The other day my friend Veronica Arreola of Viva La Feminista asked this on Facebook:
Hive mind….Instead of talking about “building a brand,” we should say [fill in the blank].
I’ve heard people say “reputation.” Any other phrases? Working on something for my students and I don’t want to use “brand.” Thanks!
I said “Business.” She asked me for an explanation and I said that being known for something (building your brand) isn’t enough. This is action, not reaction; strategy not execution. You should have a mission statement and a vision for what your career is going to be.
It’s like being known as a personality instead of an actress, less Kim Kardashian and more Kate Winslet. Sure, Kim Kardashian has made a bunch of money for herself. But the number of people who can replicate her success over a long period of time is minimal. The associations attached to her are as problematic as they are positive, she’s of-the-moment and she can only work in a proscribed space (reality show character and product spokesperson). Whereas Kate Winslet has built up a solid reputation as someone who can work in a variety of films with a career that has longevity and a bankable, consistent value for someone other than herself. You know what you’re getting with Kate Winslet. With Kim Kardashian, the wind could change quickly.
Metaphors aside, students need to be taught how to put notoriety in terms of hiring or intellectual property they offer that no one else can: a viewpoint, a process, a track record of building or creating new things. That’s where the real value is for them and someone that might hire them.
If they can’t make an employer or the public see how their skills and notoriety translate into a business environment then it will be difficult for them to make a living doing what they love.
This is similar to something I’ve told college students and others trying to develop writing careers. Businesses pivot from time to time, but they have a sense of what they do and what they don’t do. If you’re going to be a writer or other type of freelancer, you’re essentially a one-person business. What spaces will you own? Keep in mind this is also about learning what you are going to say no to or avoiding a too-crowded field. It sounds really awesome to be a food writer. But if you don’t know the difference between small plates and tapas, you have no business reviewing food. (Also, in 2013 it’s a too-narrowly defined space with fewer opportunities. )
You will probably do a lot of freelancing; you’re going to have assignments that don’t always hew to your mission but everything you do should somehow support that mission (even if it’s only monetarily) because once you’re known for doing certain things people will look to you more often to do them. When I was at magazines, we’d always be looking for a writer who can handle a specific topic. It was rare that we said “Well who’s a good writer in general who might be able to handle this?” Specificity helps.
Now, figuring out what you’re worth and what to charge people for it? That’s a post for another day.
I was laid off from Ogilvy yesterday. It wasn’t completely unexpected as there were some layoffs last week and I was new on the team. Plus, the position wasn’t a particularly good fit for me. I know that sounds like spin and maybe it is but it also has the benefit of being true.
To those paying attention, it’s become obvious: Anyone or anything can be a publisher, including consumer brands.
Behind all of that content are methods and practices that tell us how long people view that content, who’s doing the viewing and how that information can be used to build a sustainable business. It’s something that traditional media publishers need to know more about and do more of in the future.
If I want to have a complete view of the mass media ecosystem and truly understand how content is created, consumed, tracked and paid for across all platforms, then the work I’ll be doing at Ogilvy is the next logical step.
I spent years at news publishers and loved it. But ultimately I’m a content strategist. Whether it’s on behalf of a brand or a traditional media publisher isn’t as important to me as the opportunity to create it, measure it, and motivate someone to take action as a result of it: seeking out more information, participating in the conversation and sharing it with others, taking action in a community, or becoming a new customer. It can be done in print, on the Web, via an app, at events or in many other channels.
While Ogilvy didn’t quite work out the way I expected, I learned a great deal there in a short time. I’m better at what I do now than when I started. The experience didn’t sour me on agency life but it has given me more perspective on it. My boss and the rest of the team were a great group and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do next.
As for me, this situation is not wholly unfamiliar; something similar happened to me when I was at Playboy.com. After I left there, I got the chance to talk to a bunch of interesting people about their projects before landing at Chicago magazine, which was a great opportunity. I’m looking forward to the next great opportunity this time as well.
Can Tumblr still be Tumblr if it’s owned by Yahoo? It’s a complicated question. Even someone who thinks about this stuff all the time like Mathew Ingram at GigaOm acknowledges it “makes a certain kind of horrible sense” but wonders how likely it is that Yahoo won’t screw it up.
Can a startup still remain “cool” if they’re owned by a big company? And what is “cool” anyway? What’s a set of best practices when you’re acquiring something, whether it’s a media startup or a tech startup.
I’m working through some of these questions so this post will be less of a fully-realized piece and more of a scratch pad of thoughts of mine and others. I’ll update as needed. (Please feel free to jump right to the comments and offer your thoughts.)
There are plenty of reasons why acquisitions happen. One company might want the talent or technology of another or want to put a competitor out of business. In these cases, the larger company intends on shutting it down completely. Apple’s done this a few times – LaLa and Color Labs are two examples that spring immediately to mind. As my friend Rachelle Bowden pointed out to me last night on Facebook, when Google acquired Feedburner they shut it down as a company but kept the product (and, I think, some of the talent) though six years post-acquisition, the product may not be long for this world after years of neglect. (So one rule for acquisitions might be “Don’t let it languish.”)
[In the interest of limiting the scope of the discussion here, let's deal mainly with companies that seemingly want to keep a company running and keep it "cool." There's a separate question of how big a startup can get and still remain "cool." It's a separate set of considerations but two notable examples of ones that have: GrubHub - which is in the midst of a merger with Seamless - and (as pointed out on Facebook by my friend Carter last night), Southwest Airlines. Off the top of my head, Gawker's an example of a digital media company that keeps growing but retains its edgy, innovative spirit. It's new Kinja integration/redesign may just be what Nicco Mele and John Wihbey describe as the future of big media as a platform for brands. Pitchfork is another one to watch as they expand into film coverage.]
So how does one define cool? Gordon Wright pointed out that small doesn’t necessarily mean “cool.” “Some big companies have soul, many startups don’t.”
I’d say “cool” is remaining relevant and and innovative: continuing to create new features and retain the spirit and soul of the product. (Don’t agree? Head to the comments and give me your definition.)
Does it depend on the company who buys you? Yes and no. Yahoo’s run of acquisitions is not good as documented in this Valleywag post “A brief history of Yahoo buying and ruining things.” Flickr is a case in point and this Gizmodo post from last year explains how it all happened: they didn’t innovate, they ripped out core features and essentially alienated the audience. (So two more rules for success: Let the company be itself and help it scale.)
On the media side, there’s the Chicago Reader and Ars Technica. The Reader was bought by The Sun-Times about a year ago and is now seeing integration of Reader content into the main paper. (Here’s a Vine I made of what that looks like.) But it’s left the Reader alone and it’s profitable. And around its 10th anniversary in 2008 Ars Technicawas acquired by big magazine publisher Conde Nast yet even people who follow media are often surprised to learn this. Another example of leaving it alone, but helping it scale.
But then there’s Everyblock. It was bought by MSNBC in 2009, pivoted into a focus on community discussions and grew but was then shut down early this year. (Leading to this cautionary tale from Everyblock founder Adrian Holovaty this week regarding Tumblr: “My experience: even if people @ acquirer are great, it’s inevitable they’ll one day be replaced by clowns.” (Not sure how you craft a rule around that one.)
Last night I asked friends on Facebook whether you can remain cool as a startup after acquisition. Here’s what they said, though I have re-ordered or compressed some parts of the discussion for clarity (again, apologies for the less than visually stunning look of the below. Fancy plugins next time!) UPDATE: I’ve now made the Facebook thread public. You can read it in full here or read highlights below.
Andrew Huff:Yes so far: Instagram. Yes, though “cool” is perhaps relative: TypeKit (acquired by Adobe). No (I think): Blogger. [Ed note: Google acquired Blogger in 2003 but joked about it in 2001.]
Blagica Stefanovski Bottigliero:Yes: Orbitz. [Ed note: Acquired by Cendant in 2004.] I left before the buy but what I think was cool was the sick search technology that continued on. Motorola: jury is out. [EN: By Google in 2012.) Another thing to explore is how acquisitions that worked altered or kept monetization models.
Jackie Danicki: Qik, where I loved working in 2008-2009, was acquired by Skype right before Skype was acquired by Microsoft. Live streaming mobile video, super innovative before purchase and after. There are literally hundreds of startups that are innovative post-purchase - but they are not all household names. That is no measure of their worth ($) or innovation.
Mike Fourcher:All State and esurance: Yes. Sears and Lands End: Yes. Unilever and Ben & Jerry's: Yes. Disney and Marvel, yes. [EN: Disney is a great non-media, non-tech example of a company that let its acquisition be itself and helped it scale.]
Benjamin Lipsman:Cisco bought Flip cameras when they were popular, then shuttered it a few years later as smartphones ate into market & Cisco realized they couldn’t market to consumers. Zappos had stayed true to their values after Amazon purchase.
I asked Benjy the following: Do you think that was an example of the market overtaking it or Cisco making missteps?
Benjamin Lipsman: Cisco should’ve seen the market threat before they invested in buying Flip, then they seemed to give up pretty quickly when it was still popular. Had they been able to market to consumers, they could’ve probably sold millions more. David Pogue’s take.
Leah Jones:Considering “Flip” is still the generic word for a small, HD, simple video camera… I’m going to blame Cisco. I think you could look at Twitter acquisitions for examples of how to uncool acquisitions. [EN: Here's a history of Twitter acquisitions as of 2012. It acquired Vine in 2013.]
Andrew Huff:The time between Cisco takeover of Flip and Cisco killing Flip was shorter than a few years, I think — maybe two? [EN: Two years.] Regardless, I blame Cisco. Flip had and still has strong brand identification in the category, and could probably have evolved to remain relevant — see GoPro’s continued success. [EN: Here's a look at GoPro.]
Joanna Brandt:Tom’s? Or are they not big enough yet?
Ellen Malloy: GrubHub merger/bigness just happened. Too soon. I’d say Instagram is also too soon. That said: FourSquare is No Longer Cool with too many big years under it’s belt. Groupon was Never Cool and was also Always Big. Toss in: Apple seemed to have muffled the brilliance of Dragon from afar.
Then Ellen made a great point about how funding startups may affect their ability to grow and stay cool.
Part of the issue you explore is the dynamic of funding cool startups. And they need funding to reach their cool goals. But the goal of folks who do the investing is the exit. Not the coolness. So the system of how startups get from cool to big is set up to ensure big not cool. Which is not wrong… Since the investor is in the business of the exit not in the business of cool. And it is his money doing the funding.
Carter Liotta:Ben & Jerry’s is an interesting case study. To a lesser degree, Southwest Airlines.
Here, Mike Fourcher noted SWA was never acquired. Still, they got big but still retained what their customers loved about them.
Carter Liotta:They retained a fun attitude, but their core business changed dramatically. Their prices are now often higher than legacy carriers on many routes, and they no longer serve many small airports (Providence RI and Manchester NH) after starting service to Boston Logan. The whole point of SW was keeping costs low by flying to small airports… At least at first. Now they act more like a legacy carrier. But you’re right- no acquisition that I know of.
Mike Fourcher:Carter, I disagree. Their first strategy was not small airports, it was low-cost, point-to-point flights, rather than the traditional hub-spoke system. Second, they placed a high emphasis on creating value with hiring and personnel, rather than the cost-plus system competitors had been using. SWA is still behaving that way, but now has enough margin to afford gates in more central airports.
Benjamin Lipsman: Something interesting to watch will be to see how effectively Southwest extends their “coolness” and company ideals to the employees of AirTran, which SWA acquired last year and is finally beginning to integrate.
Ellen Malloy: One follow up on Justin Massa: Groupon looks to have killed Breadcrumb, a company they bought a year ago.
Laura Chavoen: Tom’s Shoes/Warby Parker. Easy Jet.
I’m going to continue to use this post as the hub for this discussion happening on Facebook and Twitter and pull interesting posts from there as well. Updates to come. But let’s take this to comments: What other examples are there of acquisitions that kept the spirit of the acquired startup? Or ones where it all went horribly wrong? Thanks for contributing.
This post became the basis for the first hour of WBEZ’s The Afternoon Shift. In thinking this through with host Niala Boodhoo, we started to think about some of the big issues behind Yahoo’s acquisition.
So who will Yahoo be serving those ads to? Peter Kafka at All Things D notes Tumblr has 300 monthly uniques but no one’s really sure how many active users; Kafka estimates it at 30-50 million. But it’s not just about Tumblr’s raw numbers, it’s about who those users are, specifically how old they are. If you look at Quantcast’s numbers on Tumblr’s users 29% of them at 18-24 (Internet average is 12%) and 24% are 25-34 (Internet average 17%). Yahoo’s audience is significantly older and the purchase of Tumblr youngs those numbers up quite a bit.
Here’s how all of the above played out during our discussion on the show with Samuel Axon, Editorial Director of Sprout Social – with a drop-in from Jim DeRogatis with some breaking news about the Congress Theater. There are a few callouts by me of comments from the Facebook post above.
Last night, I noticed Laura Baginski, former features editor of Time Out Chicago, had “Editor of Time Out Chicago” in her Twitter bio so I tweeted it out. A few minutes later, former TOC editor-in-chief Frank Sennett confirmed that fact and the names of the 10 other people who are still employed there.
So with apologies for the Buzzfeed-like title, here are the 11 people who still work at Time Out Chicago and the titles they had under the previous ownership (many, like Laura, probably have new titles but perform similar functions).
Laura Baginski – Features Editor
Kris Vire – Theater Editor
Brent Dicrescenzo – Managing Editor
Jake Malooley – Reporter/Front of book/Chicago Tracker
Julia Kramer – Associate Dining Editor
Laura Pearson – Books & Poetry Editor
Martha Williams – Associate Photo Editor
Jessica Johnson – Senior Online Producer
Erin Delahanty – Digital Marketing Manager
Robert Ruthardt – Senior Account Manager
Marla Tarantino – Accounting Specialist
For those keeping score, that’s six editors, one digital staffer, a photojournalist, two for marketing and sales and an accountant. Having worked with many of those folks and counting more than a few as friends, I can tell you that’s a damn fine roster and some are my favorite Chicago writers.
A few other thoughts in the wake of the departure of Time Out Chicago‘s print edition:
There’s been a stunning lack of reporting about TOC in the days since it was announced it was going all-digital. Even in the last couple of days, there’s been little aside from what’s been announced by the brand itself or via Twitter. So it was probably no surprise that the biggest news – the above and media critic Robert Feder’s departure – was released via Twitter by people who used to work there. But I guess that’s what happens when the city’s only full-time media critic is one of the people laid off.
Incidentally, if you’re an all-digital publication I’m not sure why you’d buy out the contract of the biggest driver of your Web traffic. Sure, most of Feder’s readers probably came for him and didn’t cross over into other TOC content but if you want eyes and impressions why not retain him through a transition while you rebuild the likely traffic decline from not having a print publication as a driver of awareness for the site?
In short, money. A print magazine that broke its all-time ad sales revenue record in July 2012 was probably still a viable product so the only reason you’d shut it down would be to run the brand as cheaply as possible until you sell it as a package in a few years with the other brands in the portfolio and not because you think the print product can’t make money (which is another way of saying “don’t think a second news/entertainment glossy print product can’t make a go of it in Chicago”). Don’t just take my word for it: the Time Out CEO all but admits this is the plan in the last graf of this piece by Lewis Lazare.
As for the other locally-based, editorially-driven, news/entertainment print concerns in Chicago: Tribune’s Chicago magazine and Red Eye are obviously still doing well; according to Mike Miner, the Chicago Reader‘s readership numbers have been on a three-year climb (though the number you really want to look at is the press run which has remained steady) and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Wrapports’s The Grid and Splash break out of the Sun-Times wrapper sometime soon. Hell, even New City is still kicking around. And the above doesn’t even take into account Michigan Avenue and Chicago Social, both glossy magazines though they occupy a much different space in the market. Or Crain’s Chicago Business.
All of which says those who see TOC‘s print demise as a harbinger aren’t looking at the full picture.
Disclosure: I worked at TOC from 2007-2009 and am friends with many of the people who used to work there and some who still do. All of the above is based on public knowledge or is solely my conjecture or opinion.
Fascinating story about Disney’s new princess, Sofia. Daughter of a single working mom (though she marries a king), she purposely doesn’t hew to the princess stereotypes of looking for a prince; the moral of one story says “breaking the rules is an exercise of your own free will.” The character went through a five-year development process with “writers, child-development and early-education experts and storytelling consultants” and quite a bit of pre-market testing with little kids. To me, the process they followed there is as compelling as the product that came out of it.
The character sketch is certainly interesting. As someone who’s generally anti-princess, I’m interested enough to check it out on Abigail’s behalf. The picture of Sofia in the typical princess attire with Cinderella-like birds flitting around her does make me wonder why Disney spends that kind of time and money to just create another princess. The paranoid side of me wonders if Sofia is a gateway drug to capture hearts and minds otherwise uninterested in typical princess stories and then while they’re in the princess toy aisle ”Say, have you met Ariel…?”
* If you hit WSJ’s paywall, Google “Test-Marketing a Modern Princess” and click through via search.
Roger Ebert’s death is on par with the passing of Studs Terkel for both Chicago and the world. Studs told the stories of the men and women who made Chicago live and breathe. Roger Ebert told the stories of film and, by extension, humanity writ large. But just as no critic’s view is entirely objective, Ebert’s outlook was informed by a life lived in Illinois, a career steeped in Chicago newspapers and a personality that lept off the page. Many before me have noted how he turned his forced physical silence into a digital journal equal to all his work that came before.
As the Tribune‘s Mark Caro noted today, Roger Ebert was Chicago, moreso than any other person. His bearing, humor, liberalism and enjoyment of bars – prior to his sobriety – were all aspects of this city that many saw as reflections of themselves. His international renown gave average people aspirations of greatness. Michael Jordan was His Airness. Roger Ebert was one of us.
A few other noteworthy links on and by Roger Ebert:
There will never again be someone as influential on the art and business of film as Roger Ebert. Never.
Today my former Chicago magazine colleague Jeff Ruby said “Roger Ebert anecdotes are like belly buttons. Everyone’s got one and they’re all great.” Permit me a bit of navel-gazing as I try to make this story live up to that bon mot.
My first professional movie review was for Time Out Chicago, a little more than a year before I’d join the staff as its Web Editor. I’d been writing about movies for Chicagoist and done some other freelance work prior but this was the first time I was paid to cast a critical eye on film. My nervous excitement tempered only a little by my assignment: The Ringer, a Johnny Knoxville movie about…honestly, it’s not important. It was the guy from Jackass so that should tell you everything you need to know.
Versed in Chicago lore, I knew the Lake Street screening room – where I’d be watching the movie – has its own pecking order and seating arrangement. I studied a graphic that appeared as a sidebar in Chicago magazine’s 2005 profile of Ebert but it only covered some of Chicago’s top critics. Not wanting to intrude too far, I chose a seat a couple rows from the back, a few seats from the far right aisle.
And then Roger Ebert sat in the back row and I realized I was sitting directly in front of him. I quickly moved one seat over. But of course I was still in his line of sight.
Behind me, I could hear Ebert talking to his wife and some colleagues. They were discussing an upcoming biopic on Russ Meyer and why he felt Jack Black would not be a good person to play Meyer but a younger James Garner would be. Jokes were made about how radio DJ Steve Dahl should play Ebert; Ebert felt Phillip Seymour Hoffman could play him except Hoffman’s not masculine enough. A streak of his famous humor.
After a few moments, he settled in and I could hear him making the noises of a Midwesterner who’s trying to decide if he’s going to say something or just be nice and suffer through. He leaned forward and asked “Would you mind moving over so you’re not blocking my view of the screen?”
“Oh..was I…er…yes…herrm…ah…yes…I’ll…” I spat out as I gathered my things and moved a couple spots to the side.
“Thank you,” he said to the inarticulate interloper.
I wanted to become a writer because guys like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert made newspapermen seem larger-than-life. In that one moment, Roger Ebert – merely through his graciousness – gave me the opportunity to elevate my inadvertent rudeness to cocktail chatter. Even in a moment of irritation, he made small human moments seem greater. At least to me.
In health, Roger Ebert taught us how to appreciate art. In sickness, he taught us how to live life to the fullest. In his work, he taught us how to be great.