Power to the people

Maria Sipka is on cloud nine. And it doesn’t look like she’s coming down any time soon. Last month her new venture, Linqia, secured a second round of funding. And yesterday she heard that Plug and Play – the high powered US incubator – will seed Linqia’s expansion in the States.

But the thing that’s really got her buzzing was an event organised by Procter and Gamble on Wednesday night: in the last 36 hours Maria’s team has raised £7,265 to help vaccinate newborn babies against Tetanus – all as the result of a social media campaign that they set up in minutes.

“This event was held in Geneva last Wednesday and 200 employees from all over Europe attended, plus 50 people from social media – Google, MySpace etc. Over a few hours, they created this amazing experience.

“You can’t get 200 people in a room and motivate them without having a story to tell: social media is all about story-telling. P&G have this initiative with UNICEF, fronted by Salma Hayek, funding Tetanus vaccinations – the idea was to raise money for the cause.

“The event lasted around two hours. The way it was set up is that there were five different rooms with about 50 people in each room. We all walked into our assigned rooms and had to get started. I didn’t know what was going on, no-one knew what was going on. Everyone was like a herd of sheep.

“It was collaboration on a massive scale. At the start, it was the simple act of just sharing information: ‘What’s going on here?’. Then we had about ten minutes to define our strategy. And the leader (each room had a designated leader) asked ‘Shall we all work on the same thing or should each table do something different?’.

“We said ‘Let’s each do something different’ – so we had one table deciding key influencers, another table looking at SEO, one generating content, another identifying ‘big fish’ – super wealthy people – and another covering media buyers.

“And then it was like ‘Bang – go!’. And on the fly we had to define strategies. So I was sitting there telling people what Twitter was, for example. I had to identify ten followers who had a lot of followers: Mike Butcher, Robert Scoble etc. As a result of that initiative I had exposure to 100,000 people.

“Every time something important happened it flashed up on a big screen. And we could also see the results [of the fundraising] in real time. Someone called Salma Hayek and got her to donate. Someone else said ‘Hey who are the 100 most followed on Twitter? And got on the phone to Ashton Kutcher. Every time there was a success we celebrated it. We raised £12,000 in two hours, we were trending on Twitter. People’s heads were spinning.

“Overall more than £30K has been raised since Wednesday night. And that’s all as the result of a campaign which we invented on the spot – the great thing is that we got quick tangible results. That’s the sort of uplifting experience that says to anyone ‘You can do it!’”

The experience has created a Eureka moment for Maria:

“One of the biggest issues is getting people internally to evangelise. There’s no better way to indoctronate than to get people involved in an activity…This type of format works really well in convincing the cynics. It could be used anywhere.”

If engaging people and inciting their passion is the best way to get them to learn, it looks like Procter and Gamble have found a great way to crack it.


Your space or mine?

Steve Lawson’s mum is on Twitter and she loves it.

“I showed her my Twitter page. I showed her people we knew who were already on Twitter. I said you can now see what I’m up to and make funny comments about it and I’ll know what you’re up to. She said that’s fantastic, what a great little tool!'”

Steve’s a musician based in London; his mum is retired and lives in a tiny village in Scotland, so social media is a great way to keep in touch.

“She gets it because she curates the space. It’s not branded. She decides who she wants to follow. She can block people. She feels in control. One of the reasons she got into it was that I didn’t use the language of social media to explain it to her: I used the language of conversation and of letter writing.”

Steve’s a true social media champion. His blog gives regular updates on his very “2.0” approach to doing business:

“My entire career has been created online. I had a hunch early on that record labels weren’t the way to go. I set up my first website in 1997/8 and put out my first record beginning of 2000. I put a load of my first gig up online, and there were people who wanted to buy my CDs. The process of my ‘art’ happening in dialogue with my audience was already there.”

Steve joined MySpace in 2004 and now has 949 friends there, compared to 2,097 followers on Twitter, so it’s not hard to guess which network he prefers.

As Steve points out, MySpace is alienating to anyone over 30:

“They’ve used this pop culture language. People who are 50 look at it and think ‘Why the f*** would I want to be on MySpace? What a complete waste of time’! When they log onto the MySpace front page and see Lily Allen or Eminem and they’re barely literate, they think ‘Why do I want to be part of all that?’…[The message is] ‘It’s our space, and you’re invited to be in it, on our terms’.

All this wouldn’t be so bad if MySpace wasn’t one of social media’s flagbearers.

So, for anyone needing reassurance about taking the online networking plunge, apart from getting stuck into Twitter, what else does Steve recommend?

He’s a great fan of [fellow musician] Pat Kane’s book, The Play Ethic:

“I really like Pat Kane’s take on all this. He says: “It’s a big playground, a space to mess around in, not everything’s of massive significance. There are all these people who feel they need to ‘get’ it or they’re a failure but when you frame it as just a conversation removed from the limitations of proximity…just like walking into a bar…that makes it all seem much more accessible.”


Who do you think you are?

The first time I meet Chris Thorpe aka Jaggeree it’s at the tail end of a pre-Christmas drinking session in a pub round the back of King’s Cross. Maybe it’s only fair that today he’s plumped for rather more sophisticated surroundings just up the road: the foyer of the spanking new Kings Place concert hall.

The light, airy atrium dotted with Terence Coventry sculptures would probably exude serenity if it weren’t for the lunch-time hoardes, serial tannoy announcements and one cute but kamikaze toddler.

But we’re talking social, so I guess this is all okay.

Chris is the Developer Platform Evangelist for MySpace; this means he spends his time liaising between developers, users and brands, and thinking about what these people/entities actually want from each other. Primarily, he’s interested in why and how people use social networks.

“Your engagement with social media is very much to do with your intent: and your intent on LinkedIn is very different from your intent on MySpace. MySpace’s audience is very engaged with media. The ties between friends are slightly weaker than, say, on Facebook, but weak ties are strengthened by a common shared interest in content – music, film and games.”

“There’s no such thing as a prototypical social network. Facebook is pretty much a Salesforce for friends. MySpace is more of a friend discovery network – in the same way as Twitter: it’s all about finding new friendships.”

As the world’s most popular social network, Facebook’s appeal seems to be ever broader: older people joining to view photos of their grandchildren while teens sign up as they outgrow other networks and want to see what all the fuss is about.

Just 12 months ago, MySpace’s user base was more or less level with Facebook. But recent figures show that Facebook’s reach is now double that of MySpace: MySpace reported just 124 million monthly unique visitors in February compared to Facebook’s 276 million.

MySpace may be consolidating its user base but the seam it mines is a rich one: it is still the ‘must have’ network for bands and musicians. Nonetheless, whereas on Facebook or LinkedIn, your “friends” or “contacts” lists might be sacrosanct, on MySpace the switching costs (ie: the expense of moving to another profile or network) are possibly slightly lower:

“It’s not necessarily the cost of losing friendships, more about the cost of building up another identity. On MySpace people are happy to shed identities: they’ll close down one profile and build up a new one. MySpace is about trying new things on: bands, crazes, even politics. It’s about discovery of things – and of yourself.”

“If it’s all about building a persona then that’s only authentic for a certain period. Authenticity is time-based. I used to be a research scientist – now I work in social software. [Furthermore] if you think about how you are in real life, you expose different facets to different people: we fine tune what we say depending on who we’re talking to.”

One thing’s for sure, your funky, expressive MySpace profile (and certainly the one you may have flouted when you were 16) is probably not the one you’d like your future boss or current business colleagues to have access to.

This is the one area in particular that Chris sees as ripe for exploitation:

“When I ask people what makes them uncomfortable about social media the issue that always comes up is the one of being friends with colleagues…okay, so the gap between work and life is disappearing, but this just shows the massive need for more work social intranets.”

Indeed, if your boss is desperate to be your friend, let him/her hang out with you during work hours – don’t impinge on my downtime, dude!


“The genie’s out of the bottle now…”

Johnnie Moore is sitting with me in The Duke of Cambridge, Islington, musing on medieval revelry.

“There used to be a lot more dancing in the streets, but then the Church did away with all that. We used to be more joyous. That’s why I like Flashmobs – they’re playful. Ok, so T-mobile getting everyone to dance at Liverpool Street station was an ad – but we loved it, didn’t we?”

There’s not much revelry going on right now. It’s 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon and we’re the only people in the pub.

Many years ago, Johnnie tells me, this place was different: completely packed out at weekends, with fights outside on the pavement afterwards. Islington is a lot more serious these days, but then, maybe now the banking community has more time on its hands, things will liven up again.

Johnnie is tired of the obsession with planning that seems to be stultifying the business world. Recently, he complained on his blog about “model fatigue”:

“In business you spend the day in a room and there’s all sorts of pressure to come up with a plan. We’re fabulously complex creatures – not all we do confirms to the model. Listen more, notice more – rather than making a plan. If you connect more, it’s quite energising.”

“A lot of the stuff written about innovation is Evostick: all those 12 step diagrams and models. It reminds me of the stuff scribbled on the wall by people who’ve been stuck in solitary confinement, Alexandre Dumas style – it seems slightly autistic.”

As a facilitator and consultant to the likes of NESTA, Johnson & Johnson, PricewaterhouseCoopers and O2, Johnnie is something of an authority on these matters. Much of his work involves running workshops and away days which use improvisation and other techniques in order to open up the collaborative process and get creative ideas flowing.

“People like to believe in this scarcity model of innovation when in fact creativity is quote abundant. What we’re short of is an ability to actually notice stuff. Innovation happens very naturally among human beings.”

A keen Twitterer and blogger, Johnnie is an ardent fan of social media, and he believes we are slowly seeing a change in the way business is conducted:

“Because it’s informal, social media encourages a more relaxed style. It gives people an outlet for their frustration. It allows people to bring this side of themselves out; it facilitates self-expression.”

As an example of this outlet for pent-up frustration, Johnnie cites the Facebook group recently set up to protest against MPs covering up potentially dodgy expense claims.

“The future of organisations could go in so many ways. We could have an oligarchy, a small number of very safe hands. It could end up we try and regulate too much. The genie’s sufficiently far out of the bottle for it to be stuffed back in. Social media’s eating away at these power structures.”

Old-school management styles will also be affected.

“There’s this very weird language being used about busy-ness and action: but that type of management and the need for it is going to start being eroded.”

“I suppose I would say this, but the role of management will be to facilitate. It will be more about holding a space in which people feel involved, loved and needed.”

And if a bit of revelry is involved, so much the better!


Happy Campers

The glass-topped coffee table is strewn with empty beer cans, crisp packets, half eaten pots of guacamole and salsa, orange peel and empty blister packs. A bottle of vodka is being passed around; some people are complaining of “feeling a bit weird”.

But this isn’t a student flat at 6am in the morning, or even a Tracey Emin art installation, it’s the plush offices of the Guardian Newspaper in central London, and this is a scheduled session at 5pm on the first day of BarCamp London 6.

Dutch java programmer and internet entrepreneur Reinier Zwitserloot has brought along some “Mysterious Fruit” tablets from Taiwan to share. The aspirin sized pink pills, which dissolve in a couple of minutes on our tongues, alter the chemical balance of our tastebuds almost immediately.

Everything becomes unbelievably sweet. Guacamole and salsa taste like some sort of strawberry jam, lemons seem as if they’ve had sugar sprinkled liberally on them, and the vodka becomes a sickly-sweet alcopop.

“As soon as I discovered these tablets,” says Reinier, a mischievous glint in his eye: “I thought: gotta do a session at BarCamp.”

Reinier’s session is taking place alongside more high-level talks such as “Experiments in data portability” and “Faster front-end development with Textmate”. Some sessions have provocative titles (“Making kickass video navigation” or “Reading everyone’s deleted Tweets”). And some are clearly there for fun: a techie version of “Just A Minute”, a musical pub quiz, even an “action theatre” (drama) workshop.

Later this evening, after the unofficial schedule draws to a close at 8.30pm, there’ll be rounds of Werewolf and Semantopoly (traditional BarCamp games) and snacks, beer and deep conversation long into the night. Then, tomorrow, everyone will be up bright and early for another whole day of informative (and irreverent) lectures, discussions and workshops. And then it’s back to work – for most – on Monday.

BarCamps generally take place over a weekend. And might be considered a strange way for people to volunteer to spend their free time. But BarCamping is becoming a bit of a cultural phenomenon. Since the first BarCamp was run in the offices’ of Ross Mayfield’s Socialtext in the summer of 2005, and the format was made open and available to everyone via the BarCamp wiki, the concept has spread like wildfire, not only among the geek and internet community, but also out into the wider business world.

Why is the format so popular?

Well, the number one rule of a BarCamp is that there is no pre-determined schedule, and no designated speakers. This is a “user-generated” conference – the delegates are the speakers. At the start of day one, anyone who wants to run a session writes their topic on a post-it note and sticks it up on the blank schedule “grid” (which will be up on a wall somewhere). The sessions can be on absolutely any topic and in any style. This means that traditional ideas of hierarchy and deference are automatically dispensed of – everyone’s voice can be heard, and everyone gets the chance to be talked about.

Coverage of the event is also as “open” as possible, with participants encouraged to record, blog, tweet and transmit the minutiae of their BarCamp experience to the outside world.

Amidst the silliness and irreverence, many serious discussions are had, and firm friendships are made, consolidated and re-established. The atmosphere is one of earnest frivolity. The idea is that fun, work and learning should not be mutually exclusive.

What do the participants at BarCamp London 6 hope to get out of it?

Mark Norman Francis (ex Yahoo): “I’ve been to quite a few BarCamps. BarCamp London 1 was organised by and run at Yahoo. If you go to a conference, it’s usually very expensive. You assume high relevance and good quality speakers, but that’s not always the case. Being very technical and working for Yahoo, I’m surrounded by some of the techie-est people in the world. You sit in the audience and think, why am I paying to hear this?”

Simon Willison (co-creator, Django): “At conventional conferences you have this big difference between the attendees and the speakers. The speakers all network with each other in a different place to the attendees. With BarCamps, you don’t have that.”

Ryan Alexander (YouDevise): “There is a hierarchy, but there’s also equitability of spirit. You come here to get ideas from other people. I feel really energised when I go back into work. It gives me a sense of security – nerd security! You have animated, passionate discussions with people. It’s an interest meritocracy rather than a knowledge meritocracy.”

The inclusive, dynamic structure may be why the BarCamp format has been replicated not only globally (BarCamps now take place in at least 68 countries), but across industries. There are BarCamps in banking (BarCampBank), government (Gov2.0Camp), medicine (HealthCamp), education (EduCamp) and entrepreneurship (SeedCamp).

There are different versions of the BarCamp theme within the geek/internet community, such as PodCamp (podcasters), WordCamp (bloggers) and SocialMediaCamp. And variations on the BarCamp format: MiniBarcamp and MobileCamp.

I’m sure that business has much to learn from BarCamp’s informal, flattened, highly interactive structure. But the geek community has particular enthusiasm and dedication – and I wonder just how inherent that is to other sectors and disciplines?


Reflected glory

It’s late on a Sunday night in October 1996. In a crowded basement on Hoxton Square, East London, around 300 people have crammed together to dance, drink, smoke (because we could back then) and listen to DJ and Metalheadz co-founder Goldie spin his trademark jungle drum and bass.

Apart from the flashing visuals, there’s not much colour in the room, the crowd, made up of students, artists and anyone else who doesn’t have to get up on Monday morning, is a heaving sea of sweaty faces, dark jackets, dark t-shirts.

The music keeps playing, the volume louder if anything, but in the corner of the room, there’s a ripple through the crowd, and the dancing is momentarily more subdued. Heads turn. For a minute or two, all eyes rest on the beautiful, pale face, the cheekbones dusted with glitter, the beautiful slanted eyes, fringed with jet black hair.

Bjork is only in the Blue Note for a short time but, in her unexpected presence, everything changes. For a moment, a sweaty local venue becomes a celebrity hangout and a routine Sunday night turns into a lifelong memory.

You don’t need to be a Brit Award winning, internationally-acclaimed popstar to make this sort of entrance, but it probably helps.

Drama queens and kings

Tudor Pickard, who writes about leadership on his blog, picks up on a story told by Meryl Streep in the LA Times; the actress remembers her days at Yale Drama School, when the students were asked how they would go about playing a king:

“And everybody said, ‘Oh you are assertive,’ and people would say, ‘Oh you speak in a slightly deeper voice.’ And the teacher said, ‘Wrong. The way to be king is to have everybody in the room quiet when you come in.’ The atmosphere changes. It’s all up to everybody else to make you king. I thought that was really powerful information.”

Tudor asks, are drama and leadership really that far apart?

Certainly trade unionist Keith Grint, in “The Arts of Leadership”, believes that a key part of leadership is the ‘performance art’ – persuading others to follow you through the strength of your actions.

Chances are, we’ve all had a boss who makes us cringe when he/she walks into the room, or a gorgeous work colleague who makes our hearts leap. The emotional impact other people have on us, and vice versa, is the driving force behind mainstream psychotherapy as well as less-scientific practices such as NLP.

The charismatic leader whose entrance causes a roomful of people to quieten, whose very presence sparks a current of excitement through a crowd, is the type of leader we’re conditioned to cry out for. As Cass Business School’s David Sims has said on this blog, their existence feeds a deep need within us.

This need generates the sort of mild hysteria that has people saying Barack Obama is the new Messiah (if you search for Barack Obama + Jesus on Google you’ll get over 6m results) or that Gordon Brown is saving the world (Gordon Brown + saving world = 396,000 results).

Like Tudor, I agree with the idea of a highly reciprocal, co-dependent relationship between leaders and followers, but rather than build up great leaders, we should ask ourselves where we can help them lead. In other words, as one of the world’s more charismatic leaders would have it, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” (John F Kennedy, 1961). Meanwhile, leaders themselves can start thinking about how to empower others.

The end of the office ‘celebrity’

Actions speak louder than words and I agree that all the best leaders should and do lead by example. But, in the book, I’m interested in toning down the ‘’performing’ side of things. In my view, any performance should be so subtle as to go virtually unnoticed.

In “The Starfish & The Spider”, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom quote the ancient Chinese philospher Lao-tzu, “a leader is best when people barely know that he exists; not so good when people obey and acclaim him; worst when they despise him”. (p115)

We want to feel our leaders have our best interests at heart. There’s nothing more irritating than a leader who simply shouts about how great he/she is. Often, when those types of people are in management positions, they’re doing anything but ‘leading’.

What’s the true key to motivating and driving others? This is the heart of the ‘passion’ element I’m exploring. Leaders like Richard Sambrooke, Craig Newmark, Jason Fried, Gina Poole, Lloyd Davis and Andy Bell all seem to get it right.


Why bankers don’t do casual

Someone has left a lollipop in Gemma Price’s Canary Wharf office.

“I don’t want it – you have it,” urges Gemma.

The lollipop is one of the few bright things in the otherwise very sedate office, full of grey, black and muted tones – the kind you’d expect of a leading investment/ private bank. The lollipop seems out-of-place. As rare as a Myspace page in a set of banker’s bookmarks (it turns out).

Gemma looks after learning and development for the bank’s 25,000 back-office staff, as well as overseeing learning and development (co-ordinating, sharing best practice etc), for Europe, the Middle East and Africa – this role also covers employees in private banking, investment banking and asset management.

Gemma’s unit operates as a kind of internal consultancy, brokering deals between internal ‘clients’ and external vendors, including executive coaches, facilitators and IT training providers.

Gemma has been at the bank for nine years so when she started, the internet wasn’t much of an issue. Today however, there are tight limits on what can and can’t be viewed:

“We’re very restricted with what we can access, apart from LinkedIn and Google. We can access the BBC and news sites…LinkedIn is seen as professional tool. Most Facebook groups [for example] would not be considered professional.”

With regards to internal communications, a knowledge management team has just been set up, charged with looking at KM in its entirety across the bank. But the watchwords are effectiveness and ROI, rather than radical change:

“They’ll be looking at knowledge management in terms of efficiency. The last thing anyone wants in the market right now is innovation or risk-taking!”

The bank’s vast corporate intranet serves 45,000 people across 51 countries.

“There’s a massive staff directory, and Sharepoint, which includes a lot of shared sites where people have blogs and wikis. There’s a lot of stuff on there, a lot of videos. There’s a huge amount of e-learning.”

Gemma points to the webcam on her desktop, used for Camtasia presentations.

“We design and develop our own content, working with outside vendors. We also use Harvard Management a lot, and Intuition Plus.”

In a large, multinational company, it’s a challenge to produce e-learning videos where the message hits home. And Gemma’s team needs to catch the attention of people who are extremely busy and frequently stressed.

“The shorter, the better, the funnier we can make [the videos], the better. Actually funny is a flippant comment. Because we can’t afford to have something that’s funny in London being unfunny in Singapore.”

How would she describe the overall culture of the company?

“We’re a real mix. The dominant cultures are Swiss and American. We have some people coming in who are very innovative, but then we’re also very traditional. We have people who’ve made it up themselves through adversity but also people with double PhDs in Maths – again, that duality.”

The staff is, culturally, very diverse. The bank has just won an award for its multicultural leadership programme, and Gemma clearly works hard to promote harmony.

She admits she looks for parallels where possible:

“The Singapore and Zurich offices aren’t dissimilar; their attitude is ‘we’re here to serve’. The approach of London and New York is more, ‘we’re here to work with you, and we want to get the credit’.”

“My role is to create a great working environment. A manager has to be all things – a coach, a mentor. The predominant style of the lead manager has a huge impact on mangers below. [Our CEO] isn’t a ‘show and tell’ guy so his team aren’t out there banging the drum. That creates very much a team-based culture.”

Recent experiments in sub-prime mortgages aside, the banking industry tends to be conservative by nature, especially where leadership is concerned.

“The front office tends to be very command and control. That sort of method is seen as outdated but in practice still exists. There’s a real dichtonomy there.”

Above all, the bank’s well-heeled clients want to see respect:

“We’ve got to strike a balance. It is quite formal. You don’t say ‘Great!’, ‘How you doing?’ or ‘Wassup?!’ to personal clients, a lot of whom are billionaires. There’s no room for casual language in that way. These are high net worth individuals we’re speaking to. Luckily, there’s huge amount going on socially so we’ve got plenty of opportunity to be informal and casual.”

Maybe that’s what the person who left the lollipop thought.


Telling tales

It all comes back to stories, according to Ziv Navoth.

Ziv is sitting in his New York office (AOL’s headquarters on Broadway), chatting to me on Skype.

“Leaders see opportunity where other people see difficulties or challenges…then what you have to do as a leader is convince other people; make them think they can win. The ability to do that requires the ability to tell stories.

“Look at where Barack Obama was 21 months ago. Watching his campaign has been mind-boggling. [The US] is a country that doesn’t like change. The thought of voting for a black person is anathema to some people. But Obama can paint a picture of what the future could look like.”

Ziv works for Bebo, the world’s third biggest social network (45m registered users), which was acquired by AOL for $850m in March 2008. As Senior VP, Marketing & Partnerships, Ziv is part of “People Networks” – a business unit at AOL which includes Bebo, AIM, ICQ and Socialthing.

Ziv should know all about stories. In February 2007, the same week he started at Bebo, (as VP of marketing and business development), he published his first book, Nanotales, a collection of 83 short stories.

Inspired by the book, Bebo ran a competition encouraging users to write their own ‘nanotales’ – short stories of under 1000 words. The stories were uploaded to the web where they could be reviewed and rated by other users.

The contest was a perfect reflection of the potential ambitions of Bebo’s core 16 – 24 year old demographic, and a great way of harnessing the viral power of the internet. Shortlisted writers such as Tolu Ogunlesi, Richard Mooney and Shirley Davenport promoted the competition on their sites, asking readers to vote for them, and spread the word.

“Social media enables you to cross barriers of space and time,” says Ziv. “You can broadcast your story with zero investment and the only thing that will effect how far it spreads is the power of your story. Before there were barriers and hierarchy, now it’s just up to you.”

Whether it’s teenagers on Bebo, or CEOs of multinational companies, the internet is a great leveller. Craft your message in the right way, touch a chord, and your words will spread like wildfire.

Scott Monty, Ford’s head of social media, stresses the importance of simplistic story telling. To succeed in the digital world, he says, you need to decide your story and repeat it again and again. Polish up your story-telling talents, and you’re more likely to be on to a winner.

The Oxford academic Keith Grint praises imaginative story-telling in his book, “The Arts of Leadership”. He compares leadership to a series of artistic disciplines – and defines the effective portrayal of a strategic vision as the ‘fine art’ of leadership.

“This art is most appropriately considered as the one responsible for constructing the strategic vision of an organisation – that is, its future destination, its current direction, and its past deployment. It is, in effect, the world of the artist’s studio, for here the fine artist/leader must draw or paint or sculpt the future…the imaginative vision can be crucial in explaining the success or failure of a leader.” (p.16)

Add network effects to an appropriate imaginative vision, and you have a virtuous circle. But if you allow them to amplify a mistaken vision, you have a public relations disaster, as brands such as Virgin, Kryptonite and Cillit Bang have found to their cost.

AOL is a media giant “beginning to get its groove back”. It’ll be interesting to see which stories Ziv will weave to ensure his brand regains maximum respect in cyberspace.

Metanoia Passion

Time to Huddle

Huddle MD Alastair Mitchell isn’t having the best of days. He’s about to exchange on a house and the electronic money transfer system of his bank – a well-known online only service – has gone down. Luckily, given the current economic climate, it’s only a temporary blip. But Ali is having to jump every time his Blackberry bleeps, and he’s constantly apologising.

Alastair – or Ali to everyone who knows him – is bit of a champion of all things digital, so the fact that his internet bank should be shafting him in this manner is ironic.

Two years ago, Ali and his partner, Andy McLoughlin, launched Huddle from a renovated warehouse in South London. The idea behind Huddle is simple: a network of online workspaces where people can chat, share files, organise a project, etc all in a safe, protected environment, but with anyone they care to invite, anywhere in the world.

“From the start, we wanted to bring Web 2.0 concepts into enterprise working methods,” says Ali, when the Blackberry’s been silent for long enough to let him speak. “Everyone hates using enterprise tools. We wanted all the ‘hygiene’ aspects – security, control, back-ups – but to make it social as well – easy to use, friendly and organic.”

Not only have Andy and Ali created Huddle online, they’ve also replicated a mini-version of the concept offline. Their Bermondsey warehouse space is shared with a number of other technology start-ups, and they run a regular event, DrinkTank, specifically for tech entrepreneurs and investors.

“We’re really passionate about entrepreneurship, so we really wanted to do something to support the start-up community here; we wanted to come back and circle in. If you’re an entrepreneur in the UK you tend to retire and go to live in the Cotswolds. But Silicon Valley is like a big business park. We wanted to find a way of getting entrepreneurs together over here, helping them to talk to each other – that’s what DrinkTank is all about.”

Helping people communicate more easily was the impetus for Huddle – the idea to create an online collaborative space came out of Ali’s own frustrations at his previous employer:

“I was running the product team at dunhumby [the marketing company], which was made up of 300 people working in five different countries. Everyone was working via email or social networks because the existing enterprise technology simply wasn’t good enough. So, when I began to think about doing my own thing, I knew exactly what I wanted to create.”

A mutual friend introduced Ali to technology specialist Andy, funds were raised from Eden Ventures – and Huddle was born.

Take up has been enthusiastic, with the company’s user-base growing steadily by around 40 per cent each month (“Because we’re a low cost technology with a relatively small base, the impact of the credit crunch, so far, has been hard to see”).

And, despite, the current gloomy economic outlook, Ali’s for the future are bright: he admits to having “Google-esque ambitions” for the company.

“On the one hand, we’d like Huddle to become a verb: ‘let’s huddle it’. And we’d like to be as ubiquitous as Facebook. On the other, we’d like to become an enabler for social change. We set up the Huddle Foundation to give Huddle away free to charities. In fact, our customer service manager spends about 50 per cent of his time working – for free – with the charities that use us.”

That social element is key in a company where the majority of the workforce are under 30 and keen to feel that they are involved in something that’s about more than just making money: “Our culture is not just about business. It’s very much built around being nice to each other.”

And Ali believes they can keep hold of that dynamic, start-up mentality, citing Virgin and Google as two companies that have grown dramatically yet continue to prioritise innovation:

“The perceived wisdom is that as companies grow they become bigger and more boring; inertia creeps in. It’ll be interesting if we can stay with the culture we’ve built so far. That will be the real test. We believe in what we call ‘loose’ leadership. You hire the very best people and let them get on with it. Give them more than enough rope to hang themselves. I’m constantly surprised and amazed at what these people can do.”

And on that positive note, Ali rushes off to take a call from his mortgage broker. I keep my fingers crossed for him.


Finding Headspace

I first meet Head’s Ramsey Khoury at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York where we’re both on a panel discussing the pros and cons of doing transatlantic business.

Ramsey once ran a fashion company out of New York so he knows a thing or two about US/UK cultural differences. We all agree the world’s a lot smaller now that social media means you chat to friends and colleagues across the pond every day, usually without even thinking of the distance involved.

Today, as founder and managing director of Head, one of the UK’s longer-established digital agencies, Ramsey is as equally concerned with what you might call a company’s inner beauty as its outward appearance.

When we hook up again, Ramsey tells me Head prides itself on strategic thinking: “trying to educate our clients to think more long-term rather than short-term, transient campaigns”.

We’re sitting in the boardroom in the townhouse on Percy Street, where Head’s 17-strong team is based. Whiteboards adorn the walls, and the table is half covered by a roll of brown paper and multi-coloured marker pens. Words and pictures are scribbled on the paper – the productive work of a brainstorm that’s recently taken place.

Strategic slow-build is intrinsic to successful social media so maybe it’s not surprising that social media projects now make up a significant proportion of Head’s workload.

Ramsey finds the company spends a lot of its time helping clients get up to speed with the whole culture of social media:

“There’s definitely an education side to it. We run free workshops at the start of projects where we ask clients what their issues and concerns are around the social media space. We’ll run the workshops either here or at clients’ offices. We’ll set out an agenda and share knowledge. We want to hear their stories. It’s important to take the time, do the workshops and have the senior people buy into the process. If you have a client who’s not 100 per cent behind what you’re doing, you’ll run into problems.”

Head famously started life in a ‘broom cupboard’ in London’s Langham Street in 2000. At a time when other digital/ dotcom businesses were boasting swanky shopfront offices and large teams of under-qualified, over-paid VPs, Head chose to grow slowly and organically – possibly one reason why the company is still thriving today.

So why did Ramsey turn his Dolce & Gabbana-covered back on fashion?

“I wanted to get involved with something a little less complex, more intimate, more collaborative. I’ve an equal interest in creativity and technology. Both have a voice at Head. I went to fashion school but I’m also interested in how things work.”

Now, he loves what he does:

“We really enjoy our space and it’s an interesting space [the web] because there are so many different areas. We’re really interested in what start-ups are doing. We go to Minibar every month. You’ve got all the agencies in the NMA top 100 – all evolving, all doing interesting things. There’s so much to understand.”

Ramsey’s enthusiasm spills over onto the corporate website which is liberally sprinkled with words such as ‘loveable’ and ‘marvellous’. The website boasts (not without irony) that Head’s workplace can feel like “the happiest place on earth”.

Certainly the townhouse offices are pleasant with ambient music pumped out over the speakers and, Caroline, the business development manager, dishing out free samples of herbal tea.

How does Ramsey hope to sustain this positive environment?

“I think the ecosystem [you’ve established] stays. You nurture talent. And you choose the right people. As long as you’ve got the right people you can grow the hierarchy without using the culture.”

As mentioned, the emphasis is on long-term, sustainable projects. The task of finding the Next Big Thing is not one that appeals to Ramsey:

“We don’t want to develop the next Youtube. Neither do we want to become a factory just churning out work. We’re experimenting. More and more we’re trying to find our specialist area, which I think is sites that have a long-term dialogue with their reader/user-base. Webcameron was a good example.”

Back in 2006, Head came up with the idea of the UK’s opposition leader, David Cameron, keeping an online video diary – a project which enabled the Tories to grab a piece of the digital limelight and steal a march on Labour, the UK’s ruling party.

Currently, Head is working with Microsoft on building and maintaining a social network for the 1.2m people employed across the NHS. With 20,000 registered users so far, the aim is to get around 70,000 to sign up. Staff can build their own avatar (weemee), form a group or discussion around any topic, as well as be kept informed of NHS events.

Working with big clients such as this can be all-consuming. In order to ensure they don’t miss the more innovative stuff, Ramsey re-invests a “significant amount” of Head’s annual profits into Head Labs, its R&D arm which was set up in 2005.

“We treat Head Labs and clients as projects of equal value. A lot of ideas that start in Labs can be fed back into client work. There might be 2 or 3 people working in Labs at any one time – or we outsource it; I’ve had an outside developer working on Labs for two or three months.”

Ramsey finds he has to tread a careful balance between the two areas:

“If you start to be more of a ‘think’ space you can lose focus and efficiencies, but if you don’t do that you can lose talent. Before Labs, we had to make things in our downtime. Now innovation becomes part of day-to-day operations.”

But it’s important to keep a focus. Above all, Ramsey thinks it’s essential to resist the temptation to be all things to all people:

“It’s very hard for a brand to know what to buy. There’s few agencies that know everything, do everything well. As a client I wouldn’t go to just one agency for everything.”