Don’t assume what you’re trying to prove.

So often it seems that the knowledge we bring to bear on developing marketing strategies and sales tactics is based on a limited set of criteria as one might find in a Marketing 101 class.  We add to this past experience and parallels to other brands, in other categories.  Especially within large and established companies, the tendency is to proceed on what we know, what we have tried, and what we know about the brand and its customers.  All of this is necessary—but it’s not complete.

Human nature is fickle.  People don’t always do the expected.  Choice can be random.

The reasons consumers walk into a store and buy nothing are usually more interesting than the reasons why they do make a purchase.  (Paco Underhill has written about these shopping experiences with insight and delightful investigative skill.)  With online and social behavior consumers have infinitely more choices and paths to search for what they want to know.  Along the way they make discoveries they didn’t intend; they take left turns; they move from one brand to another as quickly as a click.  We all know this.  Yet marketers stick with the old methods based on “learnings”—I’ve always wondered what this means.  Presumably, things we’ve learned.  But the word is empty and implies something superficial, vague: awful marketing jargon.

We need to know more and apply everything we know without the bias of learned experience.  This is hard.  It takes a suspension of belief to open up to everything we don’t know and imagine something new.  We try to imagine the destination before we know the roads to take.  This only leads us back to where we started.

Elizabeth Kolbert writes in her August 15th New Yorker article about Neanderthals:

“We know the end of the story,” he (Shannon McPherron of the Max Plank Institute) told me. “We know what modern culture looks like, and so then what we do is we want to explain how we got here.  And there’s a tendency to over interpret the past by projecting the present onto it.  So when you see a beautiful (Neanderthal) hand axe and you say, ‘Look at the craftsmanship on this; it’s virtually a work of art,’ that’s your perspective today.  But you can’t assume what you’re trying to prove.”

Isn’t that just what we try to do?  Assume what we’re trying to prove?  We know so much and never use a 10th of it because we’re so busy pursuing our assumptions. Marketing is deadly serious, yet could be so much more fun if we allowed everything we think we know about a situation to be set on a shelf to wait for later, possible,  validation.  Then we can pull out from the deep crevices of our brain all the bits and pieces of random associations and surprising insights culled from completely other experience.  It’s not Right Brain versus Left Brain.  It’s Whole Brain thinking.

John Seely Brown of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge writes that new tech start-ups more often succeed in unearthing new ways of thinking about their product because they don’t assume a market positioning in advance.  They have no market experience to fall back on to lead them to assume what they’re trying to prove.

We can’t know everything, which is why small teams of different kinds of specialists work best.  The last man said to know everything was Alexander von Humboldt, who when he died in 1859 was the last great generalist before an age of specialization definitively set in.  His work ranged across geography, geology, mineralogy, botany, zoology, climatology, chemistry, astronomy, demography, ethnography and political economy.  He enjoyed cult status around the world as a scientific hero and genius.

We’re not so lucky.  The ease with which we can Google anything, look up anything on Wikipedia, ask questions on Quora, ask our friends in groups on LinkedIn and the like makes us lazy.  We don’t have to tax our brains.  Just when we need it most, we don’t engage in deep thinking.  Marketing needs to try harder.

Protected: The Dark Knight

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Islands of Adventure


The date seems auspicious, of what I don’t know.  A set of three elevens.  It’s the end of a week I’ve spent in New York, connecting, and reconnecting, with family, friends, business colleagues—who are also friends.  My ecosystem.

I met up with my friend Paul Wolfe, arguably the most creative writer I’ve ever worked with.  To call Paul a copy-writer is far too limiting: he’s a brilliant, and funny, all-round creative genius.  Paul’s also a Cabalist, a player, a father, a charmer.  We were Partners together at MVBMS/EuroRSCG—and collaborators on the stupendous disaster of an over-ambitious, extravagantly produced, TV commercial for Universal Theme Park’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando.  Messner had launched the new park the year earlier with a series of multi-million dollar CGI commercials featuring Spider Man, dinosaurs, even Dr. Seuss.  In a last ditch attempt to retain the business, sparked by new Universal management, Paul and his art director partner John Tumulty—the wonderful, out-there John Tumulty—created a visual theme and TV concept based on Madonna’s “Ray of Light” video.  Therein began the problem.

I remember the day the agency presented four campaign concepts to the new team of Universal executives.  Paul and John’s presentation was last—and it was a performance.  John wore a blue mechanic’s jump suit with a banana in his breast pocket.  Paul always wore black—still does. First showing the “Ray of Light” video, they described how the high-speed time-lapse photography would be similarly used to film the park, incorporating stop-action and full screen titles to emphasize the drama and excitement of the rides and attractions.

Part of the equation of how successful this commercial would be involved hiring the same Swedish film director who shot and produced Madonna’s video: Jonas Ackerlund.  The “Ray of Light” music video had won the 1998 MTV Best Music Video of the Year and the Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video.

Ackerlund had never produced a TV commercial before.  His most recent production was a blatantly violent and pornographic music video for The Prodigy’s  “Smack My Bitch Up.”  Universal was thrilled to hire him.

The disaster began with the shoot.  Literally miles of extra, above budget, film was needed to film the fast-action backgrounds.  Miles and miles.  Then, all the film had to be shipped to Stockholm to be edited at Ackerlund’s studio.  Paul went to supervise the editing.  All of the editing took place over the Christmas holiday.  We had Paul in Sweden, the clients in Orlando and Hollywood, John and I were in New York.  Universal used a creative consultant and he was at home in Santa Fe.

The first rough-cut was so astoundingly confusing Universal’s consultant wouldn’t let it be shown to the clients.  Ackerlund insisted on handling all aspects of the production, including the music, which was even more bizarre than the footage.  When the Universal clients finally saw the cuts, they were speechless.  Rough-cut after rough-cut was edited and sent to New York, where we would present it to the clients.  I remember Christmas Eve being on the phone simultaneously with Paul in Stockholm and the consultant in New Mexico, each hysterical over what was happening.  Paul couldn’t control Jonas, who ran a closed shop, never listening to any of the agency’s recommendations and eventual demands.  I was the go-between with the creative team, the consultant, and the clients.  No one was remotely happy.

Finally, all of the footage was shipped back to New York, at which point Ackerlund washed his hands of the project and was never heard from again.  The agency pieced together a final edit, which was true to the concept but hated by Universal.  To kill it once and for all, Universal threw it into an ARS television test to prove it was hopeless and could never air.  As a gift from Santa himself, the commercial scored higher than any other theme park ad in the history of ARS—higher than any from archrival Disney.  The clients again were speechless. The spot aired a few times and in a fit of pique Universal fired the agency a few months later.  I forgot to ask Paul whether he still has the original spot on his reel.

I don’t think even Universal Studios mounts these extravagant, and extravagantly expensive, TV commercial productions anymore.  Branding today is more about igniting conversations than about creating images.  Budgets are lower.  ROI must be determined before a campaign hits.  Still, for the practitioners, those earlier days were tremendously fun, creative and filled with drama–truly Islands of Adventure.

A Small College in Maine

Spending the past three days with my son Adam, a senior at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, has made me once again appreciate the value of a liberal arts education in a time of technical and discipline specialization.  I also graduated from Bowdoin–four of the happiest and most stimulating years of my life.  I understood as a student, and increasingly with each passing year, how special my education was and how special Bowdoin is in the history of New England and national education.


Once last year while walking on the Stanford campus, a young student came up to me, pointed at my Bowdoin cap, and asked, “what’s that?”  I replied,”that is a college in existence nearly 100 years before this university was a gleam in Leland’s eye.”  Or course there’s no comparison between Stanford and Bowdoin, one a major university in California and the other a small college in Maine.  Opposite ends of every spectrum, except each having the same commitment to a superior eduction.


Bowdoin was founded in 1794 as the “Harvard of the North,” at a time when Northern Massachusetts (there was no State of Maine then) was too far from Boston to send its sons to college.  The college’s legacy began with James Bowdoin I, a major Boston ship owner and the wealthiest man in the Colonies.  His son, James Bowdoin II became Governor of Massachusetts.   In the early days of the new Republic, Massachusetts Governor Samuel Adams chartered the college named for his predessor.  James Bowdoin III, a patrician Boston philanthrophist, was  Bowdoin‘s  major benefactor..


When as a high school student in Sewickley, Pennsylvania I learned that Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow both graduated from Bowdoin in 1825, I knew this was the only college where I wanted to go. I applied early decision, was accepted and arrived on one early Autumn day to begin a love affair that continues to this day.


Did anything I learn at Bowdoin prepare me for a career in advertising and marketing?  Nothing in particular and everything in general. I majored in English and minored in American Government.  I took courses in history, ornithology, economics, philosophy, art, French, Latin and drama.  I swam on the swimming team and was treasurer of the college newspaper, the Bowdoin Orient. The most influential course I took was Literature as Philosophy, taught by philosophy professor C. Douglas McGee.  The course explored how moral lessons in literature could provide a framework to live one’s life. I think of Doug, who became a close friend until his death in the mid-1990’s, and the books we read, every day since.


Marketing rests on an understanding of human nature, of culture, of what motivates and demotivates people to do anything. Biochemical evolution from the dawn of man driven by the laws of natural selection underlie much of consumer choice. Our culture adds another dimension.  It’s the classic combination of nature and nurture. Is this what one learns in business school?  Or can Heart of Darkness tell us more about a man’s soul than Economic History.  For me they complement each other


All Marketing is Personal

Marketing emerged as a field of study in the early 1900’s and grew into a business school discipline in the 1950’s, largely based on the sales tactics of early consumer package goods companies such as P&G and Lever Brothers.  From these beginnings marketing has evolved into a multifaceted foundation for careers not only at CPG companies, but for tech, pharmaceuticals, B2B, even law and medical practice. As an adjunct marketing professor at Stanford and the University of San Francisco, I’ve taught courses ranging from branding, social media marketing. open platforms to marketing 101 and specialized technology marketing.


Over the past five years the value of an M.B.A. has been debated.  If you don’t go to Harvard Business School, Wharton, Stanford, Columbia, NYU Stern or a few other top-tier schools, is an M.B. A.worth the time and expense involved?  Like other professional qualifications, a degree from a second tier school is perhaps only a route to a second tier job.  There are always exceptions.


My experience working with a diverse range of clients is that regardless of someone’s education, marketing is always personal.  Marketing strategies and the resulting advertising and promotion programs are always the reflection of one individual’s taste, experience and preferences.  This is clearly evident from the fundamental changes to strategy and advertising, even media and web strategies, that shift from one CMO to the next CMO.  With the tenure of CMO roles around eighteen months, this is a lot of change. It’s a truism that CMOs and their marketing implementation are consistently blamed for everything from product deficiencies to channel problems.  As with the short tenure of CMOs, so with the short tenures of advertising agencies.  Will new advertising solve the decline in sales of brands such as Chevy?  As DDB’s founder Bill Bernbach observed, “Great advertising makes a bad product fail faster.”


Why do people buy anything?  It’s some combination of wants and needs.  Consumers are fickle, and today have ways of expressing that fickleness unknown ten years ago. A single tweet can ignite a wave of consumer action for or against a company, a brand or a product. A CMO has always had to have a finger on the pulse of consumer opinion.  Account planning (originally know as research) was created as an agency practice precisely to address this need.  But in a world of rapid change and constant disruption, that pulse has already flat-lined by the time it’s identified. Marketing at big corporations tends to start with past experience coupled with a sure knowledge of a new product’s positioning and sweet spot. Wayne Gretzky understood this error in thinking when he said, “I don’t skate to where the puck is; I skate to where it’s going to be.”


Where does this leave our CMOs?  I’d suggest the best approach would be to assemble small collaborative teams of people with diverse backgrounds, operating with limited marketing dollars and fast timetables that require close daily attention to marketing analytics and constant program iteration.  In other words, rapid changes for rapid change.  This was the strategy employed at my recent experience at Isis Biopolymer when we launched the new Biobliss brand.  We iterated, and improved, daily based on web analytics that a larger company with more marketing dollars would have spent months analyzing before implementing change.

Finally, where does this leave an M.B.A. degree, from any school?  The acquisition of skills needed by only one of a nimble marketing team?  A price of entry? The establishment of a network of classmates?  All of these can be benefits, but before embarking on the B-School route, it would be best to identify exactly where that puck is going to be and how you’re going to skate there.

Interactive and Other Books

I’ve been a book collector since the age of six.  To my delight/dismay I own somewhere north of 8,000 books.  Many are what one might call “rare;” others are long out of print; some are in large collections, such as the 300+ books on Japanese woodblock prints.  The obvious problem with so many books is that I have no place to keep them.  My apartment can’t hold even one more (well, maybe one more.)  My storage room in the basement is full of book boxes. Eighty cartons are in a storage facility in New York.  Clearly, this is too many books.

I bought a Kindle.  Except for a few business books that  date quickly and require only one reading, the experience is less than satisfactory.  I miss the physicality of a real book.  I love paper, and type, and book design–even with a paperback.  Vintage Penguin paperbacks are treasures.  The presentation on a Kindle is just another way to give the reader a page, albeit an electronic one.  It’s economical and saves space, but for me it’s a poor substitute.  My Kindle lives in a desk drawer.

I’ve recently been introduced to Inkling– –the interactive text books for iPad publishers.  What I like about Inkling, and interactive books in general, is that they aren’t books.  Interactive books don’t try to be books.  There are no pages.  You don’t have to follow a linear format.  They are experiential, defined by the reader, not the publisher.  While they are not the bound book I love as well, they are a new and different way to “read” content.  It’s like going from a slide show to a movie.

Does this spell the end of books?  I don’t think so, at least no more so than the decline in reading, the proliferation of books not worth reading or the reduction of literature in high school English classes (which I guarantee will soon be renamed something like “Content Consumption,” certainly not “Literacy Skills.” When was grammar last taught?)

Interactive books might save many traditional books from disappearing.  Inkling’s text book publishing, available for download on an iPad, may be just such an example.  Everyone knows that textbooks are a kind of scam, a way for teachers and professors to earn more money by annually revising their work and then requiring students to buy the latest high-priced editions.  One can’t blame the authors, who need to supplement their meager teaching incomes in more legitimate ways than becoming house painters for the summer–a solution to which one Ivy League professor I know resorts to support his family.  Students, and parents of students, already bulk at this scheme which accounts for the rise of textbook rentals, used textbooks (usually earlier editions, which rarely make any difference in most fields) and the abandonment of textbooks all together in favor of free online source material.

Interactive books provide a different, often more compelling, learning experience.  Inkling’s textbooks are one approach.  Others are children’s “books” that open to a world of wonder; art and design books; instructional manuals.  Imagine what interactivity could do for manga?  Of how it could open up new possibilities for  dyslexic readers.

I’m working this week in Boston out of the offices of my friend Bruce Shaw’s Harvard Common Press, one of the country’s leading cook book and childcare publishing companies.  Bruce and his associate publisher Adam Salomone are constantly exploring the future of book publishing, specifically HCP’s specialties.  Where are cookbooks going?  Who will want another traditional cookbook?   Many are purchased; few are used.  Bruce and Adam are heavily involved in the food blogging world; they experiment with Kindle editions; they attend digital conferences.  They are involved with a Silicon Valley recipe start-up called Yummly, now the 5th most frequently clicked food site on the web.  Interactive cookbooks are the next evolution.  It would be like bringing the Iron Chef’s actual studio–not the flat TV screen–into your kitchen.  The last thing cookbooks need are sequential pages. The social features Inkling offers–the opportunity to communicate in real time with friends–would be a marvel in the kitchen.  Interactivity will revolutionize cookbook publishing.  It may also save it.

Taking this one step further, what if Yummly had its own iPad app that instead of serving its subscribers weekly recipes based on their individual taste preferences, it took those same subscribers into a virtual kitchen experience where via an interactive platform the cook and the screen became one seamless experience.  No more trips to a Tuscan cooking school. It would be in your kitchen.

Interactivity in the publishing world is at its beginning.  It’s future is bright–even dazzling.