The Heart of the Matter

Lub-dub. Lub-dub.

The sound of a heart beating. That amazing muscle in the left-central portion of your abdomen that works 24/7/365. No need for you to tell it to compress itself roughly 72 times a minute, 4,320 times an hour, 103,680 times in a day. And if it doesn’t do its job… well, you know. But it’s Monday morning, so let us go to a happier place. Well, not just yet, because reality is the second law of thermodynamics does kick in. Things wear out. Entropy is everywhere. Hearts do stop.

Now the happier place: we live in a brave new world where the digital and physical are meeting and amazing things are afoot . That brings us to 3D printing. Unfortunately, most of the doodads printed on a MakerBot are, well, less than amazing. Little trinkets of bunnies, bracelets and bobbles. custom.material.heartx299But groups like Organovo, Autodesk and 3D Systems are pushing the boundaries with biological 3D printing. And now researchers have figured out how to print customized devices for your heart. Not the old one-size-fits-all defibrillators and pacemakers, but custom designed ones, perfect fit replacements. Before we know it, custom valves and arteries will follow. And that is pretty damn cool.

So you ask why is this important to me? Ah, well. If we can customize body parts – hey now keep it out of the gutter – then how long before we are helping our marketing clients design, market and then distribute printable products? The consumer sits at home, orders a dress, pays for it and hits print, then hangs it in her closet for the next dinner party with her print-at-home pearl necklace. Not this year maybe, but all of us should think about that scenario today as we will be asked about it tomorrow.

That day is coming and luck favors the prepared.


The Final Word

I know someone who used to work at a boutique investment bank here in New York — until she retired at age 40. (Good career choice.) Her job there was, basically, to advise huge companies on matters financial.

These companies paid her bank multi-millions of dollars for that advice. And they pretty much always accepted it without question — as gospel.

It’s the same with management consulting firms like Bain and McKinsey. Clients pay them through the nose and drool over their advice. (To make matters worse, the Bains of the world don’t even have to implement their advice. Nice racket.)

Anyway, it all got me to thinking: Why don’t advertising agencies have the same relationship with their clients?

How many creative presentations have you been in where your clients have asked, “Well, what’s your recommendation?” — only to blatantly ignore your recommendation.

It’s come to the point where my first instinct is to use reverse psychology and recommend something I don’t want to sell.

And that’s just one example. I hear similar stories on a weekly basis from colleagues in all departments across the industry. It’s endemic — and extremely frustrating.

The question is, why have agencies become vendor-like-objects rather than acknowledged, unquestioned experts?

Yes, much of what we produce is quite subjective, and lots of people (too many, actually) feel they can do it well — or at least opine on it with aplomb. Yet photography is as subjective as it gets, but no one questions Annie Leibovitz on a shoot.

Years ago, there was a small cadre of established thought leaders in the industry — David Ogilvy, for example.

David’s greatest success was in promoting his own genius. He made sure that everyone knew that he (and his agency) had “the answer.”

He did it by reducing advertising to a set of formal rules that were backed up by exhaustive research. It made it very difficult for clients to argue with him. The rules limited creativity to some extent, but they also made total sense. And they produced a lot of legendary work.

I’m not saying that rules are the only answer. Far from it. But Ogilvy’s success was inarguable. He found a way to be the final word.

Now how do we find a way?


Dunbar’s number.

Dunbar's Number Circles

Chart by Chad Wittman © 2013

Interesting ideas always seem to come from simple observations. For example: a little over ten years ago the Christmas card sending habits of his fellow Englishmen intrigued Evolutionary Psychologist Robin Dunbar.  This was the dark ages before the social network revolution and Dunbar needed a proxy to track social engagements.  He wanted to know not only how many people we knew, but how many we actually truly cared about and how did our little (well not so little) primate brains handle the task.  So, Christmas cards worked well.  You had to have someone’s current address.  You had to care enough to invest the time and effort to purchase, sign and mail the cards. It wasn’t a huge cost, but enough that you wouldn’t do it for just anyone. He and his colleague Russell Hill sliced the data and the primary finding of the study was a single number: the total population of the set of cards that went out was 153.5/HH, or roughly 150. And so, Dunbar’s number was born.  The funny thing was that it matched what anthropologists had already seen in self-governing groups of people: for Amish, hunter gatherer clans, Mennonites, etc., 150 tended to be the norm.  (Bernard-Killworth have a number closer to 290, but why quibble?)

March forward into the world of Facebook, Asana, Twitter, Path and you bang into Dunbar.  They all talk Dunbar in their offices because, as Path co-founder David Morin says, “What Dunbar’s research represents is that no matter how the march of technology goes on, fundamentally we’re all human, and being human has limits…” We see this in eCRM and apps too.  We have study after study that consumers can only engage with roughly 10-15 communication trails. Ever wonder why so many apps get downloaded to a mobile device and are used once? You can only care so much. So in each inbox – email or other – every financial institution is fighting with every car company and airline company and  pharma product  for true attention.

So what’s the point?  We are in charge of a very important part of our clients’ world, which is the relationship of consumers with the brand.  And the brands are fighting to be one of the 150. So, consider a botched email.  A poor experience on a site – desktop or mobile. A poorly thought out strategy.  All make it tough to be one of the inner circle.  So take care. Think about what you are delivering.  Don’t just slug out your work – craft it.


Full disclosure:  There are those that posit Dunbar/Bernard-Killworth to be irrelevant in the digital-social world ( However, for giggles read this Wired article, “Dunbar’s number kicked my ass in Facebook.”  for a little real life Dunbar fun.

Complex simplicity

Some things in this world always leave my mouth open in awe. Here are two: pictures from Hubble (especially the deep space photos) and Escher-esque designs. Hubble, because, for a romantic like me, the thought that I am looking at light from the far side of creation that is fourteen plus billion years old is staggering. Think about it. That is as close to time travel as any of us will ever come. The light in the picture below  is from fourteen billion years ago. But for me, the beauty is that it is at the same time complex and simple. There are complex formulas describing the movement of these huge bundles of stars as they roam the universe and at the same time I can look at them in a photo on my tablet and they are so simple. So small.

Hubble ultra deep field

Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photo

As far as Escher, I fell in love with his work when I was 10. It made my brain itch and I had one of my first Whisky-Tango-Foxtrot moments. Complex. Simple. Now I don’t suspect too many of us can get our heads around drawing an Escher; however, there is a more tangible execution. Geometric Oragami. ( Complex objects made from simple materials. So here is an exercise for you, if you dare: click that link and build one. And while you build, think about simplicity and complexity. Too philosophical? Shouldn’t be. You do it every day. You work in simplicity: WHO, WHAT, HOW, WHEN, WHERE. In complexity: APIs, PSDs, Demographics, JPEGs, PNGs, Psychographics, AJAX, Web Services, Media Plans, Optimization, DNS, DB calls.

Our digital world is complex. Look in awe at what we create. Our digital world is simple and the fun is in watching our consumers look on in awe.


Curiosity killed the cat? What a lie.

I was reading G.K. Chesterton this weekend and ran across two quotes that I think have great relevance to our business. Now, right behind Sir Winston of Churchill fame, Gilbert Keith Chesterton is my favorite quick wit amongst our cousins across the pond. He had a profound curiosity about our world and a ticklishly wonderful way of commenting on essential truths in life. But I digress… His two quotes:

1) “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonderers.”
2) “There are no dreary sights only dreary sightseers.”

What made these quotes resonate this weekend was that, while sitting in a series of meetings over the last few weeks, I was reminded that what makes marketing – and especially digital marketing – so fun is that you get to spend your days being curious. Asking questions like: Why? Why not? How come that can’t be done? Who says that it can only be done that way? Really? That is the only solution?

And that is what I want us to do: be curious. Instead of saying, “No” try saying, “Yes, and…” When you hear a solution presented ask, “Why?” or “Why not?” Bring our clients what they deserve. When our curiosity drives brilliant solutions that sell their products, we all have more fun.


What picture will you be part of?

Well.  This missive is a little more philosophical than anything – less about marketing and more about how big you dream.

I ran across the below picture of the Solvay Conference of 1927. How many famous faces can you pick out?

OK, everyone better get the guy front and center. What about the lady two to the left (your left)? And the guy to the left of her? How about the second row far right? Middle of the back row? How about third from the right on the back row?

Benjamin Couprie, Institut International de Physique de Solvay

The Attendees of the Solvay Conference of 1927 by Benjamin Couprie

Ready? Einstein, Madame Curie, Max Planck, Neils Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger and last but not least, Werner Heisenberg. Those names ring a bell? Well, probably only if you love the history of quantum mechanics/physics or the boys from “The Big Bang Theory” or, yep, the inspiration for our little buddy from Breaking Bad.

Funny thing is that without this group most of us working in digital marketing wouldn’t have jobs today. Connections to the past are weird that way. So much of what we take for granted today was brought about because of what these people dreamed about, experimented over, argued about and solved. So the question for all of us is: what is the picture of us going to look like in eighty years? What great things are our generation leaving behind for the next group? Ponder on that and then set out a quest for yourself. Reach for something bigger than you think is possible. Think about how many failures this group faced, but kept bouncing back to fight again. We too need to risk failure and, through that process, great things will happen.

Welcome to the new week. The New Year.