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Monkey Business

Author: Bill Meagher
February, 2010 Issue

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NorthBay biz spends some time with Mill Valley naming/branding company A Hundred Monkeys and its principal, Danny Altman.

 
Quick show of hands, how many of you have ever named something or somebody? It could be a kitten or a kid. Don’t be shy, I’ll start. We have a cabin in the Gold Country and the local tradition is to give your place a name, so we call it Lagniappe, which is essentially Cajun for something extra, like the 13th doughnut in a baker’s dozen. OK, everybody’s hand is in the air now.

Which makes you wonder how A Hundred Monkeys in Mill Valley has annual billings that reside in the neighborhood of $1 million. The small company on Miller Avenue names stuff. If you have a product or service, it’ll help you through the identity crisis for a fee that ranges up to $65,000. If you have a company with a questionable handle, it’ll rename it for you. Or, if your company has successfully bought a firm out and you need to create a new brand, these guys will weigh in.
 
The first thing you should know about company principal Danny Altman is that he isn’t a slave to corporate culture. You can make a pretty good case that the firm is a fairly independent place. Oh, everyone there understands how corporations work— or, in some cases, don’t work. But they feel the allergy most companies have to taking chances is a weakness, not a strength, when it comes to picking out something new to put on the stationary.

The name of the company should tell you something. The story goes that in 1952, scientists were providing monkeys on the island of Koshima with sweet potatoes. (Why they didn’t provide the monkeys with bananas involves another tale dealing with the overthrow of a certain South American country and the CIA.) The potatoes were dropped on the sand by the scientists, and the flavor and grit of the sand was bugging some of the diners. An 18-month-old monkey learned that saltwater washed off the offending sand while providing the tubers with a pleasant taste. She taught her mother as well as friends her potato dipping trick. Soon, many monkeys were doing the dunk as adults learned from youngsters. Still, not all the monkeys washed the potatoes. But it’s said that when the 100th monkey learned the washing skill, it hit a critical mass and became the norm, not only on the island but on other islands and the mainland. Thus, a new behavior may remain within a certain group until one more individual acquires it, a critical mass is reached and the behavior becomes the norm.

A similar but different theme holds that if you placed 100 monkeys in a room with 100 typewriters, sooner or later one of them would end up writing one of Shakespeare’s plays.

That may seem far-fetched, but look what happened by leaving me alone with just one computer.

Class dismissed.

The second thing you should know about A Hundred Monkeys is, like legendary Silicon Valley icon Apple, which got its start in a garage (so did another Silicon stalwart, Varian, as well as Santana and Jefferson Airplane—but I digress), A Hundred Monkeys calls a converted commercial auto repair garage home. Walking in the front door, there’s an Audi TT parked not far from the reception desk. It reminds me of the 1970s TV series “Vega$” starring the late Robert Urich as ultra-hip private snoop Dan Tanna. With a touch of a button, a door slid open and he’d park his 1957 T-Bird right in his living room off the kitchen. His adoring buxom secretary, Bee, hung on every pearl of wisdom dripping from his mouth, while she hoped for a chance to polish his pistol (if you know what I mean…and I think you do). It was as if Tanna was part Batman save the cape and embarrassing tights, wheeling his vintage Batmobile into his off-the-strip Batcave.

Not that I’m saying Altman is Batman—or even Dan Tanna. But when it comes to naming products and companies, he has more than a few tools in his Batbelt.

Among the household names A Hundred Monkeys have worked with are Coca-Cola, Nike, Hewlett-Packard, Ben & Jerry’s, Microsoft, Apple, Peet’s and MSNBC. That’s some serious company, especially when you consider nobody would ever accuse A Hundred Monkeys of aping big companies or the way they do business. Big companies tend to form large teams when it comes to problem solving, safety in numbers and all that. They like market research, they respect focus groups and they see nothing wrong with names like Agilent. (At the risk of pissing off the locals, what the hell does Agilent have to do with testing or measuring? What does Agilent mean? When the company name winds up in a story about naming companies and it isn’t being cited for good stuff, you have to ask if it was a wise choice.)

And it isn’t like Agilent is out there all by itself in the “What the hell does this mean?” category. Let’s be honest, it’s one thing when you’re sitting at a stoplight and, in the right hand lane, there’s a Tiburon and, on the left, is a Prius. You want to rip off the name of a well-to-do town with crime cameras, be my guest. But Prius? Sure, it’s the darling of environmentalists and right-thinking drivers everywhere, but it’s a case of the product overcoming its name. And that ain’t good.

On a November day so crisp that in a previous life it was a potato chip, Danny Altman opens his office up, welcoming me into a conference room of sorts, with a sign on the door stating “Room for Confusion.” Inside, three black leather club chairs, a small coffee table and a cream-colored couch reside.

A “brand” new approach

The couch has a bed pillow and a sleep mask at one end, suggesting the room may provide a sanctuary for those seeking Zs. On this day, however, Altman, the former co-owner of a Boston ad agency and design firm called Altman & Manley, is holding court on the dos and don’ts of the naming game. Decked out in black trousers and a Steve Jobs regulation black turtleneck, Altman is doing a Johnny Cash impression via his apparel. A closely trimmed salt-and-pepper beard keeps his face warm, and Altman leans in as I pick his brain about branding. “Branding is very overused these days; we try not to talk about it a lot. It has to do with, ‘Who are you? What do you do? Where did you come from? What’s important? What territory do you want to occupy? Where do you want to go?’ It has something to do with the founders and the culture of the company as well. Those are some of the things we look at,” he says.

It’s a common sense approach to a business issue that’s spawned a growth industry with a phalanx of experts. The Monkeys preach knowing your company’s real values and goals from A to Z, staying focused on the real targets, and knowing the difference between strategy and tactics.

The Brooklyn-born Altman waxes creative about how to name stuff: “We start with some people around a table or in a conference room and we talk about stuff like what a helpful or an unhelpful comment is. It can be a pretty wild process, even when it’s contained.”

Altman and his fellow Monkeys encourage companies to put their own names into the hopper. “It’s certainly OK for clients to put their own ideas in. We tell them to try every name on, see how it fits. We ask lots of questions, get a sense of where they think they want to go, and then come at them with 30 or 40 names in waves. At first, everything is on the table. Eventually, we begin eliminating some of the choices.”

The survival of the fittest, the Darwinian equivalent of capitalism and the free market, appeals to many companies. But A Hundred Monkeys balances that off with name choices that take a chance and leave the safe harbor behind. From the company’s fairly informative website: “We ask the right questions, we help you think about how you’re different. We drive the process. We point out the pitfalls; we give you lots of choices. We keep the strong names on the table. We get you across the finish line.”

Altman has been at the naming thing for 20 years. Originally from Brooklyn, he got his first taste of the Bay Area in college when he spent some time here during the summer. He went to San Francisco State, which had a student-run experimental college happening. He picked up the idea and took it back to Princeton. After a brief fling at Columbia Architecture School, he taught fourth grade in Manhattan. This naturally led him to write copy for ad agencies in New York. He started his own company with a guy named Bob Manley in Boston, breaking many barriers as well as rules.

The aha moment for Altman and Manley came on a trip to that cultural Mecca known as Los Angeles. They’d spent the day with a client at the zoo—which, in that town, could mean anything, but in this case means the place with lots of animals. After finishing up, they began to list the companies they’d helped with naming conundrums. When the list topped 40, the two thought perhaps it was time to specialize.

In 1989, he moved to San Francisco to start a West Coast office. In 1992, when Manley lost a long battle to cancer, Altman started A Hundred Monkeys.

The name game

There’s no shortage of outfits that make a living telling companies what to call themselves or their products. A quick Internet search gives at least 140 different firms in the business. So Altman has taken a page from his own book in separating the company from the rest. To begin with, there’s the name, which is certainly taking a chance, especially when you consider others in the ranks with handles like ABC Namebank (owing to the old Yellow Pages strategy of being alphabetically first?), NameStormers and DriveThruName, which makes me want to supersize for only $0.59 extra.

“We know naming is very much a subjective thing, but we’ve been doing it for 20 years, so we have a well-developed process,” Altman says. The company website states the practice of naming for A Hundred Monkeys is a cross between an obsession, a passion and a sport.

That sounds pretty serious. Some examples of their handiwork include a career placement service called Cruel World, a sound and speech card for Apple called Mockingboard, and Kiddo!, a very successful education fundraising program in Mill Valley.

Altman is a realist, which maybe you expect from a guy who grew up around the corner from Ebbets Field. He watched the Dodgers leave town and taught elementary school in the same lifetime. He knows something about what a funny old dog life can be. “Maybe 80 or 90 percent of [naming] is politics, the rest is creative. You have to figure out who’s in the room and how they can work. You have to figure out who isn’t in the room and how they can affect things,” he says, wry smile slowly creeping onto his face.

And then you still have to figure out what to call stuff, not an easy thing to do.


 

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