Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more

On January 1, I left a perfectly excellent executive position at Eric Mower + Associates to embark on my second startup. The first one, MicroMass Communications, was launched in 1994 based on some exciting academic work I was involved with at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. We were a pioneer in one-to-one marketing then and the company is still a leader in relationship marketing for the healthcare sector today.

My new venture is called tuzag and it represents the convergence of disparate passions pursued throughout my career. We are focused on solving two related challenges that, together, will completely disrupt your expectations of online commerce and entertainment.

The first challenge isn’t fundamentally different than we faced with MicroMass: creating a viable, scalable means of matching marketers and consumers in a way that helps consumers buy faster and establish lasting, loyal connections with brands. To that end, tuzag will focus on creating unique consumer purchase blueprints, a Genome for learning, shopping and buying behaviors if you will, that are addressable by marketers via individually tailored online display and video ads. 

Of course, mapping the Shopper Genome requires a laboratory of sufficient breadth and fidelity to ensure that consumers are willing to participate and that there are enough of them to attract marketers.  For that, we’ll take on a second massively hairy challenge. tuzag will be the first seamlessly integrated integrated TV network for the Social Age.

tuzag will offer content producers a way to easily create immersive content that links intuitively to eCommerce, social media and related online content. Consumers gain access to an engaging, interactive online entertainment and shopping experience woven directly into their social graphs in return for creating private, secure eHarmony-like profiles that provide marketers with a means of reaching the right consumers at the right time with individually tailored messages that accelerate the buying process. There are a lot of established companies and startups hovering around the connected/interactive/social TV space, but they’re all focused on attaching their idea to the existing Cable/Hollywood/Madison Ave. infrastructure. The right solution, I believe, requires complete disruption; incremental tweaks to an archaic model will water down great concepts until they’re ho-hum for the consumer and toothlessly subservient to the existing power structure.

So, sure, either of these challenges would be monumental in scope and mind-numbingly difficult on its own. Together, they represent the biggest rock I’ve attempted to push up and over a hill in my career. But I’m convinced they are symbiotic sides of the same coin and that tuzag’s best competitive advantage is precisely the difficulty of pulling this off. I enter this fray with my eyes open and the confidence that the past 30 years have adequately prepared me to bring tuzag to market with an exciting, universe-denting solution that delivers the next generation of personalized eCommerce and interactive entertainment in the very near future.

In the coming months, I’ll use this space to share the good, the bad and the ugly of turning the idea into an actual company (tuzag, inc. was born on January 7, 2013). Marketing stuff will live on our website, www.tuz.ag; join me here to share the travails of an interesting journey.

Whenever my life hits a new plot point and changes directions, I pull out my Robert Frost anthology and re-read “The Road Not Taken.” Please click through for the entire passage, but since this post’s title references Henry V’s pre-battle prep talk, it’s probably best to end with something a tad more pastoral…:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.



“Digital at our core” might be the wrong core

There’s a new bandwagon du jour running through the advertising industry these days:  digital at our core.

Forget, for now, that this declaration of impending digital savvy is more than a little insulting to the professionals who have spent careers honing their technical and creative crafts to make online interactions the impactful, immersive experiences we now all want to be associated with and focus on the fact that most of our industry’s newly converted are almost completely missing the point.

Digital at our core is the wrong stake in the ground.  Astounding customer insights should be at an agency’s core.  With due respect to Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital in 2010 is tactical, not strategic.  Sure, it’s the shiny new tactic, especially with the adoption curve hockey sticks we’re seeing with social and mobile interactions, but digital, social and mobile prowess are pointless unless you have a reason for leveraging them.

Agencies need to be way more focused on helping marketers figure out how to rapidly identify potential customers (and the changing needs of their current ones) and driving them toward meaningful engagement, proactive nurturing and enthusiastic adoption.  It just so happens that the primary engagement, nurturing and customer service/support tactics live in the digital realm.  Digital is the tool; insightful, behavior-accelerating strategy is the blueprint.  I don’t care how cool your hammer is; it’s not going to design the treehouse for you.

If we continue to compete on tactics, our entire industry is going to be governed by a procurement system that rewards insanely quick turnarounds and the thinnest possible margins.  Purchasing professionals are not marketers; they are incentivized to squeeze costs out of the system, not figure out how to engage and nurture prospects toward more and better buying and consumption experiences.  “Digital at our core” might as well be a euphemism for “the fewest possible humans required,” rewarding the supplier (their word; hopefully, not ours) for meeting the letter of marketer/agency collaboration, but certainly not the intent.

Agencies that can best figure out how to win the strategic battle for the hearts and minds of an increasingly fragmented, fickle and desensitized marketplace have the best chance of overcoming the spreadsheet-driven procurement process and regaining a seat at the marketer’s problem-solving table.

We can only get paid for the value we provide by actually providing it.  Being “digital at our core” is the tactical ante.  Creating meaningful engagements between customers and brands through perception-altering customer insights is where the high stakes hand will be played.