How do I run the perfect brainstorm?

As my fellow Fireflies have written, coming up with new ideas when you’re not in the same room as your colleagues can be a challenge. In this piece, we’ll revisit a timeless topic – how to run the perfect brainstorm*.

Surprisingly, modern thinking about brainstorms has changed considerably in the last decade. According to the Harvard Business Review in 2015, “There is very little evidence for the idea that brainstorming produces more or better ideas than the same number of individuals would produce working independently. In fact, a great deal of evidence indicates that brainstorming actually harms creative performance, resulting in a collective performance loss that is the very opposite of synergy.

This is exactly why we should use a dual-stream approach to brainstorming. As Alexander Graham Bell said, ‘Preparation is the key to everything’, so here’s our timeless approach to getting new ideas, whether together in person or remote, and making sure that you don’t harm the ‘creative performance’ of your team when the pressure is on.

Preparing to Win

The best brainstorms begin long before everyone gets on the phone or in the same room, pandemic permitting. First and foremost, it’s important to understand what your goal is – what are you looking to generate an idea for? Similarly, before you restrict your mind with other people’s ideas (in this case, within your research), it’s important to think about the kinds of thing you’d like to do based on prior experience. For example, by thinking about:

Personal Preferences: What would I like to do more of in this area?

Past Experiences: When we did this kind of thing before, was there anything that we wanted to explore further?

Timeliness: Given the times of year or other circumstances, is there anything that springs to mind?

Once you’ve done that, then you should start your solo research in earnest, looking at things like:

Sector Rivals: What things have competitors or companies in other sectors done that we could take a step further or take inspiration from?

Broad Industry Context: Have you seen anything in professional press, analyst reports or from influencers that looked interesting and could be inspiring? 

Much like a brainstorm, it’s important to jot everything down that springs into your head. Don’t worry if it initially sounds terrible or weird – it might be inspiring to someone else! If you have the time, it’s also good to let these ideas simmer; leave them for a day or so and then come back to your thinking, jotting down anything else that you think of in the interim.

This pre-work is also key because there are several pitfalls to avoid in group sessions.

Creative Performance Limiters

When you’re in any kind of group session, politics and power come into play. There are three main effects that we’ve seen:

Conformity: People don’t like to stand out. So, if most of the group focuses on one particular area during the session, the minority is less likely to speak out. Preparation minimises this because the process of preparing and ‘simmering’ helps to convince you that your own ideas are valid.

Power Imbalances: If there are very senior or very junior people in the session, the very senior people are likely to speak more and the very junior speak less. A good facilitator can help to overcome this, encouraging everyone to speak, regardless of their level.

Self-consciousness: It’s perfectly natural to feel slightly stupid on a remote brainstorm, particularly when there might be a delay on the line. Again, preparation and the desire to discuss all the ideas you’ve put down can help with this. Similarly, there’s no harm in following up with the brainstorm leader if you can’t squeeze an idea into the conversation – sometimes there are just too many good ideas!

Brainstorm Roles

In a perfect world, you’d also have three support staff in your brainstorm: a chairperson, a facilitator and a scribe. Here’s why:

Chairperson: This person keeps things moving along. They also make sure that good ideas get the attention they deserve and stop discussions that aren’t adding anything.

Facilitator: Encourages people to talk, offers praise and helps to develop ideas.

Scribe: Writes down all the ideas!

Different Models of Brainstorming

We’ve seen a few different models of brainstorming used over our time in communications, three of which we’ve listed below. Admittedly, the first two are our favourites. Despite the limiting factors we’ve discussed above, the importance of getting other people’s perspectives on your ideas is incredibly valuable.

The Classic: Everyone comes together and throws ideas around. Make sure to bring sweet treats or caffeine!

Facilitated: Uses a set of prompts – for example, images – and each participant offers an idea inspired by those images relating to the brief.

Separately but Together: The Covid brainstorm! A time slot is set, and everyone brainstorms separately then shares their ideas digitally. This model isn’t vulnerable to power dynamics, but it doesn’t allow participants to riff off each other’s ideas as well as the other two.

Other Considerations

Above all, remember that brainstorming is a team sport. Most good ideas aren’t just from one person, they’re from someone else (or lots of people) and involve everyone contributing to an idea and evolving it. So, do listen, evolve ideas, or just reinforce them if you think they’re great! At the same time, do develop other people’s ideas, but also push new ones; keep the quantity going and there may be common themes that emerge between ideas.

It’s also important to remember that the perfect idea may not come up straight away. In fact, there’s usually a lot of dud ideas to get through first. For this reason, don’t hold back, however daft your idea seems; unusual ideas may prompt different ways of thinking and new directions. Even if they don’t work, they might inspire something else. In the same breath, hold back your criticism in a brainstorm, because you might inhibit other ideas from coming out from other team members.

Finally, if you can, be somewhere else – don’t brainstorm where you work. It can be useful to have a laptop or phone with you to search for things online as you talk, but taking yourself into a new setting and avoiding distractions is always helpful.

So, there we go; our top tips for running a brainstorm during (or after) the pandemic. Clearly, you don’t have to take all of our advice to run a good session, but it is important to be aware of the limiting factors, and that there are alternatives to the ‘classic’ model of getting ideas. Above all, the old adage is true: fail to prepare, prepare to fail! 

*As almost everyone knows, the word ‘brainstorm’ has historically been seen as offensive. However, according to Epilepsy.org, Epilepsy Action and the National Society for Epilepsy, it’s no longer seen this way. We’ll take their word for it.

Communications is notorious for moving at breakneck speed; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people say that a PR year is like a dog year. We juggle communicating with stakeholders from our own teams, to customers, to journalists, to analysts, and with partners, not to mention the higher-ups in our own companies – and they have stakeholders too! All this collaboration and co-ordination needs thought and not just snap judgments. But if you put that on top of all the other mental load that we’ve been experiencing this year, you’ve got a super-quick recipe for burnout.

The Roots of Slow Thinking

But why is this? It’s not just stress and fear of the pandemic – to really understand this we have to go a little deeper. We tend to quote Daniel Kahneman a lot, either in pieces for this newsletter or our own sales collateral, because his work is very important to reputation – and his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, is a banger*.

The primary thesis in TFAS is that humans prefer to ‘think fast’. We run on automatic, we take shortcuts, we become creatures of habit – whether that’s preferring Sainsbury’s over Tesco, McDonald’s over Burger King, or whatever else. This is because this automatic, ‘fast’ thinking is less energy-consuming than the alternative. Thinking ‘slowly’, deeply, or however you want to refer to it, is literally an energy drain. It’s tiring.

And during the pandemic, we’ve all had to think more slowly. Where do I need to wear a mask? How many people can I socialise with? Am I following the latest government guidelines? Am I more than two metres away from that dogwalker on the pavement? Do I have hand sanitiser with me? Is it safe to go to the cinema?

Every single time you force your brain to think, it’s working out like an Olympic athlete. When you add all of this to the fast-paced world of comms and it’s no wonder people are exhausted – it’s been a tiring year! Clearly, the same is true for other industries as well – it’s not just comms, it’s HR, it’s sales, and so on – any part of the business that went into over-drive has been running on empty for some time.

Can I Think Fast and Still Get the Job Done?

As a manager or director in comms, it’s a tough job to balance looking after your team and still getting the job done, because a lot of our work is ‘thinking slow’, deliberate, considered work. There will be some jobs – reports and the like – that can be done on automatic, but in general, it’s better to look at measures where you can save mental energy to begin with. So here are a few starters for ten:

Know Thyself: You can’t do a good job if you’re not looking after yourself, so be aware of whether you’re having an especially bad / tiring day. Be kind to yourself and remember that we’re living through a pandemic and that’s incredibly hard.

Know Your Team: They’ll be having ‘off days’ as well, and that’s ok. Everyone will have felt the strain of the pandemic differently, so keep an eye on them, force them to be kind to themselves. Above all, make sure they’re taking holidays!

Trust (and use) Your Team: With any luck, not everyone will be having a bad day at the same time, and while we’re not saying to ‘push everything down’ and delegate wildly, your team is there to support you – so make use of them (and vice versa). Sometimes this means getting someone else to check that email you’ve just written if you know you’re having an off-day because you’ve exhausted yourself mentally and sometimes it’s doing that for someone else.

Rest Properly: The urge to ‘fight back to normal’ at weekends can be strong, so if you’re busy during the week, don’t push yourself to catch up with *all* your friends and relatives at the weekend, because that requires lots of thought, and although it might be good for you on a social level, it’s also draining. Get the balance right.

Insist on Routines: Routines are mental shortcuts (‘thinking fast’) – and as you build habits and get into them, you can ‘think fast’ about them, rather than always having to ‘think slow’. Similarly, avoid unnecessary distractions – unsubscribe from newsletters (not Firefly’s, obviously) and try not to multi-task too much. This will help to conserve that valuable mental energy!

Looking Forwards

As I write this, the government is issuing new guidelines on how many people can gather in public in the UK, and the news sites are speculating about the possibility of curfews being introduced. The Economist is warning that unless we can beat Covid globally, we won’t beat it at all – and even the most optimistic estimate doesn’t see us beating the pandemic before the end of 2020. In short – it ain’t over yet.

This means that we need to start – or continue – measures to adapt to this temporary (but lengthy) difficult period. Most of us have our masks, hand sanitiser and (where appropriate) home offices set up, but now it’s time to make sure that we’re being kind to ourselves, realise the impact that the pandemic has on our mental states, and adapt sustainably so that we can continue communicating efficiently and effectively.

* Put it next to Oren Klaff’s Pitch Anything and Kotter’s Leading Change and you’ve got three of the best communications books in the world.

It’s a tired trope; a new set of company values, trotted out by the senior management team at an all-hands meeting and posted up around the office, the corners gently curling over time, extra letters added to certain words by the office joker. Values often smack of ‘do as I do’-ism, with few senior staff paying them little more than lip service after the first week – or worse, being used as a stick to berate employees when they don’t perform well.

Company values are certainly being tested right now; it’s a difficult time for everyone. But why do so many company values fail? And are they worth holding onto at all?

Take a stand

First and foremost, I do believe that company values are worth keeping. I believe that their failure is more often than not a failure of execution, planning and responsibility, rather than an inherent failing in the values themselves.

The USP of a company is something that can and should influence everything that it says and does. For example, as of March 2020, Primark still does not have an online shop. The brand is all about browsing, buying in volume, and the in-store experience. Ikea’s brand experience is all about affordability, the inescapable nature of its store layouts, friendly staff and great meatballs.

If your brand has a USP – and I do hope it does – then values are a natural extension of this. For example, one of Ikea’s values is cost-consciousness. I’d challenge you to tell the difference between a piece of furniture bought from Argos and one bought from Ikea (Billy shelves aside!) – but the experience of going into a store, or even buying on the two websites is radically different. This difference percolates through from a company’s USP, from its strategy, and ultimately, from its people.

And as Ed Catmull, formerly of Pixar, says in his book Creativity Inc, your company will have a culture whether you like it or not; your only choice is whether or not to be involved in setting it!

Company values are no different – your staff will behave as they see fit, and in the ways dictated and demonstrated by their managers, and their managers in turn. The CEO who walked on-stage at an all-hands meeting brandishing a paintball gun (true story!) and told staff “I could shoot you right now, but I don’t need to – you work for me, I own you” says far more about company values than any poster put up by the HR team. Chris Pearse, author of the Broken CEO, says that behaviour trumps values every time, but I’d say this is a point of semantics. Your behaviour is your values – or to get biblical about it ‘faith without works is dead’.

Doing the Right Thing

Values spread from the top, but also from the bottom. So whilst a key part of a successful company values programme is making sure that your leadership team lives and breathes the values, making sure that your HR team is hiring in line with your values is also crucial. After all, it’s a relatively straightforward matter to teach skills to a new hire – it’s much harder to teach the right attitude.

This makes it absolutely key that hiring teams understand the attitudes, behaviours and approaches that candidates have, and making sure that they match what the company stands for. Having to send an employee on a training course is an easy feat – correcting cultural conflict and tension is not.

As well as being desirable traits, a statement of values is essentially a permission document. Like the laws of a country, it gives employees permission to do something – or not to do it. If one of your company values is ‘brave’, for example, then you shouldn’t reprimand staff for trying new things.

Of course, it’s also important to apply a little human common sense to values. There will be times when it’s not appropriate to uphold a particular company value – or times when they conflict in a given situation. It would be all too easy, for example, for our Firefly company values of ‘determined’ and ‘team spirited’ to clash, as we drive each other mad with a fanatical devotion to one challenge or another. Again, those who take values rigidly or as an excuse to beat employees over the head will generally find them not being upheld!

Tying it all up

In short, a good set of values creates an ethos, a feeling, a set of behavioural permissions, similar to a vision and mission statement. We love Showpad’s mantra of being ‘good natured ass kickers’ – and its values reflect this, including humility, simplicity, togetherness and diversity, to name but a few. It’s an expression of company intent.

After all, as I’ve said, there are many companies doing the same thing, making the same thing, offering the same service today. What makes each one stand out is not only its brand, style and reputation, but how its employees conduct themselves. Can you imagine ordering a pristine new iPhone, only to find that it’d been hastily thrown into its box, rather than being the minimalist, joyous un-boxing experience that we all expect today? That’s a matter of staff behaviour – and staff behaviour is a matter of values, whether you choose to get involved in them or not.

If you need help establishing your company values, Firefly runs a series of workshops helping leaders and communications teams in understanding their own history, purpose, vision, mission and values – as well as how to communicate this and ‘walk the talk’. For more information, please contact hello@fireflycomms.com

When you think about successful and well-known leaders in the business world, which words spring to mind? How about strong? Decisive? Innovative? Disruptive? How about wealthy or unscrupulous?

What about ‘kind’? Did that make the top ten – or even the top twenty?

In our experience, kindness is rarely seen as a positive attribute for a leader. Despite an increasingly woke business world, where there’s a growing focus on sustainability and transparency, simple kindness is still often dismissed as a ‘nice to have’ that organisations just can’t afford or don’t prioritise.

Let’s unpack that a bit more, because as a human, there seems to be something wrong here. Why isn’t kindness desirable in the leadership community?

Show me the money!

It’s a really easy question to answer, and unfortunately, it’s not pretty. More often than not, ‘kind’ can be associated with words like ‘nice’, and if we’re being brutally honest, some see kindness as ‘weak’. There’s often an ‘attitude hangover’ from the eighties, nineties and noughties where leaders model themselves on figures like the Wolf of Wall Street or other characters from fast-talking macho TV shows or cultures.

Similarly, there’s often a feeling that kind people get taken for granted or taken advantage of. The anchor of London Real, Brian Rose, puts it neatly “[that] if we hang out with lower status monkeys, we’re going to go down the tube with them” – as if there’s some kind of contagious ‘neediness’ virus that’ll spread from people who need help to those helping them. When you think about it, this barely makes logical sense – if you’re the one giving, you’re not needy by definition.

That said, there’s little doubt that the business world is a tough place; leaders have to make difficult decisions, conduct disciplinary hearings, make people redundant, get the best deal for the organisation, and stay smart. It’s clear to see why the default path for leadership is often being as cut-throat with your employees as you are with your competitors, but it’s not the only way to be.

Is it possible to be kind and a leader?

It’s a horrible experience to lead a round of redundancies or close a facility, but it’s possible to do it with kindness, treating employees with respect, as humans. Your competitors might profit from ‘dirty deals’ for years – but in the age of transparency, they might also be found out. After all, McDonald’s was completely untouched during the ‘horsemeat scandal’ of 2013, despite reporters’ best efforts to dig up dirt.

Similarly, a CEO can be undermined, even destroyed, by a review on Glassdoor or an allegation of misconduct.

Being kind is a long-term investment in your brand. Geoffrey Colon, Head of Brand Studio at Microsoft Advertising, recently gave a talk at CES, where he mentioned that Satya Nadella is encouraging all Microsoft employees to not only think about what they can do, but what they should do. Essentially his line of thinking was that brands can’t ‘just’ do a good job anymore; they have to serve a long-term purpose and solve a real human problem. This means staying relevant – and perhaps more importantly, staying profitable. This is a serious reputational consideration – and from this perspective, establishing kindness as a corporate value makes serious sense.

It doesn’t mean being weak; quite the opposite. Being kind is often having difficult conversations sooner, but in a fashion that treats your employees like human beings.

To give another example, when Mary Barra became CEO of General Motors in 2014, she had to deal with the recalling of over two million cars after issues resulted in the tragic loss of life. Despite the awful circumstances, Barra communicated with a kindness, respect and presence that firmly established her as one of the greatest leaders in industry today. Most of the press articles covering Mary’s statements at the time begin with her opening comments, which express deep sympathy for the victims, before being candid about the root causes of the issues.

Barra took responsibility. She expressed candid regret, and she explained what she would do to not only address the immediate concerns, but also the systemic problems across GM. Her approach was kind, but it wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t weak.

But Barra wasn’t only a great leader with the big issues; she reputedly changed GM’s entire dress code from a long-winded document to ‘dress appropriately’, treating staff with the trust and respect to make their own decisions.

None of these policies are the sign of a weak, unsuccessful leader. In fact, under Barra’s leadership, GM’s share price has been consistently higher than prior to her joining. Similarly, even the most bullish of leaders – such as Oren Klaff, who trains leaders to pitch to Venture Capitalists – admits that he can be ‘nice’. Opinionated, of course, strong when he needs to be, but still ‘nice’!

Furthermore, a general change is coming; some leaders who established themselves in earlier decades are learning new values or handing over the reins to younger, more woke generations – but it takes time. However, there is evidence that younger generations are calling out antiquated behaviour more often in the ‘OK Boomer’ movement. Admittedly, this isn’t the kindest way to do it, but nonetheless, evidence that there is a significant generational change coming!

In fairness, many kind leaders do exist in older generations – at Firefly we’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the best people in the industry.

Remind me why I should be kind?

There’s really only one reason to be a kind leader: it’s the right thing to do. But if that’s not enough for you, here’s a few other factors to consider.

– According to the University of Warwick, happy people are 12% more productive. In fact, a Google study found that increasing employee support resulted in a 37% rise in employee job satisfaction.

– Satisfied employees stay in their roles, and they work harder. Companies have both ‘character’ reputations (‘do I like you?’) and ‘capability’ reputations (‘are you going to do what you said you’d do?’) and if you erode the former then you’re purely dependent on the latter. This means that people are less likely to give you the benefit of the doubt when your products and services fail – so it’s beneficial to have a good character reputation.

– Applying kindness to the wider business function and environment pays; funds that specialise in clean energy, water and forestry like Pictet Environmental Opportunities have seen a 50% rise in value in the last four years.

– Customers appreciate kindness – and this attitude comes from the top. Ritz Carlton hotels are famous for small but meaningful acts that drive repeat business – again and again.

– Kindness drives return business, engaging customers – and this brings a 23% higher ‘share of wallet’, compared to competitors, according to Gallup research

Get involved, or get out of the C-suite

Not all leaders choose to actively motivate their staff, instead relying on pay and benefits to do that for them but for those that do, it’s often portrayed as a binary choice between the carrot and the stick. In the twenties, it’s not that simple anymore; after all, while a kind, firm, fair leader can motivate staff, they also empower staff to motivate themselves, supporting them, being an ally and an advocate for them. This falls somewhere between the stick and the carrot. [Ed. A ‘stirrot’? No? A ‘carrick’? I’ll stop.]

Either way, kind leadership is a step forward to a better brand of business, one that is more respectful to its employees, its suppliers and the world at large. And in this politically volatile, economically uncertain age, that’s something that we sorely need.

 

 

In recent months, there has been an undisputed rise in discussions around corporate purpose. Many organisations are discussing how to be better workplaces, serve their customers more effectively and are carefully examining what they stand for. But there does seem to be a divide between companies that treat this exercise as a re-hashing of the old ‘vision and mission’ straplines and those who are treating it as an opportunity to seriously reconsider what they stand for.

What is Purpose?

There’s a lot of ambiguity around the topic of purpose. Many firms treat their sustainability initiatives as statements of organisational purpose, which can lead to a very narrow focus. However, some have taken the bold step in defining a purpose that resonates through not just marketing and the C-suite, but through every part of their operations.

I struggled to find many landmark reports on the subject but EY’s Beacon Institute released a report in September 2019, defining purpose as “an aspirational reason for being which inspires and provides a call to action for an organization and its partners and stakeholders and provides benefit to local and global society.”

The first two sections, in italics and bold, are not too different from a standard company mission, but it’s the last part, in underline, that sets it apart. It’s the intention to make organisations not only offer valuable products and services, but also to serve society in some way. In the words of the Harvard Business Review, to “connect with the heart as well as the head” or Bizfluent, “how you will improve the lives of those you serve”.

Now, we’ve had a number of discussions about whether the benefits do need to be both local and global, because the latter is a big ask! However, there are a number of bigger questions in my view, including how purpose can be balanced with profit, and who should be accountable for company purpose.

Can Purpose be Profitable?

According to Gallup, when companies get their purpose right, it can make a difference. When a company’s purpose – and the corresponding behaviour – line up, customers will give the brand 47% ‘share of wallet’ (i.e. their spending on that category) than a non-aligned brand, which only receives 23% of ‘walletshare’. Gallup also cites a few good examples of purpose statements, including this one from Southwest Airlines in the US: “To connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel” – and this has clear implications for the entire brand experience.

Similarly, looking at EY’s research, 42% of ‘purpose laggards’ report flat or declining revenue compared to only 15% of purpose ‘prioritisers’, so the report seems to imply that revenue growth is somehow linked to corporate purpose. I’m extremely hesitant of correlating purpose and performance because I suspect that it’s linked to a third variable. I don’t have any data to back this up, but it’s entirely possible that organisations that have the time and resources to develop their purpose are likely to be larger, leaner and potentially more successful firms.

Furthermore, there’s the problem of definition. Some might argue that SW Airlines’ purpose statement doesn’t provide benefit to global and local society, only global and local travellers – after all, according to Wikipedia, the aviation industry is responsible for 3.5% of all climate change. That said, this reminds me of an episode of the philosophical Netflix comedy The Good Place, where one character works out that most humans are being sent to hell because of ‘unintended consequences’. For example, the apple that we buy in the supermarket on the first day of turning vegan was shipped on a plane, adding to global warming. Its plastic packaging is thrown away and later chokes a dolphin, etc.

It’s important to remember, though, that most initiatives need to start small, then grow. Even Google was a small organisation at one stage, so any change can begin to have a bigger impact further on down the line, and we can begin to tackle those ‘unintended consequences’.

Accountability and Cost

One of the other key challenges with building company purpose is accountability. The natural main stakeholder for company purpose is the CEO. In a traditional, non-purpose-driven organisation, shareholders shout at you if you don’t achieve goals – but who shouts at you if you don’t have a purpose? Potentially no-one.

But there is a longer-term cost to a lack of purpose, or a purpose statement that is poorly executed. Employees will leave. They’ll be less motivated. You’ll lose the halo effect of a good reputation. And when ‘reputational value’ makes up 41% of the value of the FTSE 100, that’s not something to be sniffed at – in fact, it’s just under a trillion pounds.

Furthermore, there’s the absolute cost. That if we don’t want dissatisfied customers – or, considering purpose from a sustainable standpoint – a greater number of hot, wet summers, droughts or to run out of resources, we’re going to have to find this balance a lot, lot more in our lives. But this can be hard.

Time to Get Creative

A contact of mine, a careers coach, used to tell her ‘coachees’ that it was daft to tell people that they could do anything. You can’t, she’d say, become an astronaut. It’s really hard, your country might not even have a space programme, and you might wear glasses (or something).

I’ve got to say I disagree. If you really want to be an astronaut and wear glasses, then start your own spaceship company, or join the Virgin Galactic programme. Admitting defeat is creativity failure.  Sometimes creative suggestions might seem crazy, but then it’s important to remember that sometimes crazy can work. For example, no-one thought NASA’s idea of lowering the Curiosity Rover down to Mars using a ‘sky crane’ (essentially a UFO with a winch) would work, but after testing, it became the only viable option – and performed perfectly.

Of course, sometimes the biggest barrier to developing corporate purpose isn’t creativity, it’s the potential for reducing revenue. In the short term, this may well be true, but a good purpose also has the long-term potential to transform a company, motivating employees and maintaining relevance. It’s like any kind of transformation – if companies are smart enough to take their eyes off quarterly targets for a moment, look at the bigger picture and cut the staff some slack, it gives them space to manoeuvre.

Furthermore, in an age when simply running a profitable business is growing ever-harder, finding a purpose may seem like a tough thing to do. But in the absolute long term, it’s the right thing to do if organisations are to retain customers better, create a robust reputation and help to sustain the planet. So perhaps the right question isn’t ‘can profit and purpose co-exist’ but ‘why aren’t they co-existing right now?

Nothing sells a story like a pun, but sometimes you just can’t think of the right wordplay. Thankfully, a new linguistic intelligence service has come to the rescue with its portmanteau and rhyme generator to help your punspiration. Try putting two words into this site and see where you get. Need help thinking of wordplay when an escaped dog runs into a library? Maybe they’re lost in the barkives? Trying to find jokes when talking about serving fish dishes? Call the halibutler.

You’re welcome.

While you’re here, there’s a lot of other content to read, helpful guides to look at – here’s a selection of the best.

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Tips from Claire Walker on how to build and maintain a recession proof reputation in a time of economic downturn. …Read more

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How can travel tech make summer holidays more sustainable?

Travel tech is providing all sorts of ways to lessen our carbon footprints when travelling this summer. Read more to find out how! …Read more

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The shift to homeworking has seriously affected internal communications. Here are some ideas on how to bounce back. …Read more

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Ben Brigham

It’s a year today since the GDPR regulations came into operation, but it probably feels like longer to most marketers.

What’s changed? Well, according to the news, there’s been €55m of fines delivered across Europe, although this includes a chunky €50m for Google’s ad personalisation misconduct.

In the UK, there haven’t been any fines to date, although an enforcement letter has been delivered to a firm in Canada. A menagerie of fines and further letters can be seen on the ICO’s website, but most of them – including a £385,000 fine to Uber – are under the ‘new’ Data Protection Act rather than the GDPR.

Of course, GDPR has made everyone more aware of data protection regulations, whether they want to be or not. And perhaps more importantly, it’s raised awareness of how data flows around the organisation, how much of it there is and the importance of taking care of people’s data, especially within protected categories.

In the last year, we saw a vast number of vendors roll out solutions; some of which were user-friendly and many that were not. The fifty-one different comments on our blog post ‘reconsenting Mailchimp lists ahead of GDPR’ showed not only confusion around how to handle mailing lists, but also how last-minute Mailchimp’s own guidance was. One of the major things we learnt was how broad a base for data processing ‘legitimate interest’ is – and if we’d known this ahead of GDPR, our blog post would have looked a lot different!

Overall, our analysis of GDPR’s intent was ‘handle data responsibly’ and that’s a firm, fair and necessary mission. Knee-jerk deletions of consumer data were almost certainly unnecessary but completely understandable, given the size of the fines. One of our overall feelings about the handling of GDPR was that it uncomfortably straddled a few roles: many of those responsible were marketers with limited support and a limited grasp of regulations, however well they’d handled PECR in the past.

That said, the fact that no UK fines have been given out is either a sign that most British organisations handled the regulations responsibly – or that the mammoth amount of administration and organisational re-architecting is still a work in progress. Right now, no news is good news – although time will tell.

CereProc, the Edinburgh-based text-to-speech company that creates digital voices with character, has engaged Firefly Communications UK as its PR agency.

Founded in 2005, CereProc has forty-five digital voices for any platform, with accents ranging from Austrian to Brazilian and Russian to Japanese. It has ‘cloned’ the voices of people suffering from issues that result in voice loss or degradation, such as thyroid cancer and motor neurone disease, helping them retain the power of speech. The team has also cloned the voices of celebrities including George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“The applications of CereProc’s technology are vast,” said Christian Sharp, Senior Account Director at Firefly Communications. “Not only is it giving speech and song back to the speechless, but the applications of its technology in the fields of virtual assistants, gaming, academia – to name but a few – are staggering. We can’t wait to get to grips with CereProc’s digital voicebox and spread the word.”

The PR campaign will focus on UK media relations, social campaigns and an awards programme for the brand, gaining recognition for its cutting-edge technology. Unlike other digital voices, CereProc’s technology has a more ‘human’ flow, and was used by film critic Roger Ebert to deliver part of his TED talk after he lost his lower jaw to cancer. CereProc’s voices can also speak in regional accents, rather than the synthetic ‘android’ voices that tools such as Siri and Alexa use.

“CereProc’s ethos is focused on continuous innovation,” said Paul Welham, Chief Executive at CereProc. “We’re continually developing new voices, smarter technology and different applications for these voices, so it’s great to have Firefly on-board to help spread the word about our work.”

“It’s not often that you come across an organisation that has made Donald Trump sing, created a Glaswegian voice for an escape room and restored the power of speech to an eminent Motor Neurone Disease sufferer,” continued Sharp. “We’re delighted to be working with CereProc and showcasing its innovative and worthy technology to the world at large.”

In 2017, our CEO Claire questioned whether innovation was stagnating across social media channels. Almost two years later, I believe we can say with hindsight that the answer to this was and still is a very firm ‘yes’. The Facebook, Twitter and Instagram experiences that we all have today are much the same as they were two, three or even five years ago.

But my colleague Charlotte recently raised another question – was anyone else really underwhelmed when Apple announced its expansion into streaming and credit cards? Perhaps the mega-brand will make incremental innovations in these markets, but I’m certainly not at the edge of my seat, anticipating something exciting.

In the noughties, innovation accelerated at such a pace that it was unlikely it could be maintained. Instead, the innovation we see today is either incremental, or in the start-up world, and these firms are quickly snatched up by larger organisations to help fuel their innovation initiatives.

However, is this an overly glib view of the world? After all, the smartphone wasn’t born overnight – the first ‘personal communicator’ was released by IBM in 1992, costing $1,100, with a one-hour battery life but fully capable of sending emails. It sold just 50,000 units. 15 years later, in 2007, the first iPhone was released with a humble 3.5” screen – but it still sold over 6 million units.

And in fairness, it’s not for lack of trying – AR and VR have not provided the next revolution of technology that we expected. Even 3D printing has only just started to deliver a very specific set of capabilities in plastic and metal printing after being hyped in its infancy. This is one technology that we do believe will have a revolutionary impact, but it will take time.

It feels like the technological ‘base’ of the next ‘innovation jump’ has simply not arrived – neither blockchain nor quantum processing nor graphene has immediately delivered on the hype; probably because genuine innovation is soul-crushingly difficult. I remember talking to Stephen Sasson about how he invented the digital camera back in 1975 – before most people had computers in their homes! It wouldn’t be until 1986 that the first model (from rival Canon) hit the markets with a list price of ¥390,000 – just over three thousand pounds in today’s money, accounting for inflation!

Solutions and Remedies

So, from a communications standpoint, how can we counteract this? After all, having an awesome product isn’t the only way to stand out. I’ve lost track of the times when I’ve bought an Innocent Smoothie because of those little knitted hats they put on the bottles in winter to support Age UK – even though other smoothies taste pretty much identical. The advantages of a strong brand, and that brand’s reputation, is inestimably important in this regard.

Clearly, one (non-communications) possibility is rapid iteration of products – but then you run the risk of ending a product line that has a large number of loyal users already. It’s much safer to make use of your other brand assets, including:

Great support: Do you go the extra mile for customers? Like Rackspace, could you build a reputation for ‘fanatical support’?

Great personality: Does your brand know exactly what it stands for? Is it almost a person in its own right? The cute, friendly image that Innocent Smoothies cultivated sold a lot of smoothies even after competitors launched their own rival products, often at a huge discount.

Amazing staff: When I worked with Red Bee Media (now part of Ericsson) the firm had a 98% staff retention rate because people absolutely loved working there – and you could feel that pride radiating through the office. One guy said to me “I’m the last person to handle footage before it goes live on air – why would I do anything else?”. When you’ve got staff like this, shout about them.

– A more personalised service or great consultancy: Do you stop at nothing to make sure that your product absolutely fits the customer need? If you’re working for a boutique consultancy or a services firm, like a hotel chain, this is another point of differentiation to seize.

– Great sustainability initiatives: Are you the greenest of the green – or do you just have a great, pragmatic vision for how sustainability is a genuine business asset? My colleague Marco was telling me about HP’s vision for running a datacentre with cow dung the other week, and it’s not something I’m likely to forget!

Once you’ve identified this factor, you then need to work out how to ‘turn it up’ and use it as a differentiator. As I’ve said before, every single brand has a story to tell and something to shout about – it’s just a matter of working out what that thing is!

Similarly, in the post-#metoo age of transparency, an authentic, transparent, kind brand is often as valuable, if not more so, than a truly unique product. Don’t despair if you think your product / service is ‘boring’ (and we disagree if you do think that) – there are plenty of other ways to stand out and win the communications race.

As a long-time fan, I was delighted to see that Greggs the Baker had recently hit £1bn in revenue. As a brand with ballsy comms, solid stunts and tasty baked goods, the recognition is well-earned. Now, over the course of our years in PR, we’ve come across many a high-growth firm and even represented our first travel service unicorn, Klook, last year.

At the same time, many of our firms are born and bred in the grass roots. Workplace advice platform Rungway is a bootstrapped startup that now works with some of the biggest names in the industry, from Barclays to Working Chance. Tenacious brands that start from the ground up and become incredibly successful are often known as cockroaches – it doesn’t sound glamorous but they can survive anything! Historically, cockroaches take longer to establish themselves, but their progress is built on slow, sustainable growth – like threat analytics firm FireEye, or security vendor Lookout. They’re not large splashy names, but brands known for solid quality and disruptive technology.

Clearly, every brand is unique, but we have seen a range of similarities and differences in how the two types of organisation do and should communicate. Here’s a run-down of the most common ones.

  1. Great Stories: Both cockroaches and unicorns are special for a reason – they’ve either had a great idea that investors or customers believed in, or they’ve thrived through adversity. Both tales are worth telling!
  2. Agility and Persistence: Cockroaches tend to be highly specialised, highly persistent and may find it hard to pivot far, whereas a unicorn with a high level of funding / revenue means that they’ll often have disposable income to experiment or buy other organisations to prance into other areas in an agile fashion. Both of these can be positive for communications; specialists can be turned into experts that journalists and social influencers come back to again and again, whereas brands exploring new areas are often intriguing to the outside world.
  3. Paperwork / Confidence: Unicorns may have the legacy of investment capital and a significant amount of administration tying them down, particularly if they’ve gone public. In contrast, cockroaches are not usually beholden to anyone apart from their founders and can experiment as much or as little as they like. From a communications point of view, this freedom can be really important – being able to experiment and ‘fail fast’ is a core tenet of modern business and comms.
  4. Internal Communications: Cockroaches tend to have small, close-knit teams, where Unicorns grow fast and departments can be quite decoupled from each other. I remember the CEO of NGINX telling us that he found it challenging when their workforce grew by 50% because people didn’t know each other or their roles – prompting him to invoke a brief hiring freeze until everyone was collaborating better. Good collaboration, team spirit and communication can have a big impact on your external reputation – especially through tools like Glassdoor and Google reviews. Similarly, it can make your PR easier or harder – we recently asked the team at the Sun newspaper how much due diligence they do into the brands that they take stories from – and they admitted to being reluctant to feature brands that have terrible engagement or customer experience reviews online.
  5. Role Sprawl: It can be tough to get time with senior staff at a cockroach company; having created the company from the ground up, they often fill ‘jack of all trades’ roles, making it hard for them to spend time on their core remit. This does put them in a position to tell the entirety of the business story … if you can get to them! Unicorns, on the other hand, usually have a more formalised role structure, because they are more likely to appoint many people at once, allowing a more considered hiring process. However, this can make it tough for the media to establish ‘trusted’ experts, because things change frequently.

Whether you’re from a tiny tenacious cockroach company or a glamorous glittering unicorn firm, there are pros and cons to business life. Every company has something unique about it, but it can often take a fresh pair of eyes and ears to root out the story; that’s where communications staff can play an invaluable role. Similarly, it’s crucial to revisit this exercise from time to time – companies have lives of their own and what makes them different can change depending on factors like leadership, office space and commercial proposition.

The important thing is to understand the things that make your company special – and believe me, it’s special – and shout them from the rooftops.

– This piece originally featured on Marketing Tech

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