The Axes of Attention

Axes of attention

Earlier this month I did a webinar for the lovely people at the World Advertising Research Council about attention, rounding out a half year of touring my book Paid Attention, which has seen the talk I give evolve considerably, as the conversations have evolved around attention and ad blocking. 

You can watch it on the site [it says it's a download but it's not, it goes through to a streaming screen] and I thought I'd pull out one new element I've been thinking about: the axes of attention.

In my book I suggest attention is a resource, and it is traded through what is a kind of derivative or proxy or possibility point called the impression. Since impressions are binary, on or off, they make us think of attention that way, even though we know it isn't. 

Microsoft did some very famous research this year which was reported as

"Humans have shorter attention span than goldfish, thanks to smartphones"

and got a lot of press because it feels like something that is true, that our spans of attention have decreased, that it's harder to focus, because Internet. 

However, this sort of research is somewhat spurious because there is no agreed definition of "attention spans" and because Microsoft created it to sell certain kinds of advertising units - short ones, one assume. 

[Always look to the source of an article or research, because all content is advertising something.] 

Here is the primary research so you can look at it - it has lots of interesting depth to it, but we always look for the super simple "insight" even in areas that are amazing complex, like cognitive research. We are biased towards simplicity because we only ever encounter complexity in the real world.

Hence, stories and myth and how memory works and the oft spouted belief in simplicity, which often masks or distorts instead of reflecting reality. 

Anyway, the major point, made by Microsoft CEO is one I, obviously agree with, hence my book: 


So we live in a world with many more options and distractions, and so we can't focus as much, because they are always alternatives.

Every tiny bit of our attention takes something from us, and we have a limited about of time and cognitive resources each day. 

Povery attention

We trade our attention for content - that's how advertising mostly works -

except for with billboards, which is why David Ogilvy hated them, because there is on consent, no value transferred to the individual. 

Ogilvy billboard

and because attention is much more limited than content now, the price should go up. But the market has incorrectly priced attention because impressions are not quite the same thing. 

So you can understand ad blocking, or TIVO, as the market trying to correct the price of attention.

The attention cost in advertising of an episode of television on broadcast channels feels too high - too many breaks, too many ads, too high a frequency. Hence the practice of recording shows you watch live [one the rare occasions on you do] and starting 2o minutes later to skip past the breaks.  

Adblocking is the same - the price we started to have to pay in attention terms for the content no longer felt right, the price was too high. 

And, like in the tragedy of the commons, when too many bites of the pie are taken, the resource collapses. They take away our access to their attention, as also happened with billboards in Sao Paulo and Chenai. They became too numerous, too intrusive, and then they were banned. Attention collapse can happen.  

That said, somethings are very good at holding our attention.

To give the most extreme example, a man in Taiwan died this year after a 3 day gaming binge. Video games are extremely good at holding attention for very long periods. I don't think World of Warcraft players spending hours or days playing feel like they have short attention spans in that moment. 

So, a more varied understanding of attention is needed. It has 2 axes, not just one: duration and intensity, as in the chart at the top. 

Paul Feldwick reviewed my book [which is awesome and I'm super grateful about] and pointed out that

"So – to take a significant example – although there’s a great deal about the importance of ‘low-attention  processing’ and frequent acknowledgement  that advertising works in complex ways, the theme of ‘attention’ as flagged in the title keeps popping up without qualification as if it were always essential."

And I'd argue that it is, in the sense of duration.

Advertising can work with "low attention" - low intensity - as Professor Heath has well established. But it cannot function with no duration at all, that's just logic, simply because it means you never saw it, at all, anywhere, even in your peripheral vision.

Here we get into a tricky area because "conscious attention" and perception aren't the same thing exactly, inattentional blindness exists for example, which means we may not see things we aren't paying attention to even if we look at them, on the one hand, and you may never pay much conscious attention to a poster or TV spot as you see them. 

So, for posters, low attention processing may happen well below your conscious threshold, but that can't function when you have adblockers online, because the ads never get in front of any sensory organs. 

All of which is perhaps to say that communications need an attention strategy, to understand the attentional quality it is attempting to use in context, to appropriately value the attention is consumes from people, to balance out the attention debts people are feeling, to restore balance to the force. 

[Go watch the webinar over at WARC, which features attention hacks and various other nuggets of stolen genius] 


So, that wraps my year of thinking about attention with a rare but fun rant, to quote Tim Minchin.

I'm going to triple post this to Medium and Linkedin as a little experiment.

We are going offline for a bit to think about something new.

Happy New Year! 

Ex Libris Friends Edition - Win them All!

Strands of Genius

This is a special edition of Ex Libris since it mostly features books we love from friends of ours.

[Previous editions featuring lots of books I think you should read are here, here and here]

They were all featured in our newsletter this week - and if you subscribe THIS WEEK you will be entered to win either one of the books or ALL of them.

Strands of [stolen] Genius features a broad curation of the most interesting things we've consumed from the web this week, from articles, to research, ideas - anything that we think you should add to the lego box in your head from which ideas are made. 

The box below should subscribe you - for more go to



1. The Advertising Effect: How To Change Behavior
Adam Ferrier / @adamferrier

Too often we forget that changing behavior is why advertising exists, and that the assumptions we have, such as the idea that changing minds will change behavior, aren't necessarily true. Adam is a Naked alum, Chief Strategy Officer at new model agency Cummins&Partners, TV and radio pundit, dear friend and super smart individual. You'll likely find yourself re-reading and referencing his book at the start of many new projects.

2. Brain Surfing: The Top Marketing Strategy Minds in the World
Heather LeFevre / @hklefevre

Heather is a great friend to us [she was with us in the mountains this weekend!] and the strategy community: She's been writing, running and publishing the Planner / Strategist Survey for a decade. After a successful agency career, she decided to apprentice herself to some of the top strategy minds all over the world and detailed her journey in this book. She writes not only about what she learns, but the strategists and planners she meets along the way.  

3. A Beautiful Constraint: How To Transform Your Limitations Into Advantages, and Why It's Everyone's Business
Adam Morgan & Mark Barden / @eatbigfish & @markcbarden 

Adam Morgan wrote Eating the Big Fish and taught a generation of marketers about challenger brands. In his new book, he and Mark Barden explore an essential aspect of creativity - how it works with constraints, and how constraints can even enhance the response. It's as beautiful as it is practical, filled with interesting anecdotes and solid advice.

4. Copy, Copy, Copy: How to Do Smarter Marketing by Using Other People's Ideas 
Mark Earls & John Willshire /@herdmeister & @willsh

Mark's hugely important Herd paper and book reminded us all that humans are social animals and often make decisions socially. His new book is very aligned to the GeniusSteals philosophy and creative process, and it's illustrated by another dear friend of ours John Willshire. Alongside the theory of looking to others for ideas, the book has a resource workshop section you will most definitely return to. 

5. Disruption Revolution: Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and the New Rules of Leadership
David Passiak / @passiak

David is a former religious scholar, technology entrepreneur and writes eloquently about the intersection of culture, technology, ancient wisdom and innovation [His previous book was Red Bull to Buddha: Innovation and the Search for Wisdom]. In this book he interviewed Seth Godin, Brian Solis, Chris Anderson, Jeremiah Owyang, Robert Scoble, Erik Qualman [and us] to uncover the modern rules of innovation. 

6. Read This Before Our Next Meeting
Al Pittampalli / @Pittampalli

Rosie has sent this book to clients and partners because it seems that everyone is suffering from horrible meetings. With no objective, no thought, it should be no surprise that many meetings are ineffective. Al's book is a quick read (about an hour) and includes some easy actions you can take to quickly improve meetings. Plus, you can discreetly leave it on your colleague's desk when you finish ;) And if you loved what you read, you can look forward to his next book, which is coming out early 2016!
7. Paid Attention 
Our very own Faris

When we asked the Global Marketing Director at Converse what she thought of Paid Attention, she said, 

"We don’t think of it this way, but advertising is an industry with a history of its own, shaped by heroes, epiphanies, disasters and luck. It’s not often analysed like other industries, but in his book, Faris has laid out a rich and intricate landscape that not only frames the state of advertising today, but the events that contributed to it, and how advertising should evolve in the face of that fast-arriving future we’ve heard so much about. Grab a thesaurus and get ready for a Billy Madison-esque learning montage." 

Haven't snagged a copy just yet? Our publisher, Kogan Page, is offering 25% off their entire catalogue with this code: KPXMAS2015


BONUS! We've done a lot of reading this year, and decided we'd each share one of our favorites with you!

8. Faris' Pick: KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money by JMR HIggs

What appears, on the surface, to be a biography of a briefly famous dance music band who went on to film themselves burning one million pounds on an island, is rather a a philosophical exploration into the strands of magic running through human existence and the twentieth century. Thanks to Saul Pee for the tip. 

9. Rosie's Pick: Want Not by Jonathan Miles

You've got "a young freegan couple living off the grid in New York City; a once-prominent linguist, sacked at midlife by the dissolution of his marriage and his father’s losing battle with Alzheimer’s; and a self-made debt-collecting magnate, whose brute talent for squeezing money out of unlikely places has yielded him a royal existence, trophy wife included." And the stories of their overlapping lives. An unlikely combination of thought-provoking, devastating, and funny makes for a perfect page-turner. 

Full Stack Strat, Cultural Pendula & Fachidiots

Full stack

I wrote a piece for The Guardian about the fragmentation of strategy problem I explored in my book, and thought I'd coined a new appropriation for the solution, which I called "Full Stack Strategy".

In essence, strategy is perforce holistic, and the communication industry's fragmentation into discipline specific agencies works against that: 

All these agencies created strategist roles to fight their way upstream to the client table, to spawn budget for their ideas, to justify all those ongoing retainers. Managing all these little strategies continues to drive clients to madness.

Then some people pointed me to this great Medium piece by Camilla Gray about "full stack strategy".

She uses it slightly differently - not about agency fragmentation but about the impact of digital and the need to understand brand as prime mover of corporate behavior - but to the same point:

Brand strategy needs to extend all the way from the core of the business to a user or customer and all the way back in again. The need for a Full Stack Strategy is relatively new. Digitisation, user-centricity, and a heightened emphasis on company culture has made corporate agility a must. 

I very much agree - we approached strategy this way at Naked, pulling budget from advertising to training and changing the incentives for staff at the call centre, for example.

As I said here, regarding digital brand strategy:

digital brand strategists need to be hybrid thinkers, concerned with who and what and where and when and why – a complete system approach. Business, brand, behavior, technology, content, channel, social and so on.

I don't remember reading this piece before - it was written in Feb - but realistically I almost certainly have, it's very much the kind of thing I would read. 

So this is probably a case of what's called cryptomnesia which is when you have an idea which is actually a memory that your brain forgets it saw elsewhere.

It's incredibly common, probably because this is how your brain makes ideas, by indexing things it knows against the problem at hand, combining inputs to take advantage of the mathemagic of combinatorics. 

Ideas, as we have discussed before, are new combinations

Brainpicker picks this up

This notion — that “our” ideas are the combinatorial product of all kinds of existing ideas we’ve absorbed in the course of being alive and awake to the world — is something many creators have articulated, perhaps none more succinctly than Paula Scher.

This fusion of existing bits into new combinations is a largely unconscious process, and for all its miraculous machinery, one serious downside is that it often obliterates the traces of the original sources we unconsciously fold into our “new” ideas.

In fact, the words for creating and remembering are strongly linked because memory and creativity are strongly linked:

Inventory and invention[HT my mate Clare, who sent me this, from Moonwalking With Einstein

One cannot invent without proper inventory. 

Then, yesterday I read this piece about how to use our programmatic advertising inventory properly, or at least make it suck less, with creativity.

It mentions an idea called "full stack creativity": 

full stack creativity, by which I mean a person (or small team) that comes up with ideas, makes the stuff, looks at the metrics, and then makes the optimization decisions.

Media people and analytics people can only make programs better through reduction…taking out the things that aren’t working.

But when creative people are involved in optimization they can actually make new things, responding to the feedback the market is giving them, and that’s much more powerful.

which is yet another way thinking about integration and fragmentation problems.

All of which probably just means that the full stack metaphor is one whose time has come, and probably on its way to gone through overuse, as is the way of such things, especially in advertising. 

But, this also feels like part of a larger contraction in culture, a movement, a swing of the pendulum.

Culture seems to work this way, yinning and yanging, swinging hard in one direction, discovering the opposite in its own extreme, swinging back.

Mainstream and counter culture are contrapuntal harmonies. 

The great specialization, of Ford and Taylor, of factories and production lines, of corporations and academia, has begun to struggle beneath its problems.

Its benefits are well known, in production terms thanks to Ford in organizational terms thanks to Coatse, who first explained The Nature of The Firm.

Production lines achieve huge efficiencies by maximizing the fragmentation of jobs to minimize skill requirements and training. 

Firms mitigate transaction costs of the market by housing specialists together to create a larger more efficient machine that solves problems - the company. [See The Org for more on this] 

The downsides for production lines is that it creates mind numbing repetitive jobs ideally suited for robots. 

The downsides for organizations is that communication and collaboration are really hard, especially between different kinds of experts, and create their own costs, which can ultimately overwhelm the gains made in transactions costs [this is when companies because feudal bureaucracies and start to die]. 

Academics require PHDs to push into an unknown domain of knowledge so far that it's hard for anyone who isn't a peer to understand them, and it makes the peer review pool highly competitive, because of the paucity of grants. 

Further, the danger is in creating what the Germans call a "fachidiot" or subject matter idiot, so deeply involved in a topic as to be tunnel blind:

"Fachidiot" which literally, translated into English means "subject idiot" defined by the Institute as: "Someone who knows a lot about a particular field, in a similar way to a one-track specialist.

The difference is that a one-track specialist still notices what is going on around him. A Fachidiot simply doesn't…"

Breakthroughs, especially in areas where experts have been stuck for some time, are often happened upon by scientists of adjacent specialisms, because they know enough, but not too much, about the topic. 

As I've written before, the Western world sees things in separate pieces, in binary logical terms, where as Eastern thinking tends towards the holistic, make me one with everything, as the buddhist monk said to the New York hot dog vendor. 

Rather than thinking of these are different ideas, they are perhaps different mental models, appropriate to different tasks, different ways of thinking about reality and tackling problems. Different models are useful at different junctures, when you have fully explored one model, it makes sense to look at its opposite to continue to explore. 

So you can see this cultural pendulum as swinging from pieces to the whole, back and forward, from components to systems, from l33t specialists to full stack, and back.

Bonnie & Clyde

Back in May we spoke at the HOW DESIGN LIVE conference in Chicago

[which was excellent, btw, you can check out some highlights here and some quotes here

and some lovely people from Webydo asked to interview us. 

We said yes, and the video is above - they call us "The Bonnie & Clyde of the Creative World" which is nice of them. 

They also pulled out seven themes from the interview, talk and the book. 

1. The Myth of Originality

2. Ideas are Networks

3. Copying is Lame

4. How to Come Up With New Ideas

5. In A World of Infinite Content - Focus on Behavior.

6. Visit Disney World ASAP!

7. Design Personalized Experiences Around Behavior

You can read about them in detail on the lovely Webydo

And in my book, natch

Listen to Radiolab


Last night I gave a talk at Google for the APG and, for reasons I can't quite remember, I asked the audience of planners if they listened to Radiolab - and only 2 people raised their hands.

SO - here is a PSA for the UK and especially for planners, because Radiolab is planner crack:

Listen to Radiolab!

To help, here our are few of our favorites

Nazi Summer Camp

In which we learn that Nazi prisoners of war worked at farms in Idaho, set up orchestras, and generally had very nice time. 

60 Words

On the 60 words in USA law that are the ongoing legal justification from drone murders anywhere they feel like it. 

Straight Outta Chevy Chase

A story about a white guy who is the unlikely hip hop expert
On how the right words can have the wrong meaning. 
The history of the phrase, which, especially as a communicator, you'll find interesting.
Searching for happiness, perfection, and ideals. Too many interesting ones in this one.
On just how profoundly unstable memory is.
And I now remember the one I was talking about last night which, it turns out, wasn't Radiolab at all, but This American Life.
[Told you memory was unstable] 
[which has since been retracted because the science paper that inspired it has been challenged as completely false - the interesting story here, the point I was making being that no one ever really changes their mind.] 

Ideas Are Connections Between Bits of Knowlege

Student Design Award Winner - Curiosity: Exploration and Discovery 

Our rather brilliant and lovely mate Scott sent me this delightful little film - it won a student design award and very much aligns with how we think at Genius Steals.

To whit, we are called Genius Steals because it's something we believe and our beliefs define how we work with clients. 

[We also believe that the age of naming your company after your own names is over and a little old school and icky.]

[We make an exception for the gloriously named BartonFGraf9000 because it's Gerry's dad, the story is funny and it explains a lot about the tone of the agency and their work, which doesn't take itself too seriously, because funny.]  

What we believe is that originality is a myth - that nothing comes from nothing - that ideas are new combinations - so that the more diverse stuff you expose yourself to, the more interesting connections you can make.

[PLUG: I map all this out in Paid Attention.]

Our beliefs are printed on our business cards, so we are pretty clear about what they are. 

Genius steals values

 [From our Year One Story

We don't want to be like Groucho Marx:

"Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others." 

This doesn't mean we aren't willing to change our minds - it's a vital skill, especially in a world that changes as fast as ours does. 

It's why we love to work across a vast range of sectors and geographies - we are currently working on a tech start ups, a hospitality brand, several agencies, and our publisher, with collaborators and clients spread across SF, NYC, London, Madrid and wherever we are that week.

The more broadly we work and travel, the more diverse the pool of things to steal and recombine into new solutions and ideas. 

It's also why we partner with Seenapse, because the inspiration engine helps you think with other people's heads, to find connections you don't have. 

It's why we don't have a menu of products because, as the video points out, anything that can be routinized will be automated. 

Processes are great when you have known outcomes, projects are where we don't what the outcome will be at the start.

We like Noah's stuff on this:

Process management is a way to ensure that the same outcome is always delivered, while project management is a structure for supporting activities where the outcome is meant to be different every time.


Some of our projects are strategic, some are rapid turn around ideation, some involve content creation, some involve coming to Mexico [where we are this week] to run brand experience workshops for team members from all over the world for a global brand. 

Not knowing what we'll be doing or where we will be next is pretty exhilarating

[although it does come with a 100x increase in logistics! Imagine planning a trip every single week.

Fortunately Rosie is a business and logistics genius [among many other things] and our assistant is awesome - we're even flying her down to Mexico for these workshops as part of our team.] 

and keeps us inspired. 

We aren't taking on any new clients until Q4, but if this sort of thing makes sense to you like it does to us - get in touch anyway - we like chatting to nice people regardless of business stuff.

You know, like humans. 


So yeah we live in the age where everyone is a brand and branding themselves hard all the time and that.

But just as we try to rehabilitate companies to speak less like jargon infected corporate psychopaths, we have to be careful about not letting vice become verse. 

Or - here's a funny video! 

Here's Part Two, also

[BONUS: the song in the background is Doses & Mimosas by Cherub, from 2012, which is currently one of my favorite tunes, with an awesome NSFW video.] 

Advertising Philosophy With Henry Jenkins

Aca jenkins paid attention

Henry very kindly interviewed me for his blog about Paid Attention.

Part 1 and Part 2 are up so far. 

Here is one question to whet your appetite to click through - I'm really happy with it and people seem to be enjoying it. 

You have a very interesting section in the book about the emergence of street artist Banksy. What can advertisers learn from the Banksy phenomenon?

Banksy is an attention hacker like no one else in this generation, a modern day Warhol.

All of his work is designed to invite debate, to get into the news, to hack culture. Every stunt, every collection, is differently delivered, wrapped in mystery, laughing at and with society, advertising and the art world.

His concerns almost always reflect concerns of the time, he has clear values and well established viewpoints, he appropriates culture as much as creating it, leveraging old schemas to explain new ideas. He utilizes technology but never fetishes it.

He manages the almost impossible balancing act of being one of the world’s most commercially successful artists but without any hint of corporate acquiescence or sense that money is a motivator.

He easily traverses media, from art, to film, through PR, events, carefully curated digital spaces, protecting his brand by being utterly distinguishable in whatever he does.

It’s hard to imagine a better role model for a marketer, but that of course doesn’t mean it’s easy to steal his genius. -

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