Saturday, 21 April 2018

The best, and scariest, bits from my 7th trip to South By Southwest

One of the most joyous things about running an independent business is that no one decides how you spend your money but you. And at Joint we relish being free to spend the money we earn on things that inspire and educate the people who work here.

One such thing is our annual trip to the South By Southwest Interactive festival, in Austin, Texas.

For a creative business such as ours, obsessed with solving our clients’ business problems in innovative ways, spending a week immersed in the future is an exceptionally good investment of time and resources.

So, this March, 20 Jointers flew to Austin and shacked up in a bunch of Airstream trailers ready to learn and be inspired together.

There was only one golden rule: Spend time on things you know nothing about. There are plenty of case studies on digital marketing, social media and social video campaigns, but they’re ultimately empty experiences as we’ll tend to know at least as much, if not more than the speakers.

With that in mind here are a few of Joint’s joint highlights from our sixth trip to SXSW.

There’s always a underlying theme at South By, sometimes subtextual, sometimes overt. This year the shock of Harvey Weinstein, not to mention Silicon Valley’s own issues with sexism and lack of diversity, as exemplified by last year’s Uber and Google scandals, was palpable. It lead to some really positive conversations around creating a more diverse, equal and decent working environment, and more amazing female speakers on stage than ever before.

One such speaker, and a favourite of many Jointers, was Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel. She explored the evolution of human relationships, making the point that in primitive times, when we lived in small tribes in small villages “you could hear every fight and every fuck”. Everyone had an accurate representation of relationships, the highs and lows. But that today, with social media, we only see shiny happy couple after shiny happy couple; a crafted, curated slice of an invented perfect reality, making our relationships pale in comparison. She insists that really listening to other people’s stories and opening our eyes to the people around us to be able to see the truth of the relationships of others as well as our own can help us all live happier lives together. Her closing thought being “the quality of your relationships determines the quality of your life. Your relationship is your story, so write well and edit often”.

John Krafcik from Waymo, formerly Google’s Self Driving Car project explained that self driving cars will be on our roads in 10 years time. He showed their latest video of people being driven around in their cars. The most impressive demonstration of their success? The guy who was so relaxed about the ride he’d fallen asleep.

Clearly not a stupid man, William Hurley (AKA Whurley), did a talk entitled ‘The endless impossibilities of Quantum Computing’ which, to be honest, was impossible to comprehend. His attempt at explaining quasiparticles and ‘the dangers of quantum tunnelling’ were indecipherable enough, but when he moved on to ‘programming computers that don’t even exist’ we decided to pop over to the Handle Bar for an extra large Loopy Juice.

Apple’s Eddy Cue talked about Apple TV and how they (allegedly) are (kind of) leaving Netflix and Amazon Prime Video to spend billions on programme making, whilst they’re focussing more on augmenting the experience of viewing everything on an Apple platform. Apple’s view about VR and VR? AR is absolutely the future. It’s faster, easier, and doesn’t take away from people’s live experience.

And talking of AR… Every year a few brands pour a rodeo full of cash into pop-up experiences around the town. This year’s Sony pavilion was the winner. Sony seems to have focused its energy on becoming a scanner and sensor manufacturer. Using projectors and haptic technology to create awesome AR experiences like virtual football and table hockey. 360’ scanning people’s heads and bodies and putting them into bonkers VR worlds and playable games. Possibly the tent’s biggest hit was their little sensor-laden robot dog, Aibo, (on sale soon for a mere $2000) that can actually feel you stroking it and reacts accordingly.

Inventor and superbrain, Google’s Ray Kurzweil, knows a thing or eight million about nanotechnology, robotics, biotechnology and AI. He talks about technology as ‘something we develop to go beyond human ability; brain and body extenders’. According to Ray pretty soon we’ll be used to ‘being in AR all the time’. We’ll have printable clothing and printable houses. And, in the 2030s, we’ll ‘merge with AI’, meaning we’ll have virtual augmented reality within our own bodies and synthetic neocortex in the cloud. At which time our intelligence will increase a million-fold, leading to us inventing new art, new ways of doing things, new ways to relate to each other. However, there’s also the small issue of AI ethics to iron out; Once the singularity occurs will AI be allowed the same rights as humans…? Alexa must be looking forward to that.

Everyone looked up from their smartphone as Amy Webb, a ‘Quantitative Futurist’, mentioned casually that 2018 is the beginning of the end of smartphones. And they stayed staring at her as she talked through a load of emerging tech trends. Some of which are already picking up momentum, like Digital Assistants, Augmented and Mixed Reality. Some of which seem like science fiction but are basically just round the corner, like Natural User Interfaces, Faceprints and Voiceprints (which will replace passwords), Generative Algorithms and Nanobots, which will end up inside all of us (and, if we’re not careful, end up deciding who lives or dies by aborting foetuses based on their probability of success and contribution to society!!!).

And if that wasn’t scary enough, the techy’s sweetheart, Elon Musk fucking terrified everyone by saying in his usual gentle tone: “Mark my words AI will be more dangerous than nukes. The single biggest existential crisis we face and the most pressing one”. He followed that with a chilling explanation as to why his Space X programme is so focused on getting people to Mars. Basically he reckons that there’s the likelihood of another dark ages “especially if there’s a third world war. And we need to ensure there’s enough of a seed of human civilisation somewhere else to bring civilisation back.” Zikes.

As an optimistic antidote to Elon, Dr Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize, used South By to announce the next $10million competition: To create an actual avatar. You know, like in the movie. The vision is that everyone will end up having one hanging in their cupboard at home (the Apple iVatar?) allowing a plumber/doctor to ‘get inside it’ from anywhere in the world and fix your leaking tap/ fractured pelvis. Then, after dropping in the fact that he’s invested in a company that plans to fit all Google’s data centres into a space the size of a sugar cube, he combined a bit of Moore’s Law chat with some exponentiality banter to explain that the $1000 we pay for iPhone X today will, by 2025, buy as much computing power as the human brain. And by 2050 as much computing power as, wait for it, the whole human race!!

Oh and did I mention Bernie Sanders, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Melinda Gates, Ira Glass, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mark Hamill, Thandie Newton, Nile Rodgers, barbecue, fried chicken, pizza, tacos, waffles and beer?

Will we be going back to the future next year?

Absolutely. Unless someone drops an AI on us all in the meantime.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

THE JOURNEY TO 3RD DAN

Liam Keaveney, the Chairman of the British Karate Kyokushinkai (BKK) asked me to write a few words on my experiences at the BKK Summer Camp I attended in August 2015. These are they.





"Why do you do karate?"

The question asked by Shihan Liam Keaveney at the National Grading course he held five weeks before Summer Camp.

“Why do you want to do your Sandan grading?”

The question I asked myself over the years since attaining my Nidan.

The first of those two questions is a profound one, the answer to which being undoubtedly as personal for each karateka as the words I’m writing here are to me.

When I was 15 I read a book by Sosai in which he talked about the importance of aspirations, having goals to aim for. He also mentioned that whatever you do, you should do it as well as you possibly can.

It was clear to me that both those things are inexorably linked. And his words ended up influencing not just my karate, but every part of my life since.

So for me, above all the other reasons to do karate, the main one is this: to get better.

That being the case, the answer to the second question was simple.

If the grading system is a way of proving that you are improving, then I had to see if I was or not.

There was only one time and only one place I could do that.

And so, eight months before Summer Camp began I made to the decision to take my Sandan grading.

I’d experienced a few National Gradings in the past, five to be precise. (Yes, 2nd kyu, 1st kyu, Shodan and Nidan only add up to four. I actually failed my Shodan the first time round, but more of that later), so I had a good idea of what I was in for.

Immediately I felt that familiar sense of pressure.

Only this time the stakes were higher than they’d ever been, so the pressure was greater.

That pressure led to a kind of tunnel vision, an intense focus on that day up there in the distance. And there was a lot of work to do to get there.

I’m sure I’m not alone amongst karateka in saying that the hardest part of training is finding the time to train.

Working 12 hour days after having recently started my own business, plus trying to remain a decent husband and father, made navigating the journey to August a complex one.

Parks, hotel rooms, toilets, lifts, all became my dojos. Anywhere I went, my grading came with me.

Kata played a huge part of my training. Constantly referring to the kata book, with the odd question emailed to Shihan Janine. (By the way whether you’re going for grading or not you owe it to yourself to go to her kata courses. You won’t believe how much you’ll learn.) It helped with sharpening technique and increasing power as well as stamina. You can see why Hanshi says that kata was the hardest part of his training for his 100 man fight.

Of course, one of the greatest pressures of the Sandan grading is the creation your own personal kata.

I started work on mine with a basic framework and kept building and tweaking as the weeks went on. Until finally I was able to lock it down, write it up and spend the final few months practising it.

The course Liam Keaveney ran before the Summer Camp was invaluable.

Where no question was too dumb (despite the merciless mickey-taking) and where the plan for the grading and expectations were laid out clearly.

Quite simply, the course removes your excuses.You come away knowing what you need to do and what you’re going to go through.

It was also impressed upon us that the actual grading would be only part of the grading. The whole Summer Camp is an opportunity to be scrutinised. And passed or failed accordingly.

There would be no let-up. The pressure would be on for the whole camp.

"When you go into that grading you're going into war." Shihan Liam explained.

He was right.

But it wasn’t war with the instructors examining you, nor with your fellow students.

In the grading you're at war with your own mind and body.

You’re fighting the years you have on the clock. The voices in your head that tell you you can't do it. Every imperfection you have tried to iron out but haven't quite managed to.

And winning or losing that war dictates whether you pass or fail.

No matter what training you’ve done, it’s your mind that makes the difference. As the saying goes “if you think you can or you think you can’t you’re absolutely right”.

So training six days a week, sometimes twice a day helped my mind believe that it was ready to win the war.

As the countdown continued the pressure increased, ramping up in the days immediately preceding the camp.

My biggest fear became not the grading but not making it to the grading. Getting knocked off my motorbike, catching a cold, pulling a muscle.

Over those eight months I’d overcome pulled hamstrings, tennis elbows (needing injections in both arms), chest infections and numerous other attempts my body made to stop me.

All I wanted to do now was make it to the grading in one piece.

And so it was with much relief that, almost 34 years after I first walked into a dojo, and seven years to the day after gaining my Nidan, I walked into the last grading I will ever take.

We lined up and were given our numbers.

This was it. The beginning of the end.

“Fudo dachi.”

What all that training and studying had been for.

“Yoi!”

Whilst we had no idea of the time (the clock had been removed from the hall), as the hours went on, thanks to Shihan Liam’s course, we could always tell where we were in the running order: kata, kihon, renraku, conditioning (press ups/squats/sit-ups/jumps over the belt), pad work, fighting.

All the while Hanshi along with Shihans Liam and Alex Kerrigan, and Sensei Moss Agneli prowled the hall, eyes boring into us, spotting (and often, due to their intense gaze) prompting mistakes.

I remember quite a bit of what I did in those eight and a half hours. But nothing of what anyone else did.

That’s because of that Shodan grading I failed back in 1987.

What happened there was really interesting.

There were about 30 of us. We completed all the techniques. All the excercises. Everything by the book. But as the grading went on the kiais got quieter. Then stopped altogether. The power dissipated. Everything just got a bit ‘soft’.

Everyone was being influenced by everyone else. In a bad way.

Hanshi failed every one of us. For ‘lack of spirit.’

I was tremendously upset, but quickly understood why it happened.

So what did it teach me?

Ignore everyone around you. Be influenced by no one else. Trust yourself. Plough your own furrow. Oh, and shout like your life depends on it.

Eventually we heard Hanshi’s words echo round the hall:

“That’s it. Your grading is over.”

Of course it wasn’t really. We knew we still had the rest of the camp to prove ourselves. So the pressure remained.

Two hours later, with gi still soaking wet, we were back in the hall for an evening session with Hanshi. This time with the rest of the camp attendees.

The next morning at 6.30 we lined up on the field for a warm-up with Hanshi before splitting into groups for different activities.

Those of us who were grading ended up squashed into a squash court nose to nose with Shihans Liam and Alex and Sensei Moss who proceeded to point out exactly how rubbish our techniques and stances were.

This was at once terrifying (clearly we’d all failed our grading the day before if we can’t even punch a decent chudan zuki) and enlightening (no matter how long you train there is always so much room for improvement. We are striving to achieve that unachievable perfection after all).

The rest of the day was split into different sessions comprising self-defence, pad work, kata and technique ‘polishing’.

On the final day we had another 6.30am squash court session, followed by training on the field, with Shihans David Pickthall and Nick da Costa offering up some really useful knockdown combinations. And then came the fighting.

Those grading had to line up for five fights, then everyone else was allowed to fight each other, finishing off with another five fights for just the grading group.

I didn’t count how many rounds we had. It felt like a thousand, but it might have only been 20.

From there it was back into the big hall to cheer as the results of the gradings were read out and those successful jogged happily up to collect their signed licences.

Brown belts, Shodans and Nidans. They all heard their names called out.

The three of us attempting our Sandan just sat and sweated.

The pressure now reached an all time high.

There was one final hurdle. We each had to perform our personal katas for the assembled group.

It was us performing our own creation in front of people who knew infinitely more about what made a good kata than us. (I later had a nightmare in which I was training in the dojo totally naked. Not sure what that meant…)

Afterwards we stood there convinced of two things: that there was nothing we could have done better, and that our best just wasn’t good enough.

Then, one by one our names were read out.

Mine was last.

Finally the self-inflicted pressure that had started eight months earlier was lifted.

It was replaced by a feeling I had not expected.

That the grading had not been the end.

But simply the end of the beginning.

That I’d finally completed the basics.

And there was only one thing left to do now:

Get better.


Monday, 19 May 2014

FIVE THINGS (I NOW REALISE) I LEARNED FROM DAVID ABBOTT.

David hired Mary Wear and myself back in 1995.

We had the honour of being the last creative team he ever hired.

In the time we spent with him we did some of our best work.

And learned many things.

Stuff that, only on reflection since his death two days ago, I realise has had a huge effect on me.

These are a few that spring to my, rather sad, mind:



1. Only work with great people.

Every single member of David’s creative department was so good and so experienced they could have run departments in their own rights. 

That allowed David to relax and in effect just say yes or no (usually yes) to the greatness that his teams produced, thereby giving him the space to run the business and write the occasional ad.

He also wasn’t afraid to work with big characters.

Clearly a glutton for punishment, he’d worked with one of the biggest, my father Ron, twice in the past. First at DDB, and then to be his art director at his first agency French Gold Abbott. 

To be one of the few people to have successfully wrangled my old man deserves a place in history all of its own.


2. Creative people can run successful companies.

In an industry that’s infamous for seeing founding creative partners ousted from their own agencies David’s power and influence was unheard of. 

When Mary and I got to AMV he was Creative Director, Chairman of the agency and Chairman of the PLC board.

Years earlier, when DDB was at its ‘Mad Men’ prime, he was both the agency’s Creative Director and Managing Director.

You don’t keep roles like those for long if you don’t know what you’re doing.


3. Start a business with brilliant friends.

I could never get over the love David and Peter Mead had for each other.  

Love borne out of respect for each other that meant they could relax and get on with their jobs knowing they had each others’ backs and wouldn’t fall victim of boardroom politics.


4. Have the courage to leave your comfort zone.

To be honest, when Mary and I were asked to go to AMV we had to think twice.

The agency had always done lovely work, but for us the place had an aura of middle class gentleness about it. (Unsurprising bearing in mind who ran the place.)

But what made up our minds to go was the existence in his creative department of Tom Carty and Walter Campbell.

David had backed them when they wanted to work with the, at the time, black-balled Tony Kaye, and had approved what is, to this day, the most bonkers (and seminal) piece of advertising ever: Dunlop’s ‘Unexpected’.

And that belief in and support of Tom and Walter led to them producing work that changed AMV's reputation of being the best print agency in London to being the best TV agency in London.


5. Keep your word.

You could never accuse David of being flaky.

He made a point of following through on his promises.

Even when that included leaving the very agency he helped found.

For years he told everyone he planned to retire by his 60th birthday. 

True to form he waved an elegant goodbye to us all two days before the event.




I never told David how much I learned from him.


So, in his leaving us I have learned another lesson: 

Don’t wait til it’s too late to thank someone for having a profound effect on your life.



Sunday, 22 September 2013

THE CONFESSIONS OF A TRAINER ADDICT.

I admit it.

I have a problem.

It all started back in 1995 when I clapped eyes, and feet, on Nike’s newest iteration of their famous Air Max running shoe.

You’ll know them. 

The ones with the black/neon yellow/white colourway with graduated suede panels and nylon mesh and 3M reflective strips, coloured visible air-units with PSI pressure reading and speed-lacing system with high density mesh eyelets.

To this day considered by many to be the best trainer ever made, they were a technological marvel, a design masterpiece and comfy as hell.

Moreover they succeeded in hooking me, and numerous other poor sods like me, into a world from which there’s no return.

These were by no means the first trainers I’d owned. 

I’d had many pairs of Vans in the past. 

But those Nikes marked the first time I’d not worn a pair of shoes til they plain wore out.

They become the the first pair of what would end up as ‘a collection’.

More specifically, a Nike collection.

(I do actually own a pair of Reebok Pumps, the result of an early bit of experimentation, but they rarely see the light of day.)

My desire ignited by these neon masterpieces, I soon found myself making regular trips to the newly opened Nike Town on Oxford Circus.

When I’d exhausted their selection I ended up skulking round back alleys of soho looking for limited edition releases in the exclusive and highly priced trainer boutiques.

New colourways and fabric versions were purchased as a matter of course.

Business trips to the States took on a new exciting angle. Would the Nike Town on East 57th Street have a slightly different selection to its European counterpart?

Then, in 1997 my first child was born. 

I was forced to temper my purchases. Funds became rather annoyingly re-directed towards less important things like nappies and babygrows. 

More practically, a new baby meant I no longer had the time needed to cruise the shops to snap up any new releases.

But just when I thought I’d got out, those pushers in Portland pulled me back in.

Nike created the most amazing web utility the world has ever seen: Nike ID.

The opportunity to create a totally bespoke, utterly unique pair of Nikes was irresistible. 

I indulged myself whole-heartedly.

Throughout all this, I felt I’d avoided ‘going overboard’ by not keeping my shoes in their boxes like many sneakerheads, who end up annexing spare rooms or renting lock-ups for their stockpiles. 

No, I just kept mine stashed around the house. 

And basement.

Eventually I was forced to face my problem when my wife and son staged an intervention.

I came home to find they’d gathered every pair of shoes I owned and lined them up. The line stretched all the way from the front of the house to the back.

But far from halting my habit, this action, combined with the fact that we had actually run out of storage space at home, just prompted me to 'go underground'. I vowed from then on to keep all new purchases at the office.

There is, however, a line I just won’t cross. 

I absolutely refuse to queue for days like the many other trainerholics you can often see filling the pavements for days outside the likes of Nike’s 1948 in Shoreditch or Soho’s Foot Patrol. 

I must confess however I have found myself counting down the seconds at my computer waiting for the ‘one minute past midnight’ online release of certain pairs.

The sneaker bloggers haven’t helped matters. 

They’re busy whipping up a frenzy of excitement for addicts with their sneak previews, sometimes months ahead of their actual release date, documenting in minute detail every mouth-watering new innovation. 

And there’s always a steady stream of those. 

In recent months alone Nike has given us woven shoes, knitted shoes and a pair made out of cork.

They have a name for these: Quick Strikes or QSs. Released in tiny numbers. They go for 300% of their initial cost on eBay almost immediately.

Relatively recently, a new and shockingly powerful tool has emerged to help those pushers tantalise their prey.

Instagram has led to photos of new shoes being pumped straight to addicts’ eyeballs the precise second each new pair is exposed to the world.

The numbers are astonishing. 

The feed of trainer blog The Drop Date for example is being followed by 3,000 people. 

Soho boutique Foot Patrol has 7,000 followers. 

As does Nike’s 1948 space in Shoreditch. 

Crooked Tongues has 9,000. Sneakerfreaker 10,000. 

Daily sole 11, 000. 

And Nike’s hidden-away New York store 21 Mercer has 42,000 people hanging on their every shot. 

And then it starts getting scary. 

Kicks On Fire has 238,000 followers. 

Nice Kicks has 530,000. 

And the almighty Sneaker News, 746, 000. 

There is one thing about these bonkers statistics I find comforting however.

They prove quite conclusively that I’m not alone.

They also prove that this kind of habit isn’t simply a fashion thing.

It’s more profound than that.

Is it about a love of design?

Of technology? 

Of innovation?

Or perhaps it stems from something more deep-seated than that? 

Satiating some fundamental deep human need?

Perhaps.


But I’m fucked if I know.