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August 22, 2015

One of the things I love about this outlet is it combines my love of gadgetry, photography, chemistry, culinary, engineering, and FIRE. Bring them all together and you have an intense combination.

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The Sabbatical

July 25, 2011

I’m now about four weeks into an eight week sabbatical.  I’ve been pretty quiet about the time outside a few close friends because it seems self-serving to blurt out, “Hey look at me and how cool I get to go on Summer vacation”.  But a friend noted I was over thinking and should share what I’m up to with friends and family here.

The Decision
Nearly three years ago, my boss and VP shared a reward that is highly unusual beyond academia – the Microsoft Sabbatical. Officially known as the “Microsoft Service Achievement Award”, the goal is to give senior staff some time off to decompress, reflect, or pursue interests and bring insights beyond work.  I’ve held onto the award waiting for the right time to use it, postponing a decision.  Truth is, I’ve lost vacation time at the end of every year for the past five as I find it difficult to take the time off.

Sometimes work and personal life collide in a way you can’t imagine.  During AdWeek NY last Fall, I was speaking on a NextGen TV panel when my phone was going off like a hornet vibrating in my pocket.  I stepped off the stage, and into a nightmare.  Over the next two months my mother (at a young age) would suffer two strokes, a medically induced coma, intubation, and extended stay in ICU with multiple system failure and a jaunt through our medical system across three hospitals, and three rehabilitation centers, a loss of her motor skills and independence requiring relocation closer to family.  Thankfully through the combined help of family, friends, and amazing medical professionals she’s doing much better.

So in January my wife and I decided it was time to stop planning and “Just Do It”. My first challenge in planning is I don’t do well with, “Downtime”.  I need projects and goals I can set out that are largely measurable.  This is what I came up with:

  1. Reconnect with Family near and Far – Whether it’s building Star Wars Lego kits with my 8yo, celebrating my boys’ birthdays or teaching my sons the right way to do a cannonball off the diving board.
  2. Road Trip the Midwest to visit Family and old Friends – Go back to my University, tell my sons silly stories, catch up with old Professors/friends.  Visit my in-laws, nephew, and do a BBQ tour of Kansas City.
  3. Learn to Cook (Better) – I love BBQing, the laid back nature and the intensity of competition cooks that can earn six-figures touring the nation.  I’m hosting a class with friends organized with Konrad Haskins, KCBS Grand Champion, KING5 and HGTV featured chef, and owner of BBQ Institute.  People fly from Europe just to take his class, and I’m lucky have him in my back yard before he moves permanently to Texas.
  4. Host my Mom and Make Memories – After years of scheduling and medical challenges, she’s finally going to see where we’ve lived for nearly three years.
  5. Read more – I have a stack of Cormac McCarthy and some classic SciFi waiting for me,  too often back-burnered for the latest business books.
  6. Learn to Paraglide – A likely one-time activity negotiated with my wife in exchange for not becoming a single engine pilot.
  7. Get into my best shape yet – After picking up running a few years ago, I dropped 20lbs and have maintained but want to improve muscle tone a bit.
  8. Do an extended trip to Hawaii – The first week is family reunion, the second week with great friends right on the beach.
  9. Get PADI Certified for Scuba Diving – Finish my online courses and do my dives in Hawaii.

Observations so Far: My Top 5 Tips for a Good Sabbatical
 I found very little advice outside of Jeff Sandquist’s reflections when doing my research so here are my Top 5 observations for having a good sabbatical from the midpoint:

#1: Don’t Deny, rather Explore and Expand your Passions
Most friends I’ve spoken with equate a sabbatical with disconnecting  from tech.  In response I’ve joked that I bought this book, for my Kindle ;).  But for me digital media is a passion point, one I’m enjoying trying new and old things I haven’t found time to play with otherwise, even competing products such as OSX Lion and games on platforms other than Xbox.   You’ll also find me on Twitter a bit more, and more accessible for coffee with old friends and co-workers but this is a small fraction as I’m planning, organizing and prepping many activities that have nothing to do with tech.

#2: Budget Time and Money Ahead
Work with your family to schedule time – family time, downtime, and be supportive of your spouse.  This is as much a reward for my wife who can go do Tae Kwon Do or get a mani/pedi without stressing over who will watch the kids.  For the big ticket items – airfare, hotels, course costs you have to be realistic and budget.  I have a spreadsheet I use for this purpose.

#3: Be Realistic
You’re not going into a chrysalis and going to come out a changed person.  But you should allow time to explore new ideas, perspectives and actively engage in introspection.  A sabbatical should not be a midlife crisis – rather a personal checkin and opportunity for a personal and professional tune up.

#4: Spend some time Giving Back
It’s been important to me that I look back on this as a productive time for others as well. I’m involved with some non-profits including the Capt. Jason Dahl Fund volunteering with fundraising activities to benefit deserving students pursuing a career in aviation.  I’m also finding time to give blood – as a universal donor I try to do this as often as I can.

#5: Get out of town for some, but not all of the time.
The feeling of walking through your front door and being home brings a level of appreciation for everything you have.  We’re doing it twice – the first time was with our trip to the midwest and again with Hawaii.  Even the kids have been more appreciative (and polite!) since returning home to their friends and their own beds.  Conversely you have to get out and explore a bit outside your home zone for an extended period to really start exploring new perspectives.

I’ve been good and only checking in once with my assistant at work against my boss’ orders to stay disconnected.  I’m deeply appreciative of this time off and what it’s already meant for my family and for the amazing team I have that enables peace of mind during the time off.  I can’t wait for the next chapter!

(Ed. Note: Fixed some dates and typos from a previous draft)

imageThis morning I came across a great Op-Ed by Mark Suster of GRP Partners entitled, “The Future of Advertising will be Integrated” (via TechCrunch).  The piece compelled me to break with tradition here on the site and respond. He notes, “[The] future of helping make the ad industry more measurable (and more online) I believe will be one of helping make ads both authentic & integrated. Trying to relegate ads to the least intrusive real estate of our computers is missing the point. Advertisers pay for efficacy.”  This is an interesting discussion that spans multiple screens.  I’ll offer up a case example of where the industry is getting the balance right on the TV – Xbox LIVE.

As background, my team is responsible for the Platform and Products that deliver brand engagement on Xbox LIVE and online properties including MSN Games and Games for Windows LIVE Messenger.  We connect brands with an audience of over 30M Xbox LIVE members via engagement on the Xbox LIVE Dashboard, as well as curated in-game experiences.

Over the past five years, we’ve seen tremendous growth in our brand business, with big names engaging the community including Porsche, HP, Kia, Sprint, Red Bull, Hershey’s, P&G, T-Mobile, Unilever, and a broad swath of entertainment publishers.  If you’re unfamiliar with the experience, when you turn on an Xbox 360, you’re brought into the Xbox LIVE Dashboard, in effect a homepage on your TV split into Channels vertically and programmed “Tiles” horizontally, presenting easy discovery and navigation:

Ford_ExampleEach Tile is selectable, presenting content such as game downloads or experiences like NetFlix, Avatar Kinect, and Facebook.  Some of these tiles however present brand-associated content and when selected, enter a microsite purpose-built for the Xbox LIVE community and brand.  This, “In-Dash” promotion represents an intersection between traditional TV “Brand” advertising, and more engaged Digital advertising on the Web.

In a groundbreaking study done in partnership with IPG’s Mediabrands and neuroscience research company Emsense comparing traditional video to Xbox LIVE’s interactive approach, we’ve found that consumers react positively both in terms of cognitive engagement, unaided recall and emotional response.  For example, when compared to a generous 60 second video spot, the average duration of opt-in brand engagement among participants was over 298 seconds on Xbox LIVE:

Brand Engagement

And using Emsense’s unique bio-sensory measurement techniques, emotional response upon engagement with the brand jumps from 42nd percentile to 94th percentile:

Emotional Response

This is part of the reason we see standard click-thru rates (CTR) 100x higher than comparable display campaigns on the Web.  This isn’t by accident.  The reason it works is because of the principled approach we take to engaging with consumers in the stream on the Dash guided by three core principles:

1.  Invite, don’t Interrupt
At the top level in the dashboard on Xbox LIVE, engagement starts with an invitation, not an interruption in the content stream.  In the example below, programmed content and offers- subscription, transaction, and brand-funded all appear together.  More recent updates include the addition of the phrase, “Advertisement” under the branded tile as a means of clearly communicating to the consumer what they are seeing.   

2.  Reward the Consumer for their Engagement
A community member’s time is precious, as well as family and friends who are in the room.  So we want to create a clear sense of value exchange for the consumer – normally in the form of streamed or downloadable content – HD video, themes, gamerpics, “snackable” entertainment experiences such as polling or even gear for your Avatar as can be seen in the below example pairing Lowe’s with the NCAA Final Four, inviting consumers to download Avatar Gear, Free Content, and participate in polling: 


Sweepstakes and prizing opportunities are also popular, as are LIVE “Game with Fame” events.  When brands bring celebrities into the mix, it’s a win for everyone as we recently saw when we worked with EA and Porsche, inviting users to race custom cars in Need for Speed against each other for a chance to win prizes and race head-to-head against legendary driver Hurley Haywood on Xbox LIVE.

3. Deliver Real Impact by Knowing your Audience
Brand metrics vary from medium to medium, with Xbox sitting in-between traditional TV Brand engagement and Digital display.  This is why we spend so much time on Ad Effectiveness Research with our partners.  For example, in the Porsche campaign for the launch of the Panamera, 75% of Xbox LIVE members who saw the promotion took a post-ad action.  19% said they visited a dealership, driving hundreds of thousands of consumers into the showroom through a mix of Xbox-driven social and multiscreen engagement:

Panamera ExamplePorsche and MS Tag

It’s not just automakers – The History Channel’s recent promotion of the special “WWII in HD” found 60% who saw the campaign tuned in- that’s over 1.6M viewers driven from Xbox LIVE. 

From a product design perspective, we take a principled approach that recognizes we are stewards of the Xbox community first and foremost.  For example, the work we’ve done with brand integration with Kinect for Xbox 360 focuses on the authenticity and magic of the experience through gameplay and select brand promotion in the Kinect Hub.  But that’s a topic for another post.

These are just a few examples of the performance we’re seeing multi-nationally with agencies adding Xbox LIVE as a part of their media plans.  The Xbox LIVE in-stream approach isn’t right for every medium. But as the industry debates the future of advertising and consumer engagement on the TV, I look to what the team is doing on Xbox LIVE and think, “The future is already here”.

(Ed. Note: This post is a departure from my normal musings in Digital Media and reflects my past five years of work with Media & Entertainment platforms and products. Feedback and suggested topic areas are welcomed).

Update 1: Fixed headline and my reaction to Mark’s OpEd in first paragraph.
Update 2: Fixed missing quote.  Welcome to Techmeme readers