Ad Dads: The Wholesome Mix of What’s Good for Business

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How things change – and suddenly. I won’t say they change fast because that they definitely do not. Gay equality – I won’t even call it “gay rights” because it comes down to human rights and equality for all, and the gay community has been one group that suffers most from the lack of equality afforded to them as individuals and as couples/families. I recall being in New York only a handful of years ago with a fantastic woman – and if I remember correctly, we talked then about how unlikely it seemed that she would ever be able to marry a partner. I do not remember if we discussed it as an American situation (as in, never being able to marry in her own country) or a state phenomenon (meaning the state she lived in at the time). But even three or four years ago, the idea that gay couples would finally be granted the legal right to marry in as many US states as they now have seemed like a far-off dream. Change happens, and sometimes when it starts to change, it happens fast. What seems like a formidable wall turns out to be built only of dominos. It looks like one little push sends all the dominos tumbling. This is not to discount the decades and decades of active fighting for these rights – it is only a comment that once change is afoot, it is virtually unstoppable – and it is not long before the mainstream embraces the change.

Inevitably that mainstream charge leads to big business getting on board, too. Some more than others. Some with small nods to the change – others with much bigger, more visible, overt exclamation about the change. A piece in The New Yorker chronicles the recent controversy surrounding a popular Honey Maid graham cracker ad campaign, which features a happy family headed by two men. Naturally the original ad campaign sparked positive and negative feedback, and Honey Maid followed up with a response to both the positive and negative. But let’s say in their overt advertising, they put their money where their mouth is. They went so far as to use a word synonymous with their brand (“wholesome”) to describe all kinds of families and all kinds of love. (“Most striking is the tagline of the ad: “No matter how things change, what makes us wholesome never will. Honey Maid. Everyday wholesome snacks for every wholesome family. This is wholesome.” The ad is deeply heartwarming—not simply because it shows diversity (which other companies have done) but because it labels these families with the word “wholesome,” which is exactly the kind of word that tends to get claimed by the evangelical right.”)

What drives this? I understand how the basics change in society that propel more and more people who perhaps do not even support gay marriage themselves to no longer actively oppose it. There is a difference. But what drives the very public shift in how things are shown and presented as just one variation of the norm versus some kind of anomaly?

If the trend in society is breaking one way, the article argues, it boils down to what’s good for business: “Advertising both follows and leads to change. Marketers’ objective is to sell things, and they will seldom be brave enough to jeopardize their own interests, but their own interests appear to be changing. At some quiet moment when “Modern Family” was reaping good ratings, the mentality of corporate America began to change.”

It follows with reference to Jan Brewer of Arizona vetoing anti-gay legislation – not for the sake of equality but for what’s good for business: “Regard for equal human rights did not drive Brewer; the threat of losing the Super Bowl did. (How did the Super Bowl become the nexus of gay rights?) It turns out that tolerating gay people is good for business, even in Arizona. I’d prefer that people such as I get our rights because we command respect and evince dignity, but if we get them because there’s money in it, that’s fine.”

While I am content with whatever expands tolerance, I do have to wonder of course about the fickle nature of American acceptance – perhaps much of America has accepted gay marriage more or less, but at the same time as the article tackles the economic impetus driving some of this, it also addresses briefly a Cheerios ad campaign featuring an interracial family. General Mills, maker of Cheerios, received an unbelievable amount of hateful, racist commentary that came in via their YouTube channel, to the degree that comments were disabled. Bringing the discussion back to general human rights and equality, has American society (and business more generally – at least for now) decided that gay rights are something to get behind/support while racial tension and hatred is fine (or simmering under the surface) for large swathes of the country?

I wonder seriously how that can be – at a point where for the first time in American history the majority of babies born in America are not white (according to 2010 US Census data), and interracial families are growing in number (the 2008 census counted new marriages between interracial couples at 15 percent of the US population; 2010 census data show that among opposite-sex married couples, one in 10 is interracial, a 28% jump since 2000. In 2010, 18% of heterosexual unmarried couples were of different races and 21% of same-sex couples were mixed). A crowdsourced website was even started in response to the Cheerios ad. Similarly, a 2013 Gallup poll indicated that 87 percent of those polled approved of black-white marriage (versus an almost non-existent four percent in 1958). If virtually the entire population (at least those polled – granted, not a huge number — 4,373 Americans, including 1,010 non-Hispanic blacks) feels favorably about this (or is at least indifferent), are we just looking at a handful of racist idiots posting comments on YouTube, hiding behind the semi-anonymity of the internet?

The mixing is happening, the mixing is real. The mixing is growing more and more common. So why and how could a Cheerios ad celebrating the reality of this be so controversial? And really – why does anyone care? I mean, yes, I care in that I believe firmly in live and let live. Even if you don’t support or agree with something, you can tolerate it because it has nothing to do with you.

Ultimately it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same. But at least some of the positive changes are real and make material differences in the rights and equality afforded to some of the population.

Why I Changed My Mind: Matthew McConaughey

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I know I am not alone in having shifted my view on Matthew McConaughey in recent months. With the swift one-two punch of his performances in Dallas Buyers Club and, more importantly, HBO’s True Detective, it’s hard to ignore his shift. Half-naked king of the romcom for much of his career, coupled with what seemed like very little personality, McConaughey has always been easy to peg, apart from a few good turns in a few mostly overlooked earlier films (A Time to Kill, Contact, Amistad and Frailty spring to mind. These films touched the surface of what McConaughey might be capable of, but he did not go in that direction – or perhaps he did not get the opportunity to do so until later – confirming the idea that men become more interesting as they get older – at least for me).

His path to “career rebranding”, which some have referred to as his “McConnaissance”, is chronicled in a number of articles that actually point to McConaughey’s wife, crediting her influence for his recent choices – not pushing him but supporting him to make his own choices. I have given that concept a lot of thought (i.e. “Behind every great man is an even greater woman”). While something quite that extreme might not be completely the case, I have seen a lot of cases where a person (man or woman) can be more of a follower until someone who is totally supportive of them and their vision for themselves inspires them to lead their own way. Perhaps this grounding influence moved McConaughey out of the mindless and shirtless romcom arena, in the more thoughtful direction his current career has taken him. As the New Yorker article observes: “The McConaughey that we are getting now is casually weird and much darker than expected. He seems unshackled after decades of trying to be a matinée idol, an affable, guileless human glass of sweet tea.” What better way to describe it?

McConaughey’s roles in small, somewhat overlooked films (later in his career), such as Bernie, quietly propelled him in a new direction. Then with a powerhouse succession of small and large roles in Mud, Magic Mike, The Wolf of Wall Street (the only part of the movie I liked), he was well-primed to take people by surprise in the aforementioned Dallas Buyers Club and the great True Detective.

Considered, reconsidered: I can’t definitively say that I love and revere McConaughey as an actor, but he is the best thing in a great show (True Detective) – I was hooked immediately. I do hope this trend of interesting and unusual choices continues.

The Changing Workscape: The Upsides of Remote Work

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When asked whether the company has meetings, he replied: “Has anyone ever said ‘I wish I could go to more meetings today’?” – President of Automattic and co-founder of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg

While for me, there are no downsides to remote work, I can understand employers’ resistance and arguments against it. It’s new territory for most of them, so it’s easy to throw out a bunch of ill-considered objections: “if I can’t see or monitor my employees at their desk, I don’t know what they are doing” (which essentially means they do not trust their employees anyway and need to rethink staffing or their tendency to micromanage); “we need to work face-to-face to inspire creativity and innovation” (this may be true some of the time but is no reason to eliminate remote work); “we’re afraid productivity will suffer” (most studies conclude the opposite), etc. It comes down to a need for control.

Discussing the backwardness of the move away from remote work (in reference to Yahoo!’s hotly debated 2013 decision to forbid distance work), Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother Media, stated in a Forbes article by Jenna Goudreau (“Back to the Stone Age?” – sure feels like it!), “It comes from fear. Fear that if I can’t see you, I don’t know what you’re working on. It’s a distrust of your own workforce.”

The trick perhaps is both in making policy and accompanying attitude changes toward distance work – and finding a balanced approach to distance work. As Wharton research shows as part of its Work/Life Integration Project, there is no ideal “one-size-fits-all” way to do distance work. But offering the possibility means that a company has more tools to tackle all the challenges they face in attracting and keeping the right staff for its needs.

Objections be damned. Speaking from firsthand experience, I have benefited from the flexibility, increased productivity and benefits of focus, a better balance with work and home life and a much stronger sense of being trusted and valued in the company I was a part of. Likewise, it was true that I felt healthier, happier and almost felt as though things like vacation or sick leave mattered less; that is, while we do need time off, the ability to stay at home and structure my time and projects my own way (as long as I met deadlines and expectations) made all my time feel like my own. The comfort of staying at home also meant I was better rested, lost the misery of commuting and was just in the perfect spot for personal contentment and professional achievement. (Some arguments employees have against remote work, though, include the opposite – that professional achievement and advancement can be more challenging as a remote worker because you’re kind of “out of sight, out of mind” – you have to make extra effort to be noticed.)

The upsides are myriad for those employers who will embrace and allow distance work, not dissimilar to things I list as benefits in my personal views on distance work and telecommuting.

Increasing productivity & time savings
With more actual time for working (less time commuting or just sitting around talking – or being disrupted/interrupted in the office), productivity increases. A professor of management from UCLA, David Lewin, mentioned in the same Forbes article that a number of studies show that telecommuting correlates with higher productivity levels.

Boosting focus & eliminating interruptions
Improved focus is a key aspect of working at home that ties directly to improved productivity. Working in an office environment inevitably leads to a number of interruptions, and interruptions have a real cost. It takes time to focus, and every interruption disrupts that focus. Among other studies, University of California at Irvine research indicates that it takes up to 23 minutes to regain that same focus level. It only takes three “little interruptions” then to waste more than a hour of each day! It’s possible to make office rules, which we’ve tried at my office, to reduce these kinds of interruptions, but the truth is – in the destructive open landscape office environment that most companies seem to favor these days, no-interruption policies can never really be enforced. With people walking in, out and through all day long, someone saying, “Do you have a minute?” is enough to derail serious, hard-won concentration (I am a writer, and I need this!) But even the people in the big open room talking to each other – not to you – is more than enough to do the damage. All of these factors lead to the sense of not having enough time to do what needs to get done, which creates considerable anxiety and stress.

Building the dream team
A company can pick the cream of the crop if they are flexible enough to choose employment talent from anywhere. Not restricting a search to the local search area or requiring the right team members to uproot and relocate, a team can be comprised of the best in the world, not just the best in the local commuting area.

Retaining the best – creating loyalty – improving satisfaction
Showing employees that they are trusted and valued and giving them the flexibility to do their jobs creates goodwill and a sense of loyalty. A 2011 WorldatWork study found that “Organizations that have a stronger culture of flexibility also have a lower voluntary turnover rate. In addition, a majority of employers report a positive impact on employee satisfaction, motivation and engagement.”

Fostering corporate agility
Real savings can be achieved by reducing onsite workforce – that is, major real estate and other overhead and infrastructural expenses. With these savings, a company can have a lot more agility and freedom to operate more flexibly and manage expenses. By selecting best-in-class staff wherever they happen to be, a company may be able to take advantage of time zone differences (these are not always a drawback). Sometimes with a distributed staff, a company has staff closer to its customers who can handle those relationships more effectively than from a centralized location much further away.

Another aspect of this kind of agility is the ability to streamline activities. In companies that are really meeting-heavy, where people struggle to get their actual work done, because the tendency is to schedule extraneous and sometimes unnecessary meetings, a remote workforce has to adapt. It’s not that they will not continue to have meetings, but the number and scope of meetings can be pared down to what is needed rather than just what is convenient to have.

In my current company, there is not just meeting overkill but there used to be two annual marketing meetings to which all employees traveled. (And there is a lot of absolutely cost-ineffective travel taking place still). Finally the company decided to embrace the concept of a webinar to deliver this twice-yearly information to all the local markets. While the company is still firmly committed to an overabundance of in-person meetings, at least the step toward using technology to make up for cost cutting measures moved us in the right direction.

Work-life balance & health
I don’t have the hard and fast numbers on me, but it makes sense that people who want to work at home achieve a better work-life balance, which contributes to greater job satisfaction and to life satisfaction overall.

Companies should move away from self-destructive, factory models of work where people are rewarded for arriving early and staying late.” – Matt Mullenweg, Automattic/WordPress