Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories

"Strategy is overrated. We have a strategic plan. It's called doing things". – Herb Kelleher

Disintegrating “Integration”*

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There are lots of buzzwords and ism’s thrown around in advertising. But none are used with such ubiquity as Integration. If I had a nickel for every company that says it’s an “integrated agency”, every campaign that is “fully integrated”, every creative or strategist who “thinks integratedly”, I’d be filthy rich. To be honest, this makes sense. The digitized and mobilized marketing landscape has become so fragmented, complex and chaotic, that marketers say cross-channel integration is their top priority, according to an eMarketer 2014 study. So using the word “integrated” is like a promise of understanding all the chaos. It attempts to say, “don’t worry, we’re thinking about all that complex and inter-connected stuff.”

The thing is, people have been using this term for so long and so often that it’s been rendered virtually meaningless. It’s gotten to where it’s hard to define what integration really is. Well, I’m here to tell you what being “integrated” isn’t:

  • It’s not matching luggage: Many simply believe that as long as you make the brand and message look exactly the same everywhere it appears, then that’s integrated. In this case, it’s about executional elements – color, fonts, logo, a visual cue. While this can help connect a brand visually across platforms, it’s a pretty superficial approach. Sure, it may telegraph to people that “here’s that brand again”, but it provides no message, no context, no value. And it doesn’t even try to leverage the distinctive properties of each individual medium.
  • It’s not hand-offs or trickle-downs: There persists this faulty myth in advertising that creativity is the result of one or two geniuses developing brilliance on their own and then sharing it with the world. So agencies still think that an integrated idea starts in one camp or vertical (usually the almighty AOR), and then gets handed off to other disciplines to flow this brilliance out. But this is the old way of thinking – creativity is rarely the work of a single artist, but instead the result of many and often disparate people, thinking cross-channel from the start.

    And this scenario can result in conflict – with each different group/agency pushing in different directions according to separate agendas, goals, priorities. While each may have the best intentions for the brand, true integration isn’t achieved since the entire team isn’t working together, off the same concepts or goals.

  • It’s not just adaptation: Similar to the above, there’s a belief or expectation that an idea begins as a TV commercial. Or a website. Or a print ad. And then gets adapted into other forms of communication. Turning the TV commercial into a banner ad, per se. This is clearly sub-optimal, since people use and behave on different platforms differently – so simply applying an idea from one into another won’t be effective. An integrated idea needs to live above platforms and media – and needs to be expressed within the realities of each individual medium.
  • It’s not about a laundry list of platforms: When agencies say they’re integrated, they generally end up talking about channels and platforms. “We take ideas and express them in mobile, in social, in content marketing…” But integration isn’t about the output; it’s about the input. And just because you have capabilities in multiple platforms or channels, doesn’t mean that you should utilize them all. Sometimes integration is knowing which channels you shouldn’t be utilizing for a specific situation.
  • And calling it “Omni-channel” doesn’t make it any more integrated: One of the latest and greatest buzzwords in marketing is omni-channel. “We’re not only integrated, we’re omni-channel.” But this is just another way of saying the same exact thing.

Here are a few things that Integration is about, in my opinion:

  • It’s about collaboration, irrespective of agencies, holding companies and agendas. (I like Bill Koenigsberg’s idea of “the Agency of Collaboration model”).
  • It’s about taking a consumer perspective – and caring more about take-away than input.
  • It’s about iteration. It matters less where your idea started than where it can end up.
  • It’s about letting go of ownership. Get over yourselves. Period.
  • It’s about solving problems, not pushing executions. Be thinking about measurable objectives at all times, and pull together data across channels for an integrated view.
  • It’s about innovation (another overused word…). Be open to new approaches, even if they are from outside your domain.

Integration is a powerful tool and important concept. Let’s all make sure we’re using the term equally powerfully.

* Originally published in MediaPost’s Marketing Daily on 6/8/15


5 Ways You’re Doing Mobile Wrong*

bad mobilestreetfight mag 2danger toxic There’s no denying we’re deep into the age of Mobility. Mobile phones are universal, and smart phone penetration has neared 70% of all mobile devices. More smart phones have been sold than desktops for years now. Online time on phones passed that of desktop over a year ago. And mobility has spawned tablets, phablets, and, now, “wearables”. It’s a constantly evolving and growing space for consumers and brands. And, finally, marketers have dove into mobile in a big way.

But here’s the thing: mobile marketing requires new ideas, new approaches and new use cases. What worked before with other media types won’t necessarily work on this completely different, more personal platform. So, if you’re like most marketers, you’re likely getting mobile wrong. Here are 5 reasons.

1) You’re treating the mobile screen as just another screen.
Yes, the phone has a screen. And people are viewing lots of the same things that they view on other screens, like email, search and video. But that doesn’t mean your brand can act exactly as it has on the TV or PC screen. Because consumer behavior, and their expectations, are fundamentally different on the mobile screen. The phone is a highly personal and unique device, and not simply an extension of the desktop that you happen to carry with you.

But so many marketers are simply using the approaches, images, and videos they are using in other channels and just applying across all mobile placements. That’s a recipe for failure (or at least weak performance). For best results, you have to design and optimize for the mobile screen and the mobile user experience, taking into account context, environment and user location.

2) You’re impeding people from doing what they want.
Interrupting consumers with advertising in exchange for free content in “lean-back” media became quid pro quo long ago. Plus, irrelevance and annoyance in these media can be easily ignored. But the interruption-based ad model is DOA on mobile. Interrupting someone from accessing the information or activities they want on the phone – e.g., interrupting access to the weather report; stopping someone before they can check the game score; disrupting an entertaining video from playing – is not ignorable. It’s deplorable. Instead, your brand needs to figure out how it can add to those experiences, not simply take advantage of them.

3) You’re selling, not adding value.
I’ve heard the smartphone called a “companion”, because it’s always by your side, constantly helping you. But for some reason, brands don’t feel like they need to follow suit. Marketers seem to view mobile just as a handset to “ping”, and forget there is a person holding it. But Brands do have an opportunity to participate in the “companion” model. When they go beyond simply selling, and provide value beyond their own products and services, they can gain trust and long-term loyalty.

4) You are focused on awareness and acquisition, but not on loyalty.
Marketers see the enormous scale of mobile and think about the top of the funnel. It’s easy now to buy hundreds of millions of aggregated impressions. But where mobile is most effective is in driving deeper engagement, conversions and loyalty of existing leads and customers. The ability to reach those who already have your app, those you have data on, and customers who can take an immediate action on your brand’s site or app allows marketers to grow their relationship with existing customers and to make them feel more personally connected to the brand. Two approaches that successfully do this are push notifications and location-aware/geo-fenced notifications, which have proven to be extremely good at driving leads down the funnel and increase usage, sales and loyalty of existing customers.

5) You’ve gone gaga over in-store beacons, but not about driving consumers to the store.
It’s been said that marketing loves it buzzwords and fads, and iBeacons are among the newest and buzziest. And there’s nothing wrong with that – iBeacon and BLE are great new ways to engage with and gain data on your customers in store. But don’t disregard technology and approaches that help drive your customers into your store in the first place, like geo-fenced notifications. These can be particularly valuable in targeting your customers, even at your competitor’s locations, and giving them reasons to come visit your location.

Mobile usage and mobile marketing have matured and grown over the past few years. For Consumers, it’s basically a mobile-first world, with mobile phone no longer the “third-screen”. So it’s time for marketers to shed the old approach, as well. As more and more money and activity moves into the mobile advertising ecosystem, marketers must move beyond the old status quo TV and digital models and start to think like consumers – mobile-first.

* Originally published in Street Fight e-magazine on April 14, 2015

An Impression is Anything But…*

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What is an “impression”? If you’re speaking English, an impression is an indelible mark left on someone. It’s pressed into something, leaving behind a visible trace or effect. An impression is not miss-able or forget-able – when something leaves an impression, it means it was remarkable, memorable, compelling.

But when people are speaking media, an impression is anything but. A media impression is rarely seen or noticed or remembered. It is overwhelmingly likely to be ignored, or perhaps not even there in the first place. When you consider that 1) most ad impressions are avoided and ignored; 2) display ad/banner impressions are clicked by 1 in 10,000 people; and 3) there are estimates that up to 75% of all digital “impressions” are fraudulent or unviewable, you wonder how the hell this term became the currency for media planning and buying in the first place.

Why has this happened? I think there are a few reasons:

  • The media world is resistant to change. Impressions have been the buying scale for a long time, so change is difficult. And changing would require re-setting all pricing and value benchmarks. And demand new thinking and ideas about the role of media.
  • Using the mis-named “impressions” as currency allows for the illusion of scale. This helps make media folks and clients feel comfortable they are “reaching” lots of people – despite the fact that most people won’t be very “impressed”.
  • Using this definition of impressions as the currency allows CPMs to continue to seem low and affordable. Because inventory is loaded with cheap stuff, overall pricing seems cheap. But it’s like filling your Sumatran coffee order with wood shavings to keep prices low.

But why does no one call bullsh*t? Why do agencies and clients buy millions of impressions when we know most of them won’t make one? Why do they purchase huge quantities of something they know is filled up with crap? Why do they not seem to be bothered by the reportedly huge percentage of fraudulent and non-viewable inventory?

And, importantly, why do most people balk at higher prices for higher quality? For paying a higher CPM for inventory that delivers higher engagement, actions and true “impressions”? Why can’t people start seeing media just as they see their micro-brews, their mixed greens, their grass-fed beef – i.e., that non-watered down quality does leave an impression. And is worth the premium.

I’m dying for someone to illuminate me. And for someone to help me come up with the right new media label for this new kind of approach. Where true engagement is pursued. Where actual, relevant content is delivered to real people. And real impressions are created. I’m thinking maybe “True Impressions”. What do you think?

* Originally published in MediaPost’s Marketing Daily 4/9/15

The Tyranny of ‘Scale’ – How scale keeps us playing by old rules*

caution tyrannymass media words old rules of marketing are dead

There it was, in HuffPo, in a listicle called “10 Tricks to appear smart during meetings”. Along with a recommendation to “Pace around the room” and to “Nod continuously while pretending to take notes” was number 6 on the list. This trick read, “Ask ‘Will this scale?’ no matter what it is”. And, it’s true – say this and people will think you are smart. But, unfortunately, it only perpetuates a fallacy.

You see, there’s an on-going illusion about scale. In Digital and mobile advertising, marketers, sellers and buyers are all participating in this illusion day in and out. That is, there’s a desire and demand for more and more impressions, more eyeballs and views, more tonnage reaching your target. But does this tonnage really reach the target? Is this scale actually useful, valuable or even real?

Firstly, let’s remember that the impressions represent only opportunities to view, not actual views. And these opportunities need to be discounted by the fact (or at least taken with the following gazillion grains of salt) that it’s been estimated that 75-85% of these impressions are deemed either fraudulent, unsafe, or unviewable, according to Julie Fleischer of Kraft. What’s left of that scale now?

In addition, let’s consider the exceptionally low (and dropping) click rate on desktop and mobile display ads. When you consider that “banner blindness” has driven click-throughs to less than 1/10th of 1%, it suggests that the message that is being scaled is not even being seen – or at least not being engaged with. Is this the kind of scale brands want?

The thing about this tyranny of scale is it relies on and adheres to the old model of Interruption. That is, gain access to as many consumers as you can and interrupt them with your message. A certain number will ignore you – others might notice you. But even those that ignore you might receive enough information to remember your message. This model worked for years and years – but should have died along with the digital revolution more than 10 years ago. Because consumers no longer simply ignore irrelevant ads (as they used to); they actively dislike them. And that has a negative splash-back effect on the brands.

I think that’s a key problem with scale – it generally trades out relevance to achieve mass. Instead, I’d rather address a smaller universe, but with content, context and consumer relevancy that drives conversion rates into the double-digits.

What is scalable are the many problems with scale:

You can buy scale, but you can’t buy engagement. Any publisher will sell you scale. You can aggregate readers, app users, game players, anything. The problem is that you’ll end up with a hodge-podge of disparate people, likely not prepared or interested in your ad. Scale, by definition, puts a premium on mass – and de-emphasizes relevance. In fact, a drive for scale essentially aggregates irrelevance. And irrelevance is the kryptonite of the digital era.

Not only that, but the modern media consumer is often engaged in his content or platform for a tactical, tangible purpose. Interrupt them at your peril.

Scale breeds irrelevance, which breeds loathing. The price brands pay for irrelevance is no longer avoidance, it’s animosity. Antipathy. And vocal dissension. I believe that it should be much more important to be relevant to some than irrelevant to many.

When people ask, “will it scale”, they are actively rejecting newer approaches and models. They are seeking the comfort of the past, and the seeming confidence of BIG numbers and lines on flow charts. But I have seen that ground-up or mid-to-low funnel approaches can also deliver big results.

Scale discounts the importance of value and impact. Especially when it comes to mobile advertising, the opportunity and role of advertising is increasingly one of adding value to the consumer. This added-value is likely not achievable when the goal is scale.


There’s a gigantic opportunity in today’s media world to drive new kinds of brand engagements. Leveraging new levels of data to deliver customized content, finding new ways to hyper-target customers, and partnering with publishers and consumers to create new kinds of value – it would seem we’re in a new, golden age of advertising. However, so much is still being evaluated and judged by that old model – “does it scale”?

Let’s always remember that just because something reaches a lot of people doesn’t make it good. At the end of the day, my belief is that relevance and ideas trump scale. Anyday.

* Originally posted in MediaPost’s Marketing Daily on 12/9/14

Right-sizing Big Data*

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The ad business is driven by sound bytes and buzzwords. And I don’t have to tell you that one of the buzzes of the moment is “Big Data”. You can’t swing a cat without knocking into a half-dozen “experts” touting its intrinsic value and huge ROI potential. The run up in ad tech investment and VC funding in the area might be creating the next tech bubble. And marketers and agencies are all shouting, “Big Data is the answer!” But I don’t know if they even know what the question is.

The thing is that “big data” is a tool – and like any tool, it has uses and limitations. Firstly, it’s helpful in certain tasks – but not for all of them. Second of all, it functions like the proverbial hammer, i.e. “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. People need other tools to complete complex jobs. And finally, and most importantly –like all tools, it requires a human hand, and heart, to guide it.

Limitations of Big Data
The benefit of Big Data is to leverage computational power to process quickly and nimbly huge amounts of data to make it accessible to people. It allows us to begin to divine insights and understanding around information that is available but too plentiful and dispersed for human perception, shining a light on that which was not visible. And it can automate actions that were difficult, time-consuming or even impossible just a few years ago.

But Big Data seems to assume that all data is great – and that more data is better. But bigger is not always better – just ask the 74% of brands, according to a World Federation of Advertisers study, who are saying that they are overwhelmed by big data and unprepared to take advantage of it. And always consider the Einstein quote, “everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted”. Just because you can now measure something doesn’t mean you should.

In addition, Big Data tends to be a tactical tool, rather a strategic one. Because data-based ad technology is allowing us to automate around measurable actions, behaviors, activities and realities, it’s a great tool for optimization – creative versioning, ad placements, a/b testing, etc. But don’t expect it to start giving you high level strategic answers, compelling messaging ideas or brand platforms.

One other issue is that once a KPI/data point is selected, people start optimizing towards them vs. towards overall success. While this has always been the case (think of brands that developed ads to “beat the copy test” vs. to inspire or engage) – this becomes even more of a worry once robots and data scientists take the wheel.

Bottom Line: Ensure you’ve appropriately assessed the data you’re collecting, wisely chosen KPI’s, and properly identified the role of Big Data in your marketing efforts.

Small data is just critical
While the aggregation of Big Data is important, small data remains just as important. Think of outside information, anecdotes, industry intelligence, or analogies – these are things that can help color opinion, drive creative thought, and inform the data more than more reams of it ever could. In fact, relying on current data alone would have put you in tech stocks in 1999, in real estate in 2007, and in Bieber albums in 2013. That’s why the small data of experience, a finger on the pulse, and a surprising a-ha can provide the insights and additional dimensions needed to make better, more complex decisions.

And while data enriches understanding, it doesn’t substitute for instinct, insight, or human touch. Machines can’t make a gut decision.

Bottom Line: Make sure you are not run by data alone – but are keeping eyes and ears open for insight, ideas and inspiration outside of your data sets.

Human element necessary
In well-defined, predictable situations, Big Data can help drive the best way forward. But what category or domain is well-defined and predictable today? Most face uncharted territory and rocky, ever-changing realities. No amount of data alone can drive future strategy or big ideas. In fact, in uncharted territory, data derived from past examples or activity can give a false sense of confidence. That’s why I like the concept of “sensemaking”, proposed by Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen in The Moment of Clarity.

Sensemaking requires “the ability to lead open-ended discovery, to sense both soft and hard data, to use your judgment skills, to connect the dots, and to see the big picture in a vast ocean of sometimes conflicting data.” This requires a combination of data and soft, human skills and thought.

But more importantly, data is unlikely to “stir the soul”, create inspiration, or drive creative breakthroughs. And that’s what leads to the innovation and disruption necessary for significant success today. Big data can help shine the light, but humans create the new ideas that emerge.

Bottom Line: Don’t expect your robots to find you the answers. Instead, leverage the data-driven insights to inform your creative mind.

* originally posted in TalentZoo 4/9/2014

The myth of “I prefer their early work”

I prefer their early workfact or mythearly work book

I was talking with someone I know about a band that I love. He’s into music, too – but, to be honest, he’s a bit of a musical know-it-all. He’s a “I saw the them before anyone knew them” type of guy. And after I mentioned said band, he told me the classic saw, “I prefer their early work”.

Now, I have to admit that I’ve said it myself. And I’ve probably repeated all the same, standard rationale – they put their whole lives up to that point into it their first work; they were raw-er; it was from the heart back then; it was before they were “in the business”, so it was for the art of it. Okay, I get all that. But upon further thought, it should rarely be true. Because, first of all, any good band, artist, writer, and basic human learns more as they go along. They learn about themselves, the world, their craft. Anyone worth his or her salt gets better. The more they play together, know each other better, play with and develop their sound more, they should almost certainly improve. They make mistakes, they learn from trying, they find what works best. And, over time, they come in contact with additional resources – other artists, producers, etc. – that drive further adaptation and evolution. If they don’t, then they’re probably not truly special. Right?

But the more I thought about it, I also started to think that saying “I prefer their early work” also says some not-so-nice-things about the person who is saying it. And, about the person he or she is saying it to.

It suggests “I know more than you”.  Because it usually is said in response to someone saying he or she likes something, it’s kinda like saying “I used to like them, too – but I learned additional stuff that caused me to stop liking them. I guess you haven’t learned it, yet.” Which is smug (and here’s what I feel about smugness).

It says “I’m more discerning”. This person is saying that he has made a distinction in their work – he can probe deeper and critically dissect the better (earlier) from the less good. If you like all of it, then I suppose you don’t have the faculties to make the distinction.

It suggests “I’m more of a leading edge person than you”. This person is consciously pushing beyond what’s popular or well known to find what they like (a good thing) – and is letting you know in a way to place you with the pack, the average, the non-explorers.

It says “you’re lazy for still liking them”. Similarly, this person is always looking for what’s new. And you? You’re still sticking to them, despite their clearly disappointing later work? You’re obviously are lazy.

So, after all this thought, I’ve decided that I’m not going to say “I prefer their earlier work” ever again. Perhaps what I’ll say if I really am disappointed with the path someone or something has taken after early promise is “I really like some of their work. I’m interested in seeing where they’re headed.” What do you think?

What you DON’T do is as important as what you do*

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It being Academy Awards season, I thought it made sense to give the Oscar for best Marketing Effort of the year. And that would go, hands down, to CVS, for their decision to stop selling cigarettes in all their stores by October 2014. Saying that, “the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose”, CVS is removing cigarettes and tobacco products from all its stores – representing an annual loss of $2 billion in revenue from tobacco shoppers. Yep, that’s right – I said $2 BILLION. But this simple act solidified and clarified what the company does – “help people on their path to better health”, as their President and CEO stated. It doesn’t take a genius to see how cigarettes are in conflict with that goal.

Now, I’m not aware of any Oscar (or Addy, Clio, or Cannes Lion) being given out for what a brand or agency didn’t do, but I think maybe there should be. Because often in Business and marketing, it’s just as important what you DO NOT do as what you do. There are number of reasons this is so.

Firstly, there is nothing more important than clarity. Most companies have complex, 100-page strategies that allow for all kinds of activities and lots of interpretation. That might be fine for diversification, but it’s terrible for clarity of direction, purpose or meaning for consumers. And when consumers aren’t clear what you are about or stand for, forget about being anything but a commodity. As a drug store that sold all the stuff you find at any drug store, CVS was a commodity. But CVS now firmly differentiates itself as being in the healthcare business.

Nothing makes things more clear than contrast. In fact, there’s a concept in Neuroscience called the the “Contrast Principle”, which states that we understand something better when we see it in comparison to something else than in isolation. So when a company makes it clear what they will not do, that helps us understand what they do. For example, when Yorkie said it was “not for girls”, people knew they were a manly candy bar – maybe more so than if they had said whom they were meant for.

Strategy is about making choices. Strategy should not be arcane, academic or abstract. Being strategic is all about making choices about actions – those which you do and those which you won’t or don’t. Closing one action in favor of another requires the courage of conviction and confidence to abandon things, which provides a necessary focus internally at organizations, as well as providing clarity for consumers. Sure, it’s easy to be wishy-washy, to say “well, it’s ok if we do this thing or that thing, even if it’s not exactly on-strategy”. But that’s not the right thing to do.

Making Trade-offs. Here’s the thing about your strategy – no consumer ever sees it. They only see your brand’s actions and activities. So you need to line up your activities with your strategy – that’s where your competitive differentiation takes place. And showing that there are limits to your activities – customers you won’t serve, and activities you won’t do (as CVS decided) – is a critical part of your efforts. As Michael Porter says, the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.

So let’s have a big hand for CVS this year as they walk down the red carpet. And here’s to hoping all your brands get their chances to win awards next year for what they stopped doing or refuse to do.

*Originally posted in TalentZoo on Friday, March 7, 2014

You Are Not Special – It’s about what you do, not who you are

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As a younger person, my friends and I thought we were special, as most young people do. I remember, during our most narcissistic, “aren’t we the best in the world” post-college years, a friend of mine would answer his telephone, “Center of the universe!”. We believed it, too – we were special, the only ones like us in the world. The coolest, smartest, most interesting people known to man. It makes me sick to think about it now.

I don’t remember the exact moment of my comeuppance. But before long I realized there were lots of people like us. And anything that I had felt was unique and special about me was, well, not so unique or special. As a matter of fact, as David McCullouch Jr. said in his famous commencement speech, even if you are “one-in-a-million”, there are nearly 7,000 people exactly like you, worldwide. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. It just is. And at the end of the day, it’s really only about what you do, not who you are. It’s about behavior and action.

I say this now because there seem to be so many people who either haven’t learned this lesson, or have somehow re-built the feeling of specialness into their behaviors. They act as if their title, their background, their expertise, or their connections has made them entitled. Has given them the power to act a certain way. To expect preferential treatment. To treat people poorly. To phone in their work. To posture and pontificate. To control or micromanage. In a word, to act special.

Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s better to realize you aren’t special. Practice the below behaviors and you’ll earn your “specialness” the right way.

Firstly, recognize that luck is as much a cause of success as anything. People who feel special often falsely believe their achievements are solely due to their own excellence. But any fool knows that luck, context, and situation play at least as much of a role.

Be appreciative for what you have. For the above reason alone, you should be thankful for what you have achieved and what you have in life. As Oprah Winfrey said, “if you’re thankful for what you have, you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” However, that doesn’t mean you should ever be satisfied with it, or not continue to strive for more or better.

Forget about titles and hierarchy when dealing with people. Sure, we all wish to move up the corporate hierarchy, and we end up being peoples’ bosses. But that doesn’t make us special. And it doesn’t allow anyone to treat those direct reports as if they’re lesser.

You are not owed anything. Despite your background, your years at such-and-such company, your having worked for the CEO in the past, or your time plying this category or industry, you’re no better than the many others with different, interesting histories. You’ll have to earn what you think you deserve by your efforts, too.

No matter what you’ve done before, you still have to earn it every day. Getting to where you are does, of course, depend on what you’ve done in the past (and a lot of luck). But having done good work before only earns you the right to do good work again today. Nothing more.

Be humble. People who believe they are special also act that way. And they tend to be smug and arrogant. There is nothing worse than smugness. Literally. It’s the worst thing ever. Don’t be smug.

At the end of the day, everyone should be defined by what they do – not who they are, where they’ve been, or who they’re connected to. Or, as John F. Kennedy said, “we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” Isn’t that special?

Expertise in Generalism – 6 reasons generalists are more important than specialists*

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More and more, the business world seems to be ruled by expertise. Subject matter experts. Vertical specialists. Domain authorities. Companies wage wars for sought-after technical mavens and so-called gurus. To advance in one’s career these days, one should naturally specialize. The days of the generalist are over, right?

Wrong. Because, as the world changes ever faster, and the challenge of connecting dozens of disparate pieces increases, it’s never been more important to be an amazing generalist. A connector, a hybrid, a cross-functional player.

So it’s time to sing the praises of the evolved generalist – the person who provides context, who facilitates and drives creativity, who raises everyone’s game, and is focused on the right outcomes.

A generalist understands CONTEXT, not just content
One way to think of a world of specialists, according to Vikram Mansharamani in an HBR post, is a world where everyone is studying bark. “Many have deeply studied its nooks, grooves, coloration, and texture. Few have developed the understanding that the bark is merely the outermost layer of a tree. Fewer still understand the tree is embedded in a forest”. All the specialist content in the world is meaningless without putting it in the proper context – and that context tends to be provided by generalists. A great generalist’s breadth of knowledge helps link new breakthroughs and technologies to existing ideas, providing a view of the forest for everyone.

Similarly, specialists tend to focus on what they’re domain does. But in a hyper-specialized world, you need people to pull it all together to make sense of things. The generalist sees the whole playing field – what the business context is, where you want to get to, and what all the relevant marketing levers are. Again, this helps a team see the totality of a program, how it all works together, and how to course-correct as it plays out.

Connections across subjects can be more important than subject-matter expertise
It’s generally understood that new ideas and innovation are the result of associative thinking – connecting two known but unlike ideas to create something new. Unfortunately, specialists tend to focus on their own subject areas and their own known approaches. They also tend to spend less time collaborating with people who aren’t like themselves – and may actively avoid this “clashing” or combining of ideas. But for great generalists, associative thinking is table-stakes.

Breadth vs. depth leads to more creativity
There’s no doubt that business, in general, and advertising, specifically, needs innovation and creativity – to differentiate brands, to engage with hard-to-reach consumers, to drive saliency, and to achieve virality, among other things. And it’s well accepted that innovation and creativity are driven by diversity of thought and experience. A wide variety of knowledge leads to new ways of looking at problems. Specialists often stay within their narrow band and apply formulaic solutions.

Generalists raise everyone’s game
While the specialist spends his time focusing on how his vertical area can help solve a problem, the generalist is helping everyone else leverage their individual knowledge and experience for the greater good. His or her basic knowledge about each expert’s area can help them question assumptions, iterate and build, and make the work better. In a sense, the generalist is a great conductor – not playing his own instrument, but getting the ensemble to play beautiful music together.

Knowing what you don’t know is important, too
In addition, a generalist is comfortable knowing what they don’t know – and this helps in a number of ways. It leads them to ask for help and points them towards the right resources or expertise, as needed. It means they aren’t subject to dogma or industry beliefs, so are open to question things. And it also means that a generalist is more comfortable with ambiguity and contradiction. Research has shown that generalists are better at predicting future outcomes, because they are less ideologically reliant on a single perspective.

Generalists are focused on the right goalposts
A generalist will be focused on overall business goals vs. any vertical or personal agenda. And they won’t care what tools, what technologies or what resources are used most or get the most credit – he or she simply wants overall success.

Today’s complex marketing and business world needs experts who know more and more about emerging technologies and the evolving landscape. At the same time, the complexity and silo-fication of the world is raising the bar for a new generation of great generalists. As the author Carter Phipps said, “it’s becoming increasingly valuable to know ‘a little bit about a lot’”. What do you think?

This article originally ran in MediaPost’s Marketing Daily 2/20/14

You Can’t Polish a Turd – so just stop trying.

turd polishnew & improvedit's still a turd

As a student of human nature, I’m always amazed at the obsessive way we, the human race, go out of our way to fake ourselves, and our brethren, out. To avoid the hard realities and make the false, true. We rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, make molehills out of mountains, we call a heart a spade. Which is why I have always loved the idiomatic phrase, “you can’t polish a turd”. Because it points directly at our desire to try to tidy up disaster, to keep up a good face, and to avoid reality, telling ourselves everything is fine. However, let’s be honest. Everyone poops, as the children’s book tells us – and it seems that everyone then tries to turn it into something else.

And no other arena has made turd-polishing more of an art form than marketing. From “new and improved”, to “nothing works better, to “delicious AND nutritious”, marketing and advertising has consistently polished turds in order to make the lame sound good, make the weak feel strong, and make the lazy feel dynamic. Hurrah!

Well, it’s high time we stopped deluding ourselves, trumping ourselves up in the eyes of others, and taking shortcuts in order to keep us from doing the real work.

Stop deluding ourselves to make ourselves feel better
When confronted with a marketing situation that is less than positive, turd-polishing and spin doctoring begins to take place at a high level. Years ago, when I worked on Wisk Detergent, the marketing department decided to reduce the amount of cleaning enzymes in the product as a way to reduce costs. That’s right, they decided to make the product perform worse. But they convinced themselves they were giving the consumer the right level of cleaning – instead of that “over-formulated” product they’d produced for all these years.

Similarly, I worked on AT&T many years ago, and they were looking for ways to increase the revenue they made from long-distance calling (as I said, it was many years ago). They knew that most residential calling was happening after 8PM, when the rates went down – so they decided to raise the night-time calling rate. They also lowered the day rate, in order to create a single rate for the entire day. Because most calling happened at night, it was effectively a price hike for nearly everyone. But AT&T spun it as a “simpler” and more consumer-friendly plan. There, that turd is polished!

So what can you do? Ask yourself – is this really what the consumer wants? Is this based on a true human insight? Would I want this? What makes this a good thing? Consumers, more than ever, demand honesty and transparency. Anything less will be exposed, ignored and ridiculed. New and improved, my arse.

Stop trumping ourselves up with veneer and shallowness
One thing the industry has no shortage of is buzz. As in buzzwords, the “latest big thing” and the new. But so often people use this buzz to cover up a lack of substance, knowledge or honesty. How many times have you heard someone rattle on and on, using the latest terminology –  DMPs, RTB, “brand as publisher” and “native advertising”, anyone? – and, afterwards, you aren’t really sure they said anything at all? The turd that’s being polished here could be ignorance and insecurity, or, worse, a lack of ideas being masked with shiny words. So, instead of buzzwords and generalities, speak in plain English. That’s the only way to see if you’re really saying anything.

Stop taking shortcuts
When it comes to the real work we do, so many people seem to prefer to do as little as possible – and cover up the lack of effort and quality with a shiny wrapper and a nice bow on top. They’ll take below-average work and cover it with gilt – production values, technology, fancy talk. I’m here to tell you that no “content amplification system” can make crappy content successful. No amount of algorithmic optimization will make a bad campaign more successful. Calling your product “new and improved” doesn’t make it so. No fancy talk, over-jacked production quality or celebrities can make a dumb idea or poor product successful. If you’ve got a turd on your hands, the likely best thing to do is flush it down and start the work of producing something good. No amount of polish will change it.

Despite what I’ve said, people really do seem to think they can polish a turd. In fact, I’ve found that even the phrase this article is based on has been made “new and improved”. I found the edited phrase to be “You can’t polish a turd. But you can roll it in glitter”. Well, I guess that is kinda polished…

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