Data-based ad monetization and engagement optimized user experience is now the problem, not the solution

We are a community of people failing the marshmallow test, always optimizing for less friction, more dopamine and shorter feedback cycles. We claim to want richer experiences, to support independent actors, to despise centralization and to demand more meaningful connections and higher quality content. But then we unlock our phones. And so Google, Facebook and Twitter’s success with data-based ad monetization and engagement optimized user experience is now the problem, not the solution.

Immersive experience

Spending time around family who live in another country is invaluable.

99% of it is all about Family, relationships and seeing the people we love.

But it’s also a precious opportunity to see, heard and understand a bit better. Their politics, the way they use their phones, their preferred social media and the different ways Covid has impacted their working lives.

This is far from scientific, representative, research. But, next time I need to think hard about how a client might approach social in the USA, I will feel that bit better informed.

Useful newsletters, podcasts and more

I started jotting down a list of useful resources for a colleague, then realised these would be better off here, where I’ll keep updating the links.

These are all very personal choices and quite specific to the work we do at Helpful.


Benedict Evans newsletter is all about tech and big business. He has an amazing way of explaining how digital channels are changing business models and how the tech products we consume reflect our needs and behaviours.

Useful for big picture conversations and presentations with clients.

Ben Whitelaw’s moderation newsletter

Ben is a contact of mine, a journalist and a contributor to our training. His focus is on how different platforms are moderating engagement, government regulation of social and the impact of all this on real people.

Tom Moylan

Loads of clear thinking and ideas about digital communications.

Hootsuite email subscription

Weekly email with lots of free resources and advice on channel features.


Digital Human podcast

Nice anthropological look at different aspects of the online world.

Useful for designing learning with empathy and remembering what the web looks like for real people.

Mepra podcast on evaluation

This podcast features the person behind the AMEC evaluation grid that we recommend and use with all our training.

Another Podcast


I recommend following the co-host, Toni Cown-Brown, on TikTok.

General reading

First Draft resources

Essential reading and resources for all our work with press and corporate comms teams. Amazing organisation, I think.

My eulogy for Granny

St Peters Tandridge, 29 March 2021.

I’d like to start by thanking you all for coming today, on behalf of our family.

March 2021 was always going to be a difficult time to arrange a funeral. Many of you have come a long way or are making a special effort in uncomfortable circumstances; sat apart from each other and wearing masks.

However, I think what’s important is that we have almost all of the most important parts of Granny’s life represented here, today.

It’s wonderful to have several of Granny’s lifelong family friendships represented here today, as well as to remember her friends and companions who can’t be here, including Jill Antrobus and John Wyatt.

Today we are celebrating Granny, Great Granny, Jill’s life. This is also a fitting opportunity to remember Grandpa Fred and Grandpa Brian.

And also Jill’s father, my Great Grandfather, Robert, or Bob as some of you will have known him. He and Granny had a very close relationship and I’ve come to realise that he had such an important influence on her life and even our lives, right up until this month.

Granny didn’t mind me teasing her now and again so: as you might well imagine she left us with a fairly specific set of instructions for today.

These instructions included a list of all the things she was involved with over the years and I’ll come back to those shortly.

But, with Dad’s help in preparing this, I think there’s something more that we should all take from today.

More than simply Granny’s outstanding sense of community and being a wonderful friend, daughter, mother, auntie, cousin, grandmother and great grandmother.

My generation tend to measure accomplishment in terms of academic or sporting success, accumulated wealth or whether or not you’ve overcome some terrible adversity.

But Jill’s story is different.

There are many points in her life that were terribly sad. However, none of these define her.

In fact, it’s what she achieved in spite of these things, and the strength of character that she developed, which is what I believe we should be celebrating today.

As a 6 year old girl, long before the NHS, Jill was very poorly. Her parents could only visit her in hospital a few times a week. The children all sat together for meals and she used to tell me about a boy who would kick the legs of the other children under the table. After a few meal times Granny decided to kick back and of course she was never bothered by him again, or so the story goes.

Perhaps this is the first time we see her strength of character developing. More importantly, I am sure that this early experience of hospital fed into her life long respect for the NHS – especially prescient after the past 12 months when we’ve all found new levels of respect for Doctors and Nurses. And of course this respect for the NHS and her strength of character ultimately manifested itself in tireless campaigning on behalf of Oxted Hospital.

So, Jill is defined in part by what she did as a result of an early life experience, rather than what happened to her.

In 1940, in order to escape the Blitz, Granny and her family were forced to swap the comfort of street lamps, parks and pavements in suburban Enfield, for the dark, narrow lanes of East Surrey.

But, as we’ve come to expect, Granny quickly made new friends and, rather than live in fear of the war, she and her friends turned to putting on little plays and musicals. They used a cluster of trees on Broadham Green as a natural theatre, just a couple of miles across the fields from where we are sat now. They would take donations for the Red Cross from passers by and neighbours.

Leaving London must have have been incredibly daunting for a 10 year old, but, as ever, she didn’t just muddle through, she made the very best of it.

Jill’s mother, Ellaline, was a wonderful singer so maybe this, coupled with those first theatrical experiences in the trees, were a small stepping stone to what became a lifetime’s commitment and love for the Barn Theatre.

I’m too young to even begin to fathom her lifetime’s worth of plays, musicals and opera. But thanks to Pippa and others, I and my brothers have been able to enjoy seeing Granny involved in the theatre – including on stage – in various ways right up until just a few years ago.

Selfishly though, I’m very grateful she found the Barn Theatre because without it, she wouldn’t have met Grandpa Brian and therefore I don’t think I’d be here now!

Jill’s mother died when Jill was just a young woman. Granny and Grandpa Brian take Great Grandpa under their wing and he lived with them for the rest of his life. And rather than this arrangement being framed in tragedy, we’ve only ever grown up enjoying it as a sense of closeness in our family and benefiting from Robert’s positive influence, that I mentioned earlier.

Granny didn’t enjoy the best of health, throughout her life. But again, we won’t remember her for that. She didn’t let health define her, or stop her.

This is Jill who, as a widow, found sport in her 50s, in playing bowls. And not just the occasional friendly match. She wouldn’t mind me describing her as ferociously competitive. Granny won national bowls championships and even, in her 70s, became a Director of the bowls club in order that she could help ensure its survival.

Perhaps most importantly, it was through bowls that Granny met Grandpa Fred. And this afforded them the opportunity to extend their retirement years together. Just as wonderful, was that fact we grew from being a fairly small family, to suddenly having brothers and sisters-in-laws, Uncles and Aunties and lots of wonderful cousins for Gareth and I in particular to look up to and hang around with at Christmases and birthdays.

Whether it was through bowls, theatre, fighting for Oxted Hospital or working for the Citizens Advice Bureau, Jill never, ever, became the stereotypical little old lady.

Oxted is littered with numerous property speculators and estate agents who misjudged this and whose offers received very short shrift over the years.

And when Granny could no longer bowl, or be as active in the theatre or WI, she was still the centre of our family. She was modern and forward thinking, glued to her tablet for email, Facebook and news.

Granny loved all our respective partners and was a proud Great Grandmother.

We’ll all remember Jill / Granny / Great Granny in our own special ways.

But I really wanted to find a common message about her life, that we can all take from today, share with others and draw strength from in the future.

A Revd Robinson once stood in this spot and delivered a sermon about ‘stickability’, which left quite an impression with me. I forget the biblical connection – sorry – but it was about having resolve, perseverance and energy to make the very best of life.

And it’s Jill’s ‘stickability’ – her resolve and energy for life – that I think we should all remember her for.

I’d ask you to remember her for this, in addition to your own special memories, and hopefully draw some comfort from her when life deals you a bad hand.

I’ll finish with a quote from Nicholas Nickelby. I had thought this was one of Granny’s books, but it turns out it might have been one of Grandpa Brian’s. Perhaps that makes this quote all the more appropriate today given their tremendous faith.

In Nicholas Nickelby, Charles Dickens writes:

The pain of parting is nothing, compared to the joy of meeting again.

Thinking about proper, practical strategy for NHS communicators

One of my absolute highlights of the past year has been the opportunity to work with NHS communicators on a post grad course run by NHS Improvement and the Centre for Health and Communications Research.

It’s met lots of needs for me. A chance to reconnect with issues around NHS comms. And an opportunity to consolidate some ideas I’ve had for a while about the uneasiness and potential cross over between digital transformation projects and communications.

These two are often uneasy bedfellows, but I really think there’s an opportunity to bridge a perceived gap by employing testing, iteration and open working in the development of communications projects.

I think it landed well with the 30 or so NHS communicators I’ve met so far. We certainly had a lot of fun completing the exercises, and all in the genteel surroundings of Missenden Abbey.

Here are the slides:

NHS CHCR slides v2_compressed

Missenden Abbey
Missenden Abbey – rural setting makes a change from the usual conference suites

Staying true to the source of Helpful

When you work closely with the founder of a business, it can feel tricky at times. I’ve worked with 4 founders in my career. Two of these were the old-school type of founder. They were motivated by the prospect of earning a large amount of money and, to a lesser extent, building teams and contributing to the economy.

For the past 5 and a bit years I’ve been working at Helpful, directly with Steph. He’s very generous, works incredibly hard, is clever, astute and good fun to be around. So, pretty much the ideal founder to work with.

There are still tricky times, primarily because having lots of responsibility in a successful business like Helpful means I am paranoid about not messing things up, for myself or the rest of the team.

I feel very protective of the ingredients that drew me to Helpful in the first place:

Helping people do digital for themselves

There are lots of agencies delivering products and services for their clients, having identified a gap in the market. I genuinely believe that we continue to push our clients to do more for themselves, by responding to their opportunities in creative and practical ways.

Quiet ambition

Success is judged as much by the quality and variety of work we are delivering each year, as turnover or profitability (although it’s essential that we are hitting some modest profitability targets too).

Occasionally we get caught up in planning for headcount or other types of scale, and this will become more important, but hopefully not at the expense of any of the values listed here.

Being generous to ourselves and others

When I first joined Helpful I was struck by how neat everything was for a team of 6 people. Nice kit for everyone, a comfortable, clean working space and loads of opportunities to work flexibly.

In addition Helpful supports all sorts of great causes throughout the year. Some of these are related to our work i.e. sponsoring unconferences or donating to charities nominated by staff. There’s no agenda here. No culture strategy or sinister plan to lock people in to the team, although I’m sure it helps retention.

An open minded approach to clients

I love the fact that we work with such a diverse range of clients, by sector, country and profile. We’ve developed this partly through accident rather than design, but fundamentally we’re not brand snobs.

Sure, it’s exciting to land a contract with Global Hyper Mega Corp PLC. However some of our most rewarding work (in every respect) still emerges from the niche or little-heard-of organisations – provided they have a need to communicate well online.

What’s in, what’s out, what’s next?

Tom Nixon wrote a great piece about the ‘source’ of founders, and taking forward a business by identifying What’s In, What’s Out and What’s Next. I think the values above should always remain in the ‘What’s In’ category, regardless of what happens.

We don’t always get all of these right, all of the time. As the business continues to grow in different ways it’s getting harder to maintain Helpful values consistently across all projects.

The What’s Out category is easier: the opposite to all of the above. For example, scrimping on time and kit to squeeze every drop of profitability from a project.

As a team we’ll talk more about What’s Next through 2020.

Staying true to the source

I’m not the founder, so I end up feeling a bit like a values policeman. Often interfering with work that would be acceptable anywhere else, but with good intention: to ensure we’re staying true to the values that make Helpful a little different and true to the source of the business.

However, I’ve never felt more invested in a business or vision before now. I am excited to see how we maintain these values throughout all our work.


Understanding time and productivity in an agency

For a number of years we’ve been using timesheets in our team.

We do this to keep track on how many hours we put in to client projects and to measure our margins on particular pieces of work.

When we first started using timesheets, I really struggled. In fact, I’d say it was one of the most difficult parts of a transition away from public service life and back into the private sector. I understood why it is a good idea, but I felt uncomfortable laying my working hours open to colleagues.

This was mainly because I could see others racking up huge numbers of hours each week, whereas some days I might struggle to record more than 4 hours of focussed work. I’ll return to this point in a moment.

My other worry about timesheets is that I have seen them create anxiety among the rest of the team: who is measuring what and why? In a world of Strava and Fitbit, measurement equals performance and league tables.

Wind forward 4 years or so and I don’t know how I’d get by without a timesheet. It’s the single best productivity tool I have and I get loads of satisfaction logging time each day. Sad but true.

In order to get to this point I’ve learned a few things about timesheets at Helpful.

Record meaningful time

Timesheets are a record of focussed, productive time, or ‘committed’ time. By committed I mean time you have to spend on something, such as travelling to a client, or a meeting. They should also record holiday and L&D. But timesheets aren’t there to apportion a regulated 8 hours you spent in the office, or to justify long days that may not have been necessary.

For example, some days you might leave the office late and have only recorded a few hours. That’s not great, but it tells you a lot about the projects you’re working on, the tasks within those and how easy or not you might be finding the work.

Be comfortable recording a variety of hours

Timesheets only work from a business management perspective if they are accurate. We don’t want to bill clients extra time because people feel they should be recording 8 hours a day. Equally, we need to make sure we understand which tasks and projects take the most time.

Timesheets work really well if you have lots of small tasks and meetings to deal with. Great if you’re providing client support or have a busy day of meetings. Terrible if you’re thinking about a new business strategy or seeking inspiration for a project.

Realistically, I don’t think a typical day equates to 8 productive hours. It might be 4, 5 or 6 hours, depending on the tasks you have or how focussed you are feeling.

Busy periods, travel or hard projects might equate to many more hours.

Daily timesheets are more useful

I maintain the timesheet daily. It’s the only way I can keep on top of it and I like to use it as a way of understanding my productivity. I don’t believe records of emails or calendar entries can ever give an accurate picture of time spent on projects. Completing a timesheet little and often also helps to bring a natural break between tasks throughout the day.

Use your timesheet to change your patterns

Most important of all, after working this way for a few years, I think I’ve developed a good sense of when I am at my best for different types of work. For example: admin first thing to get me started, creative stuff mid-late morning, but pretty useless 11am – 2pm (so ideal for things which ‘lead’ me: lunch, calls, meetings, travel). I’ve even used it to tweak my diet, with some success.


We use WorkflowMax right now. It’s clunky, but does lots of clever things with our accounting software.

I preferred Freckle, which we used to have.

I turn off desktop notifications most days.

I make hundreds of to-do lists every month, mainly in Trello and also in my notebook. There’s something satisfying about ordering, reordering and crossing off.

I’ve recently started using Forest. A very neat app that makes a game out of staying focused.