In Conversation with Only Dead Fish and The Alpine Review

Patrick Pittman, co-editor on Issue 3 of The Alpine Review, sat down with the pair to chat about digital transformation, making organizations more agile, and creative risk.

Neil Perkin (NP) is a digital media consultant and founder of Only Dead Fish, and Louis-Jacques Darveau (LJD) is the founder, publisher, and co-editor of The Alpine Review

PP: Talk to me about Only Dead Fish and what it's doing right now.

NP: My work is pretty broad, but I'm helping organizations become “digitally native” which basically means online thinking is elemental to everything they do. My work is really about helping organizations think about structures, processes, talent, and skills.

PP: You're working with organizations that already have a lot of online legacy. How do you help them find this kind of native online space?

NP: It might be a people thing, and they realize they haven't got the skills in the business that they need, or it may be a process thing. For instance, they're not doing things quick enough, they're not shipping stuff off quick enough or they know they're not in a competitive environment. So they need to rework the way they look at the whole process. Then, as soon as you get into a process thing, it expands into something much bigger. You start to talk about the culture that supports that process, about the people involved in that process and the way in which the organization works.

PP: So what if you get a client that says, "Oh great, I just got a consultant who told me my problem is everything"? Are there unifying factors or key themes you've discovered in these organizations that allow you to point them precisely in the right direction?

NP: It looks different for every organization, because every organization has its structure and its unique points. That's where the focus will be. It might be that they realize they're not innovative enough. You need to unpack everything that surrounds innovation within that organization.

It's not something you can fix overnight, of course, but there is a starting point and the starting point is usually, "We have a problem, we need to fix it and find a solution to our problem. There is no one way of doing it. Anybody who says that there is a simple formula is lying.

PP: LJ, how did you come across Neil's work?

LJD: Sometime in 2013. Perhaps I was late to the party, but I know it very quickly became a huge part of my media diet. Neil and I share a similar perspective on many fronts and I think we confirmed that later on when we met in London and had a chance to share a little more details about our work. So I became very interested in what Neil does and talks about. His thought process and the rigor in which he maintains Only Dead Fish frankly impresses me. It ties nicely to what I'm doing myself, and naturally I've been intrigued to know how other people do it, what their challenges are, and so on.

My background is in law and management consulting and obviously the last seventeen years for me have been driven mostly by technological change. But it’s no longer enough to just mention “technology” in order to explain what one does, because technology has become so much more liquid and a part of everything. In 1999, when I started in consulting, the dominant theme was productivity. Now it is about connectivity and empowerment at a very different scale, bringing a different set of problems.

PP: Neil, LJ talks about the questions being different in '99 than they are now. Is it a continuation of the same process or are they two different sets of problems?

NP: Yes. Back in '99 a lot of people would think, "How can we make money off the web?" People are still asking that same question, but there's been a shift in how customer service is delivered on the web. That changes your communication and marketing.

So many client organizations started to suit themselves, not the customers, and they got used to that way of thinking. You need to unpack a lot of that, and get them to rewire the way they work, think, and structure, in order to do things differently and be genuinely customer-centric.

PP: You can't start with, “Let's hire a digital team to do that.”

NP: Or have a digital specialist, an agency that comes in and says, "Right, we got to ditch your guy!"

PP: "Or fire your entire board. Restart.”

I feel that being a freelancer, or someone who can be parachuted into a number of things without a specific mandate, allows you to navigate the organization better than if you have a mandate as an organization. You can linger in the corridors all day.

I'm interested to know what's your approach to all of it. I respect the work that large consultancies are doing. I know they're doing good work. At the same time I feel there's also room for us, individuals and small agencies, to increasingly have a place at the table and help an organization in profound ways.

NP: I did an interesting piece on the future of agencies [with eConsultancy, 2015]. One of the things that came up was that there were a lot of agencies converging on this idea of customer experience and technologies. You've got the big consultancies coming from one end, which is all about organizational design, customer experience, recruiting designers, and even creative people. Then you've got digital agencies and suddenly you have this interesting clash happening with different kinds of agencies.

The old management consultancy approach of having a template-way of doing things, I think those days are probably gone. What those guys are pretty good at is the engagement at very senior levels within organizations. They're getting good at customer experience, and culturally they're changing as well. They're starting to recruit a lot of designers and create spaces for them to make sure they can retain that talent. Big threat, I would say, to a lot of agencies.

At the same time, I think, yes, there's definitely room for smaller agencies and people like me who can bring in experts and put together a virtual team of people to deliver on a project. I think you're seeing that a lot more: that scalable, flexible, highly efficient way of working. It has its own challenges, of course, but it's pretty good I think.

PP: The cost structure of these engagements is much lower. Large consultancies, with the way they're structured, they need to sell you some piece of equipment or build something that will provide them with recurring revenues over time. Whereas with a freelancer or a small agency you don't need that normally, because your construction is different.

**LJD: **By the way, I need to congratulate you for what you're doing with Fraggl, Only Dead Fish, and Firestarters. You're not just yourself, you're an entire platform! I feel this is an important thing to talk about. So, what was the birth of all of that? I'm not going to ask the cliché question, “Do you sleep?" because I'm sure you do. But you're achieving a lot. I want to ask about specific tactical tools, newsletters, Firestarters, things like that. What are they for specifically?

NP: I don't think I've put that much thought into it to be honest. It's not like it's part of a big strategic plan. But at the same time I really like writing—hence the blog. It's become a real habit of mine, it's the way I think out loud, it's how I make sense of what I read. I started the newsletters five years ago because I thought it was an interesting thing to do and also because not all of my clients were reading the blogs. It's a really good way to keep myself top of mind with a large number of people.

Fraggl was something that came out of a conversation I had with these guys at Adaptive Lab who I've known for a long time. We just thought it was an interesting thing to do. What I find is that they tend to feed each other. You learn something that might benefit Fraggl, then you come across a great speaker that might be good for Firestarters. It does all feed itself.

LJD: A peer network. You can harness this for organizations.

NP: Certainly a lot of the interesting people I'm connected to now have a lot of side projects. If you're running a business and you have lots of people doing side projects, is that a disadvantage because they're not focused on their day job?

LJD: It can become an issue. First of all, you need to accept the notion of control as being very relative. I accept that I don't control everything. I think everyone needs to find their own creativity and manage their own platform by themselves to experiment with these things. What's difficult, though, is doing this with respect to your constituents. Whether it's the constituent as a client, or the people above you. I've been shielding a lot of people from the problems—or the realities—of complicated clients or complicated constituents. Here at Totem, I'm trying to protect the team and have them experiment, have them do things that have no immediate or obvious ROI.

It's the same thing when I run large projects as a business owner working with freelancers, harnessing the peer network and finding the best UX guy, the best copywriter, and all that. The thing is, someone needs to be available 24/7 for the client, able to respond every question beyond the typical “I’ll have to get back to you on that one.” And I can't tell a client, "Sorry, we're just gonna need to pause here because my UX person needs a break for five weeks because it's not going well with his girlfriend." You need to shield that. If you lead, you're the one with the responsibility so you have to find somebody else. That has been the most difficult thing for me in the last five years: managing uncorporate people to deliver within corporate parameters.

NP: What about something like The Alpine Review? Do you find that sort of feeds the network or helps create the network? What's the benefit of doing something like that?

LJD: I did not really know what I was doing when I launched The Alpine Review, but what I knew was that I needed a voice and a way of connecting. I’m not into social media because I don’t like the immediacy these platforms require, or the constant connection, which I feel becomes a huge burden. But I suppose one needs to “exist” in the digital world beyond one’s LinkedIn profile, and for me the answer came—as it usually does—by thinking in contrarian fashion. And in this case, the idea was to start a print magazine. Not only did I really love the idea of making something tangible and beautiful, but also practically it was feasible to make a magazine. I could fund it myself, and once launched it did not require any maintenance aside from shipping sold copies. If I was lucky, some people would like it, and I would get accolades for a job well done. That was it. It helps that back then (and to this day) I am able to make a living in corporate circles as an adviser, which allows me the luxury of patience.

NP: That's the thing, isn't it? When you do a project like that, you never really know what the benefit is going to be, so you have to be passionate about it, you have to believe in it in order to make it. Then, naturally, somewhere down the line, it has some benefit that you couldn't have possibly foreseen in some way.

PP: For me, it's the sense that in your professional experience there's something that you are driven to create. There's a gap that you're filling. Even if you can't figure out why exactly, you know that you're going to create something of worth there, and there are people out there that are probably asking the same questions.

LJD: Initially I had a lot of doubts over the investment I was making in this adventure. My daughter was six months old and I thought, "Oh my god! I'm spending all of that money. Their college education!" The thing is, personally, I felt there was a moment in my career where I needed to understand where I was going, and I said to myself, "I'm looking at the fundamentals of the economy and clearly I'm going to work until I'm seventy-five whether I like it or not. Work is not going away in ten or fifteen years. So what am I going to do?" I felt that for the next twenty years I needed to start building something that would allow me to connect with other people.

The return on investment for me, that's what helped make it work. I'm going to harvest the ROI over a twenty-five-year period.

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