Big Data and Marketing. In the future I will change. I’d like to keep it that way.

The big promise in Big Data lies in the predictability of behaviour. For one thing, once patterns are exposed businesses can exploit them for commercial gain. For your benefit and mine, so we are told.

The idea is simple. If, through analysis, you can isolate information about what I have done a lot of in the past, then you are in a strong position to encourage me to do even more of whatever-it-is in the future. This is information that the person or company who stands to financially benefit from whatever-I-did-a-lot-of wants to know. And will pay for.

The latter point is important because it’s fuelling much of the investment in Big Data solutions. For service providers in many verticals, Big Data is a new (and in challenging market conditions) much-needed revenue stream.

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But the real question about Big Data isn’t whether it’s powerful. It’s whether it’s desirable. This is a question no one really seems to be asking or, if they are, they tend be hung on the privacy issue. I don’t think privacy is really the key point.

Amazon provides an example of what I think is important. It demonstrates the sort of use of Big Data Use Case that is much lauded by commentators, who see the website as innovative and good and as a way of shopping that enriches its customer’s lives. But I think it does as much to damage my quality of life as to enhance it.

Amazon software analyses my purchasing habits and recommends books that it thinks I will like based on the patterns it finds. This ensures that I’ll quickly locate books that I have a higher likelihood of enjoying, and I won’t waste time browsing or making purchasing mistakes. It is presumed that these are desirable outcomes. I say “presumed” because no one at Amazon asked me what I thought.

The problem I have is that the rapid location of a product similar to one I’ve enjoyed before removes serendipity – which is not a good thing – from my commercial life. And serendipity yields hugely valuable, unexpected pleasures that I don’t want to miss out on such as wasting time browsing.

Why should I always be in a rush? Why should I always want the right answers immediately? Why is the shortest route between two places the best one?  Is quality of life now presumed to be judged only in terms of speed to solution and quantifiable return on investment?

Put another way, have we forgotten that we can learn something when we make the wrong turn instead of the right one? What about the book that caught my eye as I wandered past the shelf on which it sat, stopped randomly, purchased and which then became a seminal experience in my reading life? Big Data assumes that what we’ve done is more important than what we haven’t done, yet. And because it isn’t, far from increasing the quality of my life, it threatens to dumb it down and render it vanilla.

All of this is not to position myself as a Luddite or claim that Big Data is “bad”. It isn’t. On the contrary it may be both highly valuable and, in the right context important.  It’s the fact that the word “context” is so often missing from any discussion of Big Data that worries me. The issue of privacy, I think, is a red herring in comparison.

We do need to think about what we will use Big Data software for, the circumstances in which we apply it, what we want it to tell us, and the inherent individuality of those who may be impacted by its use. Remember, like any programme Big Data will fundamentally find things where it’s told to look for them.

All in all, it does not follow that I want my future to be shaped by the usage patterns of my past.

 

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The first rule of marketing involves getting out of your own way.

It’s somewhat ironic. Professional marketers need to be rigorously disciplined about how they market themselves. But they rarely are.

Perhaps it’s no surprise in our age of celebrity that marketers, like many people, instinctively think that turning themselves into icons is the quickest route to success and respect.

The fact that for some, this notion may even have delivered results is in equal parts alarming and disappointing and speak to the lack of discernment of the audience. Thus, I ask “even if it has yielded temporary recognition”, for how long? A naked Emperor is naked, after all.

The Internet has succeeded in nothing if not the provision of multiple platforms that enable the many egotists among us to make spectacles of themselves.  And, given their professional predispositions, marketers (promoters by nature) have not been slow to take advantage. Too many of them (us?) have behaved like idiots in search of a village.

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Thus, via LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and the rest, am I assaulted daily by the “look at me” ministrations of the second rate masquerading as the definitive influencers of my time. LinkedIn is particularly guilty in this respect. While I can just about forgive my dwindling count of actual friends (on Facebook) for occasionally behaving like fools and Twitter commits me to only 147 characters worth of dross, LinkedIn has become a Field of Dreams for every job seeker and rank self-marketing amateur, thus turning every layman with a high self opinion into Global CMO of his own brand.

And so I suffer daily at the hands of these marketing “ignorants” who think, for instance, that the use of the word “shit” in a professional forum is a clever attention-grabbing mechanism (it’s not. It just shows a very limited ability to express oneself persuasively.) And at the hands of others who believe that the constant exposition of ones own self-stated virtues is a tack capable of unlocking riches both financial and ideological.

That some prospective clients fall for this form of clap-trap (noise = influence is roughly the equation) and believe these self-elected spokespeople actually have something useful to say speaks only to the vapidity and absence of judgment that has come to the fore in the present era of commerce. 80% of my LinkedIn noise comes from 10% of my contacts, almost invariably the 10% with the fewest interesting things to say.

As marketers, we should think about that. Ultimately, what we do will meet the standards we impose on ourselves. For now, while we’re in a golden age of technological progress I fear that we are, sadly, in a dark age in terms of marketing and the media.

Sooner or later the penny will drop. It’s (not) toll free.

“Free” is the most important word in the marketer’s arsenal.

There is no such thing as free.

Few would argue with either statement. So use of the word “free” ought to make us feel simultaneously excited and queasy. I’m getting something for nothing. What’s it going to cost me?

That’s the sequence of thoughts we should experience when someone makes us a no-cost offer.  But mainly, we get no further than “I’m getting something for nothing.”

We’re so blinded by the idea of “free” that we never get as far as weighing up its consequences. Or even whether there will be any. That’s why the word is so powerful.

But the consequences are important. They are the price of free.

A contemporary example: Toll-Free (also known as “Sponsored”) Data mobile telecoms services. Under these plans, such as the one recently launched by AT&T in the United States, data charges resulting from certain types of usage will be billed directly to a sponsoring company, and not to the end customer (potentially you or me).

In the many column inches devoted to this subject in the tech press, the question of the price of this free data has been mostly or totally ignored. Simplistic commentaries have claimed that sponsored data will liberate everything from the behavior of the customer (to do more of what he wants while paying for less of what he does) to suggestions that the pent up creativity of the market itself to further expand its menu of services will naturally follow the emancipation of the prospective sponsor.

I think a cynical but realistic view of the latter is “if you give multi-corporates the time and resources to think of new ways to exploit you, they will probably do just that.”

I think it’s laughable to imagine that in the majority of cases, current subscription prices and usage caps are really suppressing any behaviors among mobile subscribers. And it’s even more laughable to imagine that an outpouring of business model inventiveness will follow the widespread advent of sponsored data, at least in so far as it might have the consumer’s interests at heart.

I am even more amazed that anyone, at least anyone bereft of a vested interest, would swallow this sort of gibberish. (As for those in the industry, the telco world has always been given to believe whatever it wants to tell itself.)

But it would seem some turkeys are shaping up to vote for Christmas. Sponsored data is just another in a long line of examples of questionable judgment sidestepped in the pursuit of gross revenue.

Let’s be clear about this, for the end consumer “free” comes at a price.  Once upon a time, (before a grounding in the classics was dropped from the school curriculum) we were taught to beware of Greeks bearing gifts. That lesson is now lost, as sponsored data’s welcome proves.

Sponsored data only sounds good until you realize how quickly those (usually smaller, independent) companies that can’t pick up the tab risk becoming disenfranchised. In a world where the virtual is rapidly outstripping the “real”, this is important. Independent retailers can sometimes survive in the back streets even when they are pushed from the high street. But I think that is far less likely to be the case on the Internet where access and delivery are much more tightly bound together.

Anyone who has ever bought a book from an independent bookshop, or cares about literature for instance, cannot possibly want to do anything that might encourage a world where Jeff Bezos dictates.

So where will we draw the line, where technology is concerned? Are we going to forego or subcontract all of our critical processes and conduits to the highest bidder (or sponsor) and “buy” from them simply because it’s free to do so? And will there be ramifications if that happens?

Toll free data may reshape the communications industry but like a retrovirus (hard to isolate and define the threat at first but near impossible to remove once it’s there) I think it will have real consequences in the end.

Ultimately, you get what you pay for. What you don’t pay for, you often don’t notice until the damage (to an acceptable status quo) has been done. That’s the price of free. At a minimum, it needs to be defined and regulated for the common good.

Words matter…

When it comes to writing copy, creating a masterpiece (we should be so lucky, eh?) means leveraging a mixture of experience, skill and a well-packed toolbox. For marketers, the latter will be packed with the words needed to draw the reader or target in. The skill comes in using them effectively — to achieve the goal.

Luckily for marketers, patterns have emerged as a result of years of research into the power of certain words on our thought processes. These “key” words act on a part of our brain that light-heartedly is referred to as the ‘lizard brain’. If we think of the brain having three separate sections, two new and one old, the lizard brain is the old part. Its reactions, if any, are limited to the following…attack, eat, run away or mate. In today’s world where threats to survival are somewhat reduced the lizard brain tends to focus on relationships. And it is inclined to do this by making snap judgements.

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The following 6 words are known to play directly to the lizard brain, triggering our subconscious, impulsive instincts. This happens almost instantaneously.

  1. You. Everyone cares about him- or herself. Think of the cocktail party effect identified by Colin Cherry. Our brains have the ability to immediately detect words of importance originating from unattended stimuli. This means hearing your own name will immediately cause the lizard brain to focus its attention on that source. It’s the same visually, the word ‘you’, when read, will have an instant filtered effect on the lizard brain. So as a marketer, play to this innate weakness and make it about the reader. Research by Carmody and Lewis (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1647299/) shows that seeing our own name in print is intrinsically tied to our self-perception, identity feelings of worthiness. Thus it comes as no surprise that text referring directly to the consumer will cause people to feel more engaged and trusting of the copy in question.
  2. Free. Arguably the most powerful four letters in marketing. People love free stuff so much they have been shown to make choices they wouldn’t usually make when they see it. Dan Ariely showed, in his book ‘Predictably Irrational’ that the word ‘free’, when studied in terms of concrete values, has extraordinary power.  In his study, people had to choose between a 1 cent Hershey Kiss or a 15 cent Lindt Truffle (half its normal value). 73% went for the truffle as a deal is a deal, right? Leaving the remaining 27% (that’s fast maths…) stuck on the Kiss.  Yet, in the second part of the study, each of the goodies dropped value by 1 cent, making the Hershey Kiss FREE, and, guess what, 69% chose the it. A deal’s a deal but a steal’s a steal. The lizard brain has a natural inclination for low-hanging fruit.
  3. New. This seems strange as, on the whole, we humans are creatures of habit and don’t like change. Neuroimaging has shown that we respond more favourably to brands we recognise. Yet, it’s also known by neuroscientists that novelty plays an important role in activating the reward centres in our brain which results in lots of dopamine (the happy hormone) being released and thus causing a mood boost.  A word of warning, you’ve got to play the “new” card carefully to get the best of both worlds. To keep the brain thinking it’s safe, you must make sure your brand is portrayed as stable, thus building a trusting relationship with your customers. However, to keep the dopamine levels high, focus on stressing new products and features.  At the end of the day, no one likes a stagnant offering.
  4. Instantly. In this day and age, everything we want, we want now. While greed isn’t the most attractive trait (hence the deadly in 7 deadly sins) it works in the marketer’s favour. The midbrain activity in the reward centres is stirred up once again with greed, causing those dopamine levels to soar. The promise of an instant reward has been studied in drug addiction, showing that when an addict is told they will be given the desired narcotic immediately, half the rush gained from the drug is activated in dopamine-heavy brain areas before the drug is even introduced into the body. As marketers, service is the drug.
  5. Guarantee. The feeling of safeness and protection the word ‘guarantee’ brings causes the parts of the brain involved in feelings of anxiety (mainly the amygdala) to decrease its activity. Less adrenaline is released which calms the body. Now we have our cool, calm customer; next?
  6. Proven. The last but by no means the least. Evidence is key, Bold claims with no back up are a recipe for disaster in a world full of sceptical customers. Intelligent people don’t want to be mugged by shabby statements. Prove a product’s worth and you will reap the benefits of customer interest and trust. If you’ve got the Case Studies, use them. But exaggerate at your own risk.

So, there we have it; 6 lizard brain words in 34 lizard letters for marketing lizards to exploit. As Orwell didn’t quite remark in Animal Farm: ‘all words are equal but some are more equal than others’. He also didn’t quite say “the only good marketer is a dead one.” But he might have!

As Seth Godin puts it: “The lizard brain is not merely a concept. It’s real, and it’s living on the top of your spine, fighting for your survival.” So take advantage of, yet respect, the power of words, written or spoken, on the ancient parts of your brain’s cytoarchitecture. And be careful to put these words in a context that is suitable for your business or clients or the activation of the lizard brain may have an effect opposite to the one you’re looking for.

Should your marketing stink? Literally…

Olfaction (the process of smelling) occurs when a piece of the thing that smells, or, more scientifically, an ‘odourant’ binds to olfactory receptors in the mucosa. An orchestra of cells then earn their keep by carrying information about the odourant to the olfactory bulb.

From here, the message travels predominantly to five different brain regions, some of which belong to the limbic system (the area of the brain involved in emotional processing). Due to these close anatomical ties to the limbic system, odour information plays a huge role in emotional processing and perception. Put another way, smell does what a 140 character-long Tweet or even a rambling Facebook status update can’t do. That is, a smell can simultaneously conjure up both powerful memories and emotions instantaneously. It provides a shortcut to some of the brain’s oldest cyto-architecture.

The limbic system’s role in memory is as vast as it is in emotional processing. Once a scent enters the brain and becomes embedded in the memory/emotional regions, visual cues alone can cause it to be resurrected and, in certain cases, re-experienced. For example, watching an M&S advert showing someone smelling a just-baked cake or a freshly brewed cup of coffee can make us, as consumers, experience olfactory sensations.  For the less self-restrained among us (pointing the finger directly at yours truly) this kind of advertising tends to end up in a trip to said shop in an inevitable attempt to recreate the sugary goodness rekindled in our minds in our own home.

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But it’s not only through visual cues that companies manage to touch our deep olfactory mechanisms. Some have gone one step further and used smell itself as a way of making their products memorable. This is exactly what Abercrombie does with their trademark scent, ‘Fierce’. And ‘Fierce’ has become central to the Abercrombie brand itself. Take care, though, because playing with smells can backfire. For proof, look at Hollister. The smell of SoCal fills you with feelings of claustrophobia and near-blindness — like a ruthless blow to the head. Getting the wrong scent is an avenue, therefore, best avoided.

Another example of smell going wrong can also be found 30,000 feet up. When airlines choose to use a specific scent in their plane’s cabins, stores and merchandise, there’s a tangible risk of an undesirable outcome – for the scent if not the airline. For someone afraid of flying, or who has had a bad experience in flight, the brand smell will quickly become very powerfully associated with feelings of fear and vulnerability. Or for those that look to the alcohol to ease in-flight nerves, that cabin scent quickly becomes an accomplice to the head-pounding, sick-inducing feeling of the hangover that may have resulted.

Those examples just go to show how carefully the sense of smell has to be respected by marketers. It is easy for companies to underestimate its power and long lasting effects on the networks in our brains, yet once those connections have been formed, they are very difficult to unravel. As we can see, the natural synaptic strength of the neurones in a brain can either act as a huge advantage or a drastic failure for marketing techniques.

On a slightly different note, marketers have to make sure potential smells are appropriate to the situation and environment in which they are trying to portray a message. For instance, if McDonalds decided to use the smell of freshly cut grass as their ‘scent logo’, the olfactory system would enter a mild state of confusion. Let’s face it, the natural smell of freshly cut grass and the processed food of McDonalds are to each other as clockwork is to an orange.

Whilst there may seem to be a a lot of speed bumps on the road to successful olfactory branding, if you play your cards right, you could create a novel and unique connection in your consumers’ brain that is harder to shift than a cage of African elephants. New research from the Institute of Science in Israel explains why. Scientists there found that first-time scents seem to be given a  unique status in our brains. The special status of scent memories seems to be reserved only for first-time exposure:

“We expected a unique representation of initial or ‘first’ olfactory associations but did not expect that it would materialize even in cases where the behavioural evidence did not indicate a stronger memory,” Yaara Yeshurun of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel said. “In our paradigm, initial and later olfactory associations were remembered equally well, but only first associations had the unique brain representation.”

In terms of understanding the brain, the findings suggest that activity in two brain regions, known as the hippocampus and amygdala, together can render a memory “special.”

All this is food for thought for marketing agencies like us, who serve both B2B and consumer clients. Scent would appear to be the province of the latter, but you can’t help wondering if it has any application – thinking outside the box – for the former, too. Judging by research like the above, there is hoards of potential in the realm of olfactory advertising and scent logos. If appropriate and well executed, companies could find themselves in very good stead with a few wafts in the right direction.

The Royal Baby: Sycophancy on an industrial scale, slick marketing, or both?

He’s here. As if you didn’t know. George Alexander Louis, also known as the Royal Baby, has arrived to swell the ranks of Britons surviving on state benefits. He entered the world last week to be swept up by a tidal wave of frenzied social media activity. One must have been most gratified at the interest, cementing the brand as it did.

As the birth was announced, over a quarter of all Facebook users apparently hurled themselves into online mithering about the news (one can’t imagine what was said. As the latest edition of satirical magazine Private Eye rather neatly puts it, “Woman has Baby” pretty much sums up the key points of the story.) Mentions of #theroyalbaby on the global Twitter feed soared from a mere 107 in April to a majestic 956,194 in July. Apparently, over 75% of Twitter users were exposed to a mention of the Royal arrival on its delivery day. And this maelstrom of activity shows no sign of abating anytime soon, as the Twitter account @BritishMonarchy creeps up to over 560,000 followers. Including, regrettably, the mother-in-law.

While Twitter is bursting at the seams with its royal baby push (two puns intended), commercial enterprises left, right, and centre are jumping on the baby-wagon. (Well, maybe right, right, and center, anyway.) Some are taking already-existing marketing campaigns one-step further. For instance, Coca Cola extended its popular ‘Share a Coke’ programme by releasing a press ad reading: ‘Time for a Royal Celebration’ and featuring two bottles labelled “Wills” and “Kate”. UK baker Warbutons ran an advert with a bun in the oven (subtle, eh?), bearing the headline ‘One’s bun is done.’ Johnson and Johnson’s advert on Facebook featured an image of a baby in a bathtub with a crown made of bubbles accompanied by the legend: ‘Congratulations to the Royal couple on their brilliant news’. One must have been delighted.

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This type of near real-time or ‘improv’ marketing as it’s becoming known, is interesting. Oreo used the approach to great advantage during the Super Bowl blackout. As soon as the lights went out in the Superdome, the Oreo ad team tweeted a cookie on a light black background and the text: ‘You can still dunk in the dark’ (which is more than the local New Orleans basketball team’s been able to do in recent seasons). Their creative paid off as the effort was re-tweeted by thousands and praised by many including The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog.

While the opportunist approach deserved the praise it received in Oreo’s case, the Royal birth-related Real-time equivalents have been less ingenious. Yes, the tweet ‘Long live the crème’ by Oreo and the photo of take-away coffee cups adorned with crowns by Starbucks sparked interest among the Twitterati but, let’s face it, these companies had 9 months to do their worst and you might have expected something better.

And even with the long lead-time, some companies still managed to get it absolutely wrong. Nintendo took a fifty-fifty chance by launching a marketing campaign based around a princess and we all know where that bet ended up. Still, even knowing the gender of the baby isn’t enough to ensure success as Lego proved when it tried to create a royal baby Lego figure, which, needless to say, wasn’t very easy on the eye. And apparently its hand couldn’t be shifted from the “held out” position either.

Don Williams, chief creative officer at branding consultancy PI Global, has offered a word of warning to companies to stop them making such disastrous marketing falls. He says:  “A marketer’s job is to sell brands and sometime a tactical opportunity presents them with a short window that is too good to miss. If a brand tries to somehow link itself in a less tongue in cheek way to the event, or its brand personality is so far removed from a Royal celebration, then the credibility of that brand may suffer”.

Wow, Don, how shrewd is that? This observation falls into what Monty Python would have categorised as “the bleeding obvious”, and implies that the market for really original marketing insight is today in a parlous state.

What we think would really be fun would be for B2B companies to buck the trend and dare to tread where the consumer brands above have sometimes failed but tried routinely to exploit an opportunity anyway. With 5thPositions enterprise client pedigree in mind, can we have a bit of fun in suggesting the following Tweets?:

For the communications industry Network Equipment Provider: @royalbaby: intelligent network urgently required

For the financial services industry firm: @royalbaby: our lack of interest is a matter of being consistent

For the enterprise software vendor: @royalbaby: it’s h-a-d-o-o-p, actually…

“Orwell” has one “O”, “Google” has two

Hmmmm. So Google is lobbying for CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. This particular gem is a proposed US law which, in a nutshell, would allow Internet traffic information to be shared between the US government and technology and manufacturing companies. The official aim of the bill is to help the former investigate cyber threats and ensure the security of networks against attacks.

This is all very noble, at least until it comes to my employer, and yours, being able to demand your Facebook password which as I understand it they most assuredly will be able to do under CISPA. Rather Orwellian, that. Don’t know about you, but I call it “invasion of privacy” rather than “necessary or sensible policing”. Still, it comes as no surprise that Google is pro-CISPA. After all, what is Google’s business model based on if not selling your privacy?

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There’s a neat little symmetry going on here; a sort of moral self-validation if you like. Google supports the government and employers’ invasion of your rights as it’s rather consistent with the company’s own beliefs. And once its inherent amorality has been, well, sanitized (assuming CISPA is passed), Google will be able to go its merry way basking in the cleansing glow of official policy (sort of).

Don’t know about you, but I’m starting to think the time has come to uninstall Chrome, sell the Android Phone, move off G-mail and start proactively thinking about which search engine I use.  Or else watch my individual rights wash down the seven plugholes of Google. No one needs unwarranted paranoia. Google is starting to look like a warranty for conspiracy theorists everywhere.

The death of the B2B print media may or may not be greatly exaggerated, but the reasons for it are misunderstood

It is generally believed, maybe even accepted, that the business-to-business print media is in either a very poor start or has entered its death throes. For all sorts of widely reported reasons, most too familiar to be worth listing here in any detail (the rise of online information foremost amongst them), the future for looks bleak. Print media barons (who no longer look very baronial) will for self-interested reasons deny this but the reality is that to stay alive, at best they have entered a race to the bottom.

Meanwhile, online information sources may or may not thrive from an economic perspective (I don’t know…I don’t have access to the numbers) but they are rapidly cornering the market on useful content. And that, of course, is the key. The print media may have had its day because the delivery mechanism is outdated but we will never know for sure. In my view, the real reason print has fallen or is falling off a cliff is because editorial standards, and skill-sets, have simply disappeared. Trade publications are, by and large, no longer worth the paper they’re printed on. The quality editors and publishers have let the building.

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It was with studied indifference that I received a solicitation this week to advertise (which, these days, means to contribute a bylined article) in a leading (sic) comms magazine. The title in question was to be distributed at an event at which one of our clients is exhibiting, and in which it is thus investing a not insignificant sum. The solicitation – no surprise here – offered me a rather significant discount (more or less, reading between the lines, “name your price”) if I could act quickly, with the print deadline closing in. Rather than rejecting the offer out of hand as I would usually do, I momentarily tried to justify accepting it as an easy way to amplify the clients already committed plans in the time-window the issue would be extant.

And I honestly, in the next half an hour, couldn’t think of a single reason why I would want to get involved. I couldn’t think of one solitary argument to support the contention that doing so would be even a passable, let alone the best, way of spending around two thousand pounds of a marketing budget.

It is true that if I went ahead, my article/advertisement would appear in a publication that around 10,000 people in total would access, although almost certainly in my view not read. It would be available in bins at a relevant trade show but if the evidence of my own eyes at trade shows over the past twelve months is anything to go by, those bins are just as full of publications at the end of an event as they are at the start. I cannot remember the last time I saw anyone at an industry conference walking round clutching a sheath of trade titles to his chest, or departing with a bag full of (heavy) printed information. Furthermore, my words would appear in what amounts to little more than a glorified advertising flyer, buried (a reality openly admitted in the solicitation) between one vendor contribution after another.  What’s the point? Are we marketers really so desperate that we think it’s worth spending money for this sort of exposure?

But the worst of it is my original point. The increasingly small percentage of pages that in any trade publication is these days written by what passes for the editorial team itself is, in terms of quality, risible. Articles are either a series of softballs lobbed gently in the direction of a paid for interviewee (who has probably subsequently edited the resulting output to the point it’s morphed into a marketing pitch anyway because the editor was too incompetent to understand what he was being told) or, even worse, a ham-fisted attempt to construct a story founded on far too inadequate a knowledge of the subject to usefully to engage in any kind of research.

In a meeting between a CEO and an editor I was involved in last year I was treated to the experience of the editor posing – straight-faced – the question “so, tell me what you do?” When I subsequently pointed out to his publisher that, perhaps, a little background information, preparation, industry-knowledge, or insight might be useful qualities for his editorial team in preparing an article actually worth reading, he looked at me like I might be mad. And I might be, but judging by the rapidly declining number of pages in his title, I might not be the only one.

The reality is that the business-to-business print media is in a poor state. Its day has probably now come and gone. But that’s because – in the comms industry at least – quality control has gone to the dogs. It’s to online media that the real experts, many of whom aren’t journalists at all but just people who understand their subject and want to talk coherently about it…have turned.

Great content supersedes delivery mechanisms; rubbish sinks to the bottom in any medium. Our clients have consistently told us over the past year that their investments in print media haven’t paid off. All we have had to explain is why. This is sad, because I do miss it.

Serendipity and creativity. Go on, take a walk

An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” – James Webb Young. A Technique for Producing new Ideas, 1940.

 ImageEver felt that you’ve wanted to run as far as humanly possible from something you’ve been working on just to end the stalemate occurring in your head?  And then you’ve been told to stay exactly where you are and just keep persevering?

Well, according to Ap Dijksterhuis and his fellow researchers, your gut instinct is, in this case, right. The teams’ investigations found that, against mainstream belief, the hardest intellectual problems are best solved by our unconscious minds.

By showing that our minds can still be focussing on a problem without any conscious awareness that they’re doing so on our part adds a huge spoonful of evidence to the general theory of creativity.  This is that there are two factors involved in creativity: divergence and convergence.

Divergence allows for the generation of many possible resolutions to a certain problem and the convergent phase brings this array of raw materials together for you to assess and pick the likely best course of action. It’s the divergent phase that is increasingly being recognised as the best time to give unconscious thought a free reign.

In other words, next time you hit the wall with a puzzle, problem, dilemma or stressful situation, go for that run or watch that TV programme or listen to a piece of music and let your powerful subconscious take up the challenge. Because often, it will do just that.

Another study, this one published by Haiyang Yang et al in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, asked participants to think about all the different possible uses for paperclips. Some were given 1 minute, others 3 minutes and the rest 5 minutes to answer. The participants were split into two main groups, the first group was asked purely to focus on the task set and the second group were asked to count backwards by threes, which affirmed the second group would not be able to consciously focus on paperclip solutions.

However, the results observed are really quite fascinating. Those participants in the second group (having to use their subconscious to propagate possible paperclip uses) came up with the most novel ideas for paperclip utilization in the 3 minute interval.

Even if we rewind to the 1940s, this conclusion was supported by James Webb Young, an American Advertising executive, who has been coined a ‘Marketing Master’. Webb Young agrees, in his book ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas, that the best way to generate an appropriate solution is to stimulate your unconscious by meditating, reading or walking.  He also offers a few more clauses, including building a rich pool of ‘raw material’ ideas that can help us to grow as creativity machines.

He also suggests letting our ideas simmer by mulling over the raw material and slowly letting it slip from the conscious mind via a relaxing walk or something similar. And then, BAM, the a-ha moment should hit us!

For the marketer, the big story may be this; throw away the box, because just when you think you know what you’re doing, you find yourself (once again) having to think outside it!

About Lance Armstrong, Legalising Drugs in Sport, Marketing and a Thoroughly Depressing Week

OK, this blog isn’t about marketing, yet. Actually, all will be revealed in due course (probably in Part 2) and we will get on to marketing, but not now. Instead, it’s about this week’s big news, at least for those of us who participate in competitive endurance sports, or those of us whose lives have been touched by cancer, or both: the downfall of Lance Armstrong (or at least what everyone whose head isn’t completely buried in the sand has noticed is his downfall. Admittedly, there are a staggering number of people willfully behaving like complete idiots who appear to be on the loose pretending that no one has proved Lance has done anything wrong at all. Yeah, right.)

For a start I’m just staggered — utterly baffled — that anyone can like Armstrong. And forget the cheating and the drugs because this observation has absolutely nothing to do with the revelations of the past week. I’ve always readily acknowledged his story is inspirational. The way he battled cancer showed impressive tenacity (though he’s hardly unique in demonstrating that…just well publicized). And his cycling performances have certainly been epic (or appeared so until this week, anyway). Luz Ardiden in 2003 was one of the great single sporting days I’ve ever seen.

Proof that cycling doesn’t have to be the Lance way. A real star…and an Olympic Gold. Whether she can dance remains to be seen, though!

But anyone who read either of his books could surely immediately deduce that he was (and is) a pretty vile human being; arrogant, self-obsessed, bullying, misogynistic and closed-minded would be a few conclusions that, frankly, would be very hard to miss. This is a guy with absolutely no sense of proportion or anything close to a normal value-set at all (traits this weeks news have pretty clearly borne out).

When I started reading “It’s Not About The Bike”, as a fan, I went in to find out about my hero. Halfway through, I realized this was not a human being I had much time for at all. So to some extent, on a personal “fan” level, I could care less about the news this week; at best, it simply underlined characteristics that had been blithely obvious to most objective observers of Lance for some time before.

Here’s one question, though: Why is it that the whole cancer thing has resulted in him being able to dupe (even now) a huge number of people (let’s be honest, most people are far more impressed with that than they are with his performances on a bike)? The world of cancer is full of heroes…there are lots of survivors who rage successfully against the illness (and even more people who die with dignity and should command even greater respect). There are many people who raise huge sums for charity (and do it both without publicity and without behaving like a preening peacock in the process.) And, of course, many people dedicate huge chunks of their lives to the public good. Yes, Lance did good things in the fight against cancer but that hardly makes him any better than millions of others. It also doesn’t change the fact that he’s a creep (and, now, a liar). Yeah, a creep with a philanthropic side for sure, but a creep nonetheless.

The only conclusion I draw from this week is that there are an awful lot of people out there who have a pretty low standard when it comes to deciding who belongs on a pedestal! If Lance Armstrong — even before this week — was your idea of a hero, well, good luck… It’s the Power of Marketing, eh?

The second aspect of the bigger story this week that has grabbed my attention is the number of people/media outlets who’ve reacted to Lance by seeking to post-facto legitimize him by asking the question “so, is it time to legitimize drugs in sport?”  In other words, was the system rather than the abuser the real problem? Please, someone, tell me this idea is a not very funny joke.

If you do (legalize drugs in sport), you pretty soon come to realize you’re legitimizing a society where the lowest-common-denominator of anything becomes acceptable. In other words, be careful what you wish for. Whatever you can’t police (at least whatever doesn’t cause harm to innocent people like, say, the extreme examples of theft or murder), you let go whether it’s morally wrong or not because setting low standards makes for an easier to manage society than having reasonable or respectable ones.

The moral question is important. Legalization of drugs in athletic competition boils down to answering the question “what do we want our sports to be?” What are we prepared to watch? What do we judge as entertaining? I am not saying the use of drugs is right or wrong here on a moral level…I am simply saying that on a base level, many of us would define a competition we would pay to watch as being one that begins with a level playing field. If sports are drug free then the best athlete wins (and that is what I want to watch take place.) If drugs are legalized, then the country with the best medical system or the largest pharmaceutical support budget wins, and I have little interest in that.

To cite an obvious example, for how long do you think Kenyan and Ethiopian runners would dominate the marathon if Western runners could legitimately put drug technology at their disposal. Would a race in which an American or English marathoner won because the US team had a huge drug budget which eliminated the physiological gap be something you’d want to see? Would you really consider the drugged athlete from a wealthy nation a better runner than his impoverished third-world equivalent? I realize I’m taking some liberties with the example this scenario provides, but you’ll get my point.

Furthermore, drugs are drugs. They may have positive effects (on illness, performance, or both), but they also have negative effects many of which may only become apparent over time. Is it morally right, in the pursuit of something relatively unimportant (sporting success) that the system should encourage athletes to take risks with their health? For me, the answer is “no”. Something that makes you better cannot be condoned if, in another way, it might also make you worse. The long-term side effects of chemotherapy are acceptable because the alternative is often death. But the long-term side effects of steroids, say, are not acceptable if the alternative is simply being a slightly less good shot putter. (They may be acceptable to the individual, but it is up to society to take that poor choice away from him, in my opinion).

The potential for ethical violations here is huge, and again we go back to the more impoverished third world countries. Want to bet a pharmaceutical company at some point wouldn’t offer a “test drug” to a nation that couldn’t afford approved ones? In fact, the “ethics” of drug testing is an entire blog in itself. Hint: the pharma giants don’t have a great track record when it comes to probity. You can see horrendous outcomes all too easily under the legitimize drugs scenario, with third world athletes becoming guinea pigs for first world pharmaceutical programmes.

Anyway, back to marketing. What the Armstrong saga this week really proves is that if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, the long-held maxim that it therefore probably is a duck is no longer true. Sadly, it seems that we really do live in an age where perception is reality. The evidence is secondary. In the next blog, I’ll look at the power that fact puts in our – as marketers – hands. And I’ll ask whether any of us do much to police ourselves (or whether “that’s not my job” is an easier response).