Something Ain’t Right

On the Perils of AI

That’s Artificial Intelligence, the next big thing that’s going to transform us. At least that’s the way futurists and tech visionaries have been telling the story since 1952 or so.

While we await the computer-driven millennium, I think it’s important to maintain some perspective. If you’re a knowledge worker chances are you’ve encountered a colleague, client or C-suite executive smitten with the latest novel technology sure to lead to marketplace domination or a total revolution in whatever sector you toil.

I’m not certain it’s that easy.

Continue reading

The Writing on the Wall

A Wealth of Writers: The Newsletter Boom
Late January 2022

Newsletters are not new, though the word itself only first appeared in 1903.

That makes the concept a little bit older than my grandmother. And while Nana went to her rest more than a half-century ago,  the venerable form lumbers on, these days in a digital guise.

Back in the day, a newsletter often looked like the nearby example. Crafted on typewriters at kitchen Continue reading

Joining the World of Missing Persons

Honor Kills
Nanci Rathbun

When I was young, I knew two things about Milwaukee: Schlitz was the beer that had made it famous and it was the town the Happy Days/Laverne & Shirley gang called home.

Later, when I began traveling to points west for business, I discovered Midwest Express airlines and its Milwaukee hub. I’m still uncertain whether the allure was the fresh- Continue reading

You’ve Got Possibilities

The Art of Possibility
Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander

One of the more entertaining, if inconsequential, arguments I ever entered into started about 10 PM one late-April evening in the final decade of the last millennium. What began as a simple disagreement on how to manage creative development soon expanded to encompass the entire advertising business. No cow was sacred and by the time my debating partner and I had worn ourselves out at 2 AM, a century’s worth of discarded advertising truths lay scattered about the office along with rejected layouts and revised copy decks.

One of the more contentious points, I recall, was the USP, a concept created and promoted by Rosser Reeves of the Ted Bates advertising agency. A variant of that approach states that every brand–personal or otherwise–can be reduced to one inarguable, ownable attribute. Timex offers an apt, though dated, example. The watch that takes a licking and keeps on ticking is durable.

None of this has anything to do with the book at hand, mind you. But I’d suggest it provides an explanatory framework for just how I came to be in possession of a book in a genre I typically avoid. I’ve come to believe, you see,  that possibility lies at the heart of my personal brand.

Despite my encounter with this book, I see no reason to walk away from that belief. I’d suggest you run away fast, though, if someone recommends you read the book.

Found in every book store and library,
coast-to-coast.

Why do we even have self-help books? From the supply side, the answer is simple: there’s money in misery. From the seeker side, well, it’s more complicated. Needs, we marketers believe, are never far from wants and the interplay of the two is where we work. In a nation that likes to fancy itself full of strivers, improving the self practically commands investment.

How about two other factors marketers love: fear and greed? What if the key to your material success is lying right before you, bound between covers? Fourteen bucks is nothing compared to the rest of your life. The ROI could be incredible.

If you think I’m being unfair here, remember that Penguin, the publisher, has a marketing department. And they considered everything from the visually arresting bright yellow cover to the price to even the category: business/creativity.  Someone sensed a profit in sharing the Zander’s worldview.

My mind turns naturally to commerce as a social artifact. Yet my recurring thought as I made my way through this book had little to do with consumption and everything to do with social psychology. I realized, at a fundamental level, these books ask the reader to behave the same way members of cults or charismatic political movements do.

It’s a neat rhetorical trick, really. It also strikes me as self-serving and abusive of the very people all those entities are arguing they serve. But whether the venue is Jonestown, a Trump rally or this book, the initial transaction sets the terms of the deal.

I’m not sure survival and scarcity are great analogs when their reality is widespread and dire

Early on the Zanders present two dichotomous worldviews: survival/scarcity versus thriving/abundance. Almost immediately, they protest that interpretation of what lies right there on the page, saying “It may seem this chapter sets up a simple dichotomy between being successful and living a kind-hearted, feel-good life. Nothing could be further from our conviction.” (p. 21)

A bit further down the page, though, they introduce survival-thinking and scarcity thinking. Modes of thinking like these seem to abound in self-help writing, often serving the role of an internalized boogeyman who must be vanquished in the course of transformation ( a keyword in the genre and this book).

I’m not a fan of Abraham Maslow, but even he understood that survival and scarcity were so fundamental as to drive all other considerations understandably aside. Our authors reject that without ever even acknowledging it. Instead, they state Survival-thinking is  an “undiscriminating ongoing attitude.” Scarcity-thinking, they helpfully note, is a “prevalent” “fatalistic outlook.” (p.21) Thus the trap is baited. On the next page, it’s sprung.

“You look for thoughts and. actions that reflect survival and scarcity, comparison and competition, attachment and anxiety.” (p. 22) So, the problem is you, too concerned with thoughts that are merely attitudes and outlooks. But wait, there’ s more.

“See how easy it is to argue that you are an exception, that you personally are not governed by any such set of assumptions. This, of course, is another example of the measurement world at work” (p.22)

There you have it: the great circularity of true-believerdom. A world, which may or may not be exactly how you experience the world, is posited. Steps are taken to explain why this is the way things are. Then you are promised release from this prison once you see clearly and accept the gift you’ve been offered by your guide. Having been freed you can never look back.

It’s exactly the same, every time. The People’s Temple. The Branch Davidians. Erhard Seminars Training. Even Make America Great Again rallies. What amazes me is that it works.

All questions are answered and problems overcome when the proper frame of mind is adopted.

Though I had plenty of good reasons to walk away early on, I persisted. I didn’t want to negate the possibility that there might be some good here. That openness to possibility was not rewarded.

The work is a mess. The primary mode of instructing is the anecdote. I’ve nothing against that. The last time I looked, Christ did a pretty good job with the form. But the stories here are rarified, comprehensible on a deep level only by very privileged people. The Zanders are not just folks. He leads a symphony orchestra, she is a therapist, they attend Davos.

When they observe the form of seriousness, for example, using footnotes, it’s apparent doing so helps maintain a veneer of rigor.  And then there are the leaps that defy reason. This book was published in 2000.  After so much has passed, would any editor print this passage today?:

“If we want to increase the community’s strength against inhuman
forces, let’s include the terrorist in the discussion (emphasis added),
along with the families and the townspeople and the security forces
and the government. Let’s hear what he thinks about why this has happened…” (p. 191)

I have no truck with trying to understand yourself better. If you want great material success go for it. If you seek comfort and security I hope you find it. But the path to those things, I think,  doesn’t lie in this book or any charismatic movement.

But what do I know? I’m. just a spirit in the material world.

A Good Job in the City

A Big Life (in Advertising)
Mary Wells Lawrence

big-lifeFall, it seems, exists so I can renew myself. I know, the light is dying, the sky is more likely to be gray than blue and the nip in the air will soon turn to unwelcome arctic blasts. Why that seems to turn me back to the literature of my trade will have to remain a mystery.

Enough about me, let’s talk about Mary. Continue reading

Food for the Thinkers

Young_A-TECHNIQUEA Technique for Producing Ideas
James Webb Young

Like everyone, okay, like many people I know, there are days when I doubt the choices I’ve made. I’m talking about the big choices and among the biggest is what I’ve chosen to do to earn my bread.

On the best of days–and oh how I wish there were more of those–I’m pretty certain I could have made another choice. But I’m also pretty certain that the Continue reading

When the Sun Goes Down on Austin Town

whole-foods-market-logo-2008My cognitive dissonance meter started to peg about the time I reached the fish counter.

In Austin, Texas for a conference (working, not attending), and a retail marketer from way back, I had to visit the flagship store of Whole Foods, the behemoth ($14.2 BB in 2014 annual revenue) organic grocery chain that calls that burg home. I’m glad I did if only to have had an experience that Continue reading

It’s Not Art, It’s Commerce

The Art of Writing Advertising:  Conversations
with Masters of the Craft
Denis Higgins

art-adWhen the going gets tough, I turn to the masters. Surely I didn’t  make up what I’ve spent a working lifetime learning.

That this volume, which first appeared in 1965, is still in print is testimony to the high regard in which  the conversationalists are held even at the remove of a half-century or so. You might not know that from the advertising we see. And some of these are less loved than others. But they’re the giants of mid-20th century advertising.

This quick read originally appeared as a series in Advertising Age. My agency career began when Adweek was ascendant. By contrast, Ad Age (and don’t you Continue reading

Another Zyman? Yes!

I love dichotomies. Black/white, buyer/non-buyer, responded/did not respond. You can argue that such categorizing is an oversimplifcation of reality. And you might be right.

The defining question of my marketing career has been, “What are we getting for the money?” I first heard it in the mid-1980s as the most junior member of a corporate ad team. After all the talk of impressions and rating points and reach and frequency and the Continue reading

Numbers and Words

As a response marketer, I’ve been up to my ears in numbers since I got into the business. Math has become so important to what I do  that I went back to school to ladle on more.

That’s why I’m particularly attuned to what people do with numbers. If you read my last post you know I don’t agree with Rio Longacre. Our philosophical and executional differences aside, his post provides a beautiful illustration of what happens when you take the easier way out with numbers.

I’m a big believer in stating one’s biases upfront. Here’s one: when speaking Continue reading