Friday, November 7, 2008

Camus, sports metaphors, management and motivation

I heard again the old line from Camus today on the radio ( it’s his birthday) in which he claimed that everything he knew about humanity and our ethical obligations, he learned from playing football. There are some reasons to doubt the full seriousness of the claim, not least Camus’ well-demonstrated penchant for deep and dark ironies, but I’m not doubting him here. On the contrary, the line reminded me of the prevalence and power of sports metaphors in business culture.

It’s tempting to explain away the prevalence of these metaphors as a natural result of shared interests and that’s undoubtedly true when it comes to the endless topical metaphors we all use to claw our way through our daily interactions: 4th and goal, 2 minute warning, crunch time, level playing field, etc., etc., There are entire glossaries online which you can find easily enough.

But I'm more interested in the cultural or ideological framework that underpins these metaphors and makes them work. In other words, now that competition is a generally accepted social good and is viewed as a beneficial supplement to just about everything (relationships, education, entertainment), it’s become easier to blend the experiences of sports and business with metaphors designed to motivate beyond reason.

I'm not suggesting we should blame our bosses or ourselves to the degree we are bosses for these ideological conflations. We’re all in it together stuck with this nagging problem of motivation. Just as (was it Fitzgerald who said it?) that it’s not enough for the rich just to be rich, they have to believe they deserve to be rich, so is it, apparently, not enough for the worker to simply work for money. Most of us mentally position money as the by-product of some more meaningful activity. Do what you love and the money will come, right?

How many management studies rejoice in the fact that the place of compensation in job satisfaction usually follows emotional experiences like “having an impact” or “feeling like you are part of a team”? What a relief for us all to learn once more that there is magic in management.

And so who can blame our bosses for speaking to us as if we were eager young prep=schoolers running onto a grassy field beneath a radiant October sun. Feel the bracing air in your lungs! Didn't we tell them we hungered--with passion!--to sacrifice for something still unseen?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

My favorite expression

from yesterdays meeting:

"brought us to the dance" as in "We can't forget the base brand is what brought us to the dance"

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Culture (sticker) shock

One of the fun things you can do in the midst of a global economic crisis is to feel the forces of the zeitgeist sweep over you. I know there will always be those who insist that their beliefs and attitudes aren’t swayed by their peers or any other influences beyond their iron wills, but the rest of us can feel our cognitive gears shift creakily into a new place every time we go shopping.

I know mine are. Even though I haven’t been personally affected (I stand corrected) by this financial crisis (same basic income, 30-year fixed mortgage, no money to speak of in the market and a long time—i.e. forever--from retirement) I can still feel a growing sensitivity to the cost of stuff I used to blithely ignore.

Just this morning, I went to the drug store to replenish my kids’ supply of toothbrushes and I couldn’t find one in Rite-Aid under three dollars, which would have me spending 10 dollars on pieces of plastic attached to smaller, thinner pieces of plastic. Admittedly, I also couldn’t find a kid’s toothbrush that wasn’t a licensed character or came with a toy. Which suddenly, after years of overspending on molded plastic toothbrushes had me eyeing the toothbrush aisle in a whole new light.

The 100’s of SKU’s came with different sized bristles and a variety of interestingly contoured handles which suggested some special ergonomically designed shape presumably to improve our tooth-brushing efficiency and protect ourselves from wrist fatigue (not to mention the various powered versions) but 3, 4, 5, dollars for a toothbrush?

Friday, October 3, 2008

Inspiring quant work

I'm not a huge fan of the various political blogs and sites as most of them don't offer much except ad hoc opinion and the opportunity to express even brasher ideological assertions, which we already have plenty of.

All the more reason put in a plug for (538= number of delegates in the electoral college) which I and most of my media-junkie friends are obsessed with. It's run by Nate Silver, who seems to make his living analyzing and modelling baseball statistics. But you don't have to be a fantasy-baseball freak to see that he's taking quant to a whole new level here, aggregating a dozen diffrent polls on a daily basis and then analyzing the results, weighting the polls based on a number of factors, including past accuracy. He also calculates a win/loss percentage based on 1,000's of simulations of potential outcomes. In fact, the rigor, depth and insight of the analysis puts most of the market research analysis I've seen--and I've seen a lot--to shame. Maybe we should start scouting the fantasy baseball leagues for talent. Check it out.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

I suck or self-hatred Thursday

I’ve always been a touch annoyed by the more fancifully Utopian claims about my profession (by “my profession” I mean advertising or marketing; everyone else is off the hook). Not because there’s something specifically wrong about advertising or being in business or making money. It’s what most of us do—try and make money in some interesting way--by habit and custom and relative necessity. Or laziness. Or all four.

But I’ve always preferred more astringent pleasures to the soothing bromides of selective attention and I was thinking it would be interesting if someone set up a site (I checked “I suck” isn’t available) where we could anonymously confess our moral qualms about some marketing activity or another. Whenever I bring up this topic, colleagues always make reference to their own or a colleague’s principled refusal to work on a tobacco account, but that’s a little too easy. (Personally, I’m not sure I mind ciggy advertising so long as it’s directed at adults compared to say marketing crap to kids but that’s another subject.) There are blurrier ethical boundaries that strike me as more interesting to confess. Or to hear someone else confess, which is frankly, a lot more interesting.

So for instance, un-anonymously: I’ve recently been reminded that I played a role facilitating this financial crisis. No, I didn’t sell credit swaps or mortgage securities but I did write strategies for advertising that marketed more mortgages and credit cards to people who probably couldn’t afford them under terms that would likely put them deeper underwater in no time flat. Now the arguments for doing this work are well-known: it isn’t or wasn't illegal, I was only giving them what they wanted, they could have read the small print, caveat emptor, I was only doing my job, etc., etc. Then again, I didn't sit in Congress and pass legislation to protect credit-card companies from defaulting consumers. So that's some comfort.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Sunday Re-reading: David Foster Wallace

It’s hard to say anything smart or insightful about a writer’s work right after they die, especially when the death is tragic and unexpected and too soon. And even more especially when the writer is as inventive and hard-to-classify as David Foster Wallace. You can see this lack of focus in the public statements that have been appearing across the media, mainstream and otherwise. Here is one eulogy in the NYT's. Here are a bunch of remembrances among the McSweeny's crew. Most of them focus on the journalism and generic rubrics like “post-modern" or just what a surprisingly modest and nice guy Wallace was. I do remember one review awhile back that I’ll never find now which said that Wallace developed a colloquial--both apparently casual and erudite--digressive style which defined first-person journalism style of the generation. It’s how everyone writes now, especially in personal, digressive forms like blogs. I think that’s probably true. Whatever his flaws—which were mainly of excess—he definitely carved out new territory. You don’t have to look far to see how breathtakingly wide his range is.

Someone, maybe A.O. Scott, compared Infinite Jest to Pound’s Cantos, another great work of excess and experimentation, which is and will be more influential (on future writers) than much read in the future. I think that’s probably true too, judging by the success of his followers like Dave Eggers.

Whenever I’ve made a similar case for Wallace, I tend to compare him to Gertrude Stein, who carved out Modernist territory made more accessible and popular by those who followed in her wake, Hemingway chief among them. But the world of artistic production is full of such examples. Wallace wrote about David Lynch in these very same terms (in an essay which originally appeared in Premier and was collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again) as a truly original imagination, pretty much a brilliant freak, who was going to follow his imagination wherever it led him. It was up to, in Wallace's account, crude popularizers like Tarantino to bring his dark inventions to the masses.

It probably won’t come as a surprise to any one who knows me or reads any of these posts that I’m on the side of the messy innovators here too. Not (just) because I’m a snob, but because I don’t really read for entertainment. Not that’s there's anything wrong with it. as the saying goes, but for me, reading is too hard to waste on entertainment. I’d rather watch all the great TV we have now and I watch a lot: Mad Men and Project Runway and Shameless among many others. If going to bother reading, I want feel a real, weird imagination at work, moving stuff around inside my head. Though I'm probably the exception here.

That’s about all l’ve got to add to the subject right now, spoken about by so many others so recently. My writing friends and I who knew him in various degrees can’t seem to come up with a proper tribute. A moment of silence seems all wrong. One friend suggested a moment of:


But for lack of anything better, I’ll return to my moment of discovery, which happened to be Girl with Curious Hair, which I picked up in Prarie Lights in Iowa City in 1990. I read the opening lines of a few of the stories and that was all it took. I knew there was something special going on. Here, as my tribute, are the opening lines of the 10 stories in that first collection. Hope it inspires a few more readers. It’s all we’ve got now.

It’s 1976

An account representative, newly divorced, finished another late evening of work at his office, in Accounts.

Gimlet dreamed that if she did not see a concert last night she would become a type of liquid, therefore my friends Mr. Wonderful, Big, Gimlet and I went to see Keith Jarrett play a piano concert at the Irvine concert Hall in Irvine last night.

My name is Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Was me supposed to tell Simple Ranger how Chuck Nun Junior wronged the man that wronged him and fled to parts unguessed.

Her photograph tastes bitter to me.

I am a woman who appeared in public on “late Night with David Letterman” on March 22, 1989.

A thing that is no fun? Stomach trouble.

She says I do not care if you believe me or not, it is the truth, go on, and believe what you want to.

Though Drew-Lynn Eberhardt produced much, and Mark Nechtr did not, Mark was loved by us all in the East Chesapeake Tradeschool Writing Program that first year, and D. L. was not.

Friday, September 26, 2008

5 ways of looking at morality

No matter what side you’re on, we’ve all been getting an overdose of election coverage and anxiety-generating punditry. Most of it is pure speculation, usually driving toward a pre-determined conclusion, but I recently came across an article, cited somewhere I can’t even remember (probably slate or wsj or nyt’s or who knows) which brought a fresh structural perspective, mainly to challenge liberal enlightenment assumptions about what makes a good society (or at least makes people feel like they are living in one).

It’s by Jonathan Haidt, a cultural anthropologist at UVA, who works on morality and emotion across cultures. His opening salvo also functions as a summary of the article, reminding us that while liberals tend to privilege individual rights, conservatives tend to privilege forces (like authority and hierarchy and rules) which tend to build strong social bounds.

...the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way. When Republicans say that Democrats "just don't get it," this is the "it" to which they refer.

He then goes on to map the moral dimensions that support these two world-views--the Dem’s enlightenment-individualist world view and G.O.P’s interest in social cohesion—across five dimensions: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, purity/sanctity.

It’s probably not a huge surprise that liberals tend to be pretty dismissive of the last two dimensions. Purity? More surprising, according to Haidt’s research, who is himself a self-described liberal, is that people who are more likely to vote Republican tend to be interested more well-rounded in their moral concerns, equally invested in all these dimensions. Liberals, on the other hand, care about a more a more narrow definition of morality, one that privileges just the first two dimensions.

He then goes on to suggest some interesting and provocative strategic angles: including questioning the value of “diversity” as a moral virtue (because it tends to weaken social cohesion). The article leaves a lot of unanswered questions, not least how Liberals and Conservations position economic (vs. social) policy in relation to these dimensions, but it’s still an intriguing and useful perspective. Check it out here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The end of the world as we know it

Been really busy draining my mutual funds and pouring capital into some French-bulldog breeding and Sea-salt farming ventures, so haven’t gotten around to comment on the many exciting events impacting all our daily lives.

But couldn’t wait any longer, now that New York has been declared a great place to be in advertising, at least compared to finance, at least according to The Observer, which is here to tell us that we may not need 750k bonuses to afford that apartment in Brooklyn anymore.

Here’s the gist, thanks to one of my new colleagues:
The median entry wage for an advertising and promotions manager in New York City was $63,780 in 2007, not far off from the $76,230 entry-level wage for a financial manager in the same period, according to State Labor Department figures. At $166,400, the median wage for an experienced marketing manager is identical to the median salary of an experienced financial manager, and far better than the $114,120 median wage earned by an experienced financial analyst.

The article then goes on to contrast the massive lay-offs at various financial firms now defunct or sold to taxpayers to the active hiring going on at Avenue A/Razorfish. Find it all here. Maybe now I can get Dick Fuld to run some focus groups for me.

Oh, New York, I do love it.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Culture change

I've noticed that one of the conventions of this media is to apologize to your (presumed) readers for any prolonged gap in production, so consider this my gesture toward that convention. Following a pattern of professional restlessness, I've been in transition, but starting to settle in enough to make make an initial observation.

While my sojourning career track will undoubtedly have all kinds of negative consequences, one thing it has enabled is a fairly wide view of different agency-like environments in a relatively short time. I've learned a bunch of different so-called proprietary practices and techniques, been exposed to all kinds of "leadership" styles, and saw a whole bunch of attempts to endow different environments with creative energy through interior design: lots of glass or big screen TV's or stainless steel or polished concrete or ironic posters or what all.

And over the years, I've noticed that business--and creative businesses in particular--are fascinated with various magic ingredients which go by the name of "cultural change." The thinking goes that if you can just create or cultivate a cultural change, you can transform the whole company. It's easy to understand why: culture sounds both free and easy--compared to saying hiring top talent or moving your office or winning a new set of clients--but of course it's neither.

In my experience, while it's definitely true that different places have dramatically different cultures. And it's also true that these cultures have a pretty strong impact on the kind of work they manage to do (in both good and bad ways), it doesn't follow that you can change it. Most of the attempts I've seen (superficial or not) haven't had much of an impact on an agency's work. It would be great if you could improve the agency's creative product by sending a bunch of people to a show at P.S. 1 but it never seems to work like that.

Just because something is important doesn't necessarily mean you can do anything about it, though these kind of statements tend to fret against the 'nothing is impossible' spirit of American business. And while it's not impossible, it's very very hard to change a company culture, just as it's very hard to change a Brit into an Italian or vice versa, and likely for the same reason: changing a culture usually means changing the very people who are trying to institute the cultural change.

In my very first day on my last couple jobs I had conversations that would have been if not impossible than pretty unthinkable at other jobs, less because of particular skills than because of the assumptions behind the conversations and the intentions that drove them. I could give you examples but they require a whole other post: culture, as they say in my previous trade, goes deep indeed. The easiest way to change it is to cross the border yourself.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sure it's fake, but...

There's an intiguing article in Slate on viral video, particularly of the unbranded or so-called stealth variety, by Farhad Manjoo. The occasion of the article is a series of short viral videos for a headset manufacturer. The videos portrayed a bunch of phones pointed at popcorn kernels. Kids dial the phones and when they ring, the popcorn begins to pop. (If you want to check it out, all the links are in the Slate article, which I'm too lazy to reproduce here). Apparently they were viewed 10 million times in two weeks.

Manjoo takes a balanced approach to a whole phenomenon, placing this video in the context of other unbranded--or initially unbranded--videos for Gatorade, Ray-Ban and Nike. He doesn't deny that the web is full of videos of dubious authenticity. And advertisers are far from the only source of misleading information. And he acknowledges--or at least quotes other experts on the fact--that figuring out whether the video is accurate or not is part of fun.

"The most populat ads feature scenes that aren't obviously impossible, just nearly so, leaving the is-it-real debate raging on blogs and comment threads....More sophisticated viral ads turn their deception into a kind of intereactive game, planting subtle clues pointing to their corporate source."
But Manjoo draws the line on consumer health and safety. And he thinks Cardo stepped over it. Beyond just mocking up near-impossible stunts, Manjoo believes that Cardo fed off of consumer fears, playing to unsubstantiated claims linking cellphone radiation with brain damage without needing to take responsibility for them. Here's how he puts it:
The Cardo ad is another story. Health concerns may push many people to buy Bluetooth headsets, but the research connecting cell phones to brain tumors is unclear, and Cardo would face an outcry—not to mention possible legal or regulatory action—if it straightforwardly marketed its products as being "safer" for you.
If Manjoo's point is that web video should be subject to the same regulatory strictures as all other advertising, he's certainly right, and such desire regulation is bound to get tighter. If, however, he wants to ban all advertising from insinuating health risks or benefits, he's got a long crusade ahead of him. The entire anti-bacterial category is built on equally deceptive information. (It's not that alcohol infused gels don't kill germs; but so does soap. It's not that dust in the air doesn't make you sneeze, but it's not very clear it makes you sick.)

Equally interesting are the comments on the article, which provide a wonderful representative sampling of responses to almost any article on advertising: There are the readers that want to debate the facts: could Kobe could really jump the sports car or not? There's the self-proclaimed non-TV-raised-Gen-Y'er who expresses his genuine fear over "where advertising will go next." And there there is the reader (referencing great-depression era hardship) who tells him to stop whining. There's a reader who simultaneously denies and affirms the power of advertising: "the more I am marketed to, the less I want to buy. That said I like a cute film every now and then for amusement...." And there's the reader who advances his or her own observation on the "irony" of an advertising technique which is designed to speak to jaded audiences but only succeeds in making them more jaded.

But it's MountainManZach who provides the title for this post. He cites a subtitle on that accompanied the cell-phone video that might stand as a motto for advertising itself: a brilliantly concise insight into the psychology of consumer reception.
"Sure, it's fake, but what if it's real?"
It's why I found Manjoo's closing line-- "But what fools should buy from a company that takes its customers for fools"--so unsatisfying. After such a balanced and insightful account of this emerging marketing practice, Manjoo retreats to a familiar and inaccurate fantasy that companies and ad-men are sitting around thinking of ways to gull all the suckers out there. It's inaccurate for the simple reason that knowledge has nothing to do with how advertising works. We know you know and that you'll still act as if you don't.

"Sure, it's fake, but what if it's real?"

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Palmer gets permed

Came across a recent column by Benjamin Palmer in Adweek that has me a little puzzled. Let me preface my comments by saying that I’m a big fan of B. Palmer in particular and the work of Barbarian Group in general. I’ve been impressed by and referenced his thinking on these very screens, particularly his comments on the concept of Brand Utility, but in relation to this column entitled "The Future of Branding is Now," I can only assume that he’s been championing new media (against old) for so long that it's driven him to overstate his claims.

Chief among these is Palmer’s dubious distinction between what refers to as temporary media and permanent media. Guess which one is which?

Here’s how he puts it:

The brands that have historically achieved the most permanence are the giant ones that can afford to have an ad in a medium that hits your eyes once or more a day every day. The branding (hopefully) accumulates over time, but the messages themselves are disposable, mostly randomly distributed and, as a result, strictly temporary. These old media are temporary. Brands, however, are permanent. The good news is that, in the Internet, we finally have a medium that's permanent.

Even if I could sort out the overlap between brands and media here (maybe I should be critiquing the Adweek editor instead?) I’m still not sure what Palmer means by permanent. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean what he thinks it means. Brands are permanent? The internet is permanent? I’m assuming he can’t mean the medium itself (The internet is a baby in comparison to TV and radio). But if I assume he means that digital marketing is somehow more permanent (because people interact with it) than old media marketing, he seems to get the point exactly wrong.

Great ads, ads broadcast on old media, have lingered in the culture for years if not decades. Copy from boring old media ads have completely permeated our culture--for better or worse--and will linger as long as the dialect does. (Wassap, where’s the beef? Plop, plop, etc., etc., You want more examples just check look at the taglines filled in by a nine year old on a previous post.) By comparison, marketing on the internet has a very short lifespan indeed. Consumers are still looking up the Mean Joe Green Coke Ad and feeling all misty-eyed over the image of racial harmony decades after it was broadcast, but few people want to mess around with last years or even last months microsite. Anyone still playing with subservient chicken? I'm not suggesting this won't change, but the evidence isn't on Palmer's side here. At least not yet.

Isn’t one of the chief virtues of marketing—as Palmer makes clear in the same column—the fact that it’s relatively easy and cheap to change over time? It’s the opposite of permanent, in a good way, particularly in relation to something relatively fixed and expensive, like film.

Palmer ends the column with an equally either odd rant about how there was no real “brand value” before the internet came along. I suppose he means that’s because it was harder to measure the contribution of old media to brand development than it is now that we have web analytics.

Again, no one will argue that the accountability of digital media—the fact that you can measure what people do with it—is very handy, but again, it seems that Palmer seems to have forgotten that stories are also very powerful entities, sometimes less, sometimes more powerful than tools, digital or otherwise.

The fact that you can’t necessarily click through a storytelling experience or exactly measure what it means to “identify” with a character doesn’t mean something isn’t happening, and that something isn't having an enormous and sometimes even permanent impact on our perceptions, feelings and actions.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Beverly Farms doesn't do Juno

My little neighborhood has made national news recently with it’s July 4th horribles parade, basically a Mummers-style parade in which the locals mock and parody usually very local events and personalities. I’ve only lived here 4 years and it’s been pretty out-of-hand every year: with instances of open profanity, personal attacks (personal as in naming names) and flagrant racism (e.g., mocking Latino illegal immigrants) present in just about every parade. And if you ask my neighbors, I haven’t even seen the worst of it (the Viagra float is legendary as are the kids who decided to reenact the JFK assassination, complete with a screaming Jackie, etc., etc.) This year, however, they’ve apparently gone too far, with three floats mocking the dozen-and-a-half teen-age pregnancies in nearby Gloucester high. You can watch it in all it’s glory on Youtube here. Keep an eye out for me!

The mayor of Gloucester is outraged, claiming that the parade could spark a class war. Most of the MSM and bloggers who have picked up the story are equally shocked, taking a controversial “teen-aged pregnancy isn’t funny” line. Like here. Or here from Gloucester's local. No kidding, Neither is the JFK assassination or illegal immigration or the local guy who was mocked for his DWI and other humiliations in two floats a year ago. I just watched a “Greater Boston” segment, a local PBS affiliate show hosted by Emily Rooney, in which a reporter from the Beverly Citizen claimed this parade went too far because it made fun of people without power compared to a memorable float parodying Kerry Healey’s run for governor two years ago.

The distinction is meaningful if you compare the pregnant teens to the very rich and privileged Healey, but the argument doesn't hold up when you look at the range of subjects usually in the parade. Most of the floats I've seen are far from clever political satire. Most of them are pretty trashy and personal and often sexually provocative with attacks on local embarrassments from guys who get DWI's to crappy city planning and quite a few involve guys in drag and profane language. No one I’ve read has yet mentioned the eye-popping “Trolls Gone Wild” float from I think '05 in which some local young women either donned wigs or dyed their hair fluorescent hues and then created cone-shaped doo's (to emulate the beloved troll figures of our childhoods) and danced provocatively down my little new England street, right before of the innocent eyes of the local children.

To declare the parade offensive is hardly an attack, it’s a description. It’s offensive by definition. You could argue that we don’t want any offensive parades in quaint sea-side towns like the one I live in, but it’s a very weak argument indeed to differentiate this parade from past years (and let’s not forget this has been going on for a full century.) I suspect there is some deeper Cape Ann rivalry at work here but I'm too much of an newcomer and outsider to penetrate its depths. And personally, as an outsider, I find it kind of pleasant to see one unregulated, unsanitized public event, without a single appearance of a Disney character!

If I was to get all academic in my defense, I’d say the parade is a great modern example of what Bahktin defined as the carnivalesque, that is, a period of anarchic and transgressive behavior licensed by the powers that be. Bahktin was talking about how the carnivals in medieval Europe created a period of temporary liberation from the controlling strictures church and state but you could say that the same principle applies here. In any other context, the behavior would be totally unacceptable. The only thing that makes it okay here is that we’ve decided it’s okay.

You can read more about it here. Or if you really want to get into Bahktin, and he’s worth it, check out his famous and influential book on Rabelais in which he develops his theory of the carnivalesque. Though the very fact that I'm deploying a Russian literary theorist to defend this outrageous parade probably only positions me more firmly on the snobby side of the alleged class war.

And since "the children" have played a role in just about every story on the parade, I should probably disclose that I also have them--children that is (2, 4 and 7). And they watched the parade in front of my house with the usual combination of screaming excitement and perplexity, and yes--just like the kids in the press--my oldest did in fact pick up a condom that had been tossed from one of the floats and asked what it was. And before I could even think of a good answer that wouldn’t take the rest of the holiday to explain, he had forgotten about the weird foil wrapper and moved onto a package of Sweet Tarts and a manic discussion of the night’s fireworks. Hopefully, he will remain unscarred by the experience.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Goal-orienteditis or a new look at the ant and the grasshopper

I've posted before about how my latest tour through Proust has been informing my own thinking about consumer behavior, especially around questions of behavior and consistency.

Here's one of these posts under the heading "Context matters."
My point has been that most of us intuitively think of our identities as relatively fixed or at least consistent. Read just about any biography and you'll see this assumption in action as a set of events (causes, effects) are lined up to explain the fundamental principles informing a famous person's decisions throughout life. We make similar assumptions as we assign a set of actions and behaviors to various consumer segments: soccer moms, early adopters, etc., etc.,

Proust's narrator, however, is constantly remarking on the surprising unpredictability of his own inner life. Desire, feelings, motivations are constantly shifting over time to the point that Proust famously thinks of these identities as different selves, more driven by external events and contexts than some immutable internal quality of his identity.

Work on consumer behavior, especially various strands of behavioral economics, have been paying a lot more attention lately our lack of self-knowledge and inability to predict how we'll feel and act in the future. And I just read two more interesting bits are in the July/August issue of HBR.

One brief article references recent work done by Anat Keinan and Ran Kivetz in the Journal of Consumer Culture. Their work suggests that for some of us--especially the over-achieving sort--our future orientation might come at the cost of our satisfaction. In a series of experiments with students, shoppers and business people, they found that, over time, people who yielded to temptation regretted their pleasure-seeking less and less while those who put off pleasures for some more responsible choice tended to regret this self-abnegation more and more. Apparently there is an even name for this particular kind of excessive self-control: these hard-workers among us suffer from excessive farsightedness or hyperopia.

While Anat and Ran draw some fairly familiar conclusions from these findings--"a travel company might ask customers to consider how they'll feel if they pass up a family vacation once the nest is empty"--there are more interesting implications to be developed form this work.

For one thing, it suggests a new perspective on Aesop's fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper. If you've been too busy playing Wii to know the fable, you can get the gist here. According to Anat and Ran's work, the grasshopper should feel better and better about his summer of frolicking over time, while the ant will start to regret missing all the fun more intensely as he gets older. Deferred gratification will eventually feel to feel like no gratification. Maybe the grasshopper is happier at the end of the day, assuming of course that he survives the winter.

Just below this piece in the HBR is another related short by Katherine Milkman, who suggests that manufacturers should bundle wants and what what she calls shoulds together (celebrity magazine subscriptions with health club memberships) to serve our ant and grasshopper selves at the same time.

In any case, if it's true that our sense of satisfaction with our choices shifts over time, we might want to think about how a product and service impacts our satisfaction across multiple temporal dimensions: before purchase, during consumption, and as a memory of the experience. Sweet to anticipate, pleasurable to use and delightful in recollection.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

George Orwell Birthday Week special or the problem with renaming

All of us who are the business of changing perceptions know that renaming something is one of the tried and true tricks of the trade, whether it's creating categories (right-hand diamond, certified used vehicles) or making something old and familiar sound new and exciting (rewards programs, pashminas) or inventing euphemisms to disguise some troubling elements of stuff we want to do anyway (gaming, troop surge) or reframing things in more negative terms (Death tax). It's a good trick that works surprisingly well, but when we apply it to ourselves in order to assert our unique differentiating (proprietary!) practices than it start to sound both trying-too-hard lame and pretty confusing.

Over the past weeks, I've met with a bunch of companies who insisted on calling themselves something other than what common sense would suggest. While they actually do conjoint and factor analysis and run tracking studies and set up consumer panels they insist on being called something other than research companies: they are consumer conversation companies or insight companies. It's not that I don't understand the desire to separate oneself from a group of other companies that may well be mediocre or old-fashioned or less good, but the more you talk to someone about their "consumer conversation" company, the harder it becomes to understand what you are talking about, especially when the thing you are talking about has very simple, plain-language name.

I'm hardly exculpating myself from this problem. I work from a company that sometimes calls itself a next-generation branding company and sometimes an agency-consultancy hybrid, but whatever we say we are, we often get called the "agency" from the clients that hire us.

Maybe we all shouldn't try so hard to reinvent ourselves with a new name and work harder just doing it better. Is it so bad to be one of the best consumer research companies? Or agencies for that matter?

For those who are interested, the Orwell reference above is to his famous essay "Politics and the English language," which should be mandatory and repeated reading for everyone, but especially for everyone in marketing. Here's one of the most quoted passages, but in honor of his birthday, I recommend reading the whole thing. It's not long and it's in the public domain. You can find it here and a bunch of other places:

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Schools-out-for-the-summer-special or sample of one suggests taglines still sticking

Lots of people in the biz, including me, have speculated on whether taglines still have an important role in the brave new world of marketing, but as the attached documents attest, the most disseminated lines--both old and new--remain memorable, at least in the consciousness of this nine-year-old--a daughter of a colleague. She was given these worksheets as an assignment in her class earlier this year. She obviously did pretty well.

It suggests that the best taglines still stick in impressionable young minds. What it says about the state of education....well, I'll force myself to avoid drawing generalizations from this single example so as not to fall into a state unrecoverable depression.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


I've been reading the word "agnostic" a lot again (or still) lately, and just about every time I find it kind of annoying. Maybe it's because it's just jargon and all jargon (and marketing jargon in particular) is annoying (for the obvious reason that it's a lazy replacement for a more precise and thoughtful description) but I think there is something especially annoying about the use of the term which I'd describe as an exaggerated pretense to open-mindedness.

The assertion of channel-agnostic approaches or media-agnostic solutions or agnosticality in general is, I think, supposed to suggest a marketers willingness to embrace any potential solution vs. the one that used to make the agency the most money, but in almost every case, the marketer in question is really asserting his or her place among the new guard and privileging new media over old.

If agnosticism just means thinking about the best solution, shouldn't agnosticism be cost of entry when it comes to media planning? If media planning involves any planning at all? And/or if the contemporary use of the word is supposed to assert the agency's willingness to forgo the most profitable media choices in the interest of the client's business, what does this mean when it comes from a digital agency spokesperson? Does it mean that they might recommend television ads if they determine that's the best solution?

And is it worth at least acknowledging the fact that that agnosticism, in it's original philosophical sense, is really about skeptical doubt and the impossibility of knowing a particular thing because of limited information, when the very thing marketing strategist are supposed to do is provide POV's based on evidence and experience. How agnostic is that?

Okay, maybe that's irrelevant, but it adds to my multi-leveled irritation about the use of the word in our biz. It's competing with "dimensionalize" for relative unbearability for me, but I'm sure you all have your favorites as well.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Judging the Jay Chiat awards on a really hot day in Boston

Spent another delightful morning with Gareth Kay of Modernista, Jeff Flemings of Digitas and Lesley Bielby of Hill Holiday earlier this week evaluating 20 or so entries for the planning awards. Last year, we all agreed that the entries were pretty lame, lacking some of what Jeff called "craft skills," like clearly identifying the target.

Everyone agreed that the batch this year was a lot more solid, with plenty of planning fundamentals on display. Business problems were defined. Targets identified. Brands and products differentiated from competition.

At the same time, we all felt that most of the entries didn't go far enough. The majority of entries didn't describe how planning had much of an impact beyond identifying an insight that informed the creative strategy. All the NDA's I signed prevent me from me coughing up the details. But by way of an abstract example, you could say that many of the entries helped define a new way of looking at a product or brand (e.g. wine isn't about flavor but about smell) but then didn't help inform how we might powerfully communicate this new perspective (kinds of scent that resonate with consumers, moments when you notice scent, the emotional power of scent).

In other words, each of us--as planners in very different kinds of marketing co's--all agreed that good planning needed to help create and inform the development of ideas beyond the basic creative idea, identifying details that create and guide executional possibilities. I think it was Jeff who described the batch as marked by "missed opportunities."

We all envied the assignments and would have been happy to get them. And we all longed for the planners involved to be--in Lesley's words--a little more "brave." The core of an original idea either failed to develop beyond the strategy or ended up in a conventional execution.

Still missing too from most of the entries were any innovative research techniques (though the entries often worked hard to position their shop-alongs as breakthrough) or research findings that directly fed into the work or much in the way of interesting new media applications. We're hoping that the entries from all these hot digital shops we keep hearing about ended up in some of the other committees.

Of course, we all know what happens to our bravest ideas in practice. And it's easy to second-guess the hard work of our colleagues from the comfort of an air-conditioned room in Chinatown. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't aspire to take advantage of all our opportunities with the bravest ideas possible.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Hybrid culture at six months: getting smugger in spite of myself

Maybe the tide has started to turn for some of the most performance-oriented suv drivers because twice in the past week guys I happened to be parked next to, looked over and DOWN from their Lexxus SUV's and asked me as I stepped toward my Prius, "So you like it?" And when I told them that yes I did, but that I'm not really a "car guy" and I mainly don't like buying gas, they start talking about their $100+ tanks and the wait-lists on hybrids in their area, and I nod consolingly, knowing that my gas mileage is ticking up past 50 as the weather warms up, trying to not to suggest that they kind of made an idiotic consumer choice to begin with for about a dozen different reasons, because I do believe, at some level, that people are entitled to buy what they want so long as they are willing to the price, though I confess that when I find myself driving alongside a Hummer on the highway, knowing that the driver is burning over a dollar a minute, it's hard not to look over and UP with an expression not unlike a winning gambler sitting next to a guy who keeps drawing bad cards.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Poor little scotty (or the new strategic uses of pathos)

Not me, but Mclellan, who as everyone knows or should know, has decided to come clean about his past involvement in the foreign policy disaster we now refer to as the Iraq war. It's a pretty amazing development, but maybe shouldn't be, considering the number of outraged and agonized confessionals of former government employees. You can read the story almost anywhere, but here's a recent bit in the NYT's.

But this blog isn't about policy; it's about persuasion. And I can't help being both horrified and impressed by the shrewd and eerily consistent strategy the Republican officials and party flunkies are using to manage the bad news.

Rather than deny the charges or battle Mclellan point by point, they have decided to insinuate that there's something wrong with him, suggesting a breakdown of some kind. The tone was set early by the current, icily gorgeous Press Sec, Dano Perino, No one has specifically claimed a psychotic episode, but the repeated infantilizing use of his first name (rather than his last or full name) and the words "sad" and "puzzled" more closely match the language of someone concerned about the mental health of a friend or relative rather than an organization confronting a brazen attack on their ethical standards by a former insider.

Rove and Fleischer dutifully expanded on the strange-state-of-Scott story with their pop-psychological "this doesn't sound like Scott," in a tone suffused with befuddled concern.

I'm inclined to call bullshit on their false pathos, but perhaps Scott really does sound different. Perhaps it doesn't sound like him because he's not lying anymore. Or maybe he sounds different because he's so racked with guilt over his involvement in a PR farce that's cost well-counted American and countless Iraqi lives and untold amounts of unnecessary human suffering.

If you want to get a sense of what this can sound like try talking to former and now clean ex-cons speaking about their past crimes, or read about how a former aide to Colin Powell describes his involvement in Powell's speech to the U.N. on bogus intelligence as the "lowest point in his life." Here. Yeah, that does sound a lot different from "Bring it on" now that you mention it.

In any case, this strikes me as whole new strategy against what we might call the truth or (less polemically) any information that doesn't support the party line. Perhaps we've moved past the "I don't recall" defense utilized so effectively by Reagan and the "I wasn't informed of what my own staff was up to" attempted with varying degrees of success by Donald Rumsfeld and Enron executives, and moved onto variations of "He's lost it," to damage the credibility of anyone who dares to say something we don't want to hear.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Maybe not so elusive

Those of us in the business hear so much about the elusive eyeballs belonging to young people that it’s sometimes amazing to hear that kids these days have any eyeballs in their heads at all. I’ve written earlier that I’ve found that teens and college kids are still watching ads, but only the ones they like, and often on their own time on Youtube.

I’ve recently gotten word from some others planners on the street who are hearing similar stories, suggesting that the media habits of college kids haven’t changed as dramatically as we are always hearing. They still watch a lot of MTV and ESPN. They still recite lines from their favorite ads (e.g. “suck one”) with the same enthusiasm that the generation raised on “Where’s the beef?” and “Wassup” did. They still prefer watching their favorite shows on the biggest TV’s they possibly can (HDTV’s now) on the crappiest left-over furniture they can drag from their parent’s basement.

The biggest change from the previous generation seems to be that more girls are playing video games, making the wii a great way to get young women to join the party on your porch furniture.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The economic condition not to be named

Not sure if I'm just being sensitized by the media coverage of the economic downtown spreading into surprising places (this morning it was the NYT's on a boat repo man having a banner year) , but it seems that the unmentionable situation (which we may already be in!) is hitting the disposable income of the upper middle classes. Last night at an athletic brand sales meeting I was told that health club memberships are down 20% against last year. And then I kept seeing "Going Out of Business Sale" signs (though sometimes they just say "closing") in the windows of various boutiques that line the streets of the affluent seaside town where I work.

The near rich (or still rich by pre-hedge-fund standards) have a big cushion, but even they seem to be cutting back. One thing is for sure, there will be one less place in this town to buy very expensive baby clothes (luckily two other well-stocked boutiques remain standing), get your hair styled by a real pro or buy woven fabrics for your seaside home.

Friday, May 16, 2008

TV as a jukebox or another great thing about ads

Just about everyone has noticed the increasingly prominent role that less mainstream music has been playing in tv ads from the early, bold (if selective) use of Iggy Pop's lust for life for Royal Caribbean Cruise lines to Sting's hit-creating soundtrack for Jaguar to the now career-making appearances of anyone lucky enough to get their track on an ipod ad. The various nighttime dramas, especially those involving sexy teens and doctors, have also incorporated an increasingly wide range of popular, classic r &b and alty music into their broadcasts and storylines.

None of this is a surprise. More surprising, at least to me, on my last round chatting with youngsters is how much new music they still discover through advertising and tv shows they like. You'd think they'd have all the reco's they could handle from all their playlists and social media socializing, but apparently, the right 30 second soundtrack to an appealing half-clothed gamine, high-cheekboned surgeon or equally sexy digital device still strikes a powerful nerve or two.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Kids these days: star-makers in the making

Just knocked off a round of focus groups in Atlanta and New York city and my biggest non-proprietary finding: Kids are a lot cooler in NYC than in Atlanta.

Okay, not fair, based on my limited recruit, but have to admit I was pretty stunned by the Islanders’ range of activities: multiple jobs, internships in Germany studying film distribution, running shows out their Brooklyn lofts, discovering the British Invasion all over again. But the second biggest non-proprietary discovery had to be that the new dream has evolved from wanting to be a star to managing them. A solid third of the kids I met were putting on shows, managing talent and/or distributing content through all kinds of channels. I kid you not: A couple of them admitted that they didn't come to the groups for the token incentive but for RESEARCH! They were listening harder than the people behind the glass. They were there for ideas.

And they still watch ads, but only the good ones and only on their own time, and usually on Youtube. They fast-forward most everything else. So make ads good enough to look up or don’t make them at all. Which of course was what we always wanted to do to begin with

Saturday, May 3, 2008

08 vs. 01? Not as bad this time or just not yet?

It's a truism in the industry that advertising is an early indicator of the economy, and that advertising/marketing budgets are the first to go when the economy shrinks or shrivels, accompanied by lay-offs and consolidations.

But judging by totally anecdotal evidence, the bad news doesn't seem to be hitting quite as hard this time around, at least compared to the last round at the turn of the century. Or at least not yet. Recruiters seem as busy as ever, looking for the ever-elusive web-guru's. And industry insiders are still talking expansion rather than contraction. And I haven't heard about packs of mid-level account managers prowling the streets midtown, willing to work for iced lattes.

Of course, it's always hard to judge because ad agencies generally hype everything as a matter of course. Just look at the inflated new biz win records in the latest adweek report cards. Is it statistically possible for so many agencies to be batting over .500? And for all the obvious reasons, they try to keep layoffs quiet, but the news tends to get around. I did hear a rumor that a couple well-known digital shops were laying people off, which doesn't match the conventional wisdom, but we all know that digital types have a history of overreaching.

But in general, the good news seems to be that the new media engine seems to be keeping us busy, even as mortgages turn upside down and demand slows. Every client we talk to isn't sure what to do and is willing to pay someone to help them figure out. Another reason to love your DVR.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Everything old is new again? Better products as the solution to the marketing crisis!

Have been reading a bunch of presentations/posts/articles on how the future of marketing depends less on advertising and more on making better stuff. Here’s one on Isakson's blog, but you can find similar arguments about marketing as a service at zeus/jones, or brand utility on PSFK or others on the importance of design. What struck me this time on my pass through these next gen positions was that they sounded kind of old-fashioned, denouncing all this hot air and slick salesmanship which we marketers used to see as our stock in trade. “What we need, son, is less talk and a little more spit and elbow grease. Now get in there and dig me up a really beautifully designed keyboard!"

You want to have a successful brand, these arguments go, make a better widget or at least a nicer looking one. It’s why we return over and over again to the same examples: Mac, Starbucks, etc.

The argument for making better and more useful products is fine so far as it goes (a point Paul acknowledges but doesn’t fully address except through the partial solution of “content”), but seems to forget that one of the foundational values of modern marketing is that it’s a substitute for or at least a supplement to product superiority. Advertising is expensive, sure, but much less expensive, often, than R & D or retooling production.

The points about design and utility work best on (again, no surprise here) functional products and utilities like Ebay and Google. They don’t help much when you are selling perfume or vodka. There and in many other places, style and fast-talk still count for a lot.

We all want better widgets, but we are often in the business of selling ones that are less good, or more likely, just as good as every other version. That might be unappetizing to the utopian band of next gen marketers but less unpleasant to those of us who either enjoy the terrible symmetry of business or who have found you can change people's minds by telling them the same thing over and over again.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

What I stopped watching or it can't be a good sign

for HBO when I--a former specialist in 18th century studies and, in general, a fan of Paul Giamatti--hasn't been able to sit through an episode of John Adams since the tedious representation of the Versailles court in all its Sophia-Coppola-inspired decadence. I gather the whole project is an attempt to "humanize" the founding fathers, but I'm finding the narrative frameworks a little too familiar: from Paul G's reliance on head-shaking rages in order to dramatize Adams' well-known crankiness to Abby Adams playing out the oddly familiar role of the nagging wife complaining her husband spent too much at work. It's not that I don't believe Adams shouted a lot or that his wife was annoyed that he was busy founding a country, but it seems strange to pay so much narrative attention to story arcs straight out of a NYPD or CSI or virtually any show with a dedicated pro fighting the system and a beleaguered wife having a hard time holding down the home front. It's probably hard to represent the clash of pragmatism and idealism which was played out in the arguments and decisions of the founding fathers in a way that would make good TV, but finding out that John had a hard family life somehow doesn't feel like an adequate substitute.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Bad influence or how many influentials does it take...

One of the more interesting debates in the always exciting world of market research has emerged from the surprisingly heated exchanges between Duncan Watts and Malcolm Gladwell. The issue in question is whether the much-touted category of Influencers really exists, or more accurately, whether so-called influencers are any more influential than any of the rest us.

The question of the influencers' real marketing power wouldn't matter so much if it wasn't central to the whole best-selling Tipping Point thesis and the foundation of innumerable costly marketing efforts. As the challenger, Watts is the crankier of the two contestants, calling Gladwell's thesis a bunch of crap, if only because it never explains the "mechanism" around which the influencers manager to influence so many people. For the Influencer thesis to be true, he asks, wouldn't every person the influencer touches have to become magically transformed into another influential? Gladwell, as the reigning champion, is more circumspect or generous or just too rich to care at this point, and suggests we all are just seeing part of the great whole.

The whole debate was covered with some depth and acuity here in the February Fast Company and it's worth spending some time with for a couple reasons. One, it's just weird that a qustion in market research is the center of this much controversy. Two, it suggests how powerful intuitive theories like The Tipping Point can be, even if they happen to be wrong, though the jury certainly is still out on this point. E.g:

Why didn't the Influentials wield more power? [Watt's speculates about a simulation he created] With 40 times the reach of a normal person, why couldn't they kick-start a trend every time? Watts believes this is because a trend's success depends not on the person who starts it, but on how susceptible the society is overall to the trend--not how persuasive the early adopter is, but whether everyone else is easily persuaded. And in fact, when Watts tweaked his model to increase everyone's odds of being infected, the number of trends skyrocketed.

"If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one--and if it isn't, then almost no one can," Watts concludes. To succeed with a new product, it's less a matter of finding the perfect hipster to infect and more a matter of gauging the public's mood. Sure, there'll always be a first mover in a trend. But since she generally stumbles into that role by chance, she is, in Watts's terminology, an "accidental Influential."

Turning away from the fascination with new media magic and the (seemingly free) power of WOM, Watt's takes us back to the right message at the right time. Certain ideas fly around so fast less because they are implanted in the smartphones of the well-connected than because they are good or at least culturally resonant ideas.

To me, it seems likely that they are both wrong, at the extremes. Most of the time, fast-talking hipsters can't save an irrelevant idea any more than a resonant idea will necessarily circulate itself. And both perspectives are valuable, as they offer two useful views on the social life of information. But at the moment, Watt's is more fun to read, if only because his arguments are fueled by the ferocity of a born spoiler. Hard to believe it, but this might be one argument worth following.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Using your kids as evidence

There are probably few things more annoying to non-parents (or really anyone) than listening to a parent talk about what he's learned from his kids. Especially when the parent is a client. We've all been subject to the deadly, "I showed it to my kids" or "My kids were talking about it and they said..." usually followed by a suggestion to change our strategy or ad or idea. Gee thanks, Dad! I'm sympathetic, and work hard not to use stories about my kids as evidence for anything except their well-recognized brilliance, charm and beauty.

But what's interesting about this whole parenting project from a cultural analysis standpoint is that it forces you to commit. For instance, you can have all kinds of interesting conversations about whether video games are good or bad for you. And there is evidence on both sides of the question. I certainly know ver7 successful people who attribute their skills of one kinds or another to their early mastery of everything from Donkey Kong to Halo. On the other hand, there's a growing body of evidence that a heavy diet of video games can have an impact on cognitive development and noticeably shorten attention spans.

So from a theoretical perspective, you can say, well, who cares? My little darling is undoubtedly training him or herself for a future where high-speed reflexes (and other heretofore unrecognized video-game-honed skills) are more important than long-attention spans. Long attention spans? That's what they needed back in the 20th century! But it's kind of a big bet, and a hard one to make, especially when you are a parent that spent most of their youth reading very long novels.

My solution: moderation in all things is, like all parenting advice, obvious and boring. What's maybe more interesting is the fact that the decisions parents make about their kids tend to reveal the depth of their commitments. And it's not simply because we love our little darlings so much, but because we have to live with the consequences. After all, you can always quit an annoying job.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The mysteriously high cost of speaking

So like everyone else, I was struck alert by the news of the rapid rise of the Clinton’s financial fortunes, but what amazed me most was being reminded of how much money Bill commanded for speaking fees: $250,000 for a talk. Though the news has been out for awhile. Now, I’m basically a fan of Bill C, but I’m not sure I’d pay anything to see him speak for a couple hours on some random subject. No question he’s a brilliant politician but he strikes me as a bit of rambler.

And of course, it isn’t just Bill. When I’ve been involved in planning events, I was amazed by amounts non-celebrities commanded to just show up and talk. I mean, in my experience at these events, half the people don’t pay attention anyway, or don’t even show up; they are too busy flirting out by the coffee machine or open bar, or too hung over from the previous night’s adventures.

It’s weird because people who actually speak to audiences for a living, audiences they strive to instruct and inspire don’t get paid very much at all. Of course, I'm talking about teachers here. I mean, even a very successful professor doesn’t command Bill’s two-hour fee over an entire year of lectures and seminars on Organic Chemistry or Latin American History.

I mean, it’s not like it’s a great performance either, that might be so great or unique that it actually has a historic impact. Like Dylan at Newport. I've met very few people talking about the speeches they saw 5 years ago at some conference or other. Remember Todd Grimm, an expert in rapid prototyping, talking at the CES back in 2002? That rocked!

The whole economic structure seems driven more by the need for events—and content to fill them—than the value, on any standard, of the talk itself. But that still doesn't explain it.

Maybe all of us who sell thinking in one form or another—teachers, consultants, advisors—should position every meeting as a speaking engagement? That would really improve margins.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Innovation in the classroom: an homage

One of the critiques I found most annoying about my past life in grad school from businessvolk was the claim that we, academics, we’re not in the “real world.” I have a bunch of counter arguments to this claim—not least of which that the so-called real world often has lower standards than those maintained in an academic environment--but the occasion for this post was coming across the blog of a former professor who continues to bring such energy, innovation and commitment to the craft of teaching that he frankly makes most of my colleagues in marketing look like, well, absent-minded professors.

He was one of the earliest and most aggressive adopters of message boards and other digital technologies, not for their own sake, but to facilitate student engagement. He taught and taught me that the point of the humanities classroom was not to communicate a particular idea but rather to get students excited to think in a new way. (It's still my goal for early meetings with a new client). What his methods--now widely adopted--created was an ongoing discussion and debate which went on all week. The hour or 90 minutes in the classroom became the climax rather the start of the debate with well-honed arguments that had been advanced and rebuffed and refined online. You can check out his website here.

He recently posted a description of how--long after my departure--he demanded that his students learn HTML so they could develop websites to voice their arguments. This was a literature class, mind you, though always a highly politicized one. The majority didn’t know HTML, but he told them to figure it out. Everyone complained. I'm sure I would have as well. But as the post indicates, it turned at least one into a web consultant. We should all hold our own staffs in the real world to such a high standard of invention under duress.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Work for, well, me

We're looking for a strategist to work in beautiful and historic, Newburyport, MA at MECHANICA. Interested? Or know someone who is: drop me a line at

What is MECHANICA? Funny you should ask. The website is in transition so you won't get much there. Here is a quick take:

MECHANICA is a 4yr old brand strategy co. that structured the place and the approach to address the new challenges posed by the increasingly messy and complicated world of marketing. Central to this new structure were 1) a core team of senior strategists from a diverse array of approaches including consumer insight, user experience and business analytics and 2) a network model which allows us to objectively asses the client’s marketing needs without any predetermined solution, and then deliver best-in-class solutions by tapping into a national network of partners whether that involves art directors, web designers, event planners or search-engine marketers and DM specialists.

There are other important bits, but in general, we lead with some strategic engagement and then figure out what to do next.

Our current needs match the jr-ish mid-level (a few years of experience) person, but people who have worked for me in the past know that I'm less interested in a particular number of years or category experiences than a set of skills and qualities.

In other words, you need to have some experience with the basic planning bag of tricks (research, analysis, working with creative types, convincing clients you're right). But while the traditional planning skill set is important, we might be willing to sacrifice some planning experience if it meant stronger experience in quantitative analysis or work with digital products and brands:

1) Quantitative skills: Deeper experience with quantitative analysis. Interest in and proficiency at running and analyzing robust quant research: concept tests, tracking studies, etc. Proficiency with Excel and SPSS. Basic statistical knowledge would great--in terms of knowing sampling requirements and limitations, hypothesis testing, and classification techniques like cluster analysis.

2) User experience: Experience researching, analyzing and helping shape the development of digital products, brands and user experiences. This might include things like experience with observing or executing usability tests and being able to read an Information Architecture documentation. But could simply be an orientation to the digital landscape and an understanding of the distinct brand experiences in the online environment from the important role of search, widgets and social media.

Other desirable qualities include:

• Someone who can think conceptually, analytically, and creatively; in other words, you can reframe problems with new perspectives, design innovative research, synthesize data and information from a variety of sources all the while remaining sensitive to anything that might provide a source of a great idea for operations, product or creative developlment.

• MECHANICA has some classic start-up dynamics (read: energetic, fast-moving, a bit chaotic) so the person has to be comfortable with and, to some degree, enjoy a less structured environment. This is generally called an “entrepreneurial” spirit: someone who likes variety, filling a bunch of different roles, looking for opportunity and acting on it; someone who wants to have an impact on a growing, innovative company.

• Interest in branding beyond advertising is pretty important. Our work extends beyond impact on traditional or even non-traditional communications to user experience, product development and organizational alignment. You don’t have to know much about all these things but you do have to have an interest in thinking about the strategic impact beyond communications.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Brand characterlessness or another thing I haven't figured out

I was writing and rewriting brand character words for most of yesterday afternoon and it reminded me just how weak the whole concept is. For me, the brand character/tonality/look and feely section has always been the lamest category on the brief. The convention of three perky adjectives--optimistic, confident and contemporary or irreverent, hip and energetic—always seemed like a throwaway gesture, raising as many questions as it answered. Out of context, these three words can suggest a broad array of possibilities. And is there any word more deadly than the dreaded “fun.”

I seem to recall a time when some planners stuck in a celebrity as a representation for the brand personality, but that’s been kind of out of fashion lately. Maybe clients got tired of seeing Hanks name on the bottom of too many briefs.

Some people seem to be fond of the those Jungian Archetypes: Jesters and Heroes and Lovers which are intended to embody and represent cultural identities and aspirations. The problem with all these analogies is that they just create another concept to interpret. You start with Tide or Miller Lite and then you add a Jester or Tom Hanks and suddenly you have multiple concepts that are open to interpretation (Tom Hanks in “Big” or Tom Hanks in “Catch me if you can”?) and we know how useful ill-defined words are on a brief.

I know that planners have tried cultural representations in the spirit of movie pitches: It’s a cross between American Idol, Girls Gone Wild and Animal Planet. Which at least has the advantage of matching two things in the same general category of cultural products and forms of communication.

And then there are those full-blown consumer profiles in the great Bachelor/Bachelorette tradition: Zach, 24, lives in Burlington Vermont. He loves boarding, skating and hanging out with his friends. He works at a hip design firm and plays guitar in an EMO band but his true passions are Orchids, his pet Bichon Frisee and his Master whom he refers to in private as Ralph the Invader.

You get the idea. What I find lame about all these methods is how quickly they submit to convention and cliché, mapping out the details of familiar stereotypes. That’s fine, so far as it goes, but I don’t think it’s going to help inspire interesting work, which is one of the main points of the brief. On the contrary, they tend to drive creatives toward conventional solutions. Being a cranky skeptical sort, I tend to like defining what the brand is not or and who it is not for, which at least maps out some boundaries without having to write a lame-ass consumer portrait as imagined by a Marketing Director living in the suburbs of Detroit.

Of all the conventional tricks, I find the cultural analog one probably the most useful. At the very least, it matches the brand communication to another cultural product that has achieved some relevance and thereby also suggests both the cultural condition that made it relevant and a reason why someone might care.

But I’m open to new suggestions. In the meantime, I’m going to remain frustrated, skeptical and perpetually defeated by my own pointless intellectual exercises, kind of a like a cross between Paul Giamatti in American Splendor and Wittgenstein in his late period.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Sobrietary as performance

No, it's not one of those posts. I don't have a problem. Or at least not that problem.

However, I have had to more or less stop drinking for a couple months because of some medication i'm taking to get rid of something disgusting in my body and it's frankly given me a new perspective on the drinking population.

I'm not much of a heavy drinker--except at company parties and other events where it's necessary for survival. And I'm too lazy and boring and uninterested in watching professional sports to be much of a bar fly. But I do like good wine with a good meal, and it's been over a decade since I willfully gave up drinking a glass or two with dinner for any length of time, and frankly this stretch--now over a month--has led to some observations.

There is a certain pleasure and ego-maniacal sense of power that comes with maintaining clarity and focus as you watch everyone else around you slowly degrade: slurring their speech, mixing up words, losing their train of thought, stumbling around, etc. But far more interesting then these slips of speech or step is the way alcohol reveals people's intentions in a fairly transparent way, so that by the third or fourth drink they are more or less confessing things about who they are and what they want in ways you rarely see when you are both sober or both drunk.

In fact, staying sober in a drinking crowd gives you a pretty clear advantage if an advantage is what you are looking for, particularly with people like clients and bosses and other people you want something from.

I know this is old news when it comes to the art of seduction but I'm not sure i've seen sobriety explored as a performance enhancer. Of course, there is plenty of advice about how it's a bad idea to get drunk at company parties so you don't have sex with the boss's secretary or wife or husband, but I'm not sure I've read anything interesting on how to manipulate drunk people to get what you want. It's surprising considering how much career advice is out there.

But of course, I'm just making a virtue out of a deficiency. It's reasonably interesting to make people say stupid things, and watch your client tell you that they hate their or your boss, but I'd still trade it all for a nice glass of Brunello.