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“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me, aren’t you?”

Every time I see the 1969 classic The Graduate, I am cast into the timeless brilliance of one of the most significant films of all time. If you’ve seen the movie, how could you forget this iconic line, uttered in terror by Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock to Anne Bancroft’s most memorable character Mrs. Robinson?

Comic genius. (I know, most of you weren’t born yet. But it’s a classic!)

This is one of 100 iconic exchanges in the film. I want to talk about it, but another exchange keeps popping up in my head:

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you.

Benjamin: Yes, sir?

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

Benjamin: Exactly, how do you mean?

This kills. The exchange became the allegory for an entire generation of disillusioned college students. Almost 50 years later, I’m going to take the leap and tie this to the current feelings I have about the term “Big Data”. Plastics. Big Data.

So, for those people in the data business, when you try to explain to a reasonably well-educated marketer what the heck this is, and you start with “it depends”, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear the response “exactly, how do you mean?”

Like many issues in today’s world of information overload, this term confuses people like me as much as it excites people in the data business. That’s fine. We all have our hot buttons. But help me out here. There has to be a singular, unifying response that consolidates the concept, right?

The 2014 KPMG annual survey of CIO’s and CFO’s lays out some pretty stark realities for all of us when it comes to chewing on all of this data. The survey- this is from CIO’s and CFO’s, mind you- found:

  • 85% of businesses don’t understand consumer information they have already collected
  • 54% are unsure what data is most useful to them
  • 56% feel forced to adapt new data models that they don’t understand
  • Only 10% actually use the data they have collected and paid for

I’m hoping that the people who sell Big Data as a service can help senior managers understand how to use this information before they expect additional investment in it. I get it. More information is more power. When over $6 billion is spent on analyzing consumer behavior in the U.S., it’s a big bet. We should be paying attention.

I know that I can get the definition of “Big Data” from Wikepedia. But, I’m searching for some examples of how I explain the utility of it to my (more than a few) terrified clients. I assume there is significant uplift to be gained from its deployment.

I am being sincere when I ask for a more manageable frame of reference. How does this all provide so much more value than “little data”, i.e. what brands already know about their customers that they have no idea how to leverage? Clearly, if I’m to trust KPMG, we are still crawling. Now we are being forced to run?

To all of you data marketing professionals, I’m just asking:

“How do you mean?”

Terry Horsmon is a marketing strategist based in Shanghai, China. With his consulting company True North Worldwide, he has been working with brand marketers in China for ten years, helping them to understand how to squeeze the risk out of critical business decisions.

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terry“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me, aren’t you?”

Walking-No, Running- Out Of China.

Although I don’t count myself among them yet, I have seen and heard first hand such talk about this “China Dream” being over and have watched friends an acquaintances slowly dislodging their businesses with plans to be out by the end of Q1 2016.

My natural response was to say “more work for those of us who stay”. But there is something both dynamic and systemic at work that is now allowing this to happen. Local firms are using guanxi and undecutting prices by 10-30%. I’ve also seen the relationships sublty. It’s not blatant among locals to trade professional favors, no matter what the level of work.

My ECD friend has been running global auto and electronics campaigns- mind you a guy who is one of the best here is now being told to “knock off 30% or we’ll find someone else”.

Even the global companies are in the mix, those who have either been thrown out like GSK, Fronterra and Google (they’ll be back), or just reassessing their commitment (think Tesla), will make a loud noise in the aggregate as they create more and more job uncertainty

But the non-institutional mid-level firms who don’t have complex, long term JV deals are preparing to move out and with extreme prejudice. I have four clients who are on the edge of leaving. All in the media and marketing space, but no different than those in other industries.

The CEO of a successful media company in China for ten years has been driven to Australia, Kuala Lumpur and New Zealand, where, with nearly 25% of the workforce now Chinese, the cost of hiring Phd. engineers and digital specialists is now equal to that of hiring a less experienced counter.

When asked about his company, which at its peak in 2010 employed 140 people, he simply said if he “can;t make a profit or maintain similar margins in China, then I’ll just walk away from the entire China market. For my client, profits are four times higher, hiring is 1o times easier and loyalty and lak of job switching is 75% lower

Look at the HQ shifts of media headquarters from Shaghai to Singapore. Part of the shift has been as a result of global strategy moves. But moving people from Shanghai’s media center of the world into the most expensive people market in Asia is a real statement about the hassle-free nature of doing business outside of Mainland China and their trade-offs.

I think that much of the conversation has come about as a result in the disgust with government corruption, the rise of the upwardly mobile local work manaegement force that, in order to get ahead, they must game the system, as has always been the case.

Importantly, government need to seize back control of the “hears and minds” of its citizenry, has put many westerner managers in a bad mood as a result of internet controls over content, social commentary and worse. For many western products, its simply easier to now do business elsewhere. One of my former employer has opened offices in Kuala Lumpur, Vietnam and planning Australia this year. It appears as though they have given up (or screwed up) their first mover status and have chosen to move on

And finally, there continues to be o commitment to the right type of training that allows people to think critcally, make key decisions based on proven influence models and just generally grow up as market executives. I spoke with one senior agency head who has been in China for over 35 years. His Comment? “One generation away.” He answerd the same question in 2006 with the same answer he provided in January : One generation away. I believe him.

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7 Steps To Strategic Greatness

In 2005, I left Los Angeles to work in China on a film production called “The Wall” (you guessed it) for Warner Bros. and China Film Group. It seemed like a great idea at the time. The Hollywood film industry had been devastated by nearly a decade of labor and union strife. Production costs were skyrocketing and marketing budgets were matching them. Young, cheap production and marketing talent was flooding the market at little or no cost to studios and agencies.

Overnight, the film industry turned into an Ivy League campus. Harvard, Yale, Amherst, Williams and Stanford grads offered themselves up in exchange for an internship- the gold standard having become a slot reading scripts at Universal or sorting mail (yep, they had mail in those days) at CAA.

Suddenly, I was old and expensive. Given the opportunity, I came to the quick conclusion that It was time to explore, After 122 films- over two dozen Oscar nominees like Kramer vs Kramer, The Big Chill and Midnight Express- I saw an opening into a new world. I jumped. I was off to Beijing.

Upon arrival, things went sideways quickly. Within a couple of months, Warner Bros. walked away from the production and shut down production operations as well as their Beijing studio and their presence in China. With them went the Western production and executive talent. The film script disappeared into SARFT, the censorship arm of the Chinese government (never saw it again). My Mandarin language skills were sorely lacking, and my partners took their guanxi (basically Chinese for “relationships”) with them.

Upon recent reflection, I came to the conclusion that much of my situation was identifiable, some of it was predictable and at least a couple of issues were downright obvious.

Could I have made better a better decision in the first place?

As I look back on this (things actually turned out OK in the end), I asked myself the question: “when faced with this critical choice, if I knew then what I know now, would I have made the same decisions?

Maybe.

Should I have bet everything on “maybe”?

Probably not.

I was trained originally as a management consultant. On behalf of my clients and myself, I deal with risk and uncertainty every day. What I now know is that, In even the most well-known organizations, key decisions are often left to chance or, at best, to an organized guessing game.

With all of today’s planning tools available, its staggering how often leaders still have a difficult time navigating the rapids of uncertainty. My key learning has been that not factoring into key decisions the impact of unknown events can derail even the best ideas and initiatives.

I also know that:

This damage to creativity, client relationships and individual careers is not inevitable. It doesn’t have to occur.

While no one can predict the future, the risks that are caused by not exploring it effectively can punish a company’s bottom line. The good news is that uncertainty and change can be managed and reduced significantly. The resulting savings to organizations and their clients almost certainly will return the entire cost of the time spent on learning how to do this.

Before I came to China and while working with BMW’s Designworks team and their new CEO Henrik Fisker (future inventor of the Fisker Car) in Southern California. My partners at True North Leadership and I implemented a training program that we called “War Games”. We used scenario planning, teambuilding,micro-assessment and leadership coaching to train a team of 20 managers (who oversaw 140 designers and innovation teams).

Our goal with this three-month program was to teach mid and senior level leaders how to 1) reduce uncertainty caused by unpredictable events, 2) increase the speed and accuracy of decisions that must be made quickly, and; 3) measure the results incrementally and continuously to gauge progress of an initiative.

“War Games” was both a learning lab and a planning exercise, and it was a fantastic experience. The program used information and data that was crafted from then-current company strategy and live marketplace scenarios. This type of dynamic process allowed the teams and their leaders to learn how to reduce risk by testing a broad range of decision options across multiple stakeholders before going to market with a strategy.

We subsequently took the program to more innovative companies:,Ford, GM, Dreamworks Animation and Accenture and the like. Over the next three years we uncovered some valuable information:

In organizations that do not prepare and practice for constant change, key decisions are left to chance and guessing. The inability of key managers to deal with this type of uncertainty can kill even the best ideas and initiatives.

  1. In organizations that do not prepare and practice for constant change, key decisions are left to chance and guessing.
  2. The inability of key managers to deal with this type of uncertainty can kill even the best ideas and initiatives.
  3. This damage to organizations and individual careers is 100% preventable.
  4. Innovative planning should be integrated with strategy and it should be built to fit into real time, real world campaign launches, project management and interactive customer marketing programs.
  5. When facing the task of making a tough choice or making no choice at all, too often “standing pat” is chosen as a decision option.
  6. When “standing pat” occurs, every stakeholder suffers, primarily because so much is left to chance. Worse yet, decisions are left to guesses made by the wrong people.
  7. Making a tough decision provides choices and options that could never be otherwise predicted.

In the end, my overriding management mantra, which has served me well over the past 25 years is:

when faced with a tough decision, don’t pass on the opportunity to be great. It’s not OK to be afraid. Think through the options. Make the best decisions that you can and know that, in the end, your work will contribute positively to change.

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terry7 Steps To Strategic Greatness