PPPPresence of Mind - Four P's Episode 154

I don't know about you, but I have every intention of wearing masks in many public, crowded venues looooong after this pandemic is over. Certainly during the winter cold-and-flu months. After all, we spent so much on these masks that why not get maximum use out of them AND stay healthy at the same time?

Even in today's partisan, toxic social culture, I'm not sure how mask-wearing became a polarizing, political issue. For me, this was never about freedom or choice, but science and safety. Like most things, it's really about basic intelligence vs mass stupidity. Over the centuries, there have been different historical catalysts that drove increases or decreases in our overall life expectancy. Some happened rapidly, others took time to evolve: Wars and pandemics shorten it. Vaccines and technology increase it.

Yet I now truly believe that long-term, mass mask adoption in cities, offices, markets, transit hubs, and other crowded spaces could become a defining neo-Darwinian moment in time that separates intelligent from illiterate factions of society in terms of our immortality.

Speaking of intelligence, here are this week’s Four Ps.

1. Personal: The Great Recovery.
2. Practical: Eat Less Chicken.
3. Professional: CMOs Come and Go.
4. Political: Students of History.


Something Personal: The Great Recovery

As a family, we spent more money in the last month or two than ever before. My recent credit card bills are painful to even think about at the moment. So what did we spend it on? Well, for starters, we booked travel for two vacations (summer and Christmas Week), bought new outdoor patio furniture, a new couch for the playroom, new rollerblades, summer camp for the kids, dining out, and more. All of it justifiable. At least we're doing our part to help restore our economy to full strength. And we didn't even get a stimulus check!

Overall, the U.S. GDP grew at a 6.4% annual rate in the first quarter of this year, and economic output is now within 1% of its pre-pandemic peak. Yes, there is a lot of talk about how consumer expectations, behaviors and patterns have changed permanently since COVID began, but confidence is returning. A resumption of activities and events feels close, at least once we've hit a higher vaccination rate and herd immunity percentage (and not rushing it).

Personally, my biggest sources of savings came from not commuting, making more meals at home, not buying any new clothes in the past few years, and basically not leaving the house for 400 days. Hopefully all of my work clothes from 2019 still fit, because my office also just opened back up on a purely voluntary basis. While it feels a bit premature for my own comfort, a few people did go into our space in midtown Manhattan. One per floor. I also went in a few times just to help get things ready, get organized, clean out some people's desks (and discovering open snacks in people's drawers, yuck!). Each time, I chose to drive in because I just don't feel safe yet on public transportation even though it's been a month since my second vaccine. But sitting in more than three hours of traffic each time, I never thought I'd actually look forward to a return to my Long Island Rail Road commuter life. See you soon, world!


Something Practical: Eat Less Chicken

Back when I was spending a decent amount of time in the Atlanta area a decade or so ago, I hopped on the Chick -fil-A bandwagon and took advantage of every opportunity I could to devour its delicious sandwiches. Whether grabbing one to go at the airport before a flight home, walking over from our office for a quick lunch, or even picking hotels near a local restaurant just so I could sneak one in for dinner, I was definitely in the mindset of "Eat Mor Chikin" in those days. Then I learned more about the morally reprehensible views of its ownership, and I haven't been back since.

I still eat a ton of chicken, and I'm not alone. As the "chicken sandwich wars" have escalated over the past few years, and the enormous popularity of chicken overall, the United States is on the verge of a poultry shortage. We simply cannot produce enough chicken to meet demand. This is not only a problem for those who love to eat it, but the industry will struggle to maintain (or improve) ethical and sanitary standards of chicken production if this keeps up.

Chicken isn't the least healthy food you could eat, and is probably one of the healthier meats (when it is raised and handled properly). But like anything, too much of a good thing can also be bad. Simply put, something practical for this week: we need to eat less chicken. The same probably goes for turkey, pork and red meat. I've never been a seafood eater, but that's the one animal protein that doesn't seem to be a threat to our planet. Yet.

I've never been a vegan, a vegetarian or conscious of food supply of any kind. But I'm now more alert and aware of the damage we are doing to our environment as a result of food consumption patterns, not to mention our overall health as a species. The good news is that thanks to a surge in the sauces and condiments industry, we can eat more tofu and plant-based foods that... taste almost like chicken.


Something Professional: CMOs Come and Go

The role Chief Marketing Officer is perhaps the most studied, discussed position in business. Due to its impact and connection within the corporate communication ecosystem, CMOs can be treated as saviors or scapegoats. And sometimes, both. A few years ago, I wrote a featured article on LinkedIn that gained a lot of traction and eye balls. It called for newer, younger employees to show greater "staying power" at companies. I will say, here and now, that the same applies at the executive level, and especially with CMOs.

CMO responsibilities vary across companies and brands, with some even questioning the importance of the title at all. According to the latest (17th annual) CMO Tenure Study from Spencer Stuart, the average CMO tenure in 2020 dropped to 40 months (the lowest it has been since 2009). Just three years. The rotating door of CMOs is devastating for business, and a primary reason why the entire marketing industry is in a state of perilous flux. Innovation, fresh ideas, diversity and change can be good things, but real change also requires consistency and continuity with key personnel in order to become truly culturally rooted and sustainable.

If it takes several months to a year for a CMO to even learn enough about her/his company, categories and competitors, the creative, communications and media planning processes can take another full year to truly turn over and settle. Even real-time data visibility and accessibility cannot provide a true window into the successes and failures of new marketing initiatives. But the cycle of rapid CMO change leaves a destructive wake. Employees, agencies, partners, shareholders can be shaken when a CMO leaves. Recruitment and onboarding takes time, and often comes with a full reset. Foundational stability and iterative growth takes years, which is why CMOs should plan to spend at least five years, minimum, when taking on a new role.

The good news is that another trend is also combatting this turnover: A majority of companies (63%) in the study promoted internal candidates versus looking outside for CMOs, especially first-timers, in 2020. This percentage was even higher for first-time CMOs: 84% were promoted from within the company vs. 16% of external hires. Virtual onboarding is challenging, but especially so for first-time executives. Most certainly, the pandemic fueled some of the decline in chief marketing officer tenure as executive teams across industries faced unprecedented change in the market, but compared to the average tenure of CEOs (80 months), the CMO is really just a Chief Mobility Office these days.


Something Political: Students of History

My town was in the national news last week when swastikas were discovered to have been spray-painted on the exterior wall of one of our local elementary schools. It prompted swift legal action, as well as a re-visitation of how a community responds to hate crimes and discrimination. Why do these things keep happening? What can and should we be doing differently?

Unfortunate incidents like this remind us of European philosopher George Santayana's famous quote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." From violence and wars to economic crises and diseases, what is it about history's lessons that are so easy to ignore and hard for us to learn?

Studying history broadens our understanding of the world. It provides us with a fountain of wisdom unattainable through own own individual experiences. By understanding the successes, failures, accidents, victories, and mistakes of others, we can learn how to improve on the good things, as well as avoid catastrophes, in the future. Yet history is still a re-telling of stories, and popular history is distorted by editorialized recaps, exaggerations, mythmaking, and outright deceit. But careful observation, study, and analysis can help us see the truth. Lessons from the past can even help us prevent the worst of war and conflict.

We study history to understand why events happened the way they did. With hundreds or thousands of years’ worth of data to draw upon, it also helps us make better decisions. It gives us knowledge and wisdom you simply cannot get from everyday life. Which means that the study of history has to be like the study of science: objective, fact-based, rational. Historians must pursue the truth even when it is uncomfortable. Uncovering the facts about past events requires a dispassionate, scientific attitude. A historian’s emotion must never sway his investigation. But creativity and intuition do have a role to play.

Yet a paradox becomes problematic: The more scientific, less emotional the reports are, the less interested the general public is. We crave sensationalized, emotional accounts of the past (and present), and our leaders know this. We want to be on the "right side" of history, so generals, politicians, even entire institutions are usually reluctant to admit past follies and mistakes. They fear hurting morale and exposing a nation’s weaknesses. History is also often swayed by powerful people, their personal connections, and the compromises they make in private. Many crucial moments in history happen behind the scenes, so learning what truly transpired requires challenging excavation and investigation.

Which brings us to today. Democracy is in a state of constant peril all over the world, and it has been off-and-on for the past 250+ years. Dictatorships rise and fall in nations big and small, and the U.S. came as close to the brink over the past four years than ever before. History tells us that dictators and other despotic governments rise to power by exploiting a simple pattern. First, they use people’s existing prejudices and frustrations to stir up resentment and hostility. Then, future dictators acknowledge the widespread discontent and blame it on the existing regime. They offer alternative solutions, which can sound simple, but quite often are entirely unrealistic. Finally, dictators seize control with a false promise of better days to come.

The central flaw of authoritarianism is that its promises are false. Eventually, time reveals them for what they are: hollow lies. While a brainwashed population may briefly work together in a patriotic fervor, eventually, citizens will realize that their efforts are only serving the elite. Their resolve will erode, and the dictatorship will crumble from within. Yet the public will always remain susceptible. Academia and journalism must become stronger, independent pillars of society that keep us informed. "Democracy Dies in Darkness" became the official slogan of The Washington Post in 2017. But, we also need better collaboration from technology and media leaders, as well as lawmakers, to abide by historical lessons and allow personal freedom and responsibility to flourish.

Happy Mother’s Day, moms!

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