Saturday, December 31, 2005

Memories of My Melancholy Whores

The last of my holiday reading was Gabriel Garcia Marquez' latest little book, the beautiful "Memories of My Melancholy Whores."

In translation (by Edith Grossman) it's beautiful to read (I wish I could appreciate the loving language of Marquez' original), a feast for the senses. It's the story of an old man's 90th birthday and the year that follows.

Here are four passages I marked:
"In plain language, I am the end of a line, without merit or brilliance, who would have nothing to leave his descendants if not for the events I am prepared to recount, to the best of my ability, in these memories of my great love." (7)

"In my fifth decade I had begun to imagine what old age was like when I noticed the first lapses of memory. I would turn the house upside down looking for my glasses until I discovered that I had them on, or I'd wear them into the shower, or I'd put on my reading glasses over the ones I used for distance." (9)

"It occurred to me that among the charms of old age are the provocations our young female friends permit themselves because they think we are out of commission." (45)

"The decade of my fifties had been decisive because I became aware that almost everybody was younger than I. The decade of my sixties was the most intense because of the suspicion that I no longer had the time to make mistakes. My seventies were frightening because of a certain possibility that the decade might be my last. Still, when I woke alive on the first morning of my nineties in the happy bed of Delgadina, I was transfixed by the agreeable idea that life was not something that passes by like Heraclitus' ever-changing river but a unique opportunity to turn over the grill and keep broiling on the other side for another ninety years." (109)

Do yourself a favor. Pick up a copy of this book and revel in the joys that can come with growing old.

What will give your brand a kick in the pants?

Somewhere in my holiday reading I came across a phrase that stuck with me for its simplicity and its power. It sums up better than almost anything else what it is that I do, what my company does when we're doing what we do best.

We look for "ideas that motivate the work."

Now, if I'd said "ideas that motivate the brand," that would be powerful, and it's tempting to go there. "Ideas that motivate the brand" is, perhaps, another way of talking about brand identity or positioning. But I believe we go further than that. BURRIS has always been at its best when we implement our innovations, when we execute the ideas we come up with with in good, strong marketing communications.

So when we look for the "ideas that motivate the work," we are thinking ahead in terms of execution. Not just dreaming stuff up, but extending the idea to its motivating conclusions.

Ideas will give a brand a kick in the pants, but what moves a brand in the right direction is putting the power of an idea into the work itself.

"Ideas that motivate the work." I like it.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Welcome, New Year!

Good morning.

A new day, a new week, a new month, a new year.

I don't want to belabor it, but, geez, I'm ready for 2006. I've made two resolutions (which I'll keep to myself, thank you), and I'm anxious to live up to them.

What do you want, what do you need from 2006?

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

"The Beatles," by Bob Spitz

This is the book I thought I would one day write. For probably two decades I've been quietly amassing information and opinions that would one day allow me to write about The Beatles as more than a band, as a timeless musical entity, still influential not only for their songs and their albums but for their lives as well. Now it's been written, and for the most part, to paraphrase, I know I should be glad. Ooooo.

"The Beatles" is as serious a biography as one you might read about a major historical figure, full of references, footnotes and all that. Better, however, it provides insight into the lives of the four Beatles, their families and friends, and also their songs, how they came about, their musical and lyrical values and more.

In short, it's a big book of Beatles information, for the most part chronilogically told, with reviews and biographical narrative. And, fortunately, it's neither dogmatic nor pedantic about the sixties and the band's cultural influence on an era. (There are plenty of other places to go for that.)

I won't attempt a review of the book here. For the most part, "The Beatles" is a biography of the band, and Bob Spitz is knowledgeable and thorough ... and a fan. It ends when Paul finally says, "That's it. I'm gone" and cuts off his communication with both his mates and their manager, Allen Klein. It's comprehensive in almost every way, especially good on "Sgt. Pepper," if a little light on "Abbey Road." I recommend it to anyone who sings along with "Can't Buy Me Love" or "Drive My Car," and is surprised by how good "I Should Have Known Better" or "No Reply" is, not having heard it in, maybe, years.

And to anyone who believes Yoko does, indeed, suck.

The book makes me want to go back to "A Hard Day's Night," the Richard Lester movie, see parts (but not all) of "Anthology" again, even watch for another rerun of Ed Sullivan. Maybe now I'll give up jotting notes on scraps of paper and shoving them in notebooks. But I won't give up the music.

Read an excerpt here.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Happy Holidays!

It's time for me to put away the keyboard and concentrate on a few other things for a couple of days.

During the holidays, I like to relax, leave the car parked, the phone unanswered, the email in the inbox - you get the idea. There'll be DVD's in the player, mp3's blasting from the computer, books to read, magazines to catch up on.... Shrimp with garlic and lemon, a few brewskis, champagne and a good Chianti. It all sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

I hope all of you, dear readers, have a wonderful holiday and look forward - as I do - to a happy new year. Thanks for dropping by.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Beverly Flichman

It's our loss, but all of us at BURRIS have benefited from working with Beverly Flichman since November 2001. Beverly's moving on, heading west to Denver, CO, to work on bigger - but not better, she says - brands.

Here's the way she described her new challenge:

"I will start my job at Integer ( on 1/17. I'll be working on the Iams/Eukanuba account, premium pet food brands owned by P&G. Integer is a promotions agency that is part of the Omnicom group.
My role will be as an Account Supervisor, working on developing shopper insights and driving activity at retail. In the process I'll have the chance to work with the other agencies on the brand's roster--Saatchi (brand), Targetbase (interactive) and Tequila (CRM).

"It will be an interesting new challenge for me to be in an organization that is so large and dedicated to one specific portion of the marketing arsenal. I'm sure I'll break a few eggs along the way."

Yes, Beverly, you will. But your clients will benefit from the breakage, as ours have. Congratulations.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Ricky Gervais Podcast

My friend Michael Scott (he'll be horrified to learn that I think of him as "my friend") suggested I try out Ricky Gervais's new podcast (two episodes so far). I listened to the first on a long walk today, and I found myself laughing out loud.

Good thing no one passed me as I chuckled.

If you're interested, I recommend you listen to one or two of the podcasts (available from iTunes as well as Ricky G's website) before reading too much about what's going on behind the microphones. You'll be introduced to Karl Pilkington, who must be one of the funniest deadpans I've ever heard.

The March - E.L. Doctorow

I read this gripping novel immediately after finishing Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," her biography of Abraham Lincoln. It was a fascinating addendum to the Lincoln story, and it was fun tying some of the events outlined in the Lincoln bio to Sherman's march through Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

I've only dabbled in Doctorow's fiction since "Ragtime," but this will likely send me back to other works of his. The story of The March, of course, is historical, but the characters he creates are wonderful and full-bodied...complex, not one-dimensionally "good" or "bad."

The final scene in the book, presenting a representative (or symbolic?), personified sample of all the cultures that struggled together and with each other in the period, offers a hopeful conclusion to what could have been the dark, sometimes hopeless reality of 19th Century American history.

CEOs who blog

According to a study by Burson-Marsteller and PRWeek magazine, only 7% of CEOs say they are currently blogging. Optimists that they are, however, 18% of those CEOs surveyed say they expect to host a company Web log within two years.

Who cares?

And how many of us believe that the CEOs themselves will actually be doing the posting?

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Sunset over the Gulf

Sunset over the Gulf
Originally uploaded by mburris.
For much of December we live on Sanibel Island (FL), where it's warmer, certainly, where we still work too much, read (not enough), and have the opportunity to see sights like this one.

To see more of my photos, click on the link and go to my flickr page.

Jon Fine on "Modern (Sigh) Media Maturity"

It's difficult for me to add anything to this column about mature media and their fictional lament over days gone by. "You remember when you were the Next Big Thing," Jon Fine writes in the December 12 issue of BusinessWeek, taking the persona of a newspaper or magazine owner/publisher/editor type.

"Near as you can tell, MySpace [and its like] is just a bulletin board where teens and twentysomethings get their bands signed and get themselves hooked up. A place where users create the content looks more and more like the best way to reach young people. You can't imagine how this happened. You can't imagine letting people leave comments about you for everyone to see. You can't imagine rank amateurs' content being more attractive than that produced by a Mature Medium."

"You're saying I have to lose control of my medium to gain it? Get outta here!" Indeed.

Reading - Catching up

Saturdays are great because for the most part you're able to catch up. It's rare, fortunately, that someone adds to my pile on Saturday, so I'm able to reply, some of the things I don't seem to have (or take) the time to do during the week. Add to "Saturday" that's it's drizzling here, and for all the gloominess and darkness, well, you have a real catch-up day.

No matter how many issues behind I get, I almost always save unread copies of BusinessWeek. The December 12 issue offered up two excellent articles.

The first, "The Easiest Commute of All", is an interesting and detailed study of "remote workers." I think the entire article is available online (at the link above), but one or two parts especially caught my eye.

It appears that some residential developers are creating ideal environments for remote workers. One such is called "Mesa del Sol," and it's just outside Albuquerque. "When ground broke in October, the unspoiled scrub began giving way to what will eventually become one of the largest planned - and technologically tricked out - communities in the nation.... Or so the pitch for this broadband nirvana will go.... They'll feature home offices sequestered from family foot traffic and fully wired for transnational connections. Business centers strewn throughout the community - all within a short walk or electric-cart ride - will offer rent-by-the-hour support and staff plus state-of-the-art meeting rooms and seamless videoconference hookups to China and India. With the Albuquerque airport only six minutes and one stoplight away, a former regular of the big-city airport crush can leave for meetings in other cities after breakfast and still be home for dinner."

A bit more: "The builder is clearly on to something. More and more, the creative class is becoming post-geographic. Location-independent. Office-agnostic."

Lots of buzzwords, but, I think, right on.

The other article I flagged is actually the December 12 issue's cover story, "The MySpace Generation". No long quotes from this one; you need to read the entire thing, especially if you're over 25 years old and have anything to do with marketing or communications. MySpace is an online community populated primarily by 14-25 year-olds (if you haven't seen it, go here). It's not an elegant site, that's for sure. But it's popular, extremely so. MySpace has 40 million members, quadrupling in size since January. And the company was acquired in November by Rupert Murdoch's FOX.

IM is more popular than email with this crowd, but the more interesting thing - to me, at least - is that this demographic juggle communication media so adeptly, managing instant messaging, cell phone calls, email, TV, web viewing - managing all of these with the skill of an air traffic controller.

There's more for me to do today than blog, but, yes, that's part of catching up too. Hope your Saturday is a good one.

I don't always complain, but...

Dear readers,

Many of my posts here on the Burris Blog are rants, such as this one from last week about United Healthcare and my company's health insurance. One anonymous reader told me I should send the link to 1,000 friends. (I guess she knows how small my blogging audience is.)

I rant on others' sites, too, including answering a call for feedback on VoIP services. Go here to see what I told BusinessWeek about Vonage. Actually, I like my Vonage service. I appreciate the record of all incoming and outgoing phone calls. I have grown addicted to receiving voice mail files via email. I like being able to call forward, and Vonage's "SimulRing" feature, which allows me to have a call ring at up to five different phones, is especially helpful.

Most of our VoIP issues seem to come from sharing an internet connection. In the office, whenever more than two people are using their Vonage phones, there's a risk a call will be dropped. And at home when our DSL-based connection is stretched with a normal phone call and internet usage AND a Vonage call, the DSL router's status light goes green to orange, and that's a sure sign that an expletive will be uttered or screamed somewhere in the house.

Here's the other side of the coin, however. Not too long ago, we had 12 or more different phone numbers at work, one for each employee and work station (conference room, kitchen), and each of them had a voice mail box, a second line for incoming while making an outgoing...all of that stuff. Those were the bad old days when phone numbers were attached to places, not people. And the phone company, by the way, was getting rich.

Now our phone numbers are attached to people, not places (kind of makes sense, doesn't it?), and the phone companies, well, they're getting theirs.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Abraham Lincoln

I've just completed Doris Kearns Goodwin's outstanding biography of the 16th president, Team of Rivals. Of the books I brought south with me this year, it was the first in my stack.

Over the last several years, it seems, big biographies about presidents have been very popular. For me too. John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, these two are especially memorable for me now due to my reading of David McCullough's (Adams) and Edmund Morris's (2 volumes on Roosevelt, especially Theodore Rex) work.

I had never concentrated on Lincoln. Sure, I've read about extensively about the Civil War (some of my friends insist on calling it still "The War of Northern Aggression"...but it wasn't), especially Shelby Foote's 3-volume history, so I looked forward to Goodwin's book if for no other reason than to gain an appreciation of the president many consider our greatest.

Some of my favorite moments were when Goodwin draws the picture of Lincoln in the military camps, getting out of Washingtonto be with the troops just before or after battle, looking beyond or over the corpses or mountains of lost limbs and offering hope and thanks to those doing the actual fighting. He was a man of the people, a "rail-splitter," more adept at telling a story or anecdote to illustrate a point than pedantically recalling a passage from Herodotus or Cicero.

Lincoln's story is many-faceted, but this book focuses primarily on his leadership. Think: someone as moral as Carter, as innately intelligent as LBJ, and politically savvy as Reagan ... and you have a fraction of Lincoln's skills. Charismatic he was not, but in an era when newspapers were practically the only media, the telegenic requirement just wasn't there.

Above all, Lincoln led not by consensus but rather by seeking input and then mandating through a strong, consistent will and deft timing. He intended his Cabinet - and this book is often as much about his Cabinet as it is about Lincoln; in fact, Goodwin uses his Cabinet to help define the President... He used his Cabinet as a sounding board, never a punching bag. On many occasions he forgave them of their ambitious reachings or administrative mis-steps in order to preserve them as a unified group and preserve a delicate balance of political power.

Leadership requires strength and courage. Lincoln's life in the American political arena displayed plenty of both.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

I'm frustrated with United Healthcare

Those of you who know me well are probably tired of hearing it's been a tough year, blah, blah, blah. It has been. My group at BURRIS and I have gone through a transformation for the business that has at once been optimistically conceived and realistically implemented. In other words, we work hard to be what we think we need to be to be successful, but there have been times when we've actually been what we HAD to be in order to make payroll.

Anyway, no more on that. I promise. I'll save it for the history book ... or for the eulogies someone else can deliver.

When you're going through the daily slog, however, sometimes trying just to get it to the next day, the last thing you need is to get bogged down by something you count on working smoothly. Yesterday was one of those days when - well, geez, I just can't believe what happened.

Apparently it began last week. Our own Lyn "I do it all" Rollins was on vacation, apparently doing what we all do when we're on vacation: she was in the drive-thru line at her local pharmacy picking up a prescription. The attendant on the other side of the metal drawer informed her that her - our - insurance had been cancelled, and Lyn would have to supplement with more than her share of the co-pay.

Now, fortunately, Lyn is also the person responsible in our little company for the relationship with UHC, United Healthcare, our healthcare insurance provider. So after getting over the shock of learning we've been cancelled, she pulls her car to the side and dials up her contact to ask what's up.

A bit more background...

Faced with a 20%+ increase in premiums and the de rigueur reduction in services, we cobbled together a different employee health insurance plan this past Fall. The new program (I don't recall the reason, but it probably didn't make sense then either) could not be enabled 'til the beginning of the calendar year, so what we had to do was offer a kind of amalgam of the old and new from October through December, then transition to the new program on January 1. (Stay with me a second; this really is relevant.)

So for three months, Lyn (who also, by the way, pays the bills) would send a check to UHC, and they were to apply one portion of the payment to one program, another to the, uh, other program. Sounds confusing, but this is what UHC required.

Well, apparently, what UHC's accounting department was doing was applying one portion, but not the other. So come premium-due-day recently, with an eye for folderol and armed with a bureaucratic, "this is how we do it" policy, some QWERTY-striker at UHC double-lined us from the rolls of active premium payers, incorrectly considered us policy non-paying deadbeats, and - this is the kicker - cancelled one of the key parts of our "amalgam" coverage.

No call, no registered letter, no email, no visit ... nothing. Poof! Cancelled.

Doomsday scenarios are everywhere in this kind of thing, but, fortunately, the worst thing that happened (we think) is that Lyn was denied co-pay at the pharmacy.

But there have been plenty of the "can you believe?" questions in the last few hours.

For instance, can you believe that UHC still hasn't straightened out their accounting mess? Can you believe we had to wire ("Wire!") a partial payment yesterday to cover the account? (They couldn't just move the overpayment for the one they credited to the one they didn't.) Can you believe that it takes 48 hours before our prescriptions policy can kick back in? And can you believe that no one with whom Lyn has spoken from UHC can explain why this happened, why they didn't contact us BEFORE cancelling our policy? Much less apologized for the inconvenience.

We all have (and continue to) read about the problems, the crisis in healthcare this country faces. It's just too much for me when I compound that with the combination of hubris and ineptitude that we have faced on more than one occasion with United Healthcare.

There's no way these people could survive if they had to perform the way a normal business does.

Friday, December 09, 2005

How one blog post came about - 1

This week we moved the BURRIS's portable, international HQ to Sanibel Island, FL, where the command post can function in a bit, uh, warmer climate. (Apparently just in time.)

Work goes pretty much the same as it does in North Carolina or South Carolina. I travel with my internet phone router, so I receive calls the same way. We have a DSL connection here and a wireless AirPort Extreme, so with a couple of refresher programming minutes of help from Jeff Satterwhite of Softwired Systems, I'm ready to go.

In a later post I'll probably wax on about the environment here, maybe even the weather, but this time I wanted to write about how the Internet impacts some of what we do. This is long-winded, a bit circuitous, but, well, you'll get the idea.

For instance, there's no TiVo in this little house. Now, if you have TiVo, you know what I'm talking about. A VCR doesn't quite do the job that a TiVo does. A VCR requires more programming, it's less intuitive, and it doesn't give you the same "watch while you record" flexibility. Nevertheless, we did manage to record - and later watch - the two weekly shows we try to catch: "Commander-in-Chief" and "Boston Legal."

Boston Legal is a tightly-written, more-than-slightly absurd legal "dramedy" by David E. Kelley. And it has extended the career (once again) of William Shatner, who on the show - and, apparently, in life - is a shameless promoter of all things William Shatner.

But this post isn't a promotion for TiVo either.

Actually, it's proof of how the Internet moves me around in ways that only a blogger can appreciate.

I was doing an iTunes search today. My nephew and friend Jack Burris sent me a song he wanted me to listen to ("California," by Low). As I navigated through the search feature - and I don't recall how - I came across this: It's a playlist of songs chosen by William Shatner, or, as he's known on "Boston Legal," Denny Crane. I figured out that most of the songs are from Shatner's own cd's (I told you: "shameless self-promoter").

So here's the sequence of activity (as best I recall):
- Jack Burris sends me an email suggesting I listen to a song.
- I go to iTunes, search the "Music Store," and find the song.
- Somewhere along the way, I find Shatner's "Playlist."
- I capture the image of Shatner's playlist, send it to Gus Bright and Rick Hall, two other fans of "Boston Legal."
- I decide to write about it in this blog.
- I Google "Boston Legal" to see if there's a web site I can link to in this post.
- I spend a couple of minutes tooling around the "Boston Legal" site.
- I download a photo of "Denny Crane" to include in this post.
- I write/edit/proof this post.
- I publish this post - POOF!

Hey, location isn't important. I can waste time wherever.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

If I Were King...

A column in the November 21 (weekly) issue of Furniture/Today by Jay McIntosh (you can find it here) lays out what the author would do "If I were the next ruler of the High Point market..."

This is a particularly popular parlor game for me as well. My colleagues often hear me tell them what I would do if CEO of a particular company or head of some brand, and I often ask them and others what they would do in similar situations.

I like McIntosh's approach. After all, the High Point (NC) furniture expo's "Market Authority" is looking for a new CEO, and with the threat from Las Vegas as well as the increased pressure from the city and the furniture companies, it's an important time in the history of, perhaps, the last of the area's legacy industries. So it's not only a good time to be asking these questions; it's a critical time to get some answers.

But I can't help but think most of his questions - and answers - are superficial, issues dealing with hotel costs and parking and the like. I much more like the final comments of Cheminne Taylor-Smith's column in the November 14 (monthly) issue of InFurniture, where she says, "Maybe this should be the end of High Point, and the birth of a new one. One that's more streamlined, that puts the emphasis back on the buyer where it should be. One where we all work together to make High Point a good experience - for visitors and for those of us who are here year-round."

In the face of dramatic change, I've always felt the best tactic is your own dramatic change. For High Point - as well as, perhaps, for the furniture industry - it's a good time to start over.

There's a new CMO in the house...

... and when there is, there's usually a new marketing company following right behind.

Sometimes it's a new CEO, other times the chief marketing person. Doesn't matter. This is one of the reasons I'm convinced we're unlikely to see many of the trans-generational relationships we used to see a lot in the brand management business.

David Kiley writes about this in his BusinessWeek blog, "Brand New Day":

"Why do new marketing chiefs ... feel the need to put a bullet in an ad agency that is obviously doing a good job after they ascend to a new position?"

I've been one who has put a lot of value on "relationships," so on the one hand, a new executive might be commended for wanting to support his mandate with a marketing partner he knows and trusts. But on the other hand, when the incumbent - and the work they have been doing - has been wildly successful (as Fallon, for instance, was with BMW)? Are you sure you want to make that change? A good relationship isn't always a good enough reason.

Friday, December 02, 2005

"The Best Year of My Life"

I read a story by one of my favorite authors on Wednesday as I drove from SC to NC.

It's in the November 14 issue of The New Yorker: "The Best Year of My Life," by Paul Theroux. As the title suggests, it's a kind of reminiscence, but for most of the story the year in question is considered the storyteller's "worst," not "best." Only in retrospect does he see the full picture of his experiences, and with the passage of time he understands what a shaping influence those events had on who he became, who he is.

The experience in question is his relationship with a lover who is pregnant, and his agreeing to "see her through" the time until she can hand the child over to an adoption agency. It changes their situations, their status in university, their individual experiences. And, certainly, it was difficult. Here's the passage that caught my eye: "Much worse than being thirty, with a wife and two small children and no money and recently fired from my teaching job in Singapore, struggling to find a house to live in; worse than being fucked up and far from home in India, or lost in China, or hard up and buried alive in London; worse than being cuckolded; worse than hearing 'I'm leaving you and I've found someone else' in a stifling and pissy phone booth on a crackling receiver stinking of cigareetes; worse than the miserable litigation of (so it seemed) the death sentence of divorce, or losting that house I had struggled to find earlier in this paragraph; worse still than the loss of my father, for an old man's death is a natural process, even if it has been hastened by a nagging wife and a quarrelling family - worse than anything I was ever to know...."

As I read and reflected on the story, I thought back on my own life and all of my own "worst" years. This year, 2005, has certainly been a difficult year for me professionally. BURRIS has morphed into a project house, and the uncertainty that has brought has, well, been an adjustment. Our banking relationship went to hell; there have been times when I'd have to make a call or two to cover payroll; I've paid much closer attention to cash flow, done a few projects some haven't been particularly proud of. I won't catalogue my own list of "worst" years and experiences here, but I will say that at times, I thought this year may be the worst in my life. But now that 2005 is coming to a close, nah, it's not close. In fact, it may turn out to be "the best year of my life."

All that retrospection aside, get your hands on Theroux's story. It's great reading. (Sorry, not on The New Yorker's web site.)