Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"Held hostage by culture" or the cost of a meritocracy

“Satan exalted sat, by merit rais'd
To that bad eminence…”
--Paradise Lost, Book II

There’s yet another article in the NYT yesterday about hyper-achieving kids in the suburbs of Boston yesterday. (I say another, because it follows a much-discussed article from the spring about Newton girls who apparently feel under enormous pressure to be brilliant and talented on multiple fronts as well as “effortlessly hot.” What’s with the focus on Boston? Don’t they have stressed out beautiful teenagers in Scarsdale?)

In any case, this time the focus was on Needham high and their renegade principle, Paul Richardson, who is trying to combat the stress levels among his over-achieving student body with an official “stress reduction committee” and required yoga classes, which, unfortunately, many of the students are too busy to attend. Similar attempts to reduce stress have also met with mixed results.

When Richardson asked teachers to schedule homework-free weekends and holidays, students told him they appreciated the time because it allowed them to catch up on other schoolwork.

Or last year, when he stopped publishing the honor roll, and was summarily mocked by Rush Limbaugh for coddling students and received hate mail from around the country.

Richardson explained his efforts this way: “It’s very important to protect the part of the culture that leads to all the achievement,” he said. “It’s more about bringing the culture to a healthier place.”


Richards efforts are admirable, but, as his results thus far suggest, they are probably doomed a very limited impact, if only because the part of the culture that “leads to all the achievement” is fundamental to the resulting stress.

The students aren’t overachieving themselves into misery because they have lost their minds or caught some disease, nor is it simply the pressure put on them by their parents (always the easy answer to any cultural phenomena). Many parents are as worried about their over-scheduled kids as Principle Richards

The problem with these kids is that have too thoroughly adopted the values of the dominant culture, which are in turn based on the economic reality of increased competition in a global marketplace.

So, when an English teacher tells them: “When you graduate from college, no one is going to care where you went…” the students are rightly skeptical. They know, from their own contacts and experience, that going to elite colleges does, in fact, expand their range of opportunities. This is not to say, of course, that they won’t have successful careers (let alone happy lives) if they go to a “state” school (which has some students so mortified that they are lying about it).

But this isn’t what the kids are worried about. They don’t just want successful lives. Like all 17 year-olds they want the big-time: fame, fortune and the love of beautiful people.

What freaks us out about these kids isn’t that they have screwed up values but rather that they are doing what they sense they need to do in order to maintain their class privilege. In other words, they are what we’ve made them and we don’t especially like it.

Richards seems to understand all this, as his “hostages of culture” description suggests, but his valiant efforts to make non-productive, no-goal-oriented, non-resume-building time in the children’s lives can’t possibly compete with the larger meritocratic machinery at work. Everywhere else they turn they’ll keep hearing that the only thing keeping them from being rich and famous is more hard work.

Milton understood all this too. In his world, merit was still term of moral evaluation rather then the marker of talent or socio-economic success or talent it was to become. But Milton could already sense the problems inherent in a meritocratic society, in which ambitious young upstarts would continually strive to better themselves at the cost of social stability. But that's a longer story I've already spent too much of my life pondering.

So what could Richard do? I’m not sure, but this could be a good planning challenge. Perhaps a planning for good challenge. My first idea: convince them all to be become Freegans, One thing that really trumps a powerful ideology (in the classic sense of a cultural expression designed to reproduce the ruling class) is a full rejection of it. Most other options feel like failure or retreat, especially when you’re 17 and have your eye on the big American Idol prize.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Bad Company

Pursuing some insight into our mess of a health care system, I came across an interesting article in the June 07 issue of HBR “Companies and Customers who Hate Them” by Gail McGovern and Youngme Moon. The article articulates the perhaps obvious point that many companies get into habit of “profiting from consumer confusion.”

McGovern and Moon briefly describe the practices in three widely-despised industries—retail banking, cell phone services and health clubs--to detail how certain companies in these categories have institutionalized a set of practices that “extract” value from consumers by creating confusing plans, hidden fees, and rigid contracts restricting consumer choice. While these practices can be highly profitable, they create the potential for mass defection when a competitor emerges offering a more consumer-friendly and transparent alternative, e.g., Virgin mobile.

Most interesting of all, McGovern and Moon point out that these companies often start with less egregious motives. Confusing product portfolios are often initially created to serve a range of consumer segments, and penalties are instituted to incentive the consumer to behave more responsibly—by not bouncing checks, for example. However, when these companies see how much profit is generated from these practices (cell phone overages), they often orient their business models around them, and adjust operations to enhance the margins rather than helping consumers make better decisions. It often isn’t long before consumer’s spot a better option.

Not revolutionary: but a useful cautionary note on how easy it is for brands to go bad when the $ is good.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dumb trend spotting

An article in today's NYT's entitled Redefining Business Casual reminded me about another frequent annoyance I have about my chosen profession; the anecdotal observation that passes itself off as a behavioral trend based on some kind of data. In recent weeks, I've had to deal with more than my share of these unsubstantiated claims, expressed with great passion and authority from: "empty-nesters are moving back into the city," to "married people have more sex than people that just live together" to the claim in this article:
“I see a return to more traditional business wear...People dress up more in times of financial uncertainty and intense competition. It helps their sense of stability.”

The source of this information: the highly objective president of the Marcraft Apparel Group, which champions suits and ties.

All the evidence I've looked at lately suggests the opposite: a gradual downward slope in men's formal business wear (suits and ties) that's been going on for over a decade. This isn't to say that some fashion-forward types aren't reclaiming the tie or jacket in certain situations, but we are a long way from returning to 5 suits a week for most men in most industries.

Nevertheless, journalists and market researchers of a sort are drawn to these claims because while they seem to be superficially surprising (really!) they are also comforting. They are almost always deployed to confirm a some deeper truth about human nature It's illustrated above in the remark from the president of Marcraft Apparel Group. Men are wearing more suits. Really? Why? Because we dress up to give us a sense of stability in uncertain times. But of course. That does ring true. Except for the fact that suits are really expensive and most of us don't require them for work. So no matter how comforting a nice three-piece might be: they'd be a big waste of money
So while these facts are interesting and make us feel capable of penetrating into the secret motives driving human behavior, they usually mark the exceptions rather than rules. it's not that they're untrue. They're just not trends, at least in the traditional definition:

A statistically significant change in performance of measured data which is unlikely to be due to a random variation in the process.

The truth is I'm not that interested in trends to begin with. As I see it, my job isn't to predict the future, but to describe the present, which is hard enough.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sunday afternoon reading: getting paid, again

I’ve posted earlier about the challenge of getting paid what we think our work is worth: along with the much lamented conventions that allow us to charge for color copies but insist we give our ideas away, there is also a long dependence on hourly fees in almost every service industry which essentially incentives many of us (admen, consultants and lawyers alike) to be inefficient, throwing as many people and hours at the client as possible.

This last problem is particularly challenging for people in the so-called creative industries. We all know that great ideas do, on occasion, come easily or quickly, but according to the laws of accounting, this idea would be worth less than something we labored on for tedious weeks, whatever it's worth or potential impact in the marketpale

I’m not sure I have a convincing solution to this challenge (I hope Adrian and Rob over at zeusjones have it figured out), but I came across another interesting option in an academic paper of a former student. While the analogue doesn’t quite solve the problem of how to value easy work, it’s somewhat comforting to learn it’s been around for a good long time.

The situation was a famous debate between the painter James Whistler and the critic John Ruskin. In a particularly nasty review of an 1877 exhibition containing Whistler’s work, Ruskin takes particular exception to Whistler’s “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket”
"I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face."
Whistler, in turn, decided to sue Ruskin for libel. The Judge at the London trial asked Whistler how he could dare ask for such a large sum for a work that took only two days to paint. Whistler answered that that the fee was not for the two days but for “the knowledge of a lifetime.”

If only we could all get paid for this acquired knowledge. And in some ways we do. It’s why more experienced or senior staffers bill out at a hire rate than more junior ones. But it still leaves us in the trap of billing for time.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Brand cults, brand culture, brand ideology, pt. II

What is a Freegan? As a Freegan website explains:

Freeganism is a total boycott of an economic system where the profit motive has eclipsed ethical considerations and where massively complex systems of productions ensure that all the products we buy will have detrimental impacts most of which we may never even consider. Thus, instead of avoiding the purchase of products from one bad company only to support another, we avoid buying anything to the greatest degree we are able.

And though this choice is not without some significant costs in creature comforts (garbage picking, etc.), it’s also a pretty good example of ideological resistance, or the capacity for it in our consumer economy vs. say having to stand in front of tank in order to vote.

Ideology has a lot of definition. In it’s most basic sense it means a “body of ideas” or a “worldview,” but even when people use it causally, they generally mean more than just any idea. They usually mean an idea that expresses some form of social or economic power. In this way, it still carries the Marxist implication of “dominant ideology” i.e. a set of ideas that is designed to make the interests of ruling class appear as the interests of everyone. Or to paraphrase Althusser, “a fantastic relation to the real material conditions of existence.” It’s a message or image or set of ideas that makes us believe something about role in the world contrary to the material facts of our lives. (Wikipedia isn't bad on the subject. Here is a summary of some of the key terms in a popular culture class at Georgetown)

By any of these definitions, all advertising is ideological: the whole point of advertising is to reproduce the desire that drives the consumer economy. It would almost be impossible for advertising to not be ideological. So, when academics or marketers talk about the ideological impact of advertising, I have to agree, because what else could it possibly be? If it failed to be ideological in some minimal way, it would have to be some really poor advertising.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Brand cults, brand culture and brand ideology, so-called

Reading about Stalin reminded me of another trend in thinking about marketing: the bold comparison between marketing methods and other more coercive forms of social control.

The question of just how powerful advertising really is seems to depend on your POV. Pros in finance and sales often speak about advertising as a necessary evil at best, and a complete waste of money at worst. Academics and social critics often portray advertising as an incredibly powerful source of nefarious social control, making us fat, covetous and generally unhappy. I’ve heard that Sut Jhally, a professor of communications at University of Massachusetts has various speeches and short films called how "How television exploits its audiences," “Advertising and the end of the World.” It's a bracing set of arguments (which I'll take on in a later post) for any marketer who thinks they are engaged in a positive act of consumer empowerment.

Lately, pro advertisers have started to think that maybe these scathing critics have a point, but being good marketers, they used the critique as a source of raw material, drawing analogies to to coercive modes of behavioral modification and social control. Marketing books over the past couple years have analyzed the role of iconic brands in cultural change (Doug Holt’s How Brands Become Icons), have turned to cults as a source of potential marketing techniques (Douglas Atkin's The Culting of Brands) and have deployed the term ideology to articulate the ultimate power of marketing (beyond reason, beyond emotion, beyond culture, there lies something even more…) to sweep consumers up in a psycho-social wave of behavioral transformation.

I’m all for stealing tricks from parallel disciplines of persuasion and strategy (readers of the screen know that game design, political strategy and behavioral economics have all been fruitful sources of new ideas for me) , but it strikes me that many of these branding manifestos efforts overreach with their analogies on at least two fronts.

1) They fall prey to a characteristic vice of brand books, which is deriving principles from rare, if not unique examples. Coke, Harley Davidson, the Ipod are powerful brands indeed but they are hardly typical, and provide few lessons for most Internet start-ups. Of the books cited above, Doug Holt’s is, by far, the most sophisticated. While he deploys a classic post-Marxist mode of cultural analysis (Althusser seems an important theoretical foundation) to understand how certain brands reconcile the cultural contradictions of late capitalism (our fantasies clashing with the reality of our socio-economic conditions), he is the first to admit that Iconic brands are a special case, and what he calls “cultural branding” is not for every brand. There is no question that advertising in conjunction with the right cultural forces can produce quite a powerful force of persuasion, but it doesn’t follow that most or even many brands (because of the category, the budget, the competition) can interact with larger cultural forces to change behavior. In fact, some of the world's most powerful marketers these days are moving in the opposite direction, spending money on consumer services rather then the mass communication of big ideas. E.g, Nike+ in today's NYT's.

2) Many of these arguments, however, seem to forget that there remains a enormous gap between ideological power (as exerted by cults or restrictive political regimes) and persuasive power of advertising. For anyone who has bothered to read a page about what it’s like to actually live under a truly restrictive regime (the former USSR, China during the cultural revolution, Nazi Germany), under the constant threat of betrayal, imprisonment and death recognizes that there is a big difference between spending 20 years in solitary confinement because you once made a critical comment about Stalin (or not even that; see, for example Eugenia Ginzburg's Journey Into the Whirlwind if have a strong stomach and a want an inspiring taste of the real thing) and feeling uncomfortable with your body image because you are constantly subjected to unrealistic images of beauty by the fashion industry. The constituent differences between marketing and totalitarian regimes are so numerous that it’s almost embarrassing to list them; but the most obvious one is that ideological regimes (whether political or social) tend to work by systematically crushing all competitive viewpoints. Advertising often thrives on and plays off just such competitive views on how to live your life. Now, it's certainly true that it can feel difficult to refuse to participate our consumer society (with all it's joys and broken promises) but we all know people who have the chosen to go off the grid--to various degrees--and don't end up in a prison camp for it.

There is more to say about ideology—including the trickiness of defining it in the first place--but this is getting long so I’ll save it for tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Stalin, ceo's and managing the downside

I was reading Anne Applebaum’s review of two new books on the relatively unexamined battle of Moscow in the NYRB and came across another description of Stalin’s reaction to Hitler’s surprise attack on July 22, 1941. Despite repeated warnings from spies about Hitler’s imminent invasion, Stalin refused to believe it. A week after the invasion, as the Nazi’s took Minsk, Stalin failed to show up in the Kremlin. On the next day, he was still missing, having retreated to his nearby dacha in a wooded area outside of Moscow. The politburo arranged a secret meeting, set out for his dacha and--as described later by one of his inner circle--found him:

“in an armchair in the small dining room. He looked up and said, ‘What have you come here for?’ He had the strangest look on his face, and the question was pretty strange to….”
The shock of failure was apparently too much even for Stalin. He feared the war was already lost and thought the politburo had come to kill him.

It reminded me of many less dramatic examples of leaders who fail to respond or adapt to failure. Our current administration is the most dramatic example. But even in business, it seems, that leaders have a hard time recognizing that what they are doing just isn’t working.

This seems to be particularly true for leaders who have long history of success, or even just having their way. They have become so accustomed to the world conforming to their will that when a person or circumstances defy them, they are paralyzed into inaction or more commonly, a repetition of the very actions that got them into trouble in the first place.
Our current administration again comes to mind.

But so do many of the managers and leaders I’ve worked for or around. They were great leaders when things were going well, but when the wheel of fortune turned against them, they were unable to change strategy or tactics. They continued to push the same rock up the hill, regardless of the number of times it rolled back down on them. They seemed convinced that the problem wasn’t their methods or misjudgment or changed conditions, but lack of energy or will. All they had to do was the same thing again, but this time, harder, faster, better.

Everyone knows it’s hard to change, particularly when your way has worked well for so long. But the inability to change course seems a particular vice of strong leadership.

Stalin famously regained his nerve and appeared four months later in Moscow, during the anniversary of the October revolution, defiantly watching the traditional parade with the German army only a couple dozen miles away. In the intervening months, Stalin had developed a new and more ruthless strategy that would defeat the Nazis--though at an enormous cost. It was Hitler who ultimately got stuck in Russia, unable to imagine a world that could stop his invincible army. Like so many leaders before him, he would undermine his own success and drain away his resources through an insane repetition of failing strategies.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Sunday afternoon listening: Joel Kotkin on new urbanism

Is there anything more satisfying than a random encounter with a fresh POV on a familiar subject--one that challenges your lazy assumptions (based on half-remembered statistics and the anecdotes of a friend) and encourages you to pursue some of your more thoughtful suspicions. I heard just such an argument this afternoon on a truly spectacular autumn day in central VT on VPR.

It was Joel Kotkin--author of The New Geography and The City: A Global History--presenting at this years Aspen Ideas Festival. (You can hear a clip here.) He covered a lot of ground, but I was mainly interested in his surprising positions on suburban sprawl and the future of the urban experience.

In general, his argument was less based on ideology or taste than statistics. No matter what you might hear about the revivification of American cities, all the numbers suggest that most of the momentum is still heading in the opposite direction, out to the suburbs. There are a number of reasons--including the strong American desire to own property--but the strongest one is economic. As the core of America's great cites (New York, San Francisco, Chicago) become increasingly too expensive for the middle class, driving out everyone but the very rich and those who serve them. In fact, it might not be long, Kotkin argues before some suburban and ex-urban communities are more diverse than the residents of the city-centers that condescend to them for being homogeneous.

His positions were equally surprising on some other new urban myths: how about all those boomer empty-nesters moving back to the cities? We all might know isolated examples but in terms of percentages, Kotkin says, it’s a tiny minority and it’s easy to understand why. If you’ve owned a house for 20 years and sell it for 2x or 3x or 10x the original price, are you likely to make an even trade for an expensive condo in the city? Or take on more debt? No, you are far more likely to move further out and become what Kotkin calls an “equity refugee,” living on the difference. Another reason the boomers aren’t moving back, their kids and grand-kids are all moving out.

What’s already happening, Kotkin argues, is the urbanization of the surburban and ex-urban environments with town and small city centers providing small urban centers to people who increasingly don't need to commute into the city. More and more companies, Kotkin points out, are accepting telecommuting as a valid if, not more productive, alternative to commuting an hour each way. The vast majority of the IBM consulting workforce is already telecommuting. And there is evidence that these suburban and exurban centers are not complete cultural wastelands, such as the spread of regional theater.

When asked if he thought the metropolis could hold onto the middle class, Kotkin said it wasn’t impossible but it was unlikely. City mayors would have to commit to rebuilding city infrastructure: schools and other public services. But it’s a lot easier, Kotkin reminds us, to put up a few jazz clubs and say you’ve turned the city around than to fix public education.

But Kotkin sees no reason to despair. Many of us might not like the idea of these ex-urban towns, and prefer the excitement and beauty of NYC or San Francisco, but Kotkin reminds us that our collective romance with the old idea of the city always makes us intolerant of the emerging model; most visiting Europeans in the 19th and early 20th-century had a distinctly unfavorable impression of the great American core cities—finding them ugly above all--but that didn't stop them from growing

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Two Cultures II: diversity vs. hothouse

Responding to thoughtful and thought-provoking comment on last post.

Beecham below, following up on my Snow analogy, rightly points out that most “two cultures” arguments assumes two cultures are bad, but don't explain why. As Beecham rightly remarks: Snow never really explains why a engineer should read Dickens. I love Dickens, and think you should read him if you like great novels, but that’s a point of taste and doesn’t answer the question. It’s a question, in fact, I’ve been puzzling over for a good long while, in both my previous life as a grad student and now in both my professional and public-sector (school-board) work.

These days, the “Two cultures” problem tends to get thematized as a problem of “diversity:” a problem because the working assumption is that diversity is good and a lack of it is bad in almost any category: the natural world, institutional and social life, the realm of ideas. In the social world, diversity has become the goal of of most progressive institutions. The arguments fall into two broad categories: diversity is either good for everyone (because it enriches all our lives and works) or good for the group considered a source of diversity (because it provides opportunities for the those who have been unfairly excluded in the past.) My own politics make me strongly supportive of initiatives to enhance diversity but I’ve always been more comfortable with the second argument: I recognize the drive for diversity as a political act: a social duty, civic responsibility and a source of long-term economic stability. Classic liberal, me.

The arguments that diversity enriches all of us is a little harder for me to follow. I see the point--we all have limited perspectives and exposure to new perspectives challenge and broaden our assumptions--but i've seen plenty of cases where this exposure only amounts to more sensitivity toward tolerance. Nothing wrong with that, to be sure, but not sure it leads to better ideas. In fact, rather than focusing on the politically charged area of progressive social policy, I’d rather focus on the argument in business circles, because, as Beecham suggests, it’s less well-explored and more relevant here. (For a politically-charged critique of the celebration of diversity, check out Walter Benn Michael's The Trouble with Diversity)

In biz culture, the argument that gets recycled every couple mounths is that a breadth of diverse perspectives leads to the faster generation of new and better ideas. It’s at the root of history as business case-study books like The Medici Effect. Again, I don’t know. I can think of examples where this is true, but just as many examples where the success of a project came from the assembly of a like-minded group of brilliant people in one place (or even, a strong and inspired leader). E.g., universities at a certain moment in their history (University of Chicago in the 50’s), or Vienna before the WWI or the early days of SNL that Malcom Gladwell has written about under the title of "Groupthink." I guess you could argue that these groups were diverse, but it seems to me that they were diverse within a pretty narrow range of physicists, and artists/social thinkers and comedians. This alternative--what you might call the hothouse--is a diversity of talent within a relatively narrow frame or focus.

In my experience, if the group is too diverse in their thinking (by which I mean, people start with such different assumptions on how to approach a task) it’s really hard to make any progress at all. You spend all your time trying to work back to the fundamental differences. It quickly stalls, like disagreements about religious faith.

I run a strategy group that includes a bunch of different kinds of strategists: experts in quantitative analysis and information architects and cultural theorists and traditional planners. You could call this a diverse group, and we all value one another’s perspectives, but even with all that good faith, we still spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out what we’re all talking about.

The truth about integration is that it is hard. And for it to bear fruit, requires understanding the assumptions that someone else brings to a problem or form of analysis. If my group was any more diverse, if, for example, we included a professional screenwriter or a military strategist, it might be cool to hear what they had to say, but it would be very hard to actually work together. It’s why creatives from certain agency cultures look at me like I’m totally insane when I start talking about purchase pathways and user experience as the source of the real brand experience. They just want to hear something that helps them make cool stuff that gets attention. Not sure that qualifies as turning Snow on his head, but it’s designed to be a skeptical critique.

Here's my position: In creative businesses we tend to think disciplinary boundaries are bad or limiting. But from my perspective, they are essential. They help organize our thinking and approach so know what were daoing. It’s why we call them disciplines.

Is it a market problem, Beecham asks? It can be, I think, but not because two culture organizations are bound to fail, but for the reasons I’ve suggested elsewhere (in a post on Walter Scott’s intro to Ivanhoe). We all tend to pigeon-hole talent in certain categories based on our experiences. We can say we have one or two or ten cultures but clients will have a really hard time seeing us that way, which tends to limit our pool of business. Every full service/integrated/fusion/diverse company out there is trying to crack this nut but there’s something in human nature that likes to compartmentalize.

On the other hand, I’ve never seen a rigorous sociological study on this subject, in which various so-called diverse organizations (the integrated culture) measured their progress or originality against so-called non-diverse groups of thinkers or creators (the hothouse), but I’ll go looking for one now. Send me something if you know of one.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Two Cultures

There’s a famous old essay in academic life about the division between the cultures of the science sand the humanities by C.P. Snow called “Two Cultures.” (here's the Wikipedia entry) It’s been used countless times as a metaphor for other divisions between two branches of a field or a profession that have a hard time communicating because their assumptions and values are so different.

The one I have in mind at the moment is the division between so-called creative shops and full-service agencies. For all the talk about integrated agencies, I’ve recently seen signs (talking to planners in various positions) that it’s still amazing how different the two agencies still are. There are agencies and strategy shops that work from hard data: original research, segmentation, retail data, identifying insights in a relatively systematic and rigorous way. And then it seems that there are many enormously successful creative shops that still work on instinct. Not pure instinct. They do cultural research. Talk to the target. Check out some stuff on the internet. Got to a trade show. And they make great ads. Sometimes they make even great marketing programs.

Agencies that work from data-driven insight wouldn't think of making a strategy based on a some interviews. Agencies that work from creative impulse wouldn't dream of asking someone in data-analytics for an insight into target behavior.

I suppose it's a good thing; different agencies fit different client cultures. Except--as I've mentioned before--we tend get pigeon-holed by clients and even restrict our own options, thinking there is only one way to get to a great idea.

It's easy to say that we all want whatever helps us come up with a great idea, but the truth is, some methods are just alien to our way of thinking, so even when they bring us good ideas, we can't recognize them as such. The analytical agency can't trust the idea not backed up by real research/data, and the creative agency thinks data-driven ideas are bound to be pedestrian.