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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