Friday, November 30, 2012

9 & 3/4 Thinking: Brain Pickings via Maria Popova

This thing called creativity? It's a beautiful creature, but elusive. I chased it relentlessly for years, caught it occasionally. There's still something creative-ish about what I do, but not in that let-your-hair-down way where the bizarre and beautiful show up in the most unlikely places.

Which leads to the subject of this post. A NY Times article introduced me to Maria Popova and her fabulously creative blog, Brian Pickings. And by creative, I mean unlikely. Yes there's such a thing as run-of-the-mill, what-you'd-expect creativity. Sometimes even really, really excellent run-of-the-mill. I've used it myself to keep food on the table over the past couple decades. And it has its purpose. But it's never the gateway to a fresh way of thinking.

The article touched on the roots of Ms. Popova's ability to think unlikely:

After graduating from an American high school in Bulgaria, she enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, where she quickly grew bored with what she calls the “industrial model” of education, involving large-scale lectures. While still a student, she was working part time at an advertising firm in 2005, when a colleague sent around an e-mail with clippings of rivals’ work to inspire the team.

Ms. Popova thought it was the wrong way to spur imagination, so she told her boss she would begin sending around her own inspirational e-mail regularly. It would contain everything from a new piece of research into biomimicry to a haiku by a Japanese poet. Without much thought, she called it Brain Pickings. “It was the opposite of how school made me feel,” she said. “It was a kind of Rube Goldberg-like machine of curiosity and discovery.”

I've been on the end of the "e-mail with clipplings of rivals' work to inspire the team." I'm sure I've sent them out myself. But I've never been on the end of a biomimicry/haiku e-mail at work--which, to my mind, would be the epitome of 9 3/4 thinking.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Who knows how to wrangle huge web projects?

For the past few months, I've been working on a website overhaul for one of the world's biggest organizations. Our team is going section by section, incising out old stuff and replacing it with shiny new everything, from the overarching strategy to the gritty SEO details. It's like being the surgical team behind the Six Million Dollar Man. Except the end goal isn't to fix him, make him faster, better, whatever. It's to replace him entirely.

And damn, it's hard. Understanding our clients' services and technology is plenty tough, but communicating it simply and powerfully is devilishly difficult. But that's just one element of many, some of which can make content development seem like easy-peasy typing. UX, strategy, programming, creative, project management--we've all shed blood, sweat, and tears trying to wrangle this beast.

I'm not easy-peasy typing to complain. No, I'm looking to improve my web wrangling chops. All I've had to go on is a dated Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites and a few projects under my belt. So I went looking for expert insight on the subject.

But so far, all I've found is either ironclad processes for uninspired sites or bubblegum-and-twine tales full of quibbling and near death experiences before, miraculously, limping to victory. Just this morning, my wife sent me a great example of the latter, an Atlantic article on the tech and digital teams behind Obama's campaign.

Maybe wrangling is hard no matter what, and that's just the way it is. But if you happen to know some shortcuts, please let me know.

Friday, October 26, 2012

9 3/4 thinking: astronaut life insurance.

Occasionally I hear of ideas that are both brilliant and unlikely, manifestations of what could be labeled 9 & 3/4 thinking--if one were trying to co-opt said thinking for a blog entitled 9 & 3/4, that is.

As the Apollo 11 astronauts prepared for their historic moon voyage, they realized odds were pretty good they wouldn't come back. So how to care for families they might leave behind forever? Unfortunately, life insurance for likely-to-die astronauts is astronomical.

But Neil Armstrong and crew were crafty in that 9 & 3/4 way, as explained on NPR:

Neil Armstrong had something going for him. He was famous, as was the whole Apollo 11 crew. People really wanted their autographs

"These astronauts had been signing autographs since the day they were announced as astronauts, and they knew even though eBay didn't exist back then, that there was a market for such things," Pearlman said. "There was demand.

Especially for what were called covers -– envelopes signed by astronauts and postmarked on important dates.

About a month before Apollo 11 was set to launch, the three astronauts entered quarantine. And, during free moments in the following weeks, each of the astronauts signed hundreds of covers.

They gave them to a friend. And on important days — the day of the launch, the day the astronauts landed on the moon — their friend got them to the post office and got them postmarked, and then distributed them to the astronauts' families.

It was life insurance in the form of autographs.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Digital content: It's all useless unless you need it.

Grossly oversimplified visualization of www.

It's a mess out there on the internet.
Corporate websites can have hundreds of thousands of pages--and once you get below the pretty top-tier pages, you'll usually discover a tangled-up mess of minutiae, page proliferation based on tiny product variations, dated remnants of deserted projects, microsites stood up for long-dead campaigns, and who knows what else. And digging through corporate website backwaters feels like wading through a marsh. It's far too fecund, and you can't stand the thought of diving in.

Welcome to a large part of my daily life right now. My team is like the ultimate yard crew, trying to turn a massive swamp of murky content into a well-manicured, easy-to-stroll, yet meaningful collection.

The temptation is to bag all the useless stuff. Only thing is, useless is in the eye of the beholder. I might think that a network-based firewall secure gateway overlay is just techno-blather about nothing. But if I'm the person who's been burned by an intrusion, network-based firewall secure gateway overlay might be the most important thing in the world to me.

So what is a corporate website to do?

Intel's search bar's solution, a prominent search bar on the home page and everywhere else, is an ingenious solve--but one that Wikipedia has relied on for years. Chances are I'm not going to surf to, say, ethernet gigabit server adapters, any more than I'd menu my way to the wiki for Os Mutantes. So why feature surf-oriented navigation prominently? Instead, give the user intelligent search that leads right to a series of pages about his beloved ethernet adapters.

GE's organizational mastery
I'm not up on GE business practices. But if their website reflects how they conduct their company, they must be one incredibly organized enterprise. Despite having more business units than some companies have products, their site reminds me of a rich obsessive-compulsive's closet: perfectly tidy, all clothes folded neatly and put in their place. There's not a t-shirt out of place, and certainly no lame tie-dyes laying in the corner to mess up the neat freak vibe.

Oracle's embrace of chaos
Oracle, a company of acquisitions, has a site that seems unapologetically dense and deep. It throws up links by the dozens on almost every page, has tabs inside of tabs inside of tabs, and is seemingly bottomless in layers. But it in a way, it works. In addition to inviting exploration, it plays into the Oracle heavy-duty tech brand.



Early in my career, in the mid-nineties, I worked with a couple technical writers who were pushing "information architecture" services.  It felt so high falutin' back then, but now I can't imagine how a site of any magnitude could be built without it. David Payne, if you're out there, I congratulate you for being decades ahead of the curve.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The strategic business value of boring.

Mike Lynch cartoon, November 2010 Harvard Business Review

Is business today akin to a Grateful Dead concert? It often feels like it to me. It's a loose affair, full of unbound improvisation and lots of hoping for the best. Sometimes you get something inspiring, often you get aimless noodling. I'm not the first to make the Dead/business comparison. There are at least two books dedicated to it, Marketing Lessons I Learned from the Grateful Dead and Everything I Know About Business I Learned from the Grateful Dead. And in some ways, right on man. Jam on.

But I've never been a hippie. At heart I'm a suit guy. Maybe my shirt's got a lavender hue, but I'm still buttoned-down, at least for an advertising guy. And I see value in that. I've started reading Peter Drucker's Management: Tasks, Responsibilities  Practices. Despite living up to the title's dryness sometimes, it's absolutely relevant and innovative--just in a reserved, controlled, non-Deadhead kind of way.

So when can boring provide strategic business value?

When it ensures that ADHD isn't confused with agility.
Creative folks are bored with advertising campaigns before they even hit the streets. An ADHD bunch to begin with, they've heard all about the campaign a million times, thought about it a billion more. One more time and they'll vomit. So right around the time they call mom to tell her to watch the first TV spot, they're dying for fresh turf.

My strategy life has shown that this isn't merely a creative thing. Right now, one of our clients is rolling out a strategy in a unified, strong way--just in time for it to face the chopping block. It's just not getting the results the company's leadership wants. From their perspective, the core strategic idea has been around for a year or more, so totally old hat. But in reality, it has reached few of its customers, or even its internal audience.

Yet the leadership is clamoring for a shiny new strategy, and very well may get one in the name of agility. But almost always, an executed strategy has more value than a PowerPoint strategy. Even poor results can mean valuable information for course correction. Refining may seem boring compared to reinventing, but is often a better place to start.

When it makes you think inside a box.
Creatives say they want freedom to do whatever, to head whichever damn direction the muses are singing today. The truth is more complicated. The best work is often done within limits. The Mastercard "Priceless" campaign--which, I'm proud to say, is from the agency I work for--is a fantastic example. No matter the ad, the rhetorical framework is always the same. In reality, it's just very creative fill-in-the-blanks.

Strategy is all about creating boxes--hopefully fairly roomy, interesting, built-to-last boxes that provide both form and inspiration to campaigns, websites, products, programs, and organizations. It might be boring to live inside a box for years, but also potentially very lucrative.

When it can keep an organization on course during stormy times.
We're batted about by waves these days, from massive breakers changing the landscape to choppy surf disrupting daily work. And with all the shifts, alterations, and randomness in my digital work for oft-fickle technology clients, I sometimes find myself dazed and confused. I don't think I'm alone.

A firm bearing enables one to stay on course despite the stormy times. It might seem better, easier, more fun to go with the flow and run with the wind. Yes, sometimes this is a wise choice, but steady as we go is often the more profitable choice long-term. Steady might not be a Deadhead-friendly word, but it's a yawner that certainly should remain in our business vocabulary.


Per usual, I'm merely another drone in the hive following the latest buzz. There's an NBER study extolling middle managers, Susan Cain's oft-watched TED talk on the power of introversion, even Boringness: The Secret to Great Leadership, an HBR blog post by Joel Stein. But hey, being on the cutting edge is for exciting people.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Are strategists supposed to have crystal balls?

If so, I'm in trouble. Understanding even a fraction of the world right now is nearly impossible, so I give myself zero chance of predicting accurately what it'll be like tomorrow. At my wife's family reunion this past weekend, my father-in-law argued that Obamacare makes future business costs unpredictable, and businesses are paralyzed by unpredictability. If that's the case, it's a wonder any business ever gets done at all.

Random events and complexity play panchinko with the world, and where things end up in the future is everybody's wild guess. Doubt me? Then peruse your local library's stash of dated "what the world will look like a few years from now" books published a few years back. Technology predictions, market predictions, economic predictions, global socio-political predictions--in hindsight they all come up short, and many now seem downright silly.

Still think I'm wrong? Well, I couldn't be any more wrong than the "experts" psychologist Philip Tetlock studied in his book "Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?" Here's an excerpt from a New Yorker article covering Tetlock's work:

[Tetlock] picked two hundred and eighty-four people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends,” and he started asking them to assess the probability that various things would or would not come to pass, both in the areas of the world in which they specialized and in areas about which they were not expert. Would there be a nonviolent end to apartheid in South Africa? Would Gorbachev be ousted in a coup? Would the United States go to war in the Persian Gulf? Would Canada disintegrate?And so on. By the end of the study, in 2003, the experts had made 82,361 forecasts . . .

The results were unimpressive. On the first scale, the experts performed worse than they would have if they had simply assigned an equal probability to all three outcomes—if they had given each possible future a thirty-three-per-cent chance of occurring. Human beings who spend their lives studying the state of the world, in other words, are poorer forecasters than dart-throwing monkeys . . ."

But for some reason, those of us in technology seem desperate to figure out where the future is headed, so that we can meet her at a crossroads in time for our big money payout. And from my experience, strategists are often given the leading role in this fool's guessing game.

So what does a strategist do then? In this case, I totally trust Wikipedia's definition of strategy:

A strategy is a plan of action designed to achieve a specific goal. Strategy is all about gaining (or being prepared to gain) a position of advantage over adversaries or best exploiting emerging possibilities. As there is always an element of uncertainty about future, strategy is more about a set of options ("strategic choices") than a fixed plan. It derives from the Greek "στρατηγία" (strategia), "office of general, command, generalship".
In other words, we're the coaches finding ways, big and small, for our teams on the field to achieve victory--not the SI columnists and bookies predicting next season's Super Bowl champ. In other words, at its best, we strategists shouldn't be attempting to predict the future. We should be trying to mold our small piece of it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cinematic pitches: selling certain death at Mordor and King Buddy.

The Confidence Man I am not. I don't ooze cockiness, self-assuredness, nor unfailing optimism in my ability to overcome anything thrown my way. So in a supreme example of confirmation bias, I search out examples of doubt turned into victory.

This past weekend, I found it in a ranger who would be king, while watching Lord of the Rings with the family for the upteenth time. Who wouldn't harbor the same fear Aragorn's troops do at the evil black gates of Mordor? Even Aragorn looks worried.

Which he turns to his advantage in this terrific speech.

Aragorn starts off with a confession: "Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers, I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me." That doesn't rouse the troops; it brings them down. However, the empathy it generates is key to his ability to shift their emotional outlook on a grand scale--from an obsession with the miserable, black deaths awaiting them to a group thrilled by the unified honor they'll achieve, dead or alive.

Compare that to a scene from American Beauty, one of my favorite movies of all time. Carolyn, Annette Benning's character, is obsessed with being a supremely confident, successful Realtor. And as her hero/lover "King" Buddy Kane says: "In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times."

Here's a classic scene of her working to build her image of success:

And here's her "image of success" put into play, along with its tragic impact it has on Carolyn when success isn't achieved:

Of course, with the right audience and the right "image of success," this approach could've worked for her. But Carolyn being her true fallible self, admitting to the failures of the properties and of the situation, could've succeeded too. In fact, I think she would've come out better.

An alt approach:

"Yes, this home isn't ideal. Because you can't afford ideal. But imagine what it could become with your hard work. And the equity you gain when you untap that potential? Incredible. Your soon-to-be neighbor's home just sold for double its original purchase price, and all they did was some good landscaping and a quickie kitchen update.Oh, this house still doesn't work for you? I can see why. It might be more house than you want to take on right now. So let's look at some other places."

But then again, my Realtor pointed out that I'm no Donald Trump. He, on the other hand, is as close as Utah gets to The Donald.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

There's a reason why the only prerecorded sales conversations are at the drive-thru.

As a potential customer, there are those moments when you realize that you're no longer having a conversation with a salesperson, but merely a bit part player in an over-rehearsed play. You can hear the script kick in, the rote blurb that's carefully built to capture The Message, The Benefit, The Understanding, The Demonstration of Expertise, The Up-Sell, The Close. 

It's a disheartening moment. And it comes in a wide variety of bad and ugly. There are the minor annoyances, like when realize you're talking to a recording because McD's didn't trust the guy working the drive-thru to do the McRib pitch. And then there are the major manipulations, the "yeah, we can solve your business challenges with our superior technology solutions no prob" responses that lead to the prospect calling bullshit--or, even worse, to projects going millions over budget and other big probs for both the seller and the oversold. 

Full disclosure: I've written those scripts. Lots of them. And to a certain degree, they're unavoidable and sometimes essential. But when they overtake real conversation--whether that's because they're delivered with amateur theater aplomb or don't fit the moment--they're counterproductive.

Is it possible for sales to stay on message and, at the same time, engage in real conversation with customers? I believe so. Here are a couple of thoughts.

Be honest, even when it's not pretty.
I love McCann Erickson's old-school "Truth Well Told" tagline, and not just because I work for them. Trickery will only get you so far, and rarely anywhere with a sophisticated client. And why cover up at all when the naked truth is often the best way to establish client trust and begin true dialog.

This interview with John Burke, an Oracle group vice president for global sales, illustrates the advantages of honesty in sales. Here's a prime snippet:
Nobody is perfect and no company is perfect. It alienates customers when executives and salespeople try to pretend that they're like Superman and will fix all their problems. Now that I've taken a more humble approach that admits our limitation, customers are drawn in, and believe what I tell them, because they know I'm not posing as something or someone that knows it all.
Burke admits that this honesty takes lots of nerve, but that the raw vulnerability it generates can foster close ties to customers--an essential element for meaningful conversations.

Improvise, but stay on theme.
Being freed from a script doesn't mean random, however. In almost any selling situation, there are core elements that need to be there for the sale to succeed. But how you express those elements can vary. It's like jazz musicians playing standards: they solo differently every night, but the underlying melody and chord structure is always there to provide the base.

And where you go with the improvisation depends largely on the person you're selling to. The author of the fantastic book The Art of the Sale highlights a Moroccan, Abdelmajid Rais El Fenni. Majid, as he's called, has risen above dog-eat-dog world of rug and trinket salesmen. How? Here's how the author, Philip Delves Broughton, explained it in a recent article entitled, appropriately enough, Portrait of a Perfect Salesman:
Majid is a master at categorising sales leads (the people who walk through his door) and tailoring his approach. Sometimes you need to be patient. At other times, you must treat the customer as a king, to make them feel powerful and inclined to exercise that power by buying. Sometimes you need to teach, to establish your authority with customers who take you for a mere peddler. He compares the different modes of selling to gears in a car. “You change because the gear needs changing,” he says.
Tailor, tailor, tailor.
This is where the conversation part really kicks in. If you're constantly pitching, you're not listening. You're not learning. You're not understanding. You're not learning what's important to a person and what's drivel.

Social media is not a window into customer perspectives. It's a glass house. And as the HBR article Tweet Me, Friend Me, Make Me Buy states:
Developing in-depth knowledge of the client is the fastest way to position for a long-term collaboration. Sales remains a relationship-driven activity, but “who you know” is now trumped by “what you know about who you know.”
It's not just the niceties you can learn about from surfing someone's Facebook page, the birthdays and anniversaries that you know about and can use an excuse to send a fine box of chocolates. It's the moment a frustration is implied in a twitter post, which you can jujitsu into a conversation. It's the blog post that expresses an executive's strategic mindset that you can leverage in your meeting with his team. In fact, it's surely so much more than any of these trivial on-the-fly examples.

A blatant request for dialog.
Once again, sales folk, please let me know where I'm going wrong or right. I'd learn lots from a dialog with you, not to mention a teaching moment or two.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Sales for smarties: goodbye solution selling, hello insight selling.

Preamble: birth of a salesman?
I'm not skeptical of sales pitches. I'm paranoid of them. The words "can I help you?" typically evoke anger and avoidance in me, even when I need help. When I walk onto a show floor, I avert eye contact with anyone eager to put the spin on me. I haven't been much better with sales in my day job, either, despite the fact that I've done a fair amount sales enablement over the years. And the fact that marketers tend to dismiss sales hasn't helped my attitude any.

But I'm changing. Partly it's that digital has put me in the driver's seat. These days, it's unlikely that I can be 100% hoodwinked, and salespeople seem to know that. And partly it's that I've now worked with salespeople who are not only incredibly smart, but who are authentic, sophisticated, and, yes, helpful. Very, very helpful.

Now I sometimes not only embrace the enemy, I want to join him or her. Sometimes. More to the point, I want to understand what makes sales tick. So hence why July is officially "sales for smarties" month here at 9 3/4. If any of you have the scoop on state-of-the-art sales, please jump in.

Sales Topic 01: selling not just an answer, but also the question.
The new issue of Harvard Business Review is chock-full of smart sales thinking, plus one personal transformation. The article The End of Solution Sales has flipped my professional perspective upside down. And not just my perspective on sales, either. I now think about marketing, and even business as a whole, differently.

Everyone involved with B2B has asked the question, "What keeps our potential customer up at night?" And after we think we've decoded that, we've all tried our damnedest to spin the best-sounding solution to that insomnia invoker. We desperately want to be the Ambien in their lives.

But they know what's keeping them up. As the article points out, these customers are armed to the teeth with information about that--just like I am now when I shop. So instead, effective sales people now crack what should be keeping those customers up--or even better, thrilling them--but isn't because they don't know about it yet. In other words, you're not merely answering their questions. You're coming up with new questions, ones that your organization can answer.

The authors call this transformation away from solution sales "insight selling." I'm tempted to rename it Donald Rumsfeld selling, since it reflects his brilliant "there are things we don't know, we don't know" statement. (And no, I'm not being sarcastic.) But whatever it's called, it's mighty smart strategy, for sales or otherwise.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

If insight is the answer, be sure of the question.

I'm a bit under the weather today, dizziness and lightheadedness my primary symptoms. So I've spent much of the day curled up on the bed with Freakonomics. I read most of it when it first came out, which was likely the first time I experienced novel looks at data. But even though I enjoyed it as a fun, interesting non-fiction read, it had no impact on my view of the world. Only poets and Toni Morrison could do that back then.

But now it's a different story.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

How Brad Pitt has helped me on the path to statistical enlightenment.

Actually it's that Brad Pitt led me to the film Moneyball, which led me to the book Moneyball, which led me to the uncanny wisdom of Bill James and his sabermetrics. I'm not really a baseball fan, let alone one who tracks stats. But I'm a huge fan of breaking free of seemingly unquestionable ways of looking at numbers to find new, more insightful and effective ones. And Michael Lewis's exploration of the A's approach to baseball is all about innovative statistical perspectives, especially those originating with Bill James.

Here's a quick synopsis of the book from Wikipedia:
The central premise of Moneyball is that the collected wisdom of baseball insiders (including players, managers, coaches, scouts, and the front office) over the past century is subjective and often flawed. Statistics such as stolen bases, runs batted in, and batting average, typically used to gauge players, are relics of a 19th century view of the game and the statistics that were available at the time. The book argues that the Oakland A's' front office took advantage of more analytical gauges of player performance to field a team that could compete successfully against richer competitors in Major League Baseball (MLB). 
Rigorous statistical analysis had demonstrated that on-base percentage and slugging percentage are better indicators of offensive success.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Data analytics: hard numbers don't equal hard facts.

The zeitgeist in my world right now is that if it's measured, it exists. I'm not down with this zeitgeist, especially not in my fuzzy digital B2B marketing universe. Not because of a standard-issue "it's a feeling, man" liberal arts stance. At least not entirely. It's more because I worry that we digitally-oriented marketers often look at the data we collect through the wrong lens, leading us to believe we have answers when we don't even have the right questions.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Where does Facebook go from here? Part II

A few months ago, I rambled on about whether Facebook had a bright future ahead of it. I thought it did back then, but going public in such a ramshackle, overly optimistic way killed my cheery perspective. In fact, I can't imagine anything more damaging to FB than this IPO fiasco.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The twisted wisdom of football.

Not a good time to say you're an American football fan, is it? I understand the beefs against the sport, and I'm far from rabid about it. But it still speaks to me.

Maybe that's the result of pre-teen years filled with Fighting Irish, Monday Night Football, and Mean Joe Greene. Or perhaps it's because the game is driven by strategy, but really defined by interconnected and tangled complexity. An interview with Texas  Longhorn's defensive coordinator Manny Diaz (HT: gives a glimpse into exactly how tangled and complex:
"Last year, everybody was wondering six games into the season why our defensive ends couldn't get sacks, and then the next couple games they started getting sacks," Diaz said. "But we were also covering better those games. Quarterbacks maybe held onto the ball a half-second longer. All of a sudden the defensive ends get the plaudits, but a lot of it was maybe because of the coverage. 
"Nothing happens to a defensive player in a bubble," Diaz said. "That's what makes college football the opposite of baseball. Because in baseball, everything happens in a bubble: this guy pitches, this guy hits and the ball is hit to that guy." 
Because of that, Diaz said it would be difficult to come up with accurate statistical measurements for individual defenders. But he said the fact that people are finding different ways to look at the game was a great thing. 
"The way an iceberg looks from a ship going by is very different from what's happening beneath the surface," Diaz said. "That's what's so fun about this game. There's so much going on beneath the surface, and I think that's the point."

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Corporations, also known as people [working together].

Even the simplest items in our modern-day, first-world lives come to us via complex paths. When Michael Pollan tracked the origins of a store-bought steak, he discovered an extended assembly line that depended far more on the economics of oil and biological manipulation than the simple act of eating a sirloin would imply. It's not the pleasant picture we'd like to have for our food, and it certainly has many drawbacks, but it's how our food supply has evolved to meet the demand for cheap beef.

This may seem wrong somehow, and in many ways it probably is, but it meets a very basic human need, food, at scale. And I don't see how we can meet the caloric requirements of a world population of seven billion without involved, "unnatural" processes. In fact, the only way I see overcoming the evils of food production isn't by dumbing down to some fictional old-school utopia. It's by pushing forward with technology and finding inventive ways to make the production of food more humane, biological even, and sustainable.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

How an economist looks at good eats.

Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University and avowed foodie, has a great article in this month's Atlantic: "Six Rules for Dining Out." Although his rules might be helpful for finding good eats for cheap, his perspective is what I found most fascinating. Cowen employs economic drivers to decode what's likely to be best or bust. And no surprise that a supply and demand perspective applied to dining leads to some surprising conclusions.
Low-rent restaurants can experiment at relatively low risk. If a food idea does not work out, the proprietor is not left with an expensive lease. As a result, a strip-mall restaurant is more likely to try daring ideas than is a restaurant in, say, a large shopping mall. The people with the best, most creative, most innovative cooking ideas are not always the people with the most money. Many of them end up in dumpier locales, where they gradually improve real-estate values.
It's like psychologist Daniel Kahneman breaking ground--and winning a Nobel Prize--in economics. Outsider thinking often shakes things up. And it often wins.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Variation on theme.

It's a given that a company can't sit still. It must constantly evolve its brand, products, and overarching strategies. It needs to keep a firm finger on the pulse of now, catching even the most subtle shifts in the competitive landscape and customer desires. RIM comes to mind as someone who's fallen flat on all those fronts, but they're far from alone.

Even old-school consumer brand Pepto-Bismol had to change in order to stanch dropping sales. But the question for them was, as for every business and brand, how to change? Unsurprisingly, the fine marketing folks at P&G tapped into social media to find an answer, which I also found unsurprising: Pepto-Bismol and weekend partying go together. From a recent Businessweek article:
So P&G decided to try to lure potential customers before their eating and drinking binges by touting the product on Facebook with the upbeat slogan “Celebrate Life.” The result was an 11 percent market-share gain in the 12 months through fall 2011.
But for big corporations, wholesale positioning changes aren't quite so easy, especially for those with complex and diverse offerings. So what's a behemoth brand to do? Change its entire brand positioning on the whim of the marketplace? That's like an oil tanker being asked to swerve around like a speed boat. Most likely it just can't do it. But even if it managed to pull it off somehow, it'd likely capsize on its first zigzag.

Even though they're competitors to my primary client, I have to give a hat tip to AT&T in this regard. They're currently respinning "rethink possible," their brand positioning line--not with a new line, but with new twists to the idea behind the line. It's a brilliant way to evolve a big, complex brand to fit right now, again and again, without throwing away hard-earned equity or appearing trendy and fickle.

One way they altered the campaign was with a bolt-on line: “It’s what you do with what we do.” It steers the campaign away from idealistic and forward-looking and toward personal and life-enhancing. This is what über-famous and -fantastic creative David Lubars from BBDO, the agency responsible for the campaign, had to say about it:
By augmenting the theme with the new phrase, Mr. Lubars said, “we put a new suit on” the campaign and emphasized “how people’s lives are entwined with technology” and the benefits of “life on the network” (the AT&T network, natch).
"Rethink possible," like other lasting positioning lines, has yoga-like flexibility."Priceless," "Smarter Planet," "You're in good hands," "Just do it," whatever--they all can be, and have been, spun in a myriad of ways. Now, just to pick a random example from a magazine, let's consider Trend Micro's "Securing your journey to the cloud." It's certainly focused and relevant right now, which could be a good differentiator in the short run. But what do you do in a year or so, after everyone's already made the journey? It's back to the drawing board.

For awhile, positioning lines were becoming very passé in the agency world. Although there's clearly value in the best of them, a line like Trend Micro's can be highly constricting. It's comparable to strict brand guidelines that kill execution latitude. They're great for brand consistency, terrible for consistently surprising and relevant brand expression. With ongoing change as our era's theme, how can a company leave surprising and relevant expression off the table?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Smarter planet, mainframe profit.

For years, IBM was the one technology brand that regularly captured my attention. And then the Smarter Planet campaign took my soul. I'm hooked by the campaign's vision of a world that works like a Swiss watch thanks to IBMer intelligence and über-computing. If I had a CIO title and a few million bucks extra, I'd totally hire them to turn my data into business smarts and planet salvation.

However, IBM isn't all about fisherman-saving cloud solutions, analytics for perfectly synchronized supply chains, or even beating Ken Jennings to a Jeopardy! pulp. In a recent BusinessWeek article, Toni Sacconaghi, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, estimated that 40 percent of IBM's profits are related to mainframes. Mainframes are visionary only if you live in a cabin without indoor plumbing.

I'm not knocking that IBM's messaging doesn't include its moneymaking legacy stuff. It's okay to focus on the part of the business that's leading the way, that has the potential for broad positive impact, that's less meat-and-potatoes profit makers and more gee-whiz innovative. In fact, it's more than okay. It's the only way to stay relevant in technology.

It's all about framing. Not just because it's marketing's job, although it is, but because it's the only way to create story and meaning from the massive, disparate, complex thing that is a technology enterprise like IBM. Or like my primary client, for that matter.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Savvy strategy @twitter tempo.

Part 01: A whole new dance at twitter tempo
Once a person or organization has a strong vision for the future and a solid strategy for achieving it, making it a reality is solely a matter of proper execution. At least that's the traditional wisdom. It's empowering in an Ayn Rand-ish way, but as realistic nowadays as Atlas Shrugged. Here are a couple of this maxim's more blatant flaws:

Monday, February 27, 2012

Do the twist.

Think of something you recently found interesting. Now dare to tell me that it didn't have a surprise element to it. No matter if you're talking movies or marketing, facebook likes or youtube views, predictability leads to anonymity.

My apologies for dipping into outdated business-speak yet again, but surprise is a primary way of creating stickiness. But outdated is relative. It was probably old hat when Homer threw a one-eyed giant sheepherder into his tale to mix things up.

Here are a few twisty starting points:

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

PowerPoint? Yay!

My creative friends just might disown me after this admission: I like PowerPoint. And not just a little. To illustrate just how low I've sunk, I admit I sometimes surf, the ultimate .pptx porn site.

But up here in the strategy department, it's the kind of thing you feel okay getting caught looking at.Which I just did, oogling a great deck (yet another cringe from creatives) from JWT on 100 things to watch in 2012. Sure JWT is a competitor, but that didn't stop me from looking at their pretty hot slides.

I don't feel dirty, either. I feel informed.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Marketing strategy at the Super Bowl.

I no longer watch the Super Bowl for the ads. Of course I watched the spots religiously when I was a young creative. If you didn't, you'd be thrown out of the club quick-like. But I'm neither young or creative anymore.

I haven't watched football for football's sake since I was a lad, back when I lived for the brute strength of Steelers' "Steel Curtain" defense and Lynn Swann's ballet-like catches. But I have to admit to still having a soft spot for it, so I watched the first half of last night's game. Oddly, I thought quite a bit about work during that time--and it had nothing to do with the GM apocalypse spot with a direct swipe at Ford (although the shriveling creative in me liked its audacity).

It had to do with chaos theory.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Build like LEGOs.

Everywhere I look right now, there's our future. Nascent innovators who'll someday alter what's possible. Already formidable intellects who'll uncover the unknown and take part in the invention of our tomorrow. Highly skilled technologists whose genius will only grow through puberty. Maybe even the next Tim Berners-Lee is here, playing with LEGOs.

Actually, not playing. Competing with them. Thinking about how to address real-life issues with them. Out-thinking unexpected hurdles in real-time. Programming them to perform autonomously and intelligently.

I'm at the state LEGO Robotics championship. With its history of innovation, the University of Utah is an apropos location to hold this crazy-energy, celebrate-the-geek event. It was an original ARPANET node, after all, not to mention ground zero for modern computer graphics.  Right now, my son's team is in seventh place in the head-to-head competition. Not the best showing, considering how talented they are. I heard that they had to replace a motor last night, which resulted in some off-timing.

But what certainly isn't off, I just realized, is LEGO.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Hai, Judo.

Great blog post on HBR today: Business Needs More Judo, Less Karate

It contends that, long-term, the loud hardcore pitch comes up short compared to authentic companies, products, and services speaking for themselves, often in a whisper. The author analogizes it to karate vs. judo, striking blows and kicks versus the "gentle way."

But I'm biased. While all the rest of the neighborhood kids were on the baseball diamond or football field, I was in a judo dojo.

Monday, January 23, 2012

My win is not necessarily your loss.

Okay, that last post sounds like pure business pop pap--maybe somewhere between Stephen Covey and Ramit Sethi, only minus any motivator skills.

So I have to say that, unlike boxing, business competition isn't necessarily a zero-sum or sub-zero game. In fact, Harvard B School prof Michael Porter argues in this podcast that, for a business to succeed long-term, it should have a positive-sum competitive strategy. Otherwise it'll end up in nothing more than a price war. And yeah, I agree with what he said. Besides, I'll take any non-pap cred I can leech from him.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Are you ready to rumble? Why, yes I am.

Capitalism is often not nice. Talk about the obvious. But also talk about the nearly impossible for me to embrace. I've long considered playing business to win as unsightly verging on unethical. Now, except when it is unethical, I think of it as an unlikely but fascinating benefit of being alive in the 21st century.

Capitalism is often pugilism. At its best, it's like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, grace and strength going after each other with scary ferocity. It's hitting as hard as you can, as fast as you can. It's dodging as many blows as possible, and recovering quickly from the ones that get through. It's having a fight strategy, but changing it the moment it stops working. It's both smart and rough as hell.

But capitalism isn't thuggery, or least shouldn't be. That's like Ali knocking out the kid asking for an autograph. Then it becomes crime, not business.

Capitalism isn't cruelty, either. Competitors can be fast friends and crucial allies outside the ring. And a side benefit of the brawling can be life-enhancing innovation and meaningful, well-paying work. Think Apple vs.Microsoft, Google vs.Facebook, Verizon vs. AT&T, Toyota vs.GM.

And for me personally, being up for a head-to-head challenge in my daily work duties is a necessity. So is the need to go in with some fierceness and fire in my heart and battle strategies in my head. So is the ability to accept getting knocked down, knowing that I can't stay down. So is the realization that when you step in the ring, it's a fight.

Happy Birthday, Ali. And RIP, Smokin' Joe.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The poetry of good strategy. Or is it vice versa?

I'm a failed poet. Fortunately, that's enough of a poet to understand how freakishly insightful poetry can be. Of course it's sometimes flowery or obscure. But the poesy I fall hardest for is the stuff that flips perspective and snaps the brain out of rutted thinking. The closing lines from Sandra Beasley's Vocation  illustrate this:
Once I asked a broker what he loved
about his job, and he said Making a killing.
Once I asked a serial killer what made him
get up in the morning, and he said The people.
This flip happens all the time in skillfully written poetry. For example, right at this moment I'm looking at a Kay Ryan poem tacked to my cork board that compares silence to shark's teeth. Much to my delight, this flip happens in good strategy too. One of the best ads last year was Chrysler's Imported from Detroit spot. To embrace Detroit, the city of jokes and nightmares, as the source of Chrysler's newfound strength is strategic brilliance personified.

There are many examples of perspective-altering strategy across business, politics, even sports--from NetFlix's revolutionary business model to Billy Beane's respin of baseball. But sadly, I see far more examples of shooting for expected and hitting mediocrity.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Where does Facebook go from here?

A conversation with McCann SLC digital strategist Chris Mismash is probably similar to a chat with Chris Anderson, editor-and-chief of Wired. Both kinds of Chris are just so damn brainy. Both have tech chops galore, industry and business knowledge aplenty, keen foresight, and crazy insight into the ways people interact with technology. And on that last point, my opinion is that our Chris, with his undergrad in cognitive psychology, has a leg up on the [currently] more famous Chris.

So when Chris expresses pessimism about Facebook's future, I listen. And when he says that Google and Apple, with their ability for "hard integration" of social interaction into devices, have a huge advantage over Facebook, I quickly defer to his superior knowledge--especially when I have no answer to his question of "Where does Facebook go from here?"

So where do they go? More specifically, what keeps them relevant when one's identity is easily moved from Facebook to wherever fits best at the moment? Perhaps more importantly, what significant income streams can Facebook snag beyond advertising? Seems like a good puzzle for a strategist to noodle on.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Daily money quote

Our own myopia is the obstacle common to all strategic situations. Being strategic is being less myopic--less shortsighted--than others. You must perceive and take into account what others do not, be they colleagues or rivals. Being less myopic is not the same as pretending you can see the future. You must work with the facts on the ground, not the vague outlines of the distant future.
 -Richard Rumelt
Good Strategy/Bad Strategy

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Game theory: schooled by my sixth grader.

Back in 2011, I attempted to learn the basics of game theory. I had a great book to help me along the way, The Art of Strategy, but I still found myself admiring the skills more than learning them. Early on in the book, the authors use a Survivor episode as a great example of winning strategies. In short, this particular Survivor challenge, two teams pitted against each other could take one, two, or three flags from a collection of 21 flags. The team that collected the very last flag would win. For the most part, both of these Survivor teams guessed their way forward. But it turns out that if you know the right strategy, whoever starts first can win this game.*

How? By making your opponent face four flags. That way, no matter if they choose one, two, or three, you win. Which begs the question: How do you get them to four? By forcing them to eight. Which you do by forcing them to twelve. And so on.

I understood the idea, but you still wouldn't want me on your Survivor team. I'd point out that there's a surefire way to win, but then wouldn't remember exactly how to do it.

So meet Wallace, my 11-year-old son. Around the dinner table the other day, he was trying to cajole Simon, my nine-year-old, into playing a number game. Simon likes games, so he was game. I'm trying to finish up my out-of-the-can-and-bag pasta, so I'm not really paying attention. But then I realize that he's playing a variation on the Survivor flag game.

And he's totally playing Simon. Wallace knows he'll be victorious, no matter what. He not only understands this game theory strategy, but is completely at home with it. It's deliriously cool to have a sixth-grader son who's smarter than you, but disorienting. No matter. It's good to have a strategy mentor in the house.

*Wallace pointed out that if the starting number in this game is a multiple of four, the team that goes second is the one positioned to win.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Nightstand books, vol. 01

I have two fantastic books on the nightstand right now. Actually one fantastic, another monumental.

First the fantastic. I'm nearly done with Good Strategy, Bad Strategy. This book, written by a UCLA business professor and well-known strategist, has plenty on creating good strategy, from initial understanding to ways of stepping beyond the expected. But I like his take on bad side even more. He serves up some hardcore slap-downs on the budgetary goals, high-flying visions, and motivational slogans that far too frequently masquerade as strategies.

After reading the first couple chapters of Thinking, Fast and Slow, my (stage 1, for those who've read it) guess is that this is because real strategy--the kind that distills insight into a unique, succinct, meaningful, and actionable direction--is too hard. According to this mind-altering book, our brains prefer to go with the gut--or rather, the kind of subconscious thinking responsible for fast decisions--because it's easier. It literally takes less energy.

But this energy conservation, although invaluable for everyday life tasks and blink decisions, leads to "strategies" such as "we're committed to being a leader our industry!" and "our objective is to improve the world AND increase returns!" Real strategy requires both creative leaps and rigorous logic (stage 2, for those who've read it). And that's hard, conscious brain-work.

Few people can work their brains as hard the book's author Daniel Kahneman. From what I've gathered from this book already, the fruits of his labor are incredible. And I still have around 400 pages left to go!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Psychoanalysis for sales' sake.

Talking about getting the inside scoop, I ran across this wonderful article in the Economist on Ernest Dichter, a Freudian analyst who introduced subconscious customer motivations to marketing. Yes, that led to awful ads like this one:
Never thought I'd get penis envy from lipstick. But Dichter had some serious brilliance, too. For me, this is the killer quote from the article:

But the innovation that put Dichter on the marketing map involved a problem Chrysler was having with its relatively new line of Plymouth cars—which consumers were shunning. Dichter headed out to Detroit, conducted extensive interviews with a couple of hundred people, and deduced that the company’s first problem was its existing advertising, which boasted that its cars were “different from any other one you have ever tried”. This evidently triggered an unconscious fear of the unknown among buyers, for whom familiarity in a car meant safety. 
He also learned from interviews that whereas convertibles made up only 2% of sales in 1939, most men, particularly middle-aged ones, dreamed of owning one. When convertibles were placed in the windows of dealerships as “bait”, more men came in. But when they returned actually to make a purchase, they typically came with their wives and chose a sensible sedan (the Plymouth line offered both). 
Dichter gathered that the convertible symbolised youth, freedom and the secret wish for a mistress: an idle bit of temptation. He suggested that Chrysler beef up its convertible advertising—and, in recognition of spouses’ role in the final decisions, begin marketing cars in women’s magazines. Meanwhile, a new and more reassuring campaign emphasised that it would take “only a few minutes” to feel at home with the new Plymouth.
Sure enough, all of the dealerships I've driven by since have convertibles front-and-center in their showrooms.

Cultural anthropologists rock.

Life is a chaotic disarray. It's a million colliding elements in every moment, a melange of emotion, fate, and relationships. It's the impact of the past with the present, of future desires and present conditions, and of so much more. To make sense of it all, we humans weave singular stories together from a myriad of threads and motivations. And in our eyes, everything that doesn't make the story no longer exists.

But that just means we're blind to a vast majority of existence--not to mention the powerful driving forces in our subconscious. But the fact that we're blind to them doesn't make them meaningless. In fact, they're often primary to the way events unfold, the choices we make, the lives we lead. It's like dark energy in physics. We can't see it, but it makes up most of our universe. And better yet, it keeps the university from collapsing in upon itself.

Which leads to the title of this post. A few years back I read an article about how some cultural anthropologists, in their attempt to help a large hotel's advertising efforts, used direct observation to deduce who in a family decided what hotel to stay in. If I remember correctly, interviews with these families had indicated that it was the adult male who made the decision. But the cultural anthropologists observed that the adult male merely signed off on a decision that the adult female had already made in conjunction with the children. So advertising was adjusted appropriately, with men appropriately sidelined.

In other words, we often say one thing, do another. No surprise there. Our complex, ever-changing world and flickering, multi-layered minds can't fit into our simple personal narratives. But they can direct our actions in surprising ways. So here's a toast to you, the cultural anthropologists who've joined us on the advertising pitch.