Thursday, July 26, 2012

Barack H. Obama: The “Non Partisan” Report Card


“Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.”
Peter Drucker

When Obama became President in January, 2009 he and his party had a mandate from the country to lead them to greater unity, fewer unnecessary wars of choice and greater economic prosperity for all, not just a few. That meant lowering the debt, less wasted expenditure and most of all, a more efficient Federal government that once again was working for the people. His was a mandate to mend a dysfunctional political process and a broken country. What a grand mandate for any man wanting to become a great leader. Obama’s message of HOPE had not only resonated with a hungry electorate, but also energised and rallied a new generation that had never come out to vote before. Amazingly, Obama had managed to appeal to a broad swath of Americans in the middle, and reached across the political divide at a time when the country was more divided than ever before in its history. Even perhaps daring a few sworn enemies to believe that maybe this was the change the country had been thirsting for after sixteen years of unzipped pants and unwarranted swagger.

When Obama won the election in 2008, I wrote off his first few years in office based on his lack of experience, naivety and because he was not a career politician (albeit this was also, in large part the reason I liked the man - and felt he had a chance to succeed and help America – the fact that he was not a jaded career politician). However, he has failed to turn his charisma and words into real leadership and there has also been an odd dichotomy in his approach to the foreign and domestic fronts. In foreign affairs, his judgement, decisiveness and handling have paid great dividends for America, and will reap even greater one's in the long run based on his policy choices. He stood his ground on Egypt, under tremendous pressure from Israel, Republicans and members of his own party, and came out on the right side for both America and democracy. No doubt it will be a long, blood-filled and arduous road for Egypt but that is the only way democracy can be forged. Most importantly it is the path chosen by the people of Egypt and not one dictated by America or Israel’s interests in the region. On Libya he forced Europe to take the lead in military intervention, and again it proved to be the smarter and better move for America. But it is with his handling of US-Pakistan relations that I have been most impressed. He is the first American President to take off the kid gloves and give them less room to continue their double game, while receiving US aid. The man also ordered a US military raid on their soil without so much as asking permission - that took courage to do against a “key ally”. The result of Obama refusing to cower, mollycoddle and constantly apologise, like all his predecessors, has led to a more obedient and co-operative ally that now thinks twice before calling America’s bluff because there are real consequences each time they do.

However, at home he has been an often absent and detached leader, on all major domestic issues he has shown little desire to take charge or lead the way. It almost feels like he is perfectly content letting “his people” run the show and lead him. People like Larry Summers on economic policy, and Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid on his signature legislation's. This at a time when the country needed a real leader, who would step up to the plate, outline a vision and then roll up his sleeves and work to bridge the divide on the Hill, reduce the vitriol and enact real solutions to grave issues facing this country. Nobody was expecting Obama to solve ALL the problems, or perform miracles and have Republicans and Democrats hugging and singing Kumbaya, but I was expecting him to at least take one or two big issues and make meaningful progress. One of Obama’s signature pieces of legislation, the healthcare bill, is 1,990 pages long (not unusual for spending bills which routinely run into 1,000’s of pages). It should be a major embarrassment for a President who swore to introduce transparency, clarity and simplicity into the process of legislation. While there is no doubt that there are some wonderful and much needed things in this bill, many parts of it are equally opaque, poorly conceived, written by lobbyists and filled with needless pork. And not one Republican voted for it. What’s more I cannot find anywhere who actually authored this bill. Then you have his other major legislation; the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform and Regulatory bill where Obama promised when signing "The American people will never again be asked to foot the bill for Wall Street's mistakes. There will be no more tax-funded bailouts — period." (Source: NPR News). However, the landscape of the financial sector has changed dramatically since this law was passed, not to mention the fact that the law itself was obviously hastily written and poorly conceived. They took scant time to write and pass it even though they were dealing with matters that were arguably larger than America itself. Besides, would it not have been prudent to first fully understand the causes and consequences of this complex, multi-layered and global crisis before penning a law to fix it? Here is one example of this haste: “SECTIONS 404 and 406 of the Dodd-Frank law of July 2010 add up to just a couple of pages. On October 31st last year two of the agencies overseeing America's financial system turned those few pages into a form to be filled out by hedge funds and some other firms; that form ran to 192 pages. The cost of filling it out, according to an informal survey of hedge-fund managers, will be $100,000-150,000 for each firm the first time it does it.”  (The Economist, February 2012). Also absent from the proceedings was any leadership from Obama; I expected him to lead from the front on both these colossal issues, bring the various stakeholders, across the political divide, to the table and forge solid, sensible, hard-fought solutions that put the country’s future ahead of any party or political brownie points.

The first red flag, for me, came right after the inauguration when Obama announced his core leadership team. The people he chose were mostly washed out Clinton-era advisers and Bush one and two era bureaucrats and policy wags, who brought with them the baggage of the past and more worryingly the same partisan ways of thinking and functioning that had become so cemented in the later Bush years. The next thing that shook my confidence in Obama was his acceptance of The Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples". Obama had given a few glorious speeches at this stage and perhaps even been a great community organizer. Sure he had become President of the United States of America (only the 44th man in history), but that alone does not qualify one for the Nobel Prize. Call me old fashioned but I believe that one has to actually achieve something before accepting an honour for the achievement. An honourable man would have declined it based on the simple fact that they had not yet earned it. I suspect this was in large part of the beginning of the unraveling of Obama; the point at which he began to drink his own Kool-Aid and start to believe the hype and hysteria about him. Obama put himself on the same pedestal (that much of the world had) based on his words. He had not yet proven that he belonged on it, through his actions. Sadly, no matter how you cut it, the bottom line is that he has failed to become a leader or demonstrate the type of leadership the country needed after eight years of disastrous shoot-from-the-hip politics and cowboy-style management. People can make all the excuses they want about the mess Obama inherited (and there is no question that he did inherit one), but leadership is about taking on great adversity. About locking horns with it and staring it down until you have found a path to overcome it. Great leaders relish taking on the greatest challenges. They lay out a vision, then work to forge alliances, even bringing east and west together on issues, and they find real solutions to problems; lesser men and politicians make excuses and speeches.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Tale of Two Laptops: Sony VAIO and Apple MacBook Pro

“If you do build a great experience, customers tell each other about that. Word of mouth is very powerful.”
Jeff Bezos


Our household purchased two laptops at exactly the same time in 2007. One was a MacBook Pro, made by Apple, and the other a VAIO laptop, made by Sony. Both cost around the same and were expensive machines because at the time they were the fastest and best available.

The journeys that these two machines took over the next five years could not have been more different in terms of the care they received, their utilisation, the amount each one traveled; and therefore the wear and tear that each underwent. Ironically, it was the Apple MacBook Pro that was used as both a home computer as well as a school workhorse and then later also as a work computer. For these reasons it was lugged back and forth between home and class for one year, and then to the office and back for another. As a result, the amount of travel time and use it underwent was likely three to five times that of its Sony counterpart. The Sony machine on the other hand was barely touched for its first year. Then for the next four years when it became a full time computer, it was not lugged from place to place and still rarely traveled in comparison to the MacBook, since it was used primarily as a home computer and only in the last year as a work computer. I would go further to say that the Sony was treated better than some people treat their children. To say it was handled with kid gloves would be an understatement; it was kept clean and well protected from dust and other harmful elements. On occasions that it needed to leave the house it was transported in a state-of-the-art Neoprene Laptop Sleeve with a dimpled interior that provides superior shock absorption and protects against bumps, dust and scratches. Needless to say the MacBook took many a journey in far less glamorous environs, ranging from being wrapped in a pair of jeans to traveling sans protection in a rolling backpack.

Now I am also willing to consider the fact that five years is a long time in today’s frenetic technology update-driven world, where people change smaller gadgets every few months and larger ones every few years. However, I will also state that the problems with the VAIO started early. In the first year the CD-DVD drive door came unhinged; then in the second year the laptop started to overheat to the point where it became hard to work on the computer leave alone place it anywhere near the vicinity of your lap. Having purchased an extra warranty I took it to the retailer and was told that I would have to leave it with them for six weeks because the problems were too serious for them to repair. They needed to send it back to Sony for repair. Turns out the cooling fan was busted, the battery needed to be replaced and of course they forgot to fix the CD-DVD drive door. Naturally, I was livid when they told me it would have to go out again, leaving me without my laptop for another 4-6 weeks - all this within the first two years with barely any use. Meanwhile, not a problem to speak of with regards to the Apple MackBook, which was now enrolled in a college and being lugged to class five days a week and handling a major workload at home during nights and weekends.

Over the next three years the VAIO continued its downhill slide; a slide driven quite clearly more by the shoddy workmanship than the way it was being used. One day late last year, for no apparent and without any warning, the DELETE button flew out almost taking my eye with it. Systematically, the rest of the VAIO started to fall apart, piece by piece - quite literally, as you will see from the pictures. The fan issue also came back with a vengeance, which leads me to conclude it was a problem that Sony was aware of in this laptop and applied the same solution again when it had gone to them for repair. A great company would have offered a replacement, acknowledging the problem, or at least offered an alternative. Sony did not.








Finally, last month I decided to take the laptop to the Sony flagship store and show it to a manager. Now, I want to be clear that I was not expecting the manager to magically offer me a brand new laptop. However, I did expect them to be outraged, embarrassed and even shocked at the condition of one of their highest priced VAIO products.

Having dealt with many companies and their customer service over the years, I see that there are basically two types of companies: those that care and those that don’t. Apple is an example of the former. Needless to say that the MacBook Pro had absolutely no issues other than requiring a replacement battery last year; about a year after the extended warranty had expired. The salesperson at the Apple store saw that the warranty had expired but still insisted on giving us a new battery at no cost. We had come fully expecting to buy one. The gesture was tremendous and the goodwill it created cannot be bought with the largest advertising and PR budgets in the world. Of course, we have told everyone about our great experience and will be buying many more Apple products.

Now contrast this with the experience at the Sony flagship store. The manager took fifteen minutes to show up after we were told he would be with us immediately. When I showed him the laptop (recounting the story I have above), it was like he stopped being a normal human being and turned into some robot reading from a company manual. He told me that the warranty had expired, which I already knew and had explained up-front, and that since I had bought it at a third party retailer, and not directly from Sony, it was effectively not their problem. I tried to explain again that I was not asking them replace a five year old laptop but wanted to know how a high-end product could look like this – no matter how gently or severe the use. It was not like I was a lumberjack or policeman using the laptop in all sorts of harsh environments and subjecting it to god knows what conditions.

Herein lies the difference between most companies and great companies. Had he simply apologized or even seemed to care remotely, it would have gone a long way for this customer. Also, it was clear that I was in the market for a new laptop, and therefore the perfect opportunity for him to ensure I remained a Sony customer. He could have simply offered me some small inconsequential discount off the purchase of a new Sony laptop, purely as a gesture for my trials and tribulations with his product. Instead, he just continued repeating mundane lines from some corporate training manual, about the out-of-warranty and third party retailer. Effectively, leaving this once fiercely loyal customer feeling like he was not even listening. Finally, in frustration I asked for the name of a Sony executive, and he ran off to get a business card.  When he came back he proceeded to add insult to injury by giving me a card for “Sony Technical Support” with a circled web address. He told me that I should email them about my problem and to see if they could help. I stood there completely aghast and then explained that I could have gotten that from their website, and wanted the name of their CEO or Head of Retail. Of course, he did not know any executives’ names, in the company of his employ, including that of his CEO. He once again suggested I go on their website. I left and decided I would share my story about how and why I stopped being a longtime Sony customer.

Unfortunately for Sony they don’t just make laptops but a whole range of products from TV’s to PlayStations. I have no problem with a problematic product, as long as the company takes the steps of fix it. However, I do care deeply about being heard, by the same company, during the far fewer instances that I am not opening my wallet to give them my hard-earned money.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

In Defense of Humour


“A joke is a very serious thing.”
Winston Churchill

I come not to defend racism but in defense of humour. I fear that people, particularly in America today, are finding it harder and harder to make a distinction between laughing at ourselves and feeling offended; and there is a difference.

Firstly, I firmly believe that comedy should have no boundaries or restrictions, because it is meant to entertain, lighten our worldly burdens and be nothing more than a laughing matter. The only caveat is that the comedian dishing it out does so equally, and does not target a single racial stereotype. Also, I strongly suspect that there are not too many bitter, malicious, mean-spirited bigots who decide to pursue a career in comedy.

Let’s spend a minute discussing the elephant in the room – stereotypes. Frankly, I cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with me when I say that ALL cultural stereotypes are rooted in some reality and none are pure figments of our imagination. So the issue, to my mind, is not so much that someone is making fun at my expense using a racial stereotype, but whether or not the intent behind it is malicious, or if it is coming from a light hearted place. Think about it. There is a fundamental difference here, and a hugely important distinction that every person needs to make. It is imperative we all make this distinction. It is a distinction each of us, in our ever-shrinking global village, needs to make in order to progress and thrive. This is not about all of us hugging trees and getting along. It is simply about having a thicker skin when we require it.

The easiest way to explain the difference is to imagine Dave Chappelle (a famous American comic) putting on the Klu Klux Klan’s white robes and hood to tell off colour black jokes versus an actual Klansman telling the same jokes. Or Ashton Kutcher making fun of gay people (or Jews), versus Mahmoud Ahmadinejad doing it. There is a fundamental difference. One comes from a place of genuine hatred, bigotry and anger, while the other is in jest, and therefore should be considered par for the course and fair game since it is not intended to malign or incite hatred.
Consider the idea that if you cannot laugh at yourself, then you are the one who is insecure or clearly not comfortable in your own skin. Period. 

Ashton Kutcher recently did an advertisement for Pop chips where he played various different character stereotypes ranging from a American redneck to a gay German (who is clearly modeled on Karl Lagerfeld). One of his characters was a Bollywood producer named Raj, for which he put on makeup to make himself look brown, as us Indian’s tend to be (frankly, most being even darker than brown). What offended me about this whole thing was not Ashton Kutcher putting on brown face makeup but the fact that some self-aggrandizer called Anil Dash decided it was offensive to me, and my fellow countrymen; all one billion two hundred thousand of them.
A still of Mr. Kutcher as Raj, from the Popchips advertisement, which has since been removed by the company.
Firstly, Mr. Dash was born and grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (not Hariana, Punjab) which would make him about as Indian as Bobby Jindal. It matters less to me where he or anyone else was born, but much more with what shaped and influenced him; the culture and surroundings he imbibed. Growing up in America shaped his outlook and sensibilities in a vastly different way than it would have growing up in India. The reality is that American kids born to first generation Indian parents are often pushed and pulled between the realities of growing up in America, while being imprisoned by an alien Indian culture, and way of thinking that they know nothing off, at home. This is driven by their Indian parent's misplaced and misguided desire to stay in touch with their Indian roots - one that is totally alien to their children. These kids are not Indian in any manner or form, because India never had the opportunity to shape their first steps, their upbringing, their schooling or their adult outlook. America did. It is that simple. So how can a man who has never lived in India speak for more than one billion of us? Not one Indian I know felt in the least bit offended by Mr. Kutcher’s portrayal, in fact they found it hilarious and shared it with their friends on Facebook.

Secondly, after reading Mr. Dash’s blog post titled How To Fix Popchips' Racist Ad Campaign", I had the impression that it was less about taking offense than about seizing an opportunity for self-promotion through controversy. Mr. Dash comes across as someone who is uncomfortable in his own skin. I sensed he was more offended by the fact that Mr. Kutcher, a mere actor, has been far more successful in the same start-up business, presumably because of his celebrity, and possibly the colour of his skin. This, I suspect, is what offended Mr. Dash about this rather funny commercial. I don’t know Mr. Dash but reading his blog post and especially some of his responses to comments, he comes across as self-involved, and much less a defender of the helpless and downtrodden. At one point he responds to a reader comment by saying: “Believe me, I fight many different kinds of injustices (see my post last week about my old high school)…”  Frankly, if the Popchips affair counts as an injustice in Mr. Dash’s world, then he seriously needs to get out from behind his computer a little more often.

There is also a larger issue at play here, a worrying one: that the definition of racism in America seems to be have been hijacked by a political agenda, leading it to become so diluted and watered down over the years, that it has reached an almost comedic climax. The trivial and ludicrous things that people cry racism about, and at the drop of a hat, never cease to amaze. I guess it is not called the “race card” in America for nothing; and it seems to be played much like the Joker or Wild Card. Don’t get me wrong. There are many things worth fighting for, and yes, racism does exist, and it is nasty when you experience it first hand, as I have a few times in my life. However, I suspect that many Americans of this recent generation (Mr. Dash included) have never experienced real hatred. Otherwise, they would know that it is much more serious than having one’s delicate sensibility offended by a humuorous advertisement meant to sell a bag of potato chips...

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Good, the Ad and the Ugly

"There are a lot of great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best game. They know all the rules ... but there's one little rub. They forget that advertising is persuasion, and persuasion is not a science, but an art. Advertising is the art of persuasion."
Bill Bernbach

It used to be that a good advertisement made you laugh, smile or cry but a great ad was one that you had to watch at least five times before you got the deeper message. Not because it was too complex to understand but because it had layers and subtleties that you would not fully appreciate in your first or second viewing. It was a story whose finer points slowly unfolded with each new viewing; that is what we in the industry used to call a great advertisement. Hard to believe today, but those ads were ones people wanted to watch over and over again. It was these subtleties that made the brand in them memorable, relatable and formed an emotional bond with consumers long after the ad itself had stopped running. There was one other trait in those ads that set them apart from the dribble we are subjected to today. Advertising used to be based on strategic gut and creative instinct, with a little bit of research done to gain insight into the needs and motivations of your customers. The advertisements themselves were never subjected to research, or focus grouped to death with prospective customers. Those ads were based on ideas; today’s advertising is built on research and rarely has a discernible idea behind it. I loathe research not because you are unable to learn or because I believe that admen know better than anyone else but because of the way it is conducted. Rather than use research to better understand consumer behaviour, attitudes and beliefs, it is used to show customers five different ideas and ask which one they like most; all that achieves is the worst possible middle ground and lowest common denominator. If people always knew what they wanted and could articulate it, the world would be a very dull, unimaginative and limited place with few inventions or breakthroughs ever taking place. And besides you can never make everyone happy. The truth is that the industry uses research as a means to cover their backsides. By asking the consumer, they absolve themselves of any responsibility for failure. There is a reason the phrase is “risk and reward” and not “safety and reward.” I close this argument with one fact that may startle people. Apple, the most admired and coveted brand on the planet, now also the biggest company (bigger than Google and Microsoft combined), has a policy to never do consumer research or testing when developing new products and services. I rest my case about research.

The US SuperBowl is watched as much for the advertisements as for the American football played. Some even argue that the ads are more popular than the game itself; which could be true depending on the teams that end up competing. This yearly television event is the most watched TV show in America, and also the most expensive to buy an ad on. A TV spot can cost from $3.5 million to $4 million for 30 seconds, depending on the placement. It is for this reason that companies use the SuperBowl as a platform to introduce new products, make big brand announcements, launch a company or simply try to gain bragging rights to having aired a SuperBowl spot. Today, one could argue that the effect of a SuperBowl spot is much greater thanks to the internet. We not only have real-time conversation through social media and live blogging during the game but also an extended post-game analysis on the Monday morning that can continue for days and weeks after the last whistle has been blown. So a good advertisement has the potential to quickly become a global phenomenon through YouTube and other places but the stakes are equally high for the misses. Given this, one would think that companies would at least make the effort to put their best foot and creative minds forward every year. Yet, the opposite seems to be true, and it feels to me like it has been getting worse every year. Let’s review five ads I picked at random from this year’s crop for SuperBowl XLVI, and you be the judge.

First I would like to offer what I believe was a great ad (and long running campaign); one that has all the ingredients of advertising that I talked about up-front.

1987, Volkswagen Golf with Paula Hamilton (DDB)

“If only everything in life was as reliable, as a Volkswagen.” This ad is truly brilliant not because of special effects or a celebrity endorsement but purely because of its simplicity and its insight that ties Volkswagen, in a relevant and meaningful way to a core human need; one that cuts across borders and boundaries. I guarantee this ad was never researched prior to making it.

Now I offer five of the worst advertisements, of Super Bowl 2012, in no particular order:

1.    Century21 Real Estate LLC

This was Century 21’s first foray into the SuperBowl, and sadly for them I would have used them to buy or sell my house before I saw their ad. First rule of advertising, never feature Donald Trump in your ad. Second rule of advertising, just throwing in a reality TV star and celebrity athletes does not mean you don’t need an idea. If they wanted to differentiate themselves as “Smarter. Bolder and Faster” then they needed to do it in a way that re-assured a prospective client of those traits, in a relevant way. Would you have faith in real estate agent who claims to be smarter than the Donald, or spends time racing Apolo Ohno and showing up Deion Sanders rather than focusing on research and your needs? I like the intention behind it but the execution leaves much to be desired…

2.    Samsung Mobile USA – Thing Called Love

I am all for big grand shows but have to admit that in this instance that I have no clue about what the “The next big thing” from Samsung is from this advertisement. It is clear they are taking on Apple’s iPhone and iPad but with what is the question. Perhaps, it is the stylus pen because we have not seen this magnitude of innovation since 1996, when the Palm Pilot launched! Or maybe it is the me too front and back video on their mobile phone? Either way, if you want to promise consumers something BIG, then have something memorable or ground-breaking to show them, or you will look like a mindless ad filled with wannabe rockers, circus rejects and random gospel choirs that leave your audience scratching their head all the way to the nearest Apple store.

3.    Pepsi – King’s Court

There were only two thoughts that went through my head when I watched this commercial. First, I felt bad that Elton John had clearly fallen on such hard times that he needed to do this Pepsi ad. Second, that if this was the opening gambit of Pepsi’s resolve to take back huge losses in market share in America – then they should just quit while they are ahead and focus on their food business.

4.    Best Buy – Phone Innovators


There is an old Japanese philosophy called “Keiretsu” relating to the company you keep, and something we often used in advertising in the spirit of first among equals, that is the company you keep rubs off on you. Idea being to always strive for partnerships and associations that help you lift your brand value and product excellence. That is perhaps all Best Buy got right in this ad by trying to associate itself with these entrepreneurs, and inventors. They forgot the second and most important part, which is to demonstrate to us how they (Best Buy) fit into this group or belong in this league of innovation – just selling more products from more companies is more than a stretch, to qualify to be first among these equals…

5.    Budweiser – Return of the King

There was a time when the Budweiser advertising stood out and was memorable, and some of the early Clydesdale ads gave people goose bumps. This ad lacks an idea, context and memorability. There is nothing tying Budweiser or the Clydesdale’s to the message or situation – the end of Prohibition; that does not hold true for any alcoholic beverage. Nor are they offering a metaphor for today. In fact, it feels like Budweiser is now owned by a foreign company who is desperately trying to feel American, and demonstrate that the brand and beer remain a part of the heart soul and fabric of America. Oh wait, maybe that is because Budweiser is now owned by a Belgian company!