assignment desk
October 28, 2006, 7:58 pm
Filed under: candidates/campaigns/elections, handlers

God help me for quoting Peggy Noonan, but she’s right in an aside in “Is there Progress Through Loss” published in Opinion Journal today, 10/28:

(An unreported story this year is the lack of imagination, seriousness and respect in the work of political consultants on both sides. They have got to catch up with American brightness.)

The ultimate problem lies with the consultant business model: spread-too-thin firms who look for the shortest-distance-between-two-points solutions– solutions that lack depth and, if you will, soul.

Couple the poor executions with pounding them into people by over-running them (2000 points is a common buy level nowadays– 100 points meaning that the equivalent of 100% of the people in the market will view the ad once. So, the average person in a market will see the ad 20 times– kind of hard to take, if the ad has all the imagination of “Head on: apply directly to the forehead!”) and you have a real overdose problem.


What would Ann Do? Visualizing your market…
September 15, 2006, 6:53 pm
Filed under: candidates/campaigns/elections, marketing

Ann Taylor’s CEO is interviewed in today’s WSJ about how she differentiates between her flagship chain’s customers and the Ann Taylor Loft chain’s younger, “sportier” customers. It’s a useful read if you’re a candidate trying to differentiate between, say, soccer moms and “security” moms, or between NASCAR dads and cubicle dads.

These subtle differences add up to a market niche where a company can build a multi-million dollar business. But a candidate must do something harder: the candidate needs to be able to diferentiate between regular and “loft” customers at least as well as a clothing chain, and then also be able to unite those and all other constituencies to add up to a majority, and turn them out on election day.

But perhaps what’s most useful about this piece is how the CEO uses the differences between the customer bases to educate her staff— and a candidate has to do more educating of his/her troops than you’d imagine. Getting staff, contributors and surrogates on the same page during a campaign is an important, big challenge.

Here’s the interview.


Asking ‘What Would Ann Do?’
In Turning Around AnnTaylor,
CEO Kay Krill Got to Know
Her Customers, ‘Ann’ and ‘Loft’

September 15, 2006; Page B1

Eighteen months ago, AnnTaylor Stores Corp. faced a challenge that’s become increasingly common for retailers: how to revive a faded original brand without slowing the growth of an upstart division.

After a disastrous holiday season for the Ann Taylor brand in 2004, its turnaround was handed off to Kay Krill. Ms. Krill, who joined the company in 1994 as a vice president of merchandising, had presided over the success of Ann Taylor Loft, which started in 1995 with more-casual, less-expensive designs. She became president of the parent in November 2004, and was promoted to chief executive in October.
[Boss Talk]

The 51-year-old Ms. Krill had a history of predicting the tastes of working women. Before Ann Taylor, she worked in Macy’s management-training program, at women’s-clothing retailer Talbots Inc. and at suit-maker Hartmarx Corp.

A major step in differentiating the Ann Taylor and Loft brands involved carefully constructing, in words and images, the target customer for each division. (Ann Taylor is named not for a real person, but for a particular dress sold in its original store in 1954.) After so much research and debate, Ms. Krill envisions these composites so clearly that she often refers to them as people, “Ann” and “Loft.”

Ms. Krill has demonstrated that an old-line fashion brand can be revived without upsetting a newer counterpart. At AnnTaylor, second-quarter net income this year jumped more than 500%.

Ms. Krill discussed what she learned from her company’s turnaround, how she gauges customer opinion and what she thinks about when she decides what to wear each morning, during an interview at AnnTaylor’s new Times Square headquarters. Excerpts:

WSJ: What have you learned from Ann Taylor and Loft about how to ensure that a retailer’s divisions stay distinct?

Ms. Krill: The most important thing that we did was the branding work. In Ann Taylor, we focused on professional go-to-work and special occasions, because that was our heritage. We created branding books, and used imagery that we felt really was Ann, and started putting words to it. She’s “refined,” she’s “approachable,” she’s “sophisticated.” We showed her what “appropriate” looked like for each occasion. If she’s going to a client meeting, she wears a suit and a soft blouse.

At the same point in time, we decided that Loft really needed to take a more relaxed and casual stance. For Loft, she’s more “lighthearted,” she’s “active,” she’s “spirited.”

It was really important as a senior team that we all agree on the words, and you can imagine how long that took. There was a lot of conversation around who owned “friendly.” We put it with Loft.

WSJ: You talk a lot about the word “appropriate.” How do you define that term?

Ms. Krill: Well, she tells us what’s appropriate. At the end of last summer, we went across the country and visited Ann and Loft girls; we went into their homes, we videoed them, we went to the mall with them, we went in their closets.

Ann mentioned the word “appropriate” all the time. Her house is very appropriate: neutral colors, dark woods, sconces, a foyer. No plastic toys in the living room in Ann’s house. There were in Loft’s house. The Loft girl’s house was painted happy colors and the cooking channel’s on.

One thing that really resonated with me was asking, “How do you get dressed in the morning? What do you think about?” Ann said, “I look at who I’m going to meet with today, and then I decide what’s appropriate to wear.” The Loft girl is in the closet going, “What do I feel like wearing today?”

The differentiation has become so crystal-clear in all of our minds, from the research, from the branding work, from going shopping with her. I don’t have to referee anymore. I used to have to say, “No, guys, that’s more Loft-appropriate,” or, “That belongs in Ann.”

WSJ: How do you balance learning what customers want with leading them to new styles?

Ms. Krill: We have an external client panel for both brands. We’re using [the Ann Taylor panel of 3,000 customers] a lot, because I think one of the keys to Ann Taylor’s turnaround is tapping into our internal and external bases. We put the new marketing campaign online for the Ann Taylor panel to look at — this was the first time we had done this.

We absolutely still believe in the creative process. And we absolutely believe that we can have appropriate fashion in the store — it just might be tempered for what Ann would want. Skinny pants are a big deal this fall, and a lot of people are scared to death of them. We might not have the skinny, skinny pants that are hugging your legs, but we have a slim silhouette which is very appropriate, and she looks current and stylish.

WSJ: Some specialty retailers get their brands distinct, but then, as they try to boost sales, the divisions start converging again. How do you avoid those problems?

Ms. Krill: I oversee all aspects of building the lines, still. I meet with each division at the very beginning to look at the concepts and approve the colors and what the mix is going to be. I step back in when the line review is done. I’m the one who’s racing back and forth, and it’s really good for me, because one’s so fresh in my mind when I see the next one. I’m the one that has to make sure they’re distinct.

I would not want to see a hoodie sweatshirt in Ann Taylor. But a little hoodie top in Loft would be okay.

WSJ: If something in a line is not working, how soon do you know?

Ms. Krill: I would say we know within the first 10 days. If something isn’t selling, we’re taking 40% off right away, because you can’t afford to have anything sitting for long in this environment. We have such a lean inventory now, which is one of our major accomplishments.

WSJ: After starting from such a low point, how did you rebuild morale?

Ms. Krill: Success has a lot to do with it, doesn’t it?

Someone criticized me when we first did the Ann Taylor action plan, because there were 54 things that we needed to fix. We fixed every one of them. All 54 were important to me, because there were process, product, marketing issues — they affected everybody at the company.

Every win that we had, we were celebratory of that win. Even through times during the year when I might have been a little nervous, no one ever knew it. I stayed as upbeat and positive and enthusiastic as I could. If they saw that I was nervous, they would get nervous, and it might spiral out.

WSJ: You’ve solicited input from employees throughout this turnaround. How do you encourage people to say what they really think?

Ms. Krill: By first sitting back and listening, and then adding my two cents, and always appreciating what they have to say. I might not always go with it, but I think I’m very respectful. I’m definitely not an ivory-tower CEO. I am out and about, everywhere in this building.

As a leader, you really have to stay on top of the morale and what’s going on out there. You have to fly at 50,000 feet, but you also have to come down and mow the lawn every now and again.

WSJ: What fashion trends will be important this fall?

Ms. Krill: At Ann Taylor, the black and ivory and red collection. The ladylike suit is very important for Ann, and I think that’s going to be a home run. There’s a lot of interest in pants this season, be it the wide-leg pants to the crop pants to city shorts to slim pants. Platform shoes, stacked-heel boots, a lot of long layering for jewelry. Accessories are very important for both brands for the fall season.

In Loft, it’s more about fun fashion. They actually did some winter shorts, whereas Ann did not. Boots, leggings with long sweaters. They also have a whole new focus on denim. We have a lot of vests coming in. This whole military influence is important for Loft; that would never be in Ann Taylor.

WSJ: How do you get dressed in the morning?

Ms. Krill: I think I’m probably in the middle of Ann and Loft. I run through who I am seeing, but I also want to be me. I’ve gotten more relaxed, and maybe it’s because I’m a year into this. I wore a skirt and a top today instead of a suit.

The other thing that I’ve noticed lately is that I need to be very fashionable because of who I’m meeting with. You know, I’m 51 years old. I don’t want to look it! I want to look like I still know what’s going on, and I still want to be current and stylish — but “appropriate.”

Write to Amy Merrick at

Nick Hornby on “How to Read” applies to politics
August 26, 2006, 7:20 pm
Filed under: candidates/campaigns/elections, marketing, writing/language

Nick Hornby had a piece in the London Telegraph that displays compassion about readers who just can’t get through the latest biography of an early 20th century figure– and he’s right. Slogging through is overrated. The peice also held this nugget:

“If reading books is to survive as a leisure activity – and there are statistics that show that this is by no means assured – then we have to promote the joys of reading, rather than the (dubious) benefits.

“I would never attempt to dissuade anyone from reading a book. But please, if you’re reading a book that’s killing you, put it down and read something else, just as you would reach for the remote if you weren’t enjoying a television programme…”

So many political practitioners are, frankly, humorless grinds– who are willing to do anything ANYTHING to win. That intensity obliterates their humanity, and renders them ill-suited to use humor and emotion to make their legitimate points. “Benefits” based appeals aren’t always enough to put you over the top.

Tech anecdote applies to politics, and marketing
August 24, 2006, 1:22 pm
Filed under: candidates/campaigns/elections, marketing

This from Tim O’Reilly’s blog describes a phenomenon that applies to politics:

In the meetings, there would be great developer debate, but from time to time, one of the representatives would (apologies to Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light) put on his “corporate aspect.” His posture would change, the timbre of his voice would deepen, and he would shift to the third person. Rather than “I think,” he would say “Apollo believes” or “Digital believes.”

This phenomenon manifests itself subtly, in different ways with different people…

When some people become candidates, they start projecting what they think candidates should sound like, rather than being more themselves AS a candidate…

When others run for the first time and win, and start holding office for a while, they get so enmeshed in jargon and insiderey-ness, that they start sounding like the “Digital believes” drone described above. (This also occurs because no one ever tells an incumbent officeholder to shut up when they start droning)

Less abstract examples are John Kerry and Al Gore, who are, by most accounts, smart and funny and ingratiating in person– but when put in a public-speaking role or in front of a camera, become stentorian (“And I say to you…”).

The American Experience could be described as a relentless drive toward informality where those in charge (or want to be) are judged by how much of a “regular” person they are– but the measure of “regularness” is moving.

Subtext in communications
August 9, 2006, 6:55 pm
Filed under: candidates/campaigns/elections, marketing, writing/language

Subtext exists in all media– but here’s a great description of exactly how much can be communicated “between the lines” even if the “lines” are just the beeps of a telegraph operator. (thanks to

Further proof, if any was needed, that it’s not just what you say, but how you say it, that communicates your point of view.

Especially important for first-time candidates to understand: don’t write off any element of your voter-contact media– as “just” a mailer, or “just” what the TV says. Everything the voter receives allows a voter to judge you. Mail out a grungy attack, and be judged as grungy. Put up a feel-good, contentless TV ad, and be prepared when someone else’s is more substantive, relevant, and thus more powerful.

To quote ad pro David Ogilvy (a long time ago): “The consumer is not an idiot; she is your wife.”

How “networked” are political sites?
August 7, 2006, 10:01 pm
Filed under: candidates/campaigns/elections, handlers, web

A key measure of relevance for a website is its “network effect” — the number of inbound and outbound links to that site’s pages. Google uses a patented algorithm to probe for that networkedness and ranks sites with more (authentic) links higher up in the rankings.

Bivings rated this aspect of site relevance.

The webheads (Bivings and others) looking at this need to understand that (at least on the D side of things) most campaigns are lucky to have any site up that isn’t brochureware (or the slight notch above brochureware whose main purpose is harvesting emails for later fundraising pitches).

Real disclosure of a candidate’s persona on the web– in a myspace or personal-blog kind of way– just isn’t gonna happen very quickly. Most campaign communications infrastructure have been very command-and-control, not at all a series of small pieces loosely joined.

Getting the beltway’s Gang of 400 <tm The Note> comfortable with decentralization could have a perverse effect– more noise from more sources could further obscure accountability for success or failure (one of Kos’s main complaints about the Consultant Culture).

If Lamont loses, for example, how much could be pinned on the blackface shot — which is plausibly responsible for the last-week tightening by five points in the Quinnipiac poll??

Broader Lamont video analysis
August 7, 2006, 9:28 pm
Filed under: candidates/campaigns/elections, web

This is big stuff: web-based video is in the process of supplanting paid TV ads. John Dickerson at Slate has a good analysis, using Lamont as his example, with links to various Lamont and non-Lamont videos.

You’d expect this kind of web-is-great commentary from one of the first web magazines, but it has the ring of truth.