Moving Hard Knox Life to Medium

Since 2008, I have been blogging using WordPress on It has been one of the enriching professional experiences as it gave me a forum for public discussion of thoughts I had on the future of marketing, digital and technology. But over the past few years, my posting on the site has gone down significantly. Part of that has been a general lack of time between Rockfish, The Brandery and my now 3 year old twins.

But the other driver that decreased my drive to post was a feeling that blogging was becoming a bit stale. When I first started blogging, RSS was central to the experience and I often found almost instantaneous engagement in the comment section as soon as I published my post. However, RSS never really took off beyond a core group and in 2013, Google decided to shut down their Google Reader product because of this fact. While I’m personally still a loyal user of the RSS tool Feedly, I know more and more people that have turned to Facebook, Twitter, and other channels for their content discovery.

It is no coincidence that with the demise of Google Reader, we have seen the rise of a new set of content creation tools that are built of the principles of the social web. Instead of relying on a new behavior such as subscribing to RSS, they are integrating into your social network to allow your content to reach people who are already engaging with you.

It is with that in mind that I have decided to switch the domain over to Medium for publishing. A few months ago I started posting some of my top blog posts from the years onto Medium, as well a starting an official publication. So if you’d like to keep seeing my posts on Hard Knox Life, you can:

The custom domain of will redirect over to Medium starting in the next few weeks as well.

Why Pebble Time and Kickstarter are a new model for launching a product

When the Pebble Time smart watch launched on Kickstarter this week, it quickly set the record as fastest campaign to raise $1 million in just 30 minutes.  Entrepreneur and blogger Jason Calacanis summarized it best with his tweet:

As a bit of history lesson, it was May 2012 when Pebble, the second-largest manufacturer of smart watches behind Samsung, set the then total funding record on Kickstarter as they “raised” over $10.2 million.  And now with Time, Pebble claims two of the four most successful launches ever on Kickstarter – the self-proclaimed “new way to fund creative projects.”  Launched in 2009, 8 million people have pledged more than $1.6 billion on the platform, funding 79,000 creative projects.   Kickstarter spends a lot of time focusing on the word “creative” because it’s meant to be a place where projects of all kinds come to life.  Just look at its 2014 Year in Review, where highlights included “saving a neighborhood taco joint” and “TIME named five projects in its 25 best inventions of the year.”  I had a chance to personally experience the power of the platform as my friends at Braxton Brewing set the Kickstarter record for most funded brewery project on the site.

Creative project vs commercial launch?

As a marketer, the part that really stands out to me is the go-to-market strategy that Pebble used to launch the Time as its defense against the upcoming Apple Watch.  The first Pebble Watch in 2012 was truly a “creative project”.  It was about entrepreneurs that wanted to bring their dream of an eWatch to life.  But fast forward to today and Pebble has raised $15 million in Venture Capital, sold over 400,000 watches, and generated at least $60 million in revenue.   Pebble is no longer just a creative project… it is a company and a successful one at that.

With that in mind, Pebble Time might mark a tipping point for Kickstarter in its commercial evolution.   It is clearly the most visible example yet where Kickstarter has served as a marketing and sales platform for a brand product launch.  Kickstarter’s CEO said as much when he recently commented that “The Pebble Time project will show that the real power and utility of our platform is not in money, it’s in community and distribution.”

Kickstarter might be the new DRTV for marketers

Direct response television (DRTV) was once reserved exclusively for the likes of Billy Mays and his infomercials.  But back in the early 2000’s, CPG leaders like Procter & Gamble, 3M, and Clorox started to turn to DRTV as a channel for direct to consumer and drive to retail strategies.  For instance, one of the most successful examples at P&G was the launch of Crest Whitestrips, which leveraged DRTV and channels like Home Shopping Network to pre-seed the market in advance of the mass retail launch.  It was a model that P&G used repeatedly over the next decade for launches as varied as the Folgers Single Cup Brewing System and Iams Savory Sauce.  By seeding the market through DRTV and proving the consumer demand, P&G was able to use those results to secure retailer support.  I would argue that is the exact same strategy that Pebble used to eventually secure its exclusive retail distribution with Best Buy in 2013.

DRTV also shines for the sense of urgency it creates by encouraging viewers to pick up the phone or go to a website in order to not miss out on an offer.  It was the precursor to and Groupon, where a time-sensitive offer causes you to take action.  In many ways, Kickstarter is the latest evolution of this DRTV model.    In the case of Pebble Time, if you were one of the first 10,000 backers, you were able to buy the watch for $159…a $40 savings off the retail price of $199.  That offer was gone in a matter of hours which meant the next 30,000 backers could get the watch for $20 more at $179.  It is the exact same sense of urgency that Proactiv used with DRTV to build a $1 billion annual business.

By pre-seeding the market with direct response and a sense of urgency to purchase, Pebble is turning Kickstarter into the digital equivalent of DRTV.

Evolution of Direct to Consumer

Pebble Time is just the latest example of the rise in direct to consumer and the tension it is creating in the traditional retail world.   You have Dollar Shave Club embracing subscription commerce to solve a consumer frustration of paying too much for their razor blades.  Then there are companies like Frameri and Greats creating remarkable fashion brands without traditional wholesale or retail sitting in the middle.  And you have the rise of Digital Shopper Marketing as shoppers turn to their mobile phones and search the “shelves” of Amazon.

Now you have Kickstarter moving into not just funding “creative projects” but being a platform for a brand to launch a new product and drive millions of dollars of revenue in a matter of hours.  These are fundamental changes that will shake the very foundation of retail, CPG and brand marketing in the years to come as consumers and businesses alike embrace these new models.

This article originally appeared in an edited version on on March 5, 2015.

The Truth of Selling to Brands vs Agencies

One of the constant questions that I see startups wrestle with is how to think about the selling process of brand marketers vs their agency partners.  Frankly it is a question that does not have clean cut answer.  But, it is a question that I think I am well positioned to at least help with since over my career I have spent two-thirds of my time on the brand side (P&G) and one-third on the agency side (Rockfish).  So how should startups handle the brand vs agency debate?  In my eyes, there is not a single answer but instead several questions that a startup should consider as they build their selling strategy:

Question #1:  Brand Tech? Ad Tech? Retail Tech?  Which budget would your service come out of?

Not all marketing budgets are created equal and not everyone on a brand has equal control on those budgets.  It is vital that a startup realize the type of spend that their company would fall under.  For instance, if you are a media buy or asking people to purchase based on CPMs than you are most likely AdTech.  And as such, you are not going to have much luck pitching to a Brand Manager.  In most cases, especially with the rise of programmatic buying, brands have empowered their media agency or internal media group to own all AdTech decisions.  For all but the largest strategic discussions, marketers turn over the decision on which sites to buy and do not even begin to get into the details of things like real-time bidding.   If you are a shopper marketing play (ie Retail Tech), then you need to be talking to the marketer (and their agency) that owns the relationships with their retail partners and customer teams.  Or if you are Brand Tech / Digital Marketing, then you are probably talking to the Brand Manager and their digital agency.  Startups can waste a lot of time and energy having meetings with people on the brand that really do not have a say on making the buy.  Figure out which budget you fit into and then map the right relationships based on that.

Question #2:  Who is impacted by your product? What work would take place to implement it?

While there is often a single decision maker that gives the go / no go decision on working with your startup, there is a good chance that decision will impact a multitude of folks on the brand and agency side.  Those people can become champions of your solution or there is an equal chance they can become a poison pill that kills the deal.  It is important to try and gain a 360 degree view of the landscape and how your solution might fit.  For instance, many brands are currently working on global templates to bring a common architecture to their websites globally.  If you are attempting to sell a social media content hub to the brand team in North America, you will have to realize the impact that would make on the global template work that another team might have been working on for over a year.  As the worlds of the CMO and CIO continue to blend together, the need to understand the impact of your solution is more important than ever.

Question #3:  Are you selling a “test & learn” to start or a broader implementation?

When a startup first sells to a brand marketer, they quickly learn the term “test & learn”.  Think of it essentially as a trial or foot in the door with the brand that lasts a set amount of time (and usually is under $50K at max).  Done right, it can lead to a bigger long term relationship.  Done poorly, it can mean you have shot yourself in the foot and ruined any opportunities in the future.  Some startups try to inherently avoid test & learns but that is a dangerous path.  Instead, you should focus on clearly defining the success metrics of the test & learn and what next steps would look like if those metrics are met.  Excuse the bad analogy, but you want to think of the test & learn as the engagement period that will hopefully lead to a marriage.  Even in those situations where you are pitching a much broader engagement (for instance switching to an entirely new Content Marketing Platform), the startup should look for a way to get a brand to dip their toe in the water.  If you have a great product that truly solves a problem that a brand faces, this trial can be what ultimately leads to you winning the business.

Question #4:  Have other brands or clients at the company / agency worked with you before?

Most startups learn about the concept of social signaling when first dealing with investors.  Well the same holds true with brand marketers and agencies as well.  If your startup has worked with another client at an agency, they are going to do the due diligence of finding out what worked and what did not.  And they will do the same if you have worked with another brand within a company.  You can use this to your advantage as well because marketers like to know that someone else has taken that first risk on your startup and worked out all of the kinks.  And frankly even more importantly, they know that someone else has the scars on their back from doing the hard work of getting your startup through legal and set up in their purchasing / payment system.  That seems like a small thing but it is actually a very big thing for most folks.  On the flip side, if this is the first time your startup has worked with a certain company, realize that you are asking that person on the other side of the table to not only say yes, but to also be a champion  for you internally.  You need to reward and recognize them for the extra work that in many times they will be doing on your behalf (this holds true if its on the brand or agency side).

Question #5:  What is the role and authority of the person you are talking to?

One of the biggest mistakes that a startup makes is not understanding the person they are selling to.  In general, they make two types of mistakes in this regard.  The first is they assume the more senior the person is, the better for them to sell to.  For instance, just last week a startup sent a LinkedIn message to the President of a large CPG that I know.  This President has overall Profit & Loss responsibility for his division yet this startup was trying to get him to meet to talk about a small digital activation of less than $100K (a rounding error in his budget).  The second mistake is that they don’t understand the role the person has within the organization.  There is a big difference between a Brand Manager that has budget responsibility and an Innovation Manager that is responsibility for exploring new areas.  Its not that one is better than the other but instead their internal reward structures are different.  For instance, the Brand Manager is going to be measured on growing their top and bottom line of the business – not on creating a new innovative marketing campaign necessarily.  Likewise on the agency side, the Account Director might not “own” the budget for the client, but they likely have one of the closest relationships and ability to convince them why it is worth taking a risk on a new idea.

If a startup goes in understanding these questions about their business and the company they are talking with, it will help them figure out the right path to explore.  There are amazing opportunities for brands and startups to more closely collaborate but it will take both sides working to make the most of the relationship.

Is Facebook Building the 21st Century Procter & Gamble?

Back in 2008, I had the chance to lead P&G’s Joint Business Planning with Facebook (as well as the other big digital media players).  The intent of the Joint Business Plan wasn’t about just increasing advertising dollars.  It was about knowledge sharing between the two companies with the goal of having a strategic relationship where we both became better businesses as a result.  This cultural exchange was about P&G accelerating our digital knowledge, while Facebook learned how brand marketers thought. Following the announcement last night of their purchase of WhatsApp, it looks like Facebook didn’t just learn how to think like P&G but maybe how to become P&G as well.

What I mean is that Facebook appears to be using the Procter & Gamble playbook for building a “house of brands.”  This playbook is about building a portfolio of businesses that often will compete against each other but ultimately giving your company a larger market share.  For instance, P&G’s global laundry market share is around 31%. This includes brands like Tide, Gain and Ariel, each of which contributes above $1 billion in annual sales.  But they also have brands like Bounce, Downy, Era and others that all compete in the same space.  The same goes for Baby Care with both Pampers and Luvs, as well as Hair Care with Pantene, Head & Shoulders, Aussie, and Herbal Essences.

Facebook has a history of being active in the acquisition space, with WhatsApp being their 45th purchase.  But historically, all of their purchases were either acqui-hires for the talent or a foundation for a future Facebook feature.  For instance, Hot Potato became the basis for Facebook Places and Karma became Facebook Gifts.

But this might be changing.  The first indication was the purchase of Instagram in April 2012.  At the time, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom wrote bluntly in a blog post that, “Instagram is not going away.”  As we near the two year anniversary of that deal, those words have held true and Instagram is an even stronger brand today than it was back then.  With the WhatsApp purchase, the key message track for Zuckerberg and company is that “WhatsApp is on a path to connect 1 billion people.”  The talk isn’t around how WhatsApp will fix Facebook Messenger but instead its all about the potential of the WhatsApp brand and service.

If you look at P&G’s Purpose, they say that they “will provide branded products and services of superior quality and value that improve the lives of the world’s consumers, now and for generations to come.”    Facebook on the other hand talks about their purpose being “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”   With the addition of WhatsApp and Instragram, you could argue that these purposes are becoming more and more similar.  Facebook now has three “branded products and services of superior quality and value that improve the lives of the world’s consumers” to “share and make the world more open and connected.”

People were shocked at the price of Facebook’s purchase of Instragram in 2012.  And there is even greater disbelief as the WhatsApp acquisition goes down as one of the largest M&A deals in history.  But in many ways, both of these deals are similar to the moves P&G made to buy Gillette for $57 billion and Clairol for $5 billion.   With Gillette, P&G gained one of the strongest male grooming brands in the world, while Clairol was a foundation for the scale of P&G Beauty.   For Facebook, WhatsApp has the same role in Messaging, while Instagram offers it for Photos.

In the end, Facebook is following the same strategy of building a House of Brands that has built the great CPG companies like P&G, Unilever, and Nestle.  I’d say they clearly learned something about building brands during all those Joint Business Plan meetings years ago.

The Rise of Brand Tech

When the industry talks about startups and technology in the advertising industry, it often receives the shorthand description of “AdTech”.  It is a term that I have always struggled with from the perspective of a Brand Marketer.  Most brand marketers aren’t hands on when it comes to their media buys.  Instead they rely on the expertise of their internal media staff and external media agencies to understand the differences in Automated Performance, Real-Time Bidding, DSP’s, Agency Trading Desks, and all the other odd sounding language of AdTech.  They know their budget allocation of their media dollars, but not the details of the buys themselves.

On the other hand, we have seen an increasing number of startups that are calling directly on marketers themselves.  The rise makes complete sense when you consider Gartner’s prediction that by 2017 the CMO will Spend More on IT Than the CIO.  Or that by 2015, 25% of enterprises will have a Chief Digital Officer.  Salesforce for one is capitalzing on this shift as they have spent $3.5 billion to get into the CMO Suite through the acquisitions of Exact Target, Buddy Media, Radian6 &

While Salesforce talks of the Marketing Cloud, I lean towards calling this new area of startups “Brand Tech.”  Brand Tech is the concept of technology startups that live in the worlds of the CMO and Brand Marketers.  Its not about the traditional working dollars of media or CPM’s necessarily, but new channels for marketers to reach consumers.   Brand Tech defines companies in Content Marketing, Loyalty, Social Sharing, Gamification, and other emerging channels. These themes are at the heart of many of the companies that graduate from The Brandery in this space including Donde, Ahalogy, and CrowdHall.

Speaking of The Brandery, the rise of Brand Tech could lead to another shift in the startup space when it comes to geography.  In particular, it could lead to a shift in the cities where business is done between startups and brand marketers.   I was talking with a Brand Tech startup founder who previously spent his days in the AdTech world.   Based in New York, he told the story of how his AdTech startup led him to spend every day calling on the likes of media companies such as Mediavest, Carat, and GroupM throughout NYC.  But since moving to the world of Brand Tech, it meant being on a plan and heading to Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Detroit, and Chicago to visit the headquarters of the largest brand marketers instead.   As he thinks about building out his business development team, this means he is going to be looking at those cities for expansion, instead of just building a sales team on the East Coast.

The rise of Brand Tech is going to have a fundamental change on the both the startup world and the marketing industry.  For startups, it means finding the right investors that understand this space and the right geography to capitalize on the business.  And for marketers, it is going to mean becoming increasingly focused on external innovation and new channels instead of just the allocation of their media budget.  For both, its going to be exciting change ripe with opportunities.