The mystery of the most expensive painting ever sold

The mystery of the most expensive painting ever sold

I originally wrote this article for the October 27th 2019 issue of Arabian Business magazine

Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘lost’ painting, Salvator Mundi, sold for $450m back in 2017, becoming the most expensive painting ever sold. It was supposed to go on public display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi last September but, despite the auction taking place almost two years ago, it hasn’t been seen since.

Read the full article here

Posted by Rob in Tech
It’s Time To Push Back Against Distraction

It’s Time To Push Back Against Distraction

I interviewed ‘Indistractable’ author Nir Eyal for the October 2019 issue of Entrepreneur Middle East magazine

We live in a world of constant distraction these days. Or at least that’s the way it feels. An army of devices and digital media channels call out to us, demanding our attention and sucking up our time. It’s getting harder and harder to focus on the things that actually matter. We’ve all been there. Whether it’s trying to concentrate on something at work only for a never-ending stream of emails to keep us from reaching a flow state, or in a family or social setting where everyone in the group has their head buried in their phone, these distractions are taking over our lives.

In his new book Indistractable, Nir Eyal is on a mission to give readers the tools to combat the multitude of distractions of the modern world. Nir’s previous book ‘Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products’ outlined the ways in which tech companies keep us returning for more. Now he’s back, but this time to help us stand up to this onslaught and guard ourselves from a world of round-the-clock connectivity. We had a chat with Nir to learn more about what we can do to push back and regain control of our attention.

 

In your new book Indistractable you aim to help people control their time and attention by understanding the psychology of distraction. What are some of the most common distractions we face today that you’ve come across in your research?

When I started writing Indistractable I thought that the distractions that we generally face were the usual suspects; the pings, dings, and rings in our environment that prompt us to do things we don’t really want to do. What I was surprised to realize is that these guys are just one source of the problem. A much more pernicious source are the distractions that we don’t see coming. For example, we don’t think about how distracting the open floor plan office is, or how distracting meetings can be, or how our constant reacting to emails or group chats can be something that derails us from achieving our bigger objectives and more important goals when it comes to the workplace.

Equally, we don’t understand how many of our distractions are spurred, not by the external triggers in our environment, but within, from an uncomfortable emotional state that we seek to escape from. If we don’t understand these internal triggers, we will always find distraction in one thing or another. So it’s very important not only to focus on the obvious potential sources of distraction, but also to dive deeper into the more pernicious forms, the less clear sources of distraction like those in the office setting, or like those that start from within us.

 

So distraction has as much to do with what we are avoiding as it does with what we look for when we reach for our devices. How does this work?

When we try and understand the source of distraction we have to start with why we do anything, not only why we do things against our better interest when we get distracted, but what is the nature of all human motivation and behavior. Most people will tell you that it’s about the pursuit of pleasure – this is called Freud’s Pleasure Principle. But it turns out that it’s not actually true. From a neurological basis, the brain gets us to act, not through pleasure, but through pain. It’s all about the desire to escape discomfort. So if our behavior is spurred by a desire to escape discomfort, this means that time management is essentially pain management. And if we don’t understand the fundamental reasons why we are looking to escape into our devices, or with some other distraction, we will always become distracted by something. So the first step has to be to master our internal triggers.

 

When we feel a lack of control at work we often reach for our tech tools to feel better. Why do we do this, and how can distractions hurt us at work?

Well it’s pretty clear that the more distracted we are at work, the poorer our work performance is. We know our work suffers because of these distractions and we know that in order to compensate for an uncomfortable sensation a lot of the time what we do is reach for our devices. The kind of feelings that we are looking to escape are the usual suspects: boredom, loneliness, fatigue, stress, anxiety, a lack of control. All of these things spur us to look for a distraction. Apart from checking our devices, one of the main reasons that people call frivolous meetings, or send emails they shouldn’t send, is because they are desperate for a sense of control, for a sense of agency. We’ve seen people who call these frivolous meetings just because they want to hear themselves talk or because they don’t want to do the real work of actually figuring out the problem for themselves.

 

You mention that distraction is contagious. How can this negatively affect us in a social setting?

That’s true, it’s called ‘social contagion’, and what we find is that when we use our device in a social setting, or in a meeting, it has a similar effect as when a smoker sees another person smoking and says “oh well, now must be a good time to smoke”. We see this in social settings when someone takes out their phone and starts checking Facebook or their email or whatever, it leads other people to do the same. This is particularly harmful when it comes to the work environment, when you see other people in a meeting checking their email you can’t help but think “I’ve got emails too. I better check them as well”. And so that’s why if I’m going to a meeting in the workplace or in a social setting I aim to leave those devices out of that environment because we really can’t be fully present with other people that we care about or other people in the workplace. Our minds aren’t fully there if they’re half on our phones and half with the people around us.

 

With that in mind, how much does our success and happiness depend on our ability to manage our attention?

I would say that it is a significant factor. Some people will argue that procrastination – delaying a task that you intended to do with a diversion or re-prioritization – has some good aspects. While there’s nothing wrong with re-prioritizing if your circumstances change or something gets in your way, the problem is that when people procrastinate they don’t allow for it in advance. They procrastinate in the moment, and that is essentially skirting your responsibility to yourself. We know what happens when we lie to other people – it feels bad. You carry around that guilt all day and it’s horrible. Well it turns out that when we lie to ourselves the same thing occurs. We spend time rationalizing why we didn’t do something. We beat ourselves up and say “oh, I’m lazy. I’m this. I’m that”, and none of that feels good. None of that is helpful. There’s a really pernicious effect to this habit that we get into around procrastinating. When circumstances change we can re-prioritize, but we don’t want to do that in the moment. If you commit to doing a task, stick by what you say you’re going to do. It feels so great when you get to the end of your day and are able to say “I did what I planned to do”. I recommend that people reassess their calendar at least once a week to make sure that the week ahead is still consistent with their values and goals. But we don’t want to change our plans in the moment. It has a really negative effect on our sense of well-being and our happiness.

 

To what extent can understanding the psychology of distraction help us guard ourselves against it?

Initially I didn’t understand why I kept doing the same bad things that were not consistent with my values and goals and not getting the things done that I did want to do. It wasn’t until I understood the deeper psychology of distraction that I could do something about it. There’s a famous quote that’s attributed to Einstein, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results”. And that’s what most of us do. Day in and day out we keep getting distracted by the same things. We have that huge To Do list, half of which gets rolled over from one day to the next, and we don’t get the things done that we say we’re going to get done. That’s insanity and we’ve got to stop. And so the idea here is that when you understand the deeper psychology of distraction, when you understand what actually drives us to do the things we don’t want to do that are against our better interests we can do something about it. And that’s what being Indistractable is all about.

 

Many entrepreneurs and small business owners struggle with the idea of disconnecting and feel that breaking with an ‘always on’ approach might negatively affect their business. What do you say to them?

So this is exactly what Leslie Perlo, a researcher at Harvard Business School, found when she went to do a case study with the Boston Consulting Group and she heard this feedback from a culture that had very high employee turnover. People were dropping left and right, and the excuse was that while we’re in the Client Services business we need to always be available. And it turned out that it was just an excuse. People think to themselves, “How can I get some focused work time in my day?”, and it’s actually not that hard to figure out if you want to. There are solutions you can use like the Do Not Disturb function that comes with every smartphone where if somebody really needs to contact you they can text you with the word “Urgent” and it will get through to you, and that’s just one of dozens of ideas I mention in the book. But fundamentally, we need to ask ourselves if it’s really true that we need to be always-on all of the time. For most jobs out there you need some focused work time, not just constantly reacting to emails and meetings. We can’t do our best work unless we have time to reflect, to strategize, to think. And so it behooves you and your business to make time for reflection in your day.

Posted by Rob in Tech
Face Off

Face Off

Originally written for the September 22nd 2019 issue of Campaign Middle East magazine

Our faces say a lot about us. They let other people know whether we’re happy or sad, angry or afraid, surprised or disgusted. They’re a window into our emotional state. And as facial recognition technology evolves, our faces are also becoming an increasingly useful tool to help us navigate the digital world; a key that we don’t need to remember to bring with us when we’re leaving the house in the morning. Today we can use our faces for everything from opening our phone’s lock screen to getting through customs at the airport, and in some countries to pay for goods at a store checkout or access the subway. At the same time, people seem increasingly obsessed with facial augmentation apps like Face App and filters on Snapchat, experimenting to see what they’d look like as an elderly person, as a baby, or even as the opposite sex.

More concerning perhaps is the rise of facial augmentation technology that lets people manipulate the faces in videos. You’ve probably already seen some of these ‘Deep Fake’ videos online; David Beckham seemingly speaking nine different languages fluently in a video for a Malaria charity, or comedian Bill Hader seamlessly warping into Tom Cruise or Arnold Schwarzenegger while doing impressions of them. A new app called Zao that’s gaining popularity in China lets users place themselves into famous movie clips with eerie accuracy simply by uploading a picture of their face. All harmless fun maybe, but as this technology gets better, and becomes more readily accessible to anyone with a smartphone, it raises the question of how it might be misused. We frequently have to suspend our disbelief when we’re looking at the actual news these days, whatever about ‘Fake News’, and while we’ve become increasingly sceptical about what we read online, now it seems that we can’t even rely on the mantra of ‘seeing is believing’.

From a marketing point of view, some make-up brands have achieved success with facial augmentation, launching AR lenses that let consumers virtually ‘try on’ make-up to name but one example. And when it comes to Deep Fake-style technology, maybe there’s potential for some novel marketing concepts too, like letting users place themselves and their friends into a video advertisement. No doubt we’re not that far away from some big brand nailing this concept and hoovering up a bunch of industry awards. But this novelty will quickly wear off, and marketers must be careful about not going too far by slotting users into ads without their permission, especially considering the heightened concerns around privacy and creepy targeting tactics these days. I can’t think of much worse than scrolling through my social feed and seeing my own face looking back at me from every ad.

Posted by Rob in Campaign Magazine, Media, Mobile
What Facebook’s Privacy Pivot & Cryptocurrency Might Mean For Your Business

What Facebook’s Privacy Pivot & Cryptocurrency Might Mean For Your Business

I wrote this article for the July 5th 2019 issue of Khaleej Times newspaper

Facebook has had a pretty tough couple of years. Maybe not from a money-making point of view (revenue is continuing to rise, albeit at a slower speed), but certainly in the court of public opinion. From the Cambridge Analytica user privacy scandal last April, to a data breach in September that affected 50 million accounts, as well as ongoing struggles with moderating hate speech and graphic content, the company has taken a battering in the media.

Despite this controversy, Facebook is still the largest social network in the world. It’s 2.4 Billion monthly active users make up almost a third of the global population. But while the amount of users is still slowly increasing according to Facebook’s own statistics, actions such as likes, shares and posts in the News Feed have plummeted over the last year. Such a decline in engagement is a worrying thought for the company. The News Feed has traditionally been where most of the action on Facebook happens, and subsequently where it makes most of its revenue from ads.

As more and more social media usage moves away from public sharing towards private messaging, the company knows that it can’t rely on the News Feed for continued growth. It acknowledged as much back in March when Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was pivoting away from relying on public posts in the News Feed for engagement, and focusing more towards person-to-person and group messaging. In it’s grand vision, the company wants to link and encrypt all three of its messaging platforms; Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram, and offer a more broad range of private services to this total user base of almost 4 Billion accounts. But with a slow death of the News Feed, which has traditionally been the primary home for ads, how might this affect how brands use the platform to communicate and interact with their customers?

Ads within messages

When it comes to simply serving ads, the Messenger app has been running ads in a limited capacity for a couple of years, but in a clunky and invasive way. These ads appear within the feed of messages but look and feel just like News Feed ads, albeit without the context of the feed or the intent of a search results page. While WhatsApp and Instagram have avoided this type of ad so far, Facebook would be wise to keep it this way. Cramming ads in between users’ messages with friends and family is not likely to go down well, and this could risk driving users away.

Ads within Stories

While the News Feed is being put out to pasture, the Stories format of ephemeral vertical content is alive and well, and has become a core element of the big messaging apps. Facebook Chief Product Officer, Chris Cox has predicted that Stories will surpass feed posts as the top way to share sometime this year. As user attention moves to Stories, ads are following, and this will remain an increasingly attractive place for brands to advertise on messaging apps in the future. Ads in WhatsApp’s Stories product, ‘Status’, will be rolling out in 2020, hoping to emulate the success of ads in Stories on Instagram.

Messaging services

Aside from simply serving ads, the most interesting possibilities lie in the messaging services that are expected to be launched on this integrated network of messaging apps. In a blog post announcing the move, Mark Zuckerberg suggested that private, encrypted messaging will facilitate new business tools involving payments and commerce, which will ultimately create a platform for many other kinds of private services. What exactly these services might be remains to be seen, but we can get a glimpse of the possibilities by looking East to gigantic messaging apps like China’s WeChat.

In addition to simply messaging, WeChat facilitates a huge range of services that allow users to shop, play games, pay utility bills and order taxis or meal deliveries all from within the app. Think of all the types of services that users currently book or manage via their smartphone: buying tickets to a show, arranging a car servicing, scheduling a maid. Expect these soon to be facilitated through Facebook’s network of messaging apps, with the company taking a cut of each transaction along the way. Facebook ultimately wants its messaging platform to be a one-stop-shop for any functional utility a user might want to use their smartphone to manage.

In a related strategic move, the company has also just announced the launch of a cryptocurrency, called Libra, that will enable payments on its platform and across the web. A digital wallet will live inside its apps allowing users to easily use Libra to send money to friends and businesses anywhere in the world, with almost zero fees. This move is a strong indicator of Facebook’s intent to become a transactional platform, rather than relying on advertising for its revenue. If the plan works, WhatsApp and Messenger are well-placed to become new payments and commerce hubs.

Facebook has already exhibited great foresight in anticipating this trend towards messaging. In 2014, it removed the messaging feature from its main app and forced users to download the standalone Messenger app if they wanted to use the service on mobile. Shortly afterwards, the company purchased WhatsApp for a staggering $19 Billion. The company is clearly aware of how important messaging will be going forward and, while Facebook as we know it might soon be a thing of the past, with change comes opportunity. But as messaging is more of a private space than an environment dedicated to public sharing, businesses must tread carefully so as not to abuse this relationship.

Posted by Rob in Facebook, Social Media, WhatsApp
Egg On Their Face

Egg On Their Face

Outdoor clothing brand The North Face fell afoul of the digisphere after manipulating the images on Wikipedia pages of famous outdoor landmarks to feature its products.

Originally featured in the June 16th 2019 issue of Campaign Middle East magazine

What seemed like a clever ‘hack’ on the face of things has turned into a PR blunder for the Californian outdoor clothing brand who learned a valuable lesson on what happens when you mess with a beloved crowdsourced platform like Wikipedia. In an attempt at a form of digital ambient marketing, the brand’s Brazilian arm took pictures of trekkers wearing their products at famous locations around the world, including Brazil’s Guarita State Park, Cuillin in Scotland and Peru’s Huayna Picchu. They then updated the images on the Wikipedia pages for those locations so that the brand would appear in the top of Google image search results when visitors researched any of those locations. The new photos featured the company’s products, such as a backpack, hiking gear and camping tents.

The hack worked, at least for a while, with the brand’s images appearing in the top of search results for some of the target locations. But a slick video promoting the stunt brought the campaign to the public’s attention and prompted an immediate backlash online. “We hacked the results to reach one of the most difficult places: the top of the world’s largest search engine,” bragged the brand, outlining their ‘Top of Images’ project. “We did what no one has done before… paying absolutely nothing”.

The Wikipedia community were having none of it, and volunteer editors were quick to remove the branded photos noting that the effort breached the site’s user terms for paid advocacy (there is no advertising on Wikipedia). The brand claimed to have “collaborated” with Wikipedia on the campaign, but the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that hosts Wikipedia, denied this and slammed the North Face and its agency, Leo Burnett Tailor Made, for “unethically” manipulating the site. Liam Wyatt, a representative from the Wikimedia Foundation, Tweeted – “Thanks to this braggadocio video and your article we’ve now removed the product-placement from all articles. The user accounts behind the edits have been reported for breaching the Terms of User for undisclosed paid advocacy. For shame.” The brand was quick to row back, issuing an apology: “We believe deeply in Wikipedia’s mission and apologize for engaging in activity inconsistent with those principles. Effective immediately, we have ended the campaign and moving forward, we’ll commit to ensuring that our teams and vendors are better trained on the site policies.”

It was the deceitful nature of the project that left a bad taste. According to the agency behind the campaign, Leo Burnett Tailor Made, the biggest obstacle was updating the photos without attracting the attention of Wikipedia moderators, as site editors could remove the images at any time. What makes the stunt even more disingenuous is the way in which the brand seemed to take pride in gaming the system. Although ‘the system’ in this case was one of the most beloved and valuable crowdsourced hubs of knowledge on the planet. The arrogant way in which they promoted the stunt afterwards didn’t help. In cases like this, the ensuing controversy and attention can be part of the overall campaign goal. Although that’s unlikely in this instance as such trickery doesn’t fit well with the wholesome brand image of The North Face.

In a digital media landscape where users are slowly learning to think twice about trusting what they read, this highlights the responsibility that brands have in maintaining ethical practices when communicating online. Brands are always looking for clever ways to leverage consumer behaviour, but The North Face has found out the hard way that there are some lines that you must not cross, and attempting to manipulate a platform that users trust is one of them. The term ‘fake news’ gets thrown around a lot these days, and the last thing you want is for your brand to be associated with this kind of misinformation. In its statement, Wikipedia compared the campaign to defacing public property: “When The North Face exploits the trust you have in Wikipedia to sell you more clothes, you should be angry. Adding content that is solely for commercial promotion goes directly against the policies, purpose and mission of Wikipedia to provide neutral, fact-based knowledge to the world… They have risked your trust in our mission for a short-lived marketing stunt”. Maybe next time The North Face might not be so adventurous.

Posted by Rob in Advertising