This article is a preview of the upcoming Root of Influence, a new media property from Ackerman McQueen.
Oxford University’s Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) program draws high-performing and ambitious students from around the world. The Guardian calls it “the degree that runs Britain.” The program’s website features quotes from three recent graduates who’ve chosen prestigious tracks in financial journalism, strategy consulting and fundraising.
Not featured is former student Andrew Smart.
“I did PPE at Oxford, and now I live in a hostel for the homeless,” Smart said. “And guess what my surname is? What would be the most ironic surname for an idiot?”
The interviewer is Pablo Strong, and this is his Streets of London YouTube video series, in which he strikes up short conversations with complete strangers.
Pablo's interview with Andrew Smart, equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking, is the highlight of the series.
You get the feeling no one’s listened to Andrew Smart in quite some time. He’s probably inebriated, and almost certainly depressed. When he talks, his whole body snaps and convulses. His attention darts about. He speaks through the sides of his eyes, perhaps to guard himself, or to ready his escape. He says he was a miserable student, in a self-loathing sort of way. He drank too much, smoke too much and couldn’t handle the work.
“What do people need in order to succeed?” Pablo asks.
“And what do you think is the best way of gaining that?”
“You start with your parents.”
“Do you have confidence?”
“Is that something you could see yourself building over time?”
“What’s the essence of confidence, then, where does it come from?”
“Well, it comes from your parents telling you that they love you and you are cared about. Whereas, mine didn’t really give a fuck.”
It’s a gut-wrenching moment. Smart is a tortured soul, worthy of sympathy, deserving of hope, and doubtless deserving of blame, too. He spends most of his days downtrodden and ignored, being shoved aside and avoided. At one time he was on the verge of that most prestigious label, “Oxford PPE.” Now, his role is “homeless man.” But Streets of London disregards all of that, rendering him fully in three dimensions, without pretense, and with every opportunity to showcase a true version of himself. When he says “life would be meaningless if it weren’t for other people,” it’s as if he’s offering the thesis for Pablo’s entire series.
In the comments below, the audience pours out its sympathy.
“As it turns out men aren't robots, but human beings with feelings, insecurities, and childhoods,” one person writes. “I hope he can gain that confidence and get out of the dark place he seems to be in currently, but that is no easy task. I want to give the dude a hug.”
It’s the best interview of a wonderful series. Pablo is a natural interviewer: he’s utterly neutral, yet warm and genuinely interested in his subjects. It takes a special nature to establish enough trust with strangers in an impromptu sidewalk interview that they spill their hearts for the camera. Without being invasive or intrusive, Pablo asks questions that elicit deep reflection. As they work through their answers, you often get the feeling his subjects are looking inside themselves in a way they haven't in years, if ever. Only someone who assumes the absolute best in people could ask a homeless man for the ingredients to success in life in the same manner one might ask a sharp-dressed banker—and the audience is rewarded for it, because Andrew’s answer likely offers more than most bankers ever could.
Pablo is a natural interviewer: he’s utterly neutral, yet warm and genuinely interested in his subjects.
It’s a brilliant example of how Streets of London strips away the labels we use to categorize ourselves, how it refuses to let the expectations of appearance define any conversation, and how it reveals the humanity hiding beneath all of the constructs of society.
“Almost always, when you stop someone, they’re quite different than how you imagined before you stopped them,” Pablo said. “The reason I started is because I find it fascinating that two people can be walking down the same street at the same time and having a completely different experience.”
Pablo’s subjects span nearly every spectrum of human life that wander the streets of London—from old to young, rich to poor, eccentric free spirits to the most straight-and-narrow members of the nine-to-five club.
Talking to all these diverse people, he said, “helps you become disengaged from your own experience. And you can think, well, maybe this street is actually neutral and we’re all just carrying these very dense stories around with us. And maybe we don’t need to be like that. If you can get caught up in someone else’s story, then you can drop your own story."
Scroll through the comments below any of the 16 episodes, and you'll quickly pick up on the theme. "Feels so honest and real in today’s [sic] world," writes one. "On YouTube it's rare to see a creator like you focusing on the story and not on yourself," says another.
The hope, Pablo said, is to take his audience "out of where their problems are, or make them feel empathy, or maybe make them listen to someone’s opinion and perspective that they might have otherwise dismissed. I think that’s it really, just expose people to a different opinion and that maybe will help people shake up their own or maybe it will give them some empathy to it.”
Part of Streets of London’s magic is in the purity of its face-to-face conversations between total strangers at a time when even close friends might be more likely to interact via text message or Snapchat. You can’t watch it without thinking about the way social media skews our relationships with each other.
“Everyone that uses social media, it’s very easy to feel disconnected,” Pablo said. “You’re fed this kind of stream of stuff from people, then you see them in real life and it’s completely incongruent and doesn’t match up.”
In this sense, Streets of London stands as a testament to the ultimate power of face-to-face interaction. In Episode 11, Pablo meets a down-on-his-luck actor doing Dr. Who walking tours, waiting for his next role.
When Pablo asks about his worst acting role he’s ever had, the man offers up what ought to be a 90-second pitch for an absolutely riotous black comedy about an on-stage disaster, involving a messy, convoluted plot, a 10-minute death scene, uninspired actors with zero rehearsal time and a would-be rousing speech that ended with the phrase, “leaving any edible matter intact!”
“How do you make that a rallying cry? ‘Edible matter intact!’ Awful, just awful,” the man said, shaking his head. When Pablo asked him if he was happy, he seemed almost bemused and surprised with himself when he told this complete stranger, “No, at the moment, I’m not, really.” He admitted to being a bit depressed, but then decided “it’ll change. It just goes up and down. But that’s sort of the nature of it. You just have to kind of deal with it, somehow.”
After the episode was posted, the actor, whose name is Jeremiah O’Connor, tracked it down to leave a comment: “Lovely video,” he said. “strangely therapeutic experience.”
Streets of London Episode 11: Skip to 13:02 to hear the actor's answer to the worst job he's ever done.
“People actually want the opportunity to be listened to, genuinely listened to, not sort of like, oh, how are you?” Pablo said. “But actually what’s going on in your life and what are you worried about and what makes you happy. We never really—it’s rare that we get an opportunity to talk like that.”
Streets of London makes clear the wealth of wisdom that surrounds each of us every day, not just in the people we pass by without a word, but in the people we see regularly, but only know in a one-dimensional sort of way. How many people share offices for years with fellow travelers without exchanging much more than a “good morning” or “good evening?” What do we lose when we fail to dig deeper into the people around us?
It’s a remarkable series for its simplicity and sincerity. But despite being truly raw, real and caring, Streets of London has drawn little interest from brands that claim to be, well, raw, real and caring, doubtless because of its relatively small reach: none of its 16 episodes have passed even 10,000 views. That’s a serious mistake. This series deserves wider distribution, and a brand willing to make that happen in an authentic way would be rewarded by its audience.
“It’s very easy to get views by chasing certain types of content, and you can grow your channels quicker and bigger by doing that,” Pablo said. He knows this first hand: his recent review of the Fujifilm X100F camera, thanks to YouTube’s algorithms, has received more views in one month than every Streets of London episode combined.
“If I do a video about a camera I get ten, twenty times as many views, many more views, but I don’t get the connection in the comments and the feedback that that series has given me."
Because of the higher search volumes for brand-name gear, Pablo's camera reviews are better positioned to garner large numbers of views—but they don't have near the emotional depth of Streets of London, nor should that be expected from them.
Unlike Streets of London, some of those camera reviews have received sponsorship support, due to their higher view numbers and more direct connection to retail products. And by no means are we disparaging Pablo's reviews (they're very good), or the brands that sponsor them. They just don't have near the emotional depth, nor should that be expected. They're gear reviews.
But it's unfortunate that brands adopt such a short-term mindset toward partnering with content creators, and in the end, it's the audiences that suffer. Because instead of more original, passionate content, they get videos calibrated to maximize views within the algorithmic confines of social platforms.
To find the wider reach it deserves, Streets of London needs a partner that believes in it, that's willing to pull its own weight, not only through distribution, but by giving Pablo the time and support he needs to keep producing it. But as long as brands keep talking about how much they want authentic content, but supporting the opposite, audiences will be treated to increasingly generic videos.
So here's a call to any brand manager with some guts: take a chance on something real. There are countless creators like Pablo out there, working on passion projects to very little fanfare—but it's that passion, that earnest desire to do something that matters, that you should want to support.
“It’s so satisfying to put it up and read the comments and see how it affected people," Pablo said. "I think about that sometimes when I just interviewed someone and I’m walking away and it’s all in my SD card and my camera’s in my hands, and I think, this information that’s in my hands right now, I’m going to put it together and put it online and people all over the world are going to see it, and some of them, it might affect them or make them think something. I just think that’s so powerful and it’s so rewarding and I just kind of want more people to see it, really.”