Monthly Archives: April 2014

Awesomely Simple

One of my favorite quotes comes from a jazz musician, Charles Mingus, and it concerns one of the things I work on with clients every day: simplification.

Charles Mingus - Bi Centenial, Lower Manhattan...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

That doesn’t mean dumbing things down.  It means finding the big idea in everything we’re doing and relating each and every action to that big idea.  If we’re selling air fresheners and someone thinks our cute logo would make great T-shirts, how do those ideas relate?  If they don’t, maybe we need to move on.

Michelangelo captured this notion when he likened sculpture to simplifying the marble.  He said that there was an angel inside a block and it was his job to set it free. There are statues inside every block, he said.  His task was to remove the excess, to make the complex simple.

Many people in business make what they do unnecessarily complicated.  Maybe it’s to prove their worth to themselves or to others.  Maybe it’s because they’re distracted by every new idea or shiny object.  As Mingus said, it’s commonplace.  Take the complexities that surround you in business and make them simple.  Find the big idea – the paragraph that explains the central tenets of whatever you’re doing  – and use it as your roadmap.  That is the tent pole that keeps everything else up and running.  It’s the thing around which you build your business.

Simple enough?

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This TunesDay, let’s start with a question. Who wrote “Crossroads?”

Robert Johnson

If your immediate answer was “Eric Clapton” or even “Cream,” you fail. If you know your music, you know it was Robert Johnson, a legendary bluesman who died at the ripe old age of 27 (along with Brian Jones, Alan Wilson, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison – quite a club).  This is the original:

It was recorded by Cream (along with one of the greatest rock guitar solos in history) live in March of 1968, some 32 years after Johnson.  It’s been recorded many times since by many people including The Doors, Rush, The Allmans, and Phish.  Most of them followed Cream’s interpretation – their version of history.  Their version became our version and that’s the business point made by the song.

You probably have had the experience in your work life of having someone get the credit for another’s hard work.  Sometimes, as in the case of Crossroads, the person getting the credit (Clapton) took a great idea (Johnson’s) and made it better.  The problem with that is it’s rare that the person getting the credit did much of anything other than to present the idea as their own.  In some cases, this version of the big lie gets that person promoted or hired into a job for which they’re totally unqualified while the originator gets barely a nod.  You can count on them having received the blame, however, had things not worked out very well.

I’m hardly ever surprised any more when I read a piece in the press and realize it’s just a regurgitated press release.  That’s fine – I even do it to a certain extent here on the screed.  I try, however, to state it as a quote and I always link to the original.  I like to think I make the press release better by providing context and interpretation.  I certainly don’t take credit for the original research if that’s what’s in the release.

There is nothing wrong with taking a good idea and making it great – just as Amazon, eBay, or Apple.  Clapton always gave credit to Robert Johnson.  It just disturbs me when I see how often I hear reports of someone getting credit for ideas I know first-hand were developed by others.  It would be nice if the reporters would do a little digging and not regurgitate everything they’re given.  What do you think?


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The Truth Hurts

Sometimes one has to wonder if the whole ad game is just an exercise in futility.

English: YouGov logo

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Billions of dollars are spent on ads and media to sell products and services yet much of that money is for naught  and I don’t mean in the classic “half my advertising is wasted” sense.  OK, so maybe I’m being a little too gloom and doomy this Monday but let me tell you what’s prompting the screed.

The folks over at YouGov did some research about how the public perceives advertising.  The results are kind of scary if you’re in the business of marketing:

Half of Americans (50%) who are aware of advertising don’t trust what they see, read and hear in advertisements.  44% think that advertisements are dishonest.  A clear majority (58%) thinks that there should be stronger requirements for proving claims in advertising. 

Charming.  The study also says that the more education you have the less likely you are to trust ads with 65% of post grads thinking advertising cannot be trusted.  So much for appealing to the customer’s intelligence…

Another finding does help to point us in the right direction:

Many of the common advertising tactics like comparative advertising, scientific endorsements and awards claims may be counter productive and put consumers on alert.  Although 16% think they are more likely to believe an advertising claim, which includes the testimonial of a scientist or expert, that expert makes 29% less likely to believe in an ad.  Ads making comparisons with brand competitors are more likely to be believed by 15% but less likely to be believed by 26%.

In other words, maybe it’s time many brands stopped talking smack about their competitors and treated their relationships with the customer (or potential customer) as if it were a first date.  Think about it.  You wouldn’t spend your time on a date citing studies about what a good person you are or talking badly about other people who might be in the available dating pool.  You’d spend the time learning more about the person you’re with.  What do they care about?  What are their needs?  How might the two of you be good for one another?

Marketing has changed (about the 500th time I’ve written that in 1,500 posts) and our thinking about it needs to change too.  We won’t build trust – and generate sales – if we’re doing the same old thing.  Maybe we need to start taking our customers out on mental dates?  Thoughts?

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Tasting Menus

The topic for our Foodie Friday Fun this week is tasting menus.

Augustin Théodule Ribot: The cook and the cat

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll admit upfront that I tend to shy away from anything that reeks of what some call “chef totalitarianism” but as with most things I’m trying to keep an open mind.  As an article a while back in Vanity Fair put it “in the era of the four-hour, 40-course tasting menu, one key ingredient is missing: any interest in what (or how much) the customer wants to eat.”  You know what I mean.  Many top chefs no longer offer a full menu but will serve you six or eight courses of what they want to serve you.  While in almost every case the food is fantastic and based on the best ingredients the chef could procure that day, the customer has no say in the matter.  You must arrive at the designated time and eat what is put in front of you.  Maybe it’s kind of like going to a relative’s for dinner in that sense, but no relative of mine has ever charged me hundreds of dollars per person.

There’s a business point in this, of course.  I realize that customers have a choice – there are many restaurants in most towns – go elsewhere.  But should any service business force its customers to take it or leave it?  We’ve seen what happens in other businesses that  convey that attitude.   We see that sort of approach in lousy negotiators as well.  Instead of trying to listen to the important items expressed by the other party, they focus on their own needs and give no negotiating room to that party – or to themselves.  Can you imagine that person being successful?  I can’t.

“I’d never patronize a business who does that,” you say.  Really?  I suspect most of us click through various websites’ policies and accept them even though they’re offered on that same basis.  Sneaky?  Fair?  You tell me.

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How Do I Find Great People?

Part of what I do for clients from time to time is to help them hire.


(Photo credit: bpsusf)

I’ll often help write the job specs and do preliminary interviews for them.  One thing they sometimes ask me is what I’m looking for in a candidate.  I’ve written before about how I think “smart” and “curious” are must-haves but there are other more subtle things I’m after as well.

One thing I don’t focus on too much is the technical stuff.  Unless I’m intending to grill them on the minutia of using a particular thing (everything from Excel to ad operations systems to code writing), I won’t get much of that in an interview anyway.  The bigger point is that whatever it is can be taught.  So what am I after?

I want them to tell me how they made something complex into something simple.  I want to hear how they avoided doing something by making something else more efficient.  Can they make one report wipe out two or three others without losing any information?  Can they turn a 20 minute sales pitch into a 3 minute piece of elegance?

I want to test their confidence in their own knowledge.  I might ask them a question and try to talk them off their answer.  How firm are they in their beliefs and is that firmness irrational stubbornness or is it confidence that is open to new ideas?

Do they listen?  Do their questions and answers demonstrate that they have been listening while we’re together?

I might ask them for examples of when they had to convince others that their solution to something was wrong even when a bunch of people were agreed it was right.  I love when they tell me that they argued against using some new tool because they spotted a flaw and turned around a bunch of people heading in a wrong direction.

Finally, I look for people who look for solutions.  For people who don’t have “can’t” in their problem-solving vocabulary.  Can they grasp problems at their core and not get focused on any one solution since many roads lead to the same place?

That’s my general list.  What’s yours?

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New Data On A Shifting Market

Every so often we take a look at the cord-cutting phenomenon. This is the term that applies to the act of getting rid of your cable subscription,

Early 1950s Television Set

(Photo credit: gbaku)

or as is more frequently the case with young consumers, never having one to begin with. Since the folks at Experian Marketing Services just released some new information on the topic I thought this might be a good time to take another look.

As we’ve discussed here before, I think it’s probably too soon to tell if what we’re seeing in the data below as well as other data at which we’ve looked is a trend or a blip.  That said, I think we’re probably getting to the point, especially among young people, where we can begin to draw some conclusion and maybe to adjust our business plans accordingly.  Let’s see what you think.

An April 2014 survey published by Experian Marketing Services suggests that 7.6 million U.S. households, or 6.5% of all U.S. households, have now cut the cord–up 44% in the past three years. Ownership of an iPhone or iPad “noticeably increases the odds” that a household will cut the cord, Experian said. Experian notes that nearly 25% of adults between the ages of 18 and 34 who subscribe to a streaming video service like Netflix and Hulu do not pay for a traditional TV service. Experian also found that households who only watch streaming video on mobile devices are 1.5 times more likely to cut the cord, while those who watch streaming video on TV are 3.2 times more likely to cut the cord.

The above is taken from’s summary which also contains some other data points you might find of interest.  I think it’s pretty clear that whatever is going on it’s happening at an increasingly rapid pace.  It’s pretty apparent that as mobile devices – phones and tablets – become more able to handle high quality video streams the tether to the TV screen gets weaker.  The rapid growth of Roku devices along with Chromecasts, Amazon’s Fire TV, Apple TV, and other over-the-top devices, along with “smart” tv’s, has meant that well over half the homes have some way to access “television” on their TV screen without using a traditional cable service.  To me, that doesn’t bode well for the cable guys.

On the other hand, I’m guessing that most homes get their broadband internet service from the same people from whom they get their video service.  We’re already seeing Comcast and other providers marketing high-speed internet with a small dose of video, a very different approach.  Is the door open to others jumping in as Google has with Google Fiber?  Where are the WiMax folks?  Stay tuned – this isn’t over.  I am not sure where the trend line flattens out and the cord-cutting phenomenon stops, but we’re not there yet as this data shows.  What are your thoughts?

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Nothing But Flowers

I had intended to write on a totally different song (and topic) this morning but sometimes what you write finds you instead of the other way ’round, I guess.

Horseshoe tavern, Toronto, May 13, 1978

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)


My original thought – which might just show up in this space next TunesDay – had to do with hiring and the future. As I was searching for an appropriate song about the future with which to make my point, a number of choices filled my head.  Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, Queen, and others have all written about the topic but I think The Talking Heads describe it – and make my point – the best of all:



I love that video!  It also makes a couple of great business points which, of course, are our topic today.  The song is about a post-apocalyptic world in which everything has fallen apart.  No more malls, 7-11’s, or Pizza Huts.  It’s a bright, upbeat, dance tune which is in direct contrast to the dark vision the lyrics paint and the singer’s statement that “if this is paradise/I wish I had a lawnmower.”  That’s the first business point.

Too often we don’t listen to what people are saying and get way too focused on how they’re saying it.  A simple example is the person in a negotiation who comes to you with an issue and expresses himself in an inappropriately angry manner.  It could be the young person who weeps while talking about their salary.   In any case, one needs to listen to the words and ignore their “music” lest we receive a different message.

The other point this song makes is the we need to be careful about the long-term implications for what we’re doing.  “And as things fell apart/Nobody paid much attention”.   Not only do we need to pay attention, we need to take action.  In this case, the singer once wanted the world in which he find himself.  Be careful what you wish for, and take the time to think about the longer term.

You got it, you got it!


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