Category: thingnamer

Steve Jobs and the Wrong Kind of Dent

 

Posted by:
Tate Linden (@Thingnamer)

Following on my previous post about Steve Jobs’s phantom “We’re here to put a dent in the universe” quote, I can’t help but wonder if the sentiment behind it is actually a good representation of what Jobs tried to do with his life.

There’s not much point in arguing that Jobs never said anything about denting the universe. I do, however, wonder why he said it.

First, putting a dent in something is typically associated with an act of brute strength.

He may have led with a sledgehammer in his back pocket, but hope for all our sakes that bending others forcibly to his will was not his end-game.If we consider Jobs’s leadership style there’s at least a little connection. He was seen as a “high maintenance co-worker” who was blunt with criticism. He dismissed people who didn’t impress him as “bozos”. If the universe he was trying to dent was made up of the psyches of the people who reported to him then this might apply. But it would also be a pretty shallow and callous goal.

Second, dents tend to make things harder to use and less efficient.

When I think of the products that came out of Jobs’s Apple I picture clean and easy-to-use designs, not duct-tape and Bondo. The work done under his watch seems to have done the opposite of denting the universe.

I know, I know. In theory we all love the character that stuff gets as it picks up the scratches and dings of our lives. But we still go out to buy the shiny new stuff that is easier to use than the perfectly working but slightly older equipment Jobs convinced us to buy a few months earlier.

Third, the only way that “denting the universe” actually fits didn’t apply until he was no longer a part of it.

There’s a difference between leaving a legacy and changing the way the universe works. Jobs helped us to understand that great design matters, and that capability and simplicity aren’t mutually exclusive. That’s his legacy.

Jobs was brilliant. He was able to conceive of or recognize concepts and guide the development and execution of them in ways that were virtually irresistible. That’s also his legacy.

The dent in the universe that he made, though? I really hope it isn’t something he wanted to leave. Two quotes from  Rob LeFebvre’s article from cultofmac highlight it pretty well:

“Steve Jobs, however, saw their potential and, with a characteristic mixture of blind faith, naiveté, and ruthlessness, refined them until they met his own exacting standards.”

and…

“Mr. Jobs’s own research and intuition, not focus groups, were his guide.”

The dent he was trying to make was something that only he seemed able to understand.

Is the dent Jobs made in the universe is the one left by the space he occupied so powerfully? While his legacy will live on, his exacting standards and the intuition that built the legacy are gone.

Now we’re left with a dent we have no idea how to buff out, and no knowledge of what it’s supposed to look like when it’s done. The decisions made by Apple since Jobs’s passing – at least as viewed from the outside – are looking more traditional than “insanely great”.

I miss the guy and I never even knew him.

And I’m more than a little pissed that he appears not to have taught anyone else how to use his gift. If he’d done it then wouldn’t we have something other than bigger iPhones and smaller iPads by now?

Anyone else out there hoping that Jony and the team are secretly working on some Jobsian creation and are just working out the kinks before they set the universe wobbling again? Color me hopeful, but not optimistic.

 

Cows! And Also the Secret to RFP Success.

I’ve been hearing from my peers in the branding and advertising industries that they’re getting invited to participate in many more RFPs, and that this is a sign that the economy is recovering. But I’m also hearing from them weeks later that they aren’t winning when they submit responses. Some firms are pushing three to five proposals per week out the door and only getting a nibble once or twice a month. Many respected and competent firms complain that the RFP process is flawed, and quite a few refuse to respond to requests for proposals entirely since most decisions seem to be made purely on price or back room handshakes.

I spent about a decade working for other people before opening up my own shop, and remember the constant pressure to get responses out the door. The bosses played the numbers, knowing that we’d land 8 to 12 percent of the opportunities, focusing our efforts on increasing the number of fish in the pond rather than becoming better fishermen. We used databases of canned responses and lightly customized them for fit. I recall numerous times where the final proof-reader, so tired from reading the same damn material on every single proposal, glossed over an instance where the wrong client name or industry example ended up being sent along. It upset leadership, but they still invariably valued increased RFP response volume over increased customization, believing that if we could just get into the final group we’d take the time to get it right. And when we did get into the pitch group most of my bosses did a good job closing the deal. We may have only landed about 10 percent of the RFPs overall, but when invited to pitch our success rate went up to about 40% – and that’s where the leaders focused.

As Stokefire approaches our ninth year in business I look back at a client list that includes Google, Motorola, Heinz, Charles Schwab, The US Department of Defense and hundreds of other worthy organizations, and realize that if I’d followed the tactics I’d been exposed to earlier I’d probably have landed about 10 percent of what we’ve gotten. And that’s where I was headed until something momentous happened.

About five years ago (prior to landing our first globally recognized client) a huge prospective client took me aside and said something like, “Look, man. You’re good. Very, very good. The fact that your four person firm has made it to the final four out of 128 agencies we considered should indicate that you’ve got something special. You brought up all sorts of insights and issues about the deliverables we asked for that proved you understood what we needed more deeply than anyone else. And then you lost your courage, and checked off every box on your RFP response and committed to delivering exactly what we asked for anyhow. And that’s the problem here. You have to admit, no matter how insightful you are, you can’t possibly deliver exactly what we’re asking for better than a nationally known firm a thousand times your size. And even if you could, the board members of a public company aren’t going to take a risk on an unknown like you . The only way I would ever get their approval to hire you is if you’d stuck by your guns and refused to give us what we asked for, and instead insisted on giving us what we need.”

There’s some serious paraphrasing going on there, but I believe I’m being faithful to his theme. It was a two hour conversation with a leader of a multi-billion dollar organization. And he so wanted to hire us that he not only took the time to tell us why he couldn’t, but to teach me how I could earn his business the next time he was in need as well. The last thing he said was that he was looking forward to working with us down the road.

No, he still hasn’t called us back (which would make this a much better story, I know) but we took his lesson to heart.

Today we respond to only a small fraction of the RFPs we receive. It’s not that we don’t believe in the process. In fact, it’s the opposite. We use the RFP process as a screening process to ensure that we’re actually a good fit for the client and opportunity. Our job as a branding and advertising consultancy isn’t to answer the questions and accede to the demands made in RFPs, it’s to figure out what’s behind the questions and demands, and ensure that the stuff in the RFP actually has the potential to get the results the client really wants, if they want anything at all. The RFPs we tend to respond to are the ones where we can prove there’s disconnect between what’s being asked for and the results they’re likely to get from the investment.

When a client knows exactly what they need and how best to get it, then my firm is like just another lowing cow lost among the herd, hoping that today it’ll be our milk in the pail the farmer brings to his own family. All the respondents are checking all the boxes provided. It’s like cows jostling and mooing – “You want milk? Well, I make milk. Let’s do this!” and “Me toooooo! Look how milky my milk is. It’s the very definition of what you’ve asked for! Why go anywhere else?”

How the Hell is the farmer supposed to choose when every cow can provide the requested services at the required levels?

When a prospective client requests a proposal they provide a structure for response so that each can be evaluated in parallel. The farmer says he wants milk, so he ensures that he only considers solutions that get him what he says he wants. Cows, goats, sheep, are the likely candidates. If he gets really creative he might consider almond, soy or rice milk – and feel all the more insightful for it. But what isn’t up for discussion – and is rarely even mentioned in an RFP process – is why the desired product or service is needed, and why the solutions outlined in the RFP are the best way to meet the need.

Stokefire doesn’t make milk. Real nor imagined. We figure out why the farmer says he needs it for his family, then determine if milk is the best product for the job. If it is? We go on our way – there are plenty of lowing cows ready to compete for his attention and give him what he asks for. If we find that the farmer’s real need is better served by something other than the proverbial milk? That’s when we invest the considerable time and effort crafting a response to an RFP – one that cannot be compared to anything else under consideration because it addresses the needed results rather than the ‘required’ methods and steps that have little chance of getting the farmer what he wants, and an even lesser chance of landing us the job.

The key to successful RFP responses isn’t getting the answers right. It’s having the courage and insight to modify the assumptions, questions, and rules so that the original request becomes irrelevant. Sure, the farmer said he wanted to bring milk back to his family, and there are millions of cows able to give him that milk. But what if you learned that the entire family was lactose intolerant, or that he was using it to fill his swimming pool at the rate of one bucket per day, or to clean the mirrors in his house? In each case, the best response wouldn’t be to fill the stated request and follow the process, it’d be to find a product better suited to the requirements.

Those uses may seem obviously wrong, but put in the context of what we see on branding RFPs are actually pretty reasonable. We’ve seen RFPs requesting logos that increase customer loyalty, demanding reuse of previously used campaigns for increased results without creative expense, and asking for a rebrand intended make a highly visible company scandal go away. These and many other RFPs got dozens of responses that checked every box. We didn’t check a single box for any of them. We couldn’t deliver what they asked for so we responded to the RFP we believed they should’ve written.

And we won.

Does it work every time? Absolutely not. About 10% of the time it doesn’t work and we fail to change the prospect’s perspective. About 5% of the time it doesn’t just fail, it fails spectacularly. If it was that farmer’s RFP, he’d grab his shotgun and unload both barrels into our chest. Then he’d tell us we didn’t get the job.

As bad as it sounds, I know from experience that being screamed at by prospective clients for having the nerve to challenge their assumptions is survivable. And it’s led to some wonderful client relationships months or years later, when the prospect has tried it their way and we have the, “You know, funny thing about that pitch you made…” conversation. It helps to keep that result in mind when resisting the urge to wipe their spittle from your eyebrows during the pitch.

If you’re not willing to take the risks needed to achieve results, but still blame the system itself rather than your ability to use it to your advantage? I’ve got no problem with that. In fact, I’ll even help. There’s a word you can repeat in your mind as a mantra that will ensure you always deliver fully compliant responses to RFPs. It’s easy to remember, and oddly comforting, too.

Say it with me…

“MoooOOOooooo.”

Happiness Is Thinking Outside The Checkbox

 

Posted by:
Tate Linden

In a brief exchange I had with @kwheaton and @Bryan_El_Parker over on Twitter, both raised concerns about the way large companies hire their employees. They were responding to our blanket rejection notice posted previously on our blog. Bryan pointed out that the traditional system strips applicants of their individuality by making them check boxes, to which we said that “unless you’re a checkbox you shouldn’t work for large employers.” Kristan reasoned that not working with big employers may be easier said than done.

And so we slept on it. For a week. And here’s what came of it:

The issue isn’t that big companies can’t work with highly creative or visionary types, it’s that the best path to big company employment for people with these qualities is probably not a system that rigidly dictates and automatically enforces the form and content of their applications. If you’re genuinely creative or visionary then you’re better served by either finding another way in that allows you to show your skills, or by breaking or manipulating the ineffective process to show why they need what you bring to the table. Your goal shouldn’t be to do the best you can within the system, but to prove that the system is set up to solve the wrong problem or deliver the wrong result.

Daniel Pink explains part of the problem in his book (which is excellent, by the way,)  To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others:

…a few years ago, the Conference Board, the well-regarded U.S. business group, gave 155 public school superintendents and eighty-nine private employers a list of cognitive capacities and asked their respondents to rate these capacities according to which are most important in today’s workforce. The superintendents ranked “problem solving” number one. But the employers ranked it number eight. Their top-ranked ability: “Problem Identification.”

Checkboxes seem best suited to addressing a presupposed problem for which the right answer is at least intuited, if not outright known. And that’s why big companies use them. They believe that they know what they’re looking for and how to find it. If you don’t have a better way to see things, or a different problem identified, then checkboxes are probably not doing you a disservice. But if you do see a different problem that needs solving than the company does, each box you check will make your unique value less visible.

If you want (or have) to work for a big checkboxy organization and aren’t a checkboxy type you can, of course, just suck it up, check the boxes and hope for a job and role you can’t stand so you can change things from within before you have the life sapped from you. Or you can show them from the start that the problem that needs solving and the person they need aren’t a part of their checkbox system.

If you’re good, the considerable effort and insight this approach requires will be nothing compared to the pain and frustration you’ll avoid by having a job that encourages you to think, say, and do exactly as you wish rather than forcing you to be someone you hate to see in the mirror every Monday through Friday, holidays excepted.

If you’re not quite good enough, or the organization doesn’t appreciate your obvious talents? That’s a conversation for another day, I think.

Many thanks to Kristan and Bryan for their help in identifying this particular problem.

No Consensus on Thatcher

 

Posted by:
Tate Linden

Back in 2011, while railing against the tendency to settle for ‘non-objectionable’ over ‘highly effective’ brands, I cited a portion of this quote from the (then living) Prime Minister:

To me consensus seems to be —the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no-one believes, but to which no-one objects. —the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead.

What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner “I stand for consensus”?

Those are some exceptionally important words to me, and to the organization I’ve built. I reference them at nearly every speaking engagement and each new client briefing because they’re equally applicable to the fields of branding and design.

And today they seem even more relevant and true. Today there’s a new lack of consensus. Thatcher’s passing earlier this week has been simultaneously marked by loyal praise and passionate derision from those impacted by her efforts. She is now either loved or reviled by the masses for the things she held most dear and the controversial steps she took to effectively defend those things.

I can’t imagine that she would find this particularly upsetting. Thatcher didn’t stand for consensus; she stood for her convictions. And the United Kingdom as a whole and the world at large are stronger for it.

The lesson? As goes politics, so goes branding. Address the issues, don’t avoid them. Or do. After all, it’s only the wellbeing of your organization and its people at stake.

The Thingnamer Sleeps With Clients?

No. I don’t.

But I’ve been asked if I do with some regularity, and while it’s all in fun (I hope,) I find that when I ask other creatives if they get similar lines of questioning their answer has always been something like, “No. But I gotta ask, dude…  ARE you?”

During the unveiling of a new ID kit for a husband and wife business team just this week I was again asked if I’d gotten a concept by sleeping with a spouse. And it was the wife asking if I was sleeping with her husband.

So, I’ve got that going for me.

Two things seem to consistently precipitate the question. First, we have a stable of improbably big clients that no one can figure out how we land. And second, our work tends to communicate an intimate understanding of our clients – as though we might’ve gotten the idea from pillow-talk.

Regarding our ability to land clients, I’m not sure exactly what Stokefire’s success rate is on pitches now, but I’m guessing it hovers around 80%. A couple years ago we were over 90%. But, as fun as sleeping my way to profits might be, I’m pretty sure I’d be a lot less successful using any organ other than my brain to close deals. Our secret is that we only go after projects and clients that we know (and can prove) we’re ideally suited for. Sure, we might win more business overall if we went after everything put in front of us, but the wasted strategic effort and insight is something that I can’t stomach. We put a huge amount of effort into our proposals, so I don’t like to see them go to waste.

As for sleeping with clients to get better creative concepts? I’ve never tried it. I get results by putting the client under seriously uncomfortable pressure while I’m building their brand. I challenge their stated beliefs and test their commitment to their principles. It’s like Seraph from The Matrix Reloaded said, “You do not truly know someone until you fight them.”  Every one of our break-out successes on behalf of clients has come from pushing past what they said they wanted to expose a deeper truth that they couldn’t previously express or were perhaps even trying to hide. We build the brand on that newly exposed, raw, and unchanging truth so that regardless of what challenges lay ahead for our clients, the brand’s foundation will remain strong and stable enough to surpass them.

Great branding work does require intimacy, but only in a pants-on kind of way.

So, no, I did not have sexual relations with that client.

No.

Dearest potential applicant:

In our eight year history we’ve never brought on a single intern nor employee who started their cover letter with “Dear Sirs” or “To Whom it May Concern,” and then perhaps followed it with body copy that could just as well introduce someone trying to break into the laundromat business, or maybe rocket science.

The unofficial policy doesn’t hit home for you? Consider what it would be like if a purportedly reputable organization was staffed by people so lazy that instead of taking the time to understand and address each applicant individually, they just posted a blanket rejection statement on their blog and left it at that.

Searching for Steve Jobs’s “Dent In The Universe.”

Posted by: Tate Linden

Did Jobs make a dent in the universe? Damned if I know. Frankly, I can’t find a place far enough back to see for sure.

“We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here?”
– Attributed to Steve Jobs

Actually, Jobs probably didn’t say that. At least the real one didn’t. Noah Wylie said this exact line in The Pirates of Silicon Valley while playing Jobs in a made-for-TV movie. Martin Burke (the director of the movie) admitted that he never actually interviewed Jobs, though he did “have two or more sources that verify each scene” which means that all he knows is that something like that happened, but not what was really said. Even wikiquote lists it as unsourced.

Noted leadership expert (and author of Organizing Genius) Dr. Warren Bennis (or perhaps his coauthor, Patricia Ward Biederman) hedged, writing in 1996,

To echo Steve Jobs, whose Great Group at Apple created the Macintosh, each of these groups “put a dent in the universe.”

Dr. Bennis uses the phrase again twice in 1997 in the same interview with David Gergen in reference to the ideas discussed in Organizing Genius and in another interview in 1998 Dr. Bennis is back to loosely referencing Jobs’s denting.

Jump forward to 2001 and Philip Elmer-Dewitt also uses it twice in an article for Time Magazine:

He loved to tell his designers that the computer they were building — with its icons, its pull-down menus and its mouse — would not only change the world, but also “put a dent in the universe.”

In the future, says Levy, “we will cross the line between substance and cyberspace with increasing frequency, and think nothing of it.” That’s what Jobs would call a dent in the universe.

Upon his death we see the likes of Macworld and Discovery News cite the quote and reference a Time Magazine article that doesn’t say anything about the context or timing.

But it’s Playboy, of all the publishers in the world, that comes through  and actually finds Jobs’s dent under a pile of 15,000 words in an interview he gave way back in 1985. Jobs says,

At Apple, people are putting in 18-hour days. We attract a different type of person‐‑a person who doesn’t want to wait five or ten years to have someone take a giant risk on him or her. Someone who really wants to get in a little over his head and make a little dent in the universe.

So, while I can’t confirm that he made a dent in the universe, nor that Noah Wylie was quoting him directly with his often referenced script reading, it’s probably safe to assume that Jobs was at least thinking about the issues.

What bugs me more than the way this quote has grown from something he did say into something that he likely didn’t is the fact that he would think of it at all. For a man that smart and talented to choose a sledgehammer as his tool of choice seems… wrong. A dent gets stuffed with Bondo and buffed out. Pretty sure he didn’t actually want that to happen. Maybe I’ll look into it in my next post if there’s interest from the (possibly dented) world-at-large.

 

The Promise of Crowdsourced Design is Broken. So Let’s Fix It.

This is a stream-of-consciousness post. Given my history with stuff like this I’m probably about to upset a whole lot of people. So, apologies in advance.

And with that… here goes nothing…

I’ve long been on record as supporting the concept of crowdsourced design. The good folks at crowdSPRING interviewed me about it for their newsletter a few years back. And even after being called everything from immoral to a “slavemaster,” to this day I’m still a strong supporter of the crowdsourcing concept.

It’s just becoming a lot harder to support it in practice.

I’ve worked with hundreds of designers over about a dozen crowdsourced projects, spending many thousands of dollars, and in most cases ended up with highly effective work. My current project with crowdSPRING is likely to be a success as well. After only a few days and about 25 entries (many of which are strong conceptually or technically) I know the project and ultimately one of my clients will end up getting a design that helps them measurably improve their business. We’ll get there, however, despite the system that has been set up to support crowdsourcing rather than because of it.

I’ve never really struggled with the moral issues that many design professionals seem to have with the concept of crowdsourcing. In an ideal world the process of crowdsourcing should provide real value in both directions. In the case of design, the ‘client’ receives creative work – a tangible thing. The ‘winning’ designer usually receives some sort of monetary compensation, the actual amount of which is immaterial since the winning designer knows the best-case outcome so they are deeming it worthwhile.

The moral challenge for me doesn’t come from the concept at all. It comes from the way commercial crowdsourcing providers execute the concept in the real world. Those who do not receive the big payout at the end of the project aren’t given any compensation at all, even if their efforts were critical in helping the winner get the idea that ultimately resulted in payment. And that to me is a travesty.

Everyone who participates and adds value deserves compensation of some sort. To say that they all must be paid in cash, though, is short-sighted. Some clients can offer visibility (though admittedly most that offer this have no visibility to offer,) others bring advice, self-esteem, skills development, or other less tangible assets that are no less valuable than cash in the right situation.

My current thinking is that those who participate and don’t add value should still have the opportunity for compensation – but that compensation should be in the form of the opportunity for skills development or candid critique. If someone takes the time to submit concepts that are way off base then it is the responsibility of the client to tell them what’s wrong and (if known) how it might be fixed. It’s also the client’s responsibility to let a designer know when any future effort on their part is likely to be wasted effort. Unfortunately, outside of my own projects I haven’t heard a single designer say that this was something they’d encountered.

The reason I’m writing this post is because some of the value I’d always assumed I was providing was in the form of the very detailed critiques I give to every designer – be they astoundingly talented or misguided neophyte. The promise of crowdsourcing is that I (as the surrogate client) have the ability to share information with the crowd, and that the crowd can learn from my original request and from all of the follow-on advice that I give to each designer.

But crowdSPRING’s customer service informed me yesterday that critiques should only be accessible to each individual designer and denied my request to enable all designers to see all critiques, citing fairness to creatives that come up with good ideas and the likelihood of copycat work. (There IS an option to allow some people to see all comments, but those granted access are forbidden from participating in the design part.)

Here’s the problem with this policy. It turns the power of the crowd into the weakness of a long line of individuals being served, bakery-like, one-by-one and without knowledge or understanding of what’s happening before, after, or around them. The five to twenty-five minutes I spend on each critique is read once and only once rather than helping dozens or hundreds of designers understand how to make their own designs stronger and more likely to result in compensation. It also means that I, as the client, will get designs that better fit my specifications. It’s as though we’re throwing out all the benefits of working with a crowd.

I’m doing what I can to work within and without the existing crowdsourcing provider structure. Putting aside money (however insignificant) to reward those that add value but don’t get the big payday, taking time to provider serious reviews that help designers develop their skills, and publicly praising those designers who show tremendous insight or execution… It’s not a perfect solution by any means, but the last time I suggested we actually rebuild crowdsourcing the way it should actually be built all I heard was crickets.

So… I’m listening again. Are you ready to build a crowdsourcing solution that actually adds value for everyone involved instead of just the provider? Because if you are then I’m ready to lead the effort. And if you aren’t? Maybe take a moment and ask yourself what it is that you’re resisting. And if you’re willing to share your reasons for resisting I’d love to hear them.

That’s it; ramble over. Will your response be be crickets or pitchforks? (Because I’m not holding my breath for a parade.)

FAIL: PETCO Thinks We’re Idiots? Yes. Yes they do.

 

Well, PETCO certainly doesn’t win any points for the creativity of their product name, but when it comes to the art of needlessly clarifying proper use of the product I think I’ve just witnessed perfection.

This, folks, is why I don’t hire lawyers to write copy.

 



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