Latest thinking

What Ship of Theseus teaches us about branding

Ship of Theseus is a complex philosophical question….Ship of Theseus was a successful, sea-faring ship that remained active for hundreds of years because of its constant upkeep, maintenance and replacement of parts.  Plutarch in his book, “Life of Theseus,” raised a question: if every plank of the ship was replaced during its voyage, was it still the same ship? And Thomas Hobbes, built on this (centuries later) by posing another question – if another ship was built out of the discarded parts, was that now the original Ship of Theseus?

“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”

—Plutarch, Theseus[2] 
This question has become a means of debating and exploring the question of one’s identity – is an object more than its part? Are we more than our thoughts?
Lannyland adds another example that makes a similar point:  The little-known story of Steve Jobs and his Mercedes Benz. Steve drove a Mercedes without license plates for years  - thanks to a loop hole in the CA  law.
It turns out there’s a provision in California regulations that give one six months to get license plates for a new car, and Jobs took advantage of it. Yes, he leased a silver Mercedes SL55 AMG, said Callas — and every six months he traded it in for a new one. So to Steve, the car was still The Car of Jobs, but to the Californian DMV, the car was a different one.
I don’t quite know where I’m going with it but I find this thought fascinating. 
We use Ship of Theseus as an example because it was a particularly successful ship. For some reason, it ended up with the best team of sea-farers, the best repairmen, maybe always caught the right currents and avoided the pirates.  For whatever reason, other ships around the same time did not manage to survive long enough to become immortalized in history. I’m assuming they had access to the same resources, the same pool of talent, the same tools for repairs and replacements – but they failed to be as successful as Ship of Theseus. Theseus’ ship was the one that lasted, turning it from  just a ship into an idea to fall in love with, an historical story to respect and pass on.

Abe Lincoln’s axe has also been used in the same argument. His axe was a political and historical legend. Why do we use his axe to illustrate this paradox and not anyone else’s? Lincoln’s axe came not only to symbolize his humble roots but also what he went on to achieve after that, thus immortalizing his humble beginnings and use the axe as a metaphor to signify it.

So perhaps it is not about any object but about certain objects. Not about any individual or company but about certain individuals or companies that transcend their limitations and join history. Make a place in the hearts and minds of the people are more than an object, as a brand.

I can only assume that during its time (or after its time) Ship of Theseus became a brand. A brand that was respected and discussed. And perhaps the public doesn’t let respected brands die so easily.

So, even if another ship is built, plank by plank by the components of the original ship – it is not the Ship of Theseus because it has no history, no story, no brand, becaue it did not hold the same spirit as the original ship. Just as any other axe built from parts of Lincoln’s axe will never be wielded by him and hence will never come Lincoln’s axe.

Ibotta, you gotta.


Ibotta, one of my favorite shopping apps,  is the 16th most frequently used mobile app in the country right now. (Pintrest is at #15).  I love the idea of savings but hoarding coupons and rebate forms is not my thing. This app rewards me in cash for making certain purchases at certain stores. And all I have to do is “scan” (take a photograph!) of my receipts to get the cash deposited directly into my account.

The American super-markets and grocery stores ring in about $550 billion worth of products every year (for context – that is 3x more than Apple’s global annual revenues and about 8x more than Amazon’s global revenues).  Ibotta has already partnered with over 200 retailers and top CPG brands including Wal-Mart, Target, CVS, Kraft etc to drive in-store sales.  Purchasing is not the only way to earn cash  - brands create “Learn and Earn” experiences that field short polls and survey in exchange for cashback. Additionally, brands can also offer combination offers to encourage cross-selling between their brands – which is genius.

The data though is what will make marketers froth at their mouths. Geo-fencing allows retailers to send notifications when a user is are within 50 meters of a store. The receipt uploads (probably aggregated to maintain privacy) offers incredible insights into the customer’s shopping basket, purchase frequency and competitive behaviors.

Ibotta is still young but one to definitely watch. Plus, the guys that work there are very smart and easy to work with.

Additional reading: A more in-depth feature on Techcrunch


It’s not digital, stupid. It’s the future

A young colleague recently asked me,”Why do you define yourself as a digital marketer? I don’t categorize marketing into digital and non-digital.” It got me thinking.

She has a point. Millennial talent such as hers entering the market does not and will not differentiate or compartmentalize marketing the way we do. Digital, however we define it, has revolutionized both marketing communications and business. Disciplines are bleeding into each other. Design agencies are creating business models. PR agencies are managing social. Social agencies are working on defining brand. Content companies are making ads. It’s confusing, exhausting and exhilarating.

However, even as these disciplines bleed into one another, there will be something new on the horizon, a path unexplored, uncharted – the new “digital.” So I suppose it is not about digital as it exists right now, it is about digital as it will exist, or simply put, it is about the future. Our skill-sets have primed us to identify and work with stuff that’s on the fringes. Stuff that doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense even to us right now. 

As this discourse has evolved, so has my interpretation of what it means to be a digital strategist. I wanted to share some recent thinking by others around the future because this is the kind of stimulus that should inform our thinking, evolve our profession and continue to guarantee us a seat at the table with the planners, consultants and magicians. I’ll provide the links, you connect the dots.

Two new appointments at Silicon Valley’s top Venture funds offer signs to the next dialogue in technology 
John Meada leaves RISD for Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers

Balaji Sreenivasan joins Andreessen Horowitz as General Partner

As the venture firm’s first design partner, Maeda’s remit will be to infuse a design-led DNA into portfolio companies. At Andressen Horowitz, 33 year old entrepreneur, academic and youngest Partner at the firm, Balaji will be focusing on decoding how software will reorganize and revolutionize complex, regulated spaces such as mobile money, healthcare etc. It will be interesting to see how this influences the Valley and also the investments coming out of these firms.

Software. and Soft Powers: two concepts that are gaining more momentum and relevance. 
Software is reorganizing the world
Moncole’s 2013 Soft Power Survey 

Fascinating fact: Geodesic distance, a new metric that maps states of mind: ”The separation of our bodies is still best characterized by the geographical distance between points on the surface of the earth, the distance between our minds is increasingly characterized by a completely different metric: the geodesic distance, the number of degrees of separation between two nodes in a social network.”

Vaclav Smil, the man that Bill Gates think you should absolutely be reading, believes owning manufacturing is the way to prosperity for USA. 
“In every society, manufacturing builds the lower middle class. If you give up manufacturing, you end up with haves and have-nots and you get social polarization. The whole middle class sinks.”
A glimpse into the changing family structures and concept in the world’s most powerful country. 
“Families are becoming more socially egalitarian over all, even as economic disparities widen. Families are more ethnically, racially, religiously and stylistically diverse than half a generation ago – than even half a year ago.”  

One man’s attempt to debunk the hype around MOOC’s around a shocking data point: less than 10% of people that sign up for a class actually finish it  
“Not all of those people received a passing grade either, meaning that for every 100 pupils who enrolled in a free course, something like five actually learned the topic. If this was an education revolution, it was a disturbingly uneven one.”


How to avoid Christmas Tree Strategies

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It is every strategist’s dream to work on a challenger brand. Today, I want to share with you what I learned about strategy, and collaboration while working on one such brand. 

This global brand used to be iconic and still is in certain countries. But in the Americas, it has lost its relevance and become “my mom’s brand” as a customer eloquently put it. Despite newer, better advertising, the brand had stopped being relevant to its consumers. It’s advertising told a different story than the products on the shelf. And its website told another story than what was on its social channels. This brand’s competitors, on the other hand, with their 2x media and marketing budgets crafted slick stories and niches. Their TV, print, social and even media sponsorships told one singular story.

When everyone is selling potatoes, the story your potatoes tell matter. A nicer way to say would be, in a commoditized world, brand is the only differentiator. With this brand, no one knew what story it was telling. The people that worked for the brand knew what the story was and their agency-of-record who wrote the story (brand purpose, voice etc) knew what it was. You could wake them up in the middle of the night and show them a word, a color or even an image and they’d tell you if it was on brand or off brand. But there were two problems with this knowledge.

  1. This wasn’t transferring to all the other agencies who were actually executing against it.
  2. This knowledge wasn’t actionable in a way the agencies could execute against it.

Media, digital and shopper agencies struggled to interpret the ambitious, airy and 10,000 feet high brand guidelines. These agencies needed to make sense of them so their community managers knew what kind of content to write and so their media buyers knew what kind of partners to engage. To get there, each of these agencies ended up creating their own processes, strategy documents and workshops. The digital agency put the clients through a Social voice workshop. They started with the brand guidelines and ended up with a set of additional guideliens, verbs and 3 bullet point strategies for social. The media agency put together a jam session to create a media plan. They started with the brand guidelines, and ended up with a set of 3 bullet points and comms task for each of the brand pillars.

What the clients ended up with was a beautifully designed Christmas Tree Strategy with the brand essence at the top of the tree and then layers upon layers of verbs and adjectives and actions that described the brand’s voice, the brand’s strategy, its pillars across social, media and traditional etc etc. There were so many words and 3 point bullets on that document that the star at the top of the tree, the brand essence was completely overshadowed by the shiny, colorful five-worded strategies beneath it.

After that exercise, all the stakeholders still had a different idea of what the brand meant. Executing against this was a nightmare. For the clients and also for the agencies. Half a year into it, the client scrapped it. And tasked the agencies to simplify and articulate the brand story and the strategy, together.

Over six weeks, these agencies collaborated together. Each made an argument for their needs. Each made the commitment to put aside their agency “products” and “frameworks” and decided to come up with what was right for this client, and what satisfied all their needs. They emerged with ONE page after deliberating long and hard over what was the north star for the brand. What was the point of view it would like to own and execute against. And once that was set, they debated the merits and flaws of other frills (brand personality, values, voice, pillars, RTB’s etc – isn’t the positioning an amalgamation of it all?) continuing to simplify the document to what each agency felt was charged with enough horsepower for them to execute against.

Result? This global brand is slowly earning back its iconic status. Maybe I will tell you which brand it is someday over drinks.

Here’s what I took away from this experience:

  • Traditionally, agencies that make the TV ads have by default also been the ones defining the brand strategy, brand campaign and other elements. Now as digital spend is increasing and media is becoming more complex, it will take the three disciplines (and perhaps even more) collaborating closely to create the brand strategy so what is executed is a consistent brand story.
  • The job of a digital strategist (or any) is NOT to introduce new nomenclatures and add more words to the brand guidelines, but it is to simplify. Ask yourself if your proprietary frameworks, models and processes will simplify or create more confusion and more verbs for the clients? Social playbooks have a nice thud factor but I’d rather workshop the brand behaviors and voice in the context of digital with the clients and AOR instead of creating fat decks that frankly, no one reads and all they do is justify the digital strategist’s role.
  • Christmas Tree Strategies and 3 bullet points look good and make independent agencies look good. But they very rarely serve the brand. The disconnect, however nuanced and tiny, is palpable in the consumer’s minds.


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Life lessons on the improv stage

I recently changed jobs and I was smart enough to negotiate one week off between the two jobs. (also not smart enough to negotiate more than one week off.) My default relaxation mode is watching mindless television shows and punting around online, in my pajamas, on the bed. This leads to an unstable cycle where I sleep very late and as a result, wake up very late. Plus, multiple episodes of Walking Dead tend to make my mind mush. I was keen on not dealing with a mush brain during this break.  I also wanted to step outside my comfort zone so I signed up for Intensive Improv Classes at Upright Citizens Brigade.

Dictionaries define Improv is the art of improvising. My week long immersion into it has lead me to the conclusion that improv is actually the art of listening.

To be a good improv artist, one needs to be physically and mentally present on that stage. In my class, the best Improv scenes were where the performers listened to each other and built on each other. The scenes where performers had their own jokes or ideas prepared, quickly fell flat because they didn’t tie together with their partner’s improv lines. This is a difficult lesson to internalize without enough practice (and gentle scolding). On stage, the natural human tendency is to say the best lines and do what one can to make oneself look good. But this is counter-intuitive to Improv! Improv is about making the other people on stage look good. Listening to their lines and giving them great ones in return. Providing rich fodder to one another. What’s mind-blowing is that this rule goes beyond the stage and Improv…. doesn’t it. Some of my best scenes throughout the course were where I was playing a supporting role and actively making the others around me look good. Those were also the scenes that elicited the most laughs.

Another thing I took away from my classes is that (surprisingly) Improv is NOT about being funny or telling jokes. Again, this is counter-intuitive to what I assumed would be the crux of Improv. Our instructors repeatedly chided us for not having won the license to be fantastical or imaginative with our audiences unless we have established a base reality. A who, what, where. And even after establishing context, the scenes needed to build in an organic, natural manner within the reality of the world that has been established in the scene. Using jokes to get a laugh out of our audiences was a cop out – one that was very easy to try to fall back on. Interestingly, the rules of journalism (and even strategy!) are the about establishing context.

“Play to the top of your intelligence,” is a phrase I heard constantly during my program. It was easier to try to act dumb to elicit a few laughs on the Improv stage. But that meant, we aren’t being truthful to ourselves or to the stage. Improv performances treat the audience and the performer as intelligent and smart folks. Folks that can smell bullshit. This was the most difficult trick to not succumb to. I won’t be lying if I say that the thought of playing the dumb kid or the stereotypical immigrant  didn’t cross my mind several times during our practice sessions.

My major breakthrough came in class #3. I am a confident person and not afraid of falling flat on my face. But even then, it was difficult to give up all inhibitions and not feel conscious of playing a monkey, a warthog or a 2 year old boy on the stage. Giving up those inhibitions was liberating because it stopped me from taking myself too seriously and allowed me to give my 100% to the stage. Also, I was able to do a better job of listening and reacting to my partner.

These are universal truths though, aren’t they? Listen, be present, be selfish about making others around you look good, play to the top of your intelligence….Kinda cool that I learned these on the stage. Cheaper than traveling around the world in search of exotic stories and adventures to basically learn these same truths. no? (although I will still travel around the world)


What was most beautiful about last week for me is that I constantly surprised myself. I’ll be thirty soon and there’s not much I don’t know about myself but it was nice to be surprised by my own abilities and my capacity to still have a sense of wonder about new ideas.

The process of learning in itself is a wondrous thing. I started with learning the foundational building blocks, practiced them, and then began layering them on top of each other to make something. And then I watched some Improv performances and deconstructed them to identify the building blocks they used and how fast and well they used them. This gentle spooling and un-spooling is true of any new skill I’ve attempted to learn in the last few years: fiction writing, swimming, bicycling and now improv. The word that kept coming to mind: layercake.


Biggest challenges facing brands?

We are living in a very interesting time, as marketers. Gen Y is making way for Millennial’s to become the number one consumer. Hispanics are no longer a minority. The structure of a family is changing – multi-generational homes, rise of the single parent etc. And we’ve only scraped the tip of the iceberg when it comes to digital behaviors.  If I were a CMO, the question of how to keep my brand relevant across changing demographics, media landscapes, consumer behaviors and cultural makeup of the US would keep me up at nights.

Why does turning thirty carry such weight?

I’ve loved this quote for a long time.

I believe in a set of values I cannot live by. I set high goals for myself, I seek perfection, dream of exotic faraway places. But ultimately, what I long for isn’t far away at all. It’s in my own backyard. Imperfection charms me, familiar things move me… a celebration of what we have, instead of what we long for. That for me, is glamor.” – Isabella Rossellini

I turn 30 in a few short weeks. I don’t have grand plans – this is not going to be an inspiring, I’ve-quit-my-job-to-travel-the-world type of moment. But what I have learned recently is that life has a lot to teach you, and many people to bring your way irrespective of whether or not you are on the road.
So like countless before me, I have decided that my thirtieth year will be about lessons and learning’s – but from everyday life. I’m not leaving New York to seek out big adventures or meet people and discover their stories. I’ve found, if I dig deep enough, there’s a wealth of treasure to be uncovered right here in my backyard.

Starting 28th June, 2013, I will write brief letters to myself everyday about one thing a lesson that I have learned and a fact that has surprised me. Stay tuned.


Gender neutrality + women in the workforce

One of those posts where words, fortunately, are not required to make a point. Just these videos. That said, this is a conversation that is bound to get bigger. I’ve been reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. I’m aware of the criticism surrounding it but it’s not worth anyone’s time to sit and critique a book obviously written with good intentions in mind. I’ve decided to take what’s meaningful and relevant to me from the book and apply it or at least try to apply it in my life at work and at home. Parts that are not relevant, well, I’m not going to be bothered about them.

Another line of thinking that I’m exploring is John Gerzema’s The Athena Doctrine – How women (and the men who think like them) will rule the world. John is my dear friend’s mentor and from what I’ve heard and read of the book, an advocate of more women leaders. He conducted a several years long study across several countries to understand and decode how people perceive masculine and feminine traits. The results are not that surprising. Words like arrogant, aggressive, independent etc are considered masculine traits worldwide. Words like gentle, reasonable, free-spirited, collaborative, caring are considered to be feminine traits worldwide. His thesis posits that the world needs more feminine traits in top leadership positions and the book talks about how to develop those traits. I haven’t read the entire book yet but I think I like where it is headed already.

Plus read this: What’s so boy about a boy who wants to wear a dress

On to the videos now. Just watch them one after one.

Props to Hasbor for listening to the little girl’s petition. They are unveiling a blue and silver easy bake oven for boys.

The Practice of Everyday Life

I found inspiration in the unlikeliest of places and it reminded me that we are surrounded by beauty all around us.  “Intimacy Under the Wires”, a project by New York based freelance travel photographer called Sivan Askayo depicts a series of homes with their laundry dripping dry on their windows or makeshift wires. Shot across Tel Aviv, Madrid, Barcelona, Florence, Venice – this mundane act of drying clothes took me back to my childhood. In my travels around the world, I’ve come to appreciate behaviors that are similar to those that I grew up with and on some level, I’m still astounded (and feel slightly not entirely at home here) that this practice doesn’t exist in USA. Probably the weather. And our access to technology. Anyways, Askayo’s series of photographs touched a chord. And taught me something about myself. That I’m drawn to observations and art that tells stories around everyday life.

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Artist Brenden O’Connell‘s Wal-mart series was another project that inspired me. I recently read a profile on him in the New Yorker. The interview traces his journey as the artist who came to find his muse in America’s consumerism. His most popular series of work shows people shopping at Wal-marts. Or rows upon rows of Cheetos or Utz or other Wonderbread in its colorful glory. In the article, he says, “Trying to find beauty in the least-likely environment is kind of a spiritual practice.” I loved this description because I share a kindred love and curiosity of the great supermarkets of our time. The supermarket, the least sexiest place in all of America, but probably the most visited. That speaks volumes to me.

Enjoy some snippets of his work below. Also pay homage to French author Michel De Certeau, whose book title I borrowed to title this post.

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Stouffers Local Warming

Screen shot 2013-02-13 at 3.14.20 PMShout-out to Local Warming – a fun 24 hour campaign for Stouffer’s, one of my clients. Our trusty crew are warming up New York’s coldest by bringing steaming servings of Stouffer’s Mac & Cheese to them. The price? A tweet telling Stouffer’s why they are New York’s coldest.

And we’ve had some really cool stories to boot. Follow along here #localwarming

Macy’s yes Virginia Musical

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One of my favorite pieces of work at JWT was for one of my favorite audiences: children. Watch the video. Check out the site. Read the press and see the awards! What an incredible team.

Gold CLIO, Branded Entertainment & Content (Digital/Mobile)
Gold CLIO, Branded Entertainment & Content (Live Events)
Gold CLIO, Content & Contact
Silver CLIO, Integrated Campaign
Bronze CLIO, Digital/Mobile (Campaigns)
Bronze CLIO, Engagement (Experiential)
92nd ADC Awards, Silver, Integrated
92nd ADC Awards, Bronze, Online Content
Merit, One Show Interactive

On origins of everyday phrases

My current obsession has been centered around mythology and its contribution to everyday language and words. This delightful article from NYT on the origin of the phrase “the whole nine yards” caught my fancy. Here’s a fun excerpt from the article:

The recent discovery of several instances of “the whole six yards” in newspapers from the 1910s — four decades before the earliest known references to “the whole nine yards” — opens a new window onto “the most prominent etymological riddle of our time,” said Fred Shapiro, a librarian at Yale Law School who announced the findings in next month’s issue of The Yale Alumni Magazine…..Like the Holy Grail “the whole nine yards” has inspired both armchair mythologizing and years of hard and often fruitless searching through random books and miles of newspaper microfilm. Not that the expression is necessarily all that old. The first scholarly dating, in a 1986 supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, traced it to 1970. The Historical Dictionary of American Slang then pushed it back to 1967, with a citation from “The Doom Pussy,” Elaine Shepard’s novel about Air Force pilots in the Vietnam War.

What brands can learn from start-ups

Fast CompanyScreen Shot 2013-06-08 at 2.00.00 AM was kind enough to publish some thoughts I had on how brands can learn from start-ups.

Copied below:

As a Digital Strategist, I’ve been in plenty of brainstorms and meetings where we talk about how we can co-opt popular digital behaviors and mechanics (check-in, badges etc) introduced by start-ups and digital companies. The cross-pollination of ideas and best practices is exciting and I specifically want to share five things start-ups can teach brands, each other and learn from brands.

Positioning: Couch the offering in familiar frameworks

Building on behaviors: Users find it easier to glom on to existing behaviors (badges, points, etc). If you are building a new digital campaign or creating a new product, think about your audience’s existing behaviors and start from there instead of trying to introduce new habits, and concepts. Both start-ups and brands anchor their products in existing behaviors to help explain what they do.


  1. Kickstarter and have made everyone an “investor”
  2. Weightwatchers turned the idea of losing weight into a game.
  3. Gilt took an offline sample sale and introduced the flash-sale concept
  4. Foursquare introduced the notion of checking-in.
  5. Learnvest has very cleverly used the gym-membership model to create a paid model for its offering
  6. American Express and Kate Spade are organizing their own flash sales.


The 10-word pitch

If you can’t describe the campaign or your product in ten words or less, go back to the drawing board. What’s your product/ app/ idea’s 5 word pitch? Examples:

  1. Kickstarter = “A new way to fund and follow creativity.”
  2. Skillshare = “Learn Anything. From Anyone. Anywhere.”
  3. Dailyworth = “A community of women who talk money”
  4. Tumblr = “Follow the world’s creators”
  5. Weduary = “Make your own beautiful and social wedding website”

Baked-In Marketing: Start-up’s almost always do not hire marketing folks. They let their product do the marketing.

Activating users to bring in new users: Most successful start-ups bake in audience acquisition levers into their product so that the product self-sustains itself and continues to bring in new customers on its own. How is your product bringing in new customers?

  • Everlane has the BEST acquisition levers I’ve ever seen. Most sample sale sites (Gilt, Rue La La, Ideeli etc) started off by offering monetary incentives – $10 for each friend invited and purchased to lure users to bring in more users. Everlane one-ups the system by creating tiers. 5-invited friend gets the user a discount. 10 friends bring the user a free luxe t-shirt, 50 friends – free shipping for life. This is the only site I’ve ever really invited my friends to. What is your strategy to activating your users into inviting more users?

One-step sign-up processes – again, this is something I’m watching most start-up’s get right from the beginning. Check our Tumblr or even Skillshare for how easy to make sign-up. In fact, Skillshare lets you explore the site’s offering and only requires sign-up’s when you want to follow a class or sign up for a class. Is your marketing campaign simple to participate in?

High Value Content

Creating Engagement: What’s the best piece of content that you can create that will make people want to use and become a part of your product experience?  Examples:

These entertaining content experiences invite press, buzz and expose the companies to new audiences. And the best part? Most of these videos are created for a small, small budget!

Demo/ How to use the product videos/ guides: This simple piece of content is the most overlooked and under-estimated. Demo videos or straightforward and simple keys on how to use the product are crucial in establishing trust, forming habit and encouraging new audiences to give the new product/ site a spin.


MVP Filter

This one is a hard one to explain and show examples for. It is more of a process than a visible, tangible principle but I assure you, every successful start-up is successful because they have nailed this.  This principle asks a start-up to consider, what is the single-most important feature without which this product will not be this product? And that’s feature becomes the immediate priority. Once this is nailed, the communications, messaging and branding for the product becomes simple and straightforward.

This is also the most important principle for a brand to understand. A digital campaign cannot and will not hit all your metrics. One campaign will not drive awareness, trial and then purchase. Those are all different mind-sets and it is unfair to expect one story, one mechanic to achieve all three. Bring in the MVP. In my strategy sessions, this is the one tool I keep bringing in again and again. What is the immediate challenge/ problem we want to solve? If so, these are the type of mechanics that will most likely work and hence, this is the type of digital campaign that should be considered.

(Start-ups apply the minimum-value-product filter which is a prioritization tool to help them triangulate what is the one thing that the product must do/ be)

Community Evangelists

For a lot of start-ups, the world needs to be impressed before the users/ customers are impressed. So the right type of press and “buzz” is essential. built an all-star advisory board (Randi Zuckerberg, Soraya Darabi etc) because these advisors are avid travelers. By getting them to use their site, they’ve tapped into their networks for free! (Plus made them feel important by giving them the epithet of advisers) Who are the influencers in the your sector and what is your plan for attracting them in a manner that makes sense to them and to your brand?

In hiring community managers, brands must put in the same level of rigor and monetary investment that they put for other jobs. A community manager is the most important hire a start-up will make. This person makes in-roads into the community, and their presence brings serendipitous opportunities to the brand.

Results/ Impact

I personally love it when start-ups share their impact/ results. Not quite applicable to every start-up or brand but I’m a huge fan of Fab, Kickstarter and CharityWater and how they share their learning’s and metrics publicly. I think it’s a brilliant way of creating and sustaining interest in the company. (Esp when they use beautiful info-graphics)

Let’s fuckin’ set the record straight: Account planners and digital strategists are NOT the same

I’ve been reading so many traditional planners go on about how they don’t get digital strategists and how this role makes no sense to them that it’s time to set the record straight.

I vehemently disagree with the tendency most planners have in assuming that a planner and a strategist is one and the same. The argument is not about the title – which could be merely semantics but it is about the work process and the skill-set. It is especially easy to mistake and get confused about this in the type of environment we work in (i.e advertising agency) Step outside this bubble, and you’ll see that there are many flavors to a digital strategist and there are several deep skill-sets they have honed and developed over time to be simply merged with planning.
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Just as there are several layers to brand planning, there are several layers (maybe more) to digital planning. If you ask me, digital planning sits under brand planning and not next to it because it needs to ladder up to the brand attributes/ values etc.

My biggest criticism of traditional account planning is that the planners don’t get very involved in the actual “making” of the idea. It’s called production in planner speak and the word is boring and uninspiring but in digital – that’s really where the idea gets made. And the idea continues to morph until it is beta tested. It continues to morph even as it is launched and the results come in and we tweak and make the idea better in real-time. Digital strategy is the true marriage of account planning, creative and production.

A (good) digital strategist works for the idea. With digital, you have to launch an idea that is in perfect harmony with innovation and current consumer habits/behaviors. You have to launch an idea that is technologically not too advanced and not too behind – Goldilocks! And that is not production or creative’s job alone – that is as much strategic thinking and application of tactical insights.

Also, the insights a planner brings to the table often only inform the birth of the idea or a creative direction. The insights that a digital strategist brings to the table informs the success of the idea and the actual meat and flesh of it. Sometimes the insight or “strategy” maybe tactical (will this particular user experience really invite participation and sharing?) and sometimes it is blue-sky. Point is – these insights underwrite the making of the idea and its success across the phases.

Our role will eventually become obsolete – it will mostly be absorbed by creative and a very small part of it will be absorbed by planning. But not yet. And not for the next few years. We have far too many traditional planners that simply aren’t interested in digital to wear this hat. You can’t teach someone to be an early adopter or experiment with technology or play around and deeply immerse/ engage in every new social platform or make games. Advertising needs us right now so if you still don’t get it – please STFU and let us do our jobs.

Call us whatever the fuck you want – as long as you let us work for the idea. I’ve even swept floors and washed dishes in name of creative. So there.

If you have more questions or want to hear more thoughts – please see the most popular posts (to your right). Feel free to leave a comment, unless you are going to serve up the same drivel I’ve been reading.

TED Ads Worth Spreading Curator 2012

Keeping this brief because there is nothing I can say that you haven’t heard or read before.

As one of the six industry nominators for TED Ads Worth Spreading 2012 Initiative, I was honored to represent both my industry and JWT at TEDActive in Palm Springs this March. The kind folks at TED also made a dream come true for me by whisking me off to the main TED conference in Long Beach for a few days. Raghava and I started our first day by interviewing briefly for a short video about our experience as nominators for TED Ads Worth Spreading. The one thing I learned from this experience is that fantastic work transcends boundaries, categories and even context. Both Raghava and I are from different worlds and while we had our share of debate over which ads to nominate, we seemed to both unanimously agree when we found an incredible one. You can see the top ten ads that won here. (Congratulations to my fellow nominators and the winners – what an amazing experience to be a part of!)

About TED, there is not much else to say other than what you already know. I was lucky to have attended both TED and TEDActive. As with every conference, these attracted a bunch of people that were mostly only interested in selling themselves or something they made. And what a turn off that is! But for the most part, I met people that were interested in ideas and debate and had a genuine interest and desire to belong to the community. TEDActive, in particular, seemed to attract a beautiful like-minded community of thinkers, doers and game-changers.

Among the TED Talks, the ones that spoke most to be where Susan Cain’s “The power of Introverts,” Dr. Brown’s talk on “Vulnerability,” Chip Kidd’s talk on “Creating visual haiku’s for stories“, Sherry Turkle’s 18 mins on our culture of sharing and Billy Collin’s beautiful beautiful talk on poetry.

What was more important to me than listening to and absorbing all this knowledge was finding time to process and understand it. Think about what I was learning and how I could apply it. I tried to pay attention and be fully present at the conference so I wasn’t tweeting or blogging much. TED can be an inspiration overload and most of the attendees had figured out a schedule that worked for them. So between watching the talks and talking to each other to develop the ideas further, I’d say it was a week full of intense intellectual masturbation.

Best life and career advice I’ve heard

Today at an early breakfast with Erin, (an incredibly inspirational woman. also the Dir of Operations at SVA’s Design in Social Innovation program) she passed on this gem of advice that someone else had passed on to her.

When thinking about your life and where it is going, try to answer these three questions as truthfully and honestly as you can
1. What makes you joyful? Joyful, not happy. You feel sorrow when this is not in your life.
2. What are you good at? Not what you think you are a good at. What are you actually good at?
3. Who do you want to serve? Everyone of us serves someone. Who is it that you want to serve?

I was blown away by the simplicity of these questions. That they are so simple, is what makes them so difficult to answer.

I’m often confused when people separate life and career advice or planning. We spend more time and energy at our places of work than anywhere else. To a large extend, the work we do and the things we make define us and fill our days. How can planning for this be different than planning for life?

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received or heard?

Do “Gated Likes” dilute the value of a brand?

Undercurrent has a provocative blog post today titled, “How Brands are Killing Facebook.”

I have a lot of problems with the content in it. No offense to Jim Babb (whose excellent work, btw, I have followed and am a huge fan of) but the few points I want to make below, need to be heard and made.

The blog post asserts, “Hiding content behind a “Like-wall” is killing the value of a Facebook Like. In doing so, these brands are eroding the value of the Like and damaging their own social presence.”

This is not true. And here’s why:

1. There is no way to quantitatively differentiate the earned, paid and gated likes. And because it is impossible to do that, it is impossible to segment and understand the behavioral implications of these fans. Plus, most conversion studies I have seen say that a gated page does not negatively impact the behavior. It’s the content that makes or breaks it. Without any data to back up the assertion, I’ll be hard-pressed to make such a recommendation to my client.

2. In an ideal world, it will be nice to not use “Gated” likes. But here’s the reality. I just finished a study at JWT New York to understand how we use social media and what the behaviors are. When we asked our respondents, what were their reasons for connecting to a brand on Facebook or Twitter, the top three reasons were to do with incentives.

67% said they like a page to benefit from a specific promotion or offer;

63% said they like a page because to search for promotions and special offers.

53% said they like a page to participate in competitions and win prizes.

Point is, data and user behavior already suggests that the primary reason they are coming to a page or liking a page is for promotions and sales. Whether the page is gated or not, has nothing to do with it. Instead of focusing on the gated vs. ungated aspects of the puzzle, we are better off focusing on what to do and how to engage with these fans once the enter the turf. How they get there is important but more important than what we do with them once they get there!

If “Gated” likes have worked as a tactic to attract them and since they don’t yet show (at least to my knowledge) any negative impact on brands or consumers  – why not experiment with it? And use it as a tool to bring more people in?

Also, lets get off our high horses regarding Facebook and “fans.” Who says these people that like our page are our “Fans?” Facebook calls them that but it doesn’t mean they are truly our fans. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with gated likes. In real life, to avail of a discount, you still have to step in the store. And that’s what I think a Facebook page is now. We call them “fans” because Facebook told us to call them fans. They could all just be people “in your store” – shopping or not.

We need to be careful in making recommendations that aren’t backed by data. I’ve done this before to0 – made recommendations that “feel” right for an ideal world. But we aren’t living in an ideal world. Brands are putting in a significant investment of resources, time and hard cash to grow their social footprint. This field is nascent but to move forward, we need to be able to sift through what “feels” right and what is accurate.

Just my two cents.

What every digital strategist must know

I’ve now been at JWT for one full year and have developed a healthy respect for all the different kinds of skills and temperaments that are required to make advertising, irrespective of whether it is TV, Radio, Print, Out of home or digital. I’ve also had more time to develop further my initial point of view and early thinking on the role of a digital strategist. My thoughts below are based on observations and discussions with my peers and colleagues.

A Digital Strategist is an amalgamation of planning, account and creative.

An ideal digital strategist wears many hats and balances many tasks artfully. Most of us have a stronger predilection towards one of these three roles or tend to be better at one or two of them. And that’s okay. It only means that there are other areas we need to get better at.

In working with the planner, the strategist must offer input on the digital behaviors of the constituents.

In working with the account teams, the strategist must demonstrate a clear understanding of the client’s business. More important, also understand how to do business with the client. Know what the client’s risk tolerance is or understand the level of due-diligence the client requires for new ideas, the parameters the client likes to operate within and other such sensitive information. Unfortunately, there are no guidebooks or decks on how to do business with a client. This sort of intuition is developed with experience.

I typically chart my clients on a digital appetite spectrum – some clients are more ready than others for bold, new ideas and some need a little more hand-holding and others are perhaps too scared or risk averse to try new things. But understanding where your client stands is essential because that dictates how you will approach and plan for them.

And lastly, the strategist needs to be able to partner with the creatives. Throw away all preconceptions and ideate with a blank mind for the client.

A Digital Strategist must learn to produce and execute.

I have come to the understanding that digital strategists must take a healthy interest in execution. Sold an idea, great? But nine times out of ten, what I end up launching does not look anything like what I initially sold. And I suspect this is true for a lot of us in this role.

Going through the feasibility checks, budget requirements, threshold checks, idea iterations and testing is painful and has often been outside my comfort zone. But it’s taught me to ask the right question and know when to raise red flags. I read this excellent article recently about the three types of knowledge. (Things you know; Things you know that you don’t know and Things you don’t know you don’t know.) Going through or being closely involved in aspects that don’t necessarily concern me: user experience, production, coding etc. have broadened my knowledge of “Things that you know you don’t know.” To me, a digital strategist doesn’t always know all the answers, but he/she knows where to get them. And this can only happen once you’ve been in the trenches.  Once you’ve executed and made stuff.

Another thing I’ve learned is to involve production early on in meetings and preferably team up with producers that are problem solvers. The right producer will not only find a way to make the idea happen but will push you and the creative teams to make the idea better.

At my previous job, my boss once had be execute a conference. My initial reaction was pure horror. “I’m a strategist,” I whined. “I don’t do conferences!” But he wouldn’t listen. Instead he said, “I know you won’t believe me now but this is only going to make you better strategist.” And that is true. I didn’t believe him them but the wisdom of his words stayed with me. It wasn’t until a few months after the conference that I realized how right he had been. Executing that conference had helped me evolve my thinking process and I wasn’t even aware!

Bottom-line: If something is making you feel uncomfortable, it means you are growing. So just do it.


I know I’ve got some more thoughts floating around in my head so will eventually put them on paper. I’ve been thinking about “Invention Strategists,” the term that Winston Binch invented. I need to crystallize my thoughts but I think it’s a great way to integrate strategists into the creative department. But more of an organizational strategy than a new role. I’m not sure though that all strategists belong in the creative department but more on that later…