Monday, August 22, 2016

Seeing the light

When I  worked for large corporates there was often a regular parade of inventors anxious to convince us to strike a deal with them to produce and market their latest world- beating product.

The typical pitch fell somewhere between Britain's got Talent auditions and the Dragon's Den, neither of which were on air then. It was also before the Internet offered a valuable research tool to check them out. For the inventors the prize would be some royalty deal where we took on board the expense of engineering the product for manufacture, testing, standards compliance, investing in tooling, producing the product and marketing. Why did big companies with their own significant research and development teams bother to entertain what was typically a succession of self-deluded or simply crazy inventors? First they might just have genuine breakthrough in an area of interest that had eluded us and further more they might hold a patent. More realistically it was case of not wanting to miss out on a great possibility, much like in the pop music world of not wanting to be known as the manager who failed sign up the Beatles.

Into this odd aspect of our product management life breezed Myron Khan, an American inventor of polarizing lighting panels. A number of things combined to make this Dragon's Den style bid for support more interesting than most. At Thorn Lighting we already produced acrylic lighting panels which typically comprised multiple rows of small pyramids for lighting control. What's more, my boss the head of marketing had recently conducted a fact finding tour of the USA. Here he had observed the widespread adoption of suspended ceilings in offices and stores which used troffer lighting fittings which could be dropped into a ceiling module instead of ceiling tiles. Further more, on the premise that American building trends were ahead of the UK, visiting America gave a glimpse of the future. Already,  on the strength of his report a suspended ceiling company in Slough had been  purchased positioning Thorn for this promised future. Coincidentally Polarised sun glasses were en vogue in the early 1970s and created a premium, high tech eyeware sector as opposed to the 'dar'glasses we then bough from Woolworths or Boots.  And just to complete the picture the price of oil quadrupled in1973 prompting urgent calls for energy cuts of which lighting was a major culprit .

Myron Kahn who was not one for holding back, presented his  Polarised panels as the saviour of civilisation as we knew it. It seemed like a no-brainer - easy to retrofit polarised lighting panels that offered not only energy savings, but sharper vision, reduced glare and less eye strain and all to go into the suspended ceiling lighting fittings we expected would sell in their tens of thousands. But there was one niggling little problem  (there  were others) and that was the science of his panels. No recognised scientific expert seemed willing to endorse these claims. Worse still the American Illuminating Engineering Society the body that amongst other things set recomended lighting levels for illumination levels, refused to even mention Myron's polarized panels in their publications.

The fundamental issue was understanding how the  functioning of polarisation which had been implemented via a rather dull coating sheet applied to an other wise standard acrylic panel actually worked. A favourite way of demonstrating polarisation was to rotate polarised lenses and observe a reduction in light - great for sun glasses. There were a series of marketing/technical meetings with Myron Kahn largely to convince us how it worked. We were invited to observe how much better the colours of an R & D manager's tie appeared under this polarised light. Ever the showman Myron somehow contrived to appear on the BBC television news as the first  American  business to fly into Heathrow on the inaugural flight of Concorde. He intimated he was dashing to Britain to sign a multi million dollar contract. For some reason there was no reference to meeting some cynical product mangers in Slough!

The polarized panels enjoyed little success in the UK and were hideously expensive. The benefit of troffers was cheapness as the ceiling grid provide much of the support structure. The prismatic panel sheets which controlled the light distribution carried big, big mark ups. It was where we made our money.


Footnote:
There is little about Myron Kahn to be found on the Internet, apart that is, for a fulsome Obituary in the Los Angeles Times. In an eulogy that reads like one of his own sales brochures he was described as "the darling of  economists, ergonomists and conservastionists."

Seeing the light

When I  worked for large corporates there was often a regular parade of inventors anxious to convince us to strike a deal with them to produce and market their latest world- beating product.

The typical pitch was somewhere between Britain's got Talent auditions and the Dragon's Den, neither of which were on air then. It was also before the Internet offered a valuable research tool to check them out. For the inventors the prize would be some royalty deal where we took on board the expense of engineering the product for manufacture, testing, standards compliance, investing in tooling, producing the product and marketing. Why did big companies with their own significant research and development teams bother to entertain what was typically a succession of self-deluded or simply crazy inventors? First they might just have real breakthrough in an area of interest and further more hold a patent, or more realistically not wanting to miss out on a great possibility like in the pop music world and not wanting to be known as the manager who failed sign up the Beatles.

Into this odd aspect of  product management breezed Myron Khan, an American inventor of polarising lighting panels. A number of things combined to make this Dragon's Den style bid for support more interesting than most. At Thorn Lighting we already produced acrylic lighting panels which typically comprised multiple rows of small pyramids for lighting control. What's more, my boss the head of marketing had recently conducted a fact finding tour of the USA. Here he had observed the widespread adoption of suspended ceilings in offices and stores which used troffer lighting fittings which could be dropped into a ceiling module instead of ceiling tiles. Further more, on the premise that American building trends were ahead of the UK and visiting America thus gave a glimpse of the future, already on the strength of his report a suspended ceiling company in Slough had been  purchased. Polarised sun glasses were en vogue in the early 1970s and just to complete the picture the price of oil quadrupled in1973 prompting urgent calls for energy cuts.

Myron Kahn who was not one for holding back, presented his  Polarised panels as the saviour of civilisation as we knew it. It seemed like a no-brainer - easy to retrofit polarised lighting panels that offered not only energy savings, but sharper vision, reduced glare and less eye strain and all to go into the suspended ceiling lighting fittings we expected would sell in their tens of thousands. But there was one niggling little problem  (there  were others) and that was the science of his panels.

The fundamental issue was understanding how the  functioning of polarisation had been implemented via a rather dull coating sheet applied to an other wise standard acrylic panel. A favourite way of demonstrating polarisation was to rotate polarised lenses and observe a reduction in light - great for sun glasses. There were a series of marketing/technical meetings with Myron Kahn largely to convince us how it worked. We were invited to observe how much better the colours of an R & D manager's tie appeared under this polarised light. Ever the showman Myron somehow contrived to appear on the BBC television news as the first  American  business to fly into Heathrow on the inaugural flight of Concorde. He intimated he was dashing to Britain to sign a multi million dollar contract. For some reason there was no reference to meeting some cynical product mangers in Slough!

The polarized panels enjoyed little success in the UK and were hideously expensive.


Footnote:
There is little about Myron Kahn to be found on the Internet apart that is for a fulsome Obituary in the Los Angeles Times. In an eulogy that reads like one of his own sales brochures he was described as "the darling of  economists, ergonomists and conservastionists."

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

RSS - a news feed idea that won't go away

Social media has given new life to the term news feed.

Just about 10 years ago in this blog I wrote is RSS about to take off as a marketing tool? We had been offering RSS  to clients for 2 years or so by then, but it never really got a mass following despite being a neat technology. And like many other clever ideas it seemed doomed to stay just that - a neat idea. One thing that persuaded us was that the BBC  was using RSS  and it is still carried on their news sites now.

Last year I  wrote about RSS again, asking is RSS about to make a come back?  Perhaps it has found a niche. The explanation provided by the BBC says it all really. It allows you to view the latest additions to web sites you are interested in - all in one place.

Great idea in a busy world. May be RSS  will still be going in another 10 years!

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Talking about news publication

Before Internet, news publication in the b-2-b sector was relatively simple.

Basically to get news published you sent your news by way of press releases to the editors of the relevant trade press and hoped. Sometimes you could 'pitch' a story to the editor and be commissioned to write an article and even, many years ago for the author to be paid. For the smaller stories you hoped yours would be selected for publication - most press releases went straight to the trash can.  A figure of 1 in 20 [published to binned] was quoted as typical. So you hoped your press release would be the fortunate 1 out of 20.

Then a couple of things gradually started to happen that changed things. Most b-2-b publications a few decades ago were monthly magazines, a few might have been sold by subscription but by and large it was display and classified advertising that paid for them. And the advertisers were often the same people that sent in the press releases. Colour print was not yet common in  b-2-b publications. A colour section was bound in  to the journal which was otherwise mainly black and white. There was obviously more appeal to place advertising in the colour pages of the publication. Likewise  a news item and photograph in colour were deemed more effective. This opened up a new revenue stream for the publisher. At the time colour print was significantly more expensive than black and white and one additional cost was the production of films for printing colour, which were known as 'colour separation's. The publishers would run your press release on one of the colour pages, but there would be a modest charge for the 'cost' of the separations. The once claimed editorial independence from the financial clout of the advertiser was breached. Now you could buy space one way or another. Advertorials - typically using the magazine's house style but containing apparently 'independently' written copy and therefore more authoritative - allowed the big advertisers to dominate the media. So before heading for the trash can, the press releases rejected by the editor would pass to a salesmen who would sell the space usually using the "colour separation' approach. When advertising sales slumped in difficult times the sales boys  were on the phone selling 'colour seps'- a term that outlived the actual process for colour print as b and w and colour prices balanced out and new generations of 'colour sep' salesmen, when challenged exhibited scant knowledge of what the charge was actually for.

With the Internet the advantage swung more in favour of the advertisers. Now all their news could be published - at least on their own website  -  giving a far more favourable return for the efforts put into writing the press release. Then along comes social media and another set of publication channels. All this opportunity to publish news brought with it its own problems. For example what is really news, news that customers or prospects would choose to read, because it is informative or interesting and what is common place?  Actually filling all these channels with interesting and informative content is another matter. Well here's another problem - the 'news feeds' on social media and Facebook's Instant Articles platform for example has kind of turned the tables a bit where the channel becomes the publisher and the initiative again shifts away from  the advertiser or news creator. Facebook, can and is changing the algorithm. An article titled, 'Why Facebook isn't working for publishers' takes a look at the evolving situation.

Although the technology has been around for years, few company web sites have used RSS as a news feed. It was and remains an in interesting option, one we look at in the next blog.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Talking about marketing metrics

Much importance is given to measuring the value of various marketing initiatives that are sometimes referred to as marketing metrics.

There is an interest, even a desire, to demonstrate the return on the investment put into marketing and it is handy to have a few Key Metrics to support this. These may be displayed on a 'dashboard' and  track the responses and value of a marketing campaign. For email campaigns we add an analytic tracking code enabling us to follow via the client's Google Analytics, the source of enquiry. So we can track who has opened the email, then clicked on a link to the sales offer on the html email and gone to the landing page and in due course placed an order we hope. Monetary values can be assigned to this based on knowing how much the campaign cost, the cost of each lead and the value of the resulting order should the visitor take this path. In practice it doesn't really tie up. It is a relay race from the email tracking handing over to the analytic tracking and ultimately the financial software. In theory we also know geographically where customers and prospects are located from their server's IP - but the buying office  and accounts people are often indifferent locations.

Of course it would be very nice to have this path from marketing initiative through to sales and shipping, so different campaigns could be compared.. But there are other influences at work. The customer may already be familiar with the brand from other advertising  and ordered because it seemed cheaper than the usual price.  Even in a relatively simple situation where customers respond to a promotion and inputs and outputs are measured often to an implied accuracy that does not really exist.  

And here is the core of the issue. Numbers can be expressed to several decimal points which sounds impressively accurate, but typically relies on data that not only lacks such precision, but can actually be very misleading. Take an example. When I  worked in the lighting industry, member companies submitted monthly sales returns by category of product, which the industry body compiled into a total figure for the different markets and product. The completed forms were returned showing our numbers, the total  market and by simple math to calculate market share as a percentage. It looked impressive that we had say 50.35% share of a market, but it was a total market only of the member companies, it excluded imports which in several categories were growing fast.

The end figures are only as good as the data that is entered and too often this is at best a guess. So the marketing metric needs to ne treated with caution.





Thursday, July 21, 2016

Time to bring back the export department

Before Britain joined what was to evolve into the EU, it was common for British companies to divide
the world into two main spheres. The Home market and the Export market.

The appointment of the new British Foreign Secretary - a job title that in itself reflects the division of the world into Home and Foreign affairs - has certainly sparked a lot of interest. What surprised me was the role is being filled by someone who actually speaks a number of languages other than English. In one major company I worked for an expertise in foreign languages was apparently not a requirement. In another company I  dealt with the export manager didn't even possess a passport! Turning the clock back still further, my father worked for a company that traded to all corners of the globe - English speaking corners that is - all in a pre-Internet, pre-international telephones era too, where the telegraph was the 'killer product" of communications.

The Home market was covered by a team of salesmen, branch managers, area mangers, regional managers - may be more. Export desks dealt with the Empire, later becoming the Commonwealth and handled through branch offices. Where I  worked we actually had a Europe desk, run by a man who could actually speak a few European languages, but also had a profound dislike of foreigners. Given this organisational structure it is surprising anyone ever imagined British membership of the EU was a good idea at anytime. Of course what actually happened is that big businesses became huge businesses and then global businesses in response to big political groupings like the EU. With an HQ in a low tax country like Luxembourg or Ireland  soon these huge global companies were paying less tax than the local shop keeper. Of course they wanted Britain to remain in the EU. But now the opportunity is there again for enterprising British companies to export to a global market again.







Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Brief

Getting the brief right and complete first time can save a great deal of time, money and frustration. But of course it doesn't happen very often.

I find it always helps when the client's brief to the agency is part of an established strategy. And that is typically a Marketing Plan supported by a Corporate Identity manual and quite importantly by a budget. As a marketing agency we typically operate as part of the marketing team and will have had input to the top level marketing strategy and planning, be familiar with the CI,  aware of the budget and critically have a good understanding of the market. Perhaps because of this issue of market understanding, b-2-b agencies often tend to specialise in a specific market.

All this helps with providing a comprehensive design brief, but even then it is often the case that important elements of the project are missing. Back in the distant past when b-2-b businesses were starting to develop a web presence, this missing information was not just a photograph or some technical data, but the whole way the business operated. What we all too often discovered was that building a web site demanded a clarity of what, how and where the client company sold their wares. It showed up big gaps in areas such as spare parts and consumables, often revealing an informal arrangement where someone wandered into the stores and picked up parts to post to the end customer. It forced the client to have a fresh look at their product offering and how they did business. For some this review in itself resulted in more sales, often because the web site revealed options which before customers didn't know existed.

Agencies often find their role is towards the end of a project so where the project is behind schedule the marketing collateral appears to be late, or the agency time frame gets compressed. We find that being involved in the project from the outset can help later on when it is time to launch a new product and significant elements of the marketing campaign are likely to be missing this can be flagged up early and resource allocated accordingly.




Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Time for Reflection

Andy Collier      3rd September 1953 - 12th July 2013


 Today we pause from the daily work to remember and reflect on the anniversary of the untimely death of Andy Collier.






































Today we pause from the daily work to remember and reflect on