Monthly Archives: November 2007

Oh, The Predictions

I had an opportunity to attend the PRSA: Media Predicts event last night, courtesy of my partners at Miner Productions, whose video interviews with the panelists I predict will be the best part of the whole carnival. We’re in the middle of that frothy season of media predictions for what earthshaking business and technology events will transform our lives in ’08, and this event was among the frothiest. Trumpeted as event not to be missed, where media pundits from the Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Forbes and BusinessWeek would lend us their oracular insights, the evening offered up some truly stunning predictions:

Kara Swisher, BoomTown columnist from WSJ: "We’ll have a recession next year."
Don Clark, Deputy Bureau Chief from WSJ: "Some of those Virtual World companies will disappear."
Jim Goldman, Bureau Chief at CNBC: "Companies like Oracle and SAP will do well."
Robert Scoble: "Apple will launch an iPhone with video."

There you have it. That’s what nearly 400 people assembled at the Computer History Museum gathered to hear. I hate to say it, but this was the quintessential Public Relations event. More packaging than substance. Much of the panel dialog rambled around this device that a panelist is trying out (Scoble had a Kindle, Swisher hates it), who’s the most out of touch with technology (Goldman still prefers the phone to email? Gasp!), and offhand references to jetsetting and importance (Swisher mentioned at least three times that she was in the UK last week, Scoble sat on a plane with John Edwards).

All fascinating things, truly, but it felt more like an Editor Appreciation dinner brought to you lovingly by the people who have to pitch them. And so the evening ended on helpful tips from the panelists on how to pitch them so as not to annoy them. I saw more notes being taken on those words than anything else said during the night.

Okay, now that I’ve vented–I battled 2 and a half hours of bay area traffic to hear predictions–there were a couple of decent insights from the panel. The money quote was from Kara Swisher, who said "When will Yahoo! get off its sorry ass and do something." I think the simultaneous sucking in of breath from 400 people shut down the AC. It may have been the only totally honest and unguarded statement of the evening, and spot on. There was a brief thrashing on Widget and Web 2.0 me-too companies based on ad-supported business models–and the accelerating meltdown of the ad industry, which may be accelerated by the recession. Scoble noted the ongoing insanity of having dozens of separately authenticated Web 2.0 tools and the need for some kind of integrated single sign-on, but no one’s holding their breath.

My table companion, John Hamilton from Miner, noted a key between-the-lines insight for the evening. The one thread that ran mostly under the surface the whole evening, but kept reappearing as a subtext, was the importance of video. Sure there was a brief discussion about the trend toward broadband video on mobile devices, but it was the frequent references to video as asides in other discussions–and people video blogging parts of the discussion with their phones–that had more predictive weight than any pronouncements from the panel.

If you want to catch the video, and other discussions of the event, check out the PRSA site.

Update: Louis Gray has a much more upbeat assessment of the evening than me. He’s both a better reporter and editor than I am, but his spin is also a little too kind, I think.

How Does Wal-Mart Sleep at Night?

Let me preface this post by stating clearly that I’m a capitalist. I love business, I work hard to support myself and my family, and I’m no fan of gratuitous entitlements. At the same time, I believe fundamentally in human compassion. When it comes to the basic requirements of life and a healthy society–safety, shelter, nutrition, health–I believe we have an obligation as a society to ensure a minimum standard for everyone. And if practicality moves you more than compassion, then consider it a basic insurance policy against civil unrest and a cheap investment in social stability.

I consider this not only a human responsibility, but a corporate responsibility too. Corporations are simply a magnificaiton of the values and behaviors of individuals. So when I read about Wal-Mart suing one of its employees, a woman left brain-damaged after a serious auto accident, so that Wal-Mart could take her legal settlement to repay itself for healthcare payments made under her insurance policy, I can only say that words can’t convey the depth of my utter and abject disgust. The $417,000 that Wal-Mart just seized from a woman in a nursing home was set up in a trust to pay for her future care. Now it will go to offset the $470,000 Wal-Mart’s healthcare plan paid out for medical bills after the woman’s accident. To ensure they got the entire amount, Wal-Mart not only sued for the original payments, they sued for legal expenses and, I can’t even believe this while I’m typing it, interest

Sharon Weber, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, declined to discuss the details of the Shanks’ case, but said the company was obliged to act in the interest of the health benefits of its employees as a whole. "While the case involves a tragic situation, our responsibility is to follow the provisions of the [company health] plan which governs the health benefits of our associates," she said.

Keep in mind, this wasn’t some woman abusing the legal system to make some specious and ridiculously inflated claim for exagerated injuries. Not like, say, someone suing for millions of dollars because they spilled hot coffee in their lap. This is a woman who will live in a nursing home for the rest of her life. She won enough money to ensure an ability to pay future bills that would extend her care a fraction beyond the level of being a ward of the state. Wal-Mart took it all.

This is the new trend in U.S. healthcare. It’s not enough that we pay exhorbitant insurance premiums for crappy healthcare. Now many companies are starting to go after patients who receive a legal settlement to pay back medical expenses. So what is it, exactly, they are willing to pay for after collecting and banking our premiums? Of course, they couch it all in "the interests of our policy holders". Bullshit. For the $12-15 per year this represents to policy holders, out of the $10,000+ they pay in premiums, I guarantee policy holders would rather have the peace of mind that if, in the tragic event of a catastrophic injury requiring a lifetime of round-the-clock care, the company would leave them the hell alone and not seize every last penny like some mega-grinch.

I’m sorry. I love business. I do a lot of work for a lot of big companies, and I see a lot of good and bad things in the balance. But my notion of a functioning civil society does not have room for behavior like this. Wal-Mart is an abomination.

Writers on Strike Leverage Social Media

Some of you faithful readers of Marketonomy have asked why I’ve been AWOL the past six weeks. Well, I’ve been on strike in solidarity with Hollywood writers. I’m bitter about not making money from my work on the Web, so I stopped writing to show how much you’d all miss me. I know, the writer’s strike has only been running a couple of weeks while my hiatus started some six weeks ago. What can I say, I’m an early adopter.

Twice One of the unexpected bright spots of the writer’s strike–other than the prospect of exciting new reality shows like Apprentice: Kabul Edition–has been the rise of various blogs about the strike. I’ve actually been quite impressed by the way some writer’s groups have effectively used the Web to connect with people and communicate their message, and predictably, it’s the comedy writers who do the best job of it.

One of Stephen Colbert’s writers explains the producer’s side of the strike in this v-log. And many of the writers from Saturday Night Live have been writing a blog from the picket lines that’s far more interesting than any news you’d want to hear about labor conflicts. In fact, the SNL blog is a microcosmic look at what works and what doesn’t work in blogging. Note to Tom Ruprecht: Stop pimping your book already.

Of courses, the real winner once the shows start drying up will be YouTube. Once people realize they can get all the crappy tv they want without the crappy ads, hollywood is finished. If you’re happy, go around twice.

Four Seasons Brand Experience

Over the past few months I’ve been working off radar on a series of projects between MotiveLab and MinerProductions, with the invaluable support and direction of a few top marketing and business minds. We just wrapped up the first phase of one project last week with a retreat at the Four Seasons on the Hawaiian Island of Lanai.


There are a lot of angles I could take on blogging about this event. The conversation was compelling, focused on "marketing transformation" and all the various ways in which marketing is being challenged and recreated as a corporate function. The participants were incredible–a cross-section of experienced marketers, sales people and executives who all came with an informed viewpoint and a willingness to engage in thoughtful dialog and debate. And the outcome is encouraging, with a lot of interest and energy for continuing and accelerating the program.

Since it was a private discussion, I’m not going to trumpet the participants and discussions, though I’m making an open invitation to anyone who wants to continue threads of the dialog in public. But there is one thing I am really compelled to express publicly. It’s a basic marketing lesson we all learn repeatedly, but which I’ve rarely seen demonstrated with so much skill and understated confidence as I did last week.

When it comes to building a brand, experience is everything. We launched our retreat in partnership with the Four Seasons. Everyone knows the Four Seasons is one of the top luxury hotel groups, and it certainly made it easier to recruit participants when we mentioned we’d be staying at the Four Seasons Lanai.  But there’s a reason that reputation resonates, and I got a first hand look last week at how that reputation has been made.

On the day we were scheduled to kick off our retreat in Lanai, Hawaii was hit by a major tropical storm. Half of our group was in Lanai when the storm hit; half of our group was grounded at the airport in Honolulu.What started out as an inconvenient delay quickly turned into a minor nightmare, with airlines boarding and aborting flights, lost luggage and an airport full of exhausted travelers with nowhere to go. In this day and age, real customer service is such a rarity you can only expect to wallow in frustration until somehow normality returns. On a good day, maybe the airline would put out dixie cups with bad coffee.

Into this chaos stepped our liaison with the Four Seasons, Brandi Clement. She helped locate each of our retreat participants and got them situated in the bar while she worked through channels to charter a plane to get our group into Lanai. When the weather worsened, she quickly adjusted the plan to fly everyone to Maui to catch a ferry to Lanai. When it became apparent no flights would get off the island, she arranged what any of us would consider top-shelf accommodations in Honululu, all the while apologizing that it wasn’t the highest standard. In the end, we kicked off our retreat on two separate islands, with every detail smoothed over by the Four Seasons team, until we were able to join the groups on Lanai the next day.

I don’t want to make this sound like a commercial for our partner, but when I stepped back to look at the whole experience, it was kind of ironic. Here we had a group of high-level marketing and business executives gathered to discuss marketing challenges, while our host quietly exemplified every facet of what marketing should be. They provided a flawless product and went over backwards to provide service before they were ever asked. I could go on for days about the resort, the breathtaking beauty of the property, the incredible food, the spa… But at the end of the day, what really resonates is the way the same attitude that Brandi brought to solving our travel problems permeated every corner of our experience at the Four Seasons–right down to the bell man who remembered my name each morning. Don’t get me wrong–you pay a lot for an experience at a luxury hotel and you expect the best. But the attitude–the kindness of service–really made an impression. It’s the difference between a product and an experience, and I feel really fortunate to have Four Seasons as a partner.

We’re scouting out logistics for an event on the East Coast. If you know a top marketing or business executive who’s interested in digging into the real challenges of marketing transformation, drop me a note.