I graduated at the top of my high school class. Number one. But that didn’t make me feel particularly smart.
The people I’d learned about, whose work I’d read, were clearly better educated. They knew Latin, Greek and, usually, a modern language other than their own. They had to study far more than students were expected to in my day, and they went on to colleges where collegiality was just as important as learning.
In the 1980s, the U.S. began to dumb down. Education was important in theory but, in practice, it was being under-funded. The bar for accomplishment was lowered, and the K-12 curriculum became more of a painful obligation in most politicians’ minds than a mandatory requisite for national growth and prosperity.
I despise podcasts. They're radio without the basic discipline of time.
Instead of providing information with precision and brevity, they tend to drone on in free form -- as if listeners have the luxury of time (and nothing better to do or get on with). And if a listener indulges the speaker(s), gets to the end, and realizes he or she has wasted 30, 20, or even 10 minutes, resentment sets in... and makes the listener leery of the next podcast they come across.
A possible rationale
For people who commute in their cars, a podcast might make sense (or, based on too many I've sampled, create a traffic hazard by putting the driver to sleep). That's one of the reasons why drive-time radio includes so many shifts in sound and tempo, however annoying some of them may be. They bring the listener back from inattentiveness.
Jim Murray, a man whose prose I enjoy in spite of his location in Canadia (that's not a typo; if Jim's Canadian, he must be from Canadia), re-published a post about how he promotes himself and what he does. In that article, he takes a gentle swipe at content marketing. I think he should have taken more of a smack.
His post dates to 2014. While that may be pleistocene to current "content" marketers, his pitch would have been valid generations ago - back when content was referred to as collateral, product literature, and sales aids.
Then and now
Thirty years ago, I worked with SMBs to refine their use of printed, audio, and video material to a) generate leads, b) overcome objections raised by prospects, and c) meet the specific expectations of a prospects' various influencers (the people who are asked for advice and analysis but aren't a product's end users). One difference, of course, was that, back then, the vendor was in charge of who got what. Another was that the information wasn't fluff.
The equal and opposite reactions of revenue, spending, and borrowing
This is either the perfect operation or else it’s a massive scam.
The organization in question keeps lowering its prices, but it also reduces the number of services it offers. Yet, to pay for things it wants to provide that nobody actually wants to buy, it raises its borrowing to cover the cost. That, of course, increases its operating expenses, but the executives never factor that in.
It trims the amount it spends on labor by laying people off, then it cuts the departmental budget because there’s insufficient staff and no automation to replace them. This is in spite of vocal marketplace demand. Yet for some of the organization’s operations, the money that’s not being spent in one place gets shifted to another. Unfortunately, the department receiving those funds provides a product that consumers can’t purchase. It’s strictly B2B.
I have a problem with obscenity. It's lost its punch. And that's a shame.
There was a time when Anglo-Saxonisms raised a few eyebrows. When the words were so shocking in print that one had to take notice. Now they're used so indiscriminately in every publication, online forum, and political discourse that they've stopped being, well... useful.
Time past and time present
In the past (and mine's long), one could always rely on certain people to incorporate expletives any time that they opened their mouths. They were usually the people you would never introduce to your children or to anyone you cared about. And they weren't necessarily stupid -- at least not in terms of IQ. But they were deaf and blind to the norms of society, or they simply didn't care what people thought. And that's fine. But they wouldn't get invited out to dinner. Then or now.
Personas annoy me. It may be because my focus is, primarily, B2B. Or it may be that it's a word that's applied indiscriminately -- as if the concept were universal and universally applicable. But B2B isn't targeting a suburban mom who has two kids in after-school sports, drives an SUV, works in real estate, has a six-figure household income, and belongs to a gym.
MORE THAN ONE
There are numerous people in the B2B buying process. There's the person who initiates the purchase, the one who does the research, the individual who shortlists the products or services, the evaluators, recommenders, influencers, decision maker, and man or woman who signs the check.
Each has their own expectations and requirements. Each sees the purchase through a different lens: the end user wants to know about usability, the department manager about productivity, the finance folks about initial and long-term costs and ROI, and so on. And the information that marketers prepare has to address those specific interests. But I contend that they don't have to know about the person's age, income, family, hobbies, and the like.
When a White House policy is broad enough to affect both computer programmers and NBA players, it’s a remarkable decision. Yet that’s the impact of the executive order (EO), nicknamed the "Muslim Ban," that bars citizens from seven Middle Eastern countries from entering the United States. The order’s Constitutional legality will be decided by the courts, but what won’t be decided, in the short term at least, is the impact that the EO has on how and whom American businesses hire.
As reported in Sports Illustrated, two Sudanese NBA players have been advised to remain in the country, and similar advice is being given to foreign nationals who hold any type of employment visa. Even those with dual citizenship from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen and a Western country have cause to worry. That’s because the EO is imprecise enough in its directives to give customs and border officials broad discretion – on a case-by-case basis – in determining what to do.
Businesses have all faced a similar situation: should they pursue profit exclusively or should they risk reducing it by spending money to minimize or eliminate their products’ and services’ harmful effects?
It’s a scenario that has played out for decades. Union Carbide’s gas leak, which was blamed on lax maintenance, killed thousands in Bhopal, India. Love Canal affected the health of hundreds of families decades after Hooker Chemical stopped using it as a dumping site. And, in this century, ten thousand homes were affected by airborne lead related to battery recycling at an Exide plant in Los Angeles.
Ignorance is Not BlissIt could be argued, of course, that industry managers at Bhopal and Love Canal weren’t aware of the consequences (or the remedies to prevent them). But the same can’t be said about the far more recent events in Los Angeles. The film Erin Brockovichmade sure of that.
Yet even in the 1940s (Love Canal) and certainly by the 1960s (Bhopal), industrial scientists and engineers understood the potential for harm, and their corporate bosses were surely informed. Yet the costs of mitigation would have eaten into profits, and the executives were so far away from the affected areas that the situation was – probably – out of sight, out of mind.
Propaganda is a despot’s favorite tool. Yet dictators no longer dictate what’s said. It’s guys like Paris Wade and Ben Goldmanwhose stories are designed to lure the partisan and gullible…and earn them tens of thousands of dollars a month in fees for the ads that appear on their site.
One could admire their entrepreneurship, but that would be like applauding Josef Goebbels for attracting large crowds. The results of their work could spell disaster – for politics, business, and society.
Altered StatesThe 2016 election was a clear demonstration of how news, both factual and fictive, could alter the opinion of the public. How truth could be obliterated. How lies could form the basis of crucial decisions.
For businesses, the spread of innuendo and rumor, which can happen in seconds and extend around the globe, can decimate a brand’s reputation, alter sales and, by extension, harm the livelihoods of thousands of employees.
When you click on a link and get dumped into 404 limbo, that’s not good. But when a link’s completely dead, that’s even worse.
Calling a number on a company’s website and reaching a retiree in Boise is unfortunate. Hearing “The number you have dialed has been disconnected or is no longer in service,” and your prospect or customer may suddenly be classified as “former.”
MINOR TO MAJOR
These are – relatively – little things. Mis-formulating metals in I-beams could render a structure unstable. Adding the wrong ingredient to fertilizer can kill off crops and decimate beehives. The wrong pharmaceutical dosage can lead to a coma or death. In isolation, even these are all little things.
Today, though, little things don’t have to combine to create something bigger. Single instances of error, even those that result in no damage, can become global news in an instant. And for brands and reputations, that’s a horrifying prospect.
I am a domino. It’s likely that you are, too. But whether you’re propped at the front of the line, in the middle, or way at the back will depend upon your current employment.
It is, as the pundits like to say, the price of progress: as technology advances, work changes and, often, that work goes away. It’s happened in manufacturing as robots replaced human workers (though offshoring didn’t help), and it’s moving on to white collar jobs where artificial intelligence is assuming chores that once were considered “safe for human assumption.”
FROM THIS TO THAT
Yet no change occurs in a vacuum. When factories close or make the switch to robotics, everyone else who relies on workers’ spending is affected – from bankers to bakers, from government to groceries. And the companies that sell and deliver goods to those businesses also feel the impact as each domino falls.
The videophone. The bar code. The computer mouse. The digital audio player. The personal digital assistant. Each was innovative. Each was ahead of its time. Each solved a problem that nobody had. So, if nobody could or even wanted to use those inventions, were they really innovative?
The videophone first appeared in the mid 1930s -- before there were even TVs – yet no one seemed to need it (and, besides, it was enormous). When the technology re-appeared at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, people viewed it as a Jetsons-like device of a rocketship future (and the cost was astronomical, as well). The technology was an improvement on audio-only telephony, but no one considered it vital.
When bar codes first turned up in the ’40s, the concept was accepted as useful… in theory. Yet without accompanying scanning capabilities and interpretative software, which wouldn’t come along for almost 25 years, the problem that bar codes might have solved proved insoluble.
In 1984, Apple put the mouse to use in a practical way, but it had been hiding in labs for a decade at least, trying to navigate a maze of different systems. Of course, by now, everyone assumes that Apple and Steve Jobs held a monopoly on innovative “stuff,” but the Newton personal digital assistant was a bust.
He drives a Tesla. She drives a Leaf. His is leased, hers was bought outright. He wanted to drive in the carpool lane (without the extra passenger). She wanted to contribute to cleaner air. He got the top-speed model to go zero to 60 in under three seconds. Hers can barely make it in ten.
Yet, she dry cleans her jeans, colors her hair with peroxide-based dye, and orders take-out food three times a week. He loves to cook every night with organic ingredients, drops his clothes off at a fluff-and-fold that uses earth-friendly detergent, and charges his car with a solar-panel system.
How would you sell to them? What would you add to the cars to make them more appealing to the buyers’ other sides? Or how would you integrate their driving tastes into their other activities?
This usually falls into the realm of personas – those invented personalities that marketers believe can help them pull in more customers. Yet, despite decades in marketing, I’ve never liked them very much. They’re like averaging averages, which is statistically unsound.
When did “how to win friends and influence people” mutate into “how to exclude people and persuade others to join you”? Was it when SCOTUS struck down the Defense of Marriage Act? Or was it on September 11th when people from sixty-two foreign nationswere among those who died. Maybe it was earlier when Joseph McCarthy raised the fear of communists among us; or when Gentleman’s Agreement highlighted anti-Semitism; or when Father Coughlin railed against Jews; or when earlier generations warned against the evils of Catholic Italian and Irish immigrants? It doesn’t really matter.
What does matter is that the world has changed inexorably. Global trade, high-speed travel, and online communications that eliminate the barriers of distance and time have all brought countless benefits to business. Prices have been lowered, personal interactions increased, and transactions completed much faster than the blink of an eye.
A Different World
Countries that were once considered backward now produce goods for the world. They engage in financial deals that had been the sole domain of either Wall Street or London. And they enrich the English language with words of their own like algebra (from Arabic), khaki (from Hindi), bagel (from Yiddish), and tycoon (from Japanese).
Office politics is an unfortunate workplace reality. It’s a phenomenon that leads us to behave in ways that might not qualify as totally ethical, and it encourages certain co-workers to indulge their inner Faust.
I’m guilty of it to some degree. I calculate people’s likely responses to business proposals in advance, line up allies, and prepare responses and rebuttals for those who are sure to disagree. It’s self-preservational. But it’s directly related to accomplishing what I think is right for the company, regardless of whether it’s right for a particular colleague.
When I landed at a company whose foundational document began with “No politics,” I couldn’t help but be skeptical. Two years into my four-year tenure, the assertion was proven to be meaningless. The CEO himself began enlisting spies to check up on what managers were thinking. Any time someone from outside my group would just drop in to chat, my guard went up.
As difficult as these interpersonal dynamics can be, there’s a more insidious variety that does not involve the workings of the business. It’s the attempt to discover your political leanings outside the company.
Walmart may not have been the first company whose pricing policies forced suppliers to send jobs overseas, but it was, for years, the one with the highest public profile. Yet, like so many things involving marketplace dynamics, the issues that attracted the most attention had to do with the wages and benefits that Walmart offered employees. It’s a subject that makes good press but, ultimately, bad economics. By contrast, with the impact of offshoring, though, it’s almost insignificant.
By insisting, year after year, that American manufacturers meet ever-lower price targets, Walmart effected some worthwhile improvements. Domestic producers were forced to improve their processes in ways that increased efficiency, reduced overhead, and allowed them to turn out goods for less. Yet, after implementing every ISO 9000 protocol available to streamline operations, lower the cost of production, and still make a profit at the price Walmart was willing to pay, there came a point at which suppliers had no more ways to trim costs…except by sending jobs overseas.
Domestic factories then laid off their workers who, without jobs, went to Walmart and complained that, because they had no income, the prices were too high. Walmart then went to the next manufacturer, ultimately driving that company to offshore and sending more unemployed workers to Walmart in a self-perpetuating loop.
I suspended a sign from the ceiling in the main hallway of an agency I ran that announced, “The better directions you give us, the faster we get where you want us to go.” It was mutually inclusive – both clients and agency staff learned to be better at expressing themselves with absolute clarity.
The digital age has tossed that concept out the window.
While contemporary jargon is a sure sign that a language is alive and evolving, some things deserve early extinction. Or, at the very least, a limited range. Pronouncements such as “Gentlemen must wear jackets” or “No shirt, no shoes, no service” need a brand-related, linguistic equivalent, even when it’s inside the company.
Lots of actions can make a firm look stupid. Harassment litigation, wage discrimination, environmental damage, and other headline-worthy malfeasance. Yet, on a day-to-day basis, it’s what you say that defines who you are. Sometimes in a good way, sometimes not.
From my earliest days in business, I had three role models: George Abbott, Edward Bernays and, despite having a rock ’n’ roll DJ for a father, Mozart. Abbott was in the midst of planning a revival of his Broadway show Pajama Game when he passed away in his sleep…at age 107. Bernays, the father of public relations, was still going to the office until death blocked the door…at age 103. Mozart, of course, died young but created, arguably, more timeless music before he turned 39 than his equally famous compeers.
I was early in my 20s then, working as a film editor and, when I was inducted into the editors’ union, I was the youngest full editor to be sworn in. That did not sit well with two groups – the people with years’ more experience in the cutting room and the producers who were reluctant to hire someone so young.
The Old Way – Mentoring
Yet some veterans had faith in me, took me under their proverbial wing and guided me along until I started designing graphics and animation, writing, producing, and directing, as well (ultimately leaving editing behind). In response, I emulated my mentors as the years went by and eagerly encouraged younger colleagues who had a special spark.
As years became decades, I moved from too-young-to-know-anything to no-longer-young-enough-to-know-everything. And the people I’d worked beside started mentioning they couldn’t get hired. A TV writer with fabulous credits in sitcoms couldn’t get sitcom gigs…despite having kids in the shows’ key demographic. An IT pro was shunned because, though he’d been programming for ages, his background was considered too old school (though he knew the latest programming languages). And a tech marketer reached the point where she couldn’t get full time positions, just consulting assignments.
Nothing prepared me for managing people more than parenthood. It surprised me…probably as much as it may surprise you. But if you’re not a parent…it doesn’t matter. The concepts are simple, and they’re easy to use – whether you’re dealing with stubborn co-workers, troublesome staff members or bosses who make despots seem docile.
Working from the top down, there are numerous volumes that tackle the problem of working for jerks (and there are probably more titles that deal with subordinates). Plus, there are guides that help you deal with the !#*@¡¶? idiots in the office or in the cubicle next to yours. All of them have something you’ll find useful, I’m sure (assuming you’re a reasonable person yourself). But there are some situations where you’ll just have to punt.
The Listening Lesson
For example, as a manager with a small and very heterogeneous staff, including
Early in my first career (in television), I worked with someone who excelled at telling me (and probably many others) that my work was “not right.” Yet, when I asked what was wrong, the person couldn’t tell me.
“What’s wrong with it,” I asked.
“It’s not what I expected.”
“But it’s exactly what was outlined in the brief and the storyboard.”
“But it’s not right.”
“In what way?”
“It came out different.”
“Not the same as I wanted.”
“What did you want?”
“Well, then, what would you change to make it what you want?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then how will I know what to do to make it what you want?”
“That’s your job to figure out.”
[sigh] So I took a guess, which was wrong, and went through the same conversation again.
It was only when I resigned from the project that the work – in its original version – was accepted. The people who managed the budget were unwilling to start over, knowing they were likely to live through a replay of the same interaction.
We don't make things irresistible in a vacuum. We follow the same advice that we give to our clients.