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The Chess Team

Back a couple of decades ago I wrote a memo to the president of FCB/Lever Katz, an ad agency in NYC, during a new business pitch for the consumer portion of the AT&T account, expected to be a $200 million dollar account.  There had been a reorganization of AT&T and the head of the business business unit was moved to oversee consumer, a promotion of sorts. He was a marketing rock star. AT&T at the time was the clear market leader in telecommunications, but MCI was a smart, pesky and growing adversary. He business unit head was MCI’s nightmare. He was also very cagey. He would invent market-changing business “plays” for his ad agency to execute as ads by MCI, and confront his product marketing team with them to keep them on their toes.

The memo I drafted while at FCB/Leber Katz, outlined this gentleman’s modus operandi, his paranoia and his gunslinger mentality.

After the new business pitch was won by FCB/Leber Katz, it was reported that all competing agencies has come up with great ideas, taglines, cinema and media plans. FCB/Leber Katz, however, won the business, it was reported, because of a spectacular piece of music scored by a creative director (eventually recorded by Whitney Huston) and a strategic group called the “Chess Team,” a planning group whose sole responsibility was to predict future MCI, Sprint and other competitors moves.

The power of the memo.


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A lot of brand planners talk about “voice.”  The voice of the brand. It’s a metaphor, of course, and one marketers easily understand. If I close my eyes and listen to Eddie Vedder sing, I know it’s him. Voice is an identifier.

As someone who has run gazillions of dollars of radio and TV ads, I know the power of a distinct voice. It’s smart marketing, if sometimes a crutch.   

The voice metaphor falls apart when the delivery of the message outweighs what’s delivered. In branding what is delivered needs to be the brand strategy (one claim, 3 proof planks).  Brand strategy is content-related not piping or music. Building a brand by organizing a limited number of key values in consumers’ minds (and employees’ minds) is the fastest, most efficient way to marketing success.   

Years ago when a St. Louis focus group attendee looked at an AT&T videoconferencing ad and exclaimed “AT&T would never talk to me like that.” It was a comment about voice. When another said “If it’s from AT&T, I’m sure the videoconferencing quality will be excellent,” that’s brand strategy.





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I often wonder if the targets for my business truly understand what I do. Those targets, CMOs, directors of marketing and small and mid-size business owners, read “brand consultancy” and get the consultant part, but may not truly understand the depth of the word brand. Brand today is both a noun and a verb.  

Many think brand is a mark or logo. Something that, through design, helps consumers with product identity. The whole branded cattle history thing. For people who view brands this way a brand consultancy is all logo, name, style guide and, perhaps, tagline. When AT&T spun off Lucent in the 90s, the whole process, exquisitely implemented by the way, cost millions. A year later, the company had a new name, logo, building signs, stock symbol and ad campaign. But not a brand strategy. (Peter Kim’s “$14B tech startup” aside.)

The reality is, especially in today service economy, a brand is a living breathing thing. My definition of brand strategy as “an organizing principle for Product, Experience and Messaging.” Most of my targets understand this definition better. In fact, they are more apt to acknowledge needing and organizing principle that they are a brand strategy.  

So moving forward my mission it to educate my targets as to this new definition. It will be a long road but one I expect will redistribute marketing wealth in my direction. Onward.




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The other day I read AT&T was moving all of its advertising business to Omnicom. No doubt the reason undergirding the move was economies of scale. One of the public explanations for Omnicom winning the business was “integration” of programs and ideas. That is to say the new media agency “nuts and honey” or some such and super shop BBDO will work together closely, in an aligned fashion, to insure the ideas they presented as a team in the pitch are structurally recreated IRL (in real life).

This age old strategy sounds great on paper. And as we get more mature as an industry the strategy will actually work. But there are two conflicting forces against a move like this. Ferocious competition and complacence. When one entity is in charge, time and comfort engender complacence. BBDO will churn out nice work, great work even…Hearts and Science (the media company) will plan and digitize its ass off…to a point. The paranoia, however, that keeps shops on their toes dissipates.

The energy that has shops like Anomaly, Droga and Preacher slamming, is lost.  Not a fan of the big consolidation move. Competition is what marketers thrive on. So must its shops.




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Learn This.

Learning is a topic I’ve written about before but today it’s the subject of the entire post.

I’ve been in the ad and marketing business since 1978 when a mail-slinger at my dad’s shop Poppe Tyson. It took me until 2011, while director of marketing at Teq, an educational development company, to understand the importance of learning in marketing. (Yeah, yeah, rabbit and hare thing.)

I’ve had lots of mentors over the years: a kid who ran the AT&T ad business with an iron fist and mind, a be-sotted ex-marine who was the country’s first million dollar a year copywriter, and a copy-contact, agency chief who built a powerful global brand that lived well beyond his years. None taught me the practice of learning in marketing.

To understand the role of learning in branding and marketing you have to understand teaching. Teaching is process. Learning the result. There are poor teachers, there are no poor learners. My stint in the education field helped me understand this. Learning why one product is better than another. Learning why one service has more value. The best learning is not forced but self-actualized. When someone comes to a learned moment on their own, it sticks. It’s important.

So you marketers out there. Focus on the learning first and the proper teaching technique will come to you. Most marketers are 85% teach and 15% learn. Flip it and your depth of success will change.



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When a latent adult working at McCann-Erickson NY, I was lieutenant in charge of all the AT&T data products. These were the data lines, the network software services and whatever other B2B things that were not particularly sexy — during a very competitive time when phone companies were spending like drunken sailors. My services eventually became the internet so I had a grand time. And managed a great team.

Anyway, I had this idea that if ever the agency president (John Dooner) was asked to go to a meeting in Bridgewater NJ on some of these non-big sexy products (sorry Bartolo) he would need a primer. So the Fact Book was born. The idea was to put all the relevant facts into a binder that could be read in 60 minutes (on the way to the client), giving the reader a foundation of knowledge, e.g., overall market universe, market share, competition, product explanations, YOY sales trends and futures. I stole the idea from Marian Harper, a McCann and IPG CEO, from back in the 60s.

At What’s The Idea?, my current business, a key deliverable is the marketing plan. The first step in its development is a document called the 24 Question. It is much like the Fact Book. Anyone, at any company, in the marketing department should know the answers to the 24 Questions. They are the financial and marketing fundamentals of business. If you don’t know the answers as a marketer, you are a danger to the company.

If you are interested in seeing these questions, email me And we’ll talk.


PS. Go see Steve Jobs.


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Back to the future – here we go. Here’s a thought on the evolution of technol-oyee, as my old friend Tom Wan used to call it when he first came to the states: hardware begets software, begets devices, apps and now, drum roll, chips.

ontogeny recapituates phylogenyThere’s a scientific theory of evolution called ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. It means that the entire evolution of mankind can be seen in the development of a two cells coming together to eventually form a baby. One cell, two cell, reptile, bird, mammal, man. Pert cool. Anyway, if you follow the hardware, software, device, app and chip advances serially, it takes you to the Internet of Things (IoT). And the IoT is going to need lots of chips. Back in the 90s, chips were also the haps. They had names like The Hobbit and made by important companies like IBM, AT&T, Qualcomm and Intel. The latter kicked some earnings ass until it missed the boat on the ontogeny of tech. Yesterday Intel announced it is buying their way back back by agreeing to buy Altera. IBM is getting back in the chip biz as well having also made a recent purchase. Will Google, Apple and Verizon be far behind?

Chips fab plants are not inexpensive to develop. Start-ups beware.  They require lots of energy and water. Feel me? These plants, at some point, will need to be in the states (don’t ask) so for the IoT to happen, the last of big business moves in chips have not happened…by a long shot. Invest a shekel, make a few.



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Last Christmas I went into a Radio Shack looking to buy a good FM radio. I was trying to get my mother to listen to NPR in her kitchen where she can only get A.M. radio and has had to listen to a station (WOR) targeting the older set with let’s just say less than stimulating programming.  I asked the salesperson where the radios were (at Radio Shack) and the she directs me to two possible areas, one of which was correct. As far from the front door as you could get.

The selection was horrendous. Two brands — none of which I was familiar with. No Sony. No GE.  Pathetic. I left and went to Best Buy and found one Sony model. Don’t buy radio station stock is the moral to this story.

As Radio Shack tries to organize its way out of insolvency, with a hedge fund at the helm, one of the questions posed is “Should we rebrand?” “Should we hold onto the old name?” AT&T used to be America Telephone and Telegraph…someone smart over there decided telegraph was not a technology forward name and opted for change. So the answer to the new guard at Radio Shack is a resounding “yes.”  A new name is in order. And let’s look beyond the dashboard for a name shall we?

I should add a very big good luck. From what I’m reading of some of the partner decisions so far, they’re going to need it. Peace.


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Brand Conservation

I was reading this morning about Australia’s 35 year plan to preserve the Great Barrier Reef. Global warming, coastal development, poor water quality, excessive coal commerce and general nastiness are contributing to the reef’s demise. As with many natural wonders of the world, I often ask what it will take for denizens of the planet to stop withdrawing from the natural ecology of the planet and start giving back. In the United States there is a lot of talk about removing electrical dams, for instance, to put rivers back in sync with the natural order, but the talk an action are out of step.

Brands are also at risk these days. Poor brand management, high rates of employee turnover, new media channels, mergers and acquisitions and technological innovations are draining the meaning and perceived value of many brands. Marilyn Laurie, an AT&T brand executive from the 80-90s, used to preach about making deposits in the brand bank, not making withdrawals. When advertising and marketing make deposits the brand gets stronger. Withdrawals make a brand weaker. In this metaphor the brand currency is brand strategy (one claim, three support planks). Without a strategy it’s hard to know the difference between a deposit and withdrawal.

As is the case with planet, large mature brands need to practice conservation to stem loss. Sadly, brands aren’t focusing enough on what they have and what they are diluting — they are simply planting new ideas then checking the dashboard for signs of life.

I was watching a webinar yesterday put on by The Knowledge Engineers, Brand Republic and ABV/BBDO. One slide in particular was telling. It suggested strategy in innovation planning is too focused on the solutions — paying little attention to understanding the problem. We need to fix that. A conservationist approach.  Peace.


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Born Again.

T-Mobile and Sprint are in talks to merge. The two mobile carriers, each with 50 million U.S. subscribers, have well-established brands. What should the resulting brand be? Some might say T-Mobile has a little more cache, mostly due to smart, flashy CEO John Legere. Yet Sprint has been around for decades; America’s first all fiber optic network. Some brand and naming experts will suggest combining the two names into some clunky hybrid and go all “one plus one equals 3” on us. I say it time for a new name. A new mark. And a fresh start.

AT&T and Verizon are really strong brands. Each is spending hundreds of millions in advertising. The work is likeable, but shallow and noisy. It’s either campaign-for-campaign-sake or product showcase. People don’t love selling or advertising, they love brands. And AT&T and Verizon are missing this point.

The combined Sprint/T-Mobile brand has a chance to start from the ground up. Break the mold. Find the sweet spot customers care about and move the product and experience in that direction. Mr. Legere gets this with his moves to offer no contract mobile service. Sprint/T-Mobile should do a little brand spanking research – spank the AT&T and Verizon brands around and find some product and emotional weaknesses. Then write a killer brief and start with a new name.

Rebirth opportunities don’t come along that often. Peace.

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