Monday marketing thought

“Global activation local amplification” – four words that make a process sound easy.  Yet it is amazing how many established successful multi-nationals struggle with this process.

I was talking to  friend the other week who talked about a project that they were asked to pitch for. A global multinational asked them to come and workshop the company’s global digital strategy for local teams – so that they could then work out how to localise it.

The implication was that a global strategy had been decided upon that didn’t take into account who it could be scaled for markets with low budgets (small countries) or atypical digital usage.

Global activation, local amplification

I’ve used the words atypical here for good reason. These markets may not have gone through widespread desktop online usages. They may be transitioning between feature phones and SMS to low specification smartphones on lean data plans. However, in the likes of Kenya, their use of mobile payments with services like mPesa are far ahead of the west.

You also can’t assume that usage is one phone, one person. In the likes of rural India the phone may be used by other family members with SIMs being the individual’s own.

How much of their media consumption is side loaded on to mobile devices?

A global activation approach requires extensive discussions with local company stakeholders BEFORE it’s sufficiently baked. I worked on web properties at Unilever and we thought about how could graphical assets be leveraged, a common social publishing platform (Percolate) and common measurement (Adobe Analytics) as a primary focus. We recognised that markets may want to build leaner, smaller websites or roll out changes when they had marketing budget.

Bringing key stakeholders gives them ownership of the strategy, so they are much more likely to give a decent effort in local amplification.

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Technology is way ahead of interface designs

This post has taken a while to write. When I started we were on the cusp of Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference. If you’re interested in technology, but aren’t an Apple fan it still matters as it sets the agenda. Apple’s moves affect wearables, smartphones, tablets and OTT (over the top) TV services.
 
The New York Times published an interesting article Apple Piles On the Apps, and Users Say, ‘Enough!’.
 
Ignore the title of the article itself, which is a function of clickbait rather than content. Instead, it provides an good critique of interface design across platforms. It highlights:
  • The difficulty in finding and installing other apps inside Messages. Many users aren’t aware of the functionality. This is different to the ‘interface as oldster barrier’ that SnapChat had. DoorDash – a Deliveroo analogue dropped a support after a few months due to a lack of users. Apple took a second run at this with iOS 11 trying to improve discoverability
  • Apple 3D touch isn’t used to drive contextual features by app developers
  • The Apple Watch’s mix of crown, button and small touch screen made ‘lean in’ interactive apps hard. The Apple Watch interface isn’t learned by ‘playing’ in the same way that you can with a Mac or an iPhone. Apple’s forthcoming watchOS update looks to have Siri ‘guess’ what you want. It wants to provide contextual information to users (and reduce interactions)
If you ignore 3D touch for a moment, these problems are cross platform in nature. (Some vendors like Huawei have attempted a similar 3D touch feature in their own apps. They did not try to get developer adoption.)
 
Thinking about Messenger app developers struggle to integrate disparate features into the interface. The exceptions are:
  • LINE
  • WeChat – the take up of mini-apps in WeChat have been disappointing performers. Is this indicating a possible ceiling for functionality?
Wearables as a category looks thin, with Apple being one of the largest players. Pebble got acquired by Fitbit. Jawbone seems to be a dead company walking. Their blog was last updated in October 2016, Twitter in February. It’s ironic: their original BlueTooth headset business would now be a great opportunity.
 
I’ve tried Casio’s BlueTooth enabled G-Shock, four Nike Fuelbands and a Polar wearable. I am on my second Apple Watch and I still don’t know what the real compelling use case is for these devices.
 
So how does this stuff come about? I think its down to the process of creation, which affects analysis and critical analysis of the product. Creation in this case is essentially throwing stuff up against the wall until it sticks and then the process becomes reductive. As a case in point, look how smartphones have evolved to the slab form factor. 
 
Throwing stuff against the wall
 
I’ve worked enough times on digital products to understand the functionality is king. It’s the single most important thing. I’ve worked on products that wonderful functions but:
  • Consumers didn’t know they had a need, its hard to get consumers to build new habits. Forming habits can be hard
  • They were a bitch to sign up with. Yahoo!’s sign-up process killed products. It’s a fact. We’d get consumers hyped up, we’d deliver them to the relevant page and they wouldn’t convert. I didn’t blame them, if I wasn’t an employee or digital marketer I’d have done the same
That’s how products are now built. The focus is on speed of execution of the idea. It isn’t about thinking through the complete experience. Agile methodologies with their short sprints puts emphasis on function. Away from data to feed into big picture optimisation. A function focus means that you end up with ‘lean in’ interaction designs as default.
 
There aren’t many organisations that get it right. I’d argue that the early Flickr team and Slack ‘got it’. Though there are common factors:
  • Both Flickr and Slack had common key team members
  • Both products fell out of failure. Flickr came out of tools for Game Neverending. Slack began as a tool in the development of Glitch
Where are the ergonomists and futurists?
 
There are people who can provide the rigorous critique.
Back in the day organisations with large R&D functions like NASA and BT employed writers to envisage the future. Staring into the future became a career. People like Syd Mead provided a visual map of the future. Mead and others did a lot of work thinking about the context of technology to users. At the present time lots of criticism levelled at VR glasses is it being anti-social. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has read William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Social interaction is more likely to come glasses wearer to glasses wearer. It will happen in a virtual third space. Neal Stephenson explored this third space in Snow Crash. The Black Sun was a virtual night club.
 

Bill Moggridge, designer of the GRiD Compass computer – the world’s first laptop thought a lot about ergonomics. The laptop had a 11 degree slope from pop-out leg to the keypad. This is something that your MacBook Pro or Surface doesn’t have. There is a lack of depth in technology design compared to what Moggridge had. He brought in psychologists and studied human computer interaction. He eventually co-founded IDEO.

Whilst the elements that Moggridge looked at were well known the thinking doesn’t seep into product categories. We are very good at asking can a product be made. We are poor at asking what does the product really mean. Apple’s viewpoint on the tablet segment is a case in point.

The vast majority of tablets are used for lean back media consumption from watching films and reading books to reviewing emails. It can work as a productivity device in specific circumstances with custom built apps – say field sales or replacing a pilot’s flight paperwork. The keyboard and power of modern Macs (and PCs) provide a better tool for content creators; whether its analysing a spreadsheet or writing this blog post. 

Yet, since its launch by Steve Jobs, Apple has viewed the iPad as a new PC. The iPad Pro has been designed to try and catch up in features with the Mac. It is ironic that Microsoft has moved a slim ‘MacBook clamshell design’ analogue into its latest Surface range.  It is very different to the pragmatic design ethos of China’s ‘shanzhai’ gadget markers who came up with both laughable and smart solutions. Everything from the dual SIM phone to the phone / electric razor hybrid. Successes bloomed and oddities slipped into the night.

Monday marketing thought

There is a huge tension that I see in the challenge facing FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) marketers. On the one hand they have to continue innovating as their brand media spend slowly fragments across new channels in pursuit of consumers.

Explore something new in every brief

On the other hand, Zero Based Budgeting (ZBB) is now being used to bring increased accountability to marketing activity. The advice to “Explore something new in every brief” – whilst laudable, becomes harder to achieve. The move towards ZBB implies that FMCG sectors are value industries, and recent stagnant growth largely validates that impression – businesses like Dollar Shave Club and the like are edge factors rather than core drivers.

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Takeaways: In2 Innovation Summit

I got invited to The Holmes Report‘s innovation summit. This happened earlier in the day than The Sabre EMEA awards. 

Untitled

Here were my takeouts in no particular order:
 
  • Brad Staples presentation on reputation in a fake news environment gave me deja vu. It reminded me of corporate communications thinking when social media came to prominence. In many respects the symptoms are the same. The agenda running out-of-control like a force of nature. Yet, it is only the momentum has changed, core principles to address reputation are the same. There was an increased emphasis on monitoring. Monitoring and response became even more important than with social media’s rise
  • The age-old tension between specialist and generalist continues to roll onwards. Alan Vandermolen saw medium-sized agencies as sitting in a ‘Goldilocks’ position. Small enough for your business to matter and being able to move fast. Large enough to have the right expertise and scale in place. The challenge to his argument is global agencies consolidating a one-stop shop offering. Vandermolen didn’t address the move away from being a ‘PR agency’. The Holmes Report had highlighted their concern in a recent opinion piece. Vandermolen was also concerned with the disappearance of PR professionals on the client side. He cited United Airways customer problems from broken guitars to dragging passengers off planes. The discussion didn’t cover how the airline’s focus on shareholder value had corrupted customer-centricity
  • Matt Battersby and Dan Berry looked at public relations and behavioural economics. What I found interesting is how this provided a direct linkage to return on investment. Yet the audience didn’t pick up on this in questions. It also represented a content challenge to agencies. It flips the typical messages that they would look deliver (driven by what’s news)
  • There was a tension between what agencies could do and what clients wanted. Abby Guthkelch wanted a more agile approach to content that was also more cost effective. This meant that she often worked with inhouse staff and content development agencies. There was a strong sense that creative ideas and concepts were not worth paying for. This puts little value in communications agencies. Content marketing poses an existential threat to PR agencies margins. It was interesting that marketing automation didn’t come up in discussions. Inhouse panelists preferred to move capability inhouse rather than relying on offshoring work
  • Finally, there was the evergreen theme of marketers and PRs speaking different languages. PRs need to get comfortable with data and charts. They need to think about testing. This needs to happen whilst budgets are static or in decline. A way forward is to move down the marketing funnel to be closer to the sale in e-commerce and via social channels. I found the continued faith in influencers of interest. I was surprised at the lack of concern shown on the agency side for zero-based budgeting at clients
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Quote of the day

I think the future of television is more fragmentation, the bundle has no more elasticity in it.” – Barry Diller.

This explains everything from ManUnited TV to the new channels that Amazon has launched as Prime add-ons in the UK and Germany yesterday. Media has been driving an increasing share of household spend over the past 15 years.

In a time of stagnating economic growth and declining incomes (in real terms) that middle won’t hold. Much of it becomes discretionary spending.

Barry Diller

Marketing thought on a Monday

More advice from a postcard set by Mullen Lowe. Spare some money to experiment with.

Good advice for marketers

It’s great advice, but really hard to live by as a client. You put this into a budget, but it often gets clipped by management over time. Or your experiment will fall foul of zero-based budgeting.

Marketing thought on a Monday

I work in an agency whose mandate is digital transformation and innovation, but it’s important to bear in mind the context

Advice for marketers, part of a postcard set that Mullen Lowe Group did

Focusing on the human truth, focuses on the use case and receptivity of the product.

Advice to live by

Having been a client and an agency bod this advice from a postcard set by Mullen Lowe is advice to live by

Advice for marketers, part of a postcard set that Mullen Lowe Group did

I won’t pretend that herding all this opinions is easy – it isn’t.

Richard Edelman is wrong, PR isn’t at a crossroads…

I recommend that readers check out Richard’s PR is at a Crossroads post. Edelman cites changes at PR agencies owned by marketing conglomerates as indicators. He thinks this due to a lack of confidence in the PR industry. There may be some truth in it; 2016 had the lowest annual growth in seven years for Edelman. As for the industry sitting at a crossroads, on the cusp of transformation. It is already being transformed.

Richard Edelman, head of Edelman PR

Public relations has already crossed the Rubicon. The Rubicon crossing happened years ago. Richard noticed the signs back in April 2011:

…as PR continues to expand, encompassing digital, research, media planning and content creation, should we consider rebranding ourselves as communications firms?

At the time the question was prompted from London colleagues. Richard disagreed with the premise.

By 2012 Edelman was in the AdAge Agency A-list in the US. In March 2015, Edelman’s boiler plate changed from:

Edelman is the world’s largest public relations firm…

to

Edelman is a leading global communications marketing firm

Edelman hasn’t been a PR agency for the past 2-5 years. The transformation in the industry has been going on for at least a decade.

Why this has happened is down to six factors:

  • Mature research and academic thinking on effective marketing
  • Technology-driven marketing strategy
  • CMO perspectives shaped by marketing thinking
  • Talent
  • Advertising changes
  • Media landscape changes

 

Mature research and academic thinking on effective marketing

Lets break things down a bit, some bits of PR are about the corporate parts of a company.
Corporate PR covers a large area including:

  • Public affairs
  • Educating investors
  • Shoring up shareholder confidence
  • Internal communications
  • Community affairs

Some corporate and social responsibility actitivities could fall under PR. When we’re talking about who is responsible for organisation moral purpose /meaning. This should come from the CEO down.

Thinking about marketing communications the situation changes a lot. It depends on the sector and the audience that you are communicating to. For consumer marketing; the role that PR plays as part is a subordinated part with the marketing mix. Byron Sharp’s works How Brands Grow (parts 1&2) outline PR’s small, but intricate role with clarity.

For mature consumer brands, engagement (and by extension PR) is less important. Instead the focus would be on efficient reach and frequency of repetition. Being top of mind is more important. The only way for marketing communications-orientated PR teams to grow their billings is service expansion.

Technology-driven marketing strategy

Many business-to-business marketers are using content marketing as a key channel. The content shaped by analysis from marketing automation software.

In marketing automation, strategy is outsourced. Rules embedded in the software platform dictate approach. PR becomes a source of content to feed the machine. The idea is to determine an effective approach. Then optimise to reduce the price of engagement over time. I could write a blog post or two about the problems with this approach, but it is tangental to PR. Content creation is an opportunity for PRs, all be it one with perpetually squeezed margins.

Mature research and academic thinking on effective marketing

In B2C marketing there are large research projects on what works. These include Ehrenberg-Bass Institute and the IPA. In marketing mature consumer brands, we know that reach, frequency and recency matters. Engagement is less important. Public relations then becomes an afterthought at best. Taking an integrated media planning led approach makes sense.

There isn’t a comparable set of research for the PR industry like IPA or Ehrenberg-Bass. Outside the US public relations generally doesn’t have budgets for tools and data. Clients tend to be more action-orientated. Media agencies tend to have the best insights – which aids planning and creative.

The benefits of an integrated advertising-led approach goes back decades. Edelman cites Y&R’s ‘whole egg’ concept. Dentsu’s ‘Cross Switch Marketing’ is similar with roots going back to the 1960s. The PR industry mistook integrated thinking for a primitive view of PR practice. The reality lies somewhere between communications myopia and macro marketing thinking.

From a CMO perspective

  • PR spend is a small part of their budget. It may not even sit in their budget if there is a CCO (chief communications officer) role in the company
  • PR isn’t supported by good quality secondary insights like the IPA or Ehrenberg-Bass
  • Advertising works
  • Advertising agencies foster high trust through visualisation of ideas backed by insights
  • Media relations is low cost, low efficiency but can be high engagement
  • Integrated simplifies the client/ agency dynamic (one ass to kick)
  • Successful integrated agency engagements. Examples include Red Fuse (Colgate), GTB (Ford, Purina) and TBWA Media Arts Lab (Apple)
  • The memory of Enfatico has disappeared

Talent

Edelman has done a better job than most agencies in getting digital and paid media talent. I’ve worked as an in-house marketer. I have worked as a PR person. I’ve also worked in PR agencies doing digital and paid media. I now work as a strategy director in a creative ad agency and the difference is huge.

For most specialists working in a PR agency can be thankless task:

  • PR agency leaders don’t get other disciplines. This is particularly true outside North America
  • I’ve worked with too many agency leaders who think digital is an infographic or a video
  • The briefing process in PR agencies is awful. ‘We’ve got a video, make it viral’ was the worst brief I had
  • Outside North America budgets are very tight
  • You can get better working conditions elsewhere. Tools, people you can learn from, research and ambience. Real conversation at a PR agency: “can you wear a shirt and suit?” “Why?” “We’d just like it” “Can I quadruple my day rate?” “No, why?” “That’s my inconvenience of wearing a suit fee”
  • PR agencies don’t win the awards that matter to us. PR publications wring their hands about the lack of PR wins at the Cannes Lions. This matters for your career

If you have capability built up in the ad agency, creative shop or media agency; use it. Publicis, WPP and Interpublic have deep expertise they can draw on. Publicis talks about this as ‘The Power of One’. It is much easier than recruiting more technical, creative and planning talent into a PR shop.

Advertising changes

As PR has changes so has advertising. There is a far greater understanding of what efficient and effective looks like. While I lament the the decline of advertising’s golden age; multichannel storytelling has improved. Advertising agencies have learned how to combine earned and paid media. Earned media is an incremental revenue increase.

By comparison creative represents a big budget bump for your PR agency. That causes the client to pause and think.

Media landscape changes

As advertising has changed so has the media landscape. The online environment is shaping out with two winners around the world. The pattern of online advertsing spend is clear. Everywhere outside China online advertising is static; only Facebook and Google see increases. In China, is is Tencent due to WeChat that wins. Sina benefits from Weibo. Baidu would have been an obvious winner due to it being a Google analogue. Instead Baidu’s earnings have been static.

This decline in media fortunes adversely affects editorial space. This impacts the efficiency of media relations. By some accounts in the UK there are now 3 PR people for every journalist. PR agencies need to expand beyond media relations. This means trying to get more involved in owned and paid media. The challenge is that advertising agencies are also in that space – extending their storytelling.

More information
PR not communications | 6am blog – yeah I called bullshit on this one. I could afford to be right; Richard had a global family business to defend
Whole Egg Theory Finally Fits The Bill For Y&R Clients: Global Agency Network Of The Year: Team Space System A Winner For Citibank, Others Set To Follow | AdvertisingAge
The Dentsu Way – a great book, right up there with Ogilvy on Advertising in my estimation

On Pam Edstrom

PR Week and The Holmes Report carried an obituary for Pam Edstrom who passed away last night. I worked at her agency for a few years and came across her a few times.

Pam had an intensity and an energy to her. She was also a true believer; you could break her open like a stick of rock and there would be the Windows squares running through her. She had a tremendous belief in the ability of IT to deliver tremendous things. If you’ve read this blog you’d realise that I’m not a true believer in the same way that Pam was; we were on opposite sides of the Windows | Mac (and Unix) religious divide.

She had an absolute focus on controlling the message and organisational process (optimised for alignment to Microsoft) and championed ‘gold standard’ delivery. Over time Microsoft came to represent more than half the agency billings.

When I worked at the agency I also was assigned to keeping the company name in the usual industry debates. I found it handy to do as it kept my PR skills warm as I did the nascent digital work at the time. I managed to keep a constant drip feed of coverage in the industry media.

At the last minute I was asked to arrange a profile. Clare O’Connor who worked at PR Week at the time agreed to write a profile – Pam Edstrom, the doyenne of tech PR.  Give it a read as it captures Pam quite well.

The article was taking ages to come out as it was ‘evergreen’ appearing some six months after the interview had taken place.

The article threw a bit of a curveball when a longtime journalist contact was asked about Pam and referred to her daughter Jennifer’s book Barbarians led by Bill Gates. I never did  hear if Pam got to thank the New York Times’ Steve Lohr for that one.

 

The crowdfunded product problem with PopSlate as an unfortunate case study

I’ve go in involved in a few crowdfunded products and some of them have worked out but the majority haven’t. The latest example was the high profile e-ink phone cover PopSlate. PopSlate got over $1 million dollars of funding and was widely covered by the media.

“popSLATE 2 is E-Ink for your iPhone done right.” – Slashgear

“It’s an evolution, not merely refinement.” – Wired

Generally I’ve found that they tend to fail for three (non-criminal) reasons:

  • They underestimated the cost or complexity for batch manufacture of items. They have problems with getting tooling moulds to work and have to go through iterations that burn up cash
  • They get gazzumped; their product is sufficiently easy to make that Chinese manufacturers who go through Indiegogo and Kickstarter for ideas get the product into market faster
  • The engineering is just too hard. This seems to have been the problem for PopSlate who couldn’t innovate and get their product into market as fast as new phones came out

On the face of it its a great idea, bringing the kind of dual screen technology to the iPhone that had been in the Yota phone for a number of years. Huawei had a similar snap-on e-ink back available for the the P9 handset in limited quantities.

popSLATE – The smart second screen on the back of your phone

PopSlate had already launched a mark I version of their product.  With the mark II version of their product PopSlate tried to do too much: they tried to make it a battery case but still ridiculously thin.  The following email was sent out on Saturday morning UK time:

Critical Company Update

This update provides serious and unwelcome news.

Based upon your support, we have spent the last year continuing to develop our vision for “always-on” mobile solutions. Our goal was to solve three fundamental issues with today’s smartphones: we wanted to simplify access to information, increase battery performance, and improve readability. Unfortunately, the significant development hurdles that we have encountered have completely depleted our finances, and we have been unable to raise additional funds in the current market. As a result, popSLATE does not have a viable business path forward.

This marks the end of a 5-year journey for our team, which started with a seed of an idea in 2012 and led to our quitting our jobs to start the company. Although we are very disappointed by the ultimate outcome and its implications for you as our backers, we are proud of our team, who worked tirelessly over the years to commercialize the first plastic ePaper display, globally ship thousands of popSLATE 1 devices as a first-in-category product, and re-imagine & further extend the platform with the second generation product. Despite a strong vision, high hopes, and very hard work, we find ourselves at the end of the journey.

We are out of money at this juncture for two key reasons. First, we have spent heavily into extensive development and preparation for manufacturing;  as you are aware, we hit some critical issues that multiplied the required spend, as described in previous updates.

Most recently, we learned that the fix for the Apple OTA issues would involve more significant redesign. While we initially suspected that the Lightning circuit was the culprit, it turned out that it was a much more fundamental issue.  Namely, our housing material is not compatible with Apple OTA requirements. You may think, “Wait, isn’t it just plastic?  Why would that be a problem?” While the housing is indeed largely plastic, we used a very special custom blend of materials that included glass fibers. The glass fibers were used to solve two issues, both of which were related to making the device super-thin: a) they enabled uniform, non-distortional cooling of the housing mold around our metal stiffener plate (the key component that makes popSLATE 2 thin but very strong) and b) they added tensile strength to the very compact form factor. Unfortunately, we have concluded that these added fibers are attenuating the RF signal and that we would have to spend additional cycles to tune a new blend with required modifications to the tooling. This is an expensive and timely process.

Second, we have been unsuccessful at raising additional financing, despite having vigorously pursued all available avenues since the close of our March Indiegogo campaign (including angels, VCs, Shark Tank and equity crowdfunding, both in the US and abroad). Many in our network of fellow hardware innovators have encountered this difficult new reality. You may have also seen the very public financial struggles of big-name consumer hardware companies—GoPro, Fitbit, Pebble, Nest and others—as highlighted in this recent New York Times article [link]. The most dramatic example of this phenomenon is the recent and sudden shutting down of Pebble, paragon of past crowdfunding success.

There is no way to sugarcoat what this all means:

  • popSLATE has entered into the legal process for dissolution of the company
  • Your popSLATE 2 will not be fulfilled
  • There is no money available for refunds
  • This will be our final update

While this is a very tough moment professionally and emotionally for us, it is obviously extremely disappointing for all of you who had believed in the popSLATE vision. Many of you have been with us since the March campaign, and a smaller set helped found the popSLATE community back in 2012. To you—our family, friends, and other unwavering backers—we are incredibly grateful for your enthusiasm, ideas, and support throughout the years. Just as importantly,  we deeply regret letting you down and not being able to deliver on our promise to you. We truly wish there were a viable path forward for product fulfillment and the broader popSLATE vision, but sadly we have exhausted all available options.

Sincerely yours,
Yashar & Greg
Co-founders, popSLATE

The problem as a consumer you have for much of these gadget is this:

If a product can be easily made in Shenzhen, it will be so you should be able to get it cheaper on lightinthebox or similar sites

If it can’t be turned out in a reasonable time, it has a low likelihood of succeeding

There have been successes of more hobby based products; I have a replica of Roland’s TB-303 synthesiser. It’s the kind of product that can be assembled whilst not relying a China-based supply chain. It also is based on well understood technology and there weren’t issues of with designing for very tight places or Apple’s requirements (in the case of iPhone’s accessories).

What about the poster child of Pebble? Pebble managed to go for longer with a sophisticated product but couldn’t withstand the gravity of declining sales in the wearables sector.

Oprah Time: Asian Godfathers by Joe Studwell

I’d read Joe Studwell’s How Asia Works over lunar new year. Studwell dealt directly with there reasons for East Asia’s economic growth and Southeast Asia’s failing to follow them.

Asian Godfathers

Studwell attached this same subject through through a different lens. In Asian Godfathers, he tells the story through Asia’s business tycoons; from the taipans of Hong Kong to Stanley Ho – the Macau gambling tycoon.

Cosmopolitan privileged people who where in the right place at the right time. Some of them had colourful origin stories as black marketers selling fake medicines and blockade runners. But they are just a side show in a wider panorama of political greed and incompetence. Asian Godfathers is more like Hotel Babylon than an economics analysis like How Asia Works, yet it delivers its message forcefully.

The mobile and telecoms industry and it’s progress

Just over 11 years ago I watched Charles Dunstone talk about Carphone Warehouse and the state of the industry at the LSE.

Sir Charles Dunstone at Huawei Ascend P6 launch

I came across the post by accident the other evening and wondered how well Dunstone’s view held up over the past decade or so.

On VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol)…

I think that the difference between Europe (particularly the UK) and the US is that VoIP will be very big in businesses, in residential homes you can’t have broadband without having an exchange line: that’s the way the regulator has decided it wanted to make sure that BT can make a living. If you’ve got broadband, if if you don’t want it, if you pick your phone up you’re going to get a dial tone that you can make a phone call from. Once you’ve got broadband unbundling, once you’ve got a connection from the exchange to the home it doesn’t cost you anything to connect a call whether its over broadband or you pick the normal phone up.

So suddenly a normal phone has the exact same economics as Skype, so I think what will happen, what you will see people like us do is offer VoIP-priced services on your normal phone at home without you having to put a headset in your PC or mess around and do all that kind of stuff. There are some people who will find reasons to do it and things that they want to do within it. The majority of people with a fixed-line are people with a family, over 30 years old, 50 per cent of it is there home alarm and ring people, 50 per cent of it is that they want to be able to ring the fire brigade if the house catches fire in the middle of the night. You won’t get them to use their mobile or use VoIP as they want to sit by their bed, get a dial tone and dial 999.

So I think in residential its not going to have a massive impact, in businesses its a different thing, with VoIP you can have multiple lines over one exchange line and that’s going to completely revolutionise business telephony.

Vonage is already more expensive than we are for your phone service and we’re not even using an unbundled broadband line on it. The economic difference is very different here than it is in the US.

Dunstone clearly didn’t have an idea about rise of wi-fi and devices using Skype as a client, though he clearly saw the business case of Skype for business. This made sense as by the late 1990s UK call centres were using VoIP complete with integration with customer records. Just under just over a year later 3 launched its dedicated Skype handset and Skype became available on the Symbian mobile operating system for download. There was resistance to OTT VoIP from T-Mobile in particular.

Now FaceTime, Skype, WeChat voice-and-video and Google Hangouts are ubiquitous. The voice call has been replaced by visual and text messaging on OTT services similar to the instant messaging clients of yore.

On where mobile phones are going…

I don’t have a clue where things will be in ten years. A few predictions on mobile phones, it is a unique device because the last 15 years have changed the world, more than it had changed for 500 years before that. 15 years ago, no one left their home without their money and their keys, now no one leaves home without their keys money and mobile phone and its taken a part in peoples lives that no other product has for hundreds and hundreds of years.

That relationship is so powerful that if a producer wants to gets content to you, they can guarantee it if they can get it to a mobile phone, so that’s why we see cameras, now everyone carries a camera and a mobile phone. Soon everyone will be an iPod and a camera and they’ll keep getting better and better. By next Christmas you’ll be able to buy cameras with flashes, zoom all this kind of stuff. I think that video is going on mobile phones, I think that payment is coming, payment systems is coming onto them and Carphone Warehouse is the largest retailer of digital cameras in the UK by accident. We didn’t mean to sell one of them, they just come in the products that we sell as standard and its just that everyone else’s business is morphing into ours because of the unique relationship the product has.

My final prediction on phones on the next year to two is that fashion is about to become a big thing in phones, at the moment they are driven by technology. We had an extraordinary experience this Christmas with a pink V3 we brought out. We’ve done some analysis that absolutely blew us a way, you’re starting to see the manufacturers talk to the big brands about putting things into phones and people spend stupid money on pens and watches and shoes and clothes. I think that all that madness is also going to end up in mobile phones as its such a public personal accessory.

Dunstone smartly limited his predictions to the next few years rather than looking forward a decade and his view of the camera as a key function driving purchase is still proved right. At the moment the intra-Android handset feature battle on premium handsets is fought on camera technology. Huawei and its Leica partnership, LG and Samsung with their respective double cameras and Sony with their powerful sensors.

The iPhone 7 is also sold in a similar way as Apple’s Shot on an iPhone marketing campaign shows.

Dunstone also saw the smartphone as a media device and for many years  content has been side loaded on to phones. Sony Ericsson had launched the Walkman-braned W800 the previous year. As SD card capacity increased, it wasn’t too much of a leap to assume that the mobile phone could replace lower end flash memory MP3 devices.

Nokia would be launching its multimedia focused N-series phones just a month after this talk. I remember seeing Christian Lindholm in the lift at Yahoo! with a Nokia N93. The phone looked like a chimera between a flip phone and camcorder.

Ten years later and video recording and editing technology is available across both Android and iOS handsets. One of the last projects I was involved in at Yahoo! was co-launching the N73 with Nokia which featured the Flickr photo app on the phone as standard. 11 years later and my iPhone still has flickr on it.

Dunstone believed that the phone would become a fashion item. At the time LG had partnered with Prada.  Vertu had been established seven years previously by Nokia. Today premium handsets have established themselves as as fashion items. TAG Heuer has experimented with its own smartphone, Porsche Design worked with BlackBerry.

On the flip side smartphones have become commoditised; Android manufacturers have seen their margins hollowed out. Huawei made a big push into the premium space with its P series phones yet sees declining handset prices as the medium tier handset segment eats into premium sector sales.

Dunstone’s predictions about mobile payments were too optimistic. There were various technology options explored by mobile carriers. Handset mobile payments did take-off in Japan. SMS based payments took off in East Africa. Smartphone hosted wallets have developed slowly however. Card payments are still pre-eminent in the western world at the moment.

On the competiton…

I’ve basically got two types of competition: people like Phones4U and The Link who are trying to do what we do and we just get up early and try and do it better and try and beat them up every day. And we have a team, we meet at 8 am every single morning and look at everybody else’s prices and reprice based on what happened that day its that brutal. We fight, fight, fight.

My other competition is the network stores which is a combination of wanting to have some direct impact with customers and a certain amount of vanity about wanting their brand on the hight street. They don’t compete with us in terms of the volumes of sales that they do, as the market gets more fragmented I think that its less likely that the customer is going to say I just want to go and see the world according to Orange today, rather than even going to one of my normal competitors. In reality it will be let me go and compare Orange with everybody. I think that its going to change but there’s not a very strong economic rationale for them in the first place.

Dunstone didn’t seem to realise how precarious the independent mobile phone shop was as a business. Network shops are now showrooms and service centres for when things go wrong as consumers go to the web. Carphone Warehouse adapted by becoming a triple play carrier in its own right as well as selling other networks mobile plans. Dunstone’s peer John Caudwell had the good sense / luck to sell Phones4U on to private equity providers just six months after this interview.

The mobile carriers didn’t have it a lot easier; O2 was spun out of BT in 2002 and bought by Telefonica of Spain just prior to this interview. T-Mobile and Orange merged their UK operations to form EE. EE was then acquired by BT, some 12 years after BT had spun out O2. 3UK has made an unsuccessful bid for O2, the UK competition authority shut the bid down.

On the transition of phones to computers…

Absolutely they’re changing into computers, they start to have bugs, they start to have all kinds of usability issues. Our job is very simple and I think the worst thing that could have happened for me is that there could have been one mobile phone network and one really simple phone and the people understand it so that they did not need anyone to help them set it up and work out which one to buy. So we absolutely love complex markets as this gives us something to offer and something to do we have to keep changing. I just watch in delight as Microsoft come into the marketplace because that’s not going to work is it? Its going to have lots of bugs and crash and do all these sorts of things that needs tons of support. Lots of competing systems Symbian and others, so its another level of complexity alongside all the complexity of the operators, all the complexity of the tarrifs – Bring it on.

Dunstone realised that smartphones would bring complexity to the mobile phone industry. He seemed to think it would be closer to the PC industry in terms of complexity. He saw what I suspect was a different opportunity in that – particularly building client relationships. In retrospect, he underestimated this disruption.

More information
Dunstone on…. | renaissance chambara
Nokia debuts N series trio | The Register

Jargon watch: 996

As with many things in China, numbers become important. Chinese start-up culture has a reputation for flogging the guts out of people to a degree that would even make Sports Direct blush.

996 is a summary of many Chinese tech companies core working house 9am – 9pm, six days a week. Apparently it’s already implemented at companies like Xiaomi and there are claims about its spectacular benefits in terms of productivity.

9/9/6 – Does The New Chinese Startup Work Practice Help Or Hurt Productivity? – TechNode