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.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Brand hatred

Here are a few things that I hate, or at least find pretty annoying:

Career advice: top 10 ways to negotiate for a higher salary, top 10 resume mistakes, top 100 things you should never say to your boss, top #1 way to waste time that would be better spent doing your job

Moralizing exercise: not moral exercises which are probably under-utilized, but when people try to claim that their exercise is a moral activity, suggesting they are a better person because they go to the gym. It might be good for you, but it's not good in any axiological sense.

He said, she said or the assumption that men and women miscommunicate on a such a deep level it's a shock that we aren't all gay: sorry honey, I need to get the XX=XY translator before my I can comprehend the sounds coming out of your mouth.

One of the reasons that I have a reaction strong enough to even classify as "hate" is that these things are quite prevalent. You might say they are beloved by the culture as a whole. Otherwise, they'd be simply irrelevant or at least easily avoided, like pretentious music critics. They're annoying too, but I don't run into them very often, at least compared to people who talk about their work-outs.

Back at the last planning conference in San Diego, a planner from kbp and I cooked up a theory of brand hatred. It was one of those darkly ironic planner conference ("Keep hating") kind of conversations, but now--post-Prius purchase--I'm thinking that we were onto something. Any brand or message that inspires hate probably has something going for it.

As a preliminary exploration, I'm going to make sure I get some hating questions into my next consumer research.

In the meantime, no thank you to future offers to join book club conversations about spiritual journeys.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Very slow deaths

I've posted earlier about the non-death of focus groups, but I've recently visited some old industry friends who are scattered along the streets of various cities and it alerted me to the fact that many of us our making a lot of presumptuous claims of early deaths. Most significantly of advertising itself. So many people have been saying that advertising (by which they mean usually TV or mass advertising) is dead in so many different ways (here's a book; here's a blog) that it might come as a shock if you turn up in at a creative boutique in LA or NYC and see a bunch of clever people in cool t-shirts making a living by making television ads.

Now the evidence is pretty strong that more marketers are channeling relatively more money into digital marketing and relatively less into traditional broadcasting mediums, but does that constitute death or merely the winnowing of the crop. Perhaps it will be good news in the sense that it will only leave the shops capable of making really good ads (re: creative and effective) standing.

Nor is it necessarily the case that masters of the old media fade into obsolescence. There are plenty of examples of solid novelists who churned out equally good screenplays (Faulkner, McMurty, Ephron) adapting their craft to the demands of the new media and I suspect there will be an equally strong handful of so-called traditional creatives who will find new playgrounds for their skills on the internet.

Which got me thinking about other premature calls of death: like the customary U.S. system of measurement. It seems that I first learned the metric system in grade school under dire threats that our beloved but inefficient units (those charming inches and feet and gallons) would soon be disappearing. And that was decades ago.

All new media routinely proclaims the death of the previous dominant media (radio, movies, television, cable, Tivo, the internet) while the evidence is pretty strong that we prefer to supplement rather than replace.

The running boom, as well, was proclaimed dead, back in the early 90's as mountain biking, triathlons and other forms of endurance exercise seemed to capture the public imagination, but those applications for the NYC marathon keep increasing.

Cultural prominence fades or priorities shift, but true cultural death? That can take a very long time indeed.

Monday, March 10, 2008

I love placebos and so should you

Most of us have friends who seem to be always finding the latest cure for our common aches and pains: they do it all: zinc, echinacea, wheat grass, airborne. These mysterious usually foul-smelling vials are always emerging from their bags, with their promoter's assurance that they "really work," but only "if you take them right at the start of the cold."

And of course, they do work, much like brands, through the power of suggestion. Last week, the news was filled with stories of a recent study in which a more expensive placebo, $2.50 in this case, provided more relief than one that cost 10 cents. Both pills worked in the sense that everyone who took either pill claimed pain relief. But a greater percentage of those who took the more expensive pill claimed significant pain relief. Now, we really know what the "extra" in extra strength stands for.

I'm not surprised or even disappointed, being an eager participant in the placebo effect. I don't actively purchase echinacea or wheat grass or airborne, but if some is around i'm happy to take it. Why not? There's something about bad-tasting stuff in interesting packages that always makes me feel a little better, in a magical potion sort of way.

I tell most of my doctors that the success of their treatment is highly correlated to their ability to convince me that they know what they are doing. Most delusional of all: I still buy the brand-name Advil pills rather than the much less expensive generic equivalents. Why? I know they are chemically exactly the same, but I just like Advil, or maybe it's that yummy orange sugar-coating. Kind of like adult M&M's.

In any case, this is great news for marketers, and perhaps some of the best recent evidence that brands and other related signifiers like price can have a dramatic impact on consumer satisfaction.

But marketers beware. Just because consumers believe it, doesn't mean you can legally claim it. News last week was also filled with reports of Airborne's loss in a class action false-advertising lawsuit. It now has to pay out over 23 million to settle the claim, buying back ads and refunding customers. My guess is that it won't stop the believers from purchasing the product. That's one of the great things about placebos and brands and other acts of faith. Scientific studies are irrelevant. Believing makes it so.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Failure or Ask throws in the towel

Came across this yesterday...

SAN FRANCISCO, California (AP) -- In a dramatic about-face, is abandoning its effort to outshine Internet search leader Google Inc. and will instead focus on a narrower market consisting of married women looking for help managing their lives.

As part of the new direction outlined Tuesday, Ask will lay off about 40 employees, or 8 percent of its work force.

With the shift, the Oakland-based company will return to its roots by concentrating on finding answers to basic questions about recipes, hobbies, children's homework, entertainment and health.

The decision to cater to married women primarily living in the southern and midwestern United States comes after Ask spent years trying to build a better all-purpose search engine than Google.

And—I might as well admit—that I had one of those always vanity gratifying I-thought-so moments because this was one of those cases when I just didn’t see that Ask had much of a chance.

I had some reason to care because I pitched the business back at a previous job against a bunch of agencies, including CPB which ended up with it. During the pitch process, I cranked out some quick research ( focus groups, an online survey or two, analyzing site analytics) and rarely in my career have I seen such clear evidence for a well-met need among a bunch of consumers. I remember I had included one open-ended question that asked something like: “Can you think of time when you couldn’t find something you were searching for online. And if so, please describe it.” and what I got were the replies of a very long list of very satisfied customers.

Yes, but I can’t remember what it is.
Google can find anything
Well, once I was looking for a copy of the 1928 recording of the complete Bach cantatas performed in Prague...…

You get the idea. I had a bunch of other evidence too, all of which pointed to the same clear conclusion: Google works really well. What a shock?

This is not to suggest that Google is perfect. Or that “Google can do anything” as Sophie, the possibly anorexic gymnast, said on In Treatment last night. Google isn’t very good at searching video or shopping or finding technical info in specific verticals, which is why so many competitors are rushing into those spaces. But as far as general searching goes, most consumers still find it pretty effective and frankly amazing. So when CPB came out with their attempt to call attention to Asks superior algorithm, I had big doubts that anyone would care. The ads did a reasonably good job getting people to recognize there might be an alternative to Google. But why would you want one?

But if you trust the consultant Ann Billock, CPB might be the first to admit they missed the mark and forgot to ask whether consumers need the thing they were selling. As she said in this interview in Adage on the big Microsoft hire, one of the reasons Crispin is so fruitful is that "They are not afraid to fail." And I'm all for that.

Monday, March 3, 2008

More ranting about the artificially rigid boundary between strategy and creative execution

One of the features of the agency/marketing business that has mystified me from the beginning and which has continued to confuse me throughout my career as I slid up and down various corporate and non-corporate play-structures is the enduring barrier between so-called strategic work and so-called creative work. What drives me insane about this distinction is not that it doesn’t exist: I recognize that there are modes of work that our more analytical, or at least, rely on more information to create a product that is more like an argument vs. those that rely on less information to create a product that is more fun to look at and read and listen to (though you can see how quickly this distinction collapses at well). What I find so frustrating about the commitment to this boundary is that it’s chief function seems to be to give everyone a bunch of new excuses as to why they can’t do the job. Either the strategy isn’t focused or it's too limiting or not based on accurate information or comes too late in the process or the work is off-strategy or ignores the strategy or is held back by the strategy.

I know there are planners around the industry that complain when creatives “don’t wait” for the strategy which has always struck me as a particularly counterproductive complaint (not least because I’m all about avoiding work someone else is already doing) but also because I think it should be pretty much COST OF ENTRY for anyone who defines themselves as and makes a fair amount of money by having the world ‘creative’ in their job title to be able to come up with ideas pretty much anytime they are at work, strategically inspired or not. And that planners who need creatives to wait for anyone or anything must either not understand the pressures on the business or are unable to bring the power of their own ideas to bear on the subjects in question.

Equally annoying are creatives who complain that the they did a bunch of work and then the “strategy changed” when in fact, to me, it's seems pretty well established that great creative work often goes through many drafts and rounds and evolutions before it is completed. Doesn't the ENTIRE HISTORY OF ARTISTIC AND CREATIVE PRODUCTION support this claim, thereby excusing my need to put a stupid link here. Which is why I’m less interested in whether a creative idea is on strategy or off strategy so much as it ADVANCES THE THINKING on the brand.

So here goes: My point isn't that we do different work. I know we do, but aren't we both trying to achieve the same goal? Which is getting to a great idea as fast as possible (the fast part being a necessity of business though not a virtue in itself) which means that for me: just as a great strategy should accelerate the development of great creative work so should great creative ideas accelerate the development of great thinking on the brand which should in turn accelerate the development of more and better great creative ideas which in turn.... And isn't that supposed to be kind of fun, too?