January 4, 2019

Thank You for Being Here

Happy New Year!

If you are already back in action after the holiday break, it may be tempting to just get on with things. For most people, it’s not worth spending time on resolutions, primarily because they don’t work, but there is something to be said for taking a moment to pause, reflect, look forward, and maybe express a little gratitude.

As we look back on 2018, we see a media miasma that blotted out a lot of important stuff. The new year is an opportunity to peer through the murk at some big themes we don’t want to miss the next time around. Below, we have listed nine that will drive our agenda this year.

Disruption I

A recurring theme, right? If your company is not thinking about disruptive innovation, it should be. We work with established companies, many with dominant positions in their respective markets, and we work with startup companies with big ambitions. What they usually have in common: existential fear related to disruption, albeit for somewhat different reasons.

This year, we’ll be keeping tabs on major disruptive forces and how they both affect and create opportunities for our clients. To get the ball rolling, we’ve been reading Ark Invest’s Big Ideas (it’s still last year’s version—we’re eager for the 2019 take), concurring with Kara Swisher's longing for the next wave, and using Twitter to keep tabs on the latest potentially disruptive intros.

Human nature

A lot of innovation, disruptive and otherwise, is enabled by technology, and it's easy to forget about the actual humans the technology is designed for. This year, we urge you to get out from behind your laptops and hang out with real live people. You can do it for all of the usual reasons (networking, self-promotion), but also consider what you may learn by listening and watching. If you are intodesign thinking, observational skills are the first step in creating solutions.

Experience, the Best Teacher

If your business interacts with consumers, check out what’s going on with retail reinvention. What used to be an exercise in trying to out-think Amazon is now about leaving an experiential imprint so deep that consumers can’t help but recall the brand the next time they embark on a purchase.

For example, if you are in NYC, take a spin through the Meatpacking District (and drop by to say hi—it’s where we hang our hats). While some may lament the loss of the neighborhood’s v.01 grittiness, the emerging v.02 is a hotbed of retail experimentation, and it’s instructive to watch and listen to how people interact with innovative environments. Observe the juxtaposition of a regular old Starbucks kitty-cornered with the striking new colossus adjacent to the Apple Store. Or check out the Lexus Intersect cafe and restaurant, the Samsung “digitalplayground,” or the sepulchral new RH “store.” You will almost certainly leave with an impression, not with a shopping bag.


The backlash has begun. All the cool people are dropping Facebook, right? (Ormaybe they just think they are.) And even Instagram is getting some bad press. Which makes for a big 2019 theme: what comes after social media?

One theory: more social media, but with greater utility. One of our newest clients is developing an app-based platform for consumers with specialized needs not currently met by the behemoths. Verticals, in other words, may extend the life of the social era.

But there are other theories out there, too, like shareable ads and short-form video. We’ll be keeping an eye on this one—our lifeblood, finding new ways of testing business growth strategies, depends on presenting them in the right venues.

We Like Mike

How can we provide even better insight about growth strategies in 2019? One way is to expand where and how we generate data to provide feedback on potential strategies—see "Anti-Social" above. The other is to use more and larger data sets to inform growth experiments. As we increase our offerings on both fronts, we need leadership and capacity on our team.

So we are excited to welcome Mike Alwill to the Spark No. 9 team. Mike joins Spark after spending 10 years as a data scientist at Google and a year on a creative sabbatical, where he authored his upcoming novel "Untethered." Since we are of two minds at Spark—creative and analytical—we think Mike is just the right person to help Spark grow.


Part of the magic we provide at Spark is bringing new products to life through great design—even when the products are still in the concept stage. It’s an inexpensive way to get feedback on strategy before too many things get baked in.

In 2019, we will continue to scour the landscape for design inspiration for branding. Here are a few we’ve found so far:
- The sophisticated beach vibe of Willow by the Sea, an Australian skin care brand for moms and babies
- Lyft's clever letter-play (although Cuomo took the stuffing out of this one!)
- The fingerpaint palette and bold graphics of Society, a new, possibly disruptive home products brand
-  Coral, Pantone's new color of the year

Words With Friends

Have you ever described a big idea to a room full of people and received enthusiastic feedback only to discover later that everyone had a completely different understanding of what you were talking about?

Us too.

We love words, but we find that they are often inadequate to describe important concepts. We love data, too, but we know that not everyone reacts to a double-scale chart with three data series with the level of delight that we might hope for.

So this year we are exploring how data, text, images, and graphic elements can convey complex ideas. So far, we have been inspired by the Tempestry Project, which is knitting scarves to portray climate change data, and Spotify, who shares a lot of weird data observations on billboards.

Disruption II

While we constantly scan the landscape for disruptive forces that affect our clients, we also need to keep an eye on our own sector.

Our mission at Spark is to work with clients to create demonstrably productive growth strategies. What sets us apart is validating strategies by testing them first, usually via online advertising campaigns targeted at discrete sets of potential customers.

This puts us into competition with (at least) two well-developed industries: management consultants and branding agencies, the positioning specialists within the larger advertising landscape. Turbulence within the advertising agency world has been documented for years, but the prospect of disruption in the management consulting industry is relatively recent.

Turmoil generally creates opportunity, so we enter 2019 with a mix of self-analysis and energy around a few questions: Are we disruptive? How? What is the market telling us about where to play?

Multiplying Like Habits

This would not be a new year’s missive without some sort of introspection. Ours is about habits, by many accounts a better way to achieve goals than tedious, forgettable weekly plans. There are books about habits and apps about habits, and people are working habit science into nutrition programs and other products. There is also lots of science about habits. So, no resolutions for us, just new habits.

Here’s one: thanking our readers. We are happy you are here, and we are grateful for all the fun comments you send us about our newsletters. Let’s get together this year.

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