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Renewal Notice: Thoughts On Old Media While Reading On The Couch

July 13, 2009

After a morning of hunching and squinting, I wolfed down some lunch, flopped on the couch, and opened Wired.

I’d had enough of the internet’s version of good enough: the templated blog designs,  the unedited writing, the amateur video, the stock photos, the self-serving research,  the email pings and update interruptions,  the twitchy or pinched ads. Most of all, I’d had enough of the internet’s content. Too much of the supposedly cutting-edge thinking I’d encountered had the stale recirculated quality of airplane air.

As I began flipping through Wired, two things occurred to me: 1) I love magazines.

And 2) Chris Anderson is a great ink-on-dead-trees-for-money magazine editor.

With my head on a pillow and my legs stretched out, I learned about Muslim contributions to science; Google’s ad pricing formula; various tubes including OrigamiTube; an array of super-duper vacuums; and a new album by David Lynch, one of the guys from Gnarls Barkley, and some producer I’d never heard of but who seemed cool. The world seemed a wonderful place in the original sense of the term: full of wonders.

Many of the ads did not suck, and they all paid their way.

I was reminded of what editors can do. They can prompt, subsidize, gather, challenge, filter, distill, enhance, orchestrate, and present writing like no one else. They can make thought pieces punchier and fact pieces smoother.

Thanks to the editors at the New Yorker–another magazine on my coffee table that day–I remember phrases from movie reviews and I get to the end of multi-thousand word profiles of disgraced banking CEOs, scientists who wrote their dissertation on the Venusian climate, and obscure federal agency heads.

And yet I have heard a smugness that verges on glee when some “old media” that doesn’t “get it” stumbles.

Yes, the web may usefully replace many trade pubs and glorified catalogs. While the job losses are tragic, the correction may be needed.

But to say that the web in anything like its current form replaces what the best editors do at the best print magazines is to misunderstand the web itself. The web is a place to search and scan, archive and converse, annotate and link, purchase and complain.  But it is not anywhere close to recreating the experience of reading Wired or the New Yorker, even though those publications are online.

To dismiss those ad-funded, gate-keeping, paper-based, pleasantly floppy and portable marvels as “old media,” and to take any satisfaction in their troubles, is to applaud the destruction of a part of Western Civilization.


My Pitch For A Pitch Man: RIP Billy Mays

June 29, 2009

Modern advertising was born in 1905 when John E. Kennedy defined advertising as “salesmanship in print.”  Over the years, the media expanded, but the definition endured. In the 1960s, Bill Bernbach, the driving force behind the Creative Revolution, reminded us:  “Today everybody is talking ‘Creativity,’ and frankly, that’s got me worried. I fear lest we keep the good taste and lose the sell. . . I fear that we may be entering an age of phonies.”

I have been wondering how Billy Mays could sell so hard  and still be so likeable. I was wondering why, when a local package design firm asked me to come up with some package copy for a product of his, I thought: “Cool.” I was wondering why ESPN, which does some of the best advertising being created today, used him to introduce its internet offerings.

The answer is simple enough: Billy Mays was no phony.

He reminded me that the moral difference that really matters isn’t the difference between hard sell and soft sell.

The moral difference that matters is this: do you believe in your product or don’t you?

Ben Franklin’s Rules of Twitter

June 24, 2009

When he was a young printer, Benjamin Franklin formed a private forum called The Junto for discussion, brainstorming and the occasional sharing of essays.  In Franklin’s words, its discussion were “to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory . . .”

An abridged list of the questions which Franklin drew up to guide the Junto’s discussions included:

  • Have you met with any thing in the author you last read, remarkable, or suitable to be communicated to the Junto? . . .
  • Have you lately heard of any citizen’s thriving well, and by what means?
  • Do you know of any fellow citizen, who has lately done a worthy action, deserving praise and imitation?
  • Do you think of any thing at present, in which the Junto may be serviceable to mankind? to their country, to their friends, or to themselves?
  • Hath any deserving stranger arrived in town since last meeting?
  • Do you know of any deserving young beginner lately set up, whom it lies in the power of the Junto any way to encourage?
  • Have you lately observed any defect in the laws, of which it would be proper to move the legislature an amendment? Or do you know of any beneficial law that is wanting?
  • Have you lately observed any encroachment on the just liberties of the people?
  • In what manner can the Junto, or any of them, assist you in any of your honourable designs?
  • Have you any weighty affair in hand, in which you think the advice of the Junto may be of service?
  • Do you see any thing amiss in the present customs or proceedings of the Junto, which might be amended?

Switch out “Twitter” for “Junto” and it’s kind of startling. I suspect that even if a consumer twitter account becomes the pet rock of social media–everyone has one, no one knows what to do with it–I think this essentially b2b use will endure.

Inspired by my reading of Walter Isaacson’s engrossing biography of Franklin.

Still Searching: Bing, Advertising, “Information,” and an awful decade

June 19, 2009

I originally loved the Bing ads. They tapped into a strong emotion: my dissatisfaction with the self-satisfaction of the “information age.”

We have glibly tossed around the abstraction “information.”  (I do mean “we.” I am complicit in this.)

In theory, information enlightens us.  In fact, we’ve created a wasteland of porn, Gong show-quality YouTube videos, sometimes grubby commerce, strings of hateful and sub-literate blog comments, rumors, and mediocre opining.

As we swam in all this “information,” those of us in America made a whole bunch of awful decisions.

When the Microsoft manifesto commercial tapped into this discrepancy—vast information, crap decisions—they struck a deep chord. Advertisers have tapped into deep emotions before. Nike sells shoes, but the subtext of its ads is “sport is religion.”

The problem is: you aren’t tapping into an emotion. You are highlighting a problem. You then need to solve the problem. Bing doesn’t, at least not in any way I can discern, although it does have some cool features.

In fact, no search engine can solve the problem of bad decision making.. Search engines cannot give us wisdom, experience, ethics,  rigor, or a tradition of fiduciary responsibility.

That is what educational systems are for. That is what cultures are for.

Arts Organizations and Twitter: What Would Wellstone Tweet?

June 14, 2009

Twitter seems built for arts organizations. They have small budgets, but those budgets are offset by passionate audiences, rich content, and articulate employees. Yet I see arts organizations fumble and sometimes even offend people on twitter.

An arts organization on twitter is like a politician on the campaign trail. You are forming a number of micro-relationships (Bill Clinton joke here) which you hope will lead to a vote, an advocate, a donation, a commitment, or an ally.

Politicians have seconds with the average voter. But in that time, the good ones seem glad to see you and willing to hear you. They hold your name in short-term memory. (The great ones hold it in long-term memory.)

Bad politicians make a show of asking for your vote but you can feel them looking over your shoulder because they just saw one of their politico buddies.

Too many art organizations are like bad politicians. They only want to talk to their buddies. They are missing opportunities to turns wisps of good feeling into true support.

I will offer up my own pettiness for the greater good here. When you ask me to spread the word about your theater festival, and I do, and you then can’t be bothered to follow me back, I am offended. When I have purchased and tweeted about your books, and I serve on the board of another literary organization in your town, and I follow you: follow me back.

You need to have a strategy for following people and I would suggest that it needs to be much more inclusive than exclusive. You do not need to follow everyone who follows you. Twitter is filled with hustlers and people who seem to relish racking up quantities of irrelevant followers. But if people show a legitimate interest in the arts, follow them. If they show interest in your organization, engage them. If they do something nice for you—a kind word, a retweet–thank them.

Finally, think about the people who are representing you. If the staff you have assigned to manage your twitter accounts are snubbing people when they should be charming them, give them a chance to reconsider their approach. This stuff seems obvious to me, but it may not be obvious to everyone. If they still don’t get twitter, assign them other tasks.

Credit: Carnivale-Carnival parade : The handshake. on Flickr – Photo Sharing!.

Make Yourself Uncomfortable: Tobias Rehberger’s Bar at the Venice Biennial

June 7, 2009


Tobias Rehberger’s bar at the…. Besides inducing vertigo, entering this room would immediately promote you to design element, and I don’t think I’d be up to that. But I’m fascinated. Image and link from Snashin Etc:

Geek Squad Doesn’t Advertise. Yet A Luminous Geek Squad Logo Appears Whenever I Close My Eyes.

June 6, 2009

“I believe advertising is the tax you pay for being unremarkable.”

Robert Stephens, Geek Squad Founder 

Isn’t this disingenuous?   

One caveat: some years ago Geek Squad paid us a routine visit and erased everything on my wife’s computer’s hard drive. Their response was, “that kind of thing happens.” That could happen to anyone, but it has caused me to withhold “remarkable” status from them. 

Geek Squad was built on advertising, provided you are willing to think at all deeply about what advertising is.  Erased hard drives aside, Geek Squad service was good, but not remarkable. But Geek Squad did advertising brilliantly. I would define advertising as purchasing something and putting a controlled message on it. They purchased cars and t-shirts and tie pins and then put a beautifully crafted, tightly controlled message on them.  They cooked this down into a slogan: “We heard you need a nerd.” That is advertising. It isn’t word of mouth (although, like all good advertising, it sparked some) and it isn’t even a little bit like social media. There was no conversation. There was a logo, endlessly applied, and a message, beautifully controlled.  

They further controlled their message by dictating how their representatives dressed. (Full on geek.) They were the most relentlessly branded, top-down, on-brief organization I have ever encountered.

And that was what was remarkable about them.