A couple of days ago I came across a great anecdote. It concerned the skirmish that broke out in the early 1750s between an Englishman called Jonas Hanway, and the hansom cab drivers of London.

Hanway’s crime was being the first umbrella user in the city. Prior to that point umbrellas had only existed in the form of sun parasols, originating in the far east and gradually spreading across Europe. …


Something is wrong with marketing.

Looking back across my clients, I struggle to think of any that have a wholly positive relationship with it. For example:

  • For those who invest heavily in it, it often becomes a confusing and expensive burden; all convoluted brand pyramids, wheels, houses, and onions; built via excruciatingly protracted conversations about the merits of “this word” versus “that word”, culminating in large agency costs that they aren’t even sure were worth it.
  • For others, it’s seen as being “the thing you can give to the intern”. Something that everyone else in the business secretly (or not…

Occasionally I’ve seen it noted that the more normal, safe, and suburban someone’s life, the more gruesome and unpleasant the novels they like to read.

There’s a great line in the sitcom Peep Show where socially awkward Mark thinks to himself:

“Look at me; I’ve got a girlfriend. A proper girlfriend reading a best-seller about child-abuse. I go out and have croissant. I’m just a normal functioning member of the human race and there’s no way anyone can prove otherwise.”

I love the fact that he conflates reading about horrible subjects with normalcy here, as there’s an interesting insight there…


If I was going to recommend just one piece of research to my clients — or indeed any business — without hesitation it would be this:

Find out who buys your product.

It’s a fairly common theme for research, but even so I’ve found that surprisingly few brands have a good handle on it. Pretty much all have a good idea of who they want to buy their product, or who they think is buying their product, but very few actually know who truly is buying their product.

Why this is I do not know. Cost I suppose. It feels…


A rotting lion carcass, being devoured by bees.

I was surprised to learn the other day that this is what is depicted on the logo of Lyle’s Golden Syrup. Not exactly what most would consider appetising, but it does have a certain logic to it. The origin lies in the Biblical tale of Samson, who killed a lion, and on returning to its body a few days later found that bees had made a hive within it. From the hive he collected honey, and later posed the following riddle to his dinner guests:

Out of the eater, something to eat…


We live under the illusion of control.

We believe that we design our lives, we design our companies, we design culture, and we design human civilisation itself. The way we do this, according to the belief, is that we analyse the situation, make a plan, and then execute it — and in doing so create the reality we desire.

Now for some simple things this is true. Decorating our living room say, or building a road from point A to point B. I don’t wish to imply that nothing is deliberately designed. However such designable things represent simple “closed” systems…


Imagine it’s 1997, and you want to buy a watering can.

Chances are you would make your way to your nearest hardware store or garden centre.

Depending on where you live this might be a local independent, or possibly a regional or national chain. When you arrive you would be presented with a selection of cans “curated” by the buyers of those stores. These could be anything from mass produced commodities, all the way down to fancy “artisanal” examples. …


All startup brands are the same.

This was the implication of a Bloomberg article I briefly referenced in my last newsletter about the rise of what it called “the blands” — the army of VC backed DTC brands you see everywhere exemplified by the likes of Casper mattresses, Harry’s razors, Allbirds, and Brandless.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that idea, so I wanted to expand on it a bit.

I mean you’d have to say the author has a point. There is a startling lack of aesthetic, tonal, or conceptual diversity among new brands. If you read the piece…


To become good at something, you first need to enjoy being bad at it.

This is a more subtle idea than it sounds, and one which I’ve found to be a key stumbling block for individuals and businesses seeking to perform at a high level.

To illustrate the point in a basic way, say you want to be a world class pianist. Clearly to reach that level, you will have to first pass through the stages of:

  • Being a non-existent pianist
  • Being a dreadful pianist
  • Being a bad pianist
  • Being an average pianist
  • Being a decent pianist
  • Being a good…

Really you’ve got to feel sorry for insight.

This poor little word is so abused and misunderstood that it’s a wonder that it’s managed to survive this long. But then perhaps that’s its strength? It’s so nebulous that it can mean whatever you want it to mean — and nobody understands it quite well enough to challenge its dubious applications.

In the world of advertising — where the word and its misuse is especially prevalent — this has become a running joke. What is and isn’t an insight has been a hot topic of conversation for years. So far as…

Alex M H Smith

Strategist writing on the nature of complex systems in philosophy, business, and football. Founder of www.basicarts.org.

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