Friday, June 26, 2009

Lay off fiction (Black Box 1a, vers 2)

My second-to-last job for Spartan involved a start-up which had made its final stand on the cheap real-estate fringes of the Chicago. It been launched with great fanfare a few years back, but I didn’t remember the name until I got the call from our CFO. It was one of those made up words created by a computer or someone trying to sound like one. Even when I was staring at the name, it was hard to remember. The syllables kept sliding around in my head. From a business perspective these invented words made sense (no history/no ownership) but I couldn’t escape a pang of sadness over the fact that we’d so exhausted our language that we had to make up words to name our ventures. We’ll call it Company X which at least has advantage of describing its fate.

At its launch, X was heralded as a next-generation real-estate portal, a paradigm-shift in how we buy and sell. It was originally developed as a content play, providing access to information previously restricted to professionals. Disintermediation. Consumer empowerment. Transparency. There were the words of the day. But when their content failed to draw a crowd X tried to evolve into a data aggregator, drawing multiple listings into a single place. But they never got rights to use all the listings. After another round of funding, it tried a b2b model, selling what they described as a superior version of the standard competitive evaluation. The comp may well have been better but there’s no point in using a comparison unless other people do too, which they didn’t. It had been easy to disguise the gaps in logic a couple years ago, when anything seemed possible. But no one was confused any longer, especially Spartan, who had poured over 20 million into it. They were ready to cut bait.

There was no HR department to speak of so I was sent out to manage the exit interviews with the founder. We met first in a coffee shop around the corner to avoid too much of a stir. We had crossed paths before but I doubt he’d remember me, and he didn’t.

“This just sucks,” he said, as we sat down the counter.
“Never shut down a shop?”
“Yes, no, yes. You know. Not personally. But I feel,” he paused, “like I need to be here.”

He pursed his lips together in a boyish pucker of regret. It was the expression of a man who knew he should care, and did, up to a point, but had also put the whole thing in perspective. His stare settled onto the middle distance somewhere beyond the diner window out in the soybean fields that still carpeted the land around the office parks.

This loaded silence went on for a good twenty seconds and I let him have his moment. These lapses into sentimentality were more common than you might think. It’s hard to know what do with failure in America. It always seems to call out for some ceremony or ritual that acknowledged that a dream had come to an end. But there was no ceremony. Plus no one wanted to get bogged down in nostalgia.

The waitress brought our coffee and broke the spell. Then, to help move the conversation along, I asked him about his plans.

He turned away from the window, his eyes brightening and began drawing on the paper napkin as he spoke, a rapid sketch of vectors shooting out from a central circle. He described a platform for sharing energy resources. It was completely on trend with the new global They could do for X what Y had done for Z. It was a potential game-changer. Companies were clamoring for new options. He was having trouble keeping up with the calls.

As he described the potential, I felt my heart racing despite myself. Bruce was a great salesman, a born entrepreneur. By the end, I think he forgot why we were there. I had to interrupt him, glancing at the clock.

“Any advice?” he said, looking a little sheepish.
“Don’t take offense. It’s not about you.”
Isn’t it?
“Not anymore,” I said, adding “No offense” with a gentle pat on his shoulder.
“I suppose that’s right. That’s fair.”

When it comes to lay-offs, people like to imagine that these things can end “well” or ‘badly.” If you’ve been part of one (and if you haven’t you will) you will hear a lot of talk about the style of the event. Someone will undoubtedly say, “I just wish they would have handled it better.” But the grim facts being what they are, this is a fantasy. When you’re getting dump by a boss or lover or anyone else, you're never going to feel particularly well-handled. In my experience , the range extends more from “badly” to “very badly” to “actionable.” My job was to keep it on the bad end of the spectrum

We walked into the office in mid-morning. I am used to being met with stares of fear, anger, contempt. Sometimes worse. So I was surprised to find the room so animated. Despite the doom hanging over the place, there was a giddy energy in the air. The faces were wide-eyed, eager, expectant, maybe a little confused. The small staff clearly sensed that not all was not right with the world, but they moved through tasks with a jittery alertness as if they could all make it right again with a little gumption and positive attitude.

I soon realized that I was dealing with a gathering of innocents. Many had come in the company’s first incarnation, recruited from other careers: journalism, publishing and other institutions known for intellectual capital. These were talented people with high ideals and expensive educations. They had worked for institutions with long histories and iconic names: Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Ford Foundation. Companies that had been around for decades. They probably didn’t imagine that something could disappear so fast. The majority reacted to the news with stunned perplexity.

“Like for good?” said a young woman named Linda, eyes welling up in astonishment. She turned to Bruce, face slowly settling into a grimmer mask. “I thought you said ....”

I gave Bruce a moment, but when he began with “I want you to know that your special contribution…” I had to cut him off.

The package was generous. Entrepreneurial ventures were risky. This experience would undoubtedly be perceived as valuable by future employees. We wished everyone well.

Expeditiousness was crucial. When it came to avoiding trouble, time was not on our side....

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ten reasons teaching is great training for business in general and marketing in particular

While just about everyone agrees that education is really important for just about everything, teachers don't get much respect in our culture ("if you can't do, etc."), especially our business culture. So as my small public service to the profession I thought I'd list some of the ways that teaching at a bunch of different levels helped train me for a career in marketing.

1) Good teachers know how to break through the clutter: Remember how distracted you were in class? How easily it was to think about something else, like going home and getting high and watching Spongebob? Good teachers knew it too. But it was their job to get your attention anyway. They always knew they had to give you a better reason to be there than because your parents made you go or because someone was paying a lot of money for tuition.

2) Good teachers know that it’s all about engagement: While some old-fashioned teachers still hide behind their lecture notes (just like boring presenters who rely on their power point slides) most good teachers learned long ago that most people learn best by doing: whether that means trying it themselves or merely engaging actively in a debate. One of my former professors (@afilreis) was a pioneer in both creating productive and often heated debates in his classrooms and as well as utilizing new technology to facilitate discussion.

3) Good teachers are good at explaining complex stuff in simple, accessible ways: Unlike the sad (and often unfairly maligned) “expert” who is so wrapped up in his knowledge that he doesn’t know how to relate to people who don’t share his background, good teachers have to find a way to reach the class, whatever level they are at. Then they develop ways—through illuminating examples, frameworks and exercises—to explain a new idea in a way that is relevant and exciting. This is in fact "the work" of teaching, often lacking in seminars--and the dreaded webinar--held in business environments.

4) Good teachers like helping people learn new things: Duh? right. It’s their job after all. Even though businesses know that the most common complaint from dissatisfied employees (usually when they are walking out the door) is that they lack opportunities to grow and develop and learn new skills, most companies have a hard time making ongoing training a priority. Good teachers are naturally attuned to the hunger of young people or any non-lazy people to continually challenge themselves and learn. (Unfortunately, this means more than a few lunch-and-learns!)

5) Good teachers are inspiring: Like most teachers, I had some pretty bad classes when I was first starting out, and later as well. At first I tried way too hard to get the students to like me which obviously didn’t work. And then I tried too hard trying to get them to agree with me. Or understand me. It took a year or two but I finally realized that one of the objectives of teaching, at least in the early classes, is inspiration: getting students excited about thinking in a new way. I'm not claiming I was good at it, but I've found that this aspiration also works pretty well in new business meetings. In their hearts, most potential clients don't want to be told what to do, or even what you know. They want the same things we do. They want someone to help them get excited about their own jobs again, usually by looking at their work in a new way.

6) Good teachers are born facilitators: A great classroom isn’t a “team” in the sports or business sense for the simple reason that not everyone there is trying to accomplish the same thing. Students come in at different levels of ability, background and commitment with different things they want to get out of the class. Which makes it even harder to cultivate an exciting, productive atmosphere. A good teacher knows how to use the different personalities and styles of thinking to create a stimulating atmosphere while still respecting every student’s individual perspective.

7) Good to have an educator on staff: Everyone agrees ongoing education is an essential part of the new economy. The stats are pretty clear: everyone is going to be changing jobs many times in their career. Even when you stay in the same job, rapidly changing technology is constantly making us all learn new things every week if not every day. Everyone also knows how hard it is to find the time to learn new stuff or set up productive, useful programs to educate people in the company. This is what teachers do. It's useful to have someone around who actually knows how to design a class.

8) Good teachers believe in the ability of people to change: Anyone who has experienced, witnessed or helped a student overcome a challenge knows that it is a profound event. That whole “light going on” thing is real, though it often takes a long time and lots of hard work to get to that “moment” of inspiration. People who know me know I’m an incurable skeptic, but as a skeptic, I’m convinced by strong evidence and I have seen students of all levels transformed by the work of great teachers. Teachers know that almost everyone has the capacity to be better at their work than they were before. Isn't that good source of productivity to have around?

9) They are used to being underpaid: Seriously. This is was a bigger advantage a year or so ago, before talent got cheap again. But as a manager, it’s good for everyone when you can double someone’s salary and still get them under market value. You're happy. They’re happy. The CFO is happy.

10) Good teachers often have a sense of perspective--what we once called humility: While business in general and marketing in particular is full of self-proclaimed experts and hyperbolic and unsupported claims, most good teachers have spent a fair amount of time studying a difficult subject, often with really big thinkers. In other words, they've spent time around their betters, and so tend to be a little more sparing with the terms “brilliant” and “genius.” It’s just nice for balance.

I'm sure there are more. There is a site here which claims seven different roles for teachers (actor, writer, manager, salesperson, professional, developer, subject specialist). I invite people to add others below.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Performance anxiety: dirty workers on cable TV

As I'm pretty sure I've said before, I watch just about all the major dramatic efforts on cable. I like some (6 feet under, Sopranos, Mad Men, Californication) more than others (Entourage, True Blood, The United States of Tara) but even when they have basic flaws in logic or structure, they tend to be pretty well written and really well acted. And I love TV in general, so why not?

And like everyone else who has the full monte of cable channels, I've been watching Nurse Jackie and the new seasons of Weeds and True Blood. In addition, I've noticed the preview for a new show--subtlety titled HUNG--about a down-on-his-luck guy who also happens to be swinging some serious pipe and so decides to become a prostitute. . On the most basic level, this obviously follows the basic situation/structure of Weeds. Put a basically decent person in some difficult situation so we grant them the moral license to do something that would otherwise be considered ethically or at least socially marginal and we watch the comic misadventures follow.

(Digression: Frankly, I'm not sure how well that structure is holding up on Weeds, at least for the lovely SJP, whose character seems to change with each episode. But who cares with such fantastic secondary characters)

But that's a digression, because what I'm really interested in here is an apparent pattern in all these shows: That is: the main character's career is a source of moral conflict. Among the artists on cable TV (Entourage, Californication), the moral dilemma is usually one of artistic integrity. Among our petty criminals (Weeds, and I'm guessing HUNG) it is around the definition of crime itself, as the characters try to negotiate the boundaries of social convention ("victimless crimes") and balance their personal necessity up against real social harm. Nurse Jackie, while the most recent, is actually up a against a more familiar conflict. The passionate renegade bucking the system to do what's right, even if she has to break the rules.

But even here, the show's writers felt the need to burden or enrich her character with several other ethical flaws (drug addiction, adultery). Perhaps they thought this made her more gritty or realistic. But this pattern of morally flawed heroes suggests that the writers are responding to something bigger than the requirements of character development.

The high-flying cultural theorist might claim this is a response to our lack of confidence in traditional institutions of cultural authority: Doctors, Lawyers, those darn greedy bankers, etc. But all these shows are dramas of personal conflict, not social commentary. They aren't about the culture at large, or the roles of institutions in our lives, but rather how an individual attempts to define their identity in the midst of ethical compromises required by work.

I'd say this trend is more about the fact that many of us (or maybe just hollywood writers) feel ethically ambivalent about our careers, or the notion of a career in the first place. Most of us think we are basically doing good work, or least doing it well, but unlike previous generations, we aren't as confident that making a decent living is itself an ethical act, worthy of respect.

We wonder about the social impact of our careers and so try too mix progressive causes with our capitalist labor. We worry we have given too much of our life to our work and so try to redefine work/life boundaries creating new aestheticized definitions of what the "good life" looks like.

And of course we are drawn to shows and heroes that embody this same conflict but in more dramatic and funny contexts. The heroes of Weeds, Hung, Nurse Jackie, and the Soprano's, all need to make a living too, just like us. And in virtually every show, they dramatize this conflict between what they think they need to do to survive and what they fear it is doing to them.

It seems NO ACCIDENT as they say in the trade that the previews for HUNG show our hero at a career counseling session being asked about his special talent. His answer "a really big dick" is both a shallow and a deep (pardon the pun) joke. The deep joke is about all our professional anxieties to "perform" in the newly competitive workplace. If only all our special skills were so tangible.

Friday, June 12, 2009

How intersting is he? Dos Equis' ironized appeciation of TMIMITW suggests a new way to communicate relevance

The new Dos Equis ads starring a faux celebrity spokesperson "The Most Interesting Man in the World" (herafter: TMIMITW) are getting a fair amount of attention and deservedly so. There is a smart non-industry review here on Slate which is worth checking out, suggesting the influence of Wes Anderson. (The review also points out inclusion of the surprisingly daring line "I don't always drink beer, but when I do I prefer Dos Equis" which is worth additional discussion that won't happen below)

Like a lot of ads marketing mainly to young man, Dos Equis is trying to figure out to represent the new (or at least shifting) ideal of masculinity to the next generation of young men. It's not as easy as it looks. On the one hand you have to avoid the embarrassing macho conventions of the past but you can't go all wimpy and metrosexual on your audience either. There is already a lot of strong work in the space: Axe and Old Spice or earlier, Budweiser's Real Man of Genius campaign or Erroll Morris' High Life commercials.

In various ways, all these ads try and pretty much succeed at having their cake and eating it too, by bringing some ironic perspective on a bad male behavior (usually messiness, laziness or horniness or all three) But the ironic framework in the Dos Equis ad is a little more complicated and interesting than most. By using a fictional spokesperson, they've created the opportunity to make the ad less about the character than our relationship to the character.

Most brands use 'real' spokespeople because they want to associate their brand with the spokesperson's famous skill or behavior or attitude. The MIMITW, however, isn't real. He's a fantastically perfect model of traditional masculine virtues: power, charm, sex appeal, strength, proficiency. Of course all kinds of highly stylized executional cues (the Will Lyman voiceover --you've maybe heard it on Frontline--to the Wes Anderson-styling noticed in the Slate interview) and some pretty funny writing make it clear that we aren't supposed to actually take this guy seriously. We like him, but we like him as a character, not as an actual role model. (Though if some see him unironically as a role model--as I'm sure many do--that's fine too).

But I'd argue that the actual persuasive force of the ad isn't about the character at all but rather our shared relation to the character. Dos Equis is trying to create a bond with their male audience by sharing our recognition--in a funny way of course--about the contradictions inherent in modern masculine identity. We can't be macho and can't quite not be either.

I know that's a pretty indirect and academic description of a funny ad so let me try it this way. For most of us I'd argue that Dos Equis isn't saying: Drink this and you'll be like TMIMITW. Rather, what it's saying is: At Dos Equis: we get it. And if you drink Dos Equis, you'll show the world that you are a guy that gets it too. Dos Equis is for guys who get it. Guys know that being a a cool guy, an interesting guy, isn't that simple anymore. And it's by showing the world that you get it, that you get to be interesting.

Whatever the simple comic charms of the ad, it suggests a potentially new path to building a bond with an elusive audience. Not by communicating some ideal or desired behavior (buy this/get laid) but by communicating a particular relationship to some loaded cultural content that the brand and the consumer can share.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

What Madison Avenue agencies?

Just read a smart and well-intentioned blog post on what GM should do to truly reinvent its marketing. Here. Lots of good points, but it began by telling GM to fire their Madison Avenue agencies: "From a marketing perspective, you've become addicted to the crack cocaine of big budget advertising. " I find this a tiresome, inaccurate, distracting straw man that turns up in every post and article from every marketing strategist who wants to position themselves as a new innovative thinker. But what agencies are you talking about? Anyway here is my response (slightly cleaned up):

Lots of solid points, but isn't it about time we put the whole out-of-date Madison Avenue cliche to rest? I'm not sure there are any more agencies on Madison Avenue, but even if you mean it as a metaphor for big NYC agencies, it's still wrong.

There are no big agencies in NYC or anywhere else who aren't doing some good work in new media/non-traditional spaces. I don't work for one, but I know plenty of people at big agencies who are doing great, effective work across all media platforms. I'm pretty sure that DDB and BBDO (2 very big nyc agencies) won the most Effies this year (based on advertising effectiveness not creative coolness). Check it out. This whole trashing of the big NYC agency is a tiresome red herring. And a distracting one at that

Anyone who has ever presented to GM management knows that the problem isn't some old-fashioned obsession with TV, but GM itself. GM has been too lazy, self-involved and risk-averse to make the hard marketing decisions that any number of big or small agencies have recommended for years.

It's just as easy--and probably easier--to make expensive, unstrategic, pointless digital marketing as it is to make expensive pointless TV. Viral marketing in particular generally demands making the kind of provocative work which GM has never had the courage to make.