Embarassing Days on the Job

In 2002 I worked for an entrepreneur from Liechtenstein who was the chairman of an international charity devoted to preventing drug abuse by children. He hosted the annual trustees meeting at his Italian villa on Lake Lugano — right on the border between Italy and Switzerland — and invited me to attend so I could present the organization’s annual report.
The trustees were a pretty powerful group of people — the President of Colombia, an ex-Formula One race car driver, a McKinsey director, Nino Cerutti (the men’s fashion designer), and assorted European royals, including the head of the charity, the Queen of Sweden. Having never actually met royalty, I fretted beforehand about the proper form of address one used when greeting a queen. Your Majesty? Your Royal Highness? Your Serene Highness? Anyway, the meeting was held, a nice lunch was enjoyed, and by-and-by the Queen had to leave and take a limo to Milan for the flight back to Stockholm. Everyone lined up in the hallway of the villa to say good-bye — a reverse receiving line I suppose — and I took my place next to Nino Cerutti, who had correctly identified my gabardine suit as being one of his designs, pointing out archly to me that it was obviously off-the-rack (I didn’t have the heart to tell him I stole it for $200 from Filene’s Basement) but I’m very much a slob when it comes to clothes, yet I liked that suit a lot.

The Queen’s bodyguards went ahead of her Highness to check out the security situation while she made her way down the line of guests and said her goodbyes, one-by-one. As the security team passed in front of me I had to take a step backwards to get out of the way. The Queen was three people away, then two people away, surrounded by my hovering, obsequious boss. Then she was right there, saying goodbye to Nino and air-kissing him on the cheeks three times. (I never got that air kiss thing down. Left-right-left? Right-left-right? Make contact? I always end up smashing heads or doing something inappropriate like actually making kissy sound effects.)

Sensing I might lick her cheek,  the Queen took my hand in both of her’s, looked me in the eyes, spared me the air-kiss and told me what a pleasure it had been to meet me. I’m sure it was, as I had been kept far away from her during the meeting and lunch, but she was very nice and a very attractive woman so I was charmed and got ready to say, “Thank you, your Highness” but I noticed something was very wrong with my back. Right below my right shoulder blade. Wrong and getting wronger. Like, holy shit, I’m on fire kind of wrong.

The security team had backed me into a big candle on an iron sconce and I was now ablaze.

I let go of the Queen’s hand and disrobed. I grabbed the collar of the suit coat and pulled it over my head right in front of her. She backed away in terror.

“Are you alright?” she shouted most un-serenely as I threw my coat on the floor and stomped out the flames. Nino Cerutti slapped out the flames on my smoldering shirt with his bare hands. The smell of burning wool filled the hallway. I am grateful the Swedish Secret Service didn’t gun me down on the spot.

“Quite alright,” I managed to say with perfect aplomb. The woman to my right, the teenaged daughter of the President of Colombia, was horrified and out of sympathy for my plight (or distraught to miss her big moment), she started weeping. The Queen consoled her and I took the opportunity to put the suit coat back on before my boss could see my thermonuclear lapse in etiquette. Too late. He wound up having his lackey fire me over the phone a few months later. I was forever in the penalty box after desecrating his royal moment.

“I think you need a new suit,” Mr. Cerutti said after the Queen was hustled to her car.

“Hook me up, Nino,” I said. He never did, even though it was a Nino Cerutti suit.
I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to keep my back to the wall, smelling like burnt hair.  I still have pieces of the coat in the garage, serving as a bike chain degreaser as a reminder of my brush with royalty.

A-B Testing

This is old, but I’m blogging it so I can remember it:

ContentBiz 2005: Motley Fool and Optimost “Landing Page Tests Case Study” (by David Eckoff, guest blogger): I am attending the 5th Annual Selling Subscriptions to Internet Content Summit in New York this week, privileged to be co-blogging on-location with Dorian Benkoil. This is the first in a series of my reports covering the more interesting presentations from the conference.
Tuesday morning Greg Martz of Motley Fool and Mark Wachen of Optimost presented a case study on “Landing Page Tests – What worked and Failed Out of Dozens of Design and Copy Elements“.
Martz talked about how Motley Fool had been performing standard A-B tests on its landing pages to optimize the design and copy for maximum conversion. However, the A-B tests were very time consuming and limited in scope.
Seeking a better solution, Motley Fool turned to an approach called multivariable testing. What’s that about? It’s a method of testing multiple variables each having multiple values.
Working with Optimost, Motley Fool tested 13 variables, including page heading, headline, order of copy blocks, copy, offer presentation, submit buttons, guarantee language, etc. In total, 88 values were tested, including page headings, 16 headlines, 6 order layouts, etc.
Think you could test that manually? Think again. According to Optimost, with that number of variables and values, there are over 1 BILLION possible permutations!
The result of the initiative: 39.5% increase in clicks to the order page, and 36.4% increase in subscriptions. Whammy!
What advice did Martz and Wachen give the audience?
* Test everything, and everything against everything else. (Copy, offers, submit buttons, images, ordering, etc.)
* In the long term, multivariable testing is much more cost effective than traditional A-B testing.
* Need buy-in of tech and design teams, this is crucial to success. The key is to help the teams develop a culture of testing, instead of relying on gut instinct or a laundry list of best practices.
* Testing instructions: rinse and repeat. Not just a matter of keeping copy or design fresh. Until you get 100% conversion, you can do better!
In my next report, I’ll uncover the details presented by Stephen Wynkoop and Dr. Flint McLaughlin in “How An Optimized Subscription Path Increased Paid Subscribers 175%”.
Guest blogger DAVID ECKOFF is senior director at RealNetworks, where he leads business development for Real SuperPass. The opinions expressed in his guest blogging from the Subscription Summit are his own and not those of Real. You can reach David Eckoff by e-mailing davideckoff …at… gmail.com

Part II – My career as a forger

Continued from part one:
I found Abagnale through a few quotes he gave to some trade journal for the banking industry on check forgery. Seeing that he had a criminal record I decided I had to find him and find out what the real story was in check forging. He was running a consulting firm — essentially a “It Takes a Thief” play — scaring banks by telling them how people like himself had bilked them out of bazillions.

I got him on the phone and right away he was one of those magic interviews that every reporter dreams of. Funny, well-spoken, a natural storyteller. His key point in how to run a check scam was that it wasn’t about technical perfection — indeed he claimed he could convince a bank teller to cash a dinner napkin if he needed to — but about confidence, the emphasis being on the “con” in confidence. It was all about the story behind the scam, not the instrument of forgery.

Abegnale talked for hours — we did the interview over three sessions. First he went into the technical details of bank routing codes and MICR encoding, the weird jetson font at the bottom of every check that tells the bank clearing scanner where to route the check for clearing through the Federal Reserve System.

What happens to a check is pretty fascinating. After it is deposited in a bank it is bundled up with all the rest of that bank’s checks and run through a MICR scanner. The MICR scanner routes the checks into piles which are then put on airplanes and sent to the appropriate Federal Reserve regional clearing system. Abagnale figured out that the first thing for a forger’s success is time — playing the time it takes for a bogus check to be deposited to the time it is flagged and confirmed as a forgery as time to make his getaway.

Abagnale walked me through a scam. He would hit a city, say Boston, and open literally 50 bank accounts at different banks using fake ID. He would open each account with $100 and let it sit there for a while.

Then he would go to the airport (anyone who has seen the movie knows how important airport scams were to Abagnale) and get ready to take a flight on, say Delta. He would buy a ticket, for cash, for a flight scheduled to leave in a couple hours. He’d catch a cup of coffee, and then buy a ticken on another airline to the same destination.

He’s return to the Delta counter, show them the new ticket, and demand his money back. The ticket agents would offer to give him a credit for another ticket, but he would flip out and demand the cash because he was travelling and needed the money, etc. etc.

Inevitably, after making enough of a stink, Abagnale would be given a Delta corporate check, cut right on the spot, and that was all he needed. He’d then do the pen and ink thing on check, or safety paper, buying a ream from a paper supplier claiming it was for printing certificates of merit for his Cub Scout Troop.

Just like in the movies, Abagnale would get logos for the company check and just transfer them onto the safety paper, using check writing equipment he picked up at bankruptcy auctions to make them look semi-official. Abagnale’s great insight was that no teller in the world knew what a real Delta airlines check looked like.

He would cut 50 checks for $5000 and deposit them into all of his pre-opened accounts, come back the next day, and convince the teller that he was moving out of town and needed cash, not a check, to empty his balance, taking advantage of Congresses’ decision to make it easier for you and me to get our money out of the banks. Timing was everything and Abagnale was a master of knowing when the bank would acknowledge his deposit, unaware that the Delta check was on its way to the Honolulu Federal Reserve instead of Atlanta. It took weeks before someone at Delta had the offending piece of paper on their desk and picked up the phone to call the FBI.

One after another, Abagnale would visit the banks and con the tellers into giving him cash.

And then it was catch me if you can.

I told Frank he should write a book.

He did.

Next — how I forged a check and got in trouble and got on the cover of Forbes.

Naked Conversation – Scoble & Israel

As I ready myself for a presentation on “community marketing” I ordered two copies of the book, Naked Conversations by Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble and tech PR guru Shel Israel. One for me, one for our CMO.

Seems like a no-brainer to dive into unrestricted corporate blogging and enter the conversation, but there will doubtlessly be pockets of resistance to overcome. This book is helping make the case. So far I am in as far as page 50 and it’s not too infantile, though it is, as all books must do, handshaking down like a modem to the slowest common denominator.

Also just finished IBM Redux, a good history of the Gerstner years at IBM. I have not read Gerstner’s own accounts, the Elephants Can’t Dance” book, but Garr’s book is a good yarn, one of the better corporate tales I’ve read.