Category Archives: Culture

Where the hell are you?

I read a blog post from someone who lives near Boston. He was announcing a partnership with a publishing company doing some exciting things with hybrid digital and traditional publishing. Wicked cool, I thought, so I hopped on over to their website.

The team sounded great, their site was modern and the plan seemed solid. They claimed a lot of experience with traditional publishing so the first thing I wanted to know was their proximity to New York.

After a dozen or so clicks, I realized that they were not going to tell me where they were located. Period. Their home was the wide-open Internet.

Place matters. Place influences how you see the world and how accessible you are to the world. People need anchors and a sense of place. Potential customers need to know you really, really exist beyond a website and email address. Nothing establishes that like place.

Tell people where you are. Me? Englewood, Ohio 45322. Off the corner of Main and Wenger.


View Larger Map

Hourly rates

At some point in a conversation with a prospect client, the question gets asked;

“What is your hourly rate?”

“We don’t have an hourly rate. If you want to pay an hourly rate, you should think about hiring an employee.”

As you can imagine, this confuses a lot of people. Many of those confused people go away and hire some other consultant who will probably either get reamed by the client or end up reaming the client. Either way, it will probably not end up well as eventually one or the other party will feel like they are being taken advantage of.

At some point in the exchange of skills for money, we have been conditioned to think about the value of our time in hourly rates. Whoever thought of this measure was either a genius or a madman. When you think about it, the more time you spend doing something, the better you get at it so it takes you less time to do. When a client compares your hourly rate to someone else’s — who may not be as proficient — and awards the job based on lowest bid, they are inherently paying for lessor quality. Who spends time honing a craft just to get paid less today than they did yesterday for better work? Nobody I want working on our brands.

An hourly rate rewards the slow and unskilled. A project rate rewards those who are proficient and quick.

It’s your success that is ultimately at stake. You decide who you want to work with. We already know.

Defining cool

I was in New York for the 140conf on Wednesday this past week. It would also be the hottest day of the year at 80+ degrees already at 7:30 in the morning.

I agreed to meet up with a colleague at a bakery on the Upper East Side before heading to the last day of the conference. After riding the train up town and walking a few blocks in the heat, I met him outside of the bakery and we went inside. The host greeted us and asked us where we would like to sit.

“The coolest seat in the house,” my colleague said.

“You want to sit here,” the host said, pointing to a table next to the open window. “Everyone passing by will see you.”

My colleague wrinkled his forehead, trying to process why everyone seeing us would make that table the coolest place in the bakery. What did that have to do with getting us a nice air-conditioned seat? We quickly figured out that his definition of “cool” was the polar opposite of our definition of “cool.”

Apparently seeking personal comfort is the most uncool thing you can do in New York City on a hot day.

There be pilots everywhere

Last week, the New York Times ran a story about harbor pilots in San Francisco. As it turns out, there are only 57 such pilots qualified to do that job.

Until I read that article, I did not know they existed. Until just now — as you are reading this — you probably didn’t know either. Congratulations if you did.

San Francisco Bar Pilots have been guiding large vessels from the Pacific in and out of the harbors since the Gold Rush in the mid 1800s. They know every sandbar, shoal and current on any given day and season of each harbor. They are what large shipping vessel captains place their unquestioning trust in to get them safely from the open sea, into the harbor and back out to sea.

A pilot makes an average salary of $451,336. Some say they are doing it only for the money.

I think there is something greater here that drives someone to want to be a harbor pilot. Someone who is that motivated by money can probably make just as much or more working on Wall Street and not take on the liability and stress of guiding a multi-billion dollar vessel through such danger, working in an office exposed to crappy weather.

Every industry has its pilots. Seek them out. Trust them to pilot the waters you choose to navigate. And give them respect; they’re not doing it just for the money.

Four skills every college graduate needs

I was shooting the breeze with a college professor friend of mine the other day because his son is getting married this coming June. We were musing over where the time goes and the topic turned to “kids today” as he was also trying to entice his nephew to an unpaid internship in his department. He is set to graduate after six years of pursuing a degree in journalism… no change that to communications… no, wait English.. oh, what I meant was education.

His mother — my friend’s sister — called him in a moment of panic, pleading with him to give her son an internship so he could build a reel or book of work. She does not want him sitting around the house, unemployed and unemployable for the summer and the following year. Worse, she does not want to foot the bill for grad school.

All of this led to a discussion about the core skills that every college graduate needs — regardless of the degree — but especially those with a Liberal Arts degree. They are; photography, videography, writing and social media.

The technical challenge of building web sites and containers to hold things has already been solved. Anyone can waltz into WordPress or Tumblr and set up an online presence in minutes without any coding skills whatsoever. You can set up a brand page on Facebook and Google+ without any design skills as the format is already handled. If there is anything more complicated, chances are you can buy a plugin to handle the task.

If you really wanted to branch out and customize your basic site, there are thousands of templates and skins to slap onto your site. While it may not make your site entirely unique, it comes close enough.

But what these sites need most is good content.

Photos. Videos. Blog posts. Social media engagement.

Learn these skills and you will never be unemployable.

   

Standing out in a large crowd

Last Christmas, a friend of mine who lives in New York City sent me a box of cookies from Levain Bakery. If you have never had a cookie from them, go right now and get one.. or two.

I’ll wait.

Aside of being the most delicious cookies in the whole wide world, what struck me the most is the label they put on every box and post card. Along the bottom, they draw the New York City skyline in pen. Toward the very end, they color in their bakery and float a heart above it.

Subtle, but the message is clear. Even in a crowded, dense city like New York where everyone is seemingly insignificant to everyone else, you find meaning, purpose and love in a little bakery in the middle of the chaos.

Slow down and find your little heart place.

This blog post is part of a blog-off series with a group of bloggers from different professions and world views, each exploring a theme from his/her world view. This was about exploring the theme, Cookies. To explore how others handled the theme, check them out below. I will add links as they publish.

I wanna get on Oprah

I know that Oprah is off the air, but work with me a bit on the metaphor.

If you are a writer, you want to get on Oprah and your book will sell. If you are a CPG manufacturer, you need to get into Walmart or your product will have lackluster sales. Facebook hopes to be the next “Walmart” or “Oprah” platform. And in the process, the writer, the brand and now the marketer will lose autonomy over their product and service. They now serve at the pleasure of Oprah, Walmart or Facebook.

Oprah is now off the air. What venue do writers now aspire to be on? I don’t know. But I do know that Oprah probably does not much care. She needed to move on for herself. The writers need to figure out their own path.

Walmart will eventually slow down or stumble, taking the business model of a lot of CPG companies with it. The CPG companies will be stuck with a production system they can’t scale back easily and debt they can’t service. They will implode themselves out of business*. Walmart — like Oprah — will not care. It has to do what is best for Walmart.

And now Facebook is looking to “own” all the marketers’ funnel into their customers. Will the marketers march blindly and rabidly toward that cliff? Yes they will. And they will find themselves existing at the pleasure of Facebook. Oops.

But nobody saw that coming, right? Hmmmm.

Scale is everything in America. How many units are you shipping? What is your annual revenue? How many twitter followers do you have? How many copies of your book did you sell?

Nobody asks how good you are. They just want to know you make a lot of “X”

In our quest for chasing big we gladly and blithely hand over the wheel to someone who drives the car to their own destination, not ours.

*This has happened many times to many smaller companies. In order to supply Walmart, they need to ramp up production by leaps and bounds and their product better test well in the 90 days or Walmart pulls it and ships it back unpaid. One day you’ve got a contract for millions; the next you are on the streets and saddled with debt. Or rich. It can go either way quickly.

The last buggy whip maker

I plopped down on the well-worn couch he had in his office on one of my regular hang-out visits. He was a local business guy I’ve been friends with for over a decade. It was always a good way to kill a lunch hour with some good conversation and some local fare.

“I’m telling you,” he started. “This business is not what is used to be. Registrations are down a bit from last year.”

“Do you really want to be the last buggy whip maker?” I asked him point blank.

He’d been grousing about the business going down slowly for the past five years or so. I usually empathized, but just let it go. I wasn’t about to tell him what he should be doing.

But today, it was just too much.

“What do you mean?” he asked a bit shocked that I asked him such a stupid question out of nowhere.

The truth is the question did not really come out of nowhere. He was in an industry that was booming ten years ago, before the market started to consolidate a bit. Over the past several years, many of his competitors had closed up shop due to a lack of demand for his kind of services. His company bumped up a bit every time one of them closed, but slowly went down as the demographic moved on and automated. Eventually, he will be the only game in town and his long-term client base will shrink below what he needs to sustain his company at the level of profitability he needs.

“The way I see it — from the outside looking it,” I started, “is you have really one of two choices; assuming you don’t want to be the last buggy-whip maker. If you do, just keep doing what you’re doing.”

He did not want to be the last buggy whip maker. I don’t know anyone who wants to be the last buggy whip maker.

“You could quit investing in growing your business, suck in all the expenses and start hoarding cash. Your company will eventually die an expected, painless death. You then invest that cash into something else that you really want to be doing but your current clients won’t let you.”

“Or?” he asked.

“You could sell the place for as much as you can get to someone who does not believe you are making buggy whips,” I said. “Choose, but choose quickly before the marketplace figures out you are making buggy whips.”

Markets change. Technology changes. Client needs change.

Change is the reward for successfully solving a problem. Recognize that early and move on.

Nobody really wants to be the last buggy whip maker.

Why should that be free?

Not that long ago, when I called up a vendor asking for a modification, an alteration or addition to a service or software product, they would quote me a price and I would expect to pay it. There may be some negotiation, but not much.

Now, when someone calls us asking to change a software feature or add this service or that, they expect it to be free. They expect that it is already part of the price they are paying.

When did this happen?

The myth of Mad Men and graphic arts

There is a current narrative going on within the creative community lamenting the demise of professional graphic artists. One such narrative appears on my favorite design blog, Before&After Magazine.

Inevitably, someone brings up Mad Men as an example of the glory days of advertising.

And I sigh deeply.

Firstly, let’s get one thing perfectly clear. Don Draper is a fictional character, partially based on Draper Daniels, the creative head of the Chicago-based Leo Burnett advertising agency in the ’50s. Matt Weiner can write him to do anything and say anything. He did not exist. He does not exist. Never. Ever, ever, ever.

Don’s story for us starts in medias res as a successful creative director banging out copy in a bar in New York City. As the story unfolds over the next four seasons, we find out he was a poor kid growing up on a farm “somewhere in the Midwest,” joined the Army to get the heck off the farm, sold used cars in California, never went to college, never wrote anything longer than 250 words, moved to New York City and sold furs and did copywriting/advertising on the side for the owner (who probably never would have hired a graphic artist if Don didn’t do the work) and eventually bamboozled his way into Sterling-Cooper.

Don’s path is hardly the one you most read about. Most professional graphic artists have a BFA or certificate from an art school. They trained to eventually become creative/art directors in agencies, living the Don Draper Dream.

But if you look closely, the credentialed people who work at Sterling-Cooper and later Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price are the first ones getting fired when an account is lost. Don prevails and gets stronger despite not having the credentials of a “real” creative director. Sure, he has his moments of panic but who doesn’t? And Don’s panic is more understandable when he admits to himself he has been faking his entire adult life. Again, folks, he is not real so Weiner can write all these traits into the Don Draper character.

The problem with not believing Don Draper isn’t real is I know people like Don Draper. I know people in the graphic arts field who have no business being there because they don’t have the “proper” credentials*. Yet, they are the folks I turn to when I need something done.

How many agencies would hire a Don Draper if he was looking for work? Probably all of them. How many would hire a used-car salesman turned furrier who did advertising for them on the side without an art degree? None of them. The irony in all this is the latter is exactly what Sterling-Cooper did, albeit unknowingly.

Don was successful not so much because of his superior copywriting and creative ability, but in his willingness to learn and his keen observation of human behavior. He learned what made people tick and more importantly, how to make them tick to a rhythm he tapped out. He played Roger into his job and continues to play him. For Don, Roger is the perfect whetstone that sharpens his skills. But this is not a character analysis post. This is just a reminder that creative ability is not about art degrees. Creative people don’t hold any special rights to the keys of knowledge. But people who are willing to use the tools they have and sharpen that craft do.

Like the graphic arts industry, Mad Men could have easily just evaporated after season four. The most ardent fans among us would have had a momentary Don Draper panic moment, but then like Don, realized life goes in only one direction — forward. Instead of slinking home in the rain to a stiff drink and a pair of bedroom slippers, we would have sighed deeply, been grateful for the spectacular opportunity we had been given, looked bravely onto the horizon and enthusiastically asked:

“What’s next?”

Everyone in advertising wants to be Don Draper but few want to go through the pain of becoming Don. Fewer still want the anxiety of staying Don.

*I am, in fact, one of those posers. Read my story. Nowhere in there is any formal training in graphic design. Yet I fooled a lot of people into thinking I could do the job, mostly because I could.