Monday, 8 February 2016

A suggestion box for concert organisers

There seems to be a bit of mass hysteria whenever a big act comes to South Africa, with tickets selling out in minutes - if that long - for the likes of Mumford & Sons.

What that means is that the big event organisers know that their product is sold out before they actually have to deliver the service that people are paying fortunes for... and it's given me the feeling that they actually don't even try to deliver an acceptable - never mind exceptional - product for their customers.

I guess that we're a little spoiled, having been to the Glastonbury Festival of the Performing Arts (I've been twice, Brett's been three times) where everything is geared around the festival-goers' experience - and not about the organisers' commitment to making money and not taking care of patrons.

This weekend's Mumford & Sons events were a case in point, in my view. Here's why:

  • The amphitheatre at the Voortrekker Monument is a great idea in theory - the views are magnificent, and the way the landscape is shaped means that everyone can see the stage. However, there was one route into the amphitheatre, that I could see - what happens if there's a panic? And there's not parking for 25 000 people. There's not even enough parking for those people if they take park and rides and Ubers. 
  • I got quite excited when I heard that the event was going to be cashless. I thought that the organisers were smart making Mumford & Sons branded cashless tap and go cards available, and communication ahead of the event led me to understand that I would be able to use my contactless bank card. Not so. One food vendor did accept my bank card, but none of the others we checked with did. Which meant that we had to queue to buy a R200 cashless card with a credit card to buy four bottles of water. 
  • But wait, there's more... most of the points where these cards were sold... only accepted cash. So. Go to a cashless environment with your cash to buy a cashless card so that you can buy goods in the cashless environment. Right. 
  • There was a minimum purchase of R200 to get the cards, R10 of which was a card fee. Even if you wanted to just buy four bottles of water that cost R10 each. Yes. R10 per bottle of water.
  • You can get your money that you didn't use back out of that cashless card by sending an sms (but not via Telkom mobile, because that doesn't work) - but you can only get it back two weeks later - so whether it's Plankton (the card vendor) or the organisers, someone gets to sit on all that money for two weeks and earn interest... on top of the R10 per card fee we've already paid.
  • There weren't enough food vendors. There never are. Waiting upwards of 30 minutes to buy overpriced takeaways does not make for a good experience. 
  • The alcohol queues looked like they would take in excess of an hour to buy anything. HEADS UP CONCERT ORGANISERS: people drink at your events. They drink a lot. So for crying out loud in a bucket, have more than one place for them to buy booze! Have five places! Have 10! You'll still make all the money... unless you want to maximise profits by keeping your staff count as low as possible, in which case, you're hitting the ball out of the park in making sure that your customers have a bad experience while they're waiting to give you even more of their money. 
  • Why do we have to pay for water at concerts? Why are we not able to take in our own water or water bottles - and why is water not provided, for free? 
I'm shouty about these things because at Glastonbury I've never had more than three people in front of me in a queue for a drink or a food item - and the festival hosts 200,000 people over five days. The food is always fresh and tasty, and there's a wide variety of it - more than burgers, pizzas and schwarmas.

Water is free at Glastonbury - just bring your own bottle. The bonus of that is that there's not mountains of litter to gather up and throw away. 

I am very well aware that I'm somewhat of a jaded concert goer. I'm completely over the whole vibe of spending two hours to get into a venue, to sit for an hour or two to wait for the performance, to watch it for 90 minutes, and then to spend another three hours getting home. 

But part of my disenchantment with the whole scene is just how little the organisers do to make it an enjoyable experience. Putting on a concert is about so much more than bringing the band out and selling all the tickets in five minutes or less. 

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Of pedestrians and pavements

Did you know that nearly 35 percent of the people killed in December's road carnage were pedestrians? It's something that's easy to understand when you're driving around suburbia, because the vast majority of pedestrians you'll see are walking in the street - some perilously close to the curb, looking like they're about to tip over onto the pavement, while others stroll more towards the middle of the road, with cars swerving around them to avoid a collision. 

I'm still not sure why so many people walk in the street, when often there are pavements right there. Maybe its a hangover from the bad old days - were non-whites not allowed to walk on the pavements back then? Regardless, this train of thought got me taking the time to look at pavements while I'm driving around town. 

Pavements in Johannesburg are not pedestrian-friendly places, and they really, really should be. 

I've noticed that the Joburg City Council is doing some good work paving public pavements - Louis Botha Avenue is a great example towards the Alexandra end of the road, although pavement conditions are absolutely appalling and a disgrace through Orange Grove and towards Houghton. The intersection at the top of my road is a mud pit - even when it hasn't been raining - and the intersection is a popular stopping place for taxis. 

I know that public money isn't spent quickly (unless it's on Nkandla) and that they're making an effort. I also understand that these things take time. They're also doing a great job with the City's parks - our outdoor spaces really do look good - apart from the pavements. 

But what about the pavements outside our homes? Even though your pavement doesn't belong to you (your property ends at your wall), its upkeep and maintenance are the home owner's responsibility. I've seen some great pavements, and I've seen some shocking ones. There's one on my route to school where the home owners have planted a forest of trees, three or four deep, to make sure that nobody can get to - or over - their wall. Great for security, but completely awful for any pedestrian who is pushed off the pavement and onto a busy road. 

There are some pavements that are overgrown with ivy, and no place to walk. There's a house on my road that started renovations two years ago, and there's still a pile of builder's sand blocking the paved part of the pavement. I've seen pavements where bushes push over, blocking the pathway, and others that are uneven, full of stones, or just not nice to walk on - never mind push a pram on. 

So. This thing of dying pedestrians and awful pavements becomes one of things that we all need to play our small role in to fix. We can start by driving less aggressively, paying more attention to what's going on and who's walking in the street where. 

But we can also own up to our own pavements, making them easier places to walk. You don't need to haul in a landscaper - just clean up any plants that are over any paved areas outside your property. Don't plant forests on your pavements. Clean up your building rubble. Get someone in to level the ground out, if the area isn't paved or tarred (or do it yourself). 

Walk your pavement yourself, and think about the experience. Then fix whatever makes your experience unpleasant. 

If you're planning some home improvements, think of improving your kerb appeal (what estate agents call 'first impressions'- those are the things that help sell your house one day) and invest a little in paving your pavement. You don't have to plant anything pretty - although you could. You could even take things 'to the next level' and plant a pavement veggie garden, for hungry people to help themselves - but you don't have to. 

All you have to do is take a little time to think about what it's like to be a pedestrian walking past your house - and make their lives a little easier while making your house look better from the outside.

You may well help save a life in the process. 

Thursday, 14 January 2016

How to get rid of writer's block (or, what it's like to be a professional writer)

There are all sorts of perceptions out there about what it must be like to be a professional writer in an agency environment. For example, there's the notion that we sit before our screens, and the words just flow abundantly as our fingertips dance elegantly over the keys, masterpieces flowing as our souls soar with the joy of creating the perfect on-message content. 

There's the idea that we get to imprint our creative stamp onto every piece of content, an invisible signature to our art that is so subtle as to not be obvious, but clear enough to be recognized as the work of a master (or mistress). 

There's the vision of constant creative elation as we sit, overjoyed at the magical imagery we create, telling stories in erudite ways that nobody else possibly could. 

There's the expectation that every word we write will tell a brand's story in such a way that product will fly off the shelves, making companies millions while we sit in our garrets starving and drinking cheap red wine, plying our craft for the love of it (or for the exposure). 

The reality? 'Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed onto the page.' That's according to Paul Gallico (ish). Another favourite of mine is 'Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, then for a few friends, and then for money.' So said Moliere, who I've never heard of, but who really does capture the essence. 

Being a salaried writer certainly has advantages over being a freelance writer - with the most significant ones being a regular paycheque, and paid leave. There's also the absence of fear that your clients will be fickle and fire you based on a single piece that they don't like, or that they simply won't pay you, once you've worked on a Sunday morning while feeding your baby (don't laugh or cry - it's happened) to meet their crazy deadline. 

There's also the joy of being part of a team (or several teams, actually), and the tremendous satisfaction that comes with knowing that you played a pivotal role in the success of a particular campaign. With freelancing, you seldom get to see where your copy went or who did what with it - working in a public relations agency gives you the ability to keep tabs on your written children, watching them grow up into (good) news stories. 

When it comes to the actual business of writing in an agency, there's a lot to be said for the variety of topics - and for the massive boost that this gives to your general knowledge. In my four and a half years in my current job, I've written about everything from sunscreen to prepaid cards, from printers to military defense equipment, and from smoothies to student accommodation - and a whole bunch of other stuff too. There's a caveat to that though - nearly every client has their own style, preferred vocabulary and structure, and sometimes it's a challenge to switch between voices fully, within one day. 

With working across more than 20 clients at a time, you also don't get to be a specialist on any one account - although there's a great satisfaction in having an awareness of what's going on across the agency, and being able to link products and projects in a way that sets up partnerships and collaborations that gives them added impact from their communication activities. 

Another lesson you learn quickly is to park your Precious at the door, and I won't lie, it took me a long time to embrace this one, even though I really didn't think that I minded it when people made changes to my work, when I first started here. Any agency worth its salt won't let copy go to client without at least three people proofing it - and everybody has their own preferences when it comes to grammar. Often, a change made really is six of one and half a dozen of another, and it's not worth getting offended. There's a fine line to be trod, between writing what you're told to and sending out to the universe and not caring what happens to it further, and taking constructive criticism on board and never ceasing in your quest to create the perfect content. 

There are days when the words really do dance off your fingertips, and there are days when writing a 140 character tweet is like drawing blood from the proverbial stone. I haven't yet figured out how to solve the latter problem, but it often works to go completely off message (gah! agency speak!) and write something completely unrelated or irrelevant (like this blog post). It may not be very good for your deadlines, but it does help unblock the creative juices. There's also that whooshing sound of the deadline as it goes flying by that often helps to motivate, but one's colleagues generally don't take too kindly to receiving content long after it's due. 

That's all the long way of saying: being a writer for a living has its moments - good ones, bad ones, and great ones. I guess that's true of any job in a creative environment though - so if you're going to earn your living by putting your heart and soul down onto paper (or a screen) , be sure that you've got the right mix of creativity, insight, a willingness to learn, the ability to park your preconceptions, a good dose of grammar Nazism, and a clear lack of Precious. 

Make the time to understand how you fit into the teams that you work with, and find ways to make their lives easier. Never miss a deadline. If you know that that's inevitable, remember that you're in the communications business, for goodness' sake, and let them know. Find an environment that really does place a value on content and team spirit, and on the input that a writer can give to the success of a campaign or project. 

I'm one of the lucky ones - Tribeca Public Relations and I chose one another nearly five years ago, and while there were tears shed over copy in the early years, they've been few and far between in more recent times. We've grown together, and I've learned volumes about myself and my writing, and I work with an amazing group of people who really do believe that content is king. Working together as a team and applying our different skill sets, we get great results for our clients, using what I have created. What more could a writer want, really?