A whopping year

Here’s a download of a few thoughts I’ve been meaning to share online, from the past 12 months. Not quite a review of the year, just an opportunity to reflect in no particular order.

Working with engineering companies

Engineering is a broad catch-all term for a group of huge, high profile organisations we’ve found ourselves working with in 2017 and 2018. This has been by fate rather than design, but whether they’re energy, aerospace or pharmaceutical they all have very similar challenges – and they have all been utterly brilliant to work with.

Two things I’ve come to realise, from these projects:

  1. These are all deeply technical companies. Their staff want to understand how stuff works, and they are in the habit of sharing new things with colleagues. They don’t need an innovation lab, or any of that nonsense – they just do it every day. So, building capability around social media can be fun, iterative and well supported internally.
  2. When a big brand asks you to pitch for something, don’t panic! Yes, their online advertising may look spectacular and far outstrip our creative and technical experience. But, more often than not, so much of this work has been largely outsourced. The appetite for digital skills, particularly within corporate comms and operations teams is huge, as they feel increasingly left behind by the agencies whom they commission.


I keep coming back to this word when we’ve been talking about the past 12 – 18 months as a team.

I’ve loved the variety of work we’ve been involved in. By any measure, be it sector, country, type of project, value or overall demand, the hypothetical pie chart is a feast of slices and colours.

More importantly it’s challenging us as a team. Challenging us to keep on top of skills and knowledge that we should already be sharing in our training courses and the technology we build. And giving us confidence when we deliver something new, and it works well.

In hindsight, in previous years we’ve been slightly stuck in 1-2 markets and with a fairly strict menu of offers. It now feels like we are *everywhere* and with a much more blended offer.

Sticking to projects with purpose

For a long time now we’ve talked as a team about striking a balance between generating income and making sure that all the projects we take on are purposeful.

None of the team really want to undermine our client capability mission by delivering tick box digital. That includes vanity websites and crisis simulations that end up being more theatre than learning.

The difficulty is, we can all argue a purpose for the projects we love. But I think we’re starting to build a picture of the types of projects that ring alarm bells early on. This really needs solving in 2019, because too many of the ‘wrong’ projects back-to-back could leave people fed up and disenchanted.

Delivering on capability as one team

While we still have a team who are focussed on building and maintaining websites and our online platforms, there have been more projects this year – both for clients and ourselves – that have been delivered by both the build and social media teams. I really enjoyed working with Katie and Steph on a digital planning project for the General Optical Council, for example.

I think more and more of our clients get that we do lots of digital implementation and training, but internally we’re still a bit hung up on brands, rigid platforms and labelling of projects. I’m hoping we’ll win more work next year that fits comfortably in both Social Simulator and Helpful Technology buckets.

Building our team

I think we’re now in entering the hard yards of building a team. We are trying to build a diverse, collaborative team while at the same time continue to offer some democracy about the type of work we do.

Our approach to recruitment has come on a along way since 2017, and we’ve started to try a more consistent approach to helping people develop their roles. This is as much about everyone staying on top of key skills in their areas, as it is about having every role contributing something to the overall running of the business and our capability building mission for all clients.

But, it’s hard to keep a team energised about internal development and improvement during a busy year.

Marmite tech sometimes has a hidden audience

In my feed I see quite divergent views on Voice and how useful it really is or will be.

And yet there’s this: Alexa is a revelation for the blind.

More and more people I see on my train and in the street using speakerphone.

But on a car forum full of grumpy old men, I’m reliably informed by a deaf poster that speakerphone avoids interference with digital hearing aids.

So while it’s easy to mock emerging technology, or different ways that people use technology, there are always examples of how these ways can be really useful, even to a minority.

And this in turn reminded me that my Granny is still doing well with her upgraded tablet, 3 years on. She’s using it for on-demand TV, browsing places she’d like to visit and researching menus. Things she’d struggle to do with books, with limited mobility.

Building confidence in a digital world

On a sunny day in Brighton 2 years ago Steph, Chris and I, with input from the rest of the team, made quite an important decision to put capability building at the core of all our client work.

Instead of building websites that sometimes go unloved or are born out of ‘launch and forget’ briefs, we’d challenge clients to do more continuous improvement of their sites, through testing, looking at data and careful crafting of content. Luke was already helping clients do this very successfully with their intranets.

Rather than tentatively help companies do paint-by-numbers social media, we’d push them to actively engage with customers: front up to the things they’d done wrong, listen and acknowledge complaints, and generally be more credible online.

And rather than deliver strategies that depending on a few good people in a digital corner to deliver, we’d focus clients’ attention on the skills and confidence of individuals in the business, from the CEO down. Or in many cases, from the customer service centre up.

Now our strapline says ‘building confidence in a digital world’.

We decided on capability building because:

a) it’s more rewarding to deliver the right thing once, than win repeat business year after year that ends up being the same set of unresolved challenges

b) we wanted to work as one team and have a shared appreciation of each other’s crafts and experience

A range of skills and experience

We were, and still are, a real mixed bag of skills and experience. From back-end web developers to front-end designers, user-obsessed project managers to former comms people delivering crisis response training.

I believe this gives us the right spread of skills, expertise and interests, to help a variety of clients build their confidence and experience, in-house. It also means that we can talk with authority about the link between, say, dark sites and crisis response, or social media engagement and how this fits with users’ wider online behaviours.

Clients haven’t baulked at this approach and we’ve delivered a few really interesting projects that combine a number of different skills from across the team. For example digital strategy reviews, which encompass owned web estate as well as other earned channels.

Building confidence internally

However, I’m not convinced we’ve actually sold the range of things we do to anyone, yet. People find us through one of a few ways, and usually because they already have a specific need, or are interested in one of our training platforms.

That makes it a tricky shift for everyone on the team. I’ve learned that colleagues like to work for a brand or product, with a specific deliverable. Trying to start each project with a cold, hard assessment of needs, rather than a menu of products or services, can be strangely overwhelming.

It takes a dose of brave pills to stand in front of a client and say:

‘you’ve asked for an intense, advanced crisis simulation, but actually we’ve looked at your current work and feel some more basic classroom training is required, first.’


‘we could close up that white space, but we think it might be more beneficial for you to join us for some user testing, so you can see where the design is performing well’

But if we’re to build a diverse business that is Helpful for clients, then we need to be flexible about the products and services that we deliver.

As a team of 11 it’d be easy at this stage to start falling into awkward silos, but this is exactly the right time to be avoiding all of those and continuing to shape a Helpful proposition for our clients.



Bulletin boards, nobheads and good people

There’s a very niche car forum I inhabit, full of grumpy old men. It’s my favourite place online.

This contributor summed up his experience of the internet since 1993. I can only imagine, but it sounds about right to me.

And it’s a a nice reminder of how the first generation webbies I meet through work often feel.

Years ago the “proper internet” was just obscure bulletin boards and stuff on usenet, and the general public were absolutely ignorant of it – It was mainly used by intellectuals, hobbyists etc. A good place, unsoiled by the general public – If you wanted access to it, you had to work for it.
One day in September 1993, AOL included Usenet access in their internet package for the general public, and this basically ruined the place.

Car forums experienced a similar thing in the mid/late 2000s, where loads of idiots turned up and ruined the game. Before then you could safely presume anyone you were talking to on a forum was probably a decent person, but once word got round to the nobheads, it dragged the whole place down.

I really can’t stand facebook, but all the dickheads who ruined forums are now on facebook instead, and forums are slowly falling back into the hands of mostly good people, and I’m really happy about that.

Social media has a place in digital transformation

Social media managers and people with similar roles sometimes get a rough ride in the wider digital community.

It’s seen as the fluffy lighter-weight end of the digital spectrum. If you want to do big or meaningful things, you’ll probably want to build a website or transform a service.

I think the high profile of innovative social media marketing has something to do with this.

It’s not helped by comments like the one below, which I do understand.


1. Social media is often the right answer to colleagues who would otherwise insist on building something
2. It keeps organisations true to their audience, to listen
3. It helps us observe behaviours and the ways people are consuming information
4. It gets organisations in the habit of measuring and being critical about numbers, in a way that website stats never managed