A Tale of Two Cities

The West Coast’s Snap Inc (parent of Snapchat) announced it had lost more than $2 billion about the time I came home from Hannover Messe, a huge industrial trade show in Germany. The contrast between the two “cities” couldn’t be more stark. Hannover Messe featured the world’s leading companies that do all the heavy lifting, literally, that makes the world work. Factories. Transportation. Energy. Stuff that consumers take for granted. An endless array of exhibit halls were filled with robots ...

Should Brands Talk Politics?

Consumers don't like it when brands take political or social positions, yet they want brands to become more socially active and responsible. The disconnect was revealed in a recent study, entitled "Brands, Agencies and Political Values," sponsored by the American Association of Advertising Agencies, or "4A's." I wonder if the fluid idea of "brand" has caused the appearance of conflict where there is none. Since brands aren't things, it's impossible for brands to do things; the vague concept of ...

Amazon’s Retail Plan Isn’t About Books

What’s up with Amazon opening a store in Manhattan, with hundreds more coming to towns that used to have book stores?  It has very little to do with books. It’s funny that Amazon’s “unique” approach to book retailing involves listing bestsellers, displaying gizmos for reading, and displaying book faces instead of spines. There’s a Barnes & Noble in Union Square that does all of those things, even if it does so differently. Amazon’s bookstore VP said “the purpose of ...

Ford’s PR Problem

Mark Fields lost his job running Ford this week. Sadly, it had nothing to do with how he ran the company. It had everything to do with the PR Ford got, or didn’t get when it came to autonomous cars and other tech stories. Matthew DeBord wrote a brilliant explanation of what happened, though the New York Times inadvertently described it in a sentence: “Mr. Fields, a 28-year veteran of Ford, was a victim of rapidly evolving expectations for carmakers ...

The Circus Isn’t Dead, It’s Everywhere

Last night, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus gave its last performance. People have always turned to escapist entertainment as a salve for the brutality of everyday existence. The Romans invented the word “circus,” meaning “ring,” and built such facilities to house horse races and historical reenactments (along with gladiatorial combat, thereby overlapping somewhat the role of amphitheaters like the Colosseum). Our idea of a circus originated in the late 18th century as a trick-riding show in London, to ...

Three Things You Should Know About Interviews

A company exec in front of a live camera is a unique opportunity to connect directly with an audience. So why are so many of them so bad? Spend some time watching the daytime programming at CNBC, for instance, and you’ll see what I mean. Most interviews are filled with buzzwords and non-news that have me remarking “wait, he didn’t even answer the question” more often than not. Such stumbles don’t come with lots of hard work: PR people prepare ...

A Different Future For The Ford 1,400

Ford  plans to fire 1,400 staffers, and many media outlets suggest the move is intended to appease Wall Street by cutting costs (the stock is down and Tesla’s up, so the latter is now “worth” more than the former). Ford’s in a tough spot, for sure. Incessant talk about autonomous driving dominates most every conversation in the automotive sector these days. I attended this year’s auto show in Detroit, and it was fascinating to watch reporters grill car companies (and their ...

Brands That Dare To Offend

Tiffany, Levis, Intel, and a slew of other brands ran ads last week in support of America’s continued participation in the Paris Agreement on climate change. I wonder how many consumers are going to stop buying diamonds, jeans, and PCs. Remember, lots of Americans don’t believe in climate change, and even more just assume it won’t effect them. Won’t they find these ads offensive? Of course, at one level it’s just a publicity stunt. Tiffany’s stand-alone ad, and a larger group ...

Why Do Airplanes Make People Go Nuts?

There have been a few notable instances lately of people beating up each other on or near airplanes. Get ready for more of them. A passenger breaks his nose when he’s evicted from a United flight. An American flight attendant who dings a passenger in the head with a stroller gets all but challenged to a duel by another passenger. A fight breaks out in the terminal over Spirit flight cancellations, one takes place on an ANA flight before it ...

Technology Has A POV

It’s accepted wisdom that technology is nothing but a neutral tool that has no inherent meaning or effect. It’s also not true. The truth is most evident in information technology. Resource planning and supply chain software, and all of the gizmos and apps attached to those programs, have changed how businesses are run. Decision makers aren’t just better informed, but they make decisions at different times and in different ways. Plans that were once forward-looking are now invented and managed ...

The Innovation Communications Challenge

It’s just not fair. Elon Musk has recently promised to connect human brains to computers, visit the Moon and populate the solar system, and send a self-driving Tesla across America (Uber sees cars flying in a few years). I’m sure there’s a startup somewhere working on time travel. You want to publicize the improved efficiency you successfully delivered to a customer’s facility, for which you were paid good money. Zzzzzzz. No amount of access or glossy production can make up ...

The Robot Apocalypse Starts With Ping Pong?

I just watched a robot play ping pong. I’m at Hannover Messe, which is a giant industrial trade show that’s chocked full of every type of automation imaginable. Automation is technology that gets work done without people intervening. Robots are a subset, but so are “smart” things like engines, pallets, even entire vehicles, not to mention the computer programming that enables it all. Robots tend to be the poster children of automation because their movement suggests agency that only we ...

Why Not Autonomous Everything Else First?

A fully autonomous kitchen would be far more interesting to me than a self-driving car. We are told stories about the, er, drive to autonomous vehicles as if it were our generation’s Manhattan Project or Moon shot. Car companies and their suppliers are pouring money into development and spending on PR, as tech companies large and small are doing the same. Why not autonomous everything else first? I mean, kitchens function much as they did 50 years ago. Even considering ...

Tesla Isn’t Worth More Than GM Or Ford

Sometime last week, Tesla's equity share price topped $300, which means the company is worth more than GM or Ford. Only it isn't. I see at least three lessons for communicators: First, forget telling your stakeholders (or worrying) that stock valuation has any connection to reality. There is no objectively reliable math that supports Tesla's price; it's what James B. Stewart in the New York Times calls a "story stock," which means that investors have bought into a narrative of ...

United Shows That Social Starts In Reality

As United goes going through the kabuki drama of ugly social media post, corporate apology, and the opining of marketing experts, it’s showing every brand a deeper truth: All business is social now. I know that might sound like announcing water is wet, but I’m not talking about the role social media played in revealing United's recent clothing and overbooking policy snafus. I wasn’t on either plane, but it sure seems like the passengers were treated like bystanders, at best. ...

Kendall Gives The World A Pepsi

You’ve already heard about Pepsi’s ad in which Kendall Jenner leaves a fashion shoot to hand a can of soda pop to a cop at a street protest. It’s demeaning to real protests. It draws on imagery from the 1960s. It’s whitewashing. No, it’s just a really bad ad. You don’t even need to see it to know why, since Pepsi explained that it was "trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding." I would have ...

Uber Should Run On An App

Uber has reported a number of issues recently, from its CEO Travis Kalanick berating one of its drivers and another exec resigning due to differences in "beliefs and approaches to leadership," to accusations of what appears to be institutional sexism. Yesterday, it released a report on its workforce entitled "Measuring What Matters: Diversity at Uber," which revealed that there's no diversity at the company. Liane Hornsey, its HR chief, has been promised unlimited resources to fix a culture variously described ...

Snapchat and the Rise of Fake Value

The stock of Snap Inc, parent company of smartphone chat app Snapchat, traded down almost 2% yesterday. It briefly popped 44% after its debut on March 2, but has generally trended lower ever since. Nothing obvious happened in the days prior that would account for the latest drop. Facebook announced the expansion of some copycat service, Vice Media said it had expanded its plans to create exclusive shows for Snapchat, and a big ad agency warned its clients that ads ...

3 Things You Should Know About Storytelling

My agency has helped dozens of large, multinational companies frame and then deliver narratives about innovation and technology, and those experiences have taught us how to best tell stories. Interestingly, it has nothing to do with creativity. A story is good or bad depending on its structure, first and foremost. You don’t need a literature professor to tell you that good stories share common qualities: protagonists, conflict and uncertainty, human drama, internal consistency and, most of all, they describe things ...

3 Things You Should Know About Relevance

Brands need to be “relevant” these days, though there’s never been a time when communications succeeded any other way. But, like ideas about authenticity and engagement, it has many marketers running around as if they’ve discovered some magic elixir that requires the invention of new ideas, platforms, and measurement. Er, no. Merriam-Webster defines relevance (noun) as a relation to the matter at hand, and something that is practical and especially socially applicable. That’s a pretty straightforward meaning, as far as ...

3 Things You Should Know About Protests

There’s a large group of people holding angry placards in front of your headquarters. An accusatory tweet has garnered sympathetic shares. Protests seem easier and more frequent these days, so what should companies do about them? Nothing. Well, at least not initially. The rules for communicating during such crises have changed since they were first written back in the days of 3 broadcast TV networks, 24-hour print news cycles, and a consumer audience who, generally, bought into the same facts ...

Elite Condescension

Deutsche Bank ran full-page ads today in Germany's largest newspapers. If the statement in English posted on its site the day prior is the same text, the gesture makes two things perfectly clear: The bank got really bad PR advice, and its leadership was arrogant enough to follow it. Deutsche Bank is in crisis mode these days, in large part because it helped kickoff the global financial meltdown in the mid-2000s, enabled Russian oligarchs to launder $10 billion, and barely ...

Why Robots Won’t Replace Us

Artificial intelligence, if headlines are anything to go by, promises to herald either a wonderful new age of possibility or harkens the beginning of the machine world —and once set in motion, one eventuality will happen, either with or without us. Let’s be clear right from the start: At best AI can amplify the ability of humans, but I don’t see it replacing us. Much about AI has been hyped, oversold, misunderstood, mislabeled and wrongly feared. There isn’t enough discussion ...

Are Social Media Soma?

"If we could sniff or swallow something that would, for five or six hours each day, abolish our solitude as individuals, atone us with our fellows in a glowing exaltation of affection and make life in all its aspects seem not only worth living, but divinely beautiful and significant…” Aldous Huxley Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World follows a character named John who tries to navigate a world defined by endless and silly routines of social behavior, and in which ...

3 Things You Should Know About Video

"Pictures came and broke your heart, put the blame on VTR..." Video has been the future of communications since the song “Video Killed the Radio Star” was first recorded in 1977 (this is a video of the Buggles’ version from 1979, when nascent home video tape recorders were still called “VTRs”). Much has changed since it was the first music video broadcast by MTV in 1981, starting with the fact that MTV doesn’t really play music videos anymore. Radio ...

Advertising’s Silly Season

With Super Bowl LI just under a month away, it’s time once again for advertising’s annual exercise in self-immolation. We’ll hear about companies that have bought time on the program. Various aspects of ad creative will get doled out, and social media campaigns launched in hopes of increasing or extending awareness. The entertainment value of the spots will get reviewed in real time during the show, and ranked immediately thereafter. Winners and losers will be decided. And then nobody will ...

Catechism and Cheeseburgers

McDonald’s has opened a restaurant “within eyeshot” of St. Peter’s Square, and a cardinal has called it a “disgrace” that serves food “I would never eat.” A committee of local residents thinks it clashes with the architecture and traditions of the area. The Vatican owns the building, and will collect $30,000 in rent every month from McDonald’s, which further complicates the issue. I’ll admit that when I visited Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in Berlin for the first time a few ...

Inventing The Future

Xerox founded its PARC research center during the sales heyday of its eponymous paper copiers, and tasked it with inventing “the office of the future.” Its location in Palo Alto, far away from corporate headquarters in an Internet-less era of expensive toll calls, is often cited as a mistake that kept it from commercializing every discovery. “No, we went where the people were,” answered Steve Hoover, PARC’s CEO, noting that physical and psychological distance meant its innovators weren’t bound ...

The Night AFTER Christmas

[Note: This poem originally appeared in Advertising Age on December 15, 2011. It has been edited because the author can't resist tinkering] 'Twas the night after Christmas, when all through the store/every employee was working their annual chore: The sale signs were hung by the windows aplenty/Hoping tomorrow the store wouldn't be empty. The merchandise piled high on every surface/Arrayed and displayed for solely one purpose: Since, by the branding consumers weren't enticed/The market required the products get repriced. When, ...

Iterating Locks & Keys

Considering there are iron skeleton keys that still turn door locks in medieval castles, you’d think the technology was more than ready for disruption with the swipe of a digital app. Turns out it’s more complicated than that. “Mechanical key systems have always had limitations in solving the problem of access control, especially for large systems,” explained Peter Siklosi, a product manager at Assa Abloy. "Keys can be lost without a reliable way of blocking access for those in locks, ...