Sometimes great minds think alike, don’t you think?

As my clients can attest, I have become obsessed with the story of corporate-marketing-executive-turned entrepreneur Susan Nethero.

During her years working at Xerox, Time Inc. and other companies, Nethero grew tired of the fact that a product she absolutely needed – a product that manufacturers knew she needed and would pay (a lot) for – was never available with the characteristics and benefits she wanted.  That product was the bra, and Nethero eventually became dependent on European offerings because they came in more sizes.

But then she did the magic trick of turning observation into insight, realizing that millions of other women must be as frustrated as she was. Nethero’s chain of Intimacy stores opened in 1992 and, today, she has 15 stores and $36 million in annual revenue.  

Because many women walk around in the wrong size bra (like Nethero had), the key to the entire Intimacy experience
is the professional bra fitting required in all the stores. Why is it not optional? Because the right fit is the brand’s vital differentiator… allowing Nethero, among other things, to charge $90 when the typical department store bra is around $45.

If that sounds like a lot, it’s not.  Any woman will tell you that – compared to working out or plastic surgery – it’s a small price to pay to look younger and 10 pounds lighter. “There is no way that a brand can easily compete in the high-end market without something uniquely special,” says Marshal Cohen.   “With intimates, comfort and fit are way up high in the chart, and price is a lot less sensitive.  In other words, you want to remove price from the equation.” When Nethero went on Oprah – who promptly instructed her fans to get professional bra fittings in 2005 – Intimacy’s business exploded.

So what if a newbie tries to screw up that equation by turning down a fitting?  What happens, you ask?  What happened was that Nethero took the locks off the dressing room doors.

She took the locks off the doors!

This blew me away. Think about it.  Nethero overruled a customer’s express wish, because Nethero knew something that a prospect doesn’t know yet: that a fitter will make her look and feel fantastic.

I guess they don’t call her the “bra whisperer” for nothing.

How many marketers have you known who had such confidence in their brands’ ability to deliver that they would go up against a customer in order to do so?  What would our bosses say about that? Isn’t the customer always right??

Not if the marketer has 100% confidence that specific aspects of the brand experience are vital to brand performance and ultimate customer satisfaction.

And just as I was pondering this thought, I discovered two esteemed friends and great marketers doing the same.  In “The Customer Isn’t Always Right,” Steve McKee, president of McKee Wallwork Cleveland, warns that a marketer must listen to the voice of the customer “with discernment” and offers up three instances when “you might want to think twice” about reacting to customer feedback.

The first is the point proven in the Intimacy story:  customers can’t know.  Henry Ford was a big believer in this one.

Second is a situation in which the customer can’t or won’t say what he wants – as in a B2B sales scenario where a prospect plays coy.  And the third is when a customer won’t stop asking.  McKee is sure that Target’s management firmly believes in the chain’s slogan, “Expect More. Pay Less” – up to some point before the chain goes out of business.

Similarly, Stephen Denny, author of the new book, Killing Giants, writes in a blog post that “it’s your job to do your job.” In a world where total strangers seek out each other’s opinions online (in reviews that might not even be real), you are still very much responsible for what you do and who you are.  Brand managers at Nike, Apple and others are “pretty firm that their brand is their business – they own it, they manage it daily and they know it’s important work.”

In one week, the three of us were studying the same angle on what makes a brand a great brand: knowing that – sometimes – you as a marketer must have the gut-level knowledge that your choices are the right ones.  After all, consumers voted for New Coke, and those who saw the Sony Walkman didn’t think it had a future.

Think about the brands you manage and those with which you have a personal connection.  Chances are that at least one of them wouldn’t exist if there weren’t people who believed in it, protected it, grew it… and ignored a lot of focus groups along the way.

P.S. CTPB = Contrary to popular belief.

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A version of this post was originally published on the Marketing Executives Network Group blog, MENGBlend.

Internet, Shimternet

June 14th, 2011

Do you ever feel like your head might just explode if you have to shove one more new business term in there? Or perhaps you’re simply in the mood for a friendly game of buzzword bingo. I have some extra cards right here…

Who could blame you? I mean, I think I actually met with the guys in this VIDEO just last week:



There isn’t room to list all the new words, terms and acronyms we’ve learned in the last few years:  moblog, m-commerce, phishing, NFC, PPC, CPA, CPO, CPS, DSP, skyscraper, pure play, Splinternet, semantic Web, SMS, TCP/IP, VOIP, XML, RSS, API, CSS, SMM, SMO, black hat (and white hat – I mean, duh) SEO, cybersquatting, adware, P2P, spider, favicon, mousetrapping, greenwashing, augmented reality, branded entertainment, geotargeting, behavioral targeting, network effect, SERP, cloud, triple play, (Web) abandonment, (Web) arbitrage, bot, deep linking, delist, linkbait, spyware, widget, maybe a million others… and certainly dinner isn’t dinner without a good forking.   Or something like that.

But there’s a new new term whose fear factor I want to eliminate right away: agile commerce. As defined by Forrester in its March 2011 paper, Welcome to the Era of Agile Commerce, agile commerce is “an approach to commerce that enables businesses to optimize their people, processes and technology to serve customers across all touchpoints.”

There are 15 pages of text and charts delineating the difference between multichannel and agile commerce, and the analyst also penned a Forbes article titled “Why Multichannel Retail is Obsolete.” “Agile commerce is a metamorphosis,” he says. “It is time for organizations to leave their channel-oriented ways behind.”

The problem is that all this relies on what I consider to be a seriously antiquated view of multi-channel operations.

The definition of multichannel commerce upon which the new agile commerce movement depends is a way of doing business that leaves customer touchpoints and transactions in silos: potentially envisioned, designed, managed and measured independently from one another.  It assumes that prospects/customers probably use one channel but not another (e.g. Jack’s a “store person,” Jill’s a “Web person,”), that user expectations in each of these channels do not overlap, that content, design, functionality, payment options, etc. etc. all differ from one channel to another and that it doesn’t matter because consumers don’t really see all the channels anyway.

What contemporary marketer believes this anymore?

Is there a digital-savvy executive alive who doesn’t know all the stats about connectivity exploding, and audience fragmentation, and the accelerating evolution of technologies, and the emergence of smartphones and tablets and ebooks (oh my)?  Is it news that TV watchers also like being online, or that newspaper readership is sliding around? And yet these are the metrics and conversation points that the paper uses to announce that it’s a new world and that ecommerce players better get with it.

For any marketer trained to start with the customer, the revelation that we must strive to deliver a 100% (a girl can dream) seamless experience from one channel to the next and that our business eco-system must be woven together and able to learn so that a user’s behavior is reflected and rewarded as she wanders from one touchpoint to another… well that’s no revelation at all.

Good marketers recognized and began turning their organizations toward this vision many moons ago.  The consumer is where everything begins and ends.  In the future, channels will be like lights in a galaxy that deliver a seamless, 24 hour brand experience.  Rather than you having to travel to the brand (e.g., you drive to the store), all the access points will do the virtual traveling instead.  With you in the center, the brand will constantly update its customized knowledge of and relationship with you, in all directions and in nearly all applications.  A little like “Minority Report” but in a good way – and without having to remove your eyeballs.  [And yes, I wrote this paragraph while entirely sober.]

Now don’t get me wrong here; I doubt there is an organization on the planet that feels fantastic about where it is on this trip we’re all taking together.  Forget even the fantasy of walking into a physical location and having a person (or digital display) interact with you in a way that reflects a 360° level of knowledge of my relationship: I’d be excited just to talk to a call center rep who can see me transacting on his company’s own website in real time and help me out in a normal, knowledgeable manner.

We have a long long (long) way to go.  But this post is my way of saying that no one should be discouraged, or privately assume that keeping up is impossible.  The  next time you see or hear a new Internet/marketing/digital business buzzword, it may be just that: a new arrangement of letters describing a principle you already understand (perhaps better than those making up some of these new terms in the first place) and live by.

Either way – as long as we keep our heads – it makes for a good game.  And, hey! I’ve got Bingo!!!
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A version of this post was originally published on the Marketing Executive Network Group‘s blog, MENGBlend.

In December 2007, I went to a breakfast about women and financial services and wrote the post you see below as a result.

Flash forward to February 2011, and Wells Fargo launches a new Web destination for women thinking about retirement, backed by the results of a new study on the same topic. 

As I surfed over to Beyond Today, I was optimistic.  Unfortunately, I found more of the same.

Really happy older couple

Why why why must we continue to alienate big blocks of women? 51 million women in the United States are single and I’d wager that a lot of them, like me, don’t cook.  To start a blog post about investment allocation with “Pasta, pot roast, peas… ever get in a rut with your menus?” is just old school. Not to mention the shot of the hysterically-delighted older couple (maybe he’s on Viagra) on the home page while 40-50% of marriages end up in divorce, 32 million people live alone, women live considerably longer than men, etc.  Or the primary involvement of Jean Chatzky: an expert I like, but one who is frequently seen in other venues (like The Today Show and Oprah).

In other words, there’s no new news here – still Version 1.0.  I guess I expect more.  Maybe the thrashing is because gender is no longer (or shouldn’t be) a primary segmentation characteristic in the first place.

Women And Financial Services
December 2007

I attended a breakfast last week entitled “Marketing to the Female Investor.”  I was pretty jazzed about this because, in addition to a pretty good expert panel, the core of the event was a review of fresh research on the topic and I was looking forward to getting a sophisticated update on my own experienced-but-possibly rusty notions.

That’s not exactly what the audience got.

The research’s executive summary declares that “single women are on the rise” (is this the 70′s?) and the study confirms that women are living longer, marrying later, get 58% of all undergrad degrees awarded in the US and are opening businesses at 2x the rate of men.  Speakers presenting the research still referred to this as the “women’s market” – despite the fact that 52% of all US citizens are female – and declared that members of this group have “special needs.”  The research itself, as in years past, said that 71% believe that financial services marketing is targeted to men, and fewer women then men say they understand financial services products well or extremely well (e.g. mutual funds, stocks, IRAs, trusts).  A nervous presenter inadvertently plunged me into a moment of despair when she explained that, while the female respondents may not have an equal understanding of said products, “they are still intelligent.”

Good grief.  Had nothing changed in 15 years?

When the morning (mourning?) turned to the panel, however, the tone began to change for the better.  Most of the panelists’ real-life priorities and programs focused on women’s changing roles in society, and how these role changes are increasingly non-linear:   that women, more so than men, may move back and forth between the core roles of provider and caregiver… and may, as a result, be more or less educated about financial services, may be shopping for products at different times, etc.

So is there a primary segmentation scheme more relevant than gender?  Is it more valuable to target based on whether a person of either gender is home taking care of a child or aging parent vs. bringing home the bacon?  With roles, education levels and life span all changing, is gender becoming a secondary variable, rather than a primary one?

I sketched out the following during the session (and since I can’t draw in 3D, I just inserted the “Decision Maker” axis in here so I wouldn’t forget about it…):

There’s no question that, when observed in as close to real circumstances as possible, men and women tend to have different ways of consuming information, choosing financial advisors and so on.  But, right or wrong, “women’s marketing” has frequently been housed in retail bank groups focused on special niche populations – and this has not served to create a breakthrough positioning for, well, anyone.

Maybe we’ve reached a critical mass at which point it’s not whether one is female or male that should drive marketing communications and sales process design, but rather the role a person plays that dictates her – or his – financial needs, habits and buying behaviors.

Is Santa the best marketer ever?

Think about it:

Long-term reputation management: No Tiger Woods problems here. Ever.  Do you think that Coca-Cola worries that it might go to sleep one night and wake up to find a sex tape of Santa on the Web? Have you ever noticed that the whole “Mommy kissing Santa Claus” business never seems to go past a certain point (paging Charlie Sheen…)?  Nope, not gonna happen.  Santa is one reliable dude.

Brand promise and channel integration: No matter where you go, you receive the same disciplined message.  Movies, television, email, radio, social media, Web, snail mail, music, retail… You get the same message everywhere and each channel builds upon and reinforces the others.  He’s big, he’s fat, he wears a red suit and he gives you what you ask for on Christmas Eve. Not December 23. Not December 25. It’s December 24. Every year. The end.

Never any hidden charges:  There are no Congressional committees convening to discuss whether Santa is taking advantage of consumers.  There is no small print.  You are not likely to be subscribed “accidentally” to a magazine simply by unwrapping a gift beneath the tree.  Santa’s pricing appears to be entirely above board. And somehow, shipping is always free.

mom-reading-santa-stephanie-fierman.jpgBrand advocacy: Think of all the parents who read stories about Santa, take their children to see Santa, tuck said children into bed on Christmas Eve with the promise that Santa will soon arrive with presents… Santa has a virtual army of adults carrying his message each and every year, in the exact way that will have the greatest positive impact on each individual child.  Wow!

Long-term view of the customer relationship: Santa is committed to NPV, and everyone’s NPV is BIG.  If you’re a  kid, he wants you to tell other kids what he gave you.  He wants you to talk to your parents and grandparents about what you want.  He wants you to bring your friends to meet him.  And when you grow up, he encourages you to invite him into your home and buy extravagant gifts in his name.  Santa: the ultimate “cycle of life” promoter.

Customer targeting and personalization: If you ask Santa for a bicycle, you’re going to get a bicycle.  You might also get socks, but if a bike is your preferred method of transportation, you won’t get a wagon by mistake. Further, Santa is very likely to build the bike in the exact color you specify. 

A message of “giving back” that’s attainable and not too sanctimonious:  Be nice, get your gift.  Be naughty, and you’re on your own.  No chest-beating, no lectures, no threatening.  Everyone knows the rules, and the rules don’t change.believe-in-santa-stephanie-fierman.jpg
 
Attributes powerful enough to overcome controversy: Santa has a problem that I don’t think any other brand has ever experienced – that is, some people don’t even believe he exists! You may not like a brand like Reebok, or Microsoft, or Hanes, or whatever, but you wouldn’t think of denying their very existence on the planet. And yet, the core attributes represented by Santa transcend even this existential challenge. Even those who “know” he doesn’t exist still enjoy the gestalt of the brand.  Name me a pizza chain or a department store or TV manufacturer who can say the same.

I could go on (ultimate loyalty program, no channel conflict, efficient manufacturing, distribution and customer service support…), but you get the idea.

Though another Christmas has past, perhaps we should all look to Santa for guidance in 2010.  After all, his operation is well-loved, profitable, always in growth mode and he never loses customers.  I’d be happy with that.

For more marketing thoughts and ideas, check out my second blog at Marketing Observations Grown Daily.

I’m feeling a bit huffy about Advertising Age these days.

First it was the story on ad agencies that have their own bars and – woo-hoo! – staffers who drink on the job. Now, I know that this is all just good bonding fun: 99.99% of folks aren’t getting drunk on the job. I just thought the piece was a little insensitive (and not too reader-friendly) given that the rest of the issue was focused on layoffs, ad cutbacks and clients bleeding to death.stephanie-fierman-adage-cover1.jpg

Now comes what I would call the “Call Me Irresponsible” issue (August 4, 2008).

1. A sidebar about the TV show Mad Men discusses the big sales of Frank O’Hara poetry after Don Draper reads O’Hara‘s poetry on the show. The article’s title: “TV Can Boost Book Sales, Too.” Didn’t Oprah prove that… years ago? And, like, over and over? Hmmm.

2. On a Law & Order episode I saw last weekend, a witness testifies that violent television programming makes juvenile delinquents delinquent. Sam Waterston then proceeds to eat said witness for lunch by quizzing the guy about the difference between “cause” and “correlation.” Now comes the inadvertently humorous, self-involved AdAge article, “Ad Cutbacks Backfired For Bankruptcy Victims.” [Even though your product is lousy, and you expanded too fast, and your customer base dried up… you’d have been fine if you’d only kept advertising!]  The article does admit that perhaps there are other factors that make companies go belly up, but when push comes to shove…  See Wikipedia on this topic.  

3. Finally, an article titled “How The Economy Is – And Isn’t – Affecting Our Lives” tries to take a sort of tongue-in-cheek view on how the recession is changing consumer behavior. We’re buying (cheap) coffee at McDonald’s instead of Starbucks. We’re “ordering from the dollar menu” instead of choosing Big Macs.” We’re “knitting ponchos” instead of “buying back-to-school clothes.” OK.  Not brilliant, not offering me any insights for my subscription dollar, but fine. Then I got to a claim regarding our reading habits: We are “reading Stephanie Meyer,” but not “reading Maureen Dowd.” The writer’s evidence for the latter is The New York Times’ declining profitability. 

Oh… Trying.  To.  Move.  On.  Can’t…  Drat.

(a) Nearly every newspaper is losing money at this point because offline readership is declining, (b) Maureen Dowd has written two books that have done pretty well, and (c) Dowd’s columns are quite popular online where – unlike the paper – they can be read for free. So what the heck does the Times‘ profitability, in this particular case, have to do with Maureen Dowd? Nothing.  The article does, however, include a picture of Maureen Dowd, so maybe they just thought that that would attract attention. And while I’m on a roll, the author’s supporting evidence for the idea that we’re knitting ponchos is Martha Stewart Living’s increase in 2Q08 sales while consumers are cutting back on back-to-school clothes.  Help me.

If AdAge was known and purchased for its satire, this wouldn’t annoy me. And you may conclude that I’m making a big hoo-ha over nothing.  But you know what? I really look forward to getting something out of AdAge every week.  I give Crain Communications my time and my money, and this stuff isn’t worth either.  It’s just dumb.  A revered trade journal owes its readers more.

So I was sitting in a meeting just a few days ago, and someone I like and respect said something about “the long tail.”  A couple people sort of nodded, and I thought, “Oh my, are people still talking about that?”

You see, I am and always have been… a long tail doubter.  It’s true.  I’ve never said it out loud because the book was so very popular and the concept was picked up everywhere and it spread like wildfire, so I just kept my doubts to myself.  For two years.  Until now.

But first, a bit of history to catch us up to the present day.

Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine, made a huge splash with The Long Tail, which was first published by the magazine in 2004 and then as a book in 2006.  In a nutshell, the long tail theory says that the abundance and ease of choice on the Internet has shifted sales potential from a small number of mainstream “hits” (at the front of the demand curve) toward a near-endless number of lesser-known choices at the tail.  The term refers to the orange section of the demand curve shown here:

stephanie-fierman-long-tail-curve.jpg

Furthermore, because retail economics restrict stores to carrying only the best-selling products, items that have already been created and have either lost their mojo or were never popular in the mainstream in the first place are pushed out – along with their sunk costs.  But lo the Internet, with its infinite “shelf space” makes every product discoverable and ready to be purchased.  The book has become something of a holy document in the Internet community where companies (“from Amazon to iTunes,” says Anderson on his website) want to find a way to sell old songs, movies, videos, ringtones, on-demand books and television shows from their infinite Web warehouses.  Case studies flew up everywhere. 

Personally, I thought it was bunk.  Or rather, I thought the concept vastly overdramatized the effect of a small minority of “committed seekers” dedicated enough to something (comic books, that lost Marvin Gaye song, Civil War spoons…) to search for and purchase a category’s flotsam and jetsam.

When I looked around, in fact, it seemed that the rest of us were doing quite the opposite.  The New York Times’ Most Blogged, Most Emailed and Most Searched lists.  Top TV Shows, Top Music, Top Movies on iTunes.   Amazon.com’s influential Sales Rank, and its Bestsellers list (updated hourly).  The Netflix Top 10.  To me, the Internet appeared to be herding users more aggressively toward blockbusters, not away from them.

Like I said:  I kept this then un-hip and un-scientific opinion to myself.

Now there’s a professor at Harvard Business School who has researched the long tail. Based on sales data for online video rentals and songs, Professor Anita Elberse verifies my gut: not only do hits continue to be just as important online as they are online, but the Web is actually magnifying attention on the winners.

Elberse also discusses what she and others view as an incorrect subjective assumption that Anderson made when building the long tail, which is the idea that people want to go their own way.  They don’t want to listen/watch/read what everyone else does, and would rather wander down an untrodden hallway of the Web and find an otherwise discarded gem.  Who is he kidding?  Elberse cites additional research showing how intensely social people really are: how we like sharing experiences with others and that the mere fact that others like something makes us like it even more. 

And confirmation has come from another interesting source, as well.  Neil Howe, widely considered to be the expert on Millenials, draws a broad distinction between Gen X and this new influential group – the generation driving the most development and change on the Web. Among other things, while Boomers and Gen X “individuated,” born-in-the-80s Millenials gravitate toward the social:  chat rooms, instant messaging, Facebook.  They enjoy being with each other, forming friendships and shared preferences.  Rather than acting independently, Millenials who spend time customizing content on the Web do so for the purpose of sharing it with others (hello, YouTube). 

stephanie-fierman-millenials-wom.jpg
                                         (Click on the graphic for a larger view)

Howe says it is and will be “the most connected generation in world history,” and that their preferences will only solidify the popularity of mainstream, popular brands and products.
Finally, Elberse and The Wall Street Journal‘s Lee Gomes also believe that the Internet/tech community unconsciously may have wanted to back the theory because it flattered its citizenry.  Long tail strength would fortify the value of new digital assets created outside the walls of institutional, cultural power (let’s build a pet robot in my garage, shoot a video for YouTube and get rich!).  And bloggers drank the Kool-Aid, they say, because the long tail promises an audience for just about any goofy comment out there.  This is all probably true, but it’s a little sketchy so I’m not going to dwell here.

But I am very, very happy that some respectable people with significant research refute the long tail theory.  Because – while I may not be a Millenial – I do like company.


If you enjoyed this post and wish there was so much more… Check out my daily blog at www.stephaniefiermanmarketingdaily.com. Thank you!


I sometimes refer to the difference between Marketing being at the “front of the [business] process” and marketing being at the “end of the process.”

Marketing (with a capital M) at the front of the process is about assuming the voice of the customer and leading/partnering in the process of uncovering an opportunity, identifying a target audience, testing product-price-promotion, crafting messaging, etc. Then rigorously testing post-mortem with the goal of constant improvement and deeper insight, etc.  In other words: building a product and experience to meet the needs of the customer.

marketing (small m) at the end of the process is when a creator follows his own voice, and then lets the marketing team suggest whether the poster should be blue or off-blue.

Then there’s… not even being in the same room as the “process.” The director of Pixar’s new movie, Wall-E – a mostly-silent movie about robot love – was quoted in last Sunday’s New York Times as saying, “I never think about the audience. If someone gives me a marketing report, I thow it away.”

Well, gosh! How wholly satisfying for Pixar’s marketing team!

Look, this guy may be perfectly great to work with, and could well be one of those people that truly has the golden touch. The kind of gut that marketing people try to bottle. He did, after all, win an Oscar for a fishy little movie called Finding Nemo. And Wall-E is getting wonderful reviews.


And if we all waited around for market research to uncover a customer need, we’d be literally sitting in the dark and Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs would be bummed. I get it.

But we know these names because these people are visionaries. There are many, many more, however, with the same attitude sans the honeyed hunch. People who believe that thinking about the consumer would require an unattractive conversation about commerce, with all of the un-artistic factors that go along with it. This attitude is one of the reasons why so many movies/books/ideas fail. Artistic “vision” – no customer.

Getting to the good idea

March 30th, 2008

stephanie-fierman-ideation-nation-tom-fishburne1.jpg

Anyone who has ever attended (or run) a special session where the goal is to ignore that pesky thing called reality and just “come up with” fresh new ideas can identify with Tom Fishburne‘s cartoon here.  Like Tom, I once participating in a ideation session that involved bean bags (what is it with the bean bags??), and I admit to some embarrassing outdoor ideation activities, as well.

Companies hold these sessions for good and noble reasons.  But it’s just silly to push a group of overworked folks into a room, take away their Blackberry security binkies, leave them with some paper clips, pocket lint and a game board and say “Now be creative!!” 

Better yet is the organization that creates a constant flow enabling individuals (a) who want to and feel particularly capable of contributing to a conversation (b) to offer their ideas in a quick and easy fashion.  The path most likely to yield fruit is the ongoing conversation, not an “event” marked off on your calendar.

Tom talks a bit about Method’s “wikiwall” in the blog post that accompanied this cartoon; click here for some advice from Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales on how to make the most of a company wiki.  And over on www.stephaniefiermanmarketingdaily.com, I posted some info last week about Kluster, a site where participants come in and out of conversations based on their desire and ability to contribute.  Every company needs a wiki, Intranet, bulletin board – an outlet by some name – that makes it fun, easy and productive to start and maintain a conversation that bring ideas to life:  reality and all.

And, friends: I’ve started a new daily blog at www.stephaniefiermanmarketingdaily.com, offering shorter takes on news and trends of the day. I’d be delighted if you’d take a look.