Mega-commuter and listener

I’m ready to hang it up, to get off the hook. After decades of commuting to and from work, traveling over 300,000 miles, from Franklin to Burlington, to Westboro, to Cambridge, to Fall River and Hyde Park (Boston) too, and chugging along around the speed limit, I’ve driven hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours, usually 50 hours per month, a “mega-commuter” for most of my career.

An hour drive grows on you.

While American cities tend to have the lowest average commuting time in the world according to a study conducted by the Toronto Board of Trade in 2014, Boston’s average commute is about the same as San Francisco’s (30 minutes each way), whereas Shanghai’s average commute is over 50 minutes each way.  Mine is over 60 minutes, and has given me freedoms to think, listen, dream and scheme, listen and meditate, observe and watch scenery along the way.  Driving to and from work is no easy feat; I have to be alert all the time. Sometimes I have to maneuver around other vehicles as well as potholes and dead animals.  I see drivers texting and phoning, applying nail polish and mascara, and not just in traffic slowdowns and congestion. Others pick their nose, give me the finger and blare hip hop or other sounds I’m really not familiar with. I’m with the NPR crowd, and have lost touch with the music of the Millenials.  Commuting is often the hardest part of my day (and night).

While over 75% of commuters drive alone to work and ba, what they do with the time is very individual I would guess. I have a number of activities aside from snacking, listening to NPR and occasionally Rock, and dreaming up new businesses centered on commuting.

Sometimes I conjure up a gratitude list, starting with the letter “A”, thinking of all the things I am grateful for – my daily Fuji or Granny Smith Apple, the air I breathe, the best month of the year, August, and then letter “B” for my beloved Boston Red Sox and sports teams from Boston, my son Ben, the colors blue, black and bronze, the beautiful blue sky overhead (though it’s usually grey in Massachusetts).  I have lots to be grateful for as I drive along Routes 95, 495, 128, 1, and the Mass Pike. I try to use this practice to overcome my displeasure with the frequent traffic congestion, stoppage and boredom.  Sitting and driving when I want to be physically active.  Such a drag!

In order to enjoy my time, I’ve listened to scores and scores of audiobooks (another “A” word) from favorite authors like Stephen King, Sebastian Unger, Erik Larson, Tracy Kidder, Bill Bryson and Dennis Lahane.  Some favorites that come to mind are from Stephen King: “Under the Dome”, a 30 CD set which ended too soon, “Cugo”, and “11/23/63” which was essentially a love story as much as a science fiction time traveler story.  Also Stephen King’s: “The Colorado Kid”, “The Girl who loved Tom Gordon”, “Joylamd” (which I didn’t enjoy very much), “Revival”, and “Mr. Mercedes” and “Finder’s Keepers”.

I have always enjoyed biographies and memoirs including Hillary Clinton, Ted Turner (“Ted”), Vladimir Putin, “Francona: the Red Sox Years”, Elvis Costello (which I didn’t finish), “Billy Crystal: Still Fooling ‘Em”, “Kick Kennedy” and “Raising Cubby: John Elder Robison”. I’m very interested in hiw decisions are made, motivation, psychology, neurology and cognitive science.  Brain on Fire: My month of madness is testament to this interest.  Recently I have been more interested in events leading up to WW II and the war itself, and have listened to “Escape from Auschwitz”,  and Remembering Anne Frank”.

Unger has written a few books including a “Death in Belmont” about the Boston Strangler, and “Fire”.  Occasionally, I listen to “Car Talk”, the NPR radio show featuring Tom and Ray Magliozzi. While the show ended in 2012 after the death of one of them, I continue to listen to their audiobooks and listen to repeats at 11 am on Saturday mornings when dong errands.  I listen to John Grisham but have never paid attention to the titles of his stories so  I don’t know which ones I’ve heard, except for “the Whistler”, which I’m finishing this week.

Aside from “Seabiscuit” and “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption”, I shy away from Laura Hildebrand, though I have read about her unusual writing habits.  “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics” by Daniel James Brown was unusual and enjoyable.  Speaking of sports, the best baseball book I ever heard was about a weekend in August detailing manager Tony La Russo’s decision making prowess and personal life, but whose title escapes me.  Could it be “A Weekend in August”?

Other audiobooks I heard were Bill Bryson’s “A Sunburned Country”. Others in no particular order are “Bad Monkey” by Carl Hiassen, “Money Ball” by Michael Lewis, and “Saturday”, “Solar” and “Atonement” by Ian Mc Ienery (which I probably misspelled), “The Girl in the Train” by Paula Hawkins, “The Odd Couple” by Neil Simon, “Low Pressure” by Sandra Brown, and the “John Lennon Letters”. (While written by his ex-wife and son Julian, they relay stories about how he was not a very nice man. He was emotionally abusive and neglectful.)  Anything by Denns Lahane is spellbinding including “The Drop”, “Live by Night”, “Mystic River” and “World Gone By”.

For about one year I worked and lived in Franklin and didn’t have the pleasure of audiobooks, but did enjoy a commute with no traffic, no slowdowns, no congestion. Sometimes I wished my commute had been longer.  Mega commutes help one slow down and unwind which was particularly helpful when after a full day of work at a start-up, it would be me and the boys as my wife worked nights.

The man who screams

NOW … AT LAST …. THE NEW AMAZING

Gem of genius slowly blazing

The one man who, without a doubt

Knows what this business is about.

The man who screams, when words are arranged.

Still, were he quieter or politer,

He wouldn’t be a copywriter

My first marketing communications project was to write and produce a six color 140+ page catalog for DG Direct, the direct marketing catalog and telemarketing channel at mini computer manufacturer Data General, in Westboro, Massachusetts, in the legendary high tech corridor.  The DG Direct catalog was a 16 page brochure which was essentially product advertisements with an order form on a coated paper stock (making it very difficult to write on).  Products sold were mostly commodities like diskettes, printer ribbons and computer furniture.

Four of us, manager Jeff Clack, product specialist Bruce Young, director Norm Hodge and I were tasked in re-inventing DG Direct. Expand the product line and become a revenue-generating low cost sales and distribution channel. An inside sales staff was hired, and the catalog became direct marketing-focused. Copy was written to describe and sell. In fact, “creative” wasn’t considered creative unless it sold.  That’s how direct marketing works.

At the time, Data General was a celebrated $1 billion mini computer manufacturer, which consisted of engineers who had previously worked at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), a larger computer firm up the street in Maynard. DG had the reputation of being a scrappy competitor. Author Tracy Kidder made a name for himself with his book The Soul of a New Machine, the story about how Tom West, previously at DEC, left to start Data General and design and build a new generation of mini computers.

About the same time, I used to be called on by a printing salesman who introduced me to the wonders of direct mail and paper and printing.  It was common for printing salesmen to drop off beautiful four and six color collateral and paper samples with special die cuts, photography, artwork and typography, inspiring creative types like me. One of the brochures that caught my eye was produced by S.D. Warren, a division of Scott Paper Company headquartered in Boston. The full color brochure was simply titled “Direct Mail”, but it was “a workbook, a review, a manual, a guide” …. It displayed creative envelopes, business reply envelopes and collateral.  With features such as direct mail applications, the importance of the mailing list, “tricks of the trade to get past a secretary and through to her boss”, direct mail math and much more, it was something to behold.  Beautiful photography and illustrations reminiscent of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine album featured graphic artist Seymour Chwast.

Direct marketing is really a system of contacts, using a variety of media, developed and maintained using a database, which measures costs and results. While direct marketing is a means to influence behavioral change; those that it influences may be more than the intended or targeted users. Direct mail as practiced at DG Direct influences and motivates the sales force as well as existing and new customers.  Most business people consider using direct marketing for demand or lead generation, but it is actually used during the entire marketing and sales continuum.  It can close business and re-activate dormant audiences.

Direct marketing has always been about a database, and it profited from technology by helping to generate more intelligence about audiences, especially in consumer behavioral data.  Direct marketing was the forerunner to Internet marketing.  While Facebook, amongst many others, track your online Internet behavior beyond the Facebook website, nearly 25 years ago, ski resort Northstar-ar-Tahoe conducted their own innovative data-driven program to build greater understanding of its target audience away from the ski slopes.

In 1994, they gave free wristbands to their skier clients that “track where and when they ski and dine…..Before, if you paid cash, we had no idea who you were … While this lets us get close to customers and understand their skiing habits in a non intrusive way”.  Skiers benefit by accumulating points toward equipment purchases. Sound familiar?  Today programs like this happen all the time online, and offline too.  Programs are tailored based on audience participation.

I’ve always been interested in the history of marketing and ideas, so I want to mention a most interesting page in the S.D. Warren guide previously mentioned:

“How direct mail cleared up my marketing problems and made me a more loving husband — in only 60 days” is very similar to an advertisement for classical music station WTMI in Miami: “How classical music changed my life” thst was found in an advertising periodical.

A variation of this advertisement for a different radio station shows up in Elaine Fine’s blog musicalassumptionsblogspots.com.

I in turn used a variation of it for a “situation wanted” job seeking advertisement, “Save a Tall, Skinny Guy from Starvation” from some forty years ago.  One of the responses received came from the VP of a Wellesley ad agency run by the sister-in-law of a future friend of mine. Being the pack rat that I am, I saved the response which was addressed to “Dear Skinny” and shared it with my good friends Scott & Bonnie Dittrich a few years ago.

Nothing’s new.

Puff it up, would ya?

“Manager” was in my title, and on my business cards, but I was always an individual contributor.  I did not officially manage, hire, fire or direct anyone. I didn’t write anyone’s annual performance review. For the most part, I did not attend departmental administrative or budget meetings.  Instead, I conceived of, planned and managed initiatives and marketing programs, typically demand generation or re-activation in nature. I collaborated with others of course as an individual contributor; it was a necessity. I worked hard and was usually well compensated: stock options, a trip to Europe with my wife, plaques of distinction given out at company or departmental meetings, and performance-based bonuses too — including the one that was accidentally stashed in the VP’s drawer and forgotten about for six months, and found after he got terminated and his office was cleared for the new VP hired in his place.

The best part about being an individual contributor was the chance to work independently without intrusion or being micro-managed by others. I had the freedom and good budgets (until about 2001) to work with stellar writers and designers and boutique agencies of my own choosing. I delivered results and contributed to the success of the technical firms I worked at, even though I was not a technical guy.  When Cisco Systems bought Altiga Networks, a Virtual Private Networking (VPN) firm, we were told that Cisco bought the technology and its people.

While l worked in four start ups, some were staffed with more marketing resources than others. I was one of many in the marketing department, reporting to a director who in turn reported to a Vice President. Other times I was the marketing department  and reported directly to the owner. At Cisco where there were some nearly 30,000 employees worldwide, it was an incredibly flat organization; I was only three levels away from CEO John Chambers. Yet I was more than three levels below Joe Alsop, the president of $25 million Progress Software when I started, but I had an impromptu lunch at the company cafeteria with Joe on at least one occasion.  Joe knew me, or better still he knew my face.  We said “hi” in the halls.  But I never met John Chambers; he didn’t know me from Adam.

While I enjoyed my positions, worked hard, kept my head down when the department was under siege through some internal political conflict, I had lots of fun especially during brainstorming sessions.  It was at times like this that I still harbored aspirations to work in a creative capacity at an agency, or to follow a path as a Creative Director (CD), so I aspired to be that. An advertisement I kept close to me during the 1980s described a CD as:

As our Creative Director, you’ll shape the copy and design for our clients’ programs. You’ll also work on new business with our top people. You must have excellent verbal, written, visual and presentation skills; be a strategic “big picture” thinker; have flexibility and experience in all media (traditional, alternative and experimental); have solid working knowledge and experience with direct mail formats and disciplines; have an entrepreneurial spirit and skills (including sales  ability); be able to lead and direct a staff, including juniors and outside vendors; have vision, patience and a team focus. (Is that too much to ask) …..

Has-Beens, egomaniacs, followers … Look somewhere else.

I want a leader, a winner, the best of the best!

So I spent extra time working on my presentation skills, sought out articles and books that taught me things I did not know, and continued developing a fertile mind in a number of disciplines and especially promotion, brand building and direct marketing.  I joined Toastmasters and became a better speaker. I read Caples, Kottler, Ogilvy on my own to become more well read.  I tried to help my father with his marketing and communications problems whenever I visited his food factory.

Start-Ups were my preference

As mentioned earlier, three of the start ups were successful and one was not. The unsuccessful one was a dysfunctional organization which showed is real nature soon after my arrival. Senior management fought amongst themselves and in front of employees in an open office setting. The president hired his sister for a senior marketing position but had no experience in marketing.  The CFO increased the price of the device and announced it through the press without buy-in from other departments.  A Fortune 100 company and competitor filed a major lawsuit against the company for stealing firmware. Eventually after ignoring FDA regulations and after a patient died from a malfunction of the device, the company was shut down, the president was fired, and we all lost our jobs.

I liked start up organizations in the technology space because it brought out the entrepreneur in me, the potential payoff was significant and it was kind of glamorous.   Everything was new and fresh; policy and procedures were not settled. Everything was a work in progress. Each of us was valued and had significant impact on the company’s development.  The activity level was high and exciting.

The hardest part in marketing and sales of disruptive new technology is presenting the value of the new technology (innovation) to both “C suite” and technical staff. A lot of technology firms rush the sale or never present the technology in a way that truly resonates with the different audiences. In my experience, the sellers typically have low regard or are ignorant of the power of marketing.  They think marketing is a matter of cutting prices, or giving something away (free samples!) as a way to make a business sale.  But very often, sale of any technology requires sophisticated yet clear communications and proof that solves a problem the buyer has.  Price may not be the gating issue so cutting price may not be the strategic things to do.

That’s  what marketing is all about. It’s strategy and tactics. Cisco produced a “how to launch new products handbook” to its new employees that was used company-wide to build the brand and build marketing programs.  It included schedules, checklists, timelines and corporate resources and standards to follow.  I believe this was one way Cisco was able to be agile and productive without a lot of management layers re-creating launch requirements.  Every one followed the script including freelancers, contractors, consultants and corporate.   John Chambers believed anyone could come up with a new idea, but execution was what mattered in the end.

In lesser start-ups, well-intentioned engineers and developers who built the VPN or 4 GL language or the world’s smallest AED (automated external defibrillator) thought they had built a mousetrap and all that was necessary to make the sale was to let people know about it using a product data sheet.  But others knew that only savvy marketing creates or increases demand. Without demand there are no customers.

Direct marketing is a strategy, not a tactic. As Lester Wunderman says in his book Being Direct: Making Advertising Pay, “it’s not an ad with a coupon, it’s not a commercial with a toll-free number; it’s not a mailing, a phone call, a promotion, a database, or a website. It’s a commitment to getting and keeping valuable customers”.

It was Bill Bellamy too who instructed me that the order form or coupon or response device was the most important part of the direct response package. In proofing a package prior to printing, one works backwards from the order form, to ensure there’s a natural integration with the messaging and creative strategy and “big idea” that drives the entire package.  The order form is where direct response occurs, the offer is clear and where the sale starts or is made.

I wasn’t free from the stresses of working in high powered, high energy technology firms.  There’s so much that goes into writing and designing a direct mail package, I couldn’t stand it when a senior manager, reviewing the content would tell me to “puff it up a little” or “tweak the writing”.  I thought to myself:  Puff it up?  Tweak?  What does that mean?  And you’re what …. a VP?  Their view of the program lacked a keen understanding of the elements that mattered, and the painstaking efforts conducted to match up creative with the overall marketing strategy.  I like a good challenge, but sometimes I privately fumed at these comments.  Now, some years later, when something like this occurs – and it still does – I walk it off, take a deep breath, and just let it go.  I ask myself:  Do I want to be happy, or right?   I guess I have matured!

Theodore Leavitt, the author of one of my favorite marketing books, The Marketing Imagination is an old book with old articles that are as meaningful today as ever. He explains the importance of “meaningful differentiation” and the notion that business transactions are built around relationships.  He speaks to how Sales and Marketing are supposed to work together, for the good of each other. He maintains the truism that Sales concerns itself with tricks and techniques of getting people to exchange their cash for your product, but only Marketing views and values the entire business process as a “tightly integrated effort to discover, create, arouse and satisfy customer needs”. For a liberal arts graduate like me, his writings inspired me throughout my career.  It’s one of those classic books for use in business to business (B2B) or business to consumer (B2C) marketplaces.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Save the Last Great Natural Resource

April 17, 2017

April is national letter writing month!

Not withstanding emails, PDF greeting cards, Facebook and free online greeting cards (e-Cards) from American Greeting, the physical act of writing using a pen is encouraged and celebrated. Whether you use a treasured fountain pen or cheap Bic, a favorite personalized letterhead and/or envelope, touched off with a postal stamp fitting to the message, personality of the sender or recipient (or both), April is the time to write away with calligraphic flourish!

Creativity was encouraged in my family of origin.

Creative self expression was encouraged in my early years through greeting card and letter formats. Birthday cards of our own individual creation were produced and exchanged amongst our family members. It didn’t matter if you could not draw, there were other ways to express yourself and your sentiments in the card and letter formats. My older brother dreamed up clever limericks as he was the wordsmith and orator of the family, whereas I used scissors to cut out photographs from the weekly news magazines, and paste them onto colored paper or use of colorful script. My dad wrote corny rhyming poems. My mother beamed at the creative expression.

The modern greeting card is a product of the nineteenth century. The Uniform Penny Post came out in Great Britain in 1840 and “radically democratized the sending of messages by mail. Instead of relying on the recipient to pay for a letter on delivery, the new system of postage stamps offered prepaid service at a single low rate” that became available to all (Letter Arts Review 26:4).  Furthermore, in both the 20th and 21th centuries, the commercial card has grown to express practically every artistic trend and style. The format has varied considerably; often there’s space for writing, inked stamps and/or decoration.

Leave the early years and now we’re in my twenties. I’ve graduated college and seeking employment. It was natural for me to place a direct mail-based Job Wanted advertisement (with PO Box) in the Classified section of New England AdWeek:

SAVE THE LAST GREAT NATURAL RESOURCE

Copywriting position sought. Brown graduate. Besides, you’ll like me. PO Box 123

Agency copywriting sounded glamorous; while I was discouraged by Marvin Feit, a family friend and co-founder of the Newbury Street agency that bore his name, Marvin & Leonard.  He said the work was very hard, took long hours, paid poorly, was very competitive and agencies were political.

I ignored his wisdom. I was too young to know better. I went ahead trying to land an agency position. I did not succeed; but something better occurred: Bill Bellamy, formerly with the Dickie Raymond Group, a celebrated Boston direct mail agency (later known as The DR Group) responded to my AdWeek ad. (Dickie is famous for inventing the window on an envelope).  Bill offered to take me under his wing at his Mansfield, MA home office to learn direct response marketing and copywriting. I learned about how folds effect response rates as did buck slips in a classic letter package. I learned about teasers and testing and key codes, audience psychographics and appeals, personalization, motivations, direct mail list brokers, and strategy.

I learned that most of what makes a letter (or advertisement) “work” is the soundness of the strategy on which it is based. And that’s where the long hours of hard work comes in.

Bill introduced me to the incomparable “Robert Collier Letter Book”, published in 1931, crammed full of lessons on “selling by mail”. To this day, the “Robert Collier Letter Book” is one of the top books on writing sales letters. But more than that, the techniques explained in his book are directly transferable to the Internet, whether web copy or email.  I learned of Claude Hopkins too, and his book “Scientific Advertising” which explained his knowledge of direct mail and measurement like key codes.  Claude Hopkins was pretty special too: he was a copywriter who was paid $185,000 a year salary in 1907!

Some years later in 1981, after I gave up the dream of being an agency copywriter and was working in a small business, I received a letter in which Bill wrote:

Thanks for stopping in the other day … I am still using examples of some of your lead gettings in my basic talks. They are good examples of how a little ingenuity combined with know how and a sales instinct can produce quality leads on a limited budget.

There’s nothing quite like a personalized letter to brighten up one’s day.  Letter writing by hand is even less frequently done today then it was done when Bill introduced me to the wisdom and beauty of direct mail letter writing.

 

 

 

Early Lessons

imageFor the longest time, work and career was about all that mattered to me. I lived to work. Come Sunday afternoon I got antsy and was raring to go.  I wanted so much to return to the office only twenty minutes away up Route 495 to make my mark.  On reflection, this single-minded concentration had a lot to do with my upbringing. As long as I can remember, my dad was a workaholic and successful entrepreneur in the snack food industry. His workday extended to nearly six days a week, and when he wasn’t physically at the office, he was contemplating his challenges when away from the office. His struggles and hopes became the overriding subject of our lives, my older brother and I and my stay-at-home mother, and especially in the evenings when he returned home for dinner for my mother’s good cooking.  His work was a large part of his life, and of mine, even as a little kid, and his employees, suppliers, customers, accountant, lawyer and the salespeople who called on him were people that didn’t just see him at his office and occupy his time there; they also seemingly lived with us at home seven days a week.

Stories were told about Marty Cohen, whom he called “Jake”‘ a label salesman and his second wife Trudi,  and there was Harold Roth and his son Stephen who were his distributors in New York City. John Hall, his plant manager, Bobby Hart, Millie, and Reuben originally from West Virginia, were three of his more colorful employees who toiled around the vats of butter, pork rinds, cereals, sunflower seeds and soybeans that travelled along the conveyor belts carrying the jars, bags and boxes of snack foods. I actually enjoyed hearing about Jake’s talents because he was creative and I was drawn to artwork in my earliest years. But Dad didn’t approve of artistic expression as a full time venture for his son; business was the trade for me.  Dad didn’t have any hobbies. He played golf a little. I don’t think he owned any golf clubs.  He did like to joke, tell stories and drink, but I never saw him drink to excess, to fight with anyone, but he did know how to pick on, berate, ridicule and humiliate family members.  He got a charge out of it.

Book learning, knowledge and academic scholarship were the values stressed in my family of origin from my earliest age. Working hard in grade school and high school in particular was highly valued so as to assure entry into a good college, and to develop character which is worthwhile in itself. The Protestant ethic of hard work was prominent in our middle-class Jewish home.

For much of my career in technology and science companies (three of which were start-ups that were acquired by larger firms and were successful), I applied myself and was able to find some satisfaction by excelling first as an award-winning direct marketing copywriter and within the creative side of business marketing.

Gettimg off the hook is the plan

A few months ago while on vacation with my wife and friends in Chile and Argentina, I realized that vacation was the first time in nearly fifty years! that I had taken more than one week’s vacation in a row.

In Bariloche, Argentina, in Northern Patagonia, I realized I could get used to being away from the grind of the office, to get off the hook more often. I could return to my original interests and by having more time on my hands, take care of myself in ways I only dreamed of doing while on vacation. Being off the hook would be when I am more present and able to discover and explore and meander around not just new surroundings thousands of miles away from home, but to return to the arts and humanities. In my early life I was oriented towards images, symbols, design and sculpture.

The common element of my interests is wrapped up in the written word. I’m drawn to the act of writing, of penmanship, calligraphy, brushes and inkwells, paper and arts preservation. Logos, fonts, typefaces, and the history of their development. Handwriting, handwriting analysis and forensic document examination of artwork, historic artifacts or memorabilia is fascinating. I’m interested in becoming a scribe.

In Crossing the Unknown Sea:Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity by William Whyte, being off the hook means allowing one to return to the notion of what to do in one’s life. Whyte uses powerful imagery and poetry so as to encourage us to return to our early years (of childhood), to discover and explore secret longings that had been on the back burner since then.

In off the hook, I will be exploring and sharing the pursuits I have only been able to pursue, peripherally, on the borders of my life, as I continue to work 9-5, five days a week. But I’m now allowing myself more time as life permits, to explore matters I am drawn to: the written word, fountain pen collecting by attending Boston Pen Shows, taking a Chinese calligraphy art class and joining an artist guild, collecting Hebrew prayers and passages for future design work.

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