The Slow Decay of Substantive Content

William Henry wrote In Defense of Elitism in 1994. Though the title may come across as pompous the book is actually a rallying cry for curiosity, exploration, and discovery for all. Henry was the Pulitzer Prize-winning culture critic for Time magazine. The book was slammed by critics as a very thinly veiled stab at egalitarianism. In fact, it was an attack on the dumbing down of society. More specifically, it identified the strange path America was on and goes a long way to explaining where it finds itself today.

One passage points out, “Today, even critical books about ideas are expected to be prescriptive, to conclude with simple, step-by-step solutions to whatever crisis they discuss. Reading itself is becoming a way out of thinking.”

Henry was accurate but may have miscalculated how quickly and, to what extent, this has taken hold in society. One only has to see the headlines in once-respected newspapers and magazines or take in the astonishing range of poorly written blogs or view scrolling tweets of perpetuating nonsense to conclude that we are losing the ability to search for, develop, and discover knowledge. This morning I was greeted with the following headlines from various sources “7 Things You Need to Know About …”, “13 Do’s and Don’ts of …”, “The 9 Most Common …”, “Top 10 Tips for …”, “5 Ways to …”.

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Where is the Content in Content Marketing?

The marketing world has finally discovered that honest and valuable content makes a difference in interacting with consumers. Not surprisingly, marketers had to name and define this activity. We called it “Content Marketing”. Definitions abound but it is meant to encompass all marketing formats involving the creation or sharing of content for the purpose of engaging current and potential consumers.

It begs the question…is there such a thing as non-content marketing?

Beyond my jadedness, content marketing’s intent is to provide high-quality, relevant and valuable information to prospects and customers to drive brand awareness, consideration, and purchase. Content Marketing can take many forms such as custom magazines, print or online newsletters, digital content, websites or microsites, white papers, webcasts and webinars, podcasts, roadshows, roundtables, interactive online, e-mail, and events. Read more

Ban the Elevator Pitch

Warning! This will take longer than 30 seconds to read.

Recently I was at a lunch with an interesting group. Two of the folks were the founders of a start-up and the other two were from an advertising agency. I was present to act as a bridge having been charged with articulating the new entity’s brand. For the next ninety minutes I was highly amused taking in a veritable verbal tennis match between my four lunch mates. At the end, I was more confused by the purpose of the intended business than when I first sat down and said as much.

One of the advertising professionals suggested the founders provide a “30 second elevator pitch”. We were then treated to a string of words that first came across as impressive but really added up to a dense, jargon-laden paragraph of nonsense. elevator-pitch1I am not sure who chuckled first but it prompted everyone to join in. We all recognized the absurdity of the exercise.

It made me think about the ‘elevator pitch’ concept and the broader, more troubling trend of simplifying almost everything these days. In business this seems to have started with advertising and relates quite closely to radio and television advertisement lengths. The thought being, if you could not get your message across quickly there was something dreadfully wrong.

Now brief, staccato-like messaging has become the norm in communications. This is attributed to the growing number of messages people are subjected to and the range of technologies that carry them. Experts claim that people’s attention spans have dramatically shortened as a result. So logically, somewhat ironically, and hopefully not irreversibly, what we communicated got shorter too. Read more

America’s Top-Selling Consumer Product

The Summer, 2017 edition of Lapham’s Quarterly tackles the subject of Fear. This literary magazine examines a theme using primary source material. Each edition contains dozens of essays, speeches, quotes, art, photos, statistics and excerpts from contemporary and historical authors. I attest that its Spring, 2012 issue on Communication is among the finest things I have ever read.

On the subject of Fear Lewis H. Lapham’s Preamble is highly compelling, intelligent, and troubling. He cites “the innovative and entrepreneurial American genius for making something out of nothing and the equally innovative and entrepreneurial American genius for self-deception.” His point being that the country has lost its capacity to reason critically. What I have noticed in the last two years is America is becoming more tribal and trivial. Ever greater numbers of smaller, more specific self-interest groups take increasing exception with whatever is being said by whoever says it.

The publication and Lapham himself  believe “Fear is America’s top-selling consumer product, available 24-7 as mobile app with color-coded pop-ups in all shades of the paranoid rainbow. Ready to hand at the touch of a screen, the turn of a phrase, the nudge of tweet.” It is important to note that when fear rules populaces crave a strong man. History is replete with such examples and a near corresponding number of disasters.

One could read this piece and conclude that the publication is anti-Trump. That is far too simple a conclusion and naively narrow in perspective. Indeed, in its totality this issue basically concludes people reap what they sow. America is not a Trump America but its fear gave Trump, his supporters and doctrine ground to flourish. American’s now react to a tagline to convince them of deeper thinking and reasoned arguments. “Just say No to Drugs”, “Shock and Awe” and “Make America Great Again” are mind-numbingly inane and absolutely deceptive or self-deceptive.

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The Cost of Vice

Last week I visited my hometown of Winnipeg. Following a long walk along lovely Wellington Crescent to the city’s sprawling Assiniboine Park I stopped at a Starbucks. My small Pellegrino, a grande coffee and oatbar totaled north of CDN$10.00. No big surprise.

While soaking up the sun on the patio I spotted a gent who purchased a venti-something. He carried a bag containing two or more bottles from the provincial liquor retailer (we have a different system of selling in Canada). He wandered off the patio to smoke a cigarette at a respectable distance (it was Canada after all). I absently wondered what his annual spend was on these three habits or vices.

I don’t smoke, never have. Starbucks is a once-in-awhile thing, I have never been hip to the vibe. When it comes to drinking that is a different story, in a bar graph my bar and booze spending would spike. This is no morality tale. I am not preaching the cut of one habit or vice over the other. I am in no position to do so.

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10 Communications Challenges

Communications holds the power to change minds, prompt action and move the world. But it has to get better. It has to strive to be the best. In business communications, we have identified ten challenges that are standing in the way of it being better. These come from the breadth and depth of our work with leading brands and brands that want to lead.

Challenge #1

Everyone is talking about disruptions and innovation yet communications are predictable, safe and boring. Are you satisfied with being a me-too brand? Communications that are compelling and different are in short supply. Effort and spend are going up in smoke. Too few brands are bold.

Challenge #2

Communicators are attracted to shiny new toys and forget the fundamentals. Are you overcomplicating while missing the tried and true? Social media, V/R, video, SEO, programmatic – these are important tactics but they are that, tactics. What is missing is smart, sharp and penetrating strategies.

Challenge #3

Businesses think impersonally in terms of “audiences” and “targets” and “markets”. Do you really know who wants and needs what you have? The science and art of segmentation is a terrible state these days. The business schools teach it poorly and businesses employ it haphazardly. This leaves very real customers thinking you do not know them or care to.

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Dissecting FT Weekend’s New Branding

Two months ago The Financial Times refreshed FT Weekend. This was introduced through an integrated marketing campaign “aimed at a growing readership who favour the immersive experience of print on the weekend while remaining highly engaged with digital journalism during the week.” That is an insightful and challenging objective.

What piqued my interest was the print component. The campaign’s tagline grabbed me (isn’t it great when that happens?). The three lines are compelling. “World-class writing” is sharp and smart. I can see how they arrived at it and am grateful they did. The cornerstone of journalism is a free press. That means possessing honesty and objectivity and marrying them with insight. Those are lofty ideals to sell a paper. Perhaps too lofty and I expect FT and their advertising agency thought so too.

Instead they now focus on global reach and fresh perspective along with how they write and communicate. The three words in the tagline are absolutely power-packed. The line represents the core skill-set of journalism and what must be the overriding differentiator of any publication online, off or both. That is quality of writing. As far as I know no other publication is landing on that notion or boldly claiming it even though it is fundamental.

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The Appeal of Writing Cabins

You do not have to be a writer to want a private little cabin…but it helps. The solitude, peace and focus could keep the words flowing. Here is a question, could you go without Internet in your small pad? Author Jonathan Franzen writes in the big city but on a computer without online connection. And that is the point, to make sense of the world either through fiction or nonfiction, you have to disconnect. Imagine doing so in any of these tiny muses.

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You’re Out of Order: Law Firm Marketing

The marketing of professional services firms is tough stuff. Whether it is accounting, advertising, architecture, or consulting firms, you name it, there is tons of competition and finding a unique position for the business is elusive. How about law firms? There are over 50,000 law firms in the United States with two or more lawyers, 173,000 solo practitioners, and 1,315,561 licensed attorneys. That is a big category folks.

A category that has historically and currently wrestles with the very idea of marketing. I am not talking about those tacky accident lawyer ads on TV or the calls for people to join class-action lawsuits that remind us of a John Grisham novel. Nor I am not talking about firms who think a logo and a website is all the marketing they need or those that buy ad space on a few city benches and wait for the phone to ring.

This hopefully helpful bit of writing applies to firms of size who would much rather focus on the practice of law rather than the perceived hell and distraction of marketing. Having worked with over 12 law firms on branding and marketing, I have noted a handful of challenges that are universal.

Marketing is a Dirty Word

This is a profession that was once not allowed to market. It was, in a word, illegal. I always thought that was cool. An industry forced to function on referral only. The concept was … do great work and more will come. Legal services was the purist form of business natural selection ever. All law firms had to use was a three person name (Smith, Jones & Smith), state they had been around for decades (Since 1933), and support the local community (Member of the Chamber of Commerce and The Elks). And, for a time, it worked.

Of course, times changed. When marketing became fair game, law firms put a partner in charge of promoting the firm. This was a short-term experiment because the partner knew nothing about marketing. Around the turn of this century, firms hired professional marketers from consumer product companies. I loved witnessing this epic failure. Cola and soup marketing do not translate well to legal services.

The last ten years has seen law firms flirt with every manner of marketing. Some experiments have worked but the vast majority has not. Marketing is still being grafted on law firms and that is the problem. Grafting is not enough. Marketing must be a core skill.

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Why Aren’t Marketing Departments Run on a P&L?

Jay Baer has it right. Baer is a marketing consultant, speaker, and the author of book, Youtility. He said, “Make your marketing so useful people would pay you for it.” It is a wonderful notion. The quote gets at excellence in marketing while holding the practice accountable.

It is strange that most marketing departments are structured so loosely. I am not talking about the organizational structure. There is far too much written and explored on that topic. I contend that the organization of a marketing department would become extremely clear, efficient and effective if it was subject to being its own profit and loss center.

Instead the vast majority of marketing departments get a budget. The team executes within that spend and produces mediocre results for the most part. The next year the budget gets a little bump to reflect inflation and higher costs. This cycle repeats until the CEO removes the head of marketing due to vague results.

I have run global marketing teams and advise companies on how best to set-up their marketing organizations. In chats with CEOs and CMOs I passionately suggest the P&L route. CEOs love it. CMOs not so much. That is too bad because it would make marketing so much better and would weed out the real good CMOs from the ones who bluster and obfuscate. This move would have positive impact on CMO turnover.

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