Ties That Bind

Americans are a sturdy lot. We are not a perfect nation and lately the things that divide us seem to be getting way too much attention. Despite this unfortunate truth, experience has shown us that what binds us as a people is greater than what divides us. Never is this more evident than in times of national crisis.

During WW II 85 million people out of a population of 139 million people bought US Bonds to support the war effort. The total cost of the war was estimated to be 340 billion in 1940 dollars; a staggering 50% of that cost was covered by bond sales. During that war Americans tolerated and actually enthusiastically embraced rationing, conservation, recycling and massive civic engagement at every level of society; transforming our nation on an unprecedented scale. The end result was not only the defeat of the Axis powers, but the emergence of the most productive economy the world has ever known. Why that tradition of civic engagement didn’t carry over to modern day wars can be the subject of future musings, the point here is that when called upon to common purpose, Americans respond to breathtaking effect.

In the first two years following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina over two million volunteers headed to the Gulf Coast giving up weekends, holidays and vacation time to help rebuild the region. It’s estimated that in the first year following the Katrina disaster private donations totaled over 2.7 billion dollars.

One of the things worth admiring about this country is that when disaster strikes we stop being Democrats, Republicans, White, Black, Asian, Hispanic, Red State, Blue State, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Liberal or Conservative; and we remember who we are first and foremost – Americans.

Sandy will likely go down in history as one of the most destructive storms on record inflicting an estimated 5.5 billion dollars in damage. 10 million people were left without power, 160 dead and many more injured and left homeless. In New Jersey, entire towns were swallowed up by water. In Breezy Point, New York fires destroyed at least 111 homes. This was a storm of historic proportions, devastating the lives and property of countless Americans.

FEMA has wasted little time providing aid to the region and early accounts of the government’s response to this disaster has been very positive. First responders have done an amazing job getting help to those who need it most. And as we have seen before, the response of aid workers and public servants has been nothing short of heroic. However, as in most disasters of this scale, government and aid workers cannot manage this alone. It’s hard to wrap our minds around the impact Sandy had had on so many caught in the aftermath of this unprecedented super storm. Some of us may have close friends, and family members who are suffering because of Sandy. It doesn’t matter really, if we know them well or not. We know them, they are our friends, neighbors and fellow citizens; they are Americans and they need our help.

Here’s what you can do to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy: Text REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10 the Red Cross Disaster Relief. Or click here to donate and learn more about Red Cross relief efforts: http://www.redcross.org/hurricane-sandy

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Ronald Regan was first elected to public office at age 55.

Kurt Warner entered the NFL Draft at age 28.

Country singer K.T. Olsen released her first album at 47.

Colonel Sanders did not start his own business until he was in his 60’s.

Raymond Chandler published his first novel at age 51.

Ken Norton and Rocky Marciano did not take up boxing until they were in their 20’s.

Danny Aiello did not become an actor until after 40.

Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at 49.

Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe at 58.

William S. Burroughs was almost 40 when he published his first novel.

The paintings Cézanne created in his mid 60’s are valued fifteen times as highly as the work he did as a younger man.

Tom Brady sat on the bench for the first two years of his college career. He was drafted #199 as a fourth string quarterback for the New England Patriots.

The one thing all of the achievers listed above have in common is that they were all game changers in their own way, and they all became more effective as they got older.   

Game changers come in all shapes and sizes.  If you are good at what you do and you keep getting better, do not be deterred, the best of what you will contribute is yet to come.

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Great coaches know how to make room for more experienced players to diversify a team and provide game changing leadership to less experienced players. Great Commanders have historically relied on battle tested warriors to lead platoons into combat. Great business leaders understand the added value that experienced sales performers deliver.

Some companies have paid a very high price to arrive at this realization.

Does anyone remember Circuit City’s now infamous cost cutting move to slash payroll expenses by firing the majority of their better compensated more experienced salespeople and managers?  

At the time the Washington Post reported:

Circuit City fired 3,400 employees in stores across the country yesterday, saying they were making too much money and would be replaced by new hires willing to work for less.

The company said the dismissals had nothing to do with performance but were part of a larger effort to improve the bottom line. The firings represent about 9 percent of the company’s in-store workforce of 40,000.

Here is the entire story from March 29, 2007:  


By January of 2009 the impact of this folly on their downward slide was irreversible – the company announced they were going out of business. By March of 2009 they closed their doors forever; 40,000 people lost their jobs, among them were a few short sighted executives who thought having less experienced, cheaper salespeople was the answer to their problems.

Note:  While some might consider this post self-serving (I’ve made my living in sales and I believe experienced sales people who know their stuff can be game changers in an organization).  I did not however,  make this story up. I first heard about the Circuit City story through the wonderful NPR program “This American Life”.  If you’ve never heard Ira Glass breakdown a story, it’s worth checking your local listings to catch his program.  You can here podcasts of the show here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org

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With apologies to Mark Twain, the announcement concerning the death of television has been greatly exaggerated. Of course you can’t ignore the fact that the TV audience has become increasingly fragmented, and as a result the share of the pie any one network command is smaller. Ad revenues, historically disproportionately dependent on auto advertising, have taken a significant hit over the past few years. But you also can’t ignore that primetime television is still reaching huge numbers of viewers.  TV, both cable and broadcast has also been undergoing a creative renaissance that can’t really be ignored. Yes we still have a “vast wasteland” of ridiculously innocuous programming and dunned down reality shows.  But we also have witnessed brilliantly crafted shows like Mad Men, Treme, The Wire, Lost, CSI, True Blood – to name a few of the great shows that have helped set the standard for great drama. Also shows like Real Time with Bill Maher, The Daily Show with John Stewart, The Colbert Report and South Park have provided us with intelligent and insightful social satire.  And let’s not forget the powerful insight and analysis that PBS shows such as Frontline and The American Experience continue to provide.

I recognize that the earth is shifting under the major broadcast and cable networks. DVR’s, You Tube and hundreds of other digital platforms provide often compelling alternatives to appointment television. However, great content will always find a way into our entertainment diet and at the moment cable and broadcast television are still providing some best options in the world of video entertainment.  Nothing beat live sports to tap into the passion of a collective audience. Live sports and great video content are expensive to produce and revenues will have to keep pace with the cost of production to sustain the quality of programming we are currently enjoying from the cable and broadcast networks. At the moment, when it comes to high quality video content,  the big networks are delivering the best entertainment value.

No question advertisers need to have a great digital strategy to drive conversion and acquire new customers. However, a great digital strategy does not preclude making effective use old fashioned traditional TV advertising. Have you seen Google’s TV spots?



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I believe one of the good things that will come out of this economic crisis will be that American companies will strive to be nimbler and more adaptive to change. A recent article in the Business section of the New York Times  cited two studies done in 1959 by the Ford and Carnegie Foundations concluding that American business schools were “ too vocational and narrow in their approach to the subject matter”.  Fast forward about 50 years later and the Graduate School of Business at Stanford concluded roughly the same thing as they set about to make sweeping changes to their MBA program. It appears they have come to the conclusion that “critical and analytical thinking” is now on a par with “number crunching” for aspiring Stanford MBA’s.

 My theory as to why this took so long, why critical thinking and innovation took so long to make its way into mainstream business orthodoxy, emerges from the old axiom “a high tide raises all boats”.  A robust economy forgives many sins. In a boom environment, not rocking the boat is often a more important skill for moving forward than making a better one.  Just ask any senior manager at Ford and GM or any compliance executive at A.I.G.

 It’s not like we haven’t had plenty of innovators come out of academia over the last 20 years.  However, many of our most forward thinking business innovators usually come from outside of the mainstream business establishment.  They succeed despite the prevailing models for doing things, not because of them.  Many of them where outsiders, geeks and dropouts, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell and Bill Gates are just a few high profile examples of incredibly successful business people who never graduated from business school. In fact they didn’t graduate from college at all.

 Part of what happens when so much disruptive change occurs, when the folly in the accepted way of doing things is so brutally revealed,  often to devastating  effect, is that we, individually and collectively, begin questioning what is not working and why.  A kind of “critical and analytical” evaluation of reality is thrust upon us in the name of survival. We are forced to discard what no longer works, innovate new business models and in the process, redefine what is possible.

It is a very encouraging sign when our universities and corporate institutions begin to recognize that creativity, critical thinking and ethics belong in a business curriculum as well as the Boardroom, and that these skills are also good for business.

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Today, as many contemplate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it might useful to remember that men such as Mahatma Gandhi and MLK were harnessing the power of “Social Media” long before the internet provided all of us with easy access to the tools to build social networks and effect change. These men were driven by, and tapped into, the powerful forces that are unleashed when grave injustices are unmasked and injected into the consciousness of an inherently compassionate population.

 The principles that Gandhi and MLK used to engage, motivate and call to action large numbers of people who connected with their vision of justice and change, are the very same that drive the successful use of Social Media today. Surely not everyone building a community of followers, or a “Tribe” as social media evangelist Seth Godin might call them, are doing so for progressive or benevolent causes. But it is worth noting that these men created dramatic and enduring change without violence, without the support of powerful corporations and without easy access to mass media. What they understood was that compelling ideas, when communicated through communities of like minded people, can motivate large numbers of individuals to take action. And those people can change the world.

 Today, the average person has access to community building tools that did not exist in the time of Gandhi or MLK. Today it is so much easier for the average person or small organization to publish ideas and motivate others with a compelling call to action. As a marketer I am aware of and endorse the use of these tools for commerce and trade – even if it means I have to be subjected to hundreds of invitations to get whiter teeth or easily shed unwanted pounds. I am free to choose which messages I engage or ignore.

 Social Media can help a start-up learn about their client’s needs, small companies are able to build reputations by adding value to their engagements with existing and prospective clients, new entrepreneurs can identify new markets and design products to serve them. All of these things are made easier through the evolving Social Media tools that are available to most of us at little or no cost thanks to the internet. Good stuff, all of it.

 As I think about MLK’s legacy, I am inspired by the power contained in a compelling idea, and I am excited about how the tools, now in the hands of virtually everyone reading this blog, can amplify the voice of ordinary people to create extraordinary results. Yes purveyors of hate and exploitation also have access to these very tools, but I am not discouraged by this. U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis once wrote: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

 All of us now have the ability to shed sunlight on those ideas and concepts that we find most compelling and share them with the communities that we build and nurture. To some that might mean tweets about whiter teeth or sexy pictures.  To others, many others, it may mean finding ways to enrich the experience we share with our communities… to effect change, to speak truth to power, to hold companies accountable for the products they sell, to spread the word about great new music, films or cool new products…. to help shed light on someone’s vision, to help turn someone’s compelling idea into reality….. ideas like this one:

 “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”    

Martin Luther King – excerpt from “A Letter from A Birmingham Jail” -  4/16/1963

 Happy MLK Day!

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On January 2 the New York Times published an interesting op-ed piece by the pride of Dublin and the lead singer of U2, Bono, offering his perspective on the decade ahead http://bit.ly/4DgSii . Following a rich tradition that dates back to Woody Guthrie, Bono is making use of the soap box afforded to him by his musical celebrity to inject thought provoking ideas into the vox populi. His editorial covers a variety of subjects ranging from suggestions on how to make American cars sexy again to promoting a mid-east music festival celebrating the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As always, Bono offers and enlightened rock star perspective that reflects his optimism and intellect. The common thread in his view of the coming decade is that music, sports, art and technology will continue to be powerful uplifting forces, that will increasingly be accessed and harnessed by ordinary people to create extraordinary results.

In addition to being one of the great lyricist and singers in rock, Bono is a founding member of One, a non-profit advocacy group dedicated to fighting extreme poverty and preventable disease in Africa and around the world. One: http://www.one.org/us .


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