When I was 23-years-old, I ran away and joined a circus.

I was not a lion tamer, sword swallower, daredevil, roustabout or acrobat. I was the guy in charge of getting all those people seen by as many people as possible.

I was an advance man. I traveled ahead of the show and pimped it hard, living for three weeks at a clip in the cheap motels of the small and medium-sized towns the circus played.

My responsibilities included negotiating all media buys, blanketing the market with paid media (negotiated half cash/half trade for tickets), and arranging promotional media (ticket giveaways), publicity, public relations, and media relations.

I also ordered hay for the elephants and arranged for the cleaning of porta-potties (“donikers” in circus-speak–– toilets mounted on truck flatbeds).

Sounds pretty glamorous, right?

Before I joined the circus, I had been a copywriter at a couple of ad agencies where I learned I wasn’t very good at office politics. I felt a job traveling America promoting a circus would improve my writing chops and be good for my advertising career.

So, was it? Absolutely. (Please, refrain from clown jokes.)

When I returned to the copywriting life after a circus season, agency people looked at me like I had six heads when I told them about my advance man past (I wish I did have six heads–– that would have been a surefire circus attraction, and those extra noggins would have helped in brainstorming ad concepts).

What valuable nuggets did I learn from my big top days?

I learned to be independent. In the circus, I was on my own when I arrived to work a new market. I was always the stranger in town.

Like working on a brand people have never heard of–– we each have to establish our identities.

My calling card was a circus. For some, that held excitement, romance, and adventure. Others viewed me as a sleazy carnie–– someone looking to fleece the locals, pick their pockets, and skip town without paying bills.

Like any aspect of marketing communications, gaining trust was difficult, but critical.

The circus gig taught me a better understanding of people. I was always the outsider, unknown, suspected, and distrusted. I empathized with the suspicions and trepidations of locals and worked to gain their confidence.

In my travels, I learned that every person wants acknowledgment and appreciation for who he or she is.

Geography changed, humanity didn’t.

There are marketers who still haven’t learned this. They want to communicate what they want, not what the audience wants.

I learned the importance of simple, consistent messaging. Because a circus plays limited time engagements, every message had the show dates, location, times, ticket prices and where to buy them.

In marketing, we must remind ourselves what we want our audiences to do, and show them how they can do it.

My best circus dates seemed to be the result of coordinated efforts. I always tried getting local businesses to lend their name to our show with co-op promos. I engaged the local media for performer interviews and participation in circus activities.

Like with social media, I learned it’s important to build a tribe and let them help you spread your good word.

I learned the power of emotional hooks. People remember their first circus. For parents, there’s emotional power in exposing their children to a circus, a four-thousand-year-old art form.

It’s like the pride parents take bringing their children to Disney World. In marketing, emotional drivers beat rational reasons every time.

I also learned there were no sure things.

There were towns where the messaging was strong, clear, and unified, where the P.R. and publicity were incredible, but the crowd sizes were meh.

There wasn’t always a correlation between my efforts expended and the results achieved. Some towns weren’t circus towns, or, maybe the location or dates were bad.

Who knows the problem? Things happen.

The same is true in marketing. Sometimes you can do everything well, and it still doesn’t work.

Learn what you can and move on. It’s best not to obsess over failures. Humans are unpredictable.

The circus I worked for folded its big top last year. And soon Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey will be calling it quits after 146-years.

I suspect some day all circuses will vanish. But I’ll always treasure my circus days–– when I was a mustached stranger in a bad suit, new in town and scrambling to establish trust.

It’s what I’ve been doing ever since for advertisers.

It’s amazing some stories take so long before they’re told, but fortunately, 55-years after the fact, “Hidden Figures” is finally on the big screen.

This compelling movie is the true story of three African-American women working on the United States space program at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

The year is 1962, and segregation is in full force. There are “colored” water fountains, “colored” restrooms, and even a “colored computers” room where African-American women analysts work. Civil rights protests are underway as police, dogs and water hoses are turned on American citizens searching for their equality guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

It’s an ugly time.

Prejudice and misogyny are two strikes the main characters face daily. Mathematician Katherine Goble Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and informal supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) must surmount the roadblocks put before them.

They are varied, and they are many.

The women are recognized for their color, and because of that, have a hard time being recognized for their brains, skills, and ambitions.

But the space race is on, and John F. Kennedy is dreaming big. The Russians are off to an early lead, and American pride is on the line. Can the space race ease some of the racial barriers Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy face?

The IBM 7090 computer is also an important character. This incredible new technology takes up an entire room and requires a crew of computer specialists to operate and stacks of cards that must be programmed with complex FORTRAN code to run calculations.

The machine is destined to render obsolete the work of brilliant mathematician Katherine Goble Johnson. Her primary duties are double checking the figures of other mathematicians and formulating calculations.

She reports to Sheldon from “Big Bang Theory” (Jim Parsons, perfect in the jerk role), and they both report to Kevin Costner, the benevolent head of the space program.

Our three main characters face race issues from humans, along with technology issues from machines.

The stakes are high–– on the line is Astronaut John Glenn’s butt in a space capsule and American pride.

“Hidden Figures” is an incredible story of three extraordinary people overcoming the odds and making a lasting impact.

We know the history of the space program’s accomplishments, but until recently, few of us knew the stories of these women and how they helped make those achievements possible.

Do yourself a favor, see “Hidden Figures” and prepare to be moved, and outraged at how society behaved in our not so distant past.

It’s one of the best films of 2016.

The short answer is, “Yes.”

If your job can be automated, it probably will be.

If it can be performed more precisely and cheaply by a techno-gizmo, it’s just a matter of time until it will be.

If what you produce as a human can be done by a machine, technology has a target on your back that it will read once we install its target-recognition software.

Cue the ironic trombones; the ones only humans understand because technology is still befuddled by the nuance of irony.

Humanity’s got that going for it–– irony, baby. Irony!

Despite what politicians say about protecting good middle-class-building factory jobs, those are vanishing, and not just to places with cheaper labor pools.

The real enemy of middle class employment is usually technology, as stated in this recent NEW YORK TIMES article.

We live in changing times where flux is the norm and we all must learn to adapt. Or become irrelevant.

So, what’s this mean for marketing in the Twenty-First Century? How can we ensure our survival and relevance in a world where our audience is justifiably fearful, skeptical and often cynical?

It means we have to be more human and empathetic and compassionate about our audiences than ever before. We’re all under stress, all overworked and under-appreciated.

Potentially, we’re all in the crosshairs of technology. To quote baseball legend and philosopher king Satchel Paige, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

Marketers should be more respectful of people’s time. And be more rewarding with our messaging–– adding value, entertaining, informing, inspiring, and making every encounter an enriching one.

In 2017, let’s be more creative and more artful with our craft. Let’s stand out and stand for something.

Technology enables ways to reach people in new and innovative ways, but let’s always remember they are just channels to humanity. The messages we deliver have the potential to change beliefs, pique interests, and motivate masses.

One message and one individual at a time.

If you are not up for the challenge, if you’re willing to surrender your insights, your intellect, your perspective and point of view, artistry and creativity in being a human being, be prepared to rendered obsolete.

Because technology will prevail.

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People have always been suspicious of marketers. We are the sideshow barkers preaching our promises to the masses, inviting them to buy our wares and enjoy the incredible benefits our clients’ products and services provide.

Our audiences have always taken our messages with a grain of salt. Make that a boulder of salt.

Fair enough. We know the game and somehow have to build credibility, so we love and nurture social media for unbiased comments and reviews. But now, even that is suspect.

It’s easy enough to fake reviews or give products away for favorable words. People are catching on to that sleazy game and becoming suspicious that maybe the alleged real people are just shills.

Carnie barkers always had shills–– right?

Yes, our problem gaining credibility with a suspicious public is worse than ever, and it’s compounded by the fact that today truth is whatever people want it to be.

And that should scare the hell out of everyone.

Think about it: whatever you’d like to believe, you can find support for it. It’s easy. Google it, go down that rabbit hole, and you’ll find like-minded people.

You can also question any alleged ‘truth’ and find counter points-of-view. Oh, and to make matters easier, social networks like Facebook will ensure you have an enthusiastic crowd in your echo chamber, then feed you and your posse a steady diet of news supporting your POV to stoke your passions and get those clicker fingers itching.

It’s all about the clicks, babe.

Technology has made it possible for each of us to construct a worldview cocoon and narrowcast perspective. Since human beings crave attention and love affirmation, we can give ourselves thumbs ups and pats on the back when people agree with us.

And why wouldn’t they? They’re your tribe, your people, and when you’re shouting into a canyon, your echo is rich and fulfilling.

And what of the news itself? Well, what flavor would you like? Conservative? Liberal? Alt right? Socialist? Green Party? Neo-vegan with a twist of Whig?

You can find your like-minded news feed; that’s easy. But sadly, people today have such short attention spans, and all media has had to cut back on real journalism because it requires lots of time and money, so most of what passes for news is just pundits spewing talking points and feel-good puppies-lost-are-found-type stories.

It’s hyperbolic bombast or fluffy puff pieces.

Sigh.

In the “X-Files,” Mulder and Scully were always in search of the truth. Now all of us are on that journey, but we’re on our own.

Me? I believe that the aliens who landed in Area 51 are sequestered in a small office adjacent to the Oval Office, and they command our leaders. The aliens our overlords.

I know this for a fact because I read it on the internet.

Good luck on your journey finding truth, and know your audience is doing the same. Be empathetic to their struggles and suspicions.

A sideshow barker’s job isn’t getting any easier.

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We live in an age of worshipping at the altar of big data. We want the numbers to tell us the story, and the biggest numbers rule our decisions.

It’s stupid, and it’s dangerous.

Look at what happened in the recent presidential election–– the numbers had Hillary as a shoe-in to the oval office, the only question was by how much she would dominate Donald.

But surprise! The numbers lied. More accurately, people lied, or at least didn’t disclose their true intentions.

The media narrative became that the flyover states rebelled against the liberal elites on the coasts–– that it was rural people versus city slickers.

People’s passion for candidates was missed or not measured, or, voters didn’t want to tell pollsters their true intention to vote for Trump because they thought they would be labeled in judgmental ways.

Whatever happened, it was a big fail for big data. The pollsters historically blew it.

Well, guess what? The same thing is happening in marketing where there is an overreliance on analytics, metrics, numbers.

Many marketers are terrified to trust their instincts and get caught making a gut decision. Nope, that can be trouble and most CMOs don’t want to make an artistic choice based on empathy, creativity, passion, and understanding of humanity.

Instead, they want numbers to tell them what to do. Test, test, test, test, and may the highest number win.

“GIVE ME MY METRICS, ANALYTICS, GRAPHS AND AN EXTRA HEAPING HELPING OF PIE CHARTS!”

Do that–– and the numbers will cover your ass.

Relying on numbers alone is a fool’s game.

Yes, use numbers to learn, but don’t use them as a crutch for making decisions. All great ideas are leaps of understanding and imagination; they are not made great in continual 1% increments of improving a decent idea over and over and over again.

You are human. You have experiences, emotions, intellect, and creativity. Those are the tools you need to help communicate with other human beings in meaningful ways.

What is going to pique someone’s interest, spark curiosity or ignite his/her passion about trying your brand?

WHAT?!

I believe the reason so little marketing work today connects emotionally and shines is that it has been incrementally improved to score a number. The life and humanity have been sanitized out of it.

You’re a person, not a computer. You’re trying to communicate with other people.

Act more human. And do so 100% of the time.

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I think we’ve all had our fills of politics. We somehow survived the never-ending presidential race and were pummeled senseless with negative political ads and forecasts of impending doom (with a healthy side of gloom).

And when the dust settled, the victory of Donald J. Trump taught marketers a few important things about American life in the twenty-first century.

1. Many citizens are not happy with business or politics as usual; an outsider is appealing

2. A lot of people are suffering

3. Many people are tired of being ignored and marginalized

4. Fear is rampant, and fear is cancer–– ease fears

5. People like easy answers and the promise of simple solutions (the ol’ KISS formula)

6. Trust is critical, and trust is relative

7. Humans want to believe, have to believe in something

8. We like being heroes and told we’re exceptional and superior to others

9. We yearn for the certainty of the past and are leery of the uncertainty of the future

10. Media wants a good show because media is show business–– it’s all about attracting an audience and selling its attention

11. Don’t always believe the numbers, over-relying on data is a fool’s game

12. Data rarely captures emotion effectively

13. Internet technology enables whatever version of truth you like, and it’s easy to affirm beliefs (see #8)

Those are just a few of things to keep in mind in preparing your messages for the modern marketplace. If you assume it’s business as usual, if you think that rational reasoning is enough, you do so at your peril.

Humans are emotional creatures, and you must appreciate the emotions of your audiences, and be empathetic to them.

The upshot of this election was pretty clear: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

How are you going to help people make their lives better?

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I want to go to Mars.

I want to be on the spaceship with the original, the one and only Dos Equis “The Most Interesting Man in The World.”

He’s the guy I love. He’s the bearded cat behind my favorite campaign of the last decade. The brand decided to put the old spokesman (he’s 77) out to pasture last year.

Mars in one hell of a far pasture to be cast to, but, I guess they decided he was too old to get the job done.

Rather than do the right thing and just kill the campaign, the brand is trying to maintain its momentum by re-booting it with a new younger “TMIMITW.” So far, he’s appeared in two commercials. The first was a teaser. Well, the bartender was interesting, but the new guy? Hmm. I reserved judgment to see where it was going.

The second commercial re-launching the campaign just broke, and it epitomizes everything that’s wrong with our business today.

TMIMITW’s originality and fun have been sanitized, and heavy doses of marketingese have been clumsily injected.

The new younger man is shown racing a beautiful woman in airboats across desert sands! Active lifestyle, got it!

Then, get a load of this–– he and she spar with Samurai armor!!! Whereas the old TMIMITW was admired by beautiful women, the new one competes with one.

But you’re not going to see who wins these battles of the sexes. Wouldn’t be right, might be perceived as sexist, and hey–– women drink beer, too. Can’t alienate a market.

Check the box for political correctness AND expanding brand appeal.

BUT WAIT! The couple competes again throwing knives. This time, he splits a knife in two with one of his throws–– and she is impressed. Ah, but they were not competing. The camera reveals the couple was working together making knife art depicting a whale!!!

See that, men and women CAN work together!!! Uplifting visual message, got it.

Then, this year’s model takes a helicopter to tailgate on the Serengeti where he carves a coconut into a football and kicks a field goal between two giraffe necks!!! The marketing people tell us Dos Equis has some big football sponsorships. Brand association with the events sponsored, roger wilco!

Cut to quick shot of a Dos Equis draft pull handle as the amber nectar glides into a frosty glass, (does this Serengeti rock, or what?). Then a suitcase is kicked open and what’s this? A television set is inside, and a football game is being broadcast. Kooky!!! People are excited by the game and cheer. Time for the wrap-up, folks.

The new Interesting dude proudly holds a can of Dos Equis and delivers the old “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis” line.

Cut to product shot of Dos Equis in all its available containers: a can, a bottle, and a draft glass with logo. Brand I.D. with all forms the beverage is available in–– check, check, and CHECK!!!

Here’s the big idea finish. The old fart who was interesting used to say, “Stay thirsty, my friends!” But our new hip guy says, “Stay thirsty, mis amigos!”

He’s bilingual!!!!! Brand appeal across cultures– got it!

Spike the coconut, let’s dance!!!

The agency spin on this new campaign evolution is that the new Most Interesting Man is a man of action, with fast pace situations and more energy. And because this YOLO cat does not look back, there are no flashbacks as in the old TMIMITW.

Apparently, the past is for old losers, man.

Heineken USA Chief Marketing Officer Nuno Teles, said this about the new direction: “The temptation of a marketing director is to kill good ideas. Since the beginning of this project, I said, listen, the idea is good, it just needs to be executed in a better way.”

Well, the writing of the campaign is still pretty good, but the rest of it looks and sounds like a team of MBAs created it in a ham-fisted effort to yank at the wallet strings of the beer consuming public.

The new man has no soul, no heart. He’s not interesting. He’s a marketing wolf in sheep’s clothing, and I suspect he’s not long for this world.

Or Mars.

Unless this campaign shows some backbone, some originality not designed to resonate with legal age beer drinkers, he will die.

And should die.

Was anyone smart enough to put a camera in that spacecraft carrying the original TMIMITW?

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There’s a valid reason most people hate politicians–– they’re full of crap.

Politicians are know-it-alls. They claim to have the answer and sell it as gospel. “This is the absolute best way–– the ONLY way–– forward. Trust me!”

Until they shift positions and announce a new tact guaranteed to be the perfect solution. For sure!

Solving complex problems is easy! Amazing.

Imagine how refreshing it would be if a politician acted human and occasionally said, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure. Let’s try it and see.” Or, “Beats the hell out of me.”

Marketers sometimes behave like politicians. They develop a marketing attack plan and stick to it, no matter what. They dance with the one that brung ‘em… until their feet fall off.

Ad agency people usually do the opposite. When invited to pitch an account, we ignore the past. We’re convinced there’s a better way (why else would the account be in review?).

Long ago, I worked at a huge agency when the Federal Express account came up for review. Our agency was one of a few invited to pitch the business. Over a long holiday weekend, the agency’s entire creative department (400 people) began conceiving brilliant FedEx ad campaigns.

And after three days, every team working on the creative exploratory felt it had the answer for how to make FedEx’s business skyrocket. We were confident we had mined the secret formula for turbo-charging the overnight shipping business.

Imagine that! Bada bing–– easy peasy.

Our agency didn’t win the Fed-Ex business, and the winning agency created a campaign that lived about as long as it takes a cup of hot coffee to cool down. 

This marketing business is apparently much harder than it looks.

But it’s like that in every new business pitch. Agencies swagger as they try and divine quicksilver solutions for golden success.

Hey, it’s what we’re paid to do–– swagger, strut, and dispense brilliance while you wait. 

Of course, it’s preposterous. But it’s equally asinine for clients to expect agencies to create brilliant answers in new business pitches when they share little accurate business information (out of fear) and give cryptic feedback on work (keeping their cards close to the chest). 

Trust and collaboration are crucial. And usually absent.

The artificially contrived nature of most new business pitches is like trying to guess a number between one and ten–– and later discovering the answer is a fraction.

I had a feeling it was 4 and 7/16ths!

The truth is that thinking we have the answer almost never leads to the answer. The best approach is to attack the situation with genuine curiosity, questioning things, maintaining our empathy and humanity in search of truth and illumination. 

Don’t leap to answers. Be curious, discover, learn, and envelope yourself in knowledge. 

Get lost. Good and lost. Hansel and Gretel without any bread lost!

Then–– maybe then–– we’ll have a chance of finding our way.

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In honor of Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, I cribbed from the master for this post’s headline because in five words he perfectly captured the results of a recent marketer poll. The results were published in AD AGE.

The poll was conducted with leading advertisers and registers their discontent with their marketing service firms.

Get a load of this:
– 66% plan creative agency reviews
– 65% plan to review search agencies
– 64% will review media agencies
– 61% are ready to review digital agencies

Can you say, “Ouch?”

Right now, many marketing services people are headed to the bar to drown their sorrows, or the bathroom to slash their wrists. How did we get to this pitiful state?

Like a marriage gone bad, it all comes down to trust. 48% of advertisers said their agencies were not open and transparent on costs. 34% confess they don’t trust their agencies.

Of course, 48% of these marketers admitted they do not give their agencies KPIs, and 40% don’t share their sales data.

So, the client-agency relationship is guarded at best, cantankerous and combative at worst. And now, the folks with the checkbook have wandering eyes and dreams of better partners.

This is bad news for everyone. Agencies scrambling to defend accounts will divert attention from their other accounts, and probably create more dissatisfied clients.

And clients searching for relief will have to divert their attention to conducting time-consuming agency reviews and persistent leg-humping from every company with any marketing chops. “I know our firm says Four Aces Promotional Products, but we’re actually a fully integrated shop that can put your logo on pens and coasters! Need any digital or koozies?”

It’ll be a feeding frenzy with agencies bending over backward and diving through rings of fire to prove their worthiness, and then lowering their worth by doing the how-low-can-you-go limbo dance for compensation. Whatever it takes to get the business– got to have that sweet, sweet revenue stream.

Then, guess what? After the honeymoon period, chances are the client will be unhappy again because the agency can’t deliver what it promised as a result of the narrow margins it offered to win the account, and its need to divert the best brains to winning more profitable accounts.

Can you say, “Vicious cycle?”

It seems in marketing, the times they are not a-changin’.

Sorry, Bob.

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In 1968, Andy Warhol famously said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

Ever since, we’ve all been working on trying to prove Andy right. But it’s hard.

Even with computers, laptops, notebooks, smartphones, social media, seven degrees of separation and our constant relative proximity to Kevin Bacon, getting famous is a royal bitch.

And “world famous”–– well, that’s a very tall order.

But some people do it. They win the fame lottery. They have their moment and bask in their fifteen-minute spotlight. And others, like those named Kardashian, we know every little thing they do or say for ages and ages–– as if they are fonts of eternal wisdom.

God help us.

Years after Andy said his famous quote about fame; he said this: “I’m bored with that line. I never use it anymore. My new line is ‘In 15 minutes everybody will be famous.’”

And that’s where we are today, everyone striving to be famous. We write our posts, tweets, blogs, comments, rants, raves, bitches, reviews and churn out pictures and videos like Hollywood and Bollywood combined. We curate our lives of eternal happiness and perfection on social media and wait for the world to follow us as we stockpile ‘likes’ like they are currency, and we are broke.

In a world full of people starved for attention, you, dear marketer, must somehow pierce the veils of self-obsession on screens and make your brand famous.

Good luck with that.

If you need some help, call. We’ll use empathy and creativity to create some work that will do Andy proud.

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