Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Brand Management: Past, Present, and Future

Over at the Percolate blog I wrote up a two part series around a talk I gave at our client summit on the history of brand management and the need to create a new system of record for marketing. Part one opens:

Late last week James wrote a post called Moving from Installation to Deployment, where he laid out a framework for thinking how technology moves throughout history and where our modern age fits into the puzzle. As part of his post he introduced some ideas from an economist named Carlota Perez, who argues that each technological revolution (of which we’re in our fifth) follows a similar pattern of installation, where we essentially lay out the new technology in the form of infrastructure, followed by deployment, where we finally get a chance to build upon that infrastructure and realize its value.

Whereas part two dives into the implications and a framework for building this new system of record for marketing:

To approach the problem of scaling marketing at the rate of technology to address the increasing complexity, we have to take a page out of the P&G brand management playbook, Rising Tide: Lessons from 165 Years of Brand Building at Procter & Gamble. It points out how “P&G recognized that building brands is not exclusively or even primarily a marketing activity. Rather it is a systems problem.” This is fundamental. When you’re dealing with a huge amount of change and complexity as tempting as it is to answer the question with a one off solution, the systemic path is always more powerful. This is where we have to start in solving the challenge of rethinking marketing for this new age.

Check out both parts.

February 13, 2015 // This post is about: , , ,

Becoming an Engineering Manager

One of the most amazing parts of starting Percolate has been the time I’ve gotten to spend with engineers. During that I’ve noticed some interesting patterns as engineers move from individual contributors to managers. I wrote up a thing for TechCrunch on some of those observations and ideas.

Here’s a bit on scale:

Essentially the job of being a manager, beyond the human side (which I’ll get to, I swear), is about building a system of people. As you’re growing a company you should absolutely be thinking about how to make this system scalable. On this point, specifically, you need to think about every decision and task you take control of and how that would work if you had 20 more people reporting to you. Micromanagement, in other words, is bad engineering on your part, not bad behavior on the part of the employee you’re managing (no matter how much you think you could solve that problem better or faster).

Read the rest over at TechCrunch.

January 27, 2015 // This post is about: , ,

The Complex Simplicity of Frisbee

I really like this frisbee explanation for how we handle complexity:

Catching a frisbee is difficult. Doing so successfully requires the catcher to weigh a complex array of physical and atmospheric factors, among them wind speed and frisbee rotation. Were a physicist to write down frisbee-catching as an optimal control problem, they would need to understand and apply Newton’s Law of Gravity.Yet despite this complexity, catching a frisbee is remarkably common. Casual empiricism reveals that it is not an activity only undertaken by those with a Doctorate in physics. It is a task that an average dog can master. Indeed some, such as border collies, are better at frisbee-catching than humans.So what is the secret of the dog’s success? The answer, as in many other areas of complex decision-making, is simple. Or rather, it is to keep it simple. For studies have shown that the frisbee-catching dog follows the simplest of rules of thumb: run at a speed so that the angle of gaze to the frisbee remains roughly constant. Humans follow an identical rule of thumb.

Good to add to the list of ways to explain complexity.

January 19, 2015

Simple, Complicated, Complex

Really like this explanation of complexity from Flash Boys by Michael Lewis:

“People think that complex is an advanced state of complicated,” said Zoran [Perkov, head of technology operations for IEX]. “It’s not. A car key is simple. A car is complicated. A car in traffic is complex.”

Well put.

Reminds me a bit of how Nassim Taleb draws a distinction between robustness, or the ability to withstand disorder, and antifragility, which he explains as actually growing stronger when exposed to those same disorderly forces.

Linked, an amazing book on networks which I’m re-reading explains the difference between Swiss watches and the internet:

Understanding the topology of the Internet is a prerequisite for designing tools and services that offer a fast and reliable communication infrastructure. Though human made, the Internet is not centrally designed. Structurally, the Internet is closer to an ecosystem than to a Swiss watch. Therefore, understanding the Internet is not only an engineering or a mathematical problem. In important ways, historical forces shaped its topology. A tangled tale of converging ideas and competing motivations left their mark on the Internet’s structure, creating a jumbled information mass for historians and computer scientists to unravel.

January 8, 2015 // This post is about: , , , ,

Basketball versus Business

And I’m back …

Thought this was a really interesting comment from ESPN’s Ryen Russillo during the Grantland Basketball Hour in December. He was talking about the moves by Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé (also known for Gladwell’s writeup of his all press all the time approach to his daughter’s basketball team) and generally what it’s like for these guys who have made a lot of money in the business world coming into sports.

New owners can’t help themselves because you think about how successful these guys are at amassing their wealth. They go, “I’m the man, and now I’ll just buy a team, I’ll apply the same analytics, the same principles … I’ll just go win.” But the model in business allows many companies to be successful, the model in sports only allows one.

I never really thought about it like that, but it’s true. Although many think of business as being zero sum, it isn’t really, especially in the world of technology where people are bound to use multiple devices and applications (that’s not to say within a specific category it can’t be zero sum). Sports is different in that there is only one winner. Of course the counter-argument here is that something can’t really be zero sum when everyone gets rich, but it’s interesting to consider nonetheless.

January 6, 2015 // This post is about: , , ,

Is it or isn’t it?

Differing opinions (sort of) from the New York Times over whether technology is or isn’t what the science-fiction writers imagined. From a November article titled “In Defense of Technology”:

Physical loneliness can still exist, of course, but you’re never friendless online. Don’t tell me the spiritual life is over. In many ways it’s only just begun. Technology is not doing what the sci-fi writers warned it might — it is not turning us into digits or blank consumers, into people who hate community. Instead, there is evidence that the improvements are making us more democratic, more aware of the planet, more interested in the experience of people who aren’t us, more connected to the mysteries of privacy and surveillance. It’s also pressing us to question what it means to have life so easy, when billions do not. I lived through the age of complacency, before information arrived and the outside world liquified its borders. And now it seems as if the real split in the world will not only be between the fed and the unfed, the healthy and the unhealthy, but between those with smartphones and those without.

And now, in response to the Sony hack, Frank Bruni writes, “The specter that science fiction began to raise decades ago has come true, but with a twist. Computers and technology don’t have minds of their own. They have really, really big mouths.” He continues:

“Nothing you say in any form mediated through digital technology — absolutely nothing at all — is guaranteed to stay private,” wrote Farhad Manjoo, a technology columnist for The Times, in a blog post on Thursday. He issued a “reminder to anyone who uses a digital device to say anything to anyone, ever. Don’t do it. Don’t email, don’t text, don’t update, don’t send photos.” He might as well have added, “Don’t live,” because self-expression and sharing aren’t easily abandoned, and other conduits for them — landlines, snail mail — no longer do the trick.

But the New York Times doesn’t stop agreeing with itself there (by the way, this is totally fine, I have no problem with the contradictions and actually appreciate them). From “As Robots Grow Smarter, American Workers Struggle to Keep Up”:

Yet there is deep uncertainty about how the pattern will play out now, as two trends are interacting. Artificial intelligence has become vastly more sophisticated in a short time, with machines now able to learn, not just follow programmed instructions, and to respond to human language and movement. … At the same time, the American work force has gained skills at a slower rate than in the past — and at a slower rate than in many other countries. Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 are among the most skilled in the world, according to a recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Younger Americans are closer to average among the residents of rich countries, and below average by some measures.

My opinion falls into the protopian camp: Things are definitely getting better, but new complexities are bound to emerge as things change. It’s not going to be simple and there are lots of questions we should be asking ourselves about how technology is changing us and the world, but it’s much healthier to start from a place of positivity and recognition that much of the change is good change.

December 23, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,

Unanticipated Effects

I really like this story of the unanticipated effects of the printing press from Steven Johnson:

Once people started to read, and once books were in circulation, very quickly the population of Europe realized that they were farsighted. This is interestingly a problem that hadn’t occurred to people before because they didn’t have any opportunity to look at tiny letter forms on a page, or anything else that required being able to use your vision at that micro scale. All of a sudden there is a surge in demand for spectacles. Europe is awash in people who were tinkering with lenses, and because of their experimentation, they start to say, “Hey, wait. If we took these two lenses and put them together, we could make a telescope. And if we take these two lenses and put them together, we could make a microscope.” Almost immediately there is this extraordinary scientific revolution in terms of understanding and identifying the cell, and identifying the moons of Jupiter and all these different things that Galileo does. So the Gutenberg press ended up having this very strange effect on science that wasn’t about the content of the books being published.

As I’ve established here, I’m a big McLuhan fan, and this is pretty good evidence that the effect of the medium is often much more important than the specific message. 

December 22, 2014 // This post is about: , , , , , ,

First Mentions

Part two of my strategy presentation is coming soon. In the meantime, a few months ago I went down a rabbit hole of looking for the first mention of various marketing terms and ideas in the New York Times archives. I particularly liked this first mention of brand strategy from 1955:

To eliminate confusion, an agency should set up a four-point plan when handling a product … The Plan would be outlined in a document known as a “brand strategy” containing a concept of operation; an analysis of the opportunities for the product or service; agreement on an immediate plan of action, and agreement on a long-term strategy.

Here’s what it looked like in the newspaper:

Also amusing was that in 1967 we were having problems we’re still seeing today. From coverage of a symposium of agencies and clients:

A couple of the ideas that seemed to get repeated were that both sides should cut through the red tape of advertising approval and that there should be more involvement of creative people in agency-client relations.

December 19, 2014 // This post is about: , , , ,

Thinking About Strategy (Part 1): What is Strategy?

At the beginning of December I gave a talk at Google’s Firestarters event that built on some of the ideas I wrote up in my post about strategy as algorithm. Rather than posting the whole deck, which at some point I will do, I thought I would try to share the slides in groups of a few at a time and tell the story over a number of posts. This is a bit of an experiment and mostly because I’m trying to get all the posts I can out of the deck, so thanks for bearing with me.

What is strategy? Anyone who works in and around brand has run into something called strategy, but seldom do we step back and actually ask ourselves what it is and what it means. A few weeks ago I posted this definition from Lawrence Freedman’s book Strategy: A History (via Martin Weigel):

Strategy is much more than a plan. A plan supposes a sequence of events that allows one to move with confidence from one state of affairs to another. Strategy is required when others might frustrate one’s plans because they have different and possibly opposing interests and concerns… The inherent unpredictability of human affairs, due to the chance events as well as the efforts of opponents and the missteps of friends, provides strategy with its challenge and drama. Strategy is often expected to start with a description of a desired end state, but in practice there is rarely an orderly movement to goals set in advance. Instead, the process evolves through a series of states, each one not quite what was anticipated or hoped for, requiring a reappraisal and modification of the original strategy, including ultimate objectives. The picture of strategy… is one that is fluid and flexible, governed by the starting point and not the end point.”

Despite that, most of what we talk about when we’re discussing strategy is actually a small set of tools that were all developed before 1970:

  • Market Segmentation (1920): “General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan managed GM’s car models through loosely monitored “divisions,” which operated as separate companies with Sloan’s oversight, laying the groundwork for today’s corporation.”
  • Customer Funnel (1959): “The progression through the four primary steps in a sale, i.e., attention, interest, desire and action, may be compared to that of a substance moving through a funnel.”
  • Scenario Planning (1967): “The practice involves envisioning multiple future events and developing plans for responding to them. Shell first experimented with scenario planning in 1967, helping it navigate the oil shock of the 1970s.”

Ultimately a strategy is an approach for solving a problem. In the case of marketing, a strategy is generally the formula a brand develops to identify the best mix of activities and messages to communicate the positioning of the product or company with the goal of driving growth (either in sales, price, or purchase occasion). Strategy, then, is not the activities, but rather the framework a brand uses for choosing (and not choosing) those activities. (We will come back to this point later.)

For strategy to live in the world it must be paired with execution. The problem with strategy is that it doesn’t work in a vacuum. Strategy without execution is just words on a slide. For our purposes, then, when we talk about strategy we are talking about two things: The approach to solving the business problems and the coordination of resources to execute on that approach.

In the next installment I’ll dive into execution, how it’s changing, and why that matters a lot for strategy. Stay tuned.

December 18, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,

Building Products

At Percolate we look for five things in product managers: Leadership, ability to get things done, communication skills, engineering knowledge, and product sense. The last is, in my ways, the toughest to interview for as part of what you’re looking for is whether or not someone has a product intuition: Do they have an innate understanding of what makes a great product? This article on how to build great products has some good things to say about where that intuition comes from and how to tune it.

On the value of talking to people:

The best way to build this intuition is to talk to a lot of people. Talk to potential users. What do they think? Talk to people who tried to build a product in your space and failed. What can you learn from their failure? Talk to competitors. How do they approach the problem? Talk to engineers in big companies. What can they tell you about the state of technology? Talk to other entrepreneurs in adjacent spaces, investors, journalists, grad students, professors, even the naysayers. The best way to get a sense of taste in a given space is to inject yourself into the industry and talk to as many people as you can.

On making sure you understand who you’re talking to and separating signal from noise:

Beware of noise. Learn the difference between your users and people who are just commenting. Everyone you talk to will have an opinion. Early on it can be tempting to design a product based on feedback from industry pundits. But a feature is only a gamechanger if the person signing the proverbial check recognizes it as one. Otherwise, it’s a distraction. Industry pundits can be extremely useful for understanding the state of your field, but they’re rarely the ones to buy your product. If you design your product around their feedback, you’ll find that there is nobody to buy it in the end.

(Further on this one is the “5 whys,” which is a Six Sigma approach that suggests asking why five times to understand the root of the challenge/opportunity to ensure that you’re solving for the right things.)

The how to build great products article also offers up a really nice framework for thinking about the different categories of features and products:

A gamechanger. People will want to buy your product because of this feature. A showstopper. People won’t buy your product if you’re missing this feature, but adding it won’t generate demand. A distraction. This feature will make no measurable impact on adoption.

Finally, I should mention that if you’re a product manager looking for a new job, you should apply to work at Percolate.

December 17, 2014 // This post is about: , , , ,