Lee Iacocca and the Celebrity CEO

The recent passing of Lee Iacocca (on July 2) got me thinking about the celebrity CEO phenomenon. This is a sign of our times — our obsession with celebrity. Iacocca was not the first celebrity CEO, but he certainly ushered in a new era of personalized corporate brand building.

With Iacocca, having a bigger than life CEO went from being an oddity to a corporate expectation. In an article on Bloomberg.com, writer Joe Nocera notes, “Yes, there had been other famous corporate chieftains before Iacocca — John D. Rockefeller and Walt Disney come to mind — but they were the exceptions to the rule that CEOs should be low-key, boring even. Iacocca made it okay for a chief executive not just to gain fame, but to desire it.”

If you read any of the tributes to Iacocca, he is credited with:

  • Introducing the concept of auto loans
  • Creating the Ford Mustang
  • Introducing the Minivan
  • Saving Chrysler

But perhaps Iacocca’s biggest legacy was paving the way for celebrity CEOs who would follow in his footsteps. By stepping out from behind the mahogany desk and in front of the camera, he created the mold that would later turn out Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk.

My intention is not to take anything away from these leaders. It’s just to put things in perspective.

How Much Influence Does a CEO Really Have?

We love a great story, and one of the foundations of a story has always been the hero. We find the hero’s journey a compelling narrative arc, and we tend to ascribe heroic qualities without necessarily making sure our anointed heroes have the right qualifications. This is certainly true in the corporate world.

Phil Rosenzweig’s extraordinary book, “The Halo Effect,” strips the compelling narratives away from corporate success stories. He urges us to take a more scientific approach to determining what really works. And when we apply some scientific rigor to the concept of a celebrity CEO, we find (according to two studies Rosenzweig cites in his book) that the actual influence of a leader on the success of a company is between 4% and 10%.

A 10% swing is nothing to sneeze at. It’s certainly statistically significant. And this is an average over a number of companies in the study. I suspect if one was to accurately measure the influence of a Steve Jobs or Lee Iacocca on their companies, it could be much higher.

But when we consistently confuse correlation and causation and automatically give a celebrity CEO all the credit for a company’s success, we could be making an attribution error. We are giving short shrift to all the other factors that may have led to that success. We are applying a simple answer to a complex question. And we humans tend to do that — a lot.

The Cult of Personality

When we make this mistake while looking backwards, it’s one thing. But when we move forward under this mistaken assumption, it’s quite another. We fall victim to the oversimplification of the “great man theory,” where we believe history can pivot on the capabilities of one person. We also run the very real risk of creating a cult of personality.

The idea of the personality cult came from a speech by former Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev. In it, he criticized the idealization of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. When a populace believes that one person has the power to right all wrongs, it confers on that person a frightening amount of authority. It also condones the mechanisms required to consolidate power in the hands of that person.

Wikipedia outlines the typical path that leads to a cult of personality:“(it) arises when a country’s regime – or, more rarely, an individual – uses the techniques of mass media, propaganda, the big lie, spectacle, the arts, patriotism, and government-organized demonstrations and rallies to create an idealized, heroic, and worshipful image of a leader, often through unquestioning flattery and praise.” 

Mistaking Charisma for Competency

Even if we do accept that the right person may make all the difference, we then come to the issue of how we’d recognize that person when we see them. Again, we run into the fallacy of the “Halo Effect.”

When we don’t have (or want) empirical evidence of a person’s competence, we look for a proxy signal for that competence. That’s why CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are generally two-and-a-half inches taller than the average American. Its why good-looking people are assumed to be kinder and more compassionate. And — if we’re looking for a leader — it’s why we believe charisma equals competency. We are often wrong about this. In fact, there’s probably a better chance that charisma goes hand in hand with sociopathy.  Oops.

I do believe that we have been blessed with some extraordinary corporate leaders. And some of these have deservedly become celebrities. Lee Iacocca was probably one of these.

But I also believe we are walking down a dangerous path when we believe this is the rule rather than the exception. To succeed in solving complex problems — which defines almost every problem we face — we need complex solutions. And those solutions almost never come in the form of one person. To believe they do is to ignore the true scope of the issue.

Is There Still Room In Today’s Marketing World For Rick Steves?

U.S. travel writer and TV personality Rick Steves is — well, there’s no really kind way to put this — a weenie.

His on-air persona (on “Rick Steves’ Europe”) is a mix of high school social studies teacher, khaki-clad accountant cracking Dad jokes — and the guy you get stuck next to at a museum lecture on 16th century Venetian architecture that your wife made you go to.

According to a recent profile in The New York Times, he’s “one of the legendary PBS superdorks — right there in the pantheon with Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross and Big Bird.”

Rick Steves is undoubtedly a nice guy — Ned Flanders (of “The Simpsons” fame) nice. He’s not the guy you’re going to invite to your stag party in Las Vegas — not unless you were planning a prank involving prostitutes, illicit drugs and an involuntary neck tattoo. But Ed Helms already had that role.

Despite all this — or perhaps because of it — Steves is one of the most trusted travel brands in the U.S. and Canada. His name appears prominently on countless guide books, podcasts, seminars, a weekly syndicated column and the perennially running PBS series.

It was the last of these that brought him top of mind for me recently. He was hosting a fund-raising marathon this past weekend on my nearest PBS affiliate, KCTS in Seattle. And as Steves good-naturedly bumbled his way through Tuscany, I asked myself this question: “Could Rick Steves be a start-up brand today?”

Yes, he is a successful brand, but could he become a successful brand from a standing start? In other words, can a weenie still win in today’s world?

Today, everything needs to be instantly shareable. Branding is all about virality. Things that live at the extremes are the ones that spread through social networks. We are more Kanye West and Kim Kardashian than we are Danny Kaye and Doris Day. That was then. This is now.

You can’t ignore the fact that Steves’ target market is well north of their 50thbirthday. They are the ones who still remember who Danny Kaye and Doris Day were. So I ask again: Is being passionate and earnest (two things Rick Steves undoubtedly is) enough to break our collective ennui in today’s hyperbolic world?

I ask this question somewhat selfishly, for I, too, am a weenie. I have long lived on the dorkish end of the spectrum. I like me a good dad joke (e.g., People in Athens hate getting up early. Because Dawn is tough on Greece). And I have to wonder. Can nice, decidedly un-cool people still finish first? Or  at least not last?

It’s an important question. Because if there is no longer room in our jaded awareness for a Rick Steves, we’re missing out on something very important.

Steves has won his trust the hard way. He has steadfastly remained objective and unsponsored. He provides advice targeted at the everyday traveler. He is practical and pragmatic.

And he is consistently idealistic, believing that travel pries open our perspective and makes us better, more tolerant people. This mission is proudly stated on his corporate website: “We value travel as a powerful way to better understand and contribute to the world in which we live. We strive to keep our own travel style, our world outlook, and our business practices consistent with these values.”

This is no “flash-in-the pan” brand bite crafted for a social share. This is a mission statement backed by over 40 years of consistent delivery to its ideals. It’s like Steves himself: earnest, sincere, thoughtful and just a little bit dorky.

If you ask me, the world could use a little less Kanye West and a little more Rick Steves.

The Dilemma of the Middle Aged Marketer

Today is my birthday. I still call myself middle-age, but truth be told, I passed being middle-aged some time ago. I would more accurately be called two/thirds-aged (hopefully).

 That’s not the only half-truth I’m hanging on to.

When new people I meet ask me my profession, I like to say I’m a “reformed marketer.” In addition to being somewhat untruthful, I also realize now that this response is pretentious on many different levels.

First of all, it gives off this “holier than thou” vibe that’s a little off-putting.

Secondly, if I regret being a marketer so much, why am I still hanging on for dear life to that particular epithet? The people I’m being introduced to now often have no idea of my past. The fact that I once called marketing my career has no relevance to them. They could care less. I’m just saying it for effect.

That’s a little sad.

If I dig way down to the truth, I have to admit being a marketer defined me for most of my life. I loved influencing people. I adored my career. And I’m not ready to let that part of me go.

Calling myself a reformed marketer gives me the illusory comfort of still hanging on to something important to me, but holding it at arm’s length, like a disease I’ve recovered from. I’m trying to play both ends against the middle.

And thus comes the Middle Aged Marketer’s Dilemma. It hit me in my 40s.

In last week’s column, I started talking about “Why” vs the other 4 Ws: “Who, What, When and Where.” I have a love/hate relationship with “Why.” It was that damned “Why” that ushered in the Dilemma.

As I said, I loved “What” I did as a marketer. It was endlessly challenging and fascinating. And if you love “What” enough, you don’t really care so much about “When” and “Where.” You’ll work ridiculously long hours in whatever location your career takes you.

I even came to terms with “Who.” I loved most of my clients. The few I didn’t, I managed to either cut loose or build a big enough buffer so that they didn’t make my life too miserable for too long. Those 4 Ws allowed me to carve out a pretty fantastic life for myself.

But then came along that damned “Why.” It was innocent at first. My “whys” had a limited and very applied scope. They were specific to the work I did for my clients. They allowed me to add another dimension to the market research we were doing for others. The more I asked “why,” the more I wanted to learn about how people ticked. I loved “what” I was doing even more.

Then my “why” flipped on me and went for the jugular. It has a habit of doing that. I made the mistake of asking myself why I was doing what I did for a living.

It’s a tough question. I don’t think many of us want to go gentle into that good night without having sussed for ourselves a pretty good reason why we have lived our lives.  And when middle-aged marketers asks themselves “why,” a satisfying answer does not immediately spring to mind.

“So I could help profit-obsessed companies sell more shit to people who don’t need it” is not exactly a sterling argument for canonization.

And yes, I did just toss everything about marketing into the same over-generalized bucket. Quibble if you will. I know there are exceptions. If you navel-gaze long enough, you’re sure to find them. But I’ll stand by my struggle with “why,” if you can stand by yours.

Today, I’m still struggling with the Dilemma. The fact that I’m still writing this column week after week speaks to my inability to let the past go. I remain totally in love with the “what” of marketing, but have ethical issues with the “why.”

I do believe marketing is built upon the questionable edifice of consumerism — and I’m not sure there’s a lot of moral high ground we can lay claim to.We work (or, in my case, did work) in an industry that depends on humans having baser instincts.

The Inevitability of the Pendulum Effect

In the real world, things never go in straight lines or predictable curves. The things we call trends are actually a saw tooth profile of change, reaction and upheaval. If you trace the path, you’ll see evidence of the Law of the Pendulum.

In the physical world, the Law is defined as: “the movement in one direction that causes an equal movement in a different direction.

In the world of human behavior, it’s defined as: “the theory holding that trends in culture, politics, etc., tend to swing back and forth between opposite extremes.

Politically and socially, we’re in the middle of a swing to the right. But this will be countered inevitably with a swing to the left. We could call it Newton’s Third Law of Social Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Except that’s not exactly true. If it were, the swings would cancel each other out and we’d end in the same place we started from. And we know that’s not the case. Let me give you one example that struck me recently.

This past week, I visited a local branch of my bank. The entire staff were wearing Pride T-shirts in support of their employer’s corporate sponsorship of Pride Week. That is not really a cause for surprise in our world of 2019. No one batted an eye. But I couldn’t help thinking that it’s parsecs removed from the world I grew up in, in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

I won’t jump into the debate of the authenticity of corporate political correctness, but there’s no denying that when it comes to sexual preference, the world is a more tolerant place than it was 50 years ago. The pendulum has swung back and forth, but the net effect has been towards – to use Steven Pinker’s term – the better angels of our nature.

When talking about the Pendulum Effect, we also have to keep an eye on Overton’s Window. This was something I talked about in a previous column some time ago. Overton’s window defines the frame of what the majority of us – as a society – find acceptable. As the pendulum swings back and forth between extremes, somewhere in the middle is a collective view that most of us can live with. But Overton’s window is always moving. And I believe that the window today frames a view of a more tolerant, more empathetic world than the world of 50 years ago – or almost any time in our past. That’s true every day. Lately, it might not even be true most days. But this is probably a temporary thing. The pendulum will swing back eventually, and we’ll be in a better place.

My question is: why? Why – when we even out the swings – are we becoming better people? So far, this column has little to do with media, digital or otherwise. But I think the variable here is information. Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, once said “Information wants to be free.” But I think information also wants to set us free – free from the limitations of our gene bound prejudice and pettiness. Where ever you find the pendulum swinging backwards, you’ll find a dearth of information. We need information to be thoughtful. And we need thoughtfulness to create a more just, more tolerant, more empathetic society.

We – in our industry – deal with information as our stock in trade. It is our job to ensure that information spreads as far as possible. It’s the one thing that will ensure that the pendulum swings in the right direction. Eventually. 

Data does NOT Equal People

We marketers love data. We treat it like a holy grail: a thing to be worshipped. But we’re praying at the wrong altar. Or, at the very least, we’re praying at a misleading altar.

Data is the digital residue of behavior. It is the contrails of customer intent — a thin, wispy proxy for the rich bandwidth of the real world. It does have a purpose, but it should be just one tool in a marketer’s toolbox. Unfortunately, we tend to use it as a Swiss army knife, thinking it’s the only tool we need.

The problem is that data is seductive. It’s pliable and reliable, luring us into manipulation because it’s so easy to do. It can be twisted and molded with algorithms and spreadsheets.

But it’s also sterile. There is a reason people don’t fit nicely into spreadsheets. There are simply not enough dimensions and nuances to accommodate real human behavior.

Data is great for answering the questions “what,” “who,” “when” and “where.” But they are all glimpses of what has happened. Stopping here is like navigating through the rear-view mirror.

Data seldom yields the answer to “why.” But it’s why that makes the magic happen, that gives us an empathetic understanding that helps us reliably predict future behaviors.

Uncovering the what, who, when and where makes us good marketers. But it’s “why” that makes us great. It’s knowing why that allows us to connect the distal dots, hacking out the hypotheses that can take us forward in the leaps required by truly great marketing. As Tom Goodwin, the author of “Digital Darwinism,” said in a recent post, “What digital has done well is have enough of a data trail to claim, not create, success.”

We as marketers have to resist stopping at the data. We have to keep pursuing why.

Here’s one example from my own experience. Some years ago, my agency did an eye-tracking study that looked at gender differences in how we navigate websites.

For me, the most interesting finding to fall out of the data was that females spent a lot more time than males looking at a website’s “hero” shot, especially if it was a picture that had faces in it. Males quickly scanned the picture, but then immediately moved their eyes up to the navigation menu and started scanning the options there. Females lingered on the graphic and then moved on to scan text immediately adjacent to it.

Now, I could have stopped at “who” and “what,” which in itself would have been a pretty interesting finding. But I wanted to know “why.” And that’s where things started to get messy.

To start to understand why, you have to rely on feelings and intuition. You also have to accept that you probably won’t arrive at a definitive answer. “Why” lives in the realm of “wicked” problems, which I defined in a previous column as “questions that can’t be answered by yes or no — the answer always seems to be maybe.  There is no linear path to solve them. You just keep going in loops, hopefully getting closer to an answer but never quite arriving at one. Usually, the optimal solution to a wicked problem is ‘good enough – for now.’”

The answer to why males scan a website differently than females is buried in a maze of evolutionary biology, social norms and cognitive heuristics. It probably has something to do with wayfinding strategies and hardwired biases. It won’t just “fall out” of data because it’s not in the data to begin with.

Even half-right “why” answers often take months or even years of diligent pursuit to reveal themselves. Given that, I understand why it’s easier to just focus on the data. It will get you to “good,” and maybe that’s enough.

Unless, of course, you’re aiming to “put a ding in the universe,” as Steve Jobs said in an inspirational commencement speech at Stanford University. Then you have to shoot for great.

The Marie Kondo Effect: Our Quest For Control

There’s a reason why organizational guru Marie Kondo has become a cultural phenomenon. When the world seems increasingly bizarre and unpredictable, we look for things we can still control.

Based on my news feed, it appears that may be limited to our garage and our sock drawer.

In 1954, American psychologist Julian Rotter introduced something he called the locus of control.  To lift the Wikipedia definition, it’s “the degree to which people believe that they have control over the outcome of events in their lives, as opposed to external forces beyond their control.”

Control is important to humans, even if it’s just an illusion. Our perception of being in control makes us happier.

Kondo has tapped into a fundamental human principle: Choosing to organize is choosing joy. There is a mountain of academic research to back that up.

But you really don’t have to look any further than the street you live on. That old Italian guy who’s up at 6:30 every morning washing his driveway? That’s Mario flexing his own locus of control. The more bizarre the world appears to become, the more we narrow the focus of our locus to things we know we can control. And if that’s 1,000 square feet of asphalt, so be it

It’s not just my paisano Mario who needs to stake his claim to control where he can find it. This narrowing of the locus of control commonly goes hand in hand with aging. Typically, as our inevitable cognitive and physical decline catches up with us, we reduce our boundaries of influence to what we can handle.  With my dad, it was recycling. He’d spend a good chunk of his time sorting through cans, jars and cardboard boxes, meticulously sorting them into their respective bins.

We need to feel that we can still exercise control — somehow, somewhere.

This need for control and some semblance of connectable cause and effect always takes a beating during times of upheaval. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer, which he began using in sermons during the tumultuous 1930s and 40s, became a lifeline in times of turmoil:

“God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Reinhold Niebuhr

Unfortunately for us, we don’t have a track record of doing so well on the first two parts of Niebuhr’s prayer. We don’t “accept with serenity” — we usually freak out with anxiety and stress. We adapt by focusing as best we can on those things that can be changed. When external disruption is the norm, our locus of control shrinks inward.

This brings up another facet of our need for control: the source of disruption. Disruption that happens to us personally — divorce, a health crisis, career upheaval, loss of a loved one — tends to at least fall somewhat within our locus of control. We have some options in how we respond and deal with these types of disruption.

But disruption that plays out globally is a different matter. How much control do we have over the rise of populist politics, climate change or microplastics in the ocean? The levers of control we can pull are minuscule compared to the scope of the issue.

That’s the problem with our densely connected, intensely networked world. We are hyper-aware of everything that’s wrong anywhere in the world. We are bombarded with it every minute. Every newsfeed, every CNN alert, every Facebook post seems to make us aware of yet one more potential catastrophe that we have absolutely no control over.

It’s no wonder that sometimes we just need to retreat and clean out our Tupperware drawer. In today’s world, you have to find joy where you can.

A Few Thoughts on Trump, Wikipedia and the Perfect Pour

If you’re looking for a sign of the times, there might be none more representative than Donald Trump’s Wikipedia page. According to a recent article in Slate, it’s one of the most popular pages on the Internet. It’s also one of the most updated. The article states that the page has had more than 28,000 edits since its launch in 2004.

The trick – of course – is taking something, or someone, as polarizing as Trump and trying to adhere to Wikipedia’s mission to “to accurately convey reliable information in a dispassionate, neutral tone” Slate’s behind the scenes look at the ongoing editorial battle to come within spitting distance of this goal is fascinating reading. How do you stay accurate and reliable when trying to navigate through the real-time storm of bombast and hyperbole that typically surrounds the 45th president of the United States? How timely can you be? How timely should you be? One Wikipedia editor noted, ““This is an encyclopedia. We are not in competition with newspapers for readership, so there is no rush to print,”

But we actually are in a rush. We expect online to equal real time. We have no patience for outdated information – or outdated anything – for that matter. And that introduces a conundrum when we refer to the current POTUS.  Say what you want about Trump. He does generate a lot of froth. And froth needs time to settle. Just ask the brewers of Guinness.

Something called “The Settle” is step 4 of the perfect Guinness pour. According to the brewers, the precise time for “The Settle” is 119.53 seconds. I’m not sure what happens if you miscalculate and only allow – say – 119.47 seconds. I’m not aware of any grievous injuries caused by a mistimed settle. But I digress. The point is that The Settle is required to avoid drinking nothing but foam. See how I brought that around to my original point?

You may debate the veracity of the Settle when it comes to a glass of stout, but I believe the idea has merit when it comes to dealing with the deluge of information with which we’re bombarded daily. According to Guinness, the whole point of The Settle is to get the right balance of aromatic “head” and malty liquid when you actually take a drink. Balance is important in beer. It’s also important in information. We need less froth and more substance in our daily media diet.

Why is more time important in our consumption of information? It’s because it gives emotions time to dissipate. Emotions mixed in with information is like gas mixed in with beer. You want a little, but not a lot. You want emotions to color rational thought, not dominate it. And when information is digested too soon, the balance between emotions and logic is all out of whack.

Emotional thought has to be on a hair trigger. It’s how we’re built. Emotions get us out of sticky situations. But they also tend to flood out ration and logic. Emotions and logic live in two very different parts of the brain. In a complex age where we need to be more thoughtful, emotional reactions are counterproductive. Yet, our current media environment is built to cater exclusively to our emotional side. There is no time for “The Settle.” We jump from frothy sip to sip, without ever taking the time to get to the substance of the story. Again, to use Trump’s Wikipedia example, after Trump’s 2018 Helsinki Summit with Vladimir Putin, there was plenty of media generated froth that was trying to force its way into his entry. It ranged from being “a serious mistake” to being “treasonous” and a “disgraceful performance.” But with the benefit of a little time, one Wiki editor noted, “Let’s not play the ‘promote the most ridiculous comments’ game that the media appears to be playing. Approximately nothing new happened, but there are plenty of ‘former government officials’ willing to give hyperbolic quotes on Twitter.”

It’s amazing what a little time can do for perspective. Let’s start with – say – 119.53 seconds.