Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Touching the Data

This note is not really new material for those who work with me, it is one of those examples that I have been dredging out for year after year. But as I've just mentioned the reverend Simpson, and as this blog is holistic, it seems appropriate to head back to the analysis and evaluation of marketing activity.

If programme 1 performs better than programme 2 in a first phase, with a significantly higher response rate, and if programme 1 also performs better than programme 2 in a second phase, - then that does NOT necessarily mean that programme 1 has performed better than programme 2 overall. Even if programme 1 "wins" subsequent phases.

Nothing to do with creative or external factors, just really simple maths. Hence common sense.

But most people seem to understand this better when related to football than to marketing. With my invented numbers:


I just need to recognise, manage and control this effect in real campaigns every single day.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Touching the Cloth

Joe Simpson was the climber who shattered his legs when he was dropped down a crevasse descending a peak in the Peruvian Andes. His story was the subject of the film Touching the Void. It was a miracle that he survived the fall, a miracle that he dragged himself out of the ravine, a miracle that he crawled all the way down the mountain, a miracle that he was able to walk again. But there he was on TV this weekend, describing how he had resumed climbing and even ascended the Eiger.

A man of the cloth is a term used for someone who is considered to be close to God, or at least someone who helps the rest of us to get closer to Him.

Mr Simpson was invited onto Desert Island Discs recently. I listened. The interviewer grilled him about those times when he was very close to fading out, when he genuinely thought he was about to die - did he ever think of God or a possible afterlife at those times? No, he replied. Never. Even faced with imminent death, the idea of such a crazy Thing did not even cross his mind.

In addition to your chosen records, the programme lets you take a little reading material onto the desert island. It assumes that everyone will take the Bible, and so many people wanted the complete works of Shakespeare that they started allowing that too. So two hefty books for free, and one more of your choice. Joe took the Shakespeare, but politely declined to take the Bible. Even as toilet paper.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Pleasure of Hope

The title here is the opening sequence to a classic album by Pendragon. Another of the best albums ever recorded is the only release by a band that the genius Jim Steinman christened as Pandora's Box, so obviously hope was a main theme in there as well.

But though those are two of my all time favourites, neither of them are very well known, neither would appear on the top ten list for most people. However, when it comes to films, perhaps my taste is more universal. The Shawshank Redemption is a favourite for many others too.

But there is one little thing wrong with the movie. They bastardised the end. It is not just me who thinks that the main theme of the story was the title of this post, Stephen King himself sub-titled the original book with a similar sentiment. So the correct place to end the film would have been with Morgan Freeman on the bus. I hope that I will make it across the border. I hope that my friend is there. I hope.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Animal Ethics

I had an assortment of curries for lunch, and this was followed by a discussion about the ethics of eating animals. So the predicted tangential point.

In common with most other chimps, humans tend to be omnivores. I enjoyed my lamb, and I have already stated that I hope that it was killed with its pain minimised according to scientific knowledge rather than religious barbarism.

Generally, given equal price, convenience and availability, we tend to prefer to eat "wild" animals rather than factory farmed ones. There are good health reasons for this.

But farming has made our ethical choice easier in one respect. What three thousand years of selective breeding has done is to gradually remove much of the "life" out of farm animals. I don't mean life in its strict biological sense of replicating DNA, in that sense farming is the best thing that ever happened to the genes for chickens, cows and goats. I do mean the "zest for life", the spirit, the aggressiveness, the unpredictability and the fight to survive that characterises wild animals.

Perhaps one day, as DNA suggested, we will end up with a pig that wants to be eaten. If that happens, it would be a pleasure to oblige.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Mean Time

I left the last post saying it was ridiculous to give everyone stress and jetlag twice a year, but left it fairly equivocal on when we should we fix our zone - in October or in March.

However, generally lights are on for longer in the evening than the morning. On average we surely spend more waking hours before work than after work. It's the same for entertainment - the afternoon kickoffs today will all need expensive floodlights next week. So in terms of energy usage and carbon footprints and global warming and best aligning daylight with peaks in human activity, we should keep brighter evenings.

Some people in the highlands say it wouldn't get light until 9 am there in midwinter - well do they all really prefer it to get dark every day at 3 pm? Anyway, they can have their own time zone if they really want one, but whatever they choose is not going to increase their daylight. Obviously.

So finally, I have no great prejudice either way so long as it is fixed as soon as possible. But as a positive suggestion, the UK should stay on BST all year - call it British Standard Time and leave it there.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Saving Time

It's that time of the year, so (for once I hope) a very predictable post.

The "clocks" are going back this weekend. By the "clocks" I mean every single thing that reports time in your home, your car, your office, your train station, your airport, your radio and TV broadcasters. Today there may be clocks on your central heating system, your cooker, your fridge, your radio, your DVD player - you know the list, a few may reset automatically, but don't forget the spare watch in the bedroom drawer.

Only an idiot thinks we gain daylight by doing this. On top of the time wasted to change clocks, clearly whatever you save in the morning you lose exactly the same amount in the evening. Obviously. Everyone knows that. Except idiots.

The time taken to change clocks (and timetables) is a non-productive drain on society. Perhaps it was only a minor inconvenience when every home had just one clock in the hall that needed to be regularly synchronised with BBC chimes anyway. Today it is lunacy.

Changing time is a significant cost for every local business, and it is an enormous cost for every global business. Jet-lag is a real drain too. We force the whole country to endure an hour's jet-lag twice a year. Ridiculous.

Some people prefer brighter mornings. Some people prefer brighter afternoons. Don't try to justify clocking with bullshit about getting closer to nature. The cockerel doesn't suddenly decide to crow sixty minutes earlier. Cows don't realise when it's GMT and trudge down for milking accordingly. Crops ripen according to the sun, not the clock.

I would prefer to stay on BST. Others would prefer to stay on GMT. But, as often stated, this is a blog for common sense and not for personal preference. We can adjust to either time zone. Just leave the damn thing alone.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Bleeding Edge

There are plenty of people who are critical of academics and futurologists and towers of ivory. Despite what you may believe, I would support that criticism. The writers that I most respect have backed up their words with actions. George Orwell really did spend time down and out in Paris and London.

But I genuinely do work developing strange new mixtures of technology, statistics and psychology that together form the essence of this blog. I have been selling these ideas since my college thesis, and have been doing my best to implement them in real business applications ever since.

Even where I veer onto the more global and more controversial stuff, the really big issues that are destroying our world, I still sometimes stick my neck in where it hurts. Even if you are not a professional journalist, a broad subject does sometimes require unpleasant research.

So it is true that I did not volunteer to risk my life fighting in the Spanish Civil War. But I really have endured the Alpha Course. Sometimes we have to suffer for our art.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


The word is often misused, but this blog has broader ambitions than pointing out minor semantic errors.

Before my diversion into the future of customer relationship marketing, I almost did a typical diary post … I went to x show, it got x stars from me etc. But this blog is broader than that too.

I said that most of the reviews that you see elsewhere are only the the gushing sycophantic praise of professional critics who long to get quoted on billboards and invited for celebrity interviews.

If any magazine really gave honest reviews to the 50% of releases that are below average, then it would be highly unlikely to get the next exclusive interview with the famous cover star. That applies as much to the criticism of strikers' performance on Football Focus as to product reviews or film reviews in any glossy publication.

And the same thing goes for any articles that do not criticise those who advertise around there. Be careful whose opinions you trust.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Patent 1863-326

So now, as this blog is holistic, time to bring the last few notes together.

Pepper's Ghost is an illusion. According to the specifics of the patent, it documents the precise angle of semi-reflective surface needed to create the false image for various customer locations, although the term later developed a more generic usage. I had thought that it was a commonplace expression now, but I suppose that not everybody reads books about the history of magic and deception.

So in marketing, I refer to Pepper's Ghost as the illusion of 1 to 1 communication. It is a derivation of the original CRM vision, so it honours the creator, but the personal relationship required for message customisation does not exist - except in the mind of the customer. The personalisation is only an illusion. The customer only needs to "believe" that the marketing has been tailored to her.

To achieve this effect, we are back at the intersection of science, technology, psychology and statistics. That is the core of this site. And that is how mass marketing must work in the real world of incomplete information.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Peters Principle

To explain any ghost story, you need a little diversion into real life.

It is strange to think that only fifteen years ago there was no such thing as customer relationship marketing as we know it today. CRM was only practiced by the local grocer who genuinely knew each customer individually. Like all great ideas, and also maybe some of the ideas here, the advantages are blatantly obvious in retrospect. It just needed the technological and social environment to catch up. And it needed a champion.

I was very impressed when I met Don Peppers. As a real business leader, in search of excellence in terms of vision, commitment and eloquence, I can only compare him to Tom Peters. His ideas immediately seemed common sense to me - the measurability and statistics, the information requirements and rules engines, the technology and the simplicity, the implicit feedback loops and control theory - it fit me well.

So for the last decade of my working life, I have been explaining these principles to senior business managers, and also making them work in real world systems. I have not seen many people who seem to understand both the core message and also the IT enablers.

And in at least one little area, in terms of explaining and implementing the CRM vision, I think that I go further than those original 1 to 1 manuals. I needed a new phrase to summarise this idea, I called it Pepper's Ghost ...

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Pepper's Ghost

I said that I would relate a classic stage illusion to modern individualised marketing. Can I also bring in musical perfection?

My musical epiphany was noted earlier. However that band split up soon after, and nobody else could quite replicate that magic sound. Then, many years later, by a miraculous turn of fate, original drummer Michael Pointer met the keyboard genius Clive Nolan who had carried the torch in Pendragon for so many years...

The resulting supergroup was called Arena. Their latest studio album is genuinely called Pepper's Ghost.

And tomorrow I really will evoke Don Pepper's ghost in current marketing strategy.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


We went to the theatre today. Not just the local theatre but a proper full-on Cameron Mackintosh West End production. I had not bought the tickets myself - I would not have chosen either this particular show or this particular date. But as it was a heartfelt family present I was happy to go.

So I did not have high expectations. But I confess, it was truly magical. That is not the gushing sycophantic praise of professional critics who long to get quoted on billboards and invited for celebrity interviews. I mean it was magical like a magic show. Things were appearing and disappearing and time-shifting and flying around as though they were CGI effects. Amazing. Songs and music were ok too.

Now the difficult bit - next I will relate a classic stage magic trick to modern individualised marketing.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Of course there are many different causes of many different types of cancer. But I suggested that we should look for what is common between them, and the common factor is that the cell division that is normally so well regulated (for example by CDK activity) is not so well controlled in cancerous cells.

And of course there are many anecdotal stories about alternative treatments. But alternative treatments do not work. At least not in a consistent verified manner. That is why they are called alternative treatments and not called proper medicine.

By the way, except for its entertainment value, an alternative theory is fairly worthless if it only describes behaviour, it also needs to predict behaviour. And like genetic mutation, I find that most alternative models perform worse than the original. Topical quote, it's elementary my dear Watson :)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

How to cure cancer

Any alternative treatment or strategy should still have a background in facts and a testable model. But if it can help to think from reverse angles about minor things like train tracks or aeroplane design, maybe we should apply similar ideas to the most important things in life.

Anyone with even basic high school biology will have been told about cell cycles, DNA and RNA, and they will have learned (or not learned) the various stages in cell division. But school textbooks are largely just descriptive - step 2 follows step 1 etc. Perhaps in fear of religious fundamentalists, they spend little time on exploring root causes of process and behaviour, and instead they largely document details of what actually happens now.

But it is clear to anybody - if living cells are given time, space and nutrients then they tend to multiply. That is what they do. We see it all the time. What is perhaps more interesting is why healthy cells eventually stop multiplying.

I don't expect non-specialists to understand the specific mechanisms used by cyclin-dependent kinases such as CDC2 to regulate phase transition in mitosis. Lacking a Nobel prize in medicine, I don't know the answer. But I think the solution may be in there.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Can I play with madness?

I know that there are easy targets. But they are like invasive weeds in your garden, every time you think they've been controlled, they crop up again in unexpected and unpleasant places.

And I try to stay topical. Unfortunately, today's lunchtime talk was about the benefits of complementary therapy. The speaker preferred the word complementary rather than alternative words such as untested, unsafe, ineffective, lunatic, stupid.

It all started fairly innocuous although very obvious - drink lots of water, exercise, eat a balanced diet with less processed food. Everyone knows that anyway. Then the presenter veered off onto her own strange planet of reiki and chakras and reflexology. She even seemed to be taking some of the audience with her.

I'll be kind to the presenter. I'll call it salesmanship. She must have been hawking us unverified codswallop to boost her own bank balance rather than because of mental condition. It's ridiculous as science, but fair enough in marketing.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The root of all errors

I appreciate the sentiment of the many that I quoted, and equally those of the few who comment here. I hope that I echo all of their concerns. Because all of us who share an education tend to be the sort of people who do not abuse punctuation or engage in Bush-speak.

But it would be easy for a daily blog to only list little quirks and errors each day. To point out things about language that are liked or disliked. In the same way that it would be easy to write a little ode to a different film or book or game each day. But, forgive the analogy, that is a little like racism.

It is easy to look at different groups of people and to comment on their differences. I am a racist, in that I accept that there are statistical differences in average abilities for these different groups. But differences are easy.

What is more difficult is to look for similarities. To look for common influences across completely diverse languages and cultures. To look for causes and origins. To find the essence of what makes us human. In order to predict different patterns of behaviour or patterns of speech then we need to look for the factors that have made them different in the first place.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Words and Rules

In a conversation today, something that I said was corrected. Nothing unusual there. I had accidentally dropped in an incorrect word while saying something. Again, nothing unusual there. We all have the odd slip of the tongue, and I'm happy to clarify anything misleading.

But then my corrector got it completely wrong. He said that I was a stickler for accuracy with words. Absolutely yes in published research. Absolutely no in conversation. I know he reads the blog. I guess he misreads the blog.

Because there is a broad spectrum of people who comment on English usage, from the language mavens who truss the speaker to the language liberals who trust the speaker, and I thought it was perfectly clear that I am firmly on the Pinker side.

I can still think that incorrect spellings or extra apostrophes are ugly. I can still think it is the duty of all writers to check their work before publishing. But I keep saying - what really matters is the message not the medium.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Oval balls

There is going to be a lot of focus on rugby over the next few weeks as patriots and xenophobes and decent English people revel in vicarious victory. So an alternative point here.

As mentioned earlier I went to a whole load of schools, but I recall only one of those where the winter sport was rugby. The cliché about games teachers being sadistic bastards has only a small amount of truth. It was only the cross country runs we hated - football was better but I genuinely enjoyed rugby too. Except for one thing...

As a kid I always played outside, and even now, unless injured, I choose to play football outdoors at least twice per week throughout the year regardless of wind, rain, or snow. But I wrap up. And thanks to the hated foreign invasion that has made the Premiership the "best league in the world", even professional footballers can now wear gloves or undershirts. Yet as a schoolkid playing rugby in midwinter, I just remember being cold.

I genuinely don't know the clothing guidelines for school games today. But I hope they have learned.

Friday, October 12, 2007


I suppose that yesterday's idea needs to be made more explicit. A previous price is just a signal, one of many factors that help to clarify the real value of a product. Other obvious indicators to product value are the brand, the product model identifier, competitor prices, even the selling location.

For comparatively low-value interchangeable items, the sort that you see in a typical supermarket food isle, the money off one purchase is not changing your life. There the offer serves primarily as a "look-at-me" signal rather than a major financial incentive. But the key factors here are those adjectives, low-value and interchangeable. It does not substantially affect your life to substitute one product for another, and the use of the offer is to bring a different item to your attention.

And for higher value items, the previous price is becoming even less useful as an indicator because technology is advancing so rapidly, while because of competition and globalisation, many product prices need to decrease in real terms.

So if the previous price is just a signal of very little relevance then so is the offer.

I knew I'd be able to bring together economics, linguistics, mathematics, and semiotics :)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Variable Marketing Offers

You see something advertised as so many pounds or dollars or per cent off the original price. Does that fact make any difference whatsoever to your decision to purchase it?

Unless you are a complete alien to that shopping environment then the answer is clearly no. The offer should make bugger-all difference to your decision to purchase. When you are shopping then the two main factors are "I have this much time and money to spend" and "I have this much value to obtain". The third factor of "this is how much I have 'saved' versus some totally notional figure made up by the retailer" is completely irrelevant.

Nobody has the complete information of free market economic theory. But we generally have enough information to decide whether something is worth buying.

I know the things stated here are sometimes very obvious. But then I look around and see people who really do seem to choose on the basis of what they think they are saving instead of what they think they are buying. When describing a purchase some people really do glory in how much they have "saved".

There is no absolute line, we all take many factors into account. But some are just lunatic.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Global Consumer Trends

I had not planned to talk about this subject today. The previous note was a very specific comment on the way that information was presented, and a very broad comment on the direction of the world.

But on reflection, almost everything I write here is about this topic. The reason that I found the presentation both very interesting and also completely obvious is precisely because in my work, and in the work of the team around me, we do spend most time trying to relate actual marketing activity to the changing demographics and infrastructure of the world around us.

It seems that I am almost always discussing global consumer trends, perhaps sometimes I help to define them.

So I did not mean to criticise or offend the speaker. The subject does need a broader audience. But I delve deeper.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

People Facts

As any politician knows, the way that a fact is presented has a major effect on the way that you expect people to respond to it.

I saw a presentation on global consumer trends today. I emphasise the word global.

With a tone that seemed to be somewhere between concerned and disappointed, the presenter pointed out that 43% of people now live in countries with birth rates that are at or below death rates. The implication was certainly that this was a major problem.

An alternative way of presenting exactly the same information could have been to say that 57% of the people of the world now live in countries where the population is still increasing. And presumably still increasing at a faster rate than land and oil and other resources.

I have no comment on the statistics other than to point out the irony. The presentation's final slide was about the basic human need for peace and quiet and personal space.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

22.5 minutes

I love the BBC. I love sport. But when it comes to football, I can't stand the commentary on five live. It is true that one particular BBC commentator makes me green with rage and I turn off the radio whenever he is on. But this is a blog for common sense, not for personal dislike.

The BBC is constantly under cost pressure. They have claimed they cannot bid for sporting events because they do not have enough money. They are relocating to cheaper offices. They are making staff redundant. So why, unlike virtually every other radio station on the planet, do they feel that they must switch commentators halfway through a half?
I'm not talking about the co-commentator, the guy who provides a foil for the main speaker throughout the game. I'm talking about the crazy switch that happens 23 minutes into the action.

It is ridiculous. Don't pretend that "it's radio so they need to talk more than TV guys, what if one guy loses his voice, there are no commercial breaks during a half, what if one guy gets eaten by an alien" ... other radio stations across the world manage fine. And if you've listened across the world, other commentators talk much much more than BBC ones.

But the thing that takes this scenario from wasteful (of which there are plenty of examples everywhere) to downright ridiculous (hence this note) is that adding the extra costs actually provides a worse service. While listening to a game, changing the main voice breaks up the flow. It spoils the game. A ninety minute football match is not a five day test match, one professional should be able to manage it.

By losing the second commentator, they would reduce costs and also provide a better listening experience. It's win-win. It's common sense.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Trusted Tellers

At least anecdotally, everybody in the western world has heard of the phenomenon of the "phantom withdrawal". It is when you get your monthly bank statement and then see an ATM transaction that you cannot recall.

In a similar manner to the credit card issue mentioned yesterday, it is not easy to prove your innocence. If your own experience does not tie in with the results of the statistical correlation algorithms used by the bank to detect unusual activity, then it is your word against theirs again.

If the banks can be bothered to investigate, they might spend time and money looking to see if there is CCTV footage. But even if you can prove it was not you, they will say it is an "accomplice".

The process could easily be easily fixed. As customers, we would only need to agree that only pre-specified people could make withdrawals with each card. Then scan a finger or hand or face with every withdrawal. It would be very expensive to scan and verify and record this centrally in real time with every transaction, it would be very cheap to just store it locally as an audit record. It would eliminate the phantom withdrawal. But it is still not in the banks' interest.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Chip and pin the blame

Marketing comes in many forms. I listened to a talk about credit card fraud today. The presenter spouted the usual guides about being careful with the security of your actual card, about hiding your PIN, all the obvious stuff.

Throughout the presentation, the lady from the bank constantly emphasised that she was on our side, that the interests of the banks and its customers were completely aligned. While I agree that it is in both sides' interest to reduce fraud, she was nevertheless somewhat disingenuous.

Because we are not always on the same side. She works for the bank, we customers fund the bank. And when there is a query, when they claim that you conducted a particular transaction, when you claim that you did not, then it is not a win-win scenario - one party is right, one party is wrong, one party has to pay up.

Back in the old days, when there was a disputed credit card transaction, there was always a paper trail with your signature. It was relatively easy to provide evidence. In the new chip-and-pin world there is no audit record. Each transaction could have kept a signature too for added customer security. But they only chip and pin to reduce their costs, not to increase your protection.

If you dispute a transaction, it is now your word against the banks' allegation. Investigation costs money. And I know which side can afford the better lawyers.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


There are about four distinct threads here, each taking about a quarter of the space.

Often we will see a detailed point about marketing, business, science, technology or mathematics. They may seem fairly unrelated fields, but I operate directly at their confluence.

Occasionally I will present what I think may be an original idea in some unrelated field. Not necessarily a grand scheme to feed the world, perhaps just a new way of looking at an old idea or a new word for the dictionary.

There is less of this now, but a strong thread a the beginning was a lesson in how-to-blog. A self-taught developing lesson. So not really a guide for how you should blog, more a description of the style that seems to work best here.

And there is a little about me. Not necessarily about what I've just done, more about who I am. I did apologise for this but it is inevitable that anything that I ever write must reflect the skills and experience offered by my company. So if you're looking for a marketing consultant or database architect or project manager ...

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Picture This

I'm conscious that I don't put up many pictures here. It is partially a desire to keep the site clean, clear, and lightning-fast. But it is also partially because it simply takes much longer to draw an original idea than to write an original idea. The exception is if you are a professional artist whose work has intrinsic value because of what it is rather than what it represents. I am not a professional artist.

But I always draw original pictures in my consulting work. It requires a particular skill that I have noted before. The skill to take a seemingly endless spiel of marketing requirements, spouted in broadly sequential yet apparently random fashion, then transfom that into a diagram. It is a skill that is essential for anyone who needs to translate business objectives into real deliverables, in fact for any technology or process improvement.

If you work in office environments, you'll recognise the sort of people who can't help but draw boxes and arrows after every few minutes of conversation. The sort of people who visualise bits and bytes flowing across disks and wires.

So I know a picture can be worth a thousand words. But I try to keep to a hundred.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Set in stone

Finally time for another little picture. I travelled into central London on the tube at the weekend. Except for rush hour, it's a fairly rapid and pleasant way to cross the city. We pass a station where one line to the west splits into two lines to the east. I used to live there. There are three platforms at the station.

When travelling west to east you need to be sure that you get the right route. People on the platform don't know quickly which branch the train will take. We all know on-platform monitors are sometimes inoperative, then you need to read the little note on the front of the train to work out where it's going or hope for an intelligible station announcement.

And going east to west, it's a crazy random game. There can be two trains about to head in exactly the same direction, down the same track, but whichever one you settle in, you "know" the other one is going to depart first.

The whole line was closed for months recently. They should have rebuilt the station. I'm not presuming more space. You would still have three platforms. You would still have exactly the same lines going in and exactly the same lines going out. But issues above all sorted. Easy.