Monday, August 29, 2011

Mondays With Mike: Business lessons from a Duck? Marketing expert Tom Porter

OCCASIONALLY I FIND an author that’s not primarily a writer, but has something to say and manages – despite not being a writer – to successfully put it in book form.  My interview this week is with Tom Porter, a Drake MBA grad who had an impressive career as director of marketing for the Iowa-based Brenton Banks before opening his own firm, Porter & Associates where he became a recognized authority on branding, marketing, and advertising. After selling that company he became vice president of marketing for Homesteaders Life and now runs the marketing consulting firm, Asset-Based Marketing.  But as an author, what really caught my eye was the title of his book, All I Need to Know about Business I learned from a Duck/Business Lessons from Nature.  Ducks and business?  Okay, you got me on that.

Mike:  Thank you for joining me today.  Before I go to your book, tell me a little about your business.  From what I can see you are a “business coach,” is that a fair description?

Tom:  I’m reluctant to refer to myself as a coach primarily because I believe what I provide to my clients goes far beyond what most professional business coaches deliver.  Instead of “coaching” I see my function and responsibility more along the lines of serving as a catalyst for change and for growth.  I ran marathons for over 20 years mainly because I was interested in pushing the limits and boundaries that I had established for myself.  What I have found is that business leaders have unconsciously established limiting beliefs about themselves and the organizations they are in charge of, so my job is to help bring those beliefs to a conscious level, and then facilitate a program and process of achieving their full potential.   

M:  Your company, Asset-Based Marketing, deals with branding and marketing. A quick observation indicates a subtle difference between the two, what is it?

T:  Some people define marketing as a process of satisfying a target market’s needs, profitably.  In accomplishing that goal a marketing professional has the “four Ps” as his or her tools:  Product, place (channel of distribution), price and promotion (personal selling & advertising).

Branding is a strategy and its purpose is to differentiate a company or a product from competitors.  Its goal is to “own” a word in the mind of the target audience.  The essence of brand is “experience”, so brand is the emergent property of everything that is said, heard, read, written or seen.  Ultimately, branding is a process of managing the target audience’s brand experiences.

M:  As part of your business, I believe you publish a newsletter; how often does it come out and how can someone receive it?

T:  I’m very disciplined in many areas of my life, however creating a newsletter on a regular basis is not one of those areas.  I write an article if, in the process of working with one of my clients, an interesting topic comes up, or if I feel that old ideas and marketing “truths” need to be updated.  For example, there’s an old adage that an unhappy customer will tell 10 people about the poor service they received.   So I wrote a brief story about a musician whose guitar was broken while traveling on United Airlines.  After a nine month fruitless claim process,  David Carroll and his band, Sons of Maxwell, blew the lid off that rule by uploading a song onto YouTube that chronicled how his $3,500 Taylor guitar was broken.  I went to YouTube this morning and as of 9:30 a.m. the video has received 10,789,975 views!  Going back to your earlier question about branding, you now have a real-life example of how a “brand experience” can be direct and indirect (everything that is said, heard, read, written or seen) … and how important it is for companies to manage those experiences.

If anybody would like to receive my e-newsletter, they just need to simply provide me with their email address and I’d be happy to include them in the future.

M:  Okay, let’s go to your book, All I Need to Know about Business I learned from a Duck/Business Lessons from Nature, first, can you tell me why you wrote it?

T:  I wrote the book for a number of reasons; however the primary one was that I became disgusted with news stories about greed and corruption in the financial markets as well as some of the business practices I had personally witnessed over my career.  So rather than sitting on the sidelines I thought I’d jump into the game and do whatever I could to improve business ethics.  Writing a book seemed like a good idea.

To get my message seen and heard I recognized that I needed to pursue the topic in a completely different way than anybody else had taken.  I also knew that I needed to keep my philosophies and solutions simple.  So when the idea hit me of using elements of nature as a metaphor for best business practices I went with it.

M:  Now, where did the idea of business lessons from a duck come from?

T:  I owned an advertising agency for over 22 years, so I have firsthand knowledge about how difficult it is to get a target audience’s attention.  For example, in 2008 over 560,000 books were published - approximately 11,000 of them were business books.  So when you add in all the books that are already sitting on bookstore shelves to the number of new books published every year, the competition on the shelf and on websites is stiff.  To stand out I created a funky title as well as a front cover design that is an eye grabber.

Another reason why I came up with the title is its true!  There are a total of 88 business lessons in the book.  I used a quote from Jacob Braude to illustrate a fundamental management principle in one of them:  “People are like ducks … calm and unruffled on the surface but paddling like the devil underneath.” 

For me that quote speaks to the fact that most people are insecure and unsure of themselves.  Based upon my experience I believe a large percentage of today’s managers and supervisors attempt to exploit subordinates’ insecurities.  What I hope readers learn from ducks is that the best business leaders understand that positive relationships are what truly drive success in business.  And those relationships must be cultivated in an environment of mutual respect where employees feel they can grow personally, feel fulfilled and are able to measure how they are contributing to a common good.   In essence, that’s the theme for my entire book and that’s all a supervisor really needs to know about business

M:  Are there any other animals that we can learn from?

T:  As I said earlier, there are a total of 88 business lessons in the book, but one of my favorites is something we can learn from honeybees because it could save small and medium-sized businesses across America millions of dollars.  Honeybees do a waggle dance when they come back to the hive to communicate the direction and distance of food sources.  Communication specialists refer to that as 1-way communication.  The lesson we can learn is that a majority of email messages are actually 1-way messages that don’t require a response.  But, because the sender doesn’t tell recipients that a response isn’t necessary, people waste literally thousands of hours composing them … and as they say, time is money.  So if you want to improve the effectiveness of email within a company (and save money) include the following words in the subject line of your email message if it applies:  No Reply Necessary.  (I started doing this and reduced my volume of email by over 60 percent.)

By the way, recent studies show that a typical executive spends 1 ½ days (30%) out of a 5-day work week sorting, reading, filing, writing, sending and recovering from email messages.  That means a company that is paying an executive $150,000 per year is spending $45,000 of that salary on email management!

M:  I know a bit about the flood of e-mails…not only do I get a ton of them, but my wife is always complaining about being in e-mail jail at her office.  But I digress… Let me go to your writing habits, do you write each day, morning, evening, etc.?

T:  I really don’t consider myself to be a writer, and if you read my book you’ll probably agree with me.  I DO feel that I have some copywriting skills and ability, but even those are mediocre.  More often than not writing is painful for me, so quite honestly I don’t do a lot of it.  Fortunately, and I can’t explain why, when I was writing my book I had a deep sense that it was being written through me, rather than by me.  So the whole experience was actually fun and exhilarating.

I guess I only write when I feel like I have something of importance to say … and that doesn’t occur very often.     

M:  Many professionals in your position carry a speaking schedule.  Can you tell me about yours?

T:  I speak to all sorts of groups including breakfast clubs, service organizations, corporate and association meetings … I’ve even done some presentations for groups associated with sustainability and ecology.  My message is centered on biomimicry, which is a new discipline that studies nature's best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems.

M:  Tom, I’d like to thank you for being with us today.  Before you go, how can readers contact you?

T:  Thank you for having me.  Here is my contact information:

Tom Porter
515-480-2345 (cell)


  1. Mike, This, is one of most intriguing and however, realistic approaches to the business climate of today. Business is such and has always been, however, to nurture an "employee and even a customer" to further growth and satisfaction of such, based on this analogy of watching the preformance of a "Duck" and his associates of nature is beautiful....jbs

  2. Great interview Mike --- glad to have found your blog. This is a great space for your considerable talents.

    Keep creating...and recreating,

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