Google making progress in Korea

How ironic: my bank, Woori, one of the oldest in Korea and not the most progressive business ever, is using the Google URL shortener when sending out SMS reminders to activate my new cash card.

In a country where Google maps is only partly functional, and where Google search brings Évasion only about 7% of our organic traffic (to Naver’s 80+%), I am impressed.

This implies some server-side integration, and the willingness to let some customer information transit through Google infrastructure.

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Korean banks in English and with a Mac

Looking for a bank with which I can do business in English, on a Mac, and on my iPhone, preferably without installing any plugins or “security” software.

Analysis of the capabilities of Korean banks

Caveats and notes:

  • Shinhan’s Mac banking is a downloadable piece of unsigned software that requires overriding MacOS’s security, and only their iOS app “Mini” is available in English.
  • credit cards evaluated according to the Korean Airlines payment page, and I haven’t tested the management services yet
  • Google Spreadsheet

This morning I opened an account at Woori which was a very simple process (it lasted a small hour tho, but only required my alien card, my employment contract, and my passport), and I walked out of the bank with a passbook and a Cirrus cash card, and was able to set up an iOS banking account right away.

Might go try KEB instead, and get a card from Lotte.

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It will not do, then, simply to feel disgust. Everyone is prone to forgetfulness, even under the most favorable conditions, and in a place like this, with so much actually disappearing from the physical world, you can imagine how many things are forgotten all the time. In the end, the problem is not so much that people forget, but that they do not always forget the same thing. What still exists as a memory for one person can be irretrievably lost for another, and this creates difficulties, insuperable barriers against understanding. How can you talk to someone about airplanes, for example, if that person doesn’t know what an airplane is? It is a slow but ineluctable process of erasure. Words tend to last a bit longer than things, but eventually they fade too, along with the pictures they once evoked. Entire categories of objects disappear—flowerpots, for example, or cigarette filters, or rubber bands—and for a time you will be able to recognize those words, even if you cannot recall what they mean. But then, little by little, the words become only sounds, a random collection of glottals and fricatives, a storm of whirling phonemes, and finally the whole thing just collapses into gibberish. The word “flowerpot” will make no more sense to you than the word “splandigo.” Your mind will hear it, but it will register as something incomprehensible, a word from a language you cannot speak. As more and more of these foreign-sounding words crop up around you, conversations become rather strenuous. In effect, each person is speaking his own private language, and as the instances of shared understanding diminish, it becomes increasingly difficult to communicate with anyone.

Paul Auster, In the Country of Last Things, 1987

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Digital thinking

A great example of digital thinking applied to real businesses in this story about the new CEO of struggling UK wine shop Majestic Wines.

They are reconsidering some of its commercial practices, such as their six-bottle minimum purchase, some staffing policies, such as the near-automatic reduction in staff when store managers quit, alongside improvements to their IT infrastructure.

This strategy is heavy on technology, with planned investments in e-commerce, CRM, and tools that will allow shop staff to better interact with visitors.

However, this demonstrates their digital approach goes beyond the purchase of digital infrastructure:

  • empathy with the consumers, who have been asked about their experience
  • appetite to experiment and iterate, accepting that knowledge is incomplete
  • measurement of the eventual results

This probably won’t come as a surprise: the new CEO is founder of online retailer Naked Wines, acquired in April by Majestic.

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Lacoste Japan re-launch

On March 3, 2015, the Lacoste Japan web shop re-launched, based on a shop-plus-brand design supplied by the French headquarters and adapted to the local market, with a dedicated smartphone experience, the local loyalty program, and various online-to-offline shipping options.

Lacoste: Life is a Beautiful Sport

The original design was provided by NuRun (ex-Cythère, where I used to work in 1997…, and now in the process of rebranding to Razorfish) and coded by iTelios, a French SI house that does a lot of Demandware implementations.

At The Plant, our team developed the visual execution in Japanese (typography is always a bit of a challenge), implemented a few tweaks requested by our local client, developed additional content management components to support the new editorial pages, and integrated all of this on our existing e-commerce platform.

We’ve been lucky to experience reasonably good commercial performance and almost no technical difficulties, and have also been able to release further improvements at a brisk pace starting days after the launch.

Aside from improving the visual aspect of the Japanese web site, and bringing it in line with other countries, this project gives us a great platform for interesting further work. In particular, we’ve got a performance-driven optimization program in place, and several cool CRM initiatives.

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Pitching Qortex at Slush

Last week, I pitched our service Qortex at the Slush Asia event. Here’s the video.

As always, it’s pretty embarrassing to listen to yourself speak in public (do I really sound like this?!), but this was actually fun to do, and I wonder if I’ll have the guts to do such a presentation in Japanese sometime soon, as Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun did last week.

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Too many Oreos (or: I don’t like social media)

The famous 2013 Oreo Superbowl tweet seems to still be making the rounds in digital marketing conferences. I find this quite amazing because its actual, real-world result was in fact quite small:

Now, I don’t want to sound like a bad case of sour grapes, so let me go just a tad beyond the 140 characters to explain why I think brands don’t belong on social media.

I think Oreo’s social media team did a great job on this one: it doesn’t look like the intern did it. Timely, funny, giving a prominent place to the product, it’s great material and it speaks volumes about the marketing chops of this $2bn subsidiary of Mondelez (a $35bn revenue business).

However, it was retweeted just short of 16k times, and favorited 6.5k times. It’s huge for any brand’s social media efforts, but it’s pretty lame by Twitter standards. In fairness, I haven’t done more than about 90 seconds of “research” on this topic, but I’m unconvinced that anyone has done much better.

So… Social media is an opportunity for customer service, and that’s a challenge in itself. Social media may be interesting to source some consumer intelligence, although I doubt anyone still thinks of the data so gathered as unbiased (as opposed to, say, searches, which are simply a much greater pool with — for now — less incentive for massive deliberate skews).

But a tool for branding? I’m just not convinced.

Social media is a place for people to talk to people. Possibly about brands. But with brands? Brands aren’t people, my friends!

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6 years with ASICS

After 6 years looking after the digital activities of Japanese sportswear brand ASICS (first in Europe, and since 2011 at global headquarters), I found it was now time for me to explore new activities.

But before I’m fully ready to move on, I’d like to take a quick look back.

I am immensely proud of my team’s laser focus on runners, and in particular of the MY ASICS running training plans service, but also of the various communication initiatives that are rooted in how people actually practice their sport and engage with it when hanging out online. Launching e-commerce was a painful experience, and the resulting sites aren’t quite what I originally had in mind, but they’re nonetheless a major step forward in digitalizing the company and its relationship with consumers. On a personal side, I’ll miss the daily interactions with the awesome people at Shibuya office, and the sometimes tough but always nourishing guidance of peers and managers.

The past 6 years were a blast, and I am thankful to consumers, colleagues and partners for teaching me so much.

In particular, I’d like to bow deeply to the runners on the Get Satisfaction support forum for MY ASICS. They’ve stuck with us through the launch of the new platform early 2011, and provided valuable feedback at every turn. And every once in a while, there’s a heart-warming story that makes it all worth it.

So, what’s next?

It’s been over a month I’ve left the office, and I’ve already been working with friends and acquaintances on various projects. (One of them was a fairly successful political campaign which couldn’t quite conceal very poor national results.) I’ve also been in talks with several companies in Europe, Japan and the US to join their operations but nothing has yet resolved itself in a binding contract for full-time employment.

One big step last week: it’s been confirmed I’ll be staying in Tokyo for at least another couple of months, while working on new opportunities. (Thanks for the support — you know who you are!)

Stay tuned!

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Coca Cola’s Georgia coffee nasty “ambush” pop-up stunt

The other day, a colleague got back to the office with a flyer advertising a pop-up coffee store around the corner from our office, in a gentrified-fashionable part of Tokyo. It advertised free coffee. We needed to have a business conversation and headed over.

The requirement was made clear to us when we arrived that a post on Facebook or a tweet with the pop-up’s hashtag would be appreciated. Here, my limited knowledge of Japanese limited my understanding of the pitch, but it seemed to me we were asked to refer to the taste of the coffee (an interesting attempt at priming us to notice the great flavor waiting for us in the cup). I was a good boy and tweeted:

Now, to be honest, “sweet” was the nicest word I could come up with — I was actually disappointed and not very impressed with the coffee, but I was afraid of being the philistine and also didn’t want to sound ungrateful when the staff had been so nice and, after all, had given me free coffee.

Also, the environment was really, really nice: wood and bright lights, airy and sophisticated, in a fresh back street of Omote-Sando.

But neither of us really drank that fast, the coffee was just not very good.

When we left, we drained our cups and the staff then pointed out the words printed at the bottom, which informed us that we’d in fact been drinking canned coffee — this wasn’t brewed fresh, and was in fact Coca Cola’s Georgia brand coffee.

Kirin Fire coffee cansDon’t get me wrong: canned coffee can be pretty nice: I’m a huge fan of Kirin’s Fire brand, which feels reinforced with extra caffeine and will get my heart racing on the first couple of gulps.


However, this was pretty poor. The taste wasn’t very pleasant, and there was no bite to it.

Now, what to make of it?

This didn’t make me feel great. The slightly overwhelming service was beyond friendly, and they were very successful at ensuring that I spread the word on social channels. However, priming and context can’t fix a poor product, and I won’t either recommend it, or buy it myself.

Also, I feel I’ve been used a bit. The “gotcha” at the bottom of the cup (if I’d been able to read it myself, and explained to me verbally instead) was somewhat annoying and didn’t make me feel very good about the experience.

Overall, while I enjoy “ambush” marketing if another brand is the target of the ambush, I do not enjoy being tripped up myself.

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Enterprise Development Works (Sort Of)

Finally, I believe I understand what’s good about “enterprise software.”

Until now, I thought “enterprise” was a conventional justification for inferior, bloated, and massively costly software that hardly did what it was supposed to, and certainly in a way that took neither users nor best practices into account.

To me, “enterprise” meant the opposite of agile, high-quality, user-friendly, high-performance, innovative, and capable of being iteratively improved after launch. And I simply could not fathom why anyone with an ounce of common sense, animated by the desire to do good (as opposed to being Mordak or the BOFH), and equipped with a bit of relevant technical knowledge, would ever choose such solutions over the better alternatives.

Those better alternatives being SaaS, software built to order by actual human beings that happen to be good developers using agile and other modern approaches, or open-source packages brought together in a meaningful combination.

This all remains kind of true. (I want to assuage any concerns I might have become a convert, we’re not quite there yet.)

But such a choice does have some advantages (and that’s what I didn’t have an instinctive understanding of): scalability, long-term stability, and risk management.

Scalable isn’t so much in terms of numbers of people using the product simultaneously, nor quantity of data or transactions being handled (this may or may not be part of the package), but in terms of quantity (large) and quality (can be low) of resources that can be brought on board to the project, and how systematic that onboarding can be.

The enterprise approach relies heavily on planning and structures because the contributors aren’t asked to shoulder the overall purpose and understand all stakeholders, nor to commit to an elusive definition of abstract quality. On the contrary, the definition of quality for any member of a project, regardless of their role, can be fairly well understood by anyone, because it is defined, in simple terms, as part of the specifications.

This doesn’t sound very appealing to me, but in the practice, it means that the client or recipient of the product can trust the project structure to come to life in a rather short period of time, in many different places at the same time, independently of fundamentally unreliable factors such as buy-in, enthusiasm, or conceptual understanding and alignment.

The alternative is organic project growth, which is perhaps more satisfying, and definitely feels more cost-effective, but is slower and depends so much more on recruiting, retaining and maintaining the motivation of high-skill individuals.

Long-term stability comes from the fact that little if any knowledge is held exclusively in people’s heads. The emphasis on explicit documentation and measurable targets (unit tests, SLAs) ensures that various stakeholders can come in and out of the project without upsetting the overall structure.

With much of the “better” software, bit rot (the decay of functionality due to technical advances breaking compatibility, random infrastructure failures, and human mistakes, around systems that aren’t under active development) requires specific provisions, which are often considered onerous.

The enterprise approach has ready-made, well-known arrangements to handle long-term stability. For example, the concept of “legacy platforms” isn’t really about the old code itself, but the practices that have to be developed to keep it running in a changing environment.

Risk management is an interesting question. In the startup world, taking risks is part of the lore, and a daily occupation. However, risk-taking is a fairly specialized business, and larger corporate organizations have a limited taste for it, usually concentrated around the organization’s core business.

Functional development projects that fall outside of the organization’s core mission are very likely to get nixed, one way or another. Not conceived is the first level: nobody will think of them. Not formalized is next: for whatever reason, a person who had an idea doesn’t bother to actually capture it and shop it around for execution. The enterprise model can’t really do anything about either barrier.

But the next barrier is that a project will not get approved. The enterprise model contains very strong tools for describing (and actually increasing, at least on paper) the feasibility of an idea, which can ensure the idea is accepted by the organization. Project plans are very actionable for management, in that they only require a binary approval.

Then comes the possibility that a project will fail. In my opinion, failure isn’t necessarily a big problem — what’s most important to me is for the organization (and the individuals inside it) to learn from the process, and therefore get better at carrying out its purpose. However, project failure in large organizations curtails the ability of teams and individuals to pursue further projects (as failure is usually considered negatively…), and the enterprise approach, when done properly, all but removes the risk of failure. (The risk that a project was irrelevant in the first place — a huge cause of failure — isn’t really taken away, though.)

And finally another risk is the inability of an organization to sustain a project — the previous point about long-term stability is a strength of the enterprise model.

In summary, I still hate the enterprise approach, even if it works. It goes against my instincts, it perpetuates a dependency on swindle-as-software (SaS, as opposed to SaaS), and I remain unconvinced that the tradeoffs (much more expensive, and perhaps less satisfying for some of its practitioners, in exchange for the key benefits outlined above) are actually worth it in the bigger picture. But I now see how, in many instances that are common and legitimate in larger organizations, it can be a better choice, and often the only option actually available.

I still would like everyone (inside and outside IT organizations) to be enough of a software engineer to be able to tackle data, computing, and business-process problems in a leaner, more knowledgeable way, and I believe a higher tolerance for the more likely failure of smaller individual projects can actually lead to a stronger company — but that’s probably an unattainable ideal at the moment. To its credit, the enterprise approach lives in the reality of business.

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