Why do companies wait till Christmas to create advertising that touches my soul? It’s never the wrong time of year to communicate beyond features and benefits and share why we exist and how it can impact our lives.  

Does turkey stimulate the amygdala, turning on the emotional processing center of the brain; making us more sensitive to emotive messages? Does excessive eating, alcohol, a little R&R and the celebration of the new year turn off the amygdala; transforming us back into robotic data processing machines void of emotion?

Of course not. We are first and foremost emotional beings, and in most cases, make emotional decisions backed by just enough logic to justify our actions. So why then do brands only communicate on this emotional level around the holidays? Why only then do they pause the chest pumping, feature touting and price promoting to remind us what it is we actually crave; love, connection, and purpose.

We are back to where we were before Christmas. The same mundane ads trying too hard to be funny, bragging about features and benefits that all the competitors claim, or worst of all, competing on price. But why?

All the classic Christmas stories, from It’s a Wonderful Life, to children’s animated specials, to A Christmas Story and even my personal favorite, Elf, call us out on this false boundary we set around Christmas. They are all written to inspire us to keep that Christmas spirit going all year, to never lose sight of what’s truly important to us. Yet two weeks later, it’s gone.

But just like those Christmas stories all tell us, it’s a choice we make. We can choose to see each other as data points and providers of features and benefits. Or, we can choose to see each other has humans and organizations of humans, needing and wanting love, connection and purpose. We can choose to communicate from a commerce mindset, focusing on creating a transaction. Or, we can choose to communicate from a human mindset, focusing on serving the individual, providing them with the tools, education and inspiration to love, connect and fulfill their purpose.

Dylan Blew My Mind

Powerful authentic brands that stand the test of time are built stone by stone through a process of uncovering and deeply understanding who they are at their core and then sharing that process with the world. 

It was 1997, and I was a sophomore at Rochester Institute of Technology studying advertising photography. There was a group of us sitting in a friend’s finished attic (doing what college kids do in cozy attics in the dead of a blistery Rochester winter) when a friend said, “I’ve got a new album you need to hear”.

A moment later Bob Dylan’s young weathered voice and simple guitar picking moved through all of us as it resonated off the low hanging pitched ceiling. “Hard Times in New York Town” pierced my heart and flooded my soul like nothing I had ever heard before. We sat and listened to that album all night and replayed that moment countless times over the next few years. How were songs, many of them over 35 years old at the time and recorded using the most basic technology, able to touch us so deeply and influence our lives?

Dylan is simple.
Simple is powerful. Most Dylan songs are three chords. Most of the three disk sets feature only Dylan: just him, his guitar and harmonica. He is the ultimate example that it actually doesn’t take much to communicate deeply. The less that is said, the more piercing the potential of those words/images/experiences. I guess I should stop there.

Dylan is himself.
Dylan has always been and will always be unapologetically himself. He says what he sees and feels; he does what he feels is right and then leaves it at that. Even his voice is unapologetically himself. He didn’t go looking to make a hit; he just did him, and that is where art is born. He then put that art out into the world for people to do with it what they may and decide for themselves what to make of it.

The press and most of the public struggled with this. They often asked him what he meant by his songs or tried to attach him to movements, genres or current events. Dylan never understood this because he was just playing music; people could make of it what they will. This wasn’t posturing or positioning but simply being himself, and that came through in his music. It is the ultimate position, and the only defensible one. 

Dylan evolved.
Because Dylan is simple and is himself, he was able to evolve. He experimented and played with music, but more importantly he experimented and played with who he was as an individual and what he might be capable of. Because he evolved, so did his sound– countless times. Even as his health waxed and waned he persisted in being his authentic self, allowing what was happening on the inside to come through to the outside.

Bob Dylan remains one of the most authentic and powerful personal brands that exist today, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. He built that brand the old-fashioned way. He didn’t go around liking other people’s posts so they would like him back, vigilantly posting once a day at just the right time. He didn’t defend his name on Google searches to drive everyone to his website or buy his competitor’s names as search terms. He didn’t mold himself to the latest musical trends or chase the white space.

Instead he focused on himself. He put in the work to discover who he is and then shared that with the world. That’s the old-school way to build an authentic brand that stands the test of time. It remains the only way.

What’s The Problem Today?

Most businesses don’t wake up asking this question because we are too busy dealing with yesterday’s problem to notice, care about or focus on today’s problem. What if there was a team focused on only today’s problem?

Log jams alter flow hydraulics by diverting flow towards the bed or banks, increasing flow resistance and upstream pools. This then diverts flow onto the floodplain, damming the channel and causing water to spill over the structure. While this is the effects of log jams on river geomorphology according to Wikipedia, it sounds an awful lot like the work flows of many companies.

The river is like all the work that needs to get done, and the banks of the river are our capacity to do the work: A big rain occurs (like the holiday season, a big PR hit, an employee leaves, perfect product/market fit), we max out our capacity and suddenly logs (unexpected problems) come flying down the river, jamming up any choke point.

If the big rain is temporary, we might be able to deal with the overflow by working harder and longer, disappointing some customers for a short period of time but not so many and so badly that we damage our reputation. The problem with this path is the rains will come again. Do we really want to take the risk of damaging our reputation and relationship with our customers?

If the big rain is seasonal or the sign of the new normal, we can scramble to hire more people to manage the increased flow of the river – throw people at the problem. The issue with this is that builders and managers are two different types of people: one solves problems and the other keeps those now-solved-problems from occurring again. Neither enjoys the other’s job or excels at it. They each trigger different cultures within teams or organizations.


What if there was a team whose only focus was to unclog existing jams, proactively prevent future jams and work to sculpt the river for optimal health and flow. This team would be:

  • an eclectic mix of individuals, each with specific skill sets and compatible mindsets
  • free from day-to-day responsibility of running the business
  • able to move quickly from log jam to log jam (or dive deep, if required)
  • empowered to hire outside resources like developers, creatives or other tactical specialists
  • capable of gaining a 360-degree view of issues and their impact on the business
  • skilled at designing 360-degree solutions for the business
  • reporting only to the leadership team

What if your organization had its own special forces team (internal or outsourced) so that it was able to solve your most pressing challenges without diverting existing resources from the task at hand?

Could you make more progress faster?
Could you increase employee satisfaction and therefore customer satisfaction?
Could it pay for itself or better yet be a profit multiplier?
Could you change your culture into a problem-solving organism?
Could you, the leader, founder, change-maker, be more effective by day and sleep at night?


Truly Communicating

In Short
The dilution and evolutions in the meaning of words, combined with a ratcheting up of noise, makes truly connecting with individuals or an audience increasingly difficult. Our only choice is to be impeccable with our words.

In Depth
I find myself using the world truly a lot. I get that it’s viewed as filler, an unnecessary adjective taking up room on the page, but I can’t help myself. I truly can’t help but use it. I stare at it on my screen and think, ‘Do I really need that word?’ My answer is most often yes.

I feel the need to emphasize that the word I’ve chosen, was done so intentionally. That this isn’t a word used out of convenience or for emotional effect, but because it is the right word. That this word might be simple, overused or misused, but at its core there is a very real and powerful meaning that we should pause and take note of.

For example, there are things we desire, and things we truly desire. There is caring and truly caring. Serving and truly serving. There is a layer deeper than our first reaction which requires us to pause, think and feel for a moment.

If I was a better writer, perhaps my message would come across without its use. Or maybe our words are losing their meaning. Our language is in a constant state of change and we are in an accelerated period of change; insert your personal opinion on millennials, Trump, social media and marketers.

The bottom line is I find it difficult to truly communicate without noting my authentic sincerity. This is the problem facing many companies as content replaces marketing and distribution becomes the new circulation, all while the volume on the noise dial is set to 10.

I think ultimately the answer to all of this is not “truly”, but rather consistency. If we say what we mean and mean what we say for longer enough, people will come to understand that the words, images and experience we choose are meaningful (full of meaning), that there are principles and values behind them, a depth to these words born from an authentic desire to truly connect.

Perhaps someday I’ll feel I don’t need the trulyies.


Wrestling The Devil

In Short
The details, or the weeds as they are often called, get a bad rap, are considered a productivity trap and something the smart leaders steer clear of. But if the devil is in the details, success requires wrestling the devil to the ground.

I’ve made my living by diving into the weeds and wrestling devils. The truth is, most devils are nothing more than a lack of communication. A lack of clarity in either the vision, the starting point or the path connecting the two. This is why diving into the details is so important.

That devil we’re wrestling with right now looks nasty from the outside; it looks complicated and unruly, kind of like a giant knot of twine. But as we dive in, we see it’s a single string that just needs to be untangled, little knot by little knot.

So we start with the most available knot. That leads us to the next, and the next, and the next, as we slowly but surely unwind the mess, a misunderstanding of order.

What we’ll always find is a person behind all those knots. Not a devil, although they may seem possessed by one, it is a person doing what they think is the right thing. That person might be us, or a vendor, or an employee, or a whole team; but someone, somewhere is making this mess or allowing the mess to be made.

Once we’ve identified the little devil causing problems (again, usually unwittingly) the wrestling begins: Obviously not physical in nature… this is mental and emotional wrestling. It is taking the time to change how the individual sees, thinks, or feels; clarifying and aligning the vision, the starting point or the path between the two.

Changing how an individual sees, thinks or feels is usually not easy. Not because change is hard- change is actually quite easy- but because we humans don’t like change. We make change hard.

Change is scary, uncomfortable (at first) and confusing. It makes us feel like beginners again, like we’re not smart or talented or valuable. This is why people don’t wrestle with the devil in the details. Devil wrestling often turns into ego-wrestling, which can get heavy and more real than most can handle.

Heavy and real, now that sounds like work worth doing to me. That sounds like change that can positively impact a person’s life, which can positively impact a whole company, which can positively impact thousands of people’s lives.

This is why I wrestle devils for a living.

A few of my favorite resources for devil wrestling:
Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard
The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph
Extreme Ownership: How Navy Seals Lead and Win
The Power of Story: Change Your Story Change Your Destiny in Business and in Life 
All things Seth Godin

P.S. I should point out that not all devil wrestling is hard. When an individual or team sets aside their egos out of a hunger to learn, evolve and do what’s best for the brand, this process of change is fun, fast and yields nearly immediate results.

P.P.S. Sometimes the opposite is true and the devil wrestling requires more time and energy than the organization can bear, there is too much collateral damage and too little change. Sometimes the knot makers need to find another place to play.


Management vs. Control

At age three, my daughter was a skilled Zen teacher. During one of my lessons, she was trying to fight back pooping after three days of willful negotiation. As we both found, we can only attempt to manage pooping, we can’t actually control it.

As humans, we learn we can manage nature and over time confuse that management with control. We believe our will is all powerful, and we ignore universal laws. We dismiss the data. We hold tightly (pun intended) to our beliefs.

I’m not so sure my daughter’s belief about her powers over poop are all that different than a climate change denier’s powers over data. Or the business owner’s willful resistance to shifting trends as they cling to beliefs no longer supported by data.

Nature is always evolving, markets shifting, expanding, contracting. So we, too, must always be evolving by listening, watching, measuring and, perhaps most importantly, being honest with ourselves. If we don’t, well, I hope there’s a bathroom nearby.

Blocking & Tackling

In Short
Sustainable growth lies in executing the fundamentals thoroughly and consistently, day after day. The fundamentals are not the flashy, exciting things to work on, but they are what make the flashy and exciting things possible and successful.

The Philly Special didn’t win the Eagles Super Bowl 52; blocking and tackling did. Blocking and tackling is what wins every Super Bowl. Only after you’ve got the fundamentals down can the breakout runs, deep passes and methodical movement down the field be possible – oh, and of course, the trick plays.

Going to market works pretty much the same way. It all starts with blocking and tackling.

We often want to do the fancy stuff, especially the go-to-market teams. They want to create emotive videos, redesign logos, come up with clever slogans. Smart, long-tail search engine optimization is boring; functional content on the website isn’t sexy; an automated email series to support a new customer doesn’t win awards; incremental improvements to core products don’t get big events. But all this is the blocking and tackling that ultimately wins market share.

Marketing today, but especially digital marketing, is about the fundamentals. This is because everything is measurable:
We can measure the average order value of a new customer.
We can measure the annual or lifetime value of a customer.
We can measure the viability of targeted audiences.
We can measure the effect of each change to the message.
We can measure the performance of specific pages on the website.
We can measure the return on each dollar spent on each marketing vehicle.

It’s this measurement that allows us to incrementally optimize. Let’s be clear here: This is not to masterfully trick the customer. This is to communicate our value and purpose so that it resonates with our customers (not the whole world, just the customers that see the world as we do and desire solutions like the ones we provide).

Too many companies currently have too much money and are not measuring and optimizing their actions. Marketing budgets are being spent in unsustainable ways. The Silicon Valley mindset of acquiring customers at any cost, which works for bleeding edge technologies and platforms that require a network effect, has made its way into every industry and has created a culture of unsustainable customer acquisition and retention.

Most of us are not building Amazon or the next unicorn brand. For 99.9% of us, it’s time to get back to the fundamentals. For us, growth is all about blocking and tackling. Three of the most effective places to get started:

  1. Measure and analyze all go-to-market efforts.
    If we don’t have time to measure, analyze, optimize, repeat, then we are doing too much or need to hire additional talent to support our efforts. Too many of us are too busy and not paying attention to what the marketplace is telling us. And so we make poor, uninformed decisions about where we spend our money and how we communicate.

a. Measure the performance of every vehicle and the sales channel as a whole.

b. Analyze data at least monthly, preferably weekly; and if you are spending a
significant percentage of your revenue on marketing or have large peaks and valleys to your business, then measure daily.

c. Make decisions based on clear trends in data. Don’t lose who you are, or how you communicate. Optimize your ability to tell your story.

2. Optimize what we own first.
The most cost effective optimization comes from our owned marketing vehicles because, once optimized, they require little ongoing spend. Where paid marketing vehicles require us to continually feed the beast.

a. Our website
Building a better mousetrap will improve the performance of every marketing vehicle. Through user testing, consumer interviews and the data available for free from Google Analytics, we can improve the site experience, increase our conversion rate and drive long-term customer loyalty.

b. Organic Search
“We’re spending too much on search engine optimization”, said nobody, ever. Google is free marketing for life. Allocate marketing spending up-front to make sure Google’s search algorithms can clearly see what you offer. Target the long-tail customers for uncrowded access to highly valuable customers. Support from SEO specialists is amazingly cheap given the return on investment. Moving from page 2 to page 1 in a search, or from the bottom of page 1 to the top can trigger significant growth.

c. Email
Starting with automated email we can deliver a series of valuable information to customers based on if they a) are just signing up to hear about our next promotion, b) made their first purchase or c) have just spent more than $1,000 with us. Once optimized to further develop the relationship with the customer, automated emails are the gifts that keep on giving. They drive repeat buying habits and long-term loyalty without another second of our attention.

As for the weekly or monthly communications, make them useful. Give users a reason to want to open the email. Educate, entertain, surprise. It’s not that we are too busy for email; we have too much choice in how we spend our time.

d. Social Media
Let’s get clear, social media is a distribution vehicle. The question isn’t, “What content should we create for social media?” The question is, “Is the content we’re creating interesting or useful enough to distribute through social media?” What is working? Who cares how many followers we have. What matters is engagement. How many likes, comments and clicks? Understand what’s resonating and at what cost.

3. Expand our audience.
Once we are measuring our activities, and have optimized the digital world we own, we can now cost effectively expand our reach by paying for traffic. We are able to do this cost effectively because we know who our customers are. We know we can connect with them in a meaningful way. We know how to form a relationship so they will come back to buy from us again and again. It’s simply a matter of finding more of our customers.

Whether we use paid search, social media advertising, banner ads or whatever new-fangled tactic arises, it really doesn’t matter. We simply follow the data in search of our customers.

a. We cast a net. Usually the first cast is not profitable. But we are seeking new places to find our customers. Using the proven communications from our owned vehicles.

b. Once we’ve found our customers, we hone the location and message until we’ve found a cost-effective way to introduce ourselves.

c. We repeat, casting a new net. Seeking the long-tail locations where we can compete and win attention. Again, not competing for everyone’s attention. Not seeking all customers. Just our customers.

This is blocking and tackling. It’s not flashy, but it works. We’ve seen it work for sub one million dollar companies and those pushing to cross the 100 or 200 million mark.


Groundswell Change

We find resistance to change is contagious. Fortunately, we find change is also contagious.

Few welcome change, because change is hard and scary. For organizations, change is especially scary when it’s instigated from the outside. It is viewed as a threat to the tribe, with the resistance hardwired into their collective psyche; they are not us, therefore, they do not understand us or know what is good for us.

Change from the top down is also met with resistance if there is not a deep level of trust. Because top down change is being pushed on the organization, it requires buy-in from the start, skillful change-management along the way and sustained effort to avoid regression before new pathways are created and grooves worn into place. Few leadership teams are experienced in change or have the bandwidth to sustain such an effort.

Groundswell change on the other hand, starts with a few individuals peppered throughout the organization, slowly moving through teams, building momentum as it travels–occurring gradually and then suddenly.

Groundswell change is triggered by leaders in the organization (not to be confused with leadership which is determined by titles). Leaders are the individuals that people go to when there is a problem because they have proven to navigate the organization to resolve issues, guide colleagues towards solutions or be a sympathetic ear.

These leaders exist in every organization, at every level, and influence across teams. They are lighthouses in the fog of war and cheerleaders through the daily grind. These leaders, too, will start off resistant to change as they protect their tribe and the brand as a whole. However, as trusted leaders, they are also keenly aware of problems in the organization and their systemic nature.

The first step in building trust in leaders is to listen. The team members need to know the change-maker understands the problem–– not just the symptoms, but the problems at the root of the symptoms.

Leaders then need a vision for a better future. How are these issues going to be resolved and how will the organization look, feel and act? They need a clear and honest picture of the future to buy into. They are not looking for rainbows and unicorns. Leaders want to understand the reality of the path forward, the good, the bad and the ugly.

At this point, no trust has been built -only the soil prepared for trust to grow. Trust comes from delivering. Leaders need to see issues resolved. They need to experience improvement–– for themselves and their colleagues. Even better is if they themselves are empowered to resolve the issues.

That’s when the groundswell begins. That’s when people turn their heads to see what’s happening over there. Word spreads about lives improving. The results start to show in ways others can see, experience, or hear about. Actual change, however small, stirs a desire to join.

As momentum builds, larger more difficult challenges can be taken on as the will to power through the dip and the energy to sustain the effort start teeming through every level of the organization.

Change is hard and scary. Fortunately, the feeling of empowerment that comes from shaping the destiny of a brand, organization or our life as a whole is one of the most rewarding human experiences.


Our Strategy Is Worthless

Our brand strategy, our business strategy, our go-to-market strategy, our social media strategy, it’s all worthless. All that time contemplating, debating and refining, it’s all worthless. Unless… the organization can execute tactically.

The success of the brand, will be determined by the organizations ability to embody its unique principles and values in all that it does; and to continue to do so as the business scales.

The success of the business will be determined by the organizations ability to understand and execute the business plan; while dealing with market challenges outside of its control and the growing pains faced as the businesses scale.

The success of the marketing will be determined by the organizations ability to align its efforts across multiple teams, internal and external, to put the energy of the entire organization behind the tip of the messaging and experiential spear.

At the end of the day, the success of a business comes down to the success of people. The ability of individuals to execute, and do so as a collective in lock step with their peers.

We spend little time developing talent. We financially penalize those that stick around and reward the new person with that prestigious college and big brand on their resume. We spend little time building leaders and furthering education. Once a year we align the troops on a plan, then send them off to a year-long battle that never unfolds as designed.

Strategy is necessary. Planning is critical. Execution, by individual people, in the trenches, trying to balance work and life and emotions and desires, that is what determines if we live, die or thrive as an organization.

What are we going to do about that? How can we best ensure success? Maybe we should start by dedicating a bit more of our time to our people, instead of our spreadsheets.

The Wisdom of Voltron

Preface: This is not a geeky sci-fi deep-dive.

In the mid-80’s the Japanimation inspired sci-fi cartoon Voltron burst onto our five-channel TV scene (that’s including PBS) to become the number one children’s show. Looking back, the story is pretty ridiculous, five astronauts each piloting a cat-like spacecraft that together form into a mega-sized futuristic knight robot to fight alien robot invaders, using a sword in one hand and a cat mouth as it’s other hand.

Yet me and my brothers were glued to the TV, and not just because of our channel deficiency. Voltron made a comeback on Netflix in 2015 and is currently in its third new season, competing in today’s crowded content field. Voltron is unique in its storyline, standing apart even today.

Most superhero’s act alone. At times, they come together to fight evil, but they are all individuals. Many cartoons and children’s programming will involve teamwork; individuals taking on challenges with help from another. Only Voltron relied on all five characters, each unique in their strengths and weaknesses, coming together to form one powerful unit.

Voltron is the model for organizations today. As our culture moves towards individual sports, the individual as the brand, the individual dominating as the storyline; it’s the team of individuals working as one entity that has always been the key to success, and is only made more critical in today’s complex and rapidly changing business landscape. The challenge for many businesses is that this mindset runs counter to the American culture, creating a vacuum of true leaders and “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” like thinking.

As our sense of community has crumbled, as our culture idolizes the individual, our work environment is now the dominant vehicle for cultivating leadership and the ability to work as one. It’s up to organizations to instill this wisdom and experience in individuals. If an organization isn’t trying to build an army of Voltrons, it’s success will be short lived.

Are we building a boat or a house?

Boats move and turn- big ones slowly, small ones quickly; but they all turn. If we have a direction in mind, a crew that can communicate and a rudder to steer, we can control its course and speed. The speed and agility of the boat is dependent on the boat design and the capabilities of the crew.

IBM is a boat. Berkshire Hathaway is a boat. Amazon is an Armada.

Houses are affixed to the ground. The surrounding land is surveyed to select the right site. Then the house is designed and built to fit that site, to be sturdy and never move. Change comes from painting the outside, redoing the interior design, or putting on an addition. The aesthetics, experience and quality of construction come from the team that designed and built the house and is maintained by the homeowner or occupant.

Sears is a house. Toys R’ Us is a house. So is Red Bull, Prada and Whole Foods.

Are we building a house or a boat? Are we developing a specific solution to a specific problem (a house), or are we pursuing a purpose (a boat) no matter where it takes us?


Agency Rules

We thought we’d share some rules for hiring and working with agencies (us included) that we’ve developed over years from seeing some truly dysfunctional agency relationships.

  1. Task few with thinking and many with doing.
  2. Manage agencies directly, never letting an agency get between you and an agency.
  3. Take the time to get clear; the clearer the input, the more efficient and effective the output.
  4. Make measurable performance metrics and review those metrics regularly. (See rule 23)
  5. If you are going to choose not to listen to them, then don’t bother hiring them.
  6. When it no longer works, move on. Agencies are not marriage material.
  7. Be of high value to the agency’s image or bottom line, or be fun and interesting to work with.
  8. Make sure you are getting the nerds, geeks and weirdos; the “cool kids” are just for show.
  9. Don’t pay double or triple or quadruple for entry-level talent, hire your own 23-year-old and have the agency tell them what to do.
  10. Get your own references, not the ones they send you.
  11. A worthy agency will push you to the edge of your comfort zone and show you the results of their recommendations, the good, bad and ugly.
  12. If they treat their team like commodity labor, you will not get great work. You will get done work.
  13. If it’s a lifestyle agency, designed for employment while playing in the mountains or ocean, you will never be their priority.
  14. Provide them with challenges they need to solve, not solutions to execute.
  15. Ask lots of questions in order to learn to fish, if not tactically then strategically.
  16. They need to understand your business model (how you make and spend money) and how you operate.
  17. You need to understand their business model (how they make and spend money) and how they operate.
  18. The bigger, nicer and more prestigious their office, the less work you receive for every dollar you spend.
  19. Don’t hire an agency when a good freelancer can do the work just as good, cheaper, and with better customer service (because you mean more to their reputation and bottom line).
  20. Communicate as needed, not just weekly and at a set time.
  21. Play devil’s advocate, -red team blue team- to understand solutions from all sides.
  22. If they are doing work you and your team don’t understand, you need to get educated or get a second opinion to gain that understanding.
  23. Good work is not just pretty work; it’s effective work. (see rule 4, but be careful what you measure)