A trip to the West Coast of contrasts and comparisons – and a series of encounters which raised questions and contradictory responses, I’ll try to make sense below.
First to Silicon Valley with the UKTI Interactive Mission, and behind the shiny façade of each of the isolated campuses crunching changes in corporate culture from Google to Facebook to Microsoft to EA – creating internal environments which were somehow reflective of how the organizations view themselves.
Two commonalities were striking however:
First was an underlying sense of distance from the consumer. My impression was one of a concentration on platforms rather than people – the “users” were almost the archetypes of economic theory, frictionless in engagement and rational in response. Data analysis was primarily about optimizing and targeting rather than understanding motivations.
Flipboard stood in stark contrast, a business utterly driven by design and user experience. Different in scale yes, but serious and growing fast combined with an open attitude which went beyond a simple need to collaborate with content partners.
Second was talent as commodity. Each corporate campus provided a dizzying array of free restaurants, cafes and personal services (doctors, banks, laundry) – part necessity, partly to keep employees on site, but more often described as a requirement to attract and keep the best talent. For the second time in a couple of weeks I heard a San Francisco corporation use the term “acqui-hire” – purchasing a business primarily to secure the management team. A senior Facebook Exec described their acquisition criteria as traction, technology or talent – with the first and the third by far the main drivers.
The Tech Crunch Crunchies Awards echoed this in its descriptions of the start-ups and businesses nominated. Their brief descriptions were inevitably one of $XM raised and financing rounds by star VC’s rather than customer numbers or profit – the value judgment was clear.
And yet, who is to say this is wrong? Even companies such as Mozilla and Rally.org belied steely corporate strategy under their top layer of social responsibility, and this level of hard-nosed professionalism is something UK companies are often criticized for lacking.
350 miles south to Los Angeles and these threads were evident throughout the Innovation Forum – a stellar 2 day event bringing together LA media moguls and investors with a group of UK start ups (see London Evening Standard article).
The theme of a “misguided focus on distribution rather than consumers”, to quote one participant, was returned to as CEO’s of major broadcasters, production companies and record labels contemplated the continuing disruption of their industries. The points about simplicity of service provision matched to anticipating customer demand were obvious but well made, not least by Daniel Ek from Spotify, a hero / villain of the piece depending on your point of view.
And this is where humanity and understanding began to creep in. People are fickle in the way they use technology, they use, or don’t use, in unanticipated ways – and it is highly likely that old and new media will continue to co-exist uncomfortably for some time to come.
In the digital world of unlimited opportunity to access, discoverability becomes increasingly important. But discoverability is not just about technology, it is also about usage, and it must somehow still retain a mechanism for passivity or serendipity. Therefore the obvious next function, and opportunity, is curation – and to quote Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO Dreamworks Animation, “curation is not about algorithms”.
“Left brain / right brain” was how the moderator described the collision of creative and technology during a pitching session by 30 UK businesses. He was attempting to summarise the high creative / arts / UX content which characterized many of the British approaches as opposed to the logic and technology core of most US start ups. One of the Brits even used the word “culture”, notable by its absence from all other discussions.
“Make things people want rather than people want things” was Julian Ehrhardt from Ustwo’s comment, and maybe that acts as a useful cipher for the two ends of the debate. To stereotype or simplify, the British creative focus on audience and UX with the US concentration on platform and scale.
There were a huge number of very productive business connections made both in San Francisco and at the LA Innovation Forum, if they achieve opportunities to synthesise the US corporate professionalism and availability of finance with UK creative user engagement then there is a catalyst for great potential.
Last word to Andy Bird, Chairman of Walt Disney International (and a Brit). Even with a $97Bn market capitalization and 37 different business units they have to keep creatively innovating in a disrupted landscape because their biggest fear is “irrelevance”.