Friday, July 30, 2010

My Google AdWords campaign over, I turn to Pat Sajak


It was one month ago that I went to the market to buy some Google AdWords so I could get my message of love online, peddle this website's new domain, and hold my head up high as a happenin' ad instructor.

Did it work? Am I happenin'? Awww, forget it.

The background

AdWords is how Google monetized itself into the monster company it is today by selling search results and syndicated ads to advertisers who bid on keywords in order to sell their goods and services online.

Think of AdWords as the online version of Wheel of Fortune, if Pat Sajak took the winners' money home with him every day.

Google AdWords takes on a creepy, almost lifelike form.

I talk about the process of registering for Google AdWords here; here's how I described it at the time:
"In less than half an hour, I set my budget per month, cost per click, keywords, campaign timeline, and target audience based on geography, language, time of day, and demographics. Also notable: you can choose to only advertise when a person is using a mobile device, surfing the Web, or both."
The biggest challenge was writing the ad - Twitter's 140 characters ain't got nothin' on Google AdWords' constraints. I settled on this, little number:

Kenton Larsen's secrets!
Get schooled on Ad & PR in Manitoba
You must read this blog today...
Kenton's Infotainment Scan

Based on my bid for words and daily budget - it was low! - Google estimated that I'd get 14 hits a day for two cents a click.

Then, I sat back for the entire month and tracked the results.

The results

Here's how the numbers panned out over July:
  • 49 clicks directed to my website from the ad.
  • 69,307 impressions - number of times my ad came up in the Google network.
  • $3.24 - total cost to me. Whew, I'm still rich.
The keywords
  • The big keyword is "Winnipeg," which gets thousands upon thousands of searches a day - over 69,000 in July.
  • The second-biggest keyword is "Kenton," which gets tens upon tens of searches a day for 180 over the month.
  • My other keywords sucked.
The anecdotal evidence

I got emails from two former students who live out of town and found my website when they saw the ad - the promise of my "secrets" too much for them to bear!

So, at the very least, I reconnected with a couple of former students. Not bad for three bucks!

Getting outbid

After hitting it big right out of the gate, my campaign lost steam and clicks as it went along - as this top-heavy AdWords graph clearly shows:

What gives?

When your campaign starts tanking, as mind did, Google provides you with some helpful advice:
"Your keywords aren't triggering ads to appear on Google any longer. Your bid may be below the first page bid estimate."
Translation: "stop being a tightwad."

Yep, I didn't bid enough for my ad to show up on the first page of search results when a search matched my keywords. The amount you pay is based on advertising competition for the keywords, user search behavior, and "quality score" - how closely what you're selling relates to the keywords you've selected.

So, either my budget or cost-per-clicks bid was too conservative, which makes sense when you consider the competition there must be for "Winnipeg." Damn you, Winnipeg!

Next time, I bring a wheelbarrow of money

The lesson: the next time I do an AdWords campaign, I'll be sure to pony up the dough to make it "the greatest campaign the world has ever seen!"

Until that time, I'll be right here sitting in my underwear, eating Cheetos, and watching Wheel...of...Fortune!

Thursday, July 29, 2010


TV has never been better.

It occurred to me about half an hour into the season premiere of Mad Men, when I realized, "I'm enjoying this show so much, I never want it to end."

I looked something like this:

Mad Men did end, and then I watched True Blood, Entourage, and At the Movies (only three more episodes to go!), and I loved them as well.

Oh, sure, there's still a lot of crap out there, but pound for pound, day in day out there's almost always something good on TV, whether it's HBO, a film channel that shows commercial-free movies all day long, or guilty pleasures (Obama on the View, anyone?).

As Homer Simpson once said about TV, "Thanks to these brave men and women who give so much and ask so little."

A million channels: one for each niche

One of the reasons TV is better than ever is because there's more competition than ever: we have a million channels targeting a million niche markets, the move from "broadcasting" to "narrowcasting" all but a done deal.

So even if you think TV isn't for you, then there's probably still a channel for you.

I recently met with a CreComm grad who told me that her life's ambition is to get a job at the Food Network, which features all kinds of great shows,, that one's not for me.

If your thing isn't food, maybe it's reality shows, classic sitcoms, gardening, westerns, or ice road truckers - here: have as much of it as you could possibly want, 24 hours a day.

By today's standards, Bruce Springsteen's "57 Channels (and Nothin' on)" is positively quaint:

I can turn on HBO almost anytime and find something worth watching (at night it gets dirty!), and as long as there's someone with an English accent shouting at hapless Americans or Jeopardy! is showing on a channel somewhere, I'm sound as a pound.

Of course, the downside of narrowcasting is that it's harder for TV stations and networks to compete for the ever-shrinking pot of advertising dollars and to come up with water-cooler shows that we can all talk about at work the next day (unless you happen to work in RRC's IT department).

There are some mass-market shows that buck the trend - Survivor, American Idol, CSI, House - and there are some shows that seem like they're mass market, because you hang around the same kind of people as you - Mad Men - but it seems that there's no such thing as a breakout show for "everyone" anymore.

That might be a good thing.

12 Channels and Nothin' on

When I was a kid, we walked 1,000 miles to school barefoot, and had 12 channels on the TV - that was "cable" - and the popular shows were popular not because they were good, but because there was literally nothing else on.

This led to all kinds of crimes against humanity, including David Hasselhoff, an evil twin named "Garth," and a talking car in something called Knight Rider - a huge hit that ran on NBC in prime time for five years despite being complete and utter crap.

When Knight Rider came back in 2008, it was different times indeed. In a more competitive TV environment, crap really looks like crap. The show lasted 13 painful episodes and was canceled for low ratings.

Force fed on crap for our formative years, with only Atari to turn to, my generation became a cynical, ironic bunch - only SCTV and the Black Flag could satisfy our frustrations with the abysmal state of home entertainment:

Love the shout-outs to Hill Street Blues, Dallas, and That's Incredible. Ha!

So, here's the big question: given today's hearty buffet of quality entertainment - catered directly to our personal, on-demand entertainment needs - could we be in danger of losing our sarcasm, irony, cynicism, and all of the other truths some of us hold so near and dear to our hearts?

When I read about our TV networks lobbying CRTC and fighting with cable providers, I never see a single one of them make this argument: "Commissioner, it's in every Canadian's best interest to be force fed a diet of crap, so that they become cynical and don't take anything at face value, the better to lead worthwhile lives that are rich with meaning."

Why, it's our patriotic, God-given right to watch crap! Which is why tonight I hope you'll join me in watching the season premiere of Jersey Shore.

Seacrest out!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Has Facebook muscled out the yearbook?

You can't tell a yearbook by its cover. I hope.

A pressing question for my students under age 22:

Do they still make yearbooks?

The question popped into my head yesterday when I wrote that barnburning blog post about how I invented Wii Fit and the Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime album cover. My proof (for the latter, anyway) is my yearbook photo, which came out four years before the album.

In your eye, Minutemen! Oh, sorry, that was yesterday's blog.

The yearbook is basically Facebook in book form, but as yesterday's blog post revealed: you can prove stuff with a yearbook because it's a snapshot in time, written in stone.

The yearbook's primary value is sentimental; when you get to my ripe old age, you pick it up, look at it, and think, "What was I thinking with those game-show host glasses and feathered hair?" Or, "I dated her for three years! What's her name again?" Or I went to school with "Nia Vardalos' sister?!"

Nia's sis on the left.

With Facebook, you can search, link, poke, write on walls, friend, unfriend, tag, untag, and change history, if you're creative and own Photoshop.

But for all its interactivity, Facebook is always a work in progress. You can't prove s**t with Facebook - on Facebook I can have a full head of hair and say I discovered the law of gravity.

In your eye, Isaac Newton!

The history of the yearbook

The original Facebook group.

A quick online search tells me that the yearbook was invented in 1845 by John A. Yearbook, who realized that he would die penniless if he couldn't think of a way to rip off high school students.

After that, the history of the yearbook follows the history of photography, graphic design, and the print production process.

In the eighties - my high-school era - computers made the process so easy, the yearbook moved from being controlled by staff to being handled by students, which is how you get a yearbook cover that features a "titan" with a loincloth positioned remarkably low - for a yearbook and a man.

The business model was simple: you had a captive, niche audience made up of students who would pay whatever a yearbook cost, so they could get a keepsake from their "glory years," also known as "those awkward and terrible years you wish you could block out, but you can't because you've got this yearbook."

The original wall.

One good book deserves another

Facebook started out as an online yearbook for Mark Zuckerberg's classmates at Harvard, which then grew to include Ivy League schools, then all universities and colleges, then high schools, then everyone.

That's about when I discovered that I like individuals, but hate "everyone!"

My reservations aside, Facebook is now the second most-popular website after Google; to most people, its immediacy and brand makes the old, hardcopy yearbook look a little like yesterday's newspaper (or today's, if the front page features a thunderstorm photo from two nights ago).

Could it be that yearbook is to Facebook what newspaper is to Internet? The poor yearbook is so time consuming and costly to print, produce, and buy - should it even try to compete with a free, online service that lives and breathes interactivity?

The original prof-pic. Is that you, Ally Sheedy?

Time wounds all heels

The yearbook's big niche is "sentimentality" - the one are in which Facebook fails, because the Internet is all about "what's happening now."

A yearbook increases in value with time: the longer you live, the greater the chance you'll grab the yearbook on your escape from a burning house.

When I ran across my yearbooks yesterday, I leafed through every page of every one. Time heals all wounds, so at this point even the high-school bully's profile made me laugh out loud:

The original profile.

The yearbook's future?

The idea of an online yearbook seems cool until you consider the poor bastards who got stuck with a CD-ROM yearbook: if you're selling sentimentality from one moment in time, the format of choice has still gotta be "the book," doesn't it?

(Keep in mind that this comes from a guy who now reads all of his books on Kindle and iPad - magazines on Zinio and newspapers on PressReader. The yearbook: the happy exception to the rule!)

To this end, I think that social media could still play a role in the production and promotion of the hardcopy yearbook - and for all I know, maybe it is!

You get students and staff to submit their profiles, articles, and pictures online and make choices about the yearbook content - maybe you even create a yearbook page on Facebook, where yearbook staff keep everyone up to date on the process and invite students to participate along the way.

Participation begets ownership begets accepting the invite to show up and buy a book at the big yearbook launch/autograph session/party.

Then you continue updating the Facebook site as it turns into the 10- and 20-year class reunion planning committee.

And for the rest of your life, whenever you feel the need to get sentimental and away from Facebook, you can always turn to the original book of faces:

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

History lesson: a tale of two photos

I remember inventing Wii Fit.

I was sitting in a bar with my friends, circa 2000:
"There's this mat you work out on and your image representation (translation: avatar) works out at the same time and - get this - Mom's don't care if their kids play it, because their kids are actually working out. Don't you see: it's genius!"
Like the guy who sat down at the piano in the famous Ogilvy ad - they all laughed. Trouble is, I never got a chance to play them my concerto, because now that the Wii is a huge success, my friends can't remember the conversation.

Drunk bastards!

History lesson, part I

So, it brings me great pleasure to provide some proof of something I did invent. If it's not Wii Fit, it's the cover of one of the great punk-rock albums and album covers of all time - The Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime.

I submit for your consideration:

1. Kenton Larsen, Shaftesbury High School yearbook, 1985

2. The Minutemen, Double Nickels on the Dime album, 1989

History Lesson, part II

Now about my idea for Wii global bicycle tours...

The four most provocative books in my library

Hello, devil, welcome to the book club from Hell!

I reorganized my library yesterday - a cross between the Jedi Temple library and the one that Belle has access to when she starts warming to the Beast - and came across some all-time classics that I forgot I even had.

If I'm ever being investigated for horrible crimes against humanity, these are the books that will be seized by the cops, called into evidence, and seal my horrible fate:

1. How to Steal Food From the Supermarket by J. Andrew Anderson

I bought this classic, really a pamphlet in a book cover, at Barnes and Noble in New York City. Come to think of it, maybe I should have stolen it.

I started reading it in the store and couldn't stop laughing; you've gotta love any book that makes the case for shoplifting because "we pay taxes for farm subsidies so that we can be overcharged at the store."

So, just like "not paying a cabbie" is "hitchhiking" to some people, "shoplifting," is "saving money" to Anderson, whose expertise on the subject of shoplifting is that he works as a supermarket security guard.

Anderson breaks the book down like this:
  • Reasonably legal methods of saving money.
  • Illegal (but low-risk) methods of saving money.
  • Illegal methods short of outright shoplifting.
  • Full-fledged, hardcore, stick-it-in-your-pants-and-walk-out-the-door shoplifting.
There's also helpful advice about what to do if you get caught: deny everything, offer to pay for it ("Never shoplift something you can't afford to buy!"), but don't run, and don't do it if you already have a criminal record.

And, my favorite:
"Try to look like a guy who listens to Christian rock and likes you'd be proud to have Pat Boone as your father."
My father, a retired lawyer, once told me that certain criminals - I mean "people" - he represented scared him, because their criminal minds were so sharp, they were always one step ahead of everyone, including him.

I'd put Anderson in that category. His ideas show me that I'm not smart enough to be a criminal and maybe not even a teacher. Don't tell, OK? OK!

For instance, has it ever occurred to you that you could save bar codes from cheaper products, coat them on the back with glue stick, save them on a sheet of wax paper, and apply them over the real bar codes on more expensive products in the store?

Didn't think so.

How about paying a grocery clerk to "slide" the items around the scanner?

Too scary for me!

I originally bought this book to give someone as a joke gift, but I'm just not ready to say goodbye to it yet.

Besides, I may need a hobby when I retire!

2. I Wish That I Had Duck Feet by Theo. LeSieg

For most people, this book is notable because it was written by Dr. Seuss under a pen name.

For me, it's notable because I actually do have duck feet - I walk with my feet pointing outward, giving me a happy bounce that I overheard one student last year refer to as my "diva walk." Yes, teachers hear everything.

I have no proof, but I'm fairly sure my parents bought me this book to tell me that there's nothing wrong with my duck walk. Come to think of it, a Chuck Berry record would've been the icing on the cake.

The lesson: "And that is why/I think that I/just wish to be like ME!"

What's more, it worked: the book is falling apart, having been read and loved a million times.

Take that, cruel mockers!

3. You Are Going to Prison by Jim Hogshire

The logical must-read after How to Steal Food From the Supermarket, this is a survival guide and merry jaunt through the U.S. correctional system, from arrest to the electric chair and all the delightful steps between.

It answers every question you've ever had about the criminal justice system, including:
  • Everyday objects lying around prisons that you can use as weapons (plastic spoons, razor blades, toothbrushes).
  • The best way to slow a trial down and even get a mistrial if things aren't going your way (punch your lawyer in the mouth and sit back passively while all hell breaks loose!).
  • The form of execution to choose if you want to increase your chances of taking a few of the guards with you (gas chamber, of course).
  • What you might want to say at your execution - no filibuster allowed.
  • How to make wine in prison - fresh out of the toilet and into your glass!
  • And the answer to every guy's worst fear: "Will I get raped in prison?"
That would be a big affirmative.

I've bought this book five or six times - more joke gifts! - and I've read it five or six times. Breaks the ice at parties!

This book became a Will Arnett film called Let's Go to Prison, which is good for a few laughs, but nowhere near the greatness of the book.

4. The Woman's Gourmet Sex Book, by Peggy & Evan Burke

First of all, I didn't buy this book. No, really!

It was left at my house by a well-known singer in a local band, who carried it around because it made her laugh so hard. Me too! If she's reading this, I promise to give it day.

"The Woman's Gourmet Sex Book" was published in 1983, but the advice in the book seems to come from a simpler time (read: sexist), as the book imagines a world in which men work hard and women wait patiently for them to come home, at which point it's their duty to pleasure them - 365 days a year!

The back-cover blurb says it all:
"This book is arranged in the form of a perpetual calendar, so it can be used year after year. Put it to use by turning to today's date, reading the entry, and letting the scenario that is suggested become a sensuous reality..."
Among the book's many helpful suggestions is March 9:
"Buy a package of Chinese fortune cookies. Open one of the cookies and insert a note telling him what you are going to do him at the first opportunity. Reseal the cookie.

"Get him to take you to dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Switch your cookies for the one brought by the waiter. He may be somewhat startled when he reads your message, but he will soon recover enough to help you get into your coat and rush you home to bed, where he will hold you to your promise."
I'm confused: who do I tip?

How about May 10?
"Fake a chest cold. Tell him it's causing tightness in your chest. Ask if he would mind giving you a rubdown, and give him some lotion to use. Then smile and admit you were faking."
Nothing turns on a guy like the whooping cough.

And, the grand finale, Nov. 7:
"After you have finished making love, tell him you have never experienced orgasm till you began making love to him. Don't worry about the left-handed reference to other lovers. Men no longer expect every woman to be a virgin."
Left-handed virgins unite: you have nothing to lose but your dignity!

Monday, July 26, 2010

It happened on Winnipeg Transit: the best apology ever

It started here: my "unique and local - " but not "daily" - apology.

As I learned when I colored over my grade-two classmate's artwork with a crayon: "I'm sorry" are the hardest words to say.

I recently experienced the best apology of all time, and - even better - it happened on a Winnipeg Transit bus, where everything that's important in this city happens.

The more I tell this story, the more people seem to enjoy it, so let's give it another whirl here, shall we?

The infraction

After a hard day's work last semester - is there any other kind? - I got on a Winnipeg Transit bus, and, out of the blue, some guy started yelling at the back of my head.

I turned around, and there was a disturbed-looking guy in his mid-20s, who was pissed - I guess - because I got on the bus before him; I'm still unclear on the details.

So, I gave him my best give-me-a-break look and sat down at the back of the bus, where I watched him harangue everyone else on the bus for the duration of my journey.

"You: stop lookin' at me funny!" Etc, etc.

On my way out of the bus, I decided to give him some unsolicited advice: "If you were nicer to other people, maybe they'd be nicer to you."

The advice surprised him, and I made sure I got off the bus quickly before he had a chance to respond with an insult. So what if the bus was still going 60? Totally worth it.

I figured that was the end of it.

The apology

The next day, I got on the bus and - surprise! - there was the same guy sitting at the back.

I noticed too late, so I was already committed to sitting near him and couldn't turn back, lest I give him some more ammo to shout at the back of my head.

I sat down, opened up a book, and prayed he wouldn't talk to me. But of course, it was only a matter of time before I heard:

"Hey. Hey you."

I looked up at him and he continued:

"I just wanted to tell you that I was having a really bad day yesterday. And I'm very, very sorry I yelled at you and insulted you. Baldy."

How Belushi put the PR in party

"You can't spell party without PR" - CreComm grad Will Cooke

Words that John Belushi lived by.

I just finished reading Mike Thomas' Second City Unscripted - a good oral history that does for the the comedy troupe in Toronto and Chicago what Tom Shales' Live From New York did for SNL.

My favorite story in the book is from SNL and Second-City alumnus Tim Kazurinsky, who recalls being dragged to John Belushi's Chicago Blues Bar at Belushi's insistence, where he gets a PR advice from the guy who played Bluto in Animal House.
"Basically it was, like, four pinball machines, a pool table, and a bar...a big bunch of nothin'. People would kill to get in. They would pay a fortune to try to get smuggled in there."
Kazurinsky gives in, goes to the bar with Belushi, and discovers the secret to the bar's success:
"I said, "Who are all these people?"

"And (Belushi) said - and this was his little lesson to me - "All right, the Blues Brothers are gonna jam with the Eagles. Here's the Eagles. Those guys there are our PR people. Those guys there are their PR people. These are our assistants; these are their assistants. These guys are all reporters from Rolling Stone and Time...."

"Everybody had a corporate tag, a reason to be there. The place was jammed. And he said, "You are gonna read about this wonderful event in Rolling Stone, Time, and Newsweek, and what a great party it was, and how the crowd really enjoyed it. But you know something? You're the only person who's not a journalist or an assistant or an aide or a PR person."

"It was his way of saying, "This is the way the business works. This a completely planned and controlled event."
The Second City Unscripted is available on and a digital download.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

PressReader: the Holy Grail of newspaper apps

How do you do it, PressReader?

What would you say if I told you that you could subscribe to the full daily content from over 1,500 newspapers from 90 countries in 47 languages for just $30 a month?

Yes way! I have found the unicorn.

Believe it, Ripley, it's true.

How PressReader enables your addiction

PressReader lets you download a good chunk of the world's newspapers onto your iPad or iPhone in their original form - ads, classifieds, and all - for a monthly subscription fee that's less than what I was paying for the Globe and Mail and Sunday New York Times by themselves.

Like a drug dealer, the app gets you addicted by offering you seven free newspaper downloads. Just try to stop at seven, newspaper addict!

The newspapers are organized by country. Pick a country, any country, and prepare to be amazed by the selection. I tried "UK" first and found a newspaper for every man, woman, child, fish and chips order, and dead parrot in Britain.

This is just the first page of choices - if you want more, just keep on scrolling, Shakespeare.

With reckless abandon, I raced to view the US and Canada sections; again, most big-city newspapers are present and accounted for, including EVERY edition of the Globe and Mail (though Canadians know that every edition is the Toronto edition - snap!).

I downloaded my first three free papers - the Winnipeg Free Press, Winnipeg Sun, and Washington Post - two shout-outs to my local peeps and one to Tom Shales, my favorite TV critic and newspaper writer.

The newspapers downloaded into the "My Library" section of the iPad app in about 30 seconds:

But the real revelation is seeing what these newspapers look like in digitized format: sparkling, crisp, and robust - like all of my favorite beers and precious few of my ex-girlfriends. Huh-huh, huh-huh.

Here's the Mad Men article from yesterday's Entertainment section. Who cares about the article - Don Draper, blah, blah - how about that Cirque du Soleil ad reaching out and grabbing you by the throat?

Once you go extra crispy, it's hard to go back.

Subscribing to PressReader

The app is free to download on your iPad or iPhone, though the iPad's larger screen is far superior for newspaper reading than the iPhone's.

After your seven, free newspaper downloads, you just go to the PressDisplay website and click on "sign in" at the top of the screen to subscribe.
  • A free subscription gets you access to the front page and two articles from every issue, which you can read and store for up to 14 days.
  • A $30/month subscription gives you unlimited access to every newspaper and 14 days of back issues.
  • An unlimited corporate subscription for $99.95/month gets you all of that and a free iPad.
The only downside

The only complaint I can lodge at this kick-ass app is that it's missing the New York Times and the Boston Globe (same owner, both) and the Times of London.

The New York Times' Editor's Choice app, free on the iPad, kind of makes up for it, and the sad truth about the Boston Globe is that it will likely get rolled into the New York Times at some point in the near future.

The Times of London has its own iPad app, but it charges $17 a month for it; it never gets updated during the day and then rips you off of the Sunday Times for your pleasure. Booo.

I have no idea how the financial model works for the newspapers involved in PressReader - maybe Winnipeg Free Press Deputy Editor John White will tell me!

But from a newspaper addict's perspective - with a rebel yell - I say, "Mo! Mo! Mo!"

Friday, July 23, 2010

Observations and warnings from the British My Winnipeg

"If Liverpool didn't exist, it would have to be invented." - Myrbach.
Winnipeg never got bombed in World War II or spawned the Beatles, but getting bombed at a social while listening to the Guess Who has gotta be a close second.

It's hard not to think about the real parallels between our city and Liverpool (or maybe any city and Liverpool) when you watch Of Time and the City, a 74-minute documentary and meditation on urban change, memory, time and place.

Billed as "a love song and eulogy for Liverpool," Terence Davies' film is a dreamlike journey though Liverpool's history to the present.

The visuals are mostly archival photos and video juxtaposed with gorgeous music and Davies' acerbic voiceover, in which he quotes literature and poetry at the same time he slams the Royals, city planners, British establishment, and even organized religion.

Winnipeggers can think of it as "the British My Winnipeg," even if Of Time and the City errs on the side of poetry where My Winnipeg errs on the side of wacky. When in Winnipeg...

The documentary is unavailable in North America, but you can order it from and watch it on an all-regions DVD player or computer, like me! Or you can troll the torrents, if that's your deal. Troll.

Winnipeg, meet Liverpool

What Winnipegger wouldn't instantly recognize themselves in Davies' neat observation about people and their complicated relationship with home?
"We love the place we hate. Then we hate the place we love. We leave the place we love and spend a lifetime trying to regain it."
Or his take on Liverpool's post-war architecture?
"Municipal architecture is dispiriting at the best of times, but when combined with the British genius for creating the dismal, it makes for a cityscape that's anything but Elysian."
Or even his description of the weather?
"A foot race with someone collapsing of heat stroke because the temperature rose a couple of degrees above freezing."
He saves some of his most-pointed criticism for Liverpool's industrial decline and inability to aspire to anything greater than bars, retail outlets, and "revitalized" docks, which now look a lot like Winnipeg's The Forks or any city with a waterside development - Baltimore? Duluth? Bar Harbor?
"We hoped for paradise, we got the anus mundi."
My trip to Liverpool

The film brought me back to my one and only visit to Liverpool - a Beatles pilgrimage, of course.

If there's something better than sitting in a bus on Penny Lane listening to Penny Lane on a tinny speaker, I don't know what it is.

Like a Torontonian asked for his description of Winnipeg, when I told Londoners of my planned journey to Liverpool, they warned me that "things are nasty in the north."

When I got to Liverpool, I wasn't disappointed by the lovely people and the equally lovely Magical Mystery Tour, even if Davies hates the Beatles and dismisses them in the film in seconds with a sarcastic recital of their most-famous lyrics, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah."

I found that most Liverpudlians had a similar love/hate thing going with their city and country as we do with ours, more aware and intimate with its promises and failings than any visitor could be.

"Enjoy England," one person told me. "We don't."

Sound familiar?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Me draw pretty one day: my favorite iPad design apps

Only Glow Draw can bring my art to life the way I envision it in my mind.

As I writer, I'm quite the typography expert: I love every font, as long as it's Times New Roman.

That hasn't stopped me from trying out my design skills using some of the very cool (and cheap) apps on the iPad.

Sure, there are some high-falutin' design and draw apps out there for the big bucks - witness the OmniGraffle app for the low, low price of $49.99.

I wouldn't know what to do with so powerful a design tool, so I shop in the Giant Tiger section of the app store for cool and useful design apps like these (most of these links open in the Apple page; just select iTunes to view and download them in the iTunes store):

1. TypeDrawing

Larsen New Roman.

For the typography fetishist in your office!

With TypeDrawing, you choose your font and color, type out some keywords, and draw your typography-based artwork and wallpaper with your finger, on blank backgrounds or atop photos.

2. Glow Draw

Step one: you draw stuff. Step two: it glows.

As my incredible Star Wars art at the top of this post shows, any art that glows is, by definition, great. If only Da Vinci would've had this technology, can you imagine how awesome the Mona Lisa could've been?

Oh, well: sucks to be him.

3. Adobe Ideas

Ostensibly a "digital sketchbook for designers," I use this app as a whiteboard.

In class this year, I'll see if I can connect the iPad to the digital projector and use this app as a portable, environmentally friendly replacement for the actual whiteboard - preventing my once-a-year "indelible marker on a classroom whiteboard" trick.

4. Dexigner

This app could be the future of industry associations and clubs: a virtual meeting place for design-based news updates, events and exhibits, and competitions.

Even better is the designer directory you can search using an "around me" feature, which shows that Frantic Films and June Derksen are the only two design-based entities and people in Winnipeg. D'oh: register yourself today!

This free app is really under the radar, but is a must for anyone who works in art, design, architecture or the communications biz - or who has an interest in all of the above.

5. Getty Images

Search and share over 24 million Getty Images, hundreds of thousands of which are royalty free or available for licensing. Great search, save, and share interface.

6. Evernote

My brain is like a sieve.

Though sometimes it's easier to just forget, Evernote lets you remember all of the stuff that happens in your life, whether you want to or not: notes, ideas, photos, websites, recordings, synchronized with tags across your iPad, laptop, iPhone, and online.

Perfect uses: multimedia diary, grocery list, classroom notes.

7 - 9. Storage apps: PDF Comrade,, Dropbox

These apps three are meant for thee.

One of the big questions I get when people see my iPad for the first time is, "Can I save and look at my big files on it?"

Can you ever.

Of these three, great storage services, probably the best is Dropbox, only because you can install it on your computer, drop files into it, and - presto - they appear on your iPad one second later. It's Ripley's, I'll tell ya.

PDF Comrade is solely for PDFs, while and Dropbox are for virtually every kind of file, including audio and video.

10. Phaidon Design Classics

The most expensive and awesome app for last - Phaidon Design Classics will run you back $20, but I justify it by considering it to be an interactive coffee-table book (the future of the Independent Professional Project, lemme tell ya).
"This authoritative and meticulously researched collection charts the story of product design over the past 200 years. It was years in the making and was compiled via rigorous selection process by an international panel of design-world insiders, including architects, critics, curators, product designers, auctioneers, and historians."
Quite possibly the smoothest, most gorgeous iPad app around. As beautifully designed as its subjects:


P.S. A big thanks to Policyfrog for pointing out this link about using iPads in universities.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Someone" is destroying customer service

"Can I help someone over here?"

My favorite line! It's the one that's destroying customer service everywhere, right across this great land, from the largest HMV in Vancouver to the smallest Pharma Plus in PEI.

Imagine this scenario:

Let's say you're waiting in a long line at the drugstore. You have a cold. All you want is to buy some Dristan, so you can go home and sleep without choking.

Suddenly, another cashier opens up at another wicket.
"Can I help someone over here?"
Like clockwork, the last person in your line runs to the front of the newly opened wicket, destroying the first-come, first-served philosophy on which the whole idea of "lineups" is usually based.

Imagine? I've lived it, brother.

It first happened to me at Pharma Plus - a shameless repeat offender - and in the last week I've seen it unfold before my very eyes at HMV, Sobeys, the Apple Store, and CIBC.

It must be stopped before it's too late. The future of humankind depends on it!

Why it sucks
  • The whole idea of "service" is that you want to make things good for people spending their money at your store (or the store at which you work).
Engaging a cage match of fighting shoppers while you passively wait for one to hack his or her way to the front of the line isn't "service" - it's boneheaded at best, cruel at worst.
  • It dehumanizes people. Individual people. "Someone" isn't a word to which any person in his or her right mind responds, "That clerk is talking to me!"
"Will someone marry me?"

"Next in line" is only one level up. It may take care of the mad-rush-to-the-wicket problem, but it still dehumanizes the PERSON waiting next in line.
  • It assumes that, given limited decision-making time, shoppers will behave rationally.
They won't. Just hang around outside Advance on Boxing Day.

Granted, I may be giving the existentialist store clerk a little too much credit for forethought.
  • It ignores the most important word in marketing.
That word is "you."

In personal sales (Avon calling!), the way you do it is to make eye contact and say, "Would YOU be interested in buying some of these wonderful products?"

In a store setting, the way it works is you look up at the next "person" waiting in line, you make direct eye contact with that person, and in a confident, clear voice say, "Can I help you?" Then you smile, smile, smile.

The next time a clerk says, "Can I help someone over here?" when you're next in line, the appropriate response is, I believe, "Screw YOU!"

The electronic equivalent of "someone."

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I think we're a clone now: getting my new ID

Who am I?!

I finally got around to getting my birth certificate and SIN card replaced today; I've had my SIN since age 12 and my birth certificate since birth, so the time had come to finally get my ID replaced with cards that weren't covered in applesauce, chocolate sauce, and "the sauce" - the three stages of my life so far.

I expected a nightmare of bureaucracy - no, I hoped for it, because I wanted to be like Harrison Ford at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, walking down the front steps of the government building and loudly declaring, "Damn bureaucrats!" to no one in particular.

In fact, apart from a grumpy lady at the Vital Stats office, who freaked when I tried to hand her my number, there was nothing to complain about at all: no lineup and entertainment provided by a funny, little girl who climbed on the furniture and looked like her lollipop had just exploded in her face.

But even better was my visit to the hilariously named, "Winnipeg Centre Service Canada Centre" to get my SIN replaced. I know the name has something to do with our many official languages, but - two "Centres?"

Winnipeg Centre Services Canada Centre Centre Services Winnipeg.

The experience there, again, was pretty easy to take, but it felt a little like I was living in a David Lynch film.

I walked in - no lineup again! - and right up to the front counter. The friendly young woman there took my info, and told me it would be a half hour wait. So, I sat down in a comfy chair, updated all of my apps, returned some emails, and half an hour later, I heard "Kenton!" as promised.

I stood up to find the same woman - now out from behind the counter and working as a name-caller and trafficker (alternate definitions of both titles).

"Oh, hello again," I said.

"Have a seat at cubicle number seven and someone will be there to help you in five minutes," she said.

I did.

Five minutes later, that "someone" showed up: the same woman.

"Oh, hello again."

At first it reminded me of my favorite movie, Local Hero. A waiter tells our hero, "Oh, you can't see the accountant until noon. You might as well just wait here." At noon, our hero discovers that the accountant is...the waiter!

But as the woman filled out my SIN application, it suddenly occurred to me that I might be taking part in some weird government-employee cloning program.

Just as I began pondering the ramifications of such a program, she asked me - I swear to God - "Are you a twin?"

"Uhhh...what do you mean?"

"It's a standard question for when we fill these out. Are you a twin?"

"No," I said. And that's where I should have asked, "Are you a clone!!!!???"

So, I got out of there as fast as possible, and I only realize now that I may have given my vital stats to a clone army.

If the next time you apply for replacement ID and you're served by three guys named Kenton who look exactly like me: run like hell!

Damn bureaucrats!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Always an emcee, never a bridesmaid

Beck and Beck. Emcee not shown.

Never wanted to be no best man.

I was born an emcee and I'll probably die an emcee.

The tools of my trade are but a mic and the ability to ignore everyone and everything around me - I believe it's called "being self-centered" - the better to tell jokes in the eye of a hurricane of nerves and egos, better known as a "wedding."

I've been an emcee at no fewer than 15 weddings, which I must point out that, as an unmarried, non-religious person, I'm against in principle. But if you can't beat them, you might as well make fun of them, right? Right!

This weekend, I emceed Jason and Chantal Beck's wedding, so huge, notable, and "royal" that it warranted a half-page article by Lindor Reynolds in the Winnipeg Free Press. I wrote about the article a few days ago right here.

It was great fun.

As I stood up at the podium in the empty reception hall, rehearsing my material as I waited for the guests to arrive, memories from all of the weddings I've emceed came rushing back into my mind, mainly because emceeing every wedding is like being Bill Murray in Groundhog Day: same nerves, same pressures, same Jedi master toasts to the groom.

"Size matters not!"

How to emcee a wedding

As I always say in the first Comedy Writing class of the year, once you do stand-up, emceeing a wedding is child's play.

It's sort of true: the crowd at a reception is friendly, ready to party, and dying to have a laugh after a usually long and unfunny church service. Beck's was the exception - a fun church service, punctuated by the thunder outside (God's wrath, no doubt):

Lassie! You found us!

1. Set the tone. Be energetic, engaged, and funny.

Your first job as emcee is to set the tone of the evening.

To do this, you have to ignore what everyone around you has told you to do and just go for it: tell some jokes right off the top, even before you introduce yourself.

If you're boring or too laid back, people will start dreading the rest of the evening. If you're funny, they'll get into the party mode much more quickly.

Most brides and grooms first select you to be emcee because you're "funny" and they want you to tell jokes and make people laugh.

As you get closer to the wedding, they'll say, "Well there are some things we don't want you to talk about."

The day before the wedding, they'll say, "No jokes!"

Ignore all of it - these are normal bride and groom nerves. By the time they're at the reception, they're so happy to be married, they'll forget all about the instructions they've given you - and that "incident" they didn't want you to talk about.

Of course, if there has been an "incident," you won't talk about it, because you're classy.

So, say "welcome," and get right to the jokes.

Most people have been to so many bad wedding receptions, this is your big chance to show them that you're going to do things differently.

I opened Jason's wedding with this:
"Tonight we're here to celebrate the marriage of Jason Beck to his one true love: Sidney Crosby.

"Playing the role of Sidney tonight: Chantal Beck!

"Have you seen Jason’s wedding ring? You’ve gotta see it before the end of the night. Jason has little Pittsburgh Penguins' logos all over his wedding ring. It's very romantic: one for every member of the team he’s slept with.

"Every time a bell rings, a Penguin gets his wings!"
Alluding to sex is OK...but don't be gross, specific to the bride and groom, or talk about yucky bodily functions. People are eating, ya know.

2. Introduce yourself after the first joke

Hint about what craziness is to come while you do it:
"I’m Kenton Larsen – I’m going to be your genial host and emcee for the evening. I’ve known Jason since he was a kid, so I have lots of dirt on him involving sordid tales of Yoda statues and stuffed-penguin molestations. We’ll get to that in just a second..."
3. Just like stand up, say what everybody else is thinking
"How many Bon Jovi fans have we got here tonight? Playing the stadium the same night as Jason and Chantal’s wedding. On behalf of all of the Bon Jovi fans in the room, I’d just like to say: Jason and Chantal: you give love a bad name."
Another example:
"Tonight we celebrate Jason and Chantal’s big decision to do the exact same thing they’ve been doing for the last 13 years. Living in the same house together. Eating the same food. Sleeping in the same bed. For this I rented a tux? I want my money back!"
4. Mock the groom, celebrate the bride

Show the bride and other speakers early that she's off limits: celebrate her patience and kindness for marrying such a dolt.

Brides are nervous creatures at their best, so this rule is for your own good. How good would it be to send the bride running out of the reception in tears? Not very!
"A little tribute to Chantal for putting up with Jason's shit for so long: the Yodas, Devo fan club, stand-up comedy, the sore knees...all of that crap. Chantal: you're lovely, smart, and talented. As far as I can tell, the only thing Jason has ever done for you is see Beverley Hills Chihuahua in the theatre.

"Chantal: it’s not too late to call it off! You haven’t slept with him yet, have you? Don't!"
5. Get down to business

Bathrooms, smoking rules, the head table, tinkling of glasses, blah, blah, blah. Lay out the rules and stick to them. Announce that things are coming up in advance, so people can pee and smoke without missing anything.

6. Stick to the schedule

Write a schedule with the bride and groom in advance of the reception. Assume it will start late.

If things start going longer than expected, the emcee's jokes are the first to get cut. Don't hog the mic at the expense of the other speakers.

No one got to hear this gem. Because it's not as funny as the rest of my "hilarious" gags, it was the first to go:
"I met Jason in Grade one – he was standing in line outside Royal School holding a stuffed sea serpent with Batman riding on its back. I was reminded of this lately when I ran into Jason at the Pancake House, where he was standing in line, holding a stuffed sea serpent with Batman riding on its back."
Between speakers, tell one-line personal anecdotes to keep things moving along.
"I've traveled to Minneapolis to see concerts with Jason many times. From the outside, Jason may seem like an eccentric guy, but behind closed doors – he also snores like a bastard."
7. Be friendly and courteous to everyone who wants you to do stuff. Then do what makes the most sense.

Being an emcee is like being a ringleader. You have competing interests, all vying for your attention and wanting you to do stuff on their behalf.
  • The most common is the bride and groom and wedding party asking you to point out people in the audience - easy to accommodate, within reason. You don't want it to turn into a Vegas revue: "Ladies and gentlemen, the great Joey Bishop!"
When you get to announcing out of town guests, make fun of it and do it quickly:
"It's everyone's favorite part of the wedding: out of town guests! "We came all the way from Milwaukee. They'd better applaud us, or I'm going to the presentation bowl and taking back my $5."
  • You'll also get friends and family who want you to tell their joke. Never do it: most of the jokes are lame, stolen, or overly sexual, which is why they don't want to do it themselves. Tell them you'll bring them up to do it. Most say, "Uhhh, no thank you."
  • The social hall will sometimes treat the emcee like you're a wedding planner. "Where does the cake go?" Don't get involved. Just say, "The bride and groom are over there" or "Wherever you usually put it."
Is he climbing up or down?
  • One thing I've learned about weddings: everyone has special needs, and no more than people doing the toast to the bride or groom. It makes sense: they're nervous, they wrote the speech the night before, they've never spoken publicly before. Like this young man:
Weddings on Trial with Trevor Boris.

Don't make these speakers more nervous. Give them a five-minute warning before you bring them up, and be really kind and encouraging in your intro.
"You don't need to be a comedian to get up here. You can also just be a nice person, which this next person is..."
If the speaker is a professional comedian, you've got more leeway:
"Please welcome the Doctor Evil to my Mini Me. The Thing to my Mr. Fantastic. The Uncle Fester to my Pugsly: Big Daddy Tazz!"
8. Remember that the bride and groom are the stars

They are the world, and we are but players in their drama. Tonight, you celebrate your love for them.

9. You're going to make mistakes. Don't sweat 'em.

My mistakes:
  • I referred to my friend "Garth" by the name "Greg" for no apparent reason.
  • I bungled the last name of one of the bridesmaids.
  • I forgot to bring up three people who wanted to say something. Sorry!
  • I might've said the F-word once. It was all in fun! Heh, heh, heh...
10. How to measure success.

The groom looks like this:

My favorite comic-book author and Letterman guest dies at 70

Dave and Harvey crash Live at Five with Roker and Cafferty.

It was a bad week for Cleveland: LeBron James moved to the heat and the Heat, and native son George Steinbrenner went to that big Yankee Stadium in the sky.

But, even worse, my favorite Cleveland underground comic writer, Letterman guest, and curmudgeon - Harvey Pekar - died from cancer at age 70.

American Splendor

In 1976, Pekar started writing comic books based on his life and job as a file clerk at the Cleveland VA Medical Center.

Pekar's American Splendor comics - the title is ironic! - are about working-class Cleveland and Pekar's mundane, regular-guy life: his paranoia, anger at the world, and himself.

I bought Pekar's comics as they came out at (the now-closed) Schinders in Minneapolis - one more reason to drive to the big city! - but for most people, the collection American Splendor: the Life and Times of Harvey Pekar is a good place to find out what's so great about the guy.

Pekar's graphic novel, Our Cancer Year, is his best self-contained work, chronicling his harrowing and depressing battle with cancer. To this day, I'm haunted by the panel where Pekar drops the groceries in the snow and can't pick them up - the sheer helplessness of it all.

For all of his self-disparagement, Pekar had a lot of success, the pinnacle of which was the great, Sundance-winning film American Splendor, starring Paul Giamatti as our anti-hero:

"Every American city is depressing in its own way."

Pekar also showed up in two of my all-time favorite Canadian documentaries, ridiculously unavailable online, the video store, or maybe anywhere - Vinyl and I, Curmudgeon. Pekar was an avid collector of jazz records and grumpy, which explains his appearance in both.

The Letterman years

Pekar first came to my attention in the 80s in his handful of appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, which are notable for Pekar's subversive rants - altogether missing from late-night talk shows today.

This one got Pekar banned from Late Night "for life." In the pre-September 11 world, Pekar made Letterman pray out loud for "a terrorist:"

The life ban didn't last long: Pekar appeared on Letterman's Late Show twice after his Late Night outburst, again accusing Letterman of being a shill for the man and having contempt for his audience.

Pekar told the LA Times:
"On some of the shows, I was doing a deliberate self-parody, and now there's a lot of people that think I'm some sort of maniac, you know? I'd rather be liked than thought of as a crazy man, but with Letterman, I've been in a situation where you either lay down and let him insult you or you do something about it. Most people keep their mouth shut and let him dump on them. I don't wanna do that."
Comic books, talk shows, and Cleveland will never be the same:

Friday, July 16, 2010

Dillinger's death: is my favorite marketing story a fake?

Get yer bloody papers here!

Is my favorite marketing story about John Dillinger's death too bloody good to be true?

On the recent CreComm trip to Chicago, we went on the Untouchables Gangster Tour - a fun bus ride through the mean streets of the city, which not only included such scary locations as Oprah's studio and the Blues Brothers' orphanage, but also the Biograph Theatre where Dillinger was shot to death in 1934.

And the guy on the street who shoots the bus with the water gun - not because he has to, but because he wants to - is worth the price of admission alone.

Marketing Dillinger's death

On the tour, our guides - one of whom was a dead ringer for David Morse - repeated my favorite marketing story, which I've repeated myself many times since the tour.

The story goes like this:
A newspaper boy was selling papers near the theatre on the night that Dillinger was shot. The boy was so marketing-savvy, he was mindful enough to rip his newspapers into shreds, dip them in Dillinger's blood, and sell them for a hefty mark-up.
I love that story! It encompasses all of the key rules of marketing, including utility, supply and demand as it relates to price, and the importance of striking while the iron is hot.

But it occurred to me recently that maybe the story had the ring of something "too good to be true" - the very thing they warn students about in journalism school, so that when they get jobs as journalists, they'll feel guilty when most of the stories they write fall into this category.

So, I've done a little research into this topic, and I haven't been able to find a single, reliable reference to this actually happening:
  • Wikipedia quotes the Chicago Sun-Times:
"There were also reports of people dipping their handkerchiefs and skirts into the pools of blood that had formed as Dillinger lay in the alley in order to secure keepsakes of the entire affair."
But nothing about the newspaper boy. And the original article to which it links back? "Could not be found."
  • In her book, A Chicago Firehouse, Karen Kruse describes the scene like this:
"Dillinger was so well liked by the public, that when news of his death spread, women rushed to the scene, tearing off pieces of their undershirts or offering handkerchiefs, asking neighborhood kids to soak up some of the blood for their macabre souvenir."
  • Quazen tells the story with a more individualized approach:
"One woman soaked up a newspaper with it. She shouted, “I bet I’m the only one from Kansas City with some of Dillinger’s blood!”
  • Finally, in the Chicago Sun-Times Metro Chicago Almanac, we get this:
"Women dipped their skirts in his blood, and children sold bloodstained scraps of newspaper for a dime."
So, what gives? Is this a story that's "too good to be true," or "close to the truth, so we give it a pass," or both?

I was going to end this post by watching and writing about Public Enemies, the recent Johnny Depp movie about Dillinger, but then I remembered: that would mean that I have to watch Public Enemies, the recent Johnny Depp movie about Dillinger.

This is a call

So, instead I'll put it out there:
  • Does anyone have any information about this story actually being true?
  • Have you read something - anything - that recounts the story?
  • Were you at the Biograph Theatre on the day Dillinger was shot? Apart from that, how did you enjoy the film?
  • Have you seen Public Enemies? How do they handle this scene in the film?
The biggest heartbreak of all: eBay has not one bloody newspaper scrap with Dillinger's blood on it for sale.

These guys in period costumes seemed so believable at the time.