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paul isakson
Minneapolis, MN
Greatness challenger. Master deconstructionist. Endless seeker of truth, wisdom and understanding.
Recent Activity
A biz can't be "uberized." It can become more automated, more personalized, more mobile, etc. Stop using one biz's strategy to define yours. — Gabe Alonso (@gabealonso) November 3, 2014 It seems as though everyone is trying to "Uberize" their business right now. The fact that these conversations are happening in conference rooms and ideation sessions around the world doesn't surprise me. Uber is having a very long and bright moment in the sun. What I am surprised by though is that nearly all of these conversations focus on the wrong end of what Uber is doing. Yes, Uber deployed mobile technology in a smart, elegant way. Yes, they eliminated some of the most awkward and frustrating parts of dealing with cab services. And yes, Uber is constantly expanding and looking for ways to improve their service. All of this adds up to the magical experience people have the first few times they use Uber and it's what makes people want to keep using them. But the smartest thing Uber did happened before all of those things came into existence—they found a really big problem to solve. This is the key to their success. If there weren't a lot of people out there who already hated dealing with cab services, we wouldn't be talking about Uber in the way that we are. Their moment would have passed by now, if it ever happened in the first place. At best, they'd be in a position akin to Foursquare—trying to solve a... Continue reading
Posted Nov 3, 2014 at Paul Isakson
If you're interested, I've put up another new post on Medium. This one is titled, "Be The Brand You Wish To See In The World." It's a quick read on what brands who want to copy Apple should really be trying to copy. You can find it here. Continue reading
Posted Jul 29, 2013 at Paul Isakson
Several years ago I was interviewing at what was then one of the top creative agencies in the world. A few weeks prior to going out for my full day of interviews, I had met with the head of the department for coffee while on a long weekend getaway. He and I had a great conversation and he was excited to have me talk to some of his team about an opening they were looking to fill. My day of interviews went fairly well, sans one. Throughout this interview, I was grilled about my past experience, which at the time, was largely in account service roles. I did my best to answer the questions thrown at me, but it was clear to me that my answers were not hitting the mark. As luck would have it, I found out at the end of the day that this rough interview happened to be the hiring manager for the opening. A week later I received a call from the HR person at the agency and was given a generic dismissal. Something like, "Everyone liked you, but you're not the right fit for the account." I tried to get better feedback, but he wasn't willing to say much else. Despite this, I stayed in touch with the department head and a couple years later, he resigned to do something different. At that point, he shared with me what really happened. While he loved that I came from a different background than anyone else... Continue reading
Posted Jul 25, 2013 at Paul Isakson
Last night I shared some thoughts on how to be a better community manager with the group going through a community manager training program put on by The Social Lights. Most of my talk focused on how to deeply understand a brand and how that understanding will help them be better at what they do for the brand(s) they serve. Near the end of my talk, I shared a few loosely connected bits of advice not tied to the main two sections of my presentation. One of those points was that adding value to a community or conversation is far greater than solely seeking attention. If you post content only for the sake of seeking attention, you're not doing anyone any good, especially the brand you're representing. As an example of this, I used Oreo's tweet regarding the #RoyalBaby. Oreo gets a lot of attention for how well they handle their social media accounts. Especially with the Super Bowl blackout, where they used humor to add value to an annoying moment for viewers who also happened to be tracking the game and peripheral events to the game with social media. Here though, Oreo seems out of place. Nobody is looking for them to be in this conversation and nobody is going to miss them if they're not there. They're not adding value to the conversation. They're merely taking advantage of all the eyeballs tracking the royal baby news on social media. The people who are interested in following this conversation... Continue reading
Posted Jul 24, 2013 at Paul Isakson
On Friday, I took my niece and oldest two nephews to see Turbo. Unless you have some relationship to kids who are dying to go see it and you feel that you have to be the one to take them to see it, I'd suggest you skip it. While the animation was well done and they hired some big names for the voice talent, the story is weak. I bring this up because story is something I've talked about before in various forms due to it being so critical to building a great brand. As Robert McKee says in Story, "A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling. When society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it degenerates." The same can be said for a brand—a brand cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling. When a brand repeatedly tells glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it degenerates. People have no interest in listening to these kinds of stories. No matter what the purpose of the story is or who is telling it. Especially when they exist solely to sell a product or service. As marketers, on both the client and agency sides, everything we create for the brands we work on tells a story. Regardless of which party we work for, we have a choice in this creation process. We can make honest, powerful stories; or, we can make glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories. The choice is ours. As you begin your week on Monday, take some time to reflect on what kind of story is being... Continue reading
Posted Jul 21, 2013 at Paul Isakson
I've put-up a post on Medium, sharing some of the advice I give to people interested in becoming a planner, which includes an analogy inspired by Bruce Lee's Three Stages of Cultivation. You can find it here. On a related note, here are some of my favorite Bruce Lee quotes that are applicable to what we do as planners/strategists: "Man, the living creature, the creating individual, is always more important than any established style or system." "Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it." "There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them." "Don't get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water." "When there is freedom from mechanical conditioning, there is simplicity." "Do not deny the classical approach, simply as a reaction, or you will have created another pattern and trapped yourself there." "It’s not how much you have learned, but how much you have absorbed from what you have learned. It is not how much fixed knowledge you can accumulate, but what you can apply livingly that counts. ‘Being’ is more valued than 'doing'." Who knew Bruce Lee could be so inspiring for planners? Continue reading
Posted Jul 19, 2013 at Paul Isakson
Last night, while going through some old bookmarks, I came across a David Brooks piece written just over a year ago titled, "The Power of the Particular." I highly recommend you read it—probably before you continue reading here. What I want to focus on is the end of his piece, which contains valuable advice for brands. He says: The whole experience makes me want to pull aside politicians and business leaders and maybe everyone else and offer some pious advice: Don’t try to be everyman. Don’t pretend you’re a member of every community you visit. Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible. People will come. For me, this paragraph hits very close to home. Too many brands try to attract people by doing what they think will be most appealing to a large audience rather than remaining true and authentic to the brand's roots. They try on different voices and messages and images in hopes that everyone will like them. They tell whatever story they think is going to get the most attention and make them the most attractive, over being true to their own story. Just as this doesn't work in dating and making good friends, it doesn't work in building a lasting, meaningful brand. Instead, as I talked about yesterday, the brand should lean in to who it really is and use that to tell their... Continue reading
Posted Jul 18, 2013 at Paul Isakson
In reading from George Orwell's essay, Why I Write, a section stood out to me that relates to why I think "Mad Men" is such a terrific show, and contains a lesson for building and maintaining a great brand. Here is the bit I'm talking about: I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in — at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own — but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write. What makes "Mad Men" great are the complex characters and the story lines that unfold because of them. In a world saturated with shallowly scripted "reality" TV and crime dramas ripping their stories from real news headlines, it stands out because we don't see many shows where the characters are so deeply developed. If you've paid attention to how "Mad Men" has progressed, you'll notice that we have come to know not just the main characters, but also a lot about their lives prior to working together at the agency, including a decent amount... Continue reading
Posted Jul 17, 2013 at Paul Isakson
Earlier this evening, I was at MSP with a bit of extra time before my flight to Denver. I decided that I wanted to find a good spot to eat and catch up on email. After I passed through security I could see that a little ways in front of me was an interactive kiosk with a listing of all that can be found in the airport. Being curious about how technology is being used in various settings and uncertain of where I wanted to go, I decided to check it out. It ended up being a total waste of time as the touch screen was registering very slowly and quite poorly. As I walked away from this terrible user experience, it made me think about the importance of stepping back to consider how much of a return on investment (ROI) we're getting for the time we spend making the things we make and the return others get for spending their time with them. Time is a luxury. With the amount of demands we all have on our lives, we have become very aware of how we spend it. When the world is full of unlimited choices for how to spend our time, we need to make sure that the things we create make people feel like the time they gave us was worth every second. When you're working on launching something new into the world, ask yourself few simple questions at every evaluation point along the way: Would somebody... Continue reading
Posted Jul 16, 2013 at Paul Isakson
In my Planning-ness presentation, I included a Mike Tyson quote that has become something I’ve appreciated more and more since the first time I came across it. The quote was, “Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.” When I saw this quote for the first time, it immediately struck me for a number of reasons. For one, I had just resigned from my job at space150 with no serious plans about what to do next. Life had dealt me a number of things at the time that made me pause and see that I didn’t want to keep going in the direction I had been, so I quit to figure things out and believed that despite not having any plans, things would just work out. The other big thing that stood out to me with this quote was that between the state of the economy and the ever-increasing expansion of technology into every corner of our lives, a lot of businesses were getting punched in the mouth. Yet despite this, they have continued making annual marketing plans as if the next year was going to look just like all the past years. Between that time and now, I’ve grown to believe that the days of planning for a year's worth of marketing twelve months before that marketing goes into action (or even worse, 18 months before) have to end. Things move too fast today to lock budgets and ideas down at a tactical level that far... Continue reading
Posted Jul 15, 2013 at Paul Isakson
Yesterday I wrote about a key question that every business should ask, inspired by a post on Medium discussing the approach Steve Jobs took to product development at Apple. When I was done with the post, my brain continued on that path for a while. As I thought about it more, Apple's latest ad campaign came to mind. Despite the campaign being dinged a bit, I liked it. Particularly the opening video from WWDC 2013. I felt it gave us a look behind the curtain that we were blocked off from before. It shows us the ethos of Apple in plain terms. While this might not be doing much for viewers, I think it is important in that it states very clearly what Apple's intentions are for their products and through this statement, it holds them more accountable to these intentions. Especially with having said them so publicly. In the tv spot, Apple shares three questions they consider when designing a new product: How will it make someone feel? Will it make life better? Does it deserve to exist? The print version asks similar questions. As I considered these questions further, I couldn't help but wonder what the world would be like if every company more seriously asked these questions about their own products. Would the world look the same as it does today if we thought harder about what we're making and how it would effect people in both the immediate and long term? Apple asks these questions because... Continue reading
Posted Jul 14, 2013 at Paul Isakson
How did you complete that headline? "Don't fix it?" Or something more like, "Break it!"? How would your company's leadership answer it? I think this one simple statement can tell us a lot about an organization's prospects for success today and in the future. This thought was sparked by a post I came across on Medium titled, "The Secret of Steve". The post shares a perspective on what made Steve Jobs tick and drove his decisions at Apple. It's main point is that Steve constantly asked, "Why doesn't it work?" In other words, what could be better about this product/marketing/etc.? The section in particular that grabbed me was this: “Why doesn’t it work?” deceives us with its simplicity. The first challenge is asking it. The Chief Engineer refused to consider this question. His logic: Sales are rising and customers are happy, therefore nothing is broken and there is nothing to fix. Sales + Customers = Nothing Broken is the formula for corporate cyanide. Most big companies that die kill themselves drinking it. Complacency is an enemy. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” is an impossible idiom. No matter what the sales, no matter what the customer satisfaction, there is always something to fix. Asking, “Why doesn’t it work?” is creation’s inhalation. Answering is breathing out. Innovation becomes suffocation without it. “Why doesn’t it work?” has the pull of a pole star. It sets creation’s direction. For Jobs and the iPhone the critical point of departure was not finding a... Continue reading
Posted Jul 14, 2013 at Paul Isakson
Quite a while back I wrote about seeing opportunity everywhere, starting with a quote from one of my favorite books. I was reminded of this by a post on Storyline. The story they shared is about professional pianist Nils Frahm. It says: Recently, Nils broke his thumb. Which is really bad news for a professional pianist. He had shows to do. Commitments to fulfill. Projects to complete. And now a much needed thumb was broken and in a cast. So for a few days he felt pathetic. He spent a couple more days of feeling sorry for himself. He had the right to be down in the dumps about this whole situation. But Nils decided to do something unexpected … he began to write some piano songs. Against his Doctors orders, Nils composed 9 beautiful piano solos with his 9 working fingers. Minus the broken thumb of course. (You can listen to what he created here. It’s awesome!) The lesson for us all: Take what you got (even if it’s broke) and make something beautiful. This same lesson applies in agency life. If you're banking on getting to do great work once you win that next piece of new business, you're going to be continually frustrated. You can't do work for clients you don't have. Not only that, but that new biz client you're hoping to win will take into account your most recent work on the clients you do have to predict what kind of work they'll get from... Continue reading
Posted Jul 12, 2013 at Paul Isakson
I'd argue that it eats the brand. Without a great culture, you're going to have a very hard time sustaining a great brand. I've written about the importance of company culture as it relates to building a strong brand before. Today two articles reminded me of this. The first one was disheartening. According to recent research findings based on people self-reporting their happiness at various times during they day through an app, most people are miserable at work. So miserable that the only thing ranking lower than being at work is being home sick in bed. That just flat out sucks to hear. It's not surprising. But it still sucks. We spend far too many hours of our days working to be this miserable. The second article was more on the postive side. For me at least. According to data provided by Glassdoor to Mashable, employee satisfaction at Yahoo is at a five year high. In addition to this, Marissa Mayer is enjoying an approval rating well above her predecessors, despite some of the moves she has made that drew much criticism. Personally, I'm excited by this news for Yahoo. I'm pulling for them to turn things around and become a company people admire and respect instead of being what they have been these past few years. If Yahoo is to turn their brand around, it's going to have to come from the inside (the culture) first. Why does culture matter so much to having a strong brand—especially when it... Continue reading
Posted Jul 11, 2013 at Paul Isakson
The first time I saw this spot a few years back (o.k., maybe more than a few), I instantly loved it. In coming across it again, it makes me think of the tension in ad land these days between those defending the "traditional" marketing and those pushing for "modern" marketing. The truth is, it's not an either/or thing. It's an "and" thing. Brands need both approaches to work in harmony to be successful. We're not at a point in time where we can completely write-off traditional advertising. We may never be. I mean, we still see sandwich boards dotting sidewalks. I can't help but feel we'd all be a lot better off if we stopped looking at the world as though it had to be only one way or the other and instead looked for how we make the "and" work better as a whole. Continue reading
Posted Jul 10, 2013 at Paul Isakson
Last week I landed on Bud's thoughts for surviving change. It's definitely worth the read if you didn't get to it. One thing in particular stood out to me though as it is something I've seen over and over from several digital agencies and new "don't-call-us-an-agency" agencies. That "thing" is railing against the way things are being and have been done in an effort to promote a new "better" way of doing things. I'm sure you've seen examples of it too. "Television advertising is dead." "Buying TV spots is a waste of money." "Traditional advertising must die." "So and so's business is screwed if they don't start doing things differently." Etcetera, etcetera. You see things like this show up in posts and tweets and comments everywhere. Even some of the industry publications get in on the attack from time to time. Sometimes these comments are justified, but often they are not. They're just hot, angry rants. The worst part of it is that this attitude often permeates the halls and conference rooms of the agencies that espouse this point of view. After a presentation where new ways of doing things were presented and then kindly not accepted by the client, the agency teams come back to the office and complain about how stupid the clients are for "not getting it" and/or not being courageous. Or they talk about how screwed the client is because they're so stuck in the past. Not only does this talk create a miserable culture, but... Continue reading
Posted Jul 9, 2013 at Paul Isakson
Very kind of you, Jim. The feelings and respect are mutual. Thank you.
Thought this was a great way to frame-up how leadership needs to evolve from "command and control" to "empower and roll" in our current business climate. The highlights are mine. The words are Mr. Ito's. The Internet has enabled the cost of the production and distribution of ideas and information to plummet nearly to zero-resulting in an explosion of ideas and a low cost of collaboration. This has prompted a great deal of innovation, but also a complexity, speed and capacity for amplification that makes the world a difficult and dangerous place for many organizations and human-made systems designed for a slower and simpler era. The cost of planning, predicting and managing rapidly changing, complex systems often exceeds the cost of actually doing whatever is being planned and managed. In fact, it can be often easier to try something and iterate than to try to predict the outcome and manage the risks. Most great ideas as well as dramatic failures have been unpredictable and are only obvious in hindsight. (Don't get me wrong: foreknowledge and planning are useful and, often, necessary; they're just not sufficient.) In such a world, leadership hinges on the ability to master a broad set of skills and character traits necessary for fostering a robust system, including courage, flexibility, speed, values and a strong vision and trajectory. It's more important to have a strong compass than a detailed street map since the map is probably outdated and wrong. These kinds of decentralized models of leadership have... Continue reading
Posted Feb 5, 2012 at Paul Isakson
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Jun 2, 2011
Thank you for the mention, Jim. It's truly an honor. Things have been busy with the new job so posts have been few and far between. This is good inspiration to get back to it. Outside of that, it would be great to grab coffee or breakfast soon. I'll email you to see what works. Again, thank you.
Toggle Commented Jun 2, 2011 on What I Read at
nice post, sean. hope all is well your way.
1 reply
Good stuff Sean. As for the, "Now, maybe there is a brand out there that won't touch us in digital and social. A brand that can hide behind the corporate walls and let the world go on about it's way." What about Apple? Some of the stuff with the iPhone 4 is cracking away at this, but they still do a very good job of this, no?
Toggle Commented Aug 19, 2010 on The Myth of the Crafted Brand at CrapHammer
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Mar 15, 2010
Flickr // “Life's most urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” - Martin Luther King, Jr. The above quote came up a few times last Monday over Twitter in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I found it very appropriate in relation to some thinking I've been kicking around about the state of business and what needs to change in how we view and build brands in today's world. Here is where those thoughts are now. They lean heavily to the idealist side of things, but I think that's o.k. Why aim for anything less than the ideal, right? Anyway... A New Era For Business The recent era of business has largely been defined by how much one could take, buy, own and grow. Bury the competition at all costs. Put them out of business and take their market share. Grow, grow, grow. Take, take, take. To a large degree, the only "others" brands cared about doing things for were the investors and analysts. Nothing is as important as the quarterly earnings statement being well received. I am hopeful that a new era of business is coming about. One where brands realize that they have the power, money and ability to help create real, positive change in a world that is in dire need of it and act upon that realization with conviction. It's not about beating the competition, but about beating a massive problem facing humanity. The more massive the brand, the more massive the... Continue reading
Posted Jan 26, 2010 at Paul Isakson
What's Next (2009) UBA 60 Edition from Paul Isakson This is long overdue, but here is the extended "What's Next for 2009" presentation I delivered at UBA's 60th Anniversary Congress a few weeks back. As you'll see, a lot of bits are the same, some bits are new. Thank you to everyone who contributed thinking to this updated version. I'll definitely be doing more reaching out in the future. As for the event, it was one of the best run days I've been a part of in a long time. I learned a lot from the other speakers and from conversations held during the coffee breaks, lunch, happy hour and dinner. (You can download copies of all of the presentations from the UBA's page recapping the day. Look just below the recap video. I think you'll find interesting points in each of them, so I highly recommend it.) Thank you to all of the wonderful people I met in Brussels for your conversations, kindness and feedback. And a big thank you to Chris, Jan, Frédéric, and Alice for your generosity and graciousness. Continue reading
Posted Oct 13, 2009 at Paul Isakson