Monday, November 15, 2010

Welcome To Heck. Here's Your Manual.

A friend of mine got a new job last week, which was great. He earned it, and absolutely deserved it.

As part of the congratulatory phone call, he asked, "So you got any advice for me?", not expecting anything, because what sort of advice do you give the man who has everything, when everything in this case is a job he needed and wanted?

Well, I can't not give advice in a situation like that, not anymore, not since I've been a blogger. For better or worse, thinking I have an audience for these weekly rants has given me that awful feeling that everything I say is a pronouncement. I have to pinch myself and remind myself that I'm really still a peon, and sometimes I pinch myself because it just plain feels good.

So he asked, and I told him, "Communicate in person. Don't pick up the phone or send an e-mail for the first month unless you absolutely have to."

I've talked about the benefits of in-person communication before, and I'm going to keep talking about it until you get the idea. There is nothing that makes a better impression and carries more weight than in-person communication.

Communicate in-person with the people in the mail room, the people in maintenance, the administrative assistants and the miscellaneous service providers, and not only will they know who you are, they'll be extra-willing to help you negotiate the maze of procedures and rituals that make up a corporate culture. If you bring chocolate you may just make friends for life.

Communicate in-person with the people at your level in other departments and you start forging those cross-disciplinary ties that will help you hit the ground running and keep running, even when other new hires have hit the wall.

Communicate in-person with the people above you and they'll know who you are – and that never hurt.

You're in marketing, and marketers have two main duties: to unite disparate elements and to communicate. Supporting sales is the goal; communicating and facilitating are the ways there. The best way to get a head start on your core duties is to talk to people right out of the gate.

It doesn't have to be heavy conversation. Ask a basic question about how do do something that you know they know how to do. Establish them as an expert. Put them in a position of helping you. Almost all people in an organization, even the evil administrative assistant and the extra-evil frustrated mid-level manager, when addressed as an expert, will share what they know in a supportive manner.

One more tip: There's a branch of communication research called Uncertainty Reduction Theory which states that people will try to find common ground in a conversation because it reduces feelings of threats, and once they find that common ground, communication becomes more more effective and purposeful. Use that theory. Try to find common ground and build on it. Remember that common ground the next time you talk. You'll be amazed how quickly you get acclimated.

Don't take the expedient way out of this one. Sit down with people. Talk, and most of all listen. Oh, and good luck with the new job.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

We Have Met The Enemy And He Is R&D. And Operations. And Finance. And IT, Too?

While Peanuts continues its run in the newspapers for all eternity, or at least until we run out of newspapers, other funnier, more satirical and more insightful strips from the great days of newspaper comic strips get pushed by the wayside, or at best get shoveled into Fantagraphics collections (which are marvelous, by the way).

A prime example is Walt Kelly’s Pogo. As a kid I found Pogo tough sledding sometimes. The dialogue seemed apropos of nothing and seemed to trail off down the same hole from whence it came – and it’s still a little like that. But Pogo also produced one absolute freshwater pearl of a line, a line with a million uses, a line that treads on the border of cliché without ever quite crossing over.

I am referring, of course, to, “Huh? Um … what? I … uh … mm.”

Actually, I’m referring to – say it with me – “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

That’s the way of it in marketing sometimes. People on the inside not only don’t approve of your efforts, they are to your marketing efforts what Sarah Palin is to the English language – an active antagonist, running around with a dynamite plunger in one hand and an internal memo in the other.

What do you do when internal forces are hard at work tearing down your marketing efforts? I know what you want to do, and we won’t get into that. Plastic explosive does not heal all wounds, and it doesn’t even, in the marvelous words of Nick Lowe, wound all heels.

The process of not merely getting folks on the inside to buy into the plan but to keep them from tearing down the plan starts the way most marketing things do – with communication.

Number one, everyone on the inside needs to know the plan. A solid three-quarters of the opposition to Marketing comes from people not knowing what Marketing is doing or why they’re doing it. Let other departments keep their plans to themselves, as is their wont. Your marketing plan, or a version thereof, needs the widest possible circulation within your organization – because if your marketing plan is one of the good ones, it will outline the corporate mission and the on-the-ground goals and how marketing can address both.

Next, remember Dorothy Parker. “You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think,” she replied when asked to use the word “horticulture” in a sentence, and the same applies to your internal audience. Don’t assume that because they’ve been given a copy of the plan they will actually read the plan. This is like assuming that just because no one has ever escaped from Stalag 17 that no one will try.

What you as marketers need to do to keep other factions on board once they’ve been given the plan is to do a little marketing. I’m amazed at the marketers who don’t market their marketing plan. There are a million ways to do it, but why am I telling you this? You’re marketers – do what comes naturally. Keep it simple, keep it honest, use common sense, and you’ll be just fine.

It goes back to what I used to hammer into the trading-card companies back when they were making money, before they jumped on the death-spiral merry-go-round: Listen, if you don’t believe your product is the best, whatever your product may be, either do what you can to make it the best it can be or don’t sell it. And marketers very often have the unique power to optimize products – especially when that product is your very own marketing plan.

But don’t stop there. The No. 1 most effective way of communicating to people is face-to-face, so as you make your rounds of the company as you as marketers do, ask people, “Did you see our latest brochure? What’d you think? Did you see the ads? What about that new product? Did you see the article?” Ask but then listen, not only to what’s being said but how it’s being said. Look for any vocal or non-verbal cues to get a feel for how your work is really being perceived, by executives and line workers alike.

Okay, so what if sharing the plan, marketing the plan, and then doing field work don’t work? Well, the plastic explosives are still a possibility, but before hauling the gelignite out of the desk drawer, try a couple more things. One is to isolate recalcitrant units and bring them into the process. Think The Producers, and you’re the skinny guy. The way to get the money from the widow is to put on her show. Certainly there are pet projects favored by your antagonists that you can advance without too many barnyard odors. Ease those up the ladder and see if it makes a difference. It may not. They may be playing you. C’est la vie. Sometimes you have to rise above, even if you are a marketer.

As you battle the enemy that is us, remember this: You really are the good guys. You really are trying to move the organization forward in a reasonable, well-researched fashion. If it turns out that you have to be satisfied with that, it's a lot. It can carry you through.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Complexities Of Simple

I was going to put “Here Lies Marketing” on hiatus for the week on account of the election results, and the way that certain marketers showed themselves to be more adept at pushing night soil than I will ever be, but after a day off I started thinking again, and here I am.

The election results did stir up in me a weird convergence of Steve Jobs and H.L. Mencken.

Mencken coined the phrase, “the Booboisie,” which has never been more apt, and he also noted that “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people,” which could also be amended to state that, “no one ever lost an election underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”

Honestly, how else can you describe the election of, among others, a millionaire sweatshop owner with the personality of a pellet stove who captivated the populace by lobbing shibboleths like, “Let’s get America moving again”? (By all means, let’s. Let’s disconnect the ol’ tectonic plates and hook up with Europe again. It worked for the pre-Visigoths.)

Jobs’ contribution came in Apple’s early days, when its product designers were directed to wear shirts that read, “I am not the target audience.” It was an unsubtle reminder to not design a computer that causes women with a half-mile radius to spontaneously undress and requires a Rushmore-sized noggin to operate.

I was not the target audience of most of this election’s campaign ads. I have a job, an FM radio, and a brain. That would also make me uncharacteristic of the American public, which is where Mencken comes back in, and where the marketing lesson for the rest of us emerges.

It’s reasonable to assume that your marketing audience in most cases is not comprised solely of Rhodes scholars and Phi Beta Kappas. There is bound to be a George JaMarcus Walker Russell Bush in the crowd.

Given that your crowd is probably going to be a mixture of Ph. Ds and former NBA first-round picks, how do you dumb down appropriately so that you don’t lose the former New Jersey Net who happens to be your venture capitalist?

The answer is: Don’t dumb down. Simplify.

There is a difference. Dumbing down requires you to abrogate respect for your audience. Simplifying is what you should be doing all along.

I f you want to see my face turn Crayola shades, hit me with a directive to dumb something down – or its twin sister, the directive to obfuscate a product or a marketing approach.

I realize that the order to dumb down may seem as stupid as Peter Frampton’s “I’m In You” but may have a kernel of sense at its core, much like Australian Rules Football or John McCain. It may be a sign that the original approach may be unnecessarily complex. But when it’s couched in the philosophy that dumbing down or muddying up is the only way this pig is going to fly, then it’s time to play a little corporate Red Rover and call over the CMO.

You can’t run from the fact that people are afraid of simple and hide behind language to look smarter or fancier or somehow more worthy. Think of the inept mid-level manager and his 5-million-word memos. The challenge is to remove 4,999,899 of those words, get all the salient points across, and retain the proper tone.

One of the most important things you can do as a marketer is embark on an eternal quest for simple. Simple marketing materials. Simple mission statements. Simple product attributes. Simple press releases. Simple pricing. Simple Web sites.

Simple means distilling the many into the precious few. Simple means saying what you have to say and getting out. Simple equates to easy. And easy is the holy grail of marketing.

If you are always simple you’ll never have to dumb down – or if you are called to dumb-down there will be no question but that the authorities should be notified. Furthermore, simple stuff means fewer questions, less confusion, a clearer picture of what your organization is and why it’s special – the stuff many organizations go through elaborate machinations to not quite achieve.

The way to get to simple, if you’re looking for a way, is to continually ask yourself, “What am I trying to say here?” You will almost always give yourself a simple answer. That answer, polished to a dull sheen, is what you go with.

You may spend your entire marketing life on a quest for simple, because others are forever turning your simple personal computer into Brainiac VII. However, it’s a quest worth taking. And it begins with a simple step. Literally.