Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories

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

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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?

Don’t Vote For Yourself – A case for kindness

20140120-Napoleon-Dynamite-Heck-Yes-Id-Vote-for-Yoube kind blackboard vote for someone else

Mike Figliuolo and his Thoughtleaders has been one of my favorite bloggers for a long time – he’s practically one of my heroes. Today, he’s featuring a guest post from ME on his blog… and I’m pretty psyched. Please check it out (also in its entirety below) – it’s about the fact that leadership demands kindness. Would love to hear your thoughts, comments and rants below. And please share!


“If everyone were clothed with integrity, if every heart were just, frank, kindly, the other virtues would be well-nigh useless.” – Moliere

In 6th Grade, I ran for class president. President of my class, my home room, mind you, not my entire grade. In any event, the election results were tight. And when they were read out to the class, I found I had lost by one vote. “At least the person I voted for won,” I told my friend and campaign manager, Tommy Markham. “You didn’t vote for yourself?” he asked. He couldn’t believe it. “If you had, you would have won”. The funny thing was, voting for myself hadn’t even occurred to me. The only question I had was which other candidate I would vote for. And, as it happened, I voted for the winner.

What is relevant about this story? On the face of it, probably not much. The idea of not taking actions to help yourself seems at odds with all our learnings and beliefs. But as a leader, the concept of “voting for someone other than yourself” should not be so crazy. And, in fact, good leaders need to see themselves as working for their direct reports, and, in a way, being more invested in their success than their own.

Here are some key ways to apply the “vote for someone else” ethic in your role as leader:

Give Away What You Have

“Man hoards himself when he has nothing to give away.” – Edward Dahlberg 

There’s a concept called “Abundance” that is a critical character trait for successful leadership. Abundance, as you might expect, is having presence, confidence and energy – so much so that you can be confident in giving to others your time, your ideas, and your help. You don’t need to take from others in order to be successful.

Having abundance helps attack one of the core cultural problems of many large corporations – the tacit zero-sum game of success – where employees seem to be pitted against each other for attention and rewards. This naturally has an inhibiting effect on sharing, helping and giving among co-workers. However, when you’re abundant, you know you are always re-filling your own kitty – so you’re comfortable giving to others. You are happy to share your thoughts and ideas. You’re happy to take the time to help others solve their problems. And you’re generous with praise and attention. It will all come back to you – in trust, respect, and ever more abundance.

Don’t Worry About Credit

“It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” – Harry S. Truman

Because leadership so often is intangible, people can feel they need to claim their successes. And the pressures to deliver “big wins” can cause leaders to trump up their achievements at the cost of their teammates. But this type of politicking and power-hoarding breeds fear and insecurity – and doesn’t have to be the case. In the words of Arnold H. Glasow, “A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, and a little less than his share of the credit.” So, praise your team members and lavish credit on them. Everyone will know that you helped steer that ship. Simply let the credit accrue to you due to your team’s successes.

Cheer the Successes of Others

“A person places themselves on the level with the ones they praise.” – Goethe

In these “zero-sum” cultures, individuals tend to feel jealous of peers who achieve success. This negative energy creates competition and in-fighting. But it isn’t really true that others’ successes somehow limit our own opportunities. Confident and abundant leaders know that they will experience their own successes on their own terms. Instead of feeling that mix of envy and Schadenfreude towards your co-workers, practice the Buddhist concept called Mudita – “the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s well-being rather than begrudging it.”  This breeds stronger, more productive relationships, better long-term connections, and general good karma.

Lead with Integrity

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionable integrity. Without it, no real success is possible.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Sure, everyone knows it’s important to be honest, to understand morality and ethics, and to act accordingly. But it’s easy to say it’s important; it’s another thing entirely to walk-the-talk. As Oprah Winfrey said, “real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.”

Unfortunately, it’s too easy for people to find loopholes or play fast and loose with their ethical code. People at all levels in business become overly focused on themselves, and end up bending with the tide, selfishly chasing their own gain. However, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “the person of integrity lives in a fragile balance” between the all-too-human traits and pressures surrounding them.  Always stay balanced and true to yourself and your code.

Be kind

“Kindness is the language the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain

Today, business is not for the faint of heart. It’s never been more competitive, more urgent, and more pressure-packed. Sales and market-share are fought for, competitors are battled with, and consumers are stolen. It’s an all-out-war. It would seem that kindness and being nice are out of synch with this battle.

But, in the end, it’s people who lead to any company’s success. And people, well, tend to like kindness. They respond positively to being treated well. And a happy team and a happy culture correlate more highly with success than an every-man-for-himself, Machiavellian one. So be nice. Be careful how you speak to someone. Treat folks with respect – and never expect anyone to do anything you wouldn’t do. And appreciate people’s efforts and always say thank you. You’ll be surprised how well kindness can be your competitive advantage. And, as Aesop said, “no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

Who knows what I’d have done differently if I’d won that election. Would my life have taken a very different course? It’s impossible to know. But the lessons I learned from my vote that day – give to others, don’t worry about who gets credit, cheer the success of others, demonstrate integrity, and be kind – are well worth the lesson.

Ideas are a-dime-a-dozen. What are you going to DO with yours?

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As seen on TV, er, in TalentZoo, check out my newest article (also in its entirety below), on ideas – and what needs to happen AFTER you have a good one.  Without the hard work of distilling, developing, iterating, and “stratecuting” it, your idea doesn’t stand a chance of success. Would love to hear your examples, comments and rants below. And please share!


I think most people would agree that ideas make the world go around. Ideas can move mountains, ideas are the lifeblood of business, and they’re worth their weight in gold. But what if I told you that ideas are over-rated. That we spend too much time rhapsodizing over them, perfecting them, and paying homage to them? Because, while ideas can be sexy and exciting and even amazing, they’re really a-dime-a-dozen. Who hasn’t had a good idea? And how often has that brilliant idea led to great success?

Ideas are really just a starting point – they’re part of the means to the end, but most definitely not an end in themselves. The key is what you do after having one. How you distill it, communicate it, develop and iterate it, and then get-it-done.  Here are some keys to successful ideas:

Don’t have just one

Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have. Emile Chartier

People get attached to their ideas and stick to them like white on rice. They hold on tight and don’t let go. They refuse to question them, they defend them all costs, they resist input. They suffer from confirmation bias.  However, it’s critical that you be open to feedback, to evolution and iteration, and to conflict. Question your assumptions. Welcome tough questions. Invite opposing views. Not every idea is a home run, and not every one is great right out of the gate. But if you’ve only got one, you won’t allow yourself to think that way.

Ideas need to be shared

“You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere.” Lee Iacocca

A good idea needs to be communicated – so simplification and conviction are key. Distill it down to its essence, make sure you can convey it, and demonstrate your passion.

And dispense with all the confidentiality, privacy, keeping others out. Ideas need transparency and input. Share early and often.

Ideas need followers

“A mediocre idea that generates enthusiasm will go further than a great idea that inspires no one.” Mary Kay Ash

I don’t care how unique or novel your idea is, if it doesn’t gather momentum and get people excited, it’s likely not going to work. It needs to spark something in others for it to be helpful. It needs to create acolytes, advocates, believers and dreamers.

Ideas require hard work

“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration” Thomas A. Edison

Having an idea is just the beginning of your work – what happens next is much more important. That is, the “stratecution” – the strategic and creative activation and execution of the idea. Without it, an idea is simply a theory or hypothesis. So an idea needs to begin to work through the who, what, how, when of the idea. The what-it-might-look-like, how it might begin, where it might be going.  What does success look like, how will we measure our performance, what results are we looking for? This process requires both dreamers and doers – those to figure out what the idea could be, and those who can make it a reality.

It’s been said that a great idea that is poorly executed fails, but a mediocre idea well executed succeeds at some level. This is true. For years, this was the hallmark of Proctor & Gamble‘s marketing. Average ideas, blasted out across every channel, connecting from top to bottom of the funnel, and driving across everything the brand did. Nothing anyone ever went “aha!” or “wow!” over; but always successfully making the cash register ring.  A brilliant idea has, no doubt, a multiplier effect on great execution – but it does not nor cannot substitute for it.

The most important part – Get ‘er done

“Ideas won’t keep. Something must be done about them.” Alfred North Whitehead

The final key to ideas is making them happen, with speed and iteration. Stop perfecting them and get them started. The devil is indeed in the details, so start developing them – and be open to adapting as you learn. You’re always better off starting and learning in the real world than waiting and trying to perfect what, in essence, is a hypothesis.

Ideas aren’t magic. Ideas aren’t silver bullets. And ideas can’t be walk-off homers. They’re a starting point for the real, hard work that it takes to be successful. So, what do you think of my idea?

I Love a Good Flip-Flopper

When I was about 6 or 7 years old, I had a friend at my house. My older brother did something nasty to the kid, as he commonly did back then, leaving my friend nearly frozen with rage. He pointed at my brother, apoplectic, shouting, “you, you, you,…”, putting great thought into what to call him that was bad enough to equal my brother’s actions. Finally, he said, “you… DOCTOR!”, summoning up the worst possible name he could think of.

Nowadays, the worst name you can call someone is “Flip-Flopper”. The term isn’t new (apparently Ford called Carter one, and Mike Dukakis called Dick Gephard one), but it seems to have really picked up steam. Mitt Romney is the current politician with a “flip-flop” problem.  John Kerry had an epic flip-flop problem – it probably cost him the election in 2004. But why is it so bad? Being a “flip-flopper” suggests you lack conviction – and making you appear weak, effete, untrustworthy.  Americans have become maniacal about demanding 100% steadfast, unwavering devotion to any idea. It’s a singular American image – standing up for what you believe is right, even against great adversity, like John Wayne, the men at Iwo Jima, Charlie Sheen. Others may go with the flow, take the easy route, bend to opposition. But not those devoted, steadfast few, the non-Flip-floppers.

But the truth is that flip-flopping can be a good thing. It can demonstrate a number of extremely positive attributes and behaviors. Are you willing to flip-flop?

1)      It shows you’re willing to say the magic words “I don’t know”
Like I’ve said before, certainty and surety are fine in a black-and-white world, but what world is black-and-white? If you allow yourself to be uncertain, then you can question freely – yourself, your assumptions and the way you’ve always done things. And you can’t imagine how empowering it is to a team for a leader to allow for the fact that he doesn’t know everything.

2)      You are able to admit you were wrong
I don’t care how smart you are, you can’t always right. It’s important to be open to being wrong, to making mistakes, to changing your mind. In fact, you can learn more from your mistakes and failures than your successes.

3)      It demonstrates thinking
Most issues are complicated and complex. No matter how well you’ve thought through the topic, there’s likely more you don’t know or haven’t seen. So changing your mind could be driven by learning – by hearing additional information, and then deciding differently. There are many who don’t seem to believe it (or at least don’t demonstrate that they’re in favor of it), but thinking is good. If thinking causes one to reach a different conclusion than he reached before, it’s a good thing in my book.

4)      You recognize the importance of context
Context plays an important part of our decision-making. There are times a decision one way may makes sense, and other times it won’t. Romney’s support of a woman’s right to choose while Governor of Massachusetts made sense – his electorate supported it. His flip-flop against it now is due to a change in his context and his following his own, personal beliefs. The same can be true in business – as contexts change, a decision may need to, also.

5)      You believe in empirical evidence (even when it’s contrary to your in-going assumptions and beliefs)
Blind faith may work in religion, but it doesn’t work in politics or business. Belief is fine, as well – but belief is essentially an untested hypothesis. Learning, experience and data should help mold your beliefs – and if it causes a change in your views, then good for you. It’s like turning the steering wheel if you’re driving towards a cliff – if the evidence indicates the direction you are going is wrong, I suggest turning.

6)      You recognize that things change
One thing that will never change is the fact that things always change. And with the accelerating pace of technology, things are changing faster than ever. A decision made today could be affected by tomorrow’s new normal. Remember it’s not weak to address change with new, and changed approaches. In fact, it takes even more strength.

7)      It shows a respect for nimbleness
Due to the increasing pace of change, there’s a demand for greater flexibility and nimbleness. People, organizations, even entire industries are being forced to adapt, evolve and make wholesale changes to address the new realities. Staying steadfast to an out-moded model isn’t showing conviction, it’s showing ignorance.

So from now on, investigate further what’s making a flip-flopper flip-flop. It might be something you respect.

Be a Yes-Person

Everyone hates a Yes-man. A flunkie, a stooge, a sycophant.  But there’s another type of “yes-person” that’s good. In fact, I believe there are two types of people – Yes-people and No-people. And, especially in business, you want to surround yourself with the “yeses” and avoid the “nos”.

A No-person isn’t just someone who doesn’t say yes. They’re afraid of new ideas and find ways to ridicule them and undermine them. They come up with reason after reason for not doing things – “we tried that already”, “it will never work”, “the client won’t buy it”. They’re threatened by the success and confidence of others. So they sap energy and undermine other peoples’ efforts.

On the other hand, Yes-people are full of energy and excitement – and enthusiastically open to new ideas. They are supportive and help build on them. And they listen, collaborate and help succeed. Teams full of Yes-people win – good luck if you’ve got a team full of No-people. Speaking about team success, a member of the British Royal Marines said, “It’s not about skills. It’s about attitude and the effect on the team. One wrong team player can sap all the energy from the group.”

So how do you be a Yes-person?

Do stuff. Say yes to doing things, trying things, helping with things. Read about new ideas and stay current. Keep up to date on culture, entertainment, science, politics. And get out there and be present – physically and mentally. This keeps your yes-muscle exercised.

Exchange “no, but…” with “yes, and…” Be open to ideas you haven’t had before or wouldn’t normally agree with – and phrase your comments and builds in a way that is additive and overcomes potential issues, vs. tossing out roadblocks and hand-grenades. Don’t let negative thoughts kill the seedlings of ideas before they’re allowed to germinate a bit. And if you have prior experience or knowledge that identifies watch-outs, use it as a way to avoid mistakes and difficulties.

Be the dumbest person in the room. One potential issue leading to “no-ism” is some people’s need to be the smartest. Instead, you should happily surround yourself with smarter people, and feel confident in your role as helping to facilitate other people’s greatness and success. And never worry about ownership or proprietariness of ideas – a Yes-person just wants good things to happen, regardless of credit.

Be solution-focused. Don’t spend much energy or time focused on what is WRONG. Instead, get people directed on what needs to happen to make it right. Too much time, especially in groups, is spent on grousing and carping about the problem and the blame. Energize and infuse your teams with optimism about what is possible.

Be a “first responder” for those needing help. Another exercise for your “yes-muscle” is helping others. Have an open door to people looking for help or advice, regardless of whether they are directly on your team. Join groups, cross-functional teams, and skunk-works projects that are developing innovations or providing organizational recommendations. Be viewed as someone who is involved and wants to participate.

Be a “Radiator”. Another simple segmentation of people is there are “Radiators” and “Drains”. You can imagine what a Drain does. So always be a Radiator – radiate energy, enthusiasm, and possibility. And smile, dammit!

Avoid the seduction of the No. It’s easy to fall into the “no” trap. To build on the carping and the pessimism. But don’t take the bait. Steer clear of the negativity, brush off the comments, and stay focused on building yeses.

So the next time you’re on a team project, focus on being a Yes-person – and do your best to contain the No-people. Better yet, avoid them altogether, if you can.

Love to hear stories about your No-people!

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