Somebody said we were allowed to think out loud. Pardon the mess.

Friday, August 13, 2004

"Real People Ads: We Have a Winner"

Yes, indeed they do. And they're gonna work. Well.

The above is the subhead for this page from (Yeah, those "Hitler" guys.)

Well, this time, they've got it right, and it's no accident. Errol Morris, master of capturing Americans just talking and being Americans shot these after interviewing "...Republicans, Democrats and Independents – who voted for George Bush in 2000, but will be voting for Kerry in 2004."

It's typical Morris. Certainly not the most whizbang production; no glitz, no hype, no heat. Just real people. Incredulous, confused, jilted, embarrassed, perturbed and resolute people. Saying real people stuff, with real people feeling.

Hey, the ad-world saying goes, when you have a Cure for Cancer, you don't need razzamatazz, just say it. The same goes when you realize you've got it. Just say it. And get on with the remediation.

Lovemarks? I prefer the rhythmn method. A/K/A: Diverge, Converge, Reemerge, Repeat

Yes. What the world needs now, is love, sweet love. But maybe a few less marriages of convenience would be a good enough start.

Johnnie Moore comes back in comments about a part of the previous Lovemarks/Modesty post:
I particularly liked the thought about curiosity and honesty. That speaks to both being clear about what we DO know, and about the stuff we have yet to learn. The first grounds us, the second moves us forward.
He's talking about this bit:
The ingredients are curiosity mated with honesty. The mixing bowl, if you will, is a company structured to exalt and serve up to people--customer and employee and world--the fruits of those ideals, consistently and well executed. The result is an enviable confidence or sureness of identity rooted in common human purpose. With this primary goal in place, one could switch from making tires to toasters tomorrow and, beyond the expected technical obstacles, be reasonably assured that people would have no problem believing in the worth of what they do.
"What we DO know... stuff we have yet to learn."

Yep, honesty and curiosity = Exploration. Minus true curiosity ("come what may"), you're just playing at it, eh? And a deep primal human urge and highly leveragable business talent is denied, lost, sacrificed. Absent the honesty part, we find ourselves saying "There's gold in them thar hills" when there isn't. Maybe this is because we thought there was or hoped there was. Maybe, we said there was and when we got there we wuz wrong. So we fudge it, either because we don't want to look stupid or, because we truthfully, really, only had a lot of dungarees and shovels we wanted to sell. Bad mojo, any way you look at it.

Okay, so Johnnie and I are sympatico. No surprise there. Then I bump into this from Naina at Aside Innovation Blog.
...Virgin itself is also a good example of mutation and adaptation. The music retail business was created when a postal strike threatened to shut down the fledgling mail order record company. Virgin Atlantic was the result of an unsolicited approach from outside the company. Virgin Blue (a low-cost airline in Australia) is a similar story.

In my experience, what makes Virgin innovative is a strong sense of self, an ability to experiment, the skill to cross-fertilize ideas, and a willingness to change. The company has largely grown, not through the unfolding of some master plan, but through an accumulation of learning and ideas caused by threats, accidents and luck.

So, if external events and adaptation are the driving forces of biological evolution, is it possible to develop an innovation process that seeks out accidents and mutations?
Ooooh. Curiosity. Honesty.What we know, and don't know. Darwin. Sense of Self. Threats, accidents, luck. External events. Adaptation. The accumulaton of learning and ideas. Evolve or die. Eat or be eaten. Freedom... Or prison.

Choices, choices.... Time for some art.

The Problem. And an alternative. Invariably, we end up as victims of the Stockholm Syndrome, shackled to our ideas, our processes--our default position--because of this:

Eww. Who hasn't ridden that merry-go-round? More bad mojo. Jon Katzenbach wrote a nice book on the syndrome: Why pride matters more than money. It points out one of those simple and old truths mentioned here: When it comes to strategic decisionmaking or even just tactically deciding things like "do we give bonuses this year?" many of us become economic irrationalists viewing it more wise to throw money at a problem or situation, because our organizations do not sanction or structure themselves to allow us to throw ourselves INTO a problem or work. But collectively, we don't and won't do any throwing when bosses like you or me insist on ghostwriting every bit of the dialogue and scripting "acceptable" denouements before the adventure's even begun. The result? We end up "exploring" environs fulfilling as a seaside Goofy-Golf--fiberglass volcanoes, pretend rainforests and all. The strategic and executed result has all the natural feel and flow of QWERTY.
On his first model, [type-writer inventor Christopher Sholes'] "ABC" key arrangement caused the keys to jam when the typist worked quickly. Sholes didn't know how to keep the keys from sticking, so his solution was to keep the typist from typing too fast....The new arrangement was the "QWERTY" arrangement that typists use today. Of course, Sholes claimed that the new arrangement was scientific and would add speed and efficiency. The only efficiency it added was to slow the typist down, since almost any word in the English language required the typist's fingers to cover more distance on the keyboard.
Uh-huh. There's gold in them thar hills--Need some shovels? Who knows, maybe the first thing he typed was "It's not personal, it's business."

Sholes is just a frumpy ancestor in a tall family tree filled with taller tales, each breathlessly denying the gravity and import of authenticity and conscience. In this great post, Johnnie refers to the personae--hollowed out frontmen and -women peddling plastic reality--as "marionettes."
When asked for an opinion, they tell you what the organisation thinks, or what their boss thinks, and not what they think. When you get to meet their boss, they need to brief you for 15 minutes on what you can and can't say to them. Mantras about accountability, core competences, ROI are trotted out with apparent vehemence - but if you ask them to give specific examples, they can't answer, because they don't actually know that these mantras actually mean to them.
Perfect. And a shame. And a waste.

When the work or brand or company is framed as an extension of our own inner ideal and ambition, the demands for corner offices, free donuts and Benzes for Junior Associates disappear. And from the other side of the cash register, you begin hearing fewer transactions begin with "Yeah, yeah--what's your discount?"

In other words, one needs to fix this egregious state of affairs...

So much for the problem. What's a "new" dialogue do and look like? Well, it sorts out what matters. And what sustains. It crystalizes group ideals down to a concentrate that you should sprinkle like Miracle Gro on the process of finding opportunity and creating marketable and meaningful difference.

The goal is to add coordinates of feeling and dimensionality--seems humans appreciate this kind of stuff--to that paper construct called "company" or "brand" or "mission." Kinda looks like this...

But be warned: If your idea of doing business and talking business is to be "all business," and, to snicker or scowl when employees do in the office what bosses only do over many scotches away from the office--that would be, umm, bitch about lost horizons rather than stop digging, dropping the shovel, and climbing out of the damn hole--well, you're probably gonna find ways to take your red pencil and frustration to even The Gettysburg Address. Bite your tongue. Put down the pencil. Think a minute. Give yourself a chance...

What matters. Between employee and management and consumer. What removes the desk, physical or metaphorical, between you and your audience. What matters to you. To your people, your market, your board, your customers, your grandma.

Products and services are enablers to a larger purpose--a means to an end. They are the excuse to build relationships to achieve greater meaning. Have you thought about that? Have you thought about what it means, relative to your company or efforts? Why not?

The circut and cycle that is your company is an engine creating one thing: Good feeling. A consumer, by having parted with precious economic wherewithal will come out the other side feeling enriched, improved, and more self-realized. They want to like you, appreciate you. If you did it right, often and appropriately enough, they may love you.

Do you let that good feeling die on the vine? Are you aware of it? Do you talk about t? If not, you may have moved a SKU, but you have not been a good samaritan. If not, you have done "business," but you have not done good.

Pursue that conection, in myriad forms of your choosing. That customer will come back. And that customer will talk.

Now, if the above cyclical ebbs and flows of diverge then converge then repeat (in the correct order) seems alien, try looking at how some of us around here view where we are and how we got here. And how, culturally, Shift-Time is inexorably here...

You might disagree with that final graphic. Or any of them. No sweat. They will have succeeded anyway: you will have begun to delve into, synthesize, and provide usable context for two things that affect 90% of your efforts, and get 10% of your attention--if you're lucky:
1. Your understanding of a past and present you were dealt.

2. Your evaluation of a future you can create.
If you're in a hole, or simply orbiting a Goofy Golf, you've just begun mapping out your escape. And maybe, just maybe, a comparable and meaningful egress and ambition for a lot of others.

Now get out of here and go chart some graphs of your own. Off you go.

Monday, August 09, 2004

A modest(y) proposal

Johnnie Moore has the first of what looks to be a very nice series of posts "...talking about alternative ways of creating brands that are socially useful and economically sustainable." I like the comparative angle he chooses between Kevin Roberts' Lovemarks and Jim Collins' Good to Great. The gist is the fallacy of visionary leaders and their supposed "epiphanies", often related in grandiose tomes like "Lovemarks." As Johnnie points out, Roberts is CEO of the UK's Saatchi, the self-proclaimed masters of the Grand Gesture. On the other hand, Roberts' polar opposite, Collins' prototypical CEO from Good to Great, is a master of the understated style. Translation: According to Collins' data and premise, successful leaders find and make people (employee, consumer) and their products the hero, not themselves or their kitschy formulations. What the hell, here's Johnnie:
Beyond Lovemarks: Modesty

...For every successful brand, there are a myriad of boastful individuals trying to take the credit – either for a supposed act of dramatic leadership in bringing it about, or for having cracked the secret formula that led to its success. Look at most agency websites and stories are almost always ones of a series of unmitigated triumphs.

Sadly, some clients are clawing around for the magic formula and easily fall prey to such approaches....

But most branding is not successful. For every great brand you or I could nominate, there are probably thousands of also-rans. In my experience, these failures are quietly covered up, rationalised or scapegoated by their perpetrators. And, of course, go largely unnoticed by the rest of us.

Thus the story of branding is a tale usually told by an egotist, and thus we get the conventional narrative of heroic leadership, blinding customer insight blah blah blah.

Typically, it is told as a series of highly rational decisions made by insightful gurus.
"Thousands of also-rans."

Indeed. More often than not, the books are really the reverse engineering of happy accidents or stubborn intuition into the wisdom of seeming rocket science. Similarly, the 65 out of 100 CEOs whose merger brainchild born of hurry or ego or 'synergy" is wheeled straight to neonatal intensive care (and worse)--well, they don't seem too anxious to share their "vision" either.

Strange. Guesswork and gluttony masquerading as Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. Except, of course, that's not the acceptable "spin." It is the un-love that dare not speak it's name. Like Johnnie, and probably like you, I've witnessed plenty of the hairy stepchildren we shunt off to the basement, and maybe sired a few. As a guy who's helped wrangle strategy, marketing, or just plain ideas for small businesses of 10 people and for behemoths of tens of thousands, it seems to me there's a certain "East is East, West is West, and never the twain shall meet" affliction that prevents the majority of companies from making the leap from merely meeting requirements to creating actionable meaning and compelling loyalty:

The ingredients are curiosity mated with honesty. The mixing bowl, if you will, is a company structured to exalt and serve up to people--customer and employee and world--the fruits of those ideals, consistently and well executed. The result is an enviable confidence or sureness of identity rooted in common human purpose. With this primary goal in place, one could switch from making tires to toasters tomorrow and, beyond the expected technical obstacles, be reasonably assured that people would have no problem believing in the worth of what they do.

Now, to me, that statement makes sense. It covers product differentiation and an ethic of craft over simply "punching in." It relates and merges the truth that employees must part with energy and enthusiasm just as customers must part with money and, perhaps, an "old friend" in the form of a previously preferred product or brand. It acknowledges that companies exist in communities outside themselves, with roles and obligations akin to other community citizens. It states that consistent, quality execution is the result, but that service by and to people is the means and the end.

There's not a lot in the above that any self-respecting business-person could disagree with. Some might even say, "Yeah, that's what we believe." No, it certainly doesn't cover the minutiae of production, or of getting your salespeople to reliably transcribe and track their orders. It doesn't describe the process of judging what's a sensible ROI vis a vis marketing and sales dollars spent relative to inquiries and conversions.

No, it does something better, and here's the East-West problem in a nutshell--It broaches the questions:
• Does what we do matter?
• To who?
• And how?
Sound like any conversation you've been privvy to lately? Probably not. We claim ideals. We talk about customers and delight. We seminar on employee engagement. We drumbeat consistency, quality and execution. But to follow the analogy, the ingredients are often separate and therefore, inert. Today, we practice "delighting the customer." Tomorrow is "employee engagement day." Next Thursday, we'll be running around like nutcases screaming "Execute, execute!"

Each claim will have its champion and its moment; its cheerleader and mouthpiece. Each will bleat its entitlement as the "Real" top of the pyramid. Each will suggest "it" matters most. Each will say "East is Best" or "West is worst."

Each will want to be "The Hero."

The hero metaphor is wildly in play every day in business near as I can tell. That's not a bad thing. In fact, in a world where people increasingly perceive themselves as cogs in a machine that churns out celebrity and values spectacle, silicone or chutzpah over hard work and dues paying, the need for identifiable opportunities for workaday heroism are only becoming more profound. But real heroes are heroes for others, not for glory or narrow greed. Heroes remind us of the better reasons for our day-in, day-out efforts. And just as there's a thin archetypal line between hero and outlaw, cop and criminal, joker and king, there's plenty of opportunity for folks to step over the line and buy into their own "omnipotence" or to justifying means with ends. It seems the media bent toward simplification and compression of stories into soundbites abets this "unnatural", artificial, unearned "Voila!" that Roberts and others traffic in. Voila!: The Obvious. Voila!: The natural order of things, like grandma said they are and should be.

In searching for the meaning of brand, the meaning of work and trade--their human import--is pulled out of the equation leaving a brand or company persona that speaks the words of Hallmark-variety feeling, but doesn't go deep enough to mine the true source of the power of the words and concepts. But why? Workers consume. Consumers work. Each group, at different times, wants to feel they are maximizing their energy, loyalty and limited resources. A product question addressed to, say, a befuddled and shrugging WalMart employee leaves us unsure and uneasy of their commitment to us and our concerns. That same employee, deep down, damnably wishes they had the knowledge to help us, or the luxury of gaining it and the sanctioned time to spend with us imparting it. But the model does not value or permit it, even though the hunger is patently there, on both sides of the register. A purchase may happen; a need may or may not be met, but in human satisfaction terms, the deal has not been sealed comfortably. This transfer of commitment and concern, this trading of compassion and aid for cash... well, it's the true Mark of Love many of us, perhaps Roberts included, stumble around looking for, but miss for fear of being labelled a kook by Wall Street, our Directors, our peers, or our competition. But hey, don't take it from me. Get it from Drucker talking about mopping floors:
For 150 years, from 1850 on, society moved inexorably towards being a society of organizations. In 1900, nobody worked in an "organization." It's a 1950s term. Lots of people were employed -- hired hands on the farm, domestic servants, journeymen in their shop, but they worked for a master, not an organization. And the work was very personal.

[I'm sure it goes without saying; Drucker uses "master" in this context as a stand-in for personal connection and communication -- transparency and two-way accountability; leading by example -Ed.]

Since then the organization has become the organizer -- though not necessarily the employer. Now we have all kinds of dangerous liaisons. One of the things to understand that the woman who works for the hospital, cleaning floors, is very bored by the job. But if she works for ServiceMaster... she's very excited by it because people listen to her, people challenge her. She is expected to improve the job and gets paid for doing it -- whereas before no one would listen.
If you look closely--and not to the pages of MBA 101--you find the simplest truths and the oldest truths are the drivers behind all great brands: Humility, harmony (or shared ambition), authenticity, and an implicit agreement that we all want a postive legacy. The rest is merely modernist backfill to justify slackness or selfish or immoderate choices. Our ways of working, raising our kids, choosing mates, or, creating and selecting products either support that inherent humanty and humility, or they don't. Lying, fudging, or corporate cosmetic surgery in the form of PR can't change what we intimately know of the character of the organizations to which we loan our lives. But--and here's the real tragedy--they can vastly increase our levels of guilty knowledge and rob our willingness to help haul employers and their brands out of the fire. Obvious, to those with eyes to see, isn't it?

Those old and simple truths, as ideals, are self-sustaining and extremely socially relevant, if not always self-starting or self-clarifying, hence the need for leaders who simplify--and do it ethically. The absence of these relevant ideals means you resort to constant spot applications of the cattle prods of fear-mongering, jealousy, pride, greed etc. We destroy the village in our misguided efforts to prop it up. In this, business, branding, politics, etc are no different. Despite being counterproductive in the short term, and destructive in the longterm, coercion is far easier than cooption or understanding to the narrowminded, hurried, or inattentive. (Read: Decisionmakers.) But, sure as night follows day, the alternatives do break through like a daisy in the concrete, and the institutionalized venality and laziness are shown in high relief. In this way, those "voila!" moments describe the finding of something that was never really lost. I believe the saying goes "There's never time to do it right, but there's always time to do it over again."


"It" is finding what matters, and aligning our business accordingly, not folding, spindling and mutilating what matters to us in order to make our methods and practice at least seem more palatable. The keys to making powerful, worthy, resonant and sustainable brands and companies are right under our noses. The levers and nerves are well noted and time-tested: Language is key, feeling is fuel, exploration is mandatory, assumptions should be suspended, connection and community are our real products.

Of course, this is "business" and fleshing out those things would be heretical to "efficiency" and a rational distribution of assets, wouldn't it?

On second thought, the keys aren't right under our noses. They're under glass, like those fire alarm boxes, the ones that say "break glass in case of emergency." Problem is, we only bash the glass when our ass is on fire and we're all out of rationalizations. That's too bad. For a lot of people, all of whom deserve better.

I don't know if he counts as a visionary leader, but Henry Kissinger once said something that cuts most professional corporate "visionaries" down to size:
A lack of options clears the mind marvelously."
Amen. And pass the modesty. And some other fundamentals, too.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

One week later: I'm tan. He's still stupid.

Well, after one Outer Banks family vacation interrupted by a Hurricane, it's nice to be back and alive. It''s also comforting to know that even without an internet connection, the world keeps on turning and our Commander in Chief keeps on treading water, poorly....

Via Brad DeLong
Q Good morning. My name is Mark Trahant. I'm the editorial page editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a member of the Native American Journalist Association. (Applause.) Most school kids learn about the government in the context of city, county, state and federal. And, of course, tribal governments are not part of that at all. Mr. President, you've been a governor and a President, so you have a unique experience, looking at it from two directions. What do you think tribal sovereignty means in the 21st century, and how do we resolve conflicts between tribes and the federal and the state governments?
THE PRESIDENT: Tribal sovereignty means that, it's sovereign. You're a -- you've been given sovereignty, and you're viewed as a sovereign entity. And, therefore, the relationship between the federal government and tribes is one between sovereign entities.
Now, it's easy to suggest that Tribal Sovereignty would fall under the "obscure policy details of governance" category, that is, if you didn't know that 1) Indian gaming and the related tax, business and legal frameworks were a major issue of Dubya's Texas Governorship or 2), that "Sovereignty" as a concept is part and parcel of every speech he gives on the meaning and definition of success for our little Iraqi/Middle East foreign policy experiment.

Funny thing that Sovereignty. Even funnier--or is it just sadder?--when you hear it from the holder of the most important job in America and the World. Here's the man himself. Go ahead, it's only 470kb. The mp3 via the Majority Report.

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