so what

so what

Friday, March 17, 2017

Time for My Annual Rant: Why I Hate St. Patrick’s Day

Today; not my usual sort of post.

It's March 17th, which means it's time for my annual rant.

I wrote this back in the waning years of the last century, but it's truer than ever and back by popular demand.

Why I Hate Saint Patrick's Day

When I was a child, way back in the 1950s, choosing friends was easy. If they weren’t Irish, Catholic, and Democrats, they didn’t get past my grandmother.

I was her only grandson, so I was carried around on a pillow. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, although with my grandmother you can never be sure. Anyway, “spoiled rotten” is the phrase that springs to mind, and I pretty much had my way on everything. But on one point she stood firm. She was Irish and I was Irish and I wasn’t to have any truck with “foreigners,” which was pretty much everybody whose last name wasn’t prefaced by a vowel.

My grandmother was not born in Ireland. She was from Archibald, Pennsylvania, and being a native-born American was a definite asset to her Irishness. It allowed her to hate the British with a fervor undimmed by the inconvenience of ever having met any.

She could recite the litany of English oppression from the moment the first iron-clad English knights smashed into the lightly-armed Irish warriors like panzers through the Salvation Army. She could call the roll of Irish Martyrs, but she could also quote Yeats and O’Casey, Swift and Synge, Shaw and Wilde. She knew all about the Wild Geese and why a fine French cognac has an Irish name. 

She knew of the monastery at Clonmacnoise, the cultural center of the world in the Fifth Century that produced hauntingly beautiful illuminated manuscripts in an age when the Britons thought ink was for painting their arses blue. She never set foot in Ireland until my aunt gave her a gift of the Catholic version of a double-header—a two-week tour that included Ireland and the Vatican. She was in her 70s by then, and the day she arrived in Dublin someone set off a dynamite charge that blew the statue of Lord Nelson off his pillar on O’Connell Street.

We always wondered about that.

You would assume from all this that I grew up knowing a lot about Ireland. In fact, I grew into a typical American teenager. In other words, I never listened to a word she said. All I knew about Ireland was a vague impression that it was supposed to be green.

With my usual stellar sense of timing, I arrived in Ireland on July 12, 1969. This is comparable to visiting Vietnam in 1968 because you heard that the Tet celebration was kind of colorful. Within a month my family picked up the paper to read “AMERICAN SHOT TWICE IN ULSTER.” This was typical yellow journalism; the bullets came nowhere near my ulster. I lived through the riots in Bogside and Belfast, the arrival of the British Army, the bombings, the rise of the Provisional IRA, and the first year of the guerilla war, which is still being fought by children who weren’t even born when I left.

It should have been horrible. It wasn’t. I planned to stay for two weeks. I stayed for two years.

There is something about Ireland that can’t be summed up in words. God knows, the Irish have tried. Ireland is green; a brilliant shade of emerald that exists nowhere else in the world, a green so alive it turns jet black when the clouds hide the sun. There’s something in the earth and the people that wants to make you put down roots and soak it up.

There is an instant, just at dawn, when everything turns soft and indistinct and you feel the slightest breeze would scatter the island like a mist. The dreary Victorian cities sparkle for a moment and the countryside seems to hold its breath. If you don’t believe in magic, you’ve never been to Ireland.

I didn’t want to leave, but the American Embassy gets touchy when you get involved in other people’s wars without asking their permission. Don’t bother asking, you won’t get it.

This is all my way of saying that I hate St. Patrick’s Day.

Americans are unusually conscious of their ethnic heritage. We celebrate Columbus Day as an Italian festival, the Germans hold a Von Steuben Day Parade, the Poles march for Kosciuszko and Copernicus, the Mexicans celebrate Cinco de Mayo. There isn’t an ethnic group in the country that doesn’t sponsor a folk festival celebrating the unique and entertaining qualities of their homeland. So what do Irish-Americans do to commemorate a heritage that stretches back to the mists of time?

They drink green beer.

This may come as a shock, but in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is a religious holiday. It is not customary to celebrate the patron saint by wearing a paper hat and drinking green beer until you throw up on your shoes. It is also considered a breach of etiquette to throw up on someone else’s shoes, particularly if that someone is standing in them at the time.

Face it folks, Jews don’t have a holiday on which they wear plastic big noses and stuff their pockets with play money and African-Americans don’t sponsor a tap dancing and watermelon festival. So why do the Irish take their worst stereotypes, set them to music, and dance to them? I don’t know what Irish-Americans think they are doing on St. Patrick’s Day, but it has nothing to do with Ireland.

If you absolutely feel the need to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, here are a few helpful pointers.

It’s OK to wear a touch of emerald on March 17th. They don’t do it in Ireland but there’s no harm in showing a bit of ethnic pride. It isn’t mandatory, however, particularly if the only greens in your wardrobe are avocado, lime, Nile, moss, sage, pea, day-glo, or what Joyce described as “snot green.” Do not, under any circumstances, wear every green item you possess. People will not think you are Irish. They will think you are a teenage alien life form from the planet Zook whose mother allowed it to pick out its own clothes.

The gentleman’s name was St. Patrick, not St. Patty or St. Paddy. Patty is the name of a dental hygienist. Paddys are where you grow rice. St. Patrick was an Italian who was brought to Ireland by the Vikings. He brought Christianity to the island and drove out the snakes with his staff. The names of the staff, which did the actual work, are unknown. You should ignore that last bit. I put it in as a St. Patrick’s Day gift to my colleague, Susan McAninley, whose sense of humor runs in that direction.

People who wear buttons which read “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” inevitably aren’t. Don’t kiss them; you don’t know where they’ve been.

“Toora, loora, loora” is not an Irish lullaby. It’s the sound of Bing Crosby clearing his throat. Likewise, “Who put the overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s chowder?” is not an Irish song. True Irish music is uplifting, exciting, poignant, and melancholy, very often in the same song. Don’t try to sing along. Shut up and listen.

“Faith and begorrah” is not an Irish expression. It may be the name of an Anglo-Irish law firm.

Don’t wear a trenchcoat and hint darkly that you are in the IRA. The quiet little man sitting in the corner—the one with the cloth cap, bright birdlike eyes, and hands gnarled by arthritis he picked up in a British prison camp may take offense. You don’t want to piss him off. Trust me on this.

If you feel a sudden suicidal urge to tell an Irish joke, you may escape with only flesh wounds if you refrain from telling it in a terrible Barry Fitzgerald accent. There are many regional accents in Ireland, and none of them sound like Barry Fitzgerald. The man was an actor. It was his business to exaggerate for effect. All Irishmen do not sound like Fitzgerald any more that all people from Missouri sound like Vincent Price.

The phrase “It’s a great day for the Irish” is true. Every day is a great day for the Irish.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Guest Post: Margaret J. King on Echolalia - or telling you what you want to believe

Ecolalia:  Stating the Obvious by Echoing the Words of Others

The following was written by my Director, Dr. Margaret King.  We were discussing something disturbing that we had both encountered on separate occasions with different clients. This is the result. It's from her blog which you can find at: Cultural Intelligence

I'm re-posting it because I think it is important.

Two things I should mention. The first is that our styles are different.  She has a Ph.D. and comes from a strong White Anglo-Saxon Protestant background so she writes in much more depth and far more eruditely than I ever could. She, for instance, would never describe a brief mental lapse as a "brain fart."

And there is one factual error in the paragraph in which she described the meeting with the Disney executive. She did not personally tell him that his interpretation of the research was wrong. She lets me do that. She once told me a client asked if my job description included "sticking pins in other people's balloons."

As a matter of fact, it does.

Ecolalia:  Stating the Obvious by Echoing the Words of Others

Margaret J. King, Ph.D., Director
The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis

Those of us who provide business intelligence services get paid significant money to produce two key outcomes:   The first is to understand the core nature of the client’s business in order to frame their problems in useful and actionable ways.  The second is to bring new intelligence and solutions to resolve and turn those problems around, leading to profits and growth.

But over the past few years we’ve seen a disturbing trend in market research, particularly when it comes to identifying your brand.

I call it Echolalia.

In medicine, Echolalia is a mental disorder; it compels the patient to repeat the last words other people speak.  The name comes from the ancient Greek myth of Echo, the nymph who was condemned by Hera to do just that for frolicking with her husband, the great god Zeus.

In market “research” (or pseudo-research), Echolalia is the practice of asking the client what they think their brand is, then handing in a report echoing what they told you.  As research goes, this isn’t.
This practice appears to have begun with the financial crash of 2008, and the malaise of uncertainty in the ensuing recession.  Human beings normally don’t have a problem taking calculated risks, but that changes when high levels of uncertainty are involved. Our brain is hard-wired to avoid uncertainty. The science on this is clear. We would rather do nothing than to make a decision in shaky or murky circumstances.

We saw this with our own clients. Critical decisions were suddenly delayed for months, in some instances years. Projects were abandoned. Negotiations dried up. Venture capital stopped flowing.  We started hearing the phrase; “We’re not ready to make a decision on that at this time.” We heard that a lot.

And these were not small, struggling businesses. These were Fortune 500 companies. They retrenched, maintained, but were reluctant to move forward. My in-box started filling up with résumés from colleagues whose bigger, cooler, consulting firms had cut them loose – or closed their doors entirely.

My theory is that the business environment was so gloomy, and the future so shuttered, that everyone began to second-guess their ideas and decisions. They started to rely more and more on consensus and groupthink to validate their decisions, to feel safer about anything they were doing or might do.
And that’s when we began to see a new sort of consultancy emerge. They called themselves Branding Agencies but what many of them delivered was carbon-copy “Echolalia.”

Now we know clients sometimes have difficulty understanding what their customers are telling them. more than a decade ago a senior Disney executive leaned back in his chair, smiled, and said "You know, we survey all the time, and the most common word that comes up when we ask what they like abut the Parks is "magic." I had to tell him that they were just repeating back their advertising to him.  Disney's ad campaign at the time was "Feel the Magic."

My point was people could tell him what they liked, but they couldn't tell him why they liked it. So they grabbed the word "Magic" from their ads and fed it back to him. It's not only a convenient word, it's a telling one. The whole idea of magic is you can't explain it.

But this is different.

There has always been a certain amount of echoing and even pandering to the client in the market research that we are asked to review, but this went beyond keeping the client in a good mood. I saw this for the first time in an exercise – a mock branding competition during which one of the teams simply copied, word for word, what the client said he wanted and pasted it up into a PowerPoint presentation, preceded by the words “We Will Provide….” 

Our teams were working in an auditorium with maybe 200 seasoned marketing professionals. Our first thought was “They’ll never fall for that.”  We were so wrong.
This was amusing at first – it surely had to be a parody – a one-off. However, after encountering it again and again across industries, it had become a new blunt instrument in the consultant’s toolbox.

Boards of Directors tend to be conformist groups.  Creative problem-solving researchers and consultants should not be.

This “re-verb” trend is built around posing the input from clients as processed findings or insight. Delivering ideas that simply confirm your client’s opinions of--or hopes for--their brand’s position and equity now manages to pass for research, apparently.  This means it’s now on the client to be sure they are getting their money’s worth, which they are not.

There is no analysis, no insight, no building on ideas, or folding in real knowledge toward a goal. Repeating the client’s words does not equal research, and certainly can’t be considered analysis.

For over two decades I’ve reviewed plenty of consumer research at our client’s request. I’ve seen the obvious touted as deep insight. I’ve seen research laced with superlatives in an attempt to cover up nothing of value to report. I’ve seen the wrong methodologies applied to the wrong problems, senseless questions in surveys and focus groups for null-value results. I’ve seen the right questions asked but to the wrong subjects. I’ve even seen reports that make it obvious the highly-paid consultant had no real idea of whet his client actually does.

That’s nothing new. We have all seen poorly executed research. But this is something added--an outright con.

It’s literally based on an old con-man tactic: the simplest way to convince someone that you are smart is to tell them something they already believe.  Even better if it’s flattering.

And this is downright dangerous. It’s the equivalent of your doctor asking if you have cancer. When you reply in the negative his diagnosis is, “Well, the good news is, you don’t have cancer!” Which, while unprofessional, seems harmless enough – unless you have cancer.

Reconfigured but not transformed. This is a form of idea flattery that consultants know very well how to execute; they’ve been doing it forever under the cover of “research.” But I have started to advise my clients, who regularly ask us about the value of their consultant reports, to be very careful and circumspect about this particular form of flattery. It’s an expensive luxury that won’t help solve your problems, move you forward, or otherwise improve your bottom line.  At best, It validates that you have a problem you recognize, as defined (correctly or not) by you.

Here’s a simple test for the client.  Looking at the report, how much of this information is actually news to you? How much challenges your beliefs and opinions? And how much is just your own ideas cut and pasted, without an ounce of value added? Do some simple math.

The consultant’s art needs to do much more:  analyze that “felt need,” the client problem statement, to see if that is really the core problem.  In our experience, it seldom is, rather, it’s a symptom (in sales, money, reputation, branding outcomes) of a much deeper underlying misdirection in purpose and resources.   Unless companies understand the deeper cultural value of what they do, they will never know how to plan, communicate, or allocate their money and time.

How does Echolalia operate on the ground?  Here are a few examples. 
If you tell your rehab architect that your kitchen is too dark, he needs to do more than tell you “Your kitchen is too dark, isn’t it?” You might hear Rogerian psychotherapy in this response.  He actually needs to do some work on your statement, for example, apply creative intelligence, a status study, strategy, and tactics to the problem.

This involves at least framing the problem as presented into a solvable proposition. This involves asking the question “OK, WHY is your kitchen too dark? What does “too dark” mean to you? And what can be done about it, from various thought bases?” 

Perhaps the solution is opening up the walls or even the ceiling to the sun. Artificial lighting is an answer, but what kinds are feasible, available, and affordable? Perhaps the entire room can be broken out and extended by new building or adapting adjacent spaces.

Maybe you need a fresh concept of what a kitchen is—this can include dining, conference, living room, and den spaces What is the desired overall effect in terms of design, use, and aesthetics? A whole range of questions can be provoked by the concept of “too dark” or solving for more light. And creative design firms know that their client’s version of the problem rarely points directly to one obvious solution, otherwise clients would readily solve the problem themselves at Home Depot.

Alan Turing developed an artificial intelligence technique to make a computer almost human by programming the computer response to human dictation.  In his 1951 paper “The Imitation Game,” he devised tests to make computers indistinguishable from human subjects as a test of intelligence.

You may remember the Turing Test from the days of early personal computers. There were programs that would initiate a conversation. The program would ask “How do you feel?”  You would respond “I feel fine.” Or “I feel sad.” And the program would respond “I’m happy to hear that.” Or “I’m sorry to hear that,” whichever was more appropriate. When in doubt, the computer would fall back on generalities; “Why do you say that?” Or “I sometimes feel that way, too.” The whole point of the Turing Test was to see how far the user could go into the program before realizing they were talking to a machine.

I’d extend Turing’s concept to propose the Echo Test. It works like this: Are you getting your money’s worth by picking professional brains? How much of this do I agree with wholeheartedly? Are you sure? How do you know it’s valid, other than the feedback sounds just as bright as you are (and remember, you are the one who can’t solve the problem)? 

When my company went looking for a public relations firm, we interviewed several national outfits. They were great listeners, enthusiastic and attentive (and nice dressers), and seemed to have what it took to talk about us to the press. However, we soon discovered their secret weapon; they were skilled at feedback but not at moving ideas around or handling new concepts to produce new knowledge. We read their proposals with some amusement as we realized everything we had talked about with them was indeed in evidence--just not in any digested form.

There was nothing there we hadn’t told them; nothing new; no actual work had been done on our ideas to carry them forward--no assimilation or transformation of information (i.e., learning).  Just a clever reposting job posing as news.
In the past year we’ve been called in to rescue two clients who thought they had commissioned a branding study and ended up with very expensive case of Echolalia.

One was a university. The branding company interviewed the faculty and administrators and gave them a “Creative Brief and Research Summary” defining their brand, which would have been great, if their brand was Harvard instead of a fourth-tier liberal arts college. It was unadulterated magical thinking. What it did was describe the school the faculty wanted to teach at in their dreams, replete with buzzwords like “rigor” and “excellence.”

We addressed that little problem by parking ourselves in the school cafeteria with a couple of the more engaged faculty members to whom we gave one simple instruction: “Snag us your best students – the ones who are thriving here.”

From these students we put together a new brand profile or value proposition: a student-centered environment, freedom to explore, easy access to faculty, caring faculty, helpful staff, etc. These were not just the best students, they were precisely the type they wanted and needed more of. It was that brand profile – how the students – the school’s “customers”-- recognized value -- that was then used to recruit the largest freshman class in the school’s history.

And, even better: the school didn’t have to change much – they were already delivering that value – they just weren’t marketing it correctly.  Because they didn’t know what it was.

You can’t solve a problem at the level at which it was created. That’s why companies have hierarchies – problems you can’t solve get passed up to people who can. But fundamental cultural issues – such as what your brand means to the customer - can’t be handled from the inside. Your own corporate culture and assumptions get in the way of your analysis. This is when you go to the outside - that’s the core value of consultancy.

Your brand is who your customers think you are, not who you think you are.

Our other major involvement with Echolalia was an established company in an evolving competitive market. The “Brand Statement” came back reading like their brochure. Again, it was the inside view of who they were and what they stood for.  No one interviewed their customers. No one interviewed their competitor’s customers. Many in the company are happy with that because the report validates what they already believe. Of course it does – the report is simply feeding back what the consultant heard and read.

In the meantime, the marketplace is evolving rapidly. New players and products are being introduced on a regular basis. It’s only a matter of time until one of them comes up with The Big Idea. That’s how the marketplace works.
Fortunately, not all the executives drank the Kool-Aid, so there we were, searching out their value – their Brand - where it actually lives: in the minds of their customers. We were not just looking for what they asked for, we were searching out what they needed to know in order to position themselves effectively.

Enormous sums are expended on echoing client ideas back. This brings nothing to the table. In fact it sets everyone back and makes us all cynical. The advice to “Keep doing what you’re doing, only better/faster/more” is the same as saying keep doing what you’re doing and hope for different results.

We all know how well that works; it’s one of the clinical definitions of insanity.

Next time you commission work or just a blue-sky session for a wickedly persistent problem, ask yourself this question:  what’s new here that I didn’t already know or say to the brain I’m paying to pick? If the answer is very little, then you are either dealing with an amateur or a favorite consultant you didn’t choose and whose work you can’t use.

You have our sympathies. I never wanted to be a firefighter, but when the phone rings, it’s often because someone’s carefully crafted marketing plan just went up in flames - because it was built on echoes.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Speaking of Thrill-Seeking

Great news for those of you who can't get enough of my going on and on and on about this stuff!
Margaret and I will be live on the Joy Cardin Show on Wisconsin Public Radio tomorrow morning, Thursday, August 25th, from 9AM -10AM (Eastern), 8AM - 9AM (Central), and Way Too Early (Pacific) talking and answering caller's questions about the culture of thrill-seeking and its influence on modern-day society.
You can also catch it at

You can also read our comments on the same subject in this month's Atlantic Magazine online at: