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Saturday, August 5, 2017

Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 Hours

Since its publication in 2008, many of us have read Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller,  OUTLIERS: The Story of Success (Little Brown and Company). Gladwell gets a lot of criticism for being something of a pop psychologist who is selective with his research but I always find him to interesting and fun to read.

When OUTLIERS had been on the bestseller list for many weeks, an aggressive young salesperson visited me. He asked me if I had read the book and I said yes. We discussed it for a few minutes and he then said, “I will know as much about media as you do in another four years.” I smiled and said maybe you are right. Annoyed, he replied, “No, I will. I have been in the business a year working 40 hours per week so that makes 2,000 hours. When I have five years under my belt, I will have my 10,000 hours in and be an expert just as Gladwell said.” I tried very hard not to laugh and responded, “I think that you are taking Gladwell a bit too literally. You get stuck in meetings and sales calls daily where you do not learn anything new. Also, you drive to a few appointments a day in Atlanta traffic. Those 2,000 hours per year are not all solid gold in terms of learning the business.” He was clearly not happy with me.

In my life, there were two examples that illustrated my point that I tried to articulate to the young lad but he failed to accept. The first happened in college. I was interested in a young woman and she told me that she saw that famous pianist Van Cliburn was performing the following Sunday. The problem was that he was performing in Providence. I said no problem, I had a car, I was from Rhode Island, and I knew the venue well. Off we went and I must say I enjoyed being with her more than the recital. After the performance, she asked “Don, can we go backstage and meet him?” I said sure thing but was a bit nervous.

About a dozen people were there and I asked him to sign the program and he was most gracious and my young lady friend was thrilled. Then, a stage mother pushed a nervous 10-11 year girl up to the great man. She said, “Van, my daughter practices four hours per day."

Van Cliburn gave a pained smile and said “When I was young my mother was working so I would come home from school alone and work on my music. Sometimes, she was late coming back from work. She never asked me how long I played. Always, she asked what did you do? Learning to play well is all about focus. The only valuable time is when you are totally in to what you are doing. Very often, it does not take as long as you think some days.” That really impressed me.

Some 35 years later, I was playing in a golf junket at Pebble Beach with my brother.  Two time PGA champion Dave Stockton did a clinic for us before the tournament. He echoed Van Cliburn by asking us how often we practiced at the driving range and how many balls we hit when we did. He stressed that we should never stand in the practice area and hit one ball after another. Rather, we should watch the flight of each ball hit, especially the bad ones and try to access what went wrong. The number hit was not nearly as important as trying to discern what went right or wrong with your most recent swing.

Over the years, I have unknowingly practiced the 10,000 hour drill. There is a particular topic about which I have read 700 books. Literally. I do not consider myself an expert but I know more than most. In recent years, I have devoted with few exceptions an hour a day to another topic. Before I die, I hope to be near expert level in that discipline as well.

Interestingly, Gladwell gets some criticism from the originator of the 10,000 hour theory. He was Professor Anders Anderson of the University of Colorado. The concept was developed in a paper he wrote entitled, “THE ROLE OF DELIBERATE PRACTICE IN THE ACQUISITION OF EXPERT PERFORMANCE.” Unlike Gladwell, he stressed that the QUALITY of practice was important. So, both Van Cliburn and Dave Stockton were saying the same thing to me before OUTLIERS was published.

The morale? Be wary. Just because someone has been in a business for 10, 20 even 30 years does not guarantee that they are a true expert nor does it mean that they have kept current with what is going on. This is especially true in today’s world of media and marketing.

I have played golf since 1958. An invitation to play in next year’s Masters Golf Tournament is not in the cards despite my extensive practice!

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

Sunday, July 30, 2017

"I Am Not Really Needed"

Like many of you, I do not get a hard copy of a daily newspaper anymore. On line subscriptions to both the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times cover my needs very well. One exception is the Sunday New York Times. It is delivered to my sidewalk each weekend and I devour it with my morning coffee. Given my age, I often linger for a few moments over the obituaries to see if anyone whom I knew or knew of in advertising, broadcasting, or publishing has passed on. Yes, in ten years time, it may become my sports page!

A few months ago, I saw a name that seemed to register a bit in the cobwebs of my memory.   I read the obit carefully and think that I may have remembered this fellow. We met very briefly for a few hours but what he said has stuck with me.

For many years, I traveled a great deal on business. A great deal. While not in real miles, more than one airline gave me over 200,000 air miles to my frequent flyer accounts in the same year. When one travels that much you have your fair share of cancellations and long delays. One such delay occurred in the dead of winter. I was coming back from a client meeting in the upper midwest. The first class cabin was not full and three of us were talking when the first delay was announced. The flight attendant served a round of drinks and we all took things in stride. The captain announced a half hour later that there would an equipment change and we all had to vacate the plane. We would likely not leave for 90 minutes. An unusually well dressed man about 10 years older than I offered to buy us a drink in the airport lounge. We all exchanged what we did for a living. He had a high powered job for a prominent company in the financial arena. The third member of our party exclaimed, “Wow, you must be rich!” Our new drinking buddy shook his head no. “I consider myself successful but I will never be rich.” He went on to describe his life with a brutal candor that almost made me feel a bit sorry for him. As a youngster, like his father before him, he had gone to the right prep school and then college and was now a member of the right clubs in New York. He then went on a tirade about the federal, state and city income taxes that he paid. His real estate taxes in Westchester county were astronomical and his commute was horrendous. Were he to make any real money the Feds would hit him with a gift tax if he wanted to help his children who were now at very expensive prep schools and perhaps a large inheritance tax as well when he died.

I was getting fed up with his pity party for himself and other members of the 1% when he dropped something of a bombshell to both of us. “I am different from my partners. I know that I am not needed. Someone else can help defer taxes or evaluate a security or a new business every bit as well as I can. I am a well paid corporate functionary who leads a boring, upper middle class, unimportant existence. Yes, I am a professional but I am not and never will be a tycoon.”

He then went on to say how if he had his life to live over again he would trash his Northeastern respectable point of view. “I should have taken some risks and been willing to put up with uncomfortable situations. Moved to Africa or Asia and really made a difference with something. Then, maybe I could have been rich, and more importantly, fulfilled.”

A lot of things hit me. First, he had no idea how lucky he was relative to almost everyone in the world. His problems were ones struggling people and most of us would love to have. At the same time, he had a self awareness of how unimportant he was in the scheme of things and had genuine admiration for gutsy entrepreneurs who had a dream and went across the world to make it reality.

Last week, I asked some of my panel members if they were needed. Surprisingly, the broadcasters in senior positions generally said no. The older ones said they had a good run in the golden era of broadcasting and advertising but all felt they could be replaced quickly and easily. Ad agency owners (small to mid-sized shops) were a mixed bag. A few said they were grooming someone to take their places but a small group said almost directly that they were the glue that holds the place together and if they went, the shop would not be far behind. Perhaps broadcasters see themselves as mangers while agency heads, even of small firms, perceive themselves to be builders.

We need functionaries everywhere--the state department, law firms, brokerage houses, the Vatican, and at media properties and ad agencies. Can their lives compare to the brave few who help make the desert bloom or pass through the eye of the needle in Silicon Valley and get funding and change our world? I suppose not but, in my life, I have been touched by and learned from any number of functionaries who were kind, helpful and did a good job. They were not “needed” but they were and are important.

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

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Four Headwinds

A long time ago I was at a client meeting in Florida. One fellow at the sessions was a fellow New Englander who had rarely ventured in to the South or Southwest in his life. At dinner, he mentioned how stunned he was at the amount of construction going on and asked how did Atlanta, Miami, Tampa, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix grew so fast. My clients gave answers such as no state income taxes in Florida or Texas, less regulation, and fewer union issues. My new New England friend asked me directly and I said, “Air conditioning.” The clients were not amused and let me know it after they dropped off the questioner. I stuck to my guns and do so now. In the last two weeks, I have read a book twice over that brought that moment back to me.

The book in question is THE RISE AND FALL OF AMERICAN GROWTH (Princeton University Press, 2016). Its author is Robert J. Gordon, a deeply experienced and prolific writer who is an economics professor at Northwestern University. Gordon’s book is a real tour de force. He essentially covers U.S. economic history from the end of the Civil War (1865) to 1970. It illustrates how the growth occurred and gives great credit to electricity which reduced the drudgery of many household and industrial tasks and was a great catalyst for growth.

Gordon is not an anti-tech luddite. He simply states that for us to have the dynamic growth experienced from 1870-1970 is going to be a steep challenge going forward due to four headwinds:

1) Inequality
2) Education
3) Demography
4) Repaying Debt

One by one, we find, in brief:

1) Inequality--the bottom 80% of the population has suffered wealth stagnation in the span measured from 1983-2013. The top 20% has experienced a doubling of wealth with the infamous top 1% going up several times. Interestingly, he cited studies that showed that the bottom 90% tend to have the world’s worst market timing. Those in stocks in 2008-2009 “bailed out” while the top 10% increased their holdings in 2009-2010 and saw their net worth multiply several fold in many cases. So what, you may say? Well, Gordon illustrates the growing difference between average income and median income (50th percentile). If current projections hold, every 1.0% gain in average income would only translate to 0.6% median growth. The 80-90% at the bottom will get more and more distant from the top 10%. This will effect overall buying power.

2) Education--from 1870-1970 there was a huge surge in people obtaining high school diplomas. Many high school graduates or less earned excellent money with great fringe benefits and were often union members. Today, a high school dropout will likely never earn more than minimum wage over his or her lifetime. And, college degrees are no longer a path to the upper middle class. Many recent graduates are doing work that does not require a college degree. Adding to this problem, is soaring college debt over $1.2 trillion. If a student takes on $100,000 in college debt they may be better off than a high school only graduate by age 34 IF they earn the same amount as the average college graduate. In some fields, that can be very difficult.

3) Demography--my old favorite comes to center court once more. As American baby boomers age (born 1946-1964), they are retiring at a rate over 6,500 per day. Fewer workers put a strain on funding the entitlements net (see post on “The Graying of the West” from 7/21/17).

4) Repaying debt--we have reported debt in the U.S. of over $20 trillion. Some analysts say that is absurdly low as our Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid liabilities push it up to $100-200 trillion. Right now, we have historically and, in my opinion, unnaturally low interest rates. The ratio of federal debt to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) may stabilize for a few years but has to soar if interest rates have a return to normalcy and/or if the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates are too optimistic as Gordon projects.

Professor Gordon is not a “gloom and doomer.” He strikes me as a hard headed realist who sees real problems on the horizon. Electricity and the internal combustion engine changed the lives of most of the world and made the 20th century, The American Century. The four headwinds will get in the way of even the exciting technological changes to come.

The book is amazing. I have read it twice in the last two weeks and it is over 750 pages long. Admittedly, it does not read like a sexy novel but it is not the Statistical Abstract either. I am clearly an economic history and demographic wonk but I found it very absorbing reading.

Too much for you? Okay. Go to You Tube. Professor Gordon has a 12 minute version on a TED talk that sums up his opinions. It is well worth 12 minutes. Not enough? You Tube also boasts a 90 minute presentation that the good doctor gave at the London School of Economics. Finally, You Tube has a few videos of academics trying to refute Professor Gordon’s forecasts.

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

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Graying of the West

This is a topic that I have touched on in posts a few years ago. It needs a revisit as the demographic urgency has increased yet virtually no country affected by it has taken any meaningful steps to reverse the situation.

Aging has been increasingly evident in many Western nations for some time. Also, it is a long standing even drastic situation in Japan, and a big problem in Russia and China as well. It all starts with ZPG.

ZPG stands for Zero Population Growth. You need fertility rates of approximately 2.1 children per woman to replace each existing generation. As a young person, I never was much concerned with it but now, incredibly, some 60% of the world’s population lives in nations with fertility rates below ZPG.

So what, you may exclaim. This is good. Fewer mouths to feed and fewer people to pollute Mother Earth. One cannot argue with that although it shows a lack of faith in technological advancement. The problem is that since World War II ended in 1945 virtually all Western nations have created some form of social safety net. In the U.S. we have Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. In Europe, it is often referred to as retirement schemes and universal health care. All good in many people’s eyes but can the West continue to pay for it?

The European Commission published a paper a few years ago, that made even an experienced demographer such as I reel. By 2060, the German population will drop by a fifth and people of working age will plummet from approximately 52 million now to 36 million! Some dismiss problems with a smaller workforce saying that increased productivity will bail us all out. It will certainly help but caring for the massive increase in the elderly will put tremendous new pressure on the finances of even the most solvent governments (yes, there are a few left)!

To be blunt, what is going is a generational Ponzi Scheme of epic proportions. It is not brain surgery--it is simply demographics and plain arithmetic. As life expectancy increases and fertility declines, those younger people who are still working will have to pay a great deal more to take of the elderly in many, many nations.  Many will have to depend on immigrants to assist the elderly. Looking ahead a decade or two, these entitlements for the elderly will likely suffocate even the most robust economies.

Keep an eye on Spain and Italy. Both countries have had economic challenges for some time but as the societies continue to get older, the strain on their “provider state” will get intense. In the US, we have SOME breathing room. Social Security will stay solvent until 2034. Medicare/Medicaid is anyone’s guess as both Republicans and Democrats argue over health care. What both sides fail to address is the rising cost of healthcare. How will an aging population pay for it?

China is really facing a ticking bomb. Candid Chinese analysts refer to their “4:2:1” problem. Mao’s limit of one child per family in many provinces decades ago has created a situation where an adult child is asked to care for both parents and sometimes four grandparents. The World Health Organization projects that China will likely have more patients suffering from some form of dementia than the rest of the world combined by the year 2040. Think about it. It is frightening.

The nations of the world need to shift gears. Here at home we need to means test Social Security and raise the age for distributions or the system could collapse. Also, some health care proposal has to be crafted that whittles down the Medicaid burden and does not try to place it on the backs of the poor who simply cannot pay for it. Will we react in time?

Separately, a few words about senior marketing. Looking around the world, many countries seem to be doing a better job hitting the 60+ demographic than we do. In Canada, I have seen commercials aimed at the mature touting private label goods in supermarkets. Seniors are often financially challenged and are more careful shoppers, than younger adults. Also, they have more time. In Singapore, a flagship company, Singapore Telecom, known as Singtel, ran a highly imaginative campaign called Project Silverline a few years ago. The telecom behemoth asked for contributions of old iPhones and then retrofitted them by adding apps designed with senior users in mind. Very attractive plans were set up for seniors who might be on a tight budget. I would be interested in a similar plan at some point and will likely love a phone with larger keys as I get increasingly far sighted with each passing year.

In the U.S, many products aimed at seniors are almost comical. A few years ago, I was looking for CNBC and hit the wrong digits on my remote. Up popped The Andy Griffith Show. I watched for a few moments and realized it was my favorite episode ever, “Barney runs for sheriff.” For 20 minutes I was back to 55 years ago and laughed heartily at Don Knotts and Griffith. The commercial breaks were another story. Clearly, the DRTV advertisers realized that the viewership was old. A two minute spot appeared for the questionable reverse mortgages with a spokesperson actor whom I had not seen in years. Hemorrhoid remedies and denture adhesives followed finished by a spot for an alert bracelet for the elderly living alone. So, we seem to have a need for more nuanced marketing to the growing legions of the elderly in America. Some upscale players for financial institutions and luxury vacations do a nice job but few others are adequate.

So, the West has some challenges ahead and, while few will dispute the facts that I have laid out, even fewer feel moved to do something about it. Someone told me not to concern myself with it as “you will be dead before this really kicks in and, meanwhile, you get all the benefits.” Maybe so, but what kind of answer is that? If you have children or grandchildren, you have to care about the demographic cliff.

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

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Stealth Disruption

A few months ago a young adult approached me who said that he was working on a research paper for a graduate course. He asked what my opinion was on the most disruptive forces affecting businesses around the world. I assumed, and I was right, that he expected me to talk about advances in technology in the years to come. Instead, I threw him a curve ball that, as an American, he did not expect.

The big disruption that I mentioned to him was the shifting center of economic growth. The significant changes are going to be in emerging markets and, more subtly, to new cities within those countries with likely explosive growth.

Where did this concept come to me? Over 15 years ago, I woke up ready to go to work. A snowstorm was in progress. Not severe as the ones that plagued my native New England but one which paralyzed the southern city that I was working in at that time. So, I poured another cup of coffee and decided to wait a couple of hours before trying to  head to the office. As I relaxed, I picked up a neglected copy of FORTUNE magazine that had hanging around for several months. It was their annual issue highlighting the Fortune Global 500 and, with time on my hands, I studied the membership roster carefully. The list showed that well over 90% of the world’s largest companies were domiciled in developed countries dominated by the U.S., Japan, and Western Europe. Since then, I have tracked the list each year with a bit more caution. Dozens of newcomers have joined the international 500 as is typical of the creative destruction present in our 21st century world. Last year, I read a report from the McKinsey Global Institute that projected by 2025 China will have more billion dollar revenue companies that either the United States or Europe and that more than half of the 2025 large players will call an emerging market home. So, economic power is going to shift and perhaps faster than we can imagine to selected countries in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

There is a real sleeper in all of this and I tried very hard to articulate to the earnest young graduate student. It is not just that countries are seeing explosive growth relative to the developed nations of the West. A key issue is that entire new cities are emerging in these fast growing markets. On 5/22/12 I put up an MR post entitled URBANIZATION, GLOBALIZATION, AND MEDIA. A key take away from that post was that, amazingly, EVERY DAY, some 180,000 PEOPLE around the world moved from a rural area to a city. McKinsey has estimated that some 65 million people get urbanized annually. To put it in to perspective for American marketers, that is the equivalent of seven new Chicago DMA’s being formed annually. Marketers and reasonably informed citizens have all heard of Hong Kong, Shanghai, Dubai and probably Mumbai. Yet, the real dynamic growth will come from cities that most of us have never heard of ever. Again, quoting McKinsey, they are forecasting that 46 of the top 200 cities in the world will be in China by 2024. Can you name 46 Chinese cities? How about 10? I know that I could not prior to attacking this issue.  Soon Tianjin, Shenyang, Harbin, Chengdu, Taiyuan and a host of others will hit the radar screens of astute marketers.

Think of the possibilities of this growth. The UN has projected that between 1990 and 2025, some three billion people have or will become members of what has been dubbed “the consuming class,” meaning that they will have $10 of disposable income per day. A large proportion of these new consumers will be living in the cities of emerging economies. By 2030, they will account for half of the world’s spending!

All this will impact media as well. How will you reach all these new consumers? Within large countries, everyone will not be speaking the same language. An acquaintance told me to forget about it--advertise on You Tube and other global properties as everyone speaks English. He is clearly not a seasoned traveler as people everywhere, especially this new breed of consumers who are newly arrived urbanites, likely speak only their native tongue. Mobile advertising has to be a huge beneficiary of this rapidly growing trend.

So, quietly and steadily, these new cities will emerge and join the million population club. Perhaps, more importantly, they will have many newly minted members of the consumer class.

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

Friday, July 7, 2017

Small Town Blues

As many of you know, the Nielsen company divides the U.S. television universe into 210 separate entities know as Designated Market Areas (DMA’s). New York is clearly the largest and tiny Glendive, Montana is the smallest and ranked at #210.

A few months ago, I received an e-mail from a small market operator asking why I did not devote an MR post to markets with a low Nielsen ranking. A bit later I heard from an old associate who still toiled in a tiny market asking basically the same thing.

Hence this post. I contacted several people across the country who were either general managers or sales managers in markets ranked #110 (Ft. Wayne) to #180 (Marquette). For those of you who are amateur detectives, I did not speak to anyone in either Ft. Wayne or Marquette!

Small market TV was once a great business and then it morphed, like all over the air TV, into a good business. Now, according to my wildly unscientific sample of seven small town broadcasters and sales executives, it has a new set of struggles.

Here are some comments (some edited) from all of the participants:

--“When I talk to my competition or players in broadcasting in neighboring markets, they seem to be in a time warp. At a golf outing recently, I told a competitor that he was sleepwalking to disaster. He did not like that but he still seems to think that it is 1977 instead of 2017. The game is not over but big cracks are evident in our facade.”

-- “Last year, a local cable interconnect nabbed my most experienced salesman. I could not afford to keep him despite pleas to our owners to up his compensation. He now is stealing many of our long standing local retailers with zoned buys that deliver far less waste than we can because we cover the entire DMA. Also, he can tap into canned promotions from ESPN and others that we cannot match.”

--“I can tell you what is killing us in one word--Amazon! We lost four retailers on Main Street this year. When I drive to work each day I see the boarded up stores and it kills me. One was a clothing retailer that allegedly had been with the station at some point in every quarter for the past 62 years! Now, with more buying online and the trend toward casual clothes, he had to liquidate. Retail is in real trouble. Our local mall’s days have to be numbered.”

--“Headquarters keeps telling us to improve our news product. I was always proud of our local community involvement but the newscast was always poor. People over 70 watch it and many probably don’t have cable. A U.S. Senator stopped in to town the other day and I told our anchor to ask some pointed questions about the upcoming GOP health care bill (we are in a non-competitive market but this was real news). He did not want to do it. I almost choked when he said he might get a better response if he asked the Senator about the college football season this fall. Furious, I made him ride to the deli that was providing the food for the staff party that we were hosting for the Senator’s visit. I read him the riot act in the car but when we went in to pick up the platters, everyone surrounded him as if he were a movie star. It drives me crazy. We have a crap news product but the locals, who still watch over the air TV, love it.”

--“Technology has helped us a lot. We do not do local weather. A weather man from another one of our corporate markets does it via remote and it seems to work. Also, we can send a reporter out with one other person or sometimes alone to do a story so that cuts down on costs. We are so small that we still do Video News Releases on slow news days. Hell, every day is a slow news day here.”

--“We have never recovered from the Great Recession. I see no hope for turning our town around. Not to get political, but our local hospital may have to close depending on what health care bill the Senate cooks up soon. Why would anyone want to retire here or raise children or give birth to children if the nearest hospital is 150 miles away?”

--“I have had a great run. When I started, I did two years in a top 10 market and that was enough for me. We did a good job for decades for our small clients. Now, I know that TV does not work nearly as well as it once did. I feel guilty sometimes with clients as the returns are sad compared to years ago.”

-- "Automotive has always been our bread and butter. Local dealers make or break us. A dealer who is a close friend is alarmed. Customers have been getting seven year loans for a number of years. The problem is that they return five years later still under water on their pickup truck but need a new one. They have no cash for a down payment but they need a vehicle for commuting to work. He finances nothing but the local bank will as does his manufacturer. He sees a big problem coming. If we lose a chunk of automotive advertising, we will never hit sales goals.”

Are these comments truly representative of all small market DMA’s? Well, three players were from rust belt markets in the Midwest so perhaps the comments are a bit gloomy. One thing is certain, however. The media landscape continues to change and you cannot hide out in rural America on the assumption that Amazon cannot touch you.

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

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Staying Put Trap

A long time ago I was on a panel at a conference. We had all presented different aspects of the media landscape and the moderator said he was going to hit us with some big questions. Most were pretty vanilla but, at the end, he asked each of us to discuss briefly a strength of the America economy. We all had to think fast and the early answers were obvious things such as our relatively free market, American entrepreneurship, and rule of law. The guy next to me seemed flustered but blurted out that America had a relatively abundant water supply. People laughed but it was a pretty thoughtful response. I came last and pulled a gem out of my derriere--America, I said, had a secret strength in its economy--mobility. A few people rolled their eyes but afterward some attendees stopped me and said that they had never thought of it before.

If you look at the last 50 years, American unemployment rates have often been far below our friends in Europe as we Americans tended to be willing to move where the jobs were. I vividly remember talking to a clergyman about a small city in Italy where many families had lived in apartments in the same building for up to six generations. He said, “How wonderful” while I, the crass capitalist, said there had to be some talented people who never reached their potential by staying put for 150 years. The European Union has changed some of this but there still appears a reluctance to cross borders even if it is to another province.

Looking clearly at the data, it appears that American mobility is stalled somewhat. To me, there appears to be a few reasons. The biggest is two-career couples. If one is offered a job, a tough decision often has to be made. Can the other member of the couple find a similar job in their new city? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. What about child care? In your hometown, in-laws and grandparents often cheerfully provide it for free. That strong safety net disappears.

Some columnists on both the left and right have often questioned why more blue collar people in depressed areas don’t simply pack up and leave and go to boom towns. I read several such rants during the shale oil boom in North Dakota a few years back. Well, if you are struggling, is it easy to rent a truck, and conjure up money for a security deposit plus rent if you have no job? Week to week rentals are very expensive and you likely know no one in the boomtown. So many simply stay put.

A final issue that I observed that hinders mobility may not be obvious superficially. It is simply the American dream of home ownership. This is a deeply embedded part of the American culture. Yet, there is a problem. Owning a home often makes it damn hard to move. Back in October, 2010, Media Realism published a four part series entitled “Mid-Sized Malaise.” In part two, a talented young creative told me that he was underwater on his mortgage and felt as if he were an indentured servant at his shop where raises were nowhere in sight and there was literally no other place to work in town. I hunted him up and found that he is still there. He said, “I am not underwater on the mortgage after seven more years of payments. The problem is that my market (a mid-western city that will remain anonymous) has never really bounced back from the great recession. So, it could take me a year to sell our place. I cannot afford to go to a new market and pay rent and also continue to pay the mortgage on my home here. Also, my wife might have a hard time getting a similar job in a new market. I do a bit of freelance for people 1000 miles away but I may be stuck here forever.”

Separately, an agency chief whom I have known for decades tells me that he wanted to hire a very promising writer currently toiling in a depressed market in a flyover state. The guy was not too demanding on salary but asked that my friend buy his house as part of his employment package. My friend said that he was not in the real estate business and the deal fell through.

Some agencies hire the footloose millennials who can attach their possessions to a U-haul and arrive quickly. If things do not work out, they can leave their apartment and move on. Not so with homeowners.

So a surprising number of people are caught in a difficult situation. The downscale may not have the resources to move or a support team when they arrive at a new venue. Even potential agency stars are hamstrung by being caught in homes that are difficult to sell.

Were I on a similar panel today, I would certainly think twice about naming mobility as a secret strength of the American economy.

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Gresham's Law in Media?

In economics, there is a long standing monetary principle called Gresham’s Law. Succinctly, it states that bad money drives out good. In other words, historically if there were two forms of a commodity in circulation that a government gives similar face value, the more valuable commodity would disappear.

There have been many examples throughout history. I even witnessed one as a youngster. American dimes, quarters, and half dollars were largely silver through 1964. The next year dimes and quarters were a mixture of nickel and copper and half dollars had only 40% silver until 1970 when silver disappeared from US coinage. What happened? Gresham’s Law kicked in with a vengeance. I vividly remember seeing people get a roll of quarters from the bank, opening it, taking out the pre-1964 (silver) coins and hoarding them. One gentlemen at the time shook his head and told me the nation was finished as we had replaced silver in our money with cupro-nickel slugs.

Relax, I am not going to call for an immediate return to gold and silver as our sole form of money. I tell the story as, to me, it seems, a version of Gresham’s law seems to be in play in the media business.

With the growth of dozens of new platforms, advertising clutter is at an all time high and, despite protests from practitioners, advertising effectiveness is at an all time low. There is so much low quality or debased advertising currency on thousands of sites, that the most valuable outlets are getting weaker. Couple that with huge increases in advertising avoidance and you can see why launching a brand is often more difficult than ever.

What do I think will happen as this trend continues? Call me crazy but I think we will revert to a 1950’s model of sponsorships. One of my earliest memories is seeing The Men From Texaco opening The Milton Berle Show and Dinah Shore singing “See the USA in Your Chevrolet.” Maybe soap operas will make a comeback in the sense that large personal care or household product companies will sponsor programs again but they will not be daytime dramas. There will be far fewer commercial messages but the sponsor will be clearly identified. Think of the intros to Masterpiece on PBS. Programming will likely be interrupted minimally but the sponsor will be well known to the viewers.

This also sets up well for established brands and large, deep pocketed companies. They can afford to keep reminding the consumer of who they are but still reach advertising shy millennials.

The other option would be to go toward a heavy pay TV model which is really what Netflix and Hulu Plus and others are providing right now.

What do you think? Is there a modified Gresham’s Law moving in to the media world?

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

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Will Millennials Become Wage Serfs?

In recent weeks, I have read several articles discussing how Millennials (those born from 1977-1995. Different demographers use varying time spans so I stuck with the Nielsen Media Research dates) may often become wage serfs. Amazingly, two people e-mailed me in the past few weeks and described the fate of some Millennials as Medieval serfs.

If you remember from grade school or a course in western civilization a Medieval serf led a pretty sorry existence. They were essentially peasant farmers who worked part time on their master’s land and, in exchange for their labors, they would get to use part of their master's land to grow their own food. It was a life with virtually no ability to rise. In your entire life, you may never stray more than a few miles from your master’s holdings.

Why are both pundits and my correspondents making such a harsh judgement? To me, it stems from an idea that most of us Americans have believed for a few hundred years. The idea is that each succeeding generation is better off than the one that preceded it. The “better off” is not just financial. It can mean education, sophistication, a healthier lifestyle or leading a life that matters.

The Great Recession of 2008-2009 had a profound effect on many Millennials. A number of observers have commented that it did long term economic and social damage to that youthful demographic. Some have said that this generation is rootless--many do not want to own homes or have allegiance to their employer. I do not see it that way. The issue to me appears to be economic hardship and fewer opportunities.

Here are a few Millennial factoids that I hope make my point:

--Seven out of ten students have borrowed for college. On balance, many people say that borrowing gives many an opportunity for a good education that they may not otherwise have. True, but student debt by definition has to slow economic growth. Many have a six figure millstone around their neck when they graduate and, unless they get in to a high paid field such as medicine or finance, they may be paying off the debt for 20 years. Go to graduate school and the meter really runs wild. Interestingly, many would be better off to attend a state school, work part time and finish in six years rather than four but few seem to want to go this route.

--Some 82% of Millennials say that they want to be home owners. Why are they not buying homes in great numbers in their late 20’s? They cannot afford it! Many are saddled with high levels of student debt and others live in wildly expensive cities. Right now, 22-35 year olds are paying as much as 45% of their salaries for apartments in cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York or Miami. Others in the heartland are much lower. I remember that decades ago when I made my way in the world, rental agents would not write a lease if the monthly tab was more than 28% of your salary. So, how can Millennials save up for a downpayment when they are literally struggling to meet their monthly rent?

--The U.S. Census Bureau reports that people in the Millennial age bracket earn $2,000 less in REAL TERMS than they did in 1980.

--The Federal Reserve Bank of NY finds that for recent college graduates wages have only risen 1.6% in the last 25 years when adjusted for inflation. Put student debt and rising rents or housing costs and these youngsters face an uphill battle for achieving financial freedom.

--The Huffington Post reported that in 1990, those who took college loans only borrowed 28.6% of first year income. By 2015, the average loan is the equivalent of 78.3% of first year earnings and some owe much, much more with students loans now totally a staggering $1.3 trillion.

--The financial return on education is dropping. This may simply be the result of college tuitions wildly outstripping inflation.

So, while describing these fine young people as wage serfs offends me, I can see how many people who lack my optimism would come to that conclusion. Also, why did Bernie Sanders appeal to so many Millennials in the 2016 primaries? It is pretty simple to me. He promised free college education and universal medical care. Were I 22 years old, I can see why that might be appealing!

Are Millennials doomed to be 21st century serfs? I hope not. Yet, as logarithms gobble up more and more jobs and technology marches forward, young Americans are really going to need to differentiate themselves in the labor pool to keep the American dream of upward mobility with each generation alive.

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

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Weapons of Math Destruction

Today, like it or not, all of us live in the age of the algorithm. Some fairly big decisions in our life--be it a choice of university, getting a home mortgage, a reasonable car loan and the cost of our health insurance are now made by mathematical models, not human beings.

Banking titan J.P. Morgan testifying before congress over 110 years ago stated that credit was something that a person brought with them when they applied for a loan. It was as much about character as it was about financial creditworthiness. Not so any longer!

A model, often grouped under the term “Big Data,” determines whether a loan is approved and what terms you will pay. Early on, many of us thought that this would be a wonderful situation as bias, cronyism, and discrimination would be eliminated.

In a recent book entitled WEAPONS OF MATH DESTRUCTION (Crown, 2016), Cathy O’Neill says that the reverse is happening. The subtitle to the book is “How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy.”

Now, be aware that this book was NOT written by some bomb tossing emotional left winger. Ms. O’Neil has a Harvard PHD in Mathematics and has served as a quant at the prominent hedge fund D.E. Shaw. Disillusioned with the world of finance, she has shown involvement and sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street Movement. What she does, for sure, is expose the dark side of Big Data.

Her principal thesis and it is a very well reasoned argument is that many people are stuck where they are in America today because Big Data has, to a certain degree, locked them in a life of mediocrity. Smart kids from certain zip codes will not get approved for student loans, or may pay significantly higher rates for car insurance and auto loans.

Hourly workers are sometimes victims of modeling according to Ms. O’Neil. Take someone working at a fast food restaurant or even a casual dining establishment. Employees sometimes get their hours the day before the next day’s schedule is announced. This becomes a child care nightmare for many. Others close a store and then open it the next morning but do not know that until midday. The firm, often a franchise, has a sophisticated algorithm that determines the optimum use of employees. Great for them but it messes with the lives of many staffers. When Starbucks was alerted to this issue, they began publishing workers hours a week ahead of time which was a great help to many.

On the plus side, Big Data is a marvelous thing to those of us who are affluent. We can get great deals on airfares, sales on high ticket items, or reviews of hot new and reasonably priced restaurants that many Americans would never be able to afford. Amazon knows our every move in purchasing but we do not mind much as their logarithms place us in certain demographic and lifestyle “buckets” and we are offered prohibitively great deals on many items. The WALL STREET JOURNAL reported recently that even Neiman Marcus loyalists are now abandoning their favorite store and buying the same luxury goods online at a significant discount to the set price of the high end Dallas retailer.

Do I buy Ms. O’Neil’s thesis? Yes and no. As a marketer, Big Data gives you an edge that is incomparable to any tool that you could work with in the past. It is far easier to forecast who will buy certain items if you have a plethora of data points about a prospect and his or her lifestyle. If you are loaning money, it only stands to reason that you charge more to someone who has a lower probability of paying you back.

To me, Ms. O’Neil’s most powerful point is that there is no human element involved anymore in so many financial agreements. Some people have errors in their credit history and no machine double checks the veracity of them or tries to clear them up. Also, some people regardless of the health of their personal balance sheet are highly trustworthy.

Ms. O’Neil writes with great clarity. I highly recommend it and encourage you to reach your own conclusions. If you work in any aspect of marketing or finance, Big Data is here to stay and needs to be evaluated carefully.

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

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Is Working Hard The Silver Bullet?

Constantly, wildly successful people are often asked the secret to achieving great things in life. Invariably, at the top of their lists is simply “work hard.” It is difficult to argue with that succinct statement. Most people at the top of the heap have worked hard, sometimes very hard. When I hear that statement, my knee jerk response is to agree and go to the famous quotation of my hero, Teddy Roosevelt, who said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty...I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”

My man, TR, was an advocate of what was known as “the strenuous life.” It makes sense that he thought everything was a struggle when, as a sickly child, he had to overcome some difficult illnesses and succeeded. As the years have passed and with much observation, I have done some revisionist thinking on hard work and see it as important but do not see it as the guaranteed pathway to success.

Over the years, I have seen people who put more quality hours in than anyone around them and they remained stuck in their dead end jobs. Some were too low key to rise, others were content, but many bristled as newcomers came in above them. I vividly remember telling a client contact that he was not promoted as he always made his boss look good.

Three years ago, I flew back back to Rhode Island to visit a sibling and see another who was visiting. It was a nice time. At the airport, a voice called out, “Don, it can’t be.” The speaker was someone whom I had not seen in perhaps 30 years. We both had a good hour before our flights were called so we had a great talk. My old acquaintance was known for not tolerating fools well so it was clear why we did not work together for very long. He worked in a different discipline than I but we crossed paths a lot and I respected him greatly. He bounced from job to job compared to many of us but always seemed to land on his feet better than anyone whom I have ever met. I asked him how he did it and he gave me some real gems in terms of career advice for young people (he reads MR and corresponds with me regularly these days).

Here is some of his advice:

“Have your OWN vision. Don’t waste you hard work on someone else’s. Find your path and stick to it.”

“Run your own career; don’t let anyone run it for you.”

“Have your psychological bags packed at all times. Be ready to leave within an hour. You may have to!”

“Forget who signs your paycheck. Work hard but never forget that you really work for yourself.”

“Andy Grove of Intel had it right when he said that, ‘only the paranoid survive’. Trust yourself.”

He once asked me some 20 years ago in a phone call whether I had prepared business cards listing myself as a consultant. When I said no, he burst in to a diabolical laugh and said, “I have one. Get one, Don.”

My friend’s comments seem to betray both the concept of hard work and loyalty to his employers. Actually, he worked hard and still does. And, while he has had more jobs than most of us, I have never heard him utter a derogatory remark about any of his bosses or past companies. His point is that you are the CEO of your own life regardless of your current title. So, he is a Horatio Alger type telling you to strive and succeed but, at the same time, have no illusions. Do not drink the corporate Kool-Aid and never get comfortable.

In a world of downsizing and constant mergers, maybe my aging friend is on to something. He has never played politics and stubbornly remains his own man. And, to this day, he works hard. His only regret was that the job shifts and multi-state moves were difficult for his wife who also had to switch jobs and his children who had to adapt to a new school on several ocassions.

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

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Poverty In America

As many of us, I was rattled when, a few months ago, I read accounts of how 45-47% of Americans did not have access to enough money to cover a $400 emergency expense. It might have been a serious car repair or a visit to the emergency room. When I bounced the statistic around to a few people, to a person they shook their heads and said that the figure had to be wrong. People may not have had 400 extra dollars in their checking accounts but they could go to relatives or friends or simply put the expense on a credit card.

So, I worked to find the source of the $400 statement. I found two--The ATLANTIC magazine and the Federal Reserve. Both sources have some credibility with me. The ATLANTIC is known for great writing, in depth analysis, and a strongly progressive tilt. I often do not agree with their conclusions or solutions to the issues that they raise but they almost always provide well reasoned arguments. The Federal Reserve perhaps should have raised interest rates earlier but they do look at FACTS and I am confident that their assertion that 46% of Americans would be hard pressed to come up with $400 for a surprise expense is likely quite valid.

In 2001, I read a then new book by Barbara Ehrenreich. It was entitled, Nickel and Dimed with the subtitle, On (Not) Getting by in America. Ms. Ehrenreich went "undercover" as a waitress and chambermaid to see how difficult it was to survive on minimum wage and tips. It was an eye-opener to any who read it. She talked of how hard it was physically to survive as well as financially when one was part of the underclass.

When I saw the $400 articles and commentary, I thought it might be time for an update so, in the great Don Cole tradition, I read three books of recent vintage with a similar theme:

1) Hand to Mouth by Linda Tirado
2) The American Way of Poverty by Sasha Abramsky
3) $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Eden

The books vary in quality but all give real life stories that tear at your heart if you have one. Ms. Tirado's HAND TO MOUTH received the most publicity and is an easy and breezy read. She recounts her personal struggles and the many indignities that she and her family have had as they have dropped from the middle class to the underclass. Also, she is perceptive, very intelligent and quite angry. The anger and her vulgarity gets in the way of telling the tale.

She also loses points as she rationalizes many things. For example, she smokes cigarettes as a "five minute vacation" from her rough life and openly admits that after a hard day at work, she may eat all the wrong foods. In nearly the same breath, she complains about lack of funds. Well, stop smoking and you will be healthier and have more cash. She also talks of being fired repeatedly and candidly admits that she "lost it" with the boss in public. We all have to exercise verbal discipline on the job. She does not seem to get that. Still, the book is powerful. Her stories about dealing with insensitive landlords are deeply moving.

Sasha Abramsky’s THE AMERICAN WAY OF POVERTY is not a personal story. He does a nice job of using individual people’s stories to capture the hopelessness many impoverished people must feel. And, he offers a great many ideas for government programs that he feel can turn the tide. I am not so sure. When I go back to Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” of the mid-1960’s, we find that well intended programs often miss the mark. It does not seem to matter which major party is in power. Poverty, measured by the government, seems to be 12-14% of the population.

The final book is $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Eden. This book seems unbelievable at first but as she takes you through anecdote after anecdote you soon realize that there are perhaps a few million people in America living as many do in a developing country (two billion people live on less than $2.50 globally). Reading it had a shock effect that I suppose we all need now and then.

Okay, what does this have to say to Media Realism readers. A few things hit me. Number one, most of the working poor work very hard. Some have made a few bad choices early on in their lives and are on a very rough treadmill simply trying to survive. Others had some bad luck and never recovered. Few are simply “too damn lazy to work” as many have been saying for years.
Secondly, some are in tight spots due to lack of discipline. If you are struggling to survive it may feel good for a minute to tell off the boss but you wind up out of a job soon. Also, you need to take of yourself physically and be sure to get to work on time. Basic stuff that many of us take for granted. Additionally, children are usually involved in most of the stories told in all three books. What can we do to help them so the vicious cycle of lifelong poverty does not continue?

The technological changes going on are apt to leave this underclass almost totally behind. Many of the minimum wage jobs that they are currently doing will be executed in large part by robots in a decade or so. Also, Amazon and fellow travelers are killing many retail outlets which have been a large employer for many struggling Americans for decades.

Finally, what will happen to TV? The underclass does not have cable, satellite, or Netflix or Amazon Prime. Most do not have credit cards and many, such as Ms. Tirado (at the time she wrote the book) are unbanked. So, conventional TV is going to become the only entertainment option of those living in poverty. The demographics of over the air TV and radio have been weakening for years. They will only get worse.
Reading these books made me realize the economics of poverty better than I ever have. You, my readers, along with me may not be satisfied with our current financial situation despite the NASDAQ seemingly breaking records almost daily. Yet, what if you had no skin in the game and no prospects for advancement? Think about it.
If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Ooda Loop vs. Buffett's Moat

Perhaps as long as 38 years ago, I was waiting to enter  a presentation which my agency was giving at the Pentagon. Some of the creatives were a bit nervous presenting new work but all I had to do was show a magazine schedule that had largely run and answer a few questions. While my colleagues paced, I looked for a place to get a coffee.

As I was pouring my cup, I overheard a major and a lieutenant colonel talking about an upcoming visit by retired Air Force Col. John Boyd. He was going to discuss his Ooda Loop strategy. For some reason, I employed a memory trick that I learned as a teenager. I made a ridiculous association and locked in his name and his strategy (I imagined William Boyd, the actor who played Hopalong Cassidy in my youth in fully Hoppy regalia in a jet doing barrel rolls). A few weeks ago, I heard of Ooda Loop again, and like magic, John Boyd came back to me instantly.

During the Korean War, fighter pilot Boyd worked out an approach for making quick decisions that would improve chances of success in environments that were changing quite rapidly. His approach dubbed OODA was--Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. I would argue that it is applicable to 2017 business, especially in tech.

Boyd observed that US pilots tended to win most dogfights in the air even though their planes were a bit slower than the Soviet MiG jets. The trick was not simply that his pilots were better trained. It was that they were able to make TRANSITIONS more swiftly.

So, he developed OODA. The Observe part was basic. Pay rigid attention as things are progressing. The Orient task came next. Unless you are able to interpret information it is not worth much. You need to digest information and come away with a more sophisticated view than most. Decide is next--just as a fighter pilot has to act so does a man or woman in business. Cut through the fog and make a judgement. Finally, you Act. The best way to mess up a rival be it a hostile jet or a business competitor is to hit them with unexpected actions. If you take action before an opponent can switch their tactics, you competitor will be at least temporarily disoriented.

It appears that many successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are using the OODA loop in some form. I have seen write-ups about how the PayPal founders employed it directly and it appears many are doing it without realizing it.

This is contrary to Warren Buffett’s famous “moat.” The great Omaha investor always has stated that he likes to invest in businesses with a moat around them. The cost of entry is high and the well established brand (Coca-Cola, Wells Fargo, Washington Post) has a sustainable competitive advantage over its competition. Such an approach has served Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway shareholders very well. Are the times changing, however, especially in new wave disciplines?

Eighty-eight year old business guru and former Royal Dutch Petroleum executive, Arie de Geus, said a few years ago that, “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.” If he is right, we may be seeing a great deal more about the OODA loop in the years to come.

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

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Pounding For Home

“Don’t look back. Something might be chasing you”--Satchel Paige

“Never look back unless you are planning to go that way”--Henry David Thoreau

One of my older brothers has been a long distance runner for 50 years. Today, at 74, he contents himself with 5k’s, 10k’s and the occasional half marathon which I make it a point to be sure to attend. He is a remarkable physical specimen and an inspiration to us young guys. I remember his first full marathon back in 1967--the Boston Marathon! It was a bitter April day and was snowing in Hopkinton, Ma. as the race began. He did very well for his first big race and finished 150th. As my Dad and I picked him up, I asked him what he was thinking as he arrived at Heartbreak Hill (this is a famous location between mile 20 and 21 of the race right near Boston College where both he and I did our graduate work).

My brother’s answer was “six more miles to go, pounding for home downtown.” In the car back to Rhode Island after we dropped Dick Jr. off at his apartment, I asked my father, a former coach and world class athlete, what he thought of my brother’s answer. “Shouldn’t he have felt great about making it up Heartbreak Hill.” My father smiled and shook his head. “You big brother has got it right, Don. The previous 20 miles did not mean much. Always look ahead. That is the mindset of a champion.”

In previous MR posts, I have mentioned how tedious it is for me to meet with old cronies who continue to talk about the good old days of buying three stations in a TV DMA and not having to worry about cable, consumer avoidance, Netflix and dozens of digital platforms. It has been my observation that creators of businesses of all kinds keep building toward a long term goal. They do not dwell on where they are and rarely focus on where they have been. Their eyes are always “on the prize”--their long term goal.

A now famous story about looking ahead was an exchange that took place between the late Andy Grove, President of Intel and Gordon Moore, Intel’s Chairman (credited with Moore’s Law which stated that processing speed for computers approximately doubled every two years). Sometime in the mid-1980’s Grove asked Moore, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what would that man do.” Moore’s immediate response was, “A new CEO would get us out of the memory chip business.” Grove’s fired back with “Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back, and do it ourselves?” That, of course, is precisely what happened.

Moore and Grove were creators but they were not mired in nostalgia. Nothing was going to get in the way of progress. Their energy was focused on the future; there was no time for regret or resting on their laurels. Business and life is a road full of potholes. You will hit some and dodge others. The winners will not let age, distractions or negative people get in their way. They will be too busy pounding for home.

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

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Samuel Beckett--Coach to Entrepreneurs?

Samuel Beckett (1903-1989) was an Irish born novelist, poet and playwright who spent most of his adult life in France. He is known for minimalist writing and being a leader in the theatre of the absurd. In 1969, he won the Nobel prize for literature.

Beckett’s writing was quite spare especially as he aged. In WORSTWARD HO, from 1983, he wrote--“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

This concept of “failing better” has been adopted by many in Silicon Valley almost as their mantra and has even been picked up some professional athletes who are clawing their way to the top. Entrepreneurs are often creators and many of the ultimately successful ones work on being brutally honest with themselves. They ask for criticism and, unlike most of us mere mortals, they do not get defensive when you give it to them both barrels. They have a self-awareness that few of us have. They do not run from failure or hide it from others.

Historically, we have all seen this work in the arts. Allegedly, Hemingway re-wrote the ending to A FAREWELL TO ARMS some 39 times before publication. Michael Curtiz shot seven different endings to CASABLANCA and Frank Capra did the same thing with MEET JOHN DOE.  And, most of us at some time in our lives heard the famous Thomas Edison quotation of, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

There is also a misconception from my perspective that most entrepreneurs and private investors tend to “bet the ranch” on every new idea that they think is promising. If you study breakthrough technology or successful businesses with a bit of care you will find that the business generally succeeded by surviving a series of small bets. As a very successful entrepreneur told me recently, “By taking lots of small risks, you avoid catastrophic mistakes.  I keep seeing what works and what does not every step of the way. I never stop testing and I know that most of these small wagers will not work. I can live with that.”

If you want to fail well you need to be able to move through even dicey situations. Learn to reframe, improvise and keep moving forward on the fly. And, amazingly, embrace the words of Samuel Beckett and FAIL WELL.

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

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Are Viewers Paying Much Attention Anymore?

On Sunday, February 26th, I rose early, dressed hurriedly, and jogged out to the curb to begin my weekly ritual of reading a hard copy of the New York Times. As I glanced at the front page, I was very surprised to see an article about media research on the bottom fold.

The piece was entitled “FOR MARKETERS, TVs ACT AS PRICELESS SETS OF EYES.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/25/business/media/tv-viewers-tracking-tools.html?_r=0) The article covered an issue that many of us have been pounding the table about for years. With so many other devices going simultaneous to TV viewing, just what is the level of attentiveness to commercial messages in the 21st century?

Many of us were exposed to fragmentary and early set top box data as long as nine years ago, when it appeared that there was a great deal of channel hopping going on during commercial breaks. Intuitively, many of us had felt that but we finally had some proof. Since then, particularly among millennials, the use of a smartphone, tablet or laptop while “watching” TV has grown significantly.

The Times article talked about companies who are working hard to capture commercial ratings, if you will, relative to the standard program ratings that we all have lived with for decades. Advertisers are projected to spend upwards of $70 billion in television advertising in the US this year so providing attentiveness detail would be very valuable indeed to marketers of all broadcast/cable budgets.

The lead player in the article was TVision (pronounced tee vision) which “tracks the movement of people’s eyes in relation to the television.” TVision has approximately 2,000 households in the Boston, Chicago and Dallas-Ft. Worth areas which some may say is small compared to Nielsen’s 42,500 national household sample. Their information  is valuable in how granular it is and also their measurement of binge viewing favorites on Netflix and Amazon. If you know what programs have the most engaged viewers, the  pricing of primetime inventory is bound to shift, perhaps dramatically.

Also mentioned in the Times article was Symphony Advanced Media which has constructed a panel of 17,500 viewers who have a special mobile app installed in their phones. Participants, in exchange for a small monthly stipend, allow Symphony to track their usage plus a microphone hears what they are watching. Additionally, participants do a questionnaire on usage. The service captures viewings on busses and in sports bars as well.

All this is heady stuff. A well placed media executive told me anonymously that he is increasingly using this kind of data to wean people away from large commitments to television as we know it. For the time being, Nielsen will remain the gold standard in audience measurement. Yet, commercial avoidance continues to march at the fastest pace ever. These new services can wrap some discipline around the conjecture that many of us have had in recent years. And, of course, Nielsen is surely not standing still in terms of their development. It will be a long time before anyone gets ahead of the curve but promising new research is sure to realign the media mix of many significant advertisers.

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

Sunday, March 5, 2017

New Media and The Hype Cycle

Many of you have probably heard the term "hype" a great deal in your marketing, advertising or media careers. Did you know that there is a phenomenon observed by a renowned research firm known as The Hype Cycle?

The Hype Cycle was, as best as I can tell, was first identified by the Gartner research organization which essentially said the following about a technology or invention:

1) When it arrives or proves viable, the hype is huge
2) It is then found to not live up to its initial hype
3) The hype gets relatively silent and then you do not hear about it for a while
4) Incrementally, things get better and the new technology does the things it was supposed to do when first hyped.

In simple terms, a rule of thumb about the hype cycle is that things often become truly useful after we stop hearing about them.

Is this some esoteric theory from a bunch of futuristic dreamers? I do not think so.

Remember in the late 1990s when the internet was the rage and forecasters said that it would swamp advertising as we know it? Everyone wanted the internet in media plans even they did not understand what they were buying and could not verify the audiences of the online platforms. The great dot.com crash of early 2000 washed out a lot of marginal players and many avoided this emerging medium for a few years. Meanwhile,Google got stronger and has been proven to be an effective marketing vehicle along with many other online platforms.

The late Roy Amara who was president of The Institute for The Future developed a theory about the hype cycle that has since become known as Amara’s Law. Articulated in brief by fellow futurist Robert Cringely, it goes like this--”We tend to overstate the effect of technology in the short run and understate the effect in the long run.”

So, today we hear about driverless cars and trucks and tests seem to be going well. Elon Musk says that he is planning a flying car which reminds me of my childhood cartoon show, The Jetsons. Some politicians talk of an industrial renaissance in America creating millions of jobs but robotics is finding its way in to coffee shops and soon fast food establishments as well as auto plants. Robots will grow profits but kill unskilled and low skilled jobs.

Will all these things happen? Probably. When you stop hearing much about them, check your premise. It could be that they are merely in the quiet phase of the hype cycle and will come roaring back into our real world fairly quickly.

Advertiser supported media, particularly video, is losing share daily to Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Youtube and others. The hype may not be there as it was a few years ago but their growth is steady and relentless.

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

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Slobification of America

Over the last 25 years, it has been clear to me that Americans do not look as good as they once did. People increasingly dress in a very sloppy manner. Couple that with our obesity epidemic in the U.S. and every year more and more people can be classified, even putting it charitably, as slobs.

Most people admit that standards have shrunk. Here are the explanations that I have seen and heard:

“A large number of Americans have no chance for upward mobility so why should they bother to dress with care?”

“It all started with Casual Fridays a few decades ago. Everyone looked good at first, then jeans appeared, then flip-flops, then shorts, and now people look like hell at the office.”

“Many people earn (adjusted for inflation) what they made 30 years ago. They cannot afford good clothes.”

“People should wear what makes them feel good but put some effort in to your appearance.”

“Workers are far more comfortable in casual, even very casual clothes. As a result, they are far more productive.”

Certain things are creeping in to places where sloppy dress was unheard of historically. I have seen people in jeans at the Symphony. A few weeks ago I went to a matinee in Manhattan seeing Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in The PRESENT.  All tickets cost at least three figures. As I looked around the theater I was the only person wearing a tie--a knit tie, a casual tie, under a sweater. Many men and women were in sweats and they obviously could afford to dress better. A few men had blazers with no tie and looked pretty sharp. And, some of the women looked great. Most did not.

I have been at a few wakes in the past year. One distinguished gentlemen had a big turnout but people were there in sweat outfits, one of which was filthy. At another wake, the brothers of the deceased showed up in short sleeve sport shirts and old jeans.

Go to Disney World, The DMV, Times Square, or to a ball game with pricey tickets. If you dress with any care, you stand out big time.

People often ask me how I can wear a tie most days. Well, it is pretty simple. My shirts fit. If your shirt fits there is no complaint about how tight it is against your neck. Pretty simple but most men use that as an excuse.

Are people dressed more casually more productive? I have done some of my best work both in pajamas or in an expensive suit. My apparel has no bearing on my thoughts and I am skeptical that dressing carefully for a professional appearance hampers one’s creativity.

Surprisingly, allies to my feelings come from unexpected sources. Bill Maher, took a five minute vacation from skewering politicians lately and railed about the growth of American slobs. He said, “When you leave home, we can see you.....This is not about money, it is about pride.”

As a child, I saw many people who were struggling financially. Their clothes may have been old or few, but they were clean and pressed. I often wonder if steam iron sales have declined over the last 20 years.

In 2007, I witnessed something that put it all in to focus for me. I was in Atlanta, and after a good day at work, I stopped at a barbecue joint for some take out. There was an elderly lady sitting alone at a table who was dressed simply but very carefully. A few minutes later a couple in their early 50’s entered and joined her. The man was very heavy and had on a wife-beater tee shirt, a John Deere cap and jeans that only accentuated his prodigious posterior. The mature lady, who was his mother said, “Dwayne, a man over 50 should not wear jeans. You look ridiculous.” His wife chimed in, “Momma, Robert Redford is over 65 and he still wear jeans.”

Without missing a beat, the old girl responded, “I got news for you. Your husband ain’t no Robert Redford. Clean him up.”

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

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Hollowing Out of Conventional Media

A few years ago, my wife and I decided to take a day trip to a city a few hours away. It had once been an industrial powerhouse and was the second largest city in its state. The population had declined and I noticed that it was on lists of the cheapest places to buy a home in the United States. It was a low priority on our “bucket list” but it was a pleasant Saturday morning so we thought, why not?

When we arrived, it was a pretty depressing place. From the highway that cuts through it, I had noticed over the years that the whole city looked as if it needed a coat of paint. Close up, it was really hurting. Many storefronts were boarded up, and there was very little action in the downtown area. We stopped in a shop where a nice lady told us that the locals who owned the last substantial manufacturing plant had sold out to a very well known global company. Very soon thereafter, the plant was transferred overseas.

This process is known as “hollowing out.” As the manufacturing sector deteriorates in any economy a plant or entire company is sold and the new owners go offshore for low cost production. The company name may stay the same, dividends are still paid, but the company has been “hollowed out” for domestic purposes. Some of you may consider this a stretch but I see the same thing happening for many conventional or, as I call them, legacy media properties.

Talk to someone whom you know in the newspaper business. With readership and subscriptions declining, newsroom are relatively vacant these days. Some papers that were considered major players years ago may have only a few sportswriters left and they use wire service and syndicated writers to provide national news and much of their editorial commentary.

In radio, things have really become difficult. A sales rep may now represent several stations in a market and billing may tend to be skewed toward online or promotional versus good old 60 second commercials.

TV may be effected very dramatically but you do not notice it as much as they still provide local news across the day. Look closer and you observe advertisers on regularly that the management would have scoffed at 20 years ago. News crews doing remotes are much smaller than they were years ago thanks to technology. Long time anchors often have not had a pay raise in years while others have had substantial pay cuts recently (where does a 58 year old anchor go? He or she has no bargaining clout).

A retired TV salesman whom I know sent me this revealing e-mail re “hollowing out.”

“Don, my former administrative assistant was retiring after 25 years at the station. I was invited to the farewell luncheon and was flattered. The meal was nice enough and was at an old watering hole for us sales guys back in our salad days. There were 20 people there including the general manager. At 72, I was the oldest by far at the table. When I arrived someone asked me for $5 to put toward the gift card that they were giving her. I laughed and gave her a 20 which made her eyes pop. Near the end of the lunch, the general manager stood up and said that he had to go to a conference call. He put $15 down on the table and said everyone should kick in that amount. A few people were clearly upset. I waited for the GM to leave and then went and grabbed the check and gave the waitress my credit card. As the group broke up, a young woman whom I had never met before hugged me and said softly, ‘I did not want to come today as I really could not afford it but I did not want to be rude to my best friend at the station.’ I told her that it was no big deal as she had my back for 18 years and it was the least that I could do. Was the GM a monster? I don’t think so. It is just that every nickel has to be accounted for at headquarters. Times have really changed.”

Clearly, this may have been an extreme example but not many TV stations have the 40-50% profit margins that once had. Local stations have been hollowed out. They still have a news product although clear headed observers would admit that it is weaker than in the past. Tech has helped them with costs and some are making decent money with their websites. The future, however, does not look bright as Netflix and other commercial free video options continue to steal away the upscale and younger demographics from over the air stations.

The times, they are changing. As we shift toward more digital and online/mobile options, the hollowing out of legacy media properties will only accelerate.

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

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Greater Fool Theory and Media

There is a crazy idea in the marketplace that sometimes surfaces during stock market or real estate bubbles. It is known as The Greater Fool Theory. I would describe it as the polar opposite of a disciplined approach to making an investment. The investor (really a rash speculator) buys shares in a company, a beach house, or a co-op in a major city with a sizzling real estate market fully aware that the price that he or she is paying is unrealistically high. When questioned about it, participants say that they do not care as they are absolutely certain that the price is going to continue to skyrocket. They will then sell this asset to the next idiot in the chain whom they describe as The Greater Fool. The concept is based on the thesis that reality is not relevant as long as a Greater Fool makes an appearance before the bubble bursts. As stupid as this all sounds, it is hard to resist the clear momentum of a rapidly rising market especially when many around you seem to be scooping up easy and mindless profits.

Over the years, I have seen a similar process go on repeatedly in media markets. During some of the boom times of the 1980’s and 1990’s some spot TV markets had huge run-ups in the pricing of their inventory. The national average may have been only 6% in a given year but the high flyers would rise 20% or more. Sometimes, not often, I would hear from a competitor or even a broadcaster that certain markets no longer provided good value and that the advertising campaigns were not “paying out “ for marketers. During the inevitable recession that would eventually come, pricing drifted back to reality as pressure on inventory subsided.

Perhaps the height of the Greater Fool analogy in media occurred during the last quarter of 1999 and first quarter of 2000. The dot.com bubble was in full swing and some strange things were going on in major markets. I moved from Dallas to Atlanta on New Year’s 2000. Station availabilities were stamped with “these rates will hold for five days” and driving in both cities was distracting as billboards abounded with companies that were new to all of us. Clearly, to me, this was a bubble in search of a pin.

I arrived in a meeting in Atlanta planning to warn the client that we were exploring internet options for him but would ease it in to the media mix over the coming year. The client, whom I was meeting for the first time said, “Young man (I was 50 and wildly flattered), I don’t want to hear any crap about the internet today. The world has gone crazy.” He was not the smoothest marketer in the world and perhaps not the sharpest tool in the shed but he sensed that something was out of whack. Sadly, hundreds of others across the marketing world were not so able to resist the temptation of the sexy new media option. A few weeks later, the biggest cracks started to appear when some unknown newcomers advertised in the Super Bowl. One, fresh with Initial Public Offering money, allegedly had almost no sales.

Today, as a bewildering array of new platforms and apps emerge, I wonder if another bubble can happen again. People do not seem to learn from history. When? Hard to tell.

When I sent a draft of this post out to a few friends, two wrote back and asked if I thought the $5-5.4 million for a :30 in the Super Bowl last week was a sign of a bubble. I say no. The Super Bowl remains the ONLY place where you have the potential to reach 45% of America all at once (unduplicated audience) AND perhaps the best venue to get attentiveness to your commercial. The YouTube views and resulting Public Relations and Publicity can also help an advertiser’s involvement pay out.

So, if you see too many people bidding up the price of media property, hold on to your wallet. It may be that a media version of The Greater Fool Theory has taken hold.

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

Friday, February 3, 2017

Just What Is Success?

I had a very unusual experience earlier this week and I have been given permission to share it with you.

Alone in my office, I was putting together some notes for an upcoming lecture. A man about 60 years old knocked on my open door. “Excuse me, are you Don Cole,” he asked. I said yes and shook hands with him. He started to tell me that his son had had me in class and I interrupted him quickly saying that I was not allowed to talk about his son’s academic performance. “You don’t understand, you had him three years ago. He just suggested that I talk to you about business.” I said okay and invited him for a free cup of coffee at Starbucks which is only a few hundred steps away.

We sat down and he told me his life story. It would have made a great novel. He dropped out of college saying he was bored. A stint in the Army followed which allowed him to see a bit of the world but the regimentation was difficult for him. After he was discharged, he traveled to Africa and started a small business but left broke and in a hurry when a revolution made it uncomfortable to be an American there. After a year of bouncing around in Boston, he made his way to Argentina and bought part interest in an import/export firm. One of that nation’s hyperinflations wiped him out so he headed home to America.

He fell in love and married a woman who was supportive but encouraged him to settle down. So, he took a sales job and picked up an accounting degree at night and soon a child was born. An accounting firm hired him and he was okay at it but described it as “slow death.” As soon as he was able to get a grub stake together, he opened up a restaurant with a couple of friends. Two years later, despite their Herculean efforts, the place went belly up as many new restaurants do.

His wife took a full time job as soon as the younger of their two sons went off to school. With some stability now, he headed for British Columbia to work as CFO for a developing gold mine in the far north.  I started laughing. When he asked what was so funny, I conjured up Mark Twain’s famous line that, “a gold mine was a hole in the ground with a liar standing on top of it.” He laughed along with me and said that Twain was right.

He came back to the Mid-Atlantic area and did tax returns out of his house for a few years but he was getting itchy and once more took the plunge in to the restaurant world and this time lasted less than a year.

The purpose of his visit was to ask me what I thought of his idea for a new entrepreneurial venture. He outlined it to me with great enthusiasm and I began to get nervous. Did he want me to be an angel investor or refer him to friends? The idea was a bit far fetched and I outlined several reasons why I thought it was a non-starter in the world of 2017. He did not seem annoyed and told me that my comments were similar to others that he had heard.

Why do I tell you this story with his permission? It is pretty simple. The man was completely fearless. He admitted that sometimes he had bad luck (revolution and hyperinflation) or poor timing but he did not blame anyone or anything for his failures.
He struck me as having the spirit of an Elizabethan adventurer stuck in the wrong century. At one point, he said that his in-laws have always considered him a failure. I countered with, “Maybe, but you have lived more than the rest of us.” He loved that.

The man is no longer young but his dreams will not die. He will likely not leave his wife and children much if any money nor will he endow a charity. Yet his children will have been parented by a man with a sense of life that few of us have.  In many ways, the man is a success. He has lived life on his own terms, never was stuck in a rut, and laughs easily. He is more alive than almost anyone that I have ever met. After he left, I thought of what Winston Churchill once wrote. The great man described success as “stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

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

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The End of Civility?

I have an old friend who still toils in the media sales world. The guy is a complete professional and a true gentlemen. He called on me for many years and we did a great deal of business at times. When my jobs and clients changed he stayed in touch and still comments on my blog posts from time to time. Recently, he sent me an e-mail suggesting a topic for an MR post. His problem is as follows:

“The lack of at least a courteous response from media planners, directors, marketing directors and other prospects these days. In some cases even an acknowledgement that they are still in place, breathing and hopefully still on the planet would be nice.  Although computers and VM are a wonderful form of communication, a simple and polite inquiry as to possibilities often falls in “a black hole”.”

“Nothing back, no response, no acknowledgement whatsoever.”

“As professional sales people often the second best answer to us is a quick “no thanks” and we move on. Understanding busy schedules, deadlines, over worked and likely under paid, a simple professional courtesy should be mandatory. Interestingly, the NYC agencies are often the most responsive compared to the rest of the country.  Enough said.”

For several years a few people have told me the problem that they often have is traveling hundreds of miles to a meeting and then sit in the lobby for a few hours until a young assistant appears and tells him/her that his boss cannot see him today. So, I sent out a number of inquiries to both experienced sales people and senior media people at agencies and corporate marketing directors. In brief, my friend is not alone in his frustration.

Here are some comments from a widely diverse group:

--25 year sales veteran--“my new boss will not believe that people will not see a member of his team. I tried for a few months to see a potential big fish and could not get a face to face session or any kind of response. Humiliating me in a sales meeting, he told me that he would personally get a meeting. Well, two months later, he admitted to the entire sales team that he could not get a meeting either. He then apologized to me in front of everyone which I really appreciated. We get along fine now.”

--Media Director of Midwestern advertising agency--“My millienial team members are driving me nuts. I saw a solid sales guy whom I had known for years in the lobby late one day. He said that he had been waiting 90 minutes to see one of my media supervisors. I went back to her office and she said that she was going to slip out the back door as she was late for a pilates class. You cannot repeat in MR what I told her but she met with my long time acquaintance. She still does not see that what she would have done is wrong. It is embarrassing to me.”

--Northeastern Media Chief-- “After you told me about the pilates story, I laughed. Well, two days later a guy on my team kept a sales rep on hold and said he could not meet as he had a tense day and had to go to his barbell club and work out. What the hell is wrong with these kids?”

--New York based marketing director--“I love to meet with sales reps. The good ones are always traveling, talk to competitors, and often see trends forming. The youngsters on my team have no appreciation of them despite the example that I try to set. I have to make them have lunch with me and the rep. Oh yeah, I am interfering with their spinning classes! Too damn bad!

--Senior Executive, Advertising Holding Company--our #2 man flew in for his annual visit to our shop. I told everyone very sharply no texting while Mr. Big was addressing us. One young A.E. kept staring at her device, seemingly ignoring our distinguished visitor and reading texts. When I called her on it, she said that she had the device on vibrate so she did not disturb the meeting. Mr. Big noticed and asked me who she was. Her future here is not a bright one. The boss spoke for 12 minutes and he visits once a year. When I was her age, I would have been on the edge of my seat to hear his comments.”

--Deeply experienced broadcast sales person--“I am tired of having dinner alone on the road. I show up in town, someone does not post and no one wants to have a posh dinner. It is hard to establish relationships. Yes, a number of people will not meet with me which I understand but sometimes there is no response at all.”

What is going on? I would call it a lack of civility. Some people have jobs and not careers as I have often written on this blog. Others are bitter at a young age and see many things as an interference in their personal lives. Sales people are only trying to do their jobs. If you can send 100-150 text messages a day, you can send an e-mail back and say that a meeting would not be productive. To steal a line,“enough said.”

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

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Tyranny of Sunk Costs in Media

When I was an undergraduate a long time ago, I studied economics. One day my favorite professor talked briefly about what he called a gloomy and arcane subject--The Tyranny of Sunk Costs. Over the years I have found the concept to be anything but arcane; it is a frequent visitor to the business world and especially in marketing and media.

It essence the idea is that once you have sunk a large amount of costs into something it becomes harder to walk away from it when things are not going well. The “costs” are often monetary but not always. It can be time or sweat equity as well. These costs add up to quite a financial or emotional sum and they be tyrannical when you think it is finally time to walk away from the project, idea, or media platform.

We have all seen people who are not happy in their jobs. When you ask why they stay, a frequent answer might be along the lines of, “I have been here for 20 years. Can I just leave?” The answer, of course, is yes but it is not always a simple decision.  Have a stock that has declined? A real estate deal that has gone sour? Many of us will not take our medicine and get out with a loss. We stay with that job or investment in the hopes that things will change.

In recent years, I have seen the concept come to play with greater frequency as media habits shift. Not a month goes by when someone does not write or speak to me about their reluctance to pull the plug on a media vehicle or sponsorship that no longer seems to be effective. Comments such as we have been using this package for 14 years and have spent millions with it. Can we really abandon it? Usually, I tactfully try to suggest a strategic withdrawal from the weakening media asset coupled with testing new platforms with growth potential. Usually it works, but not always and not nearly as fast as it should. The same people who talk of the revolution in the media world hold fast to vehicles that have clearly outlived their usefulness. Sometimes it takes a new marketing person client side to get the change needed. He or she has no sunk costs of any kind and questions, rightly, why something is being done.

A funny thing happened when I sent this question out to selected panel members for possible comments. A lady wrote back that getting her thinking about this issue has inspired her to leave her lazy husband. “I have 12 years of sunk costs of all kinds and I am sick of it.”

Well, I hope she can work things out or simply get her husband off the couch. Separately, in the business world, we all need to be more honest about the tyranny of sunk costs.

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

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Thank You For Being Late

A few years ago I was proctoring a final exam at a school where I was an adjunct instructor. One young man kept smiling as he wrote his exam and was the first to finish. He handed me the papers, shook my hand, and told me that he was graduating the next week. I congratulated him and he said, “I liked your course but I will never read another book again. I am through with learning.” Someone in the room said I remained stone-faced for moment, then managed a weak smile and wished him the best of luck. That young man is really going to need it if he is to have any semblance of a career.

I tell this story as a set up for a quick review of Tom Friedman’s new book, THANK YOU FOR BEING LATE (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2016). You may know Friedman from his NEW YORK TIMES columns or from previous books including THE LEXUS AND THE OLIVE TREE, THE WORLD IS FLAT and HOT, FLAT AND CROWDED. I do not always agree with his conclusions but I find him to be a graceful writer and a damn fine storyteller. Also, I admire that he works hard (as many of us do) to stay on top of changes in communications and the global business world as well.

The subtitle to the book is “an optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations.” He gives no quarter to those who want to remain fat, dumb and happy as my former student appeared to be. In one passage, he summed up the issue facing young people brilliantly. Here goes: “Average is officially over. When I graduated from college I got to find a job; my girls have to INVENT theirs. I attended college to learn skills for life, and lifelong learning for me afterward was a hobby. My girls went to college to learn the skills that could garner them their first job, and lifelong learning for them is a necessity for every job thereafter.”

I wonder what my former student would say in reaction to that? Friedman follows that strong statement with this: “Today’s American dream is more of a journey than a fixed destination--and one that increasingly feels like walking up a down escalator. You can do it. We all did it as kids--but you have to walk faster than the escalator, meaning that you need to work harder, regularly reinvent yourself, obtain at least some form of postsecondary education, make sure that you engage in lifelong learning, and play by the new rules while also reinventing some of them. THEN YOU CAN BE IN THE MIDDLE CLASS.”

Wow! Great stuff. He absolutely refuses to sugar coat what young adults are facing today. And we grey-beards need to shift gears as well if we are to continue to prosper. His book is not shrill. Friedman warns about robots but stresses that they will not take up every job out there. People will need to be sharpening their skills again and again, however.

He does a very nice job of talking about climate change without being alarmist. He and I agree but I think he needs to have a bit more faith in technology to solve our problems.

My only big disagreement with him is about solutions. As a libertarian leaning thinker, I find that his answer to almost everything goes back to new federal programs and regulations. There have to be market solutions to many of the problems that he identifies.

I strongly recommend THANK YOU FOR BEING LATE. There is not a single page in the text where Friedman did not make me think.

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