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I lead Force Five Partners, a marketing analytics consulting firm (bio). I've been writing here about marketing, technology, e-business, and analytics since 2003 (blog name explained).

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May 10, 2013

Book Review: Converge by @rwlord and @rvelez #convergebook

I just finished reading Converge, the new book on integrating technology, creativity, and media by Razorfish CEO Bob Lord and his colleague Ray Velez, the firm’s CTO.  (Full disclosure: I’ve known Bob as a colleague, former boss, and friend for more than twenty years and I’m a proud Razorfish alum from a decade ago.)

Reflecting on the book I’m reminded of the novelist William Gibson’s famous comment in a 2003 Economist interview that “The future’s already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”  In this case, the near-perfect perch that two already-smart guys have on the Digital Revolution and its impact on global brands has provided them a view of a new reality most of the rest of us perceive only dimly.

So what is this emerging reality?  Somewhere along the line in my business education I heard the phrase, “A brand is a promise.”  Bob and Ray now say, “The brand is a service.”  In virtually all businesses that touch end consumers, and extending well into relevant supply chains, information technology has now made it possible to turn what used to be communication media into elements of the actual fulfillment of whatever product or service the firm provides.  

One example they point to is Tesco’s virtual store format, in which images of stocked store shelves are projected on the wall of, say, a train station, and commuters can snap the QR codes on the yogurt or quarts of milk displayed and have their order delivered to their homes by the time they arrive there: Tesco’s turned the billboard into your cupboard.  Another example they cite is Audi City, the Kinnect-powered configurator experience through which you can explore and order the Audi of your dreams.  As the authors say, “marketing is commerce, and commerce is marketing.”

But Bob and Ray don’t just describe, they also prescribe.  I’ll leave you to read the specific suggestions, which aren’t necessarily new.  What is fresh here is the compelling case they make for them; for example, their point-by-point case for leveraging the public cloud is very persuasive, even for the most security-conscious CIO.  Also useful is their summary of the Agile method, and of how they’ve applied it for their clients.

Looking more deeply, the book isn’t just another surf on the zeitgeist, but is theoretically well-grounded.  At one point early on, they say, “The villain in this book is the silo.”  On reading this (nicely turned phrase), I was reminded of the “experience curve” business strategy concept I learned at Bain & Company many years ago.  The experience curve, based on the idea that the more you make and sell of something, the better you (should) get at it, describes a fairly predictable mathematical relationship between experience and cost, and therefore between relative market share and profit margins.  One of the ways you can maximize experience is through functional specialization, which of course has the side effect of encouraging the development of organizational silos.  A hidden assumption in this strategy is that customer needs and associated attention spans stay pinned down and stable long enough to achieve experience-driven profitable ways to serve them.  But in today’s super-fragmented, hyper-connected, kaleidoscopic marketplace, this assumption breaks down, and the way to compete shifts from capturing experience through specialization, to generating experience “at-bats” through speedy iteration, innovation, and execution.  And this latter competitive mode relies more on the kind of cross-disciplinary integration that Bob and Ray describe so richly.

The book is a quick, engaging read, full of good stories drawn from their extensive experiences with blue-chip brands and interesting upstarts, and with some useful bits of historical analysis that frame their arguments well (in particular, I Iiked their exposition of the television upfront).  But maybe the best thing I can say about it is that it encouraged me to push harder and faster to stay in front of the future that’s already here.  Or, as a friend says, “We gotta get with the ‘90’s, they’re almost over!”

(See this review and buy the book on Amazon.com)


April 10, 2013

Fooling Around With Google App Engine @googlecloud

A simple experiment: the "Influence Reach Factor" Calculator. (Um, it just multiplies two numbers together.  But that's beside the point, which was to sort out what it's like to build and deploy an app to Google's App Engine, their cloud computing service.)

Answer: pretty easy.  Download the App Engine SDK.  Write your program (mine's in Python, code here, be kind, props and thanks to Bukhantsov.org for a good model to work from).  Deploy to GAE with a single click.

By contrast, let's go back to 1999.  As part of getting up to speed at ArsDigita, I wanted to install the ArsDigita Community System (ACS), an open-source application toolkit and collection of modules for online communities.  So I dredged up an old PC from my basement, installed Linux, then Postgres, then AOLServer, then configured all of them so they'd welcome ACS when I spooled it up (oh so many hours RTFM-ing to get various drivers to work).  Then once I had it at "Hello World!" on localhost, I had to get it networked to the Web so I could show it to friends elsewhere (this being back in the days before the cable company shut down home-served websites).  

At which point, cue the Dawn Of Man.

Later, I rented servers from co-los. But I still had to worry about whether they were up, whether I had configured the stack properly, whether I was virus-free or enrolled as a bot in some army of darkness, or whether demand from the adoring masses was going to blow the capacity I'd signed up for. (Real Soon Now, surely!)

Now, Real Engineers will say that all of this served to educate me about how it all works, and they'd be right.  But unfortunately it also crowded out the time I had to learn about how to program at the top of the stack, to make things that people would actually use.  Now Google's given me that time back.

Why should you care?  Well, isn't it the case that you read everywhere about how you, or at least certainly your kids, need to learn to program to be literate and effective in the Digital Age?  And yet, like Kubrick's monolith, it all seems so opaque and impenetrable.  Where do you start?  One of the great gifts I received in the last 15 years was to work with engineers who taught me to peel it back one layer at a time.  My weak effort to pay it forward is this small, unoriginal advice: start by learning to program using a high-level interpreted language like Python, and by letting Google take care of the underlying "stack" of technology needed to show your work to your friends via the Web.  Then, as your functional or performance needs demand (which for most of us will be rarely), you can push to lower-level "more powerful" (flexible but harder to learn) languages, and deeper into the stack.

April 08, 2013

From Big Data to Bigger Results: Focus on Ecosystemic Conditions for Analytics ROI

My guest post on the MITX.org blog

April 06, 2013

Dazed and Confused #opensource @perryhewitt @oreillymedia @roughtype @thebafflermag @evgenymorozov

Earlier today, my friend Perry Hewitt pointed me to a very thoughtful essay by Evgeny Morozov in the latest issue of The Baffler, titled "The Meme Hustler: Tim O'Reilly's Crazy Talk".  

A while back I worked at a free software firm (ArsDigita, where early versions of the ArsDigita Community System were licensed under GPL) and was deeply involved in developing  an "open source" license that balanced our needs, interests, and objectives with our clients' (the ArsDigita Public License, or ADPL, which was closely based on the Mozilla Public License, or MPL).  I've been to O'Reilly's conferences (<shameless> I remember a ~20-person 2001 Birds-of-a-Feather session in San Diego with Mitch Kapor and pre-Google Eric Schmidt on commercializing open source </shameless>).  Also, I'm a user of O'Reilly's books (currently have Charles Severance's Using Google App Engine in my bag).  So I figured I should read this carefully and have a point of view about the essay.  And despite having recently read Nicholas Carr's excellent and disturbing  2011 book The Shallows about how dumb the Internet has made me, I thought nonetheless that I should brave at least a superficial review of Morozov's sixteen-thousand-word piece.

To summarize: Morozov describes O'Reilly as a self-promoting manipulator who wraps and justifies his evangelizing of Internet-centered open innovation in software, and more recently government, in a Randian cloak sequined with Silicon Valley rhinestones.  My main reaction: "So, your point would be...?" More closely:

First, there's what Theodore Roosevelt had to say about critics. (Accordingly, I fully cop to the recursive hypocrisy of this post.) If, as Morozov says of O'Reilly, "For all his economistic outlook, he was not one to talk externalities..." then Morozov (as most of my fellow liberals do) ignores the utility of motivation.  I accept and embrace that with self-interest and the energy to pursue it, more (ahem, taxable) wealth is created.  So when O'Reilly says something, I don't reflexively reject it because it might be self-promoting; rather, I first try to make sure I understand how that benefits him, so I can better filter for what might benefit me. For example, Morozov writes:

In his 2007 bestseller Words That Work, the Republican operative Frank Luntz lists ten rules of effective communication: simplicity, brevity, credibility, consistency, novelty, sound, aspiration, visualization, questioning, and context. O’Reilly, while employing most of them, has a few unique rules of his own. Clever use of visualization, for example, helps him craft his message in a way that is both sharp and open-ended. Thus, O’Reilly’s meme-engineering efforts usually result in “meme maps,” where the meme to be defined—whether it’s “open source” or “Web 2.0”—is put at the center, while other blob-like terms are drawn as connected to it.
Where Morozov offers a warning, I see a manual! I just have to remember my obligation to apply it honestly and ethically.

Second, Morozov chooses not to observe that if O'Reilly and others hadn't broadened the free software movement into an "open source" one that ultimately offered more options for balancing the needs and rights of software developers with those of users (who themselves might also be developers), we might all still be in deeper thrall to proprietary vendors.  I know from first-hand experience that the world simply was not and is still not ready to accept GPL as the only option.

Nonetheless, good on Morozov for offering this critique of O'Reilly.  Essays like this help keep guys like O'Reilly honest, as far as that's necessary.  They also force us to think hard about what O'Reilly's peddling -- a responsibility that should be ours.  I used to get frustrated by folks who slapped the 2.0 label on everything, to the point of meaninglessness, until I appreciated that the meme and its overuse drove me to think and presented me with an opportunity to riff on it.  I think O'Reilly and others like him do us a great service when they try to boil down complexities into memes.  The trick for us is to make sure the memes are the start of our understanding, not the end of it.

March 26, 2013

Financial Services Program Management Consulting Opportunity

We're currently working with a leading investment management firm to help deploy and refine a new retirement guidance process and related tools.  As part of this, we're helping our client find a freelance project/ business manager with broad new venture launch experience (not just management of a software development project, but coordination of promotional and operational aspects as well) for the balance of 2013.  We would refer interested candidates to contract directly with our mid-Atlantic region client.  (The work would be largely on-site.)

About the role:

  • Responsibilities
    • Define and maintain granular and integrated plan for this initiative
      • Granular = day by day as needed/weekly calendar
      • Integrated = development, promotion, operational (channel) integration, etc.  NOT just development; will closely coordinate with existing project / release management on the development team
    • Track and report progress against this plan for a variety of audiences and uses
      • Includes learning and training other team members on necessary information interfaces for principal program metrics
    • Identify program dependencies, coordination requirements, delays, and resource needs in partnership with Development/Product/Promotion and Channel Integration Leaders
    • Develop and recommend options for resolving challenges
    • Work with finance staff to track  spending vs  budget
    • Coordinate with external experience design vendors as needed to support the program
    • Prepare / conduct / debrief regular team meetings (agendas, follow up notes)
    • Maintain online workspace and necessary documents to support program operations
  • Qualifications and Experience
    • 2-4 years prior program management experience with efforts of this scale
    • Understanding of/experience with software product development and promotion
    • Broad experience as a business manager preferred
    • Organized, disciplined, detail-oriented – demonstrated through prior similar efforts
    • Formal program management training ideal
  • Organizational Role
    • Reports to Program Leader
    • Peer to IT Tech Development and Business-side Product and Promotion Leaders
    • Partner with other groups as needed on integration, analytics and other topics

If you're interested, please fill out the short form below, or please pass this on to someone you know who might be a good fit!  Thanks.

 

January 09, 2013

My New Book: Pragmalytics

I've written a short book.  It's called "Pragmalytics: Practical Approaches to Marketing Analytics in the Digital Age".  It's a collection and synthesis of some of the things I've learned over the last several years about how to take better advantage of data (Big and little) to make better marketing decisions, and to get better returns on your investments in this area.  

The main point of the book is the need for orchestration.  I see too much of the focus today on "If we build It (the Big Data Machine, with some data scientist high priests to look after it), good things will happen."  My experience has been that you need to get "ecosystemic conditions" in balance to get value.  You need to agree on where to focus.  You need to get access to the data.  You need to have the operational flexibility to act on any insights.  And, you need to cultivate an "analytic marketer" mindset in your broader marketing team that blends perspectives, rather than cultivating an elite but blinkered cadre of "marketing analysts".  Over the next few weeks, I'll further outline some of what's in the book in a few posts here on my blog.

I'm really grateful to the folks who were kind enough to help me with the book.  The list includes: Mike Bernstein, Tip Clifton, Susan Ellerin, Ann Hackett, Perry Hewitt, Jeff Hupe, Ben Kline, Janelle Leonard, Sam Mawn-Mahlau, Bob Neuhaus, Judah Phillips, Trish Gorman Clifford, Rob Schmults, Michelle Seaton, Tad Staley, and my business partner, Jamie Schein.  As I said in the book, if you like any of it, they get credit for salvaging it.  The rest -- including several bits that even on the thousandth reading still aren't as clear as they should be, plus a couple of typos I need to fix -- are entirely my responsibility.

I'm also grateful to the wonderful firms and colleagues and clients I've had the good fortune to work for and with.  I've named the ones I can, but in general have erred on the side of respecting their privacy and confidentiality where the work isn't otherwise in the public domain.  To all of them: Thank You!

This field is evolving quickly in some ways, but there are also some timeless principles that apply to it.  So, there are bits of the book that I'm sure won't age well (including some that are already obsolete), but others that I hope might.  While I'm not one of those coveted Data Scientists by training, I'm deep into this stuff on a regular basis at whatever level is necessary to get a positive return from the effort.  So if you're looking for a book on selecting an appropriate regression technique, or tuning Hadoop, you won't find that here, but if you're looking for a book about how to keep all the balls in the air (and in your brain), it might be useful to you.  It's purposefully short -- about half the length of a typical business book.  My mental model was to make it about as thick as "The Elements of Style", since that's something I use a lot (though you probably won't think so!).  Plus, it's organized so you can jump in anywhere and snack as you wish, since this stuff can be toxic in large doses.

In writing it amidst all the Big Data craziness, I was reminded of Gandhi's saying (paraphrased) "First they ignore you... then they fight you, then you win."  Having been in the world of marketing analytics now for a while, it seems appropriate to say that "First they ignore you, then they hype you, then you blend in."   We're now in the "hype" phase.  Not a day goes by without some big piece in the media about Big Data or Data Scientists (who now have hit the highly symbolic "$300k" salary benchmark -- and last time we saw it, in the middle part of the last decade in the online ad sales world, was a sell signal  BTW).  "Pragmalytics" is more about the "blend in" phase, when all this "cool" stuff is more a part of the furniture that needs to work in harmony with the rest of the operation to make a difference.

"Pragmalytics" is available via Amazon (among other places).  If you read it please do me a favor and rate and review it, or even better, please get in touch if you have questions or suggestions for improving it.  FWIW, any earnings from it will go to Nashoba Learning Group (a school for kids with autism and related disorders).

Where it makes sense, I'd be very pleased to come talk to you and your colleagues about the ideas in the book and how to apply them, and possibly to explore working together.  Also, in a triumph of Hope over Experience, my next book (starting now) will be a collection and synthesis of interviews with other senior marketing executives trying to put Big Data to work.  So if you would be interested in sharing some experiences, or know folks who would, I'd love to talk.

About the cover:  it's meant to convey the harmonious convergence of "Mars", "Venus", and "Earth" mindsets: that is, a blend of analytic acuity, creativity and communication ability, and practicality and results-orientation that we try to bring to our work. Fellow nerds will appreciate that it's a Cumulative Distribution Function where the exponent is, in a nod to an example in the book, 1.007.

 

 

October 31, 2012

Today's Data Exercise: The @fivethirtyeight / Intrade Presidential Election Arbitrage #Analytics

(Nerd alert!  You have been warned.)

Unoriginally, I'm a big fan of Nate Silver's fivethirtyeight blog.  I've learned a ton from him (currently also reading his book The Signal and the Noise).  For a little while now I've been puzzling over the relationship between his "Nowcast" on the presidential election and the price of Obama 2012 contracts at Intrade.  Take a look at this chart I made based on the data from each of these sources:

Obama - 538 vs Intrade October 2012

If we look past Obama's disastrous first debate, and look at the difference between the seven-day moving averages of the 538 Obama win probability and the Intrade Obama 2012 contract price, it looks to fluctuate roughly around 10-15 points, call it 12.  Also, looking at the volumes, it looks like the heaviest trading happens roughly around midweek, before Friday.  So if you trust Nate's projections, and unless you've got inside scoop about any big negative surprises to come, the logical thing to do is to buy Obama 2012s tomorrow, with an average probability of clearing $1.20 on each contract (about a 20% gain).

Now for the nerdy part:

First, the easy job: Intrade lets you download historical prices on its contracts.

Next, the harder job: Nate doesn't provide a .csv of his data.  But if you "view source" on his page, you'll see a file called:

"http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/html/1min/elections/2012/fivethirtyeight/fivethirtyeight-ccol-top.js"

right after a preceding description "Data URL".

If you take a look at this file, you'll notice it's Javascript-chart-friendly, but as far as for the kind of analysis above, not so much.  The first order of business was to cut out the stuff I didn't want, like the Senate race data, and the forecast part of the presidential polls.  Then, I further whacked out data before 10/1, because I thought examining trends in a more thinly-traded market would be less relevant.

For a little while I fiddled with the Stanford Visualization Group's Data Wrangler tool to reshape the remaining data into the .csv I needed.  It's a powerful tool, but it turned out to be easier in this case to wrangle the file structure I wanted manually:

"date","obama_votes","romney_votes","obama_win_pct","romney_win_pct","obama_pop_vote","romney_pop_vote"

"2012-10-30",298.8,239.2,79.5,20.5,50.4,48.6

"2012-10-29",294.4,243.6,75.2,24.8,50.2,48.8

etc.

Combining the Intrade and 538 data and then plotting the Intrade close and the "Obama win pct" series results in the chart above.

September 18, 2012

All The World's A Stage, Triathlon Edition

My son Ben and I participated in the Dover Sherborn Boosters annual triathlon this past Sunday.  We really enjoyed it.  It was his first, and my first in 22 years.  Well over 300 folks competed, well-mixed in age and gender.  They seemed like a pretty competitive, well-trained bunch to us, judging by the 95%+ who had lean cheeks and wetsuits and fancy bikes and bags that said "Boston Triathlon Team". 

After the race, I was curious to get a better handle on how we'd done.  All Sports Events  had done a great job of running and timing the event, and their table of results was very detailed and useful.  But I wanted to see it a bit more visually.  The All Sports Events folks were kind enough to share the data file, and with a little fiddling to parse and convert strings to times, I got to this (click on the image to launch the Tableau Public interactive visualization):

 

Age_and_Gender_v_Total_non-T_Time_in_Mins

Before the race, as I shivered un-rubbered on the beach waiting for the swim to start, I overheard a couple of guys my age talking about how now that they were in their forties, with their kids a little older and with more control at home and work (a state of grace I'm not yet familiar with), they had more time to train, especially on Saturday mornings. 

Plotting 6th-order polynomial trend lines through the data revealed an interesting, if weak pattern that seems to confirm this life-stage effect, for both men and women.  Average performance improves radically as you move from your teens to your twenties, declines as the realities of family life intrude in your thirties, improves once again as you rediscover your inner narcissist child in your forties, and then begins to decline again as Father Time eventually asserts himself (though with plenty of variance around the mean to give us hope).  Like Shakespeare said, more or less.

What do you see?  Thanks again to the organizers and volunteers for a great event!

August 31, 2012

#Data #Visualization To Soothe The Savage Beast @mbostock

So last night I'm sitting on the tarmac waiting for my flight to take off, chillin' to a Coldplay's-"Hurts-Like-Heaven"+poor-screaming-child-in-exhausted-parent's-lap-two-rows-behind-me mashed up mix worthy of Eminem and Dido's "Stan".  After we took off, the music moved into a second movement in which the child's keening seemed to slide seamlessly into the many sonic layers of "Paradise", to the point where I thought maybe Chris Martin was two years old once again.

Eventually Mom decided to bring Junior, a real cutie barely two feet tall, to the lavatory.  As the little guy passed by my seat he had a look at my laptop screen, where I was busy trying to decipher and hack the d3 Javascript in a clone of the NYT's beautiful visualization of the Obama budget.

(http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/02/13/us/politics/2013-budget-proposal-graphic.html)

He paused as Mom forged ahead, lingering by my seat to watch as I clicked from view to view of the data, the bubbles bouncing and re-forming to convey the vectors and magnitudes of our collective fiscal choices from one perspective to another.  His eyes moved back and forth from the screen to mine.  He became very quiet, and for a few seconds, the cabin was silent.  

Thank you Mike Bostock.  Among your life's achievements, you can count, for a few brief moments of one night, 100 grateful passengers, one relieved mother, and one happy little boy.

August 18, 2012

Gaming Facebook Sponsored Stories #fb #sponsoredstories

Facebook's Sponsored Stories feature is one of the ad targeting horses the firm's counting on to pull it out of its current valuation morass (read this, via @bussgang).  

Sponsored Stories is a virality-enhancing mechanism (no jokes please, that was an "a" not an "i") that allows Facebook advertisers to increase the reach of Facebook users' interactions with the advertisers' brands on Facebook (Likes, Check-ins, etc.). It does this by increasing the number of a user's Facebook friends who see such engagements with the advertisers' brands beyond the limited number who would, under normal application of the Facebook news feed algorithm, see those endorsements.

Many users are outraged that this unholy Son-Of-Beacon feature violates their privacy, to the point that they sue-and-settle (or try to, oops).

What they are missing perhaps is the opportunity to "surf" an advertiser's Sponsored Stories investment to amplify their own self-promotion or mere narcissism.

Consider the following simple example.  Starbucks is / has been using this ad program.  Let's say I go to Starbucks and "check in" on Facebook.  Juiced by Sponsored Stories (within the additional impressions Starbucks has paid for), all of my Facebook friends browsing their news feeds will see I've checked in at Starbucks (and presumably feel all verklempt about a brand that could attract such a valued friend). 

Now, what if I, savvy small business person, comment in my check in that I'm "at Starbucks, discussing my <link>NEW BOOK</link> with friends!"  I've pulled off the social media equivalent of pasting my bumper sticker on Starbucks' billboard.

I need to look more closely into this, but as I understand it, the Sponsored Stories feature can't today prevent users from including negative feedback in their brand engagements, where such flexibility is provided for.  So if they can't handle the negative yet, it may still be that they can't prevent more general forms of off-brand messaging.

I'm sure others have considered this and other possibilities. Comments very welcome!  Meanwhile, I'm off to Starbucks to discuss my upcoming NEW BOOK.

 

 

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Cesar Brea