Why is this interesting? - The Rhino Horn Edition

On conservation, markets, and bold tactics

Colin here. We’ve covered African conservation a lot in WITI. In the case of the rhino, there’s ravenous demand for ivory, which the animal is often killed for. A kilogram of this material can command as much as $60,000. There’s demand in China for traditional medicines and aphrodisiacs (even though there is no proof that it works other than a placebo), and the material also funds arms for guerilla armies across the continent. 

But a tried and true tactic to alter a market is to flood it with fakes. This, conservationists hope, would reduce the value of real horns and thus the incentive to hunt rhinos in the first place. According to the Economist:

Fritz Vollrath, a zoologist at Oxford University, reckons his skills as a forger are up to the challenge. As he writes in Scientific Reports, he and his colleagues from Fudan University, in Shanghai, have come up with a cheap and easy-to-make knock-off that is strikingly similar to the real thing.

The main ingredient of Dr Vollrath’s forged horns is horsehair. Despite their differing appearances, horses and rhinos are reasonably closely related. Horses do not have horns, of course. But, technically, neither do rhinos. Unlike the structures that adorn cattle and bison, which have cores made of bone, the “horns” of rhinoceros are composed of hairs bound tightly together by a mixture of dead cells.

Examination under a microscope showed that hairs collected from horses’ tails had similar dimensions and symmetry to those found in the horns of rhinos. They also shared a spongy core structure. The only thing that set the two apart was a scaly layer on the horse hairs that was absent from those of the rhino. This, the researchers were able to strip this away by bathing their horse hairs in a solution of lithium bromide.

Why is this interesting?

Most of the illicit Rhino trade happens in dusty warehouses and back rooms, so some of the more sophisticated testing to verify authenticity couldn’t be easily done. Also, as the Economist points out, “there isn’t an official body to verify authenticity” as there is with, say, diamonds. 

Perhaps most interesting, the people behind the fake horns want it to be open-sourced. As they explain, “It appears from our investigation that it is rather easy as well as cheap to make a bio-inspired hornlike material that mimics the rhino's extravagantly expensive tuft of nose hair. We leave it to others to develop this technology further with the aim to confuse the trade, depress prices and thus support rhino conservation.” So, in essence, they are making a call for this technology to be developed and opened up, ideally flooding the market with fakes and de-valuing illicit ivory in the process. 

Will it work? I think it’s only reasonable to approach a solution like this with a heavy dose of skepticism. If we’ve learned anything about technology and culture over the last few years it’s that second- and third-order effects can be hard to predict. In fact, there’s already ivory tests being prototyped that get to a result in 24 hours. Also, there’s sure to be a hack or workaround like testing ivory with UV light to assess if it is real. With that said, when you’ve got a problem like poaching, that has complex cultural and political dynamics, and dire consequences of inaction, as evidenced by the ever-decreasing number of wild rhinos, it’s hard not to appreciate a bold move like this one. (CJN)

Chart of the Day:

Where your favorite shows are moving (via Naveen). (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).

Why is this interesting? - The Digital Advertising Edition

On marketing, endogeneity, and Wanamaker’s Dilemma

Rick Webb (RLW) used to be my boss (and Colin’s too) during our time at The Barbarian Group, which he co-founded. He is a prolific writer, thinker, podcaster, and consumer of media. He’s also the only person I’ve ever met who thinks and speaks in bullet points. We’ve been bothering him for months to write something for us and we finally broke through. Thanks Rick! - Noah (NRB)

Rick here. For nine years or so, I have been reading virtually every advertising economics paper written in an endeavor to write the authoritative book on the economics of advertising (while I haven’t managed to sell this book to a publisher, I did manage to get several pieces out a few years back for NewCo).

From a research perspective, all of these studies fall into two camps: The “old school” and the “now”. Old school economics papers are hugely useful for learning some basic truths about advertising economics—many of them forgotten or ignored in today’s industry. The “now” is, clearly, more relevant to our jobs today as digital marketers. Unfortunately, since the 1980’s, with the symbiotic merging of corporate marketing departments and marketers (our marketing bible How Brands Grow comes out of a corporate-funded research institute at the University of South Australia Business School, for example), getting the “now” research became more difficult. And with the rise of the tech giants, and their formidable in-house research departments, it has gotten harder still. 

So it was with some excitement I read a new piece in The Correspondent by Jesse Frederik and Maurits Martijn that spoke to many of the behind-the-curtain ad researchers at some of the most sophisticated tech companies in america. Their conclusion? “Is online advertising working? We simply don’t know.” And, as they point out, few involved have much incentive to figure out the answer.

Why is this interesting?

Though they don’t say it quite this way, the authors explain the problem in terms of endogeneity. Put simply, most digital advertisers don’t know if it’s their advertising or something else that is doing the trick. The article uses the parable of the pizza flyering kids. A pizza parlor has three kids flyering for them. One of them performs way better than the other two: Customers keep showing up at the pizzeria with his fliers. His secret? He distributed fliers inside the restaurant’s waiting area. Noah, in suggesting I write about this piece, told me the story of remembering “being in a presentation from Tim Armstrong in 2008 where he convinced the room they had to bid on their own brand keywords based on very shaky data. In the moment I remember thinking what a masterful sales job it was.” Frederik and Martijn tell a similar story happening at eBay, only for them to discover that if they stopped paying for the keyword “eBay,” their users would—wait for it—click on the next link down, the free organic search link back to the site. 

In the older, peer-reviewed ad economics studies, endogeneity was a huge concern, and conclusions were scrupulously not drawn, or at the very least caveated, if they could not control for it. I have often wondered how this is playing out in the breathless case studies I read from digital marketers. Frederik and Martijn do little to assuage those concerns. 

The piece is remarkable, and calls into question many of the assumptions of digital marketing that have long irked me and my peeps who have ingrained suspicion of big data’s usefulness in marketing. They also point out that many marketers simply don’t care: 

When these experiments showed that ads were utterly pointless, advertisers were not bothered in the slightest. They charged gaily ahead, buying ad after ad.  Even when they knew, or could have known, that their ad campaigns were not very profitable, it had no impact on how they behaved.

This is perhaps not surprising given that the largest drivers of ad spend have nothing to do with effectiveness, but rather the industry in which you’re operating, and GDP—something referred to as the Relative Constancy Hypothesis

The piece provides a much-needed reality check for the digital ad industry—and one that, paradoxically, may prove reassuring on the eve of the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), the latest salvo in an ever-more-restrictive data marketing environment. If big data doesn’t help much in your marketing, maybe things will be okay when it goes away. 

However, as is often the case with these pieces, I find myself nitpicking. Much like marketers treat Byron Sharp’s maxims as law for all businesses when he is specifically referring to large consumer brands, Frederik and Martijn are equally sloppy. They conflate data and digital—ignoring data-free “brand” digital. And their anecdotes tend to stick to large tech platforms and big brands, ignoring B2B, where targeting matters much more, and small and challenger brands. 

There exists no shortage of small and nicheconsumerbrands who are making good money on the internet, advertising exclusively online. It beggars belief to claim that all of thesebrands would be doing just as well without the digital advertising to get them off the ground far more cheaply than television. Frederik and Martjin concede as much, concluding that “we simply don’t know,” which is a far cry from the title “the new dot com bubble.” 

It seems to me what’s going on here is a new iteration of our ever-present ad friend, Wanamaker’s Dilemma. Evidence that digital advertising works is all around us if we use common sense. But measuring that, and being confident enough in the measurements to improve our advertising, remains ever-challenging. Indeed, the growth curve of these niche consumer brands, launched on the back of savvy digital marketing, provides all the evidence we need: When Casper, Airbnb, Wayfair, and so many others got big enough, they moved on to Television ads. (RLW)

Shipping Box of the Day:

Bike company VanMoof kept finding the bikes they shipped to the US damaged. So they made the box look like a flatscreen TV instead of a bike. “That small tweak had an outsized impact. Overnight our shipping damages dropped by 70-80%. We sell 80% of our bicycles online, which means we still print TVs on our boxes. More than 60,000 of them have now been shipped directly to our riders worldwide.” (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Rick (RLW)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).

Why is this interesting? - The Back Catalog Edition

On media, archives, and our addiction to the new

Noah here. One of my favorite newsletters is Flow State, a daily email with recommendations of music you can listen to while working. Over the last few months, I’ve discovered artists that have basically become the soundtrack to my headphoned life. Albums like Moondog’s In Europe (1978) and Elena Kats-Chernin’s Butterflying (2016) have gotten repeated plays as I read on the subway or work at the office. 

Why is this interesting?

As all media becomes immediately available, it’s interesting to think about how the coverage of older releases will change. Almost without fail, media reviews are focused on the new: Book, music, film, and TV critics all almost exclusively cover what came out this week, month, or, at the very most, this year. But it’s hard not to wonder if that whole approach isn’t more a relic of the past. The wonder of something like Flow State, or Pitchfork’s Sunday Review, which highlights “an important album not previously found in our archives”, is that I, like most, have only scratched the surface of musical history and there’s always a lot more in the archives than what’s coming out this week.

This has long been my approach to books. It’s not that I don’t read new stuff, but I actively try to focus on writing that’s already been established as worthwhile. Like anyone I’ve got a limited amount of reading time and want to use it wisely and staying power is a pretty amazing indicator of quality. But also, if everyone else is reading the same book there’s less chance I can learn something hard to know. While that isn’t always the goal, I find with many new books that by the time I get to them they’ve been so well-ingested by the sound bites, publicity tours, and reviews that I’ve already internalized many of their lessons. (I should mention here that I read about 90% non-fiction and this obviously doesn’t work the same with fiction.) Our tendency towards neophilia leaves us with tons of amazing old material that, even when it’s been widely consumed, still seems to offer plenty of novel and forgotten ideas. Our collective memory is so short that even the most popular old books often feel as though they’ve largely left the cultural consciousness.

I recognize that my approach is both too utilitarian for the snobs who would scoff at the consideration of an ROI for reading, and too snobbish for the mainstreamers who consume with the purpose of being on top of the latest and greatest. But when you extend the argument to music, movies, and TV it feels like a really interesting shift in culture. Media criticism used to exist to help you choose what to buy. And while we all know that time equals money, most people don’t actually think about things that way. Yet criticism still feels as though it largely exists to help us decide which movie we should pony up $15 for or which CD I should be prepared to spend my hard-earned $12 on at Sam Goody.

To some extent, this relates back to what we’re trying to do with WITI. Back in April Colin covered the “news peg”, the release or event that becomes the catalyst for an endless spree of op-eds and late show appearances. As he wrote, “It is better and more freeing for places to write about what is interesting and meaningful, even if it is completely decoupled and floating in space, far from something that needs to generate sales. People are increasingly aware they are sitting in the ‘PR industrial complex’ and it actually creates unease, distrust, and dislike.” So I guess my question is why aren’t more people, particularly media critics, spending time in the archives? Surely there are lots of people like me who just want good stuff regardless of the release date. (NRB

Recommendation of the Day:

Friend of WITI Chris Muscarella and team have been making incredible cast iron skillets under the brand Field Company. It’s made of American cast iron and will last generations. We love people that make quality, lasting stuff that brings joy. Pick one up. (CJN)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).

Why is this interesting? - The Hospitality Empowerment Edition

On training, new careers, and community diplomacy

Colin here. One of the most interesting hospitality startup companies is Saira. Founded by Harsha L’Acqua (formerly Chanrai), the company operates on a pop-up school model. She comes into a market, partners with a hotel that is about to open, and trains up the staff. Their first major, well-publicized project was with Liz Lambert’s San Cristobal hotel in Todos Santos, Baja California, just north of Cabo. Lambert realized that for the hotel to be symbiotic to the locale, it needed to recruit from the local area. She wanted to have a different type of hospitality from the highly touristy Cabo San Lucas. The hotel opened and, according to Bunkhouse (the operating company of the hotel), it “hired 25 local employees, native to the exact area and had experienced zero staff turnover to-date.”

As I covered the program when it was first launched:

The school also allowed for a more personal type of approach than some of the other hospitality available further away in Cabo San Lucas and students included everything from a former mechanic, now working as a houseman, former local entrepreneurs, a furniture maker and a former employee of the telecoms firm Tel Cel that wanted a change of pace and the new challenge.

The team is now in Namibia training up staff for a new project, Habitas, and is applying the same approach: Finding people with the spark and the proactive, hospitality mindset, and training them for a career in the sector. 

According to Saira, the curriculum spans anywhere from six to 10 weeks, timed as close to the hotel opening or reopening as possible. Students dedicate four hours a day to the program, about four to five days a week. They go through a crawl, walk, run approach: First, they learn the basics—an introduction to the world of hospitality. Then they get immersed into the sponsoring hotel brand, their ethos, and guest expectations. The next module focuses on urgency, attention to detail, initiative, and the so-called “hospitality gene of service.” In this phase, the chaos and long hours of opening a hotel are examined in detail, alongside techniques to manage the stress.

Why is this interesting?

There’s a lot to like about this approach. First,  it is providing jobs, often in remote locations, where there aren’t a ton of other options available. Second, there’s a sense of community diplomacy. Developments aren’t always looked on super kindly by their surrounding communities, but when the energy is additive and there’s thought to the approach, it serves as a kind of olive branch. 

Perhaps most importantly, there’s also a very practical business case to be made for the program. Turnover is one of the biggest challenges that modern hospitality brands face, with an estimated 70 percent turnover rate in 2017. Relocating trained staff costs money, and poaching creates a negative cycle of sorts, according to Saira, creating free agents with little or no brand loyalty. The theory is investment in local staff, nurturing, and making an employee feel like something from the ground up can engender loyalty and lower these rates.

In my Skift column, I canvas a lot of approaches to creativity in hospitality. But I keep going back to Saira as something that touches upon so many business problems while unlocking economic opportunity. (CJN)

Keyboard of the Day:

Thanks to friend of WITI Keith, I have now learned about the world of custom mechanical keyboards. This beauty is an homage to NASA. (NRB)

Quick Links:

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).

Why is this interesting? - The Meatless Edition

On meat alternatives, flavor, and a return to processed foods

Colin here. Those wanting to limit their meat intake can rejoice for choice. There’s been a surge of plant-based foods that are packed with flavor: Impossible Foods has created a burger that has none of the negative associations with the bland and uninspiring veggie burger of old, instead its flavorful, juicy, and grillable like you would a piece of meat. Beyond Meat uses peas, mung beans, fava beans, brown rice, and sunflower, combined with fats they claim, “create juicy plant-based burgers, beef, and sausages that sizzle in the pan or on the grill.” I’ve tried them all, despite being an avowed lover of steak, and most really are quite satisfying. 

It has become a trend. The advances in food technology have been spilling into mainstream culture. KFC is doing a collaboration with Beyond Meat in key stores to test consumer demand for meatless chicken. You can get an Impossible Whopper at Burger King. And it’s not just for curated NY or LA diets or for the uber eco-conscious. According to NPR: “Meatless meats are going mainstream. You can find meatless burgers, brats and sausages at fast food restaurants, major league ballparks and soon, even hospital cafeterias.”

Why is this interesting? 

Turns out the science and flavor alchemy that goes into making some of this stuff palatable is a lot of work. And the level of processing doesn’t mean these new forms are as healthy as they may seem. According to the Washington Post

Despite its swift ascent, plant-based meat is the antithesis of recent trends such as local and farm-to-table dining, representing an embrace of highly processed foods made palatable in a laboratory by technicians such as Wright. “These are great proteins from a nutritional perspective, but plant-based presents some challenges with tastes that can be unpleasant,” Wright says. First, there is the masking of the vegetal “green” notes in pea protein and the “beany” notes in soy, often by adding other ingredients and chemicals.“There isn’t one magic bullet, not one molecule or extract. It tends to be common pantry items like salt, spices, molasses, honey,” Wright says. Vanilla extract is often used for masking because it is known for how it binds to a protein, rendering its own distinctive taste undetectable.“It sacrifices itself,” she says. She describes vegetal notes that are more about aromatics. The goal is not to remove these aromas, but to prevent them from being perceived.“

The issue here is some of what goes into this is the opposite of whole foods (the movement, not the store). “It doesn’t resemble the foods from which it came; it has a vast number of ingredients. It fully meets the definition of ultra-processed food,” says Marion Nestle, author and nutrition professor at New York University, about these new plant-based meats. So for all of the advances we have made in nutrition and the importance of eating things you can pronounce, this might represent a regression in disguise. CNET breaks down the ingredients a bit:

For example, the Impossible Burger contains soy protein, a strange ingredient called soy leghemoglobin, sunflower and coconut oils, methylcellulose, yeast extract, cultured dextrose, food starch and more. So if your goal is to eat less processed foods, real beef is the way to go (not including items like hot dogs, which are also very processed). One particular concern about faux beef is the sodium content, as pointed out by Dr. Andrew Weil, an integrative medicine doctor and creator of the praised Anti-Inflammatory Diet. One version of the Impossible Burger -- the Impossible Whopper at Burger King -- contains 1,240 milligrams of sodium

There’s no doubt that moving more people that wouldn’t normally think about going plant-based for some meals is a good thing. There’s a well-documented argument that avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet. But in doing so, upping the consumption of hyper-processed foods seems like a significant trade-off that hasn’t been adequately communicated to the public. There’s no doubt the tech and levels of innovation from startups (and flavorists) will continue to evolve, but for now, it seems like a sizable asterisk against the hype of the sector. (CJN)

Chart of the Day:

More 13-16 year-olds now use TikTok than Facebook, the coming-of-age moment for any new social platform. Via Axios Media Trends. (NRB)

Quick Links: 

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).

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