Clay, counterfeiters,
and digital banking

Globular envelope with a cluster of accountancy tokens, from Susa. Louvre Museum (Wikipedia)

Globular envelope with a cluster of accountancy tokens, from Susa. Louvre Museum (Wikipedia)

Languages spoken in commerce-less civilizations typically have words for the numbers one through five—something to do with the fact that most of us carry around five fingers on each hand—but have no word for six or anything beyond. Instead, they make do with a catch-all word that roughly translates to “a whole bunch.”

Societies engaged in the simplest of trade needed little more. The invention of words for numbers greater than five became needful only when keeping track of trade required more than the fingers of one hand. With the unreliability of memory and the reality of human perfidy, an accurate means of recording numbers soon followed.

Here, we owe fourth century BCE Mesopotamia a debt of gratitude. It was about that time that the Mesopotamian sheep trade really took off. To keep track of payment, traders devised a small clay token, marked with a plus sign, which everyone agreed represented the value of one sheep.

Do not underestimate the importance of that plus sign. As far as historians have been able to trace, this marked the world’s first appearance of written language. The earliest writing owes its start not to artistes seeking expression, but to merchants seeking top dollar for livestock.*

One token per sheep was fine for ma-and-pa sheep merchants, but hauling around oodles of clay tokens proved impractical for big box sheep merchants. This led to the development of denominations: They devised a token for ten sheep, another for twenty, and so forth.

As fast as enterprising Mesopotamians came up with tokens, other enterprising Mesopotamians came up with ways to counterfeit them. Since security chips, holographic images, and polyester threads printed with minute letters were scarce 6,000 years ago, resourceful merchants developed other ways to foil counterfeiters. Some of them were quite ingenious. Wikipedia reports:

To ensure that nobody could alter the number and type of tokens, they invented a clay envelope shaped like a hollow ball into which the tokens on a string were placed, sealed, and baked. If anybody disputed the number, they could break open the clay envelope and do a recount.

I found this next part of particular interest:

To avoid unnecessary damage to the record, they pressed archaic number signs and witness seals on the outside of the envelope before it was baked, each sign similar in shape to the tokens they represented.

Hmm. They agreed upon the value of a token that was marked with a number; then they locked the tokens out of view and relied on authenticated markings to represent their sum total value. At least symbolically, that’s what we do today: We agree upon the value of a unit (dollar, yen, euro, what-have-you), lock it out of view, and represent the sum total of units by means of authenticated markings—except we use a screen instead of a clay ball.

Page from Precolumbian Mayan Dresden Codex (Wikipeida)

Page from Precolumbian Mayan Dresden Codex (Wikipeida)

Ironically, the very system of trade that required the invention of numbers greater than five has gone full circle. The “tokens” we use today have even allowed us to dispense with the numbers two through five. We manage quite well using only ones and zeroes.


*Though writing first arose in Mesopotamia as far as historians know, writing arose independently in other locales. Mesoamericans invented writing around the first millennium BCE, and not for commerce, but for literary purposes. Chinese characters most likely arose independently as well. The earliest verified evidence of Chinese writing dates to the late Shang dynasty toward the end of the second century BCE. Literacy in China today requires knowing from 3,000 to 4,000 characters. If you didn’t grow up learning them, good luck with that. That may have interesting implications as increasingly significant numbers of Chinese adopt digital payments systems.

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Welcome to India


Mumbai, India’s capital. Population 18.4 million.

This week you will be hard-pressed to find a financial periodical, blog, or website that isn’t raving about India as the next land of opportunity for the digital payments industry.

From the tidal wave of news reports, the casual observer might conclude that, by sheer coincidence, independent reporters happened upon the same data and drew the same conclusions at exactly the same time.

In fact, nearly all of the news stories can be sourced to a joint study that Google and Boston Consulting Group undertook with Nielsen and published on Monday. You can tell they all used the same source because they all credit the study and because they all cover pretty much the same copy points. These include: 

  • Digital payments is relatively new to India.
  • People in India really dig their smartphones.
  • Convenience matters to Indians.
  • Roughly half of Indians have no banking relationship, which means they don’t have credit cards
  • 81 percent of existing Indian users like digital better than other payment forms
  • More than half of Indians are projected to use digital payments by 2020
  • The top 100 million digital payments users are projected to account for 70 percent of gross merchandise value
  • Ergo, digital payments is expected to take India by storm, to the tune of a projected $500 billion, by 2020. If I did the math right, that’s in four years.

For more information and details, the Google-BCG report is well worth a read.

Most of this week’s articles feature a quote from Rajan Anandan, Google’s vice president and managing director for Southeast Asia and India, so I suppose it’s fair game for me to reproduce it here:

“Spurred by smartphone penetration, and supported by progressive regulatory policy, the digital payments industry is at an inflection point and is set to grow 10X by 2020. It is telling that half of India’s internet users will use digital payments and that the top 100 million users will drive 70% of the GMV – a clear indicator of the growing importance of the digital consumer.”

Meanwhile, four days before the release of the Google-BCG report, Business Insider reported that in Bangalore, FlipKart will invest the equivalent of over $100 million U.S. in creating its own digitial payments business in India. 

This is all exciting news. Just a couple of cautions: 

First, the Nielsen study and the subsequent report rely on self-reported data and inference, which aren’t always reliable. You cannot assume that people will act as they predict. To wit, Harry Truman did not lose to Thomas Dewey

Second, it’s not always wise to launch big plans from one report based on one study. The wiser course would be to conduct additional studies to see if they validate or challenge the results. I realize that said wiser course can burn development time and give competitors a head start. The solution may be to conduct further study while at the same time putting plans in motion, remaining open to adapting should the data warrant. 

India may well mushroom into one of the leading happening online payments markets. My cautions mean only that, as with any study, we should consider the data and conclusions with care. In no way am I dismissing the research or suggesting we ignore it. In fact, I’m pretty psyched about it. After all, the folks at Nielsen, Google, and BCG are pretty danged bright. With the rapid advance of mobile payments throughout the rest of the world, there’s no reason to suppose its advance won’t be as dramatic or more so in India. 

India has 22 officially recognized languages. Besides those, it has over 150 unofficial languages spoken in significant numbers. Besides those, it has over 1,600 languages spoken among smaller populations. Even within one country, language differences portend cultural differences. These can be from the nuanced to the obvious. That means a marketing strategy that works with one population may not with another. Moreover, there is no such thing as word-to-word translation. Translation is more of a concept-to-concept thing, with an ever-present danger of tripping up due to connotation, idiom, or local custom. 

Marketers, your challenge awaits you.

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To Lab or Not To Lab


TECHNOLOGY IS something of a blessing and a curse in the banking industry.

The blessing part comes in the form of opening up new ways to connect with and provide convenience to customers. The curse part comes in the form of how in the heck does anyone keep up, much less lead?

No small number of prominent banks—Capital One, Chase, Wells Fargo, and Citi, to name a few—are pinning their keeping-up-and-leading hopes on innovation labs. That’s “labs” in the literal sense: They have created designated, physical spaces geared to spur out-of-the-box thinking. There, words like “disruptive” and “creative” are rallying cries. You can read overviews and view photos in this piece from The Financial Brand.

Innovation labs have as many critics as defenders. Are they breeding grounds for great ideas, or another hollow trend doomed to go the way of ropes courses?

Defenders claim or project success. Citi, for example, boasted:

A recent example of a solution developed was a new mobile collections solution for Coca-Cola that was a ‘market first’ in India, Korea and China to capture its C2B digital payment flows. The mobile browser-based application allows clients to receive notifications and authorize payments using their mobile phones.

And an American Banker article quotes Citigroup’s Debby Hopkins:

“Citi’s Innovation Labs, and our global network that connects them, play a critical role in our ecosystem by providing a focused, rapid experimentation environment that explores, validates and brings to market the most promising new ideas for Citi’s businesses around the world.”

Yet American Banker gives equal time to critics. In the same article, it cites Bank of America’s Cathy Bessant’s remarks from an interview with Fortune:

“We are different from some firms in that we are not big believers, and I’m not a believer personally, in innovation labs—the whole idea of innovation for innovation’s sake and the idea of one success for every 10 tries. Banking is a thinly margined business. Our innovation has to be directed innovation, and solving a market issue or creating a capability that is magnetic to customers. The whole idea that we would devote a tremendous amount of money to something with a 10% hit rate is not, in my view, economically viable. The other thing is: in banking the people who best know banking are the people closest to the customer. Our lines of business are the most accountable people for innovation.”

It’s not unusual for proponents to defend innovation labs with an appeal to the need for ongoing innovation. That moves the target: The importance of innovation is not in question. The question is whether innovation takes place best in a lab. Psychologist Richard Wiseman’s highly recommended book :59 Seconds suggests that brainstorming sessions, which I would argue are a precursor to innovation labs, are less effective than presenting a problem to employees and then sending them off to come up with ideas on their own, in their own space. But then, perhaps the similarity to brainstorming sessions is superficial, and innovation labs will prove an entirely different animal.

Who is right? Neither proponents nor opponents are inexperienced or naïve. Time, as it always does, will tell.

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Seven Most Effective
Digital Marketing
Strategies for Banks
My article in Journal of Digital & Social
Media Marketing

JDSMM Cover w SI’m honored that Journal of Digital & Social Media Marketing has published my article, “The Seven Most Effective Digital Marketing Strategies for Banks.” You’ll find it in Volume 3, Number 4 (Winter 2015-16).

A quarterly publication, the Journal is advertising-free and peer-reviewed, meaning that an expert panel vets every article. I can tell you from experience that its standards keep authors on their toes. That’s a good thing. It assures readers that the information in its pages is responsible and reliable.

From its home page:

Journal of Digital & Social Media Marketing is the major peer-reviewed, professional journal for all those involved in the marketing of products or services using digital channels. Its overriding goal is to provide an authoritative, practitioner-focused forum to support the professional development of all those working in, or entering, the field. As such, the Journal’s content is both of direct relevance to the practice of digital marketing and intellectually rigorous.

Published quarterly and guided by an eminent Editorial Board of digital and social media marketing experts, each quarterly 100-page issue provides in-depth, practical articles written by leading professionals on new thinking, strategies, techniques and trends, plus the latest best practice and detailed analysis of how leading brands are using digital and social media marketing around the world. Articles focus on end users and the brands they represent, documenting the challenges they face and how they are tackling them, with case studies from leading digital marketers to benchmark your organisation against. The journal does not publish advertising and all content is peer-reviewed to ensure that it is of direct relevance to those working in the field, combining the latest strategic thinking with the practical knowledge needed to put it into practice.

Journal of Digital and Social Media Marketing provides an authoritative, high-quality forum for the latest thinking, practice and developments in all and any aspect of digital and social media marketing.

You can subscribe to the Journal by clicking here.

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I can’t even!
The Economist’s fateful tweet

Economist-diamondsLast week on behalf of The Economist, this is how some hapless tweet writer boiled down an observation about flagging diamond sales:

Why aren’t millennials buying diamonds?

The tweet earned a spate of delightfully sarcastic replies from affronted Millennials. Many of the comments—dare I say some of the best?—were NSFW, so I won’t be including them here. (If you cannot resist, you can read them here, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.) Meanwhile, here are some of the more tame reactions:

maybe because they’re burdened with crippling student loan debt and can’t actually find a good paying job

I work at a grocery store

“Why aren’t millennials buying diamonds” she read as she ate crackers to quiet the hunger & wondered if she’d have a place to live come fall

You’ve gotta be kidding, @TheEconomist! The answer’s in the name of your publication! We’re all poor! [slits throat]

If millennials were buying diamonds then the articles would be why millennials are wasting money on diamonds when they can’t get jobs


If only the fateful tweet had more soberly attempted to win click-throughs to The Economist’s interesting, offense-free link. Diamond sales are a matter of interest at the very least, and quite possibly a matter of concern. In the chaotic system that a world economy is, you never know which industry will turn out to be a butterfly whose wings lead to a hurricane. Moreover, the trend may reveal insights about the shifting and morphing of societal values.

There is something to be said for sensitivity to the viewpoint of various generations. Millennials have fast-rising purchasing power, the above protestations of poverty notwithstanding, so it pays to know how to communicate with them, and how not to.

Last year, Inc. magazine ran an article entitled “15 Words and Phrases Millennials Use but No One Else Understands.” How many can you correctly define? A few were lost on me, and I’m a borderline Millennial myself. Maybe I’m not as young as I prefer to think.


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