November 13, 2012
"Did I really like this particular beer I was seen drinking on the show? Or had I simply been paid to say so?"

In Fighting Mad, chef Anthony Bourdain describes the commercial pressures of making his cooking/travel program, No Reservations, his quest not to create something he didn’t truly believe in, and his rage at executives at the Travel Channel undermining his work and his brand. It’s well worth a read.

This is, of course, not an isolated incident, and I love the fact that Bourdain describes simply but evocatively the world in which he works. He’s not naive, but he’s also not standing for weasely cheap shots of cobbled-together “bonus content” or faked endorsements created to garner additional advertising dollars. Good for him. Given the “brave new world” he describes, television executives are going to have to be more creative, more thoughtful, more innovative, and come up with new solutions that don’t simply ignore the viewing shift that’s taken place over the past twenty or so years, but actually create a brave new future in which they can reach their targets, talent can realize their potential, and the audience (remember them?) isn’t taken for a collective fool.

[Story via Cameron Tonkinwise]

May 24, 2012

My colleague Jeff Wordham gave this presentation at the recent Brandworks conference. It’s a smart take on how to think about — and organize for — launch, and includes principles for those thinking about the launch process (and those looking for ways to improve it.) The presentation includes persuasive examples from companies including Procter & Gamble, Hyundai and, yes, Apple and is well worth taking a spin through. Kudos also goes to Doblin’s Angelo Frigo, who was instrumental in putting it all together.

March 29, 2012

Help Remedies has made a name for creating eye-catching products that delightedly deviate from the norm of pharma packaging. Now the folks there have teamed up with the bone marrow donor center, DKMS, to provide donor registry kits inside of packs of band aids. Says the company, “Every year 10,000 people in the U.S. need a marrow transplant to live. Fewer than half receive one… Maybe if we reach out to people who are already bleeding, it won’t be such a stretch to get them to spare a drop of blood and possibly save someone’s life.” Watch the remarkably strange video above to get a sense of this super-interesting cross promotion.

[Story via Jaclynn Pearse]

January 26, 2012

Apparently, there’s some “football” “game” happening in the U.S. on February 5th. (Also apparently, I should pay attention, because my “team,” the New York Giants, is “playing.”) That’s all as maybe, but the annual marketing hoopla is already well underway. Teressa Iezzi over at Co.Create writes a smart analysis of the thinking behind Audi’s take on vampire mania.

November 14, 2011
"Need further proof of just how far colleges have distorted our perceptions? Google “the best college in America.” You get thousands of hits by schools identifying themselves as the best. Google “the worst schools in America,” and you find few lists or reporting. Clearly marketers have swamped objective reporting and commenting when it comes to reviewing colleges and universities. In their world, they are all the best."

— In We Are. State Penn, Greg Matusky looks at the state of higher education through the lens of the Penn State scandal and calls for the bubble to burst. Also, for me, a pretty powerful argument for why journalism matters.

October 27, 2011
GE’s Beth Comstock on What Design Can Do For Your Company

Beth Comstock also co-chaired the Design at Scale event, and she gave a 15 minute snapshot presentation on the importance of design to her in her role as CMO of General Electric. Talk about an eloquent advocate for design. Beth is someone who understands the power of design at a fundamental level, while remaining un-starry-eyed about the challenges of implementing it effectively. That involves deep collaboration from all parties within an organization. Or, as she put it, “what business needs now is design. What design needs now is to be more about business.” 

Here are seven ways she argued that design can make a difference. (I have a nasty feeling there might have been eight but I missed the last one.)

1. Design Simplifies
The last decade alone has seen an explosion in the amount of data we’re forced to try and parse on a daily basis. And, of course, things are only getting more complex. A jet engine, for instance (GE’s core business) gives off a terabyte of data. Why not harness that information to provide useful insights and do something constructive for the engine or the aviation business at large? Data visualization may be the latest, hottest thing, but when done right, by designers who really understand the meaning and implications of the data they’re visualizing, it can be incredibly powerful. “The IT dept can’t do that,” said Comstock. “That’s where you need great design.”

2. Design Solves and Surprises
Then she told a story of the design team going into a hospital operating theater to study the anesthesiologist at work, the theory being that you could hardly stop them in the course of their work and ask them to explain why they do what they do. After all, “they’re busy saving lives.” Fair point. However, the design team decided to bring in perspective from another group of people accustomed to life/death situations and being surrounded by a ton of bleeping technology: airplane pilots. Then they were able to apply the gems of insights afforded by a clear-eyed perspective to redesign the OR experience.

3. Design Creates Experiences That Matter
"It’s not enough to have the best technology," said Comstock. "It’s how you deliver it." She referenced the fairly well-known story of GE’s redesign of an MRI machine for children (see a video, Fun Hospital and MRI Scans for Kids.) As Bob Schwartz of GE Healthcare detailed at the recent Mayo Clinic Transform clinic, this machine didn’t just ensure a less scary experience for the children undergoing treatment, it also reduced the amount of anesthesia that had to be administered, which is a net win all round.

4. Design Integrates
At an engineering-focused company like GE, the tech teams and engineers rule. “They push the limits of science every day,” she said. What they need, however, is the ability to pull all the various pieces and insights together and this, she averred, is a role for design.

5. Design Fails
Quoting the importance of learning from failure, Comstock referenced GE’s “Hardiman,” a human exoskeleton intended to help man lift 1500 pounds. The only problem? The thing itself weighed 1500 pounds. Nonetheless, she talked of the importance of prototyping concepts and allowing ideas to sprout from unexpected places. And she quoted Steelcase’s design chief, James Ludwig: “design’s role is to create space for naivete.” 

6. Design Has to be Both Local and Global
GE gets a lot of credit for the concept of “reverse innovation,” where products are developed in an emerging market and then taken back to the developed world. As it turns out, Comstock “hates the phrase. It’s innovation as it should be” even as she acknowledges that this is an important new frontier in innovation, and an area where design can make a singular impact.

7. Design Creates a Vision for the Future
"If you can’t tell a story, you can’t sell a story," she said, talking up the ability for design to map out a vision of what’s possible. She referenced an idea someone at GE had had for an air taxi which resulted in a joint venture with Honda to create a Very Light Jet. Turns out, someone at Honda had been thinking about trying to make cars fly, and together the design teams are working on both developing a new reality and dreaming up a potential future.

[Image c/o DMI.]

October 20, 2011
Everyone likes to eat soup when they’re sick, right? This smart British Facebook campaign from Heinz takes advantage of this to promote its chicken and tomato soups. For GBP 1.99 (about $3.15) you can send a sick friend a can of soup complete with customized label wishing them well. It’s a pretty smart piece of marketing capitalizing on both current personalization/social media trends and Heinz nostalgia. And given that the usual price of a can is about 85p ($1.35), they’ve added a pretty sweet price premium, too.
[Story via Tim Malbon.]

Everyone likes to eat soup when they’re sick, right? This smart British Facebook campaign from Heinz takes advantage of this to promote its chicken and tomato soups. For GBP 1.99 (about $3.15) you can send a sick friend a can of soup complete with customized label wishing them well. It’s a pretty smart piece of marketing capitalizing on both current personalization/social media trends and Heinz nostalgia. And given that the usual price of a can is about 85p ($1.35), they’ve added a pretty sweet price premium, too.

[Story via Tim Malbon.]

September 19, 2011
The Art of (Not) Saying You’re Sorry

This morning, Netflix subscribers woke up to an email from the company’s co-founder and CEO, Reed Hastings. “I messed up,” he wrote. “I owe you an explanation.” But those hoping for an explanation for the terrible mess Netflix has made recently of its subscription policies were destined to be first disappointed, then mystified. For not only did Hastings make the case that his decision to split the subscriptions between DVDs and streaming was exactly the right thing to do, he then compounded the matter by announcing that the DVD service will be spun out as an entirely different business, Qwikster.


As a business decision, the split probably makes sense. We know from disruptive innovation theory that core businesses can become a liability if you’re not prepared to make bold decisions to keep evolving. As Hastings pointed out in his note, 

Most companies that are great at something – like AOL dialup or Borders bookstores – do not become great at new things people want.

Absolutely right. But, man oh man, does Hastings need some lessons in how to manage relations with his customers, who have been treated horribly in recent months. This is the apology of someone who’s actually apologizing for his customers’ stupidity. As I tweeted a quick translation of the note on first reading the letter,

I messed up. You didn’t understand the wisdom of my decision, which was absolutely correct. Love, Reid

I dubbed this a “humble nonapology.” On further reflection, it’s even worse than that. Seems to me, he’s really saying:

I messed up. I’m sorry you are slow in grasping all of this, but the great thing is that I was right all along. So stick with me while I make things even more confusing by announcing an entirely new brand that’s unrelated to Netflix without really telling you how this will affect you or your service. You won’t have to pay any more (silly old us for mucking that up, eh?!) but there will be a new website that won’t be integrated with the one you use now. Oh, and there’s a video games component now too, because for some reason I have decided that’s important to discuss right here and now.

Thing is, this isn’t merely a question of playing nicely with customers for the sake of appearances. Paying customers should always be treated with a great deal of respect and deference—but that’s doubly true when unsubscribing is a matter of clicks away. Of course, consumers can’t be allowed to paralyze a business, and change is necessary. There are doubtless a whole host of negotiations going on in the background that have led to this decision. But this arrogant tone does Hastings no favors at all. Netflix is a great service. Surely the clever people there can come up with better, more coherent, more convincing ways of communicating their decisions to their equally clever and (up to now) supportive audience?

[Images of now-retro Netflix DVD service, which will now be rebranded as Qwikster, c/o Netflix.]

[For another amazing nonapology, see journalist Johann Hari’s piece repenting for plagiarism. Then see The Economist’s beautiful evisceration of the same.]

September 8, 2011

Great, great video of Steve Jobs in 1997, talking about the paramount importance of customer experience to building a business like Apple. Jobs poses the question of how to build a cohesive vision that will scale to allow sales of “$8 billion, $10 billion” of product a year. And he answers:

One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and figure out where you’re going to sell it… As we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, it started with what incredible benefits can we give to the customer, where can we take the customer. Not starting with sitting down with the engineers to figure out what awesome technology we have and then how will we market that. And I think that’s the right path to take.

Venture capitalist Brad Feld makes some nice observations on the basis of the video, while Jobs’ soundbite on making mistakes is also worth bearing in mind:

Some mistakes will be made along the way. That’s good, because at least some decisions are being made along the way.

(Video via Erik Kiaer.)

August 31, 2011
"The biggest enemy of manufacturing in the U.S. is the pseudo-knowledge that America is a bad place for manufacturing. This perception will keep manufacturing from happening and thereby ensure that the reality will fulfill the prophecy."

— Former Intel chief, Andy Grove has some terse words to say about the state of American manufacturing in this MIT Technology Review interview. As he puts it, where’s the evidence that manufacturing in Asia really is so much cheaper? Instead, shouldn’t the American government embark on a vigorous marketing campaign to rebrand its own capabilities instead of simply accepting that manufacturing in the U.S. is dead, and thus accelerate the industry’s death spiral race to oblivion?

August 23, 2011

Good, short video interview with Goodby Silverstein’s Gareth Kay, discussing how important it is to get clients to engage on both a functional and emotional level. Yes, he’s coming from an advertising background, but the idea is applicable in many other contexts too. 

June 13, 2011

Great, impromptu presentation from Kevin Slavin at the recent Mobile Monday conference held in Amsterdam. Slavin, who co-founded the New York digital/game agency, Area/Code (recently sold to Zynga), is always a voice of sardonic reason amid the giddy excitement sparked by new technologies that look like they might just be the Next Big Thing. Not that he’s a naysayer… after all, he has himself been immersed in this world for decades… but he has a thoughtful point of view that looks beyond superficial promise.

Here, Slavin looks at the field of augmented reality, the new darling of so many in the marketing and design world, who see this technology as a way to sell a host of new products to clients (for millions of dollars). It’s just that without thinking through the what or the why of a project, their only likely result will be yet more noise and confusion.

Slavin makes the case that much of the current work in AR is wandering down the wrong street (albeit one with a thin veneer of apparently useful information laid over its surface.) The talk is a sweeping history lesson that takes in the industrial military complex, gaming and blockbuster films to back up his assertion that “the fallacy of augmented reality… asserts that the eye instead of the brain is the unified center of perception and thought and reality.” He concludes with the sacrilegious idea that AR “might not be best expressed by anything you look at,” and pushes us all to reconsider what is possible or desirable in this realm. 

June 9, 2011
"The founders have already shown their brilliance by extracting half a billion dollars from an unprofitable start-up with an unproven business model. That’s not funny."

Lots of comment on Groupon and its ebullient young founder, Andrew Mason, as the company gears up for its IPO. Groupon is at a Loss to Justify Itself, by the FT’s John Gapper, takes a sober look at the firm, and his conclusion isn’t particularly heartwarming. “Something smells bad,” he writes. No accusations of outright fraud, but some thoughtful concern at the 2.5 year old company, whose filing

 is filled with unsettling details about its business model, how much money it is spending to sustain its explosive growth and its accounting methods. Its early investors are seeking another infusion of cash, having allocated most of an earlier $1.1bn in fundraising to themselves.

Then Gapper points out the real problem with Groupon. Its marketing innovations, its commitment to the power of copywriting, even its smart extension of its own service are somewhat beside the point. As he writes, the company’s real Achilles heel is rather more fundamental:

it lacks unique technology and its sales force of 3,500 could be matched by others such as LivingSocial or FourSquare.

It’s a timely and useful reminder that true innovation and lasting value and growth involves tedious matters of figuring out a sustainable business model as well as whipping up a frenzy of attention.

June 3, 2011

What in tarnation? Here’s some gorgeous stop animation word nerdery. Or, as creator Stephen Doyle, founder of New York-based design agency, Doyle Partners puts it: “How should we promote the US Green Building Council’s upcoming conference, Greenbuild Next? How about with an abridged history of civilization on one 8 1/2 x11 piece of paper with a series of 2,933 still photos?” How else, indeed?

May 25, 2011

Steve Goldbach is a partner at Monitor*, and in Think Hockey Not Football, filmed in the style of the amazing RSA Animate series, he describes why he believes that marketing teams should be less football, more hockey. Turns out, it’s an analogy that makes sense even if you’re not particularly sporty. It’s all about the composition of your team, and building in flexibility and adaptability from the get-go. There are also some smart insights about the reality of marketing these days. I particularly loved the confession: “Our calendars were filled with meetings with each other rather than spending our time learning about our consumers,” which sounds terribly familiar. Marketers need to do a better job of rolling with the punchy, uncertain reality of our inestimably complex world.

* See above for potential bias alert. I work for Doblin, a part of the Monitor Group.