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Cabbie, Take Me to the Digital Age

Cybermarketing lessons come from an unlikely source

Landing at JFK this week, I hopped into a spanking clean taxi, courtesy of that nice Mr. Bloomberg, and announced the location of my resting place to a charming driver, Joe, who's from Brooklyn by way of Bombay.

As the Long Island Expressway sped -- OK, crawled -- by, I watched NBC on Joe's seat-back monitor, half-listened in on his mobile phone arguments with his mother and girlfriend, caught up with six hours' worth of e-mail, appreciated the EZPass that spared me the agony of the usual purgatorial stop before the hell of the Midtown tunnel, and gratefully used my credit card to pay my fare via the cab's touchscreen terminal.

All that technology seemed a long way from the days I drove taxis back home in England. And yet, I couldn't help thinking how much my own time behind the wheel had actually helped me prepare for advertising in this brave new digital age.

Here's a few of the basic truths I learned behind the wheel that seem just as relevant as we sit poised over our laptops, Web sites and PDAs:

1. Start the meter when you start your engine: It's your time and your gas. Good customers know and respect that.

2. The best customers know where they're going: It's easy to be taken on a lengthy ride around in circles -- and with a customer who doesn't want to pay for your time.

3. Don't forget, they hail you for The Knowledge: When the dad is in the seat beside you refereeing the kids in the back -- neither of whom has ever been where you're going -- it's your responsibility to be objective and decisive. Tell them you can get them to granny's in time if you stop at the Apple store or Pinkberry, not both.

4. The fastest way isn't always the superhighway: There's a lot of people going that same way. Sometimes it's smarter to combine a couple of tried-and-trusted routes, too. Getting this mix right can lead to a much more enjoyable ride, and you might even reach your destination earlier.

5. If they ask, "How much to get to heaven?" tell them, "A lot": Nobody likes a quote of a pound to turn into a bill for two pounds -- but it cost two pounds because they went to both the Apple store and Pinkberry.

6. Some are going all the way to their destination, others are going to jump out at the next block: "Take us to the next level" is a phrase usually uttered by people who don't know where that is and often decide they don't like it when they get there. If someone's never been in the same ZIP code as a good idea, they're unlikely to ask you to drive them there.

7. It helps to have eyes in the side of your head: That superhighway must have been built in New York -- it's got potholes and stuff coming at you from the oddest angles. Digital, even more than traditional advertising, requires peripheral vision, speed and agility.

8. If he can't explain his business plan, he's going to throw up in the backseat: If a client is unenthusiastic, rambling, inconclusive, oddly offended when asked for an end destination, can't find his wallet, this will lead to barfing, tears, insincere apologies, followed by him passing out. Drive on.

9. Have to have an alternate route: I'm as big a fan of Wordpress as the next man. But I was also a fan of Flash sites, too. When something becomes me-too, or just isn't working, it's important to have Plan B up your sleeve -- better still, the creativity to come up with one on the spot.

10. Drive defensively, even in a BMW: As more and more communication goes digital, the safety of metrics/analytics will become the price of entry and the medium will demand, rather than inhibit, creativity.

11. Keep a "Driver never carries more than $20" sign under your seat: Everyone worries about money (my best tippers were usually the less affluent customers), especially now. A lot of great little companies are going to become great big companies because of digital. Don't scare them away.

12. You have to make a few wrong turns to find a new shortcut: For all the talk about accountability, digital is still largely uncharted territory. Lewis and Clark would still be in Ohio at this point. The best customers don't mind you trying something unusual if they feel you're trying to get them there the most efficient, economical way.

13. You never know where the next fare is going to come from: On the darkest, rainiest night, a hot chick, the world's greatest conversationalist or a guy going to Manchester and back can flag you down. If you throw in the towel and go home, what might you have missed?

14. It's polite to tip, and you'll probably get more than you asked in return: Clients offering to pay more for a job well done? Blimey, now there's an idea, guv'nor . . .

Jim Smith is chairman at Ground Zero. He can be reached jsmith@groundzero.net

— Nielsen Business Media