Actions Speak Louder Than Words

The first in a series about how big ideas are good for business.

Since the inception of the idea for this series, a lot has happened in the world. This first topic has taken on greater significance in light of the events in late May since the aftermath of George Floyd’s unfortunate death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

Let’s get started at the beginning…

Back in my studio days, I worked on the Cabot Oil & Gas annual report for 6 years. Each fall, we would meet with the CFO and his team to discuss general themes and topics that the executives wanted to communicate in the book. We would then go back to the studio and brainstorm how to best articulate those messages into a compelling narrative. If all went according to plan, the brainstorming would guide the visual approach as well.

For the 2002 annual, we were given very explicit direction: they wanted to talk about their company values.

Before going too much further, I want to clear the air. I’m not a fan of corporations talking about values or other soft, fluffy attributes about their brand. Most, if not all, companies can make similar claims, so from a branding perspective there is little to no differentiation between the competition. I’m not talking about taking sides on an issue, rather about inherent qualities about how they see themselves.

Secondly, I find it weak when companies hang their hats on these platitudes like they’re something special. For instance, it should be table-stakes that they will act with integrity when you’re a publicly-traded company. I don’t think they should be boasting about it.

Further, extolling your virtues is merely chest-thumping in my book, of which I am not a fan of, either. No one has ever trusted a brand because they said they were [insert value here – generous? “woke”? caring?]. No one cares how great you say you are.

Lastly, in my experience, I have found that when most companies that say they are [insert value here – i.e., diverse, responsible, team-focused, family-friendly, etc.], they are often times just the opposite. The only way a brand can truly exhibit any of these wonderful qualities is by living them on a daily basis. As Holden Caulfield might say, talking about all this in marketing pieces makes it all sound phony.

Just to be clear, I am not a fan of this sort of virtue-signaling approach to branding. Not that a company cannot or should not strive for high ideals, but should this be the focus of your marketing?

Back to the annual report: How do you reconcile all these issues and still meet the client’s expectations?

It takes a big idea.

My father was a civil engineer. When I was a kid, I remember going to his first office, which was nothing more than a tinky building the size of a double-wide, with only enough room for him, his partner and their receptionist because half of the space was filled with shelves containing core samples.

If you don’t know, core samples are small sections of the earth drilled out and pulled up to the surface so that geologists or other scientists can study them to get a better understanding of what the ground is made of under their feet. In the case of a civil engineer, they wanted to understand what is underneath the structure they are building so that it doesn’t fall down. Kind of important.

This is where the real value of creativity comes into play. Being able to make connections with the knowledge gained through life experiences gives shape to new, big ideas, connecting seemingly disparate bits into one cohesive thought. Big ideas are unifying, encompassing many different facets of life to make the something new, more accessible and relatable to more people. It becomes easy and natural to make the leap from core samples to core values. Both give us understanding — core samples tell us about the earth, whereas the core values help us understand why we can trust a company.

The 2002 annual was titled “At of the Core of Cabot,” with a core sample exquisitely photographed for the front cover. With this image we are visually telegraphing to investors that we are giving you a reason to believe.

This big idea adds depth (no pun intended) and context to an otherwise fluffy marketing pitch. Because their business is grounded (pun intended) in core samples, it becomes a perfect metaphor to talk about Cabot’s values: stability, discipline and integrity. These values are intrinsically intertwined with their beliefs and the way they operate their business, much in the same way a core sample is central to oil and gas exploration.

There was one key ingredient to ensuring the success of this particular big idea, and that was that Cabot could back it up. That was what the annual was all about after all. They used language that anyone else can use for themselves, but once you dig into the report, readers found that Cabot can back up all these claims.

And that leads me to back to virtue-signaling, becasue there is a lot of it going around these days. It’s one thing to say you are a certain way, that you believe or feel this way or that. But where it counts the most is in your actions. Can you live up to what you are saying?

When it comes to building a strong brand, if a company can live up to its high ideals, I’ll hang my hat on that messaging every day.


The Time Machine

Numbering notebooks started in 2006 when I started writing in Moleskine’s. Currently working through #71, a Leuchtturm 1917. That’s quite an investment.

Like so many right now, I have spent an unusual amount of time sitting in on webinars covering a broad range of topics. Throw in my steady diet of podcasts and not only do you start to become a fountain of knowledge, but you also begin to spot trends.

One trend I have picked up on lately is the idea of Morning Pages. This daily practice was introduced by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way, which I read back in the mid-90s. Although many of the concepts she recommended did not stick, Morning Pages are an integral part to starting my day everyday.

For the uninitiated, in a nutshell, Morning Pages are sitting down with paper and pen at the beginning of every day and writing for 20 minutes straight. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling or grokking too hard on anything, you just empty your head of thoughts.

I find that some times I ramble on wondering why I am wasting precious amounts of paper and ink. Other times I merely report on the activities of the previous day, but sometimes I actually stumble into an exploration of a new idea or dig deep into something weighing on my mind.

Lately, the pop-psychologists are all highly recommending this practice. I most certainly agree with them, as I have been dutifully writing my Morning Pages almost every day for the past 25 years. I find the practice to be helpful, getting me ready for a productive day ahead as well as helping me see farther down the road.

I wanted to share one unexpected benefit of this practice. Towards the end of each year, I’ll go back and reread the Morning Pages for that year, starting at January 1 all the way to the current date. Usually takes a few days. Sometimes I just scan through the pages, but every once in a while I will uncover a treasure trove of what I was thinking about. Seeing how thoughts, events and actions played out over the course of a year can be enlightening.

But the real benefit is going further back, rereading the Pages from years ago. What was bothering me back in 1999? Who was pissing me off in March of 2016? What battle had I won in the summer of 2006? How did all this play out over the years?

That’s interesting, but what’s even more more interesting is how rereading the events of the day can instantly transport me back to that time. Thoughts and memories long forgotten come back to life, often vividly. I’ve found that not only writing, but also doodles and sketches in my notebooks, do the same thing. It’s amazing how thoughts come back to life.

These aren’t just notebooks – they’re time machines.

There’s the old adage that if you do not learn from history you are destined to repeat it. Some things in life are worth repeating – how did you manage an seemingly impossible challenge the first time around? Or, are you looking to make a change and you can now trace your life back to a particular moment when you found yourself at a fork in the road that led you to where you are today? There is tremendous value is learning from your own experiences and reflecting on them as continue to move forward with life.

Being able to travel back in time while flexing your creative muscles — needless to say I highly recommend you write your Morning Pages. You never know what you might find, that morning or years from now.


Pick Two

More than a few years back, Lowell Williams became a partner at Pentagram and came back to his old stomping grounds in Houston to give a presentation about his experiences to the local AIGA chapter.

He opened his presentation with an idea that has since stuck in my mind. How do you decide if you should take on a new project? He had a very simple method.

To take on a new project, it must meet at least two of the following criteria:

Outrageous fees.
Compelling work.
Fun people.

That simple. Now let’s look at the logic.

You cannot have just one. No one is going to give you a bucket full of money and not expect something in return, like maybe doing a little work for them. Nor are there projects lying around on the ground just waiting for someone to bring them to life. And “fun people” are, well, generally called “friends”. So, at a minimum you have to have two.

The fees are straight-forward. If you’re not going to get paid, why bother. Wait a second … if the work is really interesting, there’s a chance to learn or grow, or the finished piece will look great in your book, maybe you’ll want to take the project on. And it the client is a fun and lively group that you’ll want to hang out with after the project wraps … alright, let’s do this! See, his method works.

Another angle: The project is super interesting, a real challenge that will stretch you, but the client is going to be equally challenging. Charge them out the wah-zoo. It’s amazing how a hefty check in your bank account can ease the pain of the 75th round of revisions at 3 o’clock in the morning.

On the flip side, the work isn’t all that interesting but you really like the client, use this as an opportunity to make a little money. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Of course, the Holy Grail is a project meeting all three criteria. In my career, I’ve been fortunate to have had a few such projects. They’re golden: the opportunity to do some amazing work that I am especially proud of, while making some new friends and money along the way.

Mr. Williams is right; a project must meet two points, but in my mind, strive for meeting all three.


The Roller Coaster

About a year ago I had a big decision made for me. After a corporate reshuffling, I found I was no longer on the org chart.

The dream of striking it out on my own had been lingering in the back of my mind for years, having regretted shutting down my practice in 2010 for the safety and security of full-time employment. Perhaps now was the time to chase that dream once more.

As this life altering event unfolded, all the signs pointed to restarting my practice. Family and friends strongly encouraged me to hang my shingle out, and I did so in early summer 2019. Since then, I have worked hard, and been quite blessed and lucky in that I’ve been able to do some great work for great clients, making a solid go of it.

Being a solopreneur has taught me a lot about survival, which today is more important than ever. One of the most important lessons starting out came from Sara Blakely, in a post on LinkedIn. She posted this doodle showing the life of an entrepreneur:

Everyone who has ever tried to make a dent in the universe understands this. There are always highs and lows, rarely a point where you get to level off. What I have also learned over the past year is that this roller coaster is not bound to the usual rules of time, with ride up and down lasting a few minutes, a few hours or even days. It’s hard to get used to.

What hit me was how appropriate this doodle happens to be when describing (for those of us who are lucky enough to not be suffering with the virus) the emotions we’re going through right now.

There are good times when we can smile, relax and be with people we love, making the best of a terrible situation. What greater joy in life is there. Then other times we can sink to the lowest depths, panic-stricken to the point of paralysis. Are my family and friends going to get sick? Is out economy going to collapse? These emotions run rampant.

Whether you know it or not, or want to or not, accept that everyone is now living the life of an entrepreneur. Uncertainty is our way of life now. There will be good times and bad times. Ups and downs. Cherish the ups when they’re here and be gentle with yourself when you’re low.

Our world has forever changed. But just like we Americans did after 9/11, we learned to adjust to the new world. It’s not easy and the road ahead is full of turns whose corners you cannot see around.

Welcome to the life of an entrepreneur.


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