Ladies and Gentlemen of the class of 2013… a message to Generation Y

Richard Spragg offers his own long overdue advice to the graduating classes of the next generation. There is no mention of sunscreen.

Shut up.

This is the best advice I can give any of you. You can leave now if you promise to follow that one piece of advice. If I had done this more often than I did I would know twice as much as I do and would have twice as many friends. You will probably not manage to shut up until long after the person talking to you has given up trying to make you listen. I didn’t. I was fortunate to have met a few people who kept talking anyway.

It’s OK not to know about something, it’s not OK to keep talking about it anyway. We are all ignorant of the majority of things. I don’t know how the lights in my house work. I know even less about Namibia. It’s natural to be ignorant, but it’s also healthy to be ashamed of your ignorance. It’s even healthier to learn something that makes you less ignorant. Namibia is an African country just above South Africa on the left.

Be nice to older people, whether they’re 35 or 65. We’re not angry with you, we’re scared of you.

I know the future belongs to you and not to me. Yesterday I was the young one who didn’t want to listen. Today I’m the thirty something handing out advice. Tomorrow I will be in a rocking chair. I never agreed to this. I thought I was still the young one until I met you. That’s why I scowl at you when you’re with your friends.

Modern workplaces, modern homes and modern families will all operate to your rules. You will be in charge of everything. It is time to start thinking about that. You are going to be very important.

Don’t’ get the tattoo. You haven’t earned it yet.

Talk to your great grandparents. Some of them got tattoos during the war. Not all of them voluntarily. When they show you the evidence of their struggle and all the marks it left, do you really want to show them that butterfly on your hip? Fashion is temporary. Tattoos are permanent.

Experience other cultures, but don’t confuse culture with food and buildings.

You don’t have to pull up your pants.

I wore un-matching luminous towel socks and a suit with the sleeves rolled up. I don’t get to tell you how to dress. Nor does anyone else.
Dress for the job you want. It’s the world’s oldest profession and the market will always be there, but if you don’t want to be a hooker, you might not want to dress like one for a job interview. On Halloween it’s OK.

Everyone does not get a trophy.

The winner gets a trophy. The loser gets disappointment and dejection, but also the opportunity to learn, improve and to show grace and humility. Take the opportunity to show these qualities when you lose.

Then show them again when you win.

Read. A book. Not a device. A magazine. Not a website. Sometimes you need ten thousand words to get close to changing your mind on something.

Change your mind.

A lot of us have been raised to believe in the idea of flip-flopping. When a politician changes their mind, people see weakness. It’s actually a strength. Never shy away from listening and deciding you had it wrong.

Don’t wear flip flops. They make you a bad driver, you won’t be able to run away from anything and what if you find a pick up game of soccer going on?

Only get drunk with people you love.


Music. The sounds of nature. A friend’s story. NPR. Just listen. Nobody ever accused anyone of listening too much. Maybe the NSA were occasionally accused of listening too much.

Occupy a voting booth.

There will come a time when the person you dislike most in the world – that person at work who you can’t stand the sight of – will immediately change into someone you feel the deepest empathy and compassion for. Maybe their kid gets sick. Maybe a parent dies and you’re the only person around. When that happens you will put aside all the minor frustrations and see them as the imperfect human being they are, deserving of your respect and understanding. Save yourself time and start seeing them that way now.

Never judge someone you can help instead.

There’s a time and place for everything and that time and place is college when you are 22. Enjoy those times and move on. If you don’t move on, you will never get back the time you wasted trying to hang on. It’s someone else’s turn now.

You will not find the secret to happiness posted on Facebook. It cannot be summed up by a picture with a short sentence on it. Happiness is not a state of mind, it’s a person. That person is probably already your Facebook friend.

When you come to dispensing your own advice, and that time is coming very soon, remember you don’t really know any better than anyone else does. We are all making this up as we go along. There will be major regrets and minor regrets. Opportunities lost and chances taken.

Personally, I just wish that sometimes I’d been a bit less of a dick.

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Life’s a Fitch. The Abercrombie PR team are at it again, with a lot of help from Ellen.

It’s been hard to avoid the Abercrombie and Fitch brand this last week. Ever since CEO Mike Jeffries caused an uproar with his comments about the A&F brand and its unashamed targeting of good looking cool people, his brand has hardly been out of the news.

That’s bad for the A&F brand right? All those people talking about you and aligning you with the words ‘cool’ and ‘good looking’?

No it isn’t bad for the brand. It isn’t even bad for Mike Jeffries, a man so thoroughly without empathy or personal appeal that you would think it would have been his own life ambition to stay out of the media. Particularly because he himself looks like the illegitimate offspring of Gary Busey and the bride of Wildenstein. But instead, Jeffries is uncompromising in his willingness to throw down with the mass media and every one of the horrified media who would like us all to be nice to everyone please. (Because the world of television is not in any way a looks-centric environment.)

A&F have always courted controversy to access publicity. You will remember their attempt to pay Mike ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino and the cast of Jersey Shore not to wear their clothes? It was rude certainly, and it mocked the cast of one of the most popular shows on TV – but it was still effective. Why? Because the core message was – A&F clothes are not tacky like the Situation. We’re so worried about him wearing them because we think it will damage us.

Nobody was talking about Mike Jeffries two weeks ago and nobody, without specific reason to know, really knew who he was. I doubt I thought about A&F more than twice in the last year until this came out. But I went into a store on Saturday, just out of curiosity. What’s all the fuss about? Etc…

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A&F store, not lacking in customers this week.

That’s the ballgame. Getting people to visit your stores. Anyone who is posting on Facebook, Tweeting and generally adding to the A&F ballyhoo is doing the most important part of their PR guys’ job for them.

As if that wasn’t helpful enough, step forward vegan-in-chief Ellen DeGeneres to give the story even more traction. Ellen’s show is made by NBC, that’s the same channel that presumably hired Shakira for The Voice because of her long history of musical criticism. The same channel that employs Natalie Morales for her journalistic skills and ignored the anniversary silence for the victims of 9/11 so that Kris ‘Kardashian Mom’ Jenner could talk about her plastic surgery. It’s not the hypocrisy that bothers me, it’s that celebrities like Ellen are foolish enough to give A&F’s message flight. They are quite happy to broadcast the message to everyone, by way of condemning it, in the hope that everyone will simply be able to ignore the message itself.

And here is the PR genius at work at A&F. It doesn’t matter if people disapprove of your message. As long as the audience you’re targeting aligns with your message, you’re fine. When you’re selling duck hunting apparel, you don’t have to be too careful with the vegetarian community. They weren’t going to buy your products anyway and if you can upset them enough to talk loudly about you in front of the people who might buy your products, you’re laughing. The fact that they are condemning violence toward animals and gun ownership is unlikely to bother your core target market.

A&F won big this week and the majority of their press came from people who disagree with them.

The marketing lesson here: You don’t have to play safe with your brand, you just have to play loudly. As long as your core message contains a product quality differentiator (in this case – no fatties, cool kids only) then you cannot lose. Your friends will promote you, but not nearly as much as your enemies will and the ultimate result is a long line at the check out.

Richard Spragg writes on various subjects including business, marketing and social media, he also writes about engineering jobs and construction employment.
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If you don’t understand your customer, nothing else will save you. Ron Johnson, Apple and the near-death of JC Penney.

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Bargains were key to JC Penney customers

If you get a look at the business press every now and again, you’ll know the name of Ron Johnson. Johnson was the Marketing honcho at Apple who oversaw the customer marketing strategy that brought you Apple stores, roaming geeks in blue t-shirts and other pretty cool aspects of the Apple customer experience. His tenure was seen as a huge success and rightly so.

Then he went to JC Penney and screwed the pooch. Big time.

The JC Penney board’s strategy was simple and not difficult to buy into. JC Penney needed modernizing to attract more customers; they hired the guy responsible for marketing during a hugely successful period for Apple. He would apply his experience to JC Penney and the money would come rolling in.

But ultimately, the key word in this paragraph may have been ‘during’. Maybe Johnson is a marketing genius or maybe he was just the marketing guy at the right time. It’s hard to prove his value now. All we know for sure is that he tried to bang a square peg through the eye of a needle at JC Penney and in doing so broke rules of marketing so fundamental it’s hard to believe he ever knew the rules at all.

Remember the USA dream team from the 1992 Olympics? I could have coached that team to a gold medal. I’m British, I don’t even know the rules of basketball. I think you get a point for hitting the board and every two minutes a buzzer goes and you get free throws that are worth double points if you remember to slap hands with all your team members after each attempt. That’s right isn’t it? Anyway. With me in charge of the dream team – gold all round. Why? Because some jobs, no matter how high profile, are rendered very easy by the talent you have access to. My inevitable entry into the pantheon of Olympic winning basketball coaches was assured the day Jordan, Magic, Bird and all the other number-retiring hall of famers were handed a boarding pass to Spain.

You see where I’m going with this. Johnson’s tenure with Apple involved the promotion of products so strong that they marketed themselves. If the kid with the blue t-shirt wasn’t there to help you, would you really not have bought an iPhone 4S? Could anything have stopped a music lover buying an iPod? (still the greatest invention in the history of the human race if you ask me). Apple’s triumph was sealed by the strength of its products, not its marketing strategy.

JC Penney didn’t have Apple’s brand strength, nor its product portfolio. That was well known. So the marketing mattered a great deal. The ensuing disaster was the result of a series of decisions that all stemmed from a failure to understand the customer and what they really wanted. They wanted bargains, they wanted to hunt for bargains, making the decision to remove product discounting in favor of everyday low pricing, woefully misguided. Johnson didn’t ask the customer, and was (according to the executives lining up to desecrate his corpse) derisive toward suggestions that he test the scheme in a select few stores. ‘We didn’t test things at Apple’ he said apparently, to which I would say ‘I didn’t run tryouts when I was head coach of the Dream Team. So I’m not running them now I’m managing the Charlotte Bobcats.’ Different Job Ron. Patrick Ewing does not play for the Bobcats. JC Penney had not designed the iPad.

What compounds the error is that his staff could have told him everything he needed to know if he’d have listened to them. Even if he didn’t want to test (which was indefensible anyway) he could have conducted internal research that would have immediately told him that people are rummaging around for a great find, not drinking lattes and hanging out together in a social environment.

So goodbye Ron Johnson, and unless new appointee Mike Ullman is able to stem the hemorrhage soon, goodbye JC Penney. The first move, a video apologizing for the mis-steps is a good one. But where to after that? The answer – wherever the customer wants to go. In JC Penney’s case they have the luxury, expensive as it may have been, of knowing exactly what their customers’ really do want. Through his failure, Johnson ran the biggest customer survey in history. If only he’d had the common sense to start with that.

Richard Spragg writes on a number of subjects relating to business, marketing and engineering staffing. Follow him on Twitter @richard_spragg

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There are two edges to every sword. If you can’t hold it steady, put it away.

Social Media is the universe’s largest double edged sword. Before you pick it up, professionally or personally, remember some basic commandments.

Nobody can protect you from yourself. Not really. It’s going to be down to you to make sure you don’t commit social suicide.

engineering jobsYou shall understand the cultural significance of anything you reference

Throw away comments, meant in good faith will get you lynched very quickly if you’ve failed to appreciate that some things don’t belong in 148 character format. Justin Bieber’s recent Anne Frank troubles are not the result of any arrogance or insensitivity. He deals in 13 year old girls. He has brought them into a community, as has been done in the shortest of terms by many a handsome teenager since the 1960s. He would have liked the thirteen year old whose house he was visiting to be part of that community. It’s a rather nice thought. But perhaps there was a more sensitive way to say it so that his words couldn’t have been twisted to make it sound like he hoped Frank, the symbol of the suffering of Jewish children during the holocaust, would have bought copies of his albums.

What he said: Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber

What he should have said: Truly inspiring to be able to come here. I hope that girls her age who follow me take the time to understand what happened to her

You shall know what’s happened

@NRA_Rifleman tweeted a standard text at 9 o’clock in the morning after the tragedy of the Aurora movie theatre shootings. The culprit was likely automatic tweet set-ups, which are I would argue, a pretty bad idea in themselves. You need to place the things you say in the context of the people you’re talking to. There’s a reason TV stations have always pulled insensitive movies from the schedule when an immediate event rendered them tasteless. You can’t air the towering inferno after a terrible fire has affected an office block somewhere.

What he said: Good morning Shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?

What he should have said: Absolutely nothing.

You shall not let anyone use your brand as part of multiple accounts on any device

You may know how it works. On Twitter on your iPhone, you can switch easily between your personal account and the account you manage as a marketing or PR person for your work. If you fail to switch between them before you post, you can give your friends some very boring work related posts. Oh… and you can destroy a global business brand with your personal opinion. Kitchen Aid learned this lesson the hard way shortly before the election of the President.

What they said: Obama’s gma even knew it was going 2 be bad! ‘she died 3 days before he became president’. #nbcpolitics

What they should have said: Kitchen Aid make top line products to use in your kitchen

Honorable mention in this category goes to Chrysler (‘I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the motorcity and yet no one here knows how to f—ing drive.’)

You shall not be a complete idiot

Lindsay Lohan, the walking after school special you show your daughter as an example of how not to behave in every area of their life, should obviously not be allowed direct access to the public. Twitter requires a great deal of self censorship. If you are prone to stupidity (and I can hardly be risking a law suit by suggesting that Ms Lohan is capable of making extremely bad decisions on a fairly regular basis), don’t set yourself up for a fall. Stay off twitter altogether, or give a trusted aid access to your account to approve your tweets. Obviously you’ll be wondering what I’m going with here for my example. Is it related to the almost-naked dress she wore to court? Is it related to the ‘f*** you’ on her fingernail she wore to court? Is it related to the DUI arrests? Is it related to prison? No, I’m going with her post in the run up to Super Storm Sandy, before it ravaged the East coast of the United States. Thankfully, loss of life and serious injury were seriously limited thanks in no small part to the intense reaction to the storm from the regular media and the twitterverse. Lohan’s contribution, had it been heeded, could literally have killed people. She had a great opportunity to be part of the solution. Instead she chose to play down the risk, demonstrate her ignorance of the basic facts, and expound her odd philosophy that thinking positive would be better than actually preparing for the storm.

What she said: WHY is everyone in SUCH a panic about hurricane (I’m calling it Sally)..? Stop projecting negativity. Think positive and pray for peace.

What she should have said: Hey guys, if you’re in the area affected by Superstorm Sandy, please follow the advice you’re given by the experts and stay safe.

Her vacuous waste of skin-in-law Paris Hilton gets a special mention in this category. Her protestations that a Chanel purse stuffed full of Bolivian marching powder was not hers would have held a lot more water with her arresting officers had she not tweeted ‘I love my new Chanel purse’ earlier that day.

All in all, the best advice for anyone involved in social media is to be very, very careful. It’s easy to plan not to be stupid, arrogant, insensitive or ignorant. But as in our day to day lives, it’s very easy to be some or all of these things. The bigger your audience, the bigger the impact on your credibility.

Are you angry? Stop. Are you drunk? Stop. Are you typing into your personal account or your business account? Stop. Do you have the full facts? No? Stop. In fact, if Twitter isn’t doing your business a lot of good – just stop. Period. You can still watch and learn, but if you’re going to risk this kind of humiliation and damage, it’s best to make sure there’s something in it for you in the first place. Otherwise your sword only has one edge, and it’s the wrong one.

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The 3 Reasons Businesses Fail

While the failure of businesses young and old, big and small, is often attributed to a wide array of complex issues, the truth is never complicated. Businesses fail for one or more of three reasons, and understanding them is the key to preventing your business from taking a dive.

1. Undercapitalization

If there’s not enough of the green stuff to get things going and keep them going, failure is inevitable. This may be a purely financial problem, operating expenses may grow beyond available funds which will pave the way to bankruptcy. But even if the business itself is financially sound, it may not be able to spend the minimum amount required to convert the market opportunity. If you can’t invest in sufficient technology, staff, materials or premises there’s no way forward.

The majority of small businesses fail because they run out of money, and the ambitious entrepreneur is unable to realize the grand strategy because there simply isn’t enough cash in the safe, or enough people who have the same level of confidence in the big vision to keep filling the coffers. Entrepreneurs tend to be dreamers by nature. They can visualize success and will put themselves at risk to chase the dream. Many young businesses fail as their leader sprints at full speed only to be held back by the bungee cord of financial reality that anchors even the clearest dreams firmly in reality.

2. Wrong people

The perfect business plan, funded by a virtually limitless supply of capital in a market desperate for the product will sink like a stone with the wrong people in charge. This may include the entrepreneur at the heart of the business. There is no guarantee that the person with the original idea is the right person to run a team of people taking it to market. In more established businesses, nothing sends profitability in the wrong direction faster than a bad hiring decision in a pivotal role. The negative impact ripples out in ever increasing circles.

In the case of Michael Dell, in the headlines recently as he attempts to maintain operational control of the company that bears his name, it seems unlikely that he will acknowledge what is crystal clear to everyone else – that he is the wrong man to run the company. Dell is what he made it, a business built on supply chain efficiencies selling well established products at low prices. With very low investment in research and development the company’s business model has not kept pace with the innovators that have thrived in the changing market. While ‘you know who’ was up on stage presenting his latest touch screen phone, tablet – a market he completely invented – or MP3 player, Michael Dell had his shareholders trapped in a place where the need to maintain margins that were constantly shrinking would not allow for innovation. The result? Dell got its lunch eaten by Apple. Dell is not in the tablet market. Dell is not in the MP3 market. Dell is not in the phone market. With laptop sales being eroded by new products, the only way is down.

Sometimes pride is too strong among founders to make the right decision for their brainchild. Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang’s disastrous decision to fend off Microsoft’s takeover bid, shortly after being installed as CEO, cost shareholders $30m and was surely motivated by an intense personal investment in the independence of the company he had founded.

3. Market conditions are wrong

Perhaps your product is simply overtaken by something better, removing its market altogether. This happens to everything in the end. When the iPod arrived, it spelled curtains for Sony’s minidisc player. The bell tolled for Psion personal organizers as soon as cell phones started to offer far more for less. My personal favorite is Betamax video. Sony sold the crap out of this one 30 years ago in a rushed attempt to get to market first, only to be annihilated by VHS. The reason? Betamax held one hour of video, VHS held two. What’s the real effect this small difference has on recording time? Oh yes. Pretty much every movie ever made.

But there need not be a competitor in sight. A market that doesn’t exist doesn’t care how clever you are. The Segway was a symbol of the advent of the 21st century. ‘It will do to the car what the car did to the horse and cart’, said one of its investors. The $100m investment has likely never been recouped and the company has been passed around several times. Nobody wants to believe that something so cool could be so unsuccessful. Everybody wants one. Nobody needs one, apart from mall cops and lazy tourists. You might be too late to market, you might be too early. New products may steal your lunch money, established products my freeze you out. Refresh yourself on Michel Porter’s Five Forces for the most comprehensive model of market behavior.

So there it is. Not particularly complicated or clever. If you’ve got a business that’s failing, it’s failing for one of these reasons, or a combination of them. If you’ve got a business idea, this is where you should test your theory. Have you got enough cash to give yourself a chance? Have you got someone who can make it happen? Are there enough customers out there for your product?

Richard Spragg writes on a number of subjects relating to business, engineering jobs, recruiting agencies and jobs for engineers. Follow him on Twitter at @richard_spragg
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