"SXSW" cartoon
Last week was the annual pilgrimage to SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas. Increasingly, SXSW is attracting big brands as a marketing venue to influencers (this year, even McDonalds has a presence) and as part of the search of the next new thing.

Famously the launchpad for Twitter in 2007 and Foursquare in 2009, this year SXSW had everyone talking about Meerkat, a live-streaming app. Not to mention the robot petting zoo, drones, virtual reality, and wearables of all types.

It’s important for marketers to remember that it’s not the tech that’s cool; it’s what’s enabled by the tech. It’s tempting for marketers to get so excited about technology that they lose all sense of perspective.

In 2010, I had the opportunity to speak at SXSW and soak up all of the stimulus from the sessions, booths, and conversations. After four days in the SXSW echo chamber, I completely drank the Kool-Aid. I got so excited about tech for tech sake, I temporarily forget that the rest of the world isn’t like the conference. And that technology is only as cool as what it allows you to do.

Just as Twitter is not a “strategy”, Meerkat is not a strategy. It’s what brands do with those technologies that matters, not just blindly chasing the shiny new thing.

Technology can’t save a boring marketing idea. But it can amplify a remarkable one.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on SXSW and how brands should think about adopting the latest tech.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

Hackathons have gone mainstream. Originally the domain of scrappy tech start ups, hackathons are now hosted by large corporations and governments. This week’s cartoon was partly inspired by a very funny video from Vooza on the dark side of hackathons.

A hackathon started as an event where teams of developers collaboratively code in an extreme manner over a short period of time. But, the definition has expanded to many types of innovation. There are internal hackathons and external contest hackathons. They are a way to create innovation quickly and simply without a lot of direction or control. People are free to follow what interests them. It an be a great way to surface a range of ideas, with simple prototypes people can react to. Often people volunteer their time beyond their day jobs because they believe in the ideas so much.

I just read Biz Stone’s inspiring book on the inception of Twitter. Twitter emerged from a hackathon hosted by a failing podcasting company called Odeo. As a last desperate measure before shutting down, Odeo hosted a hackathon to surface any new ideas that could save the company (and the team). Different teams knocked around range of concepts. Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone put together a rough prototype that became Twitter.

Most organizations would love to invent the next Twitter. And many have started to adopt the hackathon as an innovation exercise.

It’s a noble exercise to unshackle some of the corporate bureaucracy that can stifle innovation. Ideas like the next Twitter are pretty fragile at first and easily killed.

But many of the corporate hackathons I’ve seen lack one key ingredient — fire in the belly. Teams have to be personally motivated to invest so much of their personal lives into a hackathon (particularly if they’re asked to add a hackathon on top of their day jobs).

Biz Stone describes this fire in the belly as “emotional investment”:

“If you don’t love what you’re building, if you’re not an avid user yourself, then you will most likely fail even if you’re doing everything else right…

“You know in your heart something’s worth pursuing; you’re not sure exactly why, but it doesn’t matter. Success isn’t guaranteed, but failure is certain if you aren’t truly emotionally invested in your work.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on hackathons and inspiring innovation in large companies.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

"Brand Purpose" cartoon
Everything I needed to know about marketing, I learned from Mark Addicks, who retired as CMO of General Mills in January. Mark is one of the main reasons I went into marketing as a career, so I want to share a few of my memories as a tribute to one of marketing’s great thinkers and inspiring mentors.

When I was an HBS student in 2001, I heard Mark give a guest lecture on the power of brand purpose in Cheerios, and it inspired me to think about marketing in a whole new way. Cheerios had been stagnant, and its marketing was stuck in communicating functional benefits around heart health. It was only when they probed into the deeper emotional insight around “nurturing” and tapped the powerful moment where toddlers learn to feed themselves with Cheerios as a first finger food that they unlocked growth.

“Nurturing” started to drive everything in the Cheerios brand and inspired promotion ideas like including a children’s book in every box to promote childhood literacy. And, more recently, not to back down when there was a backlash against a multicultural family in a Cheerios ad.

In a similar way, he recently shared a case study about Fiber One and how it used to be marketed as “cereal with twigs”. But then they found a popular Weight Watchers Fiber One Brownie recipe, and realized that brand champions were making the product their own:

“It changed the purpose of Fiber One, making it a way to make dieting suck less and find a convenient way to manage your weight. Purpose can change the way you do everything in your marketing mix.”

Mark interviewed me soon after that guest lecture and I spent nearly three years at General Mills, working on Cheerios, Yoplait, and Green Giant. The Brand Champions program he created was like getting a PhD in marketing.

On a personal level, Mark helped me find my own purpose in relation to my cartoons. I first started posting my weekly marketing cartoons at General Mills as an Associate Marketing Manager working on Yoplait (with the Trix Rabbit).
Occasionally my cartoons would poke fun at big company hierarchies (my boss character was originally a caricature of Steve Demeritt, General Mill’s Vice Chairman at the time). My colleagues wondered if I would get disciplined (or even fired) for sticking my neck out. I started to wonder if I was pushing it too far.
Then I got a call from Mark Addick’s assistant saying that he wanted to set up time with me. I assumed that he was going to tell me to tone it down. But instead, when I got to his office, he told me he loved the cartoons and wanted to take me to lunch to learn more about me. He taught me not to be afraid to stick my neck out. He even went on to introduce me to a friend of his who was a professional cartoonist.

In Mark’s good-bye message to General Mills (posted on Adweek), he wrote a few words about the power of people and the power of brands that are emblematic of the inspiration he brought to General Mills and the marketing community at large:

Today is my last day at General Mills. Whew! 26 years went pretty fast…

Thank you.

Before I go, I want to make sure to send a note of thanks for all that you and this community of unique, talented and fun individuals, have given me. I am walking out of these hallowed halls very humble and awe-struck by the opportunities that I have had, the people I have had the fortune to work with and the brands that I have been able to touch. Oh, if these halls could speak….

Thank you for all that you have taught me, all you have given me, and all the ways you have indelibly touched and inspired me. I am forever and deeply grateful.

Take a look around you: there are wonderful people here to support you, partner with you, challenge you, and make you better at what you do. And they just might be your friends for life.

People matter. A lot. A community of great people create and achieve incredible things. Great people make all the difference in strategies, ideas, executions. And great people need your encouragement, commitment and support. Our community—and the culture that defines this community–needs to be differentially great so that we can make a difference out there where it counts. So, please never stop believing and investing in each other. Please don’t leave culture for someone else to define. Jump in with both feet. Take the opportunity in front of you to define the community and culture you want to be a part of.

After people (and of course I have to say this): Our brands matter. That is why people vote with their wallets everyday. Why investors place their funds in our stock. Why we have amazing art on our lawns. Why we have day care for the next generation…And why it is fun being here. There is NO single place in the world with so many legacy brands under one roof. Without our people and our brands, we would have nothing different to offer.

Products come and go. Brands endure.

They are a challenge to build, a challenge to steward as consumers and markets change, a challenge to evolve strategically.

Brands force us to make choices, such as who to be for, where to play, when to urgently accelerate–and when to stop and have the courage to say ‘no’.

And it is far easier to destroy a brand than to build one. Actually, frighteningly easy.

Building and growing a brand requires that we, too, continue to grow and evolve at the pace of the consumer and marketplace. And that we are accountable for stewarding each brand to a better place.

I wish you, and our brands, the very best. They are in your very talented and capable hands.

I can’t wait to see the next chapter.

I am now, simply, one of your brand champions.

Mark Addicks

Mark, congratulations on your 26 years at General Mills and thank you for impacting me and so many others!

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

"Media" cartoon
Our media habits have changed irrevocably. But much of today’s marketing is still biased toward how we consumed media in the past.

It feels like we’re in an awkward adolescent stage of media planning. Digital media is often bolted onto traditional media in a disjointed way. There’s not enough integrated planning where the big marketing idea comes first. Instead, a traditional media campaign is frequently shoehorned into digital media. Sometimes new media channels are picked, not because there’s a consumer insight, but because they’re the trendy flavor of the week.

"go digital" cartoon

One tactic that embodies this disconnect is the haphazard use of QR codes, pasted onto traditional media in an attempt to “go digital”. But often they just link to a corporate web site not designed for mobile (as this cartoon from a couple years ago shows).

I’d love to hear your thoughts on media planning in 2015. I also want to say thanks to Cody Gibbs for suggesting this cartoon idea. If you ever have marketing stories that would make good cartoon fodder, please let me know.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

targeted ads

ad tech, Big Data

"Targeted Ads" cartoon
Marketers spend a lot of time and effort trying to infer consumer behavior through the signals they leave online and offline.

We’re in an interesting stage here. In some ways, the tools are continually getting more sophisticated (and creepy in their accuracy). In other ways, they are a blunt instrument with a lot of potential to draw false conclusions. Or at the very least, an incomplete picture. The cookie, which has long been the mainstay of tracking consumer activity online, is crumbling, as consumers increasingly live in a multichannel world with screens that don’t talk to each other.

The goal for marketers is to develop more relevant advertising that performs better. There will continue to be a lot of innovation in this space as marketers think beyond the cookie to integrated (yet potentially intrusive) measurement tools. Ads will increasingly be based, not just on retargeting consumers that have already visited certain sites, but on a composite based on a huge range of online and offline signals, and inferring what those signals mean to predict consumer behavior.

And then, of course, there’s how consumers will react to an advertising world that tries to predict their needs and wants in an increasingly personal way. Will consumers see this future as utopian or dystopian?

Here’s a a cartoon I drew a couple years ago on this dynamic.


My post included a telling quote from Macy’s VP of customer strategy, Julie Bernard, that captures this dilemma:

“Consumers are worried about our use of data, but they’re pissed if I don’t deliver relevance… How am I supposed to deliver relevance and magically deliver what they want if I don’t look at the data?”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how marketers should work through this dilemma.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

data-driven marketing
The road of data-driven marketing is bumpy. For all the promise, there’s also a lot of resistance. Many marketers are being dragged kicking and screaming into a world very different than where they started their careers.

I’ve drawn a few cartoons on the tension between the Math Men and the Mad Men. Ultimately marketing will require both. But we’re in an awkward adolescent period of data-driven marketing. Much of marketing today is either mindlessly data-driven or hopelessly data-resistant.

This time of change creates tremendous opportunity for marketers willing to embrace the potential of big data beyond the hype. There has never been a better time to work in marketing. But the role will continue to evolve.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on navigating the road of data-driven marketing.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

more with less


"More with less" cartoon
While some brands plunked down $4.5 million for a 30-second spot this Superbowl Sunday, most marketers are being asked to do more with less. This can feel like an impossible task.

I once moved from a large brand with a large advertising budget to a small challenger brand with virtually no budget. At the large brand, we used to complain like the world was ending whenever we were asked to cut our budget by 5%. Our solution was to try to eke out small efficiencies to compensate for the cut.

At the small brand, our desperation from having virtually no budget forced us to think about marketing in an entirely different way. We had to think of all of the things that were not paid media (customer support, packaging design, wrapping the trucks of our logistics partners, etc.) and find a way to turn them into marketing vehicles.

It dawned on me that in some of my marketing career, I used the brand’s advertising budget as a crutch. Large advertising budgets created blind spots that prevented me from appreciating all of the things I could impact in the brand that didn’t cost any money.

The founder of Geek Squad has a wonderful quote that “advertising is a tax for unremarkable thinking”. In the early days, they couldn’t afford advertising, so they focused on everything else (the uniforms of their agents, their iconic VW bugs, etc.) to tell their marketing story. My favorite detail was the shoes. They realized they could customize the soles of the shoes their tech agents wore to have the Geek Squad logo stamped in reverse. This way, every agent that walked on a wet sidewalk would leave brand impressions everywhere they went. In aggregate, Geek Squad rationalized, that could be a lot of GRPs.

I love that Geek Squad thought of even the soles of their shoes as a marketing opportunity.

Instead of wondering what you would do with a percentage less of your current marketing budget, it’s a good exercise to ask what you would do with a zero marketing budget. Then paid media can amplify those ideas, instead of working as a crutch.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on trying to do more with less. Here’s a cartoon I drew a few years ago on this mindset.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)


"Stage Gate" cartoon
Innovation is not for the faint of heart. At times, managing innovation can feel like the myth of Sisyphus, repeatedly pushing a boulder up hill. Particularly when navigating the stage gate process.

Most organizations use some form of stage gate process to manage innovation. New product ideas must pass through a series of stage gates, where they are poked, prodded, and vetted before moving on to the next stage. In theory, this leads to stronger ideas. But in practice, stage gates don’t necessarily result in survival of the fittest ideas; they can lead to survival of the safest.

Stage gates work great at identifying risks. The problem is that bold and meaningfully unique ideas inherently carry risks. The path of least resistance in a stage gate process is to launch an idea that plays it safe. But by definition, ideas that play it safe won’t really make an impact. The world is already full of safe ideas.

As Accenture put it,

“A primary goal of the NPD funnel is to ferret out the best innovations by winnowing them through a series of stage gates that reduce risk. The reality is often very different. Driven by risk aversion and poor risk management capabilities, the process often weeds out big ideas in favor of small ones. Decision-making bodies often send back proposals for additional research and work, creating time-consuming, creativity-numbing rework loops. Anything but agile and iterative, the process can be a slow, linear march that rarely moves the growth needle …

“In many companies, the union of innovation and risk management is formed around an innovation-choking funnel process: a series of stage gates designed to reduce uncertainty as exposure to risk grows. For many companies, the funnels end up producing only weak, incremental ideas.”

Championing innovation means finding a way through, addressing risks without diluting what makes the idea remarkable. We have to remember that in innovation, playing it safe is risky. I’d love to hear your thoughts on navigating the stage gate process.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

"Shiny Object" cartoon
Marketers love chasing the shiny new thing. It seems like every week, we learn about a new technology, social network, or media platform that promises to be the next big idea in marketing.

We sometimes get so enamored by the shiny new thing that we forget the fundamentals that the business goals come first. The shiny objects that we come across are only worthwhile in terms of whether and how they enable us to reach those business goals. The value is in what the shiny new thing enables, not the shiny new thing itself.

Last year, a marketing friend was asked, “What’s your Snapchat strategy?” Not only did the question automatically assume that Snapchat was a fit for the brand, the question implied that the brand would develop a new strategy for Snapchat rather than ask how Snapchat could enable or amplify the brand’s existing strategy. The question put the cart before the horse.

Any successful marketing program takes sustained energy and commitment. The cost of perpetually chasing the shiny new thing hits all of the other priorities that have to be put on the back burner to make room for the shiny new thing. If we try to do everything, we won’t do anything particularly well.

Of course, brands can’t stay static and our best laid marketing plans have to be adaptable. It makes sense to assess new marketing opportunities as they come along. But we have to keep that exploration in context. There are no magic bullets in marketing.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how marketers should navigate the shiny new things that come along.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

"social ads" cartoon
The old adage goes, if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. This has long been true of our data. Consumers pay for “free” services like search engines and social networks by letting companies collect and package their data so that marketers can target them more effectively.

Nowhere is this more visible than the increasing trend of bringing social context into the ads themselves — pairing an individual’s social actions with social ads shown to their friends. Facebook first led this move with Sponsored Stories, and has since baked social context into many of their ads. Google announced Shared Endorsements last year, where +1’s, reviews, and other social activities are integrated with ads.

There’s value to an advertiser in an implied endorsement. Social context helps make an ad more relevant. If we think that friends we know recommend a certain brand, we will be more likely to buy it.

Yet is the implied endorsement always real — particularly if it’s not freely given? Just because the terms of use (that no one really reads) lets people know a company will package social actions into an ad doesn’t mean that people intended their comments to be taken in that light.

The future of advertising will likely include a greater level of social context. Yet today it feels like social context is sometimes taken out of context.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on where social ads are headed.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)