I met with a friend last week who looked at me sternly and asked, “Marcus, what the hell is The Black Operatives Department? I like it, but what is it?” He’d never seen the talks live and had no frame of reference. As we chatted I realised that I’d never sat down and explained properly why I’m doing it, the point of it and why people should be interested in it. This article attempts to change that.
A brief history of The Black Operatives Department.
“Putting dystopia at the heart of innovations”.
The Black Operatives Department started life as a fictitious advertising agency. Founded in 1956, it worked solely for government organisations and had been responsible for clandestine marketing operations such as the Bay Of Pigs, Nixon, the Cambridge Five and Edward Snowden.
I’d first used The Black Operations Department in 2014 at the republica conference in Berlin. The talk I gave that year was called The Snowden Pitch. It was set in 2008. The Black Operatives Department had developed the advertising campaign “An Everyday Bond”, and it was pitching it to the NSA. The proposal: unleash a whistleblower into the world and guarantee the NSA and their surveillance products maximum visibility within the espionage community. The talk explored the Snowden case as a communications campaign and the world described, defined and manipulated by data.
The Purpose of Entry from 2015 was set in 2018 and explored Europe’s political shift to the right. The Black Operatives Department had been briefed by “the Coalition of the Right” to produce an algorithm that could control the newly developed, sovereign national internets and fulfil the terms of the “Wasteland Act”. The product they developed was called the Real-time, Algorithmic, Chemical, Hallucinogenic, Enhancement, Lady, or R.A.C.H.E.L. for short. R.A.C.H.E.L. turned the human body in a tracking pixel, spoke directly to the user and permitted access to certain parts of the digital world.
RACHEL has made many appearances since 2015. She ran a network of shopping bots at the All Facebook Conference in Berlin and disrupted proceedings at the 2016 Silicon Beach in Bournemouth, but these outings weren’t officially part of The Black Operatives Department.
“Love, The Machine and the Ghost” from this year’s republica was supposed to be the final talk in the series, and was pitched as an epilogue for the BOD, but I’ve decided to not only carry on but to make The Black Operatives Department my sole keynote format.
Challenging the keynote format.
The format is considerably more complicated to produce and give then a standard keynote, but they’re also more enjoyable to perform, and audiences seem to appreciate seeing something interesting and more challenging. I’ve always been interested in finding different ways of telling stories, explaining and exploring ideas and sharing knowledge, but I’ve become increasingly tired of LinkedInification of the keynote and speaker circuit. It works for some people, it just isn’t working for me anymore, and I think audiences are expecting a new kind of learning experience, which is why I’ve abandoned my standard talks in favour of this richer experience. It feels much more natural for me: a nice mix of art, performance, social context and business.
The Black Operatives Department as an Idea Lab.
I’ve found that by pouring questions, theories and even client briefings into the narrative construct of this fictitious innovation agency helps to find new and exciting answers. The Black Operatives Department has become part of my creative intelligence process. Getting a brief from a client and asking “what would the BOD do?” is a fun way of getting closer to more interesting, albeit sinister, solutions.
The original talks predicted the cold war renaissance, cyber war, cyber crime, post-factual media manipulation, Neo-Orwellianism, Europe’s shift the right, e-borders, Brexit and the rise of Bots. I’m not a prophet; I’m just creating products, solutions and concepts in worlds run by Bond Villians, Civil Servants and Marketing Executives. I’ve also started using the BOD to think about, and for brands, businesses, security and cities. The initial results have been quite exciting so, in much the same way as a memorial palace would work, I take ideas into the Idea Lab of the Black Operatives Department just to see what might happen when you put dystopia at the heart of innovation. It’s a safe, fictional environment where I can tinker darkly with a client’s business, their business sector, competitors or a brand without breaking things or people.
The Black Operatives Department – Instagram Notes.
I’ve been spending quite a bit of time working on new themes for the talks: developing new fictional products, new kinds of companies and a new darker society that is always only five years away from the now in which we live. I’ve been turning these ponderings into things that I call Instagram Notes, which aren’t anything else but reminders and moods for ideas that I’m either working on, want to work on, or that keep me awake at night. They’re very dark, and I’m enjoying how they’re currently nestling themselves into motivational, well-being, testosterone driven part of the Instagram community. You can follow them to keep up and get a sneak peak into what’s going on in the department.
So that’s what it’s all about. I hope that helps. Let me know if you have any questions and do get in touch if you’d like to book a talk.