Every now and again, we like to interview someone doing something interesting. It’s a pleasure to say that this time we’re featuring a good friend of Labs, John V Willshire, (or @willsh, as he’s known to the Twitterverse). John broke free from agency life last year to set up his own business. In this, the first of a two-part interview, we asked John to tell us a bit about it – along the way sharing his thoughts on a bunch of things from The Smiths, social connectivity, the economic viability of social production today and, er, rocks vs water..

Social Winter, Oslo, 2011

BBH Labs: Tell us a bit about why you founded Smithery.

JW: The idea powering Smithery is Make Things People Want beats Make People Want Things.  The former doesn’t replace the latter, as companies still do both, but what’s interesting is the switch in emphasis.

Over time, the advertising industry became very, very good at making people want things.  It didn’t matter if those things weren’t all that good, because nobody could tell each other with any meaningful scale at a meaningful volume.  Advertising was louder than bombs, to inappropriately hijack The Smiths (hey, if it’s good enough for John Lewis…).

Obviously we don’t need to go into the details here of how the internet has changed how companies can connect with people, but the advertising instinct is to use social connectivity to make people want things.  That’s why I think the majority of social activity we see is poor.

As time passes, companies and agencies will work harder and think better about how to use social connectivity to make things people want, whether that’s changing established goods and services, or creating new ones.

So I founded Smithery to help do that; whether it’s working together in better ways, making better things, or helping telling better stories about those things.BBH Labs: We know why you chose the name, but what is it about Smithery that’s valuable and different, do you think?

JW: All the excellent BBH Labs posts on t-shaped people and teams over the last eighteen months kept setting off this little voice in my head… “so what IS my deep rooted skill?”.

Being honest, for years I’ve been forcibly resistant to idea of specialising in anything, and just doing what needed to be done, like the rocks & water idea – fit in all the gaps where nobody’s doing what needs to be done…

I found that the Creative Generalist guidelines (read “what specifically do generalists do”) served as a decent compass.

And I was lucky, really, to be at PHD where it wasn’t just tolerated, but encouraged.  My job description was “the creation and cultivation of ideas through the study of technological, social and cultural trends”.  Which, when you pick it apart, means absolutely anything is fair game.

I thought of generalism itself as my specialism.  Which in hindsight wasn’t true.

Lately I’ve been thinking that if I do have a core, a long leg of the T, it’s economics.  I accidentally did economics at university (a long story), but I ran swiftly away from being an economist after going on a two day graduate course at the Bank of England.

But economics has proved really, really useful in and around advertising and marketing.  Simplifying it, microeconomics is thinking about how individuals react to changes, macroeconomics is thinking about how groups, companies and organisations react to changes.  It teaches you how to quickly model and explain these changes, and design and define a strategy.

What’s caught me attention lately on that economics angle this paper by Gilboa, Postlewaite, Samuelson & Schiedler. It proposes that economists develop and use economic models not as strict definitions of how the world is (“rule based”), but as analogies to help us understand the relationship between different real-world cases and the models themselves (“case based”).

Which I think plays out in an analogy like Bonfires & Fireworks – it’s not the creation of a rule-based structure, but a helpful way to think about what you’re setting out to do.

BBH Labs: are co-creation and social production viable economic models yet?

I was thinking recently about revisting the Social Production stuff, in relation to coffee service eightpointnine.com.  I wrote some thoughts on it here, but the long on the short of it is that economic models aren’t as fit for purpose as they might be.

For a hundred or so years, there was no point supposing that your product could be infinitely variable by each customer who came along.  Production methods might have allowed it, but there was no way to connect to people quickly enough to manage the process.

So, instead, economics focused on things you could change, like price.  ‘Price discrimination’, for instance, is where you set different prices discretely to different groups in order to maximise revenue for a constant product.

But with a coffee service that lets you blend their own perfect brew, and share it with whomever, all at a constant price… that’s not something that’s been factored into standard economic or business thinking.

Technology helps you organise precise, personalised orders from your customers, and technology will increasingly be used to help fulfil – the 3D printed chocolate cupcake could be personalised for every order, the drink you create and design on uFlavour can be bought by the crate for a party you’re having.

But is it viable to be looking at this now?

Well, viable and profitable are two very different things.  It’s definitely viable.  And in the short term, it’ll give you more interesting stories to tell around your people and your business.  There’s value created on the journey.  You’ll learn new things too.  And take turns you never expected to into new territories.

But you’d be kidding yourself if you thought it’s going to be a short three month journey into profit.

I think what we may well see is a lot of interesting startups around personalised food and products, but in the same way interesting tech startups get rolled up and disappear into existing companies, the same will happen in the product space; except, of course, you can replace Nokia or Google with Unilever or Kraft.

BBH Labs: Is there a danger all this audience involvement actually asks too much of people?

JW: Yes, of course.  Perhaps the real trick will be making product personalisation passive for the things you don’t care enough about.  For instance; I love coffee, so I will spend five minutes a week tweaking the blend.

However, say I don’t care nearly as much about tea.  But my supermarket and other shopping habits can be used to create a ‘tasting’ profile (always buys: rich, dark, liquoricey tasting things), which is used to guess what I’d like in a tea, I’d probably pay more for it.

For the things you buy that aren’t important enough to micromanage, that type of customisation becomes important.

Of course, you have to also consider what is it that’s actually interesting for people here?  Is it that the product is clever and passive, and you can show off to your friends?  Or was it the fact that you actually made a selection and judgement on things the story, so the passive model isn’t important?

It becomes important for clients and agencies to think about the story space created around products, so people can tell their own version.  To some extent, the stories of products and services are becoming about the buyers, not the sellers.

John is @willsh on twitter, and blogs at http://smithery.co/blog. Look out for part 2 of this interview on Monday, when we’ll come back closer to home with a perspective on modern marketing: where it’s going wrong and some thoughts on what to do about it.