Media Mention: Individualized Marketing

As regular readers of this blog know I am not a fan of individualized marketing. I think it is highly overrated vs just creating a good product and messaging it effectively.

So when I was approached by Teradata to be interviewed for a chapter in their new eBook on “Individualized Marketing” I told them I would be happy to help, but they might not like what they heard. They hesitated when I told them I believed most individualized marketing “solutions” were just BS. But to their credit they probed a little more and together we dug into what I believed actually was valuable in the world of individualization.

Here is how the interview turned out:

Edward Nevraumont, chief marketing officer for A Place for Mom, says that Individualized Marketing is important to a business like his, which helps elders find living situations based on their needs and preferences. “The advisor-family relationship is the core of our business,” says Nevraumont. Establishing and cultivating that relationship, and providing good service to customers, only happens through an in-depth understanding of each person.

Nevraumont describes three factors that make Individualized Marketing possible in his business:

  • Use opt-in, customer volunteered information. This information is usually initially gathered on the website by offering choices and using filters, but the real detailed personal information comes through one-on-one engagement with an adviser.

“We have customers talk to advisors, and we ask them what exactly they want in a living situation.” The advisor collects lots of personal information, such as whether they prefer a small, intimate community, or a big community with lots of activities. Do they play bingo, or do they like gardening, or do they like great views, or do they like swimming. Do they have acuity needs, what are their budget requirements, and a great deal more. Based on all this information, the advisor makes recommendations for places to visit, and then captures feedback from those visits. “It’s letting customers decide what they want rather than trying to guess based on incomplete information,” says Nevraumont.

  • Market to the different need states. Nevraumont says, “You need to identify the needs states of your customers and then tie your marketing messages to as many of those different need states as possible.” In the case of A Place for Mom, that’s a matter of understanding needs expressed by customers, and being able to satisfy them by saying yes, we can help with independent living, we can help with senior living, we can help if you are looking for a place for your mom, or yourself, we can help with home care, we can help if you want to do gardening, we can help all of those need states. Identifying the need states comes largely through analyzing customer-volunteered information.
  • Make your message relevant to what people are looking for at that moment in time. “If they signal their interest in something, you must respond directly to that individual interest,” says Nevraumont. For example, if someone searches on Google for cheap umbrellas, your ad should show them cheap umbrellas. If you show them luxury umbrellas, or a generalized list of accessories, you will be less likely to convert.

You can download the entire eBook for free on the Teradata website here. Note you will need to give them your email address and they may choose to re-market to you (individualized I assume). They tell me the book will be made available outside the paywall in about 30-days.

For more on why I think individualized marketing is BS, you might want to sign-up to read my book before it is published. By signing up you will be sent the first chapter right away, and then get regular updates as more chapters are written.

How to do Marketing

How Brands Grow Part 2

As many of you know I am a huge fan of Byron Sharp’s marketing book, “How Brands Grow”. I have bought copies for all the marketing teams I have led and most of the peers I have worked with who expressed an interest in what I do. I have always said it is the best marketing book. Period. It is the only book that looks at what we actually KNOW about marketing vs the BS that usually dominates the space. It is also the #10,557th most best-selling book on Amazon. It doesn’t rank in the top 100 marketing books on the site (unlike timeless gems like “500 Social Media Marketing Tips” and “Social Media Marketing for Dummies”). It is a prime example of quality not rising to the top.

Earlier this year Byron partnered with Jenni Romaniuk to publish a follow-up to How Brands Grow, titled appropriately (if unoriginally), “How Brands Grow Part 2”. The new book launched with incredible buzz to become the best selling marketing book of all time. Actually no. It’s ranked even worse than the original, #22,268 (#239 in Marketing). But in many ways Part 2 is even better than the original.

How Brands Grow focused on exploding the myths of marketing. It was very effective at helping you avoid activities that were a waste of your time and resources. Skipping the bloodletting and witch-doctoring of marketing to allow you to focus on what works. Unfortunately it was very light on what you SHOULD be doing. Part Two fixes that problem. It is still light on tactics, but it gives some very clear guidance on what your overall strategy should be.

The book is meaty. In addition to the overall strategy piece it covers some specialized findings on marketing in emerging markets, luxury brand marketing and digital marketing. I’m going to skip over the specialized stuff to summarize what I think are the biggest take-aways in terms on general marketing strategy everyone should be following (but hardly anyone does).

Here is the summary:


1. Double Jeopardy is real and everywhere

This is a re-hash of How Brands Grow, but is worth mentioning again. Double Jeopardy means that customer penetration and purchase frequency are highly correlated. There are very few (maybe zero) examples of “niche” brands that have low penetration but high average purchase frequency. In addition, the largest brands have much higher penetration and slightly higher frequency. The take-away is that, to a significant digit or two, you should be putting all your effort into customer acquisition and stop worrying about retention. If you are successful on customer acquisition, then you will automatically get retention for free. It’s a very counter-intuitive notion given how much emphasis consultants put on “loyalty”, but it’s extremely obvious when you look at the data. Note this pattern remains true even when you look at what we generally think of as highly “loved” brands like Apple and Harley-Davidson.


2. You grow customer penetration by being “available”

There are two types of availability: Physical and Mental. You need to win in both. If you aren’t there when customers are looking for your solution, they will use a competitor who is. This is why Coke wants to be within arm’s reach at all times. This is why Starbucks in on every corner (and in grocery stores and office break rooms). This is why you want to dominate Google Search. This is why you want to be on the end aisle at the grocery store. This is why you want to be sold at Wal-Mart.

Mental availability is why you spend money on advertising and public relations. You want to be top of mind when customers are thinking about your category. If you aren’t in the selection set you likely aren’t going to be chosen (unless your competitors dropped the ball on physical availability). When building mental availability, you want to focus on NON-CUSTOMERS. If you try to increase availability for non-customers, you will get customer impact for free. Customer already know your product, at least a little. When you run an ad and a customer sees it they are far more likely to register seeing the ad than a non-customer would. You need to break through the clutter targeting non-customers. If you are successful, you will automatically reinforce your brand with existing customers for free.


3. Make it easy to buy

Understand what all the objections to buying your product are. Understand what the barrier are to buying. Work through them one by one and eliminate them. This means having the right varieties. A customer may want spicy and if your salsa is only mild you will lose that customer. It means having the right prices. If your product only comes in large sizes some poor customers may not have an entry point. It means eliminating break points. If your site doesn’t take American Express, some customers are going to walk away. If your site crashes during the shopping experience, you aren’t going to make a sale. Find barriers and lower them.


4. Light category buyers matter more than heavy buyers

What!?!? What about the 80/20 rule? It turns out the 80/20 rule is not so much a rule at all. In most markets it is far closer to the 50/20 rule. Your top 20% of buyers produce about 50% of your sales. But it’s even more complicated than that. Who your top 20% of buyers are will shift from period to period. Some of the top 20% are consistently heavy buyers, some just happened to spike during the period you were looking at (Byron calls these people “heavy by happenstance”). Some of your top customers love your product. Some had their first Superbowl party and had to fill their pantry with potato chips.

Most importantly the Top-20% are already high users who are engaged with your brand. They are the easiest to reach with messages. If you reach them, it doesn’t mean you have any impact with anyone else. But if you reach everyone else then the top-20% will become aware of your message for free – they are just paying attention that much more. It’s a sub-rule of focusing on non-customers. When you do target customers, target the worst ones, not the best ones.

While we are on the topic of targeting: Don’t. Customers don’t actually differ that much. Where there are actual differences it should be obvious (If you only sell in New York State, you should target your marketing to New York State only). If you have a product that only appeals to a small group (say vegetarian meat alternatives) you shouldn’t focus on that group, instead do all you can to widen the appeal (position it as a healthy option rather than a vegetarian option).


5. Loyalty programs are bad

Loyalty Programs and the Selection Effect. I agree in general, but I also think that you CAN design good programs that create value. It’s just than most programs are not like that. And even if you can get a program that creates value it will not be your company’s growth engine. It’s a nice to have that could get you a little boost. But don’t let it distract you from customer acquisition.


6. Build Mental Availability using “Category Entry Points”

Category entry points are reasons or occasions when someone considers buying a product in your category. It can be broken down into five categories:

  • Why are you buying a product (“I want a refreshing drink”)
  • When are you buying the product (“I need a morning beverage”)
  • Where are you buying the product (“I need a drink when I am on the beach”)
  • With whom are you with when buying the product (“I’m hanging out with my kids”)
  • With what are you buying the product with (“I need a drink that goes with French fries”)

You need to know what all the most common (and less common) entry points are to your product category. Then you need to increase your mental availability for each one. A good example of this is McDonalds running an ad campaign talking about McDonalds’ breakfast. The goal is to increase the mental availability of McDonalds when customers are thinking about the category entry point of “I need breakfast”.

Note that mental availability / category entry point connection direction matters. It doesn’t help if your brand creates a connection with breakfast. You need breakfast to create a connection with your brand.

How many CEPs should your brand attempt to dominate? It depends on how big a brand you want to have. Big brands with high market share link to more CEPs than smaller brands. There is no such thing as a large brand that has niche CEP penetration.

Sometimes marketers talk about “consideration set”. It’s another BS marketing term. It turns out there are LOTS of consideration sets – one for each CEP. Family vacation, bachelorette party weekend, romantic getaway, and business trip all need a hotel. But each has its own CEP consideration set for which hotels (and which booking engines) should be considered. If you want to be a big brand you need to ensure you are mentally available for all of them.


7. Smart metrics

Most metrics are a waste of time. We collect them but don’t do anything with them. When they go up we pat ourselves on the back and claim credit. When they go down we point to something external which was outside our control. But some metrics are helpful and actionable:

  • Mental Market Share: The % of CEP associations your brand has as a share of the total CEPS for the category
  • Mental penetration: % of category buyers that link your brand to at least one CEP
  • Network size: Average number of CEPs tied to your brand for customers who are aware of your brand

(Note Mental Market Share is just Mental Penetration x Network Size)

All three metrics should correlate with sales. If they don’t you likely have issues with physical availability (distribution say), marketing mix (i.e., price is too high), or messaging (too narrow targeting). New marketing activities should clearly focus on either penetration or network size. A new CEP (“Breakfast at McDonalds”) should increase network size. A media schedule with extended reach should increase mental penetration in the market. Relative weakness on one vs the other in your category vs competitors is a good place to start for low hanging fruit.


8. How to build a marketing campaign

Each marketing campaign needs one clear message. Focus on one CEP at a time. Each new marketing campaign should focus on a different CEP from earlier messages. Every campaign should be tied together so they build on each other and it is clear that it is your brand being advertised (and not another brand or category entirely).

Good questions to ask when you build your campaign:

  • Which CEP will it build mental availability for?
  • How common is this CEP in the market? Have we already nailed the more common CEPs?
  • How long has it been since the last time we focused on this CEP?

When buying media you want to focus on REACH not FREQUENCY. Rule of thumb in marketing has traditionally been you want to have frequency of “three” (in whatever time period you are talking about apparently). The reason is some early research that showed that retention spikes at three repetitions. This research is BS. What actually happens is the impact of seeing an ad decreases with each repetition. So impact of spot #4 is worse than #3. But #3 is worse than #2 which is worse than #1. So you are far better to have reach of 90% with frequency of 1, then reach of 30% and frequency of 3. There is nothing magic about number three.

Getting high reach is difficult. There are a LOT of shows on TV. Maybe you wonder who is watching channel 317 at 3am on a Thursday? I don’t know, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that that is not the only TV show they are watching that week. Low rated shows are watched by heavy TV watchers. If someone only watches an hour of TV a week it is likely a very highly rated show, (it might also be a premium cable show like Breaking Bad, but even Breaking Bad’s viewership is largely made up of people who watch a lot more TV). So if you want to get very high reach on television you need to advertise on highly rated shows. The industry knows this, which is why the cost-per-impression of highly rated shows is much higher than lower rated shows.

But once you advertise on a highly rated show, you need to stop. Too often brands will decide to advertise during the Oscars and then run a  dozen ads during the show. Unless you have some reason to believe that people watching the first half of the Oscars are very different people than those watching the second half, you are far better spending your additional marketing dollars somewhere else. Oscars are a great way to get reach on your first ad, but you are almost guaranteeing limited incremental reach running a second ad during the same show.


9. Distinctive Assets

Distinctive assets are important for three reasons:

  • Decrease confusion between your brand and competitors (how many times have you seen an ad and said, “I remember it was for a running shoe company, but I can’t remember which one”?)
  • Increase the number of memory structures that allow recall for your brand
  • Ability to generate a wider variety of creative while maintaining advertising effectiveness at increasing mental availability

Distinctive assets can be many things from logos to taglines to music. At a very minimum your brand should have the following:

  • A color or group of colors that define the brand
  • A logo and/or shape (Nike Swoosh)
  • A face – either a celebrity or a character. Something that humanizes
  • A sound (think Intel)
  • A short phrase (“What’s in your wallet?”, “Expedia… dot commmm!”, “A Place for Answers, A Place For Mom”)

It also includes things like “style” that is harder to define, but should be pretty clear when you see multiple ads lined up.

Note that distinctive assets are about being DISTINCT not DIFFERENCIATED. Differentiation is about what needs are being served (Red Bull = Caffeine), Distinctness is about how a consumer identifies and finds the brand (Red Bull = Red and silver swirl).

All brands should have all five elements at least (and often multiple elements within each of the five types), but what is emphasized depends a lot of the primary media used to advertise. Print ads have little use for sounds. Radio ads can’t use logos or colors. TV ads can obviously use them all (which is another reason why TV is so effective when done correctly).

When executing on distinctive elements you want three things:

  • Reach as many people as possible
  • Co-present your brand with the elements and the elements with each other as much as possible
  • Be consistent. Don’t change the elements unless you absolutely have to

The nice thing about building a stable of elements is it lets you be more creative with advertising and still be effective. There is a debate in advertising on whether you should reveal your brand at the beginning of a spot or wait until the end. The argument for immediate is to build more brand impression. The argument for waiting is to increase audience engagement as they try and figure out what the brand is – and wait to see the entire ad instead of clueing out as soon as the ad starts. If you have strong brand elements, you can get the best of both worlds. You can open a spot with lots of brand elements, but wait until the end to reveal the brand name.


10. Smart market research

Most market research is a waste of time. It is done so senior management can feel good about a decision that was already made. It is like when we decide to grow by 20% next year and then ask finance to build a model showing us how we are going to do it (Only a lot more expensive than the FP&A guy’s salary). But there is some market research worth doing if it hasn’t been done already:

  • Competitive analysis: Get data on the customer base demographics of your brand vs competitors. They should be almost the same (even Chili’s and KFC basically have the same demographics). Find out where (or if) they are not the same. If you are under-indexing with a particular group, try and figure out why
  • Category Entry Points: Figure out what the most common category entry points are. Then see how well your product compares to others in the category on each entry point
  • Distinct elements: Test all your brand elements and competitors to see how famous and unique they are. Fame is the % of buyers who tie a specific element to your brand. Unique is the % of buyers that tie an element to your brand that ONLY tie it to your brand. You should end up with all of your elements on a xy graph. You can roughly divide the graph into four quadrants
  Low Unique High Unique
High Fame AVOID these elements USE these elements
Low Fame Irrelevant elements INVEST in these elements



That’s not all obviously, but if you focus on those ten principles you will be light years ahead of most marketing departments on the planet who are trying to target customer segments, cross sell, increase customer loyalty and build Facebook fan-bases. Even when companies are doing the right things (brand extensions to target different use cases), they are often doing it for the wrong reasons – or at least not thinking through the most important reasons for doing it. This post should be enough to have you understand what matters in marketing. Once you know that you can get creative on the execution.

The HOW is important, but doesn’t matter until you are working on the correct WHAT.

Which is coincidentally a chapter in the book I am writing, Good Enough: Why Good is Better than Excellent. If you found this post valuable, sign-up for my newsletter. I am sharing behind-the-scenes work and book chapters weekly (sometimes for fortnightly) exclusively with that list. Hope to see you there.

Book Recomendations

I have written a few book reviews over the years.

Here is my piece on what I think is the most important marketing book to read: How Brands Grow.

Here is a piece on the three books I assigned to my Online Marketing & Analytics class at UW MBA.

Today’s post is for those who want more. A lot of the content for the book I am writing (“Good Enough: Why Good is Better than Excellent”) is coming straight out of my head (and my experience). But I also “stand on the shoulders of giants”. What follows is some the books than influenced significant portions of Good Enough (or sometimes just a paragraph, but it’s still a very good book).


Everything is Obvious, Duncan Watts

He’s not as good a storyteller as Malcolm Gladwell, but he makes up for it in being “right”. Watts explores his own research to show that we know a lot less than what we think we know.


Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, Bryan Caplan

Parenting choices have much less impact than people generally think. Therefore you should put less effort into parenting than you were going to. If you put less effort in, you will have more fun and less work having kids. Therefore you should have more kids than you were planning to have (at least on the margin). (Also stuff on why higher population is good for the world and why kids today will have better lives than the previous generation)


Foolproof, Greg Ip

As you add more safety to a system, people will compensate and it often makes things worse.


Fooled by Randomness / Black Swan / Antifragile, Taleb

It pains me to include these given the rudeness of the man, but his books are excellent.

My take: When variability looks low it might just mean that the big swing is going to come in the future. You can’t predict the specifics of the future, but you can be sure that something big will happen which you don’t expect. And there are ways to be ready for it when it does. Too many people are picking up pennies in front of steamrollers.


The Upside of Down, Megan McArdle

Failure can be the first step on the way to success. How and why we fail is very important. Has a chapter that basically summarizes Duncan Watt’s book, but lots of new content too.


Rationality from AI to Zombies, Eliezer Yudkowsky

By the guy who wrote Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (also recommended) and the founder of It’s free to read over the web, or available on Kindle for a suggested donation. A LONG series of blog posts on how to how to be more rational. Everything from cognitive biases to the difference between Bayian science and traditional science to the “proper” interpretation of quantum mechanics and the risk of generalized AI.


Expecting Better, Emily Oster

A data-driven look at pregnancies. For example the data says one drink a day actually decreases fetal risk (not statistically significant).


How to not be wrong, Jordan Ellenberg

There are four types of math in a 2×2 matrix. Hard-Easy and Interesting-Dull. You learn dull is school, and the media throws east-interesting at you all the time. This is the hard-interesting part of math – but he makes it easy to understand.
Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari and Dataclysm, Christian Rudder

Dating is hard. But there is a lot more data these days on how it works and how it is changing.


Who Gets What And Why, Alvin Roth

By a Nobel Prize winner and real-world practitioner. A book of stories about the design of non-monetary markets and how to make them better. From kidney transplants to lawyer internships it dives into the less-explored economic markets that don’t involve cash and explains what makes them fail and how to make them better.


Doing Good Better, William MacAskill

Why traditional charity fails and how to give away your money effectively.


Superforecasting, Philip Tetlock

Remember reading about that experiment which showed that experts were no better than chimps at predicting the future? Turns out that was a huge simplification by the media. The real story isfar more nuanced and interesting. Philip Tetlock created and ran the experiment. Here he tells the story of what he learned.


Hive Mind, Garet Jones

Why the average IQ of a country is more important to success of a country than the IQ of an individual is to that individual. An important book even though some conclusions in the book bothered me I a technical sense (Issues explained very well by Scott Alexander)., Scott Alexander

Definitely not a book (but maybe it should be). If Scott writes a new blog post it is the first thing I read in the morning. If he doesn’t I will often find an old one to ready anyway. His takedown of the scientific method will feature prominently in “Good Enough”.


How to fail at almost everything and still win big, Scott Adams

Kind of an autobiographical self-help book. Scott Adams succeeded by being “good” at a lot of different things rather than excellent at one thing. He credits that to following “systems” vs having “goals”. The chapter in “Good Enough” on how to apply some of the principles of the book to your personal life references Scott’s theories.


Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert

SoH was incredibly insightful when it first came out in 2007. The ideas have now spread considerably in the general consciousness (ideas like how experiences make you happier than things and happiness set-point levels). More recently some of the data has been questioned. I explore a lot of this in the “Good Enough” chapter on diminishing returns.


Eat Move Sleep, Tim Rath

Rather than trying to be healthy by exercise or nutrition or sleep alone, Tim argues you need to work on all three at the same time. That the three “skills” are synergistic with each other. A good night’s sleep gives you the energy to exercise which gives you the willpower to eat right. And if you fail to exercise you may have a bad night’s sleep and then eat an unhealthy breakfast. His solution is to build slowly with a series of small changes across each of the three skills simultaneously day-by-day.


Malcolm Gladwell and Tim Ferris

I hesitated before including either of these two because I expect my readers will have either read them or made a conscious choice not to. Neither author’s books had a direct impact on Good Enough, but both had a significant impact on me over the years. I could only dream of matching the storytelling ability of Gladwell or Ferris’ skill at tapping into the zeitgeist. But in many ways if you wanted to be generous, the book could be described as Gladwell meets The Four Hour Workweek.  It follows Gladwell’s common structure of a series of chapters attacking the thesis in different ways using an intertwining of stories and data. But it tries to match that with the practicality Ferris brings to his books.



These books have little is anything to do with Good Enough, but I still highly recommend them.


Guns Germs and Steel // The Day before Yesterday, Jared Diamond

Why Europe succeeded; How tribes are different than empires.


The Average is Over // An Economist Gets Lunch, Tyler Cowen

Why and how the world will be more polarized and you should learn to work with computers; A thinking man’s guide to food


Sapiens: A History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari

Like the title says.


Economics without Illusions, Joseph Heath

Both the left and the right have it wrong.


The Red Queen // Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley

Keep running to stay in the same place; The world is getting better


The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein

Coal and Oil make the world a better place.


The Undercover Economist Strokes Back, Tim Hartford

How MACRO economics works.


If you have enjoyed any of these books, or think you might, then you might also like my book: Good Enough: Why Good is Better than Excellent. You can sign-up to receive chapters while they are written here

Investment is Easy

Last night a friend told me how his investment advisor called him up to tell him his investments were up +14% year-to-date. That’s pretty amazing given the market as a whole is down -11%. He was understandably very impressed with his advisor. “Even better,” he told me, “I don’t pay any fees to him at all. It’s free!”

Everything he understood about what was happening with his finances was wrong.

His advisor was NOT any better than the other advisors out there.

And his advisor certainly wasn’t free.

The financial advisement industry exists to do three things:

  • Confuse consumers so they feel they need the advisement industry
  • “Hold your customer’s hand” – Make people feel comfortable so they don’t pull their money out of the market when it drops
  • Sell sell sell – build up a book of business of customers who are willing to invest their money and pay their fees

Notice none of those things involve actually making money for their clients.

To understand why we can look at it in two different ways: Analytically and hypothetically.


Analytically the data is very clear that when money managers beat the market it is random. Yes you can find money managers that beat the market multiple years in a row, but you can’t predict who those advisors will be beforehand. About half of the advisors will beat the market in any given year, but who those advisors are is random. So 25% will beat the market two years in a row, 12.5% three years in a row, and 0.1% will beat the market 10 years in a row. Those one-in-one-thousand that beat the market 10 years in a row might look like financial geniuses, but they are just the lucky ones. If you invest with one of those guys there is still only a 50% chance he beats the market next year (one in two thousand beat the market 11 years in a row).

So even if there IS skill in an investment advisor it doesn’t matter. Because the only data you have on who is good and bad doesn’t predict who will be good or bad next year.

(There is actually a small exception to this. The guys at the very bottom of the performance pool – the guys in the bottom 10% in any given year, are more likely to stay in the bottom 10% than chance would predict. But even for those guys it’s not because they are worse at picking stocks. It’s just that they trade more frequently than everyone else so their performance drops due to transaction fees.)


The other way to think about it is hypothetically. If there really was an investment advisor who was able to consistently beat the market well beyond the level of chance – why would he be working with you? The ability to beat the market consistently is an extremely rare skill. Most hedge funds don’t do it. Pension funds and trusts like Harvard’s are doing everything they can to beat the market. If there was someone who could do that, they could take a role with one of those companies in a second and be paid a small share of the billions of dollars those funds invest. Why would that genius be working with you to invest your $100K or $1MM or $10MM?


I tried to explain this to my friend but we was still pointing to the +14%. It doesn’t matter what the input is, it is very difficult for humans not to see value, skill and intention in good outputs (and lack thereof when the output is bad). He also pointed out that it didn’t cost him the 2% in fees number I was throwing around.

The fees are insidious. “Obviously,” I explained to him, “your advisor is not working for free.”

He said he understood that. He knew his advisor was getting kickbacks from the mutual funds he was buying. “But,” he said, “The mutual fund fees would be the same with or without the advisor. So it’s just a cost for the mutual funds, not a cost for me.”

That’s even worse I told him. It means the advisors real incentive isn’t to make you money. The advisors incentive is to sign you up to mutual funds with the largest kickbacks. And those funds are likely also the funds with the largest fees. So he would be paying the same fees if he was investing on his own, but if he was investing smart on his own he would be avoiding those mutual funds like the plague.


“So what’s the answer?” He asked me, “What should I be doing with my money?”


Here’s my answer to him (and to you). It’s actually very easy, which is why the industry needs to spend so much time making it confusing.


  1. Invest in investment vehicles with very low fees. Vanguard Index Funds is one example. Your costs should be on the order of 0.1% of your investment, not 1%. Also included here: Don’t buy and sell stuff if it causes you to pay transaction fees (which it usually does)
  2. Diversify. Spread your money out as widely as you can across as many asset classes and geographies as you can. Ideally you spread your money the same way the global economy is spread (If the US is 10% of the global economy, you should put 10% of your investments in the US).This gets you the best return for any given level of risk.
  3. Find tax advantageous strategies. Max out your 401K or your IRA or any other vehicle the government gives you (education and health in many states). When you hit the highest tax bracket for any reason sell for capital losses to reduce your tax obligation (but hold capital gains to delay required payments).

That’s it. You can now guarantee yourself a better return on average than any advisor on the planet. If you are really concerned about your fortitude to do the right thing, pay someone $1000 per year to call you whenever the market drops to remind you not to sell.


If even the three steps above seem like too much work (and to be fair, diversifying properly and maximizing tax advantages can sometimes be a little difficult), you can use a service like Wealthfront or Betterment (or WealthSimple for Canadians). They charge very low fees to handle the diversification (and sometimes tax harvesting) for you.

It turns out personal finance is even easier than marketing.


The returns made by investment advisors are an example of how easy it is to identify “good enough” but how it is impossible to identify in advance “excellence”. This pattern repeats itself in many many fields – not just investment advisors. It is the thesis of the book I am writing. To read more about “Good Enough” check out this teaser, and then sign-up to get weekly emails with new unique not-seen-on-the-blog content here.

Interviews vs Performance Reviews in Consulting

I have shifted focus on my book.

When I started this blog my plan was to write a book on analytical and data-driven marketing. I may still finish that book someday. But as I wrote and thought about content I realized I had something broader I wanted to share. My biggest disagreement with the accepted marketing world is that I think it is being made too complicated. People are chasing things like big data and personalization and they are missing the drivers of what really matters. As I explored the subject more I realized this is a broader issue that has it’s tentacles in more than just marketing.

So I’ve changed my focus.

Instead of a pure marketing book, my plan is to write a book about how people – both in their work life and personal life – are wasting their time chasing “excellence” when they would be much better off trying to achieve “good”. And how doing “good” at scale is hard enough – and much more likely to lead to success – than trying to be “awesome”.

As I write the book I am going to share the content first with my email subscribers. IF you think you might like the content, and you haven’t already, please do subscribe. You can do that here.

As a teaser, here is the first part of current “Chapter one”:


Hanover is less a town than a college campus dropped into the middle of the New Hampshire forest. The isolation is part of the reason students choose Dartmouth over the other Ivy League schools in the north east. Social activities revolve around school-life more than at most other campuses. Even dating takes on a surreal quality when there are only three off-campus restaurants to choose from.

Winters at in New Hampshire hover around twenty degrees Fahrenheit. It is no wonder Dartmouth is known for their fraternity drinking culture. You might drink more too if you were in an isolated village surrounded by mountains in the dead of winter.

But Tariq Malik did not drink. He had other things on his mind. Tariq was studying for his MBA at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and he wanted to be a consultant with McKinsey & Company. Every year business school students are surveyed and asked who their most desired employers would be. The top choice shifts based on recent company performance. Lately Google has been in the top spot. But for as long as the surveys have been running McKinsey has consistently been in the top two.

McKinsey & Company is the pinnacle of professional services firms. When it was founded in 1926 it was the first and only management consulting firm. In 1964 when the first women graduated from Harvard Business School, three of the eight joined McKinsey. In 1970 during a project for the Grocers Product Council, a McKinsey team invented the UPC code. Many companies put high value on their people. I once heard the CEO of Procter & Gamble say that if P&G lost all of their assets and all of their brands, they could re-build it with the people they had employed, but if the company lost its entire workforce it  would fail. It is unclear how much of that statement is truth vs hyperbole. But, in McKinsey’s case, while it is an exaggeration to say it does not have assets – McKinsey leases property; it operate a knowledge database – it is fair to say that its future success rides almost entirely on the quality of its people.

When I was at McKinsey from 2005-2009 we would charge clients about a $500,000 (plus 20% expenses) a month for a team of three people (plus some partner support). Ignoring the partners and assuming a sixty hour work week that works out to $645 per hour per consultant. We also had a philosophy of adding ten-times our fees in value created. Those people better be good.

So it should be no surprise McKinsey spends a great deal of time and effort making sure those people are the best they could possibly be. Part of that is training programs and on the job coaching. Part of it is employee selection: Making sure they hire the right people to begin with.

It is that hiring process that Tariq was preparing for.

There are two parts to the McKinsey interview. The first is the behavioral interview. In that section the candidate is asked about a time they had a specific experience. Each interview will dive deep on a different experience: “Tell me about a time when you had to change someone’s mind”; “Tell me about a time when you took on a leadership role outside your formal responsibilities.” “Tell me about a time when you had to make a difficult decision where neither choice seemed like the right one.” Each interviewer has a (different) standardized list of things they are listening to hear from the candidate’s story. They idea is to find people who have the right temperament to influence clients in a positive win-win way.

Most students spend very little time preparing for the behavioral interview. They are too busy stressing about the case interview.

The case interview begins with the interviewer explaining a situation and then asking the student how he or she would go about solving it. The interviewer may provide tables, charts of numbers – sometimes proactively and sometimes only when the student asks for it. It is a real-time, verbal problem solving.

Case interviews have often been misunderstood in popular media. Sometimes they are described like brain-teasers (“You have a fox, a chicken and some grain and you need to get it across the river on a boat…”). Other times they are described as surreal estimation problems (In the movie Abandon, Katie Holmes’ character is trying to get a job at McKinsey. The only question they show from her interview is, “Estimate how many paperclips would fit in this room.”). Both demonstrations of case interviews miss the mark.

A better example of a case interview would be something like this:

“You are working for a telecom company in Africa. They are trying to reduce the churn rate of their customers. Before we begin, we need to run a survey to ask people why they have stopped using their last mobile phone plan. We need it to be multiple-choice. How would you go about creating an extensive list of all the possible reasons someone could stop using their mobile phone service (and then create that list for me)?

Part 2: Let’s say the top reason is they are switching to a competitor for price-related reasons. What strategies could you use to prevent that churn?

Part 3: Let’s say we run an SMS campaign targeting users who we think are likely to churn in the near future. We get the following results (hand’s the candidate a printed spreadsheet). What happened? Do you think the program was successful? If so, how successful and should we roll it out? If not, what do you think could be done differently?”

Good case interviews often come straight out of actual client work. The candidate is being asked to solve a problem an actual McKinsey team was paid millions of dollars to resolve (albeit the candidate will receive significant hand-holding through the process with someone who knows what the actual answer is).

One could imagine how preparing for case interviews could be stressful.

Even with months of preparation Tariq did not get an offer to be a McKinsey summer associate. Undeterred, he applied for a full time role the next fall and was accepted. But getting a job at McKinsey does not end the challenge. Some would say Tariq’s gauntlet was just beginning.

McKinsey tries to hire the best, but they don’t stop there. After ever client “study” the consultants are given a formal evaluation. Twice a year they are put up against everyone of similar tenure in their office and evaluated again. Since consultants have different ‘managers’ on each study it is a weak complaint that “I just had a bad boss”. And bosses are being evaluated as well. There are many things to complain about at McKinsey, but not knowing where you stand is not one of them. No one is ever ‘fired’ from McKinsey but if you are not advancing at the expected rate, you will be “Counselled to Leave” or “CTL”. There are no eight-year consultants at McKinsey – there are only partners and ex-consultants.

Tariq is a partner at McKinsey today. One might say the McKinsey system worked for the “Tariq data-point”. The interviews suggested he would be a good fit and add value to clients, and a decade later he is a partner at the firm helping clients and mentoring new consultants. How do the other data points do?

There are lots of data-points to look at. McKinsey hires thousands of business school students every autumn and have been for decades. For every new hire McKinsey knows their quantified interview scores as well as their quantified performance on every study. They know each candidates relative strengths and weaknesses. And they know how long they lasted at the firm.

When McKinsey decides whether or not to make an offer, sometimes it is easy. After all the interviews they can turn the candidate’s evaluations into a score out of 100. When a candidate has a score of 90% or even 100% it is uncontroversial that they will get an offer. If they have a score of 10% it is clear they won’t. When a candidate has a score of 50% then there may be a vigorous discussion among the interviewers on whether McKinsey should take a chance on them. The result is that there is a spread of interview scores among new McKinsey hires. Some had stellar interviews and some got in by the skin of their teeth.

That variation is a good thing when for those that want to evaluate how well the interviews do at finding strong employees. It’s a relatively simple activity to run a regression against the interview scores and the performance evaluations those some people receive once they are working consultants. You can be sure an analytical company like McKinsey that believes the quality of its people is the most important thing for its future success has done that regression.

For those who haven’t worked at McKinsey (or done statistics) a simple regression just means putting all of your data points on a xy-chart and then drawing the best line you can through the data using some mathematical tools. If all the points line up perfectly on a diagonal-line you have perfect correlation in your regression. The further off your line they fall the less perfect your correlation. If you plot the heights of identical twins on the chart (one twin on the x-axis and one on the y-axis) you will get a near perfect (but not completely perfect) lining up of points. If you plot the weight of the same twins on a similar chart the points would still be very close to the line, but not as close as the height regression. The points on a regression of non-twin same-sex siblings would also be close, but much further than the first two regressions.

How closely the points are to the best line you can draw is called the “correlation”. Statisticians measure the correlation with something called R2 or R-squared. The higher the R2 the more two data sets are correlated. The temperature over time between Boston and New York is correlated. The temperature over time between Washington DC and Baltimore is even more correlated. The temperature over time between Toronto and Los Angeles is almost not correlated at all (but not completely uncorrelated. Since both cities are warmer in the summer and cooler in the winter, you would still see some correlation).

One would hope that the extensive interview process McKinsey puts its candidates through would be highly correlated with how well those candidates do on the job. Otherwise, why bother with the time and effort of the challenging interview process? (Make no mistake: The McKinsey interview process is difficult and time consuming for the interviewers as well.)

So what is the correlation between McKinsey interview scores and McKinsey job evaluations?



There is no correlation.

There is less correlation between candidates’ results on the McKinsey interview and their performance on the job than there is between the temperature in Toronto and Los Angeles.

It bears repeating: This is the most expensive consulting firm in the world. Their core focus is bringing analytical rigor to their clients. They believe there is nothing more important than hiring the right people and they are willing to dedicate as many resources as it takes to mastering that challenge. And yet if instead of using their analytically-tested interview scores to predict who make the best consultants you instead just threw a dart at accepted candidates, you would be just as accurate.

The candidates McKinsey thinks are “slam dunks” are no better than the candidates that barely get over the fence. McKinsey people are some of the smartest people in the world, and yet on this, they are no better than chance.


And if all this is really true, why is McKinsey making a mistake to put any effort into recruiting at all? If their best hires and their worst hires show no difference in performance, why not just hire people at random and save on all that effort?

The answers to these questions form the meat of this book.


Why can’t we tell good from great?

And what should we do about it?

How to Market a Country

(Hint: Make the visa process easier, not harder)

Last year I was approached by Dubai (The Emirate) to be their CMO. They were looking for someone who could make Dubai the number one destination on the planet by 2020 (they were currently #5). It was very interesting opportunity, but ultimately I did not move my family to Dubai (the story of why I did not move is great fodder for another post).

As part of the process I did a lot of thinking about how one would effectively market a destination – particularly a place like Dubai. I spoke with a lot of people and pulled publicly available data to put together a Powerpoint presentation on my theory. Below you can find the entire presentation. My conclusion was that traditional destination marketing is not done very well. If you are a destination marketer or are ever asked to market a destination, feel free to steal as many ideas as you like from the document below – or even reach out to me if you would like more details on my thinking.

The presentation:

Media Mention: Agencyspotter

I was recently interviewed by Agencyspotter as a “Marketing Expert”.

It’s a smart tactic. Agencyspotter is primarily a company with a product to sell – not a media company. A smart person on their content team looked up the top “social CMOs”. Chief Marketing Officers who had strong followings either on twitter, their blog, email lists, etc. They are obviously reaching out to those fols, doing “expert interviews” and posting those interviews on their site.

It’s smart because it both gets them immediate unique content, but it also flatters the CMOs to share that content through their own social media channels (like I am doing right now).

In any case, they did it well, it was a solid, respectful interview and their write up is on-point.

Here is the full interview summary:

Media Mention: Marketing to Boomers

This is an older one. published an article on how to market to baby boomers and asked my advice. I told them to focus on the simple stuff. Here was the quote they used:

Don’t discount the power of the telephone, says Edward Nevraumont, CMO, A Place for Mom, which connects families to senior care. “Even Expedia still does 25 percent of its bookings over the phone. The internet is great for a lot of things (including keeping costs down), but it’s almost always worth it to make it easy for someone to pick up the phone and call you to help complete a transaction.”

 Here is the full article:

AgeTech West Keynote

Last year I shared the stage with Cathy (Head of Industry at Google) at AgeTech West. My section of the keynote was on how technology was changing the way senior living communities need to use marketing and sales.

The video quality is pretty terrible, but the sound turned out alright.


Media Mention: Content Strategy

Newscred published a piece a while back on advice from CMOs on Content Strategy. Their spin was that Content Marketing was the most important thing in marketing. I disagreed but they still put my quotes in the piece:

While content marketing is imperative in any marketing strategy, it can’t be done without first understanding the audience. Edward Nevraumont, chief marketing officer at A Place for Mom, says: “Content is one small piece of the puzzle. And it should definitely not be your top priority.Your first job is to figure out the lifetime value of your customers and track them back to channels of acquisition. Then figure out how to optimize those channels. There is likely some content work in there, but focusing on that is putting the cart before the horse.”

Here is the full article: