Marc Weisblott's blog

Canon Trades Theatre Sponsorship For Cinematic Gamification

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The decision to not seek a new corporate sponsor for a storied Toronto stage, which will be named instead after the late impresario Ed Mirvish, was announced with an uncommon comment from his son.

"They were good partners and I would work with them again in a minute," said David Mirvish upon news that the Canon signage would be coming down. "But I never felt that sponsorship should drive a theatre. It should be the icing on the cake."

The position is an increasingly radical one, particularly in a town where expenditures for public libraries and other attractions are under unprecedented scrutiny, and the idea of selling names of subway stations has entered the realm of reality. Do dramatic arts benefit from being seen as more sacred?

For the renamed Ed Mirvish Theatre, the shows booked for the 2,200-seat palace depend on the optimum level of commercial marketing clout, primarily achieved through mounting productions of musical movies like the current Mary Poppins. So, a Japanese camera company is just one additional branding layer.

Open Government Risks Being Run by Cap'n Crunch

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The potential for Twitter integration on all revamped Government of Canada websites made for an intriguing Globe and Mail online headline this week — even if the actual news could be encapsulated in the form of a tweet.

Certainly, the item did its job of riling up the commenters, who are mostly blind to the fact that a social media platform supplies more freedom to rage about Treasury Board of Canada president Tony Clement than a newspaper website does. But who would be paying attention?

Bureaucrats being reliably reached in the future via 140-character rants would be a leap indeed. Customer service departments of service industries have fielded Twitter-based feedback with mixed results. No doubt, any reports of a smooth conflict resolution via social media is seen as good publicity.

Whether civil servants are really prepared to have their interactions aired is one of the challenges of Open Government. Frustration would ensue if much of the bureaucracy used Twitter in the vein of Cap'n Crunch — whose account @RealCapnCrunch depicts a breakfast mascot who is too eager to acknowledge every mention.

Robot Politicians May Be Required for Open Government to Work

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The inaugural PS Engage learning and networking event in Ottawa on Monday provided a stage for the Canadian government to announce formal guidelines for playing the social media game.

Yet the lukewarm reception to the idea that layers of bureaucracy must continue to be involved in the most elementary interactions with the public served as a reminder that the future of communications can't be left to career policymakers alone.

Fortuitously, that evening, a second Metaviews salon in the capital city picked up where the October event left off, by asking the question "Will There Ever Be Open Government?"

This question wasn't going to be definitively answered in one night, of course, but a mixture of insiders and outsiders — all of whom have wondered about a more effective evolution of online public service — seized the opportunity to swap thoughts.

Disruption was the central theme of one conversation — as everyone in the room has closely observed the transformation of all media industries over the past decade. Open Government can similarly provide a breakthrough for the younger generation of civil servants. Currently, the way most of them interact on the job compared to in their personal lives remains a century apart.

'The Globe and Mail' Pay Plan Signals the End of the Newspaper Columnist

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An announcement by The Globe and Mail that some of its financial coverage would be restricted to subscribers next year drew a curious reaction from commenters — many of whom are certain that it will represent the start of a slope that they won't pay to climb.

The backlash might be viewed as validation for the company — which now fends for itself after being unclenched from Bell Media — considering the emergent competition that led the Globe to previously unlock all its content in March 2008.

Back then, the trial paralleled an effort by The New York Times to offset the cost of reporting news online by charging for access to opinionators. But the market value of a sermonizing columnist was in free-fall before social media kicked in.

After all, if merely spouting off was a sufficient business model, then it would allow the wealth to be spread to those who leave feedback. Yet many newspaper old-timers would still rather not acknowledge their respondents. More typical in the web journalism field is a feeling of contempt toward those "conversation" joiners.

Web 2.0 Comes to Ottawa With Red Tape Attached

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While tents are being forced down at Occupy sites across the country, the Treasury Board of Canada has finally gotten around to erecting its virtual one, with the publication of "Guideline for External Use of Web 2.0".

What could have been an opportunity for the Government of Canada to present a new wave of information in a different light, though, has taken the form of another bureaucratic document.

Does information have to look so officious in order to be taken seriously? Treasury Board president Tony Clement has attached his name to something that resembles the Terms of Service agreements that no one would ever read. So, it's up left to more scintillating social media services to dissect its significance for the public service, and the public it serves.

"The federal government has hit the like button on social media," was the best the Canadian Press could extrapolate to sum up the guidelines. Just in case you thought that NDP MP Pat Martin's use of four letter words to describe Conservative tactics on Twitter might have led it to be banned from Parliament Hill.

Shopping Applications Want to Know Where You Stand

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The announcement of Visa's new digital wallet service is being heralded as the best bet for mobile payments to enter the mainstream. Privacy concerns don't seem to play into it. After all, the bills serve as a reminder that there's essentially no such thing as a confidential electronic purchase. Yet.

Still, how much about their shopping habits are people willing to reveal when presented with a choice based on their precise positioning?

Loyalty programs offer rewards in exchange for consumer disclosure, although that requires an actual purchase being made, rather than the browsing that draws people to retailers.

The new wave of shopping applications, however, are designed to keep tabs on consumer movements from one aisle to the next.

These developments could be seen as an opt-in equivalent of the involuntary ways in which online retailers can chase your business around the web — it's never a coincidence that you keep seeing banner ads related to products you recently researched. Bringing these methods between the walls of a mall — which is still generally perceived as a public space — might be a different challenge.

For now, the companies behind location-based shopping apps are either being cautious about presenting these innovations to the public, or have some lengths left to go before they catch on. Bee Media, which first tested its surveillance at the downtown Toronto location of Canadian Tire, has stated its ambition to go global.

Stephen Harper is Still Turning Down Your Friend Request

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Government could never have invented something like social media. Yet, more than anyone else, politicians are expected to be accountable to the public when using it.

Ottawa Citizen reporter Glen McGregor was recently inspired — by a similar Slate monitor of Sarah Palin — to track potential Facebook comment deletions on the part of Stephen Harper's squad. And he was rewarded with evidence that many comments critical of the prime minister didn't last long — although some remained.

Should there be a federal standard for which responses are considered acceptable? What if they're attached to a page that fully verified where the commenter was coming from?

Curiously, there are two different official Facebook pages for Harper. The more popular one — with over 67,000 followers — is run by the Conservative party, while a more obscure one is maintained by the Prime Minister's Office, even though their content has been nearly identical. So, the lack of civility might have something to do with its assertively partisan origins.

These issues related to effective communication have now become an inextricable part of the discussion surrounding Government 2.0.

The First Day of the Tim Hortons Twitter Account

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When it comes to the Canadian economy, Tim Hortons is like the Beatles — to the point of being able to adopt new systems of information delivery in its own sweet time.

Case in point, the chain's Facebook page was up to 1.7 million followers before it committed to Twitter. The easy ride Tim's has received in the national media no doubt contributed to the lack of hurry.

Yet the recent corporate turmoil — which led to the cushioned exit in May of chief executive Don Schroeder — also reflected a lack of success at interacting with customers. After all, they were counting on more Roll Up the Rim to Win prizes to offset any social media backlash. A profit slip was subsequently blamed on the giveaways.

While Tim Hortons could still count on a steady flow of stories for opening in Dubai or introducing lasagna, it faced a potential public relations snag last month when it was learned that a reverend apparently had an overly amorous lesbian couple ejected from a location in Blenheim, Ont. The company seemed to let the outcry run its course — by saying as little about the incident as it could.

Stepping into the public arena of Twitter, though, might also be an invitation to blunder. No doubt, given the effort to plant a Tim's or two in every neighbourhood in Canada, people will eventually expect responses about issues more complicated than a latte.

Sugar Crisp is Seeking Musicians to Circle the Cereal Bowl

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Does the Canadian music business need a spoonful of Sugar Crisp? Cereal company Post Foods has promised studio time, producer support and $5,000 for the most popular song submission to a contest called "The First15."

The official explanation for the venture, though, is a relatively nonsensical reflection of how cautious many are about stepping into this arena.

Presumably, the company was inspired to link itself to independent home recording artists after being approached by rapper Ish Morris to use the vintage 1960s "Can't get enough of that Sugar Crisp" jingle in a harmless ditty that itself sounds like a commercial that would air between Saturday morning cartoons circa 1989.

No doubt it would've been easier to just exploit the association with a viral video aimed at kids. So, why go through the hassle of trying lure musicians to upload their own tune?

The fact that Post has been forced to stop skewing its sugar cereal to children — while maintaining that 40 per cent of its eatership is over 18 — might have something to do with it.

"The track is allowed to incorporate the Sugar Bear jingle," stipulate the rules, "but this isn't required."

Butcher Shop Not Quite Slaughtered by Daily Deal Debacle

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The biggest prey of the exuberance surrounding daily deal offers closed for renovations. Yet, to the apparent surprise of those waiting to cash in their coupons, it has reopened under a different name.

Marlon's Meat is the new moniker of the midtown Toronto organic butcher shop — formerly known as The Butchers — that offered deep discounts through a slew of coupon companies last spring. The inability to meet the demands of 21,000 bargain hunters resulted in owner Marlon Pather trying to set aside specific evening hours for redemption — with police protection for staff.

Now, the renovated store is back on Twitter in the effort to placate the still-unsatisfied customers of services like Buytopia, Dealfind, Dealgetters, Dealticker, TeamSave and Webpiggy.

Of course, none of those can claim the $12.7 billion valuation recently bestowed upon the brand they were trying to emulate, Groupon — although they were eager to sweep its sawdust.

Despite all the skeptics about whether daily deals are a sustainable concept, the Butchers saga suggests that the market for these operations will quickly thin out, in favour of intermediaries trusted not to leave both businesses and customers in the lurch.

Zellers is Killing Itself to Live on Social Media

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Big box discount stores are generally glum places by nature. The more aesthetically pleasing the environment, after all, the more it feeds the perception that the cost is being handed down.

Walmart just pushed this cheap philosophy so far that it provided room in the U.S. for a fashion-conscious alternative.

The positioning of Target was further validated when it secured its first 105 locations across Canada. No longer would the country be stuck with so many of those bleak Zellers stores that the Hudson's Bay Company never quite knew what to do with.

And, in the run-up to the $1.8 billion handover of about half of its 273 stores from one U.S.-based owner to another — Walmart will get 39 of them, actually — Zellers has seized permission to publicly admit that it became the last place Canadians wanted to shop at.

The lack of need for traditional advertising in the two-year transition period has reportedly helped HBC make more money off the dying stores. Now, the company has accelerated its use of social media to entice customers through irony.

Fake is the New Real is the New Fake

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Those looking to catch a break in the self-expression business would have it easier if they were attached to a corporate sponsor ahead of time. Why wait to be discovered as a conduit for advertising if a sell-out is inevitable?

Still, we remain attached to the idea that credibility has to be earned — that an authentic voice requires a trial en route to a payoff, even if no one would voluntarily submit to that hassle.

YouTube has provided a glimpse into universe in which far-out ideas can reap commercial rewards if they get enough clicks: Epic Meal Time might be the most financially successful Canadian television show, ever. So, time will tell if YouTube's strategy for pre-capitalized celebrities will come at the expense of outsiders.

Brand names would obviously rather attach themselves to a proven commodity, after all. Mindshare, the media buying agency for the Ford Motor Company of Canada, didn't need to look any further for a social media-friendly voice than one Amber MacArthur.

When Does the Movember Backlash Begin?

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Movember has served as a case study of how to ping with the modern monoculture — a fundraiser for prostate cancer awareness flecked with just enough ironic entertainment value. Moustache maintenance might as well replace breakfast auditing as status update fodder for a month.

Plus, it puts a fuzzy face on cause that used to never be spoken of in mixed company.

What happens, though, if the novelty value runs its course? The number of Canadian companies looking to align themselves with the campaign foreshadows an inevitable burnout.

For now, advertisers seem eager to attach themselves to something perceived as authentic. But this isn't as much about furthering the potential for social enterprise as trying to reach a demographic that much mass media has given up on.

This year, Movember Canada branding has been attached to Rickard's beer, Speed Stick deodorant, Schick razors, Bread & Butter skincare and Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Basically, the campaign has swept in to provide a more ethical platform than a wet T-shirt contest would.

This Week in Open Government Was Like Last Week in Open Government

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"I gather it's been the worst kept secret in politics for the last few days," said Peggy Nash at the Friday morning announcement that she hopes to be the new NDP leader, "but that's OK, I believe in open government."

The proclamation showed that a certain terminology has worked its way into her subconscious. But the finance critic wasn't talking about "Making 'Open Government' About Actual Government" — discussed last week at a Metaviews event in Ottawa.

Rather, it reinforced that politicians are now forced to put so much energy into burnishing their social media image, that it comes at the expense of understanding how the departments that they're charged with overseeing need to be fully accessible online.

Going down the rabbit hole of Open Government-related rhetoric can be as maddening as the efforts to hash out solutions to salvage the information or entertainment industries from disruption. The difference is, while technology will transform our tastes in decades ahead, a traditional structure of public service will remain.

Parking or Paradise? The McLuhan Coach House Makeover

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The continued commemoration of the 100th birthday of Marshall McLuhan has included contemplation of how his influence should be permanently represented in Toronto. Historical plaques are nice and all — but the rustic McLuhan Coach House, relatively hidden along Queen's Park East, may benefit from being a less enigmatic structure.

With a wave of digital upgrades at universities around the globe — particularly just a few blocks away at Ryerson — the centenary couldn't overlook that the building designated for The Centre of Culture and Technology in 1968 has remained in a static state. Shouldn't a room synonymous with media evolution feel futurist?

The challenge was posed to several architectural firms for a design charrette, held nearby at St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto throughout Monday. The brainstorming marathon culminated in presentations that hypothesized about how to transform the Coach House to help influence a makeover strategy.