30 September 2009

Groups & parts (2)

Thinking about it some more, I wonder about the wisdom of abandoning legacy brands in favor of the group name and generically/functionally-named subsidiaries. This is not to say that the group name won't eventually stick, but at what cost? To enumerate the bill briefly, what could be lost is the name value of those brands, the differentiation they've built up over decades, and perhaps their ability to team easily with other firms that may see other parts of the group as competition. I think I prefer the WPP approach of integrated when it makes sense, separate when it doesn't.

18 September 2009

Groups & parts

A conversation a few days ago prompted thoughts about groups - parent companies with a portfolio of AEC firms. Many of these groups keep their legacy brands in the forefront, but others are intent on leveraging their portfolio and building a new brand around it. So how does this work? How do you balance the needs of the group - creating a new and coherent identity - with the needs of its business units? Ideally, the group brand will surpass its legacy brands, making the transition worthwhile, so the group's initial message should stress leverage, synergy, added value, and new horizons. There's also an opportunity to strike a new tone and depict a reality that's deliberately at odds with perceived limits of the legacy brands that are being supplanted: "That was then, this is now." OK, you can do this, but you still have to enable the business units to define themselves in their different markets. You have to help them build on their legacy without reverting to it. This means inculcating a sense of the group across every unit while celebrating each one's remarkable DNA. So its an internal issue as well as an external one - people need to feel they're part of something new and significantly better, and be able to convey that difference to others. Relevant to this is WPP's Martin Sorrell, whose annual reports often address the group vs. parts conundrum. WPP has kept its brands, but collocated them - synergy and leverage are the name of the game. It will be interesting to see where this leads. Does it resolve Sorrell's dilemma or is it a step closer to the day when WPP is the only name on the door?

11 September 2009

Case in point

So, it turns out that my friend Peter Bosselmann's book, Urban Transformations, is published by Island Press. A copy arrived today in the mail, so I went through it with the thesis mentioned below - "deep ideas have rarely been developed outside of books" - in mind. Is it true? I can imagine Bosselmann's book appearing piecemeal in digital form, and then becoming available as a compendium through a medium like blurb.com or lulu.com - production on demand. What would be missing is the editorial skill of Island Press itself, which Bosselmann acknowledges. Recently, I was asked by Yale University Press to review a manuscript. I'll be curious to see how the finished book compares to what I reviewed. The instant book outfits don't provide this step - authors have to do it themselves, either by taking greater care to shape their products or to find and work with an editor. (Circulating the manuscript can help, but a good editor can free the text from the writer's prejudices and prod more work, if that's what's required to get a decent product.) So perhaps the foundations that have ceased to fund Island Press should reconsider. It would be a shame to lose its editorial vision and expertise.

10 September 2009

Island Press falters

An article by Cornelia Dean in the New York Times (8 September 2009) profiles Island Press, whose president, Chuck Savitt, took it from a narrow focus on land use to a much broader one (for a niche publisher) "on environmental problems and their solutions." Now, with its foundation support ebbing, Island Press is in trouble. Like so many other print publishers, it's trying to migrate online. Yet, as Savitt notes, "Deep ideas have rarely been developed, no matter what field you are going to talk about, outside of a book." This is an interesting point: Is there a limit to what you can do online? Also, what about digital publishing? It may not be sufficiently developed yet to provide a lifeline, but it has that potential for niche publishers. A colleague commented a while ago that books on sustainable design go out of date fairly quickly. That's probably true for environmental topics, too - another reason to shift to a more malleable medium.

06 September 2009

NY moves into SF

Both the Times and the WSJ are planning San Francisco editions, I read. Both papers currently run articles on business and culture in the Bay Area, and it appears that they would extend that coverage into formal "regional supplements" that would make them stronger competition for the San Francisco Chronicle. The WSJ has a local critic, David Littlejohn, who sometimes writes about architecture. Would the Times follow suit? It would be great if it were someone new, as the region would really benefit from some competition among its architecture critics - we need more (and different) points of view. This would also buck the current trend among the dailies of dropping critical coverage of these topics.