Smile, Camera, Action!!

With apologies to Bogey, of all the motorbikes in all of Ho Chi Minh City (4.1 million and counting), this one had to run in to me.  

It wasn’t the impact. No, it was the speedy exit with my camera that really hurt.  

A Monday morning agency meeting this week meant that I spent Sunday, the Fourth of July – America’s birthday – in Vietnam.  

For 12 hours, as I wandered all over the city previously known as Saigon, I couldn’t help but reflect on my memories of the war as a kid growing up in the States during the 60’s. During the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite one night, I remember asking my Dad what a “casualty” was … I also especially remember my mother’s tears of spontaneous joy as we watched a live television report announcing that a friend’s son was, at that very moment, a newly-freed POW. 

On the other side of the world on Sunday, I came away from this most patriotic of American holidays with one distinct and surprising finding – Ho Chi Minh must be the most friendly city I have ever encountered.  

“Hey California!” came the happy shout all day long – from taxi drivers, market stalls, and yes, people whizzing by on motorbikes. Friendly waves, and big thumbs up … complete strangers with no agenda just saying “Hello” and “Where are you from?” simply to strike up a conversation and to practice their English. 

Not only were people willing to have their picture taken, many took extra time to smile and pose with their kids and Grandma – all balanced on the same two-wheeled scooter.  

With yesterday’s meetings successfully completed and a flight to New Zealand later today, I decided to make use of the down time and hired a hotel car for an early morning photo safari at the Mekong Delta.  

As we were leaving the City with a glorious sunrise to another scorcher of a day, the bright colours of a street market caught my eye and the driver stopped for me to take a quick shot.  

I was outside of the car for all of 15 seconds. Before I had a chance to put the camera strap around my neck, it was snatched from my hand by a guy on the back of the motorbike. I yelled, ran, but my Nikon and a loaded memory card whipped around the corner and out of sight.  

It was 6:10am.  

Bummed? Sick? Feeling stupid? Yep, yep, yep.  

Yet, I also stand by my earlier assertion that this city is world-class friendly. A half dozen people immediately came up, each looking as nearly crestfallen as I, shaking their heads sadly and making comforting conversation. The driver looked particularly stricken – he had suggested we stop.  

We then proceeded to the police station where a barefooted Captain was sound asleep in front of the TV (an American film with subtitles on HBO). A cleaning woman poked him awake, and for the next two hours we revisited the scene of the crime and with the contributions of helpful street vendors, we collaborated on a four-page handwritten report in two languages.  

As we worked away together on the crime report, an older generation of neighbourhood police station groupies asked excitedly to hear the dramatic story again and again, each time wishing me good luck and good fortune at the end. If their kindness also included Vietnamese for “moron,” they did so with smiles and gentleness.  

I know I’ll never see the camera again, nor the 300 images of smiling, happy Vietnamese that I took on the Fourth of July. But I do leave with my mental memory card pleasantly full, intact and newly-updated.



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Tea Time?

I’m probably not the first to declare the world is divided into two camps – coffee drinkers and the tea sippers.

My wife is the latter. I am the former.

Coffee, to me, isn’t about taste – it is purely a functional duty. Bracing, bolted down, badda boom and bang – out the door, on with the day, day, day! 

I often observe my wife with her tea cup in the morning – she’s not drinking from it, she’s caressing it.

Tea looks to be all about lingering, savouring, easing … smoothly, gracefully … into the daaaaaaay … Tea, it seems to me, is more about meeting the day and negotiating a proper start to it, versus charging in and confronting it.

Check this out for yourself this summer:

I maintain that tea drinkers step carefully, gingerly into life’s swimming pool. Coffee drinkers? Hell, they cannonball straight into the deep end.

Even the afternoon tea break – a fine English tradition – is a discrete way of slipping out of the moment and then quietly back into it, whereas a coffee break is about refueling, recharging and gearing up for the day’s final grind.

But on an Air China flight to Beijing this morning, I was handed an 8-page Tea Menu that has caused me to rethink everything. Its introduction jolted me like a rich mug of black Colombian, and at the same time, it also gave me pause:

“The tea emits a sweet scent and a degree of warmth, displaying its posture of calmness, reservation, introversion and modesty, providing us with a share of ease and peace of mind in the noise of the city, ( deep breath here) allowing us to enjoy a portion of quietness and comfort in the surge of lives, the change of seasons and the convergence of time and space.”

Dang. Who knew? (And to think my wife has been harbouring this truth from me for all these years.)

Purely as an aid to public health, allow me to now quote from a few of the selections Air China has on offer :

Green Tea

Suitable for busy young people who often use computers with refreshing, cooling digesting, clearing throat, brightening eyes functions

Black Tea

Suitable for weak people with refreshing and enriching the saliva, diuresis, diminish inflammation and anti-bacterium, detoxification functions

Blue Brown Tea

Suitable for the crowd to lose weight and feel irritable, with the functions to prevent occurrence of reactive oxygen and tooth decay, elimination of damage to beauty and health

Preventing an “occurrence of reactive oxygen” seemed like a good idea (chicken sausages for breakfast) but instead, I went for the Jasmine – “full fragrance and stored in a cool place.” 

Supply your own punch line here: _________ 



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Facebook's Privacy Changes

The changes that Facebook has just made in its privacy policies and settings have opened up a host of intriguing questions for individual users as well as for companies and brands. And recently, I was asked what opportunities are created by these privacy changes, what these changes mean for consumers, and what opportunity this means for clients. Check out my thoughts on these questions here in a video produced by the Ketchum Global Technology Practice’s Techphoria TV channel.

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Plinth People

Plinth People

Been to Trafalgar Square lately? 

In the northwest corner, on the infamous “empty” fourth plinth, there’s now a stunning work of art called “Ship in a Bottle.”   It’s a replica of “HMS Victory” – the ship in which Admiral Lord Nelson’s scored his decisive naval victory in 1805.  

Trafalgar Square itself stands as something of a civic victory, too. The square was created back in 1840 and ever since it has served as London’s central gathering point. A £25 million redevelopment programme in 2007 put new wind in the sails of a city that cherishes, if not overtly celebrates, freedom of expression.  

“Ship” is truly incredible. The Anglo-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare created all 37 sails from African-style textiles and it is, as branded, indeed encased in a giant glass bottle.  

But for me, nothing tops the fourth plinth quite like last summer’s artwork. 

As Londoners will easily recall, the July 2009 “installation” marked the start of a total of 2,400 individuals who climbed to the top of the plinth to take turns becoming a living work of art.  

The idea was the brainchild of artist Antony Gormley – his work saw one person appear on the Square’s plinth every hour for 100 days. Art specimens ranged from the existentialist humanitarian who did absolutely nothing to the one who dressed as human excrement in a plea for clean drinking water. 



Is it art? That was the question of the day.  

A columnist (Frank Skinner) from The Times then called it “a living portrait of modern Britain” and endorsed it with a quote I love and all cranky cynics will hate: “One of the worst things that can strike down a human being is the slam-dunk closing of the mind – the idea that one’s opinion of something has been finally formulated and now set in stone. I think opinions should be like Plasticine – always open to reshaping, always having the potential to become something new.”   

In the closing ceremonies, Mayor Johnson said “Over the past 100 days we have witnessed the bold, the beautiful and the bizarre. In the age of X Factor and Guitar Hero, Gormley’s plinthers have quite literally stood alone.” 

I loved the idea of the exhibit and have thought our agency would be for the better if we all took on board and exercised more rigorously the symbol of freedom it represented.    

For nearly a year now, Skinner’s column has been crumpled in a corner of my backpack, but yesterday, on the taxi ride from the airport to my Singapore hotel, I saw a billboard for the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School that neatly captured the essence of the Plinth People: 

“SCGS Talent Programme. From a face in the crowd to the one the crowd faces.”



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The Culturalist

The Culturalist

As the temperature hit heat hotter than the pizza ovens at Keste, the Culturalist discovered some extraordinary heat in Times Square this past weekend. New York’s hottest megastore, a 90,000 square foot branch of retailer Forever 21, opened to thousands of shoppers in Virgin Records former quarters. With a décor that looks like Versailles on acid blended with suburban and urban attitude, Forever 21 is fast becoming New York’s newest tourist attraction: the store expects 100,000 visitors daily — that’s 86,000 more than Lady Liberty gets on a given day. Open until 2 a.m., the Culturalist imagines a new trend: drunk shopping.  And don’t miss the debut of Louie on FX who promises to heat up our flat screens this summer. Louie, AKA stand-up comic Louis C.K., appears to be a direct descendant of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin. Louis’ bleak, blue-collar humor can be a bit crude, but the Culturalist applauds the honesty. Trust us, this guy is funny! For more on what’s hot, what’s new, and what’s coming soon, check out the issue.

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In a Flap Over Mudguards and Salesmanship in Beijing

In a Flap Over Mudguards and Salesmanship in Beijing

Salesmanship is at the heart of public relations. As public relations practitioners, we develop strategies and tactics to help companies establish their reputations so that people trust them, because only when people trust a company will they consider purchasing its products or services. We use creative branding programs to differentiate our clients’ products or services from competitors’ products or services because only when consumers believe our offerings best fit their needs, will they consider purchasing them. And we increasingly engage stakeholders in different facets of our clients’ businesses – such as product development – in order to understand what they really want. Our clients then take those insights and incorporate them into their own products or services in the hope of providing products and services that more people want to buy.   The impact of good salesmanship was brought home to me recently through an experience I had trying to purchase mudguards for my bicycle in Beijing. I’m an avid cyclist and I cycle to work every day. I do this because it’s fast, it’s healthy – although some people might argue that cycling through Beijing’s dust-laden, smog-filled air can hardly be classified healthy, I believe that if you wear a face mask and cycle down roads with proper bike lanes that are separated from vehicular traffic by tree borders, as I do, then the air you’re breathing is no worse than if you were in a car or walking.

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Ontologies, Football, Social Media and My Grandma

I have many fond memories of my grandmother. When she passed away at the ripe old age of 92, she was still pretty lucid and had the sharpest tongue I ever found anywhere — not unusual for the Florentine she was (although she’d whack me for this, as she was actually from the posh suburb of Fiesole, which is very close to Florence, but a whole world of difference to her).  Since I was her first grandson to enter the world of business, she was always curious to know what kind of job I managed to land, and unfortunately my job descriptions were always sort of vague — systems engineer, marketing executive, business development manager and the like — leaving her a bit frustrated because all her friends nephews were doctors or lawyers or bankers.   Yesterday, I had lunch with some of our social media people, and we were discussing a similar situation. So, perhaps inspired by the smell of a margherita I had in front of me, I told Marco: “You should be proud of explicating implicit ontologies”. Needless to say, there were quite a number of repressed smirks, so I felt I had to expand a little.

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Seven Ways to Enhance a Website's Link Popularity

Many times we are asked by our clients questions like “What’s wrong with my website?” or “Is it adequate to support the interaction with bloggers?”  Achieving link popularity (i.e., having many people who link to your website) is very important, as it is one of the most important parameters used by search engines to build their result rankings; if one such adage existed, we could say that “One incoming link is worth 1,000 tweets”.   Experience shows that a very effective way to address this issue is by defining as precisely as possible the functional specifications (i.e., what we need the website to do), leaving to the client’s IT department to figure out how they will do this, keeping into account whatever technical and policy restrictions they might have.   Functional Specifications 1. Channels – Are we making it easy for people to recognize themselves in our website structure? In other words, was the structure designed to service our company or to address the information needs of our visitors? Is information clearly categorized or am I asking visitors to wade through the mix of all I have to offer to find what’s relevant for them? Think of the difference between generalist TV and satellite TV if you need inspiration; of course, deciding which channels requires understanding the needs and behavioural profiles of our (potential) visitors, which in itself may represent a challenge.

2. RSS Granularity – RSS is a very powerful “push” mechanism that allows our content to be syndicated to the outside world, thereby establishing a more permanent bond with visitors: even when they are not on our site, an RSS feed alerts them about the fact we have published some new information we believe might be relevant. The key word here is “relevant.” Nobody wants to hear when a company updates the biographies of its board members (unless I’m an investor or someone who’s interested in corporate governance). Here’s another example. If a person came to a site looking for the technical specifications of alloy wheels for the Fiat Punto, it’s probably pointless to alert them to the fact we have a new design available for the Maserati GranTurismo. So if we did our channels definition well, each channel should have its own thematic RSS feed that makes sure I only get the information I want. Ditto for any other mechanism the website offers for navigating content (see below #3 and #6).

3. Search RSS – Every website on the planet has a search function; but only a small fraction offer an RSS feed from the results page. This is an untapped opportunity for many because it’s capitalizing on something that our visitors told us they are interested in. See my Puntos example in #2.

4. Permalinks – Many websites serve their content using a database back end to quickly access the information; this is very efficient, but it sometimes means that each page does not have a static URL, but instead a dynamic URL is generated with each query. For social media use this is a deadly issue, because it means that all deep links to my website content generate 404 errors every time they are followed. Bloggers learned to recognize this and therefore refrain from deep-linking content on sites that use dynamic URLs.

5. Embedding – Pictures and videos are often used by bloggers to support a post, but they are much more likely to do so if the resources are legally and technically usable. From a technical standpoint, we must make it very easy for bloggers to embed our material, which means providing embedding code snippets (please see YouTube or Flickr for an example). From a legal standpoint, pictures and videos should be properly licensed (e.g., through the use of creative commons licenses or equivalent).

6. Tagging – However carefully we may have selected our channels, there will always be cases where something fits in more than one channel, or doesn’t really fit in any of the existing channels. The solution for this is tagging, allowing qualifiers to be added to any piece of content (text, picture, video, podcasts) to make it easier to find relevant information. This is especially important for nontextual content, which would otherwise escape the internal search engine. Tagging should not be open to visitors, but should be usable ALSO as an RSS feed and should be easily accessible (i.e., clicking on a tag queries the website for all the content thus tagged).

7. Newsletters – While powerful, RSS is not universal, and there might be visitors to our website who do not use or are familiar with RSS feeds. It is therefore a good idea to provide an alternative mechanism: such as an e-mail newsletter. Users should be able to select the topics they would like to keep abreast as well as the periodicity of the newsletter. Format-wise, while PDF offers the absolute guarantee of layout fidelity, the vast majority of e-mail clients are able to digest properly written HTML. Obviously, the newsletter must be powered by an automated system which collects information from the website content management system based on the user profile and automatically sends the newsletter with the appropriate periodicity.

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Word of Mouth Marketing Association Conference 2010

Word of Mouth Marketing Association Conference 2010

A group report from Joe Becker along with Ben Foster, Ketchum Vice President and Digital Strategist, and Stephanie Miller, Ketchum Social Media Specialist.The 2010 Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) School of WOM was recently held in Chicago, and the social media community has been buzzing about trends, key learnings and the most-talked-about tweets. The three-day event featured best practices and case studies from some of the world’s top brands, including Coca-Cola, Best Buy, FedEx, Proctor & Gamble, Google, the IOC and Kraft Foods.

  The School of WOM is led by a “faculty” of industry experts from agencies such as Zócalo Group’s Paul Rand. Nearly 300 people attended, and more than 2,500 tweets were captured with the #WOMMA hashtag. Below represents some of the most talked about tweets, which inherently represent key takeaways and trends. 

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Best People or Best Ideas?

Best People or Best Ideas?

  If you have to choose between ideas and people – which do you choose? What’s more important? To have the best ideas to solve your problem or to have the best people on your team?     Ed Catmull, Oscar Award winner and President of the Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios has the answer: People. His reasoning makes so much sense. An incapable team can demolish any idea. But a good team can make something out of anything – even a flimsy idea.   

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