Pomp Canceled, Due to Cicumstance

paris gw statueIT WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE LIKE THIS.

We were supposed to be on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., not in our Orange County living room. We were supposed to clap and cheer and laugh and cry as our daughter earned her International Affairs degree from The George Washington University — not stare at a YouTube stream of well-meaning commencement speakers, pretending with them that this is fine, this is fun, this will be a great story someday.

Someday, perhaps. But today a rite of passage passed with a whimper. Pomp canceled, due to circumstance.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, having her home for her last two months of college, watching her take classes online and turn in her final papers from the same room where she grew up.

But despite all we missed, despite all the memories that now lay forfeit, I’m not sure I would be so quick to change anything.

Because seeing her in that childhood space was more special than I ever could have imagined. Spending time together, all three of us, was the graduation gift I never expected or thought I needed.

I didn’t just get to see my daughter, the 21-year-old college graduate. I got to see my little girl again.

I had resigned myself to the reality that she might never come back home. Her life now belongs elsewhere, albeit in an uncertain future.

No, it wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Or was it?

The future is uncertain, but that’s what all futures are. That’s what they’re supposed to be. Futures don’t come with guarantees, pandemic or no pandemic.

What we miss isn’t certainty, it’s familiarity. We never knew what the future held, we just knew the patterns of the past. And we clung to them like talismans, thinking they would protect and guide us as we moved forward.

The familiarity is gone but the future is still out there, with all its formidable power and limitless potential.

I’m proud of the woman my daughter has become; I can’t wait to see what her future holds.

And while it wasn’t supposed…okay, while I never expected it to be like this, I’m also grateful I got to see the little kid who still loves Harry Potter movie marathons, who does puzzles with her mom and who likes to microwave her ice cream before she eats it. I will always be her dad, but I’m glad I got another chance to be the annoying older brother she never had.

I’m happy for her, scared for her, proud of her. I know she will give that uncertain future all she’s got.

Although I’ll be sad to see her go, I also know that she’s not really leaving. She will be away from home once more, but she won’t really be gone.

Because the truth is she never moved out four years ago.

She just moved on.

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Our Inside Voices

italy

WE ARE SURROUNDED BY INSIDE VOICES.

They are voices filled with empathy and compassion. They are eager to be more helpful, anxious to be more connected, willing to be more human.

Listen to the inside voices laughing together as they try to figure out Zoom. Hear the awkward conference calls, with kids playing and dogs barking and spouses interrupting.

Listen to the virtual happy hours turn into group therapy sessions. Sing along to living room karaoke, stretch and bend to the encouragement of your online trainer, tap your fingers to famous musicians serenading you from their mansions.

Listen to the crying — because we need to hear that too.

Our inside voices need to be heard, all of them, loudly. Our inside voices command us to respect and treat everyone the same, from perfect strangers to those imperfect friends or relatives with whom we might rarely speak.

People say they can’t wait to get back to normal. Back to the “real” world.

But I don’t want to go back. If what we had before was the real world, then I don’t ever want to go back.

That world screamed too much. It was too often nasty and negligent. That world had too many outside voices giving zero fucks about anyone else.

I don’t want to go back to that world — not when we are being more real in this one.

Yes we want to be together again, physically together, and we will. We need to get back to work, be with colleagues and friends and family. We need the restaurants and businesses, both big and small, to open and succeed. We need our beaches and hiking trails, sporting events and amusement parks, concerts and movie theaters and Broadway shows.

We need all of it, every bit of it. I for one will never take a simple night out with my wife and daughter for granted ever again. I’ll cherish those moments like the priceless jewels they are.

I hope we never forget what we lost, and what we can easily lose again.

And I hope we keep using our inside voices, because not only are they saving us in this world, but they can save us in the next.

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Keeping it Real: Remaking Your Narrative in the Pandemic Age

IMG_3311“We are supposed to change, aren’t we? I’m not the same person I was 10 years ago or even 10 months ago. I’m sure you’re not the same person you were as a kid, and you won’t be the same when you retire.

“We are supposed to change. Otherwise what’s the point of living?”

The above passage is a quote from me, or to be more specific, from a character in my upcoming fiction novel (#humblebrag.) But it’s also a message within the context of our lives in 2020, aka, The Year When It Happened.

I talk with clients almost every day about how to plan for the weeks ahead, and how (and when) they should get back to normal, whatever that means. We talk about brand narratives, and purpose, and whether what a brand said it was in the Old World will make any sense in the new one — and whether it should.

Because we are supposed to change. Because one day you’re making cars and the next you’re making ventilators. Because in moments of crisis and desperation, we discover who we truly are.

And if we are more ourselves and more real when times are tough, then why revert when things improve?

If we’ve learned anything from COVID-19 and mandatory quarantines, from Zoom meetings and awkward happy hours, it’s that real is better — in life, and especially in marketing.

Sorry, I digress (happens a lot around this time on whatever day this is.) My point is that your narrative — how you see yourself and how others see you — is likely going to change. I expect it already has, it’s just that you’re so busy trying to cope you haven’t noticed yet. Or maybe you don’t want to admit it, chalking up your new thoughts and feelings to an annoying yet temporary defense mechanism.

But here’s the thing about time: it doesn’t give a shit about your feelings. It moves forward, with or without you. You can try to swim against a current all you want, but eventually it will drag you down.

So don’t let it. Change your narrative and align your story with who you are now. And no matter what, don’t be afraid to be real.

Your LinkedIn profile is a good place to start. For example, the short description under my name used to work for me, but now I’m not so sure.

“Brand Marketer, Digital Strategist, Author.”

Okay, let’s unpack this:

“Brand Marketer” — I think I know what that means, and I expect those in my business think they know what that means, but let’s be honest: it’s so vague and broad that it means absolutely nothing. It’s a buzzword I put in years ago because I thought recruiters would look favorably upon the term. It was an image of myself that I didn’t even see, and still don’t. I’d totally make fun of that guy, and I AM that guy

“Digital Strategist” — Okay, we’re getting closer, but dude (yes I’m talking to myself), why are you describing yourself with a word from the 1970s? True, adding “strategist” to anything automatically makes it super important, but there’s got to be more to who I am and why I do what I do — or maybe not, which is even more depressing

“Author” — This one still works. I can back it up with facts, namely that I’ve written and published books. No bestsellers mind you, and I still need to keep the day job for like, I don’t know, however long forever is, but at least “author” is accurate and a hell of lot better than “storyteller.”

Oh wait, I call myself that as well. But as I say in my bio copy:

I am a storyteller. Yeah, I know — that description falls between super lame and intolerable douchebag. But I can assure you that 1) it’s true, and 2) I am definitely somewhere right in the middle.

See that? I use a tired cliche to define my life’s calling, but I’m self-deprecating about it which, for me, is as real as it gets.

Now to be fair, you may not need to change much of anything. Your narrative might be just fine and that’s okay. Nevertheless, It certainly doesn’t hurt to do a “self-audit” and take a look at yourself through post-pandemic glasses.

Besides, you owe it to yourself to look. And you need not be scared of who looks back.

Because we are supposed to change. Otherwise, what’s the point of living?

 

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The Beginning of the End of Bullshit

s3-news-tmp-123315-bullshit--default--820“Tell a real story. Talk like a goddamn real person…stop all the countless bullshit we marketers create to make us sound more important than we really are.”

I wrote that years ago, long before social media became the behemoth it is today, before the 2016 U.S. elections, before global pandemics sent us into our homes desperate for the same human connections that just days prior we took for granted.

Yet despite the very real health threat we now face, despite the anxiety and fear and uncertainty that scars this nascent 21st century, something good may come out of all this. Something that will last long after we adjust to whatever normal life becomes.

I felt it in this raw, moving video from Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson. I saw it in Dyson’s ingenious creation of ventilators, in U-Haul’s decision to provide free storage to displaced college students, and in LVMH switching from manufacturing perfume to making hand sanitizer:

The end of bullshit.

NOW LET’S BE CLEAR: it’s not like some won’t still try to use bullshit any chance they get.

Bad habits are hard to break after all. I’m sure you’ve received lots of “your safety is our priority” emails from companies that also want you to keep buying stuff even if it means leaving your house (“gee thanks, my dream vacation just got cancelled and I’m afraid I’ll be dead within the month, but good to know I can still get 30 percent off.”)

Or how about this poetic message from Barnes & Noble:

Dear Reader, 

We’re living through turbulent times together. Our booksellers are your neighbors, your friends and family. Your stories are our stories, and we know how resilient our communities are. 

Sincerely, 

The Booksellers of Barnes and Noble

Yes, oh faithful Booksellers of Barnes & Noble, these are turbulent times. Also there are people dying, millions without jobs and countless others about to go homeless and hungry. But you know how resilient we are, so it’s all good.

Even when some brands actually try to do the right thing, they can’t help but fall back on the bullshit marketing practices of the past.

Popeyes Chicken thought it would help out in this time of crisis by offering its Netflix login credentials to the first 1,000 people who posted photos of themselves eating Popeyes, and then tagging their fun photos with #ThatPasswordFromPopeyes (#ThatsALongStupidHashtag.) Never mind that the promotion’s name, Fried Chicken and Chill, is a slang expression telling people to eat fried chicken and then have sex. Not the worst suggestion anyone has ever made, but still creepy.

The point is the promotion didn’t hurt Popeyes. They wanted the gain without any pain.

There has to be some semblance of sacrifice; not just donations but actions. If we’re in this together, then we actually need to be in this together. For example, Popeyes competitor KFC is providing weekend meals for kids to keep them from going hungry — a relatively simple gesture with real human impact.

Consumers don’t want marketing campaigns, they want empathy. They want brands to care because it’s the right thing to do, not because the brand expects something in return.

They want more CEOs like Delta’s Ed Bastian, who updates his customers without pretentious buzzwords and is honest about the state of the business; who plans to institutionalize new cleaning and safety procedures for the long term, and who puts his employees’ safety and financial security first.

If you need a teleprompter and a script to connect with people, then you don’t know how to connect with people.

MARKETERS CAN’T GO BACK TO THE WAY THINGS WERE. That world no longer exists, and consumers won’t tolerate insincerity anymore.

Even the way people interact with each other has been freed from bullshit. We no longer care that our dogs jump on our laps during a client call, or that our colleagues might discover that our blonde hair is really brown. We are more real in the digital world than we ever were in the physical.

Digital has always been about sociology, not technology; about people and empowerment. The more socially distant we are (or “physically distant” to be more accurate), the more we need to connect – and thanks to digital, we can be a part of it all without being apart from it all. 

Of course bullshit will always be with us in some form; we need evil so we can appreciate the good. Nevertheless, we had a revolution this month, a revealing marketing revelation of epic proportions. It was a coup of the best kind, and a message to all those who would defy the will of the people that their time is over. The world is forever changed, and so is marketing.

And that’s no bullshit.

 

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The Other Virus

covidTHE INFECTION IS SPREADING.

We see it not just every day but every hour, it seems almost every minute: a quarantine here, a new case there, a sports league stopping play. It’s a disease made for the Internet age, moving at unheard of speeds, each new piece of information coming and going as quickly as an Instagram swipe.

We are puzzled and paralyzed; pained yet numb. We don’t know how to react (shake? fist bump? elbow tap?) because the virus is here, somewhere, anywhere, everywhere. A sneeze could be a death sentence. We are upside down, hanging by chewed-up nails, on an infinite edge with no end in sight.

The infection is spreading. But I’m not talking about COVID-19 — I’m talking about the other virus.

Fear.

I don’t mean to downplay the severity of the Coronavirus or discount the feelings of many who are justifiably concerned. This is a serious matter and needs to be treated as such.

But there is a difference — a big difference — between concern and fear.

Concern is appropriate and necessary. Concern results in caution, in taking meaningful actions to prevent infection.

Fear, however, results in chaos — in actions that make the situation worse. Fear leads to blame, anxiety, and xenophobia.

Fear is the real pandemic. Not a virus, but all of us.

Confusion and ineptitude from government leaders doesn’t help. Looking for scapegoats doesn’t help. Pretending that things are better than they are not only doesn’t help, it gets people killed.

We don’t have a Coronavirus vaccine yet. But we do have one for fear, and that’s honesty. Truth — not politics — will keep the other virus at bay, and allow us to address the real infection with concern, pragmatism, and empathy.

We didn’t create the atmosphere of fear. But we can damn well stop it.

 

 

 

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Murder Makes Us Small

IMG_2888THERE’S A REASON WHY WE READ THE NAMES OF THE 9/11 VICTIMS EVERY YEAR.

Nearly 3,000 people died that day in 2001. But 3,000 means nothing — it’s just a number, far too big to comprehend. It’s a data point, a historical statistic, a question on a multiple-choice test.

3,000 doesn’t have a face or a family. But Michael Armstrong does. So do Patricia Fagan, Alan Kleinberg, Manuel Lopez and Angela Rosario. These are just a fraction of the people behind that number, the individuals who left behind timeless ripples of sorrow and loss.

The 9/11 attacks were big. But remembering the people makes it small — not small in its impact, but small so that we can understand it at a human level.

The same goes for cities, towns, communities. Murder statistics are just that, statistics. They don’t have faces or names. They don’t concern us because they are not human. We may worry about them at a subconscious level, but they are too big for us to have any real impact on our daily lives.

Until the number gets a name.

Until a county of more than 3 million is reduced to one bleeding man on a quiet neighborhood sidewalk. In a place where “that doesn’t happen here.”

Until you hear the name and realize you knew him — not personally, but you know the name and the family, you know the daughter who played volleyball with your own kid. You hear the name and you feel it register in the back of your brain, a pinprick of confusion and recognition, and you feel a sense of loss despite being so far removed.

Because murder, anyone’s murder, makes us small. It connects us and brings us together whether we want to or not. Because names matter.

Names like Herman Sandler and Jennifer Tino, like Yvette Moreno and Steve Morris, and all the other names entombed on the 9/11 Memorial.

And names like David Nakaki, a 62-year-old father who went for a walk on a quiet street in a quiet suburban neighborhood in a quiet slice of picture-perfect Orange County, and never made it back home.

 

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The Book I’ll Never Finish

blank typewriterTHE BEST THING ABOUT WRITING A BOOK IS ALSO THE WORST THING.

You’re glad it’s done, it’s even hard to believe. An idea on a scrap of paper becomes a few sentences on your Notes app becomes a title page becomes a first chapter becomes more pages and more chapters and on and on until, without warning, you reach The End.

You should feel great — and for a while, you do. You focus on the agents and the synopsis, all the mundane details of launching your innocuous little story into the collective. Accomplishment courses through you like a glorious drug.

But the highly hardly lasts. And coming down is a bitch.

Soon your nemesis is back — that blank page teasing you, taunting you, daring you to christen it with a cogent thought. “So you just wrote 100,000 words and went through three drafts, big fucking deal! What’s next, loser? Or is that all you got?” 

And some people wonder why writers drink (I don’t know any of those people, but I assume they exist.)

But here’s the thing — the blank page isn’t wrong. “Mercy,” the book I just completed, may very well be all I’ve got. The idea well is dry, overflowing instead with work-related flotsam and other life-related “stuff.” Reality is the enemy of imagination.

I’ve felt this way before, right after I finished “Zaria’s Gate” in fact. Then one night I woke up at 2 AM and wrote “Death Row inmate comes back to life after execution,” and well, there went the next two-plus years.

I still wake up at 2 AM, and 3 AM, and sometimes 4 and 5 AM, waiting for the idea to come, but unlike before, inspiration eludes me like a receding tide. It feels just out of reach, as if I could only just stretch far enough I could grab it. It’s a cruel game that the universe is winning.

Everyone has a story, they say. Everyone has a book inside them waiting to come out. I’ve had more than my fair share, so maybe this really is it.

The beginning of the book I’ll never finish.

That is what’s really stopping me, what I’m really afraid of. The book I want to write is the one I don’t want to end. The one about what happens next, where my daughter grows up and raises a family of her own, where my wife and I end every night with a whiskey neat. The book with an infinite number of chapters, of twists and turns, of conflict and resolution and transformation.

You can put yourself inside a story; it’s where I love to hide. But when the only story left is you, then everything is exposed. The fiction of your life evaporates, until all that remains is that damn blank page.

I’m glad “Mercy” is done, and I’ll be happy when it’s out in the world. And if that’s all there is, then so be it.

I may not finish another book — but I have a lot more writing to do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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