Organising chaos: what co-creation workshops can do

I came across this today and thought I’d share it, though I wasn’t involved in this work myself. It’s a workshop done by the Bristol-based Pervasive Media Studio, a co-creation “ideas lab” on the Internet of Things. Worth a watch, for a few reasons:

  • it’s a great example of how bringing together talented people from different disciplines and giving them some structure and tools can inspire them towards radical innovation.
  • the film, put together by Tim Crawley whom I’ve also worked with (and highly recommend), is a great example of getting across the story and feel of a really creative workshop day.
  • the Internet of Things is in itself a pretty interesting development – it’s starting to find its way into more and more of my consumer projects, as big brands wonder if they can be a winners from it (and if so, how).

Such workshops aren’t new – this film is from 2011 and I’ve been doing similar stuff myself for a decade and more. But they are a brilliant way to generate new ideas, make connections and inspire people to go off and develop interesting, relevant and above all useful things.

My own co-creation work has tended to centre on bringing the public together with designers, business strategists or policy-makers – but it’s the same idea. When unfamiliar people come together to work to the same end, there’s an initial discomfort – and then, if well managed, the sparks start to fly.



Which party will Calm Persistence favour?

How we voted in 2010. My analysis: Wales definitely has the prettiest colour combo
How we voted in 2010. My analysis: Wales definitely has the prettiest colour combo

I was interested to hear on The World At One the other day about the voter segmentation Populus (who have advised the Conservatives) have been using: BBC on Populus voter segmentation. There’s a test on there so you can see which category you’re in.

The Populus segments are:

1. Comfortable Nostalgia: “They tend to be older, more traditional voters who dislike the social and cultural changes they see as altering Britain for the worse.”

2. Optimistic Contentment: “Confident, comfortable & usually on higher incomes they are prudent & tolerant but think Britain is a soft touch.”

3. Calm Persistence: “Often coping rather than comfortable, they hope rather than expect things to get better.”

4. Hard-Pressed Anxiety: “Pessimistic & insecure, these people want more help from government and resent competition for that help particularly from new-comers.”

5. Long-Term Despair: “Many are serial strugglers; angry & alienated they feel little or no stake in the country or that anyone stands up for them.”

6. Cosmopolitan Critics: “Generally younger, more secular and urban-based, worried about growing inequality & the general direction the country is going in.”

Thanks to Populus and the BBC for that.

It’s interesting, looking at the percentages in the BBC article, that the Calm Persistence segment is the biggest. I was recently involved in carrying out a big segmentation study for a financial services provider – complete with 5 minute ‘talking head’ films I made for each segment with the wonderful Bristol-based videographer Tim Crawley (I’m quite proud of those!). One of our segments was called Keep Calm And Carry On. We weren’t segmenting on political attitudes, but the segment appears very similar attitudinally to this Calm Persistence group that Populus’s analysis has identified.

There's nothing more British than Just getting on with it
Don’t get carried away … There’s nothing more British than just getting on with it

Everyone’s favourite bit of film, when we showed them to client audiences, was a retired teacher in the Keep Calm And Carry On segment. Comfortable on his sofa, he was thick-skinned, unflappable and, even though there was a lot of hard-bitten apathy there (and who could blame him), I really warmed to him during the interview. And when I went through our own segmentation algorithm on myself, guess what? I was in the Keep Calm And Carry On segment myself. In the Populus voter segmentation, though, I’m guessing I’ll be a Cosmopolitan Critic (which is slightly embarrassing, but then my job kind of wedges me quite solidly in there). I say “guessing” – there is so much interest in this stuff the ‘test yourself’ web link can’t cope at the moment. Such high online traffic is not an issue Strangers On The Shore has ever had to face, but I cater for a select band of crack elite time wasters on here …

How to impress the Calm Persisters will be a big part of the challenge for party strategists over the next year. Let me tell you, it ain’t going to be easy – good luck with that!


Breaking Bad: corroding a hole through the top floor of Maslow’s pyramid

I know Breaking Bad is finished but a late suggestion to creator Vince Gilligan – you really should have used this classic by The Nolans as the theme tune:

I recently finished a month or so in which I watched all five series on Netflix. This multi-award-winning US drama, for those still unfamiliar with it, is about a terminally ill Albuquerque chemistry teacher, who decides to cook crystal meth as a way of providing money for his family after he dies. It’s also, more interestingly for me at least, a story of self-actualisation gone wrong. And a very American tale at that.

Bricking Bad - lab-based fun for all the family
Bricking Bad – lab-based fun for all the family. The Lego-isation of Planet Earth continues apace. I love the inset picture of the half-blown-way visage of everyone’s favourite purveyor of fried chicken solutions

It’s about the slide into the moral abyss of the main character, Walter White. White is a Macbeth with more of a cause but less of a conscience. According to Gilligan, the pitch was:

We’re going to take Mr. Chips, and we’re going to turn him into Scarface.

Predictably enough, our periodic-table-toting hero’s Heath Robinson life insurance scheme comes with consequences. Some of those are worse even than the sight of White wandering around in his underpants, which he does a lot. And deeper and deeper he sinks, as he deals with an increasing number of threats to his success.

Go for experience every time
Go for experience every time

What we come to realise though, as the series progress, is that the initial pitch for Breaking Bad – terminally ill man trying to provide for his family – masks the real thrust of the drama. What it’s really about is a man rediscovering his mojo: returning to that thing that he does best in the world – here, being a lab chemist – and trying to be the best he can be at it. White is a gifted scientist who has forgone a glittering career in favour of being a good family provider. He followed a humdrum path as a high school chemistry teacher instead of making millions on developing new patents like his millionaire former lab mates.

"My compliments to the chef: that was tight, tight, tight."
Tight, tight, tight: but Tuco’s surely over-dressed for a meeting in a wrecking yard

When he’s declared terminally ill, he doesn’t consciously choose to gun straight for the top of Maslow’s pyramid – but it’s the path his bizarre crystal meth cooking scheme inevitably leads him to. Telling himself at first he is being selfless, the satisfaction of achievement becomes addictive. He likes it so much, to borrow from Britney Spears, he gets lost in the game. And this proves to be every bit as destructive as the meth he so expertly “cooks”, like a bald Fanny Craddock in y-fronts.

A lot has been written about what Breaking Bad says about American society: from Breaking Bad as metaphor for US foreign policy, to a commentary on vulture capitalism; and so on. Gilligan has said, rather simply, that it’s about actions having consequences. But for me, the most striking aspect of it is the tension between the individual and society; between living for yourself and living for others. In Breaking Bad, seeking the best for yourself as an individual does not achieve the American Dream. Indeed, the mayhem left in the wake of Walter White is a really a challenge to the cult of individual freedom and its off-shoot, the cult of self-actualisation (the bastard child of Carl Jung and Oprah Winfrey).  Attempts at self-improvement are everywhere in Breaking Bad, from new age teepee retreats in the desert, to drug rehab groups, kleptomania therapy, to immigrants building business empires.

It has been pointed out that the only black character in the series cooks fried chicken and sells drugs: but on the other hand, Gus Fring is the show's most intriguing character
It has been pointed out that the only black character in the series cooks fried chicken and sells drugs; but on the other hand, Gus Fring is the show’s most intriguing- and scary – character. I mean, just look at that smile …

Here is a man who rediscovers his manhood, becomes “strong”, provides for his family and has his expertise recognised and admired by connoisseurs (albeit that these are generally either psychopathic drug lords, meth-heads or in the case of Tuco, both). But the results of this self-actualisation are grotesque, not just because White’s chosen the wrong thing to become good at, but because his mission could never be as altruistic as he thinks. Deep down, the individual is the only meaningful unit for him. God helps those who help themselves. He think as an individual, not a family member or a member of a community. If he is strong and clever and means well, everything else will fall into place. Only things don’t work like that.

Somewhere along the border
Somewhere along the border

It’s no coincidence that White ends up in Series 5 in New Hampshire, whose American fundamentalist state motto is Live Free Or Die. Nor is it a coincidence that the series is set in New Mexico, on the wild frontier. The frontier is associated with the forging of America and, more particularly, a robust masculine American individualism: Davy Crockett, the Marlboro Man, Al Swearengen from Deadwood.  White was once a pioneer, but at the start of Breaking Bad he has settled into a sleepier life in settled land behind the front line. It is for cowboys like DEA agent Hank to shoot it out with the Indians – or here, their mestizo descendants from Chihuahua and Sonora, characters reminiscent of Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad album (which itself referenced John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie‘s stories of life Out West on the wrong side of the tracks). In Breaking Bad, the American male tries to rediscover that frontier spirit that made him great, only to find that the very attributes needed at the frontier battleground make him a misfit back at home. White’s home life is soon a mess; but it’s not just him. DEA man Hank fares even worse, returning from a botched drugs bust like a traumatised soldier home from Iraq. It has something to say too to that wider army of men: the beaten up, blue collar wage slaves who crash back through the front door after a dispiriting day at the coal face, struggling to adjust. Tony Soprano was another character that got lost in this liminal place between home and “work” (or Badabing). The transition is at the heart of being a bloke today; it’s hard though, and some don’t bother even trying.

"You can call me Al, (you c***)." King of the Wild Frontier and urinator-into-pots extraordinaire
“You can call me Al, (you c***).” King of the Wild Frontier and urinator-into-pots extraordinaire

The tunnel-visioned White echoes the American right’s assertions that there is no such thing as society, just individuals (and, at a stretch, families). We make our own luck; and the flip side is that no one is really unlucky, just careless or lazy. As The Robbie Coltrane Hollywood producer character says in The Comic Strip Presents: Strike!: “One guys wins, the other schmuck loses …”  That is the hard-ass American Way. (Obama’s healthcare reforms, like Breaking Bad, challenge that assumption – which is one reason why the American right has gone so crazy over such seemingly innocuous changes.)

If there was ever an altruistic Walter White, it’s the one pre-diagnosis, at the start of Breaking Bad: the one who was regarded by the sensation-hungry people around him (including, painfully, his son) as a boring mediocrity. Breaking Bad challenges a moral order in which the unspectacular good are so sidelined. It asks, can you achieve your personal ambitions and still be a good person? Or does the quest for success inevitably draw you away from a caring and selfless life? You can, perhaps – but Walter White can’t. And it’s because his is an especially American dilemma: America expects so much of its people. Having the freedom to be anything means that what you are is your fault alone. It’s a heavy burden.

But a big part of what makes Breaking Bad so gripping is the brilliant cast of characters around Bryan Cranston’s Walter White. The more I watched, the more I admired the initially bluff, crass DEA man Hank Schrader: Dean Norris’s performance was surely the most accomplished of anyone on the show, superb as the wise-cracking “man’s man” whose inner fragility and inner toughness are locked in crippling combat. Chicken czar Gus Fring’s chilling calm dominated the screen any time he was on. And I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a hard-bitten hitman quite as much as I enjoyed Mike Ermintraut and his peerless snarl.

After a brush with a young Bryan Cranston, Jerry Seinfeld became hopelessly addicted to dentistry
After a brush with a young Bryan Cranston, Jerry Seinfeld became hopelessly addicted to dentistry

Vince Gilligan said after the final episode that one of his big regrets was that Jesse Pinkman, a multiply-assaulted meth addict played by Aaron Paul, had unrealistically perfect teeth. Bryan Cranston used to play Jerry’s dentist in Seinfeld, so perhaps he applied some of his fictional skills on Aaron Paul’s bake (as we say in Belfast). The Perfectibility of Man Through Expensive Dentistry is, it seems, a truth many Americans hold to be self-evident. But as long as they can make series like Breaking Bad, I’ll forgive them the ivory glare.


Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

Danny Baker’s Rockin’ Decades: The 70s

Slumped in front of the tv last night after a long day of fieldwork about energy usage in Worcestershire, I got Peter Hooked into Danny Baker’s pop music o’ the past chat programme on BBC4, Danny Baker’s Rockin’ Decades. Despite the (I have to assume deliberately) naff title, it was compelling viewing. There’s a link for those in the UK to the BBC iPlayer – it’s on there for the next week.

Even Mark E Smith dolled up in the 80s. Well, the 1680s. And it's Will-yam of Or-aanj
Even Mark E Smith dolled up in the 80s. Well, the 1680s. And it’s Will-yam of Or-aanj

Baker’s going decade by decade on BBC4, an hour’s chat and clips per decade, giving his tuppeny ‘orth on the spirit of each decade in popular music. It’s the kind of iconoclastic stuff we know and love Danny Baker for.

Baker is known by many for his period at the NME in the  70s championing the emerging punk scene. But boy does he want to escape that now: not that he has abandoned punk completely but that he has realised the way punk has been culturally packaged and presented as an artefact to look back on is very … well, un-punk. The punk thing to do is precisely what Baker does in this programme: subvert the narrative about punk.

The lazy orthodoxy about punk was that it was a much needed bucket of cold water thrown onto a bloated, comfortable, corporate music industry which had lost touch with reality. The absurdity and tedium of much prog rock represented what was wrong about the music scene in the mid 70s. But Baker now suggests: perhaps prog rock wasn’t such an offence to culture as we have told ourselves it was; maybe some of it was OK. And in any case, prog rock had peaked by around 1973. What punk was really kicking against in 1976 wasn’t the virtuoso wizard noodling of Rick Wakeman, but the comfortable pop of ABBA and ELO.

It doesn’t mean the lazy orthodoxy isn’t true though. Viv Albertine of The Slits pulled rank on Baker and stood up for the received narrative: as a 17 year old in 1976, the music scene was underwhelming and irrelevant. Yes she saw Dr Feelgood at Dingwalls and they were entertaining, but nothing really spoke to her until The Damned, the Sex Pistols and all came along. I was more convinced by Albertine than Baker; but I salute his mission to cut against the grain.

The quality of the guests was mixed, but Baker’s seemingly insatiable drive to confound the expectations of the complacent extended to his choice of contributors. Loyd Grossman on alternative culture anyone? If you could get past the famously twisted vowels, he did have something to say. Albertine was the pick of the bunch of the two shows I watched.

In the 80s show, I was less enthralled by Pauline Black (though I like her generally): I just thought she didn’t have much to say about the 80s beyond her own milieu of early 80s 2 Tone and Ska. Adam Buxton’s honesty was refreshing and confounded expectations in his own way. Despite being a fan of the Fall now, he admitted they scared him then. He said he shied away from bands that he thought would have contempt for his Southern, private school, privileged life, which I found quite touching. Buxton imagined bands like Orange Juice would be nice to him, so he gravitated towards them.

But happily, for the 80s programme, Baker chose to give us The Fall’s performance of Big New Prinz from the I Am Kurious Oranj show with Michael Clark & Company at the Edinburgh Festival, 1988. One of the great pop music moments, for me:  

And it says something about the 80s too: even The Fall got glamorous and theatrical then. In their own way though. I can’t see Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet writing an album around the theme of the accession of William III to the throne. As an Ulster Protestant, I Am Kurious Oranj perhaps makes more sense to me than to some less affected by the events of 1688. If only Ballyquin Loyal Sons of Ulster and the like would blow their flutes and rattle their drums on the 12th July to The Fall’s Wrong Place, Right Time instead of The Sash, the parades issue would be transformed. As pasta sauce pumper Loyd Grossman put it in the 70s programme: “All revolutions ultimately end in the banality of a disco ball.” Even the Glorious Revolution. Which is why David Holmes is more important to understanding my native culture than the Grand Master of the Orange Lodge.

Music to my ears: Motley Crue to stop

I hate to be negative – it’s usually better to focus on bigging up the good stuff – but I really can’t abide Motley Crue. Nigel Blackwell of the Birkenhead surrealists Half Man Half Biscuit put it perfectly in their song from a few years ago Upon Westminster Bridge:

Oh help me, Mrs Medlicott,
I don’t know what to do,
I’ve only got three bullets
And there’s four of Motley Crue.

So it was with joy that I heard on Radcliffe and Maconie on BBC 6 Music this lunchtime that Motley Crue have announced they are to finally stop.

The less good news is, they’re doing a farewell tour first. And of course, it will be hard to erase the memories that their Californian soft metal fakery has spewed onto the boulevard of my subconscious.

Oh I am so shocked (yawns)
Motley Crue’s idea of  “hip”. Showing off his replacement surgery there. Getting old.

“All Bad Things Must Come To An End” is the strap line for the final tour announcement. Truer than they know. And when I say bad, I mean bad.

Have you done the triangular ironing yet?

You can have it fast, good, or cheap. Pick two.

Oliver Burkeman’s latest This Column Will Change Your Life piece for the Guardian Weekend magazine is about this formula, or “the iron triangle” as it is sometimes called. Oliver Burkeman in Guardian Weekend: Constraints Can Be Liberating. It encapsulates neatly the problem with imagining you can have it all, in business or in personal life.

The iron triangle, as seen by  Minnesota Fats
The iron triangle, as seen by Minnesota Fats

Often cited in the world of IT, Burkeman points out that variations on the iron triangle can be applied in many other walks of life. My favourite is entrepreneur Ben Casnocha’s iron triangle of relationships, that goes: a romantic partner can be hot, smart and/or emotionally stable – pick two.

Burkeman’s triangle of work/life balance is telling too: 

… it’s tempting to imagine that, somehow, both spouses in a household could find a way to work full time, with each spending many hours with the kids and getting all the housework done. But in reality, if you can’t pay someone else to do the cleaning, maybe you’ll have to settle for living in a less-than-spotless house.

You can have a baby in one arm, a full bowl of cereal or a laptop. Choose two. Then lose the tie.
You can have a baby in one arm, a full bowl of cereal or a laptop. Choose two. Then lose the tie and the orange juice.

As someone who prioritises kids and work above household chores, I would agree with Burkeman here, but the fact we’re both men may not be a coincidence. I suspect my other half would argue this is a false choice – you actually should be able to keep a house running while working and being a half-decent parent. So the triangles you set up can also say a lot about which aspects of life you want to duck. (Shuffles uncomfortably in chair).

But Burkeman’s point is a good one: in trying to dodge inevitable downsides, one only fools oneself. The “fast/good/cheap” triangle resonates with me: I’ve come across it so much in research briefs over the years. Increasingly, clients want things fast and cheap. And I think sometimes they take the quality side as a given. And as a supplier, you live by the quality of what you deliver, so clients aren’t mistaken in assuming it will be there.  But when research clients ask for super-quick turnaround, which is increasingly common, they sometimes also expect this can be done in a high quality way for your normal price (or even on the cheap, as a “loss leader”). This isn’t workable.

On the rare occasions that the three sides of the triangle do sometimes get joined up – on a one-off project basis – it is not a sustainable way of working. But it gives the illusion to some clients that it can be done, that somehow the usual laws of business physics do not apply. This is by no means all clients and nor is this limited to research buyers, but it has a big enough effect on the industry that it can seriously damage the quality of working life at many research agencies. They find their people working longer and more intensely, under higher expectations and for, relatively speaking, less money per hour. Cue demotivation, fatigue, loss of team members for greener pastures or other careers.

You can do a few things well, or lots of things not so well. Burkeman urges us to just be straight with ourselves about what is most important to us and go for it
You can do a few things well, or lots of things not so well. Burkeman urges us to be straight with ourselves about what is most important

Burkeman’s piece isn’t a counsel of despair though. His point is that by getting real and  recognising the need to make choices, we can be happier and more effective in our lives. Running around in self-defeating circles (or triangles) seeking to “have it all” – or its flipside, inaction borne of indecision over “impossible” trade-offs – only happen when we don’t bite the bullet and make clear choices. Accepting you’ll have to let some of your wants go, because you value other things more, is actually positive and liberating. It is deciding what you want in life and giving yourself a decent chance of attaining it. Burkeman quotes Sheldon Kopp’s If You Meet The Buddha On The Road, Kill Him! to sum up the liberating power of acknowledging your constraints:

You are free to do whatever you like. You need only face the consequences.

Conan O'Brien has a vision
Conan O’Brien has a vision

A footnote: Oliver Burkeman wrote one of my favourite books of recent years, The Antidote (subtitled “Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking”). A lot of wisdom and insight crammed into a very readable adventure through Stoicism, Buddhist retreats and wizard-like gurus who live in Watford. The main thrust is that an ability to embrace negative thinking may actually be a key to developing a robustly positive outlook, counter-intuitive as this may sound to some. As someone who always found listening to supposedly “miserable” bands like The Smiths uplifting – and who finds nothing more depressing than organised fun – Burkeman’s insight is spot on for me.

Dead and not dead: Lou Reed and John Cooper Clarke

Street Hassle

John Cooper Clarke by Stewy (
John Cooper Clarke by Stewy ( (Photo credit: dullhunk)

Which of these two reformed heroin-addicts and ex-boyfriends of Nico was likely to survive to this century? Neither. BBC4’s reputation for impressive rockumentary continues with a couple of programmes on the iPlayer now (for people in the UK who pay for it) about two wordsmiths, very different personalities but both towering figures of “alternative” popular culture. On Sunday night I sat up late watching an adoring documentary about the Bard of Salford Evidently … John Cooper Clarke on the iPlayer (UK only); and last night I caught up with the one hour programme about the life of the late Lou ReedLou Reed Remembered. Both these guys were lucky to survive periods of their lives lost to addiction; the best work of both was done before the slide, but in both cases I’m grateful they lived a few decades longer to tell the tale.

I was lucky enough to see Lou Reed play a short solo set in Belfast in 1987 and even luckier to see one of the few Velvet Underground reunion gigs, in the admittedly unatmospheric venue of Wembley Arena in 1993. I’ll never forget hearing the boom and tinkle rhythm of the intro to “All Tomorrow’s Parties” kicking in and pinching myself that I was actually seeing this for real. John Cale sang Nico’s part by the way – she was another long-term drugs casualty, having had a heart attack and died five years earlier while on her bike in the Ibiza sun. This is why Goths need to stick to cemeteries and cellars for their own health.

As a teenager in the 80s, my older brother had got me into John Cooper Clarke’s “Snap, Crackle and Bop” album – his “punk” poetry with the musical backing of The Invisible Girls (Vini Reilly et al). I used to wonder then, eight, nine, ten years after it was made, what’s Cooper Clarke doing now? Where is he? Why isn’t he still writing? The answer, as he and Peter Hook described in the documentary, was heroin. Some of the contributors to the Lou Reed programme talked about his use of narcotics in an almost glorifying way, suggesting Reed was experimenting for his art so he could report from the front line of experience, as it were. But the reality with heroin seems to be that it kills the desire to do anything apart from more heroin. As Harry Hill once put it, licking his lips as if sharing his views on Maltesers: “Heroin: it’s very more-ish, isn’t it?” Cooper Clarke’s life for many years consisted of looking for where he could score, getting the money to score, scoring, sleeping, then same again the next day. In this way a decade can pass.

Oddly enough, Cooper Clarke spent some of these dead years co-habiting with said Nico. As one contemporary put it, they got on because they shared a strong common interest: in hiding heroin from each other. Sounds like a borrowed John Cooper Clarke line. At one time, even had the Velvet Underground’s John Cale there too, when Cale was producing a Nico solo album. (What is it about the initials JC by the way that so often brings greatness? Johnny Clarke, John Cale, John Cleese, Fermanagh-born Glentoran midfielder Jim Cleary … not to mention the lad Christ).

But both Reed and Cooper Clarke somehow came through it and got clean. They went on to revive their live acts and produce worthwhile new material, even in later life. Having spend the 90s revering his book of poems “Ten Years In An Open-Necked Shirt“, picked up in a remainder bin in Queensland in 1992, and digging out CD rarities like “Ou Est La Maison de Fromage?”, I caught Cooper Clarke live for the first time at The Enterprise in Chalk Farm around 2000 or so. He was just brilliant – funnier stand-up than you’ll see anywhere, yet that was only the garnish to the acerbic verse.

English: Salford, Greater Manchester, the UK -...
Salford, Greater Manchester: “the rats have all got rickets,” according to JCC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what do/did these guys share, apart from wearing black a lot, a druggy past and the fleeting affections of a wasted German chanteuse? What they both do brilliantly for me is to revel in the grit of city life – messy but vividly real – and to do so in a life-reaffirming way. Not by easy gloss, or trying to prettify the ugly; but by getting the ugly out there and helping you come to terms with it. It’s as if they are both saying, “Here’s the worst, it’s awful (not that you’re much better) but now you can feel it a little.” And actually that can be very liberating. Cooper Clarke’s classic “Beazley Street”, like Reed’s “I’m Waiting For The Man”, is about ultimately pretty squalid stuff, but both writers have their tricks for making it engaging to their listeners. For Cooper Clarke, it’s the insistence on playfulness, no matter how dark the subject (“People turn to poison quick as lager turns to p***”); for Reed, it was the well-observed local detail (“Went up to Lexington / 125 …”), the choice of subterranean characters and subjects to shine a torch on and, of course, the brilliance of the music – on those early albums especially.

For people wanting to understand other people’s lives and experience, writers like Reed are gold-dust – and very rare. The formula sounds easy; but who else can do this like Lou Reed did?

I enjoyed also, from The Wire magazine, Mark E Smith from The Fall’s tribute to Lou Reed. For MES to pay tribute to anyone is something of a miracle. I notice he got a plug for his new record in there too: Mark E Smith’s tribute to Lou Reed in The Wire. Of course, Mark E Smith is above all of them, genuinely. I worry for the health of my rasping, shrivelling heroes: so, long may they splutter on.

From the archives: God’s gift to British advertising

Call me old school, but for me George Whitebread is still unrivalled as an all-round ad man. In this masterclass, he shows himself to be both an astute critic and a brilliantly original creative in his own right. Though his Yorkshire accent does slip a little towards the end.

I delved back into the Harry Enfield archive after listening to John Lloyd reminiscing on Radio 4 about the ads he made with him in the early 90s. I’d forgotten this one for Worthington’s, perhaps because it was apparently pulled after a week, when the makers of Pedigree Chum (whose ad it was parodying) saw it and got on the blower to ITV. Fantastic piece of work:

For a few years there in the early 90s, with the Mercury ads also, Harry Enfield couldn’t put a foot wrong. But I did also enjoy his work a few years ago on a new South African beer:


What we can learn from Carl Rogers annoying someone in the 1960s

Roy Langmaid - did he play 'Perfect Day' to plant a subliminal message? It kind of worked
Roy Langmaid – did he play ‘Perfect Day’ to plant a subliminal message? It kind of worked. Though in an unrelated incident, Lou Reed died shortly afterwards …

I took part in an excellent Roy Langmaid training course a couple of weeks ago, on how qualitative research can use approaches derived from psychotherapy. As preparation, Roy had us watch films of three psychotherapists in the 60s, with contrasting styles, treating the same patient – a very game volunteer known as ‘Gloria’. You don’t have to watch it all to get the most interesting thing: the contrast in style between the three therapists. As a bonus – and for me it’s a big bonus – there’s lots of period tobacco smoke, brainy glasses and early suburban American sexual liberation as a backdrop. Here’s a link to the films:

Gloria: Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls and Albert Ellis

As a qualitative researcher, it was seeing the legendary Carl Rogers in action that was really interesting for me. The approach I’ve been trained in over the years, like I think many British quallies, is basically Rogerian. That’s perhaps a grandiose way of putting it, but it’s one of showing “unconditional positive regard” to the research participant, letting them lead in their own way as far as possible and, by coming across as an attentive but neutral listener, enabling them to draw their own story out from themselves. I don’t do this in any pure way of course, but it’s the starting point. This gives you something wholly different – and generally richer and more enlightening – than simply grilling a participant.

Apply butter certainly but do not grill. And keep away from Newman at all costs.
Apply butter, certainly; but do not grill. And keep away from Newman at all costs.

It was interesting though how Gloria was irritated by Rogers’ approach in the interview. She wanted something back from him: a hint, a tip, some advice, anything. But as he explains to camera at the end, he absolutely couldn’t do it, because it would sell her short. She wanted a neat solution. Rogers was not offering that. Rather, he sought to draw the full detail out first – he’d presumably need several hours rather than 30 minutes for this to work satisfyingly for Gloria and him – and lead Gloria towards her own making sense of herself. She could then own these insights and be less likely to develop a longer term dependence on continuing therapy (and authority figures, which Gloria seemed to have a weakness for). It’s quite a robust, tough love approach in that sense.

Carl Rogers
Carl Rogers: listen well and it will come

Apparently, though, Gloria chose the second therapist, Perls, in the end as her therapist – a choice which seems to reflect more on Gloria’s low self esteem than Perls’ ability. Perls, though I’m sure brilliant, came across as an egotistical bully in this film. See what you think.

Qualitative research is not therapy of course. We are seeking to elicit insights and deeper truths from our participants for our clients’ benefit rather than for the good of the participants’ mental health. We aren’t seeking to deliver resolution for them. But we do have to listen respectfully and take them seriously. We have to conduct ourselves in such a way that they feel comfortable during and after the interview about what they have shared. This is not just so that they will take part in future research, but also so that they understand and respect our work with them. But why is gaining this respect from participants important?

We have been good in qual, as an industry, at not leaving litter behind us in our wake. But there is more and more pressure on researchers to ‘squeeze’ as much as we can out of our participants. The thought is, from some quarters: they’re getting paid, so make them work. Ask, ask, ask. But participants do not give of their best and of their true selves if think of themselves as trading information. The interview, never the most natural of situations, becomes even more contrived and self-conscious than it needs to be. Like over-farmed soil, such interviews struggle to nurture healthy, strong shoots of qual data.

Good research is not really about paying people money for information. We’re not after information. We’re after insights. It’s not good enough to say, ‘All interviews are a construct anyway, so what’s the difference?’ There is a difference. There may be no ultimate Holy Grail of truth out there, but there are interviews capable of generating insights and there are interviews that are not.

Taking time, listening, letting the interviewee grow and express themselves – these are the things that make face to face qualitative depth interviews so interesting and useful for clients. This is why they still ought to have a big place in the qual mix.

Don't get me started ...
Don’t get me started …

In a good research interview, the participant forgets they are in an interview (at least some of the time). The participant does not know what she thinks – and acknowledges that. She takes the interviewer into the imperfect, unfinished and unfinishable process of working out her own thoughts. The research takes from this not an “answer”, but the start of a hypothesis about how she thinks: how habit, urge, reason and emotion interweave on this topic for her, at this moment, in this place.

If we do enough of these interviews, accumulating the minutiae from each person at this level, face to face depth interviews really can elicit insights into thought processes that other qual techniques cannot.

Systems 1 and 2: an accessible summary by TNS

… not that Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow isn’t accessible – it’s a must-read and a good read – but I enjoyed this TNS paper. It’s a 14 page distillation of some of the main points about System 1 and 2 thinking. Brevity is always welcome. Life’s too short, is it not? Especially if you’re not getting enough variety in your life, it seems … this and more is explained in the Secret Life of the Brain article on

TNS’s Brain Game website is worth a look more generally: some great stuff on here on consumer psychology, including how brands exist in the memory and what “attention” really is. Informative and well-presented. Thanks to fellow research consultant Arthur Fletcher of the ICG for putting me onto this.


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