Monday, 31 December 2012

Good bye 2012

Right now looking back at it I think 2012 has been a weird year for me, certainly not bad, a lot has happened and it has been pretty emotional.

I've moved around quite a bit, though this year mostly plane rides rather than extensive overland travelling. It looks like I even topped last year in terms of distance: 38,250km vs. 36,765km in 2011.

I started the year with my parents in Perpignan and shortly after the new year went to Toulouse for surgery to remove sinus polyps. Nothing dangerous, just needed taking care of and one of the points was for me to be in good scuba diving shape. In the end I only went diving once this year.

After catching up with family in Toulouse and recovering from the surgery, I wandered further up North to Orléans, Paris, Beaune, and London to catch up with good friends, some I hadn't seen since before leaving for Asia a year before. I hadn't seen my friend Steve since his wedding a few years back and they had a son just born, and I also spent time with my godson Marcus who was only 3 months old at the time. I kept working on freelance projects on the way.

By the end of February I was ready to make my way back to Asia with plans to keep up the digital nomad lifestyle. I flew over to the Maldives to see my brother and sister in law, and the following day his son passed away. My nephew Keanu passing away definitely had a huge impact, I wrote about it in my blog already if you're interested in having more details.

I stuck to my plan and wanted to spend more time with my brother so I flew back to the Maldives after the funeral. Aside from the tragedy, the unexpected return trip to France shortly after some relatively expensive medical treatments made a serious dent in my finances (I would be reimbursed, thanks to France healthcare system, though much later) and I didn't really feel like staying by myself traveling so I changed my original plans of staying in Sri Lanka after the Malvides, only stayed for a night and then went to see my little brother Morgan in Laos via Bangkok. That was a long trip but I wasn't in a hurry and it was much cheaper this way. I also had a good time on the overnight train from Bangkok to Nong Khai, it was nice to be on the backpacker trail again.

I got back on a proper working schedule in Vientiane and it was also lovely to spend time with my niece Anahi. I managed to get some work including a pretty large project after a few weeks and moved on to Chiang Mai in Thailand where I spent a lot of time working and then a couple of weeks learning traditional Thai massage and foot massage. It's at that time I started questioning what I was doing and whether I really wanted to keep traveling and working the way I was. I particularly was starting to miss having a group of friends to hang out with (which I had in 2011 but not so much at that time in Thailand) and people to work with collaboratively. I also seriously considered a very interesting opportunity to go volunteer for a project in Kenya for a few months, which would have been doing marketing strategy for a recently setup NGO Foundation relating to travel and tourism.

I flew over to Hong Kong for my Birthday and to spend time with my friend James. While I turned 33 this year, we regressed to teenage-hood, played a lot of video games (I blame the release of Diablo 3), and went out drinking, mostly in Sai Kung. I also bought a brand new laptop, new 15" MacBook Pro model - not the retina display though.

I decided to start looking around for a full time job somewhere in Asia. After 18 months of traveling out of a backpack, Keanu passing away, and spending time with friends in Hong Kong I thought it would be nice to take a break from traveling and have a place to call home again. I contacted people I knew in the advertising industry and after a few phone interviews was offered an opportunity in Singapore to start working for Saatchi & Saatchi. I realise now I hadn't even written in my blog about it since I moved in September.

So here I am in Singapore on the last day of the year. It's raining and has been since this morning which doesn't bode extremely well for fireworks tonight. Employed full time again, for a large network advertising agency on big clients, and it seems to be going well. In particular I'm happy and feel lucky to be working with some really great people here. I found a great flat and I have a guest room, if we're friends you're welcome to visit any time you want, keep in touch. The last time I had my own place I was 22 and it was a tiny studio in Paris, I've been sharing all the time I lived in London. In addition to trying out all the foods available in Singapore, I'm back behind a desk and working a lot, so of course I've started putting on weight.

So there you go, I think that's about it for 2012. 8 months more wandering, 4 months back in more or less normal routine life. I travelled to some new places, completed a seriously hot wing challenge, tried some fantastic new wines, experienced the death of a loved close family member, stayed one of the most gorgeous paradise islands in the world, saw a dead dolphin and more live ones, learned some new stuff like massage, took care of some health stuff, caught up with friends and family including time spent with little ones, didn't watch much of the Olympics, watched TV series (Another run of The West Wing I am finishing now) and movies (The Avengers!), played a lot of Diablo 3, got a new job, a new home, and the world didn't end according to the Mayan calendar.

Not too bad for 365 days.

I have to think up what 2013 is going to be about beyond the work routine or else I feel I'll get bored fairly quickly. I've been giving it some thought, I'm not too sure just yet.

I want to thank my close family and my friends for their love, hospitality, and generosity. Thank you Mom, Dad, Morgan, Saskia, Bjorn, Justine, Manuel, Violette, Sandro, Alba, Helios, Antonio, JB, Jo,  James, Adam, Sangita, Graham, Abby, Elo, Seb, Simon, Steve, and many more, I'm sure I'm forgetting people. All my wandering wouldn't have been possible without you.

I also want to thank all my new colleagues and friends in Singapore who have warmly welcomed me here and with whom it is a pleasure to work or hang out with: JP, Sarah, Sabine, Paul, Mel, Stella, Ruth, Kamal, Marvin, Jason, Lionel, JD, Andy, Aishah, Thomas, Steph, Max, and some more.

That's about it for 2012. Bring on 2013.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Have you completed the Planner Survey yet?

The 2012 Planner Survey has been live for a few weeks now so it's about time I post about it. If you haven't heard about it, it's an excellent initiative started by Heather to find out more about the worldwide planning community, originally for interesting information such as our salary levels and the types of agencies planners work at, and over the years going into more questions about planners varied backgrounds. It's a project I love given I always love meeting planners from around the world and learn new things from them, may it be professionally or from the wide variety of other stuff planners are interested in, whatever that might be.

I started helping out with the survey data last year, and this year is going into new directions offering new initiatives for planners to interact with each other directly via Skype, book recommendations, and while traveling with a dedicated private network on if you're a planner and haven't completed the survey yet, I highly recommend it. The more planners do that, the richer the information we can gather and share back with the whole community.

Heather tell us more in this intro video:

You can go ahead and fill the 2012 Planner Survey here:

Check Heather's blog if you aren't signed to the email newsletter to get Planner Survey news every year:

You can also read the 2011 Planner Survey results here:

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Planners Worldwide is now live, come and join!

As Heather Lefevre wrote about a few months ago, there are a few projects in the works for this year's Planner Survey, in particular I have been working with to create a dedicated network for planners and associated types traveling to connect and meet like minded planners, basically like a Couchsurfing for planners. We had started with a group on the Couchsurfing though we didn't feel it had the features we were looking for, and then we found out about Tripping which looked perfect for what we had in mind.

Tripping was launched in 2009 and as they put it well, it is "a global community of travelers who believe in making the world a better place through cultural exchange." Via the website, people can either search for like-minded people and rooms in over 175 countries, and the site also aggregates rooms available on websites such as Roomorama or AirBnB, it's like a mix between Couchsurfing and Kayak. The site also integrates dedicated Networks either in partnership with companies, organisations,  or groups of people that have common interests. The Networks have a number of features that were perfect for our idea and so here we are!

We are now live so that's left is for planners to join - just click this link and you can easily register by connecting with your Facebook account. There will be mention of this in this year's planner survey though in the meantime if you come across this, please check out the site and sign up! The more planners from everywhere join, the better. We will also be working on developing the content and perhaps update the logo (anyone feeling inspired to take this on?) so I'm also starting to look for people who would be up getting involved in growing the network and keeping it alive. I will be writing some more about this, but for now I'm thinking to have a few planners from different parts of the world and writing dedicated posts on the network for all members, and once it has started it would also be great to gather stories and experiences from planners using the network as well. Please get in touch with me if you might be up for it, let's talk.

I'll be looking forward to seeing you on the Planners Worldwide Tripping network and please spread the word to the planners and strategists you know!

Friday, 29 June 2012

Now certified in Thai massage & Foot Reflexology

I've just completed two massage courses in the past couple of weeks and now have my certifications! It is the first time I have a certification awarded by the Thai Ministry of Education. It's good to learn new stuff and this is the kind of practical training I probably enjoy the most. It was great timing as well given ti is low season here and at most were about three students for four teachers or more at any time, I can certainly recommend The School of Massage for Health here in Chiang Mai if ever you're interested in learning. It's not a big school or a factory like some of the others which I enjoyed as well. Given we were few students we really had a a lot of time with the teachers to learn ask questions and practice a lot.

I passed the Foundation Traditional Thai Massage course with an A. Being in Chiang Mai, I learned the local Northern style Thai massage, which is supposedly a little more relaxed than the Southern Wat Pho Bangkok style, though I have read a few things online about it and the differences sound minimal. Given my teachers also told me the Northern style is different but not that much (Same same but different, as it were) it might simply be a North vs. South thing going on in the country. I was talking to a friend yesterday who surprised me by saying he'd had conversations with people who had visited Thailand several times and had no idea there was such a thing as traditional Thai massage, they firmly believed anything massage related was only to do with prostitution or happy endings. Obviously while those things exist for sure, my courses had nothing to do with it, and Thailand has a big traditions in massage that are a part of their traditional medicine.

Given we were praying to the guy every morning, I looked it up, and the person considered the founder and spiritual leader of traditional Thai massage is Shivago Komarpaj, whom according to Buddhist tradition was the Buddha's personal physician over 2,500 years ago. The basics for traditional Thai massage involves a lot of yoga-like stretching and pressure points based on the Sen lines in the Human body. The Sen lines are a Thai traditional medicine thing, maybe based on though different from the Chinese traditional medicine meridian lines. Beyond the Buddhist tradition, Wikipedia tells me the current forms of Thai massage are most probably a blend of influences from India, China, and other parts of Southeast Asia that were more or less put together around the 19th Century.
Doctor Father founder of Thai Massage, Shivago Komarpaj. Nice beard.
In the first course I learned many different points and lines to manipulate with the person laying on their back, massaging feet, legs, chest, stomach, arms, shoulders, neck, and head. With everything covered I can perform a massage over two hours long - probably close to three in total. A fair warning: if ever you ask for a massage over an hour long, there's a good chance you'll be in for some of the more adventurous stretching positions so be ready. And that's not even involving the more advanced levels with the more extreme lying on your stomach positions (and someone sticking their knees and elbow in your back while stretching your arms in weird positions). It's all for good health, and it's also worth knowing that it is supposed to stretch but not to hurt - unless you enjoy that kind of thing - so if you have a traditional Thai massage, they should ask you how you prefer the pressure, and if it hurts it's not right so don't hesitate telling them.

I enjoyed the first course, had time for another and chose foot reflexology massage which definitely holds its own origins in Chinese traditional medicine rather than a purely Thai heritage. Who doesn't like a foot massage, and it's fairly easy to do, not needing a big mat or a table or anything. I really enjoyed this, and it's pretty interesting to learn all the reflex points and areas for both feet and hands. So I'm trained to perform a foot massage that can easily last up to 90 minutes, and can even add up to 30-45 minutes on a hands massage. I was mainly tought by Teacher Pattana who has 20 years experience in teaching Thai massage so she knows her stuff - the other teachers stepped in for occasional practicing on someone else, and they would all give me different tips and pointers which is great. Everyone develops their own style of massage once the basics of all the positions mastered. On the reflexology side, I have charts with all all the areas and more specifically learned about 26 points for each foot, areas to massage the feet in certain ways for various ailments. I have no idea if it works and it's not supposed to replace seeing a doctor if you need one, but it's all very interesting in any case. I passed the test with an A+ and all the teachers told me I was really good, I just need some more practice now so I'll be giving some massage to friends in Hong Kong!

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Google's Project Re: Brief. It's like Inception for Advertising

I hadn't yet heard of Google's project Re: Brief and came across the full version documentary that was released a couple of days ago. Cheers to Ben for the link. I watched it this afternoon, here are some thoughts about it. For info, this video is a project initiated by Google to bring several advertising people who created iconic ads out of retirement and bring them on with young teams with the intention to use their experience and insights for new digital media advertising. The video director is Doug Pray who also created the excellent Art & Copy documentary.

The four original ads and their art directors and copywriters are:
Harvey Gabor - Coca Cola 'Hilltop' or I'd like to buy the world a Coke song
Amil Gargano - Volvo 'Drive It like you Hate It'
Howie Cohen & Bob Pasqualina - Alka Seltzer 'I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Thing'
Paula Green - Avis 'We Try Harder' their copy platform and brand positioning

Firstly it's very "meta" to such extent I think the ultimate person targeted for this video is basically Abed from Community (or an advertising equivalent if such a person exists). It's a documentary that is an advert from Google for Google, featuring advertising people, talking about advertising and working on new adverts for other brands and overall celebrating advertising for advertising people. It's like Inception for advertising. An ad inside an ad inside an ad. It's certainly heavy on advertising and technology geekiness and the main audience is most certainly that: people who work in marketing and advertising. Which makes perfect sense as that's who Google sells their ad technologies and platforms to. 

It is an excellent idea from Google to promote themselves and by the end of it they're probably the brand coming out with the most original idea of all the ones covered, well obviously given none of the other ones would have come to life otherwise. I recommend watching it if you're in this business or if you're interested in finding out about the inner workings of advertising - I'd also recommend watching Morgan Spurlock's brilliant The Greatest Movie Ever Sold if you haven't seen it, just for some counter-balance on the advertising theme.

[There are probably some spoilers following and given it's a geeky advertising documentary, these are geeky advertising thoughts]

The subtitle is 'A Film about Re-imagining Advertising' and that part I was kind of disappointed about, because they don't actually re-imagine anything about advertising. On the contrary, they focus on the heart of the ideas and concepts that the iconic ads they had made in the 60's and 70's were about, regardless of digital media and online display advertising. Which is great, and I think that's how things should be - but it's not really re-imagining anything. It's a good sub-title in that it helped make me want to watch the hour long documentary, though not as strongly as 'from the director of Art & Copy and the makers of these famous old ads for Coke, Avis, Alka-Seltzer, and Volvo'. They start on a premise that they want to rethink online display advertising because it hasn't really changed in 15 years but I don't feel there's any progress from that particular perspective by the end of the movie - after all the format of TV ads haven't changed that much either and there is nothing wrong with them (or is there? There are no direct stats as for online banners). Maybe they'll bring out some results from the campaigns later..? They are focusing on narrative, storytelling, and extensive technology for thei ads. That is no different from the celebrated campaigns these days; I haven't really followed Cannes this year yet but let's say Old Spice for an easy relatively recent reference. 

I was disappointed by the lack of current context in terms of media consumption habits for the audiences brands are trying to reach in advertising. There were a few mentions in terms of media that struck me: Cohen and Pasqualina (I think it was Cohen's comment) say: "Three [TV] Networks, when you put it on, everybody saw it". In the following scene Amil Gargano says about the Volvo ads: "When you ran an ad like that in a full page bleed in Life magazine [...] it jumped off the page." 

While these creatives are rightly focusing on the concepts and ideas for the ads, their experience of their success seems interestingly tied to media and the media context of the time they were ran. There was a lot of mentions in the film of very complex technologies and the huge amount of things you could do with them though almost no mention of the people these online ads are trying to reach and their behaviour, only mentions of the technology available. There are hundreds of TV networks in the US alone, over a trillion websites people can visit, people surf the web and multi-task across different devices like using their laptop or iPad while watching TV, the print industry is dying right now, many magazines are closing down, etc. I am doubtful a full page ad in Life magazine has the same impact today than it had in 1962. 

Or does it? 

I wouldn't know, the last time I bought a magazine was at least 2 years ago. The film is about re-imagining these classic ad ideas and expanding them using complicated digital technologies for advertising which is great and they are or at least seem to be great digital executions, but not really anything about the premise of innovating on online or mobile display ads. They talk about interactive banners on mobile and tablets in the film, I have never clicked on a banner with my mobile phone or iPod Touch - I don't know if many people do.

My best guess as to the intention is to inspire more brands to take risks with digital advertising as well as storytelling. Again, I'd be really curious to see results from these campaigns. Effectiveness and proof - if at all possible - is what might encourage more brands to go in these directions, because they are business decisions first. If there is no conclusive proof, I wouldn't be surprised if many marketing directors choose to keep investing in what they know or feel works: TV advertising and online search ads for example, and reserve these kinds of neat digital media cross-media shiny things for a day they'll have extra budgets to play around with...

All that aside, the ideas and executions they came up with for Coke, Volvo, Avis, and Alka Seltzer are really lovely, and I thought the most interesting common denominator - aside perhaps from Ralph - is that they are about real people and real stories enabled and/or with nifty technology. Coke in particular given people played and had a direct experience with the interactive Coke machines was probably the one that really stood out for me. Volvo and the 3 million miles car seems full of lovely stories though Honda also had a similar activity with someone completing one million miles with their Honda Accord last year.

Avis was interestingly the only of the four brands who rejected the first idea and they told them what they wanted and the team went and created something to match. As Paula Green says: "It was a very important learning meeting because in saying what [the client] thought, she outlined a lot of stuff that we didn't know". Or in different words from Morgan Spurlock after his pitch meeting with POM Wonderful in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold: "Then basically they told me what they wanted me to pitch". A reminder of how important it is to get as much information and the right kind of information out of clients for a brief.

Tell me what you think of the film if you watch it!

Meanwhile in Chiang Mai...

The moat surrounding Chiang Mai Old Town
As I am soon leaving and just realised I have arrived here almost six weeks ago, it might be about time I write something about Chiang Mai. Where has that time gone and what the hell have I been up to?

It breaks down pretty easily actually given I chose to come to Chiang Mai for some of the same reasons so many expats and retirees land here and settle, which is to say living is cheap, weather is good, people are friendly, it's a good size town with lots of great restaurants but not too big or crazy like Bangkok, good Internet connections, etc. For me in addition to the fact that it's cheap to hang around here, I hadn't been to the North of Thailand, it's not too far from Vientiane where I was before, and I needed better Internet connection as I had a lot of work coming up. 

I spent two days cycling around to visit rooms when I arrived (I'd researched a bunch of areas and potential studio apartments to rent by the month beforehand). Once I found a good room, I spent the best of the four following weeks working full on. And now in the past 10 days I've been taking massage classes (I'll keep that for a separate post). That's about it. I haven't left town, didn't go visit anywhere in the region. I've not really been in the mood for much sightseeing or visiting the countryside lately and I'm keeping my money to buy a new laptop which is really needed, mine is over 4 years old and dying, I was just waiting for the new MacBook Pros to be announced.

Chiang Mai is a nice town, as I said it attracts a lot of foreigners: tourists of course, many retirees, expats, travelers and working nomads. I've talked about it with some people I randomly met and this place seems to have this effect on many people that they never want to leave once they arrive. I, on the other hand, am looking forward to leaving next week. I'm still ambivalent about Thailand, as I thought when I visited quickly last year, I don't have strong feelings for the country either way and aside from rational reasons (cheap, warm weather, friendly people) I don't feel the same way as many people who are drawn here and love it so much. Context is key as usual and one thing I'm starting to really miss are good friends. I've met some nice and interesting people here and there but not really made any friends. I might come back, I might not, we'll see. For me it's mostly been convenient to stay here for a while and I don't regret it though I'm really looking forward to catching up with friends in Hong Kong soon. I don't have many photos as I still don't have a camera since I lost my last one in Malaysia last year and only have my crappy iPod Touch for photos right now, I'll get a new one soon.

One of the many temples in Chiang Mai, if you're into Buddhist temples, this is a town for you.
A few highlights of my stay in Chiang Mai:
  • Having my own place. Sometimes when you're traveling these kinds of thngs matters and after staying with friends and family for the past few months it has been nice having a place to call home, as well as small luxuries like a desk, a fridge and a kettle
  • Being invited for a night of Muay Thai fighting, which I enjoyed a lot more than I thought I would, had a really good evening. An American Texan girl was fighting that night and I saw her open invite on a CM Facebook group, met with a cool bunch of people. Jenny won her fight by the 2nd round. I learned Thai people traditionally try to place points winning high kicks or throw downs and don't use punches that much. Meanwhile if Farangs fight they go for overpowering punches and trying to KO their opponent - in this case successfully
  • Trying out restaurants in Chiang Mai, there are loads of great ones, both Thai and International
  • Meeting up with an old friend from France who moved here and I hadn't seen in a very long time. If you read French he maintains a good website with a lot of great recommendations for Thailand and surrounding countries
  • Learning Thai massage, I'll write more about this soon.
Trying out for some kind of artistic photo...

Thursday, 7 June 2012

A year into being a wandering planner

Hitchhiking in Malaysia last year (hadn't hitchhiked since I was about 16. Lots of fun!
It has been almost a year now since I've officially transitioned into being a digital nomad, working and traveling on the way. I remember a year ago I had just left from three fantastic weeks on the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia and got sick arriving in Kuala Lumpur with a mean tonsillitis. I was at the end of my travel budget and seriously needed to figure out what was next, being ill I couldn't do much so I took it as a good opportunity to mull things over.

I could see three main options:

  1. Come back to Europe and look for a new full time job (most likely as a planner in another agency)
  2. Stay in Asia and look for a full time in one of the main business city platforms (Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong). Similarly Australia was another option in the same style
  3. Go freelance full time, and while at it do it remotely and keep wandering.
I had no particular desire to come back to London or anywhere in Europe where I'd be likely to get a full time job. I enjoyed the tropical weather and wanted more of it (still do). The other point is I felt I'd already experienced the agency life and maybe this is/was too cynical but I thought any other big city, office job would be more of the same thing, just a different flavour, and I wouldn't be happy with it for long. The next thought was that it would then be the same question of going down a road I've already traveled whether I was in London, Paris, Shanghai, or Singapore. 

The real exciting challenge was certainly doing my own thing and choosing to carve a path rather than walk one. I'll admit I had the idea in the back of my mind, I was already set up as a sole trader in the UK given I'd done some extra freelance work the previous year and I'd made sure I had everything ready if I chose to go that way. Based on that I took the plunge, did a quick return trip to Hong Kong where I had started my trip and had left my laptop with one of my best mates James. I picked up my laptop, had some fun in HK for a few days and then went to back to the Perhentian Islands. I made good friends there, I wanted to keep scuba diving, and I thought if I was successful at working by the beach then I could definitely work anywhere. The first chapter of my travels was complete and a a new one had begun.

A year into being a professional wandering planner I can tell you the experience so far has been mind-blowing and amazing. A few things about my experience of becoming a digital nomad:

First, it's damn tough. 

You'll need high doses of discipline and self-confidence with a side of stubbornness. Nobody is watching after you, you're responsible for your own work, revenue, AND you may well be in a physical environment with many distractions, where everything is telling to just go and sit on the beach, forget about work. And I'm working online, so a LOT of distractions going on there too. If you don't think you can focus and shut out the distractions, this lifestyle might not be for you. By the way, it's not an innate thing, I believe everyone can do it with more or less training and practice. For having a lot of freedom, I give up on a lot of certainty. I've been through several times of seriously worrying about where the next job was going to come from, not having any idea if or how much money I'd be earning next month or the following, not having enough work or finance visibility to plan my next traveling moves in advance, cutting down on treats, beers, or activities to save money, wondering if I'm doing the right thing or if I'm good enough for it, etc. Mind going berserk and I have to keep managing it, telling those thoughts to shut the fuck up and keep doing my new business contacts. That's important: quiet down the thoughts in your mind and look at real world actions, those determine your success - not your thoughts and feelings. In the beginning I had no idea if it would work at all, just going by the sheer conviction others have done it so I could too (and I have a good professional background, I know a few people, and I know what I'm doing job wise).

It does get easier though of course life also throws some curve balls, it's all part of the ride. There are ways to alleviate some of the uncertainty and I'm working on that now. To start with, unlike me, you may want to start working and traveling with your savings, rather than spend it all and then start thinking about earning some more...

Second, it's truly amazing. Words barely express how awesome it is.

Of course when I'm just casually talking about what I do, I don't mention the above points. Yeah, I work on a tropical beach, it's pretty damn fucking awesome. Throughout last summer when I started I was working in a resort lobby in my bathing suit. I didn't wear any kind of footwear for about 3 months while on the island. If I'm not working on a project and I'm done with my new business contacts, I can close my laptop and stop working - I can go for a walk, I can go diving, I can go to the cinema, go shopping, have a nap, sleep in, write a blog post, whatever I fancy. That said I'm rarely completely switched off work, gotta keep those new business contacts up and that pipeline full. If I don't have any work on, I don't need to stay at a desk pretending to work. If I have work on, I can manage the delivery schedule with the clients in order to give myself free time. Equally, I can work 16 hours or 12 days straight because the project is urgent and I can. I can take time to work on personal side projects. I get  to visit brilliant new places around the world and meet excellent new people. I can set time aside to learn new things and have new experiences. 

Some of you might be interested in what I've actually been doing behind my laptop. I'm mostly working directly with SMEs and startups these days:
  • I spend a lot of time looking for work and keeping in contact with friends and professional acquaintances. 'Out of sight, out of mind' is pretty true so I make extra efforts to keep in touch (and I like keeping in touch anyways, I think it's really important)
  • I developed marketing, brand strategy and promotional tactics for a Kenya / US based Luxury African safari tour operator intending to develop a brand and service selling directly to people rather than competing on costs only with wholesale tour operators
  • I worked on the launch strategy of a new Facebook social game of a small game development studio based in Hong Kong - really interesting stuff to get into
  • I devised a brand and B2B strategy for a new mobile company in Nigeria who have secured one of the few mobile banking licenses recently granted by the government. Very interesting piece of work.
  • I worked on two pitches (fairly large banking and energy clients) for an agency in Trinidad & Tobago. First pitch was won, still waiting on news for the second
  • I developed marketing plans / strategies, brand or business advice for a bunch of startups, in the US, in Australia, in Europe, Singapore, and working on very different industries (film production, travel & tourism, education, etc).

I've also started on a bunch of personal projects and ideas though haven't achieved much with any of them so far. That said there is one I'll be talking about soon and is pretty exciting. Last year, I joined Heather's team to help with crunching data for the Planner Survey. This year, we are working on the idea of an online network for planners (widest sense of the term) to meet up in different countries while traveling, may it be for couchsurfing or having coffee. Heather had announced this as a group but we're looking on a new platform right now and we'll be announcing it soon for a sort of soft launch until the Planner Survey later this year.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Meet my little niece, Anahì

 After The Maldives and the unexpected return trip to France for Keanu's funeral, I was unfortunately pretty broke so I asked my brother Morgan if I could come and stay at his place the time for me to get back to work, back on my feet financially and I also wanted to spend more time with the family and see my baby niece again. Morgan, his partner Virginie and their daughter Anahì live in Vientiane, Laos, where I also spent time last year, so I hopped on a flight to Sri Lanka from Male, stayed a night (sadly, I really want to experience it properly but I'll leave it for another time), flew to Bangkok in the morning and then straight on to the overnight train to Laos - where it was great to meet and hang out with random fellow travelers over drinks in the bar car. Back in backpacker land!

It was really great to hang out with my little niece who changed so much over the past year, she's 2 1/2 years old and lots of talking going on now. She's also in her 'Terrible Two' phase, saying no a lot and I turned out to be the aim of a lot of it. She would take quite a few opportunities to remind me of the things that I wasn't allowed to do according to her: "Willem, you no! You can't go to the nursery school!" or "Willem you can't go to the restaurant with us, no!" All the while waggling her finger at me and looking all serious. I'd just smile and tell her that's ok, I'm working on my computer and wasn't thinking of going to the nursery school anyways.

There were a couple of things in particular that I thought were amazing. One, I had her play with my iPod Touch and she loved taking videos - actually what she really really loved was watching herself afterwards. Over and over again, of course. It might partly given she's at the phase developing self-awareness - She knows she's her and she's Anahì but still talking about herself at the 3rd person; there is no "I" just yet. It might also be partly because she's a girl and enjoys looking at herself (Did I just say that? Must've been someone else) which she'd maybe take after my sister Saskia who looooves her own reflection. Anyways it's really fascinating to see a kid at that particular stage of development - I don't have children as you may know so it's not something I experience very often.

The second point was with of all this digital technology and in particular photos everywhere, how does it have an influence on the development of memory for children (and everyone else, actually)? So for example, I'd be working on my laptop and Anahì comes to me:
"You working..?"
"Yes" *smiling*
"Writing email?"
"Well, yeah I guess that's what it can be summed up to..."
"Photos..?" *cutey begging voice*
So I'd stop working for a bit and we'd go through photos on my laptop, Facebook mostly. I don't know about you, but I don't remember a single thing from when I was her age. I certainly couldn't name and identify on photos pretty much every single member of close family, extended family and close family friends like she could, every time, without fail. Even people she'd only met once. I think it's incredible. At her age, I also didn't have near as many photos all over the place to look at, so I'm wondering if all our digital content is having a particular impact on memories, perhaps re-enforcing them given we have so many more mementos of past moments than we had before. Or is it the opposite and we'll be forgetting more because there is not need to remember, like with phone numbers?
This is my bro Morgan. Just to prove how much life goes on and on, down and up, and again; the day after Keanu's funeral he learned his partner Virginie is pregnant - so massive congrats, he's going to be a daddy again! Life is mental. They are also moving back to France and he's planning a very exciting new business, starting up a food truck - I've started helping on the plan, more on that some other time.

He had another excellent story  happen while I was there. He teaches at a nursery school and tutors a few kids from the French school (where Virginie teaches).  Anyways, he was with this 9 year old and going over his history lesson. A sentence said that very little precise information about the Gauls was found because it was undecipherable, so most of the records of their culture come from the Romans. The kid didn't understand and asks Morgan about what the word "undecipherable" means. Morgan explains, but the kids looks even more confused. He says "But I don't understand how we wouldn't find their records, why don't they just look it up on Wikipedia or something?" Morgan explained how the Internet was really not old, that wasn't even around when he was a kid so it certainly wasn't when the Romans were. The kid just couldn't believe it, or fathom it, it's taken a stretch of imagination on his part to think about a world without the Internet.

We kind of know intellectually that whole new generations are born with this tech around and it's natural to them but really when you have kind of experience you only get the faintest glimpse of how it actually is for them and it's pretty crazy to try and comprehend. On top of that, I think the education system and curriculums need to change and adapt fast, or else may well have a lot more confused kids like that!

All in all I spent 6 weeks in Vientiane. No sightseeing, just working and enjoying the family, reading, tropical heat and all that. The experience of freelancing, working remotely and not having work when you need it is pretty damn tough, it takes a lot to keep going - certainly a lot of confidence verging on considerable stubbornness and belief that it's possible. And then I also had a moment with my bro and Anahì, sitting on steps looking at the Mekong, enjoying the sunshine while sipping on a banana and mango fruit shake. And those magical moments make it all a worthwhile hundreds of time over. Thanks again for everything bro, love you!

Monday, 21 May 2012

Luxury couchsurfing in the Maldives

I've been thinking of what to write about this trip in the past few days, it was a bit strange given the circumstances. Still, it was pretty damn amazing to visit my brother and spend time with him and his friends / colleagues in the Maldives and have the chance of staying in a luxury resort so rather than trying to find something profoundly meaningful to say about it, I'll just be showing off instead.

It was the first time I landed in an archipelago country and it's a pretty weird feeling to see nothing but the sea around as the plane lands on a landing strip in the middle of the water, with only a few other tiny islands around. The Maldives as a country is made of about 1,190 coral islands grouped in a double chain 26 atolls and spread over 90,000 km2. Most of those islands are only one or two km2 in surface and lie about 1 meter above the sea level. It's pretty crazy to see, and really beautiful if you like the sea.
My brother Björn is the Executif Chef for the Soneva group of resorts and Soneva Fushi is his main base. The island is about 1.2 km long by 800 meters wide or so. It seems small but it's done in such a way that when cycling in the jungle inside it feels much larger. It was my first time in a luxury resort of this level and it was pretty incredible. The place is also special in that it's not the usual luxury (I'm taking their word for it, I don't really know what 'usual' luxury is) in that the island is kept to its natural state as much as possible, it's all sand and dirt, there are chickens and rabbits roaming around, the building are made of reclaimed natural products like old wooden telegraph poles, and everyone walks around bare feet. Their motto is 'No news, no shoes'. I'm always happy to take off my shoes but I kept up with the news.

I loved being able to see both sides of the picture, what the guests see as well as hanging out with the staff , I always like the behind of the scenes.

I slept on my brother's couch for the first week and then had the chance of trying out two different villas for my second week. The bathroom in the first one was bigger than any room I've ever slept in. As you can see, this is a shallow water feature, there's a outdoor shower as well in the back of the bathroom:

The second villa was of the 'Crusoe' style of design on the sunrise side of the island. I had some unexpected work to do, helping a client for a website redesign and social media strategy pitch so it was good to have the office space:

 They strive to be as sustainable as possible and have vegetable patches on the island, growing about 35% of the fruits, herbs and vegetables for the restaurants.

Aside from that pitch work for a few days, I didn't do that much which is part of the whole point of being there, I just enjoyed being on paradise island and that was amazing. I was looking forward to scuba diving though only went once in the end, I wasn't so much in the mood for it. That said, snorkeling on the reef around the island was great enough and saw a bunch of stuff: the usual colourful tropical suspects (clown, angel, butterfly fishies, etc), big moray eels, big sea turtles, lion fish, puffer fish, black tip sharks, titan triggerfish (beware!) and many other types of triggers (Clown, Picasso). I was also lucky to have a dinner at one of the three main restaurants: Fresh in the Garden, which specialises in Maldivian food cooked with vegetables from their gardens and other locally sourced produce. It was absolutely delicious, though sorry I don't have photos of that.

So, if you want to try a luxury resort in The Maldives, having [not] tried most of them I definitely recommend this one - tell me and I'll make sure they take good care of you!

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Creating stories (or How I survived the Red Dog Saloon's Hot Wing Challenge)

I love stories and it's a highly discussed theme in the advertising and communication industries these days. Stories are at the heart of how all human beings communicate, learn, and entertain ourselves. Stories and narrative in general are perhaps even more present as social and digital types of media offer even more new ways to tell and publish all kinds of stories (like there weren't enough before). Some brands strive for more people to be talking about them and sharing its stories so they are trying out telling stories longer and/or differently than via a 30 second TV ad, with varying degrees of success.

I've been thinking about stories lately (or more accurately I've been telling stories, practicing) and you basically have two essential ingredients to a great one:

In other words I'd say 'What' and 'How', of course 'who' and other such questions are important but let's keep them aside for now. If we're creating stories, the content is the foundation of a story and it's indissociable from the delivery, how we're going to take that stuff and share it or bring it to the attention of another. The blend of content and delivery is what makes a story great.

Stories are also interesting in that memorable experiences can make great stories and in turn a great story can become a memorable experience of its own. Memorable experiences can also be created and given I prefer practice to theory, here is a story for you:

I was in London a few months ago in February and spent an evening with Adam, one of my best friends at the Red Dog Saloon. It was a Monday night, there was no particular occasion aside from the fact that I was going to leave soon and probably not be back in town for a long time. I learned with interest that the restaurant offers a Hot Wing Challenge: Eat 6 big chicken wings doused in a sauce made with the hottest chili in the world in 10 minutes or less, then wait 5 minutes 'burn time' with no food or drink. If you succeed, you get your photo on the Wall of Fame.

Given I am a fan of Adam Richman of Man v. Food, I had never tried something like that, and most importantly I thought that would make the evening memorable and had the potential to be a great story to tell. Sure a bit of sufferance might have to be paid but what's the price of a good story? Or at least that's the kind of sensible rationalising that went on in my head about it. It could be I'm just a bit crazy. There was not much else going on that quiet Monday evening so I created the entertainment by taking on the challenge.
After consideration and discussing the challenge difficulty level with Adam and the waitress (very difficult apparently, that one time a woman completed the challenge and then immediately ran outside to be sick on the pavement) I decided to go ahead. I was given a responsibility waiver form to sign before the challenge began. The restaurant also wanted to make clear that they were not responsible if all hot wings after these would seem bland and tasteless.
Following Adam Richman's example, I had mentally prepared to try and eat the wings as fast as possible, before the chili burn hit too hard and stop me from eating more. The only sense of flavour I had was for a split second when I had my first bite of wing. After that, it was just burning and my focus on eating as fast as possible.
The heat was so intense I was immediately crying my eyes out,  sweating, and my nose was running. Eating fast also meant I had more sauce smeared all over my face and fingers, meaning more burn surface. My face was a pretty contrasted white and red apparently. Meanwhile Adam was laughing at me, live tweeting the event and taking photos. 'It's hot, it's really really hot' is the only thing I think I said.
My strategy paid off and here you can clearly see the satisfied face of victory. The burning face of a man who ate six hot wings in under three minutes and thus survived the Naga Viper Chili. The waitress was very impressed. She was cute, so that mattered. I, on the other hand, wasn't that cute.
 The five minutes 'burn time' were the longest of my life. My whole face inside and out was burning and  I was just agonising on my seat. Pure mind over matter. I was given a glass of milk when the five minutes were up and never a beverage had tasted so sweet. It felt good and here is my photo on the Wall of Fame for all future challengers to see. About 20 minutes later I was fine, had a milk shake and was having fun with two other friends who had joined while I was doing the challenge. I thought I was sorted and done. Big mistake.
I like spicy food and I never had a hard time digesting chili so the fact that it was possible hadn't occured to me. About 2 hours after the challenge as we were getting ready to leave, I started feeling queezy, quickly paled and suddenly started having cold sweats. Big stomach ache. I talked to the chef who was finishing his shift and he tells me it's normal, it's so strong that it's really tough to digest and it's just going to be extremely painful for most of the night (I later learned that the fresh Naga Viper Chili is strong enough to pull paint off a wall). I've never experienced so much pain in my life, I had trouble walking back to the tube. Obviously Adam was laughing at me all the way. I would've done the same in his place.

I felt much better the morning after. Since then I've been perfecting the telling of the story and I told it to great success to several groups of friends and family. Practice and experience are important parts of the delivery. This blog post is also different way of delivering the content. I have loads more stories for you whenever we meet up, and I've been practicing my own storytelling as well.

And you know what? I don't regret doing it whatsoever. You may not want to try the Red Dog Saloon Hot Wing Challenge, but you will come across other opportunities to create memorable experiences and potentially great stories. Take them, you won't regret it and you might just start developing a different perspective on what good content and delivery are if that's a part of your line of work.

Thursday, 12 April 2012


A lot of things have been going on since the beginning of the year but all that is just dwarfed by another major and extremely sad event: on Wednesday 29th February my nephew Keanu passed away at the way too young age of 17 years old.

I had just landed 24 hours earlier in the Maldives to visit my elder brother Björn, Keanu's father, when he was called with the news. It was night in the Maldives and morning in New York where Keanu lived with his mother; thinking back on that night it still feels completely unreal and the whole thing unfair.

We flew to France early the following morning to be with our family, support each other, and prepare for his funeral. I didn't really sleep that night and just before taking my flight I had a quick look online and noticed messages from his friends starting to pour in on Keanu's Facebook timeline. It was mind blowing and something that turned out to be very important for us, to be able to see so many extremely moving and well crafted messages from his friends over the following few days, as well as many photos and videos of him we hadn't seen before. Really in teenage years, your friends usually know you better than any family members and it felt very precious to be sharing strong emotions as well as private messages with some of his best friends via Facebook. I hadn't really ever considered I'd be in that situation and looking to the use of social media in such tragic circumstances, and even then the support and comfort it provided to be exchanging and sharing with his friends was incredible.

I've read quite a few posts and articles questioning the quality of relationships via social media channels, whether they are often more superficial or whether social media services bring us close together, etc. I would've usually been all for thinking they tend towards the superficial and that it's a fantastic way to casually keep in touch with a larger circle of people than you would usually be able to before. I also thought somehow that there might be more to it than the superficial at least in some circumstances, and now I've experienced it. The question can of course still be debated, though now I certainly have a whole new respect for what sharing with other people on Facebook can be about.

In the days before and after the funeral, our whole family pulled together to support each other and my brother, we flew from the Maldives with Björn and his wife Justine, my little brother Morgan arrived from Laos, my sister Saskia from Burgundy, our parents from Perpignan, my cousins from Spain and from Holland came, all our family in Toulouse, close family friends from Paris and elsewhere also came. We spent a lot of time grieving, crying, and also a lot of time talking, telling stories, arguing, looking at photos and laughing. All the while we ate lots of food and drinking lots of wine. That's our way of doing things and I think it's pretty healthy.

I love my little nephew who was almost a man, he was about to turn 18 in May. I spent time taking care of him as a baby the summer of my 16th birthday when he was only about 3 months old. We spent some time together when he a little child, and I remember going on the Cyclone roller coaster with him at Coney Island in New York. A few years ago we visited Cambridge with his father, and I remember the conversations we had talking about his future and how whatever he would do he was determined not be a working drone in some office. He was a really talented musician and I only realised now how popular he was at his high school, he inspired loads of friends and schoolmates. A ceremony in Brookly took place before the funeral and over 500 of his friends attended. I'm really proud of Keanu, he accomplished more than many other kids at his age - at least probably more than me at his age. We hadn't seen each other in a long time and we were planning a big holiday adventure for this summer, to celebrate his birthday and his father's who is turning 40 this year. Whatever happens for this summer and all the time to come, he will be with me anyways and I will keep honouring his life my living mine to the fullest as well as supporting those around me to do the same.

I'd like to finish this post by sharing what Björn read during the funeral and then posted on Facebook for Keanu's friends to read:

Dear All of Keanu's friends and loved ones, 
Today at 16:00 hours GMT+1 was Keanu's burial service. The Rabbi Matusov presided.
I am not a person of faith but the service was nice and the words said were beautiful. His uncle Michael gave us all a good impression of your amazing energy at the service in Brooklyn. 
I will share with all of you what I recited as a eulogy and will ask you all, his friends to honor it. You are all so talented and I believe that perhaps the very best way to keep his spirit alive would be to make this song into something very special. 
Keanu, little breeze...
Like a breeze you came into our lives...
You brought along with your breeze a lot of emotions...
You left us too quickly...
Keanu was gifted... that we know... Amongst the letters that we shared and exchanged over the years I fell upon the beginning of a song that Keanu had written along with the music score. It was in september 2008 during a hurricane..."Gustave" in NYC. he was 14. 
"Livin on the edge of a hurricane....
Nature unleashed I can feel the rain....
I don't wanna not at all.... 
I wanna hear the thunder call....
I wanna feel the rain fall.....
I wanna be at the edge of the storm right now.... 
Heaven and hell and mother earth....
All showing up...for what it's worth....
A spiritual rebirth.... 
Roar of the ocean....losing control....
Lightning so strong it'll burn your soul.....
Barrage of water whipping my face....
The wind and the rain are in a race....
I wanna stay here...I don't wanna
I wanna feel the wind blow......" 
Keanu van der Horst Sept 2008 
May his spirit live on in your love for him....
I dare all of you to make a ht out of this one.
I love you all as I know he did..... 
Peace out,
Keanu's Dad.

Two hours later one of his best friends posted this in return:

Rest in peace, Keanu.

Monday, 2 January 2012

My 2011

I had an absolutely fantastic 2011. I started traveling, leaving in February this is what I've done:

You can view the whole list of places I've been here. I've been wanting to go on a trip like this for a very long time and I'm loving it so much it's not over.

Here's a list of some cool things I accomplished in 2011, in bullet points and no order:

  • I visited 7 countries in Asia and altogether traveled a pretty impressive 22,845 miles (36,765km), a lot of it overland in Southeast Asia
  • I caught up with one of my very best friends I hadn't seen in 4 years
  • I grew a beard for the first time. Then shaved it
  • I spent time with my lovely baby niece, my little brother and his girlfriend in Laos
  • I learned to scuba dive and fell in love with it
  • I did nothing, for hours on end. Watching life go by and observing people in different countries
  • I helped sort out a pretty important family crisis early in the year
  • I started officially working for myself while traveling
  • I kickstarted the first Beersphere planner meetup in Singapore
  • I joined the Heather's team to crunch numbers for the annual Planner Survey
  • I started taking care of my health, for several things that were overdue
  • I lost 16 kilos (2.5 stone) though of course regained a bit while staying with my parents
  • I met some truly amazing people on the way and made new friends
  • I read a bunch of books
  • I hitch-hiked for the first time since I was like 16 years old
  • I got myself in a fight for the third time of my life
  • I partied!
  • I had some fantastic food
  • I spent time with my parents and my family in France
  • I started a pretty ambitious plan of organising an event it's still work in progress
  • I became a digital nomad.

2011 was such a great year. So much fun, so many new experiences.

2012 is looking good too, I'm soon going to start traveling again. First catching up with more friends and family in Europe and then more travels in Asia. My first faraway stop should be to visit my older brother in the Maldives, which I'm really looking forward to. I can't wait to see what awaits this year.