Radio Silence

After three weeks of extraordinary busy schedules, including many changes at a personal level (all good!), I am now traveling in Europe with sporadic internet access. I will be returning soon with new posts and obesrvations. See you all soon.

How to make decisions

I have often thought about the art of making decisions. Not just routine, everyday calls, but the big ones, when you feel that your life is going to change. One of my favorite quotes is that "life all comes down to a few moments" and you really need to have the clarity to identify these life changing ones. But then what? Does this realization of the importance of the decision come with the right answer attached?

Sometimes. It's the clarity of being in the right place and time. The clarity of feeling that today is the first day of the rest of your life. You just know what to do.

Then again, sometimes you just don't know. What do you do then?

Trusting your gut is one way to go. Conventional wisdom (as represented by all the self help/growth/success books) suggests that you should find your calling in life. After all, decisions are based on emotion anyway, according to neuroscience, so you are better off trusting your gut with major decisions.

There are some quotes that really encapsulate this very nicely. One of them is the rule of "30/10" (or something like that), which basically suggests that you need to make decisions as if you had 30 million dollars or just 10 more years to live. Think about it. You consider quiting your job or staying there for another year until you get that promotion they have promised you. What would you do if you just had 10 years to live? Yes, of course you would quit that lousy job.

Put it in a different way: "In the words of the ancients, one should make his decision within the space of seven breaths. It is a matter of being determined and having the spirit to break through to the other side." I repeat: having the spirit to break through to the other side (this is from the way of the Samurai)

There are many success stories of people who have done exactly that. We hear about them everyday. We read about them. But then again, we know that there is a bias associated with this... there are just not many books out there about people who failed while pursuing their dreams. It is less inspiring and less "interesting".

And then some people will actually dare to give you the whole truth, however "uninspiring" it may sound. To quote Antony Bourdain (Kitchen Confidential)

"The most dangerous species of (business) owner - a true menace to himself and others- is the one who gets into the business for love. Love for the song stylings of George Gershwin, love for that great Bogie film he has all that memorabilia from. These poor fools are the chum of the (restaurant) biz, ground up and eaten before most people even know they were around."

How uninspiring is this? You feel the need to challenge it. To say "wait a minute, I will be different. I am going to make it work." And maybe you are right. Yet, I personally think that Antony Bourdain is right. Love and passion are important parts of the "mix". They can really make the difference when all the basics are there. But the basics need to be there.

Coolhunting II: the n+1 dimension

I started writing about cool and cool hunting a few days ago, triggered by a conversation I had with a friend. I posted a question on linkedin and other forums trying to understand what people think about cool, what defines it, how important it is and how to get it.

Most of the stuff that I got back was recycling of existing ideas, suggesting that being cool is absolutely essential. Some people went as far as to say that having a strong brand is synonymous to being cool, suggesting that no other positioning is as desirable. I don't have a problem with that. I get it. Starting from high school, moving to college, your only currency is popularity and in order to be popular you really need to be cool. But it is really strange if you think about it. Being cool means being authentic. Being authentic, sometime means being different, certainly it means not being mainstream. I mean, what is the meaning of being cool when everybody is cool?

How cool is that? Not cool.

In a time where you can buy your passport to coolness for $199 (that's how much it costs to get the new iphone), I wonder what it takes to be "really cool". Maybe cool is not even the righword anymore. Actually, cool is what is used to be "hot", or "in" or even "the knack and how to get it" in the 60's. The name changes, but the desire to be authentic, clever, or stand out is always there.

So how do you go around this?

Everybody seems to agree that being cool means being authentic. I buy that. But what does "being authentic mean"? Does it mean being yourself? Sounds simple enough, at the end of the day all you have to do is be yourself. But this short of authentic doesn't cut it. You need to be authentic but also stand for something that inspires people. So in order to be yourself and be authentic you need to "become" yourself. And we all know that this is a long, very long process. That's why Apple is cool. It is authentic but is far from effortless and "just being yourself". You either need to reinvent yourself all the time or find other ways of staying relevant.

On that note, I feel like introducing the concept of the tenth dimension. Maybe you want to watch the whole movie, but you can find the point that I am trying to make in the first 2-3 minutes, actually it is the third dimension.

I am sure you liked it. So, where am I going with this?

In order to stay ahead of the game and be authentic, you really need to think different. In a two dimensional space you need to introduce the third dimension. According to Rob Bryanton, a higher (N+1) dimension allows someone to transport from one place to another in the existing (n) dimensional space. In other words, instead of trying to find the white space in an existing n-dimensional market, you just need to redefine it. Add another dimension.

Maybe it's just a new way of seeing things. Or maybe it's just another way of saying that you "need to think outside the box".

But it is definitely more cool like that, isn't it?

Cool Hunting: what's the big deal?

So Crirpin Porter and Boguski (the advertising agency) are up for the challenge of making Microsoft cool again. Not an easy task.

According to many analysts, Microsoft has really lost control of its image... becoming cool is going to be very difficult in a world where Apple has been calling the shots for a while.

Makes me wonder. Cool has become such an important buzzword. There is a whole science of cool and how to get it. Numerous websites like coolhunting, trendunter etc are reporting the latest cultural trends. Everybody wants to be on the cutting edge.

But what is meaning of cool? How important is it? Do you really need to be cool regardless of the market and the category? Can you survive if you are not cool?

According to wikipedia "Cool is an aesthetic of attitude, behavior, comportment, appearance, style and Zeitgeist. Because of the varied and changing connotations of cool, as well its subjective nature, the word has no single meaning. It has associations of composure and self-control and often is used as an expression of admiration or approval."

Let me repeat this: it is about admiration or approval. Cutting edge or classic. Mainstream or controversial. Safe or risky. Character is irrelevant, it's all about the end result.

So what/who is considered cool today? No great surprises according to one of my favorite source of brand health data (Brandtags ).

I checked a number of brands and I tried to see how "cool" ranks in terms of "strength of association with these brands". Not surprisingly, Puma, Mini and Apple clearly topped the list, defining the essence of cool. Brands like Absolute, Harley and Adidas also had a very strong association, although there were other elements defining their personality. Then there was a third layer of brands including anything from Ferrari and Playstation to Heineken and Blackberry (!), where cool was just one of the elements of their personality. Lastly, brands like Facebook or Nintendo had a good association with coolness, probably coming from very specific target groups.

So what's the moral of the story? Well, if you are one of these brands, your challenge is to stay on the cutting edge. I guess it is very difficult to change your strategy once you have decided to play the "cool" game. For everybody else it's a whole different game. Too many options:

Do you try to deconstruct cool in order to create your own proposition?
Do you look outside the existing models and try to invent a new space?
Or do you just forget about cool altogether and position your brand differently?

As someone said "To chase cool, you’re chasing something that already exists, which means you’re always going to be on the wrong side of it, you’ll always be following." Traditional marketing research will only cover the areas that already exist, focusing on those things that people consider cool today.

So being original and authentic is the only way to go. But I guess you knew that already. Being authentic is easier said that done and that is why it creates admiration and approval.

Doppler Effect and Razor Sharp Focus

People who know me from school know that I never liked Physics, maybe because I used to be single minded back then and I was only interested in anything that was had to do with (succeeding in) business. Without stating the obvious, I would like to admit how wrong I was, as it is very clear to me now that the laws of Physics and similar sciences, can provide amazing insights if applied to business problems. (which probably explains why engineers make good MBA candidates)

The Doppler effect is a great example. Named after Christian Doppler, “it is the change in frequency and wavelength of a wave for an observer moving relative to the source of the waves”

In layman’s terms (for those of us who are still not big funs of Physics): You are driving a car and there is a motorcycle ahead of you. The noise from the exhaust will not really change if your distance from the motorcycle remains the same. At the same time another motorcycle is coming from the opposite direction. As it is approaching you, the noise becomes louder and sharper, like it’s accelerating. (you get more frequent waves from the motorcycle because its moving towards you). As the motorcycle passes you and starts moving to the other direction the noise becomes softer and flatter (you get less frequent waves because the source is moving away from you).

Business Analogy: You have clearly defined your competition and your long term strategy and you are determined to stay focused and execute in line with this mission. In essence, you are “following a motorcycle”. As a result, the “noise” that is coming from this target is probably not changing as you are adjusting your speed and your actions to stay on course.

Suddenly, another “motorcycle” appears, moving to the opposite direction and approaching you fast. The closer it comes to your radar, the more alarming it sounds and you are now tempted to spend more time analyzing this new source of noise. At some point the noise is so loud that you paralyze and you start questioning your initial strategy. Maybe you even make a u-turn and start following the new motorcycle.

If you could just wait for a little longer you would realize that the motorcycle was indeed heading somewhere else. False alarm, but the damage is done.

As we all know, staying focused on what we do is not easy. There are many distractions from the environment and it is really hard to filter out all the “noise” from the messages that are really important to our business. Razor sharp focus is difficult but it can really make all the difference when it comes to success in businesses and careers. It’s about knowing your objectives and staying on course.

This is a lot different from being rigid and shutting your eyes to the outside word. It just means that you are only focusing on the things that matter avoiding distractions and sirens along the way.

Brand Tags and the Kingdom of (Internet) Evil

One of the first things that they teach you when you start working in advertising is that "you need to have a clear positioning". You need to be different; you need to stand for something.

So when people think about your brand, they need to have very clear connotations in their mind. Even better, they should be able to visualize and "mentally experience" your brand using their senses.

Let's see how this works for Starbucks. What comes to mind? Words like coffee or lounge maybe? Music and sounds of espresso machines? Smell of freshly brewed coffee? (and recently bacon and eggs unfortunately). I bet it's very clear in our minds, because Starbucks is a very successful brand.

Now, the ultimate goal for a brand is to also "own" certain values, words, or emotions in our hearts and brains. So this relationship should work backwards as well: when you think about coffee, you should immediately think of Starbucks. When you think about computers, you should think of Apple and so on.

Of course not all associations are positive. Think of the computer industry for a minute. It's not a secret that Apple has a very fresh image while Microsoft creates very polarizing emotions. It's not a surprise that Google is also facing some challenges as it is becoming a larger corporation and people start realizing its size and world domination plans. But it's very interesting nevertheless to see the internet population expressing their views in real time.

Many of us have seen Lovemarks a few years back, a website where consumers can go and share their thoughts about certain brands. Brand tags is a much more recent (and more interesting) experiment in this area. The idea is very simple and to the point: the website presents you with various brands (one at a time) and you have to write down the first word or phrase that pops into your head. That's it.

Then you can go and see the tag cloud of any brand just like you would see it for your delicious bookmarks.

Let me show you an example: I took the top 15 associations for the 3 most important players of the new technology arena (tags from Brand Tags)

Not surprisingly, Apple has an amazingly positive brand image. Most of its equity comes from its two flagship products (mac and ipod) and as a brand it defines design, innovation, creativity and "awesome-ness" in consumers minds.

How about Microsoft?

The first thing that comes to mind is EVIL. There are other interesting things there (like crap, shit, shucks, boring) but most of it is negative and totally associated with the generic notion of "computer" and windows. I guess this doesn't come as a surprise, but it's still pretty bad and difficult to change.

Then we have Google. On the one hand there is a clear admiration of the brand's technology (awesome) and clear indications that the brand "defines" the internet in general and web search in particular. On the other hand, as Google approaches "GOD", the brand also becomes evil in consumers minds, illustrating the fear associated with the dominant position of the brand.

(As a side note, the data from Lovemarks (balance of positive vs negative comments) also provided on the chart, support the qualitative results from Brand tags )

So this is all very interesting. Only a few years ago, a marketer would need thousands of dollars to collect this information. Now she can get it for free. So can everybody else, which makes things very interesting.

I recommend that you visit Brandtags and spend some time playing with different brands. It's not only illuminating but it's also fun.

Employees and Customers

"You’ve got to treat your employees like customers", writes Matt Linderman from 37signals, suggesting that when you trust your employees and you treat them as human beings they will return the favor and be loyal to the company. There is nothing wrong with this idea, but I think that it is a rather simple way of seeing the world. It is based on the premise that, first of all you should treat all your Customers in the same way and second, that loyalty alone (of customers and employees) can ensure success. Let’s see these arguments one by one:

All Customers are (not) created equal.
So, treating your employees like customers assumes that you treat all your customers in the same way. Of course this is far from true, or at least it’s far from true for successful companies. What set these companies apart is that they have a clear positioning, they target specific customers and they try to develop their relationship with them in very specific ways.

Does this mean that you should “fire” customers that don’t fit your target profile? Of course not, as a matter of fact you should try to accommodate them as long as they can coexist with your main target group and be potentially profitable for your business. The point is that your brand needs to stand for something and this by definition will screen some customers out. It’s like going to a restaurant expecting to see trendy and sophisticated people, only to be disturbed by a loud group of drunk hooligans watching sports on the TV.

Employee loyalty is (not) enough.
The same argument holds for your employees. I am not suggesting by any means that you shouldn’t treat people as human beings. But loyalty is not enough. You need people to take initiative, be passionate about the vision and be good ambassadors of the brand. Treating people as human beings is a prerequisite. But you need to attract and hire the right people to begin with. Then, you need to empower and motivate these employees, in other words inspire them and provide them the tools to excel. During this process, some people will remain loyal. Some others will be much more than that: they will become star, making a difference in your organization.

Are you going to reward these people in the same way?

Better advertising targeting and implications for brands

WPP digital organized an interesting conference about new media and advertising last Friday. Part of the discussion addressed the new targeting opportunities available for marketers and brands, suggesting that they will increase content relevance and consumer engagement.

No groundbreaking news here, but there are some quite interesting implications for brands. Let's take an example and try to see how this works for a minute:

Jack is a single guy, 18-24 years old and he lives alone. Every time he surfs the Internet or watches a show on digital TV we collect and process information about his attitudes and behavior so we can start serving him more relevant content. Ultimately, the promise for Jack is that he will never have to see another diaper ad again in his life (or at least until he gets married). Equally, the promise for brands is that they will never need to waste resources serving diaper ads to Jack. Sounds like a win-win. Better results for brands, less clutter overall. Less clutter?

Let's think about this for a minute. Until recently, Jack would be exposed to 10 ads for every hour of TV watching (similarly for Internet surfing). Of course, some of these ads would be for diapers and Jack would probably pay no attention. A cluttered world? Maybe. Inefficient use of resources? Perhaps. Advertising is far from perfect and we all know that.

Fast forward 3-4 years. Brands now have better information about Jack's behavior (or even Jack's psyche) so they can serve him more relevant content. Jack still sees 10 ads, but now all of them are relevant to him: cars, deodorants, clothes, all this ads target single guys just like him. More efficient use of resources? Totally. Less cluttered world? Hmm. I actually believe, that new targeting technologies will raise the bar and eventually increase competition. More relevance for Jack means more "clustering" of relevant offers: cars vs cars not cars vs diapers. A beauty contest. I am not sure if this is called more or less clutter, but it's definitely a lot of information for Jack.

So what happens then? People driving this change claim that targeting technology will save the day, by adding more layers and capturing Jack’s mode and needstate. The theory goes that this will enable brands to differentiate and better target Jack’s different needs. So even better targeting is the solution to the problem.

But then again, this technology will (again) be available to all the brands. So the next step will be that Jack is going to be bombarded by multiple W-relevant ads using information about Who he is, Where he goes, the time of the day (When), What he is looking for and Why. Undoubtedly this will be an iterative process and as such it's hard to predict what the key success factors will be.

So which brand will win? Is it the brand that stays one step ahead in the targeting technology race? Or the brand that also leverages this technology with the best creative (at a personalized level)? Or is it the brand that has the most relevant positioning but also uses the best technology and the best creative? Maybe in the end it is just the brand with the best price?

Difficult to tell. As always, different categories may have different rules. For occasion based categories, location and time relevance of targeting (through GPS and mobile phones) will play a key role. For others, that have a longer decision making process (insurance) more transparency may bring more commoditization and price competition.

At the end of the day, one might want to think what the new "persuasion strategy" will be. Do you want to build a strong image and ensure that you exceed expectations with your product? Or do you want to bet on the ability of new technology and channels to influence decision making at the last possible moment (for instance at the point of sale)

There is never a right or wrong answer. What's certain though, is that staying ahead of the competition will only get more challenging requiring new skills.

What does it take to be a Tiger?

Since 2003, Tiger Woods has been the centerpiece of Accenture advertising. In their words "As perhaps the world's ultimate symbol of high performance, Tiger Woods serves as a metaphor for our commitment to helping companies become high-performance businesses."

Now in its fifth year, the campaign has become widely recognized around the globe but I am personally getting a bit tired of it all. Being a frequent traveler I see this campaign in every airport and after all these years it has been reduced to an airport wallpaper now. How many different combinations of catchy phrases like "playing it safe, Knowing when not to" or "left brain-right brain" can someone come up with?
Even if this pool of phrases is endless, what is the meaning of that after a while?

Working in communications and marketing I have often been is situations when marketers are intrigued and tempted by creative ideas that are "campaignable". Instead of trying to come up with a new ad every time, they create a "master concept" that they apply with minor modifications in order to communicate the same main idea, although with some variations. The obvious benefit is that consumers can more easily connect with the idea and when combining the different pieces they can get a whole which is larger than the sum of the parts.

The problem is what happens after that. How do you switch after 5 years with Tiger Woods to something else? What happens if Tiger Woods is not successful anymore? How do you reinvent yourself and keep your brand fresh?

Think about Absolut vodka for a minute. An Iconic Brand. A very successful campaign. Transitioning to the new campaign (in an Absolut world) has been a major challenge. (I was involved so I know first hand). Now,the brand is finally turning around the corner. But it took them years to come up with this new idea.

So successful advertising comes at a cost. Does that mean that we need to shoot for mediocrity in advertising? Of course not. But then again, the higher you set the bar, the more difficult your mission will be next time. Everybody can get lucky once. What makes the difference is consistency in creativity. The ability to sparkle magic time and again. And that's what makes the difference between the Apples of this world and the rest of the companies. Or to quote Accenture, that's what it takes to be a Tiger.

In love with Tumblr

Without trying to state the obvious, I just felt the need to write a post about Tumblr which I have only recently started using.

Here is an insight:
There is so much clutter out there and each of us only have limited time and energy. Some of us like to experiment all the time, while some others are only willing to invest time in a limited number of things (it is called focus) to avoid spreading too thin. I tend to identify with the latter group and thus although I have known about Tumblr for a while, I had never realized how much I would like it until very recently, when I started using it.

There is something so simple and totally visual in this tool which I absolutely love. Of course I don't see it replacing this blog any time soon, but I will definitely be posting some of my more random thoughts there from now on.

The long and winding internet trail, that leads to you.

Fred Wilson made waves today with a controversial post about his vision for Social Media: 59 comments on a Sunday (as of 11:53pm), not bad at all, considering that the weather was great in NYC and everybody was outside. In his exact words: "Honestly I am not envisioning anything other than this; every single human being posting their thoughts and experiences in any number of ways to the Internet."

While he admitted that some people will probably find this vision ridiculous, he concluded that "I believe that we are headed to a world which everyone will share their lives with the rest of the world via the Internet. That is social media. It's a huge movement and we are at the start of it"

Some of his readers did in fact find this notion ridiculous, but there was another interesting theme that emerged, that of online privacy. So while some people argued that "not everybody is an extrovert" or "some people don't have anything interesting to share" the most interesting comments (in my humble opinion) addressed the issue of "do I want to share this information with other people", or even better "which parts of my life I want to keep private".

Taking this one step further, let's think about all this information that we share without even knowing. Or even more important: how about this information that we feel comfortable sharing today, not foreseeing the problems or limitations that we are creating to our personal or professional lives 5, 10 or 15 years from now. Photos. Comments. Blogs. Videos. Even groups that you join:
Two years ago, I joined a meetup of Greeks in NYC. There was no mention about this being a singles group, otherwise I wouldn't have signed up (I am happily married with two kids). Luckily, I was googling myself a few months later and I found a link that said something like "meet exciting Greek singles in NYC like Vassilis Bakopoulos". I consider my self "web literate" but I didn't see this one coming.

What does this all mean? There are millions of people using social media. Billions of tagged photos of young kids having fun; drinking; exposing themselves. It's part of being a teenager, we've all been there. Actually, even people leading countries have been there. (Even if they didn't inhale). But the accuracy of recording and organizing this information and keeping it stored for ever is a new phenomenon. And I find it really scary.

Getting Ready for the first ever Internet Week in NYC

The first-ever Internet Week New York it taking place next week (from June 3 - June 10, 2008) and the anticipation is growing in the NY Tech Community. The festival includes a variety of events around NYC, including the Webby Awards, the IMC and Advertising 2.0 conferences, an event organized by the leading Angel groups and VC's in NY (how to finance your startup), as well as a number of parties and various cultural events.

The festival is produced by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences in cooperation with the City of New York and the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting.

I am planning to attend various events and I will be reporting back to you on the fly. Stay tuned.


Once a year, the Manhattan grid comes into astronomical alignment with the sun. In practical terms, this means that if you are sitting on the East Side looking west you can see the Sun shining down a canyon-like street. According to wikipedia, the term is derived from Stonehenge, at which the sun aligns with the stones on the solstices.

Tomorrow is that day and all of us living in Manhattan will be treated to a trully amazing sunset. One more reason to love this city.

Business Challenges: Mogulus adds ads

Mogulus is one of the coolest websites in the area of live broadcasting. It allows you to create your own channel, customize to the smallest detail and start broadcasting live from your computer in minutes. More importantly, the look and feel of the channel is really professional, setting it apart from other similar websites.

It's been almost a year since I saw their demo at the NY Tech Meetup and I still remember the enthusiastic response from the (usually tough) audience. Fast forward one year and hitwise now reports that the website has reached a plateau. Moreover, starting tomorrow, Mogulus will begin inserting overlay adverts in all their channels. So lots of change and interesting times for this startup.

In the midst of all this, here is the email that they sent out to their users:

We have big news: starting Thursday 29th May 2008 at 3pm EST, we will begin inserting overlay adverts in all Mogulus Free channels.

I am not sure how I felt reading this email. Usually, when you hear someone announcing Big News, you expect to see a benefit or a service upgrade, i.e. Big News = Good News, not the case here.

To their credit, they also announced that they will release a Revenue Sharing program later this year, after they launch their "Pro" (ad free) version, later in the Summer. Also, for the time being users can choose to turn off the ads if they wish.

So altogether, exciting times for the Mogulus team. I am still very curious to see how much they will charge for the Pro version...

3G and Long Tail

The first thing that you learn when you decide to open a retail store is that location is the single most important factor of success. I learned that lesson the hard way, when I bought a franchise business many years ago. It took me months until I found a store that was in a good location and didn't cost a fortune to rent. (yes, there are dream properties like this, but you really need to be lucky and well-connected) That was back in the early '00s and I was living in Greece at the time.
Fast forward to the year 2010 or so. 3G phones have reached mainstream status and location based services like socialight are widespread. You walk down a busy street looking for a quick snack. You check your mobile phone and you see that there is a bakery just around the corner, in a small street . You take a right and walk there. You look for it and you realize that you can barely see it as it's partly hidden behind a tree. You enter the store and you get a muffin and a cup of coffee. Delicious. You have just discovered a hidden gem.

Hidden? Well maybe with today's standards. In fact you would never have found it today, unless you had been there before and you knew about it. Because chances are that you would never have left the busy street in the first place. Even if you had accidentally made the turn to the little street, the big tree would have hidden the little bakery.

Not anymore. In the near future people will not be prisoners of the main street anymore. It's the story of the long tail again, only this time it's happening in the "real world". Instead of having the top locations getting 90% of the traffic, people will now discover new content (in this case restaurants, bars, shops etc) that is "off the beaten track". And small shop owners who can not afford to pay rents in the main street, will stand a better chance to win customers and compete with the big, established retailers. I like this idea. Maybe then I can open the chocolate-wine -coffee-books shop that I have always dreamed about and retire.

Decoding Apple Design: 6 Rules

Working in marketing I have watched hundreds of presentations about branding, innovation and design. Although it's usually a repackaging of existing learnings and information, presentations of this type do serve a purpose as they allow you to focus and think about the mystery of innovation.
It goes without saying that people routinely mention Apple in presentations like this. And it always makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. It is as if they had something to do with the development of one of these iconic products, when all they are doing is trying to take part of the credit and the cool factor, just for being able to put an iphone photo on a PowerPoint slide.

Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with Apple: I love the design, but I guess I had more than my fair share of defective products from Apple. Either way, I recognize and admire the magic of their design and although I have mixed feelings about their corporate culture, I would like to be a fly on the wall for one day and observe Mr Jonathan Ive and Co in action. For those not familiar with Mr Ive, he is the SVP of design for Apple, or the Man Behind Steve Jobs.

A couple of days ago, I read that he won a few more awards from D&AD. To quote Claire Beale "there are few creative awards more jealously coveted than a D&AD pencil. Yellow pencils can be career makers. But the elusive Black Pencil is a marker of creative genius". Now, Jonathan Ive has won 6 Black Pencils over the last 10 years. This is more than anyone else in the world. But of course, this shouldn't be a surprise, it's like saying that Apple makes great products.

So how do they do it? Even if Steve Jobs wanted to share this information with the rest of the world, it wouldn't make much difference. To quote Seth Godin, Bullet points are not the point. It's more about how determined you are to do something with them. Here is a list of my thoughts. Read it. Then add your thoughts. Then act as you see fit:
1) Having a dream team helps, getting the dream team is the challenge. You need to understand and define design (and great design) first. In a world of design mediocrity, you may not even know that you have a problem.

2) "Having a very clear focus that all the development teams share; a focus around trying to make really great products". This one came from one of Jonathan's interviews and even he, admitted that "it sounds ridiculously simplistic, almost naive, but it's very unique for the product to be what consumes you completely." It helps, perhaps, that he's designing products that he and his team love to use, in their jobs, in their lives. "We don't have to take this great intuitive leap to understand the mythical concerns of our users, because we are the users."

3) A fanatical care beyond the obvious stuff. As Jonathan Ive said in another interview after he won the Design Museum Award "the obsessive attention to details that are often overlooked, like cables and power adaptors. Take the iMac, our attempts to make it less exclusive and more accessible occurred at a number of different levels. A detail example is the handle. Seeing an object with a handle, you instantly understand aspects of its physical nature - I can touch it, move it, it’s not too precious."

4) Structure and creativity: On the one hand an open space environment and a massive sound system that pumps up music and boosts creativity. On the other hand, an investment on state-of-the-art prototyping equipment and a design process revolving around intense iteration -- making and remaking models to visualize new concepts.

5) Cross functional Innovation: Despite the secrecy, according to Business Week, the Apple design team "works closely and intensely with engineers, marketers, and even outside manufacturing contractors in Asia who actually build the products. Rather than being simple stylists, they're leading innovators in the use of new materials and production processes."

6) Go Big or go home: There was a great article on Business Week about Jonathan Ive and Apple. It summarizes this point brilliantly: "Most big corporations have neither the focus, the skills, nor the appetite for risk to build mass-produced products that feel as if they were made by high-priced boutiques in New York or London. While computer companies have focused on pinching pennies these past few decades, Apple has been perfecting its design game. The fact that rivals are now talking about design is not proof they're catching up -- but of how far they have to go."

So this is the list of 6 things you need to do to innovate like Apple. Maybe it's just a list of bullet points. Acting on this points is the challenge:
Most companies are preoccupied with differentiation, yet without genuinely taking the time, investing the resources and caring enough to try and make something better. How can these companies compete with somone who has razor sharp focus, unique skills and great appettite to take risks? It is not an easy thing.

Facebook: Bad news again

I don't like to be repetitive, so I will make this short: there is now more evidence that Facebook is struggling, confirming earlier posts from this blog. The latest stats from Nielsen Online show a significant decline in month-over-month unique visitors to Facebook in the US. According to mashable, "Facebook will unveil their re-designed user profiles shortly, which aim in part to get rid of the clutter that has loaded up Facebook since they launched their application platform."
Is this going to make a difference? Personally, I don't really think so. You can only get as far with functional improvements. If the magic is gone, then there is not much you can do.

As Powerful as a Video Game.

The New York Photo Festival tool place last week in DUMBO, a neighborhood on the Brooklyn waterfront between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.

For four days, the festival offered visitors an extensive range of activities including seminars, slide shows, book signings, photographic workshops, live performances and events, and a gallery row.
Once again, there was a lot of buzz around Phillip Toledano's work, particularly the Video Gamers collection.

The artist has caught his subjects revealing “a hidden part of their character” through having them play video games. Spooky. Witty. Dazzling.

Or how about these two. Excitement. Surprise. Illumination. Everything for this one moment. And yes, a video game can offer you all this and more. Isn't that amazing?

Single Era Conjecture?

There was an interesting article on the Sunday times about the Single Era Conjecture, which is how they call the invisible law that makes it impossible for a technology company to maintain its leadership through a major paradigm shift. The article gives examples of companies that have tried and failed (i.e. IBM) and focuses on how Microsoft struggles to "sustain in the Internet era what they attained in the personal computing era". There were some interesting facts there that I wasn't aware of. Like the 1995 internal memo "the Internet wave" where Bill Gates alerted company employees that Internet was meant to be a disruptive force. It's fascinating to see how the company has failed to address this major trend, although they have been aware of its importance for over a decade.

Is it a matter of poor management and lack of leadership? Or is it just the fact that as NY Times suggests, this is an invisible law and Mother Nature simply won't permit it? If this is the case, Google will fail too, soon and actually there is a lot of evidence suggesting that this is probably going to be the case (key employees leaving the company, changing culture etc)

Either way, I find it very difficult to believe in invisible laws of Mother Nature. Human beings have managed to change and overcome so many of them in areas that I find much more challenging. So check the video below:

What do you think? I personally find this parody video extremely accurate of Microsoft's reality. So I am asking you: Is this Mather Nature or just a huge company shooting itself on the foot? I mean there are things that are hard to change and maybe re-writing Windows is one of them. (I wouldn't know since I am not a hacker, but its a very controversial subject anyway after Vista failed). And then, there are things that can be easily changed, like design. I am not suggesting cutting edge here. Just avoid ridiculous for now. But then this suggests that Leadership gets it. Do they?

In the video above Steve Ballmer (current CEO and the 15th employee who joined the company) concludes breathless: "I have four words for you: I love this company". Of course he does. But then again, everybody else doesn't love Microsoft anymore and I don't think it's because of Mother Nature. I think this is a challenge of culture and leadership. Microsoft has done such a lousy job adjusting, so even when they do innovate, people won't take them seriously anymore.

The Art of Goose Bumps

Goose bumps:
Pimples on the skin brought on by cold or fear or by sudden excitement

Ask yourself: Are you in the goose bump business? Do you offer people the promise of sudden and unexpected excitement? Do you create special moments that really transcend people?

Maybe not. Maybe your product is very functional and people use it in very logical and predefined ways. Or maybe the whole category is stagnant and commoditized and people don't expect anything more than the functional benefit. Something like paper napkins, batteries, tooth paste or chewing gum. Or how about a search engine, or an online store. There is not much room for emotions and surprises here. Right? hmmm...maybe not.

Studies in neuroscience reveal that emotions guide decision making. As we've all learned by reading blink and other books on this topic, people can not make decisions without emotions, period. It's about how the human brain works: you touch fire when you are 3 years old and guess what happens:
So your brain attaches a "marker" there that says "danger". This marker creates a shortcut in your brain that helps you envision the outcome of an action, in this case, "don't touch the fire again because it won't be nice". Little by little, our brain creates markers for everything that surrounds us. So each time we make a decision we envision the outcome: if it feels good we do it. If not, we skip.
Hold on you say, how what can I create memorable experiences, when all I have is a functional, low involvement product? Think airlines for a minute: highly commoditized category, most people choose the lowest fare and the experience sucks. Watch this ad from Virgin:

The ad builds on the concept of memorable experiences. Even better, without creating any of those, it attempts to take credit for all of them, past and future, challenging you to live your life so you "got plenty to watch". Now watch this ad from "5" chewing gum (pump up the volume, you'll see what I mean)

Did you get goose bumps? I did. Yes, it's just a chewing gum, but the promise of the experience can knock your shocks off.

So what is the morale of the story? Dare to be different. Think in terms of goose bumps. Try to create unique promises even if you are a chewing gum. But then make sure that you deliver on them somehow. As they say, nothing can kill a product faster than great advertising (if the product sucks).

ITP- A breath of fresh air.

ITP is a course from NYU that stands for Interactive Tellecomunications Program. The program is a combination of art/design/technology/media, or in their own words:

"ITP is a two-year graduate program located in the Tisch School of the Arts whose mission is to explore the imaginative use of communications technologies — how they might augment, improve, and bring delight and art into people’s lives. Perhaps the best way to describe us is as a Center for the Recently Possible. "

Every spring ITP organanizes a "spring show" that gives each student the opportunity to present their work to the public. It is really an amazing experience, for some it is one of the things that defines the NY Tech scene, and shapes its future.

I was there last night for their 2008 Spring Show and although I felt that the '07 show was a bit better, once again it was a breath of fresh air to see all these young (ok some of them not so young), creative people sharing their best stuff with the rest of the world.

There were some very interesting concept this year and it was also interesting to see some major trends reflected in the creative work of the students (for example some of the new concepts were addressing energy preservation issues)

Once again there were a lot of crazy visualizations, a lot of storytelling, some new mobile concepts and other interesting ideas cutting between art, science and business.

As I was heading home last night I was thinking if ITP creates the future of the New York Tech Scene as some people tend to think, or if it just interacts with its present. Then, I realized that maybe there is no difference between the two, after all the future is fueled by the present.
Eitherway, ITP adds to the culture and the creativity of NY, by educating and leveraging some of the city's most creative minds.

Prediction markets and corporations: benefits and barriers

There is growing discussion about prediction markets, particularly when it comes to their uses within corporations. As some of us know, the idea of prediction markets "recently" became more popular with the success of James Surowiecki's book the wisdom of crowds, a national bestseller about the virtues of collective intelligence, including prediction markets. Today, while some corporations widely use prediction markets, others are still hesitant about the whole idea.
Here is a short list of benefits and barriers about prediction markets:
Benefit 1# : On many occasions, lower-level employees who interact directly with the customer have more information about certain issues, but decision makers rarely ask their opinion. In situations like this, leaders "deprive themselves of information that could enrich their analysis and reduce the risk of ivory tower decision making". On the other hand, prediction markets allow employees to share unwelcome information about a project’s launch date or a new product’s performance anonymously, without fear about their careers. What’s more, competition among colleagues and the prospect of winning a prize create incentives for seeking information and making the best-informed bets.
Barrier: Organizations may not feel comfortable sharing the results of prediction markets with the broader group. It can be very embarrassing for management to know that everyone feels that a certain strategy is wrong. This is clearly a culrure issues but it can be a barrier against using prediction markets overall.
Benefit #2: On most occasions, information and knowledge is scattered and its difficult for management to retrieve it. Prediction markets can rapidly aggregate information dispersed across an organization.
Barrier: Deciding on the mix of participants can be a challenge. It means that organizations need to cover different constituencies, be comfortable with sharing results with them but also maintain balance between various departments, including those dedicated to forecasting (who may see the prediction markets as a threat)
Benefit #3: Prediction markets are easy to implement and their cost is low, particularly when compared to traditional types of research. As a result, management can test many different ideas and get predictions at a very low cost.
Barrier: Organizations need to carefully think about the variables that they are trying to predict and how they use the results in the context of other information sources (i.e. traditional market research). More importantly, they also need to think about some possible legal obstacles: what happens when an employee sees a prediction market price on his dashboard and realizes, that a certain product is going to be a success? Is he an insider if he trades the company stock on the real stock exchange? Remember, this is information that only a few top people had before...
So overall, prediction markets offer a number of benefits and companies can clearly benefit from using them. Their more mainstream adoption is subject to suppliers educating corporations about their benefits, but also, companies overcoming some organizational and other obstacles as described above.

The power of Music

I love music. Actually, this is an understatement. I can not imagine my life without music. I tend to believe that Music is something most people love and no one dislikes. People love music or they just like music, but they don't actively dislike music.

Music touches everyone throughout our lives. Particularly now that ipods have become such an indispensable part of our daily routine, we have started adding a soundtrack to our lives and to everything we do. Think about it. Commuting, exercising, working, dinning out, music is everywhere.

This is of course an interesting discussion, but where exactly am I going with this?

According to a recent study by WPP and Universal Music, people’s senses, their brains and their bodies can all be penetrated and deeply effected by music. Music can manipulate heartbeats and links our emotions with what our senses perceive. 6 out of 10 agree that music makes them feel different physically; almost 9 out of 10 agree that that music reminds them of special places in their past and changes their mood.

So music is power. Music can take you on a journey. Music sells, ideas, products, moments, people. I guess we've always known that. That's why we have a national anthem. That's why there is a band in the army. That's why commercials have music.

Brand amp is a Company that builds on this idea and takes it one step further.

A joint venture between WPP and Universal Music, brand amp combines the vast catalogue and knowledge of Universal, with the marketing machine of WPP. Among other things, brandamp's speciality is forging meaningful and mutually beneficial partnerships between brands and bands. Check their website and play with their interface. You will feel the power of music.

6 (+1) Rules of Successful Partnerships

Have you ever wondered what makes a great partnerhsip? Is it trust? Inspiration? Or is it just chemistry? What is the magic formula that guarantees success? Here is a list of thoughts and lessons from my experience (personal and from observing other people)

Common Goals: I am not sure if this is the most important element, but I guess it's out there as one of the key drivers of successful partnerships. Think about it, can you partner with someone who has completely different goals? This means that you need to be clear about your goals to begin with.

Common Values: Although goals can be aligned, we often realize that we can achieve these goals in different ways. This is where values are important because they set the tools and the limitations. If you are not comfortable with some of the tactics that your team is using, you will always debate about it. Better off to work with people who share your values.

Complementary skills: Although its good to have common goals and values, in most cases skills should be different and complementary. Starting your own business, you need people from different disciplines and experiences. Some of them may also be smarter than you. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Communication: This is about being open and managing expectations. It about expressing your opinion, but also listening to what other people have to say. On this note, if you have to say NO, it's always better to do so earlier, than later. (If you don't say anything, people will assume that they can count on you and they will act accordingly. It will be much harder to face them later.)

Flexibility: We all need to kill our babies from time to time. If you had a great idea and your team thinks differently, you need to listen to their point of view and that may mean killing the idea.

Leadership and team: Sometimes you need to support the team even if you are not 100% in agreement (unless it's a values issue in which case you should do what you feel is right). Sometimes, you need to step down so someone else can lead the way. This in fact is the essence of a team. The question that you need to ask yourself is "I am better off having 5% of something bigger or 100% of nothing?"

Try to apply these rules in your team and see what happens. I bet that if your team is strong, it's because some of these things have been established. Then of course there is chemistry: sometimes you are just connected with someone in a relationship. But then again, partnerships are like real relationships. Romance is important, but you still need to have some things in common and be willing to work with someone for the mutual benefit.

A post about Facebook

Granted, Facebook is yesterday's news, or so I think, but it's such an interesting story nevertheless.

Think about it. The whole journey from zero to startup-stardom took only a couple of years. Exponential growth, excitement all around, Facebook has been the darling of web2.0 for a while. But as we all know it's not only about getting there. It's about staying alive and staying on the cutting edge. Facebook was on the bleeding edge for a while and now it's... not any more.

So is Facebook in a free fall? For one thing, the site has reached a plateau, actually it's probably losing users and at the very least, it looks like engagement is not as strong as it used to be. As users are getting tired of the myriads of applications, new applications are not as successful any more. After all, there so many of them that the marginal utility of a new application is diminishing (as we say in economics). This in turn means that developers have less of a motive to build for Facebook. We know what that means.
Meanwhile, the site hasn't really figured out how to make money. So if and when they run out of cash, the old valuation of 15 billion will be tested again.

When I was studying marketing they use to teach us about the lifecycle of a product: introduction, growth maturity, decline. Somehow, the term lifecycle had a different meaning back then. Maybe its the word "life" that had connotations of a longer time.

Things are so different today, in the world of new media.

Interview with Lingospot: 3+1 Lessons for startups and the road ahead

So here is the interview with Nikos Iatropoulos, the CEO of Lingospot. The objective of the interview was twofold:
1-to learn more about the past and the future of this dynamic new company;
2-to extract some key learnings in order to help aspiring entrepreneurs.

In their own words (from the website) “Lingospot is an in-text content discovery service enabling authors to increase reader engagement and dynamically interlink their content.” It appears that the company is growing fast and has achieved some major milestones. We are wishing them good luck with their next steps.

Here it goes:

outoftheborders: What is Lingospot? How does the service work?

Nikos Iatropoulos:
Lingospot is an in-text content discovery service. We believe that consumers are undergoing a shift in the way they find content online. They are moving away from actively searching for such information to “discovering” it.

Our vision is to dynamically interconnect the web through streams of such contextual content discoveries facilitated by our technology. The Lingospot technology consists of proprietary natural language processing and search algorithms that “understand” what a page is about, identify the most important elements of the page, and find relevant content from across the site and the web.
Such content can include links to related articles that the reader can navigate to as well as content that can be consumed within the Lingospot bubble, such as Wikipedia definitions, photos, videos, etc.

Outoftheborders: Who is this service for?

Nikos Iatropoulos:
Lingospot offers solutions for various types of authors, large publishers or bloggers. Eitherway, the benefits are great as Lingospot can increase the number of page views and the time spent on the website, also improving reader utility and engagement.

Can you please describe the key milestones that you have achieved so far? What are the learnings that you have personally acquired as an entrepreneur from this journey?

Nikos Iatropoulos:
It’s been a very exciting journey. Here is what we have achieved so far:

1-Launch of our product in Beta – seeing our service run on a live website!
2-Incorporating, raising our first capital and moving into offices – being a real company!
3-Hiring our first 3 employees, who along with the 2 founders completed the founding team (CEO, CTO, SVP Sales, 2 Engineers)
4-Launching our commercial version and signing up our first major publisher (Forbes)

There is a lot of new learning, and some important lessons:

1-The first five people of a company determine its success or failure
2- You never know what features will work in a product until you test them in the market
3- The most important attribute of a small entrepreneurial company is the ability to quickly react to the marketplace and change its direction overnight.

Outoftheborders: Niko, this is not the first time that you start a company. Is it different now compared to the past and in what way?

Nikos Iatropoulos:
Having started a software company back in 2000, things now seem a lot easier today. Software development tools and hardware is much cheaper. Open source has reached a point where it is better or as good as commercial software. Servers, bandwidth and collocation costs are also much cheaper. Compared to 2000, I would estimate that you can start an internet service company for about 1/5th of the cost. This allows a team to complete product development and roll out a product with very little cost, without the need of external financing. This is good news. The bad news, is that it’s become easy for everyone, so competition is more intense.

Outoftheborders: What are the next steps for Lingospot?

Nikos Iatropoulos:
Now that our products are in the market, our next step is to grow our presence in both the large publisher world and the blogosphere. This will require growing our team, opening sales offices in New York, London and Beijing and investing in infrastructure. To do so, the company is currently looking for a round of Series A financing that will enable it to make these investments in growth.

Upcoming Interview with Nikos Iatropoulos, CEO of Lingospot

As I promised you last week, I have secured some very exciting interviews that will hopefully add an interesting twist to our discussion. I will be starting tomorrow with Nikos Iatropoulos, CEO of LingoSpot

Quick Background: Lingospot is an in-text content discovery service. Their technology consists of proprietary natural language processing and search algorithms that “understand” what a page is about, identify the most important elements and find relevant content from across the site and the web, which then presents in an easy to consume "bubble".

Mr Iatropoulos will talk about the history of Lingospot and reveal some of the company's future plans. He will also share some practical learnings from his experience as a serial entrepreneur, particularly in view of the market conditions today.

Stay tuned.

Listening to what people have to say. Or not.

"Is it generally a good idea to listen to your customers?" Sounds like a silly question... after all the customer is the King.


I was thinking about this last night, after a discussion that I had with a client. Then, I saw this interesting post this morning, explaining how hard it is to listen to your customers and I couldn't help but agree (I have spent many years doing marketing research, including customer satisfaction surveys)

Nevertheless..., I also felt like challenging the premise that we always need to listen to our customers. (I am not suggesting that we shouldn't, but there is more to it, please bear with me for a minute)

Have you heard of Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid and their Most Wanted painting research?

Well here is what they did: they went out to to discover what a true "people's art" would look like, and they conducted a poll... The result was America's Most Wanted and America's Least Wanted paintings, which were exhibited in New York at the Alternative Museum under the title "People's Choice."

Since most people preferred outdoors scenes, it was a landscape. Since most people liked lakes or rivers or oceans, and another large percentage liked forests and fields, the painting included a wooded area and a grassy verge near a large body of water. The painting's predominant color was the one nearly everyone preferred -- blue sky and blue water. Since people liked wildlife in their paintings, two deer gamboled in the water. The answers were mixed as to whether there should be human figures in the painting, and whether those figures should be contemporary or historical, so the final work included small human figures dwarfed by the landscape: three children, and, standing off to the side, George Washington...

Most wanted painting:

So here is the question:
What would art look like if it were to please the greatest number of people? Or conversely: What kind of culture is produced by a society that lives and governs itself by opinion polls? Stagnant, boring and flat if you ask me.

Back to our discussion: I feel that the extent to which we need to listen to our customers (by that I mean how much, how often and in what way) is very much related to the business that we are in and to our objectives. If you have a functional product or service, then understanding problems and receiving feedback is critical. If, on the other hand, you are in the business of "sparkling magic", then its a different story. You need to stand out, challenge and innovate. You need to combine structure and creativity. Its like listening and asserting in a way, probably more asserting than listening in this case.

But then again you need to have something interesting to say.

Google TV Ads: the good the bad and the future

As expected, google officially launched their TV ads platform after months of speculation. With this new dashboard buyers will be able to manage TV campaigns, which of course sounds like most of what a media buyer does.
The good: a very easy and intuitive dashboard that gets you going in minutes. You can even find creative if you don't have one, and for a limited time google covers the cost (up to $2000, not bad). Overall, the system tries to make the TV ad process more accountable and measurable. It works through an auction model, where advertisers state the most they’re willing to pay on a cost-per-thousand impressions basis, and don’t pay until the ad airs.
The bad: There is not such thing as a free lunch. Google’s TV ads are limited to Dish’s 14 million subscribers for now. The funny thing is that they don't mention it anywhere in their demos... its funny when people do this. Of course it's a start. But then SpotRunner has been doing this for a while and then project Canoe (sponsored by the big cable companies) will probably shake things when launched. Cable companies are investing $150mil on this.
The future: Either way, the advertising landscape is changing. There is clearly more flexibility now to manage campaigns, even at a local or more sporadic level. Of course, cable providers want a share of the pie. They also have richer user data so they can optimize targeting and increase effectiveness. As this will be happening, advertisers' expectations will also change and then maybe traditional roles of media and buyers will follow.