Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Blow To The Head

The normal content of all of my blogs has been pre-empted by what I consider to be an essential message. If you're looking for something else, be patient and share this with your favorite athlete, and his or her parents. 
My son no longer plays youth hockey, and I no longer coach youth hockey. And while I am heartbroken by this turn of events, I am totally at peace with that decision.
Obviously, one event precipitated the other. On Nov. 17, my son Andy suffered his third concussion in 10 months, in a B-level bantam game. The next day a neurologist – whose son was a star hockey player – recommended he give up the sport.
We didn’t argue or fight back. Instead, we accepted the recommendation with a measure of relief; at the same time, I resigned my position as an assistant coach with my son’s team.
My son was not going to be a star hockey player; he shook out as a borderline high-school varsity player. But his skills as a hockey player did not have any impact on this decision. He’s a very good B-level bantam hockey player, arguably one of the best in the state. With him on the ice, his team stood a very good chance of winning a state title. He didn’t leave a lesser team or a less meaningful situation, not that that matters or should matter. I can’t imagine any decision to leave a team could have been any more heart-wrenching even at the highest levels of the game, yet we made this decision unanimously, without compunction or remorse.
Andy is walking away primarily because the doctors and his parents recommended it. I am walking away because I can no longer with a clear conscience recommend that young people play upper-level hockey.
This isn’t a cause-and-effect thing; it’s not simply a case of me losing my desire to coach because my son had three concussions and had to quit hockey. Instead, this is a conclusion that I have reached after coaching more than 100 hockey games over the last four years. I can no longer convince myself that there is sufficient concern for players’ well-being coming from any sector of the sport – equipment manufacturers, sanctioning bodies and organizations, officials, coaches, parents, and other players.
In the last six games I coached I saw three players on our team leave the ice with concussions or concussion-like symptoms. In less than a full season I saw six players sustain concussions and one break his collarbone.
I asked Andy how many penalty minutes were doled out as the total punishment for those injuries, all of which were inflicted through illegal or borderline-illegal contact. He said six.
Six minutes: That’s a total. That’s a total for six significant brain injuries and a broken bone resulting from illegal and borderline-illegal contact.  Cause injuries like that on the street and you’re spending a year in prison. Do that in high-school hockey and your team can’t play for a state championship.  Do it in the NHL or NFL and you’re suspended one game minimum and fined five figures. Do that in bantam-B hockey and you spend six minutes in the box.
Does this seem right to you in any way? If not, the easy way out is to blame the officials and leave it at that. They should have called the penalties. Call the penalties and none of this happens.
Okay, but consider the officials’ situation. Most of our team’s games were officiated by children as the law defines them, 16- or 17-year-old boys looking to make a little money. For some of them, the first game they officiated was our game.
It never struck me until very recently, but I am absolutely terrified by the mere idea of having a barely trained 16-year-old boy, in many cases a head-knocking product of a head-knocking hockey culture, being put into a contentious environment and charged with enforcing the rules protecting 14-year-old kids in a sport where violent high-speed collisions occur every minute. These young officials have only the most basic knowledge of the rules, are not sufficiently removed from a hockey culture that may encourage illegal contact, are easily influenced by coaches and spectators, and in no way feel empowered to make the difficult calls that need to be made to create an adequate atmosphere of safety on the ice. They’re in a no-win situation, and the game and its players suffer for it.
Not only do officials need to be better trained and sufficiently empowered, the rules backing them need to be stiffer. A lot stiffer. It’s okay to be draconian here, to punish player, coach, and team for hits resulting in head injuries. If USA Hockey, the Wisconsin Amateur Hockey Association, and all other hockey-sanctioning bodies wanted to remove from the game 90 percent of the hits resulting in head injuries, they could. Disqualify teams from tournaments. Suspend coaches. Suspend players. Forfeit games. Bar organizations. It’s not as if they don’t know the dangers or what’s at stake. After all, there wouldn’t be state or national titles if these bodies didn’t create them out of whole cloth.
Football has taken huge steps toward criminalizing head contact. Hockey’s efforts look half-hearted by comparison.
As long as we’re on the subject of sanctioning bodies and half-hearted efforts, the attempts to educate coaches on the necessity of removing the culture of violence from the game and discourage head contact come off as less than half-hearted – one-quarter-hearted, maybe. USA Hockey’s age-specific modules spend at least as much time talking about why eight-year-olds should not drink alcohol as they do avoiding the subject of head contact. (USA Hockey’s glass-half-full approach is to teach appropriate body contact, and avoid the subject of the head as much as possible.) Educational requirements are bare-bones for most coaches, with nothing that stresses the absolute necessity of compliance. Coaches can and do sleep through their clinic, stumble through their CE, and go right back to teaching the art of the high elbow to the jaw and the stick butt under the shoulder pads.
Somehow, someway, the head-knockers and red-bloods that are coaching kids need to be weeded out, or dialed back at the very least. I had the privilege of working under some superb coaches who truly understood the game. Jim Lawrence is a Ph. D. in chemistry who coached the club-hockey team at Purdue. Ron Dufresne played Minnesota hockey and Ivy League football. I’ve seen these highly educated men teach the game the right way practice after practice and game after game. They’ve sat kids who were improperly aggressive, dialed back the bench when they cheered a big hit, treated referees with respect, acknowledged good plays by opponents, supported kids who needed supporting, held back kids who were hurt, and shook hands at the final buzzer.
Did we sometimes cheer the wrong things at the wrong times? Sure. But we never belittled a child, swore at a child, swore at an official, sanctioned players who swore at other players or officials, applauded illegal behavior, encouraged head-hunting, or raised hockey players the way NFL players raise pitbulls. We played against plenty of coaches who did, unfortunately.
“So there are bad coaches,” the red-bloods say. “Big news flash. Most coaches are good.”
I’d go along with that. More than half of all coaches are good. All that means is that once a week my son was facing a coach who wasn’t good, who wasn’t teaching kids the right way, who was condoning reckless, unsportsmanlike, dangerous play.
All right, so one-third of coaches are bad. That means my son was being put in a dangerous situation a little less than once a week. One-quarter bad? In danger every other week.
The odds really don’t ever get good. It’s not acceptable for a child’s long-term health to be put into the hands of irresponsible adults once a month, once every other month, once a year, or ever. It’s just not acceptable.
 “Geez, why doncha just do away with checking altogether?” the red-bloods ask mockingly. “And then it’ll be just like girls’ hockey.”
I’m okay with that, actually. None of the life lessons hockey teaches involve head injuries.
One of the reasons I’d be okay with youth hockey minus checking has to do with equipment. Equipment manufacturers say that their equipment is better than ever. It is; it’s better at turning kids into high-speed battering rams.
This isn’t just a hockey thing. Football is struggling with the same problem. Advancements in protective equipment for both sports do a much better job of protecting the deliverer of the blow than the receiver. There is no “concussion-proof” helmet. There is no fail-safe knee brace.
The inventors of such things would enjoy untold riches through organizational endorsements and grateful-parent purchases, so I don’t necessarily think hockey parents should underwrite the development of truly safe equipment through higher fees. But if that’s the way it’s going to get done, surcharge away.
I used to think better equipment was the ultimate way of making hockey safer. Now I think it’s probably the least necessary component in the equation. The ultimate answer isn’t scientific; it’s cultural.
Here is where we really need answers. Rules and punishments come to a dead stop when they run into the head-knocking red-bloods – parents, coaches, players, and organizational officials -- that make up an unfortunately large part of hockey culture.
I may not have the answers, but I have a few suggestions.
Coaches need to take this stuff seriously and realize it’s not the game they played for the most part. It’s a faster, better game played by more highly skilled players. That’s the game they have to teach, and if they can’t teach it, they have to step aside in favor of someone who can.
Parents need to realize the same thing, plus the following: You are not your child. Their aspirations and accomplishments are not your aspirations and accomplishments. And they are very likely not going to make the NHL regardless of how much ice time they get, how many goals they score, what the referees do or don’t do, or how many minutes they spend in the box. Also, it is not all right for your child to hit another child in the head, or from behind, or in any illegal manner, no matter how spectacularly the other kid falls. One of these times he’s not going to get up.
Referees need to make the calls knowing enough to make the calls, and knowing there will be no repercussions from any quarter for making the calls.
Equipment manufacturers need to step it up. Protecting young hockey players is at least as important as protecting young football players.
Finally, the sanctioning bodies have to muzzle the red-bloods who don’t understand why squirts can’t body-check, show a little red blood of their own, and vow to eliminate head contact from the game, and do whatever – whatever—it takes to make that occur – up to and including removing checking from youth hockey.
If checking could be removed from the game for a time, all the people who play hockey simply for the violence might leave, and then if body contact were to be gradually reintroduced commensurate with improvements in equipment, the game might eventually become what it can be – a fast, free-flowing, beautiful sport that above all rewards speed and skill. But that’s not a guarantee. It’s a pipedream.
For my part, I’ll never be able to replace the thrill I got seeing my son charge like a stallion onto the ice to start his shift, the joy I felt seeing the joy he derived from the game. That’s gone forever, and whatever he does in any other sport will never replace that.
At the very end I come back to the story of another parent from Andy’s team, a tough little guy, brusque and abrasive but honest as the day is long, someone I like and respect.  In high school this guy was one of those types who was immediately good at any sport he picked up. Hockey was his favorite sport; he played it well and played hard. He couldn’t tell me how many concussions he sustained, but he assured me it was a big number.
He has a dead spot on his brain now from too many concussions, and Parkinson’s. His last five years have been a continual series of ER visits, tests at Mayo and near-death experiences, all traceable to concussions, all traceable to hockey.
He asked Andy, “How many concussions is this?”
“Three,” Andy answered.
“Take my word for it,” he replied. “The fourth one’s not worth it.”
It’s not worth it. And I can’t convince myself that a third is worth it, or a second, or even a first, and I can’t honestly tell parents or kids that it’s worth it.
So my son and I are walking away from hockey, for different reasons. I know my son’s future is bright, and I’ll be okay. I’m not so sure about the sport. 

Postscript: After I wrote this I shared it, as a whole or in condensed form, with many people whom I consider to be experts in sports medicine, hockey, or writing. Some disagreed with emphasis or wording, but no one disagreed substantially with anything presented in this piece. A hockey coach in Regina, Sask., who was one of Andy’s first coaches said “yep,” and sent me a link to a piece on young officials giving up officiating because of fan abuse. A veteran high-school and semipro hockey official said “yep.” A high-ranking official in minor-league hockey said “yep.” The local high-school hockey coach said “yep.” The former team doctor of the Boston Red Sox said “yep.” The parents of Andy’s former teammates said “yep.” A number of red-blooded hockey fans said “yep.” There’s obviously a problem. The question is whether enough people care sufficiently about a solution.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Social Media: What A Car Wreck

My buddy Gunner wrote the worst car book ever. He wasn’t trying to write the worst car book ever, but he was editing something called Old Cars Weekly and he had all these pictures of car wrecks, and got the assignment of making a book out of the old car-wreck pictures.

Gunner's problem was even though his job was to make a book of car-wreck pictures, he couldn’t suggest that car wrecks are somehow fun, because, you know, a book full of Hupmobiles with crumpled fenders and wayward headlights might make impressionable youth come up with the idea that this stuff is knee-slapping funny. (The combined efforts of hundreds of Mack Sennett two-reelers were not factored into this particular equation.)

So someone’s solution – I’d like to think it wasn’t Gunner’s – was to make a book full of car-wreck pictures but make it an auto-safety book, a book showing what could happen to you if you aren’t careful with your 1921 Kissel.

The car-wreck pictures are the car-wreck pictures, so the only way Gunner could convey this message was through the cutlines. As a result, every picture of a flattened Ford or a crushed Chrysler is captioned to the effect of, “An almost new Model A Ford roadster ran into this seven- or eight-year-old American LaFrance fire engine on June 29, 1930, in New Jersey. Judging from damage to the truck, this Ford was probably a total loss. Don’t loose [sic] your antique Ford to careless driving!”

If you have trouble stomaching one of these, just think: There are almost 250 pages of these pictures, two pictures to a page, and each picture has a similar caption. I know the pain I’ve had reading them; I’d have to imagine Gunner felt like he was giving birth each time he sat down at the typewriter and tried to come up with some novel way of describing a fender-bender involving a 1949 Plymouth and a 1950 Ford.

The trade press did not feel his pain. The description of Antique Car Wrecks as the worst car book ever is not mine; I believe it came from Editor and Publisher, though I’ve lost the original review.

Here’s the thing about Antique Car Wrecks: It may be the worst car book ever, but every one of those excruciating captions would make a perfectly acceptable – even desirable – tweet or Facebook posting for many, many legitimate companies of long and good standing.

The fact that a perfectly terrible book can make perfectly good social media has a couple of lessons for marketers. First, social media is not literature and should not be judged as such. That’s fine to an extent, though it is not an excuse for poor spelling, bad grammar, and improper usage. Social media is not literature, but the English language is still the English language and deserves our respect. Remember: Even if only one person in your audience is judging you based on your use of language, why risk alienating that one person? Say it correctly and be sure.

The second is that stupid stuff is still stupid stuff, regardless of the channel. Using pictures of old-car wrecks is an ineffective way of encouraging auto safety, whether it’s in a tweet, on Facebook, or in a real book. Facebook is not a license for you to turn your brand into a never-ending string of inanities under the guise of engagement. Real engagement, if it’s going to happen (and I have my doubts), has to occur on a higher, more meaningful level.
A corollary of that is don’t use stupid stuff to build your brand. I can see how a dental-insurance company posting a picture of a cat gnawing a toothbrush with the caption, “Caviteez – I fightz dem,” can encourage a very primal level of interaction. I can’t see how it furthers the brand.
Finally, don’t be coy. Don’t use social media to suggest your brand is something it isn’t, or to play pittypat with your brand attributes. Your brand is what it is, and that needs to come across regardless of the channel, audience, or message – even if your message is, “Postwar collector cars need good tires, too!”
Though if that is your message, I can get you Gunner’s phone number.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ban The Plan

If there’s a document more frustrating to marketers than a marketing plan, I haven’t seen it. Invariably someone devotes an entire decade to writing a single year’s marketing plan, pours a vial of his blood into the ink like KISS did with its comic books, wraps himself in a nice warm iron maiden and ensconces himself in a project-manager-infested garret, and produces a veritable Great Gatsby of marketing plans that is promptly vilified and ignored by turns, and spends the rest of its days sopping up coffee stains on a few wayward VPs’ desks.

It’s not supposed to be that way.

Marketing plans are not supposed to be DOA. They’re meant to be breathing, vital documents, like Colbie Caillat songs with pie charts. The problem is that everyone has the wrong set of expectations for marketing plans.

I know. I have written marketing plans that read like fiction (don’t say it) and marketing plans that read like schematics, and it really doesn’t matter. People read the wrong things into them and get the wrong things out of them, and frankly, I don’t know how to prevent that from happening. In a world where everyone thinks they’re a marketer, everyone has an idea of what should be in a marketing plan. Invariably, that boils down to: their stuff. And that is not what a marketing plan is there for.

So let me give my few ground rules of marketing plans, both for the people creating the plans and the people consuming them. The people who use them to sop up coffee messes may carry on.

First, for the creators of marketing plans: Stop using the marketing plan to justify your existence.

There are a lot of insecure marketers out there, people who make the lead character in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series look like Terrell Owens. And they view the marketing plan as their manifesto for empire-building, or empire-maintaining, or empire-not-shrinking-too-much. If they read this they’ll see why we need a $5 million budget, and five new hires, and iPads all around, they think, and she’ll have to marry me then! (Whoops; got my marketing-plan fantasies mixed up with my adolescent fantasies involving Traci Ludvik.) But the readers want none of that, especially in a marketing plan. They know why you exist. They’re not quite as dumb as you think in that regard. They want to know where you’ve been, where you’re going, and how you’re going to get there. Do that well enough and you’ll get your booty.

Furthermore, I’m sorry, but if you need any document to justify your existence you’re not doing your job properly. And if your document of choice is the marketing plan, you’re doubly inept.

Second, also for the creators of marketing plans: I don’t have a foolproof formula for creating a marketing plan; marketing-plan time is the season of the witch in most marketing cycles, when all the fools come out to dance beneath the full moon and eat your Life Savers. However, I do have a recipe for a virtuous marketing plan. It may not get you that unicorn, but it will accomplish its job without wasting too much of anyone’s time, leaving you that much more time to properly fashion your unicorn wishes.

The recipe starts by revisiting the brand. Spend a page – no more – and state what the brand is made of, what it does, and how you define it. If you accept the idea that marketing exists to support the brand, this is the only logical way to begin.

Next, outline what you’ve done over the year to support the brand. If you’ve defined the brand well and done your homework, your brand-building efforts should flow logically. State how much you spent in general terms; don’t break it down to the penny. If you feel that’s absolutely necessary, stick it in an appendix.

You may have to break down this section by specific brand attributes. For instance, if you’re in the business of selling educational software and your key brand attributes are product, pricing and service, you’ll probably have to spend time and space discussing how you supported product, promoted pricing and celebrated service. That’s okay, but don’t get carried away.

Just as everything you do in marketing has to support the brand and its key attributes, everything you do in the marketing plan has to support the brand and its attributes. Lose track of the brand and you’re a small boy’s idea of a marketing director, doing stuff simply because it’s cool.

The next section needs to deal with the effectiveness of your efforts. Here’s where you add the measurements – but not too many. Remember, effectiveness has to be measured in context, and in support of the brands and their attributes. The measures of choice are not necessarily the number of click-throughs, the number of awards your ads win, the new places you found to spend money, or the attitudes of core audiences towards your call-center staff.

Many columns ago I defined the key measurements as your budget, your sales goal and your actual sales. I’ll stand by that. I’ll add that many of the best customer-service attributes need to be measured qualitatively, maybe even anecdotally, and Facebook and Twitter can help. But those measurements, such as they are, exist to help explain sales. If you have numbers and illustrations that aren’t directly related to your budget, your sales goal or your actual sales, get them out of there.

And remember once again to place sales in the context of supporting your brand. Sales are the only relevant measure of brand support, but they have to be defined that way in your marketing plan. Otherwise they’re just, you know, sales.

The third section builds off the first two and a half. Because the brand is x, and we did y to support it with results z, next year we’re going to do a, b, c, and d. It has to be that clear and simple. I have been accused of being a sort of Herman Cain of marketing, simplifying complex issues down to the point of incoherence, but I think I’m okay here.

Say what you’re going to do to support the brand based on what you’ve done to support the brand. Throw in sales goals for next year if you’ve got ‘em. This takes marketing out of the we’ll-make-it-up-as-we-go-along paradigm that I love nearly as much as I realize its non-sustainability. It's the only logical approach, and it also makes it loads easier to justify a reasonable budget.

The last necessary component of a marketing plan is the most overlooked, and in some ways the most important. Say what you’re going to do to support the brand the year after next, and the year after that, and the year after the year after that.

I know, I know. I can hear the howls from here. But tell the truth: By doing that, doesn’t the marketing plan seem more like a plan, a real-life process from getting from A to B over time?

Think if other areas of the company only thought in one-year chunks. Suppose your company makes snow-throwers. Engineering might say, “Well, we’re going to make snow plows this year,” one year and, “Oh, we’re going to make snowmobiles,” the next. Packaging might wrap them in bubble wrap one year and the next forget they ever wrapped anything in bubble wrap and put the whole shebang in a packing crate. Or human resources might raise the premiums for the health plan and lower the 401(k) contribution one year, and raise the 401(k) contribution and lower the premiums the next. Only Marketing seems to want to proceed like David Byrne in a bad digital transfer of Stop Making Sense.

I can’t guarantee this recipe for a marketing plan will work, assuming that any marketing plan can truly work. It will cut most of the fuss, feathers, positioning, and politicking, and if you’re as sick as I am of that junk messing with good marketing, then it’s worth a try.

Happy Marketing-Planning. And lay off the turkey. You may be one someday.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Comedy Tomorrow, Stragedy Tonight

A friend of mine in New York got a well-deserved new job about two weeks ago, and I called him up the other day to ask how things were going.

"Good," he said. "But I'm not sure about my boss."

Uh-oh, I thought. Bad moon rising (or for those of you with marginal hearing, bathroom on the right).

"What's up?" I said.

"I don't think he has a handle on strategy and tactics," he answered. "Everything he thinks is strategy is tactics, and everything he thinks is tactics – well, that's tactics too. He's got a billion ways to get things done but no idea where he's come from and where he's going."

Heard it. If I had a nickel for every time I've heard that refrain I'd have enough for a peppermint latte at McDonald's, but only for a limited time.

One of the major ailments afflicting marketing directors is their embrace of the "director" at the expense of "marketing." Along with the secret handshake and the now-obligatory iPad some marketing directors are presented with a game of Risk on their first day, one of the fancy ones that looks like your dog-eared copy of New Mexico Statutes, 1956, only this game has “design” and “point-of-sale” and “brand management” and “corporate communications” and “marketing research” instead of Europe and Asia and the rest of the Risk worlds to conquer.

Once presented with this game, the average marketing director does about what you’d expect of it (marketing directors, like so many other people in marketing, being not awfully far down the road out of childhood): She plays with it the game all the time, like a steampunk version of Angry Birds, and draws boxes and concocts spreadsheets detailing utilization of resources – her resources, because they are her small plastic pieces – all to a near-total neglect of the actual objectives of marketing direction, which is to – say it with me – direct marketing. And that means furthering the direction of the overarching brand – corporate image, mission statement, divisional imperative, what have you – through specific substrategies, including individual brand management and marketing, and then executing those specific substrategies using a variety of tactics.

It's nothing more than the old targeted application of common sense, but in the service of an overarching, all-encompassing strategy. As the master marketer Thomas Carlyle called it, “On earth, the broken arcs; in heaven the perfect sphere.” On the ground you may only see a piece of the marketing strategy, but you see the whole thing when you get far enough off the ground. The trick is to shed the lead boots of marketing administration and ascend to the realms of true marketing direction.

It’s not easy. A marketing director has to know the big picture before she can tackle any of the little pictures, but when she’s thrust into the position what does she see? A whole bunch of little pictures with their mouths open, waiting for her to regurgitate dinner. The actual rising-above requires nothing more strenuous than thinking, but the thinking requires time, and there never seems to be any time whatsoever – especially when she could be playing Angry Birds. Or Risk.

However, without that breath to ascend and grasp the larger picture, you are sentenced to forever matriculate at the Firesign Theater School of Marketing, whose motto is, “How can you be two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all?” I know I’ve said in the past that a good marketer can be dropped into a metaphorical desert and market her way out of it (see Menard, D. L., “Wherever You Are, There You Is”), but you need a compass to get out of that particular nowhere, and that compass is called having the overall brand strategy ensconced firmly in your noggin, and letting your direction – your way out – flow from there.

Without that, it’s like you’re going on a trip, and you know you’re taking a Prius because it gets 60 MPG highway and you really like the new ad jingle, and you’re riding on Goodyear Assurance TripleTreds because it might snow, and you’re going to take I-94 for a stretch because it’s really straight and the trucks stay away during the week, and then turn off on Highway 29 because it’s pretty, and stay at a Holiday Inn Express because you like the breakfast, and drive six hours before letting someone else drive six hours, and stop every four hours for gas and .. well, you know, and buy exactly 1.65 roller dogs during the trip – all without knowing where you came from and where you’re going.

Choosing a road may seem like a strategy, but it’s a tactic. Knowing that you have to get from Tehachapi to Tonopah is a strategy. Once you know that, everything else is just execution and details.

There’s no excuse for a marketing director – or anyone in marketing, really – not knowing overall brand direction. It tells you what to do -- down to the nth detail, if you let it.

Look at it this way: Do you go off blithely in other facets of your life and hope you wind up somewhere appropriate? When you drive to the grocery store do you drive west hoping to find a grocery store because you like driving west, or do you drive to the grocery store? When you shave your face or your legs do you just start shaving anywhere, figuring you’ll get to the right spot in time? Completely daft, yet I can’t count the marketers who just go gaily marketing away without knowing where the merry pharalope they’re going, until they wind up in some salt marsh and have to call on sales or the CFO or someone to bail them out.

If the marketing director is responsible for overall brand identity, it's her responsibility to communicate it to --and beyond that,  inculcate it in -- her department and all regions and realms that her scepter touches, including the mail room. If the person responsible for overall brand identity resides above the marketing director but south of the mail room, it's again the director's obligation to snatch that identity and inculcate merrily once more.

The real trouble starts when the neither the marketing director nor anyone at any of the layers above is thinking big brand thoughts. These cases call for a little subversive action.

Someone has to think higher brand thoughts, and if the marketing director is too tied up in her game of Risk and her spreadsheet with the stages and gates done up in carmine and chartreuse to do it and a sub-direction person has to pick up the standard, then they have to carry it with all the Salvation Army tambourine-beater spirit they have in their soul. If that's you, and you have to shout it from the housetops, shout and keep shouting. If it gets you in trouble with the boss, keep shouting, If it costs you your job ... it won't cost you your job. At some point short of that the marketing director will hear all the commotion and realize she'd better get behind this or be ready to do some 'splainin', Lucy.

What happens sometimes is that no one has a brand idea. Maybe a brand has been around forever and is operating in a sort of self-perpetuating catatonia, like George Will, or is functioning with a giant inflatable marketing director, like the autopilot in Airplane! but with prettier spreadsheets. Maybe a brand has been mandated from above to plug a perceived hole and is just commencing on a brutish life of insufficient sales and insufferable bickering about positioning. Maybe the keeper of the brand has moved on. It's not wrong to try to fill a total brand-identity vacuum, but it can't be done half-heartedly, or by substituting short-term tactical thinking for the strategy that's needed.

Marketing is too important to be wasted on things that shouldn't be marketed, or sent off on summer-camp branding exercises that fade as soon as fall rolls around. The only way to maximize marketing's impact is to have a clear idea of what needs to be marketed in the first place. Is that so hard? Apparently it is.

Monday, September 12, 2011

If You Love Somebody, Let Them Spend Money

With great power comes great responsibility, and with great responsibility comes a nail-chomping manager who wants to take it away from you.

It’s Das Kapital all over again, with Steve Carrell as Kap. The rank-and-file push for more unencumbered control over media and message and execution and budget, and managers hang onto those things like Cary Grant clinging to Lincoln’s nose in North By Northwest, claiming they’re vital to planning and predicting and managing and wheedling and cajoling and do all those things managers pinky-swear is in the job description if you pour lemon juice on it and hold it up to a strong light.
I totally get where managers are coming from. I would rather give up Diet Mountain Dew or negotiate peace between David Stern and the Tall People than willingly relinquish responsibility and control of the things I manage, especially if they contain even a molecule of cool.
“If you love somebody, set them free,” Sting sang, but Mr. Sumner never had to ride herd on a half-dozen caffeinated creatives, grooving to The Apples in Stereo and trying to build their own little Fort Sumter north-northeast of the salty-snacks machine.
It got so bad for one of my manager friends that she said to me, “This is one of the most talented marketing staffs I have ever known, but it’s also one of the most exasperating. They think they’re all experts at their stuff.”
And with that, my pendulum swings firmly to the proletariat. Of course they’re experts. That’s why you hired them. You wanted them because they’re good at what they do. You wouldn’t want bad people in those positions, would you? In fact, would you even want good people who don’t think they’re good?
You wanted good people and got them. You wanted good people who know they’re good, and got them. You must give them latitude. Unless you have the masochism factor of a cartoon rodent you cannot encourage them to the point where they get uncomfortably close to your kitchen and then slam the screen door in their face. You have to let them go, even if it means they fail, even – worse – if it means they succeed beyond all expectations.
Maybe the problem is in the semantics. Managing carries the connotation of controlling. Managers think they have to rule people when in reality they have to ensure production. But the reverse is also true, to an extent. Managers think they have to ensure production when in reality they have to rule.

The real reality is a combination play. Managers have to rule in such a way as to ensure individual production. Individuals produce when they feel empowered. Feeling empowered requires managers to give up some of their power, including the all-important power of the purse. And that can really hang managers up the most.
Now, let's return to the manager exasperated by the talents of his stuff. How should he react?
The first thing needful is to make sure the staff knows their goals and their constraints. What are they supposed to do, and what is the size of the box around them – time, rules, culture, personalities? Next, their resources. As they play in their box, working toward their goal, what do they have to work with?
If they understand their goals, their constraints and their resources, there's really not much more for the manager to do but to clear the way occasionally, stay out of the way mostly, and answer questions when they arise. And make sure the team gets the credit.
Sounds so simple. So why is it so hard?
The old reasons. Power. Control. Selfishness. A lack of managerial know-how. I know lots of schools that teach management, but darn few that teach empowerment. It seems odd that control and domination need to be taught but channeling what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" never gets taught. It's enough to make a fella want to turn big-R Red.
As for me, my hardest managerial task was trusting my staff to do it my way. But then I realized: My way might be wrong.  And what we were fighting over wasn't that big a deal.
Most of it isn't. But empowering your staff always is.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

archy, ayn, and amateurs

I bought my first book for my new iPod Touch, and it’s a business book.

Sorry, it’s not The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. That finished 17,168th on my list, behind Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus but ahead of Atlas Shrugged, a book I know is supposed to be great but to me is just a steaming pile of wet adjectives. (However, bonus points go to Ayn Rand for replying to an editor who wanted to cut the book, “Would you cut The Bible?” Often wanted to say it, never have.)

The book is, naturally, The Annotated archy and mehitabel.

You may not think of The Annotated archy and mehitabel as a business book. Likely you don’t even think of The Annotated archy and mehitabel at all, and that’s understandable, seeing as it’s a book of free verse ostensibly written by a cockroach but actually written by a semi-obscure, three-quarters-drunk and altogether brilliant newspaperman named Don Marquis.

So what does free verse written by a cockroach have to do with business?

Plenty. Probably the most applicable line for marketers comes in one of Marquis’ best pieces, a lament by one of the suitors of the unapologetically promiscuous feline Mehitabel, an old theater cat who decries the passing of the old ways thusly:

the stage is not what it
used to be tom says
he puts his front paw
on his breast and says
they don t have it any more
they don t have it here
the old troupers are gone
there s nobody can troupe
any more
they are all amateurs nowadays
they haven t got it
there are only
five or six of us oldtime
troupers left
this generation does not know
what stage presence is
personality is what they lack
where would they get
the training my old friends
got in the stock companies …
finish is what they lack
and they haven t got it
and again he laid his paw
on his breast …

for two seasons i played
the dog in joseph
jefferson s rip van winkle
it is true i never came
on the stage
but he knew i was just off
and it helped him
i would like to see
one of your modern
theatre cats
act a dog so well
that it would convince
a trouper like jo jefferson
but they haven t got it
they haven t got it
jo jefferson had it he had it

i come of a long line
of theatre cats
my grandfather was with forrest
he had it he was a real trouper
my grandfather said
he had a voice
that used to shake
the ferryboats
on the north river
once he lost his beard
and my grandfather
dropped from the
fly gallery and landed
under his chin
and played his beard
for the rest of the act
you don t see any theatre
cats that could do that
they haven t got it they
haven t got it

once i played the owl
in modjeska s production
of macbeth
i sat above the castle gate
in the murder scene
and made my yellow
eyes shine through the dusk
like an owl s eyes
modjeska was a real
trouper she knew how to pick
her support i would like
to see any of these modern
theatre cats play the owl s eyes
to modjeska s lady macbeth
but they haven t got it nowadays
they haven t got it

mehitabel he says
both our professions
are being ruined
by amateurs

It’s a fact of business life that our professions are continually being ruined by amateurs. If you haven’t had your business life turned upside-down by a hotshot MBA with a Brooks Brothers suit, a Maori tattoo in an inconspicuous spot, a faintly passing knowledge of what your company does, and a Droid full of ideas for implementing Lean Six Sigma at the breakfast table, you haven’t lived, business-wise. There’s him, and the hopelessly out-of-touch Veteran of the Wars, and the metrogeek who believes all of business’ problems can be cured with a Facebook page, and the brilliant globalizer who knows English in the same way that Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann know American history, and the shakeup specialist who believes he can use mind control to change traffic lights, and all the glorious clich├ęs. They live, and they are out to ruin your particular calling.

This is never more true than in marketing, which is regarded by most businesspeople as a science softer than William Perry’s abdomen, softer even than Art Garfunkel singing a Stephen Bishop song. Everyone in business thinks they can market, right down to the person spraying Ever Clear on the tabletops, in part because they’ve been repeatedly told that they are marketers.

And, you know, we as marketers are largely responsible for this. Part of plan for exploiting social media has been to open up marketing communication to the masses within the business’ walls. “Multiple communicators!” we beller. “Multiple communicators for multiple audiences!”

Perhaps. But in our quest for brand interaction and the establishment of all of our people as subject-matter experts on everything, even the spraying of Ever Clear on tabletops, we’ve missed a very important point, namely: These people are amateurs. We can coach them and guide them and ghostwrite for them and do everything but be them, but they are amateurs. They know everything about how to spray Ever Clear on tabletops, and very little about how to convince people to spray Ever Clear on tabletops their way. And eventually that truth comes out.

So between the executives who know nothing of marketing but think they do and the non-executives who have been drafted into marketing for their skills other than marketing, marketing is overrun with amateurs – not Olympic amateurs or NCAA amateurs or even Little League amateurs, but maybe backyard amateurs. Maybe.

So how do you market around these people without winding up like Mehitabel’s suitor, clutching your brain and wailing to a very small audience, “they haven t got it here”?

The first thing to do with them is to channel them and guide them to somewhere where they can’t hurt themselves. Social media is good.

This is not an indictment of social media, necessarily. The marketing applications of social media are still being worked out. You can do social media completely wrong and still do it right. You can also do it right or wrong relatively inexpensively, with little cost to human marketing life. And finally, there are enough important people at higher levels of all organizations who regard social media as a sort of marketing zeppelin – you know, give it enough time and it’s going to blow up famously, and then we can all go back to watching tube TVs and dreaming about two-way wrist radios – that it’s a great place to stick the amateurs. Have them blow it up and then watch them try to explain it to management.

The second and most important thing to do is to find your spot. Some people are great at this. You could stick them in a Turkish prison and they’d still be able to find a corner where they could hole up with a flea-infested blanket and a hunk of black bread as be as happy as possible, running Monty Python routines in their heads and scratching out Thurber cartoons in the filth with their fingernail.

Somewhere in your amateur-infested marketing scheme there has to be a place where you can curl up and do some real marketing your way. It doesn’t have to be big; it just has to be yours. Do it your way with whatever resources you can muster, throw it out there and let it shine in comparison.

Now, the problem is that the amateurs who don’t know how to market don’t know good marketing, either, so all your good work may go for naught. But keep at it. Eventually something positive will happen. A higher-up will pay attention, customers will pay attention, or the guy who sprays Ever Clear on tabletops will say to the heavily shaded fellow who talks like Charo, “Hey, this is pretty good.” And then they’ll go Panera Bread and discuss it over a bruschetta.

At that point you should probably exit stage left with Mehitabel’s buddy the theater cat. They really haven t got it here. And both your professions are really being ruined by amateurs.

Friday, May 13, 2011

You Can't Always Get What You Want Unless You Really Don't Want It

Almost everything I say or do bewilders someone, but one of the hardest things for some people to fathom is my explanation for why sometimes I’d rather listen to the radio than plug in my 3,000-song iPod.

“I want to listen to something that I don’t know I want to listen to,” I tell them. And pennies descend from the firmament and pop into their eyes. But I stand by my words.

At least 2,750 of the 3,000 songs on my iPod are arms-around-the-neck familiar. When I hear the drum roll that kicks off the Raspberries’ “I Wanna Be With You” I’m immediately struck by one of two emotions: I’m flipping triple solchows that I get to hear three minutes of cherry-soda euphoria courtesy of America’s first and best power-pop band, or I’m thinking, “Oh, man; not that again.”

And the thing is, I love “I Wanna Be With You.” It’s in my all-time Top 10, along with Warren Zevon’s “Frank and Jesse James” and the Amazing Rhythm Aces’ “The End Is Not In Sight” and the Everly Brothers’ “On The Wings of a Nightingale,” and Graham Parker and the Rumour’s version of “I Want You Back” – and I turn off all of them from time to time when they pop up on the shuffle.

(The lone exception to this on my iPod is Bob Newhart’s “Introducing Tobacco to Civilization.” I never turn it off, and I always laugh.)

On the other hand, I can listen to campus radio plow through hour after hour of thrash and throat singing and never be tempted to reach for the dial. If you had told me before I turned on the radio that I was going to hear three hours of thrash and throat singing I would have told them what they could do with their kilohertz, but once it started I was there. And I wasn’t going anywhere.

So the question is “why.” Why am I at heel with music I will tell you I despise – and I actually do despise, if willingness to purchase is a measure of likingness – and more than willing to turn up my nose at my favorite songs of all time?

The answer is my explanation for why I sometimes choose the radio over the Pod: I want to listen to something I don’t know I want to listen to. I don’t want the familiar. I want the non-familiar. I want randomness beyond the proscribed randomness of the “Shuffle Songs” command on my iPod. I don’t even want the near-miss shiftiness of Pandora or the billion micro-channels offered by satellite radio. I want the sort of randomness campus radio – or just about any kind of radio, even the kind with playlists tighter than Christina Aguilera’s bustier – can provide.

And here’s the deal: I’d even be willing to pay for it.

Just so you know, this column is not about my willingness to pay for a radio service that figures out what kind of music I like and then plays the antithesis of that. Call it the Anti-Pandora, or maybe the PanDiego. (I’ve been to PanDiego. Have you?)

It’s about the difference between playing to your audience and giving your audience something they’d pay for.

Think about how you go about creating the products you market to your audience, or crafting the marketing approach involved in selling those products. In most cases you look at what’s been done before, what they’ve bought before, what you’ve said before, and who you talked to before.

There’s nothing wrong with that per se, as long as you don’t rely solely on those tactics moving forward or fail to ask the question: “Yeah, but what do they really need?”

The past can be very instructional. Knowing that a client hates mustard, for instance, is essential information if you’re in the mustard business. More to the point and further from the land of whimsy, selling an international penny-stock growth fund to someone whose observed risk tolerance is somewhere west of certificates of deposit is like walking on the treadmill with George Jetson. At best you’ll be one with the belt.

An even more tangible example: A former client wanted to sell a familiar consumer packaged good via an unfamiliar package-delivery vehicle. The packaged good and the delivery vehicle were positioned as having value. The downside was that the delivery vehicle had to be … oh, bugger it. A former client wanted to sell baseball cards in collectible cans. The problem was the cans had to be destroyed to get to the cards inside.

While the can was a new delivery vehicle, it was simultaneously an old commodity: a quasi-collectible. If you want to sell a quasi-collectible to collectors, there’s one big, black, and inviolable rule: don’t make them destroy the quasi-collectible. The approach was new but the lesson from the past was powerful, and the cards go where all bad cards go – either ashes or dust, doesn’t matter which.

The flip side of course is the geegaw that started this whole melty ice-cream cone of a discourse, the iPod.

No one was asking for an iPod. It was in no one’s shuffle, but it was what people wanted without knowing they wanted it. You could have done a billion focus groups or studied the past back to Plutarch without getting a lightbulb that screamed, “iPod!!!” Yet once Apple gave people an iPod, they embraced it and its descendants like they hadn’t embraced anything since television. The iPod is neck-and-neck with the cell phone as the most transformational invention of the 21st century (even though – don’t remind me – they were invented in the 20th) because they went beyond giving people what they wanted to giving them what they need.

So how’d they do it? Some of it was the inspiration of Steve Jobs and the Jobs-Ettes, no doubt. But some of it was also hinted at by the founder of another transformational enterprise, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

“They just can't wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things,” Zuckerberg said in talking about how Hollywood missed the point when it made The Social Network, and he’s right. Hollywood, that golden empire with the throw-caution-to-the-wind attitude of a life-insurance actuary, doesn’t make anything because it likes making it. It doesn’t flip the switch on a single klieg light without having it paid for in advance by some multiplex in North Platte.

Sometimes you have to make a product or make a marketing decision just because you like it. You like what it says or what it does, and you have a feeling that if you like it, other people will too. Especially these days, where cool stuff gets tossed around the web like Little League baseballs, that’s at the very least no worse a marketing strategy than doing something because it’s always been done that way.

The problem, to paraphrase Red Smith, is knowing when to stick to the book and when to play the bloody fool. The only measure I can suggest is your level of excitement over the status quo. Do you believe in what you make and what you do? Does it excite you? Does it excite others? Is it cool by any definition, by any stretch of the imagination? Is it what people say they want, or what they actually need?

Let’s go back to the cards-in-cans analogy. People didn’t say they wanted cards in cans, and that’s fine, but they also didn’t need cards in cans, and that’s a problem. People needed to spend $2 on something that gave them good odds of getting back something worth $5. They didn’t care much whether it was a card or a can or a card in a can. They simply wanted their $5 for $2.

Obviously my client would go broke giving everyone $5 for $2, but they made a particularly poor choice of the delivery vehicle for its version of not-quite $5 for more-than-$2.

Would something more direct would have worked? Maybe. Something less direct? Maybe. But it would have to be a little better-built than cards in cans.

Next time you’re stuck in a marketing rut, try building something, just by yourself, just because you like building things. See where it leads you. It might not take you to the next iPod, but it’ll probably take you away from your playlist. And there’s nothing wrong with that.