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Review: The End of Advertising by Andrew Essex

endThis review first ran in the July 31 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The End of Advertising: Why It Had to Die and the Creative Resurrection to Come

By Andrew Essex

Spiegal & Grau


I’m a big fan of podcasts.

The Turnaround and On the Media are my favourites for two reasons.

Both podcasts deliver great hosts, guests and conversations. Turnaround host Jesse Thorn talks with interviewers about the art of interviewing while On the Media’s Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield look at how the news media shapes our view of the world.

And here’s the other reason why I’m a fan. The conversations on these podcasts aren’t interrupted to pitch razors, underwear and meal kits with special promo codes.

Lots of us are tired of traditional advertising and we’re finding ways to escape it, from ditching cable TV for Netflix to paying for premium advertising-free content and downloading ad blocking apps on our smartphones.

Advertisers need to start adding value to our lives and stop interrupting and annoying us, says Andrew Essex, author of The End of Advertising, past CEO of the award-winning Droga5 ad agency and a board member with the American Advertising Federation.

“In an era of unprecedented noise, producing pollution in the form of annoying advertising represents the height of an unprincipled approach and, more worrisome, is likely flat-out bad for business.

“Advertising will continue to take its lumps,” says Essex. “Like everything inherently unwanted, from stale pastries to last season’s social media, it was doomed to be overshadowed. Like pollution, we prefer it in the landfill rather than randomly strewn along the road. People, platforms and products will have to distinguish themselves by doing something radically different, will have to embrace the not-so-radical idea of always endeavouring to be useful, authentic, original and/or interesting.”

So what’s the radical alternative to traditional advertising?

Citibank spent $41 million over five years to sponsor New York City’s bike sharing program. Citi Bikes give the bank 6,000 roaming billboards, New Yorkers and tourists get a bike share program and taxpayers don’t pay a dime.

“You don’t need much more than intuition to see that most people would choose a clean Citi Bike over a useless ad,” says Essex. “One accomplishes something, the other doesn’t.”

American Girl puts out movies, books, clothes and accessories. Essex says his daughter knows all about American Girl without having ever seen a traditional TV, magazine or Internet banner ad from the company.

“All this very savvy company had done was communicate its values via content, a very old model that was new and necessary again. They’d become genuine storytellers and put themselves as the centre of the story.”

And then there’s the world’s biggest toy company. In 2014, Lego found a way to transcend advertising with the Lego Movie. Lots of us paid good money to put on 3D glasses and watch a 100-minute commercial. The Lego Movie grossed $260 million in North American and another $210 million internationally. In 2015, Lego overtook Mattel to become the world’s most valuable toy company with more than $2 billion in annual sales.

“A brand made a brilliant, well-executed movie,” says Essex. “The movie was a hit. The movie also happened to be an ad, one that people were willing to pay to see. For the first time in a long time, the thing that normally sold the thing had become the thing itself.”

Your company doesn’t need to create the next Hollywood blockbuster, says Essex. Just sponsor quality content that reflects well on your brand. Make that content commercial free for viewers, listeners and readers. Subsidize silence and give audiences freedom the interruptions and annoyance of traditional advertising.

And what do you get in return? If you became the presenting sponsor of The Turnaround or On the Media, you’d earn my gratitude, my attention and quite possibly my business.

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review: Good People – The Only Leadership Decision That Really Matters by Anthony Tjan

good peopleThis review first ran in the July 17 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Good People: The Only Leadership Decision That Really Matters

By Anthony Tjan

Portfolio / Penguin


People aren’t our organizations’ greatest asset.

It’s actually good people who make the difference.

Great things happen when we’re in the company of good people. They lead with humility, honesty and integrity. They’re generous, empathetic and compassionate. They’re also wise, respectful and grateful.

Good people inspire us to perform at our best. And being at our collective best is good for our organizations’ bottom lines and long-term financial health.

Author, entrepreneur and strategic advisor Anthony Tjan says good people are “committed to continuously cultivating the values that help them and others become the fullest possible versions of who they are. Good people purposely and proactively put people first in their decision-making.”

So why do smart leaders sometimes make dumb decisions when it comes to hiring and promoting? Why do they bring not-so-good people into our organizations who put themselves first and make the rest of us bitter instead of better?

Tjan says we’re conditioned to put credentials and competencies ahead of a job candidate’s character and values.

“Defining goodness and good people, especially in business, is challenging. Goodness is something we all intuitively sense but nonetheless have trouble describing clearly or tangibly.”

How many all-staff announcements have you read that introduce new senior leaders as good people? We’re told about where our newest executive worked, the projects she led, the schools she attended, the awards she won, what she does outside of work and the names of her kids and the family dog. Yet little to nothing is said about her values and beliefs and how they match up with those of our organization.

To improve your odds of hiring a good person, Tjan has 10 questions to consider before making a job offer.

  1. Is this job candidate self-aware? “Is the person intellectually honest about who she is, about her strengths and weaknesses? Is she actively curious about learning new things? Is she humble? Are her thoughts, words and actions consistent?”
  2. Is this person authentic or obsequious? “There are few things worse than phony praise. Good people do not feel compelled to tie themselves into knots in order to impress you.”
  3. What’s the talk-to-listen ratio? If the ratio’s skews heavily to talking, the candidate could suffer from self-importance or indifference to what you and others have to say.
  4. Is this person an energy giver or taker? Good people are optimists who give off energy. Takers are cynical emotional vampires.
  5. Is this person likely to act or react to a task? When asked to do something, good people jump in and get it done.
  6. How does this person treat people she doesn’t know? Good people believe we’re all equal. There’s no condescension, brusqueness, rudeness or snobbery.
  7. What is the spouse or partner like? “We are known by the company we keep, especially the people we keep closest to us.”
  8. Is there an element of struggle in the person’s history? “Early setbacks tend to shape character more than early successes and developing resilience in response to adversity is a key predictor of success later in life.”
  9. What has this person been reading? “Reading frames ideas, ignites new thoughts and adds complexity and nuance to familiar perspectives.”
  10. Would you want to go on a long car ride with this person? Tjan says this question reminds us to think about the “who” rather than the “what” of a person.
  11. Is this person comfortable with idiosyncrasies? “Our most unusual traits make us who we are. In some cases, simply being true to ourselves – to our own idiosyncrasies – can make us good.”
  12. Is the person multidimensional or multidisciplinary? “People who can’t navigate between, around and across diverse fields of learning and experience have drastically limited horizons of possibility.”

Tjan says we should also ask ourselves these 10 questions. Our answers will show where to get better at being good and helping the people around us do the same.

@jayrobb serves as director of communications at Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.



Review: Barking Up The Wrong Tree by Eric Barker

barkingThis review first ran in the July 3 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success is (Mostly) Wrong

By Eric Barker


Your son wasn’t named class valedictorian.

Your daughter didn’t get straight As on her report card.

Don’t panic. This actually bodes well for their future success and happiness.

A researcher at Boston College tracked 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians.  Nearly all went to college and graduated into high-paying professional careers.

They’ve proven to be reliable, consistent and well-adjusted.

But according to the researcher, none of these academic all-stars have gone on to change, run or impress the world.

“Research shows that what makes students likely to be impressive in the classroom is the same thing that makes them less likely to be home-run hitters outside the classroom,” says Eric Barker, author of the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog and book.

“Schools reward students who consistently do what they are told. Grades are an excellent predictor of self-discipline, conscientiousness and the ability to comply with rules,” says Barker.

Conformists don’t change the world. They play by the rules. They pay their dues and rise up through the ranks. They don’t rock the boat.

Yet sometimes boats need rocking and organizations need steering into uncharted waters by transformational, rule-breaking leaders.

“School has clear rules. Life often doesn’t. When there’s no clear path to follow, academic high achievers break down,” says Barker.

Along with rewarding conformity, schools train our kids to be generalists. Your daughter or son may have a passion for math or the creative arts but they’re spending most of their year tackling other subjects.

The Boston College researcher found that smart students with a love of learning struggle in high school and find it stifling. Valedictorians see it as their job to get good grades and give teachers what they want.

Yet a career where you’re great at doing one thing will be more rewarding and satisfying than a job where you’re as good as everyone else at doing many things.

“This generalist approach doesn’t lead to expertise,” says Barker. “Yet eventually we almost all go on to careers in which one skill is highly rewarded and other skills aren’t that important.”

So a report card with straight As offers no clues about your kids’ signature strengths. A range of grades would help reveal where they shine and should invest more of their time.

“Consider the people we’re all envious of who can confidently pick something, say they’re going to be awesome at it, and then calmly go and actually be awesome at it.  This is their secret: they’re not good at everything, but they know their strengths and choose things that are a good fit.”

Know thyself is one of the keys to success and happiness, says Barker. The other is to pick the right pond.

“Context is everything. If you follow rules well, find an organization aligned with your signature strengths and go full steam ahead. Society clearly rewards those who can comply, and these people keep the world an orderly place,” says Barker.

“If you’re more of an unfiltered type, be ready to blaze your own path. It’s risky, but that’s what you were built for.”

Along with questioning the wisdom of playing it safe and doing what we’re told, Barker dives into the research to discover if nice guys finish first or last, if quitters never win and winners never quit and if who we know matters more than what know. He also explores the thin line between self-confidence and self-delusion and how to strike the right work-life balance.

“Much of what we’ve told about the qualities that lead to achievement is logical, earnest and downright wrong. Sometimes what produces success is raw talent, sometimes it’s the nice things our moms told us to do, and other times it’s the exact opposite.”

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.