Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Here's to the hackers

'Hacker' is a term that seems to cause a constriction of the blood vessels in most people in business and government. To them it implies that their private universe is vulnerable to attack from unseen, unknown and unexpected enemies - whose motivation to cause havoc might well be vandalism rather than malice.

Others take a broader and, I have to say, more benign view of hackers. Try this definition for size:
A hacker is someone who thinks outside the box. It's someone who discards conventional wisdom, and does something else instead. It's someone who looks at the edge and wonders what's beyond. It's someone who sees a set of rules and wonders what happens if you don't follow them. A hacker is someone who experiments with the limitations of systems for intellectual curiosity. Bruce Schneier - internationally renowned security technologist and author.


Yesterday I was interviewed about my attitudes to being an entrepreneur and the start-ups I have been involved with. At the end of the discussion I had a nagging feeling that the rational questions about motivation weren't sitting comfortably with me. I have never been especially motivated by money or greed. In a way I am more comfortable being uncomfortable. This morning I stumbled across some discussions about 'hacking' that made sense of the vague feeling I had experienced yesterday.
(I noticed an RSS feed widget on the edge of a blog, followed the link to Google Analytics lab, found a site I had marked for a feed but had forgotten about -Paul Graham.com, as a footnote to an essay about start ups he mentioned hackers. When I check back through his essays there were other references...then I googled the term and found the Schneier site...gotta love the web).

I suppose I am fundamentally a hacker. In advertising, once I had cracked the code of the day for winning awards there wasn't much of a challenge left in it. Once you've figured Rubik's cube what is the point of continuing to fiddle with it? I turned my attention to other systems that are related to advertising and brands. My partners at Brandworld and I developed an idea for orchestrating all of the suppliers of marketing communications around a central brand story. We called it a Brandworld. The idea crashed and burned because there was no support for it in the market. Intellectually a good idea. But people don't behave in rational ways. We miscalculated the resistance from both suppliers and brand owners. Neither were comfortable with the perceived loss of control - or more exactly authority - that our model implied. So in an act of survival we became an advertising agency and concentrated largely on pharmaceutical promotion. It didn't take me long to be bored with that model. I think the expression is 'been there, done that' and the prospect of working in a small, specialised start up had little appeal. The hack occurred when we won the brief to launch Lipitor, Pfizer's wonder drug for lowering cholesterol. The company insisted that we relinquish another drug company's business so that they had our exclusive attention in the category. To my partner's obvious horror I suggested that the client should spend more money with us to replace the lost revenue. The truth was we couldn't afford to lose the account before we even began. Months of work on our false start had left us as financial skin and bone. But the client agreed and I set to work on what became Family Health Diary (FHD).

FHD was a hack for a couple of reasons. It defies the convention that the client owns the IP. We were never commissioned or briefed to do the work, so retained the ownership. It defied the prevailing wisdom in advertising that commercials should be amusing little vignettes or self contained narratives. It also invited more than one advertiser to participate - bringing deadly rivals into our camp and applying our rules to their behaviour. Creating our own media property meant that, instead of having to pitch for a client's business head to head with other advertising agencies we could exploit a monopoly - if a client wants to enjoy the benefits of our proprietary system they have no option other than to go with us. The system didn't require exclusive devotion from the advertisers, Brandworld had no obligation to drive their strategy, simply deliver their information from within our template.
Over time the product has been a considerable success, both financially and winning marketing awards. Needless to say it has irritated advertising agencies across the country. In part because it was 'not invented here', in part because it disrupts the conventional model and possibly most importantly it takes a portion of their budget.
Once it was established the code had been cracked and I can't imagine a worse hell than having to reproduce endless infomercials for medicines - even if it is now the biggest advertising property in New Zealand. So it was on to the next hack.

Most recently I developed and launched Idealog magazine. The key hack on that project was to launch with a sponsorship model, rather than first approaching advertising agencies for space commitments. I proposed that we form a 'family of five' sponsors to underwrite the project. My partners and I effectively created the magazine based on sweat equity and a big idea. It is now the biggest business magazine in the country after little more than a year. I achieved my aim of getting the creative economy onto the national agenda and now am working on my next hack...which is the national agenda itself - developing a model for nation branding that is decentralised and more pervasive and persuasive than any government department or NGO can possibly achieve within a hierarchical model and with thinly stretched resources.

We'll see.

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