Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Help me tear down the Wall and one man's dreams

Hey, Pengi: leave those kids alone.

With Roger Waters playing the Wall at MTS Centre twice this week, I'm taken back to a simpler time in which I pirated the double album on then-state-of-the-art technology: cassette tapes.

Dubbing cassettes was a boring business, so I'd make it more interesting by plugging a mic into the stereo and talking over the music: an earlier precursor to "the director's commentary" on DVDs.

When I dubbed the cassette for my pal, Jason Beck, I turned on the mic right after the intro to "Vera," in which Roger Waters asks the musical question, "Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn?"

At the time, Beck had a stuffed penguin named "Pengi" (maybe he still does: see the creepy photo, below), so I said "Death to Pengi!" into the mic, ruining the song for him forever.

Pengi and Jason. 

Long story short: Beck will be in the Waters audience on Thursday night, and I'm looking forward to screaming "Death to Pengi" at the key moment, ruining it for him all over again. If you're in the audience on Thursday night, feel free to do the same.

I think Pengi would've wanted it that way.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Just For Laughs is just for losers - like me!

"You won!"

Whenever the Just For Laughs Festival gets closer, I feel a great disturbance in the Force, as if a million voices laughed out and were suddenly silenced.

If the Winnipeg Fringe Festival is "the uncle who paid my way through school but molested me," the Just For Laughs Festival is the same uncle without the cash.

I've been in the Just For Laughs homegrown showcase a few times. It was (and still is?) a regional competition for stand-up comics to outfunny each other in the hopes of winning the chance to perform at the Montreal festival and become "Canadian famous," also known as "one step away from the witness relocation program."

Glen Foster had a joke about performing at a Just For Laughs showcase. He'd say something like, "There was a hyper comic, a weird comic, and a comic who did impressions - and I was the funny comic." Ba-boom!

His point, I think, is that Just For Laughs is more about high concept than about "being funny" per se, and I think everyone in the competition knows the score: you might win, but not if there's a one-armed unicyclist who can tell jokes with his hair on fire.

The year I had my best showing, the competition was hosted by Shaun Majumder, a very nice guy and an attitude adjustment over the previous year's Harland Williams, a very funny guy onstage who showed up backstage looking like maybe he'd lost a bet with a bonhomme.

I was up third - a sweet spot! - had a better-than-average show, hugged Mr. Majumder for luck on my way offstage, and watched the other comics go up one by one. They were good, and there was no high concept to be found among them.

When it was all over, I felt pretty good about my chances, but knew enough not to get my hopes up. But as we waited for the results, the now-most-famous-comic-in-the-world-who-wasn't-famous-then Russell Peters slid over and whispered in my ear:
"You won."
I immediately started planning my trip to Montreal. "How many baguettes should I take with me?"

About 10 minutes later, the judges appeared onstage to announce the winner. I prepared myself to get my birthright, and the announcer mispronounced my name so badly, it sounded like another guy completely. Because it was another guy.

That dude bounced up to the stage, got his laurel and hardy handshake, and Russell Peters slid over again and whispered:
"The judges decided to give it to the guy from Saskatchewan."
If there's a lesson to be learned from this experience, I think it's this: never trust Just For Laughs, Russell Peters, or Saskatchewan. So there!


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Join me for online content seminar this Thursday at WEC

View more presentations from Kenton Larsen.
What else are you going to do on a Thursday evening in the summer? Don't answer that!

I invite you to join me at the Women's Enterprise Centre this week - Thursday, May 24, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. - where I'll be doing a presentation on using online content, conversation, and persuasion to build your business.

Register online here. See you there, peeps.

Friday, May 18, 2012

If you like value, don't buy Facebook stock

Bargain-conscious Winnipeggers: don't do it.

I couldn't resist weighing in on Facebook today when I saw some of my friends openly talking about  buying some of the social network's pricey stock when it goes on sale tomorrow.

But worse is the psychology of the novice investor. The first mistake: equating a company you like with being "a good investment." Even a stable company doesn't necessarily make for an upward or stable stock price.

Remember: the key to buying stocks is to buy low and sell high. The only way to tell a good investment from a bad investment is through a thorough analysis of a company and its underlying fundamentals. A company's stock value tells you nothing.

There are some good reasons to be concerned with Facebook's fundamentals:
  • It was late to the mobile game and its apps are inconsistent and sluggish now that it's there.
  • Its users don't trust it to protect their privacy. 
  • Its unproven ad model and sole source of income.
  • Its value is that it has the most people using it. Even a small erosion of that base to other social networks represents a threat, which Facebook as much admitted when it bought Instagram for $1 billion.
  • Its terrible design, news algorithm, and apps that share when you don't want them to share. The Path app, which has had privacy issues of its own, is by far the better user experience. 
  • It will now have pressure from investors to roll out the new products faster - and they'd better be money-makers. One recent report: charging users to send a message or to have a higher-ranked status update. I believe this already exists as something called "email."
Facebook is a growth investment, which focuses on forecasted earning simply for the sake of growth. Growth investors tend to assume that "hot stocks" or those with strong historical growth will continue to perform strongly in the future, and equate good products with good stocks.

In this sense, growth investing is very much a groupthink mentality. Growth companies tend to trade at inflated valuation multiples, meaning you pay a premium for growth and bragging rights: "I own Facebook stock and you don't."

Growth strategies can work. However, the job of an investor is to look at probabilities and weigh the risk of loss of capital against the reward of capital gains.

Value investing

Contrast this with the Warren Buffett approach - "the most successful investor of the 20th Century." His approach is called "value investing," which should be of particular interest to my fellow Winnipeggers, who've never met a bargain they didn't like.

Buffett suggests staying away from stock in social media companies, because it's difficult to know future value. Initial Public Offerings in particular, he says, are almost always bad buys. 

You can understand the value investing philosophy in terms of a simple analogy:
You need stereo speakers.

To avoid price markups, you visit a distributor who offers scratched speakers at discount prices. You find the speakers you want and - after a thorough analysis - determine they are slightly scuffed.

Knowing you can easily fix or ignore the marks without any impact on sound quality, you buy them. In the end, the speakers might not be as exciting to purchase as the brand-new ones, but they are a better value. 
This, in essence is a value investment. Value investors search for stocks that are undervalued relative to their intrinsic value. They find them using a variety of measurements, including price-to-earnings, price-to-book-value, price-to-sales, price-to-cash-flow and price-to-dividend.

Stocks with low valuation multiples - trading at significant discount to their peers or historical norms - are often value investments. Of course, low valuations don't indicate value in and of themselves. The determining factor is why a company is trading at a low valuation.

Value investors, then, look for unwarranted discounts.

Then why doesn't everyone invest money through value investing? Of course, if everyone did, they would drive up prices and the value would disappear. Investors don't, though, due to a number of psychological reasons:
  • Equating the past with the future
Investors overreact. They have a tendency to place too much emphasis on stocks with better-than-expected valuations and recent earnings, while avoiding the opposite altogether.
  • Overvaluation of certainty
People are drawn to things that appear to be certain and will pay more for them than they must.
  • Overreaction to big, unlikely (but consequential) events
People are attracted to events that make the consequences of winning seem magnificent, even when they know the logical chances of winning are small. Think: lottery tickets.
  • Loss aversion
In people's minds, fear of loss looms larger than the expectation of gains. For most, the pain of a loss exceeds the pleasure of a gain. Consequently, a value strategy, which often entails the endurance of negative sentiment before realizing any gains, creates anxiety.

Mean reversion

Another principle of value investing is known as mean reversion. Simply put: good things get worse, bad things get better. This is what makes it possible to buy low and sell high.

Over time, companies will revert back to the mean of the market or the industry as a whole, because above- and below-average growth and returns can't continue indefinitely. In all likelihood, they will eventually "revert" in opposite directions: the beaten-down value stock prices should revert up, and the inflated-value stocks should revert down.

Value returns don't happen overnight. Often, investors will experience a series of disappointments beforehand, which is why patience is critical to value investing. Its very nature requires a long-term approach. To attempt to time the market most often results in buying high and selling low - the opposite of a successful investment.

The patient, long-term investor is well-rewarded for choosing quality over prestige.


Some of this stuff is from an article I wrote in 1999 as the then-communications manager for a big, rich financial firm. This article ran just before the first tech bubble burst on March 10, 2000 - now that's market timing. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Eleven tasty new words to the wise-ass

See number three.

1. Appaloozer - A person who adds "apalooza" onto distasteful nouns in order to make them seem better. Example: "On Saturday at 6 a.m., we'll have a cleanupalooza!"

2. Boobeat - The subject matter assigned to the reporter who wrote this week's Time cover story.

3. Cumberbun - The last pastry in the window at Starbucks (see above photo).

4. D-Generation - The fine group of people born after Generation Y.

5. Hipstercritical - Being aware of your own hypocrisy in an ironic kind of way.

6. Humorsexual - A person too funny to be attractive to any gender.

7. Methtival - A celebration of drug-addled teens.

8. Pair-o'-Medics - Two doctors.

9. Snobbedy - Comedy that's only funny if you're wearing a top hat and monocle.

10. Stoptomism - The philosophy that suggests hopefulness and confidence must be stopped.

11. Workload Creep - The tendency for a job to become more expansive in order to save money, and the person who makes it happen.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Advertiser or content provider? It's murky.

Toulouse-Lautrec - what a sellout.

"Time was - things were different."

My least-favorite local ad in history has a point: advertising and entertainment used to be two different things. Now, one of the first signs that you're talking to people "from the distant past" is that they still consider advertising to be "the stuff that happens when you go to the bathroom" - to be avoided altogether, tolerated for sponsoring the real content, and never enjoyed.

But it's getting harder to answer the question, "What is advertising?" thanks to the breakdown of the traditional media model and a new landscape in which the means of production - fast and cheap technology - is available to everyone.

How to teach ad

One of my favorite classes of the year is when I get in a time machine, go back 10 years to when I started teaching (different glasses, full Afro), and give the class the old-school definition of advertising:
"Write this down, class. Advertising is: 
  • Structured and
  • Composed and
  • Non-personal
  • Communication. 
  • Paid for.
  • Persuasive. 
  • About products, services, and ideas. 
  • By identified sponsors. 
  • In various media."
(Drops mic, leaves stage).
Then, I get back in the time machine to the present (new glasses, receding Afro) and teach it the new way.
"What is advertising? It's murky." (Drops mic, leaves stage)
(That definition is courtesy of Rob Walker, who coined the term "murketing.")

Marketing always wins

If there's a lesson in advertising, it's that "marketing always wins." If eyeballs aren't on traditional ads, then marketing (and advertising) will adapt by creating its own content.

This isn't a new idea - when radio was replaced by television, advertisers rushed to produce and sponsor "soap operas," one of the earliest examples of branded content (the art at the top of this page aside).

The thinking: why buy an ad to air during a show that nobody watches when you can not only create the show yourself, but also the medium on which it airs?

That's why all the excitement in advertising is happening in startups these days. Why work for the man when you can be the man by selling your company to Facebook for a billion bucks a year after you invent it?

Not every company can be an Instagram, but that's the dream. Says Fast Company:
"The new creatives are frighteningly efficient and productive as hell. Their art might be sponsored, but it won't stop you from quoting, copying, and forwarding it to friends. They glide between disciplines and negotiate ethical boundaries with ease.

"They enlist Vans or Old Spice to pay a premium for captivating or sidesplitting web videos, then spin their creations into a series for Bravo, Discovery, or FX. They're the reason Hollywood talent agents, New York publicists, and San Francisco startups are partnering to pitch branding campaigns with corporate giants."
Fast Company has also launched a website to chronicle the morphing of art, culture, and commerce, called Co.Create. 

Whenever art and advertising get mentioned in the same sentence, there's a segment of the population - let's call it "old" - that gets nervous about where one ends and the other begins. But what we're seeing here is a re-imagining of what advertising can be: what if advertising can actually be entertaining, aesthetically pleasing, useful, and do good deeds?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you "advertising:"

1. Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest/Instagram/etc/etc/etc pages - If advertising is so terrible, how can Coca-Cola have almost 42 million Likes on Facebook? If you're counting, that's about 37 million more than the New York Yankees.

Today's top Facebook update on the Coke page:
"Coca-Cola has been donating Minute Maid juices to help Breakfast Clubs of Canada give youth a balanced, nutritious start to their day. Share their story and find out how to get involved."
And comment:
"Love how Coca Cola actually does things for the community, you never hear of Pepsi doing anything like this."
2. Branded apps - ColorSmart by BEHR, for example, is actually useful. So is the CIBC app, particularly for iPad. So are lots of apps. And they're free? Bring hither the branded apps!

3. Branded, socially responsible websites - Like Nike's Better World or Chipotle's Cultivate Foundation. Environment and social causes meet a big, promotional budget. Community relations goes high tech. 

4. Sponsored music videos and films - Like BMW Films and HTML5 music videos, like Arcade Fire's We Used to Wait.

5. Sponsored you - Like the Museum of Me, which visualizes an archive of your social life, courtesy of Intel.

6. Sponsored lessons - YouTube keyboardist David Sides teaches piano lessons online.

7. New devices - Remember the iPod? That was the start of the rise of Apple: design and tech meet content and usability.

8. Sponsored comedy - Like DumbDumb, which produces funny ads and videos for brands. 

9. Sponsored think tanks - Like Google Creative Lab. Tech meets higher thinking and crowdsourcing.

Take that, crappy credit-union ad.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Use online content to build your business: May 24 seminar

Are you content with your content?

Either way, I invite you to join me at the Women's Enterprise Centre on Thursday, May 24, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., where I'll be doing a presentation on using online content, conversation, and persuasion to build your business. The official blurb: 
"Writing for the Web is a lot more than just writing. It’s about knowing how to create new and original content for your blog and website, tying it in with your social-media presence, and being familiar with the basic principles of persuasion and online marketing. Be prepared for an educational and entertaining session that will deliver tips and tools to make your online content more interesting and effective."
Educational and entertaining? How can you afford NOT to come?

You can register online here

Looking forward to the event - hope to see you there!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A fine time to revisit Foth's classic Winnipeg article

"Everyone worries about Winnipeg."

So begins the great article by Allan Fotheringham, printed in Maclean's in 1995 and criminally unavailable online (until now).

With rumors of the Winnipeg Jets leaving town (among other awful things, like Winnipeggers voting Conservative), Fotheringham reminds us that "any city that can abide those mosquitoes can cope with anything."

All in all, a lovely summation of Winnipeg, which feels especially pertinent with the booming redevelopment projects and the Jets' return:Winnipeg City of Survivors

Stop irritating me 24/7 by saying 24/7

I ascertain that your catch phrase is irritating.

24/7? Don't go there, girlfriend.

Every so often a stupid and irritating phrase makes its way to the English language and, despite being stupid and irritating, shows amazing traction among a certain segment of the population who is lucky enough to have had a Culligan stupid-and-irritating filter installed in the cranium at birth.

Like the Kids in the Hall character who loves the word "ascertain" (above), they hear the offending phrase, a bell goes off, and an angel loses his wings each time they repeat it, which they do ad nauseam.

I once agreed to meet a friend's friend for lunch at the James Armstrong Richardson Davis Junior International Winnipeg Airport for the Criminally Insane. I'd never met her before, but I'm always happy to help bored passersby while away the hours in Winnipeg en route to Chilliwack.

She seemed nice enough until we sat down and she said, "I heard you've been working 24/7."

I'd never heard "24/7" before, but I instantly hated it. To my horror, she proceeded to use it 750,000 times over the course of our lunch. I swear: at one point the conversation stopped and she said "24/7" as a placeholder.

I made my excuses and got out of there, looking over my shoulder as I fumbled with my keys in the parkade - certain that 24/7 would catch up to me, hit me over the head, and steal my wallet.

Sure enough: after that ill-fated lunch, I started hearing it everywhere. Each time, I'd be taken back to the close-up, slow-motion image of my new friend's lips mouthing "24/7." "Noooooooo!" I'd yell over a long shot of planet Earth.

After years of 24/7 therapy, I believe I've overcome the issue, knowing full well that sometimes you just have to say, "It is what it is."


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

You're a hypocrite. And so am I!

Newt: putting the hippo in hypocrite. (Photo:

There's a lot of hypocrisy going around these days.

I'm talking about you, Google, and your famous corporate motto: "Don't be evil."

If you're so "not evil," then why do I keep reading about your issues with violating people's privacy? And lifting Wi-Fi passwords? And doesn't using other people's work to sell AdWords bother you even a little?

As my pal Jesus once said: "You hypocrites!"

And what of Newt Gingrich, who had the hypocritical gall to impeach Bill Clinton for having an extramarital affair while he himself was doing it - and for the second time on the second wife. Newt's explanation, a decade later: "I'm not a hypocrite!" No - you're a hippo-critter, you little scamp.

There's so much bloody hypocrisy going around, at some point one has no choice but to look in the mirror and ask, "Could it be that I myself am a hypocrite?"

(Long pause).

"Nope! Dee-dee-dee-dee-dum-dee-doo."

Before you go back to your fool's paradise, let it be said that to deny being a hypocrite may be the greatest hypocrisy of all.

Before this gets too deep and meta for you, I'll just admit it: I'm a hypocrite. I know I am, because I hate it when students don't listen in the classroom. However, when I'm a student, my eyes glaze over, my mind wanders, and I think, "If I'm not speaking, then this must not really be important."

I also really love telling people about my vacations, but hate listening to other people tell me about their vacations. I firmly believe that happens in Vegas is absolutely boring to people who weren't in Vegas.

Could it be that - gasp - there's a little hypocrite in all of us?

I asked a therapist friend of mine, and here's what she said:
"Maybe we all have some degree of hypocrisy, but it's the ones who pontificate about their staunch views and then get caught doing the opposite who really get celebrated for being hypocritical." 
Like our friend, the good Pastor Ted Haggard, who slammed gay marriage at the same time he was slamming...aww, you can figure out the rest.

This jives with the New York Times' explanation for Google's dodgy behavior, courtesy of Roger McNamee, a Silicon Valley investor:
"With don't be evil, Google set itself up for accusations of hypocrisy anytime they got near the line. Now they are on the defensive...when people are defensive they can do things that are emotional, not reasonable, and bad behavior starts." 
So bad behavior causes allegations of hypocrisy, which leads to more bad behavior? 

I knew my hypocrisy was all your fault. You hypocrites!