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.
Great leaders don’t know everything…but they can find those who do.
People ask me for advice – regularly – about a ridiculous number of things. I wonder if they realize they’re asking me because I readily admit that I couldn’t possibly know about so many subjects. That doesn’t stop me from answering, however. I just don’t answer with solutions. Coming up with the solution is their job.
The same is true in management. Anyone who’s ever led a group of dissimilar colleagues (and I’ve never come across a totally heterogeneous one) has to accept that they all have specific strengths and capabilities. What one person does really well may be something that the person at the next desk hates doing – even when they’re in, basically, the same job. So giving a solution to either of those people could rip their confidence out from under them, make them feel dependent (or resentful), and lower their motivation from high to low or from low to sub-atomic.
There is, at this point, an Alexandrian library’s worth of literature about how to lead, how to manage, how to motivate, handle conflict, leap obstacles and every other topic you can think of involving the workplace. Any workplace. If there’s a common thread, it’s that employees who feel valued and respected will consider their boss, manager, senior manager or CEO to be a good leader. People who are made to feel like interchangeable parts will describe their superiors using words that often refer to anatomical parts.
When Nixon opened China to American business, U.S. manufacturing was still a viable source of employment for a large swath of the middle class. When robots began replacing workers on assembly lines, it was an early sign of myopia. When corporations (which, as late as the 1990s, offered mentoring programs for high school and college students and often provided internships as a first step toward employment) stopped nurturing a domestic workforce, U.S. industry made it clear that profitability was number one. There was no consistent number two.
Now the problem is severe. The American middle class is the subject of countless political speeches by candidates and elected officials. Yet nothing’s ever done that offers real hope of restoring domestic employment. Meanwhile, in parallel, there is the rise of smart machines, the export of white collar jobs, and the elimination of job training/retraining programs for lack of funding (and the easy availability of Asian workers who can be brought into the States on H-1B visas, be hired as students, or be employed in situ in their home countries). This is, in a very real sense, a tax issue, as I’ll explain.
Smarter than a Rocket Scientist
Taken to a logical end, artificial intelligence has the potential to replace millions of workers in the U.S. and around the world, whether A.I. is employed to solve problems, run machinery, or create new machines that can program themselves. For all the good that IBM’s Watson can do in fields like medical research (to find effective treatments and cures for disease), national security (to detect threat patterns), and fraud detection (in financial services industries), it also implies that humans aren’t fast enough or objective enough to do that work. And a November 2015 story in the Harvard Business Review, while crowing about a new generation of robots that are safe enough to interact with people, points out with no sense of irony that the robots can learn from their human co-workers. That is not a source of comfort to the labor force.
There was a discussion on LinkedIn in June 2015 that asked about the use of Big Data in retailing. The comments focused on detecting real time trends, analyzing purchasing behavior, and using historical activity to gauge the viability of upcoming strategies. It was short-sighted. Big Data was being used to ensure consistent or incremental revenue and profitability, but it wasn’t being used to detect breakthrough opportunities that could radically improve a company’s fortunes.
Commenters ignored a critical Big Data capability that can reveal the unknowns reflected in a diagram called the Johari Window. The window, named for two psychologists named Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham, was originally designed to define relationships between oneself and others, but it’s extremely appropriate for marketers, as well.
THE PROMISE OF THE UNKNOWN
The Johari Window has four quadrants –
In a hardware environment, everyone knows there’s a market for hammers and nails, but consumers may not recognize the hidden advantages of a hammer with a larger head that reduces the number of missed blows and bruised fingers. Likewise, a retailer may be blind to the fact that customers are using pliers to hold nails in place, missing the opportunity to stock, promote, and sell a device that’s designed for that task.
For marketers and the product developers who lean on marketing research, however, the last, i.e. Unknown, quadrant holds the greatest potential, and Big Data can exploit it.
Averages are horrible things. They smooth out both the highs and lows, make everything look like the middle, and tend to make it all seem homogeneous. That’s never the case. And it’s especially not the case when doing marketing.
Who’s Really Who
Today, one among many hot things is personas – biographies of people who don’t really exist.
The other latest-best-shiniest-thing is Big Data which, for reasons unknown, is always capitalized. But searching through an infinite number of variables to find patterns one wants to find is very (very) different than applying fuzzy logic to discover relationships you never considered. Yet whether that’s useful in marketing, rather than in fraud detection or medical research or cybersecurity, is uncertain.
Reality is relative. It changes with each individual. What appeals to you may leave another person cold. And what makes sense to the seller may make none to the buyer. Here's a real world example.
I took a business class flight in April 2015 from Los Angeles to Berlin, and the accommodations were pretty darn cushy (the airline only offered coach and business classes, so business was equivalent to first). Yet the home screen of the video monitor in front of each seat was a series of rotating beauty shots of the plane's exterior. That may have caused the airline's executives to burst with pride; yet, as a passenger, there was nothing more pointless, especially when I remembered that the airline's website (which is plastered all over the planes) makes a three-toed sloth look as fast as a Ferrari.
For me, it would have been far more interesting to know what amenities were available onboard or what the various seating options were (in case I might be flying in coach the next time). Since business class passengers turned left when boarding, I had no idea what coach seating looked like to the right or, on an international flight, what was included and what was optional.
Considering that the airline anticipated that an overnight flight would probably involve sleeping, it was ideal that the seat reclined completely to function as a bed. Yet they seemed to ignore that business class passengers might actually want to do business...and provided no WiFi...not even for a fee, which would probably have seemed inexcusable to many business class flyers. (On the German and Italian trains I took in first class, Internet access was both available and free.)
Remember Detroit. When the Motor City’s auto executives were called before Congress to testify about their companies’ sorry financial condition and their need for a federal bailout, two arrived by chartered jet. The CEO of Ford drove to the hearings...in a Ford Escape Hybrid.
The fliers were excoriated for their excess (though as part of an industry considered “too big to fail,” they were rescued). Ford didn’t ask for a dime. They were solvent throughout the worst downturn in decades.
Make Sure the Subtleties Are Obvious
Americans don’t often respond to subtlety, but they understood the implications of that situation. If the CEO put his personal trust in the products he made and the company was succeeding, it was a brand that consumers could rely on.
On the flip side are the companies who, metaphorically, make shoes that aren’t worn by their employees. For example, there’s the firm I worked with that developed monitoring software for mainframe computers. Their application could detect emerging problems and automatically trigger actions to correct them. Yet when, after the third system interruption in a single day, I called the head of the data center, he – sheepishly – admitted that, despite making the top-ranked monitoring tool in the industry, they didn’t use it themselves.
Nothing ruins a good price, it's long been said, like poor service. Yet great service at a great price is often considered nothing more than good luck -- you must have stumbled upon the rare employee who didn't get the memo about ensuring mediocrity. Pity.
There's something baked into great companies that identifies their day-to-day behavior with their long term reputation. It's a central component of their brand...and what that brand represents to customers and, just as importantly, employees, investors, and partners. Good tends to breed better, and better is always more desirable, whether experiencing it as a customer or delivering it as an employee.
Yet employees who perform really well, whether in providing great service or designing the ways to provide that service, deserve to be rewarded. Add the cost of the systems and the premium paid to the staff, and both tend to be reflected in the price. "Better" costs more, and no one seems to disagree with that concept.
Sometimes, however, optimized internal performance can actually lead to lower costs. So it's possible to provide a better product backed up by exemplary service and do it at a lower price... in some utopian world. In this world, however, the perception of better allows for higher prices and, if the company can lower its costs in the process, that's great for its profitability.
The irony is that customers who are presumably cost-conscious will make a choice based on price instead of value, choosing a lower-cost provider because their primary focus is on short-term expenditures—not long-term ROI. They may save money today, but they'll pay for fixes tomorrow and, in the end, wind up paying more.
Who are you? A client claimed to offer a new approach that was much easier, far faster, a fraction of the cost of traditional methods, and simple enough for anyone to master. And, if you were a programmer, that may have been true. But once the Marketing and Sales teams were briefed on the actual implementation, they felt that everything they’d been promoting was... misleading. And that’s a brand problem.
If the promise you make can’t be kept, there’s little hope. Just as great advertising makes bad products fail faster, a disconnect between a brand’s promise and what it actually delivers can be revealed in a tweet that can spread around the world in mere seconds... and reveal the smoke and mirrors in your marketing magic.
Perception and Reality
Saying you’re one thing and being another is bad enough when you’re dealing with prospects and buyers. When employees are affected, it’s even worse. If they realize that they’re skating on thin ethical ice, their morale is sure to suffer... unless they’re Sammy Glick. And if, for example, the outbound message touts the quality of customer service while the customer service staff itself is treated poorly, it can tarnish the brand as soon as resentment is reflected in reps’ attitudes toward customers.
A recent episode of Undercover Boss could have depressed Gelos, the Greek god of laughter, when employees complained – consistently – about being poorly paid, feeling undervalued, and having no hope for advancement. Expecting to hear much more positive things while dressed as one of the employees, the boss was made to feel much more like Hyde instead of Jekyll.
Before you get to that point, you need to get to this.
Marshall McLuhan was wrong. He wasn’t wrong at the time – the 1960s – but his maxim has not held up well over the decades. It’s the message that matters, regardless of the medium, and today that message gets re-purposed in numerous types of media (a concept that may also change as media converges).
Yet choosing both the message and the medium in which that message will initially appear takes more than a flash of inspiration. Those flashes tend to vanish in (yes) a flash. For ideas and their expression – in words and images – to endure requires the kind of long range vision that emerges from a comprehensive strategy.
Of course, B2B customers and B2C consumers can be fickle. They may pounce on new campaigns only to abandon them (like birds that are attracted to monarch butterflies and instantly learn that they taste awful); Kinko’s “The New Way to Office” is a perfect example. Or they may adopt characters like the Geico Gecko, Progressive’s Flo, Apple’s Get A Mac guys (“Hi, I’m a Mac.” “And I’m a PC.”), and IBM’s Chaplin character (to launch the IBM PC) and eagerly await the next ad.
Great B2B campaigns are harder to find, but only because they tend to be focused on a single target. I’ve seen superb work done in agriculture and industrial trade publications (both print and online) that are the equal of any consumer ads, including direct mail, email, video, and social.
I worked for a guy years ago in New York who wanted to get the U.S. film rights to the Swedish character Pippi Longstocking. So he tracked down the author’s representatives in Sweden, got their telephone number, and picked up the phone.
When someone answered on the other end, that person spoke, well... Swedish – something that my boss didn’t seem to anticipate. Yet, rather than conclude that he needed to get a translator and call back, he kept repeating himself... at an ever-increasing volume.
Needless to say, that didn’t help.
Awhile later, I was told that the Finnish language version of a film he’d produced was out of synch. Somewhere around the middle of the film, the narration and the picture no longer matched.
When I asked how the person who gave me that information knew it, he said that it was feedback from someone in Finland.
So I, too, picked up the phone and called... the Finnish embassy in New York. I then persuaded the bi-lingual receptionist to swing by on her lunch hour and earn an easy $50 by telling me where the words and picture stopped making sense. In under an hour, the problem was solved.
History is jampacked with world-changing miracles, some of which you’ve probably used. Penicillin, for example, or airplanes or smartphones. As a patient or passenger, the purpose is clear – cure disease and get from point A to point B. The smartphone, though, has several “basic purposes” – from phone calls to film clips to photos plus everything from email to enterprise access.
Marketing automation is somewhat akin to the smartphone – you can do a great deal, but it’s all aligned with... what? Generating leads? Routing inquiries? Converting leads into sales? Retaining customers? Boosting revenue? Announcing new products...? It could be all of them but, on its own, it’s none.
No matter how many features and functions a marketing automation platform (MAP) may have, they’re useless if you don’t know what you want to achieve. Yet vendors will try to persuade you that, no matter what marketing problems you have, a MAP is your map to a solution. They’re wrong.
Digital and mobile are givens, but the medium is nearly irrelevant
The beginning of the year – any year – is filled with reviews and forecasts: what worked, what didn’t, what will, and what’s next. It’s all bloviation.
Despite Marshall McLuhan, the medium isn’t the culture for the viral spread of our marketing messages. Not anymore. There are no longer exclusive platforms for particular forms of communication – images, audio, video, text – because, thanks to microscopic computer chips, they’ve all been combined. Email can incorporate more than text, print can accommodate audio, mobile can be anything (and connect prospective buyers to anywhere), and the convergence of computing and television, which began in the U.S. with Qube in Columbus, Ohio, in the mid-1970s, has been taken for granted for years, though interactivity is relatively new.
Yet marketers still need to adapt. They need to understand what each medium does best, what their customers and prospects expect from each, and how they use it.
Advertising may pre-date “the world’s oldest profession.” After all, to attract a clientele, those practitioners first had to communicate their unique features and benefits and then convey how they differed from the nearby competition. Whether it’s an account that Gilgamesh, Sargon & Greenberg would have wanted is an open question but, today, thousands of years later, people still agree that sex sells...even if we don’t sell any actual sex – at least not publicly.
Yet across the millenia, has anything changed? Sellers still want to get the attention of buyers, captivate them long enough to generate desire, and make it clear why what they have to offer is the very best deal. Consumers want to know that what they buy is what they need, that it will do what they want it to (and what’s it’s supposed to), and that the value is worth the merchant’s asking price (or, in every place except the U.S.A., the negotiated selling price).
What has changed are the media...but not the disputes about them. In all likelihood, the same “death of” discussions greeted the handbill (and the presumed decline in billboards...which Latin speakers can still read on the walls of Pompeii), the print ad (killing the handbill), radio (the end of print), television (the demise of radio), cable (the end of advertising altogether), and the Web (the eternal darkness of TV).
During the filming of A Separate Peace (1972), the cast and crew got together at the end of the day to have dinner, and the director, Larry Peerce, was at the head of the table. Every seat was taken, so when Larry's mother appeared, a member of the crew got up, said he'd get himself a folding chair, and offered Mrs. Peerce his cushioned seat.
Larry leaped up, thrust out his arm in the young man’s direction, and commanded, “Sit down.” When the somewhat puzzled fellow was seated, Larry said, “Let her sit on the folding chair. She’s not comfortable unless she’s uncomfortable.”
More Presidents and CEOs have got to learn that lesson.
Small businesses and start-ups in particular tend to have founder’s myopia. They see what they want to see, and it’s usually the world through their eyes… and no one else’s. Yet unless they’re the buyers of the products and services they offer, they’re ignoring the people whose perspective really counts – their customers.
We don't make things irresistible in a vacuum. We follow the same advice that we give to our clients.