I’m suffering from Amazon Fever

Fourteen years ago Amazon.com was relatively small, compared to its current monolithic presence. In 2005, it was only 11 years old, and company revenue was $8.5bn. This July, Amazon celebrated its 25th birthday and has forecast 2019 earnings of $275bn+.

Since I joined Amazon in 2005, I’ve spent £9,446 via their website and app. I’ve burned through £1,720 of that total this year alone.

These amounts don’t include the subscription fees I’ve paid to use Audible or Amazon Music, which would take the grand total past £10,000.

What does my own data tell me?

£10,000 is a lot of money to spend with a single online retailer – even if this is spread over a 14-year period. My eBay, iTunes and Wish shopping frivolities from the same period pale into insignificance.

What’s alarming is a closer look at my own spend trends for the past six years:

  • In the last five years I’ve ordered 438 items and spent £7,404, compared to my first 10 years of membership, when I ordered 86 items and spent a total of £2,042.
  • Whilst my average order value isn’t creeping up, my total orders, spend, and average orders per week are growing exponentially, each year.
  • As of July this year, my average orders per week sit at 3.93.
  • I’m set to spend around £1,700 more than the average Amazon member, of the same status, this year (2019 Prime member spend is around £1,116 per year).

If you take my fiancée’s account and orders into consideration too, there’s now rarely a day goes by (evenings and weekends included) without an Amazon parcel arriving at our door.

Why am I spending more and more, with Amazon?

There are some obvious, rational and valid reasons for this behaviour – and some not-so-obvious, far more insidious motivations.

I’m an Amazon Prime member, and have been since 2016. This could partly explain my five-year spending spike. Perhaps I’m trying to get the best bang for my buck – capitalising on the ‘free’ delivery – and purchasing items I’d normally buy at the shops? All because I can now get them delivered to my door, the very next day, with nothing more than a few clicks.

As a family, we also welcomed our baby girl, Lola, into the world in the last year. We’re a little more time-poor than before, meaning a service like Amazon can help us out with nappies, wipes and baby must-haves, again, at the click of a button.

Stepping back for a moment and peering into my own psyche, I fear there’s probably more at play. Prime membership and new baby explains some of it, but throw in a sprinkling of Amazon’s innovative personalisation and ruthless conversion algorithms, and you’ve got a lethal concoction. It causes Amazon Fever – and it’s something I can’t seem to sweat out.

Of the 524 items I’ve received in 14 years, how many did I really need?

“All of them”, I tell myself!

Realistically, the answer is, “very few of them”.

Aside from the odd gift for someone else, most of the crap I buy on Amazon doesn’t enrich my life. The motion-activated toilet seat light that I bought neither assisted me when peeing in the dark, nor made my bathroom experiences more satisfying. If anything, it just ended up covered in wee and kept falling into the toilet water.

This is where I believe the real power of Amazon lies; it tunes into what I consider are personal, marginal gains – and convinces me it can solve some of my everyday gripes with a raft of affordable solutions.

When I have a light bulb moment about a particular way I can fractionally enhance my life with an Amazon purchase, I click a few buttons – and my ‘solution’ arrives the very next day.

At some point, being able to pee in the dark against the warming hue of an LED light was a problem that needed attention.

What flicks my light bulb switch in the first place?

This is where it gets quite dark (I should have kept the LED light…)

These problems are things I’m not aware of 99% of the time, until I come across them on my highly personalised Amazon homepage.

Another partner in crime then pairs up with my ‘there’s a fix for that’ mantra to improving domestic life: Amazon’s up-sell model.

In the end of the day, Amazon doesn’t just survive because it sells things. It facilitates, learns and develops, using our own data and online habits to sell us more – and it’s a master at doing so.

At the core of the empire, Amazon’s product review system is one of its biggest allures and sales drivers. Real people (mostly), saying real things (mostly), about real products. Link this with algorithms that figure out what each customer is most likely to buy, then puts that item in front of said customer at the right time/on the right channel, with personal twist (“Greg, more items to consider…”) and you’ve got something very powerful indeed.

It’s emotional manipulation, no matter how you look at it.

I read something on LinkedIn very recently that said, “Marketing is about connecting with the customer to truly enhance their purchase experience”. That’s certainly one way to consider things – and the marketer in me doesn’t disagree.

Cutting to the chase though, it’s also about catching people, unaware, at the right moment, in the right mindset and manipulating their conscious to create an opportunity for behaviour change that impacts conversion and ultimately commercial gain. If that’s not at the heart of any marketing strategy, then it’s not worth the napkin it’s written on the back of.

To venture deeper, there has been a throng of studies carried out on the psychology of the 21st century shopper. One thing we’ve learned is the allure of shopping and the experience it offers can be compared with that of addiction to food, alcohol and drugs. Rational thought creeps out the window, the endorphin rush kicks in, and we click the ‘buy now’ button and get the buzz.

Quite often it’s the thrill of the hunt that floats our boats – and once the high dies, and the item is in our possession, we’re already looking for the next hit. Or in my case, the next problem to solve.

In an online world, with fingertip convenience, it has become harder and harder to fight this chemical-induced urge.

What is Amazon’s position in all of this?

I came across an interesting find within Amazon’s own cultural handbook. CEO, Jeff Bezos, has built the company around a number of ‘secret sauce Leadership Principles’ – his words, not mine. These internal values help guide employees to make good business decisions (generate profit).

One of the Principles is, Obsessive compulsive focus on the customer as opposed to obsession over the competitor…” to quote Mr. Bezos himself (Washington, September 2018). Whilst this sounds very noble in what has been dubbed The Age of the Customer, I’d challenge that it’s all fairly superficial.

Bubbling just below the surface of a customer-first, giving back and Corporate Social Responsibility enriched culture, I believe the Principle most likely translates into: “Focus on [manipulate] the customer’s obsessive compulsiveness”.

I admire Mr. Bezos for everything he has crafted and built – being at the helm from the dawn of Amazon’s humble online bookstore existence, to it’s colossal presence today.

However, with the growth of every tech giant, you’ve only got to peak behind the curtain to expose the darker side of global fulfilment domination. Whether it’s Facebook’s unscrupulous approach to data management, or Amazon’s mistreatment of its warehouse staff on a global scale, there’s a knock-on effect from me getting my fix.

Should the convenience monoliths take a little more responsibility and operate more transparency of intent when it comes to easy-to-fleece idiots like me?

Finishing this piece, by comparing Amazon’s growth and grip to that of the illegal drug trade would be clichéd… right? I have my health, my family, my friends, my job – and a house full of crap. But I’m also funding a habit and keeping my fever at bay.

I guess the question is, “Will I be able to sweat it out, or should I just admit that I’m a functioning addict under the spell of Amazon’s siren-like call?”

Oh, if anyone’s interested, I’ve got these cheeseburgers, man…

A fading hero…

‘Hero’: a person who is admired for their courage,
outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.

A few weeks ago, I got to spend an entire weekend with one of my heroes.

He’s a shadow of his former self, but holds on to an incredible memory, and intelligence that dwarves my unparalleled 33 years.

I had to pick my moments for conversation carefully – not at risk of upsetting any kind of balance, but because his old body needs rest. Whilst watching the TV, there were fleeting moments, between dozing, where he burst into life. Regaling tales of growing up, family life, and travelling the world.

He was a proud military man; a marine, in fact. And over the years, his quite meticulous and soldierly nature has softened gracefully, as his hair has greyed, and movement has slowed to a laboured shuffle.

On the first day of my visit, I got a bit of a fright. He didn’t get up. I assumed the whisky and Guinness we shared in the evening past, had helped him with an extra few hours in bed. Sadly not; the short (300 yard) trip to the local pub the night before, had left him quite breathless. I checked on him a couple of times, and brought him coffee – I could tell he was embarrassed and felt like a burden. He slowly started to perk up – but I couldn’t help notice, as I stood in his bedroom, just how small his exhausted body was, as he lay blanket-wrapped in his old bed. In my head, he’s still that fiercely fit and commanding presence; taking me swimming, ski-ing, cycling and walking – across some of the most beautiful parts of Highland Scotland.

Morning turned into afternoon – and he surfaced, very slowly. The body might fade, but the steadfast determination and willingness to put on a brave face, keep calm and carry on, never falters. He apologised – which humbled me; what did he have to be sorry for? Living an honest, courageous and rich 93 years – and getting tired? I welled up when he explained to me that ‘he and his body were just slowly wearing out’.

We had lunch, dinner and breakfast together – his portions paled in comparison to mine, as he can only manage very small amounts; his appetite isn’t what it used to be. But as the weekend and small meals progressed, the banter flowed. We reflected on the way in which the world had changed – harking back to a time where things were simple. And better.

I love hearing about his past – he’s an incredibly interesting guy. Well-travelled, very well educated – and from that, has nothing but great stories and wisdom to share. Each time I opened my mouth, I worried that my words were insignificant compared to his. But his eyes widened, and ears twitched when I told him about my life and world. It’s so different to his. In a really good way. Two diverse generations colliding and sharing their knowledge, like trans-continental tribes meeting for the first time, and being equally impressed by each other’s unusual wares.

It was hard to hear that he doesn’t get out as much anymore. And that many of his close friends have passed away. Yet, I smile when I find out that he still lives a reasonably enviable social life; taking himself down to his local on a Sunday most week for the roast dinner, and keeping in touch with his old business partner at weekly lunches.

When I left him, it was with a feeling of absolute joy, and genuine sadness. He’s a gem of a human – probably in the top 0.0001% of bestest people in the entire world. And I got him all to myself for two days. But I did that awful thing people do, as I drove off to his waving hand and huge smile; will he be ok on his own? Are his days in his house (without help) numbered? Will I see him again?

That’s a stupid way to think; I know this. What I was lucky enough to get my hands on that weekend, was more incredible memories, of time spent with my hero. And unlike younger me, I appreciate these times more than ever – with a wistful respect and gratefulness for being able to spend time in his company.

Grandpa, you’re amazing. I’ve always thought that – and I think it more each time I see you. I know you’re not going to last forever, but I thank my stars for every second I’ve been lucky enough to spend with you – and every precious second to come.

You’re a hero.


It’s all lies; TV isn’t bad for you…

We’re exposed to a plethora of subscription streaming services, here in 2017. Not only has this content wave brought the entertainment world a little closer (and more conveniently) to our fingertips; but it’s forced the new age media monoliths to really up their game and start making better TV.

Gone is the waiting all week to catch some ‘decent’ TV – which was normally on a Saturday night (think Gladiators and Blind Date back-to-back); when shows started at a specific sit-down time and messing around/faffing during the ads was a sin, as there wasn’t a pause or rewind button in sight.

I think this shift is also a healthy kick up the arse for broadcasting in general – public service in particular (despite what the staunch Strictly fans might argue…) Bodies like the BBC have really had to pull their creative socks up over the past five or six years and this has actually resulted in some pretty sweet product from them too.

Digital storytelling

The digital entertainment age is truly producing gems. Once you choose your favoured arsenal from the now astounding number of service providers, and sort yourself out with a decent VPN to experience global broadcast – you’re ready to rock.

And by rock, I mean, finally, truly get your money’s worth. Not just your entertainment fix. And not only your choice of what to watch and when. But, an opportunity to enrich the soul. After all, that’s what TV should be doing…

In my eyes, looking at the medium in its most basic form – whether being absorbed on 55 inches or 5.5 inches – TV is a magical story-telling box.

Yes, it tries to sell us stuff. Yes, it can have its bad content days. But, in essence, and at its best (which I believe it hasn’t been until now), it’s a shaman-like domestic friend that entertains AND educates; throwing us wisdom and morals in 25, 55 or sometimes 79-minute (cheeky GOT finale) segments.

So, how doth the box enrich? Well, here’s a most recent, personal example, that has genuinely improved my life through its clever characters, socio-cultural messaging and sheer elegance.


Gosh, this one didn’t half sneak up on me. Don’t judge a book by its cover, my Granny always told me. Well, nowadays, we shouldn’t judge a TV show by its promo shot or name. After seeing Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley and Nicole Kidman (none of whom are my favourite on-screens stars) lined up next to each other under the title of ‘Big Little Lies’, I thought, “A new take on the Gilmore Girls; probably a light-hearted comedy romp – not unlike Modern Family, but sadly without Phil.”


I couldn’t have been more wrong. Admittedly, even after the first episode, I wasn’t convinced. It was the lovely, smart and culturally-enriched (I’m calling this sentence my begrudging apology) Kirsty who said to me, “Jeez Greg, give it a chance; everyone who’s watched it, LOVED it.”

And she couldn’t have been more right. Here’s what the show absolutely owned, what I think it teaches us, and why it ended up meaning so much to me:

Big little life-lessons

  • Getting the slightly less important, but still very cool ‘style over substance’ segment of this piece out the way; wow – what a cool/beautiful show. With Lynch-esq creepy flashbacks and cut scenes aplenty, opening credits that tell their own mysterious little story and a masterfully picked soundtrack, Big Little Lies pulls no creative punches. And this is enough to whet any TV appetite (“It looks damn good, so it’s probably going to be pretty damn good” – I convinced myself).
  • Slightly meatier stuff now. I really like a good tale of Trouble in Suburbia. Why? Because, it erodes social barriers, challenges our understanding of the norm and reminds us that we’re all vulnerable/flesh and blood; that’s why. I love that the money, houses and high powered jobs of the majority in Big Little Lies, can’t mask their misery, nor solve their problems (actually, it makes them worse and drives unhealthy competition that distracts from resolution). This is all rather akin to some of my all-time favourite horrors (sorry to bang that drum again); where middle/upper-class suburbia is violently disrupted by the menace of an unseen/evil presence. There’s nowhere to hide. And white picket fences don’t mean shit when there’s trouble to fight.
  • Auteur-wank out the way, what really got and taught me, were the frightening everyday social issues and their depiction by a collection of, IMHO, the most inspiring, influential and genuine characters I’ve seen on the screen. Our suburban heroines find power in sharing and connecting their individual struggles. A great ‘love thy neighbour’/problem-shared-problem-halved analogy and lesson in today’s fast-moving and sometimes lonely world. The characters’ journey through adversity, is ultimately rewarded with real friendship, respect and trust (the power I mention). I think we’ve got a lot to take from this and learn, as a society – particularly my fellow dudes, who are synonymous with bottling up/non-sharing which can result in seriously messed up and damaged mental health to name but one of the many unwanted by-products. More often than not, it’s really positive and healthy to share, unload, discuss and support, when it comes to social taboo. Fuck being British about it. Fuck being ‘brave’ about it. Just talk/share a random connection, even if it’s with someone you don’t know, or even like (your ex-husband’s sexy new partner, or your daughter’s friend’s mum who thinks she’s better than everyone else because of her amazing job).
  • To loop back, I also think this show (and other TV diamonds) go beyond a portrayal of simple honesty and opening up. They transform into something more quintessentially human than we realise. A deeper level of emotional intelligence that’s probably helped us get to where we are today. Let’s look back at the wonder (medium) of TV itself, for a moment: our magical storytelling box. Well, these are the stories being told – and we’re witnessing the true art of sharing, teaching, etc. Telling our own stories, in a thousand different ways. They don’t have to be a happy or funny. Quite often, the best aren’t – they’re simply ranked as ‘the best’ because they’re the ones that help us teach each other about the important things in life. It’s a true gift of humankind. And we’ve found the optimum stage (and constant flow of rich content) to finally use and spread it.

Thanks, Reese, Nicole and Shailene. And thanks, Netflix; you’re helping me become a better person. Or at the very least, recognise what it takes to become a better person. And all for £7.99 a month.

My mum always says, “Too much TV isn’t good for you; most of what you watch is absolute rubbish.” I think she’s partly right. Staring at a screen for hours isn’t good for anyone. But I must stress the ‘partly’… Nowadays, thanks to real investment back into what seemed like a dying medium, I reckon more and more of what we consume is absolute gold.

Image courtesy of HBO.

Fear no evil…

As adults, I think we forget how to be afraid (be very afraid), therefore losing the invaluable benefit experiencing fear provides.

I much preferred encountering fear as a kid. It seemed bloody awful at the time – and Little Me would scorn Big Me for making such an arrogant statement. But, I genuinely believe that the fear you experience as a child is so much more productive and life defining than any of the rational (or likely, irrational) worries you amass as an adult.

Little Me, definitely aligned with The Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition of fear:

“An unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm.”

As a child, it was a visceral sensation; truly unpleasant, and very much fuelled by the imagination. In my case, a wildly overactive one at that.

Growing up, I’d managed to bury and repress most, if not all, of my childhood fears. And I actually forgot what either caused them, or what they felt like. That was, until Kirsty and I made an unplanned trip to the pictures…

We went to see Andrés Muschietti’s new spin on one of my childhood favourites, and Stephen King’s 1986 masterpiece, IT. In terms of movie making and for entertainment value, it’s a solid 7/10, perhaps a 7.5. Big Me is super-nostalgic when it comes to things from Little Me’s past – so, if I wasn’t such a pragmatic critic, I’d probably give it 9.5. It’s an 80s pastiche masterpiece (Stranger Things really lead the way here recently) in terms of look, feel, score and character narrative. HOWEVER, that’s not what got me…

IT reminded Big Me of the things Little Me really feared – I’ll come back to what these ‘things’ really boil down to. What’s strange now, is that these ‘fears’ (well-deserving of their inverted commas), seem rather less menacing – and carry a far deeper meaning. Watching Bill Skarsgård nail his portrayal of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (says a big Tim Curry fan) took me back to witness my childhood fears again, firsthand*. This time though, from the outside looking in. Not only did everything appear rather retrospectively rational (despite what my parents told me) – but the fear seemed warranted and relevant, and it made me long for that feeling again. So I set about trying to understand why I miss it and why it (only now) made so much sense… Bear with me here.

Big Me’s take on IT, and my longing for its childhood fear qualities, aligns far better with Oxford’s fourth definition of the word:

“A mixed feeling of dread and reverence.”

So – if that was Big Me’s contemporary understanding of Little Me’s fears, then what did I fear today? How have my fears developed into 2017, and produced this weird yearning for my childhood worries and anxieties?

Sadly, it’s not nearly as exciting as fear of the Bogeyman (or evil incarnate – which I’m coming to). The things that I dread and fear these days – that wake me up in a cold sweat and have me scrambling for the comforting glow of my iPhone screen – seem altogether pathetic and pointless. Yet, I’m still paralysed, sometimes crushed emotionally and physically, by their terrifying power. So, how do they manifest themselves?

Well, most often in the form of receiving emails, thinking about work-life balance and worrying about Brexit…

…Cue a face-palm and giggle from Little Me at this very thought, as he pedals off to Morningside park to start fires and kiss girls.

Fears nowadays suck. I can’t think of a better way to put it. They’re actually really tough to recognise and should be really easily managed – yet they’re entirely all-consuming and insurmountable at the same time.

SO – it looks like Oxford’s second and third definitions of fear are now what Big Me wrestles with daily:

“A feeling of anxiety concerning the outcome of something.”

“The likelihood of something unwelcome happening.”

This is where I think the Little Me fears, and my desire to experience them once again, really stand up against Big Me’s distinct lack of understanding as to what’s causing my anguish. I’ve asked myself what the fundamental difference between the two is… And here’s my half-baked theory:

Big Me lacks the primordial fear of evil. Please bear with me!

What New Line’s baddies do so very well, is personify a malevolence (evil) that represents the unknown. As humans, we tend to demonise/turn from that which we do not know, recognise or trust. More often than not, we end up labelling the unfamiliar with a subconscious sense of potentially ‘wicked, harmful and unpleasant’. As a kid, this is ultimately what I feared the most – the unseen and unknown. Pennywise and Freddy capitalise on this beautifully – taking fear of the unknown (growing up, rites of passage, becoming an adult) and giving them a very recognisable face and presence.

Which begs the question, how do the heroes in these silver-screen sensations triumph?

Pretty simple really; they face their fears. They confront evil. They, essentially, get to grips with the unknown and accept their rites of passage.

The recognise that their fear generates and feeds the evil within – so, once they understand and confront it, there’s very little left to fear, apart from fear itself!

So, my Big Question of The Day, is:

What would Little Me say to Big Me about the fear I experience today?

I think he’d be surprised at the things I’m scared of (electronic messages and post-Brexit Europe). Big Me would agree with this – and be quick to admit to Little Me, that based on the above theory, the above examples are actually great illustrations of the unknown. Which is inherently what drives Little Me’s fear, and manifests as evil. Big Me would also point out that, as you grow up, your intuition changes and tries to convince you that:

  • There are less unknowns (you’re a grown up, act like one)
  • You’re in control (erm – you’re a grown up, please act like one)
  • You’re weak/nuts to think otherwise (you’re a bloody grown up, act like one!)

Therefore, what could Big Me learn from Little Me, in dealing with evil (the fear generated from the unknown)? Simple – recognise it, admit it and confront it. Don’t hide from it. Don’t become a slave to it. Otherwise, you’ll end up being consumed by it. I must admit, this is the skill I’ve totally lost/forgotten about as an adult. My fears seem very different, and not inherently evil – so I ignore/quash them. But, that’s because I’ve forgotten how to fight them. I’ve forgotten what it takes to crush the unknown. Let’s be honest – email is genuinely evil and Brexit is an actual nightmare.

Here’s a terrible graphic explanation of what I’m getting at:


WOW. Thanks Little Me – I’ll genuinely apply that thinking. Too often, I get lost in a world of work and stress, never actually confronting or dealing with my own evils and subsequent fear. I’m going to step back, and see how I can confront these unknowns. It’s not always easy, when every email message that comes into my inbox sends my heart racing at the prospect of what it contains. But I reckon there are far smarter ways of dealing with this specific model. Perhaps I could concentrate on not becoming a slave to the motion/machine, and having a better understanding of what it is the people who are contacting me are looking for? A face-to-face follow-up normally always helps untangle the mysteries of an email’s tone and/or content. Little ME could be on to something here.

To finish, Big Me has one last point to argue internally, with glib Little Me – what about the evil that exists in the world today, that’s not an extraterrestrial or supernatural manifestation of the unknown? What about the evil of humankind – the evil of people? Big Me asks this specifically just after another bona fide nut-bar has tried to blow-up innocent people on the London Underground, thankfully, failing to take any lives this time but nonetheless further spreading the panic/hatred for the evil of terrorism.

Little Me would respectfully remind Big Me, without pretending for a second to truly understand the mentality of terrorists, or the complex political/religious drivers, that more often than not, it’s still a fear of the unknown at play. A lack of understanding stemming from something, that’s become so twisted and misconstrued over the decades (and centuries) that we’re unable to see the root for what it is.

Thanks Little Me. I’ll take some of that wisdom. Breaking down fear/evil and trying to understand more about (and confront) the unknown, ain’t a bad way to approach things in life.


*It’s worth pointing out, that 2017’s IT was masterfully crafted by the same production house, New Line Cinema, who gave birth to the ultimate (and my favourite) Bad Guy – Freddy Krueger. Not dissimilar in traits and evil impersonation, to Pennywise.

[Headline image credit to New Line Cinema]

Malaysia – Part 1

Kirsty and I recently returned from what turned out to be one of the most exciting, action-packed and mentally enriching breaks we’ve ever been on.

I must admit, Malaysia wasn’t somewhere we were particularly familiar with – for example, I had no clue Borneo was part of the country, split into states shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei?!?)

Our lovely pals, Carla and Alessio, moved to Kuala Lumpur at the end of last year and asked us to come visit. So, we jumped at the chance; there’s no way better to explore a new city/country with good friends, who already have the lay of the land.

Alongside a scheduled few days in KL staying with Carla and Alessio, we were keen to experience other parts of this tropical kingdom. So, with the help of Carla/Alessio, and another friend who’d lived in Malaysia (thanks Stu!) we put together an itinerary that would take us across to costal Borneo, then into the world’s most ancient rainforest, and finally back to the northeast tip of mainland Malaysia to stay on the Perhentian Island(s).

Here’s a chaptered breakdown of what we got up to in each place – I’ll try and keep the ramblings short, so the photos/videos can do the talking 😉

Kuala Lumpur –

The night-time view atop a helipad bar in the city centre.
Carla and Alessio kindly put us up in their incredible, city-centre apartment – a couple of blocks from the Petronas Towers. From the dizzying heights of the 39th floor, we could see out across the city and into the hills surrounding KL. We were well and truly spoiled by our hosts, experiencing an exciting ex-pat life in this buzzing metropolis.

KL really is the perfect mixture (and balance) of old and new – sporting enough skyscrapers and architectural wonders to rival any other South-East Asian city, or global city, for that matter. Every structure is built/inspired by this awesome melting pot of cultures and people – notably Chinese, Indian, British and of course, Malay.

Funnily enough, KL shouldn’t really be a city – by conventional standards. It’s not particularly near the coast (so no port), nor on a single, major river. And it’s hardly protected like a fort atop some great hill or mountain. From my hazy 37-degree memory of our open-top bus tour, KL came about as a meeting place for tin-producing traders at the converging point of two small rivers – and from there, expanded exponentially. And so a city was born when the trader’s first roads met at this ‘muddy confluence’ – which is exactly what Kuala Lumpur means in Malaysian. Nice fact Greg. Probably not entirely accurate, but hopefully close enough.

The KL-ites are fiercely proud of their cultures and city’s history – I’ve never seen so many museums in one place! There was even an entire (rather large) museum dedicated to the Malaysian police! Respect.

There are a ton of beautiful green spaces in KL – which add to the ‘city balance’ that I mentioned earlier. Although it’s a metropolis – it doesn’t feel like your typical concrete jungle, as Mother Nature well and truly has her presence felt on almost every block with parks, gardens and general greenery.

The smell of food across and throughout the city streets at all times of the day is amazing – again, all the more magical thanks to the epic mix of cultural (culinary) knowledge and skill. And the smells are intensified by the incredible heat and humidity – partnered with the distinct feeling that the sky’s going to open up and piss puppies and kittens any second.

Despite the fact there’s massive amounts of construction happening everywhere in this vast 21st century city (a la Dubai), there’s a humbling reminder of the country’s religious past and present each evening as the beautiful, lingering echo of the Adhan (Islamic call to prayer) rings out from the mosques across the packed 8-lane highway and past the glitzy shopping malls.

KL, you’re quite some city!

It makes scents

I believe smell is our most interesting, and probably the most commercially untapped, sense. After working for 10 years in creative communications and marketing, I also think it’s an unsung hero when it comes to building brand awareness and loyalty. I’m not talking about those prehistoric, peel-back perfume panels you found in copies of GQ, that 14 year-old you ripped open and rubbed enthusiastically on your wrists/neck at WH Smiths, in the vein hope it would send the local females stampeding to your location (a la Lynx). No, definitely not. I’m talking about powerful and memorable, actual, real life experiences with products or services.

PANIC NOT – this isn’t a poor excuse for creation of some Mickey Mouse business content, to boost my career ego (although…) Like the last few pieces I’ve thrown together, there’s a sprinkling of nostalgia in this one*, for very good reason.

Incredibly, 75 percent of our bodily reactions and emotions are triggered by smell. When it comes to memory in particular, smell kicks the butt of its sibling, sight. Visual recall is about 50% accurate after three months, whereas people can remember, recall and describe smells with approximately 65% accuracy after an entire year. This probably has something to do with the fact that our sight relies on four kinds of light sensors within the eye, while we boast over 1,000 different smell receptors. And they constantly regenerate and evolve.

For me, smell is a very visceral sense – especially when it comes to memory. ‘So is hearing, and so is taste’, I hear you cry. Don’t get me wrong, our other senses are remarkable – and command individual respect. We know taste and smell are very closely linked – smell accounts for 75-95% of our taste experience. But smell is actually our very first sense to develop, before we’re even born. It’s fully functional and perfectly formed the very second we escape the warm clutches of the womb. Smell also stimulates the brain’s limbic system; regarded as the primitive bit of our head-coral because similar structures were present in the brains of planet earth’s first mammals.

Here are four smells that evoke something pretty raw and magical in my memories. Some are relatively new, and others have been with me for three decades:

1) Suncream. Specifically the Nivea brand, in those big blue bottles with the yellow tops. It instantly transports me to family holidays: Spain, The French Alps, America, Australia and even the tropical north of Scotland! We were very lucky as kids; one thing mum and dad truly believed was the broadening of our little horizons, with annual trips to some pretty impressive places. My positive holiday associations with the sweet smell of suncream are endless – beaches, my siblings, sunshine, heat (maybe not in Scotland), ice cream, Fanta, salted skinny chips, the sea, villas, boats, bays, mountain walks, etc. For me, suncream = warmth and happiness.

2) Tom Ford fragrances. Specifically Oud Wood and London. For anyone who claims their preferred perfume or Eau de Whatever doesn’t last throughout the day – try some Tom. His fragrance line is incredible, super-pricey, but incredible. I actually can’t put my finger on the exact things they evoke – to be honest, I think it’s some really primordial stuff. Oud Wood literally carries you to the Middle East (I promise I’m not on commission). And the rather commanding London has a hint of what I can only describe as ‘musk on steroids’**. The smells completely alter when worn by different people, and sometimes catch your breath – his Tuscan Leather offering is too much for me, but genuinely whiffs like old Chesterfield, if that’s your thing. In short, Mr Ford’s potent potions take me to places I’ve never visited before, and stir in me, some of life’s more primitive thoughts/emotions. Now that’s pretty cool.

3) Freshly cut grass. I spent a lot of time outside as a kid. Either in our back garden or local park. From April thru September/October, the grass was always long and soft enough to chase each other on, play football on, or just roll around on. It was also regularly cut, thanks to its impressive growth rate, stimulated by our rather wet summer climate. Those cuttings are the smell of friendship, reminding me of summers with pals, siblings and very few cares (and fewer cars). Walking past cut grass gardens or parks nowadays makes me smile from ear to ear, and remember pals I thought I’d forgotten about.

4) Hot metal & oil. Ok, this is probably the weirdest one – or at least, that which is most unique to me. It’s closely linked to the holiday thing again, and does evoke happiness. But beyond that, it reminds me why I love TV and movies as much as I do. Florida is warm pretty much all year round, especially for a Scot. In fact, it’s hot – really hot. It also plays host to some of the best theme parks in the world. Universal Studios is a particular favourite of mine – and has been since the first time I visited, aged seven, right through until my fifth or sixth trip last year. When you mix theme parks and heat, you get some very interesting smells. Yep – candy floss, hot dogs, cookies, popcorn and all the other food-goodies a park has to offer. But next time you visit, and step inside/outside one of the attractions – see what you can smell. I finally cracked it last year, when Kirsty and I were in Harry Potter World. It’s the scent of the very hot metal/oil and moving parts that power the rides and machinery that I’m talking about. It gives off a really pleasing mechanical smell (almost in the same vein as petrol) and reminds me of thrills, excitement and movies. Told you it was weird.

If smell can be this powerful, when it comes to memory recall and stimulation of emotion – then I reckon there’s some serious spare legroom when it comes to commercial, creative development of brands and products.

I like to think I’m a wee bit savvy, after working in marketing for around a decade, and am proud to recognise (and circumvent) most of the visual tricks and design practices brands use for ‘engaging the customer’. In the same vein, I like to think my ears are even better trained when it comes to the use of things like NLP sales techniques and ambient in-store music to ease consumers into purchase.

But good old advertising smell-tactics get me every time.

I reckon they tap into the mantra of my above examples, in the same kind of way. But when they’re specifically linked to buying things and positive experience of a brand, I’m shafted; hook, line and sphincter. Some great global executions of this technique include:

  • Singapore Airlines – aim to reduce passenger anxiety and the stench of stale cabin air, by spraying their own scent into the aircraft fuselage and on to hot towels.
  • Abercrombie & Fitch – like to hammer your senses with their Fierce cologne, sprayed in-store and on all merchandise, to create a permanent scented memory of your purchase, their products and the experience.
  • JW Marriott – blast their own unique scent, ‘Subtle Sophistication’, around their lobbies and hotel rooms. Described as ‘soft and fresh, with a hint of citrus’, it appeals to both business travellers and holidaymakers alike – and can even be bought as candle.

Sensory brand expert, Carlos Jose Hinolan, describes how and why this works for us:

“With scent-diffusing technology, you can create a distinct aroma for your brand that will not only add to recall, but also trigger specific feelings with your consumers… Scent marketing can “amplify consumer spending, attract customers, and create memorable brands.”

I’d like to see more brands explore these techniques. However, I think this can be somewhat limited to those brands that offer tangible products or physical experiences. It’s nice to believe a bank could have a recognisable scent. Something that you smell when you walk into a branch, or, when you receive your new Visa card in the post? Perhaps a bold, but calming and welcoming scent – something that instils trust and reassurance could go a long way in building bank brand loyalty? Yet, reality suggests this would be a waste of time when physical finance paraphernalia is becoming increasingly redundant in our post-digital world, and more and more branches are shutting every day***.

So maybe this is a bit of a cry for sensory help, from an already too jaded (and still relatively young) marketing and communications professional. In the digital age, a centillion 1s and 0s have revolutionised our brand experiences; albeit, through a succession of screens and swipes. Should we, therefore, invest a little more in promoting an experience when it comes to product interactions in the ‘real world’?

As our physical contact with things becomes less and less necessary, I for one, would like to make sure when I do get exposed to brand tangibles, that it’s a wholly splendid encounter – and one that I remember for years to come. I want it to be etched in my olfactory memory forever, like Singapore Airlines and JW Marriott, or suncream and cut grass 😉


*I promise this isn’t my writing MO… yet.

** It smells like sex. In a good way. It’s very hard to describe. And now I sound very weird for liking/wearing it. Don’t laugh or nay-say until you’ve sniffed it.

*** Incredibly, this has been trialled on a micro-scale. At Ocean Bank in Florida, Senior Management agreed on creation of a brand scent called ‘Ocean Blue’, which fills the air in their 21 branches. Last I heard, they were even looking at scented pens and cheque-book covers!!

[Headline image credit to Universal Studios, Florida]

My killer creativity – five things I believed as a kid

Big thanks to a recent FB article and Channel Four’s ever entertaining, ‘The Secret World of Four/Five/Six Year-olds’ for inspiration with this piece.
When you’re small, you see the world in a very different way. That’s not purely down to your physical size (always staring upwards). It’s because you think in a fundamentally different way.

As a wean*, you’re in a pretty unique position – you don’t know a great deal.

This is a bit of a blessing for two reasons:

  • Firstly – you’re likely protected from, or vaguely unaware of, the bad in this world (though sadly, not all children are quite so lucky). You’re hopefully oblivious to the horrors of war, the tragedy of insidious substance abuse and the ridiculousness of Donald Trump being leader of the free world.
  • Secondly – you get to make your own mind up. And you get to make your own connections. The rules aren’t all written in your head. It’s time to get creative.

Sure, your parents, family, friends, school-chums et al can help guide your understanding of Planet Earth, and all its things, great and small. You’ve also got the information super-highway** – where you can search for all of life’s answers and consume ‘content’ til your heart’s content. But despite these epic knowledge support tools and sources, there will be the odd occasion, where you have to make up your own mind.

I asked a lot of questions as a kid. A lot. Almost drove my parents insane. And they (quite rightly) sometimes took the piss, just to shut me up, by providing answers that were, to say the least, light on the truth. Filling my head with, plausible, yet incorrect facts about our lives, the world and the way things are.

To amplify this – I indeed made my own assumptions about certain things. I was a fairly confident little chap – and when there were gaps in my knowledge or blanks on the page, I’d make shit up. I’d connect what I had in my head, with whatever seemed most likely (to a five year-old). And I’d accept it as truth.

The funny thing is, looking back, I truly believe these were some of the most neurologically interesting and cognitively creative thoughts I’ve ever had.

Here are five of the many things that I thought were true, as a kid:


Remember VHS? Man, video was awesome. All that tracking adjustment and rewinding. Good times. At the Smith household, we recorded a lot of TV to video. I guess that’s just what you did in those days – for rainy days, before Netflix and VOD. In my tiny, creative mind, I believed that when you recorded something from TV, it could only be played back once. After it had been watched from the recording, that was it. Gone. Up in a puff of smoke and lost forever. This almost broke my heart circa 1989, when we captured Jim Henson’s magical Labyrinth on tape – and I thought I’d only get to see it again once. I got to work; planning how/when would be the best time to take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity to see Magic Dance once again (and Bowie’s crotch)… Then mum told me I was being stupid, and it was ours to keep/watch as many times as we wanted. Mind. Blown.


Here’s another and one I can thank my dad for. “How do I get hairs on my body, like you, Dad”, four-year-old me asks… “Well son, you’ve got to rub a lot of salt on yourself. Then you pour a big glass of water – and put it next to you. Very slowly, all the wee hairs will start to come out, because they’ll be so thirsty, and desperate for a drink. When they do, you’ve got to CATCH THEM – QUICKLY! And tie each one in a knot – so they can’t escape back in again. And that’s how you get lots of hairs on your body.” Once again, mind blown. Though, I never got round to actually trying this (before I found out the truth), because it seemed like a right hassle. “Who needs hairs!?!”, I thought.


Seeing black and white photos of my parents when they were wee, or my grandparents and their families really, really threw me. I thought to myself, “Our world and photos are in colour. But looking back, the old world and photos and movies are in black and white… So, there it is. The world must have been in black and white back then. Of course!” I truly believed that one day someone simply worked out how to ‘turn on the colour’, and hey presto! Realising years later that it was technology (and not our physical existence) that was unable to process colour in the olden days blew my mind once again.


In the late 80s there was a monster living in my house. Genuinely. A big, black one – like a mixture between The Wolfman and a Minotaur. And he was absolutely terrifying. I’ve got my parents to thank for this one too – as they planted the seed, and good lord, watered it daily and let it grow. Every kid has his or her monster story – sometimes they live under the bed, or in the closet. Ours dwelled in the attic, and was known affectionately as ‘The Hairy Monster’. What didn’t help things was dad owning a horrible black/hairy Halloween mask – which he took to wearing on the odd occasion and scaring the absolute piss out of us. I also vaguely remember him having a full-blown ‘fight’ in the loft one night, after he convinced us he could go up there and ‘sort the monster out’. This fucking thing literally haunted my dreams. I can still picture him now (exactly what he looked like in my head). Rather than blowing my mind, growing up to realise he didn’t actually exist, let along live in our house, actually gave me the greatest sensation of relief I’ve ever experienced.


As short-lived as this last belief was, the mind-battle I went through wrestling with the truth on this one still lives with me today. At the end of our garden is a big tenement block (flats). One breezy day, as child, I looked up to the top of the building, only to be horrified to see the building moving. Literally, moving. It looked like it was slowly falling towards me. Panicked, I swiftly retired to the house. Only to return later, and experience the same dizzying (and terrifying) sensation. HOW HAD I NOT NOTICED THIS BUILDING FALLING INTO OUR GARDEN BEFORE!?! After a few anxious days, I eventually quizzed my lovely mother about this horrifying situation – to which she replied, “It’s just the clouds blowing in the sky. It’s called an optical illusion.” Tiny little mind, like the clouds in the sky, blown…

I think these are all examples of creativity at its best.

If you boil it down, ‘being creative’ (which everyone on this planet is absolutely capable of, before someone says “but I’m not creative,”) is about making connections between things***. These connections can be obvious, they can be interesting, and they can be complex, or cathartic, thought provoking, or Machiavellian, you name it. As long as you’re connecting one thing to another, you’re effectively ‘being creative’. Mankind is obsessed with connections. Physical or psychological. It’s scientifically proven that they’re one of the ways we make sense of our broad, and somewhat complex, spectrum of human emotion. We look for them in almost everything we do, day in, day out – probably without ever realising that’s what we’re actually doing****.

And so, my mission (and I urge others to try the same) is to regress a little. When you’re facing a challenge (in work, personal life, or with family/friends) – try a little five-year-old YOU logic. Throw away a bit of what you already know, and make some connections – like you might have done as a kid. Before the world got you all wrapped up in its ways, rules and beliefs.

You might just come up with something pretty cool – like a black and white world, a hairy attic monster or buildings that move by their own accord.



*One of my favourite Scots words – meaning ‘children or babies’.

**As it was called on News Round in 1994, before people realised that was a shite name.

***I’ve formed this opinion after working in the creative industry for the last 10 years or so. It’s not new, nor mine – Steve Jobs is at least one dude I admire, who talked about creativity in this sense. Some of the most creative peeps I’ve worked and work with, are those that make these connections with ease. Quite often, the obvious ones, that no-body else is quick enough to get. Old-fashioned lateral thinking, dad would say.

****One of the most fascinating ways we do this is actually with people’s faces. Upon meeting someone new, whose face we’ve not seen before, we’ll immediately start flicking through our mind’s eye records of memorised faces to see who’s they’re most like/most closely connected to (whether the logged entry is someone we know personally, or not). That’s just how we’re wired.

[Headline image credit to the awesome Scott Murphy. Check out his incredible work – http://murphyillustration.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/new-magic-minotaur-younghorn.html?m=1%5D