Tuesday, May 31, 2005

There's hope for small.

When you're running a small company, your enthusiasm can occasionally run a little low. The stretching of resources, the difficulties of pitching bigger business — sometimes one starts to wonder if it's just unrealistic to take on larger competitors.

Whenever that happens here, we head over to a local place called Water Street Coffee Joint for inspiration. There are now two locations in Kalamazoo and both are thriving. Granted, Starbucks still hasn't opened up down the street. But, quite honestly, I don't think they could beat this place.

What's so brilliant about it? For starters, they have incredibly dedicated, customer-focused employees. But another important lesson is that the place is always changing. The downtown location is tiny, but the owner still finds ways to tweak the actual building. A new screen door, a permanent awning — small changes that people actually discuss. And the product mix is never static either. They have their core products, but they are constantly adding new things — teas, new food, a different roast.

The lesson is an old one and it's actually important for businesses both large and small. Don't ever think you have a winning formula.

Keep tweaking. Or die.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Bob Lutz blogs. Will it help?

As the woes of General Motors are reported daily in print and on television, Bob Lutz (with help, of course, from his communications team) continues to offer a refreshingly frank take on things on his Fastlane blog. What I really appreciate is the way that even negative comments — and there are plenty of them — remain published. It shows Bob realizes that being transparent and honest is essential in today's media environment. (Of course, they did pull their advertising from the LA Times after some negative coverage, but check out how that was handled on the blog. Made that decision seem a lot less shortsighted.)

GM — massive, bureaucratic — is a hard company to love. And I've never been a fan. But, oddly, Lutz's unvarnished thoughts are making me feel better about the company. It's certainly more effective than the traditional advertising Buick is airing. I mean, what year in the 1970's must have served as the inspiration for that campaign?

Of course, my concern is that a few years from now GM's blogging enterprise will be viewed as merely another failed venture by a floundering company. If you really consider the tiny size of their blog investment, however, it might be about the smartest thing they're doing. Now if they could just figure out how to bring about real health care reform so they're competing on a level playing field.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The New Yorker. Now more precious.

A while back I wrote about print publications — which ones would live and which ones would die. Basically, my theory is that the print publications that are precious to their readers — the ones that people resist putting in the recycling bin — are the ones that will endure.

Newsweek seems hell bent on bringing my predictions to fruition even faster than I had scheduled. Meanwhile, one of the publications that I said would live, The New Yorker, continues to evolve and improve.

Of course, The New Yorker happens to be my favorite magazine. Ever. But rather than remain static, David Remnick et al continue to improve it in small but important ways.

For years, the back page was devoted to some sort of commentary. Sometimes humor, sometimes not. It was, like most of The New Yorker, really well done.

But it wasn't precious. There was other material like it elsewhere in the magazine. So, recently, The New Yorker began to devote the back page to a weekly cartoon caption contest. They provide the famous cartoon and readers get a chance to write the caption. It's online, so it's very easy to do. The magazine staff picks three finalists and lets readers choose a winner.

Engaging. Rewarding. Evolving.

So as an increasingly irrelevant magazine is retracting stories, a great magazine is becoming even more interesting to its readers.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Business Resistance to Blogs.

I loathe adding to the relentless stream of blog entries about blogging and the blogosphere and blog etiquette and so forth. But I do think it's worth reading Steve Rubel over at MicroPersuasion for his take on how many in the business media are saying that blogs are overhyped and will never be adopted by business in any significant way.

First, let me say that the naysayers could be right. Blogs are probably overhyped. They've burned a little hot lately.

But I think blogs are just becoming the victims of bad marketing. People hear the word "blog" and think it's something alien. Bottom line is what I've always said — a blog is simply a web site that allows for instant, dynamic publishing. Blogs are about moving the web beyond static brochureware — the stuff that always bored the crap out of me — and making it what the best media has always been.

New. Changing. Interesting.

One of the best quotes in Rubel's piece is that, "...many consumers are visiting blogs without even realizing it because they look so professional." That's the thing. There's really no fundamental difference between a blog and a traditional web site. Except, of course, that a blog changes and a traditional web site just sits there. Sure, a traditional site is probably still necessary like a brochure, but it's not something that really builds value.

I'mn still a bit frustrated when I fail to convince business people of the value of blogs. Beyond the chance to create a relevant, interesting voice for a company, they can help focus thinking and strategy. Being forced to write cogent thoughts sharpens anyone.

It's time to stop thinking about blogs like they're rants and raves or a teenager's journal. They're publishing tools that are making the web worth reading again.

Monday, May 09, 2005

American Association of Advertising Agencies meets. Accomplishes nothing.

The Four A's held their annual management conference last week. It was filled with the usual — faces flushed pink by one cocktail too many, hair plugs, and white men.

Naturally, the 4A's also made sure they held their conference in a location that would help them achieve a deeper understanding of the typical American consumer. You know, Bermuda.

(Not that one would expect anything different from a group led by a man called O. Burtch Drake. O. Burtch — now there's a name with street cred.)

I almost feel bad for Stuart Elliott trying to write a summary of this boondoggle that doesn't sound like a piece for Us magazine. Try as he does to make it sound as if something constructive was at least attempted, it's quite obvious all that went on was a lot of har-har-har and petty sniping.

So what were some of the important topics tackled by the leaders of the agencies who think the 4A's is still relevant? Let's see. There was the creation of a permanent museum for advertising — perfect for an industry so many business people consider a dinosaur. There were lots of, "Oh, my God's!" when many thought the CEO of Volvo North America had put the auto maker's account into review. (She had not. She was merely demonstrating how little respect she has for the business. She probably hadn't even met the head of her agency until he introduced her — advertising people are getting so small and irrelevant these days.) And then there was that hilarious Richard Jeni routine — how about that AOL gut buster?

Okay, maybe Andy Berlin had something interesting to say, but it wasn't anything we haven't heard before. It's also something that will never be implemented.

Jack Klues, the head of Starcom, does earn some points for bluntness for saying that it is time to stop worrying about who owns ideas. Basically, he thinks that agency people need to check their egos. Again, not really new and not bloody likely.

For the record, our firm has never been a member of the 4A's. And, it seems, never will be.

Best wishes, O. Burtch.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Mark Cuban is annoying. Even worse, he could be right.

Mark Cuban, the guy who turned broadcast.com into a personal fortune that basically lets him do whatever the hell he wants, can be awfully annoying. The gaudy home, the smirk, the Jobs-ian devotion to a wardrobe that seems to consist of nothing but jeans and polo shirts.

That said, one still has to admire his complete lack of concern about who he pisses off. He has authored a remarkably blunt blog since he bought the Dallas Mavericks, he's been escorted out of arenas for berating officials and now he's about to blow up the Hollywood distribution model. Just as soon, of course, as he produces some movies.

Basically, his plan is to release movies in all mediums at the same time — theaters, DVDs and pay-per-view. No more big buildup to a movie theater premiere. There are plenty of others in Hollywood who have mused about this in the past, but they worried about losing their relationships with movie theaters. Cuban owns a movie theater chain and, of course, doesn't really give a damn. One of the many, many advantages of being a billionaire.

They cover the story and Cuban's thinking pretty well over at Boing Boing.

I appreciate this idea. Let people choose how and where they see something, but don't dictate when they see it. When I was younger and without a two-year-old, I went to the cinema a whole lot more. Fact is, there is still nothing like the movie theater experience. I'd like to go more than I do now, but it's just not in the cards. I do, however, have a pretty nice home theater system and I'd like to be able to talk about current movies with people who don't have two-year-olds. Instead, I have to fake that I know the movie based on reading a review in The New Yorker.

So there's the new media business side of my brain that likes the idea. Trouble is, there's also this little part of my heart that worries we're stripping away yet another communal experience — the movie premiere — that's a part of our social fabric. Packing a theater on the first day of a movie, waiting in line for concert tickets, half the nation watching the same TV show — I'm afraid these group gatherings are fading quickly. And I worry, even as I relish the thought of listening to a Garrison Keillor podcast while driving north at 1 AM, that it's not necessarily a good thing.

I am, however, just one man. And media distribution is blowing up with or without me.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Blogs aren't that complicated. No matter what bloggers say.

I agree with David Burn over at Ad Pulp on the annoying nature of blog coverage by big media. So much focus on bloggers complaining about, yes, big media. So much blah-blah about this blogger or that blogger. So much he said, she said. It makes it seem as if blogs are only about bloggers talking among themselves.

All the talk about "famous bloggers" obscures the following points:

Blogs are really just dynamic publishing web sites. I think every company should design a blog link into their site even if they only plan to use it for news on an infrequent basis.

Blogs let most businesses and organizations get everything they need — news, contact information and, most importantly, relevance — in a web site. In about ten minutes.

Blogs are a tool that takes the web beyond the static, brochure ware of the past.

Recently, I've heard a lot of the long-time web people comment that they're as excited about the Internet as they were back in the late nineties. I never got too excited about it back then because I'm not a tech geek and I thought all the content was lame. Now the whole space is interesting because tools exist so people without thick glasses and body odor can keep content fresh.

I do think blogs are allowing good writers without access to the publishing elites find a voice, but that's just one part of it. Smart companies are figuring that out.

Purple Cow Theory Gone Awry.

Well, this is, ah, different.

It's more proof that if it's really out there, it probably starts in Japan. (UPDATE: My speed reading got the better of me. The location is actually Taiwan. Which screws up my whole theory, but I don't have time to reformulate a new one.)

And then shows up on Josh Rubin's site.

And finally, I hope, just goes away.