This just ain’t good enough

Dear Mr Amex,

A while ago I took out travel insurance with you. I think to both our satisfaction: you get money and a traveler who has last claimed something on travel insurance at least 15 years ago, and I get peace of mind and what at the time was a good deal with a well-respected brand so I can sleep at night when I’m off jet-setting through Europe. So far, so good.

Today I came home to find you’ve sent me a renewal letter. Thanks for that. I kinda like the automatic renewal thing, saves me hassle. But here’s something I don’t understand (and I’m quoting from your letter):

"We have recently launched a new range of travel products and introduced a change to our pricing structure, based on age and geographical area. Additional options and discounts are now available too, which might make one of these new products more suitable for you. To find out more, please call 0800 XXXXX, otherwise we will renew your existing policy."

Oh. Old skool marketing. You are teasing me with (potential) discounts, won’t tell me what they are or provide a way to figuring out more information about them (would it kill you to put in a website address?), but have me call you instead (at which point you will no doubt try and cross-sell me something) which means effort on my side to get something which I feel you are teasing me with but am unclear about what it is exactly. I know I’m not in your books as a top 1,000 customer. Or even a top 10,000. But I am a customer. And I love feeling special. Doesn’t everyone? And to be really frank, I find this a little bit weird. And old skool. And a tad cold. It makes me feel like a bit of an idiot. And I don’t like that feeling. It makes me want to write angry blogposts.

See, you could’ve done it differently. You could’ve said: ‘thank you for being a valued customer, we trust you had a good year of travel and are looking forward to you staying with us for another year. In fact, we’ve been doing some tweaking of our policies and prices, and based on your personal data, we think you might be eligible for a discount. I have included a page which compares the policies side by side (you can also find all the information about the prices here on the internet: {include http address} and in the leaflets included in this envelope. We would love to discuss these options with you at your earliest convenience and are happy to change the policy accordingly if you decide that is to your best interest. If you would like to speak to one of our reps, please call at 0800 XXXX or email XXX quoting reference YYYY. If we don’t hear from you, we assume that you are happy to renew your current policy as is, which we’d be more than happy to do.’

Lessons: think about me (i.e. the customer) first. Then you. Think how you can make my life easier, not just yours and it will come back to you in spades. It breeds loyalty. Open a conversation, don’t just talk at me. Don’t speak in riddles or overly formal language. Although the whole 2.0 thing is so 2005, I think this is a case where the term Marketing 2.0 comes in, and it’s here to stay.

And yes, I know about how hard it is to change complicated IT systems and management structures that send out these letters, that you have thousands of clients and you can’t treat all of them well (in fact, some of them you probably want to be a little bit rude too, because they don’t make you any money and you’d rather they’d wander off to another company), that it will cost a lot of money to send out a more personal letter and you’ve probably paid a copy-writer a lot of money to write this letter, then had it copy-tested and everything. That ain’t no excuse. You can do better than this. If you don’t, someone else will. Even for something as commodity-like as travel insurance. I want to like you. I like your advertising. I like the American Express brand. But you have to work harder.    


[full disclosure: so yes, I do have Amex insurance. I even have a credit card with them. And yes, I did once interview (back in the phase of my life where I felt that if I didn’t do at least one milkround interview my bschool experience would be a waste) and I didn’t get the offer. Which was probably just as well, for both of us :-) , no hard feelings about that at all. ]


I’m a not a generalist. Now you say, there’s nothing wrong with that. And there isn’t. See, generalists are like this:


If you’re not a generalist, you’re a specialist, like this:


But I’m not a specialist either. I don’t know enough to be a specialist in anything really. So, maybe I’m a T-shaped generalist? Knows a lot about one particular subject, and also has a wide general knowledge. Getting warmer.   


See, I know a little about a lot of subjects (I have a head for useless
facts, figures and stats. And lyrics. Don’t ask me why, i haven’t been able to find a job where either comes in handy yet. And I’m an information junkie, too.). But I also know somewhat more
than a little about a few subjects. Enough for non-specialists in that
subject to see me as a specialist. So I propose a new model: the icicle generalist.


The icicle generalist knows a little about a lot, and a lot about a selected few things. And in my case, those selected few things are not always related: I know a thing or two about book history, a few things about business, and am learning about design. It’s fun being an icicle generalist, but hard if you’re trying to find a job. My CV is pretty hard to sell. Most companies want a coherent story (which in my case is hard to make) for either a generalist (think management development programs) or a specialist (think more hardcore finance roles for instance). So now I need to figure out how to make a coherent story for knowing a little about a lot and somewhat more about a little. For being an icicle generalist.

[yes, those are drawings. My own drawings. The strangest thing is starting to happen, I’m starting to draw ideas and concepts versus just putting them in words. The designers around me are rubbing off on me!]

Episode 3, in which the heroine just doesn’t know

19728794_23349ce825I owe this post to my mum. My wonderful, brave and sweet mum (she’s going to hate me for this). Without her I wouldn’t have written this.

As some of you might have noticed I’ve been a bit quiet recently. Now I know you’re not supposed to apologize for that being a good blogger and all, and I don’t know how many of you really care (I suspect most people just want to know how to get into LBS, and frankly don’t care much now that I’m an alumna). Mum asked tonight whether I was too busy to write. I said yes. And then no. I mean, I’ve been busy before, that’s usually not an excuse not to write. Something else has been bugging me and until I get those thoughts out in a coherent way, I am kinda blocked from writing anything else. And although I don’t know if I’ve figured out a coherent way to convey these thoughts, I thought I might as well give it a try. So bear with me. And apologies in advance if I sound fuzzy. I am much more ‘fuzzed out’ than anyone else I suspect.

These past few weeks a number of things have happened in my life that have made me think. I went to a reception where the new Dean at London Business School, Robin Buchanan spoke. He’s very competent. His speech was exactly what you’d expect to hear. And that left me feeling a tad disappointed. That vague sort of rumbling in your tummy kinda disappointed. Is competent (which he beyond doubt is) good enough? I’m not sure it is. I have higher hopes. I want inspiring. I want a bigger vision than what he had to offer. Am I impatient? Impractical? People have told me that all MBAs want are good jobs anyway. I don’t buy that. At all. Granted, I don’t think I’m your bog-standard typical MBA. But then again, not a whole lot of MBAs are in my experience. Are we all this cynical that we don’t believe in inspiration? In something which is greater than ourselves and will last longer than any material possessions we can’t take to our grave anyway? I don’t believe it. So here’s to inspiration. Let’s have more of it. Screw cynicism.

At the same time, we had our big group presentation at MADS. Our team was given the assignment to prepare a 45-60 min presentation on the concept of Ubuntu (‘shared humanity’ for those of you not fluid in Zulu) and how badly designers need it. I had expected another group project; we used to crank ‘em out faster and harder than a Ford assembly line in the MBA. I started of with a little trepidation, how would I work with this new group and would we be able to crack it on time? And aren’t all designers frightfully disorganised (the answer to that one is no)? The project quickly grew to something bigger than just a classroom project. I’d never really thought about sustainability (which is the angle of shared humanity we decided to take). Not beyond what I suspect most people know about it. I recycle paper and glass, have seen Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and was appropriately cycnical about it (as you would expect a good MBA to be) but also strangely touched, which lasted for about as long as it took to walk over to the pub afterwards and get a drink. I know global warming is happening, and think someone should fix it. I know about the Millenium Goals and think governments should work hard to make them a reality. It’s all about someone doing something about it. Until I realised one day that I think I might be going about it in the wrong way. ‘Someone should fix it’. ‘Someone’. So who is this someone? It would have to be someone in a position of power. Running a company. Or a designer who can design more sustainable products. Then it hit me. That’s me. *swear alert* Bloody hell, that’s me. I AM that person. I have an MBA from one of the top schools in the world. I’m currently taking a degree from one of the world’s best design schools and I’m looking to SOMEONE to fix it? I should be fixing it. If I don’t, then who the heck will?

And then what happened? I don’t know. I feel I’m at a point in my life where I can’t go back. To being cynical and hoping someone else will fix things. But I’m not sure what to do. Or how to go about it. What if I do something and make things inadvertedly worse? Could and should I have made different work-choices (don’t get me wrong, I love my job, but is branding and design going to change the world? Is that even important?)? All this is making me antsy, edgy and frustrated. With all my degrees and knowledge and experience, what exactly am I doing to make the world a better place?

Right. At least I’ve said it out loud now. There you have it. Now let me see what I can do to find a solution. Because there has to be one. I’ll report back on when I find it.

Normal service to resume soon

I believe it’s the Chinese that have a proverb that says ‘May you live in interesting times’. Well, that I do. Most definitely. Work’s quite busy and interesting (but I’m not quite sure how much I want to talk about it right now, client confidentiality and all), I’m very busy working on a project for my MA degree (presentation tomorrow night, keep fingers crossed), my laptop broke down and is now with the kind Apple people to replace its hard-drive.

It’s my brother’s birthday today (hurrah), in the last two weeks I’ve given career advice 4 times (Lord help the people who are getting it from me), I’m trying to keep up with my social life, went to the V&A to listen to a talk about psychogeography, went to Brussels to spend a day with a friend. And tons more. And I’ve got a million things I want to write about. Which I will do. Soon. As soon as normal service resumes, which will be probably when my dear Powerbook is returned to me (and when hell freezes over… maybe I should get used to this being ‘normal’ service) I’ll take some time to write again. In the mean time, handle me with care. Thank you.

My £0.02

2192041747_e6e167b2ba_bFor some reason that I haven’t quite fathomed yet, people are asking my advice about careers in branding/design strategy. I still feel like I’m feeling my way around in this whole field, but I guess in the land of the blind, I’m the one-eyed person that people seem to go to. Right. I don’t know how much sensible advice I can give on this, but here’s a quick stab at it. Here’s what I think you might want to be thinking about when you want to move into this field (and this is very UK centric in certain bits):

* Keep an eye on the trade press, Design Week and Campaign are probably most helpful; add Creative Review if you’re more design inclined. Do this over a period of time and you’ll start to recognize names and projects. Figure out who does what, who’s winning what business, and what companies interest you. Mind you, you can’t do this the day before you have an interview, it takes a good few months to build this up.

* Look around you. Take photos. Figure out who shops where, what shop sells what, eats where, eats what, reads what, wears what. Who shops at Waitrose? And Top Shop? And who reads Glamour? Pick up a random magazine and go through it to see what the hot topics are in that area. Read the Economist, Fast Company, Businessweek (esp the Design and Innovation section). Pick up a random magazine every now and again; find out what the readers of Horse and Hound are reading about.

* If I were interviewing someone now, I’d probably want to know how much you know about the business already. What is your favourite brand and why (steer clear of Innocent though… lovely brand, but everyone likes it!)? Who or what would you love to rebrand? What’s a good book you’ve read lately? What do you think of the 2012 identity (check out this for some inspiration)? Who’s your favourite designer? Which brand identity project did you wish you had worked on? What was the last exhibition/show/concert you saw that you loved? Alright, that last one might not be terribly relevant, but I’d like to know that I’d be working with an interesting person.

* Research what the biggies in the business are doing: Pentagram, Wolff Olins, Interbrand, Futurebrand Landor, Lippincott.

* Read Truth, Lies and Advertising and Perfect Pitch by Jon Steel; Wally Olins on Brand, and I’ve heard good reviews about Stephen King’s A Master Class in planning

* Read some relevant blogs to keep up to date (or just to be awed by how clever and interesting others are): try Russell Davies, Brand Strategy Insider (which includes columns by our very own inimitable Prof Ritson who probably can’t believe I’m actually working in branding), Northern Planner, Faris Yakob. Check out this slide presentation by Idris Mootee (and the others in the series); see what the latest new trends are at Springwise. And randomly browse around blogs and websites too. Don’t forget randomness. And serendipity. Lots of beautiful things happen when the two collide.

Also, consider the differences between working at the client side and agency side. If you’ve not worked consultancy side before, consider carefully if you’re temperament is suited to it: a consultant leads a very different life from a client. A consultant gives advice, but never decides. A consultant needs to know a lot about a lot of different things. A consultant always works with deadlines, meaning that sometimes you work your bum off, sometimes you have little to do. A consultant works when the client goes home. Your client is always right, even if they’re wrong. A consultant is never responsible for taking the final decision (which for some is a good thing, for others it isn’t). As for client side: I have no experience with it, so I’m not a good person to ask.

Like I said, I’m probably not the right person to ask, I feel I’m still so new to this whole thing. But maybe this helps someone. And socks ruin Christmas. Just so you know.