Thursday, September 14, 2006


The Incongruity of Seemingly Unconnected Things

Years ago, when I worked in a bureaucratic graphic arts multinational, I was accused of not fitting in because I was too “flip.” I have even had people shake their heads in presentations wondering how I can make light of some things which seem so dire. Long ago, I learned that the definition of humor was “the recognition of an incongruity.” Later, in reading Peter Drucker, I learned that being a successful entrepreneur requires one to find “incongruities in the marketplace.” Coincidence? I think not. Most successful entrepreneurs I have met have a different, sometimes warped way of looking at things that rendered them dysfunctional in organizational settings and performing heroic business acts once outside them. Not everyone sees incongruities, and if they do, they can't always make sense of them when they do.

An interesting aspect of the U.S. economy is that it is so large and dynamic that it has room to support two totally opposite trends, in other words, a trend and a countertrend, at the same time. At the same time Wal-Mart grows, people buy $300 iPods. The Internet can replace print, but that's how we send our PDFs to the printer. People drive for miles to save a penny on gasoline, using more gas than the savings. I write about the printing industry... on the Internet. There's no humor in these things? We are immersed in incongruities.

This week, the Wall Street Journal had an article about the billing practices of printers, which was also picked up by Reuters. Reviewing the story reminded me how years ago, some typographers could make more than half of their income from “authors alterations,” something that was killed by word processing and desktop publishing. It was common for additional charges to print jobs because of problems detected in various proofing stages; many of these are gone. In financial printing, which is what this article was about, last minute legal rewordings and data crunching on close deadline are common, and often document creators are more concerned about making submission deadlines than they are about the costs of their tweaking. This particular case looks pretty adversarial, unfortunately. Much of Wall Street's perceptions of the printing industry are based on their own experiences with printing financial documents.

An Advertising Age article described a meeting of GM's media “partners,” with the goal “to forge more cross-media deals and integrated, multiplatform marketing opportunities.” Already, the Publishers Information Bureau has reported a 14% decline in magazine advertising pages by the automotive sector for January through August 2006. Just-released Commerce Department data shows an increase in advertising agency revenues for the past year in inflation-adjusted terms of almost 7%. Those dollars are going somewhere. Invitees to the GM meeting, by the way, included Time Warner, Viacom, Universal, Walt Disney Co., Google, NBC Universal and Hearst Corp. Did I read that right? Google? Really? Google? Yes, Google.

But wait! There's more! Copywriter Arthur Schiff, famed for his role in the creation of the informercial, who brought that phrase and the “Ginsu” knife to television, died recently. People complained about his sitting in his office, staring into space, doing nothing. When someone complained, he said “I am working. You pay me to think. What do you suppose thinking looks like?”

International consulting firm McKinsey has posted a book up on their website, for free download, that discusses the difficult jobs marketers have today. The title of the book is about the issues in marketing today. It's called “Profiting from Proliferation.” Reaching audiences is more complex than ever. As they put it, “An explosion of new customer segments, sales and service channels, media, and brands is challenging marketers to reinvent themselves so they can simultaneously prioritize opportunities in a more sophisticated way and increase the consistency and coordination of their marketing execution.” Remember how years ago Marshall McLuhan told us that “the medium is the message”? It's more clear than ever that the message is the message, and content creators don't control the access environment of their target audience.

So what's it all mean? We don't need to be reminded that satisfied customers reduce marketing costs and contribute to the long-term survival of a company. When this process gets into court, it usually means that there were a long pattern of failures and clashes leading to that point. Dissatisfaction with the status quo leads to a search for new ways of doing things, alternatives explored, and questioning whether or not something needs to be done in the first place. GM, a media client so large that throngs of media suppliers can be commanded to attend a meeting on short notice. The attendees represent the marketplace and its alternatives, and an indication of GM's dissatisfaction with what it's been doing. Even the Ginsu knife ad communicated a sense of value to its audience, a value worth acting upon. Was it hucksterism? Sure it was. But anyone who had the annoyance of dealing with dull knives could replace their dissatisfaction with delight.

And that's how it all ties together: dissatisfaction is a gateway to change. I was taught long ago that the marketing definition of a problem is “a perceived difference between the actual state and the desired state.” Dissatisfaction is the first step to looking for new ways of doing things, whether it's to stop working with a supplier, or inventing a new approach.

The way to discover problems to be solved is to look for incongruities. Clarify what the problems are, because others may not see them at first; perception is critical. Develop a plausible solution. It will be interesting to see how those financial printing companies diffuse a festering problem into a viable solution. Or how media companies deal with GM's desire to increase response by finding an optimal media mix (which others will attempt to imitate). Whatever the case, the purpose of entrepreneurship is to solve other people's problems.

“Proliferation” is an opportunity for our industry, because viewing communications that way allows us to enter the discussion of media in a new way. Such a report reflects rampant confusion or ignorance about media selection and deployment in today's marketplace. Are we up to the task of making the case for print?


WSJ article

Reuters article

Advertising Age article

Publishers Information Bureau

Commerce Department data

Ginsu ad

Arthur Schiff obituary

McKinsey book

Marshall McLuhan

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?