I work in an industry in love with the means. That is to say, advertising, in general, is all about the campaign, the execution, the tagline, the :30 second spot. And there’s plenty of historical and industry reasons for that. Advertising is the medium of the masses. It grew out of new technology – the newspaper, the radio, the television – all of which were revolutionary in terms of achieving reach and all perfect opportunities for the best messages (read: means) to thrive.
But all of these technologies were necessarily and practically disconnected from the end-goal. It has always been hard to tie something as specific as sales to something as broad as a Super Bowl commercial. The result is an industry built around means to an end, rather than the end itself.
I know I’m certainly not alone in my uneasiness with statements like one I recently overheard from the creative director at a big agency who said, “the insight comes from the idea.” Basically, he meant the idea, the execution, the means is king. Everything else comes after.
Maybe it’s my inherent Midwesterness, perhaps it has to do with being raised in an engineer’s household, but I’m uncomfortable with action without a direct correlation to outcome. The idea of correlation instead of causation irks my better demons.
Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.
After, therefor because of.
That’s the way my industry works right now. I make a kick-ass campaign. I make it live. A month later, sales are up. Must have been because of my campaign, right? After all, the increase in sales followed my executions, there must be a correlation, right?
Maybe. But in a world where a person can experience a pre-roll add, check my brand out in social, search and on Amazon, but something and, possibly, write a review all in the palm of their hand, all while waiting for a latte, is maybe good enough? Is it good enough to be correlative? Is it good enough to be in love with the means when the end has never been more measurable?
I realize I’m probably shouting into the void here. I know there’s lots of talk about Big Data and new ways of measuring in the world and in my industry. But it seems to me that advertisers are communication designers. So often we design communication around an idea and hope we can measure later. But what if we began designing around the end and let the idea come from there? What if we put what we are trying to achieve ahead of how we want to achieve it?
What if, as an industry, we changed the way we work and the things we love and finally started to care more about the end than the means?
Adam is one of my closest friends. We don’t live near one another – he’s on the West Coast, I’m in the Midwest. We don’t see each other often – the last time was before Game 3 of the 2014 World Series (#weareGiant). We don’t speak regularly, but when we do, it’s as if no time has passed at all.
Adam bought and edited my book, And Now We Shall Do Manly Things. It was a very personal book and the relationship between writer and editor can often be very intimate. Lucky for me, we hit it off well and have remained close long after the book has disappeared from the clearance bin.
About 18 months ago Adam, a born and bred New Yorker, got married, left publishing and moved to the other side of the country. He was run down by the rat race. He was tired and cynical. He needed a change. And for the last year or so, he’s been fully embracing the Northern California life. He teaches karate – a lifelong passion – in Marin. He does freelance editing work. He’s found a bit of sunshine in his life.
Adam called me last night to talk. He needed some advice and, after more than an hour of the kind of catching up that happens in friendships like ours, he asked me what he should do for a living. His wife – vastly smarter, more talented and better looking than he – is a foreign rights editor and is very successful. Its been a benefit to his restoration, but now he wants to find his thing, to contribute to the family larder more consistently and take ownership of his work.
There’s just one problem.
“If you look at my resume, I’ve spent my whole life in publishing,” he says. From his perspective, it’s a liability. A decade and a half in one industry, a very specific industry, an incestuous industry where people are born, grow and die. He’s afraid the only thing he’s qualified to do is work in publishing.
I asked him about writing. Adam is a great writer, has a degree in journalism and has an innate sense of story that leaves me jealous. He said he’s started a bunch of proposals, but finds holes in them. He’s started a lot of things, but his deep knowledge stops him short.
Adam, it seems, knows too much.
I think we all do this. We all, at some time or another, pen ourselves in by expectations, perceptions and the kind of thinking that leaves you focused on all the reasons something won’t work instead of finding the reasons it will. I certainly think this way. I’m the kind of person that sits down to do something and am already envisioning two paths – one that leads to glory and success, the other to necessary and inevitable failure.
But I’ve learned a couple of things from very smart, successful people that have helped me tame my self-doubting beast and calmed me down considerably.
The first is the Really-Really. The really-really is a way of looking at a situation and deconstructing it to its component parts; of reframing an experience or opportunity around a sort of base definition. Take Adam’s resume for instance. He looks at it and sees nothing but publishing. If he were to take the really-really approach to it, he would break down the publishing into its component activities and redefine it through that lens. He sees ‘editor’ and believes it to be limiting. The really-really would define what an editor does: project management, contract negotiation, story design, production design, financial forecasting, industry and retail strategy.
When you break down something with the really-really, you see it not for what you think it is, but what it actually is. I do this with clients all the time. They come in saying they have a certain challenge, but when we spend time breaking it down with the really-really, a different, more manageable challenge often comes to light.
The second thing that has helped me is the practice of Selective Naivete. This is all about removing the long-term, two path thinking that people experienced in one area tend to do and instead reframing something in smaller steps. Take Adam’s writing for example. He sits down to write a book proposal and immediately sees all the reasons it won’t work. If he were to practice selective naivete, he would put his best ideas into a proposal and ask someone else how they could see it working. New-agers and self-helpers call these limiting believes, this notion that we stop ourselves from doing something before we even try. I like to think of it as a shift in perspective – from ‘why I can’t’ do something to asking someone ‘do you think I could.’
If I had known more about book publishing before I began working on the project Adam eventually bought, I would never have written it. A memoir about hunting in a divisive gun culture written by a suburban white man doesn’t exactly jibe with industry trends. But I didn’t, so I pursued the project based upon a hunch and my own desire. I asked questions. I asked for input. I didn’t allow my own doubts to get in the way because I didn’t have them. It can be very difficult, but choosing to ignore doubts and instead ask questions and respond to feedback is at the core of practicing selective naivete.
Time will tell which path Adam goes down. You may even see his byline on some posts on this site. My hope is that he figures out how to get out of his own way, reframe his experiences and allow his curiosity and instinct to overcome his vast knowledge. The world will be better with more of him in it and I truly believe, he will be happier for it.
In his fascinating look at humiliation in the Social Age, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson explores the split between analog humanity and digital behavior – how different we are as people and profiles. As part of his exploration, he takes part in a workshop in Chicago lead by a psychiatrist who preaches the gospel of “radical honesty.” Its a topic explored by another favorite writer of mine, AJ Jacobs, in a piece for Esquire a few years back and I was uncomfortable reading that as Ronson seemed to be in his experience.
The crucial point of radical honesty seems to be that lies are dangerous, they break down social structures and cause more harm than harsh truths ever could. Both Ronson and Jacobs walked away from there experiences skeptical of the approach and uncomfortable with the very idea of telling lies to others. As a reader, I walk away feeling those things, but also curious about the merits of the lies we tell ourselves.
Everyone lies to themselves. We tell ourselves we are ‘too fat’ or ‘too skinny,’ ‘successful’ or a ‘failure,’ ‘smart’ or ‘clueless.’ Sometimes we tell ourselves all of these things at once, sometimes we go back and forth. We tell ourselves we are under-appreciated or overly relied upon. We tell ourselves we are take-no-prisoners-ass-kicking-machines and that we are scared and just doing what we were told.
The point is, we lie. A lot.
But is that a bad thing?
I know I often write about having conversations with friends, so excuse me if I do it again here. But, I was having coffee with a friend this morning. We try to do it every week or two and I always walk away invigorated and optimistic. This morning, we were talking about people and how we work together.
I work with a lot of people and clients and, by and large, I think I do a pretty good job of managing those relationships. But sometimes, I tell myself that where tension exists in a working relationships, I will be able to iron it out. It’s a lie. I am guilty of being overly confident in my ability to make anything work, being able to work with anyone. I will remain quietly discontent in a working relationship hoping that, through silence, determination and a swallowing of emotions, I will be able to work through it.
I am a young Christian Bale in one of the final scenes in the film “Empire of the Sun” desperately performing CPR on a clearly deceased friend, muttering the phrase “I can bring anyone back, anyone” as I pump away. It is a hopeless situation made worse by naive determination.
My friend is much better at confrontation, at dealing with problems head-on and moving on. To him, the lie would be in believing too much in the power of persuasion. He just doesn’t believe it.
So, why do I lie to myself when I understand his truth is probably a better solution?
It has to do with the truth I want to believe. I want to believe that I am the kind of person that is eager and easy to work with. I want to believe in the truth of the majority of my experiences and am willing to turn it into a lie in those outlying occasions when I am not.
It’s wrong to thing of truth and lies as binary, as one thing or the other, especially when the audience for those truths and lies are ourselves. The same belief can be bedrock and dishonest, depending upon the situation. A truth we want to believe may be the lie that keeps us motivated.
I think about this with clients all the time. I believe I have a solution to their needs. I believe my work can provide unique value to them. If I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t be able to walk into their office with anything approaching confidence. When that truth is incorrect, it is the belief behind it that keeps me motivated to find the right solution. The belief is both truth and a lie, but one which will, hopefully, become a truth.
The problem with the radical honesty experienced by Ronson and Jacobs is that it is binary. There is truth and there are lies and no room for belief. Fact or fiction. Black and white. But the truth is lies can become truth if they serve as motivations. I can lie to myself and say that I can so speak Spanish. If I only tell myself that without action, it will always be a lie. But if telling myself I can speak Spanish gets me to spend 20 minutes a day on Duolingo, then the lie motivates the truth.
I can tell myself that I can work with any client but if that means disregarding the clients who challenge me, it is a lie. However, if that lie motivates me to find new ways to work with those challenging people, it becomes the truth.
We lie to ourselves a lot. We tell ourselves all sorts of things that don’t reflect reality. It’s not the lie that is destructive, it’s what we do with them that matters.
And perhaps that realization is more radical than radical honesty.
When I took the job at the agency six years ago, I could not have imagined all the places it would take me – literally. Japan, China, France, London (regularly), Switzerland, Brazil, Romania (hello to all my friends there) for heaven’s sakes. I’m in New York and San Fransisco enough to have preferences of hotel rooms. I have a favorite place for poutine in Toronto and a favorite BBQ place in Austin. I’ve sweltered in Singapore and sauntered through the streets of Barcelona. I’ve prayed in a temple in Kuala Lumpur before buying a knock-off Bell & Ross at a Chinese night market.
All in all, it has been an incredible, unexpected journey. It’s meant a lot of time away from my family. It’s been navigating customs and airports, bridging language barriers and overcoming cultural flubs (if you ever do business in Tokyo, make sure you have plenty of business cards). I will go through periods of extreme travel – New York, Shanghai and Raleigh, North Carolina inside of two weeks – and long dry spells, where I am at home, commuting and living a day-to-day life. Both are exciting. Both rewarding. Both can be exhausting in different ways. I get tired of the unfamiliar when I travel. I grow weary of the familiar when I am at home.
I don’t have a need to escape, but there’s something about being away that makes being home better and I think I’m finally starting to understand why. True, home tends to be more comfortable and comforting. But at home, you are more often in control. You have command of the language, agency in the tasks and events of your day and more autonomy.
When I travel, when I am in unfamiliar places, I am often completely reliant upon other people. The cab driver in Tokyo who helped me find my hotel despite a complete lack of common language. The amazing people in my agency’s Bucharest office who catered to my every need while helping to show me their country. My friend Hannah in London, who met me in the hotel lobby and walked me to where I needed to go so I wouldn’t get lost.
At home, I know where to go. I know what I’m doing. When I travel, I often don’t. I am an alien in a strange land – both abroad and here in the States – forced to rely on others to help me find my way. It’s humbling, but also refreshing. I enjoy being a guest. It makes me a better host and more present as a person.
I’m not prone to quote religious scripture, but there’s a line in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (5:21) where he instructs the early Christians to be “subject to one another.” I’ve always liked that idea. Paul was a traveler, a wealthy Roman merchant who was knocked off his horse by the voice of God. He spent the rest of his life uniting early pockets of the church, literally going from community to community, country to country to find common purpose among them. And his best piece of advice was “be subject to one another.”
It means to be a good host and a better guest. It means to trust one another, rely on one another, count on the fact that we have each others’ backs. I have experienced that. I experience it every time I’m in an unfamiliar place. And I try to bring that home with me, to be someone the people I know and love, the people I see every day can count on.
There are so many things that tear people apart. So many things that create distance. We tend to clump people into neat little packages and write them all off with the same broad pen. We do it politically, geographically. As marketers, we do it demographically. It becomes easy to think of people as ‘other,’ as numbers to be counted or dismissed, as targets to be sold.
But spend some time in a place where you don’t speak the language. Go to a place where you can’t tell north from south, east from west, and rely on the kindness and generosity of strangers, even for a day, and you might not be so quick to write people off. Being subject to one another doesn’t mean being subject to one over the other. It means having each others’ back, helping a stranger who is lost, trusting a stranger to help you find your way.
It’s good for a person to be reminded of that feeling of reliance. It’s good to feel lost and to let someone help you find your way. It is, after all, one of the things that makes us humans and one of the things that prevents us from being numbers in someone else’s book.
When have you found yourself relying on others? I’d love to know. Leave a comment or mention me on Facebook or @cheimbuch on twitter.
I’ve been thinking a lot about carbon lately. Well, okay, not a lot. I haven’t been thinking about it as much as, say, my kids or my account balances. But I’ve thought about it specifically on several occasions and, relative to other elements, that’s quite a bit.
Carbon is one of those things that is seems persistently adjacent to news and issues. Carbon footprints, carbon dioxide levels, carbon-based life on other planets, etc… And, I suppose, it’s pretty easy to get a bit carbon-jaded (see what I did there) because of the negative context in which that word is so often used.
But carbon is actually pretty incredible. Carbon itself is pretty simple. Plain. But its ability to combine and change based upon its situation is remarkable. It combines to become a gas. It combines to become a person. It combines to become fuel, food, mountains and diamonds.
Why are we so confident about carbon’s essential role in creating living things? The answer has to do with the core properties of the carbon atom itself. Carbon has four valence electrons residing in the outermost shell of the atom, which, for complicated reasons, makes it uniquely talented at forming connections with other atoms, particularly with hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, sulfur— and, crucially, with other carbon atoms. These six atoms make up 99 percent of the dry weight of all living organisms on earth. Those four valence bonds give carbon a strong propensity for forming elaborate chains and rings of polymers: everything from the genetic information stored in nucleic acids, to the building blocks of proteins, to the energy storage of carbohydrates and fats. (Modern technology has exploited the generative potential of the carbon atom via the artificial polymers we call plastics.) Carbon atoms measure only 0.03 percent of the overall composition of the earth’s crust, and yet they make up nearly 20 percent of our body mass. That abundance highlights the unique property of the carbon atom: its combinatorial power. Carbon is a connector.
Carbon is a connector. It’s this last line that got me thinking about people. We have a tendency to romanticize the notions of self-made men and lone wolves. We think of heroes and role models as singular. We hold up the individual as the outlier, the livers of impossible dreams as freaks.
But could that be?
I don’t believe in the idea of a person being self-made. Successful? Sure. Yeah, hard to deny. Famous? Right on. But self-made? Not a chance. I’ve had the chance to meet a lot of successful people – successful by common standards of wealth and fame and successful by individual standards. I count myself among the latter. No, not rich or famous. No, not an inventor or a laureate. But I took a gamble with my love and pursued work I loved instead of money and am able to provide for my wife and three kids. We go on vacation. We have a yard and a dog. So I count myself successful – with room to grow.
The thing I have learned and the thing I have observed over the years is that success is never about the force of will, but about the ability to remain true and constant while melding, adapting and adjusting – just like carbon. It never stops being carbon. It combines and connects to become not only carbon but the basis of all life and plastic and diamonds.
So is there such a thing as a self-made? I don’t think so. Success, to me, seems like the result of a person’s ability to meld and adapt, synthesize and connect.
Ryan Hartsock is a film producer. He and his partner, a director named Motke Dapp, began making films as part of a 48-hour film festival six or seven years ago. It was the something they did because they loved it.They worked in their free time and had their first short film featured in film festivals throughout the Midwest. They made another short film and it was featured in festivals all over North America, where it was very highly awarded. They made a feature film with $10,000 raised on Kickstarter. Then, last year, their short film “Sorry About Tomorrow” took off in the festival circuit. Dapp was approached by Hollywood producers who told him they would make him a star, all he had to do was ditch his crew.
This is where the story gets interesting.
Motke put Hollywood on hold to make films with the people that matter the most. “Sorry About Tomorrow” ended up being featured in the PBS digital film festival – and winning a bunch of awards. This lead to an invitation back to the festival where they started – the 48 Hour Film Festival in Nashville. The film they made – “Contrary to Likeness”- ended up being the among the highest awarded films in the festival–best director, best editor, best graphics and best set design– and earned Motke and Ryan an invitation to be featured at Cannes this year. Never ones to do things they way they are supposed to, they are taking the opportunity to travel to shoot another feature film. They are stopping for a week in Iceland and filming in Nice then coming home to finish the film in Nashville.
It’s a fascinating story that immediately got me thinking about the way we work. These guys are defying the standard approach to achieve their goals on their own terms. They aren’t trust fund guys spending a pot of money on a hobby. They are passionate about making films and that passion, when combined with quite a lot of ingenuity and sweat equity has taken them from movie fans to being featured at the world’s most prestigious film festival in a few short years.
Motke and Ryan are carving their own path and they are looking for help. Rather than take on traditional financing, they are looking for brand partners to join them in their journey. If you know of a brand that might be interested in helping take their story into the next chapter, email me or them. Here’s a link to their site — http://www.paperghostpictures.com/
It’s a story that resonates with me. Probably because a successful 9-to-5 is a journey without a map. It’s easy to let the things we love fade to the past tense; to let go of our dreams in exchange for comfort. But the most successful people I know aren’t the people who calculate success in dollars in cents. They are the people who define success by the fulfillment of a vision, of taking an idea and bringing it to life.
The following is an excerpt from an interview I did with Tim Ferriss two years ago via e-mail. The interview was prompted by an e-mail I sent that he later featured on his blog. Read his post here.
Tim Ferriss understands digital content. Really understands it. He has an innate grasp on the relationship between content and human behavior. This understanding is the basis of his brand. Without it, he’d just be another blogger, another frustrated author shopping a book around that gets less and less relevant by the day. Instead, he is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, one of the most popular and power bloggers in the world and a guru to millions of devotees to his empire.
Ferriss started off like a lot of recent college grads. Fresh out of Princeton, he took a job as a salesman working for a digital storage company and was immediately frustrated. Cold calls, pointless meetings, the minutia of office life. He saw holes in the system. Problems with the expectations that he put in his 9-5, follow the script and remain true to the company’s processes were maddening to Ferriss. He knew there was a better way to do things, to drive greater results in a fraction of the time. And he began hacking the system. He focused on current customers, identified opportunities to get to decision makers by focusing his calls in the 8 am and 6 pm hours – when gatekeepers and admins were away and could, thus, not run the kind of interference that prevent him from getting results. He was making progress, but his results-oriented eschewing of company protocol landed him in hot water with management.
So, just as he had done with his job requirements, he set out to hack his career. He launched a company called BrainQuicken, selling an ingestible supplement designed to improve cognition in performance athletes. He identified a very specific market for the product – martial arts and bodybuilding enthusiasts – and focused all of his marketing on them. The company quickly took off, providing him the financial freedom to leave his job and focus on his growing company.
He was a one man show, outsourcing all aspects of his business to overseas assistants, customer service call centers in India, manufacturers and supply chain management firms. And as the company grew, Ferriss soon found himself in a position not dissimilar to one he was in at his old job. Overworked, under constant pressure and fully attached his e-mail and phone line. He was making great money, but was chained to his work 90 hours a week and wondering if there was a better way. He was ready to call it quits, to throw in the towel when he realized that frustrations of running his business were self-made. He once again set out to hack his business and his job, removing himself as a roadblock from the company’s smooth and efficient running. Within 18 months, he was working just a few hours a week and profits went up even more.
It was around this time that an entrepreneurship professor from his alma mater, Princeton University, invited him to guest lecture on the topic of tech entrepreneurship, offering advice and challenges to would-be Tim Ferrisses on a regular basis. He titled his lectures “Drug Dealing for Fun and Profit,” a tongue-in-cheek nod to his product. The lectures were successful and gave Ferriss the idea of writing a book about his career-hacking experience, which he did.
Like any first-time author, he began the process of finding a publisher with a certain degree of naive optimism. He was confident in “Drug Dealing for Fun and Profit” as a needed resource. His experience at Princeton had validated his message, but when the book was rejected for the 27th time, he knew what had to be done. So, Tim Ferriss began the process of hacking publishing and it was then that he went from successful, if unknown, entrepreneur to content marketing visionary and spent just $200 doing it.
Ferriss began with the insight that the problem with his book was not in its content, but its title. So he devised a test. He created several title and subtitle combinations and set up placeholder websites using the title as the URL. The content of all the pages – which described the book – was identical on all the sites. He made a small ad purchase through Google Adwords and conducted a two-week test to see which title drove the highest click-thru rate. At the end of the test, he chose the title combination with the highest engagement and resubmitted the book proposal with the new name.
Since 2007, “The 4-Hour Work Week” has sold more than 1.5 million copies and been translated into 35 languages. The associated blog became one of the 1,000 most trafficked blogs in the world within its first year and has not let up since then. His next two books “The 4-Hour Body” and “The 4-Hour Chef” have both been best-sellers and his blog routinely shows up on best lists.
So why is Tim Ferriss important as a content marketer? Because he understood that it didn’t matter how good his content was if it wasn’t found and consumed. He could have been proposing a book with the answers to all of life’s big questions, if no one read it, it didn’t matter. He also demonstrated a keen understanding of the relationship between content and testing. He wasn’t dogmatic about his title. He didn’t plant his feet in the ground and refuse to budge. Instead, he adopted a test-and-learn mentality to refine his offering and make subtle changes that drove deeper engagement. Since then, Ferriss has gone on to lecture everywhere from South-by-Southwest to TED and become a fixture in the digital landscape. He advises some of the most successful tech start-ups in Silicon Valley and manages to remain true to his low-involvement, high-results philosophy.
He has also remained true to his content approach. In a time when media proliferation has many brands and marketers frustrated, when content marketing seems to be leading to volume and velocity over engagement and results, Ferriss has remained audience and results-oriented. I asked him about his content planning and whether or not he ever feel pressure to crank out more content on his, more volume, more current topics and content about events happening now and here’s what he had to say:
“You can’t out Fox News Fox News. Timely news-based content turns life (or business) into a keeping up with the Joneses nightmare. I focus on evergreen/useful content that is as valuable 6 months from now as it is the day it’s published. It might mean less immediate traffic, but it means sticky traffic and also Google traffic that will add up to monstrous traffic later. This all factors into conversion and sales, if that’s your priority.My approach allows great flexibility and offers the option to hit STOP without losing it all. If I stopped writing blog posts tomorrow, I’d still make tons of income from my traffic (via books, start-up intros, speaking gigs, etc.). That was never the primary intent of my writing, but it’s a nice side-effect!
“People prefer to trust other people, not brands (e.g. Steve Jobs versus Apple), so I have the advantage of being a single-person-based media provider. Brands can do this by singling out killer personalities to drive their brands ( e.g. Bobby Flay for Food Network in the early days).
“People want to follow humans, not trademarks. Plan accordingly.”
He also understands that he represents his brand. He is the person behind it, the driving force. To that end, 90% of all his content is planned. He refuses to bow to the pressure of a newsroom mentality.
“I write about the things that capture my attention and imagination, first and foremost,” he says. “Guessing what other people want is exactly that — guessing. The remaining <10% is experimental and based on reader leads.”
Ferriss may be an individual and not a brand, but there’s a lot content marketers can learn from his example.
Consistency in producing content that is building toward long-term engagement.
Flexibility to adapt content in order to drive engagement.
Creating feedback loops that allow for optimization of content based upon actual behavior.
Humanity – understanding that content is about making a connection with someone.
Understanding larger trends and audience profiles is important, but content is not consumed by audiences. It is consumed by people – individual people for whom the content is entertaining, insightful or engaging in some way. It needs to be created in the same way, by people who are looking for the same thing. Content is a perfect how brands can mass communicate on a one-to-one basis. But doing it effectively means thinking outside the brief and considering the human element.
If brands take anything from Tim Ferriss’s example it should be this: Content Marketing is not about overnight success, but about building over time. It’s about using analytics tools and a test-and-learn mentality to understand what’s working and what’s not, what resonates and engages and what doesn’t. Its about focusing on what makes a connection and being consistent in your approach. Don’t bend to the pressure of creating too much content. Instead, remain true to your brand and seek to humanize the interaction between yourself and your audience as much as possible.