It’s been 12 hours since my last email check. It’s been tough.
Yesterday I checked my email, by my estimation, probably around 120 times. And yes, that sounds pretty crazy, especially when I look at it on the screen. Sadly, it’s also probably pretty accurate.
You see, I got tired of looking for the perpetual red dot on my Mail icon in the dock; it was distracting, always calling me away from whatever I was doing and compelling me to check and see whatever had just come in. Usually – I’d say maybe 90% of the time – it was spam, or some equally useless message. To be honest, it was probably NEVER something that had to be acted upon immediately – because if something was that pressing, I’d have made a phone call.
So I turned off the ‘automatically check for email’ options on all of my computers and my phone.
And, over time, simply replaced that automatic functionality with my own, checking manually and, soon, more frequently until I was pretty much worse off than before. Compulsion? Sounds like.
Anyway, was yesterday a little more than usual? Maybe – I had a pressing issue with an important client – lot of back and forth – and back. So while waiting for the ‘forth’, I checked – again and again. And again.
I left work a little early, as it was the swing day on the Holiday weekend. Checked email in the car. Went with the family to get my daughter’s new soccer stuff. Checked in the store. A lot. Stopped at Target. Check. Waited in the car at another store. Checkcheckcheck.
Grabbed a bite before we went to see Despicable Me 2 (pretty good btw, kids liked it. but I think Gru’s better evil). Checked several times. Into the theater – no reception. Anywhere. How did I know? Checkcheckcheck. After the movie – you guessed it. And nothing. Caught an impromptu and unadvertised private fireworks show that we heard about. Sadly, checked there too, though not during the show. Got home and checked one last time – 11 pm.
Woke up this morning and my mind went to where my phone was sitting by the front door.
But I didn’t.
Fuck That. I thought. And it was liberating.
Because as soon as I thought that, and changed my focus, I heard my kids laughing in the next room over. And my trusty dog Charlie trotting down the hall (I have no idea how he knows the exact moment I’m awake).
In fact, I decided right there not to check my email today. At All.
Yes, I felt its pull – it amazes me how much of my daily routine involves those quick checks. Walking down the hall I knew where my phone was. Felt it almost. Having my cup of not-coffee. Like a magnet, almost. Calling to me. Just a quick check.
I remained strong. Tuned my guitar. Got up and walked by the phone. ‘Just a quick check…’ said the voice in my head.
No. I held strong. And in choosing not to it got a little easier, and I gained some perspective.
It was Saturday, I reasoned. What was I going to miss out on? The client who didn’t get back to me wouldn’t, and even if they did, regardless of the response there was nothing to be done until Monday. If bad, it would dampen my weekend and the time with my family, If good, the news would preoccupy me in other ways.
Plus, the only other stuff I’d get would be things that I didn’t need, or could wait.
And in realizing those two truths, I saw all that I had to gain.
Time, for starters. And Focus.
Suddenly liberated, I figured if I’m preoccupied by something 120 times a day, that’s an awful lot time being focused on things that really don’t matter.
Which takes away from the things that do matter. Or that I can’t ‘see’ because I’ve invested my energy in a hollow and insidious habit.
And I want that time. Time is pretty much what our lives are made out of – do I really want to give that away to some email program? Are you kidding me?
So by hour 13, I think I realized something: giving up email – or whatever your digital compulsion might be – facebook, twitter, whatever – gives you back time. And that time is the currency of your life. There’s better ways to spend it – trust me.
By Sunday, I didn’t really miss it at all. Yes, it was that fast – which makes me wonder about just how important all of our digital habits really are. Saturday afternoon I made a point not to look at my phone – or even take it with me. No point in temptation.
And we got a call from some friends to come over for a BBQ. Normally, and pathetically, I would have brought my phone, stuffed it in my pocket, and checked it a few times during the party.
This time, I left it home. And being disconnected allowed me to really be connected with the moment. I met new people, really listened to what they had to say. My mind was where my body was, because I had no distractions from those digital handcuffs.
Which I think is maybe the most important takeaway from this whole mini-experiment. Here’s what I learned: Doing something and seemingly quick and easy as checking your email several times a day (or much more), distracts you from whatever it is you’re doing so that everything becomes fragmented and nothing is fully enjoyed. It’s the falsity behind multitasking, and the unfortunate by-product of our digitally saturated lives.
And it’s not just email. I’m reminded of it every time I go to an event and everyone’s taking pictures or movies instead of immersing themselves in the actual experience. It’s elective ADD in a way. And we’re missing out on our lives as a result.
So back to no email: today was awesome. I didn’t miss it, but instead savored every bit of my day. And tonight I can remember everything I did today – an increasing rarity – because I was fully engaged in every moment, instead of being mindful of either checking email, or thinking about whatever it was that came though.
What’s more, suddenly undistracted my mind went back to ‘vacation mind’ a bit – you know, when you’re away and have been disconnected from the umbilical cord of daily routine and work and suddenly see things in a whole new light. When you get creative again, and see so many more new possibilities because you’ve risen above that blindered little channel.
Yeah, that happened. I thought, and scratched out ideas, and actually followed up on them, instead of just meaning to. All because without the habit of distraction, I became more human and alive again.
Better yet, my increased focus allowed me to become fully immersed in writing this morning – where the 3 hours went I have no idea, but I do know that I was there – in the room with the characters watching as the story unfolded. Listening to them speak. Watching their reactions. Dutifully writing it all down.
I’m not crazy – if you write fiction, that’ll make sense.
Between edits and new work, I put 29 pages to bed today. Really.
And now I’m a short hop to done – couple of more weeks of edits should seal the deal.
No distractions, no fragmented concentration. Fully immersed and engaged and didn’t even think about my email or phone. Plus, I suspect that email may be a gateway to other digital time sucks, because in not checking my email, I probably spent about 10 minutes on the web this weekend.
And, to paraphrase that line from Office Space, it was everything I thought it would be.
Tomorrow’s back to work. email’s a part of it, and I’m already in pre-Monday mode, at least mentally. But I’m thinking about throwing a disclaimer on my emails – something along the lines of ‘Emails will be checked twice daily at 10 am and at 4 pm, Monday through Friday only. Please contact me via phone for anything more pressing.”
All of the rest of the time I’ll invest in the important stuff, whatever that might be.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between A Capitalist Economy and a Capitalist Society.
The former is a pretty solid economic model that subscribes to things like a free market economy and the laws of supply and demand. And it is in it’s purest form, I think, a pretty good economic one, as it rewards hard work, good ideas and risk taking.
The latter, however, I think speaks to a Societal model that describes every aspect of one’s existence in terms of material valuation. It constantly asks, ‘Can I make a buck on it?’ It asks ‘What’s it worth?’ – and only understands the value of something solely in materialistic or monetary terms.
It’s an outlook that has become pervasive in our culture, and it’s quite troubling. The inability to see, understand and evaluate anything – a song, a painting, an emotion or personal success – beyond terms of monetary value is in direct opposition to what it means to be truly human – a considerably deeper, broader and more meaningful state.
It is, I think, the end result of a marketing culture that equates happiness with stuff, and it has found a ground - made fertile by the dissolution of family, religion and human values – in which to grow. It’s troubling to me as a father, and husband. And human being.
And it fuels me as a writer.
But, for a long time, I have, perhaps, lacked the courage to speak about this beyond conversations with friends, family – even strangers – all of whom, curiously, are in complete agreement with me. It can be a dangerous business for someone who works in advertising to question the broader ethical impact of marketing, yet I find it oddly compelling that I can have this very same conversation about ‘the way things are’ with anyone, anywhere, and I always find that we’re all on the same page, yet we never seem to get anywhere – possibly because most of us spend our days treading water.
But you can only do that for so long. After awhile, you either get tired and drown, or you swim for the shore. And make it.
I think it’s time to talk about it, and to do something about it. Having quit coffee some 24 days ago now, I think it’s time to move on to some other topics. I’ll be blogging about some of them here, and hope that you’ll all continue to read along. And speak up, too.
I’m going to start that swim now…
This morning I did a horrible thing: I used a PC to do some creative. I know, I know…but in my defense, the hard drive on my beloved G5 tower clickety-clacked into a coma the other day, and though I did throw in a spare internal (which took about 5 minutes), the older Open Office (it’s less than annoying than Word, and free) version I dug up to install didn’t want to play nice with the newer files, so there I went to the PC – when you gotta write, you gotta write and all that.
Was the PC (it runs Vista) as good as the Mac? Not as good as the old PPC, but in terms of interruptions to workflow, sadly, about on par with the shiny new iMac i7 I use at the office.
Now, I know that that’s blasphemy as far as any long term mac user is concerned, but to be honest, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that mainstream success and the drive to keep outdoing its previous quarter has, despite it’s massive cash balance, begun to take the shine off of my once beloved Apple.
Here’s the backstory: My first computer was a TRS80, my second an Epson (with an Amber screen!), and my third an Apple IIC (with the green screen). Back then, as today, I used them primarily to write (I even took the IIC to my first newspaper job – only computer in the office – what a rebel I was…). But then in the early 90′s, I started looking at these elegant things called Macs – there was something different about the way they worked – about the way they ‘felt’ when you used them. They were solid, elegant, even the tactile feel of the mouse and keyboard made you want to remain engaged – clicks and taps dispensed a geeky rush every time, and when I went back to PC-land, I felt like I was playing with a cheap toy.
Still, when push came to shove, I went out and bought a store-built PC just when Windows 95 was coming out. Why not? it was cheaper, and the interface Mac-like.
Sadly, that machine lasted about a week before crapping out and, rather than get it repaired by the folks who assembled it, I just took my money and plunked it down on a Performa 6400 series running Mac OS 7.5. And never looked back.
It was by no means a coincidence that I started learning about the then-field of ‘desktop publishing’ – I loved working on my Mac – it didn’t feel like work even – and it eventually led me into my profession. I eventually moved to a G3 ‘Wallstreet’, G4, then a G5 as needed, but all the time feeling secure that these things would last – I wouldn’t have to deal with forced upgrades and, if necessary, even a non-techie like myself felt completely comfortable cracking open the case and swapping out whatever piece of hardware I needed to in order to keep working, just like with the G5.
In my business, most of us work on Macs, and for the past few years, we’ve noticed that our once-beloved machines are, more and more, being relegated to the home office, largely because Apple seems to have adopted a policy of continual upgrades that are not backwards-compatible. Or, quite frankly, necessary.
But their audience is no longer the happy, professional/hobbyist that we all were. Their ‘community’ is now just another consumer-driven cattle segment that likes – and then discards in favor of newer and shinier – their Apple products. When you go to an Apple store, sure they’re packed, but it’s a different packed – consumers jostling one another out of the way in order to be the first to buy the newest and shiniest bauble. Which is a far cry from the days when I’d go out of my way to drive to the nearest Comp USA and spend hours in that dry little corner where the Apple products were kept with a dozen like-minded fans just discussing the machines and whatever workarounds and modifications we could come up with.
The giant ‘pro’ iMac on my desk runs hotter than a furnace, drags like a dog in InDesign, and has a host of minor day-to-day annoyances that make me periodically check to make sure that there’s no Start button in the corner of my screen. Granted, I chose not to get a tower this time (bad move), but there’s no way in hell that I’ll ever crack this thing open if, and when, it craps out. And I think that that’s the plan now at Apple: obsolescence.
It’s probably a good temporary move for Apple; just this morning their market cap exceeded Microsoft’s ’99 peak, making them the biggest public company in history. But I think that when you start to cast the widest possible net for the sole sake of profit, even if successful, being all things to all people never works for the long haul.
You see, I no longer love Apple and their products. Or even much like it. And that’s truly the problem, in and of itself.
I didn’t actually write this to be a bitch session, so let me bring it around full circle from a branding and marketing standpoint: when your customers aren’t passionate about your product, when they’re not truly connected to it, then you’re probably not as strong as your balance sheet seems to indicate.
Grooming a client base to continually consume via upgrade, even if it’s a large as Apple’s, does not guarantee long-term success. If anything, you’re actually building on a weak foundation by encouraging a transitory approach to your consumer’s feelings toward your product: eventually they know they’ll have to upgrade, so they don’t truly become emotionally invested in the product.
Which leaves an opening for your competitors (Samsung anyone?) to pull them away for a round of upgrades. And maybe, just maybe keep them for good.
Was today a high-water mark day for Apple? The folks at CNBC were breathless, but maybe Apple should pause and take stock (pun intended): Microsoft once rode this high as well.
Just a thought.
All of us tend to get in a rut – maybe not a rut, but routine quietly begins to dominate our lives and we’re not even aware of it. It seems our brains – at least mine anyway, start efficiently processing tasks in an almost robotic manner rather than taking a ‘what if’ approach.
Today, the infomercial buzzword is ‘muscle confusion’ – constantly challenging our bodies in new ways so that we continue to see results. The same could be said, I think, for our brains. When we’re young – and I see this all the time with my kids – everything is new. Kids’ minds fire off all the time and they tend to learn at remarkable rates compared to when we’re older.
I’m not a neuroscientist, but I would guess that the more new stimulation we get, the better our brains do. I truly believe that at a certain point in our lives, we begin to move away from the ‘new experience’ mindset because we’ve amassed a body of knowledge that is enough to support us and our survival. Sadly, we then we tend to stay within those channels, admittedly in-part because we’re so damn busy. But I think that’s analogous to the muscle confusion example above, with the early part of one’s life experiencing the most new ‘routines’ to which they must adapt, and then once those are established, there seems to be a general plateau where there is considerably less growth.
This phenomenon applies to creativity, plasticity of thought and the ability to create new solutions and perceive from multiple viewpoints – a skill that is critical to my business – and likely yours on some level, regardless of what you do. You must try new things continually. It is not optional, unless you’re just into biding your time until you die. And no, this isn’t an old and unreachable saw, either.
Want to know how to do it? Here’s a personal example: This past winter I seemed to be in a comfortable ‘rut’ of sorts – and that’s likely the worst kind as it’s insidious: there’s nothing urgent to spur you to action. My workouts were the same as always (go to the gym – see no real gains or losses…), my off time was a templated routine of go home eat dinner put the kids to bed, spend some time with my lovely bride, edit manuscript, collapse into bed and my creative work-life was busy but unremarkable.
I didn’t realize that this was even a rut, albeit it a pleasant one. Like I said, it’s insidious.
Repeated viewings of of the Kettleworx informercial on Saturday mornings actually got the ball rolling. With the help of my rather perceptive, mentally elastic older daughter Olivia. Truth be told, we’ve been watching – and dissecting – informercials since she was an infant, identifying the triggers and charting the marketing flow – hey, I like my work, and it’s a good way to show kids how marketing works so they’re not just blindly pulled in by it.
So one day she said “Daddy, we always watch this one – why don’t you get it?”
And on a whim, I did.
And started it, and kept at it religiously (it’s tough – apparently I was in crappy shape – but it works).
So I left the gym, which gave me more hours in the day that I needed to fill.
So for whatever reason I decided that I wanted to learn guitar.
One new thing had worked out well, so why not another?
So I tried a lot of guitars (without knowing a single chord, mind you).
And finally settled on a ‘cheap’ Martin OOOX1
Which, driven by my increasing comfort with, and appreciation of trying New Things – and the neuron juicing effect it has – turned into a hobby.
Yes, a Hobby. Something that I hadn’t had since – not coincidentally – I was a kid. With that plastic, try-new-things brain.
Ten months later I’m taking guitar lessons, doing my kettlebell workouts 4-5 days a week and – finally – out of that comfortable rut. My brain is once again nimble and receptive. I’ve been reinvogorated. We’ve actually created a separate division for the development of new projects, because I’m flush with so many ideas. Finished the novel edits and started a new one. Looking at everything like it’s new – not like in past years when everything flew by so fast.
New ideas. Because I tried something New.
Try something New. Today. And keep at it - push through the initial resistance – I think that’s a key.
It’ll get you going again, and though where that may lead is uncertain, it’ll undoubtedly be interesting.
And have a resonant effect in every aspect of your life.
You might just feel like a (very wise) kid again.
I’ve finally done it. After much hemming, hawing (what is that, exactly?) and hand-wringing, I’ve gone and cancelled my subscription to the New York Times. It’s bittersweet.
Truth be told, I’m only a Sunday Home Delivery subscriber; the rest of the week I’m too busy to sit down for the Times experience. There’s something about settling down with a broadsheet that I will indeed miss, maybe a sense of exploration, hope and the promise of intellectual rigor that for me was once as much a part of the experience as the journalistic ideas themselves. Note the past tense there.
Especially on Sunday, when the entire heft of the paper was matched by nothing less than a the excitement of expectation and potential, and made real through processed wood pulp. Yes, Kindlites (yes, I have one too, and have warmed to it), the tactile sensation was an important part of the experience.
So, I thought as I hung up the phone having finally severed my umbilical cord from the Gray Lady, what changed?
A lot of things, I guess.
Sure, the op-ed guys like Friedman and Kristof are still terrific, but now that I see them on Morning Joe or somewhere else on the ‘net throughout the week, the anticipation of reading them on Sunday has become somewhat lessened. And I’m happy to recognize the real journalists whose names are not yet brands: the Times still has some truly great folks working the front lines of news – and I still appreciate their analysis and courage.
But some things have changed, that’s for sure. I don’t actually read the whole paper anymore, because somewhere the experience, for me at least, lost that inviting sense of exploration. And that’s probably because the drive to explore is inevitably grounded in the desire to find something new. We explore not to find confirmation of groupthink or agenda, but to truly experience the thrill of discovery.
Now, for some reason, with The New York Times and others, I go in with a sense of what I’m likely to find and most of the time am quite correct, which relegates the entire experience to an exercise of more of the the same.
I want to be enlightened, surprised, challenged and stimulated – that’s what journalism is about. I don’t want to go in with an understanding of ‘well this publication (or site or tv channel)’ is right-leaning, or left-leaning, liberal or conservative, so any conclusion drawn from their ‘reporting’ is molded by their corporate or political editorial policies and thus what I expected and already knew.
That’s a waste of time.
Nor do I want to see content designed only to inflame and capture page views, or to be part of a punchboard designed to ensure that every possible demographic slice has something to relate to, because that’s equally false.
The Times appears to have gone in this direction, becoming less unique, and more and more mainstream; a pop caricature of a previously respected publication relying on a few foundational leftovers to retain a degree of credibility.
I don’t need more of the same. I don’t need People magazine light and a more verbose version of USA today. I don’t want a Book Review that seems so nervous to justify and defend itself that it will only review obscure mid-list fiction in the driest, most convoluted and intellectually snobbish manner possible while casting disdain upon the most popular titles on their own esteemed best seller list in the back of the very same publication. For God’s sake, man, review at least one popular title a week, even if the author’s name isn’t Jhumpa – most readers like myself actually read all kinds of things – there’s no shame in it, so how about reviewing some less obscure, even popular titles in a more engaging manner – and one in which it doesn’t seem like the reviewer is threatened by or has a bone to pick with the author in question. That’d be nice, and it keeps me from skipping to the last 2 paragraphs of the review. A little life and objectivity, please.
Alright, that last part are my gripes, but to be honest, I think that the core of my frustration is in watching a publication that I loved not evolve, but instead decay. It was a bastion, and a comfort. It would always be there, and it would always be important and credible. But then decisions were made to broaden it’s appeal not based on its inherent strength, but instead on a more populist approach. Smaller, more digestible and less satisfying. Like fast food.
It has become diluted; an also-ran among many. And in an age where I can cherry-pick my news sources, I need a reason to both pay for and rely on one. I need something that I can’t get somewhere else, and for me, anyway, the New York Times is no longer that thing. Funny, but I started writing this not to pen an indictment, but instead to explore just why this was such a troubling decision for me. Like many forms of art, honest writing remains a strong means for exploring the things that matter most.
Perhaps newspapers need to remind themselves of the incredible power of the tools of their trade – good writing, honesty, research and courage – instead of trying to trade these tools for ephemeral gain.
Everybody’s scared these days. It’s true. Take a look around – or inside – and you’ll see it. The constant whispers of ‘what if’ and ‘could that be me next week?’ as you see some stock news footage of long lines of suit-clad people clutching resumes because a job opened up somewhere in some other state.
And, in this age of 24/7 media saturation and the ability to be constantly plugged in, we’re all exposed to it way too much. The problem is that we’ve become conditioned: we’d like to walk away sometimes but fear that if we miss something, we’ll miss everything, and the structured life we’re holding on to so desperately will turn to dust beneath our fingers.
I wonder sometimes if this all started on that clear September morning about a decade ago, or if that was merely the fuse to ignite a confluence of events already in place. Logically, if 9/11 had happened in, say, 1980, I think that there’s an argument to be made that while horribly tragic, the resonant effect would have been considerably shorter: we would have been exposed to it maybe once or twice a day back then. The 6pm broadcast news and maybe a daily paper would have been our only reminders over the course of the day, provided we didn’t know someone who died there personally (like so many others, I had a friend who never made it out that day). This lack of information-delivery systems would have left the other 23 hours or so open to doing other things and getting away from it a bit. And getting some time to allow the wound to heal.
Fast forward to 2001, however, and we had 24-hour news cycles and the internet. I’ll posit that these things keep that wound from healing over completely, and allowing for recovery. And the same applies to the recent economic crisis and its effects: we simply can’t seem to get away from it and recover.
And as viewers or clicks somehow equal money, I don’t think it’s overly cynical to suggest that the news channels and information sources are well aware of the fact that if they keep the fear fire stoked, we’ll continue to tune in. Here’s the Truth: There will never be a recovery if we don’t allow ourselves to recover. And that means walking away long enough to gain distance and clarity, and truly assess not what’s happening in a Stock Market that most of us don’t understand but, instead, working on the small part of our own individual universes – our communities and businesses – that we actually do understand and in which we live, have a degree of control and can make a difference.
Curiously, this was actually going to be a post about something else, but now I think there’s enough here to digest for today. Small steps.
I heard the news today that Abercrombie & Fitch has decided to pay off the Jersey Shore gang in an effort to distance their brand sensibility from those of those crazy fun-lovin’ kids from Joisey.
What a misstep on the part of Abercrombie’s brand guardians and PR folks. But it did bring up some interesting questions from the brandosphere.
Curiously enough, these days I think that the argument can be made that, while one can define, create and curate and brand message in an ongoing fashion – an approach called ‘brand journalism’ by some folks in this industry – the reality is that in today’s social media marketplace, there are limitations to the amount of control a company has. Brand strategists and content providers can launch and shepherd and brand, but once it’s out the door and on the street, it’s truly and organic beastie. There’s simply no way to completely control a mass-market brand. Period. End of story.
All that can be done by guys like me is to define and build a brand foundation, develop a compelling story, and provide content and touch-points that perhaps can guide the conversation a bit. And, honestly, in a consumer-empowered world, that’s exactly the right approach. Build it and set it free, then gently guide it as it evolves: think of your brand as a living, constantly evolving organism that interacts with customers along its life path.
In the case of Abercrombie (and yes, I am aware that everybody got publicity out of this, and that ANF is down about 10% as I write this), the attempt to cast the widest possible net for customers, and then decide that some of the fish should be thrown back because they don’t meet some artificial standard (sorry, there is no Abercrombieville or Fitchburg to which we can travel – it’s a marketing construct, people) smacks of hypocrisy.
And in a new world of two-way brand communication, I’m afraid that A&F is going to learn a tough lesson.
I was down in Washington DC a couple of weeks ago, and what I discovered there was nothing short of amazing. Now, I hadn’t actually been in DC for a number of years, so as part of a vacation down south, my wife and I thought it would be nice to spend a couple of nights in town and show the kids the Mall and see the cherry blossoms. It was a good move.
The amazing part? Well, we were driving, so even if you stick to the main roads, you can still get a general sense of the tenor of the country. New York, Jersey, Delaware, Maryland – they all had a sort of sort of subdued movement to them. Clearly, the economy has stabilized , and everything had a sort of steady workmanlike sensibility to it. It ain’t great, but it ain’t horrible either.
Until we reached the dreaded Beltway, which we crossed and headed into the center of town. That’s when I discovered they’ve got a secret, deep in the heart of our nation’s capital! All of our camera-savvy political ‘leaders’, well positioned for the press conference and with crocodile tear sincerity and artificial empathy (either side of the aisle, mind you), well, now I know that they’ve been holding out!
“Yes, yes” you say, “We know that they’re slippery and can’t be trusted. But what’s the amazing part? What’s the secret?”
The Amazing part, the Secret is this: it’s Booming in Washington DC. Not merely healthy, not stiff-upper-lip positive – no, positively BOOMING!
Everywhere you look, cranes, new construction. Low unemployment, housing – yes HOUSING reports annual real estate valuations continuing to rise over 4% annually. It’s an absolute, amazing wonderland of prosperity, clean streets and the nicest subways I’ve ever ridden on.
All within the tight little world of the Beltway though, admittedly, such a breadth of prosperity cannot be held in forever by the girth-restrictions of the Beltway, so like the effects (http://youtu.be/BlK62rjQWLk) of ‘just a little bit more’ on Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote (“It’s wafer thin, monsieur…”), there is, indeed, a bit of spillover. Into Northern Virginia, where no one should bother to own a car.
But that’s it: Wonderland within the Beltway, and a somewhat stable though colorless existence without.
So, what’s my point? Well, I’ll posit that if these politicians who assess and make recommendations, policies and laws for our country are looking from within this wonderful belt-bubble and, when they view the reality of their kingdom, well, I dare say that they’re perception is a bit skewed.
You see, if everywhere I look everything’s wonderful, even if some cold stream of data suggests otherwise, as a human being I tend to be effected by what I experience. So, individual political motives aside, the policies which I champion have little to do with the reality on the street, and across the country.
None of this, of course, is anything new. But, case in point, I had both heard of and suspected that this were the case – that there’s a disconnect between our elected officials (note, I did not say leaders) and the people who elected them (note, again, that I did not say the people who they serve).
The thing is, it didn’t hit home for me until I was on the ground within the environment. Data, phone conversations and conjecture are not a substitute for being in the physical environment for a period of time. That’s how you can really get a sense of the situation (and, no, the occasional political photo-opp of a politician in shirt sleeves touring a factory in Detroit is not a substitute for the real thing. The get back on the private plane and go back to Nirvana).
So what’s the point, other than that our policymakers are wholly disconnected from the populace? Well, there is something to take away that might even be constructive for your business.
Go see your customers and clients. Spend time with them, and within the environment in which they live and interact on a day to day basis. Awhile back, someone in a business similar to my own asked what kind of form I used to get to know new clients. What I sent to them, via email, to get to know them and their businesses.
After the spit-take, I gently explained that there is no such form. And there is no substitute, even in in data driven age, for time on the ground and personal contact.
Me, I use my client’s products whenever possible: I make sure that I’m their customer, so I can see what it’s like to be their customer. Then I can make real and effective recommendations. And when I can’t use their products, I make sure to show up, often unannounced, to find out what’s going on and take an accurate temperature reading of the business.
There is no substitute for this. It’s the only way to make real and effective assessments, from which you can make real and effective suggestions, or even policies.
Get out, put boots on the ground. Meet, talk to and shake hands with your customers (or constituents) on a regular basis. Do what they do, use what they use, read body language, listen to the ambient sounds to which they’re exposed. Inhabit their point of view for awhile. Don’t just read data or rely solely on metrics.
Those things are only numbers. Instead, do your best to immerse yourself in the reality of your customers. Then you can do what needs to be done, because your foundational viewpoint – your perception – is spot on.
Think of it as loosening your Beltway.
I’ve got a secret: Ellen Page’s voice on those Cisco commercials raises my blood pressure. No, not that way…actually more in the way that 2 overwashed and dried cotton socks rubbed together, or the more cliche’d fingernails on the blackboard raise my blood pressure.
A visceral reaction, like the jaw-hinge spasm from eating a lemon. Really.
Every single time – from the first time that I heard it, and saw it matched with those ridiculous set pieces.
Oh, I get it. I don’t have to be in the development meeting to know how it went.
“Ok, so we’ve got this remarkable, really game-changing technology that will let people truly network easily and effectively.”
“Well, what should we do? How can we present it? Everyone’s doing shiny tech..”
“Shut Up, Lloyd.”
“Right, right – we want to go more mainstream – we want people to integrate this into their lives – not just IT guys – everyone”
“Ok, so…let’s do that – let’s go overboard – hey, I know – let’s put it right in ‘Americana’”
“Yeah – Norman Rockwell!”
“You want to put Cisco on the Saturday Evening Post?”
“No – but let’s drop it right into the American fabric -idyllic small town – you know, like we all wish for”
“Shut up Lloyd – anyway, that’s what we’ll do – set pieces, show what can be done on an everyday basis – not some corporate hi-tech place – people are numb to that”
“No, run with me on this – it won’t be old fashioned – we’ll just make it a little quirky, but still small town, so we can reach out to the hipsters, the families – really seed multiple demos.”
“Sure – great – who’s an up and comer? Cool, but not that well known yet?
“Well, there’s this girl – what’s her name? Page, Ellen Page – she’s done some good work, done some god Indies and she’s gonna be in a movie with DiCaprio”
“Perfect – she has cred from the arthouse stuff but people are going to recognize her – she’s not blond, is she? Can we get her?”
This orchestrated giddiness, the mellifluously saccharine schoolgirl lilt – the creation of these surreal small towns somehow able to retain a mid-fifties sensibility yet understand and put funds toward the giant Cisco interface, even though there are no competing pieces of technology in the shot, even the ubiquituous computer.
So what’s my point?
Well, I see a lot of advertising where the style gets in the way of the substance.
The message gets obscured. Sure, it’s flowey and fun, but it voids the Ogilvy tenet on the purpose of advertising, which is pretty much to sell product, regardless of the guise. (Sure, Bernbach did it differently, and countless others right through CP&B, but they all knew that the product needed to be sold.).
In this case, I’d argue a simpler aproach was warranted: no big-name stars or anything overly complicated.
You see, this was a time when the product could have sold itself, simply on its own merits: it just needed to be explained – simple as that. It’s a damn good technology, but because of the approach – and, admittedly, the 10 million opinions on both the agency and client side that get thrown into the soup of things between original good idea and the final approved execution – the Cisco product comes across as being no different than something with which most of us are already familiar – video conferencing, face time, Skype – you name it.
Strip away the goofy set scenes and that’s all I take away – and I already know the potential of the actual product.
It’s too bad. Sure, crazy strategic creative can work synergistically with a product and create far more than the sum, but all too often it seems to get in the way. Being too cute with the creative can obscure the value of a strong product.
Really, am I supposed to buy that kids in some one room school house in Nova Scotia (my guess) are really talking to kids in rural China in a one room school house on an expensive piece of tech? Does the over the top sweetness of Page’s tone sway me? I know, it’s a hyperbolic apporach – I get it.
I just don’t buy it.
And with an 18% drop in profits for the quarter, I guess I’m not the only one.
In the wake of the so-called uproar over the Groupon Superbowl ads, I caught a good post over at Gods Of Advertising blog yesterday and couldn’t help but weigh in with my own humble (?) opinion on the comment thread (copied below):
“Actually, I’ll go on record to say that I Like The Tibet Ad. Note the present tense: I have not shrunk back from my initial reaction which I tweeted @larrymannino (damn, I hate that word) during the game. The spot was tight, it pulled you in, the pacing was spot on, they pulled the rug out and you thought about the product or company.
That said, I have encountered this general, dare I say somewhat ‘artificial’, disgust from some of my peers – and yes, we’re all in the industry. Personally, I don’t bow at the altar of CP&B, but I do like a good portion of the work I’ve seen from them and it is without question effective, much as was mentioned above.
I do wonder whether or not offense and poutrage was part of the careful strategy here: the agency is not new to this sort of thing. It seems to me that the loudest complainers here (at least the ones I’ve actually spoken with), are largely those who fall into the category of people who might consider Tibet as an exotic locale for a vacation so they could brag to their friends, and not necessarily those who have actually been involved in the actual cause (which is indeed a real and tragic situation).
Allow me, if you will, to paint a quick picture of the typical ‘offended viewer’ whom I have encountered: pretty much upper-middle class (or higher), externally politically correct (with no credible day-to-day evidence of these viewpoints beyond lip service) people.
In short, they took offense at a clever ad that involved the very real and ongoing plight of the Tibetan people from the cushions of a couch manufactured in Vietnam, while eating snacks bought from underpaid workers at WalMart while watching this ‘horrible atrocity’ on a 50″ widescreen HDTV manufactured in…China!
Oh, the huge manatee.”
Well, that’s my take – as always, I welcome yours.