I Had A Dream And It Was All About How To Change Marketing


Tom Disch was my creative writing teacher at the University of Minnesota, a long time ago.  Disch went on to write acclaimed futurist novels like 334, and On Wings of Song.  At the time he was a struggling science fiction author, having just left a crummy job as a copywriter for an ad agency in New York.  I was a 19 year old knucklehead wearing John Lennon glasses who thought he was going to be a novelist.  What did I know?

In that semester’s course, Creative Writing 1-101, Tom said we could write any damn story we wanted, except he had two rules: no weather and no dreams.

Today I think those are pretty good rules, as was the other piece of advice from him I recall, that as much as possible we should “stick to simple, declarative sentences.”

I’m Sorry Mr. Disch.

This post is the story of a dream I had the other night.  I hope you’ll excuse me, Mr. Disch– because it’s not fiction.  It’s the true recounting of an actual, magical dream I had.

Tom Disch

The dream takes place in the present day at LBi US in New York City, where I worked for four years starting in 2006.

It’s Friday afternoon and I’m in the middle of a crowd old friends in the huge conference room on the 9th floor of the Puck Building in Soho.  It’s the Friday afternoon beer bust, and the large conference room is crowded, with more and more people coming in.

I live in Minneapolis now, and in this dream I’ve been invited back to give a talk about my recent work.  Apparently I’ve published a book about marketing and it’s put me on the conference speaking circuit.   But this is a friendly gathering of lots of old comrades.  As I move through the crowd I’m stopped by friends along the way and we hug.  The room is filled with the din of chatter, and now and then there is laughter.

I see Cathy Chan, a peer of mine, who is the organizer of this Friday afternoon talk series.  She’s wearing a black dress and that silver medallion necklace of hers.  She smiles and asks, “Are you all set? We should get going.”  I smile and say something, and she leads me to one end of the conference room where there is a low stage and a microphone in front of a row of whiteboards on the wall.

I walk up to the microphone, and some people begin to turn to listen.  I see my old boss Tom Nicholson smile and indicate with his hands that we should talk after my speech.

As I look out over the crowd I suddenly realize I have no idea what I’m going to talk about.

I’m totally blank.  I’m breathing hard, my eyes glaze, and I panic. (This is I think a version of the old dream that you’re taking an exam and you realize that you haven’t studied all semester.)  I think quickly. I look to my right and see people crowding into the room.  I have to buy some time.  I lean into the microphone and say:

“I see there’re more people coming, so we’re going to wait a few minutes till everyone’s in, thanks.”

And I step down from the stage, into the crowd.   I’m in a cold sweat.  What a fraud I am.  I press my way in between people, and as I do I look down and see something amazing.

It’s a little piece of paper, a torn corner of something.  It’s silvery, and illuminated from inside so it’s slightly glowing and shining.  I bend down to pick it up.  I look at it, and then I see another scrap a few inches away.  As I pick the second piece up I see a third, and then I realize what they are.  These are torn pieces of a sheet of memo paper of the outline of my speech.   I’d written them on airplane flight coming in.

I’m saved! Flushed with relief, my mind now recalls everything about what I had written, and I walk along picking up the little pieces of glowing silver memo paper until I have them all.  I stand beside the stage and push them together.

In crude pen I have written:


I remember now!  I remember what I meant to say.   I’m ready, I totally get it, and now I’m ready to throw it down.

I step back up onto the stage and I notice everything: ceiling fans,  large sheets of brainstorming paper stuck to the side wall.  I see some friends in the mass of faces.   I see Ann Nielsen, and she smiles and gives a wave.  As I approach the microphone I shove the silver pieces of memo paper into my coat jacket pocket.  People turn and begin to quiet down, some are saying “Shh.”  The microphone is a large announcer’s mike, styled like ones from the 1940s.  I look down at it.  With every breath more confidence and eagerness fills my body.

I look up and smile.

And just as I was about to begin….my alarm clock went off.

I swear.

I was jerked awake.  I was in the guest bedroom because I had a cold and my wife was waking up very early to get into work.  Reaching for my iPhone, I found the Notes app and starting writing as fast as my thumbs could move.  I laughed, and thought “maybe it’s an effective dream,” like poor George Orr in The Lathe of Heaven.

Those notes are the silvery gossamer of this blog post.

John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, has become a serious student of dreaming.  He’s convinced that if you’re working on a problem and you leave it at the end of the day, then go to sleep, when you wake up the solution will be obvious to you.  He claims this is the key to all the great comedy he’s written (including my favorite Python, the Dead Parrot sketch.)  Maybe that’s true, at least once and awhile.  It might be a good practice to try, eh?

I think what I meant in my dream about “driving deeper into the product” is that the answers to marketing and sales problems are found at the heart of the products and services we sell.  We often get lost in all the silly tin foil and Christmas lights we drape around a product, that stuff we call branding.

Examples: people loved the Saab because of its design, not the commercials that Saab ran, and now we mourn Saab’s passing.  UnderArmour makes better base layer clothing for winter than anything else I’ve worn, and I love the stark, black design of it.  I wear Warby Parker glasses because I love the retro look, they cost $99 and they donate a second pair to someone who can’t afford new glasses–great on all points!

Here’s another: I drink Starbucks French Roast coffee at home because the taste is unbelievably delicious.  I’m surprised frankly, because I don’t particularly care for Starbuck’s–I don’t like the stores, nor their barristas, their grande non-fat lattes, not even the damn mermaid logo.  Starbucks is like the 21st century McDonalds to me.  But there you go.  I love the coffee beans, not the bag they come in.  Today product design is 80% or 90% of the matter, and advertising and trade dress is 10%.  That’s used to be different, but in this century it’s all changed, and I think for the good.

I’m fascinated by the idea of building services for customers as a form of marketing.  Let’s take all the money spent on the annoying radio advertising (the worst, most irritating form in my booklet) and let’s spend it on something useful for the customer, something that says something about our values, design philosophy, and our product.  People will use it and it will make them love our product even more.

That’s why I love, love, love the Dyson hand dryer, the Dyson Blade.  It’s the best ad I’ve seen for a Dyson vacuum cleaner (which by the way is the workhorse vacuum cleaner of choice in the Miller household.)  From the moment you stick your wet, dripping hands into a Dyson Blade you totally get what Dyson is about as a company.  This works 10X better than those little white boxes on washroom walls that ineffectually breathe warm air for a few moments and then die.  This is a hand dryer!

And with subtle grace Dyson connects the hand dryer to their big product line, the vacuum cleaners, by using the same soft silver/grey finish with bright gold/yellow trim.

They should hang a sign over every Dyson Blade that says, “If you like how we dry your hands, you’ll love how we clean your floors!”

My father was a salesman for IBM for much of his career.  He left me a small IBM notepad, which I carry around in my coat pocket.  On the inside front cover are written the IBM company values:

  • Dedication to every client’ success
  • Innovation that matters—for our company, and for the world
  • Trust and personal responsibility in all relationships

Is that grand?  Clear, high standards for making decisions.

IBM has lost its way from time to time, most notably when the era of “big iron” mainframes was disrupted and devastated by the rise of the PC in the 1990s.  But with the help of great managers (including Lou Gerstner, but also many others) it’s remained the most relevant business computing partner a corporation could choose.  Today they are maybe the best example of a social enterprise working to make every client successful.  I think they’re great at creating innovation that matters.

It’s not the IBM logo, or their commercials that sell IBM— it’s leadership in the marketplace on behalf of their clients.

Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” is a mantra of folk wisdom made up by customers long ago–and not by IBM.  Think about that.   Would your customers say that about your company?

As marketers we get stuck on being marketers.  We’re people who make marketing deliverables like marketing plans, market research reports, and social media plans.  We build advertising campaign briefs, and broadcast flight plans, and so on.  Now we fight for control of online, mobile and social strategy–but why?  So we can create more deliverables to our bosses that will prove we’re being great marketers.  We write stuff like power points and Brand Lift reports, PR media mention reports and Golden Lion awards, and….  We create the deliverables we created last year, and we try to make them a little better.

Farrah Bostic said in a presentation at Planningness this year that as planners, as marketers of any description, the hardest thing for us do is give up making our deliverables.  How will anyone know I’m great if they don’t see my brilliance in my strategic plan?

Of course, that’s about me, not the client.  And this has be about the client, and most of all about the client’s product.

Real “brand equity” is grown and is sustained by customers finding ways to bring a product into their lives in a valuable way over a long time.  Marketers, sales people, product designers and CEOs all have a collective obligation to deliver the greatest value in their products.  That’s the first thing, and that’s the last thing.

We can use marketing as a framework to explain the product to the customer so they understand and are reminded why its valuable, and why they’re part of the group of people who use that product—Starbuck’s people, or Mini-Cooper people, or Guinness drinkers?) But we can also break away from marketing as we understand it and join with people across the company to figure out new ways of proving to the customer what our products do and how they can be valuable.

I just wrote a column about how Coca-Cola did that in Portugal.  So if people who sell sugared water can do it, I think almost any good product can.

Adrian Ho tells the story of when he led account planning at Fallon and they worked on for United Airlines.  United was in a terrible slump, but working with Fallon they repositioned themselves as the best airline for the business traveler.  The results were amazing, and United made a major financial turn-around.  The result? They were very grateful to Fallon and Adrian’s team and all the tremendous work they had done capturing the imagination of the business traveler and allowing United to focus on serving them well.

But United cut Fallon’s budget completely the following year.  Why?  They needed to spend the money on renovating the interiors of the airplanes—replacing the seats with better ones, re-doing everything inside the airplane.  And that was more important to United than more great advertising.

What’s the lesson?  It’s about driving deeper into the product—don’t be satisfied with building incremental versions of what you did last year.   Think about your customer, not your role. Innovate. Think of services, content and other valuable ways we can help the customer.  These new valuable ways have to extend from the core values of our company and therefore from the design values of our products and services.  Without that “true north,” we’ll just keep lathering on crappy ads with weasel words and clever animations, and we’ll “spray and pray” our marketing budget as best we can.

And if these new forms of marketing/customer service look more like a product extensions than a marketing campaigns, that’s fine.  Break down the silos.  Built and iterate.  Social media is integrating good products and services deeper into the lives of customers, and if you look closely you’ll see some brands are growing stronger identities, built on value and expressed in valuable exchanges with customers.

That’s how you build and sustain a brand.

That’s my speech, more or less.  So thanks for inviting me.  It’s so great to see friends I’ve worked all those long nights with.  Hey, I think I could use a glass of water now. Thank you very much.

Oh, and I’m sorry Mr. Disch. I apologize for the dream sequence.  I was sleeping when I wrote this.

And then I woke up.


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About Rohn Jay Miller

I'm a strategic designer who works with clients who are transforming their business models because of change brought on by the Internet. Solving disruption is often a problem and an opportunity at the same time. Previously I was a founding partner of Ikonic/USWeb in San Francisco, and Senior Vice President--Product & Technology for Knight Ridder in San Jose.

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