A portable professional life

I’m about to embark on an extended (6 weeks) “working while out-of-the office experience”. I don’t expect to work any less than I normally do which is to say – I’ll be working a lot. Meeting in person with clients and marketing partners is an important part of my job. Yet working in midtown Manhattan I don’t have nearly as many meetings in person in New York City as used to be the case. Part of that is due to having fewer clients based in New York. But it’s also a harbinger of the times since working people today do more with less time mostly because of technology.

For the past few years my wife and I have been building up to making our lives as portable as possible. The trip we are taking will be by car and after it’s over 6 weeks or so from now, we will have driven more than 6,000 miles. I’ve written about how much I enjoy driving and that with the onset of self-driving cars I think it’s conceivable driving one’s own car may not be practical. So I’ve got to get in my miles while I can!

Millennials have been onto the portable life thing for a while now. My niece and her husband are true digital nomads – moving around the globe from place to place (they do not yet have children), experiencing different countries and cultures, while they work from wherever – digitally and otherwise.

Baby Boomers early or late like me, have been a mobile generation overall. Historically they have moved somewhat frequently as they married and had children. However as they (we) have aged we become less mobile and less portable, more set in our ways and comforts. I have felt for a while that disrupting oneself is as important to keeping fresh as anything one can do. Working while being on the move is something we’ve experienced before so we kind of know what to expect.

New geographies combined with routine-breaking will create new memories and (I believe), the opportunity to think differently. That and where we’re headed – the desert in California has nicer weather for the month we’ll spend there.

I like working. I hate being bored and am not a giant fan of soul-killing routines. Disruption and uncertainty are ways to keep us fresh. And we’re very lucky that we have the ability to do it. That includes my business partner who supports it, the team members that I won’t see as regularly, the clients who know what I’m doing and expect (as they should) it will be business as usual. What I hope happens is that once I am on the phone, emailing and video-conferencing , where I am will be much less important – even forgotten.

It’s all about the quality of the work and that’s why a portable life is possible in your future too.

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What if our agency prefers not to specialize?

My business partner and I run a small marketing and advertising ‘shop’ with an office on Madison Avenue. Yes we’re Mad Men. Ok that’s out of the way. We’re successful and have been growing our business over the past few years. Through no direct effort we are mostly a healthcare marketing agency. One assignment with a client led to another and we’ve begun to receive referrals and attract interest from companies we’ve not been in contact with before.

I am (as are we all) asked what makes our company different and the answer for me is pretty simple. We like to get in the weeds and get dirty with research, data, and first hand experience with as many aspects of our clients’ business as possible. In the case of healthcare marketing it means talking and meeting with nurses, surgeons, hospital and practice administrators, keeping close tabs on health insurance trends and coverage. There’s a tremendous amount of information that keeps getting us deeper and deeper.

Maybe it’s a reaction to walking off a red-eye flight from the west coast back into NYC, as being at one’s desk at 6AM in the morning in midtown Manhattan no doubt affects you in odd ways, but as I tried to sleep on the plane, I kept rolling around the idea of ‘Should we go all in and CALL ourselves a Healthcare marketing agency?” There are plenty of good reasons to say yes. A robust market is out there and in case you hadn’t noticed big pharma and healthcare in general are not afraid to spend money on marketing and advertising.

Yet we don’t ONLY work in Healthcare. We have and have had several financial industry clients, restaurants, and consumer products.   I think I can speak for my partner and all the members of our team that the variety of work is refreshing and in my opinion makes us better marketers. Needing to take different approaches for different vertical markets and products keeps us in a constant learning mode and forestalls any chance for us to get lazy and complacent in our approaches.

However there’s the real concern that non-specializing robs our company of the opportunity to be ‘known’ for something and build a reputation as a proven resource in healthcare marketing. In a sense it’s innately riskier NOT to specialize – as long as you’re really good in your chosen specialty.

That risk is more than balanced (at least this is where I am now), by what I see as my and our company’s continued enthusiasm to get dirty and do great work that most importantly delivers tangible results for our varied clients

One of my early jobs in the 1980’s was being an advertising photographer’s representative. I really liked the photographer and while he had long career he was not one of the ‘known’ photographers who had work to shoot each and every day.   This photographer did not have work to shoot every day. I felt it was in part due to his desire NOT to specialize. He was adept at doing portrait photography, location photography and tabletop. Then (as likely now) art directors preferred to hire a ‘specialist’ – and they did. However I did take note that the photographer was very happy doing what he was doing, and he continued to work well into his seventies. I like to think it had something to do with the varied and interesting professional challenges that came around over the years.

So for now, the moral of the story may be, it’s better to specialize but it’s far less interesting and a lot less fun. At least that’s the way I see it.

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19 books I finished in 2017

Each year I post about the books I’ve been able to finish within the year. There’s a part of me that believes ‘You are what you read”.   Some years ago I realized that I was not reading much aside from magazines, newspapers, and marketing and advertising industry articles.   I set a goal to read two books per month and have managed to come close the past few years. This year I must have read longer books since I could only finish nineteen.   I have several that I have started and abandoned in some form. I may or may not get back to them.

I read about half of the books digitally on my tablet through Amazon Kindle, and the other half is a combination of library, borrowed from friends, gifts, and purchased hardcovers and paperback books.   One thing I have noticed about Kindle books is because it is not a physical book, I am not as aware of the length of the book. It’s quite a bit easier to read a 500-page book on a device than it is to carry it around so I am paying closer attention.

Even if you cannot find the time to read 20 (or in my case this year 19) or more books, reading half or less that amount is still in your best interest. There’s something about reading and considering longer narratives that to me at least, is more important today than it has been before. Attention spans are narrowing. Taking time to think about a complicated subject is sometimes tiring but almost always worthwhile.

Here are the 19 from 2017– each review in ten words or less.

The Only Rule is it has to Work: Our wild Experiment Building a new kind of baseball team – Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller.

Baseball nerds successfully run a short season minor league team.

As I lay dying – William Faulkner

Revolutionary character treatment did not make for a great read.

The Attention Merchants – Tim Wu

Combines history of advertising and how your attention is grabbed.

 A Bend in the River – V.S. Naipal

Thoughtful perspective on life from British writer of Indian descent.

Sous Chef – Michael Gibney

Mesmerizing account of one day in a chef’s life.

PreSuasion – A revolutionary way to influence and persuade – Robert Cialdini

Another soon-to-be classic from an interesting thinker.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – Carlo Rovelli

A simply presented collection to explain space and time. Mostly.

Astrophysics for people in a hurry – Neil Degrasse Tyson

Different take than Mr. Rovelli’s book and more fun.

The Song Machine – John Seabrook

Hit pop songs are labors of love and process.

Country Driving – A Chinese road trip from Farm to Factory – Peter Hessler

Author rents a car and drives 7,000 miles around China.

Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky

A world where spiders are sentient yet still creepy.

The Upstarts – Brad Stone

Uber’s and AirBnb’s stories as told by a good writer.

The Sound and The Fury – William Faulkner

Enjoyed this more than ‘As I lay dying’. Still tedious.

The Women – T.C. Boyle

Frank Lloyd Wright was a cad but a fascinating one.

Chaos Monkeys – Antonio Garcia Marquez

Cantankerous and dislikeable author’s time helping build Facebook. Interesting. Maddening.

The Sky Below: A True Story of Summits, Space, and Speed – Scott Parazynski

There are extraordinary people like Parazynksi who’ve come through NASA.

 Outmaneuver – Outthink don’t outspend – Jeffrey Phillips and Alex Verjovsky

Better title than book. Other reviewers liked it more.

Love in a Fallen City – Ellen Chang

Famous modern Chinese literature author offers insight into Chinese life.

The Terranauts – T.C. Boyle

1990’s Ecosphere experiment in Arizona imagined differently. Humans being humans.

I enjoyed nearly all the books reviewed here – that’s why I finished them! 

My best wishes for health and happiness in 2018.

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The 21st Century U.S. Postal Service has not yet arrived

Managing complex print and mail projects was something I did for nearly thirty years. A large aspect of those thirty years was spent figuring out how to minimize the cost of postal mail. On a project-by-project basis postage often was more than half of the entire print production and mailing expense.

This past Monday’s article in the New York Times was more about Fedex and UPS than it was the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). This is the same Postal Service – by far the largest on the planet, which continues to lose money, (more due to pension obligations than operating revenue) yet attempts to make it up in volume. The more recent focus of the USPS is delivery of packages and it’s about time.

If you haven’t noticed the USPS has been delivering packages on Sundays for quite a while. Clearly the delivery of packages is the only viable future for the USPS. Currently First Class mail contributes less than 50% of the revenue for the USPS. Yet even as recently as 2015 the USPS delivered 47% of all the mail in the WORLD. Advertising mail and periodicals combined with delivering packages directly for clients as well as other shipping services (Fedex, UPS, and DHL for example) already provide the lion’s share of revenue. That trend is just continuing and the percentage of first class mail versus other mail will continue its decline.

Several years ago (as the article states) the USPS attempted to forgo the delivery of Saturday mail. Outrage followed – primarily from advertising and periodical mailers. And the whole idea was scrapped. It’s time to reconsider that now. Would mailers be ok with NOT delivering on Saturday at all? Or might they pay a premium to be delivered ON Saturday when more people are home?

Why are things being done the way they were twenty years ago or fifty years ago or…? The Pony Express was a really long time ago. So were the 1990’s.  It can’t all be bureaucracy right? Does the recipient really care if they get their mailed statement, invoice or monthly bill on Monday instead of the prior Saturday? If it’s important to the mailer then the mailer can pay for that specificity.

How about paid fast lanes for delivering faster? For the USPS while that already exists (think Express Mail and Priority Mail), when it comes to the U.S. Postal Service ‘Net Neutrality’ has no meaning. Or does it? Should it? Advertising mailers have had the ability to pay for faster service (first class mail or overnight service from Fedex and UPS), but the costs of acquiring customers via first class mail has never been a successful mass marketing technique. The weight and dimensions of packages and other mail pieces have always impacted costs. There’s no expectation that the USPS should deliver a heavy package at the same cost as a lighter one. Data streams are about speed and volume not weight.

Given its history as a civil service workplace (there are nearly 7 million USPS employees), the USPS HAS modernized its services and practices to more effectively process the way mail is used today. Yet most of the moves are reactionary and ultimately protective of the status quo. I doubt Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk would design today’s USPS in such a way that people would recognize it compared to what currently exists.

It’s long past the time for USPS to get out from under the oppression of the pension obligation that has stifled its ability to change. I feel there’s a viable future for the

USPS if the focus is on doing what the USPS does that nobody else does every day – Deliver to each and every household and business.

At least as long as there’s mail to deliver

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CVS/Aetna deal – would it be better for overall patient health?

What apparently started as a defensive maneuver against the portent of Amazon.com entering the health and wellness marketplace is now to be ruled upon as to whether or not the purchase of Aetna by CVS is anti-competitive and will be quashed by anti-trust regulators. But before evaluating the fairness aspect of this proposed sale, is there any chance CVS/Aetna could be a net positive for the health of many Americans? Today’s article in The New York Times noted that the deal could reshape the health industry.

In attempting to imagine the future of health care I frequently think about things like telemedicine having the potential to dramatically improve the patient experience AND results. Telemedicine is only in its nascent stage, but its adoption and growth will be key factors in delivering better care at lower costs. Simply stated, it has to and will be part of the future of the delivery of patient care. For what it’s worth I feel the next health frontier is a subcutaneous implanted chip that will record and provide data regarding changes in your moment-to-moment health condition. That future world will have no more Fitbits or portable trackers that you wear. The tracker of the future is implanted under your skin.

At the same time when I think of the multitude of CVS locations (nearly 10,000) and the utility of being quite close to where many people live (in a 2016 report 76% of Americans live within five miles of a CVS location), a CVS/Aetna merger has the potential to create a very different relationship between the patient, health insurer, and point of care delivery.

Keep in mind that Americans are living longer and there are more and more people living actively (and not so actively) beyond age 70 each year. The relationship between baby boomers and those even older and their doctors and insurance companies has been in a constant state of flux for more than thirty years. What I think is important to keep in mind is that people over 50 are accustomed to going to SEE the doctor and won’t nearly be as good candidates for telemedicine as Gen Xers and all those younger than them. Yes it’s about technology to a degree but more about behavior and what’s comfortable and understandable. I admit that not everyone will be as willing and interested as am I about new technologies as they apply to our health.

Most Americans know where the local CVS is located. That CVS and Walgreens are principally responsible for the demise of locally owned pharmacies is both true and well documented, but the horse is long out of that barn and things are not going to back to the kindly old pharmacist who knows you and your entire family’s health history.

Having doctors on the premises at the pharmacy is a bigger deal than one might think at first. Saving a trip, making things more convenient AND delivering professional care for patients is a smart idea and could revolutionize care and in particular elder care in the United States.

Should it be approved, I am concerned that I am being naïve to ignore that without sufficient competition the CVS/Aetna combination will ultimately be able to charge whatever it wants and be less motivated to provide high quality service. But as yet I am not willing to throw the baby out with the bath water and I am truly interested in the deeper exploration of how the combination of CVS and Aetna might be beneficial to the health of Americans.



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Set Phasers to Stun

I didn’t watch the original run of Star Trek with William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and crew, as I was just a bit too young. But in those days there were plenty of reruns and I watched each and every episode. Like so many people, it was clear that while the show was a bit campy, silly, and preachy, creator Gene Roddenberry was presenting his preferred vision of the future. While the characters were multi-racial and multi-ethnic (not to mention what Earthlings would call aliens in the crew), there was a decidedly American viewpoint to the entire series. See above for campy, silly and preachy.

The world of Star Trek was set in the year 2364 “and beyond”. The series depictions included a universe that was both at times beautiful and terrible. One of the things that always struck me as interesting was the choice that Captain Kirk made frequently to have his crew “Set Phasers to Stun” as opposed to kill. The characters had the choice to disobey but as far as I recall that NEVER happened. Talk about restraint!

What I also found interesting was that humans that were ‘stunned’ by Star Trek Phasers (yes I always wanted one of my own), never came back for vengeance against he (or she) who ‘stunned’ them. Clearly Mr. Roddenberry had a thing for creative license. And a more genteel future than what was going on in 1966 when the series was made. There was a whole lot of moralizing going on in Star Trek. And I loved it.

The year 2364 is 347 years from now. Putting on the rose-colored glasses for a moment, wouldn’t it be great to live in a world where people could defend themselves and immobilize personal threats, without ending someone else’s life? Unrealistic you say? Vengeance is a very strong emotion and restraint (in general) is something we human beings struggle with every day.

It disturbs me to think that somehow 347 years from now people will have available to them more powerful and capable weapons to carry around under the auspice of protecting themselves. Vaporizers are so clean and efficient. Aim, fire and poof – the threat is removed. No mess, no fuss. Impossible?

Could that really be our future?



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Why it’s more important now than ever to help build trust between U.S. and Chinese businesses

It’s not only because the leaders of the two countries are promoting Nationalist agendas. In the 3 years since I last visited China, Chinese President Xi Jinping has consolidated his power, which was further enhanced by his actions at the recent CCP Five Year Conference. Prior to Mr. Xi’s ascension there were indications of greater understanding between the United States and Chinese citizens. I don’t think that the citizens of both countries are more distrustful of one another. The same cannot be said of the two governments.

One cannot ignore that China is not only one of the oldest nations but also the most populated with something close to 1.4 billion people. I’d welcome the chance to return and see the people I have met and spent time with in China. I think they are not very different today from when I last saw them. Since currently the U.S and Chinese governments are less closely aligned, building cross-cultural trust and understanding through doing business between Americans and Chinese is probably just more difficult but also more important.

Chinese culture is still vastly different from U.S. culture. I am completely in favor of people interacting with one another in order to foster a better overall understanding. Doing business is one way to learn the ins and outs of another culture. Having traveled to China nearly a dozen times I’ve not seen enough of the country to form an opinion outside of the major cities I’ve visited. While some generalizations can be made for an American in doing business with Chinese, it’s important to judge each relationship on its own merit. That too can be more difficult to do than it is to say after you’ve consumed your 15th cup of tea of the day.

Our team has worked with a few Chinese companies over the years All the engagements were interesting in their own right and I think both sides learned in the process. None of the engagements were perfect. None were disasters. So why do I want to keep trying? After all there are not legions of Chinese companies looking to do business in the United States. But there are some with more to surely follow and I want to be there to help those that need a partner to represent their vision here in the U.S.

At the government level, trust between the U.S. and China is in scarce supply these days. There are reasons for this on both sides of the equation. I feel that citizens of one nation should not be lumped together in terms of behaving toward citizens of another nation on the basis of how their governments interact.

Learn, talk, do business, repeat the process. That’s how trust can be gained between Chinese and U.S. business partners.

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