Can strategists learn from bad architecture?

A while ago, about five and a half years ago, I met this skateboarder who told me he was from Cardross, which is a village about forty minutes outside Glasgow, pretty much the last stop before the train terminates at Helensburgh.

I’d never heard of the place, and the first time we visited, we went to see his parents, but they weren’t in, so we went for a walk up a disused country road, which turned out to lead to the entrance of a twentieth century ruin, St Peter’s Seminary.

We had to fight our way through overgrown rhododendron bushes and trudge through some pretty heavy undergrowth, and then climb over some fences that said DANGER DANGER DANGER and then suddenly we were climbing into a crazy falling-down concrete brutalist building.

It was beautiful and awe-inspiring and kinda sad, and very intriguing and exciting.  I was very curious to look around.  There were lots of things to see, the skateboarder said.

We walked round into the main hall of the building where there had been an altar and you could see higher up there had been walkways where the trainee priests had had their rooms.  You could see where the grand staircase had been, now too dangerous to ascend.  We jumped over a gap where a wooden staircase had been and climbed to the second floor up concrete spiral steps and walked along where the balconies had been, peeking into burnt out graffiti-ed bedroom cells, some of which still had coat hooks and sinks in.

From there we climbed over into the lecture hall which was destroyed even more a short time after our visit which had once been supported by an impressive cantilever.  Some of the beautiful wooden beams still held and showed where the ceiling had long gone.

st peters seminary graffiti 2 st peters seminary graffiti

(Photos courtesy of Google Image search)

I was blown away by the place, and we visited it several times afterwards with friends, to take photos and look in wonder.  Each time we could go to fewer parts of the building because it was becoming more and more dangerous – and depressing.  It has been at the mercy of vandals, arsonists, nature, and the elements for over thirty years.

The skateboarder told me it had only been an operational seminary for about a decade, for most of the seventies, and he had  been there for mass when he was a little kid.  It had fallen into disuse as the Catholic Church realised that training priests in isolation was the wrong way to go, as they should learn in the communities they were going to serve.  After that it had had a brief stint as a drug rehab place but it wasn’t really suited to that purpose either, pretty much for the same reasons.

Anyway, this skateboarder turned out to be the guy I was going to stay with forever, so he’s still part of this story.  He works in architecture and we’ve been talking quite a bit about St Peters recently because it’s been getting a lot of press because the arts organisation NVA has worked to raise money to make it safe and turn it into a place a lot more more people than intrepid, brave (and stupid) abandoned building hunters would want to visit.

If you follow the chat about St Peter’s, there’s two main trains of thought.  One is that the place should be knocked down because it was a disaster, a folly, from the very beginning.  And they’re right – it was never really fit for purpose as the Catholic Church changed their training policy before the building was even finished.  The rest of this first group really don’t like concrete modernist buildings and want them all destroyed.  The second train of thought is that Gillespie Kidd and Coia‘s design was amazing and the naysayers are wrong and that the building must be saved and made into something that will be of use to people, even if that use is as of a site of historic interest that is safe to visit.

We were chatting about this today, and the skateboarder said that although the building was amazing, it was bad architecture because it wasn’t useful.  It can’t be defended as a success, it’s a folly, the result of architectural vanity.  The architects got it wrong (in conjunction with the client) by putting it miles away from anywhere, making it too beautiful to be comfortable – the trainees apparently didn’t like it all that much, and they had to sit around in the dark as the lighbulbs had to be specially ordered in from Denmark.  And so on.

I was thinking this was rather analagous to any kind of architecture – the planning phase of which is essentially strategy.  You need to challenge your client brief, identify what the best outcome for their investment is going to be, talk to stakeholders, target audiences and users and find out what they’re comfortable with, and think about the messages you want to convey with your design.  And you need to do all that properly and thoroughly before design even begins.

I think it’s daft that we have awards for design and awards for effectiveness in our industry – the design ones should be way more about effectiveness than they are and the effectiveness ones should celebrate the ones that were also fabulous experiences.  However, a good experience is likely to be more effective, so effectiveness awards have less to worry about in my opinion, and so should clients who choose agencies that go on about measurement and insight more than those who have stacks of design awards.

I know I go on about this a lot but William Morris’s thing about designs being ‘useful and beautiful’ is so true, and I find myself quoting him time and again.  (More about that quote here and here.)

Anyway, I do hope that NVA’s endeavours work out well, and they succeed in creating good architecture by making St Peter’s fit for a new purpose, one which delights and mystifies new visitors for generations to come.

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2014. A biased and subjective review.

I thought it would be good to look at 2014…  About 2 weeks ago, I started this article and then flu (mine and other people’s) and all that Christmas stuff got in the way.  And now, it’s 2015 and everything feels new and fresh so I’m not sure I want to harp on about the past but still, 2014 deserves a mention.  It was HUGE.  So here we go, this is what I wanted to say.

2014.  What a year.  There will be a million reviews out there of all the stuff that happened in internet-land, so I’m sticking to looking at my own year professionally and personally.  And actually, they are pretty much one and the same because they’re not that easy to keep separate (although when it comes to being a parent I do my best.)

Here we go.  5 things that made a big difference to me this year (in no particular order, the big things are sometimes the little things and the little things are sometimes the big things):

1. Going to San Francisco

Thanks to a bit of luck I was selected for the incredible Special Edition of the Cross Creative training programme run by TRC in Glasgow.  We did 8 months of training sessions here and then flew out to San Francisco which totally blew my mind.

It blew my mind in two ways.

One was personal. I’m half American but I’ve never really explored that part of my identity.  But my experience of America and Americans in SF was fab.  I wanted to be part of it.  I couldn’t help telling people that I was really half American.  But they liked the Scottish part better because that’s more interesting to them.

IMG_0087 IMG_0021 IMG_0075 IMG_0047

The other was work.  I wanted to move over there and work there immediately.  Drop everything and join the feeling that you were really part of something amazing that was happening.  But when I reflected on it, after I’d been back in flipping Glasgow for a couple of weeks I thought it would be way cooler to do something amazing here.  Perhaps because the summer of 2014 in Glasgow was completely amazing, it felt like we were at the centre of the universe here for a change.  There are fantastic things happening in Glasgow, we just have to be better at telling people about them.

2. Politics

We need more confidence about our own abilities and we need to move faster to make the world a better place, to progress rather than hark back to a past that discriminated against most people.  The referendum in Scotland showed that there is a sizeable number of people in Scotland who want to do things differently – just it’d be good if we could combine that desire for change with a bit more action and less talking maybe?  I don’t know.  I loved the power we felt we had during the referendum campaign and how social media allowed us to share information*, and feel like part of a movement, like we had a voice.  Our votes counted in 2014.  2015 is going to see some huge political shifts – hopefully positive ones.

3. The Rapha Women’s 100

On July 20th I got on my bike and then a train (then jumped off the train and ran back to Starbucks where I’d left my purse, then ran back and only just caught the train) to catch a boat to cycle round Arran and do 100K at the same time as thousands of other women.  The Rapha Women’s 100 is a virtual event, made possible by how connected we all are through social media.  So although I was solo, I knew I was not alone.

Arran is pretty tough to cycle round.  I felt that doing it on my own was a pretty significant achievement.  Thinking back on how I was screaming inside by the last 10K but still made the 16.40 ferry home helps me when I need to muster up a bit more determination to get through whatever I’m struggling with.  Cycling’s like that.  A lot of it’s horrible and painful but the buzz you get afterwards is like nothing else.

4. Building a team

In 2014 our strategy team grew bigger by about 200% and we are now developing new skills and specialisms to add more value to the services we offer our clients at Equator.  I’m really excited about the things we’re going to do in 2015.  Watch this space!

5. The changing nature of what we do

One of the reasons for the growth of our team, in size and skillsets, was because what we do is changing.  We are adapting to the changing needs of our clients and the market – breaking down silos and  coming up with better, stronger strategies and ideas.  Again, watch this space!

6. Small blogging achievements

And finally, I recently found that my post on assimilation was listed by @misentropy - so that’s really inspiring me to write more.  More about what I do as a strategist than this kind of personal stuff, which is not so easy to write about, I guess because it’s more for my benefit than for anyone else.  So – hopefully you’ll hear from me a bit more this year.


Social media more influential information source

Scottish independence: how Facebook could change it all

What impact could social media have?



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5 craft skills of the digital strategist part 5: assimilation

This is the 5th and probably final part of my series on craft skills of the digital strategist.  I say probably because I will no doubt think of some others which I might squeeze into an also-rans article at a later date.

Anyway, here it is.  And it’s a biggie.  And it’s perhaps the most under-rated skill of all.

5. Assimilation

When was the last time you ever heard of ‘assimilation’ as being a skill?  Well, someone once said to me that it was the most important thing a planner should be able to do.  At the time I said, ‘Oh yes, I can do that,’ and then I had to look it up in a dictionary.

Definition of assimilate in English:


Take in and understand fully (information or ideas): Marie tried to assimilate the week’s events

1.1 Absorb and integrate (people, ideas, or culture) into a wider society or culturepop trends are assimilated into the mainstream with alarming speed

(Of the body or any biological system) absorb and digest (food or nutrients):the sugars in the fruit are readily assimilated by the body

Regard as similar; liken:philosophers had assimilated thought to perception

3.1 Become similarthe Churches assimilated to a certain cultural norm

As I understand it, I think that for strategists, assimilation means a few things:

  1. Being able to use the available knowledge about a subject, decide what is relevant, and really understand it – and by being the expert on something make sure that everyone else on the team understands the important information too – e.g. the significant bits of the context, the direction, the vision, the challenges, and so on.  Get everyone on the same page, in a smart way.
  2. By being the expert as described above, to be able to truthfully and wholeheartedly put yourself in the shoes of the target audience, the client or even the brand.  Like method acting, it’s method planning.  Be your customer and ask, ‘why do I care about this?’  Be your brand and say, ‘Does this suit me?’
  3. Thirdly, assimilation is about making connections between all the bits of information, knowledge and insight – the more interesting connections you can make, the better chance you have of coming up with something that will be interesting to your creative teams, to your client, and most importantly, to your target audience.

This skill is not really something that can be taught.  It is something that comes with practice if you know what to practice, and it’s likely to be a thing some people have a head start on because that’s the way their imagination and understanding works.  It’s probably therefore the hardest skill for some strategists to learn, and for some strategists, it’s probably something they do without even knowing it is a skill.

I’d agree though, with the original point that person made to me quite a long time ago, that being good at assimilation is perhaps the most important thing that identifies a great strategist/planner.

Do let me know your thoughts on assimilation.  Do you think it’s a skill?

And please do also give me any feedback you have about the 5 skills I’ve talked about this week.  Can you think of any more?

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5 craft skills of the digital strategist part 4: presenting

Here’s the latest in the series on the craft skills of the digital strategist, and it’s probably one of the few that just doesn’t come that naturally to many of us.  Partly because it doesn’t go with all the other ones, which involve a lot of researching and analysing and digging around, and partly because, well, it’s just hard.

4: Presenting

Like I say, I found presenting very hard for years because I am a bit shy (although this probably comes across as being snobby or standoffish) but practicing has made things a lot easier.  I no longer think my heart is going to burst out of my body or that I am going to lose the power of speech, but I still take a bit of time to warm up and I am still guilty of using my Powerpoint slides as a bit of a crutch.  I’d love to turn up at a pitch without any slides, to be so confident in what I was saying that people would just listen to what I was saying, but I am definitely not there yet.

So here’s a couple of things I have learnt along the way.

1. Write your story before you start

Back when I was an intern at Lowe, we were taught about the Logic Train.

What’s a logic train?

I just googled Logic Train and I couldn’t find anyone from the industry talking about it. I guess it’s a trade secret.  Oh well. I’m going to talk about it now but perhaps I won’t tell you exactly how to do it.

The closest I came to it was something about computer programming procedures.   Which essentially, is what the Logic Train is.  It’s the logic of your whole argument.  The backbone of your pitch.

To be ready to write your logic train, you need to have done most of the work.  You need to know the beginning, middle and end of your story.  You need to know that before you write your presentation.

That sounds really obvious but a lot of people spend a lot of time trying to write their presentation in powerpoint before they have done all their thinking, and thinking in powerpoint is very time consuming and confusing.  It’s better if you have your story written down on a piece of paper, in like, 8 or 10 bulletpoints before you start making slides.

Then you can probably write your presentation using about ten slides instead of a hundred.

It also means that if you lose your laptop on the way to the meeting, you know what you’re going to say anyway.  And it means that you can circulate the logic train to everyone in your team if you’re collaborating on a presentation and they all get what the story is about too.

2. A picture paints a thousand words

So you’ve got your ten slides and you’re ready to put things on them to provide extra depth to what you’re going to say.  If you use lots of bullet points, people read those instead of listening to you.  So think of nice visual ways to tell your story instead.  Diagrams and nice photos and things.

3. To sell, you need to be ready to buy

Strategists’ presentations are generally where you are convincing your client that you know that what you’re selling is going to work because research says it’s what the people want, and it’s going to work for their business too.  If you don’t think you have a convincing argument and don’t really believe what you’re trying to persuade your audience to believe, they’re not going to buy it.  So put yourself in their shoes (both the target audience and the client’s) and ask, if I’m the buyer, would I buy this?

4. Stand up

Most presentations I go to people sit down and it’s all meant to be relaxed and formal but I think that things get missed.

If you go to presentation skills courses they always tell you to stand up to present.

I’ve tried standing and sitting and I always feel stupid standing up at the beginning but it’s actually better, especially if the other presenters want to sit down.  But if you stand, the energy in the room is better, it feels like you have got people’s attention better than if you sit down.

5. Watch lots of great presentations and think about what you like about what they do

We’re so lucky to have video streaming these days and there are a gazillion presentations on YouTube, great TED talks and industry things.  The best presenters don’t rely on powerpoints at all, or they use them to make particular points, or as a bit of entertainment.  Here are some great storytellers who also happen to be presenting too.

Rory Sutherland…  I didn’t know what heuristics were and I thought it sounded boring till I saw an hour long video where he talked about behavioural economics.  I can’t find that video, but here’s a similar TED talk.  He’s a fantastic presenter, a natural storyteller.  Very good at making complicated things seem simple – and that’s what good strategists do.

Russell Davies…  The self-styled ‘maverick’ planner gives a great presentation.  He uses jokes and interesting tangents balanced with a bit of (but crucially not too much) self-deprecation, as well as jokes about powerpoint in his slides, but doesn’t let his point get lost.  I saw him recently at the APG Big Thinking Conference and he was very entertaining around a simple presentation about the government website’s design principles.  Here’s a typical example of one of his presentations.

And finally, back to my first point, Susan Cain…  On the power of introverts, Susan Cain shows you can use the right timing to tell jokes and props to ensure that your story works.  And she’s great at pausing – when she pauses you can tell people are waiting to hear what she is going to say next.  That’s learned confidence – most people when they are nervous talk quickly just to get it over and done with.  But if you’ve done the hard work, and prepared a good story, you need to take your time in order to share it effectively.  And there’s not a powerpoint slide to be seen in her talk.

My final piece in this series will be published tomorrow, and it’s about assimilation.  Is this the most underrated skill of all?

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5 craft skills of the digital strategist part 3: wireframing and sitemapping

So yesterday I said I’d treat you by talking about how I do some things that designers do – but I do them badly.  Why would we do anything badly?  Well, read on if you’re interested.

3. Wireframing and sitemapping

Some digital agencies have UX and IA people who just do wireframing and sitemapping, and sometimes this is the job of the designers in an agency.  However, strategists should understand this stuff and be able to do it (even badly) in order to a) visually explain what they think should happen (since designers tend to be quite visual) and b) because it helps us to understand how designers think and c) therefore brief them better because we’re on the way to proving the theory is correct by beginning to put it into practice.example wireframe

If you understand how designers think, you can communicate with them better.  That means they get a better brief.  And you’re more likely to see a product you know will match your users’ (and the client’s) requirements.

At Equator, our strategy team uses Balsamiq Mockups for wireframes.

The thing is, you’re looking at the mockup on the right, and, you’re thinking, that’s crap, and you’d be right.

Wireframes aren’t meant to be nice.  They should look crap, and that’s kind of the point.

Then the client knows it’s just a sketch, which means you can discuss the principles of the user experience and the layout and the exciting ideas you have rather than whether the design fits the brand guidelines, and your designer can laugh at your incompetence and do a much better job than you ever could when it comes around to designing the thing.

We also use xmind in our team for sitemapping.  It is a most infuriating user experience.  If you know of a better sitemaps software that doesn’t cost too much, let me know.

Anyway, tomorrow, we’re going to talk about something completely different.  Presenting.  Presenting is a really important and surprisingly underrated skill.  It’s something that strategists are expected to be born able to do, and, since we’re largely introverts, who like thinking a lot and not talking to large groups of people, it’s not something that always comes that naturally to us.


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5 craft skills of the digital strategist part 2: Qualitative analysis

So yesterday, we heard about why getting to grips with data is vital for digital strategists.

Today, it’s all about getting away from your computer and talking to real live people in real life:

2. Qualitative analysis

Probably the most important thing digital strategists need to do is ask ‘why would the consumer care about this?’ and yet all too often we don’t spend as much time with our target audiences as we should.

Ad agencies do, as their clients pay for them to hold focus groups, both to look for insights and to test their creative work.  Digital agencies tend to be seen as further down the food chain (although not always) and are supposed to just make things without questioning them too much – but we should be doing the same as our advertising counterparts and starting from first principles: what is the insight? What is going to work for the people who are actually going to use this?

Qual research is an art form and it doesn’t just mean focus groups, although moderation of groups is possibly the hardest and most pointless or useful qualitative thing you can do (depending on your point of view.)  I’ll probably write more about moderating at some point.  I kind of love and hate doing it all at the same time.

The good thing about groups is you can see what ‘real people’ say to each other about something – in a good group you can see real conversations about the topic unfolding in front of you.

The bad thing about groups is all the things people say are bad about focus groups – there’s always one opinionated person who biases the outcome, they bully everyone else into agreeing with them, people are on their guard and don’t say what they really feel, and so on.  You don’t get the truth in a group blah blah blah.  I don’t think groups are right for all digital projects, but they can be right for some things, for example, getting to understand the basics of what people think about brands, and to test different routes and territories.

Maybe you get better results from an online panel but so far I’m yet to be convinced.  No one seems to turn up for those, and they take forever.  You don’t get the immediate response you get in a real room.

I agree that interviews and user testing are more useful than groups for certain things, e.g. understanding how people use websites and for gathering detail.  But focus groups are useful and they should never be discounted altogether.

A skilled moderator will navigate the dynamic of the group pretty quickly, and stay on top of things.  They’ll tease the insightful stuff out of the quiet people and make sure the opinionated people feel heard but don’t dominate the chat.  A skilled moderator goes in and stays open to what people are saying all the way through.  Above all, you need to be a good listener and be aware that sometimes the subtext is more interesting than what people actually are actually saying.   Those are the skills digital strategists should have.

Maybe the strategists who are skeptical about groups just haven’t had decent research training.

Tomorrow, let’s have a change of scene and talk about why it’s important for digital strategists to think like web designers and have some of the skills – but be quite bad at them.

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