30 March 2009

The Actor Within

What does graphic design and marketing have to do with acting? Not a whole lot, but there is one parallel between the two that I'd like to explain.

Whether you are sitting down to design a logo or develop a marketing plan you have to put yourself into the customers shoes. You have to think like a customer and become that customer, even for just a brief moment in time so that you can understand their motivation. Just as an actor must do to perform a role.

This takes some understanding of who the customer really is or could be. At an ad agency, design firm or a creative house like ours, you really have two customers: The client, and their customer.

Believe me when I tell you - our efforts have to be on the clients customer, not the client in order for any advertising or marketing to succeed. Unfortunately, there are times when things get changed to the point where it only satisfies the client. This makes for a happy client, but this is short lived and when the campaign hits the streets and the results come back to kick them in the ass... we get the blame.

If your designer or creative team does their job, does the research and makes an effort to truly understand who could be using your product, they will do some 'acting' and become the customer for a short period of time. In this time, they will create something truly special, something that will motivate, interest and compel this customer to be separated from their wallet long enough to purchase your product or service.

Just as there are great actors, there are great designers. A great designer can quickly understand the motivation of the end customer and create something unique and compelling.

When reading this it doesn't sound that difficult, does it? But when you take into consideration that the designer must also keep the clients' branding elements familiar and consistent, that it must stand out and be better than their competitions' ads and that it must resonate with the customer it really becomes complex.

In the creative business there are many revisions and changes, that's the nature of the beast, but when you are getting strong push back from your designer on a change to the creative, ask yourself; is the requested change for you or your customer?

The answer to that question isn't always in favour of the designer, they can be wrong... they can be bad actors, or have bad directors or just have a crappy script. The point is to illustrate how important it is to look at changes to ensure they are to better the creative to better target the customer.

Targeting the customer is always right.

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27 March 2009

Through the Fire & Flames, Dragons' Den Pitch

For the past 9 months I have been working on a side project with a client/friend of mine - we've called it Arenacam and it's fully operational.

The idea behind this endeavor is to allow parents and grandparents the ability to view minor hockey (...or ringette ...or figure skating) from the comfort of their PC. This means that dads that work late can still catch little Johnny's first goal and soldiers that are stationed overseas don't have to miss a game.

Arenacam streams live video from centre ice over the internet.

Pretty cool, eh?

We thought so too. Which is why when we decided to pitch it to the Dragons' Den, a CBC TV program - one of the best shows out there in my opinion - I've watched it for a couple of seasons now.

We only learned of the auditions being held in Calgary a few days ago and did not have a whole lot of time to prepare and, considering that we only just got the working model in full operation a couple of weeks ago and have just proven the technology behind it, you can understand why we don't have all the marketing materials together for it yet (but I know a company that can help us out with that!). But, we through some quick materials together and for the first time, put our ideas about marketing and revenue generation down on paper for the pitch.

It's time to see how we can market it and make millions. We built the Ferrari, now it's time to take it out and see what it can do.

If you haven't seen the show, there is a panel of experienced (read successful) business people with money that you pitch your business or idea to and if they like what they see, they invest their hard earned money in you. It's a great concept. And, because the panelists are playing with their own money, they don't pull any punches and get right down to brass tacks. These panelists are the Dragons, you take your idea to their den - some walk away with a deal, most get burned.

Today, I pitched Arenacam to a pretty young lady, who is one of the producers of 'the Den and a University of Calgary professor, who, as I later learned, is a very highly thought of Professor, fondly known as Doctor Bob. This was the audition panel. Call them Dragon understudies, panelists or producers - they hold the ultimate hammer as to who appears and doesn't on the show. (was that enough sucking up?)

I opened the pitch with, this is the greatest idea since Hockey Night in Canada. It was a deliberate nod to the CBC and to illustrate it's potential as an idea within the hockey genre. I explained the idea which they quickly understood and liked. This was great - everyone was in agreement that it is a great idea... in fact, I've not heard a negative comment about the idea, from anyone I've told.

The only negative on our pitch was the fact that we don't have a revenue stream or sponsors at this time. Dragons want to know how they're going to make money - and rightly so. Both my partner and I believe in the idea and wanted to prove that we could make it work first before selling it to sponsors. Selling something that might work is a lot harder than something that does. We're confident that it can make money - we just don't have that part of the business worked out yet. You know the whole cart and horse thing, which comes first? The idea beats out the cart and the horse - you don't need either without first having an idea.

Brett Wilson, one of the actual Dragons and an icon in corporate Calgary, dropped in and spoke to our small group, which may have been about 15 people. He explained what he was looking for when he looks at investing, he said, 'it always comes down to people' - he invests in good ideas brought forward by dynamic people, 'you invest in their braintrust'. This gave me hope. That is what our project is after all - a great idea and I like to think that my partner and I are dynamic or at the very least, copacetic.

He also mentioned that what it takes for success are three things: Brains, Courage (my word, not his) and a Wallet. He assumes the role of the wallet for the show, but with his track record you know he doesn't lack the other two.

Our pitch was for the Dragons to fund a rapid expansion - put arenacam into 150 arenas, 10 in each of 15 major markets across Canada. A bold ambition, yes, but certainly feasible and would secure a nationwide network for advertising sponsorship. The cost of this expansion is unknown at this time, but the Dragons needed a number. We came up with $1.5 million, realistically, it's probably a million too much, but it's easier to go down in your price than up. In retrospect, I shouldn't have offered any price this early in the project, but the Dragons, they feed on numbers.

After being grilled on the numbers for what seemed like way too long, it was over with the promise of a review of the web site and that they would let us know. I was expecting the golden ticket a la American Idol, but it's not that kind of reality show - they don't disclose if you're in or out. It's hard to say if our idea will make it through to the next level - don't call us, we'll call you always leaves you with that feeling that you weren't exactly what they were looking for, but I am confident that our idea will win the hearts of the producers at the CBC when they review the auditions prior to the season.

On a final note, the panel agreed that Arenacam was a great idea - whether or not it's worthy of the Dragon's eating it up on national TV is yet to be determined. But they did like the idea.

I will keep you posted. Fingers crossed.

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23 March 2009

Crowdsourcing Dilemma

OK, as promised... a little more than a year ago, here is my article about crowdsourcing:

It has taken much reflection and weighing in on the debate to arrive at my stance on the subject. I will do my best to explain the two sides and why I've sat on the fence for so long before falling off.

For those of you that are not part of the in crowd:
"Crowdsourcing is a neologism for the act of taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people or community in the form of an open call. For example, the public may be invited to develop a new technology, carry out a design task, refine or carry out the steps of an algorithm, or help capture, systematize or analyze large amounts of data."

What's ironic is that the definition above was derived of crowdsource labour, from one of the most well-known crowdsourcing projects online, known as Wikipedia). I first heard the term in 2007 while working on a project with Hewlett-Packard and VoodooPC. I was intrigued, fascinated and disgusted by it... but still thought it was totally hot.

So, why has it taken me the better part of two years to formulate an opinion on the matter? Well, I guess it's because the whole idea of crowdsourcing is pretty sexy and has a lot of positive attributes, so many that it can't help but strike at the heart of an idealist like myself.

You see, when you scratch the surface of crowdsourcing, you see collaboration, alliance, cooperation, association, collusion, joint effort, participation, teamwork & working together... all for a common goal. It's very Star Trek like in it's altruism. Even when you dig deeper, everything looks rosy. But, there is a dark side, but not always - and herein lies the dilemma.

The good side has a bad side and vice versa, but a la Star Wars VI... there's still some good in you father.

So, what we have on the other side, the dark side to this utopia of getting things done is unpaid labour, unrewarded, unsalaried and uncompensated workers. Sounds like more of an untopia to me. Don't get me wrong, I'm not all about the money, but money does let you reinvest in your creative team and infrastructure for the next project. Now the dark side has some redeeming points too. What are the redeeming points? Well, businesses can get unpaid labour... etc., etc., ...but there's also the idea that you can get the best ideas/solutions put forward by having a large number of people work on an issue, problem or challenge.

Some companies have gone to great lengths to protect participants intellectual property and compensate 'winners' in their crowdsourcing. One such company is Idea Bounty. The premise here is that a company comes forward with a brief or challenge and a bounty (some cold hard cash, dead presidents, moola) and offers it up to the best creative idea for their product/service/brand. What is currently running on their site is a contest for Red Bull - come up with the best new consumption ritual and you win $5000. Kudos to this group - they have done a very good job of making this whole practice look respectable.

Cool, eh? No. Not really.

Aside from hundreds or maybe thousands of people contributing their intellectual offerings free of charge, what's wrong with this picture? Well aside from the obvious pitfalls of cherry picking and going with the idea the client thinks is the best, the client foregos the consultation, debate and counsel that a creative professional may bring to the table. One of the past winners on this site won $3000 for an idea he put forth for use by BMW. So, he got bragging rights, and a few thousand dollars and the client walks away with an idea that could make them millions of dollars in profit. Doesn't sound all that bad, now does it? But what about the guy that came in second? Third? ...etc. Did they not contribute good ideas as well? Were their ideas worth $3000 less? Anyone worth anything in the creative field is surely not going to stoop to this level of chance - the client will receive second rate ideas from third rate contestants, heck, let's call it Creative Idol, and the client plays Simon.

To illustrate this point, let's take my front lawn as an example, it is dissected perfectly in half by my sidewalk with two equal halves of lawn and garden to be landscaped. How would it sound if I got a different landscape company to landscape each side of my lawn with the promise that I will pay the one that I felt did the best job at the end of the day? Do you think I will get the best landscapers out to my property to try to get this 'job'? I think not. When the last grass blade has been cut and it's time to pick the 'lucky' recipient of a pay check, I would be forced to pick the better of two lousy jobs.

It's hard to criticize this practice without recognizing the positive benefits to the company holding the bag of loot, the contest holder - for they have little to lose and at times, a lot to gain. But this is exactly why it has been so hard to come to my realization that this practice, in the 'commercial' sense is just plain wrong. It does nothing to further industry, education, morale, or growth, in the end, it does nothing but award individual effort in a one-time setting. A hero for the day, and a bum the next.

PS - Wikipedia, although a crowdsourcing initiative in my belief, is not of the commercial variety and therefore holds true (for the most part) of what crowdsourcing should be limited to; the growth and development of ideas for the common good, not for Red Bull.

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21 March 2009

Still Fishing After All These Years

2009 started out great, but the last two weeks we have begun to see things slow down with our existing clients as a result of the economic shitstorm we are facing.

On the plus side, we have managed to secure some great new clients and interest in our boutique creative shop is still growing.

This doesn't change the fact that most of the world is grinding to a spending halt.

However, I believe we are in a good position to weather the storm, our pricing is still well below the majority of competing advertising agencies and we operate very efficiently. We are diverse in offering and skilled at all - we can take on most any project that is thrown our way and we make things happen.

In addition, we have a solid reputation in the marketplace and finding new customers has never been hard. We will still be picky about the jobs we do, but we will be actively looking for work - which is a first since 1997, when my first shingle was hung.

When this turmoil is through, I think we'll see not only the strong survive, but the innovative and adaptive as well. The things we did 6 months ago will likely not pay the bills 6 months from now. Change is always inevitable, but the change we will see over the next year will not be subtle or kind. The strategy is to be strategic. Long term plans are out the window, the new reality is short term plans with long term goals.

Bob Dylan was a genius when he predicted this: "...the times they are a changing." How could he have known about this over 40 years ago?

So, here we are, back into problem solving mode, where change has forced us to go back to providing even more creative ideas and focusing on what we are best at; results. Isn't this what our clients are looking for anyways?

Alfred E. Newman said it best, "What, me worry?"

We have an awesome group of staff, I didn't just hire them to make me look good, I hired them to make our clients look good - and they never disappoint.

So, no, I'm not worried, I'm excited about the coming months, it's not going to be an easy go, but what doesn't kill us makes us stronger... well, except for maybe mononucleosis.

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10 March 2009

Heed the Advice

Too many times we see customers come to us for advice only to disregard it to do things their own way.

I'm sure every professional has to deal with some unwillingness to take advice. I believe our profession, the creative profession and more specifically, graphic design, is at the far end of this chart with maybe lawyers and doctors at the other end. You see, most people tend to follow the advice put forward by their doctors and lawyers, but when it comes to marketing and design, everyone has an opinion. And, this is where things break down.

Opinions are like... well, you've heard the saying. Everyone has one, and when it comes to design and creative, most peoples opinions are based on their personal feelings and what they like and don't like. When you come to a professional, you are getting opinions and advice based on expererience, training and knowledge... that's what you pay for. If Deirdra, your personal assistant, doesn't like blue because it reminds her of her first bike that was supposed to be pink, it's not a good enough reason to change the packaging design that was put together by a group of trained professionals - they chose blue because that's what will make an impact with the customer and cause them to take notice and action. There is a lot of thought that goes behind colour choice.

The same goes for fonts. Many hours are spent on font selection alone, in fact, a lot goes into selecting the right font for a treatment, one that will create the ambience, feeling and characteristics of the message and the brand. Some people think that you just scroll down the list and pick one of the 25 fonts that they see in their Word program. Truth be told, a typical designer has access to over 5,000 fonts and picking the right one is not only important but critical to the success of a design. Then there is the time in adjusting leading and getting the kern just right only to hear, 'did you try ariel?'

When a designer sits down to begin a job, they get into character, at least I did when I designed. I would get myself into the head of the customer. I should point out that a customer is the person buying the product or service, this is different from the client, who we deal with directly. Understanding what will motivate the customer to do something is half the battle in coming up with the design. If you can be the customer, even for a few hours, you can truly do something impactful and meaningful... something that will result in sales. And, sales results is the byproduct of our opinions and advice.

Don't get me wrong, we have some very good clients that listen closely and follow our advice when we give it. This usually works out in their favour and that's when we get a thank you card and maybe some donuts. These clients should be commended, following others advice is not always easy, especially if it puts you in a place you've never been before.

It's frustrating to go through all the motions only to have the work or ideas not acted on as they were intended for. Quite frankly, it's a waste of our time - remember, this is time we're getting paid for, so ultimately, it's a waste of money.

It's sometimes tough for business owners to accept or or take outside advice. Sometimes, it requires a leap of faith.

So, when my accountant began asking me to change elements in our accounting, including software and hardware, I was a bit leary about making changes to our procedures. Then I remembered the clients that didn't listen to us and... well, needless to say, we're going to do whatever he tells us to do, afterall, he's the expert, right?

As I stated above, we charge for our opinions and advice, it's taken years to know what we know and we share the pertinent points for a fee. But, you're probably here looking for something pro bono, well, here it is: Listen to and act on advice given to you by the professionals you hire.

Changing the way we do things with our accounting is a scary proposition, especially for me, but I know and trust, that I'm in good hands.

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