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I am a strategy director with experience in all stages of brand strategy and execution. I work with CEO's on the future of their business, and I bring brands to life through tailored content. Whatever you need. I am based in London, but can work wherever you and your clients are.

 

 

The Blog of Camilla Grey

I'm a brand strategist completely obsessed with technology. I've been blogging since 2008 both here and as a contributor to the company blogs of Moving Brands, Digit and Wolff Olins. I'm also the co-founder of the print-only newspaper Can't Understand New Technology. Comments welcomed. Haters gonna hate.

 

The case for curiosity — why it’s time to really pay attention to A.I

Camilla Grey

If 2016 taught us anything, it’s that skimming headlines rarely gives you the full picture. And it taught us that taking time to piece together the full picture can be critical to understanding, to evolution, and to progress.

Artificial Intelligence is ushering in a new era which will have, as its headlines, things like driverless cars, and medical breakthroughs. But it will also have a ‘long read’ just boring enough to ignore, yet just complex enough to be important. So while we’re all resolving to dig deeper into the things that matter, let’s be sure to add this to the list.

Last year opened my eyes to the real potential of A.I, thanks to two clients — Ayuda Heuristics and Graphcore — operating at the cutting edge of this technology. The projects allowed me incredible access to the founders, their teams, their product roadmaps and their advanced knowledge of the field. At times I admit to having felt totally lost and confused — this was hardcore, complex and often theoretical stuff. Building brand strategies for companies in this field has stretched me and challenged me in ways I could not have anticipated, but taking the time to really understand the technology and what it could lead to has also been incredibly exciting and rewarding. Even now, I am still more curious than by any means expert, but it’s a valuable state of mind and one everyone can all benefit from. Perhaps now more than ever.

That said, it made me want to reflect on the real value that being curious, and taking the time to really understand new technology, can have for a business. Curiosity may kill cats, but these two examples from our recent past show curiosity is what keeps companies alive. And being curious about A.I may be what keeps your business, all businesses, alive in the years to come.

Example 1:
How Burberry got curious about social media and re-invented luxury retail

Look at any chart of social media growth between 2006 and today, and you’ll see that the first big uptick occurred around 2010. Facebook and Twitter both saw major growth, with the former reaching a half billion users, and latter gaining +44% of their user base in that one year alone. Instagram came out of beta, quickly surpassing Hipstamatic (a first-to market photo editing app named App of the Year by Apple) and killed it purely by have a social element. This was all largely down to higher processing speeds in smartphones and increasingly ubiquitous wifi which brought more people online and onto social networks.

Burberry got curious about all this in the nick of time, hiring Musa Tariq as their Global Head of Digital Marketing in late 2009. By 2010 he was in fifth gear and busy creating Art of the Trench and live streaming their London Fashion Week catwalk show — making them the first luxury retail brand to take social seriously and do something seriously great. They also drove market share in China with a commitment to Chinese social channels Sina Weibo, Kaixin001, Douban and YouKu. For the company as a whole, these initiatives took the fear out of ‘digital’ and gave them the guts to continue to be experimental and creative. Burberry’s early work in that space put them on the front foot and has more or less kept them there ever since.

Curious about: Social media, mobile technology, internal communication, digital behaviour amongst their target audience, growth markets, re-defining luxury retail.

Rewards: Record revenue, margin and profit, Fast Company ‘Most Innovative’ 2011, 11 million views for Art of the Trench within 9 months.

Example 2:
Walmart got curious about data and out-Amazoned Amazon

Moving forward to 2012, and our relationships with brands had become truly digital as we talked to them (and about them) on social media, signed up to their newsletters, downloaded their apps, and bought more and more stuff from them online. By the end of the year, 24% of 2012’s Black Friday shopping was done online compared to just 6% in 2010.

While most brands concerned themselves with getting up to speed on social and lost their shit about the announcement of Google Glass, others — such as Walmart — focused on something far less sexy: data.

What Walmart realised was that the more people did online, the more data they created. And the more data they created, the better Walmart could understand and predict their customers. And the deeper the understanding and the more accurate the prediction, the better they could sell them stuff. Sorry, I mean ‘meet their needs’.

In 2011, Walmart set up @WalmartLabs with the sole purpose of focusing on the social and mobile data generated around Walmart. By 2012, the team had built a platform that could mine tonnes and tonnes of social data and identify what was important for Walmart to listen to, and what wasn’t. This was one of the first (if not the first) examples of a big brand building a dedicated, brand-led platform for big data. Come 2013, the platform was making correlations between search trends on walmart.com, sales trends in brick-and-mortar stores and social buzz online — plugging them directly into their global customer base and setting them up to continually evolve and improve. The team went on to lead retail firsts in omnichannel logistics, mobile, and open source. In January 2016 WalmartLabs was brought together with Walmart’s store-focused tech group to create Walmart Technology in a landmark step to fully integrate its nearly 12,000 stores with its $13 billion a year e-commerce business.

Curious about: Big data, social analytics, innovation (based on the company’s objectives and capabilities, not trends) .

Rewards: Best overall return in stock performance and dividends in more than a decadeClimbing to №1 on the Fortune 500 list this year.

Curious about Artificial Intelligence?

These two examples aim to show what happens if you get in, understand the big picture, and then build something distinct to your company. They tell the story of two giants who stayed the course by staying curious. But they’re the minority. As we’ve seen, the past ten years has made dinosaurs out of companies who stayed ignorant and failed to adapt to things like social, mobile and ‘big data, and the next ten will claim even more. A.I is the big meteorite, folks and it’s time to decide — mulch or maverick?

Google have bet the farm on it. You can read more about that here (yes, it’s long but come on, you can do this!) Facebook, Apple and Samsung have too. But that doesn’t mean everyone else should roll over and let them get on with it. Far from it. It’s time to dive below the headlines and go deep. It’s time to ask what does this all mean to the future of my business, or the business I work for?

Follow me here and on Twitter for more of what I’m reading and thinking about as I also begin to wrap my head around the bigger picture of A.I. And please do let me know what you’re uncovering too. Meantime, here’s some immediate further reading to get you started…

Living to work

Camilla Grey

In The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), Milo, the protagonist, is on a quest through the Kingdom of Wisdom where he learns that the world is not boring or dull, but full of interesting things. Along his journey he arrives at a house, with four doors on each side. Knocking on one of the doors, Milo meets the shortest giant, who directs him around to another door to meet the tallest midget, who sends him on again to the thinnest fat man, and finally to the fattest thin man. It is, of course, the same man opening all the doors.

This is how it’s starting to feel in the majority of first world, technologically advanced cities around the globe. Are we working remotely in a café? Or drinking a barista-brewed coffee at work? Is this business a creative technology company? Or a creative consultancy with technology at its heart? And if it’s all becoming one, if it’s the same man opening all the doors… who is he? And what does he want?

In a fantastic longread by Anna Wiener, entitled Uncanny Valley, the author describes being invited in to a Silicon Valley startup,

“It’s not clear whether I’m here for lunch or an interview… I am prepared for both and dressed for neither”, and later for a date, “It’s not clear whether we’re meeting for a date or networking. Not that there’s always a difference: I have one friend who found a job by swiping right and know countless others who go to industry conferences just to fuck — nothing gets them hard like a nonsmoking room charged to the company AmEx”.

Uncanny Valley presents our work/life balance with the dystopian malaise of Brett Easton Ellis, and it’s wholly recognisable.

Bleisure, a word coined by The Future Laboratory around 2010, is one of those words like ‘moist’ — sliding around the mouth when spoken and making you feel unsavoury. They used it to describe the blurring of our business lives and leisure lives due to a growing culture of being “always on”. In 2010 I didn’t disagree with them, but I struggled to imagine it developing beyond checking your email at home, and wanting to use an iPhone at work. Today, the bleisure trend is mass. It’s how a growing section of society lives, and for them, it’s a new cultural norm. What’s more, it’s aspirational — just look at those wantreprenuers, playing at start-ups in tiny cubicles around WeWork, thinking that just because they get to wear mutfy in the office, they are somehow “changing the game”. The man shows those folks in one door, and right out the other, with a large exchange of money in between.

So who is the man at the door? Well, of course, it’s The Man, just in a cooler t-shirt. At work The Man wants us to hang out, stay longer, eat more meals on the premises, and ultimately spend more time working. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, that’s’ how The Man rolls. But it’s The Man now showing up in our playgrounds that’s more sly. He has managed to make work a leisure trend, and then capitalize on it. Shoreditch House now has Soho Works. Dark Ace Hotel lobbies glow with screens. We wear athleisure wear at work and the gym. We need the wifi password in every godforsaken café, bar, pub, lounge and vehicle. All the places where we went for fun are now destinations for remote working. We’ve been sold on the idea that technology and a more empathetic corporate culture has unchained us from our desks. When really we’ve been sold out, and we bring our desks everywhere we go. Just read the product spec of any enterprise mobile and telephony solution, “access your corporate network via SSL from any location, such as home, an airport or hotel, an Internet kiosk or a mobile phone”. You can almost see where they included ‘toilet’ in that list, before thinking better of it. The implication being “keep working, or we’ll replace you with a robot”. Oh wait. They did.

So, as we go around the house, knocking on doors, what are we learning? Well, we’re unlearning Milo’s lesson that the world is full of interesting things. All work and no play is, indeed, making us dull boys and girls. What’s more, work that feels like play makes us crazy. If we no longer know whether we’re on a date or in an interview, or in a meeting or playing a game of ping pong, then it’s really no wonder that it’s easier just to scroll Instagram. And The Man? He’s cheers-ing his robot wife and laughing his head off.

A weekend at Disneyland. The happiest, weirdest place on earth.

Camilla Grey

“Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world”. Imagination remains, but the world as Walt knew it then— as a purely physical experience — has changed. The walled garden of Disneyland was once one of the only ways to step out of reality and into fantasy. Today it’s one of many. If it’s a rather large, multi-faceted world after all, where does Disneyland fit?

I wasn’t allowed Disney as a child. My overtly leftie parents raised me, instead, on a diet of 1940’s musicals and a couple of VHS tapes of The Muppet Show. Rachel Mercer (rachelmercer), on the other hand, was a frequent “imagineer” at the happiest place on earth, watching all the films and visiting the parks across America. So, our planned descension on Disneyland Paris last week was nothing if not ultimate proof that strategists are born, not made.

If Cuba is brand free (for now), Disneyland is brand everything. All logo, all vision, all mission, all the time. In song. From the moment you step through the gates, no detail is overlooked, nor sales opportunity missed. After 36 hours in deep immersion (including two nights in the ‘palace’, fifteen rides across both parks, and one “dinner and show” with Micky, Minnie and some rather un-PC cowboys and ‘indians’) I was left totally overstimulated, but fundamentally impressed.

Disney win in three areas: Consistency, storytelling, and democracy. Starting with the former, Disney are the absolute, borderline OCD, king of brand consistency across touchpoints. If they can put a pair of mouse ears on it and sprinkle it with magic fairy dust, they will. From bathroom toiletries and carpet patterns, to doughnuts, weddings, apps, and cruises, what Disney lacks in subtlety, it more than makes up for in enthusiasm. This is a brand you don’t just experience, you live. Secondly, we’ve got to give them storytelling. Apart from the obvious (the films and animations that underpin the whole thing), Disney tell stories with architecture (palaces, olde timey saloons, and Bibbidy Bobbidy Boutiques) and people (even non-characters such as park staff were in full, smiley Disney mode). Again, it’s impossible not to fall into it all and believe.

Lastly, and the most surprising to me, was the democracy going on at Disneyland. Rachel told me that Walt Disney (for all his anti-semitism and racism), wanted Disneyland to be for everyone. Noone gets priority, everyone gets to be a Princess (or Prince). And it was. All ages, races, abilities, and backgrounds were there. I saw cute teens on dates, posh grandparents in furs, and vast, multi-generational families all queueing calmly for rides. And we were there too — pals looking for a bit of respite from the city grind. Disney means something to everyone and is loved. Kids love it for what it is today, and everyone else loves it for what it was to them as kids. Even I cling on to the happy memory of sneaking in a full watch of Aladdin at a friend’s house. Disneyland is where all those memories and happy thoughts come to life and are renewed. How many brands deliver that?!

But I saw a crack. Not Tigger with his head off, but a small innocent child. This child sat between her parents in the front seat of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. While her parents looked around and pointed at things, she was looking at an iPhone. Transfixed by the screen, this little girl was in a magic, fantasy land of her own. Disney had faded into the background — just another emission from the dull, physical world to tune out in favour of a digital one. And then I wondered about another crack. Maybe this girl didn’t want to be a Princess? Maybe her parents would raise her to be powerful and independent, so she’d want to be a President or a physician. Maybe she’d imagineer about engineering. As animatronics danced, and lights dazzled me, I realised I was in an ancient land. This was a land imploding beneath its own promise — a lack of imagination about imagination itself.

If you invented Disneyland today, I don’t think it would be what I found in France last week. With “the happiest place on earth” as a brief, and a target audience of today’s Gen Z’s and their families, you’re not going to arrive at 3 hour queues, explicit commercialism, unhealthy eating options and gendered stereotypes. Magic today lives in cutting-edge technology (like VR and AI), unexpected moments of delight (like Punchdrunk’s immersive theatre), and totally unique and personalised experiences (like Lost my Name and SoulCycle). There is limitless imagination left in the world, it’s just not at Disneyland. It’s time for them to go back to the bare necessities. It’s time to see an elephant fly.

Branded content review: Nike’s web series ‘Margot vs Lily’

Camilla Grey

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, the old content giants were dying and new unicorns were spinning yarns both incredible and strange…

Whether brands are lurking quietly in the background or right out in front, they are finding new ways to communicate and sell that truly challenge more traditional media platforms and publishers.

Writing in The Guardian, Andrew Marr described this all as a “wave of creative destruction overturning all traditional media”. And its true, today’s leading brands not only come armed with money and power, but also with creativity. Whether in-house or agency, brands have access to some of the most creative people in the world, enabling them to disrupt traditional media as much as traditional industries.

So, in the same month that both The Independent and BBC3 packed up their analogue and broadcast bags to go online-only, Nike launched an eight-part original web series called Margot vs Lily. It’s no low-key thing — the creative team behind it have legit TV credentials (Glee and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) and it has all the gloss and style of New Girl or Rookie MagIt’s not perfect — in fact it’s a little uncanny valley — but it represents such a holisticfusion of creative ideas and approaches that it’s worth noticing.

But let’s go back to the uncanny bit. Margot vs Lily has everything going for it and yet… it’s like watching a PowerPoint for a branded content idea in film form. I get the feeling that they brought in this epic creative team of storytelling experts, and then feedback-ed their way to something very odd. I asked a screenwriter (my Mum) for her view on the first episode. Here’s what she said:

Script gurus talk a lot about jeopardy and conflict and what’s at stake, but, if nothing meaningful to the audience is at stake, there’s no story. It can be tiny, but it has to feel authentic. And it has to be felt: show, don’t tell.
Why should the audience care enough about Margot and Lily to invest in their story? (And by ‘invest’ I don’t mean purchasing opportunities.) If an audience is to feel enough for Margot and Lily to care what happens to them, their ‘struggle’ has to feel authentic. Authentic, ‘deep character’ struggles around women and exercise lie in the fear of exposure, embarrassment, failure and uncertainty — painful subjects for a brand identified with being the best.
And so, Nike Women’s messages are ticked off at such an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ rate that it’s clear that, whatever larks are to be had along the way, both young women are going to win — and not merely the bet but also a ‘sweatspiration’ lesson about life.
Good drama taps into our worst fears. The nightmare of someone who wants to win is not to lose but to come second forever. A brand narrative committed to a simple linear outcome cannot hope to embrace the messy but essential ‘what-happens-next?’ uncertainty that drives a good story. Margot v. Lily is noChariots of Fire. Either Nike Women should instead have gone to the team behind Friday Night Lights, or not confused brand story with drama.

Mum’s are so wise aren’t they? Seriously, though, she’s right. Margot vs Lily is failing to pass as content by committing to the brand story, not the human story. As consumer, we’re able to see past all the Nike gear and oh-so-subtle calls-to-action, but are going to want to watch past episode 1 when Just Do It just isn’t doing it for us as a narrative?

The product is the by-product - how Instagram gave a new shape to Barbie

Camilla Grey

Whether you subscribe to the notion of the ‘product/market fit’, or user centred design, it is now commonly accepted that great products come from a great understanding of the consumer. The Atlantic may have brushed the recent product development at Barbie aside by terming it a “cultural change by way of capitalism”, but the forces behind that change point instead to product evolution by way of customer insight. What makes it interesting is how the insight that has safeguarded Barbie’s future came from the selfie not the c-suite.

In 2014, Mattel’s sales had declined for the third consecutive year. While other toys like Lego and Frozen dolls were on the up, Barbie was stuck on the shelf. It seemed that kids (and to a larger extent, their parents) wanted a fantasy world that was truly imaginative and contemporary. As Frozen’s Elsa belted out, “Let it go, let it go. That perfect girl is gone”. And she was. Almost.

In February 2014, A Fast Company journalist had a tough time speaking to Barbie’s VP of Design, Kim Culmone. When asked about Barbie’s proportions, all Culmone’s answers came from the company’s perspective, not the customer’s. For example, on the subject of Barbie’s unrealistic silhouette, she weakly explained that the fabric had to be cut and sewn so as to fall properly on the body. When asked what could, possibly, cause a departure from the original shape, she said only a design or a functional “imperative”.

It was a pet project of Culmone, however, that, I believe, lead to radical departure from the “original” Barbie shape and the introduction of petite, tall and curvy. Culmone started a style, fashion and travel Instagram for Barbie called @BarbieStyle that same year, and it clearly didn’t take her long to tap into the two-way street that social media affords brands.

By the time she was interviewed for Racked in April 2015, her tune had changed. She described the commentary and the feedback, the connectionwith real people who love Barbie. Through taking Barbie everywhere from the beach to Basel, Culmone had started asking questions of Barbie that had never been considered, let alone asked before. “We pretend she’s a little person going to do all these things… so we think, ‘How would she do them? What would she wear? What would her point of view be?’”

Like other companies did more purposefully, Culmone starting putting customers at the heart of the brand — in the soul of Barbie. Furthermore, like so many little girls before her, Culmone was living through the doll — imagining a world beyond her own, lives different to hers. Petite, tall, and curvy didn’t come out of a sales meeting, it came from building a following, having a conversation, and realising you’ll be loved and adored no matter what your size or shape.