Friday, August 31, 2007

Sevice on Internet Terms

Intriguing comments on my buckies post below suggest how deeply we're all thinking about the blurring of the boundaries between online and offline experiences. Erin's ideas about revolutionizing the time spent waiting in line calls attention to how intolerant we've become to any delay in service or gratification, an experience certainly enhanced by our broadband-speed shopping habits.

Paul S remarks about how virtual navigation--at first so disorienting--are now often better than the navigational elements (signage, etc) in our more familiar 3-D worlds.

I've definitely found myself subject to similar experiences of impatience and confusion when I'm untethered by a nice clean flow. When i was doing research for an online travel brand, I found that some consumers take the point even farther. I was asking experienced business travelers about their strategies for getting through the purgatory of the contemporary airport. I heard all kinds of things, from always wearing loafers to elaborate descriptions of choreographic transfers of ID and boarding pass from wallet to shirt pocket at various stages of the passage. But one of the most memorable remarks was a traveler who in response to a question about what she did to make airport travel easier, responded simply: "Never talk to a person."

We know what she means. At least those of us who hated begging the weary and harried airline rep to find us an aisle seat or look for an earlier flight. Don't most of us now prefer kiosk, which provides--at its best-- total access to the information.

It was the kiosk, in fact, which helped me define the principles of service on Internet terms.

I've found that even really sophisticated ecommerce businesses get tripped up when they start thinking about service; their impulse is to return back to the traditional definition of gold-standard of service, which is personal attention. In certain cases (e.g. medical care, luxury hotels) that may still be true. But when it comes to day to day transactions, many of us would prefer control and access to talking to a person with their all their flaws and limited information and crankiness. In any case, here was my working list on what service meant on internet terms:

Accessible 24/7
Hyper-relevant in terms of specific times, place, situation, product
Connected to as many venues as possible
Configurable/Customization: reorganize info the way you want it
And ideally Smart: Learns your preferences and improves through usage

This last element "smart"--in the old-fashioned sense of the term--is what we used to get from great service people. They'd actually get to know us and our interests to which they added their own depth of insight and experience, so that each interaction/transaction would be better than the one before.

But, of course, many of us didn't have that experience with travel agents or accountants. It wasn't worth the time or emotional energy, let alone the extra pro service fee, to actually get to know someone, so we did it online. And now we don't want to go back to the stupid service person for so-called service. Many of us now
prefer the smart machine.

Freelance gig for nyc planner

Not typical usage but wanted to get the word out. Former client of mine (who is himself a former advertising planner) and now is working for a major broadcasting company is looking for mid-levelish planning support for 2-3 months or so in nyc. If interested or know someone who might be? Drop me a line at

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Default default

In buckies today, and in the midst of my order for a grande latte, I was interrupted by the slightly harried cashier.
"Were you aware," she asked, "that you have to request whole milk? 2% milk is now our default."

I have a lot of personal reactions to this question from the fact that I now have to add yet another adjective ("whole milk!") to my already adjective rich (iced, grande, triple whatever) order to the sign that I’m pushed yet further to the margins of the culinary choices in America. But that’s not news to me, and considering the problems with plumpness in America, it’s probably a good thing.

What really interested me, however, was the way this exchange at the cash-register represented yet again how deeply our online experience has infiltrated every aspect of our offline consumer life, from the way retail environments are using opt-out methods to reset consumer choices (both behavioral economics and site analytics have demonstrated the power of the default) to the language of customer service.

Can it be too long before a waitress asks if we want to see a drop-down menu?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The limits of experience or how the non-fan can help

Whenever I take on a new project I’m often asked if I buy the particular brand or “do” the particular activity (play golf, drink wine, watch spots, etc.). The working assumption is that personal experience will provide greater insight into the consumer experience. And sometimes that’s definitely true., especially in experiences that have very deep cultural roots.

Race, class and gender have been such profound sources of cultural division in our country partially because it is so hard for people to imagine the experience and perspective of people different from themselves.

In my experience, however, having personal experience doesn’t always help. Sometimes it provides insight, and sometimes it gets in the way of seeing the behavior clearly or freshly. This is particularly true of enthusiast brands and categories that people in our industry care a lot about: for guys, this means cars or sports or video games.

I’ll use sports as an example. I like playing sports, but I’d rather wash the dishes than spend 5 hours watching a game on TV. (Why? It just seems pointless.) So, whenever I work on a sports-related brand, the other members of the team almost always tell they me they have it figured out. They know the sport or product or fan-experience so well that I –an admitted non-fan--couldn’t possibly tell them something that they don’t know. This is, they say, a no-brainer (usually a red flag).

What generally happens, however, is that they have a really hard time escaping from their own experience and emotional investments. They care too much. And end up creating a lot of familiar, cliché-ridden work and ideas. They need a fresh perspective—a non fan-perspective—to see the same stories in a new way. It’s not that I’m hearing anything new most of the time. I mean, is there anything more repetitive than fan stories? "So it was the seventh inning..." I’m just hearing them from a different perspective.

We all see this with clients; more than half the time, our new ideas aren’t new at all. They already know what we are telling them; they just can’t see it clearly, because they are too deeply involved in their own concerns, frustrations, ambitions, turf battles, etc.

Maybe I’m just making a virtue out of a deficiency. The truth is I use and/or buy very few of the products I work on, but whenever I do care too much about a particular brand, I try and bounce my ideas off a non-fan to make sure I’m not reciting the familiar brand cant. And I usually am.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Is all marketing becoming cause marketing?

There used to be a time when all a brand had to do was convince consumers that they did a better job (whiter whites, cleaner dishes, fresher breath, better taste) than its competitors. But times have changed, and now it seems like almost every brand on the shelf--no matter how mundane--has a position on how to change your life or the world for the better.

Sometimes these are genuinely new products that do the job better or differently (Method: cleaning without toxic chemicals), sometimes they are designed to address a social-economic or environmental problem (The Tap Project), but often they are just a restatement of the product's basic benefit in advocacy terms (e.g., Wisk's "Go ahead. Get dirty").

Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty had an enormous impact on refreshing the brands relatively tired image without advocating for something specific to change about the world. While some of the work contained critiques of the fashion industry's unrealistic standards of beauty, the majority of its communications focused on a positive celebration of the beauty possessed by un-photoshopped real women. No petitions for the fashion industry to change; just how we perceived it. This was political advocacy from the inside out.

While cause-marketing began as a way to use mass marketing as a tool for behavioral change (e.g., Iron Eyes Cody on behalf of Keep America Beautiful), and then became a promotional tool (many experts mark Amex's 1983 Statue of Liberty Restoration Program as a turning point), it's clearly evolved into something even fundamental: a platform for brand strategy. When brands want to have a major impact, they often feel the need to take a position on something bigger than dirty clothes or headaches.

It's easy to see why: in a cluttered marketing landscape, brands need new ways to get attention and differentiate from their competitors. Brand X might clean clothes, but brand Y cleans clothes without poisoning the river, etc.

This isn't to say that the familiar forms of cause marketing aren't still around: there's Crispin's breakthrough Truth work and Droga's Tap Project and endless amounts of promotional tie-ins. But more common these days are brands that take a position simply because it's good for business.

And there is the highly visible RED effort, raising money to fight AIDS in Africa, is both a brand and a cause, which has linked itself to a consortium of brands and promotions. It's almost a holding-company brand for cause-marketing.

In fact, the field has gotten so diverse, it's probably a mistake to call all these programs cause marketing at all. Various people have suggested alternatives: advocacy brands or passion brands or enthusiast brands, but they all take a position to emphasize their commitment to something consumers care about more than their brands. (Thanks to Gareth for hooking me up with so many insightful perspectives on the subject)

Grant McCracken tends to view all this as a positive development:

"In order to get access to the power and authenticity of the new beauty movement, Dove makes available its marketing cunning and check book. To get access to Dove's cunning and checkbook, the trend makes available its power and authenticity. Intellectuals are found of talking about how capitalism corrupts culture, but this bargain looks like a pretty good one."

I'm inclined to agree, though I wonder about two unintended consequence: 1) the incessant linkage of consumption with positive social change weakening our belief in more direct forms of political action (e.g. voting). You can't improve all the ills of the world by buying stuff and 2) a consumer backlash, something like cause-exhaustion, during which we hunger for brands that don't ask for anything but our money and in return do their intended job. Only time will tell.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Sunday Reading #2: Dis-Integration

I think I mentioned below that I try to spend a bit of every weekend reading something other than cross-tabs, but these selections--though designed to take my mind off work--often as not lead my thoughts right back to my daily concerns. I try to think of it as inspiration. In any case, this Sunday it was Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe which I picked off the shelf to bring along on a beach weekend.

If you didn't squander your youth in grad-school seminars you might think of Scott as a novelist of rip-roaring adventure tales, or source material for generally bad historical movies, but he is in fact also a literary innovator of the highest order, the inventor of the historical novel, a serious cultural historian of his own Scottish origins and a shrewd commentator on the politics of empire and colonialization. If you're interested, start with Waverly.

In any case, the passage that took my back to Adland was in the midst of his introduction, where he explains why—after a series of great successes on one theme--he has decided, somewhat anxiously, to try out a new subject:

The public are, in general, very ready to adopt the opinion, that he who has pleased them in one peculiar mode of composition, is, by means of that very talent, rendered incapable of venturing on other subjects. The effect of this disinclination…may be seen in the censures usually passed by vulgar criticism upon actors or artists who venture to change the character of their efforts, that, in so doing, they may enlarge the scale of their art.

(First of all: what a beautiful and grand ambition, “to enlarge the scale of their art.” If only we could all keep such high ideals in mind.)

But what really reminded me of work was this description of "the pubic's" strong impulse to pigeon-hole the ability of very talented people within the narrow range of their past successes. This rings true in my experience. The inclination to categorize is mighty strong in most of us (the smart one, the pretty one, the athletic one), and is only amplified among the talented and successful.

And as we all know, we tend to judge successful businesses just as severely. The literature of management is filled with cautionary tales on efforts to diversify—or “enlarge the scale of their art”—and are met with resistance from managers to Wall Street.

This impulse to believe in narrowly circumscribed talent is, of course, one of the core challenges faced by the “integrated agency” model. Agencies that provide multiple marketing services try to convince clients these days that they can do brand and retail and SEO and direct mail and PR, and whatever else might be on the docket. But those of us who have worked at integrated agencies know that clients tend to find this proposition unlikely. Whatever we did first and best--brand advertising, direct mail, PR--is what our agency does, our speciality, and all the other stuff is perceived to be second-rate, whether or not it measures up.

Marketers may buy additional agency services but, in my experience, it's less because they are convinced the agency is great at everything than because they believe the agency is good enough at a bunch of things and they don’t have the budget or manpower to pay for and manage multiple high-powered vendors. Or they hope--usually against hope--that the integrated model will lead to some mysterious synergies.

Just last week, I met with a potential client who said as much. To paraphrase: “I want X for branding, Y for web design, Z for acquisitions. But I don’t have the budget to pay for three agency overheads.”

Strangely and unfortunately enough, the one skill-set that most of us concerned with strategy (whether planners or marketers) wish stayed under roof, i.e., media buying and planning, is now frequently broken off, and housed in another building with another name and P & L.

I'm not suggesting that the integrated model is broken or even that some agencies don't pull it off, but that it's fighting against something deep in human nature that wants to see talent as potentially deep but not broad.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Why Planners should learn IA + Irrelevance #2: OLA

Wanted to make sure that a comment from Brad Noble, head of Info Arch at Mullen, on a post below didn't get lost in the pageview shuffle. While he's responding to a post on brand irrelevance, his remark is also more evidence for another point made below: planners need to engage with the discipline and tools of Info Arch if they want to understand consumer experience online.

Responding to the usability work done by Jakob Nielsen here (definitely check it out, the eye-tracking heatmaps are worth the visit alone) Brad points out how strongly we've be conditioned to ignore what he calls "distractions" (e.g. advertising) online and to respond strongly to what appear to be functional elements.

As Nielsen remarks, among a bunch of other well-articulated points, "Users almost never look at anything that looks like an advertisement, whether or not it is an ad." Now that's irrelevant.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Surprisingly Resilient Focus Group

“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
--Mark Twain, 1897

Every couple months I see another article or post on the death of the focus group, (e.g. here) listing the FG’s well-known limitations (small sample, unnatural environment, false positives, dark rooms, too many m&m’s etc., etc.) usually as a preface promoting some alternative that claims to solve these problems (in-homes, out-of-homes, hypnotizing respondents, online research, online panels, behavioral data etc., etc.).

And I agree with both points. Focus groups are limited in all the ways suggested by these critiques. And other research methods are often superior ways of gathering useful information, depending of course on the question you are trying to answer. As many others have noted, all research methods have pros and cons and you need to match the right method to the project. But that’s obvious or should be.

Less obvious, I think, is the surprising vitality of focus groups despite the ongoing storm of critique and the expansion of available techniques, usually online, of collecting data and consumer feedback.

Brit Browning, one of my former planning staffers at Mullen and now at hotshop 180 in LA, mentioned the other day that he keeps seeing articles about how focus groups continue to have an instrumental role in helping shape some great campaigns. Here is Jeff Goodby on the famous "Got Milk" campaign. And here is Gareth on TIAA-CREF the other week.

Part of the problem seems to be that some creatives and most clients think we, as planners, use focus groups to "test" creative, that we somehow let the notorious 8 people in New Jersey pick an ad. Alex Bogusky (pulled from an interview here) on the subject is balanced but representative:

"Focus groups do to creative ideas what the wind tunnel did to the car - they take all the edges off and you're left with a bunch of cars that look like eggs. The Pontiac Aztek is a great example of a focus group car. "

The main goal of creative development focus group should not be to pick an ad, but rather, as the name suggests, to aid in creative development, by inspiring new ideas and gathering intuitive consumer feedback on creative elements. In fact, I'd rather not expose complete ads at all (even in story-board form), so much as a bunch of creative elements. By exposing a wide range of bits--words, images, stories, phrases--you can help identify what these elements telegraphically communicate in a both a literal and evocative way.

Whenever I come out a creative development focus group, I want to be able to tell creatives that I've identified 5 elements that will probably help, and 5 elements that seem to be more trouble than they are worth because they probably don't communicate what the creatives hoped they would. The creatives still make and choose the ads. The consumer feedback only helps creatives make executional choices and hopefully also gives them another set of ideas.

It’s not that I’m a huge fan to begin with. I often find groups pretty tedious and exhausting. I don’t particularly love flying to far-away cities only to spend the whole time in windowless rooms. And you do often have to slog through a lot of boring conversation and “projection techniques” to get something good and useful. (Doesn't that image just fill you with despair)

On the other hand, they usually end up being productive in a very basic sense. I can’t think of single day of focus groups when I didn’t emerge, blinking and sugar-highed, knowing three things about a consumer or a brand or a business that I didn’t know before. 3 new facts or ideas or insights. At least 3.

And I can think of many many days I’ve spent in the office or at client meetings when I headed out the door without anything but a headache.

The other major advantage of focus groups of course is that they are an established practice and so relatively convenient and stable, at least in major markets. You can set them up pretty fast and be relatively confident you’ll get some of the right people in the room. Of course it's great to have conversations in other interesting and relevant sites like restaurants and airports and subway stations, but we all know how logistically challenging these projects get.

In some ways, I kind of think of them like fire hydrants. There are undoubtedly better and more effective ways of putting out fires than water, but there is a pretty effective infrastructure in place, with fire depts in every residential area and hydrants on every corner. When you have a fire, it's sometimes best to closest best available option.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

When Brands Don't Matter

When I was in graduate school, one of my advisors gave me some sobering advice about my work. He said that when you are pursuing a dissertation topic it's important to identify the subjects about which your subject has nothing to say. "Not," he specified, knowing he was talking to clever graduate students who (like clever planners) are good at connecting very disparate subjects, "inversions of your topic or negative comments on your topic but subjects before which your topic is inert."

As planners, we tend to assume that brand development is relevant in some way to every business challenge. And in fact that might be true. But it's always instructive to encounter an expert who doesn't share that perspective.

When one of my former students got into a fancy business school, I joined her for one of her introductory lectures to hear her future corporate finance professor announce that "brands are irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the financial structure of the company."

I was reminded of these moments earlier today when I listened to an expert on organizational development discuss how organizational alignment was more important than any particular brand idea of piece of communications.

My point here is not that these positions are correct or even correct some of the time, but they remind us to say sensitive to those situations when a brand is less relevant to the business problem at hand. And when that is the case, to have colleagues who know how to solve the problems (financial restructuring, organizational alignment) about which we don't have a clue.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Process vs. Principles

Almost every time I've taken a new job, I've been asked to develop some kind of "proprietary planning process," complete with steps and diagrams and tools of the kind I've appended here. (They usually have a lot of ovals and arrows, often circling back on themselves like ancient pagan symbols of fertility. Though some agencies prefer triangles. The triad/dialectic/trinity also possessing talismanic power. I had an old colleague that used to collect all these things and pull them out randomly to illustrate any point at hand.) In any case, as you can probably tell, I found myself ambivalent about the project.

I understand that the demand for these diagrams comes from a whole bunch of sources: from consultant-penned-RFP's which always ask for the "agency's strategic process" to big consulting firms who are great at finding ways to charge for process rather than results to the conventions in American business which tends to see the potential of repeatable success in any process map.

The problem with most top-down process models is that in order to be broad enough to address all the different clients and challenges an agency faces, they have to be so general as to be almost vacant of specific content. They certainly aren't proprietary in any true sense of the word. Most of the good planners I know tend go about the task of gathering and interpreting evidence for creative inspiration in relatively similar ways. There are differences in tools, techniques and emphasis, but quite a few of us tend to be interested in similar things at similar times. For awhile, it was integrating data analytics and qualitative research; these days its collaboration and co-creation. Whatever our differences, they usually aren't represented by these charts.

In place of process, I always wanted to assert principles, that is, a set of working guidelines that informed our approach. These guidelines could be specific enough to put a stake in the ground but flexible enough to address a range of different efforts without needing to add more circels or arrows. Like any good set of principles, mine are constantly evolving in response to new experience sand new evidence, but the following set have been relatively durable:

1) You have to ask new questions to get new answers.

2) We are in the persuasion business, not the documentary business. Our job is less to find out what people are thinking and doing then what we can make them believe.

3) Details Matters: executional choices have profound impact on strategic choices. All consumer contact is an opportunity to find clues to potentially powerful executional elements

4) Research is opportunity for inspiration as well as focus

Monday, August 20, 2007

Free-agency: planning without a net

In response to my post below about challenges some of us have faced recruiting talent, I received an interesting email from Nancy Villa, an experienced planner who has worked at a wide variety of agencies and is now working independently. While sensitive to the trade-offs of her current role, her note suggests that we (as managers, agencies, businesses) need to be more flexible about how we define the role of planning. In the context of the larger conversation with Mark, Gareth and Mark about co-creativity, teamwork and playing outside your position, Nancy's desire for a more fluid working style suggests one reason why some talented planners have left the company-man fold:

In reading your blog, I was taken by your comment about talent in the marketplace.... As I bounced from Gareth K to Mark Lewis and other's commentary, I was struck by the notion that, in fact, the industry seems stuck in a surprising rut. We have been sharp to notice the increasingly complex, dialogue-based communication model and to urge clients to be more fluid, more unexpected, and more aware of whats happening on the fringes of culture. Yet we are not thinking about talent in the same fluid manner. Much of the planning talent, quite frankly, has already moved on to more innovative and fluid working styles. They seek more control over the type of work and balance of work they are doing and they are finding partners in clients who want problems solved in innovative ways without draining overhead....

As a consultant, I have been fortunate to encounter many smart people and assist in solving discreet problems for them - profiling an audience, building a client work session for an upcoming effort, helping to crack the code on how to create a planning department within a small shop with limited resources. The work supports a goal for clients, but is structured in a very static way - with a distinct beginning and end. On the other hand, when I have worked with agencies that embrace a more fluid partnership model - we have all realized far greater benefits.

This is the age of the soloist, the co-creator, the contributor - yet agencies still seek the company man. The assumption remains that a salaried contract must be signed in order to fulfill the need for ever elusive talent and client support. Ironically, we are in an industry that carves people into many percentages and doles them out to various and sundry responsibilities, yet our staffing model for open requisitions remains an all or nothing proposition. I would argue the model of the future involves many more dynamic, targeted business relationships built on mutual benefit and reciprocity. Such are thoughts from the freelance realm. It is a topic about which I feel passionate and so wanted to contribute to the dialogue.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

More sources of inspiration: plus one more passing reference to the AAAA's conference

Just got back from the Joseph Cornell show at the Peabody/Essex museum which is worth visiting if you happen to be tooling around Salem, MA (there is also a fabulous origami exhibit in the kid’s section which you don’t need kids to enjoy). It reminded me of another fact about advertising/marketing culture that’s always surprised me, which is how much of the work seems to fall within a fairly narrow set of artistic styles and traditions.

Considering that we can theoretically draw inspiration from virtually any visual style over the last 1,000 years (okay, make it 3,000), it’s seems somewhat surprising that we turn repeatedly to a relatively narrow set of genres: sketch comedy for TV ads targeted at young males, sentimental realism for mom-targeted TV. Print ads that mostly looked they were all photographed by the same person trained in NYC in the mid-80’s. Fashion photography is thankfully a little adventurous, but most photography for mass marketing looks a lot alike.

The conservative pressure from clients is the main reason for so little variety. But even without that pressure, the world of creative production can be pretty insular, returning to the same sources of inspiration for stimulus. It’s one of the reasons we all get so delighted when a fresh style appears on the scene.

The award-winning and somewhat controversial Rozerem ads by C-K are a good example. I still remember the first time I spotted one in the food court of an office building in Chicago. I think it was the one with a teeter-totter in front of a bright green hedge with a man on one side and a dog on the other. My first thought was that it was a promotional poster for an art exhibition. My second was how great it was to see a campaign that was drawing directly from the surrealist tradition. (Though it was discussed at the AAAA's in the context of the Jay Chiat Awards, but we didn't get to hear much about the creative inspiration for the campaign.)

I’m always looking for new ways to import a broader array of visual styles into the practice, but it isn’t easy. The one notable success I can think of was when I was working with a great creative team at Mullen. We simultaneously struck on the idea of using a technique developed by a video artist Bill Viola for a cable-company pitch. We won the pitch. The work, however, never got produced.

I don’t have an easy answer, but when you see the playful, synthetic imaginative works of Joseph Cornell, it's hard not to want to broaden our range.

And one great potential source of new inspiration is Piers' PSFK conference in L.A on September 18th. Piers has a unique way of creating productive conversations from a variety of thinkers on culture and marketing. If you're nearby, I wouldn't miss it. I'm already strategically trying to set up a client meeting in the area.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

5 reasons why all planners should learn (at the least the basics of) Information Architecture

#1: The consumer experience that increasingly matters most is a digital experience

#2: Digital experiences are generating new kinds of consumer expectations for all their brand experiences (in terms of access, variety, service, etc) both online and off.

#3: I.A.’s do tangibly what most planners do conceptually: define the ideal range of consumer responses to a specific stimulus.

#4) I.A.’s know how to map the flow. They make really good maps of complex consumer behavior that you can use as inspiration for making better and more accurate maps of how consumers behave offline.

#5) These days brand equity comes as much (or more) from usability and functionality (what Benjamin Palmer of the Barbarian Group has called “brand utility”) rather than image, attitude and identification. The I.A. discipline provides a deep perspective on how to make digital experiences more functional and more satisfying.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

AAAAftermath III: Missing Persons

So around midnight in the midst of the crowd at the Ivy in San Diego--a scene well-described by comments on my posts below and elsewhere--a fellow-party goer asked me, "Where have all the gay planners gone?" Hmmm. Amsterdam? I didn't know but judging by my limited experience with gay colleagues, I suspected that they were at a much better party somewhere.

Whatever inspired the query, it raised others in my mind about other missing people and topics subjects at the 07 planning conference.

#1 Talent: Since there were 1,000 plus planner-like substances in the room, it's seems somewhat strange to wonder about a lack of talent in the business, and yet whenever I talked to fellow managers, almost all of them said they were hiring, or trying to hire. I've been in hiring mode virtually non-stop since I started managing departments about 5 years ago in NYC and Boston and I don't seem to be alone. At first I thought it was just my terrible reputation in the industry, but when I judged the Boston committee of the Jay Chiat awards in Boston with Gareth K of Modernista and Jeff F. of Digitas, they said they had the same problem. And it's not just Boston, cold and expensive as it is. Recruiters tell me they have dozens of open jobs. So where are all the planners? Is it a training problem? Or a retention problem? How can there be such big demand for jobs and so few people to fill them? Seems like a subject worth addressing.

#2 (Related to #1) Gay, African American, Hispanic and Asian Perspectives: Since I was on AAAA's planning committee, I know we set out to include ethnic marketing panels in the break-outs, but we had very few submissions. And many of them were of a very introductory level. Most of us understand that Hispanics are a growing population with different cultural traditions. I know there are talented ethnic marketers out there--I've tried (and failed) on many occasions to recruit them, but we seem to be missing a strong connection between the so-called mainstream and ethnic marketing cultures. It is a truism by now that Gay, African American and Hispanic cultures often lead mainstream American culture as a whole. Does one white American in a room full of equally white Brits provide all the necessary perspectives to understand American popular culture? This is not simply an appeal to "diversity," as a policy and civic responsibility. I think we need to explore a larger question: why understanding ethnic markets (or women for that matter) are still considered specialized enterprises, rather than an essential part of what counts as good planning in the first place.

#3 Politics (Related to #2): I saw a post on the AAAA's planning blog from Henry Gomez, an avowed conservative adman who described an uneasiness before the repeated references to Al-Gore inspired appeals to environmentalism. Now, my personal politics are way left of Henry's and maybe a lot of people in the room, but I get uneasy about political complacency as much as the next politically-active media-junkie and I think the poster had a point. There is a generally unexamined liberal/democratic/progressive orientation to most of the advertising culture in general and planning in particular, a line amplified by a utopian progressive strain in the Internet community. (Recently taken to the next level in the Planning for Good project). Again, this is all great from my perspective. But there's a couple problems with this bias: 1) it doesn't represent the values of the nation as a whole which we are supposed to understand 2) It leads to intellectual laziness. I've had strongly conservative and libertarian colleagues in my past jobs and found their perspectives challenged and sharpened my thinking and 3) Politics and political strategy is a subject worthy of study in itself. Who could argue that Karl Rove is one of the great strategists of the era?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

When Small Worlds Collide: Commentary from a Past Life

The whole small world hypothesis only really applies, I've found, within individual worlds, by which I mean particular professional groups. Once you step over the boundary from one provincial inward-looking professional culture to another, you might as well have gone to Mars, so little do the two small worlds speak to one another.

My own leap from academia to marketing has left me continually struck by how distinct the world's really are. I've mentioned a couple examples: how my past colleagues think I wear a suit to work; how my current colleagues are continually shocked by how little money most professors make.

Here's another view from the margins: Joshua Clover, a classmate of mine from Iowa, posted a link to this sestina as commentary on my current efforts. I'm not sure he read that article in the NYT about CEO's collecting rare works of literature.

In any case, he also has a blog called Sugarhigh in which he rants about culture and politics. Check it out.

Das Kissenbuch.


- - - -

On the subway businessmen are reading Machiavelli and Sun Tzu
Just like they used to read biographies of Napoleon; d'you think it'll work?
I totally accept the idea that you need some kind of strategy or things
Will go from bad to worse, ending with swigging Coca-Cola in bed and
The days starting to slip away with no one under yr thumb. Poets,
I urge you to title yr books of the future The Principal, or The Capital,

So poetry shelves in Berlin will be filled with books called Das Kapital.
Do not call it My Struggle; this will lead to mishaps as all lines lead to Zoo
Station. Die Kunst des Krieges, that wd be a title worthy of a poet!
Soon the gentlemen of business will be seen reading Hesiod, Works
And Days
, concerning the two forms of strife: "one fosters evil war and
Battle, being cruel," but the other stirs up envy, greed, and such things

As lead to labor, "and this Strife is wholesome for men." Y'know, things
One cd use. One evening some years later it was raining in the capital
Of Europe where scavenged shopping carts passed for window grates and
We walked beside the artificial lake, considering the immortal Lao Tzu,
Dead a long time; late in the Spring and Autumn Period he found work
As an archivist in the Imperial Library, and was apparently a bit of a poet,

Unlike Sun (no relation), a general. One makes one's way as a poet
Amid libraries and bookstores though "the way is deeply hidden in all things"
According to Lao, and the businessmen are seeking it en route from work,
Riding the subway adrift in the grim luxuries of text here in one capital
Of the book. Words are stretched over reality's breadth like gold tissue,
Who said that? There's another way to look at it, according to Arbeiten und

, on the depressing side of the sublime: "All your talk will be in vain, and
Your word-play unprofitable." Zat a threat or a promise? He was less a poet
Than a motivational speaker, Hesiod, less flowers of wisdom than the kudzu
Of endless increase. An object shd be replaced swiftly by a like thing
Once the first is exhausted or the whole primitive accumulation of capital
Risks rack and ruin—oh great, just like 1992, everybody out of work,

Anarchist squats, that's yr plan for a world system? The wave of work
Keeps going like a sentence keeps going, gathering material as it goes, and
One lives among this jetsam, is of the jetsam, is quizzical at being a capital
I at this late date, when I lived among the businessmen and the poets
And nobody read past the second of six books On The Nature of Things,
We floated between the horizons of the general and the librarian, Sun Tzu

And Lao Tzu, and this was not such a terrible place to be, in the capital
Of the XXIst century, reading at work. The poet Sei Shonagon placed paradise
And the course of a boat on a list, "Things That Are Near Though Distant."

Friday, August 10, 2007

AAAAftermath II: Practice without Theory

"It is a mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits."

One of the more common complaints about the AAAA's planning conference is that it's too theoretical, too blue-sky, with not enough real-world practical applications. This position--or at least question--was raised on the official AAAA's planning blog and expressed--with much sharper criticism--on a post on Gareth Kay's popular blog.

Since I was on the AAAA's comittee I can say with some conviction that we deliberately tried to balance the two. The mainstage speakes were supposed to bring more inspiring thinking from outside the industry while the breakouts were supposed to offer more practical ideas that one could immediately apply to their work. Based on the feedback I've received, it seems like we got the mix substantially more than half-right. It wasn't perfect, but for anyone who has helped planned an event like this, you know just how many variables are involved (last-minute cancellations, people that end up presenting different material than they propose, etc., etc.)

But I wanted to address a bigger issue here, which continually comes up whenever I discuss planning: which is the balance of theory and practice in our discipline. From my perspective (that is, a long education in literary history and theory), there is no question that planning is first and last a practical discipline. There is very little useful room for theory without practice in marketing and advertising. And I'm as bored as anyone by branding books which are built around imported metaphors that merely restate the same truisms with some new language (borrowed from science or politics or history or sports.)

But that doesn't mean theory or theoretical approaches: that is, using new conceptual frameworks and approaches to challenge our assumptions don't have a place in a discipline that is explicitly designed to question traditional approaches to problems.

I'd go further and ask: it's pretty hard to get a fresh perspective on an old problem without some new frameworks (of the kind Gareth and Mark discussed at the conference) whether you want to call it theory or not.

Nor is this about being overly clever, to use another formulation from the conference. I can, in fact, be really fun. Beginning with random bullshit sessions, tossing ideas around.

If don't believe me, check out the introduction to a collection of foundational essays on the discipline of Behavioral Economics Choices, Values and Frames by Nobel Prize winners Kahneman and Tversky:

Our method in those early days was pure fun. We would meet every afternoon for several hours, which we spent inventing interesting pairs of gambles and observing our own intuitive preferences. If we agreed on the same choice, we provisionally assume that it was characteristic of humankind and went on to investigate its theoretical implications, leaving serious verification for later. This unusual mode of empirical research enabled us to move quickly. In a few giddy months we raced through more than twenty diverse theoretical formulations.

Now, just in case you might dismiss this as "pure" theory, remember that this thinking had a revolutionary impact on all the social sciences (from sociology to political science) provided the foundation for Stephen Levitt's (of Freakonomics fame) experiments as well directly influencing enormous changes in policy and business. I worked for one insurance company that applied these "theories" to how they managed their retirement services accounts and doubled the amount of people who enrolled in their 401k plans.

What ultimately made their theories so useful were the ingenious experiments they then created to validate to their intuitions (asking people how much would they might pay for a beer from a local convenience store vs. a luxury hotel) but without those fun theoretical conversations in Jerusalem cafes, none of this would have ever happened, and we'd still be banging our heads against the false assumption that our economic choices are rational.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

AAAAftermath I: Promiscuous Positioning at the 07 Planning Conference

The chief complaint at this year’s conference, at least on Wednesday morning, was that the bars close too early in San Diego. The streets (and Hyatt corridors) seemed filled with fast-talking crowds of planners powering through their East Coast jet lag by searching for sponsored and spontaneous after-parties. (Though we all need to continue raising glasses to Andrew Delbridge of McKinney and Jonah of Red Scout for keeping us talking and drinking as late as the law allowed on Monday and Tuesday night).

Everyone I spoke to picked different highlights: Perennial favorite Adam Morgan or Adrian Ho (representing his new venture Zeus Jones with Rob White) controversial and refreshing remark that (I’m paraphrasing here) “Creative departments are the most hidebound and conservative departments in the agency” or Gareth Kay and Mark Lewis’ list of planning’s Seven Deadly Sins. Or Eric Ryan, former planner and founder of method, demonstrating just how well all this planning stuff really works when you get a chance to execute it. Or as he put it, “It’s amazing what you can do when you get rid of the client and just become the client.” Or Mark Earls characteristically sharp critique of overly clever planning structures and strategies that don’t reflect real behavior in or out of the agency (a point compounded and complicated by his own clever delivery).

I was particularly fond of Brandon Geary’s (of Razorfish) “Gathering Insights in a 2.0 World” breakout, a disarmingly modest and useful account of some ways we can all use photo-sharing, site analytics and social media sites as a source of free and pre-illustrated consumer research (building consumer profiles, inspiring media strategies.)

Whatever your favorites, though, some clear themes emerged, restated in various ways in a half-dozen mainstage and break-out presentations. (Full disclosure for whatever it’s worth: I was on the AAAA subcommittee that helped select the break-out speakers)

First and foremost was the near universal critique of “positioning” as it’s traditionally defined: none of us seem to believe that consistently standing for one thing is the foundation of brand growth. This case was made directly by Stephen Walker of Headmint in his “Case Against Positioning” breakout, but emerged in almost many of the presentations I witnessed.

Penry Price of Google mapped out an evolution of the traditional brand-development process (e.g., move from “interrogate” to “follow and anticipate”), and demonstrated several examples of how partners have used multiple campaigns to speak to multiple constituencies. As he succinctly summarized it: “Multiple personalities of brands are now leverageable” And in her break-out on her very successful shift from Planning to New business at Martin, Kristin Cavallo described how her agency first sold in the revolutionary multiple-campaign strategy to GEICO.

Gareth Kay and Mark Lewis, focusing more on the process of strategic and creative development, urged us all to see “brand energy” (with the attendant qualities of dynamism, change and innovation) as key signs of brand strength. They urged us to “Embrace uncertainty and complexity,” “Be uncomplete” and “Continually co-create,” principles, which all demand a more collaborative, flexible and open relation to a strategic development compared to the more traditional emphasis on focus and commitment. As Gareth suggested, a brief could be less about a “message” and more about an intention like: “Make brand X more like Y”

Even Eric Ryan of method, described his company’s culture as “episodic,” trying to produce two revolutions a year.

Though most of us who are involved in trying to impact consumer behavior these days agree that consistency is no longer the golden ticket, legitimate challenges to this doctrine of multiple-personality branding were raised: most notably by one questioner who wondered how to account for success of brands who continually grow precisely because of their commitment to consistency—a question I’m sure we’ll debate well into the next year and the next round of free cocktails.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Context Matters

It was probably a bad idea to go straight from ten days high in Vermont’s Green Mountains without any media exposure (except public radio) straight to the AAAA’s planning conference in San Diego, if only because the contrast was bound to feel a bit abrasive.

I wasn’t up in VT for 5 hours—picking blueberries with my kids--before I started to feel disgusted by how much crap I was carting around. Really and truly: TOO MUCH SHIT.

With three kids, stuff just kind of accumulates. Sometimes it feels like it’s reproducing itself. The shoes alone: TEVA’s, Croc’s, Those slip-on mesh shoes with rubber soles. Are my kids amphibians? Yeah, I know, it’s my own fault.

I’m no romantic; there were no delusions about a permanent retreat to the countryside. I can’t do anything except talk anyway

But I felt the same way when I was in Milan about a month ago for a friend’s wedding. The life I’d been living North of Boston just disappeared; the car-pooling, the gutter-cleaning, the endless conference calls with bad acoustics and everyone leaning in like our grandparents heads tilted into an old wireless. Suddenly, it was espresso and Vino Nobile and Italian politics--a self or version of my self I hadn’t experienced in at least a decade was suddenly back, completely.

Maybe I’m just a sociopath, with a totally flexible personality or I’m particularly eager to escape my day-to-day life, but I’m inclined to think that our contemporary romantic idea of a “self”--a deep a permanent fixture which defines our experience no matter what--this popular notion of “self” obscures how susceptible our feelings and desires are to a different contexts.

Proust, for one, was totally hip to this, and for anyone who has the steely will to power through 3,000 pages of lyrically described landscapes and dinner parties and lots of dirty sex, you’ll be rewarded with (among other things) a very powerful account of the self—very different from the one that most of us carry around with us. He is constantly describing his past as a collection of totally different “selves” which are gone until he reencounters them with shock: sometimes delight, sometimes horror.

My point is psychological, not confessional. We tend to think of consumers as possessing relatively fixed identities with a set of desires and fears. But it seems like we should think of them as far more fungible than we do and strive to thrust them into a context which will “activate” a self that will make them susceptible to our messaging. Don’t think soccer mom. Think mom in soccer context.

So here I am, in San Diego. And professional life does feel a little caustic and overlit: the San Diego Grand Hyatt already buzzing with shoptalk, prowling recruiters, drinks and good-hearted bullshit flowing.

But because I know the power of context, I suspect it won’t be one or two drinks with the usual suspects before the blueberries and green shade will feel as remote as life without a cellphone.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Collaboration as Intensification

One of the hard parts about collaborating in our business is deciding who gets the credit. This is hard enough in a single institution, let alone among different companies collaborating on a single project. In most creative enterprises, the question of credit can lead to some pretty ugly situations. In my past jobs, I’ve watched creatives throw fits worthy of my three-year-old over where they fell in the credit sequence. And from a professional perspective, they were right to do it. Credits are the currency of their careers. (For an equally darkly comic perspective on the battle over credits, check out the Hollywood novels of Bruce Wagner, like Force Majeure.)

But at the same time, we all know that marketing, like most enterprises, is a collaborative enterprise by definition. This is true in the majority of production-heavy enterprises from film to science. I’m really not sure how to solve this institutional problem; I think it will require a fairly significant change in perspective on exactly what being “creative” means.

The other day, I came across this passage in an appreciation of The Soprano’s by Geoffery O’Brien in The NYRB, which approaches the issue from a new perspective. While most agencies try and maintain the pretense that work is made better by the inclusion of multiple points-of-view, O’Brien suggests how a strong creative point-of-view can perhaps be intensified and focused through a collaborative enterprise. In this model, the work becomes—paradoxically—more distinctly individual as it passes through multiple hands:

“I use the term “David Chase” with a certain reservation here. The Sopranos was not made, one brushstroke at a time, by a solitary artist, however consistently it bore the mark of a single creator. That a show so manifestly personal was in fact realized by a multitude of writers and directors indicates that we continue to move toward a new definition of authorship and personal expression. The effect of dividing the work among so many collaborators—and refining it through a process of systematic conferences and revisions and “tone meetings”—was not to dilute but to intensify the show’s personal quality, as if finally one author were not enough even for the realization of that author’s vision.”

It’s an intriguing and inspiring suggestion: that a team can help bring an individual’s vision to life better than the individual alone. Of course, it’s generally a bad idea to use a single work of genius as a model for a general practice.