Black, white and the reality of grey

SimonOff topic

As a wet-behind-the-ears graduate my first real job was as a graduate trainee at retailer Boots.

I joined the marketing scheme in their Nottingham head office. I spent many hours in meeting rooms being drilled in the disciplines of marketing and management.

One of the mantras that Boots drilled into us was a management philosophy called value-based management (VBM).

At its core was a focus on taking management decisions that added shareholder value.

As a major listed company the logic of this was clear. And the congruence between what made sense for the company and what that meant for our decisions as newbie graduates was clear as well.

But where VBM went wrong was in its implementation.

It paralysed too many managers (and graduates too) by encouraging them to look for data-led evidence of whether a decision would add value.

Analysis of data became paramount as the means to making and justifying a decision. I remember well pushing through layer after layer of statistical analysis to try to justify a decision.

Leaving aside the way this so obviously slowed down decision-making to a snail’s pace, with the benefit of hindsight and nearly 20 years experience I can see a fundamental flaw.

The way Boots did VBM tried to make binary decisions – either a particular course of action was shareholder value-adding or not.

But that’s not the way things work in the real world.

As an agency MD almost every single decision I make is not binary.

If I’m making a binary decision, it’s probably one that someone else should have taken.

So my decision-making is typically somewhere on a continuum between a “one” and a “zero” in the binary world.

It’s in the grey, not the black or the white of decision-making.

The grey is the space where your judgement counts.

It’s the place where personal experience, skills and context really come into play.

Yet being able to assess and take decisions in this space is really hard.

It’s where objectivity and subjectivity collide. And it’s where success and failure are really determined.

Like my esteemed colleague Ronald wrote about earlier in the year, being able to deal with “the grey” is vital.

Yet my instinct tells me that social media, algorithmic news and confirmation bias are combining to lead to polarisation of decision-making.

The ubiquity of information through digitally-connected tools provides a firehose of content that can justify and amplify just about any reasonably held opinion.

And that confirmation leads to things being seen as binary once again.

Which is very different to the real world where virtually nothing is really binary.

Yet in politics, society and culture we’re seeing the polarisation that shows binary thinking is more and more common in the world around us.

A bit of me can’t help but think that a bit more thinking in the grey and a bit less black and white thinking wouldn’t hurt.

Guessing the price of websites


Over on the Deeson blog I’ve been writing about agencies writing proposals for client websites.

Having been back agency-side for almost two and a half years now, it’s fascinating to see how many of the norms of the digital agency business remain unchanged from almost ten years ago – including the fixed scope, fixed price website proposal.

In my post on the Deeson blog I talk about why this is a bad idea for both agencies and clients. But I also know that for many agencies there’s no choice but to enter into the guessing game that fixed price/scope tenders really are – that’s a commercial reality as fixed price/scope is the norm for our industry.

So if you want to learn why I’m so convinced about the inadequacy of this way of delivering client-agency digital projects, check out these two links:

  1. The iron triangle of project management
  2. Why fixed price and fixed scope proposals are a bad thing

London to Paris cycle ride – in under 24 hours


I’ve always been one for a challenge of one sort or another.

Inspired by the brilliant Sean Conway, Sophie Radcliffe and Donald Hirsch, the idea of cycling from London to Paris in under 24 hours seemed like a good one to take on to celebrate my 40th birthday this summer.

The team

So last weekend we hit the road out of London and rode to Paris. And we made it in under 24 hours too, having a brilliant time along the way.

I’ve shared more details about our trip, routes, experiences, kit list and more on a dedicated page at

If you’d like to know more details about cycling from London to Paris in under 24 hours, drop me a line.

The experience has certainly got me thinking about next year’s cycling challenge – it’s amazing what you can pack into 24 hours on your bike.

Looking for great designers


Building a team is hard. Building a great team is harder.

But that journey always starts by hiring the right people.

At Deeson we’re on a sustainable path to grow the business, and right now we’re looking for designers (as well as experienced Drupal developers and solutions architects).

With the arrival of a talented new Creative Director last month, I’m now looking to grow our creative firepower as an agency.

We’ve reinvented our discovery stage on digital projects to put creativity right in the centre of the way we solve problems for our clients using digital technology.

To help roll this out we need great people to join us as designers.

Find out more about how designers at Deeson work in Andrew’s blog post.

While we’re a distributed agency with homes in London and Canterbury, our designers are physically located in London (Angel) and Canterbury so you’d be based in one of these places.

We work hard to foster an agency culture that allows our team to do their best work and recognises that everyone has a life outside work as well as a working life.

For a bit more about our culture check out MD Tim’s blog post and presentation, what our team members say, and some information on the benefits everyone gets.

Creating space in leadership


This is something that’s fascinated me for a while now – how to create space for teams to thrive, solve problems and do their best work while shaping direction and managing risks as a leader?

Years ago when I led communications and marketing teams in the public sector, I used to frustrate my team regularly when they came to me to ask for help. I’d reflect the question back to them and ask them what they thought before sharing my opinions.

In that role I had the professional domain expertise to have an informed enough opinion – I’d started my career in communications and marketing and had a good few years experience to draw upon.

But I always had a nagging doubt that even with that experience, there was no way I could have a better way of solving an issue than the person who was bringing it to me.

It struck me that facilitating them to find their own solution was a better way of helping team members develop and to find better ways of solving problems.

Yet the typical organisational hierarchy and directional management styles that were deeply woven into the way the organisations worked felt like they worked against a facilitative leadership style.

Fast forward a few years and now I lead a vibrant and innovative digital agency working with open source technology. I’m lucky enough to be part of a team that has passionate people wrangling new technology and creativity every day of the week.

There’s no way I can offer any useful domain insight into many of the specialist disciplines we have within the agency. We hire the best people we can in these fields precisely because we need expertise.

It now seems more counter-intuitive than ever to me that someone in a leadership position should be offering strong opinions on what should happen when teams are delivering services and solving problems.

With the right people, processes and tools, the leadership role is about creating space for those teams to do great things and help them through when they hit blocks.

But as leaders we have to accept that what we say and do (as well as the things we don’t say and don’t do), carry weight with our teams. The role that a leader holds gives them a level of influence, whether they realise it or not.

So I’ve been making deliberate efforts to not give opinions or potential solutions as I may have done all those years ago.

I’ve been retraining myself to use questioning as my predominant mode in discussions, meetings and workshop.

One day I tried to go the entire day using only questioning to contribute towards team discussions. I didn’t manage it for the whole day, but it was a great way of forcing myself to think differently about my interactions as a leader and facilitate better.

While it’s been hard to break some long-held habits, I’ve been amazed at the power of using open and deliberate questioning in discussions to help team members solve complex problems themselves.

This helps individuals in their own professional development as well as shaping a culture where the solutions to problems can come from anywhere in the team.

So next time you’re asked for help, start thinking questions first, not answers.


Review: A Mind for Business by Andy Gibson


Psychology and neuroscience fascinate me, even if I do have trouble spelling them when writing a blog post.

With every day that passes I become more convinced that genuine leadership requires leaders to have a good understanding of these two disciplines and what they mean for the human interactions that make up our day-to-day working lives.

So that’s why when a copy of A Mind For Business by Andy Gibson dropped on my doormat (yes, a real life paper copy), I was keen to get stuck in and see what it had to offer.

As my interest in psychology and neuroscience has grown over the past couple of years, I’ve read some pretty heavyweight books on the subjects. This has been intellectually rewarding but, to be honest, pretty hard work.

A Mind For Business is different – and refreshingly so. For the newcomer to this field it does a good job of cantering through contemporary thinking on the subject and giving a broad overview of the key issues and insights. It avoids the generalisations and trite assertions that characterise so many management books.

What I really liked is that while the breezy and practical style of the text is easy to read in the short bursts of time I seem to have to read nowadays, it’s backed by decent references and ideas for further reading that help you delve further into the topic and understand the evidence behind the assertions that Andy makes in his book.

My favourite bit is the section about Inner Drive – which explores the value of intrinsic motivation in the workplace. If there’s anything I’d recommend managers read, it’s this section.

It explains succinctly, and without some of the usual corporate bullshit that characterises motivational thinking, why people are motivated and why they’re not. Definitely worth checking out.

And he quotes one of my favourites too – Dan Pink, author of the excellent Drive:

We have oversold carrot and stick motivators and undersold motivators like autonomy, mastery and purpose.

As a brief aside, a lot of what I’ve learnt through my reading on this has been put into action at digital agency Deeson over the past few months. Tim Deeson and I have worked hard to build a culture based on intrinsic motivation and he’s written about what we’ve done on the Deeson blog.

So back to A Mind For Business and to summarise, this is a great primer for anyone involved in people management, leadership or teamwork. It provides a superb overview of contemporary thinking and is well grounded in evidence.

And if you want to delve deeper, it points you in the direction of some of the best sources around on the subject. This is one I’d definitely recommend.

Disclosure: Free review copy supplier by publisher

Abseiling 114m from the Arcelor Mittal Orbit for charity

SimonOff topic

This weekend I’ll be descending the UK’s largest sculpture along with colleagues from digital agency Deeson in aid of Porchlight, a charity supporting the homeless and vulnerable across Kent and Croydon.

At Deeson we’ve worked with Porchlight for some time on projects and we’re happy to be able to give back to this wonderful charity – although I’m not sure I’ll be so convinced about that as I lower myself into thin air 114m above Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

From there on, it’s over the edge and down on an adrenaline-fuelled ride to the ground, taking in the breath-taking views across London including iconic buildings such as The Gherkin, St. Pauls, Canary Wharf and Wembley Stadium, as well as the world-famous sporting venues of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

If you’d like to support us in raising funds for Porchlight, you can make a donation here.

Drupal for marketers in 2015


It’s clear from working with our clients and keeping an ear to the ground that big data, open source, content marketing, personalisation and online communities are just a few of the trends that are high on the agenda for this year.

Providing the backbone of a good content management system (CMS) allows marketers to develop and deploy innovative digital campaigns and initiatives, empowering them with instant control and flexibility,

All too often we meet clients and companies who are struggling with quite the opposite, engaged in a hand-to-hand battle with their CMS, a tool designed to make their lives easier. In a horrible turn of events, the content management system has become an obstacle to getting the job done.

Too much energy goes into finding ways around content management systems that have failed to keep pace with the needs of the contemporary marketer. So how can you avoid these issues?

The first step is to make sure that in the crowded world of content management systems you choose the one that best meets the needs of your business. Our particular choice is the open source Drupal CMS, built specifically for managing online content, communities and commerce.

If you’re not familiar with it, here are my five reasons why you should consider Drupal as a CMS for 2015.

Integration with social media

We all know that the right social media can be a great platform for reaching your audience. We work with Robbie Williams and his management team to develop and run Robbie’s official website ( The site is designed with social content at its core, featuring heavyweight social integrations to give a seamless cross-channel experience for Robbie’s fans. Using Drupal we’ve made sure it’s resilient to the traffic spikes that are inevitable on a website for a global pop legend .

Targeted to the right audience

Another very clever thing that we can do with Drupal is to flexibly personalise the content of a website according to the users visiting the site regardless of whether a user is logged in. We can use clickstream data to power this personalisation or can pull in data from other sources to deliver a great personalised experience that increases user engagement and encourages repeat visits. Drupal’s open source code means personalisation can be customised far more flexibly than with proprietary content management systems.

Device and language flexibility

When planning a global marketing campaign, it’s vital to have a CMS that can handle translation and multi-language support. Drupal has the flexibility to allow users to switch languages as well as see your content in multiple languages. This means you can reach a large demographic with the least amount of fuss.

Enabling big data through integrations

It’s inevitable that you need your CMS to integrate effectively with other third party systems like CRM systems, video platforms and payment gateways to use big data in your marketing. We’ve worked with companies like Johnson & Johnson and ITV to develop websites that integrate mission-critical back office systems with Drupal.

Being part of a large open-source development community using Drupal you can be confident that the platform will continue to expand its functionality and cross-platform support in 2015.

Developing owned communities

As organic reach through popular social media platforms declines, marketers are focussing more on owned communities. Drupal’s power and flexibility is ideal for marketers seeking to develop engaging communities around brands. We’ve used Drupal to build a worldwide learning community for surgeons, to connect professionals in membership organisations and to build communities around big brands.

As an open source system Drupal has no upfront or ongoing licensing costs meaning you can get better value from your existing digital and marketing budgets as well.

So, if the thought of using your current CMS brings you out in a cold sweat, maybe it’s time to check out whether it’s really up to the job. With major websites including the Brit Awards, MTV and Lush now using Drupal it’s clear that the marketing and digital community is waking up to the potential of open source content management. In 2015, Drupal is the content management platform to beat.

Cross-posted from the Deeson agency blog and the Drum.

Dangerous driving around cyclists


I cycle pretty much every day now, including a six mile round trip to and from work.

So I see a lot of pretty poor driving around cyclists, including cars pulling out into my path as a cyclist, dangerous overtaking and passing far too close to be safe.

And I see some pretty bad cycling too, although that is rarely dangerous to anyone other than the cyclist themselves.

A little while back I got so fed up of all this that I got myself a helmet camera to record the things I was experiencing far too regularly for comfort.

On 31st October the driver of YM53 GYW completely ignored my presence on a mini-roundabout and decided to not give way and proceed to drive straight across my path as I turned and signalled right:

I reported this incident to Kent Police and supplied the video evidence.

I’m not sure realistically what I expected to happen, but given I clearly had right of way and the motorist passed at some speed close to me, I hoped that Kent Police would take some action against the driver – particularly as I had a clear video of the incident.

I completed the paperwork that Kent Police sent me and supplied a statement about the incident.

Today I had a letter from Kent Police telling me they wouldn’t be taking any further action about this.

Letter from Kent Police

In a way I wasn’t surprised. I know how stretched police resources are and this wasn’t the crime of the century I know.

But what annoyed me was the reason that nothing would happen as a result.

Between Kent Police and the Crown Prosecution Service it seems they’ve decided that dangerous driving around cyclists and ignoring the rules of the road is OK for drivers – as long as the cyclist doesn’t have to “brake or deviate from their path of travel”.

In this incident I actually did have to brake as I’d seen the car not giving way to me at the mini-roundabout and had braked to avoid the car coming into the side of me.

So if you’re a cyclist and you experience dangerous driving – make sure you brake, swerve and record it all to have any chance of Kent Police actually doing anything about it – even if you have video evidence that shows a vehicle clearly not following the Highway Code.

Not impressed…

It's been a while…


It’s been almost five months since I joined Deeson – the Canterbury-based digital agency – looking after the company’s marketing, creative, user experience and strategy work.

And it’s been a good few months since I last blogged here too, although I have been contributing the odd post over on the Deeson blog. So I thought it was really about time for an update here.

Looking back over the past few months, I’ve had a great time really getting into my role.

Working in a new environment has been a great professional challenge. I’ve loved the feeling of being able to learn at such a rapid rate and have found that professionally reinvigorating.

I’ve enjoyed getting to know a new team of dedicated, professional people who care about the work they’re doing.

Last month we launched a full rebranding of the agency – repositioning the business to reflect the nature of the work we’re doing and to provide a platform for our marketing in the future.

The rebranding project was one I approached with some trepidation. It had the potential to be complex to make sure we ended up with a new brand that was right for the business.

That’s why I was determined that we’d follow our own client project methodology – which puts users at the heart of the creative and technical development of digital properties – for the rebranding of our agency.

The best digital experiences come from genuine insight about what a business or organisation is seeking to achieve and where this intersects with the lives of its users, customers and clients.

You can read more about how we relaunched the Deeson brand in a blog post by Mike – one of our user experience specialists – here.

The experience of our project and the results we’ve achieved so far have reaffirmed for me the importance of a user-focussed approach to marketing, digital and communication.

It’s the only viable way to ensure that we avoid our own biases and pre-dispositions to build experiences that users will find compelling and engaging – as well as achieving the business goals that are behind the project.