The Dip–Should I Stay or Should I Go?

March 21, 2008

The Dip, by Seth GodinI’ve recently finished reading marketing guru Seth Godin‘s latest book, The Dip. It’s a quick read. Which I’d say is a plus, since it really felt like an extended blog post, and not always in a positive way.

The book is basically about quitting. Godin’s premise is that you need to figure out if a project you’re working on, or even your job or career, is worth doing any more. The “dip” in The Dip refers to the low point you might find yourself in as you struggle to work through some challenge. For example, if you just got a new guitar, you’re likely excited to learn how to play it; you’re motivated, hyped and very keen. But as time marches on, you begin to realize that learning the guitar takes some effort: bingo! You’re in the dip. The only question now is, do you trudge through and become proficient or do you abandon the effort altogether?

I had really high hopes when I started this book. And there were a few highlights. A few sections spoke to me–personally and professionally–but mostly the book felt disorganized and random. It bounced around from concept to concept, with a quick-cut style that at best felt forced–and actually it felt copied (see below for what I mean).*

One section I found I enjoyed was “Quitting as an Intelligent Strategy.” Here Godin tells a story of Doug, a good employee who has, after more than a decade with his company, plateaued.

Doug needs to leave for a very simple reason. He’s been branded. Everyone at the company has an expectation of who Doug is and what he can do. He’s not going to be challenged, pushed, or promoted to president. Doug, regardless of what he could actually accomplish, has stopped evolving–at least in the eyes of the people who matter. If he leaves and joins another company, he gets to reinvent himself. No one in the new company will remember young Doug from ten years ago. No, they’ll treat Doug as the new Doug, the Doug with an endless upside and little past.

This really hit home for me because it’s exactly what I did two years ago. I didn’t fully quit, but I took a secondment to a government ministry. I felt I needed to shake up myself and the perceptions people had of me after working for a number of years in the same office. The secondment was also a valuable experience since it was a definite step up in responsibility and exposed me to some fresh points of view. After about six months I returned to my office, and things had changed. Roles were redefined and I was now to be a supervisor and take on other, higher level, projects. It felt, at least for a while, that the decision to leave, if only temporarily, had a positive impact. Now, two years on, I’ve got new boundaries to overcome, new perceptions to change, so reading Godin’s words have spurred me on once again.

*So one last thing. The style of Godin’s book felt very familiar to me as I read it, almost as if I had read it before. It wasn’t until I was in about a quarter of the way–and after seeing a few of the cartoon sketches that pepper the book–that it hit me. Godin was sounding almost exactly like the creator of the very cartoons featured in his book: Hugh MacLeod. Specifically, if you read MacLeod’s fantastic–and I mean fantastic!–How to be Creative you should quickly recognize the literary style of Godin in The Dip. The fact that Godin uses MacLeod to illustrate his book makes the comparison just to overwhelming not to notice.

Now, MacLeod’s manifesto is the kind of thing I was hoping for from Godin’s book. When I first read it eons ago, I was truly inspired. No other writing in recent memory has had such a strong impact on me from a professional and creative point of view. I’ve re-read How to be Creative at least five times, and a tattered printed copy sits not far from my desk, ready and available for the next time I need the smelling salts of its words. Really, if it comes down to it, I’d recommend How to be Creative over The Dip. And best of all, it’s free.

Poor Customer Service – On the Line Forever With Budget

March 11, 2008

How long should it take to have a customer-service call answered? Two minutes? Five? Fifteen? How about more than 60? That’s how long I stayed on hold with Victoria’s Budget Car Rental today. Unbelievable. And in the end, the call was never answered.

Certain companies–Telus comes to mind–have made big strides in speeding up the process and getting calls answered quickly. But it seems others simply don’t put in the same effort.

Now, the individuals I dealt with at the Budget lot were great–very friendly, professional–except there was a bit of a lapse in service that led to me being on the phone forever. Basically, we had accidentally left our baby stroller in the back of the courtesy van that dropped us off at their lot. As soon as we pulled into our driveway at home, we realized we had left the stroller behind, hence the phone call. In the end, my wife stayed home with the line still on hold–we listened on speakerphone to Budget’s on-hold advertisements all through dinner–as I took off in my car back downtown to catch them before the office closed. After driving downtown, retrieving the stroller and returning home, I walked into our house hearing the incessantly chirpy advertising still beaming from the phone. Brutal.

At a recent staff meeting at work we had a brief brainstorming session about customer service. We all through out ideas as to what it meant to us. While I think it’s easy to say the right thing in a situation like that, to spout the cliched statements about golden rules and all the rest, it’s quite another to actually put them into practice. Whether you’re a government office or a large car-rental outfit, the real test is when a client tries to use the services you’ve put into place.

Whopper Freakout Freakin’ Funny

January 8, 2008

Check out Whopper Freakout. Funny stuff! I noticed the TV commercials recently and decided to check it out, especially since it’s from Burger King and I still remember the great Subservient Chicken campaign of a few years ago. It’s a great short doc about spoofing customers by telling them they no longer serve the Whopper. I have no emotional connection whatsoever to Burger King–or any fast-food outlet, come to think of it–but for the people they managed to catch of video, this news really hit home. It’s interesting how Burger King has used rude chickens and a low-quality video spoof to differentiate itself from McDonald’s. When I think McD’s I think family, cartoon characters, the Happy Meal! I don’t think they would try something quite like what BK has done since it doesn’t fit their brand. But for BK, they can take more risks. Though interestingly, as a couple of the guys in the video point out, BK may have the elements of a more down-home marketing approach if they wanted to explore that. One guy talks about the right of passage eating a Whopper was growing up–when he was finally able to finish one, that’s when he knew he was a man (seriously)–while another started waxing poetic about driving to another state 30 years ago just to get a Whopper. Classic.

Pension Plan Video A Big Hit

October 26, 2007

Some catching up here, but the video project I produced debuted a couple of weeks ago and was a big hit. As part of the Municipal Pension Plan‘s annual general meeting, my team and I created three short, commercial-style videos for the pension plan’s board of trustees. The videos are meant to inform members of the pension plan about its value. Each video takes on a different angle and audience and in 2.5 minutes–and with simple, plain language–explains why being a member of the Municipal Pension Plan is a good thing.

Anyway, as I say, the videos are a big hit, and not just for our clients. They were recently showcased as part of a presentation given at a pensions conference in eastern Canada and the feedback was extremely positive. We’ve had requests for DVD copies and people wondering when they’ll be posted to our website.

It’s no wonder to me that these videos are popular. They are unique and completely atypical for the industry. This is pensions we’re talking about. To get people to watch–much less click away having absorbed some key messages–we couldn’t just produce the usual talking-head piece. And believe me, in our research, other pension administrators have posted classic talking-head videos that run up to 45 minutes! People simply won’t spend long stretches at their monitor squinting at another boring video about a topic that, unless they are in their fifties, they likely don’t spend much time thinking about anyway.

We wanted our videos to move, to by dynamic and engaging, keeping our primary delivery method–the web–in mind as we planned and shot. We kept our shots tight, the language simple and quick and the scenery changing. We also took into account the various visual cues that would help support our message. For example, we used, as much as possible, real locations. We wanted to reinforce through our choice of background that these were authentic Municipal Pension Plan locations. Our goal was that when pension plan members watched they would intuitively recognize the locations as “belonging” to them, thereby strengthening the video’s value message since they not only hear the actor’s words but also see their own world reflected back. Another small, but meaningful, touch was with the use of colour. The plan’s official colour is green (the actual Pantone number escapes me), so we made sure that our actor wore a green blouse beneath her sweater. Not a big deal, but often it’s the details that make something truly stand out.

It’s also been gratifying to watch the videos catch on throughout our organization. They are being requested for branch staff meetings and as supporting material for meetings with employers who are considering joining the plan. They are beginning to have a life of their own, which is exactly what we had planned for. It’s exciting to see others begin to recognize the possibilities of this medium.

The videos are not yet online, but will be soon. When they are I’ll be sure to link to them.

The Power of a Quick Reply – Courtesy of Kathy Wolfe Photography

August 21, 2007

I really admire the work of professional photographer Kathy Wolfe. She achieves very saturated, glowing images that often seem to sparkle. It’s a particular style, and one that I really like. My curiosity, along with my desire to build upon my own style and knowledge, compelled me to send her an e-mail yesterday, asking about how she achieves the look. Occasionally I’ve fired off a note to a blogger here or there, on a variety of topics (not just photography). My experience over the years, though, has led me to have low expectations for a thoughtful response. Much less a timely one.

But tonight, sitting down to my laptop, a response came in from Kathy, less than 24 hours after my original note. She was forthcoming with some details about how she shoots and edits her images, and overall very encouraging and friendly. I was surprised and impressed. I regularly read her blog and subscribe to her RSS feed, but now, as a result of her quick and kind response, my impression of her has been elevated. Her professionalism and grace are evident, and it can’t but help have an impact on how I view her work.

Now, Kathy and I will likely never meet face-to-face, and we’re not likely to run into one another on the street, each with our cameras in hand. So an argument could be made that Kathy’s efforts, while admirable, won’t really have much impact on her bottom line. Well, this misses the point. First, these days, the world is smaller than we often realize and circumstances could result in a referral or contract coming from an unlikely location–you just never know. Second, goodwill travels fast. Google makes research an easy thing these days. And someone looking for a photographer, or dentist, or stylist, or mechanic, or videographer, or financial advisor, or… will use the web to see what people think. So whether Kathy Wolfe and I are in the same city or region is really irrelevant. And ultimately, Kathy’s communications ability, both visually and through the written word, can only be of benefit to her.

One-sentence Lesson on Leadership

May 23, 2007

Last night I started re-watching HBO‘s fantastic WWII miniseries Band of Brothers. I’m part-way through the second episode–I would have continued watching but it was already passed my bedtime!–but there was a scene, and in particular a line, in the first episode that really struck me as a great encapsulation of what it means to be a leader.

While driving across the base, Lt. Winters admonishes 2nd Lt. Buck Compton for gambling with his men. Compton protests, saying that soldiers gamble and he was just spending some time getting to know his men.

At this point we get a glimpse of Lt. Compton’s leadership style as he offers up his justification for his actions. He was getting to know his men, he says; where’s the harm in that? It’s what soldiers do, he explains. He obviously wants to be a good leader and believes that relating with his men on a more personal level will pay dividends in loyalty, dedication, etc. These are reasonable ends, and his style is probably increasingly familiar to most of us in modern office life.

However, as the scene nears its conclusion, Lt. Winters asks bluntly, “what if you’d have won?” Lt. Compton is confused. The jeep comes to a stop. Exiting the vehicle Lt. Winters turns and delivers his one-sentence lesson on leadership: “Never put yourself in a position where you can take from these men.”

With this simple statement Lt. Winters pinpoints the essence of leadership: service. Leaders exist to serve, not to be served. To say this is lost on a lot of people is an understatement. Of course the drama and gravity of being at war lends the comment a bit more weight, but even in the most mundane of office settings, it still holds true.

Is Google Finally Evil?

April 2, 2007

Conspiracy theories and general outrage are still floating around the net about Google’s decision to “update” the New Orleans map data with pre-Katrina imagery. While they’ve since mended their ways and have re-loaded more recent high-res data, there’s still some things to take care of: like responding to demands (pdf) by a congressional subcommittee that they explain their actions. Reading this letter, I was struck by the paranoia and contempt for Google by the chair of this committee. There’s a sense that a bit of a witch hunt is going on, when he asks in the letter if FEMA, the USGS or any other governmental organization was in touch with Google about the changes. Then he tosses in this little shot:

Digital technology has any number of benefits, as Google’s healthy balance sheet demonstrates.

This sort of comment is just antagonistic, and reveals far more about the author than I think he realizes.

Most interesting in this whole drama, though, is how we get a very clear view of how public reaction in our online world can reverse the actions of a huge organization. News spreads quickly and momentum builds and a company not paying attention, or able to respond quickly, can find itself in serious trouble before they even know what happened. Also noteworthy is how Google used its official blog to respond to critics. They calmly spelled out their response and told the world their side of the story.