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Strategy Matters

By Alison


On the weekends, I sail with a friend. A mechanical engineer. An inventor, a maker, a strategic thinker. We set out from various concrete boat launches, all of which are designed for fisherman, for pleasure boaters in their craft large and small with motors and the ability to slow down, back up, turn on a dime independent of the elements.

Not the case for us. It’s always tricky getting the catamaran out and it’s a lot tricky coming back in. Because cats are designed to beach, to just ride up hard on the shore That’s not an option for us. So we need strategy.


He sees the wind and weighs it against the flow of the tide. Calculating just when to turn, is late this time, maybe early? We have to miss the bridge that the mast would surely lodge under, but also avoid the fisherman who just jumped ahead of us not realizing that we are on final approach.

It’s a big picture view, and it all has to be considered, even though what we’re aiming for is an area just a few feet wide. And the strategy is never the same of course. How could it be? The context and conditions change every time. He figures it out, barks out the steps, and we execute. It’s a lot like what we do for our clients at Paragon, but without the barking.

Good strategy matters, but it isn’t easy, and it’s a fairly new idea, at least in the advertising arena. In October  McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm,  released a study on the communication strategies used by B2B companies, which found, to a great extent, that these companies weren’t talking about things their customers cared about. At all. Bad strategy.

Look at the discrepancies between what these 90 global B2B brands considered important compared with their customers when it came to assessing of brand strength. Something enormously important.

Screen shot 2013-11-26 at 2.12.10 PM

Themes such as social responsibility, sustainability, and global reach, which many B2B companies cast in a leading role for brand imaging, appeared to have a minimal influence on buyers’ perceptions of brand strength. The inverse was true, as well: two of the most important themes for customer perceptions of brand strength—effective supply chain management and specialist market knowledge—were among those least mentioned by B2B suppliers. Honest and open dialogue, which customers considered most important, was one of the three themes not emphasized at all by the 90 companies in our sample.”

How B2B companies talk past their companies, McKinsey Quarterly

Here’s another case of strategy gone wrong. Companies, like Pepsi and Target have in recent years asked their customers to help them choose where they should send their charitable donations. Seems like a great idea, no? Giving your customers a real stake. Allowing them to really engage. Not so, according to a recent Cone Communications Echo Research study.


In fact, the study found:

1) Choice reduced impact.

Only 39% of consumers supported companies that offer cause marketing with choice of cause compared to 61% of consumers who supported companies that make a long-term commitment to a focused issue over time.

2) Choice caused paralysis

Having too many options actually lead to people to stall and avoiding making a choice at all. They disengaged completely.

3) Choice lead to more regret

Anxiety and second-guessing were frequently the result, completely ruining people’s experience of these charitable campaigns.

4) Choice lowered perceived value

High company-cause fit became more difficult to achieve the more cause choices that were offered, which in turn resulted in consumers seeing less value, and being less likely to contribute.


Effective strategy, focusing in on the audience and what they’re really looking for, what they care about, how to truly engage with them, and determining where best to meet them to talk about this is critical to avoid these kinds of disconnect. It requires constantly reframing the question, the strategy, and always, always from the customer’s perspective.

We have a little glassing to do on one of the hulls where our strategy failed us one time and we careened hard into the dock. I may or may not have been at the helm at the time. We’ve (I’ve) not made that mistake again.

Strategy. Something we’re always working to do better at. At Paragon also.



Filed under: Marketing


Avoiding the workflow tangle

By Alison

At the end of each work day, I roll up the many teeny cables I use, including a set of head phones. Hey – it’s always great to come in to a tidy desk. Funny thing though – every morning when I come to unravel the carefully coiled ear plugs the go from neat loop…




total snarled up mess in a matter of seconds. My process, apparently, is flawed. I’m moving from organization to total chaos. Not good.

Happily, this is not the case with our work projects. We’re in a busy time right now – you know how it can be – sometimes things are quiet, and then just as quickly, everyone calls with a project. Managing those efficiently is absolutely critical to the success of our client’s projects, and by extension, to us as a company. We’re small, and something of a little diaspora, with a designer in Athens and a team in Austin, so we need to be able meet and share – and we get a great deal of that done virtually.

We have tools we love – Basecamp cloud-based project management software that allows us to all access the project from wherever we are, messages in one place, files and attachments etc. Skype, Harvest to track hours so we can circle back after projects are done to see if those time projections we made at the front end were accurate, realistic.

Let’s take a look at the bigger picture though. Here are some stats on projects and how companies do at managing them:

  • Of 10,640 projects from 200 companies in 30 countries and across various industries, only 2.5% of the companies successfully completed 100% of their projects.

PricewaterhouseCoopers study

  • An analysis of 1,471 IT projects, found that the average overrun was 27%, but one in six projects had a cost overrun of 200% on average and a schedule overrun of almost 70%.

Harvard Business Review study

Cost and time overruns also have a profound effect on national economies. One estimate of IT failure rates is between 5% and 15%, which represents a loss of $50 billion to $150 billion per year in the United States. Another study estimated that IT project failures cost the European Union €142 billion in 2004.

These come from a very interesting two-part series in the Gallup Business Journal on why projects fail, and how to avoid that. The central question asked being as project management becomes increasingly prevalent, and the tools and processes and schools of thought increase, how is it that we’re doing so badly at it?

This traditional approach to project management emphasizes developing complex guidelines to manage projects across all phases — from implementing phase reviews, performance metrics, and project steering committees to creating risk management dashboards.”

How to Run a Successful Project – Benoit Hardy-Vallee

Turns out, people make the difference. An engaged group will throw their efforts into ensuring the success of a project. Here’s where being a smaller company, with around 50% of our staff being principals, and the remainder being genuinely focused on the team’s success, and so by extension, our clients’ success works well for us. Corporate culture plays a huge role here. It’s the people, not just the tools we use, the processes we have developed that turn out to be the better way for us when it comes to managing projects. We’re willing to burn the whole candle to make sure things get out the door working when we said they would. 

As for my earphones – turns out there is a better way for that too – last night – the figure eight method! I look forward to stress-free unraveling in the morning!


Dude. It totally worked! A great lesson in – hey if something looks good but still doesn’t work, start looking for another way.



Filed under: How we work


Bridging the gap between Designers and Business-types

By Andrew

photo 1

Last Saturday I attended an educational session held at the Creative Coast’s Secret Headquarters entitled What Can Designers and Business Folks Learn from Each Other?. The presenters Peg Faimon and Glenn Platt tackled the issue of the apparent gap between what designers and MBAs learn in their respective halls of academia.

But why is that even an issue?” you ask. Well it’s hard to ignore just how much attention the importance of design in the business world has received in recent years. However, the light speed of change makes it hard for education programs to stay current, causing an ever-widening chasm between what graduates know and what the market needs them to know.

There are specialty programs cropping up like the stanford d.school, and certainly more integration is happening in standard design and MBA programs , so there’s reason to be optimistic. But in addition to the evolving curriculum, public sessions like these are so important for professionals like myself who aren’t in a position to go back to school. These  public forums, books, podcasts, online classes form a good ecosystem of further education to help bridge the gap.

So this past weekend’s session set itself the BHAG of giving Designers a condensed  MBA and Business types an appreciation for what Designers are taught.

Naturally, I was particularly keen to hear from the MBA side since that’s where my knowledge is the weakest. So here are:


My Selections from The Condensed MBA

(or Biz Concepts every Designer / Entrepreneur Should Know that can fit into a 1 hour presentation)

  1. Being 1st matters less than Being ON TIME
    For example, the tech for the iPad and tablet-sized computing in general had been around for at least a decade, but there was something special about the timing of the iPad that made it the success that it is now. So don’t let the fact that other competitors exist in your “space”. Having the right execution for that idea at the right time might be what sets you apart. Look at Reddit, they weren’t the first social news site but who else can rightly boast of being the front page of the internet right now.

  2. (Biz Words) Fixed Cost vs Marginal Cost
    Fixed costs are spent up front, you can’t avoid them, they’re just the cost of doing business in that field. Marginal is the cost of “making 1 more”. This is really what matters as far as profits are concerned. Plus side: for digital products, this is $0 since duplication is essentially free. You’ll need to know this later.

  3. A Rear-view mirror is useless (most of the time)
    There was some discussion as to whether this lead to a disregard for history or precedent. What I took from this though, was that history shouldn’t be the only reason for doing something. “Because we’ve always done it this way” is not a good enough reason for proceeding down a particular path. This was what allowed Intel to pivot away from the increasingly competitive memory chip business where marginal costs (see, told you) were being driven down by Japanese competitors. The story goes, that Intel’s higher ups considered what they would do if they faced the exact same conditions but weren’t a burdened with what they’ve always done before. The decision to change was a no-brainer.

  4. Eventually it’ll always be about Cash
    Recent Tech IPOs aside, the metric that will always matter in the end is Cash. Sure users, downloads, traffic and press mentions are great metrics, but if those don’t lead to revenue at some point, then you don’t have a business you just have a great idea.

  5. Keep Presentations short, and meetings shorter
    Nuff said.

  6. Have a focussed, tangible North Star,
    This is a  sentence mission statement (ideally 8 words) that keeps your business focussed and makes decisions easier. Not necessarily a public-facing tagline, you use this statement more as an internal litmus test with which you measure any potential opportunities. Southwest, for example is notorious for sticking closely to their mantra of being “the low cost airline”. So any decision is weighed by determining how it helps them become or remain the low cost airline carrier. If it doesn’t, no matter how attractive, it’s seen as a distraction from their North star.

  7. Read all of the things

  8. Look for ways to help everyone you meet
    The most effective way of making use of networking is to bring something of use to the relationship. People respond more favorably to people who’ve shown their usefulness, rather than those who seem to be asking for something.

  9. Work should = FLOW
    Strive for high skill , high challenge in the workplace. Particulary insightful if you’re a manager of other designers. Hire high skill workers and keep the challenge level high. In fact, hire people better than you.

  10. Solve Problems, don’t just deliver products / services
    Always think about what value you offer your customers / clients rather than just the final output. You don’t just sell hammers and nails, people need a hole in the wall and that’s what you facilitate. This is more than just a marketing / messaging trick it insulates you from obsolescence if hammers ever go out of style or get replaced by newer hole-making technology.

  11. (Biz Word) KPI -Key Performance Indicators
    If it’s not measured it’s not managed. How will you know if you’re succeeding if you don’t keep track of the important metrics that indicate success? If downloads are the true indicator, then why are you measuring Twitter followers?

A list of Business buzzwords was requested during the discussions,
here are a few to get started:

Also, I thought I’d throw in some business podcasts I listen to that could be helpful:



Now here are:

My Selections from the Condensed MFA for Business Types

  1. Get comfortable with killing your darlings
    The phenomenon known as The Crit in design school develops an ability to view critique as a helpful tool rather than a personal attack. Feedback used wisely, can only improve your ideas. This requires a measure of humility to think that the 1st idea you present isn’t the best idea or at least isn’t the best form that idea will take. There’s always better and sometimes you can’t see it. Based on the group discussion around this topic, it seems this is something business and marketing types “just need more practice at.”

  2. Design is as much about Strategy and Process as it is about aesthetics
    The popularity (some would say over-popularity) of terms like design thinking, service design or experience design has at least introduced the biz community to the idea of design as a systematic, albeit flexible, process rather than just a group of creative types sitting and waiting for inspiration to strike.

The Concluding thought seemed to be that as the bridge between Design and Business gets firmer, the higher education programs will need to merge. The presenters saw a future where MFA and MBA grads share an interdisciplinary knowledge set where MBAs are more design-savvy and MFAs are more prepared to contribute in the boardroom not just the studio. They’re even co-authoring an Experience Design curriculum. So keep an eye out for that.

Click here to view all the slides from their presentation.

Filed under: Community, Design


Leveraging the List

By Alison

Screen shot 2013-09-30 at 11.37.36 AM

Yo, Mr White!

Last weekend’s Breaking Bad finale drew 6.6 million watchers, the most in the show’s history, and Ad Age reported this week that advertisers paid up to $400,000 for a 30-second commercial for the final episode.

But one brand got in on the buzz without a big broadcast media buy, and may have even positioned themselves favorably with a younger demographic. All via a free ad on Craigslist, a site visited by around 60 million people from the U.S. alone each month. Potentially more eyeballs than the finale attracted.

From Creativity-Online:

Just hours before the finale’s start on Sunday, real estate marketer Century 21 took to the web with a clever digital stunt: placing a phony ad on Craiglist for the New Mexico home of the main character, Walter White. The three-bedroom ranch style house is listed as an “Albuquerque Palace Waiting for You” at a price tag of $150,000. 

The ad copy is hilarious – “Water heater replaced in 2009. Secret crawl space great fun for kids. Near airport. Great local schools with dedicated teachers who take an interest in students.”

There’s an associated campaign on Twitter and Facebook too – perhaps something has shown up in your feed today.

Craigslist began as an email list of events in San Francisco by Craig Newmark, a computer programmer in 1995, as a way to stay in touch with friends. Today users in 70 countries around the globe post more than 100 million classified ads each month. Of those listings, more than 2 million are job ads.



Filed under: Just for fun, Marketing



By Alison

Friendship Pander Oxymoron?

Fear Pester Ominous?

Forward Pact Overblown?

No! For Print Only.

And they featured our 2012 Holiday Mailer Elemental Deck of Cards. Yay! Thank you so much!


FPO COmment

Launched in 2009 — and now in its second iteration FPO is a blog dedicated to printed stuff – as founders Bryony Gomez-Palacio and Armin Vit put it:

“An opportunity to celebrate the failure of print to die.”

It’s one of six sites launched by UnderConsideration LLC — others being Speak UpBrand NewQuipsologiesThe Design Encyclopedia and Word It  — that have been part of the growing dialog in design and the broad appreciation of the practice made possible by the reach of the web.

It’s always great to be recognized by folks whose work we respect – we’re just tickled. Oh – you can also buy a deck for those Card Heads on your gift list.

Also – it’s a good reminder… Christmas is just around the corner. (What?! Already?! I know!!)

Guys – have we put this onto the schedule yet?



Transforming | Commemorating

By Alison

Six international students from the Miami Ad School in Brooklyn are behind a guerilla project that turned pedestrian traffic lights around Manhattan and Brooklyn into symbols of remembrance. The stop symbol was modified to resemble the fallen Twin Towers, while a message reads “9/11. Forward. Together.” underneath it.

I love the simplicity, the power of this, and I think about New Yorkers encountering these this morning how that made them feel.

Filed under: Design


Hearing the right message

By Alison

Irish Poet and Nobel Literature Prize winner Seamus Heaney died last week. As an English Literature Major I sat at my desk the morning I heard and tried to remember a poem across the vast field of time that has passed since I read one.

Punishment, written about an Iron Age body found in a bog in Windeby Germany in 1952 – something of a recurring theme for Heaney – was the one I conjured up. That line about tugging at the nape stuck somehow.

So I tracked it down to read again, and learned that much has changed in terms in our understanding of the contextual and archeological message delivered by that long dead body compared with when Heaney wrote the poem, and even when I first read it back in (Lord) 1988. Earlier even if it showed up in a high school anthology.



I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front.

It blows her nipples
to amber beads,
it shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.

I can see her drowned
body in the bog,
the weighing stone,
the floating rods and boughs.

Under which at first
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up
oak-bone, brain-firkin:

her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring

to store
the memories of love.
Little adulteress,
before they punished you

you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat,

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeuur

of your brain’s exposed
and darkened combs,
your muscles’ webbing
and all your numbered bones:

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

Experts at the time the body was found thought she may have been an adulteress whose head was shaved, after which she was blindfolded and drowned in the bog. This is one of the stories Heaney tells in his poem, there is also political commentary, as he explained years later:

“It’s a poem about standing by as the IRA tar and feather these young women in Ulster. But it’s also about standing by as the British torture people in barracks and interrogation centers in Belfast. It’s about standing between those two forms of affront.”

However in 2007, Prof. Heather Gill-Robinson, a Canadian anthropologist and pathologist used DNA testing to show that, far from being a 14-year old girl, the body was actually that of a male. And that the hair had been lost perhaps during the removal from the bog, perhaps by the passage of time.

They all heard the wrong message.

Happily, for Heaney, his interpretation still has value. Fine art comes with that sort of latitude baked in. Not so when you’re crafting commercially.

It’s vital to hear the message correctly in order to package and deliver it. As a design firm, we are focussed on listening to what our clients want and then crafting something that meets the brief. That can be tricky, though, because while we all broadcast information, both through what we say and how we say it, often times there is still some decoding required.


Studies show that verbal impact of communication only accounts for 7% of your overall message. Bulk of communication comes across in our appearance and body language, comprising 55%. Tone, speed and inflection of our voice make up the remaining 38%. You need to be a whole-body listener.

We listen at 125-250 words per minute, but think at 1000-3000 words per minute, and immediately after listening to someone, we only recall around 50% of what they said, long-term that falls to 20%.

So. There are lots of tips out there on how to listen. Here are some, as a former journalist, that I rather like:

1. Listen to understand, not to respond

2. Be quiet

3. Let them finish their thoughts

4. Maintain eye contact (or, you know, stare intently at the phone during conference calls)

5. Ask questions to ensure that you understand

These are courtesy of Guy Harris, Chief Relationship Officer with Principle Driven Consulting who blogs here.

And while we’re thinking about listening, back to Heaney now, because it’s always cool to hear a poet reading his own work. Here’s The Underground.


Filed under: Inspiration


YouTube Preroll Reimagined

By Alison

Do you find your cursor hovering on the “Skip Ad” button and counting down through those obligatory 5 seconds of forced viewing every time you find yourself watching something on Youtube?

(Although weirdly, some 35% of people actually do choose to watch them all the way through – perhaps it’s the option of an out that keeps them engaged. Interesting.)

Anyway. It’s always cool to see people changing up how we interact with the familiar, especially when it’s an annoying sort of familiar, and especially when it is helpful to people in a profound sort of way. I love what globally-present agency VML came up with for some preroll time they purchased for the Aussie Police.

Take a look.


The eyes have it

By Alison

As a group of people focused on providing visual solutions for our clients, it’s always nice when science gives the eyeballs a nod.


Yup – I’ve written before about how heavily humans weight our visual senses as we make sense of the world, but there’s a new bit of research out lately that calls this into, well, focus even more starkly.

I say classical music competition, and what do you think of first? Sound? Or sight? Sound seems like the obvious pick here, but a recent study found participants had a higher success rate when it came to identifying the winners in competitions based on watching silent video clips, and not from listening to the audio recordings. Really. Even when the study participants were highly trained musicians.

It’s a very counterintuitive finding — there have been some interesting reactions from musicians,” said study author and recent Harvard Graduate Chia-Jung Tsay said. “What this suggests is that there may be a way that visual information is prioritized over information from other modalities. In this case, it suggests that the visual trumps the audio, even in a setting where audio information should matter much more.”



Tsay earned a Ph.D. in organizational behavior with a secondary Ph.D. field in music last year. She recruited almost 1,200 volunteers who were given either video clips without sound, audio clips, or video clips that included sound. After viewing or listening, they were asked to identify the winners.

What I found was that people had a lower chance of identifying the eventual winner if they only listened to the sound,” Tsay said. “People who just had the video — even without the sound — had surprisingly high rates of selecting the actual winner. Even with professional musicians, who are trained to use sound, and who have both expertise and experience, it appeared that the visual information was overriding the sound.”

Here’s Tsay, a Juilliard-trained pianist in competition.

Eyeballs matter, people, so take care of them! And we’ll keep working hard to show them nothing but the good stuff. And here are some eyebally facts, just because.



How Different Species Use Their Eyes

Explore more infographics like this one on the web’s largest information design community – Visually.


Filed under: Design, Just for fun


Brain Science and Infographics

By Alison


Who does not love them?

Well. Clearly we do. But really. They’re awesome! And they’re increasingly in use. Check out this great infographic by San Francisco-based Interactive Artist Ivan Cash on current trends and devices.


They’re a powerful tool when it comes to communicating complicated ideas – quickly and compellingly.

But I missed a step there – because you need to break down the components a little further to understand why it is that we humans just. Get. Them. It’s because it turns out your brain really REALLY loves… Images. And pictures are becoming arguably even more prevalent as we increasingly interface with our technology through app icons and thumbnails. Because it also just makes good sense to leverage something that makes that much sense to our brains.

So getting back to the brain and its love affair with the visual. One of the most striking characteristics of human memory is that pictures are remembered better than words. You already probably know this anecdotally – but there’s buckets of science to back it up. We have a really remarkable ability on this front.

In a study conducted in the 1970s on image perception and memory, researchers showed 21 undergraduates 2560 images for 10 sec. each. Then they tested their recognition memory and found that the students remembered at least 90% of what they’d been shown, that’s at least 2304 different images. Up to three days after originally seeing them. This far outstrips our ability to remember words. One theory on the why is that pictures automatically engage multiple representations and associations with other knowledge we have about the world, so the result is a more elaborate encoding than occurs with words.


(See this infographic on how memory works in its entirety here.)

Seems our brains just treat images differently, perhaps even hierarchically. They matter more. Articles with relevant images have 94% more views than those without, for example, high quality imagery is very important to 67% of consumers when making purchase decisions.

And memory matters when you’re trying to share information. We need to be able to remember in order  to understand, and to internalize before we can share. So one might say images drive social engagement. Which despite sounding fairly modern, is really not a very new idea. Neither, as it turns out, are infographics.

Here’s one put together by Florence Nightingale in 1857. She had a bit of an axe to grind about hospital cleanliness. So she put together this polar area chart showing mortality causes during the Crimean War.


And it’s really hard to make any sort of argument against hand washing when you register the deaths caused by communicable, preventable diseases, shown in blue, which just massively outstrip deaths from wounds shown in red. She made her case effectively apparently, and helped change the face of modern medicine.

(Healthcare is the sector today that most employs infographics to get their message across. Politics and business follow in short order rounding out the top three.)

And when NASA sent the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft out into deep space in the early 1970s they included a pair of plaques (gold-anodized aluminum) adorned with images telling a story of earth with the hope that they would be decodable to extraterrestrial life.


Human figures, hydrogen – our most abundant element, the position of the sun in the galaxy and 14 pulsars, the solar system and a silhouette of the spacecraft. Astronomer Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, who at the time had lectured about communication with extraterrestrial intelligences at a conference in Crimea (we’re looping back to Florence here) came up with the design in just 3 weeks. (And took a lot of heat for the naked people, by the way.)

Where are these infographics now? Well Pioneer 10 sent its last signal 30 years after its launch in 2001, some 12 billion kilometers from earth. Pioneer 11 was last heard from in 1995, and is currently headed in the direction of constellation of Aquila. It’s expected to pass near one of the stars in about 4 million years. Which is really rather an extraordinary thing to consider.

So humans, and I guess we’re hoping aliens too, like their data visualized. It really is just easier to interpret a chart or series of stats in image form than from a block of text. (And as a writer, I will say that this pains me some). I’ll close out with this rather fantastic motion graphic from Column Five Media that neatly sums up the value and science of visualization.

The Value of Visualization from Column Five on Vimeo.




Filed under: Design, Inspiration