Monday, December 31, 2007

New year with a new car and new questions about internet research

Been car shopping for the past week, and yes, yes, I did my research. Did I research! I got the consumer reports pricing guides on a few cars; I checked out the obsessive threads on Edmunds, listing all the prices various people paid all around the country. I compared honda's and toyota's and audi's and vw's and saab's. I test-drove a half-dozen cars. I learned about invoice prices and holdbacks and money factors. I got my credit score and researched independent financing. I waited until the end of the month, today in fact, to finally purchase: the supposedly best time to buy a car. And I think I got a good deal on the car I wanted (more on that later) but I have two comments on this whole experience:

1) If you're a car person, I'm sure this is deeply satisfying. Getting deep into the dynamics of the business at the same time as you work your angles to bring down the price. For a bunch of people I'm sure it combines several of their greatest pleasures (technology, cars, money, negotiating, comparing stats). But if you're not, and if you have three kids bouncing off the walls as you surf endless car-buying guides and insanely unusable dealer websites, there is definitely a point of diminishing returns, in which added research doesn't necessarily add more value, because, and if i have a point here beyond my own exhaustion with car shopping, it's that:

2) The information didn't always help. In fact, the info I found from multiple sources was frequently inconsistent and misleading, even from super creditable sources like consumer reports and equifax, even on stuff that is supposed to be fixed like residuals and money factors. One dealer insisted he was giving me the official residual and money factor from the brand but I got a totally different ones from online sources and different dealers. And the differences were dramatic.

2a) Even my credit score turned up better at the dealer than it did with a service one day before. I know this is because there are multiple credit services and different companies update their rates at different times, and I know if I wanted to go an even deeper level into this whole deal-pursuit I could have found this out too, and perhaps used it for additional leverage.... And I'm sure if some car enthusiast happens to read this blog he or she is going to inform me why my data might not have been accurate and if I'd only multiplied the number by the consumer confidence index and divided it by the number of dealers in a hundred mile radius I would have gotten the exact number!

2c) But the deal finally came down less to all my research than my willingness to drive all over metropolitan Boston to a dozen different dealers and talk cash and refuse to pay most of them until finally, in an act of old-fashioned brinkmanship, I called one dealer about 70 miles from my house and told them if they could sell me this car at this particular price I'd buy it today (today being today).

2d) My point isn't that the research was wasted. It helped provide useful context and some important facts; but it certainly wasn't all accurate or helped my negotiations. You couldn't, as the saying goes, take a lot of it to the bank. At a certain point I was just rearranging the deck chairs. I knew what the car cost at invoice over a week ago. I just had to decide what I was willing to pay for it and then keep asking until someone said yes.

Everything else, I'm beginning to think, as I look back over the literally 100's of hours I put into this great American project of car buying was something you'd better enjoy to make it really worthwhile.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

West coast planners really know how to party

A couple of planning colleagues who work on the West coast recently related experiences that had me wondering if there was an East/West divide in planning styles and cultures. They all describe a little friction between the behaviors and styles we tend to associate with the East (edgy, ambitious, academic) and attitudes we tend to the associate with the west (creative, intuitive, cool.)

These tales were reinforced by a British colleague who transferred straight from London to a S.F. shop and found that natives didn’t take instantly to his sharp intelligence and astringent wit. And though I’m a born and bred Midwesterner, there’s no question my style of work has been influenced by 1,000 years of post-grad education, and I’ve occasionally faced similar reactions from West coasters to my acdemic style. Don't sweat the technique, indeed.

I'm already voiced my objection the word "overthink" when used as an easy critique of some strategic analysis, usually by someone who doesn't want to put in the effort to wrestle with the problem. Don't get me wrong. You can certainly think badly about a problem. Or bring the wrong kind of thinking to bear. (In fact, a long time ago, Aristotle defined one kind of intelligenc as the ability to match the right method of analyis to the subject at hand) But whenever people use the expresssion, "Don't overthink it?" i wonder if they've ever bothered to engage with the current marketing landscape. is SEM so simple? so intuitive?

In any case, these stories of cultural friction are probably isolated examples, and this whole East/West planning style divide I’m suggesting here probably doesn’t exist. But wouldn’t it be just more fun for us if it did? I seem to recall that an AAAA/APG conference of a few years back set up an iron-chef styled contest pitting boy vs. girl planners. Maybe we should suggest an East vs. West version for our revels in Miami? Bad boy vs. Death Row anyone? The Brits, in the fine expatriate tradition, can pick a coast based on current employment, visa status and personal inclination to embrace or deny their origins.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Anyone enjoying a singing xmas card about now?

Perhaps an audio ecard? Anyone opening a card and as the song breaks out, smiling and thinking, "how charming!" Anyone have the demos on people that are having that experience?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Thinking about switching

I’ve been thinking a lot about switching lately, partially because the Xmas season almost always makes me think I'd rather rotate out my old stuff than get anything new, and partially because I’m working on the health care industry, which--at least in the health-care-reform state of Massachusetts--is creating new options for consumers. Whether they will take advantage of the newly competitive marketplace, however, is another question. The question that has me thinking about switching costs.

Economists of the macro and micro variety have done a fair amount of work on the financial costs of switching, particularly when it comes to switching suppliers (from exit fees to breaches of contract). As the solid Wikipedia article points out, however, the emotional and social costs of switching are much harder to measure and consequently often under-estimated.

This is especially true with complex products, like financial services or health insurance. Even the thought of filling out the necessary paperwork is enough to stop most of us from considering the alternative. And when you add to the administrative burdens other secondary effects—the costs of explaining your new information (phone number, policy number) or learning a new system—the costs get pretty high pretty fast. The data suggests that costs savings (or some more soft calculation around additional benefits) have be in the 10% range to impact choice.

It might even be argued that as our lives and products get more complex, the resistance to switching is on the rise. The costs are relatively low when it comes to choosing a white chocolate peppermint spiced latte over your usual Mountain Dew smoothie. But when it comes to services and more complex products, it might require the aggressive strategies adopted by the telecom and cable industries, paying to switch and switch you back, to make a difference in the market. Anyone want to a try a new doctor? It’s on us.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Not for Little Children

Just watched Todd Field's Little Children on Netflix. It didn't strike me as a very successful movie on a number of fronts, covering familiar territory (repression in the suburbs) in a way that was neither particularly convincing (I could not figure out who these people were) nor very inventive. The most striking thing about it, to my jaded eye, was that it focused so much attention on masturbation as a symbol of marital discord. Watching the mocking portrayal of one of the husbands as he masturbates to Internet porn (only a real freak would ever do something like that!), it struck me that I've been seeing a lot of this lately, by which I mean: portrayals of masturbation as a marker of failing relationships or worse.

In Apatow's recent Knocked Up, Paul Rudd's uptight and controlling wife derisively describes catching her husband masturbating to her sister. And in HBO's execrable short series, Tell Me You Love Me masturbation repeatedly turns up as a sign of trouble. Now, I'm not going to start a support group, but it strikes me as interesting, and kind of creepy, that so many cultural products are pathologizing what might be described as innocent fun and the desired alternative to extra-marital adventures.

When did jacking go so wrong? I mean since the writings of St. Paul. Was it American Beauty's portrayal of the masturbating hero as a symbol of the suburban man trapped in a loveless marriage and dead-end job?

I'm not quite sure how to interpret it, except maybe as a cultural expression of our increasing need to imagine and represent relationships so perfect that they fulfill every possible desire, including those of our fantasy lives.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Sunday Afternoon Viewing: The Mikado

Partially to clear my head from the seasonal onslaught of kid-oriented shitertainment and partially because we’re big G & S fans around my house, I took 2/3’s of the progeny to the Harvey-Rad student production of The Mikado, which turned out to be fun on multiple levels. Like almost all student productions, the performances were uneven. Some of the kids were a touch overmatched by the demanding pacing of the G&S songs, others were fantastic. Brian Polk's Ko-ko (Aka, The Lord High Executioner) is probably on his way to a professional career somewhere. But who cares? The enthusiasm and effort—as well the charmingly intimate Agassiz theater--more than made up for the occasional lack of polish, particularly in our contemporary entertainment context of lots of overproduced junk.

Like all trips back into time, this one called into high relief what my very rich entertainment diet has been lacking lately, which I might call a little old-fashioned spectacle. An orchestra pit, kettle drums!, costumes, make-up. If you think your kids are too jaded by Playstation to enjoy a theatrical production that doesn’t involve people in oversized animal costumes, you might be surprised to watch them react to a old-fashioned lighting-design. My four-year old was fixated on how the lighting transformed the stage from morning to night.

Which reminded me of one of things I’ve always found weak about Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You. While I agree with a lot of his argument (e.g., television shows have gotten more complex, videogames are an under-valued medium), and the way he challenges a lot of assumptions about “good” and “bad” media experiences, it seems to me that he also lets some of his own key assumptions go unexamined. Most relevant here is the assumption that greater complexity or more intense stimulation leads to a better (more engaging, more enriching, more challenging, more fun) experience.

While it’s certainly true that great video games like Halo or a breakthrough serial television show like The Sopranos forces you to pay attention to a complex array of stimuli, it also distracts you from other fun aesthetic experiences which value emotional sensitivity over sensory stimulation, e.g., watching the characters react to one anothers' performances onstage. Don’t get me wrong, I like them all: Halo, The Sopranos and The Mikado. But a trip to a student production of Gilbert & Sullivan is a nice reminder that there is more than one way to engage the viewer of any age, no matter how many video games they play.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Experimental office fiction #3

One of the disappointing consequences of great accomplishments, B— sometimes thought, was that they didn’t seem great after a while. A shockingly little while, it turned out. When he reflected over his career, B— could see a clear pattern repeat itself: the flicker of ambition as he eyed uncharted territory, the thrill of pursuit, the early failures which only inspired him to more intense and obsessive efforts, and then, in the midst of some battle, the sudden inspiring discovery (a new approach, a brokered deal, a relenting enemy--like some enormous gear once rusted shut slowly breaking free and turning into place) and then the rush toward inevitable success, about which he remembered a lot less. It was like that with every domain he had pursued: real estate, technology, talent. Each new world—however strange and alien--followed the same laws; they had all knelt before the forces he'd brought to bear.

These fits of self-consciousness always bothered him. Most of the time, he was too busy to think about anything but his next step. But on his jet, sipping a gin gimlet, watching the American landscape flow predictably by like a favorite tv show he’d watched as child, he’d fall into these sick reveries. At first he thought it was just the lack of distractions. It was the only time in his life he was truly trapped. He had to just sit there. He tried books, movies, games, drugs, sex. None of it really helped. As soon as the plane passed over the clouds, and he caught sight of the curve of the earth, he started to feel maudlin, reflective, pointlessly philosophical.

He had complained about it once to Hannah, and she'd remarked that this was a common problem. “Had he heard the expression, train of thought?” she asked. “Was I claiming originality?” B— shot back, his feelings suddenly hurt. Hannah patted his head, explaining that it was only the curse of the prospect. “It was the fault of the landscape Don’t blame yourself,” she said. "A hundred years ago, all they had were mountains."

He’d looked out the window again at the mountains, followed by small middle American cities huddled against nameless rivers, then the endless farms, then more mountains, desert, all rushing by. How did everything get so small? Maybe he should stay on the ground. He never flet this way when he was walking around. Or driving. Hannah just sat back in her seat and laughed.

He couldn’t take her for more than day when they were together, but now he missed her. He remembered how she’d sit on the edge of his desk in her rich girl lesbian avenger boots making fun of him. Whenever he went on too long, expounding on some success, she’d start in with a little one-word song: redundant, redundant, redundant, redundant… She didn’t give a shit. That, at least, was refreshing.

He tried to focus on something more concrete—the meeting in Denver then the call to New York—but suddenly the plane bucked like a pick-up riding over a pothole. He instinctively grabbed hold of the armrests and looked out the window.

He expected a storm cloud but instead he saw bright sky, the sun shining off the wings, sharp and clear. Then his eye was drawn to the space around the plane. Something filled the sky with a kind of texture. It seemed to almost take shape and then dissipate again, like static on a pre-digital television or a flock of starlings banking sharply. Could it be birds? No, it was too small. Maybe bugs. But then, as he stared, the thousand little dots definitely took shape, a curve or blade or giant black wing curving alongside the jet. He hunched up in his seat to get a better view, and to his shock, he saw that this thing seemed to be casting a shadow on the ground two miles down, a vast shadow spreading across acres of farmland. He slid the shade down and yelled to CJ, who was up flirting with the pilots. “What the fuck?” He shouted.

Instantly, he saw her pretty smiling face lean into the aisle. She’d been on his plane for 14 months now and knew him pretty well. In an instant, she could tell he was upset. She pursed her lips in a sympathetic way that gave her otherwise very un-maternal face a maternal quality that B—liked in spite of himself. “What’s wrong?” She asked again. B—was about to try and explain what he’d seen out the window but instantly realized nothing good could come of it. What was the point? He was either fleeing from something or he wasn’t? What he needed was something to chase.

He asked for another drink.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Taglines: who needs them?

A recent article in Brandweek by T.L. Stanley on the diminishing importance of taglines has caught the b-sphere attention because it rightly recognizes something we’ve all noticed: lots of great big brands aren't bothering with them anymore. Stanley’s diagnosis of the tagline’s declining relevance is, however, less convincing in my view. Here are T.L.'s reasons:

1) Shorter tenure of CMO’s (which I’m not sure I understand except as a general point about risk-aversion, repeated in 3 below)
2) Proliferation of media channels means we have ways to reach consumes that don’t require taglines
and 3) focus groups, or at least, an excessively rational relation to the function of the tagline. Aka, using the tagline as a “safety net” rather than a rallying cry.

Stanley’s second reason is only one that makes any sense. The first and third are tautological. Taglines no longer matter because we are only producing bad taglines that no longer matter. In fact, the article goes on to name a couple (GE’s “Imagination at work” for one) which it thinks is great. Come to think of it, the piece never really distinguishes a good from a bad tagline to begin with.

Responding to the same article, Gareth cites a couple more reasons for the tagline’s demise more convincing than the orginal article: most importantly, the fact that a consumer’s relation to a brand is often more influenced by what a brand does (and how it helps them) than what it says. Or as GK puts it: actions speak louder than words.

I’d add one more addendum to the expanding story: taglines might be increasingly unimportant to consumers, but in my experience, they are still very important to marketers. Most of them still ask the marketing service co. to provide something clear, concise and inspirational that expresses the brand idea/experience. Call it what you like: tagline, handle, rallying cry. Most marketers still like and need to have a quick way of representing the brand idea to the company as a whole, to align them around the vision and inspire everyone to take action on it.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Neither this, nor that

In the past week, I’ve heard three senior staff members from totally different but equally successful creative marketing firms tell me that “agency” is a bad word at their company. They might be a studio or a consultancy or a design shop or a next-generation interactive integrated something-or-other but just don’t call them an agency. Because the one thing they are most certainly NOT is an agency.

I realize of course that some of this agency-resistance is just a natural consequence of our attempts to differentiate ourselves in a competitive industry full of smart and talented people. And part of it is an attempt to distance our ventures from a particularly limited kind of agency that only focuses on TV ads as the answer to all a clients’ business or marketing problems.

But I still find it kind of annoying for a couple reasons. First, because I like the idea of the advertising agency at its best. I like the original notion that creative thinking and expression can have a big impact on a business. I like the breadth, flexibility and fertility of the model: the sheer number and variety of agencies, big and small, creative and integrated, interactive, independent, direct, etc, etc. I even like the name: agency: how it articulates both an organization and an action in a single word.

One of my favorite Freudian concepts is what he called narcissism of small differences, or, the fact that we tend dislike people with small differences from us, or we tend to dislike them more and more intensely than people that are very different from us. Freud’s idea was that we reserve our specially intense antipathies for the “nearly-we” because they threaten our sense of self much more strongly than the “other” or people that have nothing to do with us.