Opinions And Ramblings By Adam Kmiec On All Things

The Invaluable, But Lost Art Of Mentorship

Do you have a mentor? Think on that question for a second. If you’re like most professionals today, you don’t, or worse, you think you do, but you really don’t.

My sophomore year of college, I took a class called BA-3000 (at least I think it was, it might have been BA-3015), taught by Mike Henle. The class was structured around helping you become a more valuable and attractive asset for a company. We covered everything from resume writing skills, to the value of internships, presentation skills and yes, how to find and leverage mentors. I didn’t know it then, but many years later, that class has proven to be incredibly valuable as I’ve grown my career.

So what makes for a mentor and why are they important? Let’s start with the first part of that question. In my opinion, too often we blur the lines between advisors and mentors. Both are valuable, but they are not the same.

I have several advisors, ranging from my dad, who I seek out for both advice in life and work, to Bob Gilbreath, the former head of one of the best agencies I’ve ever worked with. I call them, frequently, for advice and council. The scope of that advice is generally limited to specific situations and decisions that must be made in the next 90 days, that will impact the next 12 months.

To borrow from a movie analogy, good advisors are like Robert Duvall’s character, Tom Hagen, in The Godfather. But, similar to a presidential cabinet, you can’t have an infinite number of advisors. You instead need a small, but mighty group. I limit myself to no more 12 advisors. My advisor group is comprised of 1 former agency president, 2 former professors, 3 former colleagues Sr. to me, 2 current CEOs, 1 VC head, 1 ad tech founder, 1 great dad and of course my own father. My advisory group is diverse in background, thinking, industry, age, gender, ethnicity and availability. All of them, at some point in my career, have enabled me to understand and consider a needed alternate perspective.

Advisors often provide council to help in the short term and they can be changed out over time. My list of advisors today looks a lot different today than it did 5 years ago, let alone 15 years ago. Where as my list of advisors is large and diverse, my list of mentors is small. There are only 3. If advisors are akin to Tom Hagen, in The Godfather, mentors are The Don.

Mentors take an interest in you. Yes, you. They have an interest in your growth, your advancement, your evolution and your success. They are in fact investing their time in you. With time being the only resource you don’t get back, for someone to spend their time helping you over many years, makes for a pretty special relationship. To me a mentor is 3 very important and distinct things:

1. Coach: they’re helping you improve your skills in a way that’s designed to maximize your potential and help you reach your long term goals.

2. Teacher: a good mentor unlocks your mind. They stretch your to think about things you haven’t considered and to confront challenges in new ways. Beyond time, the most valuable resource is wisdom. Mentors make a decision to transfer their knowledge, in hopes of improving your wisdom.

3. Measuring Stick: mentors are smart. Really smart. Part of what keeps them so smart is they have mentors of their own. Every time you think you’re closing the gap between the two of you, your mentor drops a knowledge bomb that makes you realize now much more you still have to grow, evolve and improve.

I see mentorship dying a fast death. The skills are no longer being taught by parents, educational institutions and managers. Our Tinder-Snapchat world, where we expect instant feedback and impact is at odds with the thoughtful, lengthy, patient investment needed for mentorship to thrive. We’ve traded the long term value of mentorship for the quick fix that advisors provide. This is a mistake. It’s akin to spending your paycheck on the immediate itch you have to satisfy (aka yet another outfit from Nordstrom, despite all the outfits you have from Nordstrom, hanging in your closet, with the tags still on), instead of investing it into the future.

If that weren’t bad enough, the pool of people who know how to provide mentorship is shrinking, exponentially.

It’s been more than a decade since I graduated from “the U” (which by the way is the stupidest of all university descriptions, since it in fact, can mean just about any college out there) and I still stay in touch with Mike Henle. I got more from that class, than just about any class I took over my 3 years at The University of Minnesota. I’ve tried to pay it back, whenever I can.

Every year I look to be an advisor to no more than 12 people. This allows me to give back in a way that hopefully helps and impacts many people over my career.

But, when it comes to mentorship, I never have more than 3 mentees. What I’ve found over the past decade is a blatant disregard for the value of mentorship. Several of the people I had been mentoring for years, started treating the relationship like an advisor scenario. They were too strapped for time, lacked vision on what they wanted out of life and simply put, were not making me feel good about the time I was investing in them.

I dropped them. If they weren’t going to take mentorship seriously, I wasn’t going to invest my time and wisdom, in them. From 2008 – 2012 I had at least 2 mentees. Today, I have 0, by my own choice. That change saddens me because it speaks to an inability to see the forest for the trees. It also means we’re building a pipeline of “leaders” who lack a North Star of what they want to become.

Mentorship is valuable. It’s an art. We need, not only more mentors, but more people ready to invest in having a mentor.

It’s never too late to be a mentor or to find one. Think about it.

We All Operate In A Global Economy

For a while, the biggest problem with Silicon Valley is that it huffed its own exhaust. It was very reminiscent of the famed South Park episode, “Smug Alert!” In that episode, Kyle’s family buys a Prius, becomes overly high and mighty, then moves to San Francisco where they can be surrounded by people who are high and mighty, like them. Rather than breathe regular air, people in San Francisco, breathe their own farts. I’m serious. Watch this clip.

That video while, tasteless, is a great example of what the valley was like. There was a belief that if it wasn’t from the valley, it wasn’t cutting edge, different, unique, exceptional, innovative, etc. We saw companies open up “West Coast” offices in San Francisco or the valley. The idea of these offices was to get closer to the companies (eg Facebook, Google) who were shaping the world and to attract better talent.

5 years ago, this made a lot of sense. The epicenter of innovation was San Francisco/The Valley. That was the hub. If something game changing was going to happen, it was going to happen there and certainly not in Chicago, New York, D.C. or any other city in the country. But, over the last 5 years, we’ve seen two interesting shifts happening:

1. “Startup Culture” and the innovation that comes along with it, was being seen in markets like New York. For example, Brooklyn created the Brooklyn Tech Triangle, which has spawned MakerBot and Etsy. At an even broader level, there’s the Made In NYC initiative, which has credible startups like foursquare, Adapt.ly, BirchBox and Timehop. Today, cities like Austin, New York, Chicago and Seattle have just as many smart people and innovative companies as the San Francisco bubble. Innovation is happening everywhere, it’s no longer, just in one city.

2. The Valley realized that they’d become myopic. The best talent and thinking wasn’t happening in their backyard. No, it was happening in places like Sydney, Berlin, Stockholm, India, Shanghai and Seoul. As the rest of the country chased Silicon Valley talent, Silicon Valley was chasing talent across the globe. Smart companies realized this early on and essentially cut out the middleman. They forged partnerships with companies based in Mumbai, Croatia, Costa Rica and Slovenia. You need only to look at the efforts by Zuckerberg to advance immigration reform, to see how important the global talent marketplace is.

Despite these major ripples, companies have been slow to adjust. Large organizations today, still believe the quick fix answer to their problems is to open up a San Francisco office, maybe run a few hackathons, create an app and launch a few pilots with some startups. Problem solved, right? Hardly. That’s not even a bandaid. With a global playing field, it’s quite narrowminded to think that the only path to future growth and innovation is thru Silicon Valley.

Even if you’re an organization that doesn’t “sell” globally or doesn’t have an office beyond the borders the United States, you operate in a global marketplace. Talent, supply chain, financial investments, manufacturing, etc. are all global. Like it or not, you’re global. You’re competing with companies for talent, partnerships and pure natural resources. The world is bigger than San Francisco. It’s bigger than the United States. Readjust your sights. Think global.

Friday Five – September 19, 2014

Polaroid’s real-life Instagram logo camera can also print your photos
In what can only be described as life, imitating art, imitating life…Polaroid (yes that Polaroid) is bringing out a digital camera that’s modeled around Instagram, which of course is modeled around the Polaroid. What I like about this story is that it shows, they’re are still new ways to capture the emotion in creating a moment…and then convert that emotion into printing a photo, to savor the memory. Photo printing is not dead. We just need better reasons to print.

How H&M Churns Out New Styles In Just 2 Weeks
A lot of it, is logistics. But, those logistics mean nothing without the big data being used to spot trends that will stick and drive sales. Predictive analytics, not regression analytics is what’s driving H&M forward.

CoverGirl Ad Becomes a Protest Tool Against NFL’s Roger Goodell
A very powerful article that shows how easily brands can be dragged into a conversation that they don’t want to be a part of. Cover Girl launched a campaign, as part of their NFL sponsorship, that highlighted how to use makeup that helped consumers embrace the “look” of their team. Great idea! But, with the recent domestic violence cases surrounding the NFL, the ads were edited by consumers to highlight the fact that P&G (maker of Cover Girl) was paying money to support an organization that was seemingly taking domestic violence, lightly.

Tech has raised the bar on customer experience higher than ever; here’s why you should care
We’re an organization that’s focused on the customer. We want to understand her, her needs and be there for her, at the right time with the right message and the right feeling behind that message. Technology, in some ways has created barriers between people and companies and at the same time, made us all closer and certainly more accountable and accessible. This interview gets to the fundamental reason why it’s so important to be customer first.

Southwest Airlines Understands The Heart Of Marketing Is Experience
A great in depth look at Southwest Airlines’ major rebranding effort. “The average distance between the stem of the brain and the top of the heart is nine inches. Great brands don’t just bombard the eyes and the ears. They understand true advocacy begins only once you reach the heart of your customer.” Brands have a soul; they’re more than the glass, metal, nuts, bolts and logo.

My Week On Tinder, A Marketer’s Point Of View

I was on Tinder, for a week. Yes, I’m married. Don’t worry, it was an approved experiment. Let me take a half-step back. Every month I pick 1 new social platform to experiment with. In the past that’s lead to a month with Vine, EyeEm, SnapChat and others. The month I spend with a platform is designed to:

  1. Make me smarter and more knowledgable about the platform
  2. Help me understand the customer experience for the platform and what, if anything, we can glean from it to enhance our digital, mobile and social products and capabilities
  3. Enable me to speak intelligently about the marketing opportunities for the organization. I’ve always felt that it rings a bit hollow to offer a perspective on an opportunity, without actually being someone who’s actually used the platform…not just read Mashable’s writeup about it.

With that in mind, I recently connected with a sales rep from IAC. Now, you might be scratching your head about IAC. They’re the holding company organization that owns Match.com, OKCupid.com and yes, Tinder. IAC is no small fish and from an advertising reach standpoint, they’ve proven to have a very sustainable digital advertising/marketing business. So when someone from IAC said, there’s some amazing things we could do together, including some future opportunities on Tinder.

Far be it for me to say that there’s no marketing opportunity for our organization and Tinder. Up until a week ago, I wasn’t a Tinder user. Up until a week ago, I never downloaded the app or saw someone else use it, live. Screen grabs, write ups and jokes on late night TV was everything I knew about Tinder.

Before I explain what I learned and what I think, let me first explain the ground rules I had for using Tinder:

  1. I Swiped right for everyone. Everyone.
  2. Ok, technically, not everyone, because if I saw someone was related to someone I knew, I swiped left. I didn’t want to get into explaining this experiment/trial to a friend.
  3. I was 100% focused on the advertising and marketing opportunities. I didn’t read bios, I didn’t look at picture sets, etc. I just focused on the potential marketing opportunities.
  4. If there was a match, I didn’t message a user, nor did I respond to anyone’s messages to me. I wasn’t hear to find a “date”, I was here to understand the marketing opportunities.

So with that out of the way, here’s a marketer’s point of view about Tinder.

  1. It will have an ongoing, but limited user base. If you believe that people date multiple people, then date 1 person, then get engaged, then get married, Tinder plays in the dating part of the lifecycle. As people mature out of dating to just dating 1 person, Tinder will loses active users, but those users will always be backfilled by new user entering the dating lifecycle. This could be people new to dating or people who have exited a relationship are back at step 1 of the dating lifecycle.
  2. Dating sites are usually manual entry driven. That leads to inaccurate data. Tinder is built on the best, richest, most accurate data set ever, in the history of marketing: Facebook. As a marketer, I’d feel better about targeting ads on Tinder than I would on Match.com.
  3. Being a mobile only platform is also intriguing because it brings in location based data for the purposes of marketing. This would allow us to be more contextually relevant than relying on user entered location info.
  4. Tinder’s entire customer experience is genius. It’s a fantastic game. Swipe. Swipe. Swipe. It’s fun. The layering of push notifications keeps you coming back in. Notifications make sense, in this case. Someone swiped you back. Someone sent a message. These are both things that stoke the flames of our natural curiosity and keep us using the app. I’m sure their daily active user rate is off the charts. If my goal is frequency of messaging, Tinder’s model is intriguing.
  5. Scale and frequency are great. Most companies want to make sure that they’re marketing is on brand and it’s reaching the right users (demographics, psychographics, etc.). For most companies, then, Tinder is probably a fantastic option. But, I believe you need to go a little deeper; you need context. Just as it would be somewhat insensitive for Kleenex to run Facebook ads targeted at people who recently changed their relationship status from married to divorced, does an advertiser really want to be “talking” to people while they’re having personal conversations and looking for Mr./Mrs. right, even as joked about, it’s Mr./Mrs. “right now”? I’m not sure and I’m sure for some companies, the answer is yes.
  6. The user experience that Tinder created is fun. I know I already mentioned that, but let me talk about it from a different angle. The experience is so intuitive and smart, that it won’t be long before see it adopted across an entire host of categories. For example, imagine Tinder’s interface leverage for recipes or if Netflix were to adopt it rather than their current method for building out a customer profile. The 1 button sign up, combined the simple aspect of swiping, is brilliant. I think we’ll see it become a widely adopted model, just as the the “pull to refresh” interface has been copied by just about everyone.

Taking my marketer hat off for a second, I have to say, Tinder is equal parts the future and a sad state of the world. The game mechanics make “dating” fun. If I were in the dating market, I could completely understand the appeal. It’s simple to join. Simple to participate. Simple to stay informed. But, it does reduce us all to a headshot.

Maybe that’s reality and Tinder, like the Matrix, is showing us what reality, truly is. That as much as we talk about looks not mattering, and beauty being more than skin deep, the reality is we’re all visual people and a headshot is in fact the bast way to find compatibility.

I sure hope that’s not the case. I’d like to believe that dating is still about the butterflies we get from a voice, a moment, a single touch, a look, a whisper and of course the grand gesture.

With Tinder, everything is instant. As a marketer, that’s exciting. As a hopeless romantic, I want to believe that finding a match, goes beyond a swipe and is more along the lines of what Pablo Neruda once wrote

“I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. I love you simply, without problems or pride: I love you in this way because I do not know any other way of loving but this, in which there is no I or you, so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand, so intimate that when I fall asleep your eyes close.”

By the way, you won’t find me on Tinder anymore. I deleted my account (surprisingly easy) and the app.

Friday Five – August 29, 2014

Want to See Aziz Ansari’s Next Stand-Up Show? Check Twitter, Then Give Him Your Phone Number.
Talk about a heck of a promotion and a great use of twitter to build personal relationships and tap in to your most rabid fans. “Here’s how it works: Ansari sends out a message from his Twitter account, telling fans who live in Chicago to head to his site, where they enter their cellphone numbers, which enters them into a lottery for tickets — all without knowing where the show will be. When Ansari did this in San Francisco, he got 35,000 signups in three days.”

A closer look at the #Emmys
Social and TV, go together like beer and brats, BBQ and bourbon, and of course happy and healthy. The twitter insights team composed a detailed breakdown of how viewers tweeted, during the Emmy’s. “There were 1.1 million Tweets about the show (+-3 hours) during the live telecast (8-11 p.m. ET) according to Nielsen.” Not too shabby, eh?

Newcastle Asks Fans For Photos, Which It’ll Convert (Very Badly) Into Ads
Must have beer on the mind…I know, it’s the 2nd beer themed content for this week’s Friday Five, but it comes from Heineken’s competitor: Newcastle. They’re asking fans of Newcastle to submit photos, which Newcastle will turn into ads to promote their beer. This is crowdsourcing at its finest. It’s a simple and cost effective way to scale content, while making the customer part of the brand experience.

If a Self-Driving Car Gets in an Accident, Who—or What—Is Liable?
Bonus time!!! Yes, this week you get 6 in Friday Five. This is just such a cool and interesting article. As the ideas of self-driving vehicles starts to become a reality for consumers, who’s to blame when an accident happens? The answer might surprise you!

E-Commerce Is Not Eating Retail
This article will make you feel great about the direction we’re taking. It’s not about Ecommerce vs retail; it’s all about serving the needs of the Omnichannel customer. Think “and”, not “or”, when it comes to commerce.

The Biggest Challenge In Creating Quality Content

You will find no shortage of lists that outline the Top Content Marketing Challenges. From team size to budget and from the lack of tools to the lack of process; everyone has at least one challenge. There’s nothing wrong with these lists. They’re a great start to understanding the challenges being faced by organizations large and small.

That said, I’d encourage you to dig beyond the top 10 lists. When I think about the biggest challenge facing marketers today, in content, it’s much more ambiguous and complex, than the need for a tool to manage content. To me, the biggest challenge is the lack of agreement on what “quality” means. I’m serious. In most organizations there’s a process to generate quality content. It often starts with research, which leads to an insight, that becomes the foundation for a brief, which enables a team/company to develop creative that’s high quality. Simple enough, right? Except, that quality, in traditional marketing channels is generally determined by a combination of research (Eg focus groups, copy testing) and a checklist that governs the usage of colors, fonts, logos, photography, tone and more. In digital/social channels, the checklist still exists, but it’s rare that digital/social creative is placed in front of focus groups.

While, the checklist approach to quality ensures that content is on “brand” it doesn’t mean it’s high quality. The focus groups and copy testing are designed to help predict performance, but clearly, if that research was devoid of flaws, no agencies would ever be fired and everyone would hit their forecasted numbers. The truth is that great content is both art and science. Despite hundreds of years of advertising history, nailing the right blend between art and science, has gotten more difficult, not easier. The number of ad formats, marketing channels and means for consuming content, have contributed to making this tougher for marketers.

In theory, no one wants low quality content. Ask a room of marketers if they want high quality or low quality content and you won’t find a single brave person who raises their hand for low quality content. Think about it, just term “low quality”, sounds bad. When most people think of high quality, they think of high-resolution images that are shot (not stock). They think of a perfectly edited/retouched photo – after all, clearly a crack in a baked cake never happens, unless of course you’re a real person. High quality means professionally produced. It also means expensive. Quality, as you can see, conjures up a lot of thoughts and feelings.

When we think about evaluating marketing initiatives, we often want a defined objective or KPI. But, when one of the KPIs is, “produce high quality content”, we have a challenge, because the definition of quality is often completely ambiguous and arbitrary.

As an example, let’s review the following, widely considered, successful content marketing efforts.

We have to start with the obligatory Oreo, Dunk In The Dark, tweet. If you’re reading this at a conference, drink!

The genesis of the tweet has been covered to death. I won’t rehash that information, but I do want to call out the following:

  • The image used, was a reused and recycled image; something that had been used by Oreo earlier in the year.
  • It’s overly compressed – you can see the JPG artifacts from over compression
  • It was produced in roughly 15 minutes, but if you look at the Cannes Lion submission form and apply a general billable rate to each role, it took $2,000+ to create this recycled image. If you needed 4 tweets like that per day for 365 days a year, you need a $3M a year budget for just twitter content.

I think the most important nugget is #1; it was a recycled image. Blasphemy! Having worked at agencies for 11 years and with them for another 6, I can tell you the idea of recycling a creative asset is usually a no-go. Creative team members never want to do the same thing…even when it clearly works. We don’t really have an on the record anecdote from Modelez, but it’s widely accepted that the Dunk In The Dark tweet was a quality piece of content that was very successful. With Oreo out of the way, let’s talk about Samsung’s efforts during the Oscars. With more than 3.4M retweets of the original image taken by Bradley Cooper, this out of focus (gasp!) photo from a cell phone broke the record for the most retweets ever. 

With that type of scale, this had to be a piece of quality content. After-all, if it wasn’t quality, it wouldn’t have been retweeted so many times, right? By, all measures of scale, an out of focus, fuzzy, low detail image bested the White House’s hi-resolution and historic photo. Many people think this was a cheap photo. It was anything but. without Samsung’s $20M + sponsorship of the Oscars, it’s likely that photo never happens. Thus, if you thought $2K for Oreo’s tweet was expensive, there’s no doubt, the “Ellen Selfie” was more than 100X the cost of the Dunk In The Dark tweet. By, the way, I also think it’s fascinating to understand the impact that distribution played in driving the 3.4M retweets. This chart does a great job of showing that despite Brad Pitts, bigger start power, Ellen, herself generated 2.5X more retweets.

Moving away from scale and virality as benchmarks for success, let’s look at interest. Interest leads to intent and intent leads to purchase, right? That’s the model, just about every marketer coming out of school, has been taught. Red Bull’s Stratos project, that had Felix Baumgartner jumping from just outside the Earth’s atmosphere, into the desert in New Mexico.

The jump was historic. It broke all sorts of records and became must see content. As we know, must see content, is high quality content (I mean, there’s a reason people watch The Bachelor and Michael Bay movies). At the time, the Stratos project, broke the record for concurrent youTube streams; with nearly 8M people viewing the jump, in real time. Impressive, right? What I like more is that they turned that stunt, into an ongoing campaign. Footage from the jump was integrated into commercials, end caps, packaging, print ads and more. As someone who worked on BMW Films, the re-usage of the content impresses me more than anything. The more often ways you reuse the same footage, the more efficient that investment into the original piece of content, becomes.

Now, if there’s one thing we all know, it’s that what consumers say, really matters. Last Super Bowl, people, just like you and me, crowned the Budweiser ad that featured a dog and a horse, the best Super Bowl commercial of the bunch.

If you don’t think these polls matter, check out the story about Career Builder essentially firing its agency because their Super Bowl ad, wasn’t voted the best. Yes, I’m serious. If consumers love it and love it enough to vote it the best, it must be high quality, right?

Now, for me, I like to go a bit old school. With no internet, no mobile, no tablet, no streaming and still with the majority of people having black and white televisions, the first moon landing was seen by more than 500M people.

Buzz salutes the U.S. Flag.jpg
Buzz salutes the U.S. Flag” by NASA / Neil A. Armstrong – Apollo 11 Image Library (image link). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Think about that for a second. There were more people who tuned in to watch grainy footage on their black and white televisions, without the internet, than there were people who watched Felix Jump and retweeted the “Ellen Selfie” and shared the “Dunk In The Dark” image and watched Budweisers’ Puppy Love commercial.

We walked through a lot of examples of “quality” content. Hopefully, what you’ve taken away is that it’s really difficult to determine what quality, really means. Quality is unfortunately, quite subjective. There are people who believe Just Bieber is an amazing musical talent. The millions of records/songs sold would seem to justify that. To his fans, he makes quality music. To me, he is a blight on the music industry. I like Michael Bay movies. Some people don’t. There are even people who think Nickelback makes quality music. You can find out which of your friends on Facbeook like Nickelback and unfriend them, by clicking on this link. You’re welcome.

At Walgreens, we don’t have it all figured out. From the many conversations I’ve had with my peers, across the industry and the globe, I don’t think anyone has it mastered. For me, that’s part of the fun and the excitement. It’s why I love the role I’m in and the company I work for. While we haven’t cracked the code 100%, there are a few elements, that I think are important:

  1. Have a clear definition of quality. Every company needs their own approach and “formula.”
  2. Protect the customer experience. Every piece of content, even gasp! content that’s designed to sell (I know, I know, crazy…) should eliminate friction in the actions you’re asking the customer/user to do.
  3. When creating content, take into account 3 things: Your Brand (the content needs to be on brand), Your Customer (it needs to be relatable to your audience), The Platform Context (content that works great in Facebook, doesn’t necessarily work well, in twitter and etc.).

It’s early days in some respects. In others, as the moon landing shows us, the challenges quality compelling content has been around for a long time. Can you imagine how difficult it must have been to link up a feed from the moon to people’s living rooms in 1969?

Set your bar high and be clear in what you’re willing to accept as quality content. Remember, a perfectly perfect circle, that’s the right color, with the right logo, with the right font, isn’t necessarily quality…even though it checks all the boxes.

On Food

I love a good meal. I love food, but I’m not a foodie. I can appreciate the effort, thought and creativity that chefs bring to a dish, but I won’t value presentation over substance. All sizzle and no steak, does not, a good meal, make. A good friend of mine, who loves food like me, but is definitely more on the foodie end of the spectrum recently asked for recommendations for a place to eat at in New York. Specifically he wanted “Something new and exciting that takes food in unexpected directions. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, but it has to be unique and different.”

I love the bar he set. But, quickly the conversation turned into a who’s who of New York restaurants. We of course had Nobu, Eleven Madison, Momofuku and the like. These are great restaurants. I’ve eaten at several of them. But, just like a designer pair of jeans, part of what you’re paying for and part of what skews your pov on these places are the name. Instead of being the name on the label, it’s the name of the chef. Why stop at Nobu? Let’s add Per Se, from Thomas Keller or Daniel or Le Bernardin. It’s now that these aren’t great places, but when I want a food adventure, I think of adventure in the way Anthony Bourdain sees the world, not the way the Michelin group hands out stars. You’re in New York, maybe the best city in the world for food and we end up with a list that reads like Business Insider’s Top Restaurants of New York list, which is basically a shrunken down version of the Michelin Guide.

Ultimately, there are only 3 things I want in a meal at a restaurant:

  1. I don’t want to leave hungry. I’m serious. The problem with so many “high-end” or Michelin rated places is they trade flash for substance. I get foam, which while beautiful, doesn’t exactly fill the belly. I once ate at La Belle Vie in Minneapolis, which while lovely, left us so hungry that we went to McDonald’s after we left. Thankfully, the dinner at La Belle Vie was paid for with a gift card…a $300.00 gift card, but hey, a gift card.
  2. It needs to be something I can’t make. Yours truly, can grill a damn good burger, but I can’t make the burger at Au Cheval, a burger so amazing, it’s life changing. I can make a great smoked brisket on my Green Egg, it’s not even remotely as good as the brisket from Franklin’s BBQ in Austin, Texas. What I love about this filter is that not only am I introduced to something that’s unique, it inspires me to cook something different.
  3. The overall experience needs to be worth getting off the couch and not ordering in. With platforms like GrubHub, Postmates and TaskRabbit, I can get a steak from Uncle Jack’s in NYC delivered to me, if I wanted. But, eating that steak, at home, is not the same as eating it at the restaurant and having Uncle Jack’s legendary service, killer Old Fashioned and deep fried, chipotle bacon, fresh from the kitchen.

I don’t think my bar is high, but it surprisingly difficult to find places that satisfy all 3 things. For example, Alinea, considered the greatest restaurant in the world, is great on #2 and #3, but woefully under-delivers on #1. I’ve been there twice and both times I ended up eating at Portillo’s on the way home. Yes, I’m serious. On the other end of the spectrum you have a place like Lugo Caffe in New York City, which has never sent me home hungry and creates a deep fried Lamb Shank that can’t be copied, but doesn’t offer a great or unique experience.

With that said, in no particular order, here’s my top 10 list of food places, across the United States, that deliver on my criteria.

  1. Katz’s Deli (New York, NY)
  2. The Slanted Door (San Francisco, CA)
  3. L&B Spumoni Gardens (Brooklyn, NY)
  4. Table 52 (Chicago, IL)
  5. Brasa (Minneapolis, MN)
  6. Morimoto (Philadelphia, PA)
  7. Franklin’s BBQ (Austin, TX)
  8. Crif Dog’s / Please Don’t Tell (New York, NY)
  9. Aureole (Las Vegas, NV)
  10. Rye (Louisville, Kentucky)

And more specifically, just so you don’t think I punted on the original question from my friend, these were my recommendations for places that provide “Something new and exciting that takes food in unexpected directions. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, but it has to be unique and different.”:

  1. Fette Sau – this would take you to Williamsburg, so right off the bat, it’s a new experience. You get legit BBQ, that while not as famous as Dinosaur, is outstanding. You wait in an alley to get in, but you can drink while you wait. The fantastic selection of bourbon almost makes you wish the wait was a bit longer than it is…almost.
  2. Ajisen Noodle – There’s 3 locations, but the best and most legit of the bunch is in Chinatown. You can’t get more authentic than Mott Street. They’re located at 14 Mott Street which is just a few doors down from the iconic 8 Mott Street arcade that at one point in time had the famous Tic Tac Toe chicken. The food is simple, in that there’s not a lot of options, but what’s there is tremendous. In my opinion and the opinion of many other more credible sources, Ajisen has the best ramen noodles in the country.
  3. Tacombi at Fonda Nolita – First, visit the site. Look at the scene that is Tacombi. Yes, that’s a VW van in the middle of the restaurant, serving tacos. Only in New York. Oliver Strand of the New York Times said it better than I ever could “Tacombi at Fonda Nolita doesn’t feel like a restaurant as much as an art installation, a gallery with a taqueria set up in the middle of a concrete garage just off Houston Street.” It’s a completely transformative experience.

One of the things I love about food is how passionate people get about the subject. What I love, could be something you loathe and what you think is exceptional, I might find to be “meh.” Food is a personal thing. Similar to music, there’s more than enough options to go around, to satisfy everyone’s palette.


Friday Five – July 18, 2014

Google contact lenses: Tech giant licenses smart contact lens technology to help diabetics and glasses wearers
Talk about the internet of things, being something more than just a scale that can tweet your weight. Google and Novartis are partnering up to create contact lenses that among other things, could measure a wearer’s vitals and eliminate the need for painful blood tests.

How The World Cup Played Out On Facebook Versus Twitter
Good insight. I won’t bury the lead, “Twitter is where people go to talk about surprising, unexpected events as they’re unfolding. Facebook is where people go to record their feelings about big, shared milestones somewhat after the fact. The World Cup told us what we already know.” definitely worth reading and for a more in-depth analysis check out twitter’s publicly released info about the activity surrounding the World Cup http://bit.ly/1zMVxCM

People remember ads more when they binge on TV shows
“A binge watching audience is different than the traditional one because binge viewers are more invested in the content on the screen, and that includes the ads, said Pamela Marsh, director of primary research and insights for Annalect, which conducted the study.” While this is great for advertisers, it could be bad for people in general. A recent study indicates that binge watching TV kills us faster http://nbcnews.to/1zMVPtc

Publishers have an updated evergreen strategy: Make the old new again
Publishers are starting to realize that “news” and “content” doesn’t have to be new to perform really well. Content from a few months to a few years back can be just as engaging, if not more, than content that’s new and fresh. This really isn’t too crazy when you consider the great images that are shared by people, across social networks, on every Thursday (aka Throwback Thursday). As Don Draper once remarked, nostalgia is potent.

An Actually Useful Version of Yo Is Warning Israelis of Rocket Strikes
Have you heard of “Yo!” – it’s a messaging app that lets you say “Yo!” to all your friends. Yes, I’m serious. Stop shaking your head. It’s real. There’s no shortage of jokes about the app. As ridiculous as the concept seems, Yo! Is now serving a higher purpose. “Yo users can now follow “RedAlertIsrael” to get a “Yo” at the same time that the sirens go off. The user typically receives a warning via smartphone 15 to 90 seconds before a rocket hits.” Impressive and innovative.

What I Look For In A Conference

There’s no shortage of conferences you can attend. Some are mammoth in scale and complexity, like SXSW and CES. Others are more intimate in nature, generally covering a very specific topic. I love a great conference. Unfortunately, not all conferences are great. Most, are good and some are bad; but, few are great.

Time away from the office is priceless. When you attend a summit/conference, you’re giving up face time, meeting time and time to work on critical initiatives. That an organization wants you to attend a summit is a privilege. Beyond the time investment there are also financial investments being made. For example, attending SXSW Interactive can easily run north of $5,000 for the conference pass, hotel, airfare, food, drinks, etc. This isn’t to say that SXSW doesn’t deliver a return on that $5,000, it’s more to provide context, that knowledge isn’t free.

Having attended as both a participant and presenter at several conferences across the globe, I’ve developed a set of filters to determine if a conference is worth the investment:

  1. Commitment to Quality: This starts at the top. Conference circuits are a business and the leaders who run that business, have hard decisions to make. For example, how many sponsored presentations are part of the day’s agenda? But, it takes really solid leadership to say no to something that could generate revenue while infringing on the overall conference experience. A commitment to quality is reflected not only in those decisions, but in the editorial staff that’s putting together the day’s sessions. It’s not easy to get A level talent out of the office for an hour or two, to get on a stage and share their knowledge. However, a savvy editorial team coupled with strong leadership and great attendees, makes for a heck of a carrot when recruiting speakers. Many conferences claim to be high quality, few are high quality across every dimension.
  2. Vendor to Buyer Ratio: To run a conference, money has to come from somewhere. You either need attendees to form over anywhere from $500 to $2,000 for a “pass” or you need vendors to help fund the operation via advertising, speaking opportunities or the chance to connect with attendees that are “buyers.” Granted, this isn’t 100% black and white, as many conferences apply a combination of the two approaches. To my knowledge, I’ve never seen a formula that outlines the right ratio, but in my experience, when you get exceed 2 sellers for every 1 buyer, you cross a threshold that stunts innovation, learning and sharing, while casting a cloud over the entire summit experience. While 2:1 looks scientific, the reality is, this is equal parts art and science. It’s not just how many, but the quality and seniority level of the vendors. Again, this goes back to an overall commitment to quality. If you value the overall quality of experience, above all, you tend to end up with not only the right ratio, but also the right vendors.
  3. Content and Speakers: Again, no magic formula here and believe me, 10 attendees can listen to the same session and walk away with 10 different points of view regarding the quality of said session. That said, I try to keep this simple. I want 2 things from the content and speakers. First, I need a mix of inspirational and practical sessions. This isn’t easy. The practical ones, while not often fun can be the most valuable. And the inspirational ones, while having high talk value, can leave you struggling for how to apply the concept to your business. Too much of one and you have either a boring conference or a pointless one. Second, I want speakers from varying walks of life. Their backgrounds should be diverse, as should their roles, seniority and business verticals. This variety often creates compelling dialogue and enriches the overall conference experience.

There are only 2 conferences / summits that consistently hit the mark across my 3 pieces of criteria: iMedia and Brand Innovators. In full disclosure, I’ve had the opportunity to attend their summits, sit on advisory boards that guide programming and have become friends with several members of the summit staff. I think it’s important you know that, but I think it’s also important that you know, that level of investment and connection to these summits wouldn’t happen, if I didn’t find them both to offer incomparable value.

iMedia and Brand Innovators are similar in their approach. First and foremost, they realize, the goal of a great summit experience, is to inspire, connect and enable its attendees. The value they both place on quality is unmatched. From the speakers to the location to the vendors and everything else in between, they deliver a nearly flawless experience. But, what separates iMedia and Brand Innovators from so many other conferences, goes well beyond that aspect. They both have, in my opinion, the right approach to a summit size. They’re small enough to be manageable and provoke honest, real dialogue, but large enough to learn from a diverse wealth of knowledge. It’s similar to having a great party. You need the right mix of personalities and number of people.

I have a high bar for attending summits. You should too. Your time is valuable. Make sure when you attend a summit that you’re time is well spent. If you attend an upcoming iMedia or Brand Innovators event, you’ll be increasing your odds of making that happen.

A Truly Special Father’s Day

Today, June 15, 2014, is Father’s Day. It’s the 1 day a year, we acknowledge Dad. Many ties and golf balls were purchased. Oh there will also be some grill tools, socks and of course a wide assortment of “Best Dad” items.

But, beyond Father’s Day, today is also my son, John’s, birthday. It was bound to happen; the calendars foretold we would one day, share this day. I never thought much of it, until this past week.

John Turns 5

In so many ways my journey to becoming a great dad is tied to my son. By all definitions of the word, “dad”, it was April 13, 2007 when I was finally bestowed that title. That was the day my daughter, Cora, was born. With Cora, everything was easy. She looked like her mom, buy she was me, 100%. This was the girl who talked early and fast. The girl who lacked fear; she climbed trees, road trikes and slid down slides. School came easy to her; so easy in fact, that she simply stopped doing homework…just like I did when I was her age. Understanding how to be Cora’s dad, was simple…it meant following the blue print for my father raised me.

  1. Set the bar high
  2. Nurture curiosity
  3. Be tough, but fair
  4. Introduce different points of view
  5. Make it clear, the one person you never lie to, is your dad

Understanding what would motivate, interest and inspire Cora was as easy as looking in the mirror. Like I said, she looks like her mother, but she’s wired like me. Frankly, in many respects, such similarities made being a father relatively easy.

John, however, is the perfect example that two kids, from the same DNA, can be completely different. Everything that Cora is, John is not. Cora is blonde and blue eyed, but John has brown hair and eyes. Cora is very black and white; perhaps it’s what makes her so successful in her STEM program. For her, there are only 2 outcomes; it’s binary. But, John sees the shades of grey in between Cora’s black and white bookends. John’s a natural born athlete, with Cora more of an artist. Where Cora lacks fear, John is more prudent…he evaluates a situation first, identifies the risk, determines if it’s worth taking and then maybe, takes action. This is not to say that one approach is better than the other, but John’s personality is definitely not the same as mine.

John’s uniqueness offers balance and for some time, challenge. If Cora is an ENTJ, like me, John’s something like a ESFP. Where Cora and I judge, John perceives. Where we think, he feels. And where we rely on intuition, John senses. Thankfully, we’re all extroverts!

I thought I had this whole fatherhood thing figured out. With Cora, it seemed that every button I pressed, was the right button. Trying to raise John in the same way I’d raised Cora lead to countless mistakes. Kids are unique and you can’t copy and paste the same approach. That was fatherhood lesson 1.

As I look back on it, I think it was John’s love of sports (specifically basketball and baseball) that helped me understand how to be a better father for him. He’s a natural; simple as that. As I’ve said many times before, he has more natural ability than I ever did; and I was very good. He likes to work at it. Nary a day goes by when he doesn’t ask “dad, wanna play catch?” And what father turns that down?

John At The Bat

Sports are more grey than they are black and white. They take time, patience and constant adapting. Watching him find joy in playing is such a fulfilling and rewarding experience.

I think when guys imagine having sons they imagine this “chip off the old block” who’s a spitting image of them. We yearn for a “Jr.” even if he’s not a Jr. in name. John may look like me, but he’s not wired like me. And that difference has made me a better person and father to both my children.

When John learned we would be sharing this day, he wanted to know who got to choose breakfast. I mean, it’s an important thing, right? I’m proud to write, I had no problem letting this be his day. After all, without him, I’d just be a dad and not a father.