Paul and I met through my co-founder Opher whose only comment was, “you have to meet this guy”. Paul has since been advising AirShr on marketing strategy and become an essential sounding board for our team.
I made this remark about Paul in a recent email to the team as I thanked them for their life’s best work ahead of AirShr’s launch:
Paul — In a very short time you have instilled a sense of calm and precision in the way we think about marketing AirShr. I have learned a great deal from you and appreciate your rapid and insightful responses to ideas that always arrive to you as half-formed thoughts.
1. So what takes a Cornell physics, astronomy and economics grad into the world of advertising and brand?
Failure is a great liberator. I really enjoyed studying those subjects, but I simply wasn’t good enough at the math involved. By the time I was deep into my fifth semester of calculus, it was clear that I was not destined to be the astronaut I had planned on being.
The ironic part is that I was raised in an ad-friendly household. My father was an advertising executive (he started as a copywriter) in the golden Mad Men era of advertising, and my mother was a school librarian and audio-visual specialist. I knew how marketing, words, and images could work together from a very young age (I was also the projector nerd in school). The first magazine I ever read, at something like 5 years old, was Advertising Age. No joke.
So, after I got over the disappointment of failure in astrophysics, I just started looking for a job. My sister happened to live in San Francisco at the time, so why not be unemployed there? I thought maybe market research would be a good place to apply the math skills I did have, and landed at the pioneering brand and design firm Landor Associates as a consumer research assistant. I found out that I really loved the design process itself, and have been in that community ever since.
2. A lot has changed and continues to change in advertising. What are the major trends that early stage ventures should remain aware of and capitalise on?
Probably that advertising itself doesn’t mean what it used to, doesn’t behave or work in the same way it did less than 10 years ago, and that it isn’t perceived the same way either. So think about it in terms of persuasion instead of media/platforms/metrics.
There’s a lot of turmoil now in the digital ad arena surrounding programmatic buying, fake robotic page views, and the rapid adoption of ad-blocking software. To me, these are all symptoms of focusing on the targeting aspects of digital advertising, and not the persuasion part.
Targeting has been effectively solved for years now; you can find the right demographics in an audience without too much trouble. Then what? What have you got to say to them other than “please buy this”? If you have nothing interesting to say, the problem is with your value proposition, not your advertising or the media platform you’re using.
Too much of digital advertising is still based on the captive audience model of TV, or the content adjacency model of print. Neither situation applies very well to the digital context. Lots of ad spending is migrating from TV and print to digital, but most of it with little consideration of what they’re trying to accomplish with that digital spending.
Which brings us to radio. Radio is in an interesting place right now. Nothing else does local content anywhere near as well as radio, and no song-selection algorithms can be as interesting as a human being who knows what she’s doing in running a show. There’s a lot of local ad spending that isn’t getting much traction with newspapers anymore, and craigslist is not going to drive people to restaurants and insurance agents. Radio is still the way to go for them.
3. Turning to startups, I’m a big fan of Shyp. From a branding perspective what do you think has helped them continue to grow in the shipping-on-demand arena?
Shyp is a great example of a simple, compelling idea that can wind up changing a much bigger portion of consumer behavior. I love that combination.
Shyp had the simple insight that many urban dwellers really hate going to the Post Office to mail a package. Doing that is much harder than it sounds in densely populated urban environments like San Francisco and Manhattan, where parking is impossible, the service hours are very limited, and the service is slow and cumbersome.
So, Shyp users just use the app to take a picture of the item they want to send, and within 20 minutes a courier shows up at their door to take the item. Shyp does all the packaging and mailing for them, and charges a small fee over the price of shipping the item. Done.
While that’s a compelling value proposition that’s working, what’s really interesting is the follow-on effect once customers have used the service several times. Once people see how easy it is to send a package with Shyp, they might sell more things on eBay they would have otherwise let gather dust around their home. Since Shyp can handle merchandise returns, they start buying more clothes online, because they can order multiple sizes of the same item, and let Shyp return those that don’t fit. They donate more clothes and household items, because Shyp will handle getting it to the charity drop-off point. So they start looking at their living space differently, all because getting stuff out of the house just got a lot easier.
That effect is where the really explosive growth comes from. You have to have a simple value proposition that also has the potential to change other behaviors that add even more value to the core service.
4. The notion of ‘Content Is King’ seems to be a mystery to many. How do you think about it and is it something that entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs be thinking about?
Content is the human element of whatever category is being talked about. That makes it both compelling and messy. It’s true of all kinds of entertainment “content”, but content is also the money in your bank account, your travel reservations, and the work you’ve saved in your Dropbox folder.
The phrase itself is a recent one, but the idea isn’t. It’s why a movie with a huge budget can wind up making less money than a movie made on a shoestring budget, and nobody can tell in advance which one is more likely to work. And by the way, what a horrid phrase that is. Only an engineer would refer to all forms of artistic expression and self-identity as “content.” Right. That’s like saying that in the restaurant business, “Calories Are King.” Delightful.
Anything compelling has a human element to it. If it’s human, then it’s complex, and not entirely linear or rational. Entrepreneurs take risks on what are often counter-intuitive ideas to create something of value for someone else. People are often willing to muddle through some lousy interfaces to get to something compelling. That’s why Content, if you must call it that, is King…or at least it wields executive power by mutual consent of the governed. Something like that.
5. You’ve been an incredible help in sense-checking AirShr’s brand. What are your three bits of advice for founders about to embark on a successful branding strategy for a new venture?
- Have a role model outside your category, preferably one that does or sells something very different from your company. That forces you to focus on how things are done, instead of just what’s being sold. That thing you’re trying to copy from the role model company is where the good brand stuff is.
- Do less better. Setting a humble expectation and then exceeding that expectation, even slightly, is preferable to falling just a little short of a more grandiose promise. Make you own internal and long-term goals as lofty as you like; keep your communications to your external audiences well-grounded in reality. Lots of companies make the mistake of using their internal brand vision as an external brand promise. Customers don’t give a shit about your vision. What can you deliver to them today?
- Beware of advice from “experts” like me. We don’t know everything. Neither do you, but you’re the one who’s trying to build something, not the consultants.
You can continue this conversation with Paul here. You won’t regret it.