Monday, October 31, 2005

Skeleton Release

Tonight you’ll respond to “Trick or treat” in the usual way: fistfuls of candy and a friendly wave to the parents who will stand on the curb while their kids ring the doorbell.

There’s one more thing you could do today – check out one of the skeletons that inhabit your closet. We all have them, I think. This would be a good day to set an old sin free, right a wrong, or apologize for some regretted action.

Think of this "Skeleton Release Program" like a combination of celebrations. A bit of Halloween, a contraction of the evening of All Hallowed Souls, the night before All Saints Day. A spoonful of the Hispanic Day of the Day, when those that have departed this life are remembered. A dash of Yom Kippur, recently past, a Day of Atonement.

Have a skull session with yourself. Approach the day with a sense that there is something more compelling about Halloween than the worry you might run out of single-serve M&Ms packets. I’m intrigued by the idea of committing random acts of kindness. But today, maybe a look in the skeletons in your past will be a better motivator.

I’m off to rummage through my closet. Happy Halloween.

Photo from Wikipedia, with thanks.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Howard Sherman

Three years ago, when I could afford to buy art, I met Howard Sherman at a Houston Art Walk event. In the middle of crowds wandering around Houston’s eastside galleries and show spaces, Howard’s quirky art style – part cartoon, part commentary – attracted my curiosity. I purchased one of his pieces, a largish painting titled Moment of Clarity. It’s one of my favorites.

Now comes a terrific opportunity, for me anyway, to see how an artist grows in just a few short years. Friday’s mail delivered material showing his latest work, which is now showing at 416westgallery in Denton, TX. The solo exhibition is called “Scratch That Itch.” Howard’s new work is quite different from Moment of Clarity, but connected.

The signature piece shown above is Capital Gains, a 60” x 61” piece done with oil, acrylic and marker on canvas. (The photo above comes from 416westgallery’s Web site.) This and several other Sherman pieces are also featured in this month’s issue of New American Paintings – the result of a Juried Exhibition-in-Print judged by Fereshteh Daftari of MOMA in New York City.

Howard’s touch has always grown out of his early cartooning: humor versus anger, emptiness versus mass…I’m using these words from the show catalogue, because I don’t have the vocabulary for the art world. I will quote what Daftari says in the opening of the NAP article: “…my top choices presented an element of surprise.”

That’s why I like where Howard Sherman has been and where he seems to be going as an artist. Take a look at the sites – maybe you’ll agree. Meantime, I’ll look at Capital Gains electronically and wish that the piece was actually hanging on my wall.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Branditi Italiani

Selling brand knockoffs is so epidemic, Bob and Edith Fusillo saw warnings throughout Venice, during their most recent visit this past month. Along with attending La Biennale, they sent along these notes.

“These are not exactly ads, perhaps, but they are blanketing Venice. The guys – always twelve feet tall and very black – are all over Europe, selling knockoff handbags. (A recent best selling detective story was devoted to them).

“They are particularly noticeable in Venice because the streets are so narrow that one trips over them – they are legion. The town has newly passed a law that fines tourists for buying them – as much as 30,000 Euro. I did not, unhappily, photograph the free-standing signs, about seven feet tall, that are all about town, with the same design and message as on the enclosed.

“And we have seen several of the illegal sellers spread their sheets and handbags in front of the signs.”

This isn’t just about counterfeiting world-class brands. It’s about child labor and illegals. The Bad Bag campaign is about crime: legal, ethical, and moral.

Every tourist who buys a fake Versace purse or Gucci wallet from one of these “branditi” supports the exploitation of children and illegal immigrants. Sia cura che cosa comprate!

Friday, October 28, 2005

Prism Prizes

Susan Reeves received the following good news for Prism Design on Thursday:

CONGRATULATIONS! Your work has been accepted into the Art Directors Club of Houston 50th Annual Awards Show:
1. Miscellaneous Design - Prism Design Inc. Use You Egg Noggin' T-shirt

2. Identity Logos - Metropolitan Homes
3. Identity Logos - Univ. of Tx Health Care Center
4. Identity Logos - Watson Wyatt and Express Jet Airlines.

Susan sent to her team, “We used our beans well. We entered 5 projects. Got 4 big ones in the show. Great job, everyone.” Ditto from Signalwriter.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Also Wigwagging

Besides the imagery wrapped up in “semaphore,” I confess I was a Boy Scout. I recall desperately trying to earn the Signaling merit badge at summer camp long ago, in North Georgia. Even though we called it “wigwag” in those long, hot summer days, I knew the word “semaphore” – it was in the manual.

Requirements for the Signaling Merit Badge:
1. Know the proper application of the international Morse and semaphore codes and when, where, and how they can be used to best advantage.
2. Make an electric buzzer outfit, radio transmitter, audio oscillator, blinker, or other signaling device.
3. Send and receive a complete message of not less than 35 words in the international Morse code by buzzer or other sound device at a rate of not less than 35 letters per minute.
4. Demonstrate an ability to send and receive a message in the international Morse code by wigwag and by blinker or other light-signaling device at a rate of not less than 20 letters per minute.
5. Send and receive a message by semaphore code at a rate of not less than 30 letters per minute.
6. Discuss briefly various other codes and methods of signaling that are in common use.

Sorry to report, I failed these tasks utterly – despite my Daddy’s help and encouragement. Maybe that’s why the Signaling merit badge (#103) was discontinued by the Boy Scouts of America. On the other hand, maybe it was the fax machines.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Semaphore Guys

So…what’s with the men and the flags? When I went freelance, I wanted something distinctive for the first, all-my-own logo.

One of my eQ friends in Austin, Gayle Smith, had run across the illustrated fellas (see post below) for some ad concepts we were creating. The client didn’t buy that particular concept. But I remembered the “semaphore guys” – unusual, communicative…different. Thanks to all of you for many compliments over the past 15 months.

Once upon a time, there were no “semaphore guys.” The semaphore line was a French signalling system invented by Claude and Ignace Chappe. It is quite a bit different from the naval semaphore system that uses hand-held flags – that came later.

The Chappe mechanism was a tower with black movable wooden arms; the position of the arms indicated alphabetic letters. The wooden arms were controlled by just two handles. It was simple to operate, and pretty rugged. Trying to operate at night though, with lamps on the arms, didn’t work.

Each of the two arms showed seven positions, and the cross bar connecting the two arms had four different angles, for a total of 196 symbols: 7 x 7 x 4. A big innovation was using a group of trained, dedicated men to pass the signals. (Okay, there were semaphore guys, but they weren’t my “semaphore guys.”)

By the mid-1820s. the naval semaphore system had been invented, using hand-held flags. It is still accepted for daytime emergency communication.

In the photo above, US Navy signalmen are sending a message with semaphore flags, on the signal bridge of USS Colorado (BB45), 29 October 1943. Signalman 2nd Class Kenneth Mitchell is working the flags, as Signalman 3rd Class John Wilson mans the telescope.

The mechanical semaphore was eventually replaced by the electric telegraph. Maybe I’ll try a “telegraph guy” someday.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Webbed Up

The official Richard Laurence Baron Web site is in operation. Test-drive it today. Click the tires. Slam the doors.

I am particularly grateful to Paul Leigh, designer and art director, for making the site possible. And to my clients, whose work is an important part of the site’s show-and-tell.

Like most effective marketing communications, the Web site sends a signal about my professional capabilities. That’s why I use the “semaphore guys” as my logo: my work is all about sending the right signals, on behalf of my clients. (No, the semaphore guys are not intentionally designed to look like me, though I admit of a resemblance in retrospect.)

The early bird catches the worm – the freelancer takes a little longer. But it’s here, now. So drop by for a visit.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Never Mind

‘Shoeless Joe the Sock Puppet’ is back in this AM's Chronicle. I suppose, now that the Houston Astros are down two games against the White Sox, we deserve it.

If the puppet actually captures the public's imagination, Hollywood could be the next step: starring in a remake of Woody Allen's movie, retitled ‘Everything You Every Wanted to Know About Sox, But Were Afraid to Ask.’

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Shoeless Joe

At the top of the front page of the Lifestyle section in Friday’s Houston Chronicle, a…character appeared next to the Texas star: a sock puppet with an Astros batting helmet on top.

There was a little balloon that said, “Hi! I’m Shoeless Joe, the sock puppet. I will be commenting on the World Series right here each day.” Below the balloon was Shoeless Joe’s tip o’ the day: Never name your team after something you wear in PE class…And remember, White Sox stink!

It caught my attention for several reasons. First, this odd puppet is named after left fielder ‘Shoeless Joe’ Jackson, a member of the infamous 1919 scandal that hit the Chicago White Sox – and sports fans throughout the US – like a bomb. The accusations of conspiring with gambler Arnold Rothstein to throw the 1919 World Series to Cincinnati.

It led to a famous expression in the 1920s. During the trial of eight accused Sox players (including Jackson), A small boy outside the courtroom tearfully shouted to his tarnished hero, Jackson, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!”

So reason #1 was, why name a sock puppet “Shoeless Joe?” Just to hit back at Houston’s World Series adversary, Chicago? Seemed tasteless to me.

Second weird reason: the “Shoeless Joe’ puppet hasn’t shown up in the newspaper since. Maybe I’ve overlooked it. Can’t find it on the Chronicle’s Web site, either. So. Maybe somebody complained. Maybe somebody who actually knew about the ‘Black Sox’ scandal tipped the word to the Sports editor.

In any case, the sock puppet is missing in action. And good riddance, too: not only juvenile, but unfunny…especially to people who still revere Joe Jackson.

Which impels me to offer you a Web site: – that’s where, to this day, fans who remember ‘Shoeless Joe Jackson’ have put up their defense of the Sox hero. (And that’s the source of the terrific baseball photo, the real Jackson, to give credit where it’s due.)

Named after Jackson’s bat, this is a great site not just for baseball fans, but for everyone who’s interested in the impact of sports on American culture. Check it out. And if the sock puppet shows up again, let me know.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Rooms Blanketed

In Thursday’s post, I threw out a joke about Houston’s handling the 2005 World Series and the International Quilt Festival at the same time. I spoke with the same Chicago cousin, quilt enthusiast Miriam Eisenberg, that same evening. She built on the joke, stating that there might not be any hotel rooms available for the baseball fans, since 50,000 quilters from all over the world will be in town and filling up the hotels.

I laughed a lot – influenced no doubt by that third gin-and-a-whisper-of-vermouth at our regular Thursday Martini Night outing.

Turns out this is no laughing matter. This morning’s Chronicle Business Section features an article headlined “Quilters covering most hotel rooms.” According to reporter John C. Roper, hoteliers say that if people haven’t booked their rooms for the World Series by now, they could be staying 40 miles or more from Minute Maid Park.

Stan Skadal, senior director of sales for the Hyatt Regency Downtown here, was quoted in an earlier Chronicle article: “Unfortunately for Major League Baseball, we can’t accommodate them, which we are quite sad about. But contracts are contracts.” The Hyatt is sold out for next week and has a contract through 2010 with the quilters.

Houston’s hotel situation is complicated by the large number of evacuees who are also staying in our hotel rooms, courtesy of FEMA.

Just like the Super Bowl, Houston home-owners are cashing in. For householders near our downtown stadium, nightly rates are going in the $900 range. (I told Barbara we should have moved inside the Loop once the kids left home.)

Hurricanes. World Series. Quilt Shows. This is what happens when marketing meets the synchronicity of events.

Photo from Star of East, unknown maker. Hand appliquéd, pieced, and quilted. Embellished with embroidered chain stitch. (77" x 95").

Friday, October 21, 2005

Direct Mail

One of those Internet things – remember when they used to come to you by fax? It’s still good to keep in touch with a friend. For example…

“Dear God: Are you really invisible or is it just a trick? Lucy.”

“Dear God: Did you mean for a giraffe to look like that or was it an accident? Norma.”

“Dear God: I think the stapler is one of your greatest inventions. Ruth M.”

“Dear God: Please send Dennis Clark to a different camp this year. Peter.”

“Dear God: Maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each other so much if they had their own rooms. It works with my brother. Larry.”

“Dear God: I don’t think anybody could be a better God. Well I just want you to know but I am not just saying that because you are God. Charles.”

"Dear God: Ditto on that stapler. Richard."


Thursday, October 20, 2005

World Series

We have a World Series. After Monday's heartbreak, last night's game sent people here (and in St. Louis) wild with joy. Positively raucous. I have a new-business meeting today - I may even wear my Houston Astros ball cap with my suit and tie. Congratulations to the Astros!

There is one challenge: one Chicago cousin, Miriam Eisenberg, had decided not to attend the International Quilt Show here. She's quite a Sox fan, and I wonder if she's regretting her decision.

In fact, this is going to be quite a fortnight for Houston: World Series and Quilt Show...the town's gonna be rockin'. How will ordinary people cope with this scheduling crisis? Signalwriter will report the ugly conflict that may, possibly, arise.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Hugh McDonnold

Two of Hugh’s new works will be prominently featured, starting this Friday. ”Deep in the Art of Texas” is the title of an upcoming art exhibit at the Eastman Gallery in the Resource Center, 7026 Old Katy Road here in Houston.

The Gallery is having two openings. The first on Friday, 15 October; the other on Thursday, 20 October. Both run 6.00-10.00P. There’s usually a crush at Eastman, so I’ll try to get there early – more opportunities to get at the bar.

Hugh is talented and generally surprising; I am immodestly proud of the McDonnold that’s hanging on my library wall. This new series is quite a bit different from his work of the past few years – a form of portraiture with a slyness to them that I find attractive.

Now – if I could just get him to create a Web site…

"Kerouac's Publisher" by Hugh McDonnold.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Research Costs

Once upon a time, during a meeting about a marketing survey, a client actually told me, “Research costs too much.” This has likely never happened to you – but for some reason I hear it fairly often.

Turns out one of my long-time colleagues, Mary Jo Martin, has also heard it before. Coincidence? I think not.

Here’s a complaint that needed some answers, we thought. Doesn’t matter if you’re a research supplier or a client, we thought.

We put our heads together and constructed a white paper (which has a green cover because Mary Jo thought that would be neat). In this paper, we examined just why research costs what it does, with a quick look at market research cost elements.

We added some tips about how to control the costs of research and still get it done.

This new “Research Costs Too Much!” white paper is available to interested parties (like you) without charge. Gratis. Free. Drop me a note and I’ll send you a pdf.

There is one modest condition. We would like to solicit your comments – and eventually create a second version incorporating your thoughts, too. So if, after you’ve read this white paper, you have some thoughts of your own to share, send them back to me. I’ll make sure you get all the credit that’s due. And none of the blame.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Danish Prince

When you say, “Prince of Denmark,” you think Hamlet, maybe? Now there’s a new guy in town: Crown Prince Frederick and his Australian-born wife, Crown Princess Mary, have had their first baby – a boy. I’m not a Royal-follower per se. But I do tend to notice when things happen in countries where I have friends and colleagues. According to an Aussie newspaper, Mary and Frederik will name their newborn son Christian. (No “Hamlet,” sorry: the names of Danish kings have alternated between Christian and Frederik since 1513.)

Naturligvis, I sent a congratulations note. To Tine Lysberg and John Grandahl in Hummlebaek, Denmark. They’re old friends and ad colleagues, visited back and forth, and so on. I’ve even run through the precincts of the Danish Royal Palace in Copenhagen – and I wasn’t even being chased.

What I found amusing, even thrilling, was the news from Oz that “bonfires blazed and the Viking wine flowed as Tasmanians last night celebrated the birth of Danish Crown Princess Mary's first child.” Mary (nee Donaldson) is from Tasmania. The same newspaper said, “About 200 people gathered under a full moon at Blackmans Bay for the island state's first official celebrations since their most famous former resident gave birth to the second in line to the throne of Europe's oldest reigning monarchy.”

The fact that two different countries, separated by half a world, can get together for such a celebration is neat. I’m also charmed by the news release from the Danish government, in an aw-shucks kind of way (see the photo). Happy birthday, Chris, Prince of Denmark.

Photo of Crown Prince Frederick: Kristian Juul Pedersen/Scanpix

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Martha Viewing

Signalwriter regulars know Susan Kirkland, top graphic designer and author of a popular book on running a creative services business. She sent a copy of the book to Martha Stewart, and got pretty excited when a Stewart aide left a message on her answering machine. Well, I’ll let her tell you the story.

“Having been raised as a ‘person’ as opposed to a man or woman; the wolves taughtme that my goals, dreams and aspirations are just like any other fool eking out their existence on this miserable rock.

“So when the big boys at the SEC decided to take down Martha for her piddly ‘crime’ I sent her a letter of support. My point of view was that she had made too much money and fame in an area usually dominated by men; now they would punish her. She responded with a form letter written to the general public and a subscription card for her magazine. For the doyenne of the good life, this was tacky. She responded to my genuine care and concern for a fellow human being with a solicitation for magazines. Turning my sentiment into an opportunity to profit is the ultimate in poor taste.

“My humanity persisted. I wrote again after the verdict, encouraging her to get on with her life; this, too, shall pass. Again, a response in a hand-addressed envelope stuffed with a subscription card and information on her website.

“This time I understood why Andy Stewart divorced her; you can outfit an entire house to create a perfect world, but you cannot create humanness and compassion in a person raised without it, no matter how smart or pretty.

“When my book came out, Martha's new show on The Learning Channel seemed a good fit for promotion. I sent her a copy with a brief note: ‘Martha – Glad you're back. Your show is much better than the guy with the funny hair. Please help me promote my book since you’re a pro and I’m just a novice.’

“About a week later, there was a message on my machine when I got home late one day. Martha's personal assistant ‘Christian’ called, apologized vehemently if this was not the home of Susan Kirkland, Master Designer and left a number for a return call. It seemed safe to be happy about this, and I e-mailed my friends to tell them, ‘Martha called,’ knowing full well I would have to share the good or the bad. (We're trying to live it all, good and bad.)

“I returned the call around noon. ‘Hello, is this Christian?’ Yes, it was Christian and in her overly casual, rather elegant New England accent, she informed me that she called to let me know Martha doesn't promote books and she was sending it back to me. ‘It's already been dropped in the mail.’ I was surprised so much thoroughness was dedicated to ‘NO.’

“Sometimes, as I live my life the way I want to (helping at every opportunity without reserve) I forget that not everyone has a willingness to help me. It’s a silly thing, really, but it won’t change the way I live. I know now that Martha Stewart is just what she seems – no deeper than 4 color-process.”

Now it just so happens that, after four losses and four trips to the conference room in episodes of “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart,” contestant Dawn came prepared with a list of excuses. But Martha was finished with whining. “You don’t want me to lose my patience,” she said, “None of you want me to lose my patience.”

Susan: send Martha another copy of your book.

Friday, October 14, 2005

International Dialogue

This past week, I’ve been “channeling” my Dialogue International colleagues who attended the Managers’ Meeting in Budapest.

Who the heck are these people with their odd spellings and occasional bow ties? Dialogue International is a long-standing group of independent advertising firms with a wide variety of clients, focused on helping and learning from one another. The network stretches from Scandinavia all the way to Eastern Europe.

The Quest Business Agency here in Houston, which I left in August 2004 after 20 years, was one of Dialogue’s longest-term members. I was lucky enough to serve as Chairman of Dialogue for several years. Now, the Texas-based agency is no longer active in the network.

Today, Dialogue agencies operate in Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, UK, and in the USA, New York.

At the Budapest Managers’ Meeting, 27 agency owners and managers from 19 independent advertising agencies met to share business insights and client opportunities. The independent agency network that has already added four new members this year, welcomed new members from France and Germany – one of these is Champagne Phil’s agency, HOPE (see post below).

Dialogue is close to signing up candidate agencies in Romania, Croatia, and Portugal, and is in talks with agencies in Ireland, Greece, Spain, and Turkey.

Dialogue Chairman Leif Lindau (from Navigator in Sweden) said, “We see this surge of new members as one of many positive signs that the independent sector is thriving. International clients express little satisfaction with the services of the global networks, Dialogue is an effective alternative.”

Check to see something about Dialogue – but there’s a new Web site a-building, and I’ll pass along the new url when it’s ready.

Now for something completely different (a sort of weekend starter). Go to the right and click "Belle of the Blog" for your pop culture fix. 'Bye.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Champagne Phil

Let me re-introduce you to Philippe Holtzweiler – he of the French champagne and bow tie. (See the “Type Brands” post, 20 September.) His agency ( is in Freiburg, Germany. He returned to Dialogue International as one of its newest members and sent this back to Signalwriter after Budapest.

“Twelve years after my last Dialogue meeting (In Lissabon, I think, at the Hotel da Lapa), I was there again as a new member. This has indeed been a very interesting experience.

“In the Dialogue of yore, there used to be this London-Paris tandem spearheaded by Jaakko Alanko (Dialogue’s first Chairman – ed.), and the rest of us.

“Now this is completely gone, with half the members coming from CEE states. Noteworthy, though anecdotic, the dress code is a lot more relaxed: I put on a bow tie only for dinner, and I could have easily dispensed with it altogether.

“On the other side, a striking generation gap has opened ­ which did not exist then. Peter Thoma emphasized the presence of Gray Panthers (including him) ­as opposed to some Eastern European members who are, in part, at least a whole generation younger!

“There were also very noticeable differences between the situation in mature, currently slow-moving advertising markets (France, the UK, Germany, Switzerland) and the booming Eastern European markets. There, sophisticated advertising is still a promising ‘New Frontier’ with rosy development and profit perspectives. With regard to this, new business in (old) Western Europe rather feels like some pain in the ass (sorry for being so straightforward).

“The atmosphere was very enjoyable, with many interesting presentations by new members, a lot of sympathetic and interesting participants and a fascinating if somewhat high-flying ­guest speaker, David Wethey, who does agency assessment for advertising clients in search of the right agency (rather among the big ones, though).

“What I somewhat missed were some real, intense discussions on crucial topics like getting new clients and holding the existing ones, as well as sharing experiences, contacts and ideas and learn from each other. Current Chairman Leif Lindau's perfectly Swedish sense of timing precluded any general exchange (as opposed to personal contact with each other during the meeting) on this. The sheer number of participants would have made this, obviously, all the more difficult to manage!

“I would also have liked some more intense discussion about realistic ways to shape Dialogue connections into practicable, hands-on tools to gain and share new business and get some tangible synergies out of the Dialogue network.”

Sigh. I recall a time when Champagne Phil and I, and everyone else in Dialogue, were the “young guys.”

If you have been reading these posts about the Dialogue Managers’ Meeting in Hungary, you have noted repeated references to the vitality of Eastern Europe’s countries, economies, and ad agencies.

In the mid-80s era of détente, the emerging economies of Eastern Europe were the hot topic. They still are – and I think you’ll be hearing more about them here. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Hungary Bottle

Here's further communication about Budapest, this time from Robert Ware, former managing director of Ware, Anthony, Rust, Dialogue International’s British member.

First, his thank-you note to meeting attendees: “Good morning Dialoguers and particularly Peter. (This would be Peter Sari, MD of GreenLight, the Hungarian host agency.) It was a great pleasure to renew old friendships and make new ones in Budapest. Many thanks to Peter and his team for introducing us to his beautiful city – one that I will certainly be coming back to – and for all the hard work to make the meeting a success.

“Thank you also for the very sweet gift to mark my retirement. Rather than drinking the wine, I will have to keep the signed bottle as a memento of the special times I have enjoyed with the Dialogue family.

“Please do keep fighting for international business – using the findings from the Rotterdam session to guide you. Business opportunities will happen. And please do commit yourselves to supporting WAR's efforts on the new web site. It is such an important 'shop window' for Dialogue.”

Then, a note to me: “I had already read your web log with Peter’s comments – though the photo actually shows me and not Peter (oops – see below). Budapest was delightful, especially at night when the fantastic lighting made the old parts, Heroes Square and the Danube, look particularly enchanting.

“Our meeting was interesting as usual and made the more so because of the increased blend of different nationalities present. It is always so humbling to find these people who can speak brilliant English and yet all I can do is some simple schoolboy French with a smattering of Latin (although, of course, I can order wine or beer in most languages!). Keep up the good blogging.”

For a better look at Robert, see his wedding photo in the 14 September post. Hungary for more about the Dialogue meeting in Budapest? Keep watching this site.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Budapest Meeting

Dialogue International, the pan-European network of independent advertising agencies, gathered in Budapest, Hungary, for its autumn Managers’ Meeting this past weekend. I have been part of this network for more than15 years, and a past Chairman.

I asked several former colleagues to send impressions to Signalwriter. Here's the first, from Peter Thoma, Chairman of Erat, Thoma & Herzog of Rorschach, Switzerland. (Yes, that’s Peter from the back – a photo of him photographing Budapest at night.)

“New faces, new ideas, and so forth. The most interesting thing to me is the fact that – although we are all advertising people – the markets in the different countries are completely different.

“We in the old economy work in saturated markets with all the too-well-known side effects (too many suppliers and a very slow growth if any at all, too many hungry sharks for too less demand) whilst our colleagues in the new eastern markets are programmed for growth - dual digit rates!

“We in Switzerland, Germany, France, UK, Scandinavia struggle to get our share of invitations for pitches whilst our eastern friends must be careful not to participate in too many. The same with agency marketing. Said one eastern friend, ‘Marketing or advertising for our own agency? What for? Clients just stand in a long line and we try to satisfy them all.’

“One thing always touches me personally: The eastern countries and economies were nowhere 10 years ago and we considered them dying Communists. And today? They talk about branding, experience society, corporate design, and all that stuff we thought was our invention! And I can sit in a Budapest cafe, using my laptop and surfing the Internet via a provided hot spot - for free! Try doing that in a Zurich restaurant.

“On the other hand our new friends sometimes just want to invent Dialogue again. They want to make the same mistakes we have already done. They dream of a pan-European PR campaign for DI, or of a centralized office to pursue the chase of a network client, etc. We ‘gray panthers’ are in place to keep them on the right track.

“Our 2006 Creative Forum will take place in Malta, the 2006 spring Managers' Meeting in Gdansk (yes!), and the autumn meeting in Paris…”

Thanks, Peter, for this first report. And thank you all for keeping me in the loop. More reporting from other Dialoguers shortly.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Nickel Change

“Josephine March” noted this today ( I couldn’t pass it up: How many public servants does it take to change a nickel?

A lot. The new Jefferson 1800 nickel, due to be released in the Year 6, involved a panel from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Commission for Fine Arts, the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, the esteemed Secretary of the Treasury, the Director of the US Mint, the entire Congress, and the President of the United States, who had to approve the whole new Westward Journey Nickel Series. You can read the Treasury’s press release

The third President’s iconic 5¢ image has been changed. For the first time, Thomas Jefferson is facing outward.

Jefferson himself is such a flexible icon, equally useful for Democrats and Republicans (although the Democrats seem to “own” him); businesspeople and socialists, men and women, and people of every color. He and his family – right down to the present day – can be said to be the nation’s first Kennedys…perennially entertaining and controversial.

He’s so hard to pin down. He wrote so much (and written it all so well), virtually everything he said has been continually displayed, arranged, and re-arranged for one purpose or another, including marketing and advertising. Newspaper people hardly know what to do with him. On the one hand, he wrote, “I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it.” On the other, he said, “No government ought to be without censors & where the press is free, no one ever will.”

I can’t top Josephine March’s joke. I do offer an additional thought about our Third President’s legacy: One pundit fits all.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Changing Rules

There’s a code phrase for creativity – it’s “thinking outside the box.” That’s what a client and I were talking about last week in terms of a new model for his business. I said he ought to consider changing the rules.

He asked for an example and fortunately I remembered an old joke. (Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I heard it – so if it’s copyrighted, please forgive.)

Stevie Wonder met Tiger Woods for the first time and mentioned that he also was a golfer. The blind musician explained, “When I tee off, I have one of my guys call to me from the green. My sharp sense of hearing helps me aim.”

Woods was pretty skeptical about this, so Wonder suggested that they play a round for $100,000. Tiger jumped on that bet, figuring it’s the easiest hundred thou he’d ever make. “So when do you want to play?”

Stevie shrugged. “Pick any night.”

Friday, October 07, 2005

Getting Bearish

The more you look, the more you learn. I raised the topic of Allstate’s brand image; there have been some comments. So I explored further. I didn’t have to Google very long before finding

This site’s intention is to [1] Be a forum for victims of Allstate Insurance; [2] Put victims and professionals together; and [3] Try to change insurance regulations to better protect consumers. It doesn’t make good reading for brand fans – especially when you consider how fast Web sites, e-mailing, and blogging can get the word out these days.

Pam Lagano, principal of Florida-based Lagano & Associates, highlighted Allstate in an article she wrote for the Jacksonville Business Journal on 12 October, 2001. She wrote:

“The slogan ‘You're in good hands with Allstate,’ for example, provides a common theme for all of Allstate's advertising that establishes a contract – a promise the company holds out to its customers. Not only does the ‘good hands’ promise rally all the employees to a common purpose, it brands Allstate as a company whose employees have a mission.

“Driven by a common set of business objectives and business strategies, all of Allstate's advertising serves to further dimensionalize this promise, graphically and evocatively establishing the corporation itself as a meaningful brand.”

Well, that has been my thinking, as you can see from these posts. The challenge posed by Allstate’s (possibly poor or even unethical) interactions with its policy-holders is not, in the end, a matter of who’s right and who’s wrong.

A brand is a perception – invented by advertising agencies. But the brand values have to be maintained and supported by “right actions.” How is the Allstate Corporation of Northbrook, Illinois, doing brand-wise? According to Web sites and bloggers, not very well.

More Bears

Read the comment to my previous post from Farout Man, below. You’ll understand that there is a commitment attached to a brand like Allstate.
Farout Man refers to an article on the Houston Chronicle Web site – it’s titled “State takes aim at Allstate over Rita claims,” posted today at 1.40PM. (Plug the url into your browser to read it.) The Texas Attorney General has filed a restraining order against Allstate’s denial of claims by policyholders unable to return to their homes because of Hurricane Rita-related damage.

In the paper’s Business Section this morning, a preceding article on page D3 pointed out that Allstate was “not quick with a check.” In it, reporter Purva Patel gave a reasonably balanced view of the claims situation. (Patel also authored the online news item this afternoon.)

Farout Man says, “Allstate can fly as many banners in parking lots as they want, but if they choose not to back up their words with actions, it won't mean a thing.”

He’s right – “You’re in Good Hands” is one of the brand’s commitments. No matter how many posters, newspaper ads, or TV commercials Allstate deploys, the brand will suffer damage if the company doesn’t keep its promises. How much brand damage will Allstate suffer? How much will the Red Cross brand sustain because of another article in today’s paper about the organization’s apparent failure to help a small town?

I think Allstate, among others, is too busy to measure this. My suspicion is that the brand itself will not sustain damage; but like the economic saying goes, “Bad money drives out good.” I’ll watch the activity around this subject and see what happens. Many thanks to Farout Man for making the extra point.

Hunting Bear

Sometimes, you get that bear. In the corner of a Wal-Mart parking lot, about two miles away, Allstate has placed a mobile recovery unit to help their policy-holders expedite insurance claims from both Katrina and Rita.

In case you hadn’t noticed, those two hurricanes have been through this part of the country like a sloth of angry grizzlies.

There have been several articles in newspapers about this particular unit (e.g., Mark Passwaters’ article in The Memorial Sun). These columns have described Allstate’s National Catastrophe Team and the good work they have been doing.

What I noticed is the inadvertent, but superb, reinforcement of the Allstate brand. Not that Allstate needs brand support. It is one of the best recognized brands in the US. Yet it’s the very visible association of Allstate with “good works” that, like the efforts of the Red Cross, will keep the brand’s positive level extremely high. Allstate logo banners are all over the parking lot, visible from one of the most heavily traveled traffic arteries in West Houston.

Positive brand comprehension exists and is reinforced despite other news reports of difficulties with insurance claims throughout the Gulf Coast region.

The fact that the Allstate recovery unit is in a Wal-Mart parking lot contributes to Wal-Mart’s already massive brand awareness, too. Wal-Mart has also been a highly visible presence in recent relief efforts.

This is a positive case of trade dress in action – carrying brand identification through to every element of a company’s activities, from coffee mugs to truck signage. Contrast this with what happened on 24 March 1989. The tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in the upper part of Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The tanker, according to NOAA, carried about 53 million gallons of crude oil. In just a few days, the wrecked tanker had spilled almost 11 million of those gallons into Prince William Sound. Every photograph of the grounded vessel clearly showed the brand owner: Exxon. Every human remotely familiar with the event always referred to the tanker as the Exxon Valdez. Bad, bad, very bad for Exxon.

Total brand identification brings both rewards and risks. Sometimes, these are not fully evaluated in creating and maintaining a brand. Sometimes, brands get extra blessings thanks to human resourcefulness and corporate responsiveness. Sometimes, events just come along and bite your brand in the ass. The bear gets you.

Bear this in mind, then: Plan ahead. Consider what might happen to affect your brand and your trade dress in the future.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Recovery City

I returned to find that Houston is still in “recovery mode” in many ways – including marketing and marketing communications activities. Large-scale hotels that might be hosting regional tradeshows are being used as FEMA housing instead, so normal reservations have been cancelled and shows rescheduled.

A two-day conference, Direct Marketing Days, has been cancelled. It was due to start Wednesday and continue through today. The immediate reason given was a very low rate of registrations. The rock-bottom reason is that people who might normally have attended are busy catching up with their own overdue work. It’s too bad: the sponsor, the Houston Direct Marketing Association, put together an excellent agenda that was to have included presentations on direct marketing tools, strategies, and programs. The founder/CEO of Direct Marketing Network, Pam Lockard, was to have been one of the speakers.

On the good side, a Career Open House conducted by one of the major oilfield service companies took place here as scheduled 28 September and was very successful. I was privileged to help construct and write the pre-Open House communications program before I left on holiday.

We used a short-run but intense mix of media to generate attendance – and learned a few things to the bargain. Newspaper advertising generated 29% of the attendees. Radio commercials (including a flight during one of the Houston Texans football games) brought in 26%. Direct mail accounted for 20% of the job-seekers. And word-of-mouth, “told by a friend,” generated 24%. The last percentage point came from people who noticed the signs put up around the Open House site.

Radio showed its strength – during Hurricane Rita’s evacuation, a huge number of people were listening to their car radios. Mail delivery, on the other hand, was partially interrupted by hurricane preparations.

Hats off to the clients, who not only got the kind of results they were looking for but ensured that the effect of the various media was measured. It’s the kind of forethought that will make future programs easier to recommend and support.