Sorry but I don’t like your air

I got offered a freelance role recently. Successful agency, a big new business win to work on and, it goes without saying, some financial security.

I turned it down.

I could almost hear the recruiter thinking when I told her my decision, “is she crazy or just plain stupid?” Of course, she was nothing but pure professionalism in her response and I thank her for that.

But it wasn’t a straightforward decision. I’d already decided that I should probably take some time out between jobs to give the old breathers a chance to recover and repair. Besides, I had about a month long backlog of hospital appointments to catch up on (sadly the over-burdened NHS hasn’t quite got around to developing holographic technology to enable virtual appointments yet, but here’s hoping.)

In addition, I had made the hard decision to leave my previous agency to pursue a different kind of planning and transition into the sustainability and charity sector, so to not give that a shot first seemed wrong.

But the most pressing reason – that even common sense and a decent pay cheque couldn’t argue with – was where the agency was. Specifically the air around it. It was in an area of of London known for very poor air quality.

I’ve got my own little mind map of London that doesn’t mark the tourist spots or the best lattes in town (I’d pay good money for that map though) but it does tell me where all the areas of persistently bad air quality are, and I do my best to avoid them for long periods of time.

It sounds a little dramatic I know, the effects of breathing poor air are negligible if your exposure is minimal- for everyone that is, CF or not- but the long term effects are quite another thing.

There are lots of things you can’t put a price on and – it’s taken me a long while to accept it – keeping my lung function as good as it possibly could be, definitely falls somewhere in the ballpark of priceless.

Now if someone could only develop a high fashion face mask that doesn’t make you look like a ninja with a side hustle, that’d be peachy.


With every percentage

That scrappy bit of paper above is a list of life ambitions I wrote, aged 18. You can see I didn’t exactly hold back.

That scrappy bit of paper is a list of life ambitions  I wrote, aged 18.  I didn’t exactly hold back. In full it reads:

write at least one novel
have a photographic exhibition
speak 5 languages
save someone’s life
work for UN/NATO
sing in a band
visit over 50 countries
publish a historical/political work

learn a form of martial art.

To complete this grandiose document I then apparently scribbled some train times upside down at the bottom. In a similar vein, I didn’t find this note carefully stored for future reflection but by chance, stuffed in an old folder, when I recently moved house.

A few ambitions have changed in the 10 years since then; I never did apply for that NATO job nor have I seriously picked up a camera since I was 19. Ambitions change as we grow older, sometimes for better sometimes not (although me not singing in a band is almost certainly doing the world a favour). But what really hits me looking back on that list now, is the fact I had no limitations. My 18 year old self saw no reason for me to dream smaller or be cautious.

And why should I have been? At 18 I hadn’t had a single IV admission, I didn’t take any regular nebulisers, I hadn’t developed CF related diabetes, I only took about 10 pills a day. I’d just been prescribed my first inhaler. I was not by any stretch, what you would expect from a young adult with CF. I am proud to have dreamed so big.

The thing is, those big dreams may have evolved but they haven’t gone anywhere. I am loath to accept limitations, and the list I’d write aged 28 is just as ambitious as the old one, Cystic Fibrosis or not. But a little life experience has taught me that achieving every dream takes time and compromise.

A thought popped into my head the other day, and I found myself speculating how much lung function I had permanently lost in the last 3 years due to normal stresses like long hours at work and city air. I settled on 6 percent. Lung function fluctuates naturally, mine has gone up and down by 20% in the last year depending on how well and generally fit I am. But there is something called a baseline measurement in lung function, and CF doctors will use it to assess what your best figure is.

After my morbid moment, I mentally slapped myself and went back to mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed. But navel-gazing Elly had a point, there’s an opportunity cost in everything we do.  We all need a method of measuring how we spend our time – even if spent percentages of lung function is a little niche – how else will we work towards our goals?

I thought about all the hours that made up those three years, some spent in pursuit of goals big and small, others spent happily pursuing no goal at all. I wouldn’t go back and change them; they’ve led to personal and professional achievements I’m proud of. But I do wish I’d spent more of that 6% in pursuit of the things I really measure myself by. The motivations, beliefs and dreams that inspired that little list in an A5 notebook aged 18.

Which is why, 2 weeks ago, I quit my job. I’m spending the next few weeks working on a writing project I’ve been awarded a grant for.  Beyond that I’m looking for a role in a creative agency where I can work on the kind of social change, charity and sustainability projects that get me really excited.

I’d like to make every percentage count.

August is pretty chilly anyway…


Last night I was nominated for the ice bucket challenge by a very good friend. Well, apologies to anyone who was eager to catch a flash of my pasty white middle (but really, why?!) in the course of having cold water splashed over it, but it’s not gonna happen.

First I should say that- unlike some others- I don’t object to this style of fundraising. Mostly because it’s extraordinarily effective; as we’ve probably all read, donations to ALS and its British counterpart are up dramatically from last year. It’s a fundraising icy wet dream (sorry).

There is the water wastage, yes, but which of us didn’t spend their childhood running around with super soakers and paddling pools? At least this benefits others.  The fact that most participants had no idea what ALS was previously- myself included- really doesn’t matter; they do now (yay) and their motivations beyond that don’t really bother me- it worked didn’t it?  Surely,  the ends justify the means.

This, and the #nomakeupselfie for breast cancer, have tapped into the social zeitgeist like never before and are bringing a new level of mass participation to charity fundraising. The opportunities for other charities are huge (before we all get immune to this new style of fundraising too, of course. But maybe I can dream, maybe we won’t).

Frankly, I think the majority of charity advertising and campaigning methods are in dire need of a kick up the arse, and this just might be the start of it. As much as we may wish it, a good cause doesn’t determine results on its own, not anymore.  There’s too much competition for attention and resources, and often, desensitization to the subject matter through media.

But here’s no denying, the ALS challenge has been pretty rough around the edges. Ultimately, I’ve made the decision not to give my money to the ALS  association because I’m not convinced they’re using funds effectively and I object to their research methods. That’s just my decision.

The spontaenous charity giving though, is something I definitely want to get on board with. This morning I donated to the CF Trust– the UK’s charity for Cystic Fibrosis which is a life-threatening genetic condition, primarily affecting the lungs and digestive system. I also just happen to have it.

By the by, I’m not just donating to the CF Trust because I have CF. I’ve donated to several charities recently (most recently the PSC) but it occurred to me that I’ve never actually made a donation to the CF Trust. Now seemed like a pretty good time. They tirelessly campaign on behalf of people like myself and play a large part in fundraising for that ever elusive (and extremely expensive) gene therapy cure for Cystic Fibrosis.

For those wanting to know, CF affects a similar number of people in the developed world to ALS (around 30,000 in the US). The developing world is a different matter as some genetic groups aren’t affected by it and also because most children born with it would be dead by the age of 10 without the advanced medical care I’m privileged enough to get in the UK.

Happy giving everyone, whatever your cause.

Your brain on coffee: Taylors of Harrogate.

As noted by a clearly switched-on chap tweeting about this ad, “when an advert takes your eyes off your phone, it’s done right.”

Dual-screening is second nature to many TV viewers these days. Although that’s often seen as a cause for concern, it is an opportunity to make more creatively diverse advertising. One way of doing that is to use completely different audio and visual conditions from the majority of the ads on TV.

That’s the reason I want to talk about Taylors of Harrogate’s first TV advertising campaign, launched in May. Coffee brands tend to employ aspirational lifestyle marketing with stylish visuals, steamy cups and the undoubtable selling power of George Clooney.  I expect part of the insight behind the Taylors’ campaign was the knowledge that many coffee buyers are not particularly loyal to one brand and in such a crowded category there was a need to do something completely different, in order to stand out.

The idea of the ad was to express the journey of the brain ‘on coffee’ and to focus on the sensation behind drinking it, instead of the aftermath or events associated with coffee. No voiceover was used and the only text came at the very end of the ad to show the brand and tagline ‘Welcome to coffee’, with the aim of peaking curiosity in viewers. The soundtrack of the ad was an unusual 19th century composition, complete with birdsong. The effect of watching this, sandwiched between several ads with demanding visuals and loud voiceovers is pronounced and more importantly, memorable.

Crucially, the campaign wasn’t just a pretty TV ad. It was combined with a series of pop-up coffee rooms around the launch, a dedicated site created with social-sharing in mind and a series of useful how-to videos on YouTube. When I decide to comment on an ad on Twitter, I rarely find more than one or two tweets from other users talking about the impression the ad left on them. When I looked at #welcometocoffee, there were dozens.

Welcome to coffee, indeed.

A good loyalty scheme is the best way to a girl’s heart

Originally published on the Café Create blog. If you’re looking for a charming integrated creative agency outside of London, it would be an excellent place to start. You might even get a coffee made by me if you’re lucky…


I never thought I would say this. I am a loyal Starbucks customer. It’s true. That’s not to say that I don’t drink coffee elsewhere if the moment presents itself (it’s 2014 remember, customer loyalty isn’t quite as clear-cut as it once was), but given the choice between Starbucks or one of the other Big Three, I’d go for Starbucks. Perhaps If I’d been a regular for sometime that wouldn’t mean anything, but considering I didn’t let my feet darken their doorway for years, it’s pretty significant.

So what led to my conversion? This is not an ode to Starbucks or a cunning scheme to ensure a lifetime of free lattes (wait, hold that thought…). There was no one moment or transaction that sealed the deal; in a sense this is a case study of the different factors that can affect loyalty and perhaps a reminder that there is no set recipe for it. If there was ever a time where customer loyalty could be created and controlled through one aspect of a business alone, those days are certainly gone. Who says that’s a bad thing? Demanding customers -who will let you know though one of the many channels available to them, when something falls short of their expectations- provide an unprecedented opportunity to create products and brands that people really care about.

Where it all began.

The holy tenet of marketing; product differentiation. Does it still mean anything? It’s true, all of the major coffee chains have similar if not identical offerings in terms of drinks. I know what you’re thinking, in such a saturated market is differentiation even possible? And yet Starbucks is the only one that makes a Caramel Macchiato in that particular way, that reminds me of cafés in Seoul, South Korea, that served a particularly sweet but unusual coffee that I haven’t tasted anywhere since. Granted, that is about as personal and emotive as you will ever get when it comes to customer expectations. Trying to predict that particular combination of circumstances alone is going to end in an unhappy journey; it’s like pursuing a nonexistent holy grail of retail. Yet it goes to show that it is always worth the continued effort of focusing on producing exactly what a customer wants in order to create an emotive connection. The rewards are worth it when you do.

Service please.

There’s no escaping this one. Sure, create a bad experience and you’re far more likely to hear about it than when you create a satisfactory one. Create an excellent one though, and the odds start to move in your favour. I can probably recall on one hand the times that I’ve experienced excellent, stand-out customer service. That’s a wasted opportunity right there. We can’t keep pretending that we still live in a time where the day-to-day customer experience can be segmented and removed from the overall impression of a brand; it’s just too important. So how do you make those moments? In the case of one Starbuck’s employee that meant giving me a coffee free-of-charge on the day I lost my purse. He certainly wasn’t supposed to and I’m not advocating breaking the rules to make everyone happy, but I won’t forget it all the same. In that instance I felt relief, gratitude, and yes, you guessed it, loyalty.

Business (not) as usual.

This is all powerful stuff, creating those moments and connections with your customers can override objections they may have with other aspects of your brand, if you only give them a reason. But it also needs to be easy; easier and more enjoyable than anywhere else, for them to walk through your door, and purchase your product.

Companies are often preoccupied by new customers. There’s nothing wrong with that on the face of things.  I like meeting new people too, who doesn’t? But I’d be a poor friend if I abandoned all my friends for the tall dark stranger in the corner every time we went to a party and the same goes for brands.

Here’s my card:

Enter the beleaguered and often misunderstood customer loyalty scheme. A brilliant opportunity to attract and retain customers and yet I can only think of two customer loyalty programs (outside of the supermarket realm) that I actually value and use on an almost daily basis. Boots -because their scheme is older than time itself and offers a better points to purchase ratio than competitors- and…Starbucks. Because they have combined innovation, user experience and branding in a way that’s unprecedented.

If you create a loyalty scheme that offers nothing different over your competitors why would you expect your customer to take the time to enquire about, acquire and join or register for your program? Getting a customer to start using the scheme is much harder than convincing them to pick up a leaflet in-store. Once they do, it’s a habit, it’s easy and there are incentives to keep up. Before they’ve registered, it’s just another piece of plastic (please say it’s plastic, I think most of us have enough little scraps of card floating around in coat pockets and bags to last a lifetime) in the bottom of their purse that has failed to gain any significance to them.

I’m certainly not the first to praise Starbucks’ mobile payment strategy and it’s easy to gloss over the incredibly advantageous position that allowed them to experiment and implement such a strategy in the first place, but the result is a customer loyalty scheme like no other. And that means I’m unlikely to pick up a competitor’s card any time soon… until they catch up and give me a reason to take notice.

Don’t be antisocial

I am a bad blogger. You don’t need me to tell you this. The (lack of) evidence has been staring you in the face for the last two months. I’m sorry. Will it make it better if I fob you off with a blog I wrote over at Café Create instead? You never know, you might even enjoy it…

Don’t be antisocial.

Social media is a nifty little thing. Alright, that’s not doing it justice. It’s played its part in revolutions, helped make supermarkets funny (We see you, Tesco) and made us remember Oreos forever. Yet it has limitations.  Last time I checked, it hadn’t cured male pattern baldness or put milk in the fridge for me the last time I ran out. It’s also not outside the realms of possibility that some people within the advertising sphere have been adding kindle to the social media hype fire for their own benefit.

Not everyone is comfortable with social media and so understandably they seek advice on the subject.  At times the conventional advice has seemed to be, “DO EVERYTHING AND DO IT NOW!” Social media covers such a wide range of tools, it is likely that one or more of them will come in handy for your business. But all of them? Probably not.

Truth is, we’re all still figuring out what some of this stuff is good for.  We don’t know yet. The ways in which we might be using social media in 10, even 5, years time are infinitely exciting, but perhaps we shouldn’t be rushing to get there.

Initially, what was brilliant about social media for a lot of brands was that it allowed them to be disruptive and show how ahead of the game they were. They could get on the social bandwagon before everyone else and shout, “look mum no hands,” and no doubt impress a lot of people in the process. Nowadays the only advantage of social media, in some situations, is to be on the wagon with everyone else.  What then, is the impact?

Back to that disruptive part; what does it mean to be disruptive? Well, sometimes, just to make a lot of noise. Call me Rudolph, but you’re probably not the only business trying to do that at this time of year. Unless you’re incredibly innovative (and if you can figure out my milk/fridge problem I’ll be eternally grateful) you probably won’t get noticed on social media at this time of year. Being disruptive often requires taking the road less travelled.

Maybe the most disruptive thing you could be doing right now is to send a letter.

“There’s nothing like a nasal potential difference test to teach a little patience.”

Patience and perspective come in handy in many professional situations. They’re also pretty useful qualities to have when a doctor is sticking a plastic wire up your nose while passing a tiny electric current through it to measure the transference of ions across your sinus cells. No, I don’t really know what that means either and no it’s not the latest thing the kids are all doing to get a buzz. It’s one of the tests required in the year long gene therapy trial for cystic fibrosis patients that I’m taking part in.

You have not experienced the true definition of the word ‘itch’ until you’ve had a run in with this little plastic tube. Often a current can’t be detected on the first attempt and so it’s necessary to sit through a few tries before the plastic wire is doing what it should do. After the third attempt I was getting rather impatient, especially as I was trying to type an email to my boss on my phone.

Tube in place, I sat for half an hour while conductor fluid was passed through it, with a charming dribble coming out the other nostril and into the bowl in front of me. I’m not telling you this for fun, but we must all do our bit for the greater advancement of science. It turns out my contribution was just a little snottier than  anticipated.

Point being, a bit of patience comes in handy at times like these and so as I was soon reminded, does a bit of perspective.

A little later I was waiting to be seen by the doc and I could hear her talking to another patient in the next room. It became apparent that the patient was a male teenager, at a push I’d say 15 or 16. The doctor was discussing the possibility of a double lung transplant.

“I understand it’s not fair,” she said. “You’ve kept to your treatment so well. At the age where so many young people with CF aren’t taking their pills and having a teenage rebellion.” (I too, flirted with medical non-compliance as a teen and am none the the worse for it now). “You’ve done all the right things,” she continued. “Yet you’re still declining faster than we’d expect. If you continue like this I suspect we will be referring you for transplant in the next 18 months.”

A double lung transplant is a very high-risk operation, not to mention that approximately 50% of people die on the waiting list before they get the chance to have the op, due to severe organ donor shortage. Being a CF patient who’s not doing so well, it’s probably a talk he’s used to having. I don’t imagine that makes it any easier.

All teenagers think they’re invincible. It’s their job to be as irresponsible with their health as possible, isn’t that what youth is for? Being told, that despite your best efforts, you’re not going to live for more than a few years unless you get lucky must be soul-destroying.

I never had that as a teenager. I wasn’t admitted to hospital for the first time until I was 19. CF or not, I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m also lucky that I get to receive that dose of perspective each time I come to hospital.

Thank goodness the worst that happened to me was a slightly uncomfortable encounter between my nose and a bit of plastic.