communications like these, we are spreading a dangerous belief system that sharing, liking or feeling sorry for something for a few seconds makes a difference. The viewer has not been engaged in any meaningful way. So the person remains ignorant, but feels that he is doing something good for the world.

It is perpetuating a fiction – their useless gestures matter. the world is actually running out of time when it comes to climate change. we badly need actual allies, helping actually move the needle on the ground.

it infuriates me to see such mindless drivel being appreciated. Because it sucks away the oxygen for actual meaningful dialog about real issues.

***

The checklist mentioned above, is also available here – https://rewiringchaos.com/2021/06/14/22-greenwashing/

A black hole called mobile phone

Self-help books suggest that to gain control over ourselves, we must first clear our environment of distractions. But we now live a life where we depend on these distracting devices. If I earn my livelihood by being mediated through a laptop, what do I do? It’s some sort of Pavlov’s dog principle in action. We are so accustomed to servicing through the device that we stop noticing when we begin to serve the device itself. ‘Just say no’, won’t work. Simplistic solutions like these often don’t work.

A physically non-remarkable flat surface (and we have gone to great lengths to make it unremarkable. The portal itself shouldn’t distract from what it portals to!) has become the focal point of all our attention – work triumphs, work anxieties, deadlines, cat videos, video calls, meetings, movies, songs, news, friends, memories, sex, commiseration, plans… all through a screen. The screen is a singularity around which our every action, concern, decision, and of course attention converge.
Our brains were not made to work with such transparent magic. We think in spaces, distances, physical efforts, causes & effects. But everything collapses at the edge of these modern-day black holes. The singularity FEELS endless, of indeterminate consequence, immediate yet all-encompassing. And indeed, the compression is in our feelings, not the actual world of consequences. Our thoughts and feelings are separated from reality and focused in this singularity. And how does this singularity feel? A whirlwind that rifles through many nerves one after another – Neurotic. Anxious. Elated. Aroused. Bored. Excited. Jealous. Sad. Potentially, all at once.

This is somewhat similar to the Uncertainty inherent in the quantum realm, isn’t it? A state of a particle is always potentially something and it manifests a certainty only when influenced by an observer. When no one’s looking, it could be anything (the cat being potentially dead and alive.) Perhaps something similar is at play here too. The feelings we feel depends on the observer in this panopticon. So, the question is, who is the observer?

The observer is the one whose attention we are considering – it could be ourselves or an imagined someone else. Our, imaged outside-in view.
We potentially feel everything, the actual feeling manifest depends on the observer we are imaging doing the observing.

So, in a sense, the device turns us into an actor, forever performing for this variable observer. At times the observer is the idealized us, at times the imagined judgemental gaze of friends, our colleagues, our partner, or an imagined stranger who somehow holds a string tied to our life.

We are actors for an imagined audience playing variable parts not knowing when the spotlight is on us and when the curtains are down. In this uncertainty, we keep acting. That’s the real transformation engineered by our mediated-ness.

The quality of our attention is not without judgment, not without displacement. In a mediated world, our attention has that actor’s quality to it. It is once removed – hedged for the observer, enacting an idealized version of ourselves, looking in from outside – wondering how may we look, wondering what is expected of us.

Since that other ‘looks’ at us through mediated devices – phones, laptops, surveillance cameras… the gaze that matters to us is not our own, but the one that emanates from these devices. We perform for our devices, not the other way around.
We were not made for this. But this is our Sisyphean boulder now – performing forever for the screens. There’s no easy escape from it.

So how can a modern person, carrying this Sisyphean boulder all the time, even begin to think about reclaiming her agency, regaining control over her own attention? How can she make sense of the world, fight against powers trying to steal her attention?

***

This text is part of the draft of a book I am writing. Don’t know when (and if) I will finish it.
I have started a new blog relevant to this topic – rewiringchaos.com Do check it out.

Optionality Framework: A Brand Strategy Framework for a World in Flux.

Note: This article adapts NN Taleb’s idea about ‘optionality’ from his excellent book ‘ Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder‘; and uses research from Richard Bulliet’s book The Camel and the Wheel.

Camel or a car?

Can you imagine a day when everyone around you stops using automobiles and instead starts riding camel? It turns out there’s a precedence for such a shift.

If you were in the Middle East sometime between the 6th to 4th century BC you would have seen chariots in the army, seen long paved roads in major cities, seen traders using pack-animal carriages to haul goods.
The wheel moved the world around. Even then. Until it stopped.

If you were to time travel a few centuries ahead, anytime between the 3rd century AD to 18th century, you would have been surprised by the near-total disappearance of wheeled carriages from the region, in favour of camels.

Baffling isn’t it.

The fact that wheels, the epitome of ‘disruptive innovations’, fell out of favour in certain contexts, makes you wonder about the awesome forces that precipitated that shift.

Why did the wheel fall out of favour?

In comparison to camels, wheels were fragile (then) – prone to breaking down, couldn’t ford through shallow rivers, couldn’t traverse deserts, were slower (when attached to other pack animals.), were far less efficient (needed the deadweight of the wagon), needed special infrastructure of roads, and needed one person per carriage whereas a single person could shepherd up to six camels!

But camels existed in the 6th century BC too. Why then people preferred wheels before but not after? Clearly, efficiency was necessary but not a sufficient condition to instigate change.

The transformative agent was surprising – the invention of the North Arabian saddle.

This saddle turned the cargo-carrying ship of the desert, the camel, into a battleship. The more secure saddle allowed the camel rider to use swords and pikes and positioned the rider much higher up, which gave a great advantage in battle.

This ‘optionality’ of camel, its ability to turn into a dependable technology for the battleground, changed the balance of power.* Let me take a moment here to elaborate on the concept of optionality. Optionality is the freedom to readily take advantage of an emerging situation, afforded by the fact that you have multiple options. As against having no choice and being left to get squeezed by fate’s pincers. Functionally, a saddle is just a seat. But by being more secure, created the possibility for the rider to do something else besides sitting on it. That option was not available to them earlier.

A useful metaphor is that of platform and APIs. Here the camel is a platform, and the saddle is an application that fulfils the certain requirement. In this context, the ability of the platform to host APIs is critical. If a platform can’t host APIs, the platform is useless. Camel won because it could host the saddle.

Camel nomads gained control of caravan routes. This, in turn, allowed for more social and economic integration of camel nomads with the settled societies and so, camels proliferated.

What can we learn from this story?

  1. Robust wins against fragile.
    Camel was more robust compared to the wheel.
  2. Optionality that improves the ability to compete matters more.
    Consider wheel as a ‘platform’ – the base technology over which, you can build added functionality. Compared to the camel, the wheel is more versatile. One could create carriages with varying specifications, attach a varying number of animals and so on. In comparison, camel as a platform is potentially less versatile.
    A wheel then had more ‘optionality’. Yet, the camel’s ‘API’ of saddle won out because it enhanced the rider’s ability to swiftly attack or defend, more capably. Thus, optionality that improves performance matters more than optionality that improves versatility alone.
  3. Inversely, lack of optionality that improves ability to compete, is fatal.
    Optionality is the freedom of having choices when confronted with novel situations. Inversely, lack of it is servitude to fate, being caught completely unaware and unprepared to emergent situations.  
  4. Advantage is relative and temporary.
    Camel is not better than a Humvee or a drone. No advantage is absolute. As technology changes, so does the nature of competition and source of advantage. 
  5. A change that gives an asymmetric advantage, dominates.
    Camel with the saddle was markedly better than the wheel in battle. But it ended up replacing the wheel everywhere else too (except for pottery wheels). This is because of the phenomenon of a ‘positive feedback loop’.  As more people realised the advantage of a camel over a wheel, more adopted it. As such the adoption is not linear but accelerates with the expanding reach of the idea.
  6. The new default.
    Asymmetric scaling leads to new ‘default’ as other options recede to obsolescence.
  7. Change comes from the edges.
    Change comes from those who have less to lose, more to gain.
    In the fight for supremacy between Camel nomads and city traders, camel nomads had more to gain, less to lose. Vice versa for the traders trying to protect their goods in caravan.
  8. Power matters.
    The quest to gain power animates all changes.
  9. Distinctive awareness about what changes, what doesn’t is helpful.
    To win, one must be able to distinguish an advantageous choice from a disadvantageous one. That discernibility requires the understanding of the dynamics of economic and social power and a keen sense of its shift.
    In this case, the need for transportation did not change. However, trade dynamics were changing with the Arab conquest in the region.
    The rise in overland trade between southern and northern Arabia during the time was a major factor that increased the importance of camels.
    Wheel’s technological transformation was a millennium away, into the future. The saddle technology was transforming the present-day dynamics of then.
  10. Efficiency is necessary but not sufficient to precipitate shift.

Why is this story relevant now?

Humans think linearly. Reality is anything but. This story illustrates this. Did we ever imagine a millennia-long gap between wheel use in human history? It warns us to not take visions of progress/ growth for granted.
Secondly, this story is about change. It illustrates the principles of systemic change, ably. This is relevant now because we are now living in an age where change is only accelerating. Civilisational changes that happened over millennia, happen now in years.

Implicit in our strategic thinking is an assumption of stability, of linear change. That is why strategy often feels ‘theoretical’, a euphemism for being not useful or not true.

For a world in constant flux, we need a strategy that appreciates the dynamics of change.

Brand strategy framework made for a world in flux.

The surest way to fail in a rapidly changing world is to depend on strategies that assume stability & linear change. Brands that focus on efficiency and not on optionality, are bound to get blindsided with change and suffer ruin.

To survive, one must ensure of never getting cornered. To thrive, one must be able to identify and then seize an advantageous opportunity to its full potential. This simple principle is at the core of the optionality framework.

This perspective helps us separate noise from the signal. It enables us to see the big picture while being firmly grounded in the realities of here and now. It forces us to focus on activities that really matter – the ones that help gain asymmetric advantage and avoid ruin. The brand strategy framework informed with this perspective is firmly rooted in business realities and yet supercharges the brand with imagination and empathy.

Here are six questions that can guide brands towards growth, relevance, and resilience.

1. What is our ‘platform’? What APIs can we house on this platform?

2. What is changing? What is unchanging?  
Is the change transitory or systemic?

3. What optionality does our competitor have that can threaten our existence? Watch the edges for threats/ opportunities.

4. Which options can give us an asymmetric advantage?

5. How are power dynamics shifting in our category? How can we benefit from it?

6. How can we become the default options in the lives of our consumers?

Let’s explore each of these questions briefly to understand how to use this framework.

  1. Define our platform and APIs.
    a. Platform
    :
    For the purpose of this framework, I define platform as the core of the business – the organisational capabilities, properties, assets, offerings, its relationships – that define the scope of its present and potential future activities. For a firm’s existence to make sense, the whole must be bigger than its parts. It’s ability to host APIs is a measure of this ability. If it can enable new capabilities with emerging situations, it’s a platform worth building. For instance, for Maruti Suzuki, its factories, its dealerships, its online presence, its workforce, its history, its brand – all add up to a whole which enables mobility for millions, employs thousands and plays a pivotal role in nation-building.
    b. APIs:
    In this context, APIs are the synergistic added functionalities that the firm can deliver, given its core platform. An excellent example of this is Maruti Suzuki’s adaptation of their factories into ventilator production units during the Covid emergency.
    APIs are products of the optionality that the platform enables. Maruti Suzuki’s peculiar platform, which included its infrastructure and its culture, drove it to turn its factories into ventilator production units.
  2. Be aware of the changing and the unchanging.
    The unchanging: The need for mobility, the prestige associated with ownership.
    The changing: Rising concerns about pollution and overcrowding, increasing dependence and shortage of semiconductors, IoT & app-based gig economy, rise of subscription-based economies, Open-sourced Tesla’s patents, and so on.
    Climate change is systemic, hence the need for zero-emission mobility. App-based taxi services as threat to ownership of cars, might not be as big a risk, with profitability remaining elusive to aggregator apps even after a decade.
     
  3. Prepare against optionality that threatens our existence.
    Perhaps Tesla and other e-vehicle brands’ entry in India and the government’s regulatory push for electric vehicles poses an existential threat to Maruti Suzuki.
    Another source of danger is improving public transport infrastructure.
    To counter this threat, it should explore options to produce e-vehicles which are as good if not better than the best available today in the world. Secondly, it may also explore the choice of producing mass transit vehicles.
  4. Define and leverage options that give us an asymmetric advantage.
    This is the key question. Having a solid thesis here can unlock a strategic shift in a brand’s fortunes.
    Here’s my attempt at it. Maruti Suzuki enjoys a strong brand perception as being an Indian family’s trusted car. For the brand, Indianness and familial bonds are quite important. So, here’s an idea.
    We know that most families are now nucleated – separated by distance but united by traditions and bonds. Families share things & experiences.
    What if we create a family-centric car subscription service that all family members can use through a single subscription. Wherever the family members might be, Maruti Suzuki can personalise their mobility, ensure safety and connectedness and economize travel. A proposition like this can be immensely valuable and unlock new revenue streams for the company.
  5. Align with power dynamics.
    In the realm of brands, real power is in building coalition with customers, partners, and employees. Maruti Suzuki needs allies among the eco-conscious & value-conscious consumer base. It needs to strategically build passionate communities that would champion the brand’s cause.
  6. Become the default.
    In a world flooded with attention-leaching distractions, being the default choice for a sizeable chunk of the consumer set is essential for a brand to survive. In this case, as Maruti Suzuki enters the e-vehicle space, it has the advantage of being a market leader with the widest network in the country. It can use this to supply superior services/ provide proprietary charging tech etc., to lock in consumers. (Though, it would be better for the world for it to adopt open standards.)
    What brand APIs, experiences, propositions can help build a strong relationship and ensure that the consumer consistently chooses the brand? What possibility are we uniquely unlocking for our consumers? For Maruti Suzuki, it could mean campaigns and features about family safety, or it could mean subscription services or integrated online journeys.

This framework allows us to imagine and ideate for a wide enough range of activities while focusing on the big picture. Used intelligently, it helps align corporate, brand, and communications strategy seamlessly. It is simple and concise enough to be understood by a wide-ranging set of stakeholders. Yet, it is robust and aware of the actual complexities of business, so the exercise doesn’t devolve into an esoteric ritual that doesn’t inform actual actions.          

I hope it helps you unlock disruptive growth for your brand. Feel free to critique and suggest improvements to it. I will keep improving on the idea.

TL; DR

Concepts to know:

1. Optionality – Optionality is the freedom to readily take advantage of an emerging situation, afforded by the fact that you have multiple options. As against having no choice and being left to get squeezed by fate’s pincers.

2. Feedback loop – In most natural systems, the output of the system affects the functioning of the system itself. There are two kinds of feedback loops – reinforcing and balancing. Reinforcing loops amplify and fuel change. (e.g., viral content online) Balancing loops, in contrast, keep equilibrium. (e.g., temperature of tea reverts to room temperature.)

3. Platform – Core organisational capabilities, priorities, properties that define their purpose and activities.

4. APIs – APIs are the synergistic added functionalities that the firm’s platform enables.

Principles for a world in flux:

  1. Robust wins against fragile.
  2. Optionality that improves the ability to compete matters more.
  3. Inversely, lack of optionality to improve the ability to compete, is fatal.
  4. A change that gives an asymmetric advantage, dominates.
  5. Ergo, the existence of defaults. Be the default.
  6. Advantage is relative and temporary.
  7. Change comes from the edges.
  8. Power matters.
  9. Distinctive awareness about what changes, what doesn’t is necessary.
  10. Efficiency is necessary but not sufficient.

The framework:

  1. Define our platform & APIs.
  2. Be aware of the changing and the unchanging. Is the change transitory or systemic?
  3. Prepare against optionality that threatens our existence.
  4. Define and leverage options that give us an asymmetric advantage.
  5. Align with power dynamics.
  6. Become the default.

[1] Bulliet, R. W. (1990). The Camel and the Wheel. Columbia University Press.

* I owe this article to NN Taleb. His excellent book, ‘Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder’, changed the way I see the world. It was only a matter of time before I applied his concepts to brand strategy. While I will explain the concept of optionality soon enough, I highly recommend reading his book to understand it better.

Curb the enthusiasm to share

When i read something interesting, a desire to share it interrupts me. I would be perhaps 5% in with the content i am reading, i would have only begun to appreciate the insight being communicated. I develop an impatience towards reading it completely, to ponder over it or absorb it. I feel the need to share it first. And I think this desire is stupid and counterproductive.

The biggest problem with it is, it reduces my focus. I lose the intensity with which i perhaps was absorbing the content before the desire to share robbed me of that focus. With great focus, comes great productivity. With lost focus, we lose time.

After that disruption, i might complete reading it (often i don’t), but i don’t absorb it fully. I don’t ruminate on it. I don’t build on it. I don’t put it to work.

The content becomes another scrap in the stream of conscience. It passes through without really enriching me. the fault obviously lies with me.

Good content, good ideas need to absorbed, incorporated in our work or intellectual repertoire. To do that, either I must write about it, expand on it, react to it. Or ruminate over it, enjoy it, imagine with it.

For that to happen, I must definitely curb the enthusiasm to share it.

What’s Covid got to do with your chips’ and biscuits’ pricing?

Well, the reasoning here is pretty simple.

Covid led to increased digital adoption in payments. Damn, i wish i had invested some money in upi or gpay.

Anyways, so as digital payments go mainstream, even for small ticket items, how long before considerations of physical money fall behind in our culture?

In a sense, it’s already happening in China. and in that sense, it is a dystopia. I personally prefer the anonymity, the freedom from big data, that cash offers.

But if most people started to pay with e-money, then why would a biscuit box need to be priced at 10 or a soap at 20?

How long before we see mass FMCG SKUs prized at 13.34 rs and 57.31 rs?

This will work in brand’s favour too – it will complicate the maths for the consumers, making it more difficult for them to compare between two, unless a plugin/ feature does that job for them.

hmm, if i must punt, i will give it another year for some premium variants of some FMCG brand to start appearing on shelves with non rounded numbers.

Chasing the abyss

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A political spokesperson cites a meme to target his opponent. The point isn’t about the meme or the target. The point is the callousness, the sheer intellectual ‘fuck you’ of getting away with nonsense on prime time TV. The anchor, the guest intellectual and presumably the audience react with stiff lips, a manufactured performance of seriousness. Either everyone’s in on the con (more likely) or they have lost the faculty of reason.

This is merely the most recent ‘fuck you’ in prime time media. Consider the Bollywood award shows where the performers obviously don’t care enough to prepare their acts. Consider the banal conspiracies in TV serials. Consider the high-decibel browbeating on entertainment channels masquerading as news channels. Consider the politicians who get away with blatant lies and malicious propaganda that is visibly based on falsehood but sustains on the power of cult.

It feels as if there has been a mass realization of the absurd and there’s a race on now to the bottom of abyss, of trying to figure out what one can get away with.

Reality has lost its bearings. Meaning has come unhinged. The god is dead and the world is in free fall.

The idea in the past (modernity) used to be that One Big Lie holds the world together.But reality of today (post-modernity) is that many lies gives the bottom away.

Now no one cares. Or rather, now no one is capable of caring even if they want to. To care is to hold onto an ideal and salvaging that ideal. People now instead use ideals as stepping stones to climb up. Everyone’s tasted the absurd. And there’s a tumultuous race to the bottom to discover just how low we can go, how much can we get away with.

Spine

I believe that the differentiating factor between a successful agency and an unsuccessful one isn’t really about the star power of its creatives or planners. The key ingredient is the work culture and account management capabilities.

I have worked in some great agencies and some really shitty ones. I grew the most, along with others, in the best agencies. We did our best work there. We could do so because it was led by capable people in management who encouraged when encouragement was due, who gave clarity, who ensured clear lines of communications and responsibilities.

A capable ‘servicing’/ management person understands the business of their client. They might not be capable of thinking of original solutions but they must be capable of appreciating the problem that needs solving and be able to evaluate the work against the objective of solving that problem. They must be capable of building a relationship where client learns to articulate their problems clearly, where each person respects each other’s time, where there is enough openness to perform blue sky thinking.

These are essential KRAs for management people in agencies. These capabilities form the spine of an agency. Without this spine, an agency begins its descent towards being a brown dwarf.

Unfortunately, I see many agencies losing that spine. People are working without clarity, without conviction, without purpose. I am not blaming a particular agency. I believe it is systemic.

The reality is, a capable manager can earn more, do more on client side/ media side or with tech companies. Agencies don’t pay well enough at entry level, they don’t train their people meaningfully and neither is there a vision of where the agency businesses will be and consequently where the manager’s careers will be in the future. Any sensible person will jump the ship.

That’s what is happening. We have overworked smart juniors who are growing disillusioned with the industry that doesn’t recognise their input. We have under-challenged, angsty, under-motivated senior management who are not keeping up with the times. The smart agile ones are leaving the industry and the ones who are left (out of love for the craft or otherwise) are increasingly cynical, quite naturally.

Its not tough to change course and build agencies for the 21st century. I am yet to witness it though.