Gardening versus Painting

I once heard the horticulture legend Mike McGrath describe gardening as an “exercise in failure”. Meaning that you try things, you fail at them, you learn from your mistakes, and then you try again. Or you will wise up and hire a professional to do it for you. That is what I do with painting projects – hire someone that knows what they are doing. But with gardening, I continue to fail and come back for more.

The Thrill of the Hunt

I do this because I enjoy the thrill of the hunt when it comes to gardening. I enjoy the major landscaping overhauls, the weeding, the raking, the planting, the pruning, the mulching – all of it. Then I look for the next project. Something that lets me build on what I have learned and expand my creativity.

When we have a room that needs to be painted, I look forward to spending time in an improved room. I get nothing out of the process of painting. It is a grind to me. A wasted Saturday. So I hire someone to do paint projects for me.

I love to garden, I understand the need to paint.

We sometimes consider the “thrill of the hunt” to be a negative thing. In relationships, it does not lend itself towards long, sustainable partnerships. However, in everything from golf to the violin to math, it can lead to greatness. This is not an original or even complex thought – the best golfer isn’t the one that enjoys admiring his trophies – he’s the one that wants to spend every hour of every day perfecting his putting game. I promise, this isn’t a 10,000 hours thing – but let’s be honest, you aren’t spending 10,000 hours on something that you don’t enjoy the process of.

Find your Gardening

Most of us will never be paid to play golf or the violin, but us mere mortals can learn from those that do as we embark on our own careers. We tend to gravitate towards the things we are good at, because that is what people are willing to pay us for. But if you find that work to be boring or tedious (how I view painting), work will be painful and you will find yourself defining success in purely monetary terms.

If you are lucky enough to find something that you enjoy – where you enjoy the thrill of the hunt, not just the end result – the good news is that you don’t even need to be good at it. This will be like me gardening. I’m still not very good, but I’m getting better. And I’m going to keep showing up every spring ready to tackle everything my yard and mother nature have thrown at me. Find your thing. Stick to it. Get better. Maybe someone will pay you for it one day.

Since we exist in the real world with bills to pay and food to eat, your career will probably not be one giant passion project. To build a career (a real career), you will need to do a lot of painting in addition to gardening. As you progress in your career, you will find yourself able to do more gardening and have others, that have chosen to specialize in painting, do the painting for you. This is how you become an expert in your field, how you get to flex your creative muscles, and you achieve the all important status of enjoying the thrill of the hunt at work.

 

 

 

 

Why You Hate It: Internet Advertising

A Familiar Tale

I have posted previously about the annoying tendency of ads for products we have already purchased to follow us around the internet. My favorite recent example is the ads I see for the hotel I frequently stay at. When I connect to the internet in my hotel, I am automatically routed to the hotel’s website. I quickly exit the site, so I probably look like someone that was considering booking a reservation, but didn’t. I cannot imagine that it is very difficult to segment out the visitors to the hotel’s website that occurred inside the hotel, but apparently it’s not worth this hotel’s time to avoid wasting money on me.

This problem is not unique. It happens frequently and is the subject of many complaints. The problem, I believe, is the result of an inefficient market for online advertising, and is exacerbated by the fact that marketers are trapped in a prisoners dilemma. Advertisers may not want to show us ads for products that we have already purchased, but since they don’t know what their competition will do, it is their best defensive move.

The financial model for most websites (especially free ones) is this: companies that collect data on us and sell ad space on the internet know that I have “expressed interest” in a given product. They then let marketers purchase my attention by showing me the same product I have viewed previously, when I visit various websites around the internet. If this works correctly, I will only see products that I have considered purchasing, but have not yet. However, as we all know, it is very common to see ads for the products we have purchased. The result is an inefficient marketplace with a poor user experience.

Setting The Stage

To help illustrate this scenario, let’s say that I have recently purchased Marmot Men’s Traverse Glove and that I purchased them through Backcountry.com. Purveyors of data recognize this and lump me in with a group of people that are “very interested” in this product or similar products. My attention is then put up for auction. To anyone. So when I traverse the web, ad tech companies let the entire business world know that someone who is very interested in Martmot Men’s Traverse Gloves is about to view a certain web page. Keep in mind that Backcountry is not the only retailer that offers these gloves, and that these gloves are not my only option to keep my hands warm. Backcountry has just become the prisoner in our example.

Now, let’s consider what happens from my side of things. One website I frequently visit is WGR550.com. When I visit, I often see the products I have either browsed or purchased recently. This is a local sports radio station’s website in Buffalo. Traffic to this site, compared to NYTimes.com or WSJ.com, is relatively low. So from an advertiser’s standpoint, it’s a pretty inexpensive way to get my attention.

Back to the dilemma facing Backcountry – our prisoner. They understand that I have been very far down their sales funnel. They just don’t realize that I have been all the way through the funnel. Sure, they have a general understanding that there is a chance that I have actually checked out (they probably even know the % likelihood that I have), but they aren’t able to connect the dots that the person that just checked out on their site is the same person that is now visiting WGR550.com, and whose attention is currently up for sale.

Think about his. They have put in all effort to merchandise their site with quality products, marketed it well enough to drive me to their website, designed a user experience that got me to check out, and worked out the logistics of shipping me the gloves. Yet, they don’t have the confidence in their marketing program to believe that they closed the sale. They keep marketing to me even though they executed everything to perfection.

It makes sense for them to want to close as  many sales as possible. So maybe they have made a conscious decision to lump in the people that have already purchased the gloves with their target audience of of people that are “very interested”. It may make sense for them to be a little overly aggressive with this group. However, they also need to consider that if they don’t continue to market to me, what if someone else does? This is why I consider this to be a type of prisoner’s dilemma.

Who else knows about me?

Based on my interactions with Backcountry’s (and other retailers’) various digital properties, ad tech firms have likely identified me as someone “highly likely to purchase outdoor apparel”. While Google and Facebook can’t sell the fact that I have bought the gloves to other advertisers, they could certainly slot me into a segment of consumers that would likely buy a similar product. And there is nothing preventing them from selling my attention to someone else that sells those same gloves.

In an efficient market, with rational actors, the prudent course of action for Backcountry would be to rely on the same marketing strategy that got me to their site in the first place. They should have confidence in their own metrics, which would tell them that at least some of the people that have been to the “view cart” page have continued to complete their order. The problem is that ad tech firms knows this too – maybe not to the degree that Backcountry does – but they know enough to be dangerous. And they are willing to sell this information to one of Backcountry’s competitors. So Backcountry has to swallow the cost of advertising the same gloves to me that I have just purchased to prevent their competition from having the opportunity to start a new relationship with me and win my next purchase. My guess is that this is cheaper than building an effective post-sale media campaign. After all, they have my email address now so they can worry about post-sale tactics via email.

Why am I confident that this is the case? Because I see ads for products that I have bought. And it is also highly likely that the people that pay for these ads also have the same terrible experience shopping on the internet. They have to know what a horrible ad buy this is, and they still proceed.

Why don’t I ever see the competition’s ads? Well, to all other advertisers, I am much further up their sales funnel, and therefore my attention is worth less. Even if Backcountry figures out a lot of the people they are targeting with these ads have already purchased from them, they are still forced to buy my attention because ad tech firms are holding them captive. If they don’t pay for my attention, one of their competitors will.

A Terrible Experience

What we are left with is a terrible user experience on the internet. With the effectiveness of UX experts and Optimization teams today, this kind of efficiency should be eradicated from the internet. At least it would be if the inefficiency were plaguing the internet’s customers. We’ve all heard the cliche that if you aren’t paying for a service, you are the product, not the customer rings true here. With Facebook, Twitter, Google – we are certainly the product. When we are surfing the web, we are more of a hybrid. Content is crafted for us, in the form of video and text. However, for the advertiser’s whose money keeps the internet running, we are the product. I also find this problem to exist on sites I do pay to access content on.

UX and optimization won’t save us from this either. This is a fundamental flaw in how the economics of the internet work. Unless we all as a society reach a point where we are willing to pay for content on the internet with something other than a willingness to view ads, this problem won’t go away.

Economic Theory’s Blind Spot

Richard Thaler won a Nobel Prize in Economics for building the case that economists need to pay more attention to human behavior, and that we are not all rational actors. One of the foundations of economic theory had been that humans behave rationally and make decisions based on our best interests. This is what drives an efficient market. Thaler essentially proved this not to be the case.

I bring this up because it is doubtless that the ad tech marketplace has become extremely inefficient. My theory about the prisoner’s dilemma may border on conspiracy, but there is no denying that a lack of efficiency exists in this market. While it is unfortunate that marketers are wasting money, the real victims are consumers. Consuming content has become a headache of auto-play ads startling you at work and dynamic ads pushing text off the screen as you try to scroll through an article. We tolerate this because much of the content we consume on the internet is free. However, like with Spotify, consumers have shown a willingness to pay for something that provides value over a free alternative. Let’s just hope that some rationality finds its way to the ad tech marketplace soon.

 

 

Coffee Interrupted

I was at a client’s office recently where they had a fancy new coffee/espresso machine installed. This machine required a PIN to operate it. I thought to myself, what a terrible idea this is. The PIN is presumably to keep outsiders, such as myself, from using what appears to be an expensive coffee machine.

I understand that a single department within this company invested in this coffee machine. But everyone in that department exists for the good of the company overall. And it would benefit the company overall if everyone was appropriately caffeinated, myself included.

I had a colleague that used the phrased “penny smart, pound foolish” in reference to companies that would save pennies by making decisions that would have major negative implications to their bottom line. This coffee machine PIN strikes me as such a decision. Or maybe I just get cranky when I can’t have coffee.

The next day I found a different (less fancy) coffee machine that was available to the masses. I was happier that day. Just give the people coffee. They will be happier. And more productive.

Permission To Play

I came across this phrase in a Fast Company article on “Creative Imposter Syndrome”. The reason “permission to play” struck a chord with me is that the author mentioned that she felt like she received permission to exercise her creativity after something her boss said to her. She is not suggesting that she needed to ask for permission, but I think there are lessons in here for anyone that wants to try something new in their careers.

It is important to realize that no one is going to approach you to do something you’ve never done before. They are going to look for people that have done it before. That’s just how the world works. People are always looking for someone that has done the work before.

So if you are trying to pick up a new skill, you have two approaches available:

  1. The Nike approach. Just do it. Don’t step on anyone’s toes. Don’t go over anyone’s head. Don’t negatively impact your or your company’s position. But take initiative and do the thing you want to learn. When you hear a client or colleague talk about an initiative in your area of interest, take a first stab and set up time with your boss to talk about it. Send them an email that says “Hey, I put some thoughts around Client X’s request”. Odds are this new initiative was going to soak up lots of their time, so they will be happy to see someone willing to pick up the ball and run with it. Just make sure this doesn’t interfere with your day job.
  2. Ask. For when the Nike approach would get you in trouble or you need someone else’s help to get started. Ask in a way that will benefit the person’s permission you are asking. Things like “hey – I noticed that department ABC could benefit from XYZ, do you mind if I work with Person X to think about their options?” What’s the worst that they can say? No. Then you are back to where you were in the first place.

There is  third route to be taken, which is to go back to school or take training in your desired subject matter. This is always an option, but much more time and resource intensive. It is essentially your way to earn permission to play as a degree or certificate is often all the permission you will need.

What matters is that you are the only person in charge of your career. Most other people around you want to see you succeed and be fulfilled, but they are also probably incentivized to keep  you doing what you are good at. If something is new to you, you are probably not good at that thing yet. So until you express a desire to do this new thing, no one is going to ask you.

Aside: obviously don’t threaten to quit if you don’t get your way, but by expressing a desire to take new things on (in addition to what you currently do), you are announcing to your company that you want to grow and take on new responsibilities. So if they want you to keep doing the thing you are good at, they should make sure you stay fulfilled. It may not seem like it, but if bring value to your team you do possess leverage in these instances. You aren’t just asking for a handout.

Digital Memories

I came across a tweetstorm of mine from years past on Timehop today. It was after the Bills had just drafted EJ Manuel, a pick I accurately assessed misguided. The memory of the draft pick, my reaction, and the tweetstorm also brought me back to how I learned about the pick. I had been traveling for work and had been keeping up best as I could, but was about to hop into a taxi. My dad called me and stayed on the phone with me as the Bills made the pick.

My dad is no longer with us, and I think about him regularly every day. Moving on is difficult, but making sure he is still a part of my life is one of the things that brings me comfort. The fact that social media forces me to think about him from time to time helps me see the good in it. I, like many others, have been hard on the social/tech giants lately. It’s important to keep in mind that there are many hiccups along the way to the future (think about the car). The lesson for me is to keep social/digital as a piece of my actual life, and not let it occupy an out-sized amount of my time or energy. The small ways it enhances our real-world relationships and experiences are good.

Go Bills.

Ads That Follow You

Do you ever buy something online, and then have an ad promoting that same product follow you to every website you visit for the next two weeks? I remember complaining about this to someone at Google, who told me “that should never happen”. I took this to mean that technology and digital media buyers were savvy enough to know the difference between me buying a product and me showing interest in that product.

I think it is now time to draw the conclusion that we have not reached that point. My experience was not an aberration, I still see this consistently. I don’t think it’s a technology or a strategy issue, it’s an incentive issue.

Media buying companies want to connect supply with demand, and remove as many barriers as possible. If I fall into a bucket of customers that are interested in a product,  they have more supply and demand to make money off of. I believe the technology exists to segment me out from the people that never actually purchased the product, but that would require more effort on their agency’s part. Effort = cost, and for now clients aren’t screaming loud enough for that extra effort.

I am not inclined to be overly critical of clients here. These media buys are likely a small piece of their marketing plan. They correctly allocate their time elsewhere, generating the demand that got me to buy their product in the first place. However, there has been a lot of talk about major CPG companies reviewing digital spend, so maybe there is hope.

I hear clients talk about personalization to the point that the term loses its meaning. I think Seth Godin makes a great point when he says that personalization is overrated and personal marketing is underrated. Market to me like you know me, and we might develop a relationship. Showing me ads for a product I’ve already bought is not how you do that. Marketers should seek to use technology to return to the days when we’d shop at stores where everyone knows us by name. The recommendations should make sense, and further our trust with the brand. It really isn’t that difficult to just show me a similar or complimentary product to the one I already purchased. Unfortunately, I think we have a long way to go.

They Grew Up on Instagram

As a millennial, I am used to being talked down to by older generations. My generation had and has many perceived weaknesses. One of those weaknesses is an addiction to our phones. I think this is a real weakness, but is by no means exclusive to our generation.

Cue Gen Z. This is a generation so addicted to their phones, they supposedly have no real-world skills. They don’t understand the difference between the virtual world and real world, and will have no skills to contribute to the economy by the time they reach a working age. Or so we were told.

What happened after the tragedy in Parkland has flipped a lot of that on its head. The day after the shooting, students looked straight into CNN’s cameras and spoke eloquently and directly to those that hold power in our country. At first, skeptics said it was like outcries for change following previous tragedies. But this time felt, and still feels, different. The actual victims of previous massacres haven’t been so direct in their response. Also, never before had victims of a tragedy seemed so prepared to lead a movement.

I don’t think this is an aberration or even a coincidence. Instagram and Snapchat are designed to make us feel like celebrities. We pose for the camera, select the picture that will most impress our followers, and we send it out into the world. Then…we get feedback. From the likes and comments we receive, we determine the best time of day to post, the best subject matter, and the best filters to use. To those that know social media the best – those that grew up on it – the lessons run deeper. They learn how to pose, how to engage the camera, the best facial expressions to use, the best way to posture. When I was entering the real world, we called these presentation and interpersonal skills.

It struck me about a month after the tragedy in Parkland that the students always seemed so poised in front of the camera. They know how to interact with all forms of media, social and otherwise. It is very clear that this generation understands how to navigate the complex world we live in today, which has been exacerbated by social media. Older generations have scoffed that high schoolers only know how to communicate through tweets and snaps. Guess what, those teens engaged a US Senator face-to-face on national television. It was clear that they weren’t fighting fair. Rubio was engaged in a game of the past, they were playing by the new rules. Just because they are effective on Twitter, doesn’t mean they can’t communicate effectively in person too.

Gen Z possesses skills for the world that is coming. Whether they possess all the skills society needs for them to move the world forward is something that we will only learn with time. All I know is that the brief glimpse we have gotten into the future through the actions of students from Parkland has me feeling better about the future than I have in a long time.

Running

I was just sitting down to write a post that I had already written in its entirety. My only issue was that I had written it in my head while I was running. And now the details are gone. I remember the general theme of the post, but I struggle to replicate what had come to me so naturally while I was running. This isn’t entirely surprising because I had been running a few days ago, and never bothered to write anything down. It was also a reminder of how valuable running is to my creativity and productivity at work.

Running has helped me solve some of the more challenging riddles I have faced in my career. I don’t receive the spark of a brilliant idea, like you see in the movies, but I seem to gain better perspective on the problem I am working on. This is especially important, as it is often crucial for me to understand what my client’s true motivations are. This isn’t to suggest anything nefarious, but client requests can often be filtered through several layers of people. Or situations aren’t necessarily well understood by senior leaders that engage consultants.

I think there is a larger lesson here about stepping away. Stop working and go do the thing that you enjoy, relaxes you, helps recharge your batteries. No matter how “in it” we are, how close we are to a looming deadline, how much work there is to be done, sometimes you need to step away. As strategists, we don’t solve problems through brute force. There aren’t always linear progressions to the right answer. Life can be messy, and it can help to step away and just let your mind wander.

We’re all addicted to this?

That’s what I think any time I log into Facebook anymore. Clickbait quizzes, horribly off-target ads, pictures of people I don’t really know or care to know anymore. Why do I keep going back? It’s unclear to me whether my actual friends don’t use Facebook anymore, or if Facebook’s algorithms are just that bad.

The one thing I do believe Facebook knows about me is the number of times I am so bored that Twitter and Instagram no longer hold my attention. Although, I guess Facebook does understand what I’ve been up to in Instagram.

Another piece of data I think might be interesting to these data hungry companies is sleep habits. Netflix knows (or could if it chooses to) my sleep habits. When I can’t sleep – it knows. When I’m about to go to sleep (I usually watch the same show before I go to bed) – it knows. I don’t think they are using this to sell ads yet, but they certainly could. And how long will their investors ignore this obvious revenue stream?

I guess what confuses/disappoints me is not that we have gotten addicted to something and willingly allowed it to harvest our data to the detriment of society. That makes sense to me. I guess I’m disappointed by how lame the product was that did us all in. Maybe Aaron Sorkin can make this interesting for us in the movie version.

Bob Dylan is an Intovert

I just finished reading Another Side of Bob Dylan, which I recommend to Dylan fans. I try to read a book on Dylan every year or so, because the man is a fascinating genre and many people that know or studied him have written extensively about him. This book is written by Jacob Maymudes, with help from tapes recorded by his late father, Victor, about his relationship with Dylan.

What is unique to this book is Victor Maymudes’ proximity to Dylan as he wrote many early songs. I was heartened, as an introvert, to hear Dylan’s introversion described as an asset to his writing. I guess it’s always been pretty obvious that Dylan is introverted, but I always kind of assumed it was part of his eccentricity or reclusive nature. I never thought about his introversion contributing to his brilliance and creativity. That is exactly what Maymudes describes. For Bob Dylan, the world happens inside his head. He takes in world events, and formulates the ideas and words that changed the world through introspective though. When workshopping a song, it was almost always complete by the time he was sharing it with Maymudes and others.

As introverts, we are often told that our introversion is something to overcome. I have actually received feedback that said “seems introverted”, as if my personality is a professional misstep to be corrected. Sure, meetings with large personalities can be a challenge, and we certainly don’t excel in networking situations. But while extroverts are busy proclaiming every thought that comes into their head to the world, introverts are observing, learning, thinking, formulating ideas, arguments and beliefs.

Extroverts are absolutely capable of complex thought, I would never suggest otherwise. However, it is refreshing to hear introversion described as something that aids critical thinking, creativity, and the development of Nobel-prize winning poetry.