17 October, 2014

Children's obesity - McDonald's gets slapped hand

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday October 16, 2014.

We definitely have a problem in our children's national obesity crisis. We all have a duty to be thoughtful about the lifestyle habits we are communicating to our kids, the food and messages we give them. But can a cheeseburger make a difference?

McDonald's has just had its hand slapped by the Advertising Standards Bureau for marketing to children - by giving vouchers for a small cheeseburger meal to winners of the McDonald's Team Spirit Awards. They were redeemable at franchises around the venue, at the University of Sunshine Coast Basketball Club.

Not only this - they are serial offenders, having been censured in July for giving away free small chips vouchers at a playground in Shepparton. You're warned, McDonald's - three strikes and you're out!

But seriously, these kids - playing basketball and exploring an adventure playground - are the kind we want to encourage. It's the ones who sit home in front of the telly that need to be policed.

I always worry about simplistic solutions to complex problems. You're not going to solve obesity by shooting the messenger, even if he carries chips.

I was pleased to see a report by La Trobe University, run in this paper on Tuesday, called "Beyond the Bubble Wrap". It examined school children's frequency of getting out and walking to and from school.

In typical fuddy-duddy fashion I can commence this by saying, "In my day, no kids were ever driven to school by their parents". Then with my own kids came a period were every morning was spent in a queue of cars dropping them off at the schoolyard gate. Perhaps by now things are a little more balanced.

At nine years old, says the report, 14 per cent of children make their own way to school. By the time they are 15 it has grown to 50 per cent. Of course a lot of kids live in schools too far away for a morning hike and a car or bus is a necessity.
That walk gives them more than exercise. You make friends among others on the journey, teaching you to socialise. You learn punctuality too - I knew what time a certain girl always caught her bus and would rush through my breakfast to make sure I was at the bus stop next to her.

The Bubble Wrap survey looked closely at why parents were so protective. As you would guess, there is a percentage who will always worry when their child is anywhere without them - 18 per cent worried if their child was out without an adult. But a higher number - 48 per cent - worried about "stranger danger". That the child might be approached by a stranger. Which I actually find very sad, that they must be taught to be suspicious of anyone they haven't met.

The irony is that children are approached by strangers all the time - on their computers. Games and applications are always accompanied by a simple questionnaire which drinks in the information the children are willing to give to the friendly face on the screen. Their likes and habits are picked up and used to advertise products which will appeal to them.

This of course is the kind of research that Google and Facebook rely on - that has gleaned them rewards of billions dollars and dominance of the advertising industry.

So the only time our children have to be themselves is on that quiet morning walk to school.
Encourage it.

09 October, 2014

Is this the end of men or something new?

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday October 9, 2014

It's "The End of Men" says the best-selling book by Hanna Rosin. She has set an intense debate in motion around the world. Have the girls finally won?

Well they are certainly making huge leaps forward, and if your business and marketing planning isn't taking this into account, you could be in for a rude shock.

Here in Australia, the NAB Bank recently reported that 40 per cent of women recorded themselves as the main breadwinner in the household. Just seven years ago it was only 29 per cent. These are women who are married or in de facto relationships. Mind you, men saw things differently - in the same survey, 85 per cent of men saw themselves as the main breadwinner.
There are now the same number of men and women earning university bachelor degrees. Men do not become a majority till you reach PhD level.

Research by advertising agency JWT, of men in America and Britain, found that 70per cent agreed that men are becoming less dominant in society. They believe it has become harder to be a man today. It's harder to succeed as a father and husband than it was 30 years ago.

They've become more brittle about those "dumb dad" commercials which show what a dork he is. Kimberley Clark found that out in America when they ran a novel on-line competition. Five dads were left alone in a house with their babies, while the mums went off for five days' leave. "We've given Huggies the toughest test imaginable - dads!" says the narrator.

Then, Big Brother style, the dads are shown coping with baby minding, including changing the nappies. At the end they had a winner - and a backlash. Hundreds of dads from around the country signed a protest, attacking Huggies for alleging dads' incompetence. It took KC grovelling apologies and truckloads of free nappies to soothe the customer anger.

The survey also revealed 78per cent of men feel there's as much pressure to stay in shape and have a good body as there is on women. 73per cent said there's pressure to dress well and be well-groomed, as on women.

The marketer can't afford to ignore the male. Roy Morgan Research measures grocery buyers: they state that in 1997, 31per cent of main grocery buyers were male, 69per cent female. Today the figures are 38per cent men, 62per cent women. Believe me, that's a significant change.
Men's and women's roles are changing. The economy is changing. All those lost jobs in car manufacturing, engineering, factories, were mainly men's. The more computer-oriented industries favour women. It's getting harder for a man to find a job. Although a man earns some 20per cent more than a woman across the broad average, the advantage has been falling.

My recent column on "How do you run like a girl" raised a lot of comments and forwarding, winning praise for Always sanitary napkins. Just last week Beyonce declared herself a feminist on the MTV awards and no doubt won a few million girls to her cause.

Maybe now we have to look at the blokes in the background - are they being left behind? The Marlboro cowboy long since died of cancer, the Toyota Camry's "bad Dad" is as fiercely masculine as a chihuahua, and our new generation of "Millennial males" (18-34) are happy with moisturisers, waxing and facials - or at least a third to a half of them are, according to JWT.

But let's be confident. It's not "the end of men", it's a new man - but he needs to understand where he fits, and where he is going.

02 October, 2014

Ban the Book

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday October 2, 2014

A favourite American ad depicts two little girls sitting on a classroom floor. One holds a Little Red Riding Hood picture book in her hands; the other holds a huge military assault rifle. The headline asks: "One child is holding something that's been banned in America to protect them. Guess which one." The answer, of course, is the story book. Red Riding Hood has a wine bottle in her basket, for grandma.

The ad is from "Moms Demand Action", a large movement fighting America's gun-toting insanity. But what intrigues me is the amount of censorship still rife both abroad and at home. There's an awful lot of banning going on and sometimes we're not even aware of it.

There are books we do know about, though who bans them and where can vary. Tampa by Alissa Nutting is the latest controversy. The ban is not by the Classification Board, but by some booksellers in some states. The story of a beautiful young schoolteacher seducing her 14 year old pupils rang lots of alarms in these days of paedophilia fear. Yet some commentators have recommended that the book be required reading in schools, to make the children aware of possible dangers.

Where does one draw the line - and by whom? Politicians are fond of tub-thumping morality as we saw in Bill Henson's 2008 case where his moody nude portraits were accused of being pornographic. For a while it looked like we would get back to painting fig leaves on Renaissance angels. But it shows how moral fashions can twist and turn in little time.

An exhibition in the University of Melbourne, "Banned Books in Australia", pointed out that "Twentieth century Australia had the strictest censorship of any democratic nation". This is backed by an impressive list of banned titles. From Honore de Balzac in 1901 to James Baldwin, to Jackie Collins and even Daniel Defoe. Most of Genet, James Joyce, Mae West and all of Henry Miller.

No wonder, by the 60s, our youth were ready to rebel - if you saw Brilliant Creatures on TV last month, you watched as Australia's suppressed youth exploded into the world, in the shapes of Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, Robert Hughes and Clive James. Simultaneously Richard Neville and friends trampled British obscenity laws in the Oz trial.
In Australia and Britain the young carried out constant war against censorship. In Melbourne the stern Deputy Premier Sir Arthur Rylah declared that the statuette of Michaelangelo's David was obscene, placed as it was in a shop window for all to see the young man's attributes, and ordered it covered up. He became a national laughing stock and after that it would take a very brave bigot to make such bold declarations.

In movies, the theatre, on stage, and of course in books, it looked as if the issue of censorship had faded away.

But of course it hasn't. It's still with us, but in different guises, it's a whole new censorship. For very good reasons of course, but I still feel suspicious of it. Taking photographs of children in a park. Staring too long at a pretty girl - is it admiration or is it stalking? Or even our Red Riding Hood carrying a basket to her nanna's - is that a bottle of alcohol under the napkin?

I'm even feeling sorry for smokers, as they are driven further out into the wilderness. You see them huddled against the cold rain or the burning sun, clutching their weed sticks.

Collectively, we can be awfully cruel censors.

25 September, 2014

Create your own TV channel, every night

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday September 25, 2014

Once, a day's tv came down to choosing a favourite channel and for the most part, settling in to watch the night's run of programmes. But these days it doesn't work like that any more - if you want, you can create your own channel every night, and a growing number of viewers are doing just that.

Every week, half of our population visits YouTube and views much less commercial TV, a recent Roy Morgan Research poll has revealed. In fact, half of these watch almost no commercial TV at all.

Facebook devotees also show a 16 per cent drop below average viewing. It all adds up to a major hole in the audience ratings.

Once an advertising campaign across the channels could be assured of reaching most of the targeted public. This can't be guaranteed any more, so what is an advertiser to do?

Well the perpetrators have their answer: "Come to us!" They are making increasingly aggressive efforts to bring the major brands onto their books.

As for the brands, well they have to spread their jam thinner to cover all the extra toast. But that isn't enough. They will have to be much more specific in what they say to each small bloc of viewers.
Until very recently you knew a million or so citizens would come together to watch Friends or Neighbours or Australia's Got Talent, and through research you knew what would appeal to them in your product and advertising. But now, what will ring their bells?

Tim Martin, General Manager at Roy Morgans, has been studying this new world. What are they looking for that TV doesn't supply?

"They want generated content - like their own friends, their music, entertainment, videos."
It's all much too personal for a broadcaster to supply, explains Tim. "TV is a linear medium, it's constrained by time - there's only so much of it in a day."

On the other hand, the web is not a prisoner. So all the entertainment brands have rushed in, creating a carnival of choice. Music brands like Apple, Sony, Deutsche Grammophon, enterprising singers like Shakira, movie studios like Disney and Warner Bros - all just a click away.
Mind you every carnival has its boxing tent and that is already gathering wagering crowds. Australia's biggest online movie distributor, Quickflix, swung a right hook at the world's biggest distributor, Netflix.

CEO Stephen Langsford has accused his American rival of loading his gloves. You see, Netflix is not yet officially in Australia but through a bit of trickery with Virtual Private Networks, thousands of locals have been using the site - and not paying the required licensing fees. Very profitable for Netflix and galling for Quickflix who have been obeying the law.

The world ahead of us will be hard to recognise. A night's viewing will be a smorgasbord of free to air, YouTube, downloaded movies, friends' Facebooks, cute kittens and celebrities. Advertising will be an increasingly specialised skill as the ability to pick out your widely spread audience becomes a dark art. We won't even have the sanity of the ABC to turn to after the budget gutting has done with it.

We do know that with the billions invested in media like YouTube and Netflix, the content and its promotion is going to get increasingly polished. Nevertheless, prepare for a brave new video world.

19 September, 2014

Is your smartphone camera all you need?

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday September 18, 2014

Tomorrow is the release date for the new Apple iPhone 6. The order books are clogged, the sleeping bags are laid out in the malls, once again Apple has managed to generate a - somewhat milder - mass hysteria.
But there are now so many clever smart phones out there - from Samsung, HTC, Nokia, Sony - that the wonder is a little dimmed. But one feature does cause intrigue: their new camera setup.

The reviewers claim it has a smarter, faster autofocus; image stabilisation that allows you to shoot video from a bike; slow motion video; improved selfies and panoramas, and more. Giving you all the essentials for a modern young social life.

All of which leads me to ask: who now needs a camera? Is there any market left for a simple point and shoot? Films and processing were crushed by the digital camera revolution, but now these usurpers have received their own retribution. Or at least, they have shrunk.

CIPA, the camera industry association, gave out chilly figures for last year, into the first quarter of this. A 40 per cent drop in cameras shipped, and 20 per cent on lenses. Which is a serious broadside into the industry ship.

The simple cameras suffered most - they offered little that couldn't be found in the phone in your pocket. These days Canon, Nikon, Sony and the like produce exquisite little palm-held cameras packed with dazzling features and at very reasonable prices; but then with an iPhone you can also call your mum. Do you really need to carry two cameras when you go out, however fine the second may be?

Where the camera makers are holding their own is at the other, high end. They have still suffered, but not as much. There is nothing in mobile phones that comes near a 25-300mm zoom from Canon or Nikon when you want to do some serious photography. As you walk through the City you'll see some impressive hardware in the hands of tourists looking for the definitive shot of our Art Centre Spire.

So single lens reflexes fell only 19 per cent while the newer "mirrorless" high-end cameras dropped 25 per cent. Many in the industry are saying that these falls are not the fault of smartphones at all, but due to a painfully high Yen and more importantly - the manufacturers not coming up with exciting improvements and features to make the camera fanatic trade up.

When such a camera is launched, the drooling starts in earnest, like last month's Pentax 645Z. After several quiet years, Ricoh (who own Pentax) have come out with a true killer. These are impressive figures, believe me: a 51 million pixel sensor; remember when your film was ISO 100 or 400? Well this goes to ISO 204,800. So if you ever want your family photo blown up for an airport freeway billboard - this is the camera to use.
But one big 'however': unless you are a professional, you may find the $12,000 price tag a little steep. Well, considering that a Hasselblad costs $30,000 it doesn't seem so bad. And that's without a lens.

No, unless you are going to make your living and win your fame with it, perhaps you can live without the professional gear and still get pretty good photos with your smartphone. And then you can even call your mum.

12 September, 2014

Wet summer makes Europeans more renewable - REPLY

September 6, 2014

OK Mr Beatty, so marketeering is frequently an exercise of exaggeration, manipulation or distortion of facts or concepts to convince the public of a need they didn't know they had.
Usually your columns are quite interesting and not overly given to such preaching, but dear me Ray, the distortions, assumptions, errors and deliberately misleading hyperbole of your wildly alarmist column in last Thursday's Herald Sun were a worrying departure from your usual moderate writings. And all this from your "holiday in August" !
Since global statistics from multiple sources have provided thoroughly factual evidence that despite moderate increases in carbon dioxide gases the earth has had no significantly measurable warming since 1997 (when alarmists accordingly ceased propagandising "global warming" and instead rebadged to the safer ongoing catch-all of "climate change"), proponents of the dismissal of such evidence and the adherence to the hand-wringing continuance of the concept of man's responsibility for the dooming of the planet have pursued their alarmism undeterred. And the worries of your northern European holiday has now been added, expressed as some sort of verifying fact-finding trip.
Let's look at some of your hyperbole:

* "Extreme weather patterns have hit repeatedly in recent years". Yep, just like they always have, from time to time, thoughout history.
* "If you ask Europeans to name their climate sceptics, they won't know what you mean". Garbage, Ray. That (among others) is too general to be even slightly credible.
* "For them (Europeans) climate change is a fact and a worry as ancient hills and towns are blown over or washed away". Really? Ancient hills? Whole towns? You omitted even one such example, and no such extreme catastrophy seems to have made the news.
* "To a man, or woman, they are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions". Garbage, Ray. Again, too general to be even slightly credible. That certainly wasn't my experience (or that of anyone I know) in either Europe OR north America.
* "Around the houses"......etc....."you'll see solar panels everywhere". True: it's an attempt to power their homes for less than the excruciating supplied power costs in Europe. Denmark and Germany, for instance, with a high percentage of electricity generated by so-called 'renewable energy', have the highest per KwH charges in Europe, if not the world. But due to the solar panel proliferation for self-consumption of private power, Germany now actually taxes homeowners who have their own solar panels 4.4 euro cents per KwH. For large users of self-generated power the tax is 6.24 euro cents per KwH. Expensive, this renewable power. Anywhere.
* I must admit I had to laugh at the novelty of your hyperbole in your description of a driving (in Italy) experience as....."you'll see graceful (?!) wind farms in the Tuscan hills scattered on the Mona Lisa landscape, a delightful bringing-together of the Renaissance and the future" . Poetic Ray, but ridiculous.
One of the major concerns often of even those committed to the concept of 'renewable energy' is the blight on some of the world's most pristine hilltops and scenic coastal landscapes by gigantic rows of churning (if the wind happens to be blowing) windmills. You can't possibly be unaware of that.....or insensitive to it.
* Being critical to the point of rudeness (a common reactive characteristic of Climate Change religion adherents to any indicators of a contrarian viewpoint) of the Prime Minister and the Warburton Report and findings and recommendations regarding the Renewable Energy Target is, I suppose, your prerogative and a 'freedom of expression', but attempting to convince readers of your article that having been on holiday in Europe was enough to find justification for such sentiments is, at best, simplistic nonsense.
* "People want clean energy and will pay for it". They sure will, but not in the sense you are suggesting!
* "Cutting subsidies will make little difference anyway – the prices are already tumbling" Not if the recorded experiences of Denmark and Germany (and the less advanced – in the renewable energy sense – countries) are a demonstrable example.
* After having said that on your return trip you had ONE DAY in Shanghai, you assured your readers that "There, everone talks clean energy" . WOW, one day in a city with a population of some 25 million and you can make that assurance! As a generalisation, now that's impressive!
* You went on to write that the Chinese government "seems to announce action plans every few months" and "what they declare happens with blinding speed", your inference (and that's all it was) being that China is about to launch into a vast switch into investment in and use of renewable energy.
In actual fact, though the renewable energy share in China's power generation is targeted to reach 20% by 2020, “Grid companies lack economic incentives to take in more wind power, as government-dictated on-grid wholesale prices of wind power are higher than those of thermal power,” Meng Xian’gan, secretary-general of the China Renewable Energy Society, is quoted as saying.
That's why the Chinese government has long been concentrating on the non-stop building of increasingly high-tech, inexpensive-to-operate, dependable coal-fired power stations to cope with their country's increasing demands for reliable power. A brand-new one is opened every few weeks.
As I mentioned earlier, the constantly-demonstrated prerogative adopted by the Climate Change (nee Global Warming) religion's devotees in its response to anyone with – or expressions of – contrarian opinions is one of scorn, insult, ridicule, rudeness, abuse.....and often even combative outright lies in its blatent striving to supress debate on the subject ("The science is IN" is an oft-quoted, sneering dismissal). It is surprisingly rare to see or read similar demonstration or verbiage by the alarmists' opponents: the "deny-ers", the "flat-earthers", the ignorami, or whatever derogatary description is usually applied. You would recognise, from this article of yours, that you are no exception to the affliction, even if in a more moderated way: your description of the Prime Minister's opinion as "absurd", ".....our politicians' puny minds", and "Too many of our leaders, both business and political, are stuck in the 19th century with no imagination or understanding.....", etc. Really? And your understanding is superior?
Your article does you no credit, Mr Beatty.

Bryan Huntley

* Hi Bryan *
Thank you for your lengthy and thoughtful note. I have posted it to my blog for the benefit of others - among my readers I know I have climate change "deniers" and "believers", and personally I am a passionate believer in free speech so I am content to air both sides of the debate.
Unfortunately I don't have time to reply to you line by line but let me make a few points. As an Italian speaker I was able to watch the news and debates, read the press and discuss with people, and found that the issue was regarded as simple fact. In China I have a son, daughter in law and two grandchildren who have been there a decade, and I have frequently visited and holidayed with them - I spent last Christmas in Yunnan. And I can assure you that from the bottom to the very top, the prime concern is pollution and the nation's health.
The speed and level of the catastrophe is a debatable factor, but the fact that this earth is under threat from its dominant, profligate species is a fact. The question is what are we going to do about it - sit back and say nothing is happening, or at least take whatever measures we can to reduce the attack that we are generating.
* Ray *

11 September, 2014

The man who tickled kittens' bottoms

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday September 11, 2014

Years ago I worked on the launch of Whiskas Cat Litter. One of my tasks was to write the pack instructions. Following a veterinary report provided by Uncle Ben's, I read that you introduce a kitten to the use of cat litter by setting it on the clay and tickling its bottom with cotton wool. So I wrote this instruction, which went out on a squillion packs to every corner of the land.

All these years since I have never heard a single testament that the method works. It never did for me. So I have lived with a life-long guilt for the generations of kittens whose bottoms I caused to be tormented.

These days the pet market is far more than kitty litter. At $8 billion it figures as a major economic segment. In fact out of seven million households, five million of them hold pets, one of the world's highest pet ownership rates.

In the supermarket the pets have their own aisle, not just pet food but also premium priced pet treats, healthy biscuits, vitamins and oils, medicines and shampoos. I was in a store last week and saw some delicious looking sweets, I thought I might get them for the grandkids till I looked closer. They were doggy treats. Hmm, perhaps not.

If you've ever had a sick dog or cat you'll know all about vets' fees. Some of the costs seem to rival private hospitals, especially if there is a major injury or a disease like cancer. So the insurance industry has produced a range of policies, put them through the scrutiny of their actuaries who have produced complex formulas for pet, age, location, and likelihood of injury or disease. Just like with people only more complicated.

The result is a wide range of policies from the likes of Medibank, RSPCA, Bow Wow Meow and Woolworths. If I had a four year old Australian heeler it would cost me around $750 a year for comprehensive insurance. No wonder psychologists say we regard our pets as members of our families.

They have their clothing ranges (are you ready for your pooch's spring outfit?), social media, beer, and preferred vehicles. Dog owners have particularly eager discussions about which car is best for their pets. Yes, the dog they own does have an effect on the car that is chosen for the family - that has been verified in research.

Pets have always been favoured performers in advertising, from the puppy who runs into the garden with the end of the toilet roll, to the sleek Persian who watches her premium canned food spooned out.
But if you do commercials like these you must have a substantial budget for a lot of spot frequency - because delightful pets can also be terrible vampires. Which means, they can be so adorable and watchable that the product is hardly noticed at all.

It may be that pets can be a marketing angle. I remember six years ago writing about My Dog Café at Station Pier, Port Melbourne. They seem to have gone now but at the time they did a roaring trade among the countless dog walkers along Beaconsfield Parade.

So as always the smart marketer is observant about their customers' preferences, wishes and likes. You always want to give them a bit more than they expect.

If you're a retailer with a business in the right place and time, it might be worth checking out how they feel about their pets.

04 September, 2014

Wet summer makes Europeans more renewable

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday September 4, 2014

Northern Europe was hit by storms, floods and hail the size of golf balls when I went for my holiday in August. Fortunately where I stayed, in Italy, was below the southern limit of the rogue weather. So I got perfection - sun, sand and delicious food.
In the north, though, the worry is the continuing effect of climate change. Extreme weather patterns have hit repeatedly in recent years and if you ask Europeans to name their climate sceptics, they won't know what you mean.

For them, climate change is a fact and a worry as ancient hills and towns are blown over or washed away.

To a man, or woman, they are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Around the houses, in the stores, in the TV ads you'll see solar panels everywhere. Drive in the country and you'll see graceful wind-farms in the Tuscan hills scattered on the Mona Lisa landscape, a delightful bringing-together of the Renaissance and the future.

In June, Italy hit a target of 40 per cent of its electricity from renewables. But then you have to remember the long Italian tradition of hydro power, from all the schemes in the Alps and the Apennines. Their first renewables engineers wore sandals and togas.

The photovoltaic panel is certainly alive and well in Germany where solar generation has become a huge industry - even in a country with a fraction of Australia's sunshine. This June they broke an international record - more than 50% of Germany's electricity came from solar cells.

What is it about returning to Australia and feeling your time machine is in reverse?

I find Tony Abbott supporting the Warburton report, and its call to slash the Renewable Energy Target, quite absurd. Having seen Europe it is quite obvious that bus is already long gone. People want clean energy and will pay for it. Cutting subsidies will make little difference, anyway the prices are already tumbling.
The pity is that we have already sold off our solar industry once, when Dr Shi Zhengrong, known as "Father of Photovoltaics", moved his operation offshore for lack of support here in Australia. Now we are looking likely to lose the industry again as our home manufacturers lose out to a glut of cells due to flood in from overcapacity in China and Europe.

Forget about building new power stations, what we have now will be more than ample for future use. In Germany PV versus coal powered is driving the price of energy down - which surely was the idea in the first place?

My return trip gave me a day in Shanghai where the need for climate action is as plain as the smog in your face. There, everyone talks clean energy. Their government seems to announce action plans every few months - and unencumbered by oppositions, democracy or law courts, what they declare happens with blinding speed.

We could be working with them. There are new industries out there that have barely emerged from the test tube. There is technology that is yet to be born. This is why we need an NBN with far more capacity than our politicians' puny minds can imagine. This is why our educational standards need urgently raising.

Too many of our leaders, both business and political, are stuck in the 19th century with no imagination or understanding of the technology in our hands. We need to persuade them to let us drive this time machine into the 21st century.

29 August, 2014

Let the young show you how to vlog your product

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday August 28, 2014

As a constantly adapting business person you have embraced email, web sites, the proliferation of media like computers, smart phones and ipads. You've seen social media engulfing traditional print, TV, radio and pay TV. But there's a whole medium you are aware of, but have scarcely noticed - a tsunami of YouTube Vloggers.

Last week in London some 8000 mostly youngsters from Britain and Europe crowded into Alexandra Palace for their annual convention, Summer in the City. It was an occasion for the seldom-seen stars to meet their cheering public.
The beautiful Zoella is known for her fashion tips and her fun antics in front of the camera. She has 5 million followers to prove it. Dan and Phil's vlog has evolved into a BBC Radio 1 show with millions of listeners. Four young friends run Sorted Food, a cooking site that posts two recipes a week, with the lads having fun putting the dishes together - but always arriving at a delicious-looking meal.

From the often-solitary world of the vlogger, these presenters found they were stars to their crowds of viewers, who screamed and clamoured to get selfied with their heroes.

While most of the audience was female and 20-ish, there were plenty of other demographics present. A vlog - originally a "video blog" - can be shot in a small but well-lit and mounted studio, or by the chatty presenter walking round holding his tiny camera in his extended arm. Certainly there are no production expenses to be seen.

Most of the scripts are off the cuff, which can often make them difficult to follow. You wish sometimes they would take more time to rehearse beforehand. But then that is an area of professionalism which still has to develop, and it is probably what viewers find so attractive: the fact that these are not carefully planned and scripted messages.

But if the content is interesting and the vlogger is regular, say putting one out every week, the audience will build. If it is a subject or personality that people really take to, the numbers rise into the millions, though it takes time.

This is a fast-developing medium. The vloggers are making it up as they go along, so some work well and some don't. There are a lot of sites now with girls showing how to apply make-up or put a wardrobe together; some for the young, some for the older - an over-40 beauty Nisha, in SugaPuffAndStuff, has crowds of similarly-aged admirers, with her site carrying Nestle ads.
Another promotes jewellery, another weight loss. In this they can be similar to the daytime video shopping channels. But a vlogger can establish an intimacy with the viewer that a tv studio cannot. It is this one on oneness, I think, that makes them so appealing. You see this in the questions and responses that appear in the viewers' comments that follow each posting.

The question you have to ask yourself now is, do you want to become a vlogger for your own products? Can you or one of your team, come up with an appealing personality?

Or perhaps bond with an existing site. Most of them will accept advertising under strict conditions - it will have to be a product which will benefit their readers. But it is worth your while spending an evening or two exploring YouTube to see if there is a soulmate out there who could help to spread your message.

Latch keys versus the nanny state

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday August 14, 2014

When you’re an immigrant kid, the latch key becomes part of your uniform. From the age of 8 the front door key hung from a length of string around my neck. I was a latch key kid, but then so was half the class so no-one thought it unusual. We all had mothers and fathers working furiously to gather together home and food and create a future.
After school I’d walk home, make maybe a slice of bread and jam, and if it was a good day, I had enough to see a film at the local flea-pit. We couldn’t afford a TV yet.

Growing up like this gave me confidence and independence. Once I got a bike I really flew. Yet I am now reading that here in Victoria today, my parents would be thrown in jail and fined $3600. For leaving a child under 16 unattended!

Is this the nanny state gone mad? How are hard-working parents also expected to “not neglect” their child?

Send them to day care. But where? You can’t put a 12 year old in a creche. After school activities are fine - during the school term. But what about all those school holidays?

Perhaps this is another marketing opportunity. After all, a function of successful business is to find niches in the marketplace and provide the suitable, properly-priced answer.

Well pre-school care has already turned into a multi-million dollar industry with child places collecting as much as $120 per child per day. Don’t forget that Eddie Groves rose to $2 billion in wealth before his shaky management came tumbling down. But it wasn’t the fault of the centres - many of them were just sold elsewhere and continue to do business.

Ten years ago Roxanne and Mark Elliott felt utterly confused by their choices - and lack of choices - in the care for their child. After amassing a truck of information solving their own problem, they formed a child care resource for providers and parents to find each other, called Care for Kids. Now it receives more than 200,000 enquiries per month.

So yes the need is there. But Australia is at or near the bottom of all the UNICEF tables on childcare, and while our governments - state and Federal - are happy enough to jail those who don’t use childcare, they are not about to provide it. They no doubt see this as a business incentive.

Those 5 to 15s are provided well enough by summer camps and seasonal diversions but what about the afternoon hours waiting for mum’s arrival, or in the gaps between school and camp? Well put your thinking cap on because the market is there. All it needs is someone with the right answers.

Of course for every family, the universal baby sitter is the tv set. Kids still watch sit-coms from the 1960s and 70s, and perhaps don’t even realise they are watching their parents’ infant amusement.
The jokes haven’t improved.

Between that and the Xbox they stay occupied for hours. Sometimes even managing a bit of homework. But does the time spent alone count as neglect? Can you be charged with leaving a child unattended in possession of Wii?

It makes one wonder who dreams up these laws without a thought for the consequences - but wait a minute, aren’t our governments meant to think this through or debate them in Parliament? I seem to remember voting so I could have a say, but no-one asked me if I’d agree to making half the parents in the country potential felons.

Maybe we’d better hurry up building the teen creches.

The check-out hijackers are waiting for your trolley

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday August 7, 2014

You are pushing your trolley through Coles doing the weekly shop and pick up a six-pack of continental soft drink. As you reach the check-out a message dings on your phone. "Six pack of Chinotto half price today at Woolworths," the store is a hundred metres down the road. You decide that shop might be a better place to buy the drinks.

Now I'm just supposing here, but that scenario is perfectly feasible - all the technology exists right now, and it's how shopping competition will intensify in the future.

Product numbering has been around a long time - every product now has its barcode. But it's the information technology that has grown spectacularly in recent years.
Last week Quantium Group director Tony Davis told the ADMA Direct Marketing Forum about the possibility of such a product hijack. It is already being practised in the US by the huge WalMart chain. But they have much more.

They have a huge database of the customer's spending, product preferences, finances, location - all accumulated over years. Of course here in Australia the large retailers have their own sacks of data about you, and it is being meticulously sorted right now.

From your past spending pattern they can tell where you live, what you eat, your fashion inclination; your expenditure pattern tells them what you are worth. Getting to the present, geopositioning tells them exactly where you are and what you have just put in the basket.

Never, you cry, who on earth allowed them to gather up all this data? Well you did, don't you remember? Numerous times over recent years you have bought a product or service on line or taken out a contract, and signed that little box "I have read and understand the conditions". You've given them dozens of approvals.

But don't get glum, look on the good side. In Britain they call it Omni-Channel Retailing and it's based around product information like barcodes on steroids. These are called Radio Frequency Information - RFID. They are attached to products and price tags - maybe sewn into the lining of a jacket or bag.
So for example at Burberry's beautiful London flagship the store mirrors will recognise the coat you are trying on, tell you about it, where it was made, what accessories would go best with it. ("Mirror mirror on the wall, is this mac for me at all?")

Another technology is NFC - you know, when two smartphones can exchange information just by touching - this can be built into shop shelves to flag you over to look at an accessory that will be perfect for the garment you are carrying.

Oh you can then be connected through your Facebook and Twitter accounts to ask all your friends what they think about it too.

Being a tiny device, the RFID can be left "switched on" after the purchase. For example, Italian leather company Braccialini sews its chips into its premium handbags and they retain details of the sale, authenticity and warrantee.

So even as I ponder Big Brother looking down at us, these innovations can also be beneficial - to the customer as well as the retailer.

Sybille Korrodi is a European advocate who thinks the importance is in how it's done. "Customers will appreciate if they're informed. Brands that proactively communicate, and use RFID technology for customer experience will benefit the most."

In other words, tell them the benefits, get their consent, and don't be sneaky.

16 August, 2014

Show your boss your loyalty is skin deep

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday August 14, 2014

Advertisers are always searching for new real estate to post their message. On the wall, on the airwaves, in the press, on personal media - even the floors of supermarkets and backs of toilet doors. Well let me bring the glad news of seven billion new ad sites. People!

The trend is world-wide and it’s already here in Australia. People are selling ad space on their bodies. The gym franchise Anytime Fitness has brought us their “tattoo reward”. Ten years ago, in the US, they started giving any customer or trainer a reward for having their logo tattooed. The trend took off and they now estimate that more than 2000 people have their “running man” logo somewhere on their body.
As the company has 372 franchises in Australia, the logos are no doubt going to be increasingly visible here. They do contribute to the cost of the tattoo - but not the removal.

Rapid Realty in Brooklyn took the monetary step: they offered a 15% increased commission to any employee who donned the company logo. This also turned into a success.

As well as international publicity, they won over scores of employees to displaying their company devotion.

Would you show such devotion to a company or a product? After all, tattoos are for life, companies seldom are.

Chuck Runyon, founder of Anytime Fitness and the one who has been paying the “tariffs”, claims it is not the money, in his case:
"Hundreds and hundreds of people have told us why they got the tattoo, and it has never been about the money or the brand," he says.

“Many say they got the tattoo to mark the fact they had achieved something they never thought was possible, such as losing a considerable amount of weight, or feeling healthy."

If you feel your devotion is not quite eternal, the answer is temporary tattoos. The trend made the news in 2001 when cheerleaders for Lincoln Lightning’s indoor football team put tattoo ads on their midriffs. The tattoos had better be temporary because not long after, the team discontinued.

The problem with such a permanent commitment is that life - and especially work - can be so impermanent. It’s hard enough to resign from a gym membership as it is - the internet is crowded with complaints about gym exit fees and long cancellation times (I hasten to add that in this I am not referring to Anytime Fitness).

But having to remove the tattoo as well? That is certainly a case of no pain no gain.

Currently the highest profile tattoo story also comes from the States, no less than the New York Times. When Jill Abramson was made Executive Editor, she was first woman in the role through the history of the institution. She was so proud that she had a large gothic “T” tattooed on her back. Which was fine, until she got sacked recently.
Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. pulled the plug, accusing her of riding roughshod over her staff - which I would have thought was part of the job description anyway - while others said her fault was being a woman.

A fiery argument over the media - including the point that during her tenure NYT reports had won four Pulizer Prizes - could not save her job. So, she was later asked, will she remove the tattoo? Her answer came with determination: “No way”.

31 July, 2014

Teaching girls not to run like a girl

Melbourne Herald Sun, July 31, 2014

In a plain audition set, a beautiful blonde girl faces the camera, the director's voice calls out, "Show me what it looks like to run like a girl."

Our aspiring actress starts running on the spot, hands flapping, in an uncoordinated smiley jig. Two other young women follow with a similar routine, then a young boy, then a young man.

The director asks him, "Show me what it looks like to fight like a girl." He waves his hands in a cat-scratch motion, eyes closed. Two other young women follow, reacting much the same way. "Throw like a girl" isn't much better.

Then a ten year old girl is put through the routine. But her run is fast, coordinated; her "fight like a girl" looks like the punch could do some damage.

The participants are then quizzed about what they were thinking. As they talk it through, they understand that they had seen "like a girl" to be a put-down, humiliation. The boys could also see the demeaning way they spoke.

Now the girls went through routine again, but this time took it seriously - and ran, fought, threw, perfectly well.

This is a commercial for Always sanitary products and has been number one viral video in the UK for four weeks. It demonstrates that rather than falling blossoms or beakers of blue ink, intimate products can use their advertising media to achieve progressive social aims.

It stemmed from surveys that identified how "a girl's confidence plummets during puberty", between 10 and 12. Always is a product of the huge Proctor & Gamble empire.

Marketers have been slow to catch up with social trends. After all we have had women's liberation waves pass over us constantly for half a century, yet when Dove came out with their "Real Beauty" campaign in 2004 it drew reactions as if something revolutionary had happened.

Developed in Brazil and launched in Britain, this Unilever campaign really demonstrates how we are all one people, with the same hang-ups. Like research which has showed repeatedly that only 4 per cent of women around the world consider themselves beautiful, and they start to get anxious about their looks from an early age.

Last year Dove drove home their point with a campaign called "Real Beauty Sketches" where forensic illustrators drew women's faces and bodies to their description, and then to a stranger's description. The women could see all their warts and flaws; the strangers could see the beauty.

Advertising is at its best when, rather than exaggeration and puffery, it is used for the benefit of society. It can be a powerful force to modify behaviour.

Smoking rates have been brought down not just by cutting out the advertising - but by strong campaigns offering alternatives and ways to quit. These have saved thousands of lives and countless pain.

Our driving fatalities are at a level that would have been thought impossible thirty or more years ago. Of course we needed laws like seat belts and breath testing - but much of it has been brought about by constantly high quality advertising.

Drugs and gambling are still works in progress, but a lot of work is being put into their control. It's not the forces of law and order that are going to make the difference, it's getting the messages into their heads.

Because so long as you think you can't run, or you're not pretty, or you have to be stoned to face life, no amount of coercion is going to change you. But perhaps some clever marketing can.

24 July, 2014

Some advice from those much richer than you

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday July 24, 2014

There's something about the richest men in the world that makes them compelling listening. Like, "What does he know that I don't?" When they give out advice, you don't ignore it, you listen closely.

This month, Bill Gates told the world that his favourite business book is an out-of-print collection of stories called Business Adventures by John Brooks and I'm sure you'll make a mental note to seek it out. When I add that it was given to him by Warren Buffett 20 years ago, who also calls it his favourite, the seeking should become more intense.

Currently it's available as an e-book through Amazon, though I'm sure the burst of publicity it has just received will put a rocket under its publishers.

Don't expect a "How to make a million" book. It is a collection of 1960s articles from that brilliantly written magazine, The New Yorker.

The stories take a close look at the inner working of corporations. Like GE, who got themselves into a quicksand of price-fixing troubles. The problem was communication. Like executives decreeing that you weren't allowed to talk to certain people - and then slyly winking to undo what they had just decreed.
In business we all know of large corporations where different divisions can't communicate. Brooks writes that GE had "a breakdown in intramural communication so drastic as to make the building of the Tower of Babel seem a triumph of organizational rapport".

Or the most famous disaster since the Titanic: the Ford Edsel. It was extensively consumer tested. And then the executives ignored what the research told them. Gates points to a paragraph: "It certainly didn’t help that the first Edsels were delivered with oil leaks, sticking hoods, and push buttons that couldn’t be budged with a hammer.”

(I'll hold myself back here from commenting on many new Windows releases which seemed to run their beta testing on the screams of the version's first users.)

But one tale that always has fascinated me is: what happened to Xerox? Here's an innovative company that grew huge on a revolutionary invention. Americans went from about 20 million photocopies in the mid 50s, to 14 billion in 1966. Xerox made so much money but knew they had to think of the future.
So they built incredible research facilities in Silicon Valley - and poured out the brilliant ideas that run the world today. Graphic user interface and mice, desktop computing, ethernet, digital printing. How come they are not all called "Xeroxes"? Because the big corporation could not see the potential of such small products.

Instead they gave them to Steve Jobs. He also bought the rights to the first true personal computer, the Xerox Alto - using GUI, mouse, etc. And a little later came out with - surprise! - the Apple Macintosh.

Gates was also at the fire sale - hence Windows. But the point he vows is that Microsoft would not make the same mistakes. "Brooks shows how Xerox was built on original, outside-the-box thinking, which makes it all the more surprising that it would miss out on unconventional ideas developed by its own researchers."

Gates has his own blog, gatesnotes, which is very readable. It has book recommendations, video clips, animations, Bill and Melinda's happy snaps and news from their Foundation.

His work on combatting hunger, poverty and malaria is very touching. And it's one of the unusual factors among the very very rich - the more they give away, the richer they seem to get.

17 July, 2014

Public morality is a landmine

Melbourne Herald Sun, July 17, 2014

We regularly see landmines going off beneath some of our media personalities.

Maybe they had been the life of the team's night out when they were younger, a laugh a minute in the locker room. But one day on The Footy Show or commenting on a match or during some live to air transmission, they say or do or touch one topic too many and boom! the landmine goes off.

"But all I said was..." too late. Now they are spotlighted as a perv or a racist or devoid of moral conscience. From a golden life when everything was theirs, they descend into a hell of newspaper revelations, camera crews outside the door, people they haven't seen for 20 years revealing what they did then, every thoughtless act of the past suddenly revealed.

What they did then might have been funny then, but not now. Many a career has come crashing down when the laughing stopped. They have been caught on the pendulum of public morality. It was once ok but now it's not.

There must be a lot of middle-aged rock stars remembering back to the teenage groupies of 30 years ago and nervously wondering what exactly did happen, and what ages were the girls.

But the pendulum swings the other way too. Our greatest swimmer, Ian Thorpe, reveals that he is gay. Once that would have been the end of his career and support. Now I'm not so sure.

Any sponsor seen withdrawing after this week's fanfare would find themselves the subject of a massive backlash. In fact sponsors are more likely to come in rather than run out. Public morality has turned.

You might recall my column last week, where the ANZ supported the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras and decorated their "GAYTMs" with rainbows and kisses. A bank in drag?

But on the pendulum, while one sexuality swings up, another swings down. Men's magazines have suffered from the onslaught of the internet - but also I think, from a more moralist younger generation.

In recent times we have seen the "girlie" section of the newsagents slim down and magazines like FHM and Ralph plunged in circulation before disappearing from the shelves.

In their place have come the health and fitness magazines. But it's a funny thing though - look through their contents pages and as well as "Build the perfect abs" or "Is your body made for running", you'll find "Make sex incredible" and "Buy her the sexiest lingerie". So the boys' mags haven't disappeared, they have just changed their disguise.

The other day I went to the movies and a thought struck me. Seated either side were fellow patrons and they held wine glasses which they sipped through the film. I smiled. When I was a kid, there was no way you could take a drink into a cinema - you'd be marched straight out.

Yet every seat had a neat little ash-tray screwed to the back of it, to catch your ash and butts as you heartily smoked all the way through the feature. A girl with a tray sold Dixies and cigarettes down next to the screen. I don't think you'd get far lighting a fag in your movie seat today.

So how the times have changed. Drinks were forbidden, smokes were ok. Now it has completely reversed. Yes, public morality is subjective and changes with the times.

10 July, 2014

The paedophile honey-trap wins a Cannes Grand Prix

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday July 10, 1014.

It's the social issues, the tug at the heartstrings that always do well in any advertising awards. These public service ads can dramatise emotions and prod consciences much more boldly than any commercial for a supermarket product.

So it was no surprise that in last month's Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity - the grand judgment and celebration that, in the ad world, is as big as the Cannes Film Festival - social themes won so many of the big awards.

In a world that has been set spinning with tales of paedophiles and pornography, these themes came out at the top with a campaign called Terre des Hommes. It's not a product ad, more a charity.

The Dutch agency, Lemz, introduced a totally believable Filipina girl who goes onto chat rooms and announces herself as available. The men on the internet line respond in swarms - sometimes 10, sometimes a hundred an hour. They offer her money - but what they don't know is that "Sweetie" is computer-generated. And that while they are "chatting", their details are being obtained.

"In two weeks we identified more than 1000 men from around the world", said the group's head, Albert Jaap van Santbrink. The information was passed to the men's local police authorities.

Very worthy, but is it advertising? The judges had difficulty with that question and finally awarded it the Grand Prix for Good, a section for charities.

Last year it was McCann Melbourne that trounced the world with the Metro Trains campaign "Dumb Ways to Die" to pull in a best-ever five Grand Prix and 18 Gold Lions.

To show this talent was no fluke (though the number will never be surpassed) they pulled in a Grand Prix this year with "Guilt Trip" for V/Line. Here country parents plot ways to bring their city-flown children home for a visit by sending them guilty pangs and a train ticket.

The other Grand Prix local winner was the ANZ Bank with a surprising outdoor entry: you could call it a coming out. They sponsored the world-famous Sydney Gay Mardi Gras and celebrated it by decorating their ATMs with the campest glitter-and-rhinestones decorations since Liberace. They called them "GayTMs" and dressed them in sailor suits, rainbows and hearts and of course lots of lippy lips.

I can't judge how successful this will be in marketing terms but the goodwill factor has to be right up there. ANZ reports that 200 of their employees marched in the Mardi Gras parade, ten ATMs were dressed up, and 62 million impressions were sent out across 70 countries through media like Facebook and Twitter. And let's face it, it was a pretty brave move for a bank to make.

Back in the Netherlands - a place with some of the strangest ideas - the Product Design Grand Prix went to G-Star Raw. The young-fashion chain has produced a range of clothing made from recycled plastic waste fished from the oceans.

And that ultra capitalist, Coca-Cola, found that Peru was a nation with the saddest people. So they set up a series of photo booths, for the mandatory citizen ID cards, that would only take pictures when the subject was smiling. That won McCann Lima the Media Grand Prix.

Is all this advertising or social engineering? What happened to the snappy headline and clever commercial? Or if you like: where have all the Mad Men gone?

27 June, 2014

Is the media in decline, or do we just not know how to use it?

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday June 26, 2014

As businesses we have never in history been better, more closely connected between seller and buyer, as now. There are so many ways to reach your customer - the traditional ways, of course like tv and print and posters et al. Then there are the flood of new ways - Google, Facebook, emails, web pages, mobiles, tablets, tweets, personalised messages - scores of ways.

Yet what's happening? Everywhere you look you see "decline". Check the headlines. "Google's efforts to reverse ad-price declines aren't working"; "Print circulations and ad revenues down", "TV stations no longer licenses to print money".

In fact TV stations have suffered in recent times. Channel 9 skirted bankruptcy before being rescued, 20 months ago. Ten network has lost 90 per cent of its value in the past decade and stands on the showroom floor while overseas visitors kick its tyres. Seven has gloried in winning ratings, but none of the networks are able to recapture the heady days of the past.

Of course good television is expensive to make, whereas the reality tv shows, cooking lessons and quiz programs are relatively cheap. So we see lots of them, and lots of glamorous American TV shows that cost millions in production, but our channels get them for the over the counter price.

It's the same with the advertising. The clever, fancy ads all too often came in the same crate that delivered the product. Whereas our local ads tend to be arm-waving presenters and lots of product shots.

How can we avoid this decline in quality when now there are so many media to work with? Well I say we can. But it involves more work from the client - and from the ad agency.

We see so much puffery about the new media. As if it's the media that counts and delivers the results. Not so. In the end that's only a way of delivering a message, your advertisement. And if it isn't on strategy, cleverly written, and brilliantly delivered - it will fail. Then the advertising will be blamed. No wonder then that the board turns around and cuts the marketing budget - "well it never works anyway," they tell each other.

Advertising does work, but only when it is well-conceived. When a target has been carefully selected, a campaign developed, yes make use of all the media we now have available - but aiming at that one carefully determined target, with the highest quality production values.

Sean Cummins, creative director of Cummins and Partners, summed it up at a conference last week: "I want to bring media and creative back together again," he said. "Every time we name something it becomes the new trotted out buzzword."

He warmed to the subject: "It's not content. It's advertising. It's not social media, it's advertising. It's not activation, fulfilment, behaviour change, hash tagging - it's advertising." I've left out some of his more colourful expletives. "Dude, research isn't a tool, a shovel is a tool." Point being, stop talking up the psychobabble and forgetting that you have a job to do. It's advertising.

And this is where companies make their mistake, of not having their ad manager at the boardroom table. Reminding them that without that understanding, their truck does not have an engine.

Look at the most successful companies and check out their management. The best put big emphasis, and big budgets, into their advertising. Because they know how to make it work.

19 June, 2014

Will the postman call no more?

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday June 19, 2014

These days it seems as if the only mail I receive is the regular flow from Telstra and Optus, or gas and electric - all wanting money from me. Ironically I have to pay them to bill me. An extra $2 or so for receiving the accounts in print.

I choose to pay because it gives a certain solidity to the monthly cycle. If I received them by email they would get muddled amongst the hundred-odd mails I receive most days, they'd be easily forgotten so I'd print them out - which by the time you've accounted for the paper, ink and bother, would cost around $2.

Precious few non-accounting letters enter my mailbox, all the other matters are dealt with by email and text. So no wonder Australia Post is caught in a sharp descent. Between 2009 and 2013 the number of letters posted has fallen from 5.3 billion to 4.5 billion. And the rate is speeding up.

You can't accuse us of writing less. If you added up the typing of Twitter and Facebook, emails and texts, you would see that today you write much more than you did. But very little of it is posted.

On the physical side, less letters mean less stamps and less work - so Ahmed Fahour, CEO of Australia Post, indicated the loss of 900 jobs. He claims they will go from the administrative side of the business rather than the posties and retail staff. The Communication Workers Union makes a harder summary of the figures, adding a hiring freeze which lost 500 in 2013, a flow of 1000 jobs from permanent to temp, and ongoing tightening of hiring policies. Secretary Joan Doyle predicts a figure of 2500 in four years, from 32,700 employees.

But even as this happens, many of the operations will be strengthened, with post offices extending their opening hours and commercial and financial activities.

The push is on to allow them to grow their services. They already handle your phone and utility bills, so why not Centrelink pensions or driving licences? In Britain the Post Office savings book has been an institution since 1861. Now there are no more Australian state banks, why should they not take that role too?

In fact the internet has not been an ill wind. Through it they have received an enormous boost to their parcel delivery services as Australians turn to mail-order buying like never before. So while they may cry poor at the loss of $218 million in letter business, they recouped three times as much profit from parcels: $648 million.

Because of their legal obligations, most country towns still have a post office. It's a hub for the community and with the increased trading of recent years its value has grown. As the NBN reaches deeper into the country, the post offices will give it natural focus points, allowing country businesses to trade as easily as those in the towns.

No business person looking at the potential could help thinking: what a ripe, juicy plum for privatisation one day - when the government's feeling a bit skint.

Finally I predict a return of the letter. Christmas cards printed by your computer do not sit happily on the mantlepiece, and I notice no fall in activity around the city's greeting card shops. And certainly there is something very un-romantic about a purple ribbon binding a collection of treasured love emails.

12 June, 2014

Turkish dolmush meets Valley Uber to solve our transport problems

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday June 11, 2014

Many years ago I spent a little time in Istanbul, Turkey, and was impressed by their dolmush shared taxi service. In every large street you will see little huddles of people waiting. A quick question finds the group going to the suburb you need to reach. In minutes along comes a big sedan or mini bus, everyone piles in and you are taken to your destination. The fare is shared between the passengers, so it works out very cheap.
The memory comes back when I think about the crushing price of car ownership and city travel these days. The RACV calculates the cost of a car - a Toyota or a Commodore mind, nothing prestige - at $11,000 a year. If you live in the inner suburbs it will spend a lot of its life sitting on the kerb; if you're outer, you can multiply the cost of fuel and maintenance.

And if you've breathed the air in Beijing or Bangkok you'll know what the future holds for you and your children if we don't do something soon.

A lot of forward thinkers have applied themselves to the question, and they don't think deeper than in Silicon Valley. By last weekend the car-sharing service Uber had raised a staggering $1.2 billion investment, with a company valuation of $17 billion.

They are in Melbourne, as in 128 cities in 37 countries. Download their app and they can be at your service in minutes - the system hinges on a pushbutton smartphone application.

They claim some users have already given up their cars and rely on Uber for their driving needs. Boasts inventor Travis Kalanick: "With our growth and expansion, the company has evolved from being a scrappy Silicon Valley tech start-up to being a way of life for millions."

But he does not have the field all to himself. Even here in Melbourne. There are smartphone taxi apps like Ingogo and GoCatch. They have been aggressively pulling in conventional taxis and GoCatch has already pulled 20,000 onto its books. Needless to say CabCharge, after years of comfortable monopoly, is hopping mad.

Their protests about unlicensed taxi services taking fares of passengers have been heard. In a crossing of swords, Victorian Taxi Services Commissioner Graeme Samuel dealt Uber a blow by fining over 30 drivers $1700 apiece.

Uber parried by slapping down the cash for their drivers, some $60,000. (Mind you, with $1.2 billion in your pocket you can afford to be magnanimous.) Uber's head of global policy commented in Germany: "It is crazy that someone got a $1700 ticket in Melbourne for providing a service that is faster and cheaper than a taxi. Nothing about that to me feels criminal, nothing about that feels bad for the consuming public."
Other forms of sharing have emerged. Car Next Door calls itself "neighbour to neighbour car sharing". Again based on an app, you can find a car and hire it for an hour at $5, or a day at $25 - minimums depending on the car - at the times when the owner isn't using it.

And then there are services like Backseat, which automates car pooling. This has long been popular in the US and Europe - and locally like the Rideshare programme at Monash.

As your car sits, waiting to feed into the freeway traffic flow, you can't help noticing those thousands of shiny big cars passing, each with its single driver. And you think, "the Turks would sit three or four more in there."

05 June, 2014

Glass road can cut carbon emissions by 75%

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday June 5,2014

I've always believed that energy targets like "5 per cent by 2020" were penny-ante and pretty useless against the giant threat of global warming. If things were to change it would take a big idea, a paradigm shift in our production of energy.

Well now an idea has come along that's highly complex yet mind-blowingly simple: Turn the streets and highways into solar collectors. That's what a firm called Solar Roadways has done, with a little US Government research funding. A fortnight ago they turned to crowd sourcing of funds aiming to raise $1 million. So far nearly $2 million has come in.
The earlier funding enabled them to design and build a car park to test the system, the new funds will enable them to build a prototype manufacturing plant. This is already past the conceptual stage.

Here's how the system works. The existing road is covered by solar panels. Each is a hexagonal tile made of incredibly strong glass. Inside it is an array of photo-voltaic cells, 128 LEDs and a micro processor. The panels click together like the wall of a honeycomb, screwed into the tarmac or concrete - they become the road.

They've been tested to take endless trucks and heavy traffic. If one fails it can be replaced quickly. In fact its companion tiles will signal the failure and identify the tile position.

The LEDs can be programmed to light up as needed - as centre lines, as parking lot dividers, as warning messages to traffic, or just as illumination on a dark night.

During the day they soak up the sun and pour energy into the power grid. In America they claim the system would be capable of generating three times the amount of energy the country needs. For winter climates the units have built-in heaters to melt the snow - saving a fortune on snow ploughs and back strain.

A covered channel runs alongside the road, carrying the necessary wiring - and any other cables, glass fibres and power lines. Oh yes - by putting our electricity in there we take down the ugly power poles and the bush fire danger they threaten each year.

In Australia, of course, with our abundance of sun, this is the answer we have been waiting for. We don't have to build power stations, or debate nuclear power any more - we will already have an ample supply of electricity.

But don't worry, my readers in the La Trobe Valley, this isn't going to happen tomorrow. It will take a lot of time as streets, then parking lots, then roads are gradually transformed. And there will always be a need for generated power, at least for a long time to come.
Besides, think of the amount of work that will be created by the manufacture of billions of panels and paving of roads, and then the follow-up maintenance and programming. This is a whole new industry as big as the power companies.

The best part of it is, these roads will pay for themselves. The power they produce is a saleable commodity. They can also have roadside power stops to recharge your electric car.

Figures from the US have speculated that carbon emissions can be reduced by 75 per cent through this technology. Now that is the kind of pollution saving I want to see - forget the tiddly five per cent.

29 May, 2014

Ad giant refused to scream

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday May 29, 2014

When you hear "advertising" you evoke images of screaming pitchmen, anxious mums, cars on the Ocean Road in eternal helicopter shots, models with manic grins and waving cardboard hands, and always price.

How could someone who refused to do all these things build the world's third-largest advertising agency, and Britain's biggest?

To do that you have to be very good, and David Abbott was - the greatest copywriter of his generation, say several UK obituaries. He died last week at 75.

A number of his ads reached us here in Australia, and certainly his influence did.

In the 60s he travelled to New York where he worked under Bill Bernbach and then David Ogilvy - the two top copywriters of their own generation, if not the century. A couple of years later back in London he formed the agency that became Abbott Mead Vickers.

Determined that advertising could be ethical, they refused to take cigarette - or toy ads, believing that children's "pester power" was wrong. Then, when the country hit a slump, he would not make any staff redundant.

As it was, the great products found them. You may remember seeing his Vovo ad: "If the welding isn't strong enough the car will fall on the writer". It depicted a red vovo suspended by a wire around the door post, with Abbott himself lying beneath. No Photoshop, this was the real thing - Abbott insisted on that.

With Sainsbury's supermarkets he demonstrated that you don't need a screaming barra' boy tossing bargains. The One Show Hall of Fame, New York, described his approach to supermarkets: "Know your product, respect your audience, trust your intuition. Watch how people buy things, even listen if you can. By all means think about their deep-seated motivations but don't get entwined in them. Treat your audience as you would like to be treated."

Or as David Ogilvy said a generation before: "The consumer isn't a moron, she's your wife".

An example from 1982: "Just when you thought you understood Brie, Sainsbury's create delicious confusion." It gives a brief history of French and German brie with beautiful shots of four wedges. Not your usual cheese ad.

Over the years you must have noticed the witty one-line quotes in a red square, for The Economist. This campaign was created by Abbott, and the style has continued ever since. His most famous quote: "I never read The Economist." Management trainee. Aged 42.

Even his shocking ads were dignified. One newspaper spread depicts a tied black plastic bag, the headline: "This doggy bag contains a dead doggy". It's an ad for the RSPCA of course, urging people to think more carefully about how they let their dogs become strays.

Even in retirement he kept busy as ever, writing a novel and bringing his second to completion - literally - at death-knock.

He mounted his own little campaign, in support for independent bookshops that he could see were being crushed by the chain store giants.

In a YouTube talk he says he lives close to three independent bookshops and spends some of his favourite hours browsing and conversing.

"I'm rather hoping that heaven will be a cul-de-sac of independent bookshops, interspersed with French, Italian and Thai restaurants." If so, they have just acquired a favourite new customer.

22 May, 2014

From a high school lab to a test for cancer

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday May 22, 2014

Remember, two weeks ago, I wrote about the billions spent by Big Pharma on developing drugs and procedures to cure the major diseases we face? Well here's another way of doing it - how about a 14 year old boy in his high school lab and family basement?

This is what Jack Andraka did two years ago in Maryland, US. He was upset when a family friend died of pancreatic cancer, and he leaned that the disease was virtually untraceable in its early stages and by the time it was identified, some 97% of patients died.

Using his high school biology and lots of reading via Google and Wikipedia, he spent his summer holidays not surfing or partying, but locked in his room studying 8000 proteins, looking for the one that would make the ideal biological marker. It had to respond immediately to the presence of pancreatic cancer antibodies. Eventually he found one - the 4000th he tested.

Then, simply as if stirring a cake mix with water, he attached the molecules to graphene nanotubes one ten-thousandth the thickness of a human hair. He soaked the mixture onto filter paper and let it dry.

The tiniest drop of blood, if it contains any antibodies, will cause a reaction that can be detected by measuring the electric current flowing through the microscopic tubes. This he did with a $50 multimeter from the hardware shop.

It worked. It still needs much further development and medical testing, but potentially, said Andraka, "The test is over 90 percent accurate in detecting the presence of mesothelin [the marker]. It is also 168 times faster, costs around three cents, over 400 times more sensitive than the current diagnostic tests, and only takes five minutes to run."

His project won the $75,000 Intel International Science Prize and he became a media sensation. He was 15 - hadn't even done the equivalent of the VCE - and he was giving pep talks on TED.

Now he's older and wiser - all of 17 - and says he wants to complete high school and university, or at least his mother does. However if you check out his web site he is flipping to meetings all over America and the world (including Australia) and you wonder where he is going to fit it in.

The boy genius is also pretty smart. As soon as he was satisfied that he had success in his hands, he hired a patent lawyer. Presumably he is negotiating with some pharmaceutical giant who will take over all the hard running and pay him lots of cash.

A few months ago he was embarked on another project, though I expect he has run out of time for it. But it is a groundbreaking idea, no less than creating the Tricorder. Remember Mister Spock's amazing machine in Star Trek? The size of what, today, would be seen as a mobile phone, it was able to diagnose and analyse any disease known to man or Vulcan.

The communications company Qualcomm has offered a $10 million prize for the first team to create a real Tricorder.

It must have the ability to diagnose a set of 15 diseases. It will take blood pressure, breathing, temperature. And "measurement of health states through a combination of wireless sensors, imaging technologies, and portable, non-invasive laboratory replacements."

In other worlds a full-blown medical lab, capable of use by a non-doctor, in the palm of your hand.

There are two dozen teams competing - groups from the world's leading universities, companies, even NASA, a suitable tribute to Mr Spock.

15 May, 2014

How a gangsta becomes a billionaire

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday May 15, 2014

How do you make a billion? A lot of hard work - sure, but that's not enough. Talent? Definitely, but there are a lot of talented people around. Being smart and building on your ideas, that is a vital step.

Who would think the opportunity might be in the squalid streets of south-central Los Angeles? In among the street gangs and crack dens, a disaffected generation was creating its own music called gangsta rap, with its leading star Dr Dre.

He and his group NWA had hits, like the typical f- the police, but then he didn't slip back into the projects. He kept off drugs - "I think my thing was: if you ain't gonna make no money out of it, don't do it," is his philosophy. A good one in that environment.

He developed as a producer. He knew how to generate a great heavy-bass sound and raised artists like Eminem, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent and fellow NWA, Ice Cube.

He gained a reputation as a perfectionist, working his performers and staff long and hard, while pushing himself even harder. Observed one artist, "When Dre walked in, it was time to work. All work and no play."

With his own record companies and walls-full of Grammies and awards, he did something clever with his money. He invested in himself.

Years of churning out hip-hop and rap made him familiar with the shortcomings of his audience's playing equipment. He wanted them to hear it as good as in the studio. So together with Jimmy Iovine of Interscope he created Beat Headphones - superior, distinctive, very expensive phones.

To persuade young adults to move from $10 ear pods to bulky phones at over $200 was no mean feat of marketing, believe me.

However, clever positioning, lots of hype and lots of social pictures with celebrities showing off their "b" logo headware, finally made Beats trendy; cultural icons, even.

But good marketing never stops there. The Doctor prescribed Beats in partnership with Hewlett Packard for laptop and tablet; deals with General Motors, for your Chrysler car; and the ideal accessory for your HTC mobile phone. In every case, the Beats made the product look cool. They even have their own New York City store.

Hey, why stop there? They're writing the music, singing, recording, playing, and putting it out through their speakers - what next?

Well, just as music downloads have sacked the record stores, they in turn have started to feel the heat of competition.

Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio, have brought in the new phenomenon, streaming on subscription.

Are you following this? You don't pay to download a track, as with iTunes, you pay a subscription service which gives you the freedom of thousands of tracks, streamed so you don't get to keep them. This is where Beats Music launched, and it took off.

All these smart moves - the kind of marketing that was the hallmark of Steve Jobs - left Apple looking rather flat-footed.

Perhaps they recognised the footwork of a natural entrepreneur, but it has been only a year later and Apple can see how Beats can put some juice back into their iTunes. This is what has led to Apple's $3.4 billion bid.

The funky doctor seems quite taken by the idea which will net him personally $850 million. Together with his existing wealth this will take him close to billionaire status. Not bad for a boy from the 'hood.