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Sunday, October 15, 2017

Can It Go On Forever?

Herbert Stein was Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors until both President Nixon and Ford (He today may be more famous for being the father of writer, humorist, sometime actor and investor Ben Stein). Urban legend credits Stein with saying, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

Over the last ten years, two weeks have not gone by where someone has not asked me something close to this: “TV just does work as well as it used to. When will it stop getting so much advertiser money?”  Usually, if it is in person, I break in to my version of a Mona Lisa smile and say simply that I just do not know. If it is in an e-mail, I often conjure up Herb Stein’s alleged quotation.

Years roll by and people foolishly say that this year will be the last of the network upfront market. Yet, each spring the cavalry charge begins anew and smart people place big bets on a declining medium where all of us admit attentiveness to commercial messages is at all time lows. I stay silent. Yes, the bomb is ticking but the fuse is longer than most of us suspected. Or, as Lord Keynes put it, “Markets can stay irrational longer than many can remain solvent.”

Why does TV still get such a large share of advertising funds? Well, to me, it is pretty simple. Social media is exciting but does it move the needle for most products? Mobile may have the most potential but is still in its early stages of development and the message has to be very spare. TV is a safety blanket for marketers. You know it still can move sales but ratings are lower and over-state attentiveness more than ever. It is still the gold standard for many and Nielsen, though tarnished, remains the currency by which the medium is measured and attentiveness be damned.

For years, I have encouraged advertisers to branch out and test other platforms but not abandon TV altogether for many products. Each year, it seems the case for a substantial investment in TV gets weaker. Yet, as the economy rebounds, so do broadcast revenues.

I suppose that the great late American philosopher, Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra said it best—“It ain’t over ’til its over.”

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Letting Go

A few years ago, I ran in to a former colleague at a store. It had been perhaps 15 years since I had seen him. We spent a few minutes catching up and then he asked if I ever ran in to Mr.X, whom we had both worked with at the same time. When I told him that I saw him every few years accidentally,  just as we were meeting now, he exploded saying that he hated the bastard and would like to punch his lights out.

I smiled and he did not think it was funny. He went off on a long riff as if it were yesterday of all the horrible things the man had done to him. "He was awful to you, too.  Remember the day he threw you under the bus at the client meeting so he could look good?" I agreed that I remembered it.

He was annoyed that I seemed so calm about it all. I gave him my standard speech about not looking at life through a rear view mirror. He shook his head rather violently. "What are you going to say next, Don? That I should do some expressive writing and get him out of my system or chant and meditate? Get a personality transplant?"

I told him pretty directly that this was hurting him a lot and not the person with whom we both had serious issues. Stealing a well worn line, I told him that he "was swallowing poison and expecting the other guy to die."

This broke the ice and I pulled out another platitude. Life has been good to both of us and we survived and prospered over the last few decades. I went on to say that you cannot live in the past or the future but only in the present. That jerk will not likely be part of our day today or tomorrow so let’s move on.

Letting go is hard to do. We all need to do it. I find that I can forgive and have done so on a number of times but forgetting is a lot harder.  People have also forgiven me. As I get older, I also find that I try to see the issue from the point of view of whomever was my nemesis. Was I wrong? Was he or she going through significant personal turmoil at the time so they lashed out at  those beneath them corporately (That proved to be true several times)?

Living in the present is liberating and, candidly, it is all that we have. If you are holding a long standing grudge, why not give it a try?

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com or leave a message on the blog.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Thoughtful Disagreement

Over the last year or so, I have studied Ray Dalio very closely. He is the CEO of Bridgewater Associates. the largest hedge fund in the U.S. I watch his interviews on CNBC, Bloomberg, and Yahoo Finance very closely,  replayed his TED talk on management several times , and have watched any YouTube entries with him in them going back a few years.

He is disarming for a multi-billionaire. In his TED talk, he shows a clip of himself as a guest on “Wall Street Week” in 1982. When the sound bite is over, he says “what an arrogant jerk I was.” Shortly after that, his business almost went under and he had to re-trench. Clearly, he has come back with a vengeance.

One thing that interests me is the way that he runs his enterprise. He encourages what he calls “thoughtful disagreement.” From 24 year old rookie to 62 year old veteran, everyone is allowed and encouraged to state their views even it meaning criticizing the boss. Having viewed an army of yes men and women for 45 years, it is truly something to see and think about. Clearly, he works with a group of uber-intelligent analysts who, after a few years, begin to have independent means. So, they can speak their mind and not have the money worries that many of us have experienced. So, I have often wondered how applicable his approach is to other companies or industries.

Over the years, I conducted hundreds of personnel reviews. Many people told me beforehand that they wanted “constructive criticism”. Maybe I always did it wrong, but whenever, I criticized  a staffer even mildly, people generally became defensive and some visibly angry. The same was true when discussing issues with most, but not all of the top management, I encountered. Some made it clear that it was “my way or the highway” while others said they welcomed dissent but rarely embraced it even when it was mild. So “thoughtful disagreement” rarely saw the light of day in my career.

The same thing is true of discussing politics. I do not think that I ever changed anyone’s mind on a political issue even when the discussion was civil. So, I  usually avoid such issues. Why waste one’s time?

Dalio said business ideas should be discussed in front of your team and undergo a “stress test.” If it passes the test, then you have a good chance of success. My caveat to that is that everyone has to be honest in the discussion and pretty well informed on the issues. It has been rare, in my experience, to see both variables, honesty and well informed, present among all or even many members of the group. On a personal basis, I like to read outside my comfort or belief zone and put my ideas through stress tests all the time. Generally, they hold up pretty well but I have noticed my views on certain issues moderating a bit in recent years.

So, consider this. Bridgewater, led by Dalio, is the largest hedge fund among many. Clearly, they are doing more than a little right.  Do you encourage “thoughtful disagreement” among your team? Would they do it if you tried?

In advertising and marketing, things are changing faster than ever. All of us, if honest, know that we are having a difficult time staying on top of media changes that seem as if they are happening daily. You need to test a lot of little things on new platforms knowing that most will fail. The spirit of an entrepreneur is needed even if you are with a global brand powerhouse. The tiny failures will not even be a financial rounding error to a giant firm. You realize that you cannot stand still. Thoughtful disagreement and lively stress tests might be a great tool  going forward.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com or leave a message on the blog.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Where Are The New Entrepreneurs?

Historically, there has been an old cliche that small business was the growth engine of both the overall U.S. economy and job formation. A cliche, yes, but it was still true. As we write in late 2017, the landscape has changed. Fewer people are starting their own businesses than even a dozen years ago. What is causing this sea change and can it turn around?

The Great Recession of 2008-2009 savaged the U.S. economy and people who were hurt then and saw many others who had businesses go down for the count, appear to be a bit gun shy. So, while, the terrible downturn is still reasonably fresh in people’s minds, the memory of it probably inhibits some from doing a start-up. Here are some other reasons that I have pulled together from several sources plus some of my own personal conjecture:

1) Regulation—conservatives scream a lot about businesses being over-regulated but there is definitely some truth to it. Talk to anyone who has started even a small shop in the last few years and they will, to a person, complain about the heavy licensing and permitting that is needed for even the most modest enterprise. Also, many people who leave a job have non-compete clauses which prevents them from getting back into the same fray for months or even a few years.

2) The Wal-Mart-ization of America—no, this is not a complaint about how the world’s largest retailer underpays its workers and may be skinny on benefits. It is simply that ultra-big companies have scale and small players cannot compete against them in many categories. Add Amazon to the retail mix, and many rural businesses never see the light of day as online shopping continues to escalate.

3) Big companies are showing more entrepreneurial flair than ever. Leading firms such as Google and Facebook have venture departments within their companies that fund and experiment with new arenas. Many would be entrepreneurs embrace the heady atmosphere of being around lots of big brains in a super stimulating environment. The workplace has to be fascinating.

4) Immigration reform—The term entrepreneur was coined by early French economist Jean Baptiste Say and is translated as “adventurer”. I love immigrants—they are hungry, work their butts off, and come to our rocky shores hoping for a better life. By pulling up stakes and coming here, many, almost by definition, have the spirit of an “adventurer.” If we had a sane immigration policy that fast tracked people with skills that we desperately need, you can bet that more new companies would be formed.

5) Most new products fail and most new ventures go bust within three years. Only .4% of firms last 40 years. It is a high risk game. Today, many have become risk averse and it is hard to blame them.

6) As technology improves, there is no question that new jobs are created. Yet, do not forget one important point. A tech company today can get to $1 billion in sales with a relative handful of employees compared to any time in the past.

7) New companies seem to be mushrooming the most in areas that are the usual suspects—Silicon Valley, The Boston Area, Austin, and Brooklyn and Manhattan. As rural areas empty out, there is little growth in business startups there even though living and operational costs may be low.

There is one statistic that has me encouraged. Over the last two years, there has been more small business births than deaths. If this is the beginning of a trend rather than a short term blip on the screen, there may be fine things on the horizon for our country.

Take the advertising business, for example. Few people are starting new advertising agencies these days. Always a highly speculative venture, advertising is changing so fast that starting a full service shop these days from scratch is generally a child’s dream.  However, small boutiques with speciality services are popping up all over. Graphic designers who were doing project work a year or two ago are morphing in to small shops known for fast turnaround, zero pretense and low fees. Experts on mobile are doing well although some of the real stars are getting snapped up by WPP and other giants. There will always be talented and unappreciated men and women who will go out their own. Others may simply have to be their own boss and hang out a shingle.

Watch new business formation carefully. It is an important bellwether for tracking the vibrancy of a free market economy.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com or leave a message on the blog.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Sleepwalking Through Life

I, as many of you, am a big fan of Warren Buffett. Recently, I was watching a You Tube video where the great Oracle of Omaha was speaking to an MBA class. When asked to give advice he gave his normal admonitions about business ethics and responsible investing. In this one, however, he added the advice of “Do not go sleepwalking through life.” I was pleased as it is a theme that I think is vitally important but neglected in pop psychology and often commencement addresses.

Buffett commented that you should find out what you love to do and then make that your career. He suggested doing what you would do if you were not getting a salary and did not need the money. Then, he said he actually did that by offering value investor guru Ben Graham his services for free if Warren could simply work for the master for a while. Graham hired Warren but did not take him up on the working for free offer.

When I was becoming an adult most people were keen to give me advice. Often, they would tell me to not worry about what you were going to do for a living. The line most often used was “you will fall in to something and then make it your career.” Even then, growing up in rural Rhode Island, I knew that had to be limiting. Given my free market proclivities a career in government was unlikely and unappealing. Heavy industry or production had little pull for me and, in finance, I could make a decent living but always be in the minor leagues. Only my father spoke to me sensibly and directly and told me to try a few things and find something that I really liked. It was profoundly good advice.

Hearing Buffett’s words recently, I was struck by how many people I had observed over the years who were truly sleepwalking through life. Things always seemed to be on auto-pilot with them. They had no plans beyond the next paycheck. I found it particularly annoying when I found it happening with the many people who are far more intelligent than I. They watched a great deal of TV, were addicted to sports, but seemed to have little awareness of what was going on around them. Others seemed to fritter away their time with hobbies or make work projects. Yes, many of these things are stress relievers or some persnickety people want to have things just so in their homes. Yet, it takes time and over the years, some of them become breathtakingly boring. Their world has become tiny.

In my advertising career, I was accused of being overly interested in talking with sales reps. My response was simple—“Sales reps see more people in a week than you, Mr. or Ms. Account Person in a year. They know where the marketplace is going if they pay attention at all and, if they pay close attention, they have a great view of trends forming. You do a nice job of servicing our clients marketing needs but sales reps can give us a nice idea of competitive threats”.  Most dismissed me as a neanderthal.

Over the years, I have been a very ambitious reader. I used to mail books to friends and colleagues a great deal but have cut back drastically. The response often was “that is way too long. I will never get through that.” Or, “This is great. I will be on a long flight in three months and, if I remember, I will take it along.” I was trying to help their careers. They did not get it.

Another form of sleepwalking is what used to be known as the “let George do it” syndrome. Some days I feel that I am one of the few people left in America who are concerned about our $21 trillion + national debt and our entitlement overhang of perhaps $200 trillion or more. Mention it and people dismiss me as a crank or more annoyingly say, “Someone will do something and take care of it.” I shoot back, “I am been waiting for over 40 years and regardless of the party in power, not much gets done.”

So, at the risk of sounding like an angry old scold, may I suggest that you get engaged. Do not live an un-examined life. There is a big world out there and you have something to contribute. You might even have more fun than you are having now.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com or leave a comment on the blog.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Future of Jobs--A Contrarian View

A few years ago, two people approached me and asked for my opinion of what the job market would look like in about 10 -12 years. I went at an answer tooth and nail pulling together data from a wide variety of sources. Then, as a trial balloon, I sent my forecast out to a few people whose opinions I value greatly. The response was mixed. We will come back to that but first here is my forecast:

By 2027, we will not have a two tiered employment market but actually three.

From what I see today it  will likely shake out as follows:

1) The top 10-12% will be made up of very smart individuals. These sharpies will have mastered the new technologies or will have so much money or power in a firm that they can manage those who have. They will push and likely succeed in making their products or services even more efficient and will garner increasing profits and market share.

2) The next group will not be that large; perhaps 5% of the workforce. These people will not be tech mavens but they will cater to the whims of the top 10%. Personal trainers, interior decorators, financial planners (although index funds will hurt them), SAT Tutors, and household managers will top the list. Suppose an investment banker (a woman) marries a successful surgeon (man). Their income will be huge but the one commodity they will not have much of is time. A manager will be hired who will get the kids to school, pick them up after squash practice, make dinner and do the laundry. They will be paid quite well.

A new servant class will emerge to address the needs of the emerging 2nd gilded age.

3) Things get rough for the group below these two which may be 80-83% of the population. Robots will take some of these jobs and continued growth in offshoring will do even more damage. Lawn services, roofers, building security, some food service and home health care are likely to be here. These jobs can often resist automation as you will need some hands on action. Importantly, you will need less. I saw a video of a coffee shop in the Bay Area that has machines that make a perfect cup of quality coffee (not the dreadful vending machines that "brewed" coffee years ago!) . It had one employee who collected the cash that some customers still used and was there in case of a machine malfunction. So food service jobs will still exist but there will be far fewer of them. A problem, of course, will be that these jobs will ALWAYS have low salaries as one can digest the necessary skills in a few days and you are very easily replaceable.

Now, will all 80-83% have dead end jobs? Of course not. But, and this is important, raises for middle managers will likely be smaller over time and upward mobility will get tougher except for the most resourceful. I have always bristled when people would say “this time it is different.” They say it with real estate or stock market booms or even overpriced media properties. Yet, here I am saying this time it IS different. When The Industrial Revolution came along many people were free to leave the farms and move to urban areas as improvements in farm equipment had made yields higher with less labor. As electricity came along and steel mills started to roar, millions of new non-farms jobs were created. Henry Ford used his assembly line to build cars, paid workers well, and cars came to the masses.  And so it went for decades.

Historically, increases in technology have increased the number of jobs, good paying jobs, too. Now, we face something a bit different. Like many of you, I am fascinated by the future of self drive cars and trucks. What, however, will happen to the hundreds of thousands of truck drivers in the U.S? No, they will not all go away, but major companies will find self drive vehicles safer and cheaper to operate. Efficiency will always win out.

Also, don’t forget Big Data. It will not simply be a turbo-charged marketing tool. As I write people are working on ways for Big Data to measure worker productivity. Workers will be under more pressure than ever and will face greater scrutiny. The coming together of data points will not be dissimilar to your credit score. It will be hard to fight this in performance or compensation reviews.

Right now, some plants are using robots along with people. I read of one where when a night shift is required they go 100% robots as they are more dependable. Schools do more online courses which cut the number of faculty required and do not use up much classroom space or heat or electricity. I would not want to be a 26 year old Latin or Greek professor these days!

The media world is affected, too. As mega-shops place more on line advertising on exchanges, fewer people can handle billions more in billing. The logarithms get more sensitive and effective every day. An acquaintance has told me he loves what they do but is glad he is 60 and can pull a platinum parachute as he leaves his media giant.

Should the top tier get far wealthier due to the efficiency, the flip side is that the bottom 80% but especially the bottom half could get poorer. We have seen how the wealthy have an aversion to tax increases and they have the contacts and deep pockets and influence to fight them. So, we are heading toward a world of the tech haves or financial heavies and the tech have nots regardless of how many of us own the latest smartphone.

When I looked at this almost inescapable trends to deeper inequality in the US, I went back to my first teacher in Economics—Adam Smith. At 20, I read the WEALTH OF NATIONS (1776) for the first time. The father of modern economics taught me the merits of the market system and the tremendous benefits of free trade. In WEALTH OF NATIONS, the great Dr. Smith wrote: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.” Amazing. He wrote that way back in 1776 but it appears that we are headed that way in the next 10-15 years. What to do? Elect Bernie Sanders or a clone in 2020? No way. That could kill the economy. Smith often talked about the value of unfettered markets but admitted that sometimes they needed a little fettering. While he bristled at his own prescription as government entering in to markets was against what he called “natural liberty”, perhaps a progressive income tax and some careful financial regulation would prevent consolidation of economic power in to the hands of a few. My libertarian friends would argue that unfettered markets are great and that crony capitalism has caused much of the inequity in society. Let me be clear—there will ALWAYS be unequal distribution of income in a relatively free market. Some people are more intelligent, some work harder and some are just plain lucky. Yet, if the trends that I see continue, we will be seriously out of whack.

The response to my thesis has been interesting. A few said that I had read too much science fiction and others said that I was a gloom and doomer.  Some quietly agreed and admitted that they will be on top. I consider myself an optimist but, to me, the handwriting is already on the wall. Companies will use tech to squeeze out costs and as one person said to me several years ago, "Robots and logarithms do not require vacations, sick leave, health insurance, raises or a  401K."

I sincerely hope that I am totally wrong with this hard nosed forecast.  Yet, unless things change in a big way, I do not see how much of it is unavoidable.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com or leave a message on the blog.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

What is a Fair Price?

When I was about 8 years old, I started to collect coins. The collection was nothing special as I look back on it, but it taught me a very valuable lesson. I went with my dad to a coin shop and paid $6 for a coin. Some two years later, I looked the coin up in the “Red Book” which placed a value on coins and saw that my original purchase was listed as $12.00 in uncirculated condition which mine was. I excitedly told my father that I had doubled my money. He smiled and said, “Not so fast, Don.” Then he proceeded to explain to me that the Red Book price was close to what a dealer would charge me if I wanted to BUY the coin now. If I were selling it to him, I would be lucky to get $8 and more likely $6 which is what I had paid for it. The lesson that I learned at my tender age was that a coin, a house, a used car, a collectible, or a stock was only worth what someone else was willing to pay for it.

In Consumer Behavior, theorists often refer to a phenomenon known as the endowment effect. If something is owned by you, you endow it with a value that is often distant from marketplace realities. People who think their home is worth a million dollars are shocked when their realtor places it at $650,000 and even then the bids that arrive are lower. The used car that you have pampered for 12 years does not fetch nearly as much as the price you envision for it. Learning that things are only worth what others are willing to pay for them was a great lesson to learn when very young.

Over the years, I have  been shocked by people who survived in the advertising and media business not realizing the simple truth of auction market pricing. I would suggest a bid on a property or a sponsorship and a colleague might say, “We can’t offer that. The station will not make any money on it.” I would often respond simply that such a low amount was what the property was worth to our client and add that, if the price was truly too low, they would not sell it to us. You did not have to be abrasive or obnoxious about it. Simply state that our offering price was all that the client could pay or what we were willing to pay.

Another sales tactic that always really amused me was when a rep would say, “We have worked so hard putting this together. You have to pay more than your offer.” Once, sitting across from a particularly odious salesperson, I smiled and said, “I didn’t know that you were a Marxist.” He looked wounded at first and then slowly became angry. I outlined Marx’s long discredited labor theory of value which briefly described that the value of a commodity can be objectively measured by the average number of hours required to produce that commodity. Think about that for a moment. Let’s say that I decided to knit a sweater. I assure you, my friends, that I could spent 1,000 hours working on it and, at $15 per hour as a wage, no one would want to buy the ugly sweater that I had produced at any price—but especially not at $15,000. Well, I use that absurd example to make the point that it mattered nothing to me that someone had spent a lot of time putting a proposal together. If it did not reach the people whom the client needed to reach at the right price in the right environment, we would go elsewhere.

In the years to come, prices for advertising or  program or event sponsorships will fluctuate depending on market conditions and competitive demand. There is no intrinsic value to media time or space across any platform. It is only what someone is willing to pay for it. Ideally, both sides get a win-win in an important negotiation. Pricing to me has always been something of an economic miracle. Sometimes dozens of people in many countries contribute to putting a product or service together. Each makes some money every step of the way. The finished product, however, is only worth what the consumer thinks is a fair price and one hopes the producer can make a profit at that level.

The little boy with the shiny uncirculated silver quarter is now almost 60 years older. He has not forgotten the lesson he learned so long ago.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com