The people, not the process.

Bradford, co-creation, and genuine belief.

The Bookseller - News - Bradford Lit Fest apologises and withdraws AI image

Bradford Literature Festival remains the highlight of my year. Admittedly, I’m not the most objective guest, but, it has been scientifically proven to be the very best. This year’s guests, as always, were both eclectic and brilliant: authors and academics, but also artists, scientists, politicians, business leaders, content creators, and just plain ol’ interesting people. That combination makes for - if you’ll excuse the prentention - a gloriously ‘salon’-like atmosphere, with fascinating conversations occurring all around.

And when you layer in the Festival’s ethical ticketing policy, you get all that, but without pretention. Some of the most salient points I heard were made by audience members - including students, festival volunteers, and a gas engineer who had some awesome takes on AI. Bradford’s created a space where everyone gets to contribute: to listen, but also be heard. 

And the conversations were amazing: conversations around toxic masculinity, climate change, AI (so much AI), place-making, science fiction, gun reform, bicycles, and, of course, books. Books as artistry, books as stories, books as ways of delivering messages. It was fascinating listening to people like Sadiq Khan talk about why books - why, of all media, did they choose that one for their message.

In terms of more ‘formal’ conversations, I took part in a few ‘in conversation with...’-style events. (This is possibly my new favourite format. Screw panels - just let me chat with mates on a stage.) One was with strategist, creative, and all-around-champion-of-good-work Josh Akapo.

Josh and I aren’t known for having particularly linear conversations, but I did jot down some notes. We’re both passionate about the role that audience insight plays - or should play - in the development of communications strategies. I’d hestitate to call these ‘lessons’, but some of the points we discussed included:

  • Our ideal research practice mixes both qualitative and quantitative work. Data in and of itself can be incredibly problematic. Even at its best, it can only give you the answers to the questions you ask of it. Qualitative research is, necessarily, less robust, but it can give you the counter-intuitive bursts that will shift your perspective, challenge your assumptions, and - most importantly - tell you something unexpected and new. Using them in combination can give you an evidenced insight: something that’s surprising, but solid.

  • Researchers should appreciate that they bring their own biases to any research (or audience connection). Josh’s team have a mechanic where they essentially focus group themselves ahead of a project. They try to flesh out all their conscious and unconscious assumptions ahead of time, so they can be interrogated as part of the process.

  • ‘Culture is created by communities, not communications.’ A Josh-ism, and a brilliant one. At the practitioner level, understanding the roots of culture justifies investing in co-creation practices. As a more strategic principle, appreciating how culture is made helps you consider the limits of marketing (or any other form of ‘top down’ communication).

  • On a similar note: Co-creation is about the people, not the process. Both Josh and I had stories about having to invent a ‘proprietary co-creation process (tm)’ - and, amusingly, our independently-constructed processes were, at least for Powerpoint purposes, identical. Clients need that kind of reassurance, and, as a client, I empathise. Please reassure me! But, fundamentally, co-creation is about talking and listening and facilitating a creative space where people feel trusted and empowered. There are principles to that, as well as an ethical framework, but pretending that you have a unique and magical process, the mechanics of which will Produce Insight… (side-eye emoji). The secret, such as it is, relies on your people: their ability to foster that environment. 

In a rare note of optimism, I think the research and insight sector has really taken a leap forward over the past few years. There was a honeymoon of data fixation, supported by the vastness and ease of digital metrics. But you are much less likely to see data-only proposals any more, and the value of actual, human conversation (as well as ethnographic practices) is, thankfully, more widely appreciated.

Why Brand Authenticity Matters - inferno : inferno

We also wanged on a bit about the dreaded word ‘authenticity’.

‘Authenticity’ has overused so rambunctiously, and applied so thoughtlessly, that it has lost all meaning as a term. The underlying insight, that audiences have a desire for authenticity is as valid as it ever was. However, true authenticity goes beyond racist celebs ‘saying it how it is’ or fake milk brands taking the piss out of billboards. Authenticity comes from a true connection with culture and a consistency of thought and action.

To take the aforementioned example of Bradford Literature Festival. It is easy for any cultural event to throw together a ‘diversity panel’ or add a last-minute speaker. (Or not so easy, judging by how many can’t even be bothered to do that.) Authentic! Whereas, say, having an ethical ticketing policy is putting your money where your mouth is - a long-term pattern of behaviour that shapes the programme of events from the ground up, year after year.

What audiences crave is not a brand who can bring the lols to the latest meme, but a genuineness of belief. We now live in an era where institutions (brands, governments, politicians, etc) are more responsive than ever before, but their reactions are increasingly knee-jerk: shallow and mercenary. From populist politics to corporate greenwashing: there’s a palpable lack of ideological consistency or genuine belief. It is confusing authenticity with simply being eager to please.

These instutitions are flailing about in desperate attempts to be part of a culture without being part of the community from which it stems. The result is a grim spectacle. They’re ceaselessly and pathetically pivoting; lunging erratically towards the latest headline, blindly crawling towards the warmth of relevance. Talk to people, listen to people, play a meaningful role (and not just when the cameras are rolling), and stick to it.

Video game screenshot of a person's avatar looking at picture and plaque

"We can't show dead bodies or camps or things like that." Fortnite’s unofficial Holocaust memorial. I have mixed feelings. On one hand, a lot of people of Nicki Minaj avatars bounding through an ‘exhibition’ that can’t even show pictures of the camps makes me feel like this might just be the wrong space for a serious discussion of genocide. On the other hand, it will still be better than The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

Can Trump run from prison? This is actually a really useful explainer.

How Ted Gioia takes notes. It took me years - and it wasn’t until I was long out of school - before I was comfortable writing in books. The real horror to me, and the sign of some sort of alien mind, is the idea of taking notes in complete sentences. I barely write newsletters in complete sentences!

Shade as an index of inequality. We are in a long-running (and one-sided) battle of Sternly Worded Emails with our local council, because they seem to pollard our trees on a fortnightly basis. The more salubrious neighbourhood on the (literal) other side of the tracks has full, leafy, untouched, glorious trees. Our street has a set of toothpicks. They get birds, oxygen and shade. We get a stark row of wooden candelabras. Personal grudges aside, tiny indicators like these are so important. Leafy trees, flowerpots, bike racks, library displays… They not only tell us about the place we’re in, they also shape that place.

Speaking of which, Wilko is going into administration. Wilko is the closest thing in the UK to the ‘American-style hardware store’, an omni-shop that contains everything from batteries and paint to office supplies and specialist tools. Not to extrapolate too much, but shops like these cater to the needs of families, and people who have roots (however thin) in a place. You go to a Wilko because you’re fixing something, building something, tidying something, or making some other tiny improvement to the place you work or live. I’m getting a little mournful this week, aren’t I? Alas, poor Wilko.

This is a weird sort of book release, as it is not out in the UK until next year. (Sorry, UK - but worry not, the British edition is a banger.) Accordingly, my launch and pre-launch activity is all slightly … remote. The publicity efforts are playing to my strengths of ‘writing quickly about total bollocks’. There will be links.

Accordingly, if you have a newsletter, blog, platform, major media platform, podcast, red sofa, radio show, whatever… please do hit me up! I’m having a lot of fun, and always happy to turn pieces around in a hurry. Interviews and reviews are always welcome, but if you need Deep Thoughts about how Barbie is cyberpunk, how AI is eating our children, why BBQ is the most cyberpunk food, or how speculative fiction is dead/thriving (I’m flexible), or similarly exciting topics, I’m your man.

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