Category Archives: Technology

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.


Kickstarters, you are not Jony-Bloody-Ive

Jony Ive has many guises. To Queen Elizabeth II, he’s ‘Sir Jonathan’. To an army of sweaty-palmed Apple fanboys and girls he’s ‘Jony the Grey-Shirted’, a designer/magician who wields the Staff of Simplicity – Lvl 18 magical item, +4 attack roll when facing iCal or Scott Forstall – smiting the evils of skeuomorphism and banishing them from his pastel-hued utopia. To me, though, Jony Ive is a brilliant designer, someone who changed the game for product designers of today, but also someone who riffs just a bit too much on the work of Dieter Rams to claim he’s merely taking “inspiration”.

Jony Ive creates blank sheets of paper

To some on Kickstarter, however, Jony Ive creates blank sheets of paper. Really. If you don’t believe me go to Kickstarter, search under “iPad” and scroll through the lists of projects. It quickly becomes clear that many ideas simply address the two greatest shortcomings of the iPad: a) it’s heavy; and b) the sound is lousy. Search a little further, though, and you’ll feel a general sense of unease followed by the helpless feeling of impending dread – like when the bloke in the deli starts talking to you and stops looking where his fingers sit in relation to the salami slicer. As we scan the walls of specimens, the iPad becomes the starting point for some weird and disturbing creations.

Introducing our Dissection subject

The Curve Cover
The Curve Cover

It was whilst browsing in these darker realms that I came across this wonder, The Curve Cover. Firstly I’m going to be nice, because the creation of the Curve Cover really is a triumph. It takes some seriously impressive delusions for someone to: a) disregard the fact that the iPad is a bit more than a digital photo frame; b) decide that Jony Ive doesn’t have clue about design; c) believe that a clunky wooden frame will sell; and then d) convince a manufacturer of all of the above. That’s the sort of delusion that David Koresh and Jim Jones can respect – or should I say “could”.

I’ll start with the frame because, really, how could I not? Despite my earlier reference to Dieter Rams, the iPad really is a beautiful piece of industrial design. Yet our perky Kickstarter believes that it can be vastly improved with a frame that looks like something you’d find in a shop situated in a sleepy coastal village. You know the ones, they sit there, gathering dust on a shelf amongst the patchouli oil vaporisers and pamphlets for the local “wellness therapist” – the one who believes the moon landings were faked and that Reiki can repair electronics. The lesson here is – take the accumulation of dust as a sign. If it won’t sell to recent-retiree stoner tourists, it won’t sell to anyone.

Moving beyond the design let’s have a think about the concept of a wooden frame. There are many people who have made wooden peripherals, generally they’re seeking something a bit organic yet in keeping with the iPad design aesthetic… oh who am I kidding, they’re pretentious hipsters who can’t repress the misguided urge to tinker. My suspicion with wooden peripherals is that you’d use them once or twice before you realise they make your iPad significantly heavier, and sound even worse. The really beautiful stuff may get funded initially, but like a puppy at Christmas, the novelty will wear off, it will be neglected, and before long, end up on eBay.

Curve Cover Production
Curve Cover Production

Last and not least is the full expression of delusion: the efforts by the creators of the Curve Cover to establish a manufacturing process. Part of me does admire their forethought in ensuring that the enormous demand for their product can be met; that’s something Apple could actually learn from. But sadly it’s all a wasted effort – what was really needed testing for demand in the first place (pro tip: Your family and friends don’t count).

Lesson 1: It’s not about you

The lesson from the Curve Cover is this – focus on what other people want, not what you want. You find this out by asking them. It’s really very easy. Kickstarter allows you to harness the opinions of people who generally want you to succeed. Given some of the stuff that does get funding, an unfunded project is a clear sign you should give up and go back into management consulting.

Lesson 2: Relentless customer focus

Finally there’s this: don’t be the idiot that quotes Henry Bloody Ford and his “faster horse” line, or talks about Steve Jobs’ disregard for market research (or Jobs quoting Ford on the faster horse thing). Ford was eventually overtaken by competitors who did listen to their customers, and though he didn’t directly ask customers what they wanted, Jobs was relentlessly focused on customer experience.

In the end, none of us are at the same level as Ford or Jobs. If you are, by all means ignore me, but chances are you are not, so shut up and listen to your customers.

Is Sergey Brin the new Steve Jobs?

This post may focus on hardware, but the implications for anyone designing a product are pretty abundant. If you can design a product with appeal that overcomes reason, you’ll always do better than one with better features:

Remember when we all used to salivate at the thought of the next Apple convention? What did Steve have up his sleeve? What amazing piece of kit would he reveal that would have us all ignoring Apple’s rather large price premium and just slap down our cash to have a slice of that amazing Apple cool? Year after year, product after product they seemed to do it – iPod (multiple versions); iPhone (fewer versions); Macbook Air; iPad… the list was amazing and made even Mac-sceptics like me feel the urge to just get me one.

What Apple Did Well

There wasn’t much secret to it, in true Apple style it was simple, they just made fantastic products that worked in perfect harmony with each other backed up by a beautiful OS. The trick is that it’s really hard to do well. Google (with Android) for all of its dominance was far too fragmented to match Apple in that compelling human way. Its OEMs were far too focused on that bane of the OEM – features. Bigger screen this, faster processor that, brighter, more colourful etc etc etc. People bought these things certainly, but deep down really they just wanted an Apple because their devices worked better.

But something has changed… at least that’s how it seems for me. Less than a year or so on from the untimely loss of Steve Jobs, Apple has continued to release fabulous products – Jobs made certain there was a few years worth in the pipeline – but something is different. As I see it, they’ve taken to marketing them in a really misguided way. Apple has now fallen into the features trap, it seemed to start with the “New iPad” with fab new screen but not much else to speak of, and has continued with the recent launch of the new Macbook with Retina Display. Don’t get me wrong, both are excellent devices; powerful, beautiful and functional. Fanboys and tech geeks adore them and there’s no shortage of evidence of sales, but it’s a dangerous road that Apple has taken themselves down.

The Features Folly

Why should this be a problem? When you play the features game you get yourself into a margin-destroying arms race, and whilst Apple is king right now, this advantage can be very quickly chipped away by hungry and capable competitors like Samsung who have already taken top place in Mobile sales, have blitzed iPhone in terms of performance, and can’t be far away in terms of desirability. Likewise HTC are doing a reasonable job of a come back with the HTC One. Previously Apple traded on its desirability and the “lifestyle” aspects of the brand to retain dominance, but now Apple has decided to play the feature game, how long will this residual goodwill last (especially when brands like HTC roll out campaigns like this for the HTC One). I’m not saying that Apple won’t see a spike in awareness and sales whenever they release a new product, this is natural. But the longer they play the feature game, the shorter those periods will last. The inevitable grind of the product cycle demands this; the market for smartphones has now caught up with Apple, it’s only a matter of time before the same happens in other categories.

The Benefits of… umm… Benefits

Which brings us back to the subject… what is the opposite of the feature game? In marketing terms it’s the “Benefit” game… and we’ve just had a Jobs-like demonstration of this from Google with their Glass. In one self-deprecating swoop, Sergey Brin and his tech guys and assorted extreme sports buddies at Google have just laid siege to Apple. Sure their Nexus tablet may not knock the iPad off, but with Glass, Google have done what iPad did, created a market, showed everyone in a real and highly compelling way the benefits of Glass (and mind-bending Hangouts are just one potential of the device) and induced the I WANT ONE factor at a level not seen since people twigged to the iPad. True it’s not everyday you get to demo a product like Glass, but the principles are the same – show people how their lives can be better using the product rather than getting all fetishist about the product itself.
This won’t happen overnight. Jobs did remarkable work and has build a generations-worth of product goodwill, so Apple may hold out for a long time to come, but if Google have really figured out what made Apple so desirable, then it’s just a matter of time before things get really interesting.