Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Getting fit and healthy with the least amount of effort

This post is about getting fitter and more healthy with the least amount of effort. If you’re interested in doing something similar, you’ll just need a smartphone. Having some kind of fitness tracker is well worthwhile. I’ve tried to make the most of my Apple iPhone 6S and Apple Watch, but I’m sure there are equivalents for everything I list.

First, some context. A few points have recently converged for me:

  • I recently put on a tonne of weight (ate and drank my body weight at SXSW)
  • One of the dominant themes at SXSW was how apps are not just good at gathering and presenting data, but also getting better at providing useful, timely insights to drive behaviour change. This Under Armour video gives you a flavour, if you can see past the chest thumping, although I gather the expensive products don’t quite match the promise (yet).
  • This also made me curious about the impact that my activities have on my sleep. I’ve been sleeping reasonably well lately, but there’s room for improvement. What if my phone could tell me the latest time of day I should drink coffee if I want a good night’s sleep? Or help me work out the best time to go to bed?
  • As I’m getting older, weight goes on much more easily and doesn’t come off as quickly as it used to. In spite of the fact I play football every week, I’ve been gradually putting on weight for the past 5 years or so, even though I’ve been drinking less. It’s a trend I want to address.
  • I’m suffering from a damaged rotator cuff, brought on by a lifetime of bad posture. This post isn’t about that, but my physiotherapy is part of the health picture for me. I’m working on that, too.
  • The agency I work for has a partnership with Saatchi Health (together we’re known as DigitasHealth), and so I’ve taken more of an interest in Apple’s health ecosystem as one of many initiatives
  • A while back Scott Adams claimed that he lost weight just by getting a better understanding of nutrition. The notion of health being 20% exercise related and 80% nutrition is an interesting one. I like Scott Adams.
  • I don't like gyms.

So it was time to make a few changes from a holistic standpoint. To summarise my goal: I want to improve the quality and duration of my life, without too many short term compromises, and with the minimum of effort and expense. Easy, right?!

Sidebar: I’ve had an Apple Watch for about 9 months. And my mini-review: I find notifications to be really useful, glances are pretty good, and most apps are too slow to be useful (quicker to pull out your phone). At this point, if you’re considering buying one, I’d recommend you hold out for the thinner, faster models. But version 1 does track activity, heart rate and more, and I didn’t want to buy another wearable, so I was curious what role the watch could play in this.

Also, traditional diets never work for me. Boom and bust. This new approach had to be smarter and more sustainable. Ideally I wanted to make a few key tweaks that had a big impact, add some exercise (of course), get myself down to a healthy weight level, and I can then carefully adjust to a slighter more liberal regime that allowed me to enjoy most of the things I enjoy now. #agencylife

I also can’t be bothered spending too much time evaluating every app and review that’s out there. Who’s got the time for that? I’m looking for 20% of the effort for 80% of the benefit. If you have better recommendations I’d love to hear them! In the meantime I’ve settled on a regime based largely on app popularity, convenience and personal recommendations, rather than an exhaustive search for the Best Thing Out There.

So here’s what I’ve done:

  • Started diligently logging all my food and drink. I use an app called Lifesum to do that (hat tip to Warren for the recommendation), and the free version is quick, easy and effective. It’s impossible to track food metrics with 100% accuracy - it’s too impractical to, for example, weigh and catalogue the contents of a chicken salad sandwich - but Lifesum lets you get close enough, quickly. The mere act of finding this approximation has been illuminating - it roughly breaks down the nutritional value of each item you add, helping you make smarter choices. As a result, among other things, and given the choice, I now choose brown rice over white, have one less coffee-with-sugar per day, go for chicken or fish over red meat, have a few less sandwiches, serve myself slightly smaller portions, and I drink much more water. Nice improvement without much pain. I’ve now started paying $10 a month to support the service, and it’s giving me a bunch of other features on top of the free essentials.
  • Started tracking my sleep with Sleep Cycle. The Apple Watch needs to charge at least every other night, so that couldn’t play a role as a wearable. And I didn’t want to splash out on another wearable device just to track my sleep. Sleep Cycle works by monitoring your movement at night (you point your phone’s speaker at yourself, from the bedside table), and makes some reasonable assumptions about your sleep patterns from this movement and from sound. There are quite a few articles about the accuracy of this technique (and some extensive ones for wearables as well), but just tracking the duration of sleep will help with my awareness. I’ve paid about $11 for the year to support the service, which gives you access to your sleep trends as well as data backup.
  • Probably not relevant for y’all, but as part of my physiotherapy for my rotator cuff issues, I have to spend 10 minutes a day with a rolled up towel under my back. So I thought I’d try some mindfulness meditation to pass the time, and it turns out that helps with sleep as well. Easy.
  • I’ve increased my walking and added a weekly jog to the mix. For this I use the Workout app on the watch (which isn’t the most accurate, but is good enough), and I strap my iPhone 6S to my arm using the Belkin Slim-Fit Plus Armband. This seems to be working well, as I can pause the workout and change the music using the Apple Watch, without getting the phone out of the armband. The Armband is comfortable and easy to handwash, but a pain to dry - you have to lodge something inside so the air can flow through. Maybe I’ll just have to wash it less frequently, although people report it starts to smell after a bit. Yuk. Anyway, all the data feeds into my Activity Monitor and Health App on the watch and phone, so everything’s in one place, ready to mine for insights. I’ve tracked my distances and I’m aiming to gradually increase speed and length. Nothing crazy.
  • I’m planning to try Zombies, Run! at some point. Looks like fun!
  • One challenge is tracking activity when I can’t wear my watch (such as swimming, which I haven’t done lately due to Rotator Cuff business) or when I’m not allowed to (Football). The problem is working out which app to add the activity to afterwards. If you add this kind of activity via the central Health app (see below), it doesn’t record calories burned or steps, and it doesn’t flow back to the Activity app - it all messes too much with your totals. I’ve taken to adding the activity via Lifesum, which at least means I’ve recorded KJ burned for that day (Lifesum shows a target KJ for each day, which changes as you eat and burn KJ). Think I’m going to buy a sweatband for my wrist so I can cover my watch and see if they let me play soccer with it on...still not quite ideal.
  • All of the above data finds it’s way into the Apple Health app, which is best treated as a central data repository. It’s quite utilitarian, and captures pretty much anything you can throw at it (everything from Selenium consumption to electrodermal activity to number of times fallen and much, much more) - it really is a broader wellness app rather than being focused on fitness. And it’s now soaking up all my nutrition, sleep, heart rate and activity data, plus some other things I hadn’t even thought about. For example, the barometer in the 6S is supposed to track steps climbed, although I’m not sure how it handles lifts and elevators...anyway, now I’m looking for general insights based on all this collected data, above and beyond what the above apps provide.
  • So far I’ve only tried Addapp for additional insights. It’s free and it’s pretty good, and it sends me a couple of insights and related tips each day. One of today’s tips, for example, is a link found between my carb intake and number of steps taken. It provides advice around the type of carbs to eat, and how soon prior to exercise (even walking). I’m now curious whether I should have my breakfast at home or at the office, so I might look into that. To be honest though I haven’t done much research on the insight apps side of things, so if there are other apps you think I should introduce into the mix please let me know.

As for results, I’ve introduced all of these gradually over the past 4 weeks (since SXSW!). I’ve had an overseas trip in that time, with lots of food and alcohol consumed, but I tracked everything diligently, held back a couple of times when normally I’d go all-in, and got back on the horse quickly when the trip was over. Long story short, this regime is already working - my weight is falling off, I’m feeling better about myself, but I know these are early days and we can’t assess sustainability for a good while yet. Writing this blog will hopefully help keep me honest.

One other point. I’m sure most health insurance companies offer tools that do all or some of the above. But if I have to lock my data into a health ecosystem, I’d rather it’s one I’ve trusted for years (Apple) than a health insurer I might change at any time. This also means I’m free to experiment with other apps as part of a collective suite bound together by the Apple Health datastore - so if you’ve got any recommendations I’d love to know.

If you’ve made it this far, I hope you’ve found it useful. Happy healthing!

Monday, 21 March 2016

Thoughts on SXSW 2016

Don't like words, just like pictures? Then check out this technology-focused photo album compiled by myself and Lorenzo Wood, or my broader Austin photos in this Flickr album. Warning: it will make you hungry.

Austin was magnificent, as always. A mix of great company (cap doffed at Warren, Dave, Gavin, Lorenzo and others), amazing food (BBQ at Kreuz Market, amazing steaks, OMG brisket) and terrific entertainment (The White Horse, Pedalo Karaoke, Buffalo Billiards) adds up to a winning combination. Was fab having so many DigitasLBi colleagues there from around the world too.

As for the actual sessions, there are over 1,500 to choose from now, no really, which not only means you can only attend a tiny percentage, but also means you end up choosing the ones you want based on session title only. Who has the time to read 1,500 synopses, never mind thousands of speaker bios? I heard quite a few grumbles about the quality of the talks, but it's impossible to manage. Lanyrd used to be brilliant at crowdsorting through this mess, helping sort the wheat from the chaff, but that's only worthwhile if everyone's using it. Hopefully the Upcoming renaissance will be ready for next time.

The net result was that the sessions I attended were an equal spread of awesome, good and poor. But the awesome ones alone made everything worthwhile, especially those exploring the cutting edge of AI. Obviously AlphaGo's success was the talk of the town, but it was the nature of the success that was so exciting. By making moves that humans couldn't predict or understand, it gave an insight into our machine-dominated future. 

In the short term, we can expect ongoing examples of narrow excellence, much as we've seen already going back to Deep Blue and Watson, but coming thicker and faster. The big difference between these and AlphaGo is that we didn't teach the computer how to play Go, we taught it how to learn. As we, and they, get better at this, the growth becomes exponential, especially when we invite these learning machines to deal with systems that are too complex for humans to process or understand. 

As with AlphaGo, they'll probably find insights and opportunities that are beyond our comprehension, leaving us with the question: when should we start to put our faith in them?

Plus the way these systems overlap with biotechnology, genetics and nanotechnology is truly scary - and not in a good way. I still highly recommend the Wait But Why article on this. 

I digress. Back to the talks. I particularly enjoyed the talk given by Dag Kittlaus, whose team developed Siri. He's now working on a system which not only lets you upload data sets into the cloud for their systems to combine and learn from, but which also has a voice interface. He imagines a world where his 'v' logo is as ubiquitous as the Bluetooth logo - when you see it, you can talk to it. An incredibly smart and engaging speaker. Check out viv.ai to find out more.

What else? Obama was excellent (no I didn't win the ballot and see him in person) - watch the video when you get a minute. JJ Abrams was good, talking about imbuing robots with human characteristics to drive empathy. Kevin Kelly was engaging as always - he talked about pills that can measure you from inside your body, and dictate the contents of the pill for the following day. Far out. 

The keynote by the Under Armour CEO (Kevin Plank) was pretty inspirational too, albeit in a chest thumping kind of way. His main message was that it isn't good enough to have a connected ecosystem that tells you about past or present events - it needs to guide you on the future as well. We already have constituent parts (apps) that help us understand diet, exercise, sleep, wellbeing, happiness and more - but as yet nothing stitches it together very well to help you make smart decisions in real time. I believe the companies that get this right across each sector have a bright future.

And VR was everywhere. We're clearly at the tipping point. Check the photos for some interesting applications, including how you can trick people into walking around a virtual environment that's larger than the room you're standing in. 

One final personal note. It's three years since I was last at SXSW, but the combination of Uber plus Vodafone's $5-a-day roaming plan made the whole experience so much better. No more waiting for the shuttle bus, no more missed sessions, no more waiting for an hour at 3am for taxis, no more worrying about missing flights. RIP Austin taxis. 

So that's it. SXSW isn't without its detractors, but it brings to mind the old Yogi Berra quote - nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded. As a conference it's challenging to get the best out of the experience, but if you relax a little and strike the right balance between sessions, entertainment, the trade hall, networking, socialising, eating and generally soaking up Austin, it's still the best nerdfest the world has to offer. Viva la South-By!

The path to success

This post originally appeared in Campaign Asia on 8 March 2016.

Everyone wants to channel the incredible disruption and success of Silicon Valley, but how should we go about doing it? Whenever great leaders write their memoirs or business self-help books, common themes tend to emerge. The path to success is rarely straight, usually featuring a fair dose of good fortune, adversity, hard work and close calls that make the story compelling. And the companies involved often share the personalities of their leaders.  These companies, particularly those in the technology sector, often bear the hallmarks of resilience and adaptation that should see them flourish for years to come.
But when we look inside the typical organisation things aren’t so encouraging. We can see that many processes and practices are designed in such a way that they limit exposure to the conditions that drive success. A new business forged in harsh market conditions can only succeed through a maniacal focus on customer needs, so why do so many companies restrict this frequent contact with their customers?
It isn’t all bad news. Some processes, such as those employed in product design, have established methodologies to drive user engagement and validation, from inception through to launch. Maybe this is because failure rates are generally high if customers aren’t directly involved along the way. But others, particularly in the marketing space, fall short. From strategy to design to production, unvalidated assumptions are made about the customers’ motivations and behaviours, usually through rose-tinted glasses. The team works for months in an echo chamber, and then wonders why the end result falls flat. The failure to engage with customers across the board leads to a business which is less effective and ultimately more exposed to an unforgiving market.
Why is this so? Are the ideas so majestic and Earth-shattering that any member of the public would immediately break any non-disclosure agreement to get the news out? Of course not. In fact from experience I’d say not involving the customers makes the opposite likely. Assuming the leader has been brave enough to back an innovative idea, it tends to get watered down between agreement and launch as the lawyers and jobsworths have their say — unless the customer’s voice keeps the idea alive.
Given how many successful people and companies talk about testing and learning and iteration and validation, it’s remarkable how few companies actually put it into practice. Remarkable — but understandable. It’s time-consuming, can be expensive, impacts your potential to hit deadlines and it forces you to confront criticism. And those are just a few of the reasons.
But when we start to pull the thread of those excuses, they start to unravel. Testing with customers can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. By putting effective constraints around the ideas being tested, for example using paper sketches rather than production quality assets, and insisting on quick and fast tests, we can prepare in a fraction of the time and cost. Products and services such as Usertesting.com, Testbirds, Marvel and Invision can help.  And as it turns out, the less time you invest in the assets, the better you take the criticism because you haven’t invested too much of your soul in them.
This one constraint can unlock a huge amount of potential. By testing early, we’re getting incredibly rich and valuable feedback from the marketplace. This doesn’t just help us to improve our idea, it can also help open up completely new avenues for exploration. It’s this repeated exposure to the market that helped Odeo pivot into Twitter, helped Game Neverending pivot into Flickr, turned Burbn into Instagram, and many more.
You might still find you can’t hit your deadlines, and that’s OK. Much better to know you’ll be failing early on in the process, and pursue an approach with far better prospects for success.
In short, having a boss that supports and drives innovative behaviour is the key to unlocking this huge opportunity.
One concern that has to be addressed head-on is the huge percentage of startups that fail. It’s said that somewhere between 75% and 90% of startups fail in their first three years, and it’s fair to say no-one’s career is going to last long with that kind of strike rate. But this is where comparisons with Silicon Valley and the world of start-ups isn’t really that helpful. You don’t need close inspection to see that the starting conditions are having a huge impact on the outcome. Large organisations have an existing successful business model and customer base that would be the envy of any start-up. And by their very nature, start-ups are typically bringing an untested product or service to market that has to successfully jostle for space in the crowded lives and wallets of their potential customers.
Protecting brand equity is also an interesting area to explore. You could argue that their nothing-to-lose attitude gives start-ups free reign to explore ideas that could cause irreversible damage to an established company. The bigger the brand, the greater the fear that a small mistake can have catastrophic repercussions - and the higher the chance that risks won’t be taken.

We can see there are dynamics at play within the start-up world that are appealing to established companies, but adopting them wholesale is unlikely to get the results we’re looking for. By carefully adapting them for the corporate environment, and by getting closer to our customers, we can plot our path to success.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Brave New World

A version of this originally appeared on the CMO website in February 2016.

In recent years we’ve witnessed not just dramatic creation of value — Instagram, WhatsApp, Uber and Airbnb being the poster children — but also cataclysmic value destruction. Pottering around on Daring Fireball the other day, I noticed Gruber reminding us that Nokia had a market cap of $245 billion as recently as the year 2000. $245 billion. It beggars belief, and they’re not alone — several seemingly too-big-to-fails have, well, failed. We salute you Kodak, Blockbuster and Borders, and on the technology front we’ve bid a speedy hello and goodbye to the digital point and click camera, the un-smartphone and the all-conquering iPod. Even in the software world, iTunes had a monopolistic lock on the music scene, and moments later Spotify and Pandora provided stiff competition.
But no-one cries for that long because, well, they deserved it, didn’t they? We all know that companies that fail to innovate eventually get disrupted, and dismantled, and we all purse lips and nod knowingly as they go down. After all, it’s always been the nature of business to go out of business. I’d say go and ask the original Fortune 500 companies what they think, but only 60 of them are still on the go. The only companies with genuine longevity are those who are always evolving and adapting.
And most CEOs know this. They always save a segment to talk about how important innovation is, and if they’re smart they’ll talk about the value of their R&D portfolio (although maybe don’t look too closely at those numbers). Building resilience into the business will always be a top table priority, and rightfully so. But if that’s the case, then why do so many large companies struggle to drive the patterns of innovation that produce genuine results?
The fact is that many large companies have built their success on a certain way of doing things. Even though many CMOs talk about the fabled 70/20/10 budget split, in my experience it’s more like 90/10/0 - even though it’s the riskiest work that makes the biggest impact. It’s human nature to keep doing things that have been successful in the past even though, to coin a phrase, 'what got you here won’t get you there’.
So, what to do? In my experience, the challenges can be grouped into one of three buckets: culture, people and process. Let’s look at these one by one.
Culture is usually the appropriate starting point, and the hardest one to fix. There are usually some tell-tale signs. Does the company support and promote innovative practices, such as experimentation and test-and-learn? Does it adopt agile software development practices, driving focus on delivering the highest value first? Does it focus almost exclusively on the same practices it was doing ten years ago? Is there wiggle room for line managers to identify and support the interesting activity that might generate new value? How close are people to customers and their changing needs? By working through these knotty, political cultural issues, and resolving the patterns of communication that suppress innovation, seemingly insurmountable obstacles can start to erode.
And while fixing a culture is hard, finding the right people comes in a not-too-distant second. It can be as scary as hell to change tried and trusted methods, and the people involved need support, training and encouragement. At the same time, you can’t wait around too long to find the right people — especially if the culture is unlikely to attract them — so partnering with someone who can help turbo-charge innovative behaviour, and can help bring your people up to speed, pays quick dividends. No one has a monopoly on good ideas, and so extending the diversity of the team outside your business will generally pay off.
Finally, there’s the process. Boring but essential — it’s the difference between doing innovation, and doing it well. How can you generate the right ideas, and make sure the right ones are selected for advancement? This is one situation where you don’t want the HiPPO to dominate, because they’re often less well connected to the emerging markets. And once you’ve identified interesting ideas to explore, how do you test and learn your way to validation? What time frames should you work to, and what funding and endorsement gates are put in place? For one of our clients we run a regular process that goes from identifying a promising challenge to a customer-tested prototype, a business model and a commercial sponsor in 10 weeks. Your mileage might vary, of course, but getting everyone to understand the process is half the battle won, and de-risks activities from slipping into more conventional, expensive and time-consuming sinkholes.

We’ve seen from recent years that the cycles of disruption are getting shorter and shorter. This should terrify and excite us in equal measure, and spur us into action. One thing’s for sure: the longer we wait to make change, the greater the prospect of someone else doing the disrupting. Just ask Nokia.

Death by a thousand tags

This post first appeared on the DigitasLBi blog, What's Next in September 2015.

Ever had that experience where you follow a link from Twitter or Facebook on your mobile, and you stare at a blank screen waiting for it to appear? It’s a frustrating experience, especially when the page finally loads and it’s clearly been well designed. Why would an organisation spend so much money and energy building a site that looks good but which takes ages to load?
There are many well known reasons why performance suffers – high image sizes for retina devices, the use of weighty javascript libraries, and underperforming platforms are pretty well known – but there’s an emerging issue that’s harder to control, certainly within the context of a web build project. One that, for the user, could make the difference between acceptable load times and I’m-not-waiting-for-that. One which makes browsing the web on a mobile device far more painful than it needs to be.
I’m talking about web tracking tags. As you wander around the web, sites collect what they know about you so they can serve up more relevant adverts. Then of course there are analytics tags, which ping the server every time you visit a page. And in recent years, the leading content management platforms have evolved into experience management platforms, driving the seductive promise of personalised customer experiences, dropping even more tags to enable the mapping of people to content or functionality.
These personalised experiences are sometimes a pretty good deal for the user. Done well, you end up with a service a bit like a waiter in a top restaurant, where the website can anticipate the needs of the customer and offer a tailored experience.
But the problems start when a page has too many tags, slowing the site down and greatly offsetting the benefits for the users. One random page clocked in at 14mb worth of tags – hardly noticeable on powerful devices using broadband, but painful on a mobile with a weak cell signal.
It’s surprising just how many tags are being used these days. Try installing the Ghostery Chrome extension and you’ll see that your favourite sites use a whole host of tags. Here are some examples.
From the Guardian:
guardian
From the BBC:
bbc
From the New York Times:
NY Times
And I think we have a winner from the Sydney Morning Herald:
Sydney Herald
Google has zero tags. Loads quickly, doesn’t it?
It’s no secret that mobile users have zero patience for slow sites. And why should they? Customer experience champions such as Apple are updating their browsers making it easy to block tags such as these – no big surprise. The experience related tags could become collateral damage in the face of these blockers.
So what can be done in the meantime? A few things come to mind.
1. UX people, stand up! Educate yourselves, and ensure someone on the team takes responsibility for managing this issue. Fact is that you need to drive success for both the business and the user experience, and occasionally there will be trade offs. You’re well positioned to hold a view on what these look like – you’re responsible for the overall user experience. Do what you can to counterbalance any abuse of these opportunities.
2. Developers, set yourself a performance budget – a page size (including tags) above which the page load times become unacceptable. The amount devoted to tags should be limited to a mobile, low bandwidth world as the lowest common denominator. Influence the design process to impact the design-related aspects of page weight. Ensure the page loads promptly as a priority. Understand how tag management systems work, and make sure they compress and optimise the way tags load.
Also, consider that one tag might have a larger initial load but make fewer async calls while another may be small initially but then pull down a big subsequent load from the server.
3. Testers, understand the impact on the user experience, and test on low power mobiles before and after launch over low bandwidth.
4. Managers, develop a tag management framework, whereby existing tags constantly have to fight for their place alongside new ones. Your marketing team needs to be kept under control, otherwise they could try to exploit the opportunities without understanding the impact. Kill off dormant tags to keep your site lean and mean. Determine whether tracking tags are the culprit – it may in fact be tags that attempt to load additional content…tracking tags tend to load only a 1x1 clear gif. If you’re developing a culture of continuous improvement – and if not, why not? – then build this consideration into your cycles.
5. Leaders, start developing your fallback plan. If blocking these tags becomes a thing, then you won’t necessarily be able to track users as they surf the web anyway. What’s your plan B?
Tags aren’t going anywhere for now. Advertising makes too much easy money, and it’s a harsh customer who would begrudge a company’s efforts to understand web traffic or deliver a better experience. And it’s ironic that the very act of improving an experience using tags actually has the potential to negatively impact the experience itself.
But the fact remains. Developing a great customer experience is everyone’s concern. We fought so hard for it in the 2000s, and to me it feels as though tag management – and other issues – are coming in uninvited through the back door, circumventing the user experience design process. The average page size has doubled since 2012. It’s time to fight back!

How to run a digital agency

This post originally appeared on Medium in April 2015.

Considering how many digital agencies there are in the world, there’s a surprising shortage of advice for how to run one successfully. Which is surprising when you think about it - for such a relatively young sector, undergoing such constant and dramatic change (especially in recent years), you’d think there’d be more words of wisdom out there in the digital space. 

I’ve just completed a three year tenure launching and running the Sydney office for DT, a terrific Australian digital agency. So I thought I’d jot down a few notes on things I’ve learned, things I wish I’d done differently, and things I wish I’d been warned about beforehand. You might think some are obvious, but for me their relevance and application became more apparent through experience - so they’re listed here. You be the judge.

Let’s get started.

15/40/100

I’ve heard this from a few people, that a business goes through a significant period of pain when it breaks through the 15 person threshold, then again at 40 and 100. I inherited a business of 20 people, so I never experienced the 15 person threshold, but the 40 person threshold hit us like a truck. I’ve tried to figure out why, and I believe there are a few factors at play. Not only do these numbers represent the thresholds at which the reporting structures tend to increase from 2 to 3 to 4 levels, but also the people involved change from doers, to managers, to leaders, under significant pressure. The leader has to change too. This happens in stages across different parts of the business, with some people stretched to breaking point by the increased volume of work and the change in their role. Tempers fray, people leave, and it can take months to get through.

Is it worth it? Maybe. We found economies of scale kicking in once we made it through, with people being better able to take holiday and training (and less late nights) because high quality deputies were in place to hold the fort. We didn’t quite make it to 100 people during my tenure, but experience elsewhere tells me that the business would become more sustainable as a result once we made it through that threshold too. That said, margins were affected by having a higher percentage of well paid leaders who weren’t 100% billable rather than highly recoverable doers. Getting the balance right is a challenge, to put it mildly.

What can you do to limit the impact? Part of the answer lies in recognising that, just because someone is a specialist in a particular area, it doesn’t necessarily make them a natural manager or leader of similar people. Our industry has grown so quickly that relatively inexperienced people have been pushed into positions of responsibility, with mixed results. The best thing a leader can do is recognise that this transition into manager and then leader can’t be taken for granted, and extra support is needed during this time.

Incidentally, I’ve now got a whole lot more respect for independent leaders who refuse to grow their agency above a certain size.

Manage your energy

I’ll go on the record here and say I’m bad at this! I used to check my email all evening, send replies (setting a bad expectation with others), write proposals at the weekend, even answer calls while on holiday. It’s unsustainable and makes you worse at your job - it’s that simple. What’s worse, it damages your health and your family relationships. My advice? Stop checking email after 7pm and at weekends. Tell others that you’re doing this - it sets the tone for the business. Take holidays out of town and resist the urge to check in. And take up hobbies. Unplug! Spend time with your family! And come back to work well rested and ready to take on whatever comes next.

What kind of leader are you?

I must’ve asked myself this question a hundred times over the past three years. It’s easy to recount the obvious areas of focus - setting a clear and well communicated strategy, making a plan and following through, building a great leadership team around you, work on the business, not in the business. etc., etc. - but other elements are more esoteric, less easy to grasp, define and achieve. The truth is that leadership means different things to different people, especially amongst the Generation Y talent populating digital agencies, and no one person can be great at all of them. Identifying your shortcomings and working on them - really working on them - is the hardest part of leadership. Having a style that can adapt to different circumstances and people is highly valuable. What got you here won’t get you there.

Give me something to believe in

The team I inherited three years ago had been beaten into submission. They were the passive recipients of decisions made elsewhere, with deadlines, scope and cost imposed upon them without consultation. Failure was rife and systemic. Simply introducing the DT values and brand into the equation made a big difference to some, but it was important for me to also declare my own values - if you have shared beliefs, people are more likely to have your back when the chips are down. My values revolve around quality, a drum I kept on banging. This resonated with some, others decided to leave, and that’s OK. 

I kept coming back to Simon Sinek’s excellent TED talk, but when I first watched this I didn’t appreciate that it applies to everything you want to do - not just company strategy, but project work, individual mentoring and direction, even personal relationships. Remember a good sign of strong leadership is how people behave when you’re not present. If they're aligned with a core strategy and set of values and beliefs, there’s a far greater chance of success. And if you can engineer things so all individuals in the business formally agree (say, through career development plans) how the business strategy aligns with their job and career goals, then you’re in a great place.

It’s all about relationships

Perhaps another truism, but this really is a question of nuance. Before leading an agency, I understood how important client relationships were in the completion of work, or running of accounts, but this changes when you’re leading an agency. First it’s harder to establish relationships with clients because you’re not involved in the day to day (and nothing builds relationships like working together on a project), and inevitably you need to focus on finding new clients, but also the relationship needs to be built well in advance of problems occurring. You need trust in place before you can talk candidly about the problem and solve it together. Relationships need to be nurtured, constantly, internally as well as externally.

Emotional connections

At one point in my tenure I was informed that some of my direct reports found my style a bit too direct. They were right - I had to work on this. And the advice I received was to work on my emotional connection with them. Take the time to get to know them better. And importantly, show some vulnerability. What I learned though was that there was good and bad vulnerability. An example of good vulnerability is showing how your success is intrinsically linked with theirs - that you need them to do a good job or you’ll fail. 

You can describe what this means in terms of likely repercussions for you. But be careful, people still need a boss who stands strong and remains positive when things go bad - not one crying in the corner. That kind of vulnerability is incredibly destructive. I’ve spent a fair amount of time researching emotional intelligence (another area I’m working on), and have found it very helpful. It applies 360º across your whole reporting line (up, down, across), and worth encouraging in both directions AND through your direct reports to the next level down if you have one. Here’s a good place to start: https://hbr.org/2004/01/what-makes-a-leader

Shut the hell up

Oh, this is an obvious one - but so true. When you’re running an agency you haven’t got time to listen to people give long winded explanations and descriptions - it’s so tempting to jump in and give them the answer. But this is a false time economy. If people realise that they’ve been listened to, they’re far more likely to listen back. And learn. And draw the right conclusions themselves, reducing the prospect that they need you again. Plus, it’s just good manners. So if you’re struggling to get something done on a tight deadline, tuck yourself away and get it done - but make sure this is an exception to the rule. Your role as a leader is to be available.

Ask the right questions

I was lucky enough to have a great leadership coach, and he imparted all sorts of useful knowledge. Perhaps one of the best soundbites was that “90% of leadership is asking the right questions”. This ties into the prior item in some respects - rather than solving people’s problems, your goal is to help them figure out solutions themselves. And if you can do this in a group setting, you’ll come up with exponentially better outcomes than if you figured it out on your own.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst - always

Even when things seem to be going well, assume that something, somewhere is hiding the truth. No-one else will. In our case we were growing quickly and we seemed to be coping with extreme change pretty well, but later we found that things weren’t quite as rosy as they seemed. They rarely are.

And if you look and still can’t find the problem, you haven’t lost a damn thing. Go have a drink.

Work that pipeline

In good times and bad. Every agency I’ve worked at has had difficulty managing the peaks and troughs of business. And it seemed to me that, the faster we were growing, the more tumultuous the pendulum swings. The important message though is that, when times are good, you know what's coming next, and you might be the only person in the business with the time and courage to focus on it. You can’t afford to wait for the pendulum to swing back. And even though I knew this to the case, I still failed to do it. Success can be incredibly seductive, especially when it comes off the back of a sustained period of very hard work.

Track commitments

It’s fundamental for you to set the tone for how commitments are managed within the organisation. People have to make their own commitments, of course, but then you need a system for tracking them and holding people to account. If you want the business to be efficient, people need to depend on each other’s commitments. The standard you walk by will be the standard everyone accepts.

The camera is always rolling

Lorks, I learned this the hard way. As a leader, your behaviour is amplified 100x across the business, whether it’s good or bad. One night after a couple of drinks I made an offhand remark teasing a colleague intended as a joke. I remain convinced that, if I hadn’t been a leader, it would’ve been laughed off. But it came back and bit me in my 360º review that I was insensitive. I learned my lesson - always best to work on the premise that people are extra sensitive to the words and behaviours of a leader.

Actually, that’s one of the principle reasons I haven’t been blogging much since arriving in Australia. It isn’t so much that I haven’t had much to say (hopefully you’ll see from this blog post that I’ve had a lot to think - and write - about). It’s more a case that the need to vet content to make sure it can’t be misconstrued is time consuming, tedious, and ultimately very frustrating. I now have a lot more sympathy for leaders who accidentally say what’s on their mind and get into trouble for it. Unless, y’know, they’re racist assholes or something. Keeping the mask perfect is a proper pain.

Manage up

Even if you’re the leader of the agency, chances are you’ve got someone to report to. In previous roles I had gotten into the habit of doing everything possible to solve a problem before presenting the result as an unfortunate fait accompli. But I learned over time that it’s much better to present options because it forces you to find them. This also builds trust.

Quality is everything

As I mentioned before, I believe that shipping a quality product that delivers against strategic goals is the ultimate test of a digital agency. Word will get around if you deliver a poor product, and rightly so. Plus demanding a high quality outcome is a great way to attract and retain the talent that can actually delivery it. The best people want to contribute to something they can be proud of, and this isn’t going to happen unless it’s a shared ambition for the team and the agency.

I like to describe this as focusing on outcomes, not outputs. The best people will want to know how their work will impact the client and their business. The worst people will deliver a set of wireframes or some code and consider the job done. Hire the former, change the latter - fast.

Don't stop believin'

Running a digital agency is easily the hardest, most nuanced job I’ve ever done. At first I thought there were too many problems too far beyond my control, and it took time to understand that the methods I’d learned in previous roles weren’t enough for this one. Giving out orders wasn’t going to cut it. Fixing problems myself was unsustainable. I had no idea what I didn’t know when I started. But whenever things weren’t going as planned, I leaned hard on the advice of Chris Savage (COO for DT’s holding company, STW). He channeled Walt Disney, who said “The only difference been winning and losing is most often not quitting”. Back yourself. You wouldn’t have got the job if you weren’t qualified. And like every business leader on the frickin’ planet, you’re figuring it out as you go along - and that’s OK. Keep your chin up, and keep going! “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same…you’ll be running a damn fine digital agency, my Son!"