The Choking Point

I’m in-between trips here, on a sort of weekend pass until the next seminar. Just flew in from Vegas, and I have to get in the car in less than 48 hours and drive to another event (the sold-out Tactic 7 seminar in San Francisco).

Immediately after, I’m off for my annual golf getaway with my pal Stan. Several days dedicated to the noble sport of chasing little balls around nature.

I am out of my routine, and struggling to stay in the groove.

Still, the old marketing mind never quits. And I just had several experiences that reminded me of how fast things can go bad in business when you’re too lazy to pay attention to the foundation of what you have.

Experience #1: I’m trying to order a friggin’ sandwich without tomatoes at a well-known fast food joint. I hate tomatoes. I hate them so much, I used to ask cooks not to simply hold them… but to take the slices meant for my burger out back and let the garbage truck run them over.

I have my reasons. I’ve been hurt by tomatoes before.

Anyway, I’m at the squawk box, giving my brain-dead simple order: Gimme the blankety-blank sandwich, without tomatoes, and a Dr. Pepper.

You can’t hold the tomatoes, says the tinny voice in the little box. That sandwich doesn’t gzzzt brrrck praxxx.


I can’t understand what he’s talking about. Finally, I order something else — a “number 3”, with a plain old Coke. Jeez Louise.

When I get to the window to pay, the guy is all ticked off. “Why’d you keep asking for no tomatoes on that first sandwich?” he said. “It doesn’t COME with tomatoes, so we CAN’T leave them off.”

And: “I couldn’t hear what the heck you were saying.”

Okay. Never mind the twisted logic of not being able to hold the tom, because it doesn’t come with tom.

Let’s get back to that part about not being able to hear me. I was speaking clearly, right into the box. I know the drill. I’ve been ordering fast food since Jack-In-The-Box actually had a clown’s head you talked into. Scary.

While waiting at the window, I watched the guy butcher another order. I heard the order clearly, even from ten feet away, but the clerk was just clueless.

Wouldn’t you think that — just maybe — the guy you’d want handling the orders from the speaker box… should be able to HEAR?

What we have here… is a “choking point”. Everything else can run smoothly in the joint… but because somebody didn’t do his job during the hiring process, all that high-efficiency is wasted, utterly.

Because every incoming order is being choked off by the clerk who can’t hear.

The ramifications of this are staggering. For any business.

Experience #2: I’ve been reading about a lot lately. I’ve known about it for a while, never visited, and never really cared much about it. Wasn’t on my radar.

All of a sudden — bam, here is article after article about it. In the local paper. In the local hippie freebie paper. On the six o’clock news. On the national news. In the New Yorker. On AOL.

Suddenly, it’s everywhere. Rupert Murdock’s NewsCorp had paid $580million for MySpace, outbidding Google and other players. Everyone in a suit, it seemed, considered the site “the next big thing”. For something. They just knew it was teeming with young-uns, and that HAD to be a good thing.


I’m not sure if this was purposeful PR, and part of a conscious campaign… or accidental PR, part of a media feeding frenzy.

But something in my gut told me it was not good.

Most companies drool over PR. They crave it, like a junkie, and pursue it with dedication. PR equals attention, and attention equals more customers.


Well… not always.

In the case of MySpace, the “fuel” for growth was primarily teenagers. Anyone with prior experience marketing to teens knows how fickle they are. And all this publicity — while getting MySpace noticed by Wall Street — was kicking out the foundation of the site’s success.

Teenagers are much less interested in sites once their parents know about them. This loss of “cool” is immediate, like a breach in a dam. Kids flock to music, sites and attitudes that are hidden from the ‘rent’s awareness.

Once the geezers start to “get it”, the teens are gone.

And it’s happening with MySpace. Growth has sputtered. Previous sites with similar booms in popularity (like Friendster) hit virtual walls in this exact manner, without warning, that caused massive desertion by members. Sometimes, kids just get bored. More often, something new comes along.

Like — a fascinating, yet totally alien cyber world that feeds into the natural narcissism of kids even better than MySpace does.

The suits at NewsCorp, I’m betting, thought their PR plan was pure genius.

Instead, their cluelessness about what is truly hip and cool has become a choking point for the site.

Good luck re-couping your $580mil, guys.

Experience #3: I caught the final show of the latest “Apprentice” round. Part of why I watched was because my pal Joe Polish was in the audience, and we tried to spot him during pans. No luck.

Now, I’ve caught all the previous Apprentice shows — nearly the entire series. I liked it. So did other marketers, like Dan Kennedy. It was raw fun watching both the strategies of making odd tasks work, and the soap opera drama of the interactions of unfettered egos.

But I sorta doubt I’ll watch anymore. I’ve joined the swelling ranks of “former fans”.

What happened? The numbers for much of the current round actually increased this season… as the producers did focus groups, and tweaked the elements of the show that brought in more viewers.

Unfortunately, what brought in more and more people had nothing to do with what made the show such fun originally. You know, the business stuff.

The wider the net cast, the less interesting the show became to its core audience.

Now, it’s just another reality show, like Big Brother. I guess too many people complained about being confused by all the “biz talk” and focus on strategy. They liked the fireworks of the personalities. The humiliations of failure, the jungle-level back-stabbing.

Which is all tremendously entertaining — don’t get me wrong.

But the tasks have gotten dumber, and less “real”. And much less focus on the “how they did it” part, which is what’s interesting to business people. There’s so much product tie-in and pitching and irrelevant voting going on, it’s just a travelling circus now.

The choking point: Decisions based on raw numbers, and not on quality.

There is a place where you can have both a huge audience, or even a huge herd of customers, and still offer challenging quality.

But that place is tenuous and fragile. And to move beyond it, you have to sacrifice quality, because the wider audiences won’t tolerate complexity.

They want the easy fun of watching stereotypes kill each other. Like a comic book.


But all things pass. I was getting pissy about being chained to the TV every week for that show, anyway.

Now, I have time for new diversions.

I’ll try to post from the road. Otherwise, I’ll be back in a week or so.

Enjoy this early part of summer, while the brisk spring is still in memory.

And stay frosty. It’s gonna get hot.

John Carlton

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  • J says:

    Did anyone else notice when Lee, before the cut to the ice rink said to Mr. Trump:
    “Here’s your diet coke Mr. Trump.”

    Warren Buffett must have been smiling.

    “There?s so much product tie-in…”

    How many were there?

    Pontiac was one. (And that loser complaining about how there wasn’t enough ‘Pontiac signage’…and yet they sold more in terms of $ at the concert auction than at the rink concert. Pft.)

    Who else did they tie in products for? Anyone?

  • Seth Chong says:

    As always…powerful post. 😉



  • Chad says:

    Very interesting. Thanks, John.

    Seems more and more to me the larger market can bring you an influx cash, but if you want stability you have to do quality. Even McDonalds is learning that… maybe.

    When it comes down to it, you business depends on whether your cusotomers come back. If they don’t love you, competition can cream you. Something I got from the Tactic7 calls was how much people want attention, caring.



  • Trey says:

    Great write up. Loved the MySpace comments.

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