Products That Get Talked About.

Design / Leadership / Public Relations

W hat you choose to do, make or offer matters. When it comes public relations there’s one constant law in the universe that operates the same at all levels: products, people and services worth talking about get talked about. Period. Seems simple enough. But after a decade in the business, I can say with 100% certainty that very few business people get it, and even fewer are willing to admit it; toss enough money into the marketing mix and you’ll get “there” right?

I’ve been constantly challenged throughout my career to come up with a strategic plan, a campaign, a guerilla stunt, or an event that’ll capture mindshare and elevate a certain brand, product, person or service. Whether I’m working at an agency, as a consultant, or in-house, the hope is always the same: widespread reputation. Or perhaps easier said, fame.

Lasting fame is the Holy Grail of big business and that presents an interesting paradox—businesses with very little worth talking about are obsessed by having something to talk about.

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I Think Therefore I Know?


O ver the past few weeks I’ve had the great pleasure of sitting in quite a few “business” meetings—though I’m typically engaged, as the hours rolled on in one particularly long meeting I decided to take a backseat and observe. After a short while I noticed something interesting: “I think” making its way into the discussion with surprising frequency. At first I took it to be some sort of vocal tick, or perhaps some form of verbal mimicry, unconscious maybe. But after awhile I realized only a select few had embraced “I think” to the fullest. As I surveyed the room I began to take a notes—jotting down who said “I think” and how often. After two hours I tallied the results. “I think” was used 73 times, 55 times by the same two people.

Completely related, a year or so ago I sat on a press call with an expert resource who was new to media relations; I do this often as a way to gauge general expertise, subject knowledge, charisma, etc. My feedback was minimal. But one thing stood out—when asked a question, 99% of the time the resources’ response began with “I think.” For me this is an indication of uncertainty. Because if you “think” you must not “know.” And “knowing” is the very important difference between an expert and an amateur.  No judgment. Just fact.

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To Thine Own Self Be True.

Culture / Leadership

I ’m a little obsessed with “leadership” lately. I love leadership in theory, but in practice it tends to fall short more often than it impresses. I’ve got an idea why.

A few weeks ago I attended a two-day training session on “crucial conversations”. Shortly after, a couple of my colleagues went to SXSW. And just last week I received three emails from friends with links to leadership related articles as well as two book recommendations, one on strengths-based leadership and another on business model generation. These things happen all the time; training, conferences, recommendations, workshops, suggested reading…it’s nonstop. And most of it is nonsense, but that’s only true for those that have vision. A lot of people don’t, and for them this grab bag o’ business tools is what’s going to take them to the “next level”.

The thought: pick the best parts of each, put them into one über strategy for success, and then position the business around it. Or worse, position around the latest, and reposition constantly. Either way, it’s bad news, and bad business. Leadership is about vision. Businesses without it struggle to find alignment; they struggle to know themselves and become unduly susceptible to outside influence as a result.

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Bye Felicia.

Culture / Design / Leadership

A few months ago one of my colleagues decided it was time to move on to a new creative firm. Before he left, he sent out a “Bye Felicia[1]” letter via email to the entire company, 300+ people total. And then, sh*t pretty much hit the fan. Had he not walked out, I’m pretty sure he would’ve been dragged out by the angry mob he created immediately after hitting Send. So what made everyone so upset? Brutal honesty. Apparently the truth really does hurt.

To be fair, the letter could’ve easily been perceived as a slap in the face*. And that’s how most people took it. But I didn’t read it and think, what a jerk! Instead I thought, man, we really let that guy down.

Organizational culture can be seen in how leadership reacts to certain situations. In this case, as in many, leadership had to choose one of only two paths:

  1. The high road
  2. The low road

Leadership took the low road (what a jerk!)—not the outcome I’d hoped for. And not because I was disappointed in the decision, but because the situation was never seen for the opportunity it was.

As a leader, every opportunity is a golden opportunity—a chance to model the behaviors you expect to see across your organization, to maintain your moral compass, show sound judgment, and most important, to live your values. Taking the low road does none of these things; and choosing that path even once can have a devastating effect on your culture and your business as a result. Why?

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The Death of Design Consulting.

Brand / Design / Leadership

L ast year I posted a prediction about the future of design consulting, placing my bet on the evolution of the traditional design offer to include physical marketing, advertising and the like. Today, I’ve got a new outlook. Design consulting isn’t going to evolve; instead it’s walking the path of slow suicide. And there’s only one possible outcome at the end of that road…luckily for us, out of death comes new life!

I generally believe that ‘business as usual’ is risky business, that’s never been truer for design consulting. The traditional business model works a bit like this: a company/client needs a design solution and seeks out a design partner that can deliver on said solution. That partner, the design consultant, takes the brief, does the work, delivers the solution and collects a fee. Both the client and consultant are satisfied with the result and move on. Sometimes it’s a one-off project, other times the two may collaborate repeatedly. Either way, the traditional model works well enough, and everyone is happy. This traditional design consulting model has allowed consultancies to live high on the hog for more than eight decades. But those glory days are quickly fading. Like it or not, change is gonna come.

One of the things I absolutely love about here and now is that design and innovation surround us; that’s the reality of our world today. The rise of the digital age unleashed creativity, democratizing design and blurring the line between professionals and amateurs in the process. We’re all designers. We’re all inventors. And we’re all entrepreneurs. Welcome to the third Industrial Revolution! These are exciting times, but perhaps less so for large design consultancies like IDEO, Continuum and Smart Design who rely on the traditional design consulting model to stay afloat.

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The Theater of Work.

Culture / Design

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post that outlined two New Year’s resolutions I’d put to paper—one of which was to “do more work.” More recently I quipped about changing my job description to read: “drafts and responds to emails about marketing and brand.”  So much for resolutions…

Welcome to what I call “The Theater of Work,” where passing time passes as labor, and everyone’s output is considered equal. To be clear here, “The Theater of Work” is about playing business; it’s about inputs and feedback loops (read: emails, meetings, and conversation) not tangible outputs. And it’s a problem.

Last month I quickly flipped through Donald Rumsfeld’s book “Rumsfeld’s Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life,” (don’t ask!) and came across a remarkable insight—yes, from Donald Rumsfeld—he wrote, “If you’re working from your inbox, you’re working on other people’s priorities.” Damn.

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Will Design Destroy Advertising?

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A bout a year ago I made a prediction among friends that design would evolve to include marketing communications. And now, 320 days later, I’m feeling even more confident. Mix equal parts design, advertising and marketing, and you’re looking squarely at the future of our industry.

I shoved that idea into my back pocket and forgot about until recently, when I caught an episode of AMC’s reality show The Pitch. The basic premise: two ad agencies go head to head, vying for the same big account. Every once in awhile it’s a David versus Goliath type story, but usually it’s a couple of decent size firms dueling to the death. Overall I’d say the show is 20% interesting, 75% bullsh*t, and 5% other. But that 20% got me thinking again about the general state of design, and our future as an industry.

In The Pitch, the agencies have a week or so to brainstorm their campaign ideas; they spend 5-15 minutes (grossly understated for dramatic effect) getting to know the product/brand/user, and they’re off. It’s kind of like a diet version of phase one in a typical design program. Which got me thinking about my prediction; as designers we know “the user” better than anyone else, we often define and then make the products/services that they need/want…why shouldn’t we sell it to them as well? After all, we’re hardly strangers to advertising; designers are often tasked with selling programs up the organizational chart using the very same tactics that ad agencies use to sell products/services to consumers: film/narrative/story telling/etc. The process is similar, and like the design process, it hasn’t changed much—as far as I can tell from Mad Men.

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Rebels With A Cause.

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A long time ago I fell in love with Rollo May; he is a genius, and he loves design. Unfortunately, he’s dead.

He did however leave us a small gift, his book, The Courage to Create. It isn’t especially well known, certainly not in the design industry, but it is especially relevant to our creative community. In it, Rollo speaks about a little something (the whole premise of the book really) he calls ‘creative courage,’ or “the discovery of new forms, new symbols, new patterns on which a new society can be built.” He also implies that designers are the most dangerous rebels on the face of the earth. Fact.

These days when we read about design, when we attend conferences etc., the topics often center on process and approach, on new methods, efficiencies, and sustainable materials…what we rarely come across are topics that speak to the more brazen side of design; designers are rebels with a cause, why isn’t anyone talking about that? That fact that we’re responsible for shaping the structure of our new world is just as interesting, if not more so, than how we’re actually going to do it, or how we might do it, or with what materials for that matter. Somewhere down the line, the bits and pieces became more important than the whole. I get it, it’s kind of a big burden to shoulder, and depending on what you do in design, you might not feel like you’re changing the world, say one mobile phone at a time, but you are, and thanks by the way.

Design isn’t often linked to bravery, but it is, above all things, brave. It takes an incredible amount of courage to suggest new ways of seeing reality, to challenge the status quo. I, like Rollo, appreciate and admire creative courage. I also hope to hear more about it from our industry leaders and critics.

Wanna learn more about creative courage? Wanna get inspired? Got nothing better to do? Try reading The Courage to Create.

360 Degrees of Boring.

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Brand / Design

R ecently I read an article in Frame magazine (Issue 85), Hybrid Happenings, about design manufacturers teaming up with fashion labels for fresh ideas. Not exactly new, we’ve seen it with high fashion for quite sometime, but one thing I found somewhat interesting—Foscarini and Moroso’s collaboration with Diesel, and what Diesel had to say about it: “Diesel wants to offer its customers the possibility to experience the Diesel Planet in everyday life, 360 degrees. Diesel fans can now have the opportunity to dress both their bodies and their homes in the style they like best.” I thought the world these days was about options and individuality?

This reminds me of a book I read awhile back, Chuck Klosterman’s “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs.” In one very memorable chapter, Chuck talks about the impact of MTV’s The Real World on contemporary culture. Forget the multi-dimensional personalities of the past; society today only identifies with one-dimensional archetypes. Who are you? I’m usually the b*tch. Throw that into the now more popular competition reality formula and I’m the “character” that usually ends up screaming, “I didn’t come here to make friends.” I thought I was so much deeper than that…I am actually.

But deep takes time, and for whatever reason, these days we’ve got everything but time. The world generally opts for quick and easy; enter Hybrid Happenings.  Forget crafting a style all your own.  Find one you like, and just buy the hell out of it. I picture Anthropologie as opposed to Diesel, but the idea is the same. It’s a look. It’s a lifestyle. And it’s a damn shame. Your clothing, hobbies, home, pet, books—your individual choices make up the fabric of who you are. Put all these things in a pile, and it represents you. Put a bunch of things from Anthropologie in a pile, and it represents Anthropologie.

Lesson here: Opt out of quick and easy. Get a life. And don’t settle for just being the b*tch. It’s boring.

I Heart Timesheets. #@$%! Timesheets.

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I ’ve worked in the design industry for nearly a decade—during that time I’ve heard countless complaints from designers about corporate, but one in particular is persistent: timesheets. Designers hate them. I hate them too; luckily being on the business side of design (that would be the non-billable side) remembering to fill out my timesheet is harder than actually doing it. But maybe that’s the problem; business people can’t truly relate to the tedious task of time entry that creatives are forced to endure each and every week.

At 8:00 AM an email is sent out reminding half of our staff that they neglected to complete their timesheets. A wave of grumbling follows. Typical Monday. At 9:00 AM, a creative encounters a technical difficulty when attempting to define a resource in the time tracking software, and the complaints kick off as billable time ticks on. Complaints about timesheets are generally expected, but the response this morning was a bit of a surprise, “La, la, la, la, la, la, la.” Yes, that is the sound of a creative’s complaint being verbally block out by corporate, eyes open, ears closed. Not interested.

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