Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories

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

Tag Archives: advertising

Happy ‘View’ Year

Over the course of the past year or so, ad viewability has become one of the hottest topics in digital media. Marketers and advertisers are demanding the digital ads they buy be “viewable” by users. Now, when you plainly state what the quest for viewability is, it sounds pretty ridiculous. “Paying only for ads that can actually be seen by viewers” – how would anyone conceive of paying for any other kind of ad?

And the new focus on viewability points out that for 20-plus years, the industry has been selling ads that provide only an outside chance a reader might stumble across them. Can you imagine if other products or services were sold without even a chance to work as planned? Food that can’t be eaten, clothes you can’t wear, a car that doesn’t drive. Emperor’s new clothes, anyone?

How did we get here, a place where demanding that ads be viewable is necessary, and where 54% of all ads aren’t viewable? There is no doubt that we brought it on ourselves. The digital media world was growing so fast, it seemed that there was limitless inventory to place ads. We force-fit the old media, “push” model into a new media advertising eco-system, unconcerned with the fact that it clashed with new consumer behavior. And deflationary pricing and race-to-the-bottom CPM rates forced inventory to grow and quality to decline, leading buyers to be accustomed (or addicted) to CPMs of $1 or less.

Advertisers should demand higher quality digital media.  And to me, viewability seems to be a pretty low threshold. Nevertheless, here are the reasons I’m interested in this evolution:

1. A focus on viewability will drive advertisers from their “efficiency at all costs” position. Advertisers and their agencies have been focused on gaining ad impressions as cheaply and efficiently as they can. But, as I’ve said before, too much efficiency can be a bad thing. The reason CPMs are so cheap is because they include huge quantities of impressions of extremely low quality. And those impressions don’t make any impression at all. While it’s natural for advertisers to say they only want to pay for ads that are seen, they should be prepared to pay higher costs for them. Imagine that – paying more for higher quality. There’s a concept that would be reasonable.

2. It will make advertisers consider digital ad models, not just old analog ones. Fewer campaigns will simply take display ads (that likely originated as print concepts) and spread them around as many places as a surrogate for awareness. Instead, more teams will consider how a digital media consumer actually engages with content and wants to be engaged.

In addition, changing how media is measured and bought will drive publishers to consider new ad units, new ways to engage with their readers, and more ways to deliver on the needs and expectations of their consumers. It will lead advertisers and agencies to re-think about how to develop campaigns, leveraging the media in new ways to create new stories. And agencies will consider new KPI’s and success criteria beyond impressions delivery for campaigns that relate to the medium, the consumer behavior and the types of conversions that happen along the purchase path.

3. It will begin to orient the discussion around the consumer, not the ad message. If the key is reaching a real person, then ad messaging should be designed to deliver a better user experience. The digital media ecosystem should be built around user expectation, desire and need. It should be about “pull” and no longer about “push.”

My one worry, however, is if, instead, publishers and agencies solve for maximum viewability by creating more and more intrusive ads, more and more pop-ups, more and more interruptive units. Then, it won’t be a happy new year at all. It will be a train wreck.

Is Annoyance A Media Strategy?

Again and again, I have ads served to me that interrupt my digital and mobile actions. Popups are delivered that force me to landing pages and app store opens I didn’t ask for. Digital ads presuppose my interest in irrelevant products and services with no frequency cap. Despite the well-documented death of push marketing and the rise of the era of consumer control, it seems that many marketers believe that annoyance is still a viable strategic approach.

So, if you want to up your “annoyance marketing” quotient, here’s a simple five-point plan:

1. Ignore user experience and expectations when serving your advertising.

The new world of digital advertising affords marketers a plethora of tools and strategies for developing brand programming and campaigns that are relevant, timely and in-tune with a user’s mind-state and expectations. But flying in the face of this could also certainly help your brand stand out — and never mind the negative light it might shed on your brand.

With this in mind, it makes sense to serve an interstitial to an app user looking for a quick answer to a question like a train schedule or sports score. Or a page take-over to a mobile web browser looking for a phone number to tell a restaurant he’s running late. Don’t worry that you’re annoying them, slowing them down, preventing them from accomplishing a task – they’ll remember you!

2. Count impressions not engagements

By now we all know the hoopla and to-do caused by viewability concerns, ad fraud, bots, and ad blocking. The industry is beginning to realize that, in general, a media “impression” is unlikely to actually make an impression. But the addiction to low-priced CPMs and flowcharts with tens of millions of impressions is too hard to kick.

So, since all we care about is the delivery of quantities of impressions, then be unconcerned about repetitive ad messages and overly high frequencies. If we believed the old rule of thumb that reaching someone three times was an effective reach, then reaching them with the same message 30 times is 10 times effective-er, yes? So Lyft, please continue to serve me dozens of mobile app ads, unabated. And Game of War, bravo, for your 100+ ad frequency!

3. Do not waste time creating customized and diverse content

It’s been proven repeatedly that having personalized, contextually relevant messaging improves effectiveness for advertisers. And that simply cutting and pasting executions from one platform to another is not only lazy but also frustrating to consumers and sub-optimal for advertisers.

But all that work and thinking is hard. So by all means, take that TV ad and use it as pre-roll. Use your print ad as a banner. And don’t worry about creating multiple executions, stick with a single one and run it to death. Ideas, creativity and likeability are over-rated, right?

4. Ensure click-throughs by all means necessary

Making life painful for your consumers can’t be a good thing. Forcing them to jump through hoops, lengthening their process or experience, and providing disappointment are recipes for disaster. After all, customer experience is the new favorite buzzword of the industry.

However, since getting clicks is often an important data point, let’s make click-throughs unavoidable. Hide the “x” box on the interstitial. Or make the box insensitive to a mouse. Or even better, just open the link anyway even if the user tried to click away. I’m sure there will be some folks who will be happy with where the link leads them, right?

5. Spam away

I subscribe to lots of blogs and e-newsletters. But somehow I get many more than I subscribed to. I don’t like getting what is essentially spam; does anyone?

However, since newsletter subscribers are an important metric for many marketers, it’s a great idea to start sending your email to people who have never asked for it. Or ever expressed interest. And perhaps the best idea is to hide the unsubscribe link. That way you can count them as a subscriber for another mailing!

There you have it. If you believe that annoying your customer is a great way to market, follow these tips and you’ll be up there with the best. Of course, you could also try the exact opposite — if you’d rather avoid annoying them for a better customer experience.

Mobile isn’t just ANOTHER screen…*

When the dawn of mobile media occurred over 10 years ago, the ad industry dubbed mobile phones the “third screen”. There was the TV, computers, and, now, phones. The mobile screen was simply another outlet on which to engage with consumers.

Things have moved full-tilt since then, as the mass adoption of the smartphone has seismically changed all of media, marketing, and information access for consumers and brands alike. Mobile is now most often the first place people search, look things up, and access info. In addition, the reasons, contexts, and ways that people use the mobile screen have evolved to be vastly different than those of other screens.

With all these changes in the media screen eco-system, why are most marketers still approaching mobile as just another screen, and adopting old models of advertising and engagement? This is destined to fail – because it clashes with the fundamental user behaviors and expectations on this newest of screens.

You see, in my opinion, mobile isn’t just a screen:

  1. Mobile is a behavior

People aren’t doing typical web browsing activities on mobile – meaning they aren’t open to clicking away, exploring links or general “serendipity”. Their time is constrained; meaning long copy, elaborate design, and multiple steps are anathema. And, there are many more distractions and complexities due to the real world context – so KISS.

  1. Mobile is an expectation

You expect immediate answers from your smart phone. Who directed that film? How late is this store open? What is the phone number for the restaurant?

You expect the web to be easy and smooth – sites need to load fast, information has to be accessible and readable, and pages need to be designed for size and utility.

And now, consumers have similar expectations of brands on these devices. So why does your mobile site take so long to load? Why is the information I need hard to find? And why is it so hard to find the ‘x’ to close your irrelevant ad that’s interrupting my task?

  1. Mobile is a transaction and tactical

People use mobile to solve and complete specific tasks. And because of this, mobile hates interruption. Which I find ironic, because most advertising on mobile is highly interruptive. If you don’t think that this type of tone-deaf marketing isn’t why a majority of millennials have installed ad-blockers, then you’re as out of touch as your marketing.

  1. Mobile demands relevance

When I see, say, a contact lens ad on TV or the web, I ignore it. But if receive a mobile ad for contact lenses, it feels like an invasion. Due to the intimacy of the device and the amount of personal information and activity that happens on it, there’s an expectation of relevance and individualization. So when marketers choose ‘mass’ over ‘relevance’, they take a big risk of getting it wrong – and earning the enmity of those they are aiming to influence.

The flip side of this danger is the opportunity it presents. Consumers actively seek out relevance and are willing to pay for it with their personal information and data. For example, 61% of smartphone users say they’re more likely to buy from companies whose mobile sites or apps customize information to their location (Google/Ipsos, 2015) and 76% of people who opt in to location sharing do so to receive more meaningful content (Salesforce, 2014 Mobile Behavior report). It’s pretty clear that consumers will share their information for relevant value-added offers and information – that respect their time, preferences and actions.

Marketers have finally hailed the ascendance of the mobile screen. So, let’s treat it more than just another screen.

*Originally published in MediaPost’s Marketing Daily 9.13.16

The ‘Reverse’ Job Description: A Company’s Responsibility to Employees*

reversejob description tabhuman resource

There’s a “war for talent” out there. It’s an increasingly competitive landscape for recruiting and retaining talented employees, and companies talk the talk about how they are focusing on acquiring the best of the best. They call their HR people “Talent Directors”. Job description after job description describes their searches for “rock stars”, “gurus” and “ninjas”. And each job spec is chock full of the myriad incredible feats and accomplishments that each talented new hire has to achieve to be successful.

But so many new hires don’t stick – the data shows that almost half are gone within 18 months. And it’s not about skills – only 11% fail due to lack of skill, with the other 89% due to “attitudinal reasons”. With the high investment in time and money in recruiting, wouldn’t it makes sense for companies to make more of an effort to enhance stickiness and raise long-term success? The way I see it, every open role should have not just a job description, clearly iterating what is expected of the new employee, but would also have a “Reverse Job description”. That is, what are the required tasks of the company to ensure the success of the new employee.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Success is a collaborative thing, especially in today’s interconnected, matrixed, ‘new normal’ organizations. So I say that every critical role to be filled should have an equally important role for the organization and the leaders. Here’s what it would be made up of:

Build an on-ramp. Coming into a new organization is always hard – but nowadays, you’re expected to get moving at light-speed, stat. So it’s important to provide the tools, resources, and support to enable the new hire to merge into the fast lane as smoothly as possible. How can you provide support during the early days? Who and what are the right resources for each type of problem and opportunity? Where can he or she find the tools they might need? Anything that keeps a new employee feeling new and un-integrated keep him or her puttering along on the shoulder of the road.

Provide a pit crew. The most seasoned and successful race car drivers know they have a pit crew awaiting them whenever they need re-fueling, or if the dashboard is filling with warning lights. Well so should the greatest rock-star employee. A company should make sure there will be regular get-togethers to review the road behind and the road ahead. And expecting there will be some blow-outs and oil leaks is a pretty good idea, as well, since there will be.

Plan for some speed bumps. As I mentioned above, every journey has bumps in the road. Especially at work. In the best of circumstance, with as many knowns as possible, there are surprises that wreak momentary havoc on existing teams. But for the new employee, everything’s new and unknown – new partners, new clients, new dynamics, new culture. Do them a favor and set the expectations for some bumpy moments. Expecting perfection is never a good idea; but in these situations, it’s an absolute mistake.

Implement an instant network. I don’t care what level the candidate is, they’ll need some advisors and mentors. Sounding boards for problems and opportunities. Folks to look to when building their thinking. Or when the going gets tough. New employees don’t have instant credibility, respect or trust – so it’s important to provide a few internal contacts where they won’t have to immediately earn it. Each reverse job description should allocate several of these partners and comrades.

Provide a core of complementors. Generally, when hiring someone for your team, you are looking for one or two key skills. The skills and experience that are critical for the success the company is looking for. However, when placing this person into the organization and onto a team, there are likely some complementary skills that are required – skills that might not be immediately native to the new hire. So ensure you have embedded the complementary partners needed to help get past the initial growing pains.

Give some early cheers. No matter how talented and experienced the new employee is, the new situation will feel a bit alien. And without a sense of belonging, the new hire may find the honeymoon wearing off quickly. A little recognition can go a long way towards making new employees feel at home and part of an organization. Which leads to more success and longer tenure.

What do you think? Does this seem like too much to ask from a company? Should an employee’s success be all up to them?

*Originally published in TalentZoo 9/2/15

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

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

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*

just don't do itdon't do it street signdon't do itrelax don't do it shirt

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

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

specialist vs. generalistswiss army knifejack3

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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