Geoffrey Frost and the perils of the fast lane

Mccracken_as_el_greco_by_face_morph Recently, I was talking with a friend about Geoffrey Frost, the man who saved Motorola in 2004 with that stellar act of corporate innovation (and rehabilitation): the Razr. 

We can measure the value Frost created any number of ways, but yesterday, Motorola’s CEO Ed Zander announced that Motorola would sell it’s 100 millionth Razr in the next few weeks.  (The spectacular success of this little phone has not protected Motorola from hard times and much now depends on the Razr 2 announced yesterday.)

My friend and I were speculating that one of the things that may have "got" Frost was his extraordinary travel schedule.  And indeed a couple of days ago, sitting in my hotel room, I watched a documentary on the National Geographer photographer Joe Satore, in which the costs of constant travel were explored.  There was a particularly poignant scene in which National Geographer photographers talked about returning home after long trips to discover that their spouses now talked about "my house" (not "our") and even "my kids."

And I sat there thinking, how can we commit so many people to a life of constant travel and have so little idea of the precise costs or the best remedies?  I mean, what is wrong with us?  Where is the self-help book called "life on the road: how to survive and prosper."  We have (I’m guessing) a book called, The Corgi Manual: how to breed the best and the brightest.  Many of our best and brightest spend most of their lives at 31,000 feet.  How is it that life on the road remains an undiscovered continent?

Clearly, anyone on the road at the moment has advantages that Geoffrey did not.  Twitter and Dopplr give us the company of fellow travelers. Email, Skype and Google Talk make staying in touch easier and cheaper. Virtual fellowship can never substitute for the deeper, denser social contacts at home, but it is not always a poor substitute. 

Here is one of my Twitter entries from Mexico:

finished presentation in Mexico City, it went well, and now to the bar, where celebration and oblivion will compete for my attention.

From Brussels:

hammering away at presentation in Brussels hotel room, CNN & BBC chattering away in the background. Must get out. Must go for walk.

An hour later, the entry reads:

Great walk, 5 story streets, light falling like rain, which was falling gently too. Building boom here in 1885, some Deco, some modernism 🙂

Too arty, I know.  But you only have 80 characters. 

And tonight:

4.5 hours of presentation, with a 5 minute break. it went well, thanks for asking, very well, I think. But then you never know.

Not as witty as Russell Davies: 

Recovering from swim by dozing in sales conference.

[and]

at the front of the gatwick transit train, pretending to be the driver.

Not as in the moment, as Bowbrick:

Pause for a moment and celebrate with me the BEST PARKING SPACE IN CENTRAL LONDON!

But Twitter is a way to declare myself to others in a world that is a little shy of others.  And it is interesting to know that fellow anthropologist Jan Chipchase is ping ponging between continents, and that Russell Davies is about to board a train in London.  I mean, it’s not precisely what we mean be "human contact" but it’s something. 

Hotels are getting in on the action.  One of them, I think it was in Mexico but it might have been Berlin, is aggressively promoting a cocktail hour to which all guests were invited, and I wondered what kind of party might come from this accidental constellation of people. Could be vastly better than the cocktail party inflicted on us at a professional conference.  The best connections are often accidental ones. 

But the hazards of life on the road are not just for travelers anymore.  Compared to, say, an English villager in the 13th century we are, all of us, in transit even when safe and sound at home.  The Heraclician (sp?) stream streams ever faster.  So we all have a vested interest in solving this problem. 

I don’t actually know how Geoffrey Frost died.  But implication suggests that he killed by his style of life, by service to the corporation, by the "thin air" at 31,000 feet.  (His widow committed suicide a couple of weeks ago, a victim perhaps of his victimhood.) There are an awful lot of people at risk on the road.  Surely, between us, we can think of a better way of doing this.  All of these people are ferocious problem solvers and creative as can be.  Marketer, save thyself.  I mean, it’s been a long while since we talked about the glamor of the "jet set."  Maybe it’s time that we acknowledge that this sort of travel is actually as dangerous as life at Studio 54 at the height of its excesses. 

Reference

Homans, George C.  1941.  English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century.  Boston: Beacon.  (I’m guessing on the publisher.  It could be Norton.  I have a fauxtographic memory, you see.  Quite detailed in its recall, but often wrong.)

McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Remembering Geoffrey Frost.  This blog sits at the intersection of anthropology and economics.  December 19,2005.  here.

McCracken, Grant.  2007.  Off Duty Pants.  This blog sits at the intersection of anthropology and economics.  April 4, 2007. here.

McCracken, Grant. 2007.  Consulting under the influence.  This blog sits at the intersection of anthropology and economics.  April 11, 2007. here.   

Stone, Brad.  2007.  New Motorola Phones Aim at High-End Market.  The New York Times.  May 16, 2007. here

5 thoughts on “Geoffrey Frost and the perils of the fast lane”

  1. Some things, like ethnographic interviews, may require SenSuRound experience. But we have yet to discover just how effective current and future video-conferencing could be, primarily for business relationships that are already suitably bonded (and the nitty gritty of bonding has a lot of room for exploration). A school-software rep I know visits new customers in person in PA, then (apparently effectively) fulfils ongoing subsequent appointments from Costa Rica via phone and a screen-share internet program.

    An incentive for video-conferencing that occurs to me is a camera-mike deal that arranges images on-screen in “conversation,” and improves them to very attractive but recognizable. The endorphins would lap it up, and people would look forward to it. There could also be trained confidential facilitation in this context, to unobtrusively keep meetings on track. [“Did that answer your question, X?”]

    Or use videoconferencing to oversee interviews by competent on-site helpers, even prompt them to collect and notice more.

    Given expert nuancing of communication, there are lots of possibilities to bypass both the jet AND the lag.

    Unfortunately, these ideas are not scalable to masses of bored time-servers. But enthusiastic analyst/innovators like Grant could perhaps leverage them and save wear-and-tear. Figuring out how to do it would itself be a major anthropological/economic accomplishment.

  2. Grant – Hope you get a break soon. I remember a few years ago when I worked in technology consulting and spent 90% of my time on the road. My toughest year involved 150K miles of air travel (perhaps less that you’re doing now). I remember looking through my Christmas cards at the end of that year and noting how many were from companies in the travel industry. There’s something really disconcerting about getting a Christmas card from a rental car company or an airline. Seasons greetings from United just isn’t the same as a card from your sister featuring her kids with chocolate smeared on their faces. Keep an eye on your holiday cards this year – when more are from travel vendors and fewer from people you really care about, it’s probably time to rethink the travel. Now if I could only get used to sitting in coach…

  3. I’m with you on this one Grant. I just got off a plane (12 hour flight, 6 hour time difference), and I feel like I want to collapse. Hey, here’s something a mountain climbing friend recently told me (note: It may be b.s.). He brought his altimeter with him on a recent flight, and reported that the cabin was only pressurized to about 6,000 feet above sea level. If true, and I’d love to know, perhaps those rapid changes have some kind of effect on our weary bodies – both mentally and physically. Stay well my virtual friend!

  4. Unfortunatley this will probably get worse before it gets better. At work the number of Asia-based clients has skyrocketed in the last year, or clients wanting to do projects in Asia, and this entails not just lots of travel but also round the clock email and early morning/late night teleconfs. Our personal time is disappearing very rapidly.

  5. Please contact me–my saddmess is extraordinary– I am just now learning of Geoff’s passing– and his wife– I am trying to find how to reach Geoff’s brother, Derek–Geoff and I were close during our 20’s and re-connected at his father’s funeral– Roger, his dad, was my father’s best friend– they both were acct. exec.s at Young & Rubicam for many years– Geoff and I met through our fathers–

    Geoff was an amazingly brilliant and sensitive man– my hopw was to re-connect with him albeit after many years of not being in touch– and it was this week I a, learning of his untimely death. Any information on how to reach Derek would be wonderful. Thoughtfully, JOan Alexander Whitney

Comments are closed.