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the weekend my life flashed before my eyes (ok, maybe not my whole life)

April 23, 2012


It’s been an extravaganza of memories for me over the last 4 or 5 days.  It started with a blog I read, right here on WordPress, that took me all the way back to when I was 3 or 4 years old, reading and telling stories with my aunt.  That conjured up even more memories of wonderful times spent with Auntie “Nette:

There are tons of them, but the one I flashed back to this time, was when I was about 14 or 15.  Both my mother and aunt loved movies.  But to my eternal frustration, because there had been a fire in a Montreal movie theatre years and years before, where many children perished, they instituted a law where you had to be 18 to go to a movie.  Until the day Auntie Mame and her accomplice decided to take matters into their own hands.

I was a sophisticated teenager and didn’t look my age.  So they decided that they’d put some make up on me, find something of my mother’s that fit  and they’d sneak me into a movie.  In those days my mother wore stilettos, so they had me practice walking in them every day for a week.  Last thing we needed was for me to fall flat on my face at the theatre.  Because my father played cards with a group of his friends on Thursdays that was the chosen day of the week.

On the appointed Thursday I was a nervous wreck all day.  By the time I got home from school I was in a cold sweat.  They, on the other hand, were totally excited and looking forward to this little caper.  They did a fabulous job with my hair and make up — they did use discretion and thankfully I didn’t look like a drag queen on Hallowe’en.  They stuffed my bra with some tissues and put me into the tightest skirt my mother owned — which still required a belt — which one of my mother’s pullovers did a good job of hiding.  The heels, a purse, a string of pearls and we were good to go!

I was nauseous and wanted to call the whole thing off.  “No way”, they insisted.  Off we went.

They had a plan.  My aunt and I would stand in line and I would face the wall.  They didn’t want anybody staring at me too long — they might figure out I was only 14, after all.  My mother would stand in line to buy the tickets.  When it was time to go into the theatre I was simply to look straight ahead and keep walking.  We still had the ticket collector to get by.  Assuming we pulled that off, we’d find seats and then my mother would get the popcorn.

It was all going very well until a cousin of mine and her husband showed up unexpectedly.  Shocked to see me there, she was just about to say something that would have blown our cover.  But thankfully my aunt picked up on where this was going, and started shaking her head, rolling her eyes and then whispered, “Sshhhh!”  We all got a case of the nervous giggles but settled down by the time the line started to move into the theatre.

The long and short of it is, we pulled it off and the three of us had a standing movie date every Thursday thereafter.  And I will always remember the movie we saw that first time:  Pillow Talk with Rock Hudson and Doris Day.

Still enjoying this memory, on Saturday I got an email from a former colleague.  He founded a not-for-profit not too long ago, with the intent of stopping abuse.  He wanted to know if I’d write a fundraising letter for them.  “Of course”, I responded and he said he’d send me a brief one of his associates had written.  Within minutes I got an email from him telling me to ignore the brief — that he’d send me another one.

Of course I did precisely the opposite.  Whenever you’re told not to do something what do you do?  What I did.  I looked.  And laughed.  It wasn’t a brief.  It was sort of an outline and sort of a draft of a letter.  Took me right back to one of the first projects I did when I joined the ad agency, Ogilvy.  Because I was ‘new’, the creative director sat in on the briefing session.  It was a job for a trust company — a 3-wave direct mail campaign.  Within a couple of minutes of listening to the suit on the business read his brief, I put my hand up.

He had decided what each letter would talk about.  He had decided what point each paragraph would make.  He had decided how many pages each letter would be.  He had decided what else would be in each package.  He had decided the campaign would include 3 waves of mail.

Afraid I was going to go for the guy’s jugular, the CD pinched my thigh.  Ignoring him,  I asked why he (the suit) needed me at all, and suggested that he might like to do the writing as well.  He’d practically done it all, already.

That was when he challenged me, and asked if I had a better idea.  As it happened, I did.  And despite the egg on his face, he had to then ‘unsell’ and ‘resell’ the client on a new direction.  I won’t go into all the details but my idea was built around a memo, sent from the Chairman to all staff.  The client (Chairman) loved this idea so much, he decided to make it real.  And that meant that instead of just getting marketing department approvals, my work was going all the way up to the big Kahuna.  It also meant that he wanted to participate in the writing of that internal memo (fair enough — it was going to all staff, and it did have his name on it.)

I must have re-written that lousy memo a hundred bloody times!  But the worst of it took place one Friday night, just as we were getting to the end of what was rapidly becoming my worst nightmare:

I had concert tickets with friends.  At around 4 pm the Creative Director strolled into my office, slightly green around the gills.   It seems that the Chairman thought “we were almost there”, but wanted one of his ‘consiglieres’ to wrap up a few points with me.  That night.  So sad, too bad, no concert for me.

Somewhat miffed, off I trotted to the very top of a tower on Bay Street, where I was ushered into an office the size of a hockey rink.  We were there until 10 pm, but that wasn’t the worst of it.  These were pre smoking-ban days.  The instant I got there Consigliere, who was lounging in a huge leather executive chair that was tipped all the way back against the wall, with his feet crossed neatly on top of his desk, gestured at a chair across from him where I should sit and poured each of us the first of many stiff scotches we drank that night; and then he reached behind him to a sterling silver humidor, out of which he took 2 cigars — one for each of us.  Neatly trimming the end of both, he handed one to me.

Already gagging, I begged him to let me smoke cigarettes instead, but he was having none of it.  Twenty-seven years later I can still taste that wretched cigar.  I still feel the head-pounding, blinding migraine I had, too.  Not to mention the hangover.

But the campaign was an absolutely wild success and the client would never let anyone other than me near their work.  And the suit never made creative decisions again.

Seems I wasn’t done remembering, though.   Desperate for something decent to watch on TV Saturday night, I scrolled and scrolled and scrolled.  Suddenly I saw the name, Roberto Clemente on ESPN.  Well … I had to see what that was all about.

You see, back before I moved to Toronto, when the Expos first arrived on the baseball scene a friend and I rarely missed a game.  So let’s fast forward to 1971.  It was an unseasonably warm Sunday in late September.  Truth be told it was the second day of  Rosh Hashanah and it took a bit of convincing to get my parents to agree I could go.  Not that we were religious — it was more about appearances.  But the friend of theirs who had offered me the tickets finally convinced them.

In fact, it was a double-header; and he said I could have the tickets for the first game but then had to leave them for him at a motel about a 15-minute drive away from Jarry Park because he was going to the second.

It was the Expos versus The Pittsburgh Pirates and it was a very important game.  The pirates were leading the league and were headed to the World Series.  They were intent on wracking up as many wins as they could.  When my friend and I arrived at the stadium and settled into our seats I noticed a client of mine was there.  He came to say hello and asked if we were staying for both games.  I explained why we weren’t.

He said he had 2 extra tickets for the second game and we could have them.

Nobody has ever driven, in city limits, as fast as I did that Sunday.  Suffice to say we watched all 9 innings of the first game, got to the car, drove to the motel, left the tickets, drove back, parked and made it into our new seats before the first pitch of the second game was thrown!

No sooner were we seated, still slightly out of breath, the guy beside me tapped me on the arm and asked me for my name.  I looked at him like he’d just crawled out from under a rock.  Smiling, he pointed to the visiting team’s dugout — from which we were no more than 2 rows up.  Waving and grinning at me was #21, Roberto Clemente.  He wanted my name.  My girlfriend handed me a pen and a piece of paper.  Next thing I knew, I was holding a signed baseball, and a note he sent me, asking me to call him later.

The pirates won the double-header, and the World Series.

Roberto Clemente and I became friends.  Instead of taking the team bus to and from the airport I drove him.  Usually Dock Ellis and Manny Sanguillen came with us, as well.  At the time I thought nothing of it, but yesterday all I could think was, I had 3 of the greatest baseball players the world has ever known in my car!!!   Holy cow!

I remember being shocked at the news that Roberto Clemente had died in a plane crash, on New Years Eve, while on his way to Nicarauga.  I had a boyfriend at the time who played bass guitar for a band based in Puerto Rico, where Clemente lived, and I was going to see him while I was there visiting KB.  Sadly, that never happened.  And the documentary I watched, brought it all flooding back.  What a great player he was, and what a great humanitarian he was.  And a great friend.

I still have the baseball.


thank you Auntie ‘Nette

April 19, 2012


So many of my posts are a result of a particular post I’ve read on Magnificent Nose I know it will come as no shock to see that I’m doing it again.  This latest one, “And Then What Happened?”, is a wonderful story about stories, and what makes a good one.  I’m not going to go into detail because I really think you should read it for yourselves, but it was when the author, Martha F., was telling stories to her 3 1/2 year old niece that she realized that the key to a good story is when it’s relevant to the listener — or reader.

Reading about how her niece kept asking “and then what happened?” every time she paused, I was instantly transported back to when I was 3 or 4 years old.  My mother had two sisters, one an identical twin and another, seven years younger.  They were all close, but the relationship between twins — especially identical twins — is like no other relationship.  They said the same thing at the same time, without consulting with each other they’d show up wearing the same clothes, and if they didn’t speak to each other at least twenty times a day they didn’t speak once.  Sometimes my father and I just shook our heads.  I’m an only child, so you can imagine how foreign this concept was to me.

Not long after my aunt was married (mere months before my parents) she got sick and wasn’t allowed to have children for five or six years.  She and I spent tons of time together and, to the day she died, she and I had a very special bond.  I always said I had two mothers, and to a large extent, I did.

When I was with my dad everyone always said how much I looked like him.  When I was with my mother everyone said I was the image of her.  So it’s not surprising that when I was alone with my aunt everyone assumed she was my mother.  And I’d always grab her hand and whisper in her ear:  “Ssssh, don’t tell them you’re not my mother, Auntie ‘Nette (her name was Annette but when I first learned to speak ‘Nette was as close as I could get, and it stuck).  It was our little secret, a private joke we shared.

Unfortunately my aunt had more than her fair share of sorrow.  She was finally able to have a child.  When Cheryl was just 13 months old my aunt’s husband, Cheryl’s father, died very unexpectedly.  My aunt was 32 years old.  I was five.  Needless to say, we all spent even more time together.  And in one woman, I had an adored aunt, a second mother, an older sister, a best friend and a confidante.  It stayed that way until the day she died, in 2000.

She always had the patience of a saint.  She would play with me for hours and hours.  We’d read.  She loved reading — always had her nose in a book.  Before I could read she’d read to me.  But what I loved the most were the stories she made up.  And like Martha’s little niece, I’d also always ask, “What happened next, Auntie ‘Nette?”

What I’ve never thought about, until Martha’s post sent me wandering down memory lane is, most of the time my aunt asked me what I thought should happen next.  She turned on the switch to my imagination.  She got me involved in the story.  She introduced me to storytelling.

She’s probably the reason I became a writer.

Thanks,  Auntie ‘Nette.  I just want you to know you’re still encouraging me to share my stories.

dedicated to the folks at Loomis Express

April 18, 2012


With brands, like most other things, who you want to be and who you are, are sometimes very different.

It’s human nature.  We rarely see ourselves as we really are.  We prefer to see ourselves as we’d like to be:  20 pounds lighter, 10 years younger, with a full head of hair, more attractive to the opposite sex, blah blah blah.  The same can be said for CEOs, CMOs and the like — as it relates to how they want their companies and their brands to be perceived:  Client centric (all about the customer experience in today’s parlance), innovative, nimble, approachable, likeable, blah blah blah.

But whether you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, visualizing a hot blonde in a mini skirt instead of a plump matron in a Hilary Clintonesque pant suit, or you’re a head honcho briefing the agency, wishing does not make it so!!

What I am talking about is ‘authentic’ brands.  The real thing.

Like Apple.  Yes, they are innovative.  Yes, they are all about the customer experience.  Yes, they are friendly.  Yes, they do make it really simple to use and enjoy their products.  Yes, they are insanely great.  At all of the above — and at customer service and problem resolution and anything else you might think of.  And yes, their advertising totally reflects their philosophy, their products, their commitment, their passion, blah blah blah.

Unfortunately there aren’t many Apples.

Think of the companies you do business with.  Who’s your wireless provider?  Who’s your telco?  Where do you bank?  What soap do you use?  What cereal do you eat?  Now think of their advertising.  Do you think it’s consistent with your experience with that company or brand?

Okay, while you’re re-running commercials in your head I’m going to tell you a story:

It’s tax time.  For many good reasons despite the fact that I’ve lived in Toronto since 1985 I still have an accountant in Montreal.  This past Monday (April 16) I was ready to send him all my tax stuff.  Because I wanted to give him as much time as possible (April 30 is fast approaching), I decided to send it overnight courier.  Usually I use FedEx or UPS, but on Monday I was rushing to get to a client’s office for a meeting.  On my way I passed a business supply store and thought:  “Hmmm, wonder if they have a courier depot in there.”  Some of them, like Staples, do.

Sure enough they did.  DHL (for overseas) and Loomis for domestic.  I arranged for, and paid for, overnight service with delivery before noon the next day.

I have to admit there were a couple of times during the transaction where that inner voice we often pay no attention to, was whispering in my ear.  But I ignored it.  So when I got home at around 5:30 I decided to go online and track my shipment — to see if it had actually been picked up from the store.  The url the guy in the store had given me was wrong.  So I called the store and was given an 800 number to call.

Here’s where the brand part comes in:

While I was on hold for 25 minutes (before I hung up) I was forced to listen to what I can only describe as ‘commercials’:  “Receive your shipment on time for your afternoon meeting”.  “Reliable service door-to-door”.  “Attention and careful handling”.

  • I called 3 times.  Each time I was on hold for at least 25 minutes before I hung up.
  • I finally figured out the correct url and on Tuesday went online 5 times to try and track my shipment.  The only information available was that the package was picked up from the store.  I called my accountant at 5:30 and he had not received it.
  • I called the 800 number and was on hold for 20 minutes before I hung up.
  • I called the store.  They called somebody and called me back with a reference number and an assurance that a ‘tracer’ had been put on the shipment.  I was also assured I’d be called within 4 business hours with news.
  • It is now Wednesday.  I went online this morning and this time instead of tracking by the waybill number I tried to track by the reference number.  No such number existed.  So then I tried the waybill number.  Same info as Tuesday.
  • I called the 800 number.  Definitely getting tired of their commercials that promise all that good stuff.  Thankfully I was only on hold about 10 minutes this time.
  • Told the rep my sad tale of woe.  Was told that the individual who was tracing my shipment would not be in for another 20 minutes.  I left my number.  65 minutes later he called me.  Asked for Monica.  Despite the fact that he was looking at a paperwork that had my name on it, he couldn’t get my name straight. That did not bode well for my package.
  • About 30 minutes later another ‘tracer’ person called me.  She asked for Ivan.  Seems she couldn’t get my name straight either.

Attention and careful handling?  Reliable service?  Are you kidding me?  But there’s more:

  • ‘Tracer’ person #1 assured me he would call me throughout the day to check in, even if he had no news.
  • At 2:30, having not heard from anyone, I called him and left a message.
  • At 3:30, I blocked the caller I.D. on my phone and called back.  Lo and behold he answered.  No news.  No information either because he informed me that his supervisor had taken over the case.  Probably because I told them I’d be giving them a free ad campaign on social media if they didn’t find my shipment — pronto.  Canada Revenue isn’t going to cut me any slack because Loomis lost my receipts.
  • Oh yes, ‘Tracer #1 also told me that they couldn’t do a thorough search of their facility because they didn’t have enough staff available; and they’d have to wait until they had more staff.  When might that be?  Your guess is as good as mine.

Attention and careful handling?  Reliable service?

What do you think?  Does Loomis Express have an authentic brand?  (Still haven’t heard a word, by the way.  It is now 5:20 on Wednesday).

looking for an idea? Just look around …

March 27, 2012


If you follow my blog you know I love Magnificent Nose.  It’s another WordPress blog.  Recently Sara Goas, one of the writers who contributes, had a great post: “Inspiration” — a fictional story about an English teacher, her students and ideas — and where they come from.

I loved this story because my entire career has been about ideas.  So for me, it was very personal.  Thankfully, it’s only happened to me once, but I have suffered through writer’s block, and let me assure you, it’s terrifying.  So I know first hand just how hard to come by an idea can be; and, like the teacher in Sara’s story, I also know where to look for inspiration.

All around me.

People watch, in other words.  Listen to what people say — about everything.  About the books they’re reading, the movies they’ve seen, the fights they’ve had with their spouses, how their kids are driving them nuts, why they want to lose weight, why they want to gain weight, why they hate their job, what they’re looking for in a relationship, what they like to eat, why they can’t eat broccoli, where they like to travel, what the dog did, what their mother-in-law said, why they broke up, what they like and dislike about themselves.

Pay attention to what they do when they’re checking out the cereal aisle in the grocery store, when they’re stopped at a red light beside you, at the movies, in the departure lounge at the airport, at the dentist’s.

Become a voyeur.  Eavesdrop.  Just try to be discreet about it.

Which reminds me of a ‘discussion‘ I once had with a former boyfriend.  Okay, he was pissed off and decided to let me know it.  We were at a restaurant and when we were having our appetizers he suddenly stopped eating.  Waving his fork in my face he threatened to leave if I didn’t start paying attention to the conversation he was trying to have with me.

Instead of listening to him it seems that I was totally engrossed in a couple sitting two or three tables away from us.  They sat there like two total strangers.  There was no warmth between them … no familiarity.  They weren’t speaking.  They weren’t even looking at each other.  They were each lost in their own thoughts, and even looking in different directions.

Without really being aware of what I was doing, I couldn’t take my eyes off them.  And unconsciously, as I sat there watching, in my head I was imagining their entire relationship and what had led up to this oh-so-lonely dinner, where the only thing they were sharing was the table.  What’s more, I was writing dialogue — which I was sharing with my boyfriend, instead of having a conversation of our own.  Hence his frustration.

He wasn’t wrong, of course, but the writer in me was happy.  In the space of the hour or two that we all found ourselves under the same roof, between what they didn’t say, and their body language, I got enough material to write a book, or a movie or a play — or, as it turns out, even a good portion of this blog.

See.  Ideas are everywhere.  So let this be your warning.  If you ever feel someone staring at you, it’s probably me.  Don’t take it personally.  And please don’t think I’m being nosy or rude.  I’m just counting on you for some inspiration.

twitter to the rescue (and a smart CEO)

February 23, 2012


Can’t tell you how many conferences and seminars I’ve attended in the last couple of years where I’ve listened to marketers going on and on about how consumers are using social media to complain; and how important they think it is for their companies to have a social media presence — as if that would solve the problem.  As if a page on Facebook, a video on YouTube or tweeting about your latest commercial or product will make your customers and prospects ‘like’ you.  As if that would make up for a bad experience.

I know this is heresy, but I’ve got to tell you, as far as I’m concerned the jury is still out on the effectiveness of social media.  At least in terms of building brands, creating customer loyalty and attracting new customers.  And from my own experience, I’ve yet to see it used properly when it comes to resolving customer complaints and frustrations.

Until this past Tuesday.

But first, the back story.  I like reggae and, in particular, Bob Marley’s music.  A friend read an article about 2 weeks ago that, as part of Black History Month, the ROM was showing a documentary about Rastas that featured Bob Marley’s granddaughter — and there was also going to be a concert with another of Bob Marley’s relatives — a brother, I think.  There are other events as well, but those are the 2 that really appealed to us.  The article she read said that details could be found on the ROM website.  Because I’m a member I volunteered to get the information.

Suffice to say it wasn’t the best experience:  A lack of information on the website, several 5+ minute waits (over several days) to be connected to a human on the phone and volunteers and staff in the museum who were, although extremely polite, uninformed and, therefore, unable to help.  So eventually, last Tuesday, I started googling, looking for a Board Member I might know or the Director.  Amazingly I not only found the Director’s name, I also found out how to reach her on Twitter.

Limited to 140 characters I had to be pretty succinct.  To the point.  And compelling.  So essentially I said I was having a bad experience and my membership was in jeopardy.  Did I expect anything to come of this?  I wondered.  I hoped.  But judging from the experiences of others (not with the ROM) I wouldn’t have bet on it.

Well get ready to be impressed.

  • It took mere minutes for her to tweet me back!  Equally succinctly she asked me to explain, promising she would do her best to resolve my issues.
  • I tweeted back that it was difficult to do that in 140 characters — but I did thank her for her quick response.
  • She immediately sent me a message with her email address, again saying she wanted to help if she could (brilliant because until she knew what my problems were promising to do something that she might not be able to do would only have exacerbated the problem).
  • I sent her an email that outlined everything that had happened.
  • Within 30 minutes I heard back from her.  She thanked me for giving them the feedback.  She thanked me for giving them a chance to put things right.  She told me she was going into several meetings but had forwarded my email to 2 of her senior colleagues — the Head of Membership and Sales and the VP of Visitor Relations.  She copied them on the email she sent me so I had their names and email addresses.  She told me I’d hear from them.  And then she promised to check in with them personally, to make sure they’d received my email and had followed up with me.

To be totally honest by this point I was so impressed, any frustrations I might have had disappeared.  She had completely diffused the situation.  Here is someone who is not on Twitter because everyone else is.  She ‘uses’ it.  She obviously monitors the tweets she gets on a very regular basis (and no, I am not suggesting she gets lots of complaints).  And she acts.  Quickly and decisively.  She also listens.  And learns.  And communicates with people who are communicating with her.  Brilliant.

If you’re wondering, I did hear back from the Head of Membership and Sales — not long after I got the email from the Director and CEO of the ROM giving me her name.  We had a good conversation.  I sent an email letting the Director and CEO know that I had been contacted — and within minutes she acknowledged my email, thanked me again, gave me some information on other events relating to Black History Month they are hosting and said she hoped they could continue to count on my being a member.

You bet they can!

If anybody reading this blog knows the head of a company or the head of Marketing for a company please feel free to send them the link.  There is a great lesson here.


seems I’m in very good company …

January 26, 2012


Beth Comstock, SVP and CMO of GE recently had a great article on Forbes online:  “Innovation is a State of Mind”.  If you know nothing else about me, you do know that innovation is an absolute obsession of mine — and it’s nice to know that someone so successful and highly-regarded feels the same way.

She starts her piece with a quote from the great, late entrepreneur Robert Noyce:  “Optimism is an essential ingredient for innovation.  How else can the individual welcome change over security, adventure over staying in a safe place?”

I agree with this statement, but only to a point.  Absolutely, if you don’t believe in possibilities, opportunities and the fact that there is a way forward you might as well pack up your office and go home.  But I think that ‘acceptance’, ‘willingness’ and ‘courage’ are equally, if not more, important.  Why?  Well, okay, we all know that the economy is bad everywhere.  Unemployment is still high.  Jobs are still scarce.  Life is uncertain.

So let’s say that I run an ad agency.  New business is hard to come by.  Every time I answer the phone it’s a client calling to cancel a project or reduce a budget.  They are questioning every dime we spend and send us back to re-quote time and time again.  We have a hiring freeze.  My staff are stretched beyond their limits, tired, fed up and stressed.  Raises are out of the question.  Nobody’s having a good time.

On the positive side I know I have good people working for me.  They know how much I value them.  We do great work, consistently.  Despite all the budget issues we have good client relationships.  In my heart I believe that we will come out of this whole.  So yes, I am optimistic about the future.

What I have accepted is a problem that seems to be out of my control.  But have I accepted — or even asked myself — whether or not there is something in my control that needs fixing?  Do clients value what agencies do?  Do they consider that a lot of what we do is not as unique a skill or talent as we think — but is, in their opinion, a commodity?  Does the whole agency model need changing?

This soul-searching won’t change the economy overall, but are there more relevant services we could offer clients?  Would it help with new business?  Would clients be willing to pay more to get what they need and want and value?

All right.  So now I acknowledge and accept the fact that we should take a long, hard look at what we do, how we do it, how much (or how little) we charge for it, and what our clients might value more.

Am I willing to take this on?  It’s a lot of work.  It’s not easy to undo what an industry has been doing for 50, 60, 80+ years.  Generally people hate change.  It won’t be easy to sell it to my boss.  It won’t be easy to sell it to my staff.  Do I not have enough on my plate?  Do I really need to take this on?

Yep.  So far so good.  I am optimistic about the future and the future of my agency.  I accept the fact that some of our challenges are of our own doing.  I am willing to invest the time and the money to come up with innovative solutions.

So do I have the balls?

Because there are risks.  My boss could shoot it down.  My boss could get pissed off because instead of spending my days concentrating on making the agency we have successful, I am wasting my time day-dreaming.  Even if I got my boss onside, and even if we were to include our clients in the process, this wouldn’t be the first time a client endorsed an idea in theory and walked away from it when it became real.   Maybe we’d lose some staff who hate the idea — and also hate the fact that because we may have eliminated some services, we have also eliminated some jobs.  What if I miscalculated and it didn’t get us new business?

But on the other hand, what if it worked like a charm?  What if our new and innovative approach to what an ad agency could and should do for clients won us rave reviews from clients, prospects and the press?   What if profits soared?  What if we attracted, and hung on to, the industry’s top talent?  What if we couldn’t cope with all the new business that beat a path to our door?  What if we ended up on the cover of Forbes?

Without the courage to try, we’d never know.  Without the courage, willingness, acceptance and optimism.

There must be something to this idea of innovation — why else is it the theme at Davos this year?




is it just me, or do you also find it easier to write in some places than others?

January 15, 2012


Don’t ask me why, but I’ve been thinking about my writing habits today — and how they’ve changed over the years.  No less weird, just different.

When I first started to write professionally we didn’t have computers; and yes, I did hesitate to ‘say’ that out loud for fear that you’d immediately jump to the wrong conclusion:  No, I am not living in a nursing home.  I have all my teeth.  I do not drool.  I have no need for adult diapers, pureed food, pull-on pants or a walker.  I was born post WWII, and 1984 (when Apple was launched) is not really that long ago.

I’m just saying.

So … back then we didn’t have computers.  We did have typewriters , but I didn’t use one — at least not to ‘create’.  My preference was to write everything out by hand; and only when I had a draft that I liked, did I type it up.   Even more bizarre, though, was the fact that I never used a whole piece of paper (I promise I am much more environmentally conscious/friendly now).  In fact I probably went through a pound of paper each time I wrote something.

I’d write a line on one sheet, then a couple of lines on another sheet, a thought here, a thought there — and on and on it went.  Once I had some critical mass, I’d start weaving all those thoughts and words and sentences together until I had a few paragraphs I liked — which could have taken countless tries on countless sheets of paper.  Then I’d carry on — again using many sheets of paper for many versions — until eventually, I’d have enough to type my first draft — which I’d edit by writing all over it, making the changes in pen, first.

I simply could not seem to sit at a typewriter and write from scratch.  I also needed total silence.  And every couple of sentences I had to have a cigarette and a cup of coffee.

In 1985 I moved to Toronto (from Montreal) to work for the ad agency, Ogilvy & Mather.  Needless to say we all had Macs.  Mine collected dust.  I continued to work the way I always had, until one day another writer — who had been watching me in disbelief (and disgust, and probably pity) for months and months — came into my office and shut the door.  She told me that she wasn’t going to leave until I started to use my computer.

I gave her every reason why I couldn’t, shouldn’t and wouldn’t and it all fell on deaf ears.  She removed everything I’d piled on top of it, dusted it off, turned it on and sat down next to me — ready to start my tutorial.  I don’t know if she follows my blog but just in case, “Thank you, Erin Moore!”  But the little writing muse inside my head was still hooked on quiet, coffee and cigarettes (I had an ashtray the size of a spare tire and it was always filled to the brim with smoldering butts).

Until I decided to quit smoking when all the anti-smoking laws started taking effect in Toronto — which dates back about 20 years.  Agency management were quite concerned — they were worried that my productivity and my ability to write might be negatively impacted.  Truth be told I think they were also worried about mood swings.  Smoking is an addiction, after all.  As I recall they did check my office for sharp objects and I also remember that my letter opener mysteriously disappeared one day.   Yep, you got that right — instead of encouraging me to stop, they encouraged me to “think it over carefully, and not to rush into anything.”  Only half in jest, by the way.

I quit cold turkey and thankfully my talent stayed intact.  I did have the odd tantrum but I don’t think the lack of nicotine had anything to do with it — probably had a lot more to do with difficult deadlines and unnecessary revisions (I am all for constructive criticism — it’s the minutia that kills me.  All would not really be lost if we didn’t change the comma to a semi-colon, would it?)

And that was the way I worked for quite a while (with my door closed and bottles of water by my side) — until 2000, in fact.  That was the year I was recruited to be a partner in an independent start-up agency.  Up until this point you were defined by how big your office was, whether or not you had a window(s), whether or not you had a couch etc.  But now ‘cool’ was large, open-concept, loft-like offices with brick walls, wood floors (or industrial carpet), high ceilings with exposed pipes and play areas (pool tables or basketball hoops or putting greens etc.).

So that’s what we went for.  Most of the people in our agency hated the idea — at least at first.  For some unknown reason I absolutely loved it.  It was so much more collaborative.  And honestly, when I was engrossed in what I was doing I totally blocked out any conversations people were having.  I never heard a word and I was never distracted.

Now I work alone, from home.  When I first went out on my own I furnished myself a lovely home office.  Good lighting.  A nice desk.  A fabulously comfortable, ergonomic Aeron chair, bookshelves, good storage space — everything you’d need and want.

I hate working in there.  I don’t work in there.

If I must work from home, I prefer my dining room table.  Why?  God knows.  I guess some things don’t have to make sense.

What I’ve realized is, I don’t like working at home because it’s too quiet.  And by quiet, I don’t mean I want noise.  Playing music or putting on the TV don’t help.  In fact they make it worse.  It’s the ‘sound’ of human energy I crave.  It’s a ‘buzz’.

So now I work most of the time at Starbucks — primarily because there’s one just across the street from where I live.  But I have worked at other cafes and all sorts of public places; and while they’re all pretty good, some are better than others.  There are some Starbucks I don’t like.  The buzz isn’t right for some reason.  Again, don’t ask me why.  Just one of my peculiarities, I guess.  It appears that I’m not just strange, I’m also picky.

But it is working for me, so who am I to question it.

What about you?  I’m curious about your writing habits.  Hope you take the time to share them.

how a WordPress blogger inspired me …

January 9, 2012


Who’d a thunk it?

Not so long ago I was trolling through WordPress, as I often do, looking for interesting blogs — and found one almost immediately (oh, I know there are tons of them), but this was the first one I got to and I loved it — so I didn’t look for any more that night.  If you’re a writer — or even just love reading interesting, well-written posts — then you should check it out:  Magnificent Nose.  What I find really interesting is the fact that there are several writers who contribute to it.  It’s a neat idea and they’re all great writers.  In fact, I liked it so much, I decided to follow it, and subscribed so I would get email notices every time there’s a new post.

Over the holidays I was notified that Julie Goldberg — had just posted:  “I don’t have time to believe in writer’s block”.  I don’t know a writer who hasn’t, at one time or another, stared at a piece of paper (or a computer screen) hour after hour, day after day, maybe even week after week or month after month — and it just stared back.  So needless to say I was intrigued.  And once I got into her story I couldn’t believe what I was reading.

What Julie was describing was a scenario I am currently living through — or at least was living through until I read her blog post:  A novel she’s been writing for about 20 years.  A project she starts and stops and starts and stops etc. etc. etc.  The good news is, she’s finally making some good progress.  But that’s not why I’m sharing this with you.

I started writing a book almost 4 years ago.  Amazingly, I had about 6 chapters written in 5 months — and I had a full time job at the time.  Got off to a really fabulous start while visiting friends in Bequia, where I wrote 3 chapters in 10 days.  And then I hit a wall.

No, it wasn’t writer’s block.  It took me about a month to figure out that I was avoiding the chapter that came next because it dealt with subject matter I didn’t want to re-live:  The death of my mother.  Once I figured that out I had a decision to make.  Deal with it and write the chapter or abandon the book forever more, because the book would not be the book without that chapter.

By then I had become a freelance writer and a strategic consultant so I was working from home.  The quiet was too much for me so I took my laptop to a neighbourhood Starbucks and wrote it in 3 days.  I sat there for as long as 7 hours a day — and yes, I kept buying. I drowned myself in coffee and tea and water and sustained myself with yoghurt and cheese and crackers and the odd  slice of lemon poppyseed poundcake — so I didn’t have to feel guilty about being there all day.

And that was that.

Several times I tried to get back into it and couldn’t.  I was distracted.  I knew it wasn’t writer’s block — I have been doing all kinds of writing — just not on my book.  The longer I was away from my book, the more pissed off at myself I became.  I love the idea of this book and desperately want to write it; and finish it; and share it.

But I just couldn’t focus on doing it.  At one point I decided to go away for a month — to some remote locale where I’d have no distractions — nothing else to do but write.   Until life took over and I got a new client and was too busy (happily) writing for him to spend any time on myself.

Now, of course, I don’t care.  Because Julie’s blog struck a chord with me — a big chord.  And that very night I, once again, got excited about my book.  In my head I started working out the chapter to come.  I’m trying to write something every day — and so far, I’m succeeding — thanks to Magnificent Nose.

You see — inspiration can come from anywhere — even in your own backyard — which is exactly what WordPress is for those of us who blog here.  Is there a moral to my story?

You bet.  Don’t just come here to write your own blog.  Spend some time reading other blogs.  You’ll meet some great people who have some very interesting stories, many of whom have had or are having similar experiences to your own.

And who knows.  They might even be able to help you sort out a problem or two.  Look what happened to me.



who knew that one day, I’d be agreeing with Preston Manning

December 29, 2011


Yep, I must admit that Preston Manning’s never been my cup of tea.  But he has an article in today’s Globe and Mail that I totally agree with — and applaud him for writing.  An article that’s got me very excited; and hopeful:  Commercializing science:  Right players, right roles for innovation gold.

There is a definite lack in Canada — not just of innovative thinking — but much worse, I think — we don’t seem to have a gut-wrenching desire to be innovative.  And as much of a cliche as this statement is, I don’t feel that we have a fire in our collective belly.  We can’t seem to taste it!  We don’t seem to want it at all — never mind, want it badly.

So what I love most about his article,  is the underlying ‘idea’ — and the very spirit behind Cal Stiller’s (one of Canada’s most accomplished medical scientists and entrepreneurs) challenge to all of us — that Canada can, should and must  “own the innovation podium, just as we aimed to own the podium in Vancouver at the Winter Olympics.”

Mind over matter certainly worked for Vancouver.  I’ll never forget the momentum that the olympic torch created as it travelled from province to province.  Some of us may have been ambivalent as it began its journey but we sure didn’t stay that way for long.  The crowds and the enthusiasm swelled and just kept swelling.  I’ll never forget the Opening Ceremonies and the Canadian pride that was let loose in that stadium (and in living rooms across the nation) — and at all the events that followed — right up to, and including, the Closing Ceremonies.

And what that led to, on the podium!

I’ve lived in this country all my life and never, ever, have I experienced anything like it.  But it didn’t last long.  And now we need to muster that up again.  There is no doubt in my mind that is is the greatest country on earth to live in.  I believe that more and more every day.  Our potential is unlimited.  But it does depend on us.  All of us — the public and private sectors — scientists — researchers — entrepreneurs — corporations large and small — individuals — students — businessmen and women.  All of us.  Coming together.  Collaborating.  Brainstorming.  Digging deep for real solutions.  Breaking out of the past.  Being brave enough to embrace new ideas, new ways of doing things.  Forging a new path.

Embracing innovation.  Going for gold!

That’s my wish for all of us as we count down the few days remaining in 2011.  I wish it for myself and for my friends, family and colleagues.  And I wish it for Canada.

I hope that, in 2012, we continue where we left off at the end of February, 2010 — in Vancouver, across the country and, in fact, in the message we sent around the world:  That when we Canadians set our minds to it, we can, and do, accomplish great things!

and here I sit, uncomfortably, between a rock and a hard place

December 26, 2011


I just read an interesting article in yesterday’s Sunday New York Times — “Publishers vs Libraries: An E-Book Tug of War” — in Sunday Business, Digital Domain by Randall Stross.  Interesting, depressing and thought-provoking — all at once, and on many levels.  Not the least of which is, I’m writing a book, so the issue this article is confronting is bound to have a direct impact on me.

This story deals mainly with the fact that book publishers are now being forced to compete not just with e-books in general, but with the e-book sections of public libraries.

Not good news when, as Mr. Stross points out in his column, “Last year, Christmas was the biggest single day for e-book sales by HarperCollins.  And indications are that this year’s Christmas Day total will be even higher, given the extremely strong sales of e-readers like the Kindle and the Nook.  Amazon announced on December 15 that it had sold one million of its Kindles in each of the three previous weeks.”  But, as he goes on to say, “We can also guess that the number of visitors to the e-book sections of public libraries’ websites is about to set a record, too.  And that is a source of great worry for publishers.”

As if publishers didn’t already have enough to worry about.  In David Gaughran’s blog, Let’s Get Digital, his latest entry “Publishers Desperately Trying to Protect Print Sales, And Failing” shows the most recent revenue numbers as reported by the American Association of Publishers and they’re not good.  In fact, overall revenue is down significantly in print books but there are dramatic increases in e-book market share.

What’s this got to do with me?

Well, for a first time author, it’s already difficult enough to get a book published (even if you’re already a professional writer, as I am).  Unless you’re an established writer whose books are in great demand, or a celebrity, agents and publishers are loath to take a chance on you for one, simple reason.  They can’t afford to.  Not any more.  It’s as simple as that.

It’s tougher and tougher to actually sell them.  Book retailers are closing down one after another.  Go into any Indigo store and look at the amount of books that are on the “price reduced” tables.  There have been several interviews with Heather Reisman (Indigo founder and CEO) in Canadian newspapers lately.  Her future plans do not include the buying and selling of more books.  She’s now including more and more articles ‘related’ to reading like lamps, shawls, tea, cookies and even the odd piece of furniture.

What we’re dealing with here, is a vicious circle.  Because it’s harder to get published more and more writers are self-publishing.  Which only hurts the publishing industry more.  Which will, in turn, make it even more difficult to get published.  And round and round and round it goes.

And eventually those of us who love to write (and try to earn our living from it) may very well find ourselves with increasingly limited options and opportunities to sell and share our stories.  And those of us who love to read may very well find ourselves with fewer and fewer choices — especially if the publishers and libraries can’t come to terms — and, for that matter if the publishing industry can’t find a way to become more profitable in the face of all the e-competition and the economy in general — books, unfortunately are a discretionary spend — when you’re worried about the mortgage and putting food on the table books are a luxury many people can no longer justify or afford.

Which brings us right back to the problem identified in this New York Times article — because now publishers are threatening to limit, if not entirely block, libraries from having access to their e-books.  So much for the general population reading (and tempted as I am to speak about Toronto’s own special nightmare, Mayor Rob Ford and his view of libraries), it’s Christmas and I’ll spare you.

So I’m smack, dab in the middle of this stinking mess because I love to do both.  And my desire to have access to books wherever and however I want them, and for as little money as possible is the very thing that is making it more and more challenging for me, the author.

This is not an easy problem to solve.  But there is an awful lot at stake — and I am not referring to authors’ royalties and an industry’s revenue potential.  Books take us to places we’ll never otherwise see … they introduce us to people and ideas we’ll otherwise never be exposed to … they teach us things we’d never have the time or the opportunity to learn in school, in business or even in life.  They help us, inspire us, thrill us, make us laugh and cry.  And, lest we forget, they teach us to read.  Literacy is at stake here.

If ever there was an opportunity to be innovative, this is it!