Never Mind the Sinkhole! or how to make potash interesting…

I am probably the only person I know who likes the name “Uralkali” and always looks forward to writing something about Russia’s biggest producer of potash. What is potash, you ask? It’s a chemical compound formed in ancient seas and pretty useful to fertilize crops. Late last year, a sinkhole opened up near Uralkali’s Siberian mine, and sea water entered the site, leeching out the potash deposit…

Shares of Uralkali, which is traded in Moscow and London, have taken a bath — but what better way to draw the reader to this unfortunate company than to talk about a hole that’s now grown to almost the size of a soccer field.

N ote: While the sinkhole is huge and terrifying, I want to make it clear that, to my knowledge, nobody was hurt or killed in the incident. The houses that you see in the picture are summer cabins, and the only damages are monetary,


A Blessing and a Curse

The following story contains quotes and facts that are not terribly likely to get a Facebook “Like” from Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government. Yet neither the reporter, nor the people quoted, nor the editors ever hesitated to write and publish this piece.

My job focused on setting the tone and narrative flow of the story, getting the structure of the article in place, picking the best quotes, verifying every single fact contained in the article, and come up with metrics interesting enough to get the reader hooked. Company data and price valuation went through an ultra-close scrutiny before being deemed solid enough to support the point we are trying to make on the Putin government’s famously acquisitive tendencies.

Surgut’s $36 Billion Cash Pile Is Both Blessing and Curse:

Seoul Oasis



Quick trip to Seoul over Labor Day weekend reminded me how the transformation of the city’s waterways is improving the quality of every life there.

The many tributaries of the massive Han river, the capital’s historic fluvial lifeline where key battles of the Korean war were fought more than half a century ago, were left to their devices from the 1960s to 80s — dirty, polluted and hard-to-reach waste lands.

One can walk or bike

One can walk or bike



Gigantic highway and massive apartment buildings in the background


Starting in the 1980s, a deliberate effort was made to reclaim those stretches of the city, expanding buildable land and, as a consequence, beautifying the river banks. There is now a pretty stunning 50-mile biking path that follows the mighty river, along with well-maintained parks with CLEAN bathrooms.



The river bank parks also provide what might be considered the ultimate luxury in Seoul: solitude. Here are just a few photos taken during an impromptu stroll on the northern bank, near Hanyang University, an area of mostly middle-class apartment buildings.
A quick search of “Han River Park” can yield a wealth of practical info, such as this.

“Your Brand Is Sexy by Definition”

A few more memorable entries from my foray into the BRITE 2011 conference: “you can’t socialize with a million people” and “Think the Unthinkable.”  Uh? Let me explain.

Old Spice guy

Old Spice guy

The first quip comes from an extremely entertaining presentation by Josh Millrod, Digital Strategist at Wieden+Kennedy, and Jason Clement, Director of Emerging Platforms at the same company. The two fellows have worked on the social media and online digital campaigns for Nokia, Nike, ESPN,  ABC Entertainment and, more memorably, the highly viral Old Spice campaign.

Among the interesting insights from these two highly personable and successful creatives: Scale is not always achieved by creating something that appeals to the largest number of people — “You can’t socialize with a million people: that’s broadcasting.”

Instead, successful social media campaigns focus on one person’s story. For instance, the guy who said he was out of Wheat Thins, a relatively obscure brand. The company decided to send a whole pallet of Wheat Thins, which ignited the Web. The lesson: you can interact with just one person and have a conversation started.

(This idea finds an echo in something Tim Maleeny, Ogilvy North America’s head of planning, said earlier: “360-degree marketing is a myth — the key is to find the 10 or 20 degrees that work.” )

In the case of the Old Spice ads, the Wieden + Kennedy team spent two full days filming individualized commercials, and was also savvy enough to attract the attention of true-blue geeks by timestamping on Reddit.

Asked by a member of the audience about the strategy to adopt with an “unsexy” brand like Rogaine, the duo said: “Your brand is sexy by definition. Sex is probably the reason why guys use Rogaine. Old Spice is not a sexy brand, it was handed to us – but we were able to turn that around by making it about experience, about being a man.”

Another interesting BRITE insight comes from Luke Williams, a fellow at frog design and professor of innovation at NYU Stern, who wrote a book titled: “DISRUPT: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business.”

His focus is on looking for what’s really unexpected, against what’s predictably deemed disruptive. He zeroed in on the “magical aspect” of the iPad – it’s easy to get caught up in the expectation, to call it the Jesus Tablet. According to Williams, a lot of brand building around tech has been pretty predictable. “Now with even more features!!” – this is the same way we market toothpaste, by multiplying features or choices. What happens when everyone does that? Nobody stands out.

Williams posits that this obsessive focus on technology limits our vision. There’s a real revolution going on in consumer behavior, which is staggering in many respects. Think about it: the sound quality of mp3 files is poorer than CDs, camera phones take much lower-resolution images than film, and web streamed videos have poorer quality than DVDs. This is all very counter- intuitive.

When consumer behavior changes, your brand thinking has to go with it. Look at your brand and mix in up in untraditional ways, and you get things like Tivo, Red Bull, the Saw horror movie franchise, the success of a company that sells intentionally mismatched socks – all these companies have broken free of what’s taken for granted.

Finally, Mike Steib, director of video ads at Google,  shared some nuggets of wisdom:

1. Video content has exploded over the past generation, the only thing people do less of now is sleeping.

2. Not all Internet content is good, but the public is extremely good at finding good content.

3. Recall effectiveness of advertising in mobile is better than recall effectiveness in the Internet.

4. Major emerging ad sources:

—  Mobile advertising very big in search. When a Google search user switches to a smartphone, the number of searches rises 50 percent or more.

— Ads in apps in their free versions (when you pay for the apps, of course the ads disappear)

— Mobile video: (the mobile version of Youtube) is the largest video site in existence.

Feeling BRITE With Marketing Advice

I ventured out to  BRITE 2011, “part of a global series of conferences that focus on emerging trends in branding, innovation, technology, society, and culture.” Conveniently organized by the Columbia Business School (that is, about 7 blocks from my apartment), the one-and-a-half-day conference was a great opportunity to see how much a complete novice like me could absorb in a span of 36 hours.

flickr photo by wisdomlight

flickr photo by wisdomlight

Turns out, quite a bit!  The confab provided a really striking contrast between the people, agencies and companies that seemed to “get it” and those that were still stuck in PowerPoint presentations.

Here are a few thoughts/notes I typed when I was not being mesmerized by speakers.  Lots of interesting tweets can be found at #Briteconf — but if reading tweets were easy, nobody would bother to read blogs.

“Audience First: How Marketers Can Meet the Challenge of the New Media World”

Antonio Lucio, Global Chief Marketing Officer, Visa Inc., said his company had boosted its investment in social media from 12 percent to 36 percent in 2 1/2 years – and the figure’s quickly heading towards 40 percent.

Key Quote: “We had to destroy the digital marketing department. We had to build the level of education of the marketing department, and of our senior managers, so they could help us.” — This to me is crucial. This is a question that has haunted me ever since the digital media revolution started in the news industry 12 or 13 years ago. To my dismay, I would notice time and time again that only the youngest or the brightest had any clue as to how this was going to REALLY transform the old media universe. I remember working on a Flash animated map back in 1999, and trying to explain to a managing editor why trying something so sophisticated (which it was, at the time) was important.

The divide between the “Get-It” and “Don’t Get-It” kept widening even as the social media revolution came to a head. I still shudder when I remember that many people in upper management in the media industry were still wondering if Facebook was just a fad, in 2009!

Social media has changed consumer behavior – cityville reached 100 mln users in less than 40 days

Lucio also emphasized the basic shift that has happened with social media: the move from a “Yell and Sell” model (a.k.a the Funnel) to an “Army of Advocates” (the “Loyalty Loop”). “Sharing is the new giving.”

Therefore, media plans must integrate paid/owned/shared media.  Participation is the new consumption, recommendation is the new advertising.

The next presenter, Steve Rubel, SVP, Director of Insights, Edelman Digital, presented “11 digital trends to watch in 2011.”

1. Attentionomics—advertisers will realize the value of attention, and not just reach and impressions, in driving conversations. It’s a qualitative shift.

2. Curation – it’s all about those who can separate art from junk.

— Identify under-served niches and meet them,

— frame up issues and discussions, editorialize

— make curation collaborative and social

3. Developer engagement – developers drive innovation across all key platforms. mktg leaders will begin working with these stakeholders to scale their digital programs and surface area. If you build an ecosystem, you will work with developers and you must make your assets available to them. Build APIs and cultivate a rich developer network

4. Transmedia storytelling. We love stories, we crave them. Technology constantly advances the art of storytelling and creates new expectations. It also helps marketers connect. We must recognize that narratives is no longer a whole, no beginning or end. We must help audience connect the dots.

5. Tought leadership – Companies have to have credible expert voices who can propagate new ideas. People crave experts. There has been a devaluation of the notion of “friend,” and people don’t know 20 percent of their Facebook friends. But expertise remains very powerful.

6. Integration: Social media is compartmentalized in marketing or advertising in most companies. But you must integrate into a more holistic communication. To put it more simply: “Social media should not be 100 percent of one person, but 1 percent of 100 people.”

7. Ubiquitous social consumption: We will connect wherever, whenever – mobile solutions reign. “Immaculate Palace”-type websites are not that important. The tablet space will be a tremendous battle. “Optimize for mobility, not just mobile.”

8. Location, location, Facebook — facebook is well positioned to take over local. Think in terms of: “Local/ social/ photo/ mobile”

9. Social media schizophrenia: Social overload will become something more and more average users will experience. Let people self-select, maximize the dominant platforms and do them well, don’t get overextended. Keep it simple and convenient.

10. Google strikes back! Google and social are oxymorons — but they are going to make social incredibly social.

11. Viva la social website – it is still important to bring social functionality back into the website. Incorporate social data from connections, friends; design for function and form.

Other great tidbits from Rubel:

— Facebook have an incredible amount of data. “They are like the old Soviet Union, they have a social graph that foursquare simply can’t touch.” They will start making money from data services.

— You can’t build suspense with video. Most people drop off watching video after 90 seconds online.

The session ended with one of the most puzzling media decisions I have ever witnessed:  Neve Savage, Netflix’s VP of Consumer Marketing, made a presentation on “Building the Netflix Brand” —  which was labeled off the record!? Pretty inexplicable.

Reading Books on My Phone

I never thought it possible, but I’ve been voraciously reading books…. on my smartphone’s tiny 3.2-inch screen. I had downloaded the Google Books for Mobile app almost absentmindedly, convinced that I would never use my phone to read full-length books. Between the claustrophobic size of the screen and the allegedly fatiguing effects of LED displays, I was certain I would never use the gizmo.

Google Books for Mobile

Google Books for Mobile

And yet — in the four weeks since I got the app, I’ve torn through:

— Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Valley of Fear,” first read when I was 11 years old, and still hauntingly menacing in its grim depiction of a Pennsylvania mining town of the 1840s;

— Agatha Christie’s “The Secret Adversary,” absolutely delightful spy novel set in the aftermath of World War I and featuring Tony and Tuppence Beresford, an intrepid detecting duo whom Dame Agatha should have featured in more of her novels;

— “Wuthering Heights” — first read when I was 13 and living in Morocco, then again during my freshman year in France — whose length and complexity didn’t suffer at all from the format.

That is on top of my paper book reading, which has included David Rakoff’s “Half Empty”  and Stacy Pershall’s “Loud in the House of Myself.”

I also downloaded the OverDrive Media Console in order to read Adobe ePUB books borrowed from the public library. That has worked out pretty well too, since I have read:  “Freakonomics 2” and “Living Oprah,” a hilarious memoir of a woman trying to live a full year according to O’s life precepts and, in so doing, delivers a very thoughtful critique of the TV self-help industry.

I am currently reading:

— “The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army” by David Cloud and Greg Jaffe, an erudite and wonderfully entertaining examination of the careers and philosophies of Gens. Pete Chiarelli,  John Abizaid, George Casey and David Petraeus;


— “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which I first read in French when I was a kid.

I absolutely love the freedom and convenience of having a book right on my phone, without even having to open a separate device. Do I wish the screen were bigger? All the time. I have been known to stare at other people’s 4-inch phones just to see how much more comfortable the reading experience would be.

But it appears that the small screen doesn’t matter THAT MUCH. I may be venturing way outside my pay grade, but it may just be that the kind of “deep reading,” that trance-like state so perfectly described in Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” allows the reader to be less perturbed by material circumstances such as a smaller-than-ideal screen size.

I have no idea of the potentially far-reaching consequences of my new addiction on my eyesight or my overall reading habits. I notice that reading an LCD screen in bed is almost impossible for me, and I am more careful than ever to rest my eyes after a reading spell.

I know my next reading device will be a tablet (with an LCD screen capable of very low-intensity display) or an e-ink reader with 3G connectivity that would be capable of reading ePUB books, for a change (yes, I’m looking at you, Kindle).

Social Media and Humanitarian Response: More Direction Needed

How can the media better attract the public’s attention and, perhaps more importantly, sustain that interest, when a humanitarian crisis happens? What are the things media can do better?

Oxfam and CauseShift joined forces last night during

Haitians await emergency supplies

Haitians await emergency supplies

“Why Not?: Humanitarian Crisis and Media” — a meeting aimed at coming up with innovative and contrarian recommendations to resolve this dilemma.

Humanitarian action and media are the two areas I have been trying to bridge in my career, most notably during my stints at the United nations, but I also tend to approach this type of pow-wow with a reporter’s customary sense of skepticism against feel-good back rubs.

To my complete surprise, I came away energized and impressed by the format of the meeting. Instead of a simple succession of speakers,  this particular gathering also asked participants to huddle in smaller groups for ultra-quick (20 minutes?) brainstorming sessions, with a presentation to the whole audience at the end. To my uninformed eye, this type of format could be successfully applied to a number of other meetings that are time-constrained yet aim to reach some sort of concrete result.

The lineup:

Brian Reich (Moderator) – SVP and Global Editor, Edelman Digital ; Ayesha Khanna – Principal, Hybrid Reality Institute ; Kathleen Hessert – CEO BuzzMgrSports Media Challenge ; Sree Sreenivasan – Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism; and Stephen Cassidy – Chief of Internet, Broadcast & Image Section, Unicef.

The main point of the Q&A: Technology needs filtering and curating in order to prompt effective action. Engineering power might very well be the most important commodity in a humanitarian situation.

Ayesha Khanna: We are moving from information age to hybrid age; we are not just using gadgets but we are moving into real a technology age. Right now we are still dependent on people responding to things, and the result is a lot of slacktivism.  The future will hinge on the Internet’s ability to overlay response to each other and give a set of clear directions.

Take the devastating Pakistani floods of 2010, she said: instead of crying on our Facebook pages, we must use technology in a much more integrated fashion, and we should be able to guide people on what to do if they want to help.

Khanna expressed a lot of my own preoccupations and prescriptions regarding Internet activism. In order for sentiment and emotions to result in concrete action and measurable change, there is an essential need to filter and curate the myriad bits of information darting around the Internet.

Khanna suggests that companies donate engineering brainpower instead of random gifts or money. Columbia University’s Sree Sreenivasan emphasized the “heroic” role that can be played by the curating journalist, taking NPR’s Andy Carvin as an example.  Clarity and accuracy can become the most precious currency in an emergency.

Another important point is that the wide availability of technology doesn’t mean that technology is being used to its full potential — “Penetration rate is not a problem in these countries,” said Khanna.  Again, what’s more important is the digital crunching and filtering.

Having covered business and technology for four years in South Korea, a country that prides itself on being one of the most wired in the world, yet where public debate often follows extremely narrow boundaries, I have always been wary of unit sales and bandwidth statistics. Millions of people can have smartphones, but if there is not also a concurrent effort to make those machines MEANINGFUL, it is difficult to expect any deep societal change.

Does that mean that “classically trained” journalists like yours truly would still have a job to do in the bright shiny future of social media? I sure hope so. There seems to be a standard attitude, pretty widespread in NGO circles, that dismisses “mainstream” media outright. I dare to believe that there is a middle ground, and that NGOs will, under the new constraints brought about by the rise of social media, come to understand the importance of trusting old-school media’s filtering and curating skills.

Other great tidbits from the meeting:

— Sree Sreenivasan, on how the media can structure the information differently and go beyond telling the basic story:  We already have journalists who are doing things differently. There’s a tremendous interest in social justice. The current crisis of journalism is part of the story. In the way we are teaching, Sree said, we must teach them how to think about the origin of some of these problems, think on longer term basis.
Two trends are noteworthy: journalists who specialize and take a deep dive in politics, science, arts, business; and digital journalism.

Sree also noted the increasing role that each institution can play. has basically transformed itself into a news organization.

Kathleen Hessert, who works with athletes on their humanitarian commitments: for athletes to be really effective in their commitments, they have to show continuity in their intent. Peyton Manning,who has been working with the same charity since high school, is an example. In practice, celebrities can become the biggest clogs on resources because everything stops when they get involved. She has seen egregious examples of ineffectiveness in the form of  dog booties or Suzanne Sommers Tighmasters (TM) sent to Haiti, or down jackets sent to Indonesia.

Hessert says she has been appalled at the politics during humanitarian responses.  Experience does not equate expertise. We need to educate people, we need to teach them best practices in social media, and to teach the public how to communicate more efficiently so that we can respond.

For more Tweets on the event, check out:!/search/%23crisismedia