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Posts from August 2016

Ex Libris 2016 Summer Reading

Reading is for awesome people

[This is a handmade piece you can buy on Etsy for 10 bucks, hopefully they think of this as an ad]

Years ago the International Journal of Advertising asked me to write a column called Ex Libris about books that inspired me, and I've done it a few times since. 

Here is my bumper Summer 2016 reading list for your delectation, elucidation and edification.

Reading is for awesome people, and is unfortunately in long term decline:

"The number of adults who read at least one novel, play or poem within the past 12 months fell to 47% in 2012 from 50% in 2008, according to a new survey of over 37,000 Americans, “A Decade of Arts Engagement,” by the National Endowment for the Arts, a government agency that promotes artistic excellence."

This seems sad to me, not just selfishly as an author, but in general because reading is a whetstone for the mind, to paraphrase Game of Thrones,

[somewhat alanis morissette ironically since the incredible amount of quality television available on demand is surely a contributing factor to this decline. Coupled with Americans working the longest hours in the world and reading takes more effort than grazing television.] 

I tend to choose what to read via recommendations from friends or via Twitter, so thanks to everyone who led me to these ones, and this is me paying it forward. Plus adding in Amazon links, to add minute amounts of affiliate kickbacks to help fund my book habit. [See? Full disclosure of rebates isn't hard.] 

Let's start with non-fiction

I have noticed that as men get older [like me] they [I] seem to read an increasing percentage of non-fiction - and this is borne out by sales data, which suggests men make up only 20% of the fiction readership [USA]. 

"Theories attempting to explain the "fiction gap" abound. Cognitive psychologists have found that women are more empathetic than men, and possess a greater emotional range—traits that make fiction more appealing to them." 

In general, fiction sales are in long term decline, and one contributing factor is the ongoing obsession in USA with productivity. 

Why the slump in reading fiction? Self-help books and biographies may have a certain utilitarian appeal, says New York-based author Christopher Sorrentino. “Who wants to spend two weeks reading a novel that you might not like very much?” 

An obsession with productivity is a trap, a Sisyphean task, endless and demoralizing, since you can never get enough done, there's always more to do, and you end up working longer and longer hours and getting less and less productive. Especially if your doing any kind of creative work because the imagination needs constant feeding, since one can't invent without inventory. 

Focusing on being more productive overweights self-help and guide and business books [yes I'm aware I wrote a business book but I also flatter myself that it's a philosophy book that happens to have some practical applications] in the endless drive to be a better employee in this age of uncertainty, and underweights all the things that aren't immediately useful but are the stuff that fills up your cognitive toolbox and become the spark of the idea down the line.

By focusing too much on short term utility, we lose a great deal of long term utility. That's why Bill Gates takes a month to just read every year. He isn't teaching himself to code but rather filling his mind with an ever growing web of connections. 

That's also why thinking about education purely as a way of getting a high paying job diminishes it, both as a cultural idea and in terms of the actual education you get, since vocational degrees by their nature teach you things that are best practice now, or recently, not what will be useful in the future. However, this earning potential of degrees is necessarily factored in when college is so incredibly expensive and incurs debt that follows you forever. Very sad.

When I went to University, I had no thought at all about it being a way into a job, and this was possible because university education was free in the UK when I did it. The value of education is not measured solely in money, and you often don't know what you need to know until you need to know it. 

I remember distinctly learning about tachyons [hypothetical faster than light particles] from a comic book when I was a little kid, which I can now bring up in conversation with physicists.  

But I also learned a lot reading these books this year. 

The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction - Matthew Crawford

I'm reading this at the moment and find myself tweeting a lot of it. It's about "Attention [being] the faculty through which we encounter the world directly." which is obviously in area of interest but this is a significant philosophical treatise on modern life. In essence, he speaks about the problems Western liberalism's drive to free us from arbitrary authority has the side of effect of being unable to define a true moral code , how our attention has been colonized, and how being an individual is something that requires work. I'm not doing it justice but it's impressive.

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives - Leonard Mlodinow

We massively underestimate the impact of randomness in all spheres of our lives, which makes people think they are responsible for their own success, even though there is a huge amount of luck in all success. This leads us to pay CEOs far too much money, and to gamble badly, and to do lots of things that we wouldn't do if we factored the drivers and odds in. 

What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets - Michael Sandell

Markets are very good at certain things, but are there things that shouldn't be decided simply by who has the most money? "Should we pay children to read books or to get good grades? Should we allow corporations to pay for the right to pollute the atmosphere? Is it ethical to pay people to test risky new drugs or to donate their organs? What about hiring mercenaries to fight our wars? Auctioning admission to elite universities?" We have seen markets creep into areas of human life that it's not suited to.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal - Mary Roach

One of the most fun things I've read in ages, the author takes us through the science of stomachs and saliva and basically nearly everything you think you know about how eating works is wrong. 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Harari 

Bill Gates and Zuck have both recommended this. How did human beings become number one top species - and are population numbers alone a measure of evolutionary success? [Think how many chickens there are.] "Why have humans managed to build astonishingly large populations when other primate groups top out at 150 individuals? Because our talent for gossip allows us to build networks in societies too large for personal relationships between everyone, and our universally accepted “imagined realities”--such as money, religion, and Limited Liability Corporations—keep us in line." You should read this, it's about you.

Now for Some Stories

When I noticed [i.e. when my wife Rosie pointed  out] that I was reading mostly non-fiction, I thought about this for a while. I did a literature degree because I loved stories and words. So I was a bit saddened by this observation. I also felt that I was getting more impatient with people, and this makes sense, since reading fiction increases our empathy. 

Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships. “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations,” Kidd says. This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom.

So I made a concerted effort to read some. I had a couple of false starts, books that didn't grab me, so I asked for some recommendations and, because my friends know me, I started to find gold, and have really got back into reading fiction, which I'm hoping will make me a nicer person.

Since we live on the road, we travel very frequently, and travel is full of annoying frustrations with airlines and so on. It's easy to start to get grumpy. It's like how everyone commuting is in a terrible mood and will flare up in anger at the smallest thing, because they are carrying the cumulative stress of every single commute. 

Commuting a long distance is huge, daily driver of unhappiness

Happiness commuting 

Personally, I found that when I made the shift to commuting by bicycle, it made me much happier, and was one of the high points of my day. It's one of the only things I miss about having a corporate job.  

So here are some books I loved reading, that helped remind me that other people have their own lives and worlds. I especially focused on reading books by women because I'm a man and know what that's like. 

Station Eleven - Emily Mandel

A beautiful, layered and wonderfully constructed novel about an apocalyptic pandemic and a comic book.

The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton 

A historical novel set in New Zealand's gold rush, it's a fantastically well realized parody of a 19th century novel and super fun. It's also incredibly complex in its construction. I keep being reminded how planned novels are, so at odds with the romantic Kerouacian image of smashing at a typewriter until the book comes out.

Murder Must Advertise - Dorothy L Sayers

An aristocrat detective goes undercover at an advertising agency to solve a murder and drug smuggling ring and gets into all kinds of hijinks. Lovely period piece, full of the class boundaries of the English of the era, it's a cross between Agatha Christie and P G Wodehouse. The descriptions and observations of an agency decades before television, staffed entirely by posh men and the tension between departments and clients are depressingly familiar and hilarious at the same time.  

 Perdido Street Station - China Miéville

When I say this is an epic science fantasy novel of rare and confident imagination, I mean epic. It's expansive and unlike any other fantasy I've read, playing with the standard tropes and creating new one. One species have massive bugs for heads. I'm told it's the least good of the trilogy, about to start the next one. 

The Humans - Matt Haig

Probably my favorite novel of last year, it's both hilarious, deeply moving and profound. An alien disguised as a human is the perfect vehicle to analyze the best and worst of humanity. 

Wow this post is getting long isn't?

Well, nearly there, except I have a new section for this Ex Libris - comics. 


Thanks to a couple of friends and geeky conversations, I got the Comixology app and started reading comics again after years. Goodness me, the medium has matured dramatically and there are some incredible, bold, adult comic books to read at the moment. Here are just a few, all of which were recommended to me. 

Saga - Brian K Vaughan (Author), Fiona Staples (Artist)

A sweeping sexy space opera. 

The Wicked And The Divine Kieron Gillen (Author), Jamie Mckelvie (Artist)

A magical musical tale of reincarnated gods, recently optioned for television. 

 Batman by Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo

Both true to the spirit of Batman and totally fresh, this is a remarkable run on one of the best known and over exposed superheroes. It's very, very dark and invents brand new parts of the myth. 

Irredeemable Mark Waid (Author), Peter Krause (Illustrator), & 2 more

What if superman like character decided we weren't worth saving and instead decided to kill millions? The trope of superhero gone bad has never been done better. 

Chrononauts Mark Millar (Author), Sean Murphy (Illustrator) 

From the writer of Kingsman and KickAss and lots of other comic book now films, this time travel adventure is charming, smart, funny and fun.

Happy reading, you awesome people. 

Beyond Boring Briefs - Deck

The webinar was a hit! We had more than 1500 sign up and the software hit maximum capacity. We've had a lot of requests for the deck.
[Reminder - this deck is a part of our workshop on better briefing called Briefs Against Humanity - you should get in touch if you want us to come help you making briefings less boring to inspire more awesome work]
We normally don't publish our decks. As consultants our IP is part of our product offering, part of how we make a living. But since demand was so high we thought we'd try an experiment. 

A teaser is available above via Slideshare.
For the full deck go to the new Genius Steals website and you can download it with a pay what you wish widget. [The platform charges us per download, hence the 50c minimum.]
All the money received will be used to buy drinks for young[ish] people in the industry - we'll share when and where once we have some funds and set up times for THE RETURN OF BEERSPHERE.
You will also be subscribed to Strands Of Genius but don't worry you can unsubscribe at any time if you don't like it - but people really do! 

"Put together by husband and wife creative duo Faris and Rosie Yakob, this weekly email is a source of interesting and fun links from around the web on a variety of topics. The content is expertly curated, and if you can’t find something inspiring in each edition, it will at least make you a more interesting dinner date."  -Hubspot

How We Work Now

How we work now julia

My mate Julia Roy has a new podcast series called How We Work Now in which we she interviews people about working in new ways and now they get things done. 

The first series is interviewing writers and she kindly asked me to do one about Paid Attention and how we work while living on the road.

You can download it from iTunes or listen to it below. 

She also wrote some fantastic show notes over on Work Hacks, that pulls out the key ideas we discussed and links to the various books and articles we spoke about, which included how we work and write whilst traveling and managing our own attention.

At the end I play some of a track by a drum n bass artist that samples a talk by Alan Watts, something that hits pretty squarely inside my own personal Venn. 

I love words. I love playing with them. I love pulling them apart. I love using ones that are so obnoxiously obscure and large that you have to look them up. I love that. – Faris Yakob

Social Fresh Orlando

Social fresh orlando

I'm giving the closing keynote at the Social Fresh Conference in Orlando - you should come if you do social stuff - ticket sales close August 12th.

If you are coming, come say hello - I'm on right before the cocktail reception on Saturday, which is awesome. 

The opening keynote speaker is the excellent Mitch Joel, and I'm very pleased that the mix of other speakers is about 50/50 male/female, which is how all conferences should be. 

I'm going to talk about attention and anxiety in advertising on social media, and then we head to Disney World because it was awesome last year and we want to go play with the Magic Bands again

Show Me Something New

Show me something new

[from an art curation blog where it was posted without attribution] 

I'm judging the New Category at the London International Awards this year. 

It's always the hardest thing to judge, as everyone who has been on the jury says, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the pieces are all entirely different, in form and scale, making like for like comparisons hard. Secondly, we're looking for pieces of work that can help drive the industry forward, beyond its assumed outputs. It has to factor in not just how good an idea is but whether it provides a useful new direction for brands and agencies. 

This year the president is Emmad Tahtouh, Director, Applied Technology at FINCH and winner of the first D&AD Black Pencil. [Also a former professional poker player].

The jury includes: Lars Bastholm, CCO at Google Zoo; Laura Jordan-BambachCreative Partner at Mr President; Andrew McKechnie, Global Group Creative Director Apple; Joe Sciarrotta CCO Ogilvy & Mather Chicago; Taras Wayner, ECD at RG/A - so we have a good balance of agency profiles, although obviously we need more women. 

We don't want to see something new that is either: a] fake b] a social campaign designed to make the brand seem smart and kind but that makes no sense when you think about it c] a pointless use of technology d] a PR stunt dressed up as innovation. 

We do want to see, reward, celebrate and promote generative mutations that can open up new avenues of thought, new roles for agencies, and for advertising, inside business and culture. 

So please enter yours.

Beyond Boring Briefs

Briefs warc

The lovely people at WARC have asked me to do another webinar and we hatched the idea to do one on briefs.

At Genius Steals, one of the workshops we do is called Briefs Against Humanity, because so many briefs are basically fill-in-the-blanks madlibs and it's cruel and unusual. 

This webinar will be some elements from that, cut for time and styled for the grammar of a one way webinar. 

From my time working at Naked [back when it did neutral communication strategy, often briefing all the roster agencies on an account and holding them to it], through working across agencies and at a holding company, to now working on briefs and briefing processes with advertising, digital, PR and media agencies across three continents in the last three years, it's safe to say we have quite a broad purview and, frankly, most briefs are weirdly formulaic, dull as daguerreotypes and just as modern. 

So we'll have a look at some of the templates and elements from around the world, and consider what a brief actually is, and how to make it more fun [because if it isn't any fun it won't be any good], and then explore the Genius Steal / Paid Attention brief template from my book. 

And, when I say "work", I don't mean, "advertisements" - I mean any kind of work being initiated across different kinds of agencies. 

It's free, it will be fun, and I will only be wearing briefs while I do it [although you won't be able to see me, just my slides.]

If you want to watch, you need to register over at WARC

Templates help guide thinking, but writing a brief is a creative act. How we brief is as important as what we say in the brief. 

In this Warc-Genius Steals webinar you will learn:

  • Why are all briefs the same and what can you do about it?
  • What’s the difference between a client brief, a creative brief, a media brief, a digital brief and a PR brief? Can one integrated marketing brief inform them all? 
  • How do briefs encode beliefs?
  • What tools, beyond the brief itself, can lead to better thinking?

Not able to tune into the live webinar? All registrants will receive a link to the recording of the webinar.