Great Rob Walker interview

Industrial design mag Core 77 has an amazing interview with Rob Walker. I’ll admit it–even before his star turn with the NYT Mag’s Consumed column, I was a Rob Walker fanboy. Back when he was doing the ad report card for Slate, I emailed him a couple of times and he wrote nice, thoughtful replies.

I find his writing sync eerily with what my firm is working on and talking about. Eerie as in like, “Is there a bug in someone’s office?!?” I’m not sure if the bug would be in his, or ours. Probably his, but only if he reads aloud while typing. [My pondering this is precisely how you know I’m a fanboy.] I guess it’s best just to autocongratulate all around by saying that great minds really must think alike. But this interview is no different… he talks about one of our biggest recent projects:

When I look at the Lance Armstrong bracelet, I start at the other end and ask, “What did the consumer respond to?” It could be the design, but it could be any number of other things. I don’t know that that bracelet is going to be studied in design schools as a beautiful object. (I could be wrong about that.)

The product should speak for itself, but it’s more interesting to me to discover what consumers are actually listening to. I truly think that the Lance Armstrong bracelet is a useless object, but for all the things that could become a craze, it’s certainly more positive for society than the pet rock—not that I have anything against the pet rock.

Compare the Lance Armstrong bracelet to another current hit product, the iPod. The iPod and the bracelet are so different; you can see so many functional reasons for buying the iPod. For me, I thought it was expensive, but cool, and it took me three months to decide to buy one. I rationalized it by thinking about how much travel I do and how useful it is on the plane and in the gym. You can come up with all these reasons. There may be counterarguments for each and every one, but at least there are many arguments to make.

Anyway, if anyone is hunting a gift for me any time soon, I would love one of these. Or this. And if you’re into this kind of conversation, remind me to tell you when and if I get any more issues of his sporadic but entirely amazing “Journal of Murketing.”

Mac on Intel

Good old John Dvorak had it right all along. Apple is finally porting the Mac OS to Intel chips–actually, they started five years ago. (And people wonder who Jobs is so secretive! Apparently Apple has big news like this lying around, by the bushel as it were.)

It will take the Mac faithful a few days to digest this one, but I definitely think the economics work in Apple’s favor. If they could pull off the Mac Mini for $500 on low-volume PowerPC chips, the switch to commodity Intel CPUs will drive some serious economies of scale.

While the wait for Longhorn (now known in the biz as “Longwait”) continues, I would imagine there are a few people in Redmond sweating this one. Certainly, though, Intel is the big winner here. Now we will all be able to see what their chips can really do.

Management Training, Anyone?

I’ve been looking for work since March. It’s the oddest market I’ve ever looked for work in, though perhaps I have to take some responsibility for that because I have become very, very picky. I won’t take Microsoft contracts where the manager really wants a full time employee but couldn’t get the head count because those just lead to frustration. I won’t take long term projects (more than six months) for the same reason. I try to avoid the tobacco and napalm sector because while I can’t really afford to dedicate my income to doing good work, I can avoid being actively evil. (Luckily, that’s not too big of a problem in my market, but with the recent civil rights fiasco coming out of Redmond, one can’t help but wonder where to draw the line.)

At any rate, I’m still unemployed, though don’t cry for me Argentina, this is the lot I’ve chosen by committing to work as a freelancer, plus, it’s not like I’ve run out of leads. My phone continues to ring, emails come in… something is bound to turn up. The stress of being out of work for longer than I’d planned is difficult, but I do believe it will pass.

But that is not what I started out to write about. What I wanted to say was this: I’ve been doing a lot of interviewing lately. And I have been shocked, no really, shocked speechless by the things people have said to me in interviews over the past two months. I’ve been tracking to see if they can get any worse, and lo and behold, to my stunned surprise, they CAN.

I’ve been looking for work since March. It’s the oddest market I’ve ever looked for work in, though perhaps I have to take some responsibility for that because I have become very, very picky. I won’t take Microsoft contracts where the manager really wants a full time employee but couldn’t get the head count because those just lead to frustration. I won’t take long term projects (more than six months) for the same reason. I try to avoid the tobacco and napalm sector because while I can’t really afford to dedicate my income to doing good work, I can avoid being actively evil. (Luckily, that’s not too big of a problem in my market, but with the recent civil rights fiasco coming out of Redmond, one can’t help but wonder where to draw the line.)

At any rate, I’m still unemployed, though don’t cry for me Argentina, this is the lot I’ve chosen by committing to work as a freelancer, plus, it’s not like I’ve run out of leads. My phone continues to ring, emails come in… something is bound to turn up. The stress of being out of work for longer than I’d planned is difficult, but I do believe it will pass.

But that is not what I started out to write about. What I wanted to say was this: I’ve been doing a lot of interviewing lately. And I have been shocked, no really, shocked speechless by the things people have said to me in interviews over the past two months. I’ve been tracking to see if they can get any worse, and lo and behold, to my stunned surprise, they CAN.

Before I get into the finger-pointing, I should remark that I have been replaying these interviews in my mind to see if I too, perhaps, couldn’t use some pointers. I’ve decided that I should probably stop saying that “I suck at bidding entire jobs, I prefer to bill hourly because I have no idea how long your project is going to take, plus if I bid the entire job, you are going to waste my time.” I should probably amend that to “I like to work with the client to figure out how long things are going to take and then settle on a not-to-exceed amount with revisions if needed.” That sounds better, no? I’ve been pondering a way to address my philosophy around working at home. It’s not that I’m a slacker; I am a very hard working person who has a reputation delivering good work on time. It’s just that I think people waste so much time in offices and meetings and that most work could be done in a good 30% less if we could just be left alone to do it. This is tougher to figure out how to talk about because most corporate identities think that “working at home” = “playing hooky.” I’d rather bill less hours and have the 30% extra to, oh, hone my baking skills or go skating at Alki or, well, anything else. I’m pondering how to talk about that. I’m thinking that I should have handy the answer to those generic interview questions that people ask – “Tell me about a time…” or “Tell me about yourself…” because they inevitably come up. I’m fishing around in my experiences over the last two months to see if I can come up with anything else I could change about my side of the process.

So. That said, let me tell you about a handful of things that people have said to me in recent interviews that have left me, well, wondering what I am doing there.

  1. I can’t promise I won’t micromanage you.
    This will send me running for the door every single time. There is no worse manager (for me) than a micromanager and it won’t end well, no sir. Just ask that one guy. Man.
  2. I like to do spot checks on my employee’s work to see what they’re up to.
    What is this, second grade? Are there pop quizzes too? Why don’t you just ask me? You apparently do not trust me to do my job.

  3. I never meet my deadlines; I’m always scrambling at the last minute to get stuff done.
    As a person who meets deadlines religiously, it’s probably a bad idea for me to work with someone who can’t. Also, if that person is my superior in the chain of command, we’re going to have real issues around R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
  4. We never deliver our anything on time.
    See above.
  5. We hate these offices.
    There is nothing that makes a prospective employee feel less like joining in when you know that the folks that are there hate where they have to be all day.

But wait, there’s more. The rest, are here in the form of requests. Please, please, please don’t compare yourself to a remarkable figure in history. I beg you not to do this; it’s going to kill your credibility dead beyond recognition. Don’t ask me probing questions about my personal life – they’re seldom relevant and often, they’re not legal. If I’m not the right person for your job, please tell me so right away, you will not hurt my feelings and I only want to be successful at what I do, so save us both the time, okay?

After all these bad interviews, I wonder if I am ignoring my own advice. I should be putting a stop to these things right away, as soon as it becomes clear that I am not, in a million years, going to take this project, not for love or money. I should have thanked the micromanager at that very moment and said that I didn’t think we’d be a good match. I should have put a stop to the inappropriate questioning immediately instead of fishing around in my head for neutral responses. I should just put the brakes on that stuff and head for the door. Currently I’m regretting that I didn’t respond the way I really felt in a number of those situations. I try not to kill my job prospects by saying “That is the most stupid and outrageous thing I’ve ever heard in an interview.” Thing is, I have learned over the last two months that it’s probably NOT the most outrageous and stupid thing I’ve ever heard. There is probably more to come.

SS+K founder flags flatulent fowl in The New Yorker

So I’m remiss in mentioning my favorite employer’s recent inclusion in a Ken Auletta piece on the state of the advertising industry. It’s a great piece and one of our founding partners has a great quote early in the article:

Not everyone in the industry thinks that size is a prerequisite for success. Rob Shepardson, a founding partner in Shepardson Stern + Kaminsky, a downtown Manhattan agency that employs seventy people, believes that the giant holding companies subvert creativity, and that companies like WPP are no more capable of getting their varied divisions to work together than Vivendi and Universal were.

SS+K is independent, but a number of other midsized agencies, such as the Kaplan Thaler Group and Crispin Porter + Bogusky, have managed to keep their identities and creative reputations intact after a takeover….

The article goes on, and then Rob pops up later in the piece:

Rob Shepardson, of SS+K, is skeptical of such campaigns, meant to create awareness for a product, and calls the Aflac duck spots “fart advertising.” Awareness is only “the first step of success,” he says. “I still don’t know what Aflac is.” He says that the ads don’t leave a viewer remembering a single attribute of the company. “My point is that, if you’re spending all that money to get awareness, build a relationship,” he adds. “There has to be a core idea, like ‘What’s in it for me?’ ” But Aflac sales more than doubled in the first four years. “We went from an unknown insurance company in the U.S. to a well-established brand,” Dan Amos says. “Now two of the three largest corporations—U.P.S. and Wal-Mart—offer Aflac.”

While it’s hard to disagree with Aflac’s success, I get what Rob’s saying in general. Even the best TV ads often leave you forgetting who paid for the spot by the time the laughter has faded. Maybe, though, shallow awareness is all you need to get people to ask HR about “that insurance with the duck.” And you can’t argue with the success of the Geico gekko either.

Leaving aside the existential questions about advertising effectiveness, what I really enjoyed about the piece was the silly frisson I felt reading that quote. For all the hilariously profane diatribes I have heard our partners launch into over the past two years [including the most sustained F-bomb volley in recent memory–during a staff meeting no less!], I have to say that Rob is the one I would least expect to say the word “fart,” under any circumstances, let alone during a New Yorker interview. But it’s a great quip, and one that might just have been calculated–a shot across the bow of Aflac-duck-inventer Linda Kaplan Thaler, who in the article’s lead is quoted as telling agency folk, “Don’t worry about whether the news is good or bad. Just get covered. . . . PR breeds PR.” Indeed. So as I re-read the article, I stopped giggling and started taking notes.

I’ve also been remiss in mentioning the article to The Judy, who will no doubt be thrilled to know that the firm I work for was written up in her favorite magazine of all time. Although I imagine she will note, “though it really should be you writing those articles.” And, “did he have to use that word?”

The blowjob that ate India

…or at least eBay’s Indian subsidiary.

Tech execs here ought to think hard about the right’s new push for tougher indecency laws in the states. A new law in India landed the CEO of the company in an infamous Indian jail, despite the company’s rapid removal of the offending content. It’s a strange story that is illustrative of the undertow created when technology, business, and sex intertwine. The UK Guardian hasthe whole story.

To the Indian schoolboy, it must have seemed like an ingenious if indelicate use of new technology.

But when the 17-year-old used his mobile phone camera to record his girlfriend giving him oral sex he could have had little idea of the far-reaching global consequences.

By yesterday, his ungentlemanly act had provoked a scandal that was dominating every Indian newspaper, the chief executive of a major company had been jailed, and a major diplomatic row was brewing between India and America, with Condoleezza Rice reported to be at the fore.

Geeks do it smarter

Larry and Sergey are about to be billionaires, and I think that’s great. Google is a great company with a service that has changed the way people think about and interact with information and knowledge. The founders also want to flipping,” by relying on a kind of reverse auction that will likely prevent a dramatic first-day rise.

Too many tech startups have foundered as the people who were so smart about the tech failed to understand business. It is Page and Brin’s wisdom about business that makes me optimistic about the company’s long-term success. As Google gets a stock-inflated wallet to match its big brains, Microsoft will have a real fight on its hands. And that will be good for everyone, including our friends in Redmond.

Regulation Sucks

An interesting item on NPR’s All Things Considered today about the regulation of the florist industry in Louisiana. As it turns out, in Louisiana (and no other state) you need a permit to sell flowers. In order to obtain that permit, you need to pass an exam. The exam involves practical tests of techniques that are no longer relevant in the modern florist industry and is therefore extremely difficult to pass. What’s more, the test is judged by existing licensed florists who have no reason to welcome more competition in the industry. A legal activist group is now seeking to overturn this regulatory requirement. Only in Louisiana could it happen that you need to pass a test to sell a flower, but not to buy a gun.

I offer this tidbit as a counterpoint to my article from a while back: Deregulation Sucks. Perhaps in the interest of not seeming totally self-contradictory I should modify that statement a bit. The purpose of government, and therefore the purpose of governmental regulation, is to serve the public good. In the flower-arranging case, what possible public good is served by requiring licenses of florists? No-one is going to be damaged by getting a dud bunch of dahlias and even if they were, market forces are going to fix that problem pretty quick. Floristry isn’t a wide-scale public need, like electricity or transport. So maybe I ought to say that regulation, or the lack of it as the case may be, sucks whenever the public good isn’t being served.