Category Archives: Companies

Fools in Glass Houses: The Golden Rule of Comparative Advertising

Sometimes I see an ad that makes me laugh out loud, this from American bank, First Bank certainly did, but probably not for the reasons they’d hoped. I laughed because the idea of any bank taking the piss out Google for their application of technology is downright hilarious. Doing so in the course of telling us that First Bank are releasing their banking app (this is 2014) shows a remarkable lack of self-awareness. But it did prompt me to reflect on the wisdom of a particular form of marketing – Comparative Advertising – AKA gaining attention by taking a swipe at others.

Rules of Engagement

The market for the hearts and minds of consumers could hardly be described as genteel, but in general, investing in advertising that directly compares you to others is reasonably rare. There are various reasons for this: it’s pretty risky to spend your own money in a way that raises awareness of your competitors; people can be put off by the seeming arrogance of the act itself; but mainly there are very few circumstances where a direct comparison is a good idea. There are some who identify opportunities where you can make direct pricing or feature comparisons, but even these are risky. To my mind there’s pretty much one single golden rule of comparative advertising – kick them when they’re down.

The Popularity Contest

Sadly, life is unfair. And business, like life, is a popularity contest. So if you’re engaging in comparative advertising pick a target less popular than you. Sure that’s not very nice, but as humans we have our prejudices and as long as you’re picking a target who is less popular than you, you’ll do ok. Please note that I’m not advocating anything that’s based on race, colour, sex, sexual preference,religion, creed or any other such factor. Quite rightly people get upset about such things. However businesses and professions are still a pretty soft target. So there’s opportunities aplenty if you follow the golden rule.

Example 1 – TransferWise

A great example of this is fintech company, TransferWise, their feisty ads play on the fact we hate banks, so a good kicking is ok:

TransferWise FYCK Advert

This ad works on many levels: we hate banks; we hate banks because we suspect they’re ripping us off; actually they are ripping us off; I get to be clever and thrifty AND stick it to the banks. Awesome.

Example 2 – Apple

Another great example, albeit a bit less feisty but still playing the popularity angle, is Apple’s long running, I’m a Mac/I’m a PC campaign:


This is a bit of an oddity given that essentially it’s a grown up version of teasing the nerd – it’s the sort of thing we should dislike if we consider ourselves good people. Except that even though more people use Microsoft than Apple, we do so not very willingly, so people don’t really like Microsoft. So instead it comes across as the cool little guy taking on the uncool big guy. Easy to like.

Sorry guys

So where does that leave banks and other perennially unpopular companies? You could to find a comparative examples of others still less popular than you – car salesmen; tax collectors; advertising people. The truth is that there are many companies who probably could take a swipe at Google and Glassholes, it’s just not right for a bank. Instead try something radical… Like providing a great product and service that makes people’s lives better.

Triage: Treatment for Start-ups

Triage is now open Monday to Friday, 9am to 1pm, based at TechHub@Campus. Register here before your first visit.

To find out more about Tech London Advocates, click here.

This article was first published on 5/3/14 in Tech City Insider.

Why do it?

Starting a business can an exhilarating experience, the thrill that comes from taking an idea and making it reality is a heady thing. The flip-side of the thrill for many entrepreneurs is the sense of trepidation, a young business is a fragile thing that can be snuffed out in a host of different ways, not least of which the entrepreneur’s own mistakes or miss-steps. Avoiding these pitfalls takes two things – good networks and good advice. Triage was the result of an idea to tackle both.

The Tech City thing

Up until 2010, “Silicon Roundabout” was plugging away nicely as a small but growing digital start-up hub. Things changed in November of that year when the Prime Minister proclaimed the area for Britain and renamed it Tech City. Three years on I believe this transformational act has been hugely beneficial, but at the time the bemused citizens of Shoreditch weren’t quite sure what to make of it all. Some were concerned they had become pawns in a political game, others saw huge potential for London to claim a place on the world stage.

It’s who you know

At the time I was studying an MBA at nearby Cass Business School and was rather desperately casting around for a dissertation topic and struck upon the idea of researching the business networks in the area. It’s common wisdom that for a technology cluster to succeed it is vital that business networks are open and collaborative. From the initial stages of my research in early 2011 I came to the belief that East London was a bit of a closed shop – there were quality networks, but it was difficult for newcomers to access them. Through the hard work of many people and organisations over the last few years, this has changed. Today newcomers can get a feel for the business networks quickly and it’s not too hard to figure out who is who. Networking with entrepreneurs like yourself has become easier than ever but this has created a problem. If they are just like you, chances are they’re stuck with the same problems as you – getting good advice when you don’t have the resources to pay for it.

It’s also what you know

My networks research also turned up problems with skills and knowledge gaps – as a marketer I noticed a lack of marketing knowledge, and I guessed was this problem ran into other areas. Certainly the conversations I was having with investors seemed to bear this out. Knowledge for entrepreneurs is tricky. No one comes to entrepreneurship with a full skill set and often the resources to pay for advisors don’t exist either, so we seek advice. In the start-up world there’s no shortage of advice, from sources as diverse as online forums and the person sitting next to you in the pub. The challenge for entrepreneurs is knowing good advice from bad, whether it applies to their specific situation, and whether it applies at their specific point of development. For example, you have an idea about a product, before you spend 6 months building it, a quick chat with an experienced investor would be invaluable.

Creating Triage

I saw this problem of networks and knowledge and wanted to do something about it and finding a way to put experienced advisors in front of entrepreneurs seems to make sense. There’s nothing particularly novel about the idea of an advice “brokerage”, but by putting things together I saw an opportunity to help the entrepreneurs who most needed advice:

  1. There are any number of mentoring services in Tech City, but for the most part they help businesses who are a bit more developed and need ongoing one to one help. Triage is about quick interventions.
  2. There are also a number of office hours services put on by everyone from VCs to law firms, but these are not always available exactly when the entrepreneur needs them. Triage delivers access to experts within a couple of days.
  3. There are dozens of meetups where you can go for advice, but can you really trust the advice you’re receiving? Triage is backed by highly experienced volunteers.

The first two points are resolved by the Triage booking service. The third point was left unanswered until mid-2013 when Russ Shaw launched Tech London Advocates. Russ’ vision of hundreds of industry experts all dedicated to the advancement of tech was inspiring… and the thought of a captive pool of highly experienced, credible and motivated people was exactly the thing Triage needed to make it work. Luckily Russ liked the idea as well.

So how does it work?


  • To access the service, you only need to register here once, then you can pop in whenever you like.

The Desk

  • We have set up a physical location –we have a desk in TechHub@Campus (thank you guys!) which is open 9am to 1pm weekdays and if the service proves successful we hope to open more desks in more locations.

Initial Meeting

  • Upon arrival at Triage, you’ll have an initial discussion with the Advocate on the Desk, and depending on what sort of advice you need, they’ll set up a meeting with the next available specialist Advocate, usually within a day or two.

Specialist Meeting

  • Typically these meetings are half an hour or so – sufficient time to cover the problem, but sufficiently short to keep the meeting focused.

Why all the face to face?

Like most tech people I believe in disintermediation. However sometimes face to face is better; when you are sick might go online to check up on your symptoms, but ultimately you’ll go see a doctor. Triage is designed knowing the value of face to face contact for networking purposes. So the Initial Meeting in TechHub gives you a chance to discuss your problems with an experienced Advocate, perhaps they’ll turn up something you hadn’t considered, likewise for the Specialist Meetings.

A final word

Triage would not have been possible with enormous amounts of help from a lot of people, but specifically all the Advocates who volunteered half a day per month to work the Desk or an hour a month of their time for Specialist Meetings. I can’t thank them enough. To the entrepreneurs, I’d hope you’ll use Triage whenever you need it and hope you find it valuable, if you have any suggestions please do Tweet us, but remember that it’s provided by volunteers, so please respect people’s time and read the Triage code of conduct on the registration page.


Facebook: Rise of the Social Conglomerate

I’m reasonably certain that by now most of the people likely to read this blog are aware that Facebook has bought WhatsApp for around $19bn. That amount of money is eye-watering and there will be plenty written about it, but none of it will be better than this from analyst Benedict Evans, and I’m certainly not going to attempt to improve on it! Instead this blog will look at an interesting phenomenon that Ben touches on – the rise of tech conglomerates.

M&A tech-style

Mergers and Acquisitions are nothing new in tech of course – some companies like Cisco have built themselves incrementally based on a constant stream of acquisitions. Others do in more infrequently but with a degree of fanfare – the doomed AOL/Time Warner merger at the height of the Dotcom Bubble in 2000 is a classic for a range of reasons, from its sheer scale $160bn (in 2000!!) to its demise in the Bonfire of the Dotcoms that followed. We are also quite familiar with companies like Microsoft (Skype) and Google (Motorola, Nest) buying up companies to give them exposure to new markets – a time honoured business strategy. But there’s something different about Facebook’s approach to M&A, and it says a lot about the challenges they face.

Battle for the Home Screen

The ever-more crowded home screen
The ever-more crowded home screen

Facebook as we all know is a social network; but to be a successful social network your objective must be to be *the* social network. As a business then, Facebook’s success relies on exploiting network effects to build and maintain its dominance. As Evans points out and as we’ve increasingly come to realise, mobile users are increasingly taking a portfolio approach to their use of apps – Facebook for this, SnapChat for that, WhatsApp for messaging, Instagram for photos and other things – we find communities for specific purposes through our social networking apps, and these apps battle for dominance on the home screen of our phones.

Poor at Innovation, Too Late with the Chequebook

instagramFacebook has realised this as much as anyone and they’ve made numerous attempts to tackle the problem in-house – Poke, Home, Camera, Messenger, Paper – all have failed or underperformed (though the jury is out on Paper… for now). Compare this, for example, with Google who have been generally successful with in-house developments from Gmail to Maps to Google Drive. The failure of Facebooks apps and products are a pretty sad indictment of its ability to innovate beyond its core product. The reasons for this failure are varied by generally speaking I believe there’s two things at play: firstly Facebook haven’t matched their ubiquity with an ability to be first to market at scale – think about Google Maps by comparison; and secondly Facebook’s products couldn’t cope with the simplicity and focus of the specific competitors, think about the impact of Gmail by comparison. So more often than they’d like to, Facebook has been forced to reach for the chequebook, they’ve been forced to do it from a weakened negotiating position, and often facing criticism from the users of existing apps.

A Social Portfolio is Born

The consequence of this has been actually pretty interesting for business geeks like me. Rather than a series of products sitting under the Facebook brand, Facebook has been forced to maintain the new brands at arms’ length. Instagram and now WhatsApp retain a large degree of independence, with separate brands and separate management. Seemingly by accident and poor management, Facebook have struck upon a classic big business play – they have become a portfolio business. They have become Facebook Inc. – The Social Conglomerate.