Marketing vocab lesson

I noticed this new ad for the Amazon Kindle today….

….and then was reading my friend Tom Fishburne’s weekly Brand Camp marketoon: “What Ads Say” (due homage paid to Gary Larson)

It seems so obvious that the best way to speak to our customers and describe what we do is by using regular language, but it’s so rarely what we do.

The Amazon ad struck me because “No wi-fi hot spot required” is a sentence you absolutely couldn’t have used as ad copy 10 years ago, or 5 years ago….2 years ago? Eh, probably not.

Where you sit relative to the vocabulary your customers are comfortable with is a conscious choice, one that communicates something about your brand and where it sits relative to the mainstream.  Of course if you’re actually writing ad copy – as opposed to, say, blogging or communicating in some other sort of anticipated, personal and relevant way – then by definition you’re shooting for the mainstream and you should pick your words accordingly.

Occasionally, just occasionally, you can decide to teach your customers new vocabulary (e.g. “4G”).  But I can’t think of a single occasion when it’s OK to use jargon.

There’s only one

Tom Fishburne and I went to business school together, which means I was lucky enough to be a very early reader of his “Skydeck cartoons,” funny musings on what life is really like at Harvard Business School.  Tom and I knew each other a little bit at school, and have since gotten to know each other better as we’re each interested in marketing, storytelling and creating the path you want to walk.

In a perfect reflection of our brave new world, yesterday I saw a tweet of Tom’s that referenced a blog post he wrote, in which gave away the whole presentation (slides, text, the whole shebang) he did at the Do Lectures recently (yes, just writing that sentence made my head spin).

Tom’s presentation is a detailed, funny, honest account of the last 11 years of his life, and the path he walked from business school student to brand marketer to professional cartoonist.

If you’re at all interested in writing, publishing, spreading ideas, and how that all happens today (not how it used to happen and how we might wish it still were), check out Tom’s talk.  And if you work for an organization that wants to spread ideas in a new, creative way, you just might want to see if you can get Tom’s help.

Since Tom he was a kid he dreamed about becoming a cartoonist, but it never seemed like a viable profession (some facts: Bob Mankoff, the Cartoon Editor at the New Yorker, gets 1,000+ submissions a week for 17 cartoon spots, most of which are filled by veterans.  In 1995, Tom’s cartooning idols – Bill Waterson (Calvin and Hobbs), Gary Larson (The Far Side), and Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County) – all retired because of their frustrations with traditional newspaper cartooning).

Tom hadn’t cartooned in a while but, bugged by a business school classmate back in 2000, Tom started a weekly cartoon for the Harvard Business School newspaper.  Fun stuff that got folks’ attention, but definitely a hobby for Tom.

Upon graduation he worked in product marketing at P&G and then went on to work at method.  From all accounts, Tom really enjoyed this work.

Along the way, week in and week out, Tom kept cartooning, kept building his tribe (starting with just 40 people at P&G to whom he’d send his marketing cartoons), kept working.  Prominent folks (Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki, the NY Times) wrote about his work which increased his audience, but it was all a labor of love – he was making no money, making time for all this in addition to his (big and growing) day job.

But slowly, paid gigs started coming in, and Tom realized that he might, just might, be able to make his passion into his profession. (all the details of how he made the decision here)

Fast forward to 2010: Tom, having just gotten a promotion at method, decides it’s his “now or never” moment – if he doesn’t leap now, he never will.  So he leaps.

Panic, fear, terror, ensue.  Tom is, after all, a SITKOM: “Single Income, Two Kids, Oppressive Mortgage.”

Yet nine months later (his goal was a year) Tom’s hit his goals to bring in from cartooning what he did working for method.  It’s all happening for Tom.

Of the many funny and insightful insights for startups/freelancers/how-to-pursue-your-dreams folks, the one I love the most is the quotation from Jerry Garcia: “you do not want to be considered the best of the best.  You want to be the only one who does what you do.”

The other big insight is about there being no shortcuts.  While it took Tom took nine months from the day he quit method to earn enough money to support his family, it actually took him 10 years and 9 months from the date he started cartooning to make this all happen.

The confusing thing about social media and the internet era is that the stories that spread are about overnight successes.  Yet the reality for most of the world is about hyper-specialization and methodical audience-building that pays off after a LONG long time.  The Web 2.0 meme is about speed, but for nearly everyone there are no shortcuts.

The big question to ask yourself is: how do you feel about the notion of becoming the only one who does what you do?

The moment you decide you’re not scared of that – and the moment you realize that you’re not going to know on Day One of your 10 year journey what exactly that thing is – is the moment you’re free to get started.

Tom is an amazing cartoonist and I love his work.  And at a time when the greats of a previous era are hanging up their pens, Tom’s just getting started.  That’s because, while there are thousands of really incredible cartoonists out there, there’s only one Marketoonist.


The power of combinatory skills

Last Monday night, if you happened to be one of the 2,000+ people at Carnegie Hall, you were lucky enough to hear a powerful, arresting performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony played, perhaps for the first and last time in history, with images of victims of Pakistan’s floods illuminating the hall.  The concert was a benefit for Acumen Fund, but more than that, it was a powerful statement of the role we all have in rebuilding in the face of tragedy and destruction, and of how different worlds (classical music and Acumen Fund; an Indian conductor putting on a concert for Pakistan; Carnegie Hall and the Punjab) can come together.

George Mathew conducted that beautiful music and made the concert happen.

It’s the “making the concert happen” part that represents the future.  What makes George unique is the combinatory skills he possesses – he’s not just a trained classical musician capable of leading one of the most outstanding collections of musicians to grace the Carnegie Hall stage (though that’s a great start).  George had the vision, the gumption, the persuasive capacity, and the sheer doggedness to make this vision happen.  No one asked George to do it.  No one gave him permission. No one asked if he was qualified.

In the old days, the way forward for a classical musician (or a writer, or someone playing in a band, or starting a nonprofit or even writing cartoons) was: get as good as you possibly could at your craft and hope to win the ticket to the big time, conferred by some arbiter of taste and access.  If you’re a classical musician, you’d win the Tchaikovsky competition.  If you’re a writer, Random House would pick up your book AND decide to promote it.  In cartooning, you’d make the funny pages and be syndicated nationally.

What’s changed?

Two things:

  1. The industries into which you’re selling have transformed radically, so the power of the gatekeepers has plummeted.  Book publishing is gasping for air, the funny pages are disappearing, classical music (I hate to say) was never all that popular to begin with, and nonprofits still typically underperform, undergrow, underdream.
  2. It’s easier than ever for one committed person to pull people together, build a loyal following, to make their voice heard and sell direct.

But though the old way of doing things is on the way out, we manage to persuade ourselves that the folks who have crossed this chasm are individually exceptional – which is another way of saying “I’m not them, I don’t possess their talents, so their lessons don’t apply to me.”

So we pretend that:

  • Scott Harrison, the founder and CEO of charity:water, has such a unique story (party animal turns do-gooder) that we could never learn the lessons he has to teach.
  • No one could ever be as self-promotional as Tim Ferris, or assemble such an outrageous collection of goodies to make his book sell ($4,000,000 in prize giveaways to sell advance copies of the 4-Hour Body), so there’s little to be learned from the fact that The Four Hour Body rocketed its way to the top of the NY Times best-seller list.
  • Classical musicians are supposed to stick to the music, they don’t create magical experiences like the one George Mathew put together last week.
  • Most cartoonists don’t have MBA’s from Harvard Business School, so they’ll never have the unique collection of talents that Tom Fishburne does over at the Marketoonist.
  • And of course no other authors can really build audience like Seth Godin can…never mind what Chris Guillebeau has done over at the Art of Non-Conformity
  • And, for that matter, fundraisers are just fundraisers – they don’t have anything worth saying about emerging sectors and the role of philanthropy and markets in solving intractable problems….but of course we do.

How many more examples do we need before we understand that this is what the future looks like, and that  it’s here NOW?   How long until we recognize that the heyday of getting picked out of the pile and being catapulted to the cover of Time magazine isn’t coming back – and by the way the chances of that happening were so infinitesimally small that it was a bad deal anyway.  How long until we see that the people defending the old way of doing things are probably those who benefited from it the most, and that while we’re listening to that siren song, someone is out there doing the hard work of building audience, connecting people, sharing their art, and not shying away from the whole craft that the world is demanding of them.

(And, by the way, as Jeff reminded me, you don’t have to DO this all by yourself – teams work too, often better than a solo rockstar.)

Pretending now hasn’t arrived is just burying your head in the sand.  Saying the only thing you know how to do is to work on your craft (narrowly defined), and then bemoaning that you haven’t been discovered…that’s just hiding.

There’s nothing keeping you from embracing today today, from jumping in now, because so many people are still going to want to hide, and if you start building now, I promise you’ll get there.