The Age of Agency: Why brands need you more than you need them

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“Don’t buy this jacket.” And then all the reasons why you shouldn’t. That was the full page ad in the November 25, 2011 issue of The New York Times. On Black Friday no less. Patagonia proved that they stood for something more than really cool, really comfy outerwear.

It’s just one example of the nineties and noughties rise of brands that stood for – and against – things. For rights, for progress and against discrimination.

Think the United Colours of Benetton, collaborating with photographer Oliviero Toscani to produce ads featuring multiracial lovers, child soldiers and dying AIDS patients. Or Warby Parker making a pledge to “give one” when you “buy one” – turning the selfish act of buying a new pair of glasses into a selfless act of giving vision to someone less fortunate.

It’s a trend that still resonates today.

But it would seem the next era in brand narratives has its own theme – agency – and I don’t mean the one I work for with the beer and the table tennis. I’m talking about the kind that puts you in control. Of your actions. Your path in life. Your destiny.

Agency (the verb) is multifaceted. It’s a concept defined by choice and taking control of your own narrative. It’s a sense of freedom. It’s free will.

And agency is the reason we’ve seen the rise of a host of direct-to-consumer brands appealing to a world of interests and passion points, from personal hygiene to bespoke pharmaceuticals.

In this new paradigm, you – the empowered, conscious and cognitive consumer – are the Net Promoter. Your actions matter, and they determine the success of the brand, not the other way round. In this new world, brands need you.

It’s an idea that others have considered. In 2017, BBH Head of Strategy and Innovation Shai Idelson wrote about the ‘complete this sentence’ trend in advertising and communications that leads towards things starting to sound the same. His three-step guide to making a modern ad goes:

“Step 1: Take a verb

Step 2: Add “Your”

Step 3: Finish it off with a word that has something to do with what you’re selling.”

For example – Find Your More.

By doing this, brands appear to be empowering people and sparking agency in others. And Idelson sees a blind following of the ‘be yourself’ trend as moving away from what advertising has traditionally done.

But why are we moving that way?

To me, at least, the shift makes sense. In advertising, we seem to be ever inching higher up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Designed by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, it’s sketched out as a pyramid.

Things like food, shelter and sleep are at the bottom, and less tangible desires like ‘self actualisation’ and ‘transcendence’ sit at the top. In layman’s terms, it’s saying that our most basic needs must be met before we’re able (or motivated) to go higher.

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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, taken from simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

But we the privileged are no longer scrapping for survival. We’ve achieved love thanks to Tinder and Uber Eats and we’ve secured esteem as evidenced by the brands of the noughties. And the global derailment of the Corona virus is a reminder about how quickly this can all be undone.

So, now we’ve reached the top of the pyramid – ‘self actualisation’ – which is all about the growth of an individual toward fulfilment of the highest needs, and for meaning in life. You might call this the ‘best life’ box, that mental mode we aspire to where we get to epiphanise ourselves into a nirvana of self-made self-worth.

Is this really a role for brands to play?

It seems to me that agency (the verb) is where most brands are heading. Brand as an enabler. A brand model that can be broken down into a simple formula:

  • Here’s a belief about the world
  • Here are some tools and some ideas you can espouse
  • Oh, and here is some Goop that you use to slap on when you reach that plateau of self-worth

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Dove, Campaign for Real Beauty, 2004

A good example of this evolution is in the world of beauty. Consider the groundbreaking 2004 work contained within Dove’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ – a campaign defined by its empowering message and ambition to build confidence in women no matter their body or mindset.

Before then, Dove used the sorts of models you’d expect in a beauty product ad. But 2004 saw the brand promote a new idea of beauty – real women with real bodies. It saw Dove’s profits rise, and inspired the brand to continue with a series of purpose-driven campaigns that highlighted issues around body insecurity.

Compare that to the 2020 Sephora campaign titled ‘The Unlimited Power of Beauty’ – which talks to putting the power of make-up into the responsible hands of the user to accompany them through life’s ups and downs.

“Beauty is changing. It is no longer just on catwalks or in magazines but in our friends’ selfies or the latest uploads from influencers. Our smartphone screen has become our bathroom mirror,” the French agency BETC wrote in their campaign launch presser.

“Its meaning is also evolving – in culture, entertainment and social media, people are challenging the status quo, giving their own interpretation of what it means to be beautiful.”

It’s a subtle shift, sure, but the evolution is pretty clearly there. The former is an expose on body image and the harm it can cause, while the latter is a heartfelt story about self-worth being a mindset and choice you control.

And this is happening all over. Brands are doing more than reflecting beliefs. They are putting the power in our hands. I believe brands see agency as a force for good. Perhaps they believe it’s what people want, after all the reports and data on millennials tells us everyone is searching for their purpose.

As an agency (the noun) guy, I like it. It feels good, it’s empowering, it’s branding with intent. But up can’t be the only way. My genuine worry is where to next? If we’re in the top box – Self Actualisation – where do we go from here?

Perhaps the next wave will be full of ‘repair’ brands – those that pick up the pieces for consumers who have failed to reach the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy. As an example of this, consider brands that are emerging out of the COVID-19 pandemic: Judy, which sells disaster kits; or hims, helping you deal with your genetic and sexual shortcomings as a man.

Or perhaps the next wave means working more closely with ‘end-ups’ – companies and businesses that operate at the opposite end of the business cycle to start-ups.

John Maeda, the man who put the term ‘end-ups’ in the zeitgeist, argues that these are the brands that ultimately end up facilitating the innovation of startups for the greater benefit of society.

“Don’t forget that for all the bravado of the hoodie-wearing startup crowd, the majority of them wouldn’t hesitate to be acquired by an end-up. It’s easy to forget that an end-up is a company that has earned its reputation for being a reliable source of value,” he says.

“When you’re a teenager, it’s all too easy to dismiss a company that’s as old as a mum or dad. But it’s helpful to remind ourselves that being a ‘grown-up’ company is not a bad thing at all. After all, who wants to go back to when they were teenagers?”

A good example here is Tesla (innovator) and Ford (mass producer). Both benefit from the push and pull of technological creativity, but one is ultimately fragile and the other deep and resource-rich. The same applies to everything from Fintech to global energy businesses.

Perhaps by the time a business idea gets to an end-up, we will once again be talking about the function and benefits of these services and products, not their aspirational self actual promises.

– Andrew Reeves

Alone, Together: The Royals’ response to the coronavirus crisis

COVID-19 has changed us. So, as The Royals settled into isolation, we set a challenge. Creatively respond to the statement ‘coronavirus is like…’. Here’s what we came up with.

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– Ken Sum


This fetish of the apocalypse I’ve been carrying for years

Has started feeling real enough to peel away my skin

See, I went six months without remembering any of my dreams

And now they’re all about the things that used to bore me

Sometimes it seems as if the cracks in the walls are getting bigger

Sometimes it’s easier to keep laughing at the spaces in between

Maybe I’ll start digging. Maybe we should all start digging

Fuck, if hell is other people I’d rather have you there with me

– Dan Michael Jones


It’s been a wild 24 months in the world of data. In early 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke and millions of people realised organisations had access to a wealth of information about them. This led to the EU enforcing GDPR legislation, which regulated the need to ask for permission to collect data and to report data security breaches. And this led to a movement towards data protectionadblockers, private browsers and VPNs to prevent companies accessing their data.

Now, the world is in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic. The healthcare systems of Italy, Spain, USA and Iran are being overwhelmed. But some countries like Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan have managed to ‘flatten the curve’. How have they managed this? By accessing the personal data of millions of people.
Each of these countries was able to flatten the curve by tracking and tracing people’s movements via phone GPS, apps, security camera footage, even credit card records and matching them against health and travel records. The constant surveillance ensured those who contacted COVID-19 remained in quarantine and those who had interacted with them were notified early so they could self-isolate. Countries wanting to emulate Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan’s success are realising they will need to breach individual privacy for the sake of social security.

My take on all this is that once the pandemic passes we will come to accept some loss in data privacy (that we had only just won 24 months ago) for the greater good; and governments and organisations that have been granted access to our personal data will be reluctant to give it up.

– Dr Paul Vella


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– Luke Danzig


Coronavirus is a reminder that we are all connected. It’s pretty confronting being in lockdown. I miss my friends, family, colleagues, the daily commute, having somewhere to rush to, a sense of purpose. I miss feeling connected to my fellow humans. The iso blues are real, so I’ve been meditatinga lot.

Mostly when I’m meditating I try to focus on my breathnoticing without judgement when thoughts arise. This morning I was feeling particularly lonely, and the thought that kept coming up was just how quickly Coronavirus has spread.

I’m picturing those weird tree graphs that are being circulated online, illustrating how one person with corona can quickly and unwittingly share the horrible virus to thousands, its grotty tentacles reaching out insidiously. Ironically, isolation is a powerful reminder of how connected we all are.

My mind wanders on… drifting on this idea that there actually is no separation. When you breathe out, a moment later another person will be breathing in an atom that is still warm from your lungs. It’s kind of gross, but I like this thought – that on a cellular level, we are constantly recycling each other’s stuff. The air we breathe holds us together.

The corona tree graph pops back into view. I imagine all the nice things that we share without thinking about it. Laughter, kindness, emotional warmth, even lovethe positive energy of these things is deeply felt. When you share your good vibes with me, you make me happy and I share that happiness with others.  

Love spreads like a virus. Our goodness, our love reaches thousands too… now that’s a thought that just might carry me through these crazy times!

– Belinda Cecchini


Coronavirus is a collective dropping of the guard. This story is a mash-up of actual quotes and snippets from what has been posted by others in my social feed:

It’s okay if you are not creating right now. It’s okay just to survive for a bit. No shits given. Come to grips with three existential truths and meditate HARD. Went a little mad today after realising I hadn’t touched another human being for two weeks. Counting down the days til we’re reunited. Went for a very long walk. A socially distanced bushwalk. Comfort in ritual. My quarantine shadow. It is wonderful and undoing in equal quantities. Neighbours dropped off some saffron milk cap mushrooms. Good friends are the best antidote. Tonight, many of us were meant to be enjoying opening night of La Traviata at Handa outdoor opera on Sydney Harbour. Mum is spending all her time hiding in the bathroom watching TikTok videos on repeat. Everyone knows she has a stash of uppers hidden somewhere in the house. Just add vodka. It’s a trap. Sunday morning. I don’t know how to do this. But then I was sent these pictures from a Country Women’s Association shop in Hobart and it rather warmed my cockles.

– Dave Rood


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Coronavirus is house arrest for climate crime.

– Anthea Wright


I don’t know if I have 250 words in me for this, but it’s sure making me think about building a tiny house and GTFO of the city.

– Kitty Turpin


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 – Nick Cummins


Coronavirus is good conspiracy theory fodder. In these uncertain times, it’s hard to know who or what to believe. The only certainty is that people will jump to conclusions and spread wild conspiracy theories and fear. Here’s a list of the best and worst conspiracy theories doing the rounds:

  • The coronavirus is part of an American plot to ruin the Chinese economy.
  • The coronavirus is part of a Chinese plot to ruin America’s economy.
  • Disney+ released COVID-19 just in time for its launch.
  • COVID-19 arrived from space.
  • The UK government is baking a giant lasagne.
  • The French government is making a ginormous garlic bread.
  • Russian officials released lions to patrol the streets in an effort to enforce social isolation.
  • Cocaine cures COVID-19.
  • Drinking cow urine protects against COVID-19.
  • Greta Thunberg caused COVID-19 to help with climate change.
  • China has a vaccine that they will:
  1. Sell to the rest of the world.
  2. Give to the rest of the world for free as a sign of power.
  • COVID-19 is 5G attacking our brains.

Stay tuned and question everything. 

– Lewis Farrar


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– Ken Sum


Coronavirus is a kick in the gut. A lot of conversations I’m having with friends – virtually, because I haven’t seen any of them for more than two weeks – revolve around what this fucked-up virus is teaching us. And what it’s teaching us is how to slow down, how to truly focus on one day at a time. It’s teaching us what’s important – health and community, helping each other – and it’s teaching us what gratitude really means. I think about how at the end of this storm, we’ll emerge stronger, more resilient, kinder.

Then I remember that we’re the lucky ones. There are so many people who will find it a lot harder to bounce back once the storm passes. I have friends who have lost their jobs, friends who are working reduced hours on a reduced salary. My brother-in-law had to shut down the restaurant he had dreamed of opening since he was 19, and a good friend shut the doors of his popular neighbourhood café. Nobody knows how long this standstill will last.

And I remember that this is only the beginning. This virus is going to change us forever. I just hope it’s not a superficial, short-lived change. I hope we learn from the ‘coronapocalypse’ and change the way we treat each other and the planet. 

– Andrea Sophocleous


Coronavirus is DEFEATABLE! 

– Kell White


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– Clara Tang


Batten down the hatches.

Tighten the belt. 

Scroll through the notes in your phone. 

Act on the half-thoughts in your head.

 

Write the next great Australian novel. 

Pen the card for your friend’s wedding, from four months ago. 

Send a note to your mum telling her how much you love the creamy, vegetable spiral pasta she made when you were a kid that you called ‘Spirali’ in a thick Italian accent. 

 

Read in the afternoon. 

Crack the spine of Infinite Jest

Read Goosebumps: Escape from Camp Run-for-Your-Life, instead. 

 

Bake. 

Bake sourdough. 

Bake a Napoleon cake with 10 layers that takes 24 hours to make. 

 

Get to know yourself, your neighbours’ daily movements, your roomie’s quirks, your pet’s escapades, your partner’s cliché boardroom banter. 

Buy a sex toy. See what happens. 

 

Create a short film. 

The short film that always gets sidelined. 

Watch all of Errol Morris’ docos.

Start researching your own. 

Get sidetracked and create an Instagram account of your neighbours’ daily movements.

 

Study psychology. 

Miss physical human interaction.

Even your friend who hugs you unnecessarily. 

Cry.  

 

Pursue a business idea.

Realise you don’t have any money because you’ve been laid off or had your hours cut.

And you’re worried you can’t pay rent, pay the mortgage, or put food on the table. 

Abandon business idea.

Figure out how to take advantage of the situation on the other end. 

Like Putin after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. 

 

Plan the podcast you’ve been telling everyone you’re going to make. 

It’s this really cool idea that no one has ever thought of before. 

Search the idea on Apple Podcasts.

Find out it’s already a top-charting podcast.

Think you can do a better job anyway.

Set up a makeshift studio in your closet.

Hit record. 

 

Now’s the time to do what you’ve always wanted but have been too busy to.

Off you go.

Or don’t. 

– Lee Spencer


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– Andrew Reeves (inspired by M. Stevens)

Going bush to get back to ‘The Burbs’

Tom Gerrard likes to keep it simple. That means minimal colours and leaving a background of exposed grain on the wood panels he paints on. And it means thinking away from the hustle of Melbourne.

Gerrard’s series ‘The Burbs’, which is currently showing at The Royals offices in Sydney and Melbourne, is a celebration of suburban life. The drawings the pieces were based on were done in the high-country towns of Benalla and Bright.

“I love getting out of town and searching out ideas for future paintings. I find it easier to think away from the hustle and bustle of Melbourne,” Gerrard says.

Two men compete in a wrestling match

His career started as a street artist in mid-90s Melbourne. And his work has become known globally for its stripped-back approach to characters, architecture and nature.

For ‘The Burbs’, he kept the palette basic as a way to modernise the older, more traditional subject matter. 

“Colours are an important part of my art practise. Being that I rarely paint in more than five colours, each colour is considered. I would like people to feel as though they are looking at a modern painting,” Gerrard says.

“My suburban paintings are a documentation of scenes that are disappearing from our landscape.”

Gerrard returned to Australia in 2016 after eight years travelling the world, and began focussing his work exclusively on Australian life, suburban culture and his natural surroundings. 

Check out his art podcast, Bench Talk.

Please Talk About Fight Club: Professional wrestling takes back the belt

Two men compete in a wrestling match

Beaten into submission for being a fake-tanned, sexist pig that was stuck in the past, professional wrestling has emerged victorious from the jaws of defeat. The Royals’ Content Tag Team Champions, Dan Michael Jones and Dave Rood, get in the ring to find out why.

“It’s like watching professional wrestling,” US Congressman Tim Ryan tweeted after President Trump’s State of the Union speech in early February. And he was right.

Trump orated with the subtlety of a hyped-up ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage cutting a promo. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tore up a copy of the speech as soon as she was sure her gesture would be picked up by the bank of cameras at the back of the room. It was exactly like watching professional wrestling — as it should be. Theatre, spectacle, competing plot lines. And against all odds, wrestling is back in the zeitgeist. The world is ready to rumble. But why?

Two golden ages, then a gap

In the late 80s, over 90,000 people packed into the Pontiac Silverdome to watch Hulk Hogan take on Andre The Giant for the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) championship at Wrestlemania III. During the ‘Attitude Era’ of the late 90s and early 2000s, close to 10 million Americans would tune in to each week to watch The Rock, The Undertaker and ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin battle it out live on cable TV.

Nostalgia for times like these has meaning because it’s our way of finding meaning in our memories of them. Here’s what growing up in these golden ages means to our authors:

The 1980s: Dave ‘The Rood Awakening’

I have two vivid sporting memories of 1987. Sobbing when Jim Stynes ran over the mark. And pure elation when Hogan body slammed The Giant in Wrestlemania III. The Giant — billed as the 8th Wonder of the World — had turned on Hogan during the lead up. Good became evil. The build-up was epic. 1:55 mins in and that commentary line comes: “The irresistible force meeting the immovable object”.

(Turns out Andre the Giant, who was on his last wrestling legs, was calling out ‘slam, slam’ as an instruction to Hogan). If you haven’t watched it already check out the HBO documentary Andre The Giant).

I grew up on the cartoon, WWF wrestling of that time. It was all glam and fake tan and well trodden story tropes — babyface versus villain, the fall and redemption. Pile drivers and clotheslines and ‘King Kong Bundy off the top rope’. The injustice of referees turning their heads at precisely the wrong/right time was real. The plot lines stay with me: Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan slapping The Giant. The break-up of Hogan and ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage. ‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan winning the first Royal Rumble. Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts, mullet in full sweaty flow with his snake Damien curled in a bag in the corner of the ring waiting to be thrown theatrically over Roberts’ victim. It was pure vaudeville and pure escapism.

The 1990s: Dan Michael ‘Jone$town’

I was blessed enough to come of age during the Attitude Era. Announced on-screen by WWF chairman Vince McMahon in December ’97, the era eschewed much of the G-rated glitter and spandex of the 80s WWF, and replaced it with more realistic and violent combat, heavy metal music and four-letter words.

At the time, my grandparents had a subscription to this thing called Optus Vision. It was a cable TV station — Netflix for the ’90s — and each week, my grandma would tape both WWF Monday Night Raw and the rival WCW Monday Nitro for me.

The best thing about it all? ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin — a bald, goateed Texan — who strode to the ring accompanied by the sounds of breaking glass, threw up middle fingers at his opponents, and double-fisted cans of cheap beer anytime he won.

I was always way more into all the extraneous bullshit surrounding the matches — backstage promos, intro songs, dramatic interludes, fireworks, pyro and personalities — than the wrestling itself. That hasn’t changed.

But something had changed outside of wrestling during the Attitude Era. The world got consumed by ‘realness’. 9/11 snapped the western world out of its bubble. It was the era of street press and Vice Magazine. The internet had made it so we could all be famous at once. Anyone could be a superstar. The WWF — which had rebranded as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) following a lawsuit in 2002 — was failing to catch up. Not even a Wrestlemania’s 23 in-ring appearance from Trump himself could help.

Mixed martial arts — a freeform combat sport with only a few rules — was ‘real’. The outcomes weren’t planned in advance. There weren’t dramatic, scripted scenes bookending the fights. WWE was soap opera on steroids. MMA was televised violence that often left competitors in hospital. It got bigger and bigger, and wrestling lost its relevance. Some of the WWE’s biggest stars crossed over to MMA. ‘Real’ had a firm grip on the championship belt.

Socialism at the smackdown

It’s no secret the WWF/WWE has always been a dictatorship. Nothing is approved for live events or TV broadcasts without the express permission of the chairman, Vince McMahon. He and his family run the show behind the scenes, and have all “gotten over” — industry slang for being given airtime and heavily marketed — on screen, time and time again.

“His stories constantly revolve around authority figures having more power than wrestlers, with the McMahons and the WWE brand itself being framed as the real stars of the show,” Todd Martin wrote in the LA Times in October last year.

“McMahon makes up his mind on wrestlers, undermining wrestlers fans react well to but that he doesn’t like as much while going strong with wrestlers fans reject. And wrestlers up and down the cards are put in comedy sketches built around McMahon’s unique and often childish sense of humor.”

But new leagues like All Elite Wrestling (AEW) — which is proving to be the first real threat to WWE market share since the early 2000s — pride themselves on giving creative control back to the wrestlers. In 2019, AEW signed a cable TV deal with TNT.

Jon Moxley, one of AEW’s breakout stars who had an eight-year career at the top of the WWE talent pool, left McMahon’s stable after becoming fed up with the things he was being forced to do on TV — like getting fake vaccinations for rabies before a match, or making fun of a fellow wrestler’s real-life cancer battle as part of a promo video.

“The first time I sat down to talk with them, it was like, ‘Okay, this is what I want to do. Does that match up with your goals and what you’re gonna do?’ and it does. So, we’re off to the races,” he told Fightful at the end of January.

“I pop up awake in the middle of the night going “Oooh!” with ideas and stuff, and I like to just go to the ring sometimes with no ideas and just see what happens on the fly… every day is a fucking vacation.”

Suplexing the glass ceiling

When Hulk Hogan held the WWF championship belt during the late 80s, women in the industry were relegated to being love interests and ‘valets’ who’d carry the blokes’ belts to the ring. During the sexed-up Attitude Era, females had a bigger part to play, but their representation was just as misogynist — if not more.

Female performers during this period were marketed as ‘divas’, mostly used as props to enhance the male wrestlers’ masculinity, and often competing in ‘lingerie’ and ‘bikini’ matches where clothes were designed to come off.

Thankfully, things have changed. Female wrestlers have literally fought for equal representation for years. And it’s working. GLOW, the 2017 Netflix series based on the 1980s wrestling league of the same name is a huge hit. While Shimmer Women Athletes — a female-only league founded in 2005 — has seen several of it’s stars go on to much, much bigger things.

Take Becky Lynch as an example. Born Rebecca Quin in Limerick, Ireland the year Hogan took on The Giant at Wrestlmania, Lynch spent much of her teens and young adult life working towards a career as a professional wrestler. After nearly a decade in indie leagues in the UK and US, Lynch got a spot with the WWE’s development network, NXT.

Becoming part of a group of equally tough-as-nails female wrestling that included Charlotte Flair (daughter of 80s legend ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair), Lynch spearheaded the rise of women in wrestling — from the minor leagues to a headline victory against former MMA fighter Rhonda Rousey at 2019’s Wrestlemania 34.

“We’ve been constantly breaking through glass ceilings. We’ve been burning down the house, building up new ones, tearing them down … building up a whole new planet,” she told Sports Illustrated in January.

“Now the possibilities are endless.”

Treating fans like tag partners, not cash cows

Wrestling is like Santa Claus. It’s a collective hallucination that makes life way more fun if you close your eyes a little, open your mind a lot, and just roll with the fact that in some bizarro universe it’s totally not fake.

The big leagues, like WWE, call their die hard fans “marks” — the same term con artists and hustlers call their victims. And it’s long been a case of ‘you’ll watch whatever we broadcast, and you’ll like it.’

But more and more, independent leagues and breakout promotions are letting fans have a say in the direction that characters and plotlines take — listening in to the discussions on popular wrestling forums like Reddit’s SquaredCircle.

“Last week, I put out a statement on my social media channel saying ‘Give me the feedback’. If anyone can take it, I can take it. The good, the bad, the why, everything,” AEW Wrestler and Vice President Cody Rhodes told IHeartRadio in October.

“I want to know because we’re not going to pretend we have all the answers. I got a great education for wrestling and I’m excited about these shows we have ready, but I’m ready to hear what the people think too.”

And they’re making changes, and dropping references to show that Rhodes isn’t all talk, either. In a recent match, Jon Moxley had his eye gouged by another wrestler (not really, of course) and has been wearing an eye patch in the ring since.

Online fans noticed the resemblance between the wrestler and another eyepatched character — paramilitary leader Big Boss from the video game franchise Metal Gear — and started making memes of the two side by side.

Cue Moxley’s entrance during the February 5 episode of AEW. He’s striding to the ring like he owns the place, dressed in military fatigues. “It’s Big Boss Moxley,” the commentator says, while half-a-million SquaredCircle subscribers struggle to decide between cheering and laughing.

Two women compete in a wrestling match
Photo: Digital Beard, Melbourne City Wrestling

Shouting real talk off the top rope

In 2020, it seems to be perfectly acceptable to be fake. Just like wrestling’s always been. Fake news. Botnets. Deepfaked films. Filtered images that show cartoon versions of ourselves.

There’s a chance that’s why the cheers and jeers and beers of the rag-tag crowd could be heard from the street, when we headed to a heritage-listed theatre in Melbourne’s inner north — to witness Melbourne City Wrestling’s recent Clash of the Titans event.

After the action was over, MCW co-owner and promoter Michael Jozis told us that — since he started hosting MCW events at a Chinese restaurant near their airport a decade ago — the wrestling game has changed from targeting families with colourful production to holding a mirror up to society.

“There is outrage culture, and people can come and let off steam at a wrestling event,” he says.

“Then, you’ve got wrestlers who are kind of giving it back to them, making them believe what they are saying and telling them ‘no, you’re wrong’. You can get people to question what they are looking at.”

And if the audience isn’t reacting, Jozis reckons he’s not doing his job properly.

At Clash of the Titans, a wrestler known as Avary beat Steph De Lander for the Womens’ Championship. Jozis says her story represents a lot of people who have been maligned. He would know, he’s the promoter.

“She kind of tells people be whatever you want to be, go out and do whatever the fuck you want and she is kind of the embodiment of that in how she carries herself,” Jozis says.

“And I think people can look at that and respect it and get behind it.”

– Dan Michael Jones and Dave Rood

 

What I learnt from interviewing rock stars and superstar DJs

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The art of interviewing is useful long after the ‘on air’ light dims. The Royals’ Emerald Cowell shares what she’s learned about asking the right questions of others during four years of hosting her radio show.

It’s 7.45pm on a Saturday. I’m standing outside a yellow brick warehouse on the corner of Blyth and Nicholson Street in East Brunswick, Melbourne, waiting for Steve Cross to buzz me in.

Steve’s the presenter of a radio show called Beat Orgy and the founder of Remote Control Records. Waiting for him to let me into the RRR studios is a pretty familiar routine. After all, I’ve presented a show — Tomorrow Never Knows — on the station for nearly four years.

But there was something a little different about this particular Saturday night. I had a pre-recorded interview with Ed Simons packaged up and ready to put to air. Ed’s one of the world’s most respected music producers — one half of The Chemical Brothers.

Only a few months earlier, I was standing in a sweaty pit of thousands of flare-waving fans, witnessing Ed and bandmate Tom Rowlands lay down an electrifying set at Glastonbury.

I’ve been volunteering in community radio for over six years. And it’s taught me a whole bunch. But one thing that’s really stuck with me — something I’ve been able to apply to all facets of my life — is the art of interviewing, getting over nerves and getting the best out of people.

Being a good interviewer takes a set of skills. There’s no one simple way to do it right. But there are ways to make sure you get some bloody good answers.

Lesson 1: Know your shit

The Chemical Brothers are electronic music legends who have collaborated with some of the world’s best. So when the opportunity came up to interview Ed Simon before The Chemical Brothers brought their Glastonbury set here to Melbourne, I had to know my shit.

Interviews like this are coordinated through the record label. An agent blocks out an hour or two for back-to-back phone calls to radio stations and media in all the places a tour will visit. And that means artists get asked the same questions again and again. So, how do you ask a question that surprises and gets a response the world hasn’t heard before?

Answer: You know your shit. Like knowing that The Chemical Brothers met at uni and quickly became a musical duo trying to find their break. They’ve been at it ever since, so I knew it was worth asking what they’d pass on to up-and-coming local producers.

Ed’s response echoed Block Rockin’ Beats, one of The Chemical Brothers’ breakout hits:

“There’s always a party to be had. Electronic music works best when it’s the catalyst for people having fun together. Find a crowd. Rock your block.”

Lesson 2: Make the subject feel comfortable

Before the interview

Being on the radio can be quite daunting, let alone being asked questions by someone you don’t feel comfortable with. It’s important to take the time before your interview to learn a bit about the person, including how to pronounce their name and what their pronouns are.

Simona Castricum has been producing dance music in Melbourne for 20 years — but she’s also an academic and architect. After I interviewed her, she said I made her feel relaxed enough to really open up about her experiences because I made a real effort to understand the relationship between her music and her academic practice.

“I’m interested in how we can take those principles from the dance scene and apply it to other places. There’s things we have done down at [Melbourne music venue] The Tote that have made their way to parliament,” she told me on air.

During the interview

Guide the subject with positive body language, like a smile or a nod. And don’t feel like you have to fill every silence. Breaks in the sound can make for good radio. Give them space and time to think about their answers, so they can respond with confidence.

Female Wizard is one of the most skilled DJs in Melbourne. They told me they’d never had the opportunity to talk so openly about their work like on my show, because they felt comfortable, not rushed. We talked about what they were trying to offer their audience: “an experience of reception and participation”. Sounds like how I want the people I interview to feel.

Lesson 3: Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions

The first CD my mum ever gave me was the 1986 album Infected by The The. If you’re a fan, then you know why they’re considered one of the seminal post-punk bands of the era. If you’re not, take a listen to This Is The Day. I’ve already picked it to be played at my funeral.

Getting told that I could interview lead singer Matt Johnson ahead of the band’s 2018 Australian tour gave me the sweats. And not just because he’s one of my musical heroes.

It was because — even though I’ve been a massive fan since the age of 13 — I knew nothing about his life outside the songs. I had to do my homework. So I went deep. I read articles, listened to radio interviews and watched everything about the band I could find — including Matt’s appearance on the ABC’s Rock Arena in 1986.

And I learned that in the late 80s — at the peak of The The’s commercial and critical success — Matt’s youngest brother Eugene suddenly passed away. He dissolved the band and began a 20-year hiatus away from the music industry. Losing his oldest brother Andy in 2016 prompted him to return to music.

Having done my research, I felt confident to ask Matt a pretty tough question: “Your new single is such an incredibly powerful tribute to your older brother. What did it mean to write that song?”

His response: “It was a song that had to be written. I was compelled to write it. We have a huge fear of life and death and that song really represents the cycles of nature and letting go. It’s about not taking things for granted on one side, but also having an acceptance of the natural order of things and not fearing death — which is just a gateway to somewhere else.”

Emerald (right) with Josh Davis aka DJ Shadow.
Emerald (right) with Josh Davis aka DJ Shadow.

Lesson 4: Don’t set the narrative, start it and listen instead

Stop thinking about your next question. Listen to your interviewee and let the narrative happen organically. Sure, it pays to know your shit, go in with a plan and ask the hard questions, but you should make them conversation starters — not checkboxes you’re ticking off as you go.

I learnt this through interviewing legendary producer Josh Davis, who is better known to the world as DJ Shadow. He’s got a reputation for creating music from samples, sometimes of well-known songs by well-known bands — like Metallica’s Orion and Bjork’s Mutual Slump.

“So, do you want to shake up that expected behaviour of DJs and producers using obscure samples by choosing to sample more obvious songs?” I asked him.

I anticipated a straight up “yes”, based on previous interviews I’d heard. But stopping and letting Josh navigate the conversation allowed him to open up, and reveal more than I’d expected.

“Sometimes people get a little too caught up in this idea of me in a dusty basement with a hoodie on listening to old records,” he said.

“Yeah, it’s an important piece of who I am as an artist, but a small piece of where I get my sounds. I want to show my peers that obscurity in itself is not a virtue, it’s what you do with those sounds.”

Just like each musician’s approach to their art, every person you speak with will be different. But knowing your shit, making people feel comfortable, not being afraid to ask the hard questions and making an effort to listen should help you navigate the challenge of having a conversation with anyone, interview or not.

After airing the Chemical Brothers interview that Saturday night, I got to witness their show again in Melbourne only a few weeks later. Watching them drop Block Rockin’ Beats at the end of their set, again drenched in sweat from a crowd ecstatically jumping up and down, I thought back to the interview with Ed and how he was right — there’s always a party to be had.

– Emerald Cowell

Reality Check: What if we told you that your memories were wrong?

The strange phenomenon known as the Mandela Effect has a thing or two to say about memory, truth and what ‘real’ really means. Dan Michael Jones, The Royals’ resident explorer of the surreal, reports from somewhere down the rabbit hole.

Man reflected in puddle

Nelson Mandela died in 2013 at age 95. It was the end of an iconic life for the freedom fighter and Nobel Peace Prize-winner who lived primarily in the public eye – even when he was locked behind bars. Obituaries mourned the loss of a statesman who made lasting change for the betterment of mankind.

But when he died, a whole bunch of people around the world were really confused. Because they’d already seen Mandela pass away. They’d already seen his televised funeral. They’d already read obituaries after he died during the 90s – never able to take his rightful place as the head of a free South Africa.

English Alive, 1990: writings from High Schools in Southern Africa; K. Heugh, A. Kennet; Western Cape Branch of the South African Council for English Education, 1991.
English Alive, 1990: writings from High Schools in Southern Africa; K. Heugh, A. Kennet; Western Cape Branch of the South African Council for English Education, 1991.

And they were all convinced that they hadn’t just remembered it wrong. They were sure things had happened that way in their reality, and their reality had changed. One of them was US researcher Fiona Broome, who coined the title “The Mandela Effect” for the strange phenomenon she and others were experiencing.

But it’s not just about Nelson Mandela. The phenomenon has permeated politics and popular culture, and gone beyond the “are you kidding me?” factor. It says a lot about the nature of memory and its ability to be blurred, influenced and reshaped.

I Feel A Change Comin’ On

Google turns up hundreds of other examples of Mandela Effects, and a huge number of people who are convinced of their legitimacy.

In 2015, a Vice article titled The Berenst(E)ain Bears Conspiracy Theory That Has Convinced the Internet There Are Parallel Universes got people outside of the web’s dustiest corners thinking about the phenomenon.

You might remember reading the Berenstein Bears books or watching the cartoon when you were a kid. You might have read the books or watched the series with your own kids. Are you 100% convinced Berenstein is spelled s-t-e-i-n like Einstein? Turns out in this universe we’ve been spelling it Brenstain (with an “a”) all along.

Then in 2016, New Statesman published an article about people convinced that there were two films in the 90s about kids befriending genies. Both starred tall dudes with one-word names that start with an “s”. Both have a “z” in the title. Kazaam, staring the NBA star known as Shaq was real. Shazam, starring the comedian known as Sinbad wasn’t.

But New Statesman spoke with Mandela Effect-ed fans of Shazam, including Don, who worked at his uncle’s video store as a teenager in the 90s:

“I had to handle the two copies we owned dozens of times over the years. And I had to watch it multiple times to look for reported damages to the tape, rewind it and check it in, rent it out, and put the boxes out on display for rental. It feels like a part of my childhood has now been stolen from me. How does a movie simply vanish from our history?”

Fiona Broome suggests that these aren’t simple errors in memory. Rather, they’re reconstructed incidents (or sequences of events) from the past.

“They exceed the normal range of forgetfulness,” she says.

And she credits the multiverse for these shifts. As in our universe is just one in an infinite series of universes in which every possible combination of events and outcomes can and will happen. Sometimes they just meet at the edges and bleed into each other a little.

Further Down The Rabbit Hole

Mandela Effect theorists and fanatics (and there are plenty) have taken Broome’s initial hypothesis a whole lot further. They place the blame squarely on CERN – the European Centre for Nuclear Research – and the centre’s famed Large Hadron Collider.

The planet’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator and the largest machine in the world, the Collider is housed in a 27km circular tunnel beneath CERN’s headquarters on the Franco-Swiss border just outside Geneva. And it’s there to try and replicate the conditions of the Big Bang, the event that led to the creation of the universe.

Many who believe in the Mandela Effect say that every time the Large Hadron Collider is used – ie. every time the conditions of the birth of the universe are recreated – it shifts our reality a little.

That shift is not enough so that the fundamental nature of life itself is changed, but enough so that one man’s death occurs differently, or one of the two B-grade 90s flicks about tweens palling about with genies phases out of existence forever.

So that’s the exciting explanation. And it’s a conspiracy theory that supporters attempt to justify with real science about particle physics, gravitational waves, string theory and cosmic inflation. But an accurate explanation might be a less sci-fi and more Freudian than anything Broome et al suggest.

Because truth is, us humans are fallible creatures with imperfect sensory functions that only get worse at their jobs as we age. Our cognitive systems are easily led astray. And our memory centres aren’t high-performance hard drives, they’re biochemical processes that reconstruct past experience into vague representations of “what really happened”.

Losing The Memory Wars

Elizabeth Loftus is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Washington. And she’s an expert in reconstructive memory who has provided expert testimony about the falliabily of recall in a number of high profile court cases – including the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the trial of the LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney King and the litigation of Michael Jackson for child sex charges.

In a study Loftus undertook during the 1970s, she asked participants to recall details of a simulated car crash they were shown by asking half “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” and half “How fast were the cars going when they smashed each other?”. And that small change in wording made a big difference in the results.

When the researcher asked the question using the world “smashed,” participants recalled that the cars were travelling at higher speeds compared to when Loftus asked them with the word “hit.” The word “smashed” caused eyewitnesses to recall broken glass at the scene even though none existed. Their memories changed due to the changing of one word in a question.

This work can help explain many examples of the Mandela Effect as simply contaminated or distorted memories. Like the way – spoiler alert – Darth Vader’s line in The Empire Strikes Back has been misquoted over and over as “Luke, I am your father,“ even by the character’s voice actor James Earl Jones (for those playing at home, the actual line is “No, I am your father.”)

But this wasn’t enough for Loftus, who was convinced it is possible to implant entirely false memories in people. She developed the ‘Lost in the Mall’ technique during the 1990s. Participants of a study were each given four short stories describing events from their childhood, supplied by their family members, and later asked to try and recall them.

What participants weren’t told was that one of the stories – describing a time when the subject was lost in a shopping centre – was false. The fake narrative incorporated plausible details provided by the relative. In this initial study, 25% of the participants reported to be able to remember this event even though it never actually happened, and many were able to provide embellishing details that were not supplied to them.

Fake is the New Real

“This is a dangerous time. Moving forward, we need to be more vigilant with what we trust from the internet,” says Barack Obama in a powerful 2018 PSA about the mind-bending potential and inherent risks of AI-driven deepfake videos.

Barack Obama
Still from You Won’t Believe What Obama Says In This Video!, BuzzFeed Video

Only it’s not Obama talking. Sure, it’s his face, but the mouth and the voice are a spot-on impersonation by Get Out director Jordan Peele. In a world that’s divided by “fake news” and “inconvenient truth”, we need to be more vigilant about who and what we choose to trust.

The Mandela Effect shows that not only are our brains and memories fallible, they’re highly susceptible to influence. And as fakes get more and more lifelike thanks to machine learning and AI, the implantation of false memories will only get easier and easier.

Recently, a deepfake video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – a stringent critic of Donald Trump – made its way across the web. The video was an obvious fraud, slowed down and then pitch-corrected to make it look and sound like Pelosi was drunk and incoherent at several news conferences and public events.

But despite being faked, Twitter and Facebook declined to remove it. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani shared the clip, and then the President himself sent out a “PELOSI STAMMERS THROUGH NEWS CONFERENCE” missive which embedded the video and was pinned to the top of his Twitter feed.

Scary stuff. And perhaps scary enough for us for all to rekindle our long-term relationships with the truth once and for all. Otherwise, I’m moving to Geneva. So that next time they fire up the Large Hadron Collider, I get Mandela Effect-ed over into another timeline.

– Dan Michael Jones

Sidewalk stories of Sydney

Sydney photographer Juli Balla’s Mad Men-esque style launches the Sydney office edition of The Royals’ art gallery.

Juli takes us back in time with this striking image from her personal series Where The Sidewalk Ends. Through meticulous craft and attention to detail, she manages to transform Sydney into a Mad Men-esque set straight out of the 1950s. Every image draws you in and tells its own story. The casting, location, wardrobe, hair and styling are all highly considered and evoke a strong sense of time and place.

Juli Balla - Where the Sidewalk Ends
Juli Balla – Where the Sidewalk Ends

This piece is featured in The Royals’ Sydney office as part of our rolling art gallery, which aims to showcase creative talent that we admire and work that inspires us.

Juli’s European background has “made a mark on [her] personal style.” She is influenced by art and cinema, and her creativity is constantly fueled by travel.

“I feel it is very important to create a distinctive mood in my editorial work. I strive to create images that will stand the test of time, transcending the current trend of the day. In my personal work I aim to create a form of visual poetry.”

Both of Juli’s parents were photographers and she graduated from Canberra Art School in the late 1980s. Her commercial clients include Qantas, David Jones, Mercedes benz and Nivea.

“While working on commercial projects, I find it most satisfying when my team and I follow the client’s brief, and I can also infuse the work with my personal style. I especially love making use of the serendipitous during location work,” she says.

Juli’s bio:

I have worked as a fashion and advertising photographer based in Sydney for 24 years, and also regularly work in Europe, the USA, Singapore, China and Japan. I have photographic representation in: Sydney, Milan, Beijing and Shanghai. My work consists of magazine editorials, advertising, fashion and cosmetics campaigns and portraiture.

I work for magazines such as Grazia Italia, Elle in South East Asia, UK and France, Vogue Australia and Britain, Harpers Bazaar, Marie Claire worldwide.

I also enjoy my celebrity portrait commissions. My recent assignments include international celebrities such as: Rachel Weiss, Cate Blanchett, Hugh Jackman, Tony Colette, Olivia Newton John, Abbie Cornish, Miranda Kerr, Rachel Ward, Richard Roxburgh, Miranda Otto, Portia de Rossi, Terence Stamp, and Priyanka Chopra.

As both my parents were photographers, I couldn’t help but fall into the profession. In 1980 I emigrated from Budapest to Australia, and graduated from Canberra Art School in 1987 with a major in photo media. I have been creating personal work since the beginning of my career, and have exhibited in solo shows as well as in numerous group exhibitions from 1986 to the present.

juliballa.com and @juliballaphoto

The Dark Side Strategy

I recently watched a Netflix documentary called ‘The Great Hack’. Some of you will probably have seen it or at least will have been presented it in your feeds – thanks algorithms. For those that haven’t, it’s an excellent and gripping film about Cambridge Analytica and their nefarious dealings in social manipulation for Trump and Brexit.

The doco takes you behind the scenes and into the lives of ex-employees and whistleblowers, as well as revealing the extent of their data enrichment programs and behavioral change capabilities. It’s nothing short of fascinating and terrifying all at once.

The Great Hack: Netflix
The Great Hack: Netflix

Beyond the data though, there were the far more disturbing strategies that sat behind the technology; the manipulation and behavioral tactics these agents use to swing elections and influence voter mindsets.

The documentary, for example, features a case where social media was used to create an anti-vote movement amongst Trinidanian Youth – this powerful uprising tapped into an apathetic generation and quickly swelled.

In the film, Cambridge Analytica says it worked for “the Indians” – implying they worked on behalf of the majority-Indian United National Congress (UNC) party. According to the film, the inaction of this voter segment meant a 6% swing was achieved in what was considered to be a neck and neck race. This weakness was exploited through an anonymous Dark Side strategy that exploited fake news, privacy data and misdirected public sentiment.

These, of course, are the tools of politics, the Dark Side strategies that political strategists employ to not only activate advocacy amongst supportive bases but to also disrupt and nullify oppositions. These are the same forces that influenced Brexit, and Trump’s win.

Which got me thinking about advertising. Because from where I sit, it seems that the majority of advertising strategy is what I would call ‘Light Side’ or tactics and messages designed to persuade apathetic or casual buyers to buy a brand over another. There is very little by way of Dark Side strategy, actively discrediting another brand or rendering their audience impotent.

There are of course some exceptions and even some famous public stoushes, but for the most part, I think advertisers play a pretty fair and above board game. There are few instances I could readily think of where Dark Side strategy is central to a brand’s ongoing strategy or if they do exist, there’s a very good reason they are invisible.

I would suggest there are some examples of ‘Grey side strategies’ about; the famous Mac v. PC comparisons, for example, which threw shade at a competitor in a funny way. Or much more seriously, the infamous research and medical propaganda of the tobacco industry, which for years waged war against the medical community and its warnings about the dangers of smoking.

So why don’t more brands consider Dark Side approaches?

There could be a number of reasons. Perhaps brands don’t want to be seen as manipulative or risk brand damage. Maybe marketing leaders are inherently good and not Dark Side inclined or perhaps budgets don’t allow the exploration of concurrent strategies. And there’s one more possibility, maybe those responsible for strategy have just not yet really considered it.

I’m open to the Dark-Side (at least as a thought experiment).

Andrew Reeves, Communications Director, The Royals

Up in lights

Melbourne artist Tom Adair’s neon style kicks off The Royals’ rolling art gallery.

It greets you as you finish your hike up the stairs to The Royals office in Melbourne – the neon glow of two art pieces by the super talented Tom Adair, that is. Mixing the subculture of the local graffiti scene with architecture and encased in perspex, the works use neon lighting to set off strangely familiar Australian scenes.

Artwork by Tom Adair

The artworks are the first to be shown as part of The Royals’ Rolling Gallery, which came about after a bunch of Royals starting chatting about inspiration in the workplace. With everyone being so busy so often, it can be tricky to take a breather and actually find a moment to think bigger. That’s where our Melbourne and Sydney galleries come in. Every quarter, The Royals will take a vote on who they would like to see featured from a selection of creative folk. Tom is kicking it all off.

We chose to launch our Royals Rolling Gallery with the Melbourne artist’s work for two reasons: firstly, we love Tom’s use of layering with airbrushing and neon – the specialist framing really tops of the dynamic aesthetic. Tom works with a hugely varied range of materials from Dibond, neon, timber and HDP foam to metal and glass, which gives his work a unique vibrancy.

The second reason? We wholeheartedly believe in supporting local artists and Tom’s studio is just down the road from us.

The idea for this type of work came from Tom’s push to work out his own style, something that wasn’t the “done to death”, in his words, stencil or graffiti on canvas. His first five or so years in the studio combined his love of seeing printed images on canvas, with graphic design and photography. But it was an old high school memory of Howard Arkley that got Tom back onto airbrush work.

“About eight pieces later I wanted to add another element, and I had some spare neon sections lying around so I screwed them to a finished piece. From there I knew the combination of techniques and mediums was something I could call my own,” he says.

And he wants the work to communicate the need for us to be less judgemental and more accepting in a life that is forever pursuing happiness through consumerism and the house we own or the car we drive.

“The architecture of scenes I depict in the halftone pattern is a motif for the relationship between what you see from the outside or from a distance versus what reality really is,” Tom says.

“When we (the viewer) get a little bit closer the perception (or image) deteriorates and its imperfections are exposed. In this way my work changes depending on where you view it from.”

Tom’s Bio:

Tom Adair’s work comes from an urban landscape where the spray can is king, and speed is most certainly your friend. His ability to make immediate, aesthetically strong paintings was honed in the world of graffiti.

A decade after leaving the brick and concrete walls of the streets for the studio, Adair’s work is an investigation of architecture and popular subculture.

Tom is far more interested in us, our relationship to the environment, and how a thirst for evolution and technology has changed us.

His hand drawing with the airbrush is fluid yet stripped back – a technical linage to Howard Arkley. The use of neon as a drawing tool abstracts and illuminates at once, literally electrifying the picture.

Tom works as a local artist in Cremorne (Dover St/Studio Sixnine) and lives in Richmond.

https://www.tomadair.com.au/
https://www.instagram.com/tomadair_/

What I learnt about recommendation engines when I built my own

Streaming platforms like Netflix seem to know what you should be watching before you do. To better understand how and why, film buff and The Royals’ data scientist Dr Paul Vella built his own recommendation engine.

Netflix devotes a staggering amount of time, money and computational power to keep me happy, content and watching. But why do they think they know me so well? Every time their algorithm makes a recommendation, there’s a risk I might not like it and will consider switching to Stan (psych!).

But according to a 2017 article published in Wired, more than 80 per cent of the TV shows people watch on Netflix are discovered through the platform’s recommendation system. And Netflix are definitely not alone in being a recommendation-obsessed content provider.

Formulas have been implemented across Spotify, Amazon, YouTube and other platforms to recommend anything and everything. You could say they’re as common as Game of Thrones spoiler alerts on social media.

So why do these companies think I would like the songs, books and films they recommend? How did they reach those conclusions about me?

Man sitting in gallery viewing blank art work.

To satisfy my curiosity, I decided to try my hand at building a film recommendation system and see for myself how content providers arrive at their conclusions. The point was not to build a proper model per se, but to understand the inner logic of these systems and their potential use.

There are many different techniques for building recommendation systems. And approaches involve NLP (natural language processing), vector factorisation, nearest neighbour clustering and similarity indices.

Stay with me.

Because if you take a step back from the ‘technique’ and think about the methodology (or purpose) of these approaches, all of them are trying to do one of two things:

  1. Recommend items that people who are similar to you like (called collaborative filtering)
  2. Recommend items that have similar attributes to others you like (called content-based filtering)

A third, hybrid filtering approach combines these two, then applies weighting to reach a recommendation. And the logic behind each can be set out in a relatively straightforward way:

Collaborative filtering

  1. Aaron and Bob both like Jurassic Park (1993)
  2. Aaron also likes Ready Player One (2018)
  3. Bob hasn’t seen Ready Player One
  4. Recommend Ready Player One to Bob

Content-based filtering

  1. Aaron likes Jurassic Park (1993)
  2. Jurassic Park is an action movie and so is The Meg (2018)
  3. Bob hasn’t seen The Meg
  4. Recommend The Meg to Bob

Hybrid filtering

  1. Aaron and Bob both like Jurassic Park (1993)
  2. Aaron also likes Ready Player One (2018)
  3. Aaron 14 and Bob is 36
  4. 30-somethings aren’t into Ready Player One (2018), they like The Commuter (2018)
  5. The Commuter and Jurassic Park are both action movies
  6. Recommend The Commuter to Bob

To give an example of how this works on a larger scale, let’s look at Spotify. Their algorithm is pretty complex, and takes in data about what you’ve listened to and how long for, what you’ve liked or added to playlists, and more granular elements of the songs themselves like genre, tempo and duration. It also pays attention to what others who have similar preferences to you have listened to or liked.

The model I built in a Google Sheet is based on a much simpler collection of information. It recommends films from a list and tracks just two variables: when I last watched a film, and how much I like the genres the film fits into.

Viewership

The logic behind tracking the date I last watched a film is pretty simple:

  • Films that I’ve watched most recently shouldn’t be highly recommended.
  • Films that I haven’t watched should be highly recommended.
  • The longer it has been since I last watched a film, the more highly it should be recommended.

The viewership score is therefore just a count of the number of days since I’ve last seen the film. This puts less importance on films I’ve seen recently and more on those I haven’t seen for a while.

To get a viewership score for films I haven’t seen, I simply take the maximum number of days from the films I have seen. This means films I haven’t seen in a long time and films I haven’t seen at all are equally weighted.

Genre Preference

I also kept the logic behind the genre preference score simple:

  • Films can be classified in many categories. Avatar (2009), for example, contains elements of science fiction, futuristic, fantasy and adventure films.
  • Giving a film a rating (out of five stars) counts equally across all genres (attributes) of the film.
  • The genre preference score is therefore the sum of ratings given to all films in that genre.

Table of genre preference scores

This simple calculation reveals I prefer sci-fi and action films over drama, which is true.

Getting to a Recommendation Score

Since both variables are integers and there’s no logically necessary reason to place more importance on one or the other, I simply add the scores together to arrive at a recommendation rating (the higher the score, the higher the recommendation):

Table of recommendation ratings data

The Data

Now you know the mechanics behind a relatively simple content recommendation system, let’s see how good it’s been at improving my movie nights.

I have around 1,016 films in my database. And I’ve given a rating to 712 of these. I’ve watched 165. Given I can watch one film a night – well, two, if the first one was terrible – it took roughly six months of data collection before the system was recommending films I’d actually consider watching. This is evidenced by how strongly it kept recommending Eat, Pray, Love (2010). Ugh.

If I arrange my film ratings by date from Jan 1, 2018 to Apr 1, 2019, a simple linear regression reveals a slight positive trend in my ratings (it is a five-point scale after all, so any positive trend has to be small). So, there’s some evidence the films I’m watching more recently are getting better ratings – and therefore my movie nights are more enjoyable.

So what did I learn about recommendation engines?

  • I can trust my spreadsheet’s recommendation more than a friend’s opinion

Anyone can build a recommendation model, and it will probably improve your choices. The system I designed doesn’t include any Python code or API calls, just a few fancy spreadsheet formulas and some stats know-how.

An element of DIY is probably better, anyway, because I can classify films the way I like. For example, I can break down ‘sci-fi’ into 10 micro-classifications (futuristic, time travel, zombies, etc) I am interested in, giving more accurate recommendations than just using ‘sci-fi’ on its own.

The more you can describe the elements in a set of choices, the better the model can be at recommending things you might like. Harvard’s cognitive psychologist George Miller famously published research back in the 50s that showed we can only hold about seven items in our short-term memory (or in this case, make a choice from around seven films).

And how many elements of those can we compare? Because a recommendation model can make suggestions based on hundreds, thousands or millions of elements.

  • You can uncover patterns in your decision making you didn’t even know you make

Since I was tracking the order I watch films and their genres, it was possible to build a database of which genres I would tend to watch next by finding patterns in my preferences.

For example, if I watch a crime film, there’s a moderate association (0.29) that the next film will be a fantasy film. And if I watch an action film, there is a negative association (-0.15) that the next film will be a superhero film. That’s probably because my wife will want to watch something else!

  • My feelings still play a part, they’re just quantified

It may come as a surprise, but recommendation engines are entirely reliant on the way a person feels. All the data and analysis in my film recommendation engine comes from two variables: my ratings of the films (how much I liked them), and when I last watched the films (was interested enough to act).

Netflix does the same thing, just in a more complex way. Its recommendation algorithm considers what you’ve watched, when and how long for, the order you watch films or series, your ratings, and the ratings given by other members who are similar to you.

The more descriptive these algorithms get, the better their recommendations are – to the point of factoring in ‘hyper-specific micro genres‘ I’ve proved to be at least curious about. Even the artwork of their content is displayed based on what I’ve engaged with in the past.

  • You can flip the system to make predictions

Probably the most interesting take-away from building a recommendation engine is the possibility of extracting the importance scores or average ratings to make a prediction of how much I might like movies that aren’t yet released.

There are 13 films in my database that fall into the space, action and adventure genres, and they have an average rating of 3.15 stars. Does this mean I’d give Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker three stars when it comes out at the end of the year? Will I be disappointed?

I’d probably have to use something a lot more advanced to get a more accurate prediction, something that might work out the part-worth (choice-based conjoint analysis) or standardised beta coefficients (stepwise linear regression) of individual aspects of films (actors, directors, release year, genres, etc) which could be used in as inputs in a model of my film ratings.

I could then use this model on a list of films being released over the next year or so, to filter them down those I’m most likely to give five stars to, all without the need to rely on other people’s opinions.

But first, I’m off to watch Hot Fuzz (2007), because an algorithm told me I’d like it.

– Dr Paul Vella