Friday, January 6, 2023

Spinning, Spinning, Spinning.

This could be my age talking--because I'm old. What's more, I have an old-way of thinking about things. A very non-modern age way of thinking about things.

I started noticing something in advertising about thirty years ago. More and more clients thought they could get something for nothing.

They thought through the magic of interactive or the magic of hyper-targeting or the magic of a click-now button that could get people to interact with their brands without spending much money. They didn't need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a tv spot, or tens of thousands buying a page in a magazine, for pennies on the dollar, they could have an effective ad. 


For about thirty years I've been calling such thinking "digital alchemy." The idea that you could turn base-metal into gold. That you could run a successful company without spending considerable money attracting customers. That there was a way to do this at a low cost.

As a society, we seem to believe in alchemy. A new alchemical motivator seems to arise every couple of years. With data, you can reach people for cheap. With Chat GPT, you can make ads for nothing. I'm sure before 2023 is over, there will be some new miracle that will change everything. 

Something-for-nothing-ism seems to have taken over much of our industry, and yes, unfortunately, much of the world. 

So many businesses under-invest in marketing, in customer service, in virtually every aspect of their business. For a time, somehow, they get away with it.

Like Elon Musk's Tesla. Like Southwest Airlines.

I used to have fights with my wife who never minded leaving for a 10AM flight at 9AM. 

"You can't live your life," I used to holler, "as if every light is going to turn green the moment you pull up to it."

I holler similar advice to brands.

But nonetheless, that seems to be what so many people and businesses do. When the national rail strike was threatening, it came out that the giant railroads, despite making record profits, had cut their staffing to the bone. 

[The big national railroads employ something they call "precision scheduled railroading" or "PSR." The 115,000 rail workers in this country get zero sick days. Yet last year, the large freight railroads tallied net profits of $27 billion, double their profits just nine years ago.]

PSR denied any of their workers even one day of sick-time. They punished you for being sick because one sickness--now that they were staffed so lean, threw a monkey-wrench into their entire operations. 

Imagine "just-in-time"-procurement but applied to human beings. In an effort to squeeze every bit of profit from everything they do, companies have essentially eliminated all fat. Most people recognize that living creatures--even highly fit ones--need a little fat to live. 

You can call, I think this sort of leanness Economic Anorexia. And it's every bit as fatal as dietary anorexia.

An airline like Southwest ends up canceling a trillion flights, losing ten trillion pieces of luggage and stranding trillions and trillions of customers--all because when their front line couldn't make it to work, there was no backup. I'd guess the same happens when a plane needs repair or a tire needs replacement. There are no backups.

That's somewhat what happened to America's supply chain during Covid. Using my anorexia metaphor again, as an anorexic can't afford to miss one meal, America's supply chain couldn't recover from one hiccup. All at once, things that used to work stopped working. Next thing we know our entire continent is acting incontinent.

Most businesses today as well as the federal, state and local governments seem to work this way. I'm sure someone at the Passport office or the Department of Motor Vehicles has an econometric model that shows how they can run leaner and leaner with greater efficiency and lower cost. I'm sure Southwest airline has someone who convinced senior management of the efficacy of this kind of thinking.

Magical thinking.

Agencies have done so too. Today agencies are staffed so leanly they're often robbing staffing from one account to work on another account to work on another account to work on another account.

Institutional knowledge is gone. Experience is gone. Robbing Peter to pay Pauline is our modus operandi.

When you go to the circus, a juggling act or a really good plate-spinner is almost always fun to watch. There's nothing intellectual about it. But keeping everything going goes against logic. The impending peril is what makes these acts so popular.

But in real life, when companies, jobs, our well-being, our advertising or our very livings are run in the same manner, it's no longer fun to watch.

Because inevitably something falls.

And something breaks.

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