How many Pure Work Hours do you really have?

Being a big fan of the products and philosophies of Jason Fried of 37 Signals, I harken back to this TED talk he gave a while ago about truly productive work. The question is simple: How many of you have a moment in your day where absolutely nothing interrupts your workflow? Pure focus. The zone. Feelin’ the flow. You know the exalted state I’m talking about.

Think about it. How often do you encounter a person coming up to you to ask you a question, a phone call, a buddy suddenly IM’ing you, etc. I’m also including interruption by choice like looking at your phone, checking your email, watching a YouTube video, whatever. Quite often, probably, right? And when we have these interruptions, the brain takes a little while to get back on track – a friend of mine told me 15 minutes is what’s required to get back in that frame of mind. 15 minutes. Think about how many lost minutes and then lost hours that equates to.

How many PURE work hours do you really have?

In this context, the answer may be zero. Or 1-2 hours if we’re lucky.

The point isn’t that doing these other things is bad. The point is that we can get smarter about how we balance it.

For creative people working on another insane deadline, there’s never been a more important time to shut out the world. That’s not easy in an agency when you’re sitting in your cube trying to bang out some brilliant headline or website design and people are flying by talking at loud volume about the upcoming client meeting or brainstorm. Which is why agencies need to invest more into spaces that allow their people to get away and just think in peace on the idea they have to come up with. If your agency doesn’t have that or all the good spaces are taken, take it upon yourself to at least invest in some really, really good noise canceling headphones.

For entrepreneurs like myself that operate from a home office and use a virtual office from time to time, we may not have as much danger of office interruptions but we still can run into bad habits that disrupt our flow, like the e-mail/phone checking mentioned above. Besides that, here’s another yours truly was guilty of: For many days, I’d have a schedule that consisted of writing, email checking, conference calls, taking a networking meeting, writing some more, sharing a video, sharing an infographic, taking another meeting, writing, checking email for the 30th time, reading an article on last night’s Bulls game, you get the idea. Not that unusual from most people’s days…except breaking things up with too many variances was undoubtedly having an effect on my pure work hours.

In other words, you could have a seemingly “balanced” day that is, in reality, doing bad things to how clear-headed you can be. It’s not just about being efficient. It’s about clearing more time for ideation to happen – which makes us better Copywriters, better Designers, better Web Programmers, better Brand Strategists. Better in many other professions too.

So I’m trying something a little different – rather than jumbling the mix in what seems like balance but is actually more disruptive, is it possible to push more pure work into whole days devoted to that and more new business development and client meetings into other days devoted to those activities? It’s an interesting experiment and I’m sure there will be times that it won’t work absolutely perfectly but it’s an effort worth making. I’ll let you know how it goes.

In the interim, think about this concept of pure work hours without any interruption. Rather than beat yourself up for being too in touch with the world, I wonder if you have any ideas for how you find that special zone that nobody else can get into for a designated period of time. Feel free to share your tips and tricks for how you tap into it. For while it may not deliver creativity and strategic thinking on demand, I have a feeling this approach gets us a whole lot closer.

5 Trade Show Inspirations Manufactured by IMTS

I’m writing this from the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS), the largest manufacturing show in America, at McCormick Place. Over 90,000 people have registered for this gigantic event so far.

Walking across a floor of 1800 exhibits, you quickly get the sense that, at a time when marketers tend to question if trade shows are worth attending, it’s clear there are no such hang-ups as it applies to this show. There’s a whole lot of heavy investment from manufacturers going on here in their presence. With this in mind, I can’t help but wonder about Return on Investment and what kind of steps brands can take to help themselves stand out once they say, “If there’s one trade show we want to be at this year, that’s the one.”

Here are some takeaways and tech ideas from IMTS I’ve witnessed that you can consider incorporating for your own trade show efforts this Fall, especially if you’re preparing for a massive, high visibility trade show like this one.

Stand Up For iPads

You’re trapped with one attendee who is talking your head off and it’s clear they’re not going to be a serious buyer. Meanwhile, isn’t that so-and-so who you’ve been meaning to talk to walking up to your booth? How do you ditch the gabfest in front of you elegantly? You may be able to divide and conquer resources if you have a securely mounted iPad display stand. Visitors can walk up to the stand and scroll through valuable information about your company’s products and services. 

Walking by hundreds upon hundreds of booths at IMTS, I saw two of these stands used. I expect I’ll only see more of them at future shows. It’s very slick and helps act as another “salesperson” for your brand.


There’s a great opportunity in live webcasts at the show: First, it extends your appeal beyond the immediate trade show floor to the social web. Second, it involves people in your booth on a deeper level as interviewees and not just casual browsers. So it’s no longer just a booth but an experience. Many booth experiences start and end with the physical walls of the brand. It doesn’t have to be that way any longer.

IMTS had several live webcasts throughout the day via its IMTS TV, which could be seen at nearby hotels, the event’s shuttle bus and online. Taking a page from this experience, who could you interview at your booth, even for just a couple minutes? Could you target them in advance of the show and invite them to be a part of your webcast, which may extend into a longer conversation afterward? Where can you share this information beyond your website?

3D Video Projection

A screen mounted on a stand? That’s OK, but rather expected. When done well, a video projection on an ample-sized banner, complete with audio, can lure people in and tell more of the brand’s story with a high-end quality. I’ve seen but one company only lightly touch upon this application, without audio.

Or there’s really taking the experience up a notch – using 3D images (also called “3D projection mapping”) to transform a part of the booth into a captivating spectacle of video. Just Google “3D projection mapping” and you’ll see what I mean.

So if we can create 3D video projections on landmarks, why can’t we do these at trade shows? The answer is we can. Compelling video that brings the product to life gets noticed, especially in a crowded hall.


Private Rooms/Sections

You heard me. Get a room – as in think about how your booth can be sectioned off to accommodate “VIPs” you reach out to advance or converse with at the show.

Several exhibitors at IMTS have created what could be described as less of a booth and more of a lounge or café. That can be visually appealing and inviting, but for my taste, private rooms/sections within an area facilitate better one-on-ones and lend themselves to sensitive conversations that can’t be conducted out in the open.

By the way, don’t forget that shows can be multi-purpose to also be used for recruitment opportunities too. The issue in manufacturing isn’t so much a lack of jobs as it’s about finding qualified people to fill specialized positions. Some here have seized on that opportunity by realizing that their audience isn’t only made of potential buyers of product but also potential referrers of talent.

Granted, I know creating a “private” area of your booth isn’t necessarily cheap, but really, when you’re spending a lot on this as it is, do you want to treat a serious buyer/candidate like anybody else wandering by?


Social Media

I get a lot of questions about industries that aren’t “ready” for social media just yet. Some skeptics say manufacturing is one of them. Which is interesting, considering I’m looking at a Twitter stream with the hashtag #IMTS and seeing major manufacturers tweeting about their booth’s events and engineers chatting it up with each other about what they’ve seen and heard at the show.

So if someone says, “Our industry isn’t into social media and won’t care about using it at the show,” challenge that assumption. Could people check into your booth on Foursquare and be rewarded for it? Could you tweet your booth location and share what events are next? Could you upload pictures and video for those who missed a crucial speaker? Yes. And they’re doing it here.

Remember, much of this activity with social media isn’t confined to the booth or even the show. It extends beyond that.

It’s easy to fall in love with how big your logo looks on a trade show wall over a few days. But there’s a much bigger picture than that. If you can capture some long-term leads today, you can continue the conversation on the web long-term, which can grow into something much more tomorrow.

So think about how you can integrate your online presence more so your trade show booth works even harder.

Like a machine.

Nobody wins The Cheapies or The Speedies.

Do you ever notice that there are no awards shows in the advertising industry for being the fastest?
Do you ever notice there are none for being the cheapest?

I do, however, notice a whole lot of awards for being the most creative. Or the most effective.

Clios. One Show. Addys. Effies. Cannes. And so on.

Some of us get lucky enough to hoist these awards high in front of our peers and put them in our offices. And let’s face it with no apologies. It feels really, really good.

When it comes down to it, you will never get awarded for being the cheapest and you will never get awarded for being the fastest. It’s not even a great thing to get referred for – when I actually was, it was a disaster.

I actually had someone stand up in front of a room – more than once – and do this:

“Dan is great and I only had to pay him $____!” Oh no. You didn’t. It was the worst “compliment” I could’ve ever received.

Point being, it’s up to you whether you want to enter a formal awards show, but what matters more for positioning and a referral is valuing quality over price or speed. Some say, “It can be about quality, speed or price. You can have 2 but not all 3.”

Sure, you can have two of those, but in the end, there’s really only one that matters.

Strive to be about quality. That’s it.

Because quality is what’s ultimately the most fulfilling to you.
Because quality is what’s the most referable.
Because quality enables you to command greater leverage on taking more precious time you rarely have.
Because quality gets you to a place where you can command more money.

Or perhaps you don’t want fulfillment, referrals, quality time and greater income. If not, my mistake.

Did I say that focusing on quality first and foremost gives us license to take as much as time as we like? Oh no. Did I say we always get what we want money-wise? Unfortunately, not always.

But there are going to be people around us that pressure us for that ad now, now, now. There are going to be prospects who pressure us on price and shoot lines our way like, “If you do this for a little (or a lot) less now, I know a lot of people/there will be a lot of more work like this to come.”

You can play these games and see if it works out. But I also see people who get burned by this song-and-dance of “risk now and hope for something better later.”

How do you avoid giving into these pressures? It’s not easy. But I reached a point in my career – with the help of some very supportive mentors, colleagues, friends and family (you know who you are) – where I had unwavering faith in my own talent to stay strong and believe in what I was charging and how long I needed to do it right. From that moment on, I was done trying to be known, intentionally or not, as the guy who could do more in less time.

Because being that guy did nothing for me. It paid me no dividends. It earned me no referrals.

Why? Because I wasn’t positioning myself as the guy built for quality, even though what I was producing was high quality. I was positioning myself for speed and probably some value first. The quality guy I knew I was was suffering and I didn’t realize it.

So yes, that means you have to gently and diplomatically push back on price and timelines. I’m not saying to be a jerk about it. I’m saying to negotiate in your best interests rather than putting on a paper hat and asking if you may take their order. You have to be clear as day on what you’re providing for the time required.

The “Anybody Who Wants My Services” Problem 

You also have to constantly work on thinking about who you want and don’t want to work with. If you don’t define this, I have found there is a direct correlation between working with people who tend to be cheap and speedy vs. people who respect and value quality. And why wouldn’t there be when it’s clear you’ll take anybody who comes through the door?

The way to begin thinking this issue is through what’s called a Buyer Persona. Think about the most enjoyable client relationship you’ve ever had. It doesn’t have to be a relationship you still have at your current company.

Think about that person and where they stand in their organization. Consider the challenges they face in a day and why they chose you in the first place. Who else were they thinking about choosing? Are there any other challenges they deal with internally that might influence the direction of your relationship?

Now think about the top 5-10 of those Buyer Personas.
What’s the common thread that runs through those people?

What common traits do they possess? Don’t just think about on-the-surface stuff like age, title and location. What are the behavioral and emotional aspects they share considering they are going to choose you based on behaviors and emotions you elicit? You will have to dig deeper for this. But it’s worth it.

These are the people who represent the bulls-eye on the dartboard or close to it. The people who are more likely to see your services as an investment rather than a cost. I am continually working to understand them better, speak to them better and customize my offerings around them better. They don’t represent just “anybody.”

Your strategic partners need to understand that too – so they can get the value you bring to the table and be advocates for your brand when you’re not in the room. Hold them to this and make sure they get it. Meet with them monthly or quarterly. It’s probably best if they don’t place a huge value on being the cheapest or the fastest, because they may not get where you’re coming from and it wouldn’t jive with what you value most.

At the end of the day, when you are standing there with your award or a glowing email from your client for a job well done or a promotion, not many people will remember the mini-battles you had to fight to carve a little more time and a little more money. I suppose someone could say, “Yeah, he did an outstanding job and the client loves it, but he was a couple hours too slow on that one day.” But that’s getting into some petty territory if you ask me.

If we’re lucky to do what we love for a living, we get a small window of time to do it. And once it’s over, how do you want them to talk about you? That you were the cheapest? That you were the fastest?

I didn’t think so.

Are we doing wrong in creating “what the client likes”?

A few years back, when I was working in a 900-person ad agency, a new Copywriter entered our group. As he set up shop in the office next to me, he asked:

“So…this Creative Director. What kind of stuff does he like?”

“Excuse me?”

“You know, what kind of copy does he typically approve? What’s easier to get through and flies with him? Does he have a style he likes to see?”

I was taken aback by the question.What does it matter if it’s a smart idea and the right kind of idea for the brand? If you’re a compelling strategist and presenter, so what if you have to sell a little harder to persuade someone to choose it?

Here are some variations of things I have heard:

“Bob doesn’t like seeing images of people looking directly at him.”

“Can we make sure the copy isn’t so negative-sounding? Janet doesn’t typically approve that.”

“Sam is big on making sure we list all of our services and in bullet point.”

“Laura tends to be more of an Earth-tone color person so our layout should have that. Get rid of these bright colors.”

“I like pink. If you give me anything with pink in the ad, I’ll approve it. Pink, pink, pink.”

“I know what you’re saying, I love it and I think the audience would love it. But it’ll never fly with this client. He doesn’t do humor.”

“Gary’s always been more comfortable with traditional media. Put more of that into your strategy than the online stuff and he’ll like it.”

If you’re in Advertising long enough, you’ll learn that revisions are part of the natural order. Things don’t sail through with ease. They get analyzed. They run through a gauntlet of account and creative people taking hacks at the work. And if emerges unscathed, it goes out the door to a client that – you guessed it – takes more hacks at it. As Luke Sullivan, author of “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This!” calls it, it’s the “Death by A Thousand Tiny Cuts.”

Nature of the beast, I suppose. But that doesn’t mean you take the easy way out to avoid it at all costs. That includes writing for people who aren’t in the target audience. This is why answering the “What kind of work do they like?” question may win the battle but ultimately loses the war on several fronts.

First, it’s created with the endgame of trying to ensure the idea sees the light of day. That’s woefully short-sighted.
If your idea does get through but can’t connect with the audience because all you were concerned with was appeasing internal forces, how does that benefit the agency or client? It doesn’t. It does a disservice to them, even if they can’t automatically grasp why that idea is the right one. And that will only come back to hurt you.

Second, the end buyer is an afterthought with a question like this.
The Creative Director and client are buyers of the idea but they are not buyers of the product. If you’re not thinking about those end buyers, you’re not doing justice to the client’s brand, the agency or yourself. We don’t always reach the goal of creating the kind of amazing ideas we want to, but we always have to try and push as far as we can until then. Even if it’s the harder road to take.

Third, you lose your identity as a writer or designer.
It becomes their message. Their design. Their tone. Their style. You become a clone of them. But your Creative Director or client doesn’t need a clone. If they’re any good at their job at all and not a complete dictator, he or she needs different perspectives other than their own that produce creative surprises, not what they want and expect to see.

Yes, I know this isn’t art and can’t be an expression of whatever we want. That’s selfish because it becomes all about us rather than, again, the target audience. But there is a difference between creating and order taking.

Creating gives meaningful thought to the challenge and considers how to speak to the audience in unexpected ways that resonate with them. Order taking gives no meaningful thought and only considers what your boss or the client wants to say or design. You lose a bit of your soul the more this happens.

Think of how this applies to something else, like music. There will be only one U2. One Coldplay. One Foo Fighters. One Leonard Bernstein. One Stephen Sondheim. One Mozart.  Is it better to emulate someone who has already produced something great or is it worthwhile to create something on our own? Some people are all for the first option and get fulfillment off of that – cover bands, essentially. They can be talented in their own right but they aren’t bringing anything new to the table we didn’t expect. If you play 80’s rock, we’re going to expect 80’s rock. There’s safety in that because people can identify with your music and you may get a great turnout at the local bar.

But if you create something from scratch that you think the end audience may like? The stakes and risks are higher. They don’t know your music because it’s original. It’s new and different to their ears. The road to success is a lot harder, from sleeping in vans to playing in the worst bars imaginable for little money at first. And yet, if you have even a moderate amount of success beyond this level, you surpass any kind of fame the cover band will have. Because you’re giving people the unexpected. They then anticipate that and appreciate that. They tell others. Your fan base grows.

Playing to the immediate crowd is safe. If you’re comfortable with being a cover band in the creative world, good luck and I hope it works out. But if you can stomach the harder road by striving to deliver the unexpected rather than what you know they want, I’ll be raising a lighter high to salute you.