Dangerous Innovation: the 4 Delusions of Martine Rothblatt

Martine Rothblatt is, according to a lengthy and hagiographic introduction to her keynote conversation at SXSW, an extraordinary and accomplished woman. She is currently the highest paid female CEO in the USA, created Sirius Satellite Radio, is a highly qualified lawyer and astronomer who broke off her career to earn a PhD in medical ethics, has built a robot version of her wife with some of the most compelling AI yet developed, has formed a global leading biotech company to save the life of her own daughter, and somehow found the time to become a leading advocate for transgenderism. It’s barely an overstatement to say that she could accomplish more in a week than most people will in a career.

Her core belief, which she exercises throughout her business and personal life, is in Transhumanism – the belief in and desire to transform the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to develop and ‘enhance’ the human condition.

The main tentpoles of this new human future include:

  • Mindclones – the idea that we can and should create copies of our personalities that live on digital formats; enabling us to finally ‘upload ourselves to the internet’ complete with memories, mannerisms etc
  • Artificial Intelligence – Rothblatt’s vision has humans not only becoming immortal, but also easily copyable while still living; imagine having a copy of yourself to do all your work while you goof off, or having a conversation with someone who is exactly like you in every way. She has already created a robot version of her own wife, driven by AI, that has had persuasively real conversations with journalists.
  • Artificial organs – Rothblatt’s organizations are advanced in developing pig-based organs to replace human ones, and sees a future where there would be enough to replace the hearts of everyone in America if needed, so our physical forms can keep living well past traditional limits

While this may seem like so much sci-fi, Rothblatt has advanced achievements in all of these, and an immense infrastructure behind her in pursuing them. In sort, she is closer to them than you might think, and is as capable as anyone of getting there.

Yet Rothblatt’s vision of the future, though arrived at with the best of intentions, is not universally popular. I am part of a team of Isobar staffers roaming SXSW this week, and we are all connected to a GroupMe to exchange comments. Some of my favorites from the group were “Breath-takingly naïve at points”, “She’s an extremist” and “I may spend the rest of the afternoon on the floor in a fetal position”. Strong reactions for sure.

So why do Rothblatt’s ideas feel so intuitively wrong? After all, she has arrived at them with the best of intentions – she speaks compellingly about Love as a driving force for her innovation, and her achievements in humanitarianism speak for themselves.

Are my colleagues and I just suffering from a form of future-shock? A natural reaction to the imminent removal of our human comfort zone? A reactionary aversion to any form of radical change?

I don’t think so. Rothblatt’s ideas are dangerous, untested and naïve.

It’s the naivety that really galls me, and it was revealed in her answers to some of the questions that came from the audience at the end of the session.

The irony of Rothblatt’s delusions is they are founded on fundamental misunderstandings of humanity. For someone who believes herself an expert in humanity, this rose-tinted vision of what we really are is self-deceiving and utopian to the point of dishonesty

She was unable in any real way to answer 4 fundamental areas of objection to her plans:

Resources – Transhumanism has immortality, or extending human life unnaturally, as one of its fundamental tenets. In a world suffering from catastrophic overpopulation and over-consumption, how does the world deal with people living significantly longer, or even forever? Her answer, that we will colonize other planets and that the universe is plenty big enough for more of us, was staggeringly blase. If a fundamental element of her belief system is founded on technologies and organizations that are nowhere near any attainable horizon, then that belief system is a house of cards.

The Democratization of Tech – Rothblatt’s ambition is to release as much of the new technology as possible to the open community, with the belief that as a species of collaborators, we will all work together to achieve a higher consciousness, and that the community will only deliver human augmentation that works in the best interests of all. While the internet can be a great force for good, every Google is balanced out by a Gamergate, every Kickstarter is balanced by a Silk Road. The notion that the Maker Community is populated by angels is the kind of notion you should only experience if you spend too long at SXSW. That’s the time to go home.

Amending the Human Experience – Human beings are uniquely fragile and complex. Rothblatt and her collaborators cannot possibly have any data on the effect on a psyche, real or virtual, that is forced to extend its existence beyond its natural cycle. Likewise, the effects of removing us from our fleshy containers would have effects we can only guess at. Rothblatt expresses firmly her lifelong attitude of ‘defying authority’, and it seems that Nature is one of the authorities she also defies. Unfortunately while she sees this as a noble crusade against mortality and disease, I believe this places her more adjacent to other attempts to defy nature, few of which have turned out well.

Regulation – When questioned on the governance of the new technologies, Rothblatt, stated, with no hint of irony, that ‘Regulation will have a role to play’. This understatement belies the fundamental truth that Regulation Always Fails. Considers some of the other seismic leaps in technology, and then think about how they have worked out for the human race as a whole:

  • We learn how to split the atom, and instead of boundless free energy, we are left with Hiroshima, 40 years of Cold War, and a host of rogue states such as North Korea, Iran and Israel holding the world hostage. Generations have grown up under the shadow of the bomb, with no end in site.
  • We develop the internal combustion engine, promising horseless locomotion for all. This leaves us with 50% of the total surface area of cities such as Los Angeles buried under the tarmac of roads and parking lots, 4 parking spaces created for every car, and a global environmental catastrophe driven in large part by our addiction to cars
  • The internet promised us free exchange of information. However we are now left with the NSA, Prism, and a debilitating generational addiction to screens

The fact is that we as a species are entirely unable to regulate ourselves – a combination of State and rogue actors, and national and corporate self-interest, combined with the endemic manipulation of regulation by powerful lobbies, all of which render Rothblatt’s faith in regulation a pipe dream.

Martine Rothblatt’s journey is one of inspiration on so many levels, and she is clearly a profoundly moral and loving person. She is also cresting the wave of human knowledge – there is no doubt that if it wasn’t her developing these new capabilities, someone else would. The fact is that there is little that we can imagine that we cannot achieve.

However, when passion and vision is not leavened by reason, it becomes obsession. When an idea becomes all-consuming, it becomes a cult.

No matter what Martine Rothblatt’s motivations are, she is determined to open the Pandora’s box of the human condition at its most fundamental level. Perhaps this is just one more facet of humanity’s race to its own demise. Or perhaps she is a necessary part of our evolution – as we render our planet increasingly incapable of supporting real life, will living through circuitry be the only choice we have?

In any event, immense credit to SXSW for bringing such an excellent and controversial speaker, and real fundamental issues to us. This is a debate which has only just begun.

Branding genius on the streets of NYC

So many brands are so bad at saying who they are, what they do, and why you should care.

I’ve been doing alot of work over the past couple of months on pure branding and value proposition, which is alot of fun, and causes some hard questions to be asked.

So I was delighted to see this exceptional work from M. Slavin & Sons parked up outside the Fed in downtown NYC today. They have slammed the art of brand communications in a way that most corporations spend millions of $$$ doing and still fail.

M. Slavin & Sons, the brand marketing industry salutes you. And wants to hire you.

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OK, so they are a bit heavy on the CTA, but by this point I want fish soooo bad I will probably use all four of them to get some…


Decisions, Decisions

sxswThe art of attending SXSW is to steer off the beaten track, away from subjects you already know about, to find some of the smartest people around showing you ways to approach subjects from a very different angle.

Thus it was that I found myself spending most of the morning gaining new insights into the health market from two very different but equally brilliant speakers.

First was Aimee Roundtree, Associate Professor ofCommunications at University of Houston Downtown. Her specialism is health comms, and through much detailed research she has put together an array of insights into a framework she calls “5 Ways Health Decisions Don’t Make Sense”

Check out the rest of this post at the Isobar US blog

The Medium just became the Message

Flipboard’s acquisition of Zite from CNN represents more than just the exciting times we live in for M&A.

It speaks to a much deeper and more challenging trend in content publishing and consumption, with consequences across media and advertising.

For me, it’s a confirmation that for consumers, the medium is now the message – or at least equally important to the message. We’ve reached the point where the preferences we have in how we consume content, whether it’s by search, by device, or by social network, is now a more important aspect to our media behavior than the actual content. For example, if you love Flipboard, or Facebook, or whatever, you’re going to read whatever you find on there naturally, and so providers of news, finance, sports etc are now largely subject to consumers’ platform choices.

Much of this is driven by force of habit – the app-ification of life has led us to repeat, almost compulsively, screen-pressing behaviors, and to simply absorb whatever then appears through the interface we grow to know and love. Flipboard is clearly a text-book example of physical habit development. This makes device homepage real estate more and more critical in the ongoing war between publishers and the tech channels that distribute them.

The rapid and well-funded development of players such as Flipboard into content owners demonstrates an incredible vulnerability in the marketplace, and shows how a lack of innovation from content creators can lead to rapid shifts in power in the content arena.

For some it’s too late to fight back, but savvy media brands are already delivering products that wrap their content in a premium next-gen interface. For example, we recently built the Comedy Central app, which helps you find awesome new content through a truly enjoyable discovery interface.

Content creators appear to have two choices:

1) Allow your content to disappear unmonetized into the social web

2) Seize hold of your users and align to their desires for slick, sleek and useful ways to consume, and do it quickly.

5 Reasons Why BuzzFeed is Wrong About Banner Ads

A few thoughts about the essential, but often ignored, requirement for digital media channels to reflect offline media’s role in spreading general awareness. And some gags.

Digiday-Screen-GrabRead the whole thing at Digiday…


A contention – Apple to buy Amex?


I write this post for Mobile Marketer after reading so many ‘thought leadership’ articles that failed to address the core mobile payments issue of credit card handling. With the death of NFC there appears to be no answer to this question, unless something grand and dramatic were to happen.

This provocation is one of those potential happenings…


With the release of the iPhone 5S and 5C, we saw the death of mobile payment as we know it, and the hundreds of thousands of NFC-enabled retailers across the world are now scratching their heads about what to do next.

But why has Apple been so violently opposed to the NFC standard that the rest of the payments industry has adopted?

The answer lies in Apple’s proven business model, which is based on a relentless desire to own outright any value chain in which they play a part. In short –it wants all of the pie, not just a thin slice.

Read the rest of this article at Mobile Marketer

Let’s make beautiful things

I’ve been doing a lot of creative work in the luxury field over the past couple of months, which is great fun.

Doing so has really immersed me more than ever before in the ‘art of the beautiful’. My favorite example so far has to be Dior’s fabulously accomplished Secret Garden – every shot (and there are a lot) framed and crafted to perfection.

The use of this kind of high-impact visual-led marketing in luxury is common across print, film, outdoor and DM. But what are the implications for digital, and how do we in the digital brand planning segment come to terms with this? If we are to really deliver on the promise that our clients’ brands make to their consumers, how can we set ourselves to truly master the art of beauty?


Planning First

Here’s a planning perspective. Last week I had to write a creative brief in this area, and I found that using a strong planning template such as Mark Pollard’s simple approach (which I love!) wasn’t panning out.

Comms planning, and advertising strategy generally, relies on a consumer insight, a business problem, some personas etc, in order to arrive at some tension (I hate that cliché) to come up with a strategic position.

But what I found myself  thinking was that to launch this product, none of that matters. We just have to make something beautiful. I don’t want to provide Reason to Believe – I want to Stir Desire.

This has profound impact on the planning process required to get there. A typical creative output will lead with some kind of Manifesto – a verbal exposition of the idea in narrative format. But both this, and the process that gets you there, are too verbal, too logical, and pay no heed to the end result

The need for beauty, and our visceral attraction to it is not complicated, or verbal, or linked to any kind of reason or insights.

Therefore I came up with something that I’d hesitate to call any kind of framework or process, but is more a new way of organizing criteria for briefing.

Here’s how this ‘process’ compares to comms planning. Again, I’m not saying comms planning is broken, just that sometimes you need a different answer…



What do I mean by this? What kind of direction am I going to group under these headers to provide any kind of way in for creative?

  • By IMPACT, I’m talking about the immediate visual impression that the creative needs to make. It’s a truism to say that you always want to make a big impression – sometimes you can express yourself better through intrigue, minimalism, or tease. Either way, we must embrace the fact that we are trying to emulate the best of print and TV advertising. Deep engagement is not our game – we are simply trying to create visceral impact through digital, primarily visual, tools.
  • EXPERIENCE is about the journey through the creative. Here I’m not talking about some horrible multi-stage thing that follows through weeks of social posts, multi-stage campaign story development, or (aargh!) engagement, I mean this on a much more micro- level. In this game we need to have the impact of a print ad, but using the tools in our digital arsenal. Therefore the experience needs to be expressed in terms like exploration, play, addictive, idiosyncratic or linear.
  • INTERFACE is perhaps the hardest to explain. While device choice clearly influences interface, the areas I am trying to target here as part of creative strategy are how the content behaves. Here I am looking at terms like organic, seamless or modular. It dictates how you navigate the experience, and determines how the tone of the experience is developed through purely sensory stimuli.
  • EMOTION is of course, as in all human scenarios, very hard to define. Every campaign in this category should of course have wow and beautiful attached to it, but here we can include examples such as longing, self-identification, ambition, or sweetness.

In digital, I think there are few that do this well, it’s an art that has yet to fully express itself, but the best example I have seen is Hermes’ Discover.


It’s idiosyncratic to the point where even the US site declares it’s in French to Chrome, but it displays a huge range of sensuous ways to experience product, for no reason other than it’s beautiful to do so. If luxury brands live purely as the combined impact of multiple media touchpoints, then this is a huge brand power-up.



UX and Tech Next

I fail to see how these experiences can be realized solely by creative teams. I don’t think any one discipline can be heads-up enough to both perceive, grasp, interpret and implement all the potential creative devices in our toolkit. Much of this should come directly from tech and UX.

This is the gap currently filled by the Creative Technologist I guess – but it’s an unhappy compromise that I don’t see work too often, and certainly not in this space. We need people who are able to see potential in the market around them, and be able to connect the dots of a new device, channel, code library, whatever, into the needs and aims of generating beauty. It’s a big ask.



This post was really prompted by parallax.js, a fantastic mobile parallax experiment for your mobile device. These types of development offer countless opportunities for creatives willing to get their hands dirty in UX and technology.




I’m inspired by the idea of making beautiful things, and I think we have huge space to do this, provided we cut the cord a little from our typical behaviors as digital people, switch off some of our traditional practices, and hark back even further to Mad Men days when, in the best possible way, advertising meant drawing pretty pictures.

Great Mobile Slides from Yesteryear No1

As one of the Old Men Of Mobile, I occasionally look back on my old stuff and laugh  about the Good Old Days Of Mobile.

Back in 1999 we were pretty much all SMS warriors, doing anything to get a campaign off the ground and a few pounds in the door.

But it wasn’t until 2008 that brands and agencies became interested enough to want to know more, and that’s when I started being asked to run courses on mobile, something which I still do today.

Digging out this material from 2008-9 is interesting – sometimes I allow myself to marvel at my own prescience, but equally often, it’s to think that something so obvious now was like nuclear physics back then.

So I’m going to run an occasional series of ‘classic mobile slides’ which many mobile veterans may remember, or will have at some point made their own versions.

Here’s a fun example of me trying to define and explain the role of the OS in mobile – to a room full of people who have never used a smartphone.

The narrative around this one was “Really the device is becoming almost irrelevant to the consumer’s experience – sure you still need a nice device, but really it’s just a sexy shiny wrapper for the stuff that comes inside. Therefore the phone experience that you have is around 90% due to the OS”

“People don’t want to be kept inside the operator walled garden – they want to use the device (mostly software) to reach the stuff they love, and they’ll find any way to do it”

This slide really presages the downfall of both the mobile carriers and the legacy handset manufacturers as the true owners of the mobile experience, surrendering their role to Apple, and mostly to Google. It was really soon after this that Motorola, Nokia et al started the nosedive from which they never recovered. The rise of the OS as the determining factor in mobile choice started here.

But more importantly, with hindsight I can now see that this is really where mobile marketing, for me, stopped being a worthwhile specialism. The smartphone enabled the consumer to simply do the same things in digital on their phone that they were already used to doing on desktop, and therefore the fact that you were doing it on mobile meant very little, beyond a few obvious design and technical factors.

The real juice in marketing strategy is in figuring out what it is that you want people to do, see or think. And how you reproduce that across different channels such as mobile is, (or should be) just execution. More on this at a later date…

Avoiding the digital luxury Trash-Trap

I had a really enjoyable conversation recently with a luxury brand team. The topic was broadly what the role of digital could be in this elevated space.

I had read a number of interesting sources as preparation, and one of them intrigued me and set up my key contention. Check out p10 of this deck from Publicis on digital and luxury. Among other things, the deck asserts that Gucci, due to its large Facebook following, has “454,328 potential customers”.

This strikes me as a dangerous strategic leap to make, and a potentially self-defeating strategy for the brand. Fast-forward to 2013, and Gucci has 10m Facebook fans!

Look at it like this: does Gucci really have 10 million potential customers, or 10 million people very likely to buy a knock-off watch made in Hong Kong?

My point was made quite by chance when I came across a brand whose reach into social media appears quite comparable – look!

Spot the difference...


The obvious retort to this is that Gucci is no longer a luxury brand. And this may be fair – there is plenty of evidence that Gucci has to some extent gone the way of Taco Bell in its product as well as its brand.

But the problem with digital that all luxury brands must address is the inherent conflict between the democratizing nature of the internet, and social media in particular, and the need to remain both desirable and exclusive. A brand at a certain level must remain, to most people, just out of reach, while still attracting enough people to grow.

The quest in acquisition, perhaps, is for the right kind of people.


Once you have a good high-value audience captured, you of course need to retain them. My neighbor in Toronto is a Porsche dealer, and apparently they have little problem in this area, but it’s not that easy in every sector of luxury.

Thinking on this reminded me of a concept I’d first discussed with the excellent James Dunne (no relation) of Target McConnells in Dublin, whose contention was that by creating a segregated and elite membership club within a brand that is hard to enter, you can reward its key adherents.

A good planner never lets a good idea go to waste! But my build on the idea, and why it works for luxury from a brand perspective, is that by pulling the best of its brand essence back behind a virtual ‘velvet curtain’, you can avoid the need to engage with the huge numbers of consumers who can never truly aspire to be a customer – while avoiding the ‘chav-appropriation’ that so damaged Burberry around 2005. But better still, you can also benefit from the ‘leaks’ – the stolen glances through the VIP curtain that happen to (or are allowed to) leak out.

You cannot create mystique and exclusivity by just putting yourself out there. While digital is a great leveler in our society, basic rules of supply and demand are still in place.

Rarity makes a product more desirable, and avoids the risk of commoditization. For brands whose ambitions are (or should be) to find and engage with consumers whose refined taste matches their own.

Then budgets are likely best spent developing unique brand experiences for just the highest tier of consumers in an ownable space that less elite brands could never dream of entering.

Digital has a great role to play in defining this next generation of high-end value proposition, and of course, in communicating it to its intended audience.

About Learning


Before you read this post, click here and play Donald Fagen’s Great Pagoda of Funn in the background. It’s an accurate representation of how I feel today.

There are some weeks where you are lucky enough to find out quite a lot about your craft as a strategist, and quite a lot about yourself along the way.

This week I was charged with delivering a Point Of View to a room full of CMOs from one the US’s most dynamic industry verticals. Their industry is about to enter an era of vertiginous change due to a raft of new legislation that could either make or break their businesses, but in any event will result in root-and-branch change to almost everything they do.

This industry sector simply doesn’t exist in the UK, so I had no experience either as a consumer or as a planner in how to think about it or approach it, leaving me nervous some weeks ago when this started, that I would be able to deliver any meaningful insights or recommendations. The scope of the subject was pretty vast: encompassing segmentation, divining consumer insights, brand definition and positioning, product strategy and marketing activation strategy.

Happily, the 4-hour session that I came up with was very well received, leaving me today pretty much glowing, and in a great mood as I leave the beautiful city of Chicago, looking down over the incomprehensible vastness of Michigan towards Canada and home.

What I’ve realized (again) is the unparalleled importance of learning. Last week I read a great piece about the traits of confident people, and was very taken by some of the truths contained in it.

One of the key traits of confident people (which I guess we all have to aspire to) is the ability to learn, and to keep learning, and I’ve always believed that the only true sign of maturity is the deep acknowledgement that you are constantly changing, and that there is no ‘final destination’ for you to get to, where you can say that you have mastered your art.

But how do you best go about learning? How can you get from what you may fear is a point of hopeless ignorance to a persuasive and robust position in only a limited time?

The past couple of weeks have given me some pointers:


Build on your fundamentals.

You’re never starting from scratch.

Despite my lack of formal training as a planner (or perhaps because of it) I’ve been lucky enough to develop a range of original perspectives for various clients over the past couple of years. These broad themes include areas such as How brands are built digitally, Strategies for mobile and digital transformation, The role of digital for CPG, and Consumer-centricity techniques for brands and services among others. I guess the joy of spending over a decade in mobile means that you have to be inventive to survive…

While this thinking originated from spaces as diverse as alcohol, finance, automotive and loyalty, you should be able to take from all the work you do some core beliefs.

Using your core beliefs doesn’t mean short-cutting, and it doesn’t offer some kind of one-size-fits-all strategic miracle cure, but it does offer some key areas of truth. Each of these is a lifetime of work in itself, but I think they can be ideally defined as:

  • Brand truths. There are only so many ways that a brand can be developed, and there are commonalities among all brands in how success is achieved
  • Human truths. If we understand how people behave and understand their world, we can help brands float naturally within consumers’ perceptions and desires
  • Product truths. The relationship between what we say as brands and how we want people to hear it is only worth doing if we design client products that deliver credibly on our marketing vision

A key element to learning for me is developing new aspects and applications over the top of these core truths


You’re never alone

Unless you’ve spent your whole career annoying people, you should have a network of people with skills or insights to help, or you should be able to use your network to find new people who can do so, thus growing your network even further.

While I have some branding chops, I was able to connect on this occasion with the Copernicus team in Boston, and one hour with the incomparable Eric Paquette was enough to power me with key insights and at-the-coalface techniques.

I have learnt that expertise and experience can be found almost anywhere, with our CRM director in this instance providing some of the best insights. Ask anyone their opinion, as you never know who will add a new dimension, some anecdotal evidence, or at least some color to your thinking.


Don’t be afraid to be original

I once worked with a planner, who, when faced with a big challenge, made a point to reach out for established planning or brand frameworks as a first point of call, sometimes without necessarily trying to crack the problem the hard way first. Thus whole responses would be based on Blue Ocean, or McKinsey, and openly called out as such in presentations and documents.  While planning frameworks can help, I have a problem with some of them, particularly the hugely over-rated McKinsey cycle, which bears no relation at all to how brands are built.

The use, or overt use, or frameworks places two key strains on a strategist and the result he is aiming for:

  • Having set up a piece of thinking to use an off-the-shelf model, the team is then committed to making the rest of the work fit to it, even if it turns out not to be appropriate – I’ve seen some uncomfortable contortions made in final presentations to accommodate this in the past
  • If used too blatantly, or if not selected very carefully, it can look like the approach lacks originality, or worse still, is counterfeit


But most of all, I think that the strength of original thinking works because if you believe it yourself, and have developed it either over the course of many years or as an application to a particular problem, you will always sound more credible and convincing when explaining it to others.

In this instance, learning is about giving yourself the freedom to go a bit out there and discover something new.

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