Friday, May 30, 2008

Branding: The LOST Art

Okay, so I was only about 50 percent correct with my predictions about the LOST finale, but I was 100 percent correct about it being an extraordinary evening in front of the tube.

Everything about LOST is precisely what makes a successful brand.

It is engaging to its target audiences as well as its fringe audiences.  It is entertaining, exciting, frustrating, challenging and more.  It understands what the viewer wants and it delivers.

But not just the television show itself, which is usually excellent and occasionally sucks.  It is everything else that goes with the show.  The creators and producers of the show routinely acknowledge the audience and actually listen to what they are saying.  If and when appropriate, they will even adjust the product to meet the desires/demands of the consuming public.

Consider Ben Linus.  This rapscallion was initially scheduled to appear in  three episodes.  But the public was taken by the character and he is now a staple (some would argue the glue that binds) of LOST.  On the other hand, other less adored characters have been quickly disposed of (though nothing stays buried on the island).

Likewise, the actors who make up this everchanging cast are considerate and reflective about their audience.  They are in on the jokes, yet serious about the storylines.  They appear routinely throughout the year on talk shows and web casts to exchange their own views, frustrations and hopes for the island inhabitants.

Then there are the dozens if not hundreds of web sites, blogs and message boards/forums dedicated to the show.  Here, fans and fanatics alike exchange ideas, likes and dislikes about this product.  And as you might expect with such a well-orchestrated brand, the show's producers, writers and stars are willing to participate in the discussions.

There are also the videos on YouTube, the episodes available for free on, the articles in print and online media, the merchandise (including action figures) available in a variety of locations, LOST the video game, as well as LOST the board game.

This past season, out of consideration for its established and new fans, the show even began airing weekly reruns with special subtitles that clued in the somewhat clueless about the many secrets and mysteries they may have overlooked or misunderstood.

And, of course, there is the show itself.  As one who has been there since season 1 - episode 1, I can tell you truthfully that there have been ups and downs.  This is not a perfect product.  But then, it does not pretend to be.  What it does do, however, is strive to be the best it can be for all its customers.  Time and time again it delivers with knock out blows.  And even on its bad days it manages to deliver a few well-placed  jabs.

LOST is what every brand should aspire to be:  enticing, endearing, engaging and enduring.

In the immortal words of Ben Linus (speaking to John Locke):  "Picture a  box. You know something about boxes, don't you John?  Now picture a box that you can wish anything into. What would you say to that?"

I would say: Give me more LOST.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

We're Not In Kansas Anymore.

And now for something completely different.

Tonight is the season finale of LOST.  It will be a two-hour extravaganza.  I am already forewarned that it will suck.  So be it.

I will be planted on my living room couch (aka sofa) from 9:00 pm until it ends.  I will not answer the telephone.  I will not take bathroom breaks.  I may eat snacks, but they must be placed in front of me before the show begins.  I will be riveted to the flat screen like Jimmy Jet and His TV Set (thank you very much Shel Silverstein).

I can not wait.  I am a total dork.

Here's what I expect to happen...

With the help of Richard and the Others (and Kate and Sayid), Ben and John and Hurley will be rescued at the Orchid.  The freighter felons will escape (mostly alive) in the helicopter and head back to the ship, where Desmond is clearing the decks in anticipation of a brutal blast. Fortunately, due to the time distortion, it will take the freighter fiends a freaking lifetime to get to the ship. Meanwhile, Jack and Sawyer are working their way to the Orchid, where they hear the gunfire and run to the rescue that is already in progress.  Ben tells Richard to take the others and anyone else who wants to go back to the Temple (or maybe they all just stay at the orchid).  Meanwhile, Faraday is boating as many of the Oceanic survivors as possible back to the shore again.  He returns to the s hip one last time and everyone except Desmond is loaded onto the raft.  Desmond is staying; he is never stepping foot back on the island.  But just as they disappear into the mist, the helicopter arrives to initiate protocol 3 (that's right, they're going to blow up the freighter).  Back at the Orchid, Jack and Sawyer are flexing their egos, where they learn from Ben that John Locke is going to move the island.  Jack and Sawyer take off after John and catch up to him at the computer, where he is planning to move the island.  Eventually, all the island inhabitants end up at the Orchid, where Ben will attempt to shepherd everyone to safety.  "We're running out of time people." (get it?) Anyway, Someone realizes that the raft is still on the shore and that at least 6 people (and a couple days supplies) can leave the island before the island leaves them.  After way too much angst, hugging and kissing, the Oceanic 6 head off, board the raft and begin motoring away.  Back at the Orchid, John and Ben stand over the computer.  Locke enters the fateful numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42... and nothing happens. "You just don't get it, do you John?" Ben chides, pushing Locke aside and tapping back into the computer with a new set of numbers. The building begins to shake, Johns gets concerned, the magnetic explosion shoots into the sky...  cut to the raft where the Oceanic 6 are looking at the island as it suddenly disappears before their eyes.  Back into the breach once more, Ben smiling slyly at John, "I've got the feeling were not in Kansas anymore John."  "What did you do? Where are we going?"  "Well," says Ben, "there's no place like home."

Monday, May 26, 2008

Plan to Think. Think to Plan.

I have come to the conclusion that too many agency professionals either can not or are not willing to devote adequate time to the "thinking" process. And even fewer clients are willing to pay for it.

It's ridiculous, bordering on insane.

The business we are in requires exceptional thought. Like most jobs, much of what we do is repetitive. However, it is repetitive in the sense that writing is repetitive to journalists or surgery is repetitive to surgeons. Every situation involves subtle, if not unique differences that require thought... often deep thought. Inspection, consideration, reflection, even meditation are required to arrive at the proper and potentially best solution.

And oh by the way, that's what we are educated, trained and experienced at doing (at least in theory). Speaking for myself, I studied mass communications theory, interpersoanl communications, public relations, journalism and marketing until it was coming out my ears. Upon graduation I was immediately immersed into the minutia that is the foundation of our business, developing endless media lists, writing endless news releases, calling endless lists of reporters and editors to pimp my news releases, developing plans, being introduced through training and direct involvement in the larger scope of marketing, planning and implementing direct marketing campaigns, planning and implementing crisis communications initiatives, planning and implementing national publicity and media relations campaigns and on and on and on (28 years of nonstop agency action, working with big accounts and small businesses, local companies and international organizations, industrial accounts, consumer accounts, professional associations, blah, blah, blah).

In short, we know what we are doing.

Of course, expedience is often of the essence, but in the sense that a journalist must meet deadlines or a physician must save lives. Unfortunately too often the timing of an activity - whether it is research, strategic planning or the execution of a tactic - is driven not so much by critical deadlines as it is budgets.

More often than not it is essential and invaluable to take adequate time to think through a situation - considering target audiences and objectives and market conditions and timelines and a thousand other things - before jumping to a strategy or tactic. Instead we are focused on coming up with a quick and easy (and inexpensive) solution.

Time is money (the mantra of our industry), true enough. But working on a shoestring budget that does not account for "thinking" is foolish on both parts. Clients shouldn't expect it and agencies shouldn't do it. No one wins.

I am not talking about dubious "administrative" or "client management" budgets (bottomless buckets) that rightfully trigger flashing red lights for even the most generous client contacts. Nor am I advocating that the "thinking" process become a convenient excuse for inaction.

I am talking about allowing for budgets that account for reasonable "thinking" and the subsequent "sharing" and "development" of those thoughts.

Agencies, consider this: If a client is not willing to pay you for thinking, do you really want to be working with that client; going through the motions like a short order cook in an all night diner?

Clients, consider this: If an agency is willing to forego the thinking process and simply do the job as specified, do you really want to be working with that agency?

Mahatma Ghandi said that a man is the product of his thoughts; what we think, we become.

So what do we become if we do not think?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Hire Me?

It's that time of the year when graduating students are looking for jobs. Unfortunately for many students, it is also that time in the economic cycle when outplaced employees are looking for jobs.  Bodies smashing up against bodies.

Generally speaking, markeTING is not an advice column, but I have endless experience dealing with graduating students and out-of-work professionals.  I could share a thousand war stories; instead, here is some in-your-face advice for both categories of job seekers.  I offer it because I care:

1.  Be prepared.  Don't wait until you are out of school or out of work to get ready.  Long before the magical/cursed day arrives you must document your experiences and collect work samples and develop a resume that make you stand out from the crowd.  And if you don't have experience and work samples and a resume, then stop what you are doing, go get them and come back later.

2.  Know what you are doing.  If you are certain you want to be in the PR industry working for an agency, then visit a few agencies (not just the web sites) and meet a few people and conduct a couple of interviews.  Then, go visit a couple of corporate PR departments.  Then go visit a couple ad agencies and other strains of communications and marketing firms.  Get some first hand knowledge before taking the plunge. Geez, we do more research before we buy a mountain bike then we do looking for a job.  Getting work is a full time job. Get to it.

3.  Craft a solid resume.  Assuming you've done the internships and the summer jobs and the school volunteer work or have actual post-grad experience, then lay it out in a resume that gets to the point and makes a point (not a random listing of things you've done).  Stylizing it or having it designed is fine, but it is the content that counts.

4.  Craft a meaningful letter.  Whether you use the pony express or e-mail doesn't make a twit of difference.  Write a good letter.  Address it to the proper person, spell his or her name correctly, get the company name right, be interesting, be accurate and include a call to action. Oh, and take a minute to proof the letter.

5.  For the love of God, follow up on your letter.  I don't care how many people tell you not to call them; call them.  We receive hundreds of resumes every month, but less than a half dozen follow up calls.  Even if you are the reincarnation of Edward Bernays or a second cousin to Ivy Lee, we are not likely to have the time to call you. It's not personal, we are just really busy.

6.  Ask for an interview.  I get it, no one is hiring.  So what?  Ask for an informational interview. Don't be so arrogant or timid or lazy or whatever.  Set up an appointment to meet with someone (anyone) in order to learn something and make a contact and begin to build a network.

7.  Care.  Don't act like you care.  Don't pretend.  Care.  Show a little enthusiasm, a little excitement.  Ask questions, show samples, talk about your experiences, discuss your ambitions, make an effort.

8.  Be professional.  You know the old saying:  dress for the job you want, not the one you have. The same is true for your behavior.  If you want a job, behave like you already have the job.  Be on time, be personable, show respect, get to the point, be honest, be intelligent, be grateful, demonstrate your grit.

9.  For the love of God (again), follow up.  Whether you talk on the phone or meet in person, follow up.  Make a phone call, send a note, drop an email.  Just follow up.  And have a purpose beyond "thank you."  Report back on what you learned, ask for more advice, request the opportunity for a day of shadowing, get more leads.  Make the time count for something.

10.  Use your friends and family.  Ordinarily I would not offer such advice; I am not the type to take advantage of friends and family, BUT... There is nothing (not a thing) wrong with taking advantage of your contacts (mom, dad, uncle Bob, the guy next door, etc.) to create an opportunity.  Ask them if they can give you references or refer you.  Put your pride away and recognize that the only favor anyone is doing for you is opening a door.  At the end of the day you have to do all the work and you will be judged on your own merit.

It is okay to pray, but I believe we make our own luck.  Someone once said that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity (Seneca?); I agree.  Open your eyes.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Is it just me? No, it's not.

I saw Jimmy Carter on TV last night (the Tonight Show with Jay Leno).  Jimmy Carter used to be the President of the United States of America.  Now he is a superdelegate.

Jay asked him who he and his wife would nominate, but he would not say.  He did mention that his 11 grandchildren prefer Obama.  He also mentioned that his four children and all their spouses prefer Obama.  But as for he and his wife, they will wait until all the primary elections are completed (June 3, I believe).

Jimmy is a good man.  He says he will nominate whoever his constituents have voted for in the primaries.  But what about the rest of the superdelegates?  

There are a total of 799 superdelegates (this is a moving number) casting a total of 795 votes (don't ask).  And in theory, these SDs are not selected based on qualifications so much as status, which explains why Jimmy and Rosalynn are SDs.

But here is my favorite part:  There are no rules.

Pretty much, every SD can nominate whomever they darn well feel like.  Makes me proud to be an American.  It reassures me to know that all these primaries (excluding Florida and Michigan) pretty much can be rendered meaningless.  

I can not speak for anyone accept me, but I know I went to the polls after work in a pouring rain because I really believed that my vote counted.  Silly Pooh bear.

Which brings me to this weeks story about Aflac.  Clearly, one of the top companies in America. Properly run and profitable and a great place of employment.  And I was THRILLED earlier this week to find that Aflac has allowed its shareholders to actually vote on top executives' pay.  This is GREAT news, phenomenal news.  Finally corporate America is acknowledging that executive management will be held accountable.

Then again, no.

Although 93% of Aflac's shareholders voted in favor of the proposed compensation package (which they likely deserved), nothing would have happened if the same percentage voted against the package.  In other words, the votes are meaningless other than to tip off the board and management and the general public that shareholders are not happy.

Aflac, you are so close to doing something meaningful, and yet so far away.  

But this isn't all about superdelegates or Aflac, both of which are fine ideas (or institutions, if you prefer).  It is about the blatant willingness to discount the average person from having any say in what's going on around him or her.  

My vote must mean something, otherwise, what is my incentive to vote?  In the end, I will either walk away disillusioned or I will revolt.  Is that really what we want?