I was discussing what we do at Storythings recently with Ben Lunt, and we were talking about a interesting pattern we’d seen in some of the agencies and companies we really admire. Traditionally, creative businesses focused on delivering services for clients or consultancy work, but many of the most interesting companies also have products, events or services that they run themselves.
For example – BERG have the excellent Little Printer (the first part of the bigger BERG Cloud idea); Hide and Seek are launching Tiny Games on Kickstarter in the next couple of days; RIG started the brilliant Newspaper Club years ago; Mint Digital have launched a few products, including Stickygram; Telegraph Hill have recently launched their own Youtube channel The Fox Problem; The Church of London started by running excellent magazines like Little White Lies, and have now spun out their own agency Human After All; John Willshere’s Smithery makes the lovely Artefact cards, and Clearleft run numerous events including the excellent Dconstruct. At Storythings, we have been running our event The Story for four years now, and have recently published our first book – hopefully the first of many.
These aren’t just ‘20% time’ projects, or one off things the companies are doing to jump on a bandwagon and get a quick bit of profile in the design press – they’re ongoing commitments to making and running something that feels core to the work they companies are doing. These projects aren’t just ways to rehearse ideas that you might then get clients to pay for – they’re fully realised things in themselves, wholly owned by the companies, not their clients.
The advantages of owning projects that you run for a long time are many. You get to learn about all sorts of interesting logistical and regulatory issues, whether that’s working with manufacturers across the globe, shipping products from warehouses to customers, running a crowd funding campaign, or making sure venues are suitable for audiences at an event.
Most of all, you get to deal with people – customers or audiences – directly, regularly, and for a long period of time. Rather than seeing people as numbers reported back to you by a client at the end of a project, you learn what it means to build a loyal user base, how to respond to people’s questions and demands, and what to do when something goes wrong.
This isn’t the short burst of contact you get on a campaign. It’s a deep relationship that only gets more interesting and valuable over time, as the feedback you get starts to change your ideas about the project. Your projects start to become things that are owned jointly by you and your audience/users/customers, creating their own velocity and momentum. These Long Projects pay off in lots of ways that aren’t measured in commissions, funding or awards (although they sometimes lead to all these things).
It feels like this is an integral part of running a creative company now. Alongside the things you know (your consultancy/strategy skills), and the things you do (your making/producing skills), there are the things you own – the long-running projects that help us understand what it feels like to make culture now, and that in many ways define who we are and what we do.
Just around the corner from where I live is this shop. Its in a small parade opposite Portslade train station, along with a couple of barbers, a greasy spoon cafe, a bric-a-brac shop and a newsagents. The parade is typical of the kind you find at the fringes of suburbia, where town centres dwindle to broadly residential areas with a few clusters of shops squeezed in between.
This shop used to be a record store, with a couple of rare items on the wall and the usual bargain bucket MOR in the shelves. After that, it sold second-hand white goods, and then about 6 months ago it had a brief refit before re-opening as a place to get your feet nibbled at by small fish. My daughters found this fascinating, and would peek in the window whenever anyone was getting a treatment, at least until the owners put up blinds to stop them gawping.
I was fascinated for a different reason. The shop seemed to generate business solely through Groupon promotions, and was doing alright for a while, with a steady stream of feet walking in for the Garra fish to nibble. Then, a couple of months ago, the blinds were open more often, the fish looked like they were getting hungrier, and the only thing to see was a bored-looking assistant.
A few more posters started appearing in the window for other services – photo printing on banners or canvases, and OoNaNa body and bath treatments. I imagine the owners were picking up other business ideas from Groupon that had that magic formula – small up front investment in stock/equipment plus niche demand times groupon promotion equals a profit marginal enough to pay the rent on a small shop in a fringe suburb. The window started to look like a physical version of the ads you see on bad websites – it was only a matter of time before teeth-whitening or simple weight-loss remedies starting appearing.
I wonder if this is the future of retail for some shopping areas in these austere times? It feels like the hipster-led ‘pop-up shop‘ idea has trickled down to something approaching a Demand Media business model for physical shops. The Groupon Shop feels like a brave, but slightly clumsy, attempt at algorithmically-driven retail, in which a tiny cost base can be the justification for a series of iterative attempts at creating a viable business model. Previously, only charity shops have had a cost-base low enough to take over the empty high st in a recession, but perhaps Groupon shops are a sign of things to come?
This feels like James Bridle‘s New Aesthetic pushing through into suburbia, in the most vernacular way imaginable. The future of retail is not malls full of check-out-less Apple Stores and immaculately groomed geniuses. Its marginal profits promised by multiple algorithms indexing millions of search queries, emerging like weeds in the gaps in the High St vacated by chain stores who have themselves been eaten by the remorseless efficiency of the Internet.
Or at least it might be, if the Groupon Shop wasn’t closing, perfectly mirroring the bubble of Groupon itself. What will appear there next? I’d like to think the owners will have another try, learning to iterate quicker, and discovering another couple of dozen business models that they can pick up and discard based on the algorithms of coupon sites. Maybe they need to be more like Zynga, who are the current masters of extremely rapid iteration. I’d quite like to buy our milk and eggs from a Farmville shop.
[Update: Just after I wrote this, NESTA tweeted a link to this high-end version of The Groupon Shop]
Something very interesting happened on Channel 4 last Wednesday. About half-way through the latest episode of Seven Days, one of the characters, Cassie, took out her laptop and started talking about how people were talking about her on the show’s website. Sitting at home, monitoring the performance of the site on my laptop, I saw a huge spike in traffic as thousands of other people logged onto the site to see what all the fuss was about. This spike was higher than we’d seen the week before, when the rush of people coming to the site on launch night crashed the servers, and even higher than the biggest peak we saw in the final series of Big Brother earlier this year. We’d clearly hit on something, but what was it?
For the last 11 years, Big Brother has been the poster-child for cross-platform projects – a show which was inextricably bound up in the interaction between the format, the audience and the ripples it caused in the outside world. But those ripples never made it back inside the house – we never saw BB contestants pull out a laptop and see what people were saying about them outside those high Elstree fences. The spike in traffic we saw in the middle of Seven Days was something new – it was an audience realising that they could become part of the conversation, part of the story, part of the lives of the people they were seeing on television. Cassie and the rest of the Seven Days cast were recognisably people living their own lives –in cafes, living rooms and bars – not the artificial tasks and traumas of Big Brother.
Seven Days has demonstrated that we’re living in a new world – a place where our audiences see their own lives broadcast to friends across networks like Facebook and Twitter, and where jokes, arguments and love affairs are conducted through comments and responses, likes and retweets, friending and tagging. Broadcasters have probably been a bit slow to create formats fast enough and open-ended enough to reflect the way we live our lives now. Seven Days feels likes it’s starting to explore what this might look like. It’s an exhausting, messy and complicated project to be working on, with a constant cycle of chatter going on between contributors, commissioners, producers and web teams. It’s hard, two weeks in, to get a grasp on what the show is, what it might be, and how we can best harness the intense spikes of attention we’re seeing around every episode.
I sat at home last Wednesday, watching my TV with my laptop, watching someone else reading about themselves on a laptop, whilst thousands of other people were doing the same. This is the world we’re in now, and Seven Days is an innovative and ambitious attempt to represent this world. Like Big Brother 10 years ago, it’s probably not right yet, but it does feel like the first step on a very interesting journey.
I’ve just had an interesting email conversation with Nicholas Lovell, the excellent games consultant and Gamesbrief blogger, prompted by his appearance at the Edinburgh TV Festival on a panel about the cross over between TV and Games. The session left me very frustrated, partly because it seemed to assume that the only reason that TV people would be interested in games is if they wanted to license their IP to produce a spin-off game. Nicholas (and Paulina Bozek, who made SingStar) did give a different perspective, but this came after two long sessions that were pretty dull histories of Sony and Ninetendo’s histories in the AAA game industry.
Having spent nearly a decade working for broadcasters, I know that this isn’t the way to get a bunch of creative people excited about your sector. How much more interesting it could have been if there were more creative talent there – Ben from Zombie Cow, Darren from Littleloud, or Phil from Preloaded – to explain how their creative process works. Making a TV programme and making a game share a lot of common skills, from great writing to stunning visual production and a keen understanding of your audience. The session at the TV Festival would have been a lot more valuable for everyone involved if it had focused on these issues, rather than a history of the games industry.
I was particularly frustrated, as I’ve spent the last few years (together with Alice Taylor) trying to get broadcasters to understand that games are valuable ways of delivering public value projects, not just parasitical, licensed projects feeding off a linear TV programme’s brand equity. The common ground between TV and Gaming isn’t licenses and IP – it is talent, stories and audiences. Its a pity that the panel in Edinburgh didn’t illustrate this.
This is pretty much everything I could ever say about the industry I work in, but said more effectively than I could ever say it:
“If I look at the range, you’ve got one [constraint] that is art school, I’m doing this for arts sake, Ratatouille and WALL-E clearly fall more on that side, the other is the purely commercial side, where you’ve got a lot of films that are made purely for following a trend, if you go entirely for the art side then eventually you fail economically. if you go purely commercially then I think you fail from a soul point of view… we’ve got these elements pulling on both sides, the art side and the commercial side… and the the trick is not to let one side win. That fundamentally successful companies are unstable. And where we have to operate is in that unstable place. And the forces of conservatism which are very strong and they want to go to a safe place. I want to go to the same place for money, I want to go and be wild and creative, or I want to have enough time for this, and each one of those guys are pulling, and if any one of them wins, we lose. And i just want to stay right there in the middle.”
Ed Catmull, founder of Pixar.
From Scott Berkun’s Blog
There’s a reason Pixar is the most admired and consistently brilliant creative company in the world right now. Its because Ed Catmull runs it.
1- Attention Patterns
I’ve been getting very obsessed with the patterns of attention around content and stories lately. For example, the huge spikes of synchronous attention we see around live events like Reality TV, breaking news stories or sporting events; or the binge-like, asynchronous patterns of attention around cult drama, as people time-shift their viewing with PVRs, VOD or box-sets. Then there’s the katamari-damacy style rolling balls of attention that mobile apps and social games get- huge, distributed balls of attention made up from tiny slivers of our lives. Are these patterns maturing now? Can we design projects based on these models, or are these patterns still unstable? I’m *way* more interested in attention patterns than I am in any particular platform or device.
2 – The Next 30%
There’s a big push in developed economies to get everyone online, as the first two waves (early adopting geeks, and people who use online tools in the workplace) are already well served. I’m interested to see what needs and uses of the internet will emerge over the next few years as new users come online. Will apps and gestural interfaces become more used than open web browsers? Will Facebook become the default experience of the Internet for most people? Will mobile be the most common route to access information networks? Or the set-top box? Or will new brands (ie Tesco) reposition themselves as gateways to information goods as well as ‘real world’ services?
3 – Recession Culture
I was in Art School in Glasgow from 90-94, during the last serious recession. It was an amazing moment of cultural invention, with musicians developing the strands of late-80s grunge, hip-hop and rave culture; indie film in rude health in the US and UK; and artists becoming entrepreneurs and putting on shows in derelict warehouses all over the UK. All this was driven by a DIY ethic that was the only real response to huge public spending cuts and poor employment opportunities. The current university-age generation are facing the same issues, and I’m perversely optimistic that we’ll see similar strange cultural shoots emerging, well outside of the reality-show-driven culture that has dominated the last 10 years. It may sound impossible now to imagine anything breaking through the hegemony of X-Factor and BGT, but I’m calling Peak Cowell around about* now*, and believe the influence of these global culture engines will slowly diminish. We need a few new culture-amplification engines to kickstart (see what I did there?) some of these new shoots, and a few new leaders in the shape of 90s pioneers like Damien Hirst, James Lavelle, Warp records, Richard Linklater and others, but I can see it happening already. And we didn’t even have the transformational power of the web back then, so this should be *really* interesting…
4 – The Underground Olympics
Related to the point above- if you want to reset the cultural barometer, you need something that is even bigger than Cowell to flick the switch. The Olympics is just such an event, and is important not just for it’s huge umbrella of activity and attention, but for the mutant strains that will emerge in its shadow. The art scene around the Transmission Gallery in Glasgow that produced Douglas Gordon, David Shrigley, Christine Borland and many others got its initial kick in opposition to the 1990 Glasgow Year of Culture, so I expect to see similar ground-level initiatives kicking against the 2012 Olympics. If the LOCOG team are smart, they’ll encourage it to happen. If they’re *really* smart, they’ll deliberately provoke it.
5 – Games Getting Boring
By this, I don’t mean games actually getting boring themselves, I mean the hype passing, and everybody finally getting used to the fact that games are a complex, successful and mature part of contemporary media culture. We’re at the top of the hype cycle at the moment, because some people are amazed that *shock!* just about everyone plays games, *shock!* some of them make a hell of a lot of money, and *shock!* they don’t have to involve sitting alone in a room pretending to shoot things. So I’m looking forward to the moment when the investors move on, some people lose a hell of a lot of money, and the mainstream press starts writing snarky “so what was all *that* about then?” post-hype articles. Because I remember the first dotcom crash, and it was just after that when things got really interesting, and the seeds of the current social web were born. Imagine that moment, but with *games*. I’m getting excited just thinking about it…
Hmmm. These have all ended up being a bit more big and wooly than I expected. But I think that’s because I sense the conditions are right for some interesting new trends, and I’m trying to see beyond the big changes in politics, culture etc that are currently right in front of our eyes. It’s more fun to try and look in the cracks, shadows and edges, even if you end up being wrong.
So, after getting a huge number of comments to the post about organising a conference all about stories, I’ve managed to book a venue – The Conway Hall, London – and a date – Friday February 19th, 2010 – and built a website – www.thestory.org.uk
All suggestions for speakers, offers for help, etc gratefully accepted!