December 17, 2012
Okay. This is the third, and final, post I wrote for my other blog, 365, I’m re-posting here. This time I’m not going to apologize to anyone who may have read it ‘over there’. Because if you’re a writer, or an aspiring writer, this is one message you cannot hear too often. In fact, it should be burned into your brain. It’s definitely burned into mine. Thanks for reading my blogs. It’s much appreciated. Hope to see you here again.
Pete Armetta has a WordPress blog I very much enjoy. He’s a powerful writer of poetry, flash fiction, essays and short stories; and I’m always struck by how few words he needs, to say so much. Which, incidentally, is much easier said than done. His ‘style’ brings to mind a favourite Mark Twain quote:
“I am sorry to have written such a long letter, but I did not have time to write a short one”.
Says it all. Because the true measure of a writer is the ability to self-edit. To be ruthless. Brutal. To choose words carefully. To make every one work hard. And having talent is the least of it. It takes discipline. Love of the craft. The ability to let go. To love ‘em, but leave ‘em, on the cutting room floor. To know when you’re done.
So really, a writer’s best friend isn’t a computer. Or a dictionary. Or a thesaurus. It’s the eraser.
Luckily, I learned that very early in my career. It was hard. And painful. But the best thing that could ever have happened to a young writer, just starting out. Which is why I wrote a blog post about it.
When I commented on Pete’s poem, and how much I admire his ability to keep only what’s absolutely essential, he responded, simply: “Less is best, I think.” Again, says it all.
And it’s a philosophy that’s not restricted to writers. It’s one reason why I love Italian design. What Giorgio Armani has always done best, is to allow exquisite fabrics and flawless tailoring take centre stage. Italian cars and furniture, same thing. It’s about simplicity. Beautiful design. Perfection. Less is best.
Embellishments are not necessary, because they have no flaws or imperfections to hide.
It’s what I love about Apple. The computers themselves. The web browser, Safari. And the stores. Oh, how I love the stores. But really, everything they do all looks alike. Lots of white space. Everything in its place. A logical place. Easy to find. Easy to use. Efficient. Nice to look at. Sleek. Clean. Unencumbered. No gimmicks. So contemporary. Only what’s necessary. Again, simple and beautifully designed. Highly functional.
Less is best.
There are people who speak that way. I could listen to them for hours. Well organized thoughts. Succinct. Articulate. Focussed. No hesitation. No pausing. No grasping for words. No hemming or hawing. Never repetitive. Smooth transitions from one sentence to the next. No convoluted sentences. The complete opposite of verbose. Short, sweet and to the point. Yet warm. Engaging. Informative. And interesting. They’ve got my attention, that’s for damn sure!
I’m writing a book. My first. Very early on I decided it should come in at between 70 and 80,000 words. I’d read something, somewhere. As each chapter was completed, I’d frantically check my word count. And I’d go back and add more. And more. And more.
Until it was so filled with gratuitous nonsense, the story was lost. It had become incomprehensible. Then I remembered that lesson I’d learned years ago. And how “Tuesdays with Morrie”, one of the most successful books of all time, had less than 200 pages. My book has to be as long as it has to be, to tell the story. Not one word longer. The number of words isn’t the point. And that’s when I went back and started slashing. And slashing. And slashing.
Less is best.
December 11, 2012
Last time I posted, I mentioned there were a couple more stories from my other blog, 365, that I’d re-post. Here’s one of them. With one more to follow soon. Again if you follow both my blogs, thank you for doing so; and I apologize for the repetition. Hopefully you feel these few posts are worth reading more than once.
Last time I talked about a lot of ways non-creative people are still creative. See, it’s not an oxymoron. But I did confine the conversation to those of us who work in ad agencies, an industry perceived as being ‘creative’ anyway. And because I think it’s important for you to know I’m a firm believer in the fact that creativity can, and should , and does, exist outside of ‘creative’ businesses, I’m approaching the idea from a different perspective this time.
At its very simplest, it’s called out of the box thinking. Being willing to turn a problem, or a tough challenge, on its ear, looking at it from a different angle, through a different lens.
Being willing, regardless of what you do for a living, to sweep aside the status quo and embrace new ideas. Different ideas. Unconventional ideas for your industry. Client-centric ideas. Revolutionary ideas. Never-before-considered or tried ideas. Regardless of whether you work in the private or public sectors. Regardless of whether you are a health care worker, an educator, a politician, a CEO, a sales person, a scientist, a researcher, a lawyer, or an accountant; or even a tinker, tailor, soldier or spy.
What I’m talking about is ‘design thinking’. Born out of industrial design, design thinking is a very disciplined, systematic, strategic process (yet intensely creative) that is used to solve what most of us would consider unsolvable challenges, like finding an innovative way to deliver clean drinking water in the developing world. I find it absolutely fascinating. I’m obsessed with it, in fact. And I am a rabid fan of a global consultancy based in California, IDEO, who are pioneers in the field, and worked on the drinking water project. I am also a huge fan of their President and CEO, Tim Brown, who has written a book, that I have read at least two dozen times. Buy it, you won’t be sorry.
He spoke in Toronto earlier this year, and I went. Surprise, surprise. He presented a lot of impressive and varied case studies, but my favourite was a project they did for the Singapore government. I have actually written it up, here on Fransi Weinstein Et Al.
I follow a lot of very good WordPress blogs. One of them is called Book Peeps. And the other day its author posted an interesting and provocative piece on education. Specifically, what’s wrong with our educational ‘system’, who’s really to blame, what role both parents and teachers can play and what can be done about it. Her post was inspired by an article (there’s a link to it in the post) she read, about the differences in how eastern and western cultures tackle teaching.
As I read her post, all I could think was: “Now there’s an ‘opportunity’ that’s just crying out for a team from IDEO.” And that’s what inspired this post, of men.
Any other issues you can think of that could benefit from some innovative thinking, IDEO style? In my not so humble opinion, the U.S. ‘fiscal cliff’ issue is a perfect candidate. If I was President Obama I’d be thinking seriously about bringing them to the table. I’m certainly in no position to speak for the management of IDEO but I’ll bet they might even consider doing it pro bono. I sure would. Talk about a juicy assignment. And talk about the fame (and fortune) that would follow, if you could wrestle that problem to the ground successfully!
But in all seriousness, that issue is going to take creative thinking to solve. And from what I’ve seen, at a great distance I admit, I’m not so sure the people involved have what it takes.
For that mater, the Middle East crisis desperately needs some innovative thinking, as well. But not all the ‘problems’ need to be as grand as these few examples I’ve cited. Even in our local communities there are many opportunities to look at things differently. To improve the way they’re done. Make them more efficient. Make them easier to use or access. Make them more end-user friendly. Make them more relevant. Make them more cost effective.
The solutions are within all of us. We just need to climb out of the rut we’re in. We just need to open our eyes and ears and minds to the possibilities. We just need to learn how to collaborate, because non of us has the answer on our own. We just need to embrace change. And most of all, we just need to want to have the time of our lives, because there’s nothing more stimulating, or fun, energizing and exciting, than solving problems, brilliantly!
President Obama’s campaign theme was ‘Forward’. I’d like to add something to that: ‘Forward. Redefined!’
October 26, 2012
I’m a member of the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum). Have been for years. I’ve lost track of time, I guess. Turns out my membership is due for renewal next month.
A day or so ago there was something in my mail from them. A ‘renewal’ package. Not surprising. They want to make sure I do renew. It’s the right thing for them to be doing. The fact that they are trying to get me to commit a month early is interesting. Times are very tough for all not-for-profits these days, so I applaud them for being so proactive.
That’s the good news.
Here’s where I believe the flaw in their thinking is: What they’ve sent out is an elaborate, full colour, direct mail package. It’s got flaps cut on the diagonal. It’s printed on glossy, heavy, stock. It’s personalized in several places. It’s closed with a seal, which had to be done by hand. The reply envelope is postage-paid.
All no-no’s in the not-for-profit world.
First of all, strictly from the perspective of appearances, this gives the wrong impression. Even if they got a deal, even if it was done for free, it looks too expensive. When you’re asking people to donate money to your cause (especially in these troubled times), whether you represent a disease, a school, a charitable foundation or a member of the arts community, you have to be very careful how you present yourself. Looking like you’ve got all the money in the world won’t help your cause. Nor is it appropriate.
- It should have been a simple letter, mailed in an envelope.
- Wherever possible they should use email instead of regular mail. Much less expensive, quicker, simpler, etc.
- The reply envelope should never be postage-paid. Usually there is an outline of where a stamp should go, with a message that says something like “When you use a stamp, it allows us to put your donation to better use”.
- Hand assembly costs a lot of money. The seal may look cool, but its use resulted in unnecessary costs.
- If the costs of producing the mailer were donated, I still wouldn’t have done it, because a potential donor would have every right to think the donation would have been of much better use if it had gone to the Museum, instead of producing the mailer.
- At worst, though, if the costs were donated, and if the folks at the ROM did decide to accept the offer, then it was imperative to have a line of copy thanking the donor. At least that way those of us on the receiving end, would know the Museum hadn’t been foolishly extravagant.
But here’s what makes what they’ve done even worse. A day or two before I got the mailer there was an article in the Globe & Mail about the ROM; and how they are thinking of charging caterers who work in the ROM, a very substantial fee. This fee would put these caterers on a list of ROM-approved suppliers. If they don’t agree to pay the fee (double digit thousands), they wouldn’t make the list.
And in case you’re wondering, the fee does not guarantee they’ll get work out of it, in the end. It would merely put them on a list, for consideration by those individuals who would be thinking of holding an event at the ROM.
The reason stated is because the ROM needs money. So on the one hand they’re thinking of extracting money out of their caterers, while on the other hand they’re spending money on glossy mailings. I have to be honest. It didn’t make me want to renew my membership.
Personally, I think both moves should have been more carefully thought through. When I read the article it left a bad taste in my mouth. In some ways it’s like extortion. Pony up or find yourself off the list. If I was a caterer, I’d certainly have to think twice. It’s a lot of money to pay out, with no guarantee of any work coming from it. Risky in these times.
And as a consumer, it just pissed me off. It will impact the choice of caterers I have. And I can’t believe that those costs won’t ultimately be passed along to me. The cost of catering will, no doubt, go up.
And you already know how I feel about the luxurious mailing piece.
Having said all this, I know just how difficult things are for charities these days. They are all scrambling. Government funding has all but dried up. Consumers have been suffering financially for a long time now; and there’s no let-up in sight. Donations go under the ‘discretionary spending’ column in our own budgets. Which, for most of us, is getting smaller every day.
So out of the box thinking, on the part of the ROM, and everyone else in the sector, is definitely required. They just need to be more strategic about it. Maybe think twice next time.
September 12, 2012
Have you noticed how no one answers their phone any more? And how everyone hides behind voice mail. Everyone but me, that is. I always get the same reaction from people when I answer my phone: Shock. “Oh”, they say. And then they stumble around for words. Because they assumed they’d be leaving a message, not talking to a human.
Same with email. Unless you’re writing a friend or family member, a colleague or close business associate, you can consider yourself lucky if you ever get a response. Ditto with snail mail. It drives me insane. And then, what I hate the most, are the lies and excuses that inevitably follow: “Oh, really, I didn’t get an email from you. Oh, are you sure you called the right number? Oh, I am so sorry, I have just been crazy busy, I was planning to get back to you.” And then you see them posting drivel on Facebook or tweeting.
It even happens with blogs. I follow a lot of blogs. I very often comment on posts I like, or that resonate with me. At most, I get a reply 10 – 15% of the time. It’s interesting, though. Everything you read about blogs, and how to increase your readership, tells you to “like”, “follow” and comment on other blogs. All the experts say this is the best way to get more exposure for your blog (and yourself) and grow your audience. But none of them add that you should also do it because it’s common courtesy; that if someone has taken time out of their busy day to read your blog, and then takes the time to leave a comment, it is rude of you to ignore it. Why?
I think it’s because we’re smack in the middle of an epidemic of bad manners. And we’re completely self-absorbed. It’s all about ‘us’. To hell with you.
Several years ago I had a new business idea. I had an individual in mind I wanted to target. After sending him two letters, his assistant contacted me, presumably at his request, to ask me to elaborate on a couple of points. Which I did. Never heard back. I’m in no way suggesting he was under any obligation to have the slightest interest in what I was pitching. But if he asked me for additional information I believe I was entitled to a response. Even if it was a form letter, or a two-sentence reply written, and signed, by his assistant. Whereas I once thought of him as confident, inspiring, responsible, respectful and open I now think of him as arrogant, rude and dismissive.
In my eyes his brand is tarnished. And while he may not think of it this way, his personal brand and his corporate brand are entwined. So he should care what I think about him. Because it will influence my decision about ever becoming a client. And while I may not be in a position to become his client today, we never know what tomorrow will bring.
A long time ago, when I was in my second to last year of art college, I decided to look for a summer job. I would even have taken an internship position. I just wanted some real life experience. The man I interviewed with at the first art studio I visited was very pleasant. He took time to go through my portfolio; and also talked to me about what my longer term goals were. Although they didn’t hire summer students he did suggest that, once I’d graduated, I should try again.
Which I did. He was one of the first prospects I called and we arranged a date and time to meet. When I arrived for my appointment, the receptionist asked me to wait, as he was in a meeting. I waited 15 minutes. 30 minutes. 40 minutes. At which point I asked the receptionist to see how much longer he’d be. She made a couple of calls and then told me that he’d be unable to see me, after all. He’d been called away.
Funny, I was right there in reception. Unless he’d climbed out of the window in his office, I would have to have seen him leave. That is, if he’d ever even been in the office, in the first place.
I was disappointed, but what could I do. I had another appointment, not all that far away, so off I went. I had about a half hour to spare, so I decided to have a cup of coffee in a coffee shop that was located at the back of a pharmacy, in the building where I had my meeting. Lo and behold, the a-hole who had just kept me waiting for almost an hour was sitting at the table, right next to mine, laughing it up with a friend. Where he’d no doubt been all along. He didn’t recognize me. But I recognized him.
Fast forward about five years. When he called, asking for an appointment, I remembered his name. This time I was buying. And he was selling. No, I didn’t stand him up. I was there, waiting for him. I let him go through his entire spiel. Then I asked if he remembered me. He didn’t. I filled him in. And then I let him leave, empty-handed. Not totally out of spite. No. I declined to do business with him for this reason:
Once upon a time I hadn’t been important enough for him. I was small potatoes, easily dismissed and forgotten. Would a small or medium-sized project of mine get the same treatment? Would he only put his best team on the job if it came with a big budget? Would only large, high-profile jobs get his full attention? “Probably”, was my guess. And just before I let him go I told him exactly why I was taking a pass. He had himself to thank. All he’d had to do was man up and cancel the appointment ahead of time. How difficult is that?
You never know when the tables might turn. If he’d been familiar with one of my favourite quotes, perhaps the entire scenario could have been avoided: “Be nice to people on your way up, because you meet them again on your way down.”
So what’s the moral of the story? Be respectful. Be polite. Answer your damn phone when you’re sitting right beside it, and it rings. Put time aside, every day, to respond to your emails and voice mails; and make this behaviour part of your corporate culture, so your employees follow your good example, instead of your bad one. Delegate the writing of your ‘thanks-but-no-thanks’ letters to your assistant or a more junior colleague; and make it a personal priority to at least let people know that their letters have gotten to you; and you appreciate the fact that they’ve written you.
People can think the best of you. Or the worst. It’s up to you. Just remember that ‘you’ are a brand. And your brand is also a reflection of your company’s brand.
August 26, 2012
This past Friday a friend of mine, a former colleague from my Ogilvy days, posted a New York Times article from August 18 on his Facebook timeline. Written by Alex Stone, it talks about how irate customers get when they are forced to wait in line, why it’s such a sore point and how some companies are dealing with it.
It’s a great article and, at first blush, my overall impression was that he had found some organizations who were being rather innovative.
For example, when executives at a Houston airport received tons of complaints about the length of time it took to claim luggage they decided to analyze the situation. They learned that it took passengers less time to walk to the baggage claim area, then it did for their luggage to make it to the carousel, and into their hands. Which, in turn, made the time these passengers had to wait for their bags seem that much longer than it really was.
So what was their solution? They moved the arrival gate further away from the terminal. Therefore it took passengers longer to get to the baggage claim area. Which, in turn, made the wait time for their baggage seem negligible.
It worked. Apparently complaints dropped to near zero.
Mr. Stone sites several other examples that make for interesting reading, but you should read his piece for yourself. So why did I say “at first blush I thought these companies were coming up with innovative solutions”?
Think about it from the passengers’ perspective. Traveling’s not nearly the fun it used to be. Even a short trip becomes a long trip when you factor in the time it takes to get to the airport, check in and leave enough time for security. So if you’re on an 8:00 a.m. domestic flight and live 40 minutes from the airport, you could be leaving your house at 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning. If you’re slow, like I am, in the morning, your alarm would be going off at 4:00 or 4:30 a..m. So a 2-hour flight is really eating up 5 hours of your time — before you land at your destination. Let’s not even discuss the hassles there always are with luggage, how long it takes for everybody to board and get settled and the fact that, rarely, do planes leave on time.
So you have finally landed. Safely. You’re hot, tired, thirsty and hungry. All you want to do is get your bags and get home — or to your hotel. But now you have a considerably longer walk ahead of you than you did in the past. All because those good folks at the Houston Airport were tired of fielding all those complaints and, instead of thinking things through strategically … instead of thinking of the customer experience … they solved a problem by creating another problem. How customer-centric of them!
I’m not suggesting they had an easy problem to solve. But in my opinion, their solution is not really a solution, even though complaints dropped off. I travel. And I hear passengers bitching and moaning about how long the walks are in airports. All airports. We may not write angry letters about it, because we probably don’t think there’s anything anyone can do about it, but that doesn’t mean we like it. It doesn’t mean the ‘experience’ is good. And it does mean that next time, we may consider taking the train or driving instead of flying, should that be a possibility.
Okay, so now let’s talk about what a great customer experience looks like.
Different industry. Different challenge. Different opportunity. But the most significant difference is that in this company, the executives are 100% about maximizing the customer experience:
Buy anything in an Apple store. You don’t have to stand in line to pay. Any member of their staff can cash you out, anywhere you happen to be in that store. No lines. No waiting. How brilliant is that; and on how many levels? Well, for one thing, if they want you to “think different” it’s really nice to know that they do, too. It proves that they understand, and appreciate, that their customers are excited to buy their products. And they can’t wait to get home to play with them. So their entire retail experience — not just the paying part — is designed to let you do that. From beginning to end. From the greeters, to the experts, to the genius bar, to the classes you can take that make you smarter about what you’ve just bought.
But they’ve also improved their own efficiency. Now they don’t have a bunch of disengaged cashiers, just staring into space, while they wait for the next credit card carrying customer. Instead they have motivated, engaged, enthusiastic, ‘facilitators’ whose sole purpose is to make sure that every individual who walks into a store, leaves that same store as a happy customer.
Because they know that every time someone walks into an Apple store, it is an opportunity for that customer to renew his or her vows with the brand.
Houston. We have a problem.
June 22, 2012
I’ve grown up (personally and professionally) in the glory days of brands; and advertising, for that matter.
A time when companies spent millions of dollars every year to create powerful, meaningful, engaging brands. Brands that really resonated with consumers. Brands that conjured up memories of childhood, favourite family recipes and good times (Kraft). Brands that united people, regardless of where in the world you happened to live (Coke). Brands that made ugly, desirable (Volkswagon).
A time when advertisers took chances; and hired agencies based on their ability and willingness to take chances. A time when agencies and clients alike hired people for their business savvy, strategic insights and creative talent — and created environments where they could be nurtured, where they would thrive and grow.
A time when everyone knew that it was brands that attracted, and kept, customers. Products and services could, and would, come and go. But brands … brands were aspirational. And it was the values that brands stood for, the images they conveyed that meant something. Brands were the reason why consumers picked one product over another, chose Company A over the competition. And stayed loyal.
Can you say that now? Not so much, in my opinion. Today it seems to be all about slashing prices.
Don’t get me wrong. I know companies are having a very tough time staying afloat. But I don’t see businesses booming, even with all the headlines that scream “deep discounts, prices slashed, save up to 70%”, etc.
What I see is the killing of brands. It saddens me. And it worries me, because I know all about the power they have.
If you’ve got to put something on sale, put it on sale. But don’t do it at the expense of your greatest asset — your brand. Let’s say, for example, that you run a luxury hotel and have too much inventory. In an attempt to increase bookings you decide to discount rooms or create special promotions. All I’m saying is, do it strategically — within the parameter of your brand — so that your ‘luxury’ positioning doesn’t become a lie.
A strategy that should apply, by the way, to any business category and every price point, regardless of whether you’re Holt Renfrew or Target, BMW or Kia, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts or Embassy Suites, Bell or Wind Mobile, Special K or a no-name cereal.
We have to stop training consumers to forsake brands for cheap prices because all they’ll do is comparison shop. And no amount of advertising will ever get them back.
May 25, 2012
It’s not close to being a life altering epiphany. It’s not as big as an AHA! moment either. But a small current of self awareness and understanding did just buzz its way through my consciousness:
Must start writing my client’s website. So here I sit, at my neighbourhood Starbucks, where I often come to work. I’m all ready to go. Notes at my side. Laptop on. Fingers poised over the keyboard, tingling with anticipation (hmmm, wonder if this is how Mozart felt when his fingers were flexed over his keyboard??). Grande iced coffee far enough away from my computer and my iPhone to cause no concern (I’m a klutz — spilling is second nature to me).
Fingers stay poised. Turns out I’m not ready, after all. Seems I’m not in the mood yet, so I decide to take my mind of the task at hand by blogging. Hmmmm …
Surprise! I’m at a loss for words. And just then, it hit me:
This is not writer’s block. I am so filled up with the words I plan to use for my client work, there’s no room for me. For now I’ve turned my brain over to him. I’m in his head now. There is absolutely no cause for panic.
So now I’m thinking that maybe this is a bigger revelation than I first thought. Like actors, writers are chameleons. We leave ourselves behind when we take on the personas of the brands, the companies and the personalities of the individuals we’re portraying or, as in my case, writing about.
As long as I’m not at a loss for my client’s words I have nothing to worry about.