A presentation that really captured my imagination during Advertising Week was given by Craig Atkinson and Mark Holden from PHD, who together introduced Source: its agency-wide, web-based workspace for media, communications and channel plan development.

Described as PHD's new "operating system", Source is a central repository of tools, templates, research reports, audience data and online research panel APIs that PHD's planners (and buyers) use to build their plans. But unlike other planning systems, which planners tend to interact with privately and as individuals – and export their work only when it's ready for team and client consumption – PHDers interact with Source conspicuously.

This means everyone has a line of sight on what everyone else is doing, and can participate in improving outcomes for all PHD clients, across all categories, offices and countries.

Source is not merely about efficiency, but draws inspiration from three cutting-edge disciplines:

  1. Behavioral economics and "choice architecture"
  2. Cognitive neuroscience (particularly studies into neuromarketing and insights from PHD's own fMRI research
  3. "Marketing meta-analysis", as uncovered by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute

But you don't need to be an egghead to appreciate Source. Given its live-collaboration engine, Source functions as a multi-player online game.

"When you use Source you are, in effect, playing an online game," Holden wrote in a post-presentation e-mail. "People work together by clicking on challenges that appear on their homepage. Each challenge is a live brief … 1,660 people are competing within Source on a live leaderboard."

Much of Atkinson and Holden's presentation at Advertising Week established the link between gameplay, engagement and work. In particular, they discussed the kind of play associated with massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) like World of Warcraft, and intimated that being "game-like" in this way will be a predictor of Source's success in delivering the desired outcomes for PHD and its clients.

My summary of this argument is:

  1. Employee engagement is a pre-condition of producing good work (I think it would be very hard to disagree with this)
  2. Most employees aren't engaged at work (this is not a PHD issue, but a universal one – according to a recent poll by Gallup, 87% of global workers are not engaged at work)
  3. Gameplay is engagement (because you must play in order to engage)

In fact, Atkinson offered two quotes to drive this connection home. The first described the work of Nick Yee, who studies self-representation and social interaction in virtual environments. He has shown that "MMOGs are actually massively multiplayer work environments disguised as games" (my emphasis).

The second quote was this showstopper: "Work is just a game that's so bad you have to pay people to do it."

Another, more speculative, justification for Source resonated with me. Holden and Atkinson made the generational argument that while Boomer/Gen X managers are focused on productivity, Gen Y professionals are more likely to search for "meaning" in their work. Add to this the following observations:

  1. Gen Y professionals are often the most disruptive thinkers in an organization (they aren't yet jaded; they aren't "careful" thinkers)
  2. Gen Y has excess capacity (the more basic tasks we often have them address don't nearly exhaust their creative energies)
  3. Boomers/Gen X-ers are overextended with travel, family commitments, etc.

This all suggests that if PHDers from Gen Y actively engage with Source, PHD and its clients will clearly benefit from an indefatigable layer of disruptive thinking.

But will they engage? The fact that there is a leaderboard in Source makes it game-like indeed, but I wonder if the factor that makes a difference here is that Source is play, not that Source is game-like (after all, play is a necessary – but not sufficient – condition of being a "game").

Maybe it's because I'm a musician (and also not a sports fan), but what's most compelling to me about Source is that you are engaging in play with your colleagues when you use it.

It just seems more like a jam session to me than a game.

What's the difference? Games typically have winners and losers (again, Source has a leader board … kinda Boomer/Gen X-like, no?). Jam sessions, on the other hand, are inherently meaningful (kinda Gen Y-like, no?). The trick is just to do them, often improving your communication with the other musicians and growing as a player each time you do. Jam sessions may not always bear fruit out in the world (just like every comms strategy ever), but you also just might elicit a Kind of Blue.

Let's face it: we comms professionals never "know" which communications strategies will work with the same certainty that we know who has won – and who has lost – a game, but this shouldn't discourage us from honing our craft. (And honing our craft shouldn't require a leaderboard!)

This is absolutely not a criticism of Source. You had me at play. Does it need to be "gameplay"?