Weblog Entries for February 2004
February 28, 2004
Cheap and simple research
I used to do a lot more market research for people. These days, I'm doing it less often. I think it's because I've become disillusioned about its value. Things like focus groups are actually quite lucrative but I find it harder and harder to convince myself that they offer value to the client. I often experience a big gap between the idealised recommendations of research on the one hand, and actual execution by the client on the other.
Somehow, the process of research gets in the way of forming effective customer relationships. Instead of hearing from customers direct, clients get them mediated by a researcher. Then they talk to customers via another mediator (ad agency, pr firm etc).
These mediators naturally want to supersize their role. So the researchers offer (they claim) ever deeper and more profound consumer insights, nowadays including mindprobing gizmos; and the communicators provide ever more elaborate and clever communications models. The researchers are often called on to measure the communicators' models, but they may not be very objective. Because the researchers and the admen have a shared financial interest in presenting communication as complicated - and therefore deserving of their expensive expertise.
And here I am probably cutting my own financial throat by saying, hey, is this such a good idea?
What do I propose?
I have no universal solution. But for many part of the answer is to go for much simpler but more active research. I haven't tried but I am intrigued by the offering of yourfocusgroup.com (found on a tip from Jennifer Rice.) This appears to be a dead cheap ($500 a year) way of getting quick consumer feedback. It may not be perfect, but for 500 bucks it may be less of risk than that $50,000 in-depth proposal you were thinking about.
I also think it would be good for some marketing departments to take a sabbatical from talking to agencies and seek more direct relationships with customers. Oh, it may not be very scientific but engaging relationships are energising in a way second-hand relationships can't match. And since there's this concern about the Knowing Doing Gap these days, that is probably a good thing to have more of.
In part, I'm arguing for a view that says the world is so complex, it's better to learn by doing than to get lost in hypothesis and over-analysis.
The kinds of research and advertising I'm challenging think the world is complicated - that if studied in minute enough detail, it will confess a deep truth to you (yet not, of course, to your competitors who are buying the same schtick from their agencies...) (I blogged more on this complex/complicated distinction here.)
Axis of Somewhat Evil
Cuba, Sudan, Serbia Form Axis of Somewhat Evil; Other Nations Start Own Clubs
February 5, 2002: Beijing - Bitter after being snubbed for membership in the "Axis of Evil," Libya, China, and Syria today announced they had formed the "Axis of Just as Evil," which they said would be way eviler than that stupid Iran-Iraq-North Korea axis President Bush warned of in his State of the Union address.
Axis of Evil members, however, immediately dismissed the new axis as having, for starters, a really dumb name.
"Right. They are Just as Evil... in their dreams!" declared North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. "Everybody knows we're the best evils ... best at being evil ... we're the best."
February 26, 2004
How's this for an ad agency? Huh?
huh? is an enclave of new-age e-movers. We use catchy names for our job titles, like Vision Guidance Leader instead of Project Manager. Cool names make us sound smarter and more clever.
Our CEO is rarely in his office, and all female team members are expected to sleep with him, or at least pretend like they want to. Our designers ride Razor scooters around the office instead of walking, while wearing mail-bag style backpacks to hold their iPods.
We have lots of shiny espresso machines, and all of our new-age e-movers (that's our cool way to say "employees," remember?) drive to work in VW Beetles. Appearance is everything to us, because we'll get more of your money by looking cool than we will by doing quality work.
If you call our office, the phone will be answered by a very disinterested intern, giving you the impression that we're too important to talk to you. Because we are.
February 23, 2004
Cheerfulness not needed to be happy!
Whoa! The delightful Bernie de Koven points to this provocative bit of research: Pleasure, Meaning and Eudaimonia from the Authentic Happiness Newsletter. (I haven't met Eudaimonia or her sister Hedonia since my days doing Philosophy at Oxford, but don't get put off by the jargon.)
So the core thesis in Authentic Happiness is that there are three very different routes to happiness. First the Pleasant Life, consisting in having as many pleasures as possible and having the skills to amplify the pleasures. This is, of course, the only true kind of happiness on the Hollywood view. Second, the Good Life, which consists in knowing what your signature strengths are, and then recrafting your work, love, friendship, leisure and parenting to use those strengths to have more flow in life. Third, the Meaningful Life, which consists of using your signature strengths in the service of something that you believe is larger than you are.And now here is research to show
that successfully pursuing pleasure does not necessarily lead to life satisfaction, but successfully pursuing the Good Life and the Meaningful Life does lead to higher life satisfaction.Boy, does that make sense to me.
The perils of planning
That Curt Rosengren, he's a top blogger. I think he is giving a continuing masterclass in a particular type of blog: one that supports his business and balances lots of self-disclosure with a high degree of information relevant to his area of focus.
It is not that we should go through life without plans or clear desires. But life is an organic creation, the serendipitous intersection of thousands of events that put us in a certain place at a certain time. Being closed to the many detours presented to us and allowing our life plans to shield us from other possibilities means we will ultimately enjoy a less than satisfying journey..In my own work, I often focus on the power of the moment, and raise awareness of the apparently small choices we make and their impact on our lives. Improv is a fantastic training in realising this power and the energy that is released when we encourage spontaneity and let go of rigid plans.
February 18, 2004
How to start a relationship on the basis of manipulation
I've always been fascinated by the well-established ritual of creative pitching in advertising. It's the standard way in which clients start relationships with agencies.
How it works is this. The client decides to appoint a new agency for some project. He identifies three or four candidates he likes the look of. Then he gives each a brief on his project. They all go away for a few weeks and try to come up with a creative solution to the problem. Then there's a series of presentations and the client chooses the people with what he thinks is the best answer.
That all sounds fine, but in practice it sets everyone up for a value-destroying, untrusting, dysfunctional relationship.
1 Agencies are forced to develop proposals under intense time-pressure. This inevitably reduces the time for reflection which immediately reduces perspective. Creativity and wisdom both depend on viewing problems from multiple perspectives. The view that time pressure supports creativity is debunked by Robert Weisburg in his book Creativity: Genius and other Myths. He says "The more ones knows about the criteria a solution must meet, and the greater role these criteria play in the actual generation of solutions, the better the solution will be." Such an approach is not supported by the manic race of a creative pitch.
2 Pitching supports what I call the Big Idea fallacy. Whatever may be said by all concerned, client and agencies long for someone to present a brilliant idea to unlock their market. In a competition, agencies convince themselves they must have a Big Idea to win a pitch; and easily convince themselves that a Big Idea is what works best. This is a context in which half-solutions and tentative lines of enquiry are going to be scotched. The whole process contributes to the extraordinary degree of simplistic branding we see in the world.
3 There is huge financial pressure on agencies. Pitching is expensive in resources. The more work an agency does, the harder it becomes to countenance losing. Failure becomes terrifying. (Ironically, the ability to tolerate failure and learn from it is the key to a more humane model of creativity). Clients love to tell agencies they hate sycophancy; yet the financial pressures created by a pitch are virtually guaranteed to turn a right thinking agency into a smarmy flatterer.
4 The client pays a hidden price. There is a big downside for clients in this too. They may think that a competitive pitch gives them the creative ideas of several agencies for nothing but there is always a price! For one thing, the process means briefing maybe 30 intelligent and creative people on your intimate problems and challenges - and then burning perhaps 25 of them. How smart is that? Secondly, creative pitching means agencies adopt a business model in which they do a lot of unpaid speculative work… that, of course, must be paid for by… Guess Who? The client may think he gets the pitches for nothing, but he will pay.
In short, starting agency relationships this way virtually guarantees dysfunction.
February 15, 2004
I enjoyed this article on
He makes the kind of movie he himself would like to see.
What does this really mean? Well, in practice, it means that when he's writing, he's finding bits and pieces, ideas large and small that are surprising. This sequence surprised him, this bit gave him a thrill, this bit over there moved him to tears. And all those scenes did that to a guy who has seen thousands of movies. He's seen it all, yet that script has got him excited enough to spend two, three, or more years of his life making it into a film.
Okay, so lots of us get passionate about what we do. But does the passion of the filmmaker guarantee any kind of satisfaction for the audience? Well, only a track record can tell you that. Jackson's track record speaks for itself. If something excites him, you'd better believe it's going to rock your world."
February 12, 2004
Brand: Promise or peformance?
Tom Asacker is a good exponent of short, sharp blogging, fitting his self-description as provocateur. His entry Mae West on performance provoked me. Especially this sentiment:
A brand is NOT a promise. It's a performance. So let's stop all of the brand ranting and get down to brass tacks.I keep hearing that mantra that "a brand is a promise" and it's never really worked for me. I've always been left a bit confused, thinking "is it?". The idea of brand as performance certainly engages me more. And it fits my view that brands are social creations, things that are created between people moment-by-moment.
My additional thought: great performances are not simply delivered by a performer but result from some kind of chemistry with the audience. Indeed, the audience is a player too. I am passionate about using Improv work in business because it captures the value of spontaneous performance in organisation.
February 8, 2004
Winer on Dean
The man is interesting, like him or not, and that's a rarity in US politics where candidates are as exciting as toothpaste or underarm deodorant, because that's exactly how they want us to view them, as products, not people. Enter Howard Dean, person. Bloggable to the nth degree. But did Howard Dean know what a blog was? No. Does he know what one is today? No! Did he ever have a blog? He didn't. (I don't mean to ask, as some people misunderstand, did he write his own weblog. I mean did his campaign have a weblog.)
On this tip from Jon Strande, I installed SpamBayes to Outlook. It's a cool bit of open source software and after a few days training, it's working very efficiently to separate the spam from the ham in email. I'm a novice with Bayesian filters but I found it fascinating as it starts to understand my own personal idea what is Spam and what isn't.
A good side effect is that it nudged me to review all the enewsletters I get and to unsubscribe from those I never actually read.
February 7, 2004
I'll be taking part in the Chautauqua online discussion of Beyond Branding, from 15th to 29th February. Fellow authors Denzil Meyers, Chris Macrae, Julie Anixter and Jack Yan will also be there. The aim of Chautauqua is to foster good conversation in which we can all learn more.
You can register here (free), at the Chautauqua website. Here's the blurb on Chautauqua:
MORE ABOUT CHAUTAUQUA
Before Monday Night Football, before talk radio, before web surfing and chat rooms, there was Chautauqua.
At the turn of the century, there were more than 10,000 Chautauqua venues in small towns and rural areas across the United States. People gathered to enjoy the famous authors of the day, the best musical ensembles, and art exhibits usually available only in major cities. After a stimulating presentation, participants wandered back to their porches and living rooms to discuss, debate, and reflect on what they had experienced together. The Chautauqua movement was all about learning in community.
Today, there are only a handful of Chautauqua sites left to provide this unique opportunity to share a rich menu of cultural and educational activities We can never replace the pleasure of sitting together on the grass and talking long into a summer night. But we can make a time and place for learning in community - even in lives lived on Internet time.
In The Virtual Chautauqua we're bringing some of the best of this learning tradition online.
February 6, 2004
Marketing language (again)
The military mentality that pervades marketing and customer service is a result of business's ubiquitous fear. Just as studies show that people are more afraid of public speaking than of dying, organizations are more afraid of being exposed than of failing. They fear that the market will see that their business doesn't run like a clock designed by God; they're composed of fallible human beings. What a shock!
Combine fear and aggression and you end up with companies literally afraid to speak like human beings. It's easier, after all, to plan an attack than to communicate on the fly and—gasp!—listen. So companies talk to customers in language designed to squelch true conversation. And they write statements of purpose that set vainglorious goals to make themselves feel better, such as this from Quaker Oats:
"Our Goal: To be the undisputed leader in the food and beverage industry. We intend to do this by making Quaker a winning company—a place where talented people have opportunities and are rewarded for contributing to an exciting, profitable growth story. Winning means that our products will be those for which consumers hunger and thirst. Winning also means that we outpace our competitive set with consistently strong financial results."
The undisputed leader in the food and beverage industry? Through Cap'n Crunch and Rice-A-Roni?
February 4, 2004
On a tip from a friend, I found London Bloggers which has allowed me to find 15 other bloggers in my immediate area. Cool. I like the idea of finding interesting bloggers near me...
Poacher turned gamekeeper
Tony Goodson's blog has gained added interest since he abandoned self-employment in favour of the corporate world. Now he is seeing business through new spectacles. He opened his blogging of transition thus:
And as a newly appointed "Training and Development Manager" of the division of a large corporate I now have at least a bit of a chance of having a go at it.Over time, Tony starts to learn new ways. So for instance, today he writes
I've read a lot about changing companies for the better, over the last few years, I have all the books, read all the blogs, discussed all the discussions online.
So armed with my Tom Peters' books, my Fish, my Improv, my cool ideas, I entered the corporate world last week. Boy am I going to change things!
But after a week and a half, I am left scratching my head. What to do next?
Firstly, if a company and a division has a good market share, why should it do something radical? If you're in the top 5 suppliers, you may want to gain a few percentage points and certainly not lose a few points. If you're an executive earning a good salary, why do something radical? You already have market share. Sure some of the customers may hate you, but then they hate everyone else in the market!!
What I've learnt as a client in my short time, is CUT STRAIGHT TO IT! If I have to see another high level overview telling me what the problem is in language which isn't that of the organisation, then I'm going to scream. What I want is to be asked and listened to, and cut straight to the solution.And then there's this:
When I go to buy a car or a house, I'm interested in the features and the solution, not some bloody 45 minute presentation on what the problem is.
I watched a decision being made today, and it was a combination of circumstances over a few weeks and a few people of influence somehow meandering to a decision because of time pressure. I wouldn't say it was down to anything the supplier or suppliers could have altered.And his new view that office work is good for your health...
In talking to a few suppliers recently, they fail to realise that key influencers play a huge role in a decision, and going to the "Decision Maker" will piss them all off, and lead to the decision being sabotaged.
Working at home, I was eating too much and not exercising. And when I was training, I was eating huge number of biscuits with my tea, and driving everywhere!I've also enjoyed client-side perspectives from my namesake in the US, such as this:
Now I'm eating less, and taking public transport, so I'm walking quite a bit more.
I must receive at least 10 pitch letters/packages a week from advertising agencies extolling why they are the best agency in the land and that we should work with them to develop marketing campaigns that get results.These are sobering words for a consultant to read!
One such pitch letter intrigued me -- not because it was remarkable, but because it was so unremarkable.
This particular pitch letter was 100% cookie-cutter. Nothing in the letter was customized to appeal to me. No mention of key issues that my company faces. No mention of the challenges facing us in the age of parity and commoditization. (Note to ad agencies … sending out “cookie-cutter come-ons” is not going to get my attention.)
February 1, 2004
Wellsprings of innovation.
I liked Denham Gray's analysis of the spectrum of knowledge management:
I think I'm more comfortable down there with Denham, exploring the new territory. My fear about a lot of branding is that it fixates at the other end when it needs to do more to foster human engagment.
Everyone positions themselves somewhere along the spectrum from knowledge creation (awareness, learning, community) to intellectual capital (knowledge assets, branding, knowledge exchanges). Through long exposure, I have come to recognize my passions and interests are clearly at the knowledge creation end.
What I see happening at the other end (IC) is more about economics, PR, market caps and packaging than about the things that really matter to me, i.e. generating and understanding new insights, capturing experience and expertise, sharing and exploring. I do not wish to label or denigrate here, just my empathy is at the roots rather than in the leaves.