Monday, April 28, 1997

Alumni profile: Jennings aiming for the marketing moon

Published in the Mountainview

Marketing and business building have gotten Ryan Jennings '91 his own business and some rich opportunities, all the while living in Cornwall. He not only builds his own business, but sells his skills to others interested in enlarging their own markets.

Jennings spoke to The Mountainview about his work with a photography business based in Maine. Found by accident, the company has blossomed into an opportunity for Jennings, providing he plays his cards (and cornpany politics) correctly.

An initial conversation began with Jennings and one of the directors of the company, regarding marketing opportunities for prints of the unique wide-angle sports stadium shots which are the company's flagship products, turned into a series of exploratory meetings between Jennings and the company's founders.

He had a lot of ideas for them, and gained credibility with them almost immediately because he had some ideas for marketing their product which they had considered but not yet implemented. He also had some new ideas, which all agreed were good ideas. "They get so close to it," he said, explaining how the company's advertising plans had left out seemingly obvious marketing opportunities, so Jennings decided to explore his own ideas himself.

He sought and got permission to market the photographs himself, at his own expense, in exchange for a cut of the profits from sales he attracted. Jennings's basic philosophy is the classic marketing cliché, "The customer is always right." He said, "Business people think about what they want to do, instead of what the customer wants, or where the customer is." Jennings focuses on his intended customers, using what he calls "funnel vision," the opposite of "tunnel vision."

The son of an inventor, Jennings learned early on the opportunities and shortcomings of "experts." Those people, Jennings said, don't see opportunities the same way non-experts do; they are used to knowing what they do and how to do it. Creative marketing, Jennings argues, comes from saying "I don't know" and then discovering the answer. He also attributes his marketing success to the fact that he works in multiple industries and "cross-pollinates" with marketing ideas, taking an idea from one company or industry and applying it to another.

As the photography company ignored his advice for more and more time, his frustration with them grew. Eventually Jennings began marketing their material as an independent agent, acquiring prints for wholesale rates and using his own publicity ideas to sell the products.

He learned valuable lessons from his collaboration with this company: at a public collectibles show, they made nearly no sales. At closed industry trade shows (for restaurant owners, for example), sales were in the thousands of dollars daily. Picking events, publications, and locations for sales is vital to the success of a marketing effort, Jennings said.

Jennings notes that while he hopes for success with this project, he has placed himself at great financial risk, investing thousands of dollars of his own money to pay for advertisements in magazines, and for a toll-free phone number to accept orders. He is confident that his ideas will pay off, and estimates that he will gross twice his capital outlay within the next eight months.

He is concerned, however, because the photography company with which he is involved is very wary of losing control of their product. A unique product in the world of sports photography, and possible only with a camera valued at $150,000, the stadium panoramas are a sure seller. The photographer obviously wants to make the maximum amount he can from his work. Jennings notes, however, that success in business comes from a melding of two major principles: innovation and marketing. He concedes that the photographs are innovative and are. for the moment, selling themselves.

He notes, though, that the marketing effort put out by the company itself has been feeble and only a limited success. He is betting that his marketing skills can take the photographer's innovation and make it a commercial success. It is this risk which will determine the path of Jennings's career in the short term.

Opinion: Balance is the key

Published in the Mountainview

Technology maven Esther Dyson recently said, "The most important finite resource in the late 20th century is people's attention." Nothing could be more correct Information is flowing into our lives faster than ever before. Information about places and people previously unheard of is now meeting us for breakfast, in the morning paper and on the morning news programs.

Who a hundred years ago would have thought that the struggle for power of an overweening rich man, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, would headline world news? We are inclined to ask why this is important to Americans. It is clearly of importance to the people of Zaire and neighboring countries.

Don't we have enough to worry about? Social activists constantly remind us of human rights tragedies around the world and in the United States, Amnesty International makes a point of including the U.S. in its annual reports on the world's worst human-rights offenders. Don't we have enough to do, here at home? Shouldn't our attention be spent on cleaning our own house, rather than throwing stones at the glass houses others inhabit? Isn't that, even if a productive use of our own time and energy, distracting them from the pressing problems of their worlds?

Attention is something we must ration carefully; Dyson is correct. We have only so much time to spend on anything. only so much mental energy before we need sleep, respite, or a good beer. We must choose what we pay attention to; we cannot afford to choose unwisely, How, then, should we determine what to ignore? Or should we ignore nothing, sufficing with short blurbs about everything, reducing our knowledge to trivia and our understanding to mere chronology?

As individuals, we each have certain special interests. Mine may relate to technology and the communications revolution; yours may be in environmentally-aware architecture. Each of us follows a certain set of topics, from sports teams and academic disciplines to current events in the domestic affairs of particular nations. As a nation, we have certain collective interests. Health insurance for all Americans is something to which we should each bend an ear from time to time. We also need to know where our elected representatives stand on the Chemical Weapons Ban Treaty and nuclear non-proliferation. These indicate, however, that there is an overlap in individual, domestic national, and international levels of interest.

The line between what we pay attention to and what we ignore is fuzzy at best. It is no less clear for the fact that daily events occur which we could not have predicted but which directly affect our lives. Would anyone argue that Americans should ignore the threat to our own individual personal safety posed by the Oklahoma City bombing? Would anyone argue that Americans at large ever expected such an event to occur? We need to pay attention to people telling us things we haven't asked about, which we don't know about to be interested in them.

And so our attention is again stretched, unfocused, confused. Can we just shut off the world, even for a short time, and listen to the silence? In the age of digital timekeeping, silence is just that; there's not even a clock ticking to remind us of time passing. Silence can be wonderful, and relaxation, departure from this hectic world refreshing. It is imperative that, at the same time as we learn to take in, process, and comprehend more and more information, we also learn to take time for ourselves to remain in balance.

To do otherwise would be to invite disaster of a cognitive nature. The world closes in around us, and we must learn to escape it or risk being enveloped by it. Our attention must be focused on yet another subject: our own personal, societal, and human well-being: This is the area in which it is most imperative that we all pay attention. We must all confer upon each other the human dignities we ourselves desire; we must respect the space and time of others, and the fact that they, too, suffer from the same attention deficit we do. Our time here is limited, and to make the most of it some things must fall by the wayside.

Each of us must decide individually what to leave behind and what to carry forward. Those who strive to do too much or too little will risk failure and insignificance, both individually and societally. Balance is the key: our resources are indeed finite.

Monday, April 21, 1997

Concert Review: Final After Dark concert soars with Rogers

Published in the Mountainview

At the final After Dark Music Series concert of the 1996-1997 season at the Knights of Columbus Hall, a busy crowd, arriving before sunset for the first time, eagerly awaited the opening of the Friday night show.
Mustard's Retreat, a folk duo, opened. David Tamulevich and Michael Hough, from Ann Arbor, Michigan, began with "Leave in Jubilation." By the next song, the audience was singing along with the old ballad "I Owe My Soul to the Company Store." Their voiceslifted in smooth harmony, and the humorous introduction to "All My Incarnations" reminded the audience that "you can't take it with you, but with reincarnation, you can come back and get it."

Tamulevich and Hough, who also performed at a family show on Saturday, then told the story of "Brer Rabbit and Sandy Raccoon," complete with sound effects. It was a different sort of reincarnation story.

Subsequent songs had the audience remembering failed romances, and then congratulating the volunteers who make the After Dark Music Series not only possible but a roaring success. Even the opening act did an encore; everyone sang Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More."

Canadian folk guitarist Garnet Rogers then took the stage. He began with a medley of songs in his deep-throated baritone voice. Rogers is a powerful vocalist and guitarist.

Despite extremely nimble maneuvers on his fingerboard, Rogers' music retained a relaxed quality. The first four songs, all in the same key, covered emotions from loneliness through love, energy, and hope, to despair in the story of a drunken poor man, in "Poor Man's Dream."

His next song was about a woman's self-acceptance. Called "The Beauty Game," it reminded all present of the limitations of the human mind, heart, and form. Rogers's sensitivity is not limited to humans; he sang a ballad about saving an aging racehorse from the dog-meat factory.

He played a rare instrument, a mandoguitar, for which he wrote a song called "The Next Turn of the Wheel." An ethereal instrument, it complemented his baritone voice. The song, about places which hold bittersweet memories, showcased his mastery of the guitar nuances.

After the break, Rogers returned to deliver another guitar-voice counterpoint piece, "As Long as the Years Go By," followed immediately by a cover of Greg Brown's tribute to "the two icons of North America," Jesus and Elvis. Rogers's lively personality was clear from his stories. The first, about trying to find vegetarian food in Laramie, Wyoming, had the audience in peals of laughter. He talked about his career in folk music and likened it to "being in the Witness Protection Program: they know you're out there, but they don't know how to get to you."

He then turned right around and had us humming and singing softly to a lovely rendition of Cyndi Lauper's inspiring "True Colors," played on a six-string with an echo box, lofting the notes to the sky. A wrenching song about domestic violence, "Tommy," illustrated a story about a group of Canadian men who protest male violence against women.

Having explained how he began his folk music career, in the 1970s, trying to compete with the disco craze by playing maritime and traditional folk music in Canadian clubs, Rogers closed with two songs about driving across his native country between gigs. He warned that they were "written in real time." Long though the songs were, they were excellent examples of the magic Rogers can work with a guitar, and with the words of his songs.

The entire audience stayed up very late - near midnight - to hear the whole show. The music was wonderful, a tribute not only to Rogers's talents but also to sound engineers Mark Mulqueen and Richard Ruane, who managed to make the Knights of Columbus Hall sound like a professional concert auditorium.

Rogers's encore was a haunting cover of "Romeo and Juliet," by Dire Straits, one of the United Kingdom's foremost folk and rock bands. As the audience left the hall, tears, smiles, and sighs abounded. Another After Dark season has drawn to a close.

Opinion: Middlebury: So close to ideal

Published in the Mountainview

It is the time of year when seniors write reminiscences of their years at Middlebury. Usually published in the Campus, many of them are very happy with the circumstances and surroundings of their college education. Many of them, however, will no doubt have been open critics of the College at one time or another. Whence this frustration, and then these happy memories?

Perhaps it is because Middlebury is such a nice place, with so much to offer, that people are frustrated by its failure to achieve perfection. Clearly, Middlebury is not a perfect place or a perfect college. The people are not perfect, and the policies aren't either. But it is a fun place, a welcoming place. It's close to perfection, in a number of ways of defining the word. The mixed feelings may come from frustration of being somewhere so close to perfect, and yet finding it, too, has imperfections.

President McCardell puts a great deal of stock in "what it means to have gone to Middlebury." Perhaps this is because he knows that the college years are a hard time in young lives. Putting a lot of work into making "what it means to go to Middlebury" is as sure to disappoint some as current efforts disappoint others. What matters from the point of view of alumni relations and fundraising is that people remember Middlebury fondly.

Frustration is driven by lack of control, more than anything else. We have all laughed at the fridge magnet which reads "Teenagers, leave home now — while you still know everything!" And yet, when in college, we resent that stereotype and fight against it, just as in high school.

College is a time to grow and develop in a nurturing environment. Idealism remains, latent in the hearts and minds of intelligent youth. Realism must be enforced, the world says: the young must learn.

The young, then, learn about the world, but are told that they are not in it and are unready for it. Commencement may be the official term, but most seniors feel more ready to graduate than they are to commence; this is normal. College students wait for the "real world," failing to realize that Middlebury is actually a fairly good model of the world most Middlebury graduates will inhabit for their lifetimes.

People of a similar socioeconomic background, educational level, and interests will surround Middlebury graduates. Forces and people of control will not be easily seen or addressed. Other people's minds will prove difficult to change; more learning will always need to be done. There is some-times enough time for sleep, but then not enough for television.

Does, then, the contradiction of being both pleased with a place and disappointed with it develop from the confusing situation of waiting for the "real world" while it is just outside the door? Middlebury students are quite well off, as colleges go, and they know it. Nothing is perfect, this is true: perfection is an asymptote to life: however close you come, you're never there.

Or is this duality of opinion from another source: that odd contradiction which makes humans always wish for what we cannot have? Humans tend to forget bad memories, to leave them behind. As good feelings and memories come to life, as the world comes to life in spring, seniors feel a sense of longing for the good times they once had.

Perhaps it is not whence this feeling comes that is important; the feeling itself is worth quite a lot. Seniors will leave (some will stay in the area; others will leave but return) and remember this place and this college happily, and that is good. It is well that so many adults are happy with their youth- fill decision to attend Middlebury. Growth does occur here, and as frustrations and negative feelings melt with the winter snows, seniors prepare to leave to enter what they will create as their "real world." It is not perfect either.

Monday, April 14, 1997

Book Review: A compendium of Braschian views

Published in the Mountainview

Walt Brasch's nationally syndicated weekly column on the media provides the source material for Enquiring Minds and Space Aliens: Wandering through the Mass Media and Popular Culture, published by Mayfly Productions. The oddity begins with three different tables of contents. as a way to get potential critics "to shut up and let the rest of us enjoy life." A series of commentaries on the politics and influence of the media, the collection of columns entertains and informs.

Brasch has a finely honed sense of fair play; he breaks ranks with most pundits by holding media organizations and reporters to the same standards to which they hold the public and public figures. He also puts them in familiar contexts, portraying a fictional trade between news organizations, of one seasoned reporter for "two rookie reporters, an editorial clerk, and a future draft choice."

Brasch decries media collusion with big business and government to mislead the people, and satirizes the media's ability to influence the public. He offers several examples throughout the book, including tabloids in supermarket checkout aisles, explaining that as a commentary on American public interest, they are a frightening spectre indeed.

Also frightening, he notes in one somewhat subversive column (“Wonderings of an Idle Mind"), is the American tendency to ignore bad news and to favor what Brasch clearly considers not "news."

Beyond the serious to the humorous are examples of stories journalists can't file (because they're not true), but should (because it would be so nice if they were true). One of these is NBC's reinstatement of a failed series based on the 1960s civil rights struggle, because, despite terribly low ratings, the subject matter is important,

Brasch's work has a serious element; he uses his column to provide a combination of several interviews: Woodstock attendees and Ohio National Guardsmen present at Kent State. A story hard to define in conventional newspapering finds a home and a voice in Brasch's column. A touching arrangement of well-selected quotes demonstrates insight and talent at discerning subject matter which probes the far reaches of the American popular psyche.

Brasch holds forth with critiques, both positive and negative, of all forms of media in the United States. Advertisers take heat for promoting cigarettes, newspapers for hiring practices, government publicists for their forms of "spin control," and news magazines for theirs. Brasch advocates responsibility and accountability, while offering insight into the true motivations of the public affairs industry.

His story, however, is one-sided. Those who disagree with him have no voice of their own in this book. This is only appropriate because it is a collection of columns; the columnist is traditionally allowed to put words into mouths of adversaries and allies alike, while a news reporter tends not to be permitted the same liberty. This is not to criticize Brasch's journalism skills; those columns in which they, rather than his pundit alter ego, are present, indicate a particular adeptness with words and facts.

Perhaps Brasch will expand some of these columns into chapters in a future book; his observations as a veritable turncoat in the news business are informed from the inside, and attempt to permit the average person to see his world from the inside. It is a world with inherent and deep contradictions, and one which until recently had the respect of a large portion of the American public. It is for reasons like those Brasch illustrates that the public's interest in news and respect for news organizations is waning.

Unfortunately, Brasch offers precious little in the way of solutions to this problem. He even shies away from stating point blank that there is a problem; his satire does the work for him, which is simultaneously admirable and disappointing.

For those seeking an insider's look at the media with the irreverence of the public, this is, above all, a book to enjoy. Its title is far from the only quirky and entertaining thing about it; satire is a dying art Brasch has rekindled some and directed it at a common scapegoat:  the media.

Opinion: The rise of a digital nation

Published in the Mountainview

The April issue of Wired offers for your perusal its "Netizen" column, this month by Jon Katz, remarking upon the digital nature of the election of 1996, and continuing into an exploration of the impact of technology on the political and cultural systems of tomorrow.

Katz has fallen into what is becoming a cliched trap: an older person, ostensibly wiser than the "digital youth" under examination, generalizing about the type of person today's twentysornethings are and will become. Whether we are "Generation X," "digerati," or Katz's "Digital Nation," each of those commentaries has contained something very important and lacked something equally vital.

Katz's postpolitical world, a world in which traditional liberal and conservative values are conjoined in a mixture of individual responsibility and respect for the common good, is ripe with promise. He closes his column with the daunting sentence: "If they choose to develop a common value system, with a moral ideology and a humane agenda, they might even do the world some good." Katz has put himself, rightfully or not, in the role of mentor to what he calls the "digital young," an educated elite with technology at their fingertips around the clock.

It is in this role, and not the role of social observer, in which he fails miserably. A mentor's role is to see trends, possibilities, potential, and ramifications, and to advise upon a course of action. A protege's role is to listen to the mentor and decide what action to take.

The digital young are clearly the proteges in Katz's article, and yet he fails to give us any advice. Instead, we are left with the condescending hope that we do "something right" and end up being a benefit to our world.
In our own defense, this generation has traditionally rejected many norms and ignored not a few expectations (including, most notably, fear of the Soviet Union) in our time. It is ridiculous to suggest that we be expected to heed the advice of our elders; indeed even Katz remarks upon the individualized nature of youth today. However, as much as what we have ignored has benefited us, so too has it hurt us. We have lost the connection to tradition and to experience which has kept our species alive for many thousands, even millions of years.

It is precisely now, at this watershed time, when we need to hear all the voices speak; Katz lauds the Internet's ability to permit this to actually happen. We now need, more than ever, the wisdom of the years and the energy of youth to combine. Our elders are certain to give us som bad advice: we younger people are certain to make grave errors in judgment. It is now time to minimize the damage and learn and make what we can.

We may indeed be able to do the world some good, but we are certain to do more damage without leadership. That leadership must come not only from among our own, but from generations which have gone before, which remember a non-wired world, and which learned of the value of personal communication, and has experienced firsthand the impact technology has on a way of life.

Katz poses many questions: "How will this generation solve the world's problems?” is but one. Has he already given up the possibility that he may be part of the solution, if he chooses to work with us? Is he now becoming part of the problem, and passing the challenge off to other people who he claims are better equipped to handle it? Katz is an astute observer of social generalities, but he does not offer solutions, and seems unprepared to be part of them.

Perhaps historians will one day lament the leadership provided by the Baby Boomers to the Wired Generation; perhaps it will be the Baby Boomers about whom is said, "They could have done the world some good."