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Google Firestarters 11 – The Strategy is Delivery – The Event


Last week we had Russell Davies, Creative Director at the Government Digital Service and erstwhile Head of Planning at Nike, Wieden and Kennedy and Ogilvy amongst others, speak at our eleventh Google Firestarters event. I’ve long wanted to have Russell at a Firestarters and he didn’t disappoint. Regular readers will know of my admiration for what GDS is doing in bringing new found levels of agility to a distinctly un-agile environment, and Russell’s talk (to a packed house) spanned the full range of what they had achieved but also some fascinating learnings and very quotable soundbites along the way.

He started by describing the process that they had gone through at GDS to transform government service delivery: how they began by eliminating what wasn’t needed; brought consistency (but not uniformity) where there was very little, making every government site feel the same (and having a single page for each policy); enabled iterative, responsive working that transformed how they delivered and improved services that huge numbers of people use, and meant they could handle more traffic at a lower cost; how they radically overhauled the supplier base moving beyond a few large technology providers, and created greater in-house capability; and how they made measurement and performance transparent (through In the process they saved government £50 million (in typically understated Russell fashion: “That’s not doing innovation, just a decent website”).


Perhaps the greatest shift was designing around the needs of the user (starting with user need, rather than that of government, Russell talked here about focusing on ‘activities, not audiences’) and on doing less (government should only do what government should do, so don’t be afraid to use other people’s technology, and ‘do the hard work to make it simple’).

Russell went on to talk about how in many ways marketing has got way harder than it use to be, yet (digital) product is going the other way.


So the challenge becomes more about how you work as an organisation and breaking down silos that don’t make sense anymore (he referenced his excellent Sony example of a broken customer experience). As he has said before, the product is the service is the marketing. The way you get around this is the teams (‘The unit of delivery is the team’) – co-located, small, multidisciplinary teams, and the work (‘It’s not complicated, it’s just hard’).


The talk ended with three overarching themes set to tackle some of the embedded assumptions we have about comms, marketing and advertising:

Attention – there is, he said, a big difference between winning attention and respecting the attention you’ve gleaned. And being respectful means creating as seamless customer experience as possible, and not over-complicating (for example calling the site rather than some new brand because that’s recognisably what it is). The rule of thumb here is simpler, clearer, faster (“People don’t don’t want gadgets anymore, they want services that improve over time” Bezos).

Reputation – ‘You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do’ said Henry Ford. Russell talked about the dozens of blogs they have at GDS, and the importance of telling the story of what they’re doing, and openness as a critical part of their culture.

Culture – there were some nice little examples here, like the creation of GDS ‘mission patches’, aping those made by NASA. But the wider point here was about how important it was that change was not restricted to a small group of people doing interesting things, but stretched across the whole organisation.

It was such a rich, insightful talk that it's difficult to do it justice here. But it's worth also taking a look at the storify of the event for more snippets, and James, Dan and Tom all had good write ups. Scriberia also did their usual excellent job of visualising the talk (below), and you can see that in all it's glory here. My thanks to everyone who came, and as always to Google for hosting. Watch this space for news of the next event.

 Thanks to Phil Adams and Chris Thorpe for the use of their images in this post.

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