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.