Jul 31, 2008

Power Fix

Not that I should care about these things, but I was kind of surprised the other day when I noticed that my Ad Age Power 150 ranking had fallen from its usual spot in the 150-165 range to about 210. Figuring it was a temporary glitch I ignored it, but as my ranking continued to sink-- down to about 230-- without any noticeable change in traffic on this end, I figured the problem must be mechanical.

So I shot off an email to Todd and Charlie at Power 150 headquarters today at around 11:30 AM. By 1:30, Charlie had identified and fixed the problem and I was back to my more usual rank in the pecking order.

A two-hour turnaround like that is exemplary customer service. Even if it is just for a blog ranking list. Way to go Todd and Charlie. I am impressed.

Jul 30, 2008

Banner Boys

The other day a traditional ad guy I know was talking to me about a mutual acquaintance, whom he called a “really good digital ad guy.”

Now I’ve been around both types to know that the subtext of “a really good digital ad guy” is “he turns our print ads and TV spots into banners without messing with the headlines too much or changing the color palette and layout.”

It most decidedly did not mean “he really understands the medium and what’s possible online and comes up with technologically innovative solutions that extend the brand, not the TV spot.”

And that brief exchange really crystallized a dilemma facing our industry now. It’s something David Armano alluded to in this Ad Age piece (where he tried to ruin the word “tradigital” for me—thanks Dave!): Big TV-centric agencies (and the clients that employ them) have gotten used to the fact that there’s now a “digital” component to whatever campaign they’re doing. Only their rigid interpretation of “digital component” is a bunch of flash banners that expertly mimic the print and TV campaigns and a microsite that may or may not have an actual reason for being (e.g. a contest) but “looks really cool.”

Now partly, that stems from a core lack of familiarity of what digital is. Too many senior agency and client marketing types have only a cursory understanding of the interwebs, gleaned from their occasional visits to cnn.com, YouTube and a half-day seminar about Facebook. But mostly, it stems from a willful act of self-preservation. By clinging to a world where TV is still king and digital is just another way—like direct mail—to repurpose the elements of the TV campaign, they ensure both their longevity and their power. For if history has taught us anything, it’s that ruling elites do not relinquish power easily.

In fact, it generally has to be pried from their cold, dead hands.

Since mass murder is not a real option (for me, anyway) I’d like to suggest a less bloody solution: reframing these responsibilities within the creative department. So that rather than keep an entire department of low-paid, low-value “banner boys” on staff, we turn responsibility for banner creation over to the same teams that create the print and the TV. I know a few agencies (mostly smaller ones) currently do it that way, but most don’t, especially the shops that have invested heavily in so-called “interactive departments.” I mean a good headline writer is also a good banner writer. And figuring out simple flash animation isn’t brain surgery. (Or so you would think—I’ve been adamantly refused the services of guys I knew who were killer headline writers by recruiters and CDs who gasped “but they’ve never done digital!!” as if banner writing were some sort of art form that could be mastered only after years of intense study.)

Microsites are a little more complicated, but can also be done by the general team after a few hours with a good IA or UX person. Who hopefully will help them find a raison d’etre for the site that doesn’t rely on the words “so we can win awards.”

And let's not forget the TV-spot-masquerading-as-a-viral-video-because-the-client-has-no-money-for-TV. Easy enough to figure out who gets that one.

That frees up the digital team tremendously. It allows them to hire people whose idea of “good creative” isn’t based on TV-centric advertising award show criteria, but on what actually makes sense in the medium in 2008. People who realize that the new gold standard is to create something entertaining, useful and media/site appropriate and who know that The Real Digital Revolution has changed the rules of the game and put the consumer in control.

Those people would make “really good digital creatives.”

Jul 28, 2008

Starbucks “Nourishing Blends” Are Nourishing My Anger

“Nourishing” is one of those words that always makes me cringe. It’s a perfectly fine word, mind you, but it’s so overused in the world of marketing, as to lose any real meaning. I mean few words so succinctly call up the notion of mom, love, food and warmth in such a glib and facile manner.

So as a general fan of Starbucks, I was very disappointed to see that they’re currently pushing something called “Vivanno Nourishing Blends.” Which are nothing more than sugar-laden milkshakes with some protein powder added. They’re certainly not “nourishing” or even particularly “nutritious.” And at 270 calories for a 16 oz. grande Banana Chocolate Blend Vivanno, they’re only adding to the obesity epidemic. (By comparison, a similarly sized regulation Mocha Frappuccino is only 260 calories, sans whipped cream-- and the "light" version of the same Mocha Frap is just 140 calories.)

Now I’ve got nothing against milkshakes and ice cream and candy and other foods of little-or-no nutritional value. In moderation, anything is fine. It’s just that by calling them “nourishing blends” Starbucks is giving the overweight tacit permission to indulge in something that’s not all that healthy for them. I mean it’s pretty easy to see people sucking down two or three of these a day because they’re “nourishing” versus the Frappuccino, which is clearly a coffee-infused milkshake.

It’s also too bad because I’m sure I’m not the only vaguely health conscious Starbucks customer who looked at something called a “Chocolate Banana Blend” and thought “'nourishing,' my ass. These people are lying to me.”

Which is more of a problem for Starbucks than most other marketers. You see Starbucks built their reputation on being a kind-to-employees, community-minded, social activist company. The kind of place where, when they told you the coffee came from small farms and the profits from the water were going into some sort of fund, you believed them.

The sort of place that wouldn't call a sugar-laden milkshake "nourishing."

It also smacks of the kind of marketing tricks that downscale companies use to try and get one over on their (presumably less sophisticated) consumers. And as Starbucks becomes more mainstream and less urban sophisticated, the trickery of Vivanno Nourishing Blends is going to turn off their more upscale customers, the ones who were already on the fence about how middle-of-the-road Starbucks was becoming. (Witness the recent brouhaha over the introduction of Pike’s Place and subsequent lack of bold flavored coffees.)

This is just a bad move for them, albeit one that could have been avoided by a slight change in marketing tactics.

Jul 27, 2008

Penny Pranks

From my friends Vinny Warren and Greg Nations-Powell at The Escape Pod in Chicago, comes this very funny campaign for OfficeMax. It's shot by the very same Henry-Alex Rubin who shot last year's Office Max back-to-school prank, "Schooled" and then went on to do something called "Whopper Freakout" for some agency in Colorado called Crispin something-or-other ;)

This latest campaign, which highlights the fact that OfficeMax has a number of back-to-school items on sale for a penny, follows improv actor Matt McCarthy around New York as he attempts to purchase everything from a Central Park carriage ride to an engagement ring to a couple of deli items with pennies. The reactions are priceless, especially in the featured video that takes place in a high-end restaurant. The only one that slightly misses (for me, anyway) is this one with a used car dealer in Queens, and only because the dealer himself is so over-the-top, that he seems like an actor as well. (But others may not notice that.)

They're funny spots, nicely edited and you remember the top-line message "OfficeMax has things for a penny" without a whole lot of product manager gobbledy-gook getting in the way.

NB: Even Gawker and it's crew of commenters seem to like the spots. And they hate everything.

Jul 24, 2008

What If An Agency Had To Design A Stop Sign?

Creating A Stop Sign - Watch more free videos

Brilliant YouTube video, very funny. Blond actress is especially talented at capturing nuances of nefarious passive/aggressive clients. About 4.5 minutes long. Big thanks to Cam Beck for bringing this to my attention via Twitter.

PS: If anyone knows who made this and if the creator is open to public kudos, let me know.

PPS: Thanks to Dave Edwards for alerting me to the fact that the YouTube link was no longer working and providing the link to break.com featured above.

Jul 22, 2008

The Tyranny of Search

Few things cause creatives to cringe at the thought of a digital future like the words "search engine optimization."

It's not that they don't want their clients work to show up first in the Googleverse. It's just that the rules of search optimization seem to run counter to the rules of creativity. As someone recently pointed out to me "it's like food. Anything that tastes good is bad for you."

He did have a point: many of the things that can make a site look and feel cool and creative (Flash and Ajax, for example) are the mortal enemies of SEO. And while the terms "search optimized" and "deadly dull" are far from synonymous, it does seem rather cruel that many of the most advanced web design tools wind up being a net negative to the overall goal of the site. And crueler yet that many creatives hear the phrase "we need to prioritize search" as "we need to remove anything remotely cool or creative from the site immediately."

Besides which, the rules just seem so random. I mean I know the basics and from a programming standpoint they make sense. But from a creative standpoint, it's as if you said "TV spots that rely on dissolves to move from one scene to the next have zero recall." None of the rules seem to take aesthetics into consideration.

So why can't someone make a web design tool that does both? That lifts us out of HTML flatness, is easy to develop for and that appeases the gods of search.

The dividends would be enormous from both a financial and design perspective. Not to mention user experience.

Any takers?

UPDATE: Noah Brier sent me this link to a great article on SEO that addresses much of what we've been discussing here. Great enough for me to stick it in the body of the post, rather than the comment section.

UPDATE 2: "Link to a great article on SEO"(above) now working. Sorry about that.

Jul 21, 2008

Happy Days Are Here Again

I was reading something by a conservative strategist about how the Republicans need to re-examine their current positioning and it hit me that their biggest problem—regardless of what you think of their policies—is that they’ve become the party of “no.”

I mean they’re pretty much against everything: terrorism, ending the war in Iraq, gay marriage, abortion, universal health care. Whether you agree with them or not, it's just one big “no” after another.

And while they’ve been smart enough to try and spin their positions to something positive (e.g. anti-universal health care becomes pro-free market health care) the spin phrases have not caught on with the general public. Even those who strongly support their positions tend to frame them in terms of “they’re against X.” So the Republicans of the ‘00s have found themselves in the same boat as the Democrats of the ’70s: they’re the Debbie Downers of their day, constantly finding something that can’t be done or isn’t right or doesn't work.

And while Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama may seem to be at opposite ends of the political spectrum, one key trait they share is the ability to focus on an upbeat, big picture message. Hope. Change. Possibility. Leave all the messy wonky issues on the back burner. Think about it: the main charge hurled against both men by their opponents is that they lack substance. That they’re all charisma and charm with little to back it up.

And without getting into the subjective truth or falseness of that charge, we should look at the objective truth, which is that the Reagan/Obama big picture messages really seem to resonate. That people want to hear about amorphous things like hope and possibility first and the granular nuts-and-bolts ways we plan to achieve them second.

Now the lesson in there for marketers (you knew I was getting to that) is about the need to focus on the big picture. To pick one broad, positive point of differentiation and own it and to stop worrying that “anyone in the category can own ‘fun.’”

Anyone can, but if you get there first, you do. And if it's not "fun" it's "delicious" "smart" "healthy" "fast" or a whole host of easily grasped adjectives.

It’s especially important now, during The Real Digital Revolution, when customers have their own ways of finding out the wonky details about your product and rely on your advertising and marketing messages (including design) to give them a broad macro sense of what your product is all about. How it feels, not how it works.

Are you about boring granular details? Or are you about big broad-stroke messaging? If it’s the former, then people aren’t going to see your product or service in the right light. This is especially true in areas like packaged goods where the granular details (20% creamier!) are likely only of interest to the product team itself. It’s a little less true in sectors like B-to-B, where details matter, but again, the more you can create a clear, easy-to-pass-on, single-minded brand message that’s consistent across all media, the easier it will be for your customers to relate to you.

And once they’re relating to you, the details are a lot easier to swallow.

Jul 18, 2008

Making American Public Transportation Sexy

With gas prices rising higher and higher, more and more Americans are looking to public transportation as a viable alternative. The problem is that public transportation is decidedly unsexy in all but a handful of cities.

Which is something of a paradox: In New York, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia, commuter rail lines are the province of the upper middle class, transporting bankers, brokers, lawyers and advertising execs in and out of the city on a daily basis, and a suburban town’s location on an express rail line into the city greatly enhances the value of the local real estate.

But in other US cities, public transportation is viewed as decidedly downscale, a last option best left for people too poor to own a car. People are loathe to take it, regardless of gas prices, because it somehow seems tantamount to failure, a step away from homelessness.

So I’m throwing it out to you all: how can we make public transportation just as sexy in places like Atlanta and Los Angeles as it is in New York and Chicago? Is it something advertising, marketing and PR can affect? Or is it too big a psychological hurdle for most people to get over?

You’ve got a whole weekend to think about it.

Jul 17, 2008

Now Playing: Paper Clips

Today's Walt Mossberg column in The Wall Street Journal was about snagfilms.com, a great new site that lets you watch and share documentary films. These are real documentaries - everything from the film you see above, which ran in theatres, to Morgan Spurlock's Supersize Me. It's a great way to support documentary filmmakers and it's very easy to add a movie to your blog and it's totally free.

Paper Clips is the story of the children of rural Whitwell, Tennessee who collected 6 million paper clips representing the 6 million Jews killed in the Shoah. I've seen it before and it's a very well done documentary and well worth watching.

Your feedback on how the technology works is encouraged along with reviews of the film itself. If it works, I might make this a regular weekly or monthly feature.

Jul 15, 2008

eSellerate Has A Customer For Life - A Heartwarming Tale of Customer Service

This is a wonderful customer service story that I wanted to draw your attention to.

Once upon a time there was a piece of software called Volume Logic. It was a very useful piece of software that improved the sound of iTunes when you played it from your computer. Even if you were wearing headphones.

Volume Logic was so useful, in fact, that I actually paid cash money to own a copy. I mean the difference in sound quality was really noticeable.

And we all lived happily ever after until one day Leopard appeared. (Or at least a Macintosh operating system with the same name.)

You see, when I upgraded iTunes to Leopard, Volume Logic did not go along with it. It refused to operate and claimed my serial number was invalid. Which left iTunes sounding all tinny and AM radio like.

So I turned to the wise old Google, which pointed out to me that Plantronics, the company that made Volume Logic, had actually stopped making it. Close to a year ago, in fact.


But some further googling revealed that a company called eSellerate were the people who sold it to me. I wrote to them and they were able to provide me with a copy of my receipt, along with the original serial number, just from my email address.

But alas, even re-entering the serial number did not work.

So I wrote back to eSellerate. And lo and behold, two very nice guys named Jamie Brown (my main contact) and Jeremy (his back-up, who actually jumped in and wrote me back when Jamie was out!) spent several weeks trying different ways to get Volume Logic-- a product their company no longer sold-- to work for me. I'm talking about a half dozen emails back and forth, with prompt good-natured replies and a decent amount of time and effort on their behalf.

And finally, last week, it worked. My Volume Logic is up and running again and Jamie, Jeremy and eSellerate are my new Customer Service Heroes.

Nicely done guys. And much appreciated.

Jul 14, 2008

Tiny Bubbles

Growing up, I was always amazed at how many of my friends and relatives never ventured out of the cozy little world of upper-middle-class suburban Jewry. They all lived in the same towns, went to the same schools and camps, vacationed at the same hotels at the same time and (especially when I was in the throes of adolescence) all seemed to think the same thoughts. I mean it never really did seem to dawn on many of my peers that most other kids didn’t spend the December school holiday in Boca Raton and summers at posh sleepaway camps in the Berkshires.

With the distance of 20 some-odd-years, I’ve come to realize that every group creates its own little bubble, that most people are more comfortable surrounded by others just like them and that not all of my friends and relatives are as provincial as I’d once thought.

But I’m reminded of all this though, as I interact with people in the social media world. Because we’ve created our own little bubble too. And it’s hard for us to remember that not everyone out there is just like us.

Yes, Nancy Pelosi uses Twitter. Or at least some advisor told her to. And something like 1 million other people already use it, too. The New York Times even mentions Twitter these days without bothering to explain what it is.

And somehow that lulls us into the very false belief that everyone’s at least heard of it. That everyone knows what Twitter is and just hasn’t gotten around to signing up for it yet. But the truth is that the vast majority of people haven’t heard of it. At all. For them, a “tweet” is still just a noise a bird makes.

Ditto FriendFeed. Which is a useful tool if you’re a social media guru whose job it is to spend all day reading and responding to other people’s blog posts and tweets and Facebook postings. For the rest of us though, it’s just overkill. Another reminder of how little time we have. It also operates under the assumption that most people have blogs and Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and Flickr accounts to which they are constantly adding content and that their friends are anxiously standing by waiting to read those updates. Which is just plain not true. And besides, does anyone with a job really have the time (or the desire!) to consistently check out the birthday party photos of random business acquaintances or read the obscure blog postings of college friends they haven’t seen in years?

And this all matters because as we bring our “dispatches from the frontier” back to the people in “the real world” we need to be able to put everything into perspective. To think about why someone outside our bubble would use these apps or want to see certain content. To realize how provincial and uninformed we sound if we promote things to clients without providing them with a well-formed reason for our recommendations that takes the actual audience into account. Not ourselves and our friends, but the people who’ll actually use them.

If you don’t know any of those people, if all your friends are social media geeks too, then you’re not as effective as you should be. It’s time to break out of the bubble, talk to “real” people and get a sense for who they are, what they like and what they know.

You’re a marketer: knowing your audience is a major part of your job. Not something you should be gleaning from focus groups.

Jul 10, 2008

Dot Mac's Down

It's around midnight on Thursday night here on the East Coast. Sometime on Wednesday night, more than 24 hours ago, Apple's dot mac service went down for "temporary maintenance" so they could set up the new Mobile Me service in advance of the introduction of the new 3G iPhone. (And doesn't "Mobile Me" sound like some 70s era program for "special" children? But I digress.)

You'd have thought Apple would have updated the page you see above with some sort of "having more trouble than we thought, please be patient" type message. Rather than the vague "normal service will be restored soon."

For people who rely on dot mac, today has been extremely frustrating and what's foolish is that Apple could have solved the problem and made their customers feel better with about 30 minutes worth of work.

I'm not even talking about going on Twitter and responding to people who were complaining. Just update the "we're down" page guys.


NB: I've been able to send and receive email sporadically all day via my Apple mail account, but the online version has been showing the screen you see above.

UPDATE: 9:00 AM EDT and Mobile Me is up and running. Loading slow but looking very cool. Could well have been worth waiting for, he says, his eyes glazing over with the familiar stare of the Mac devotee.

UPDATE 2: 9:05 AM EDT and Mobile Me is down. At least we get a new, MoblileMe error window:

UPDATE 3: 10:15 AM EDT - Still down, but at least the message screen acknowledges that there are issues. Apple listened?

Jul 9, 2008

New Post on MP Daily Fix: But He's Really Nice In Person: Social Media and the Embarrassing CEO

We all have one: the friend whose quirks are mildly amusing in person. But place them under the magnifying glass of social media and those minor quirks become major, hard-to-ignore annoyances.

Or, as one friend recently remarked about an acquaintance of ours, “I’m embarrassed for him every time I go on Twitter.”

Not everyone has the personality for social media. It’s something we never talk about... Read the rest here.

Jul 7, 2008

Gone Fishing

I'm on vacation this week, so posting will be sporadic (if at all.)

Enjoy the summer and I will be back and posting on the 11th.


Jul 3, 2008

It's All About The Benjamins

So it's been pretty hard to avoid the skirmishes that have been going on between traditional and digital agencies this past week, stemming from traditional agency BBDO's alleged snub of digital agency Big Spaceship at Cannes and the resulting accusations and counter-accusations.

But through it all, everyone's been avoiding that 600 pound elephant in the room: salaries.

Digital creatives make less money than their above-the-line counterparts. Oftentimes, considerably less money.

Now I realize that much of that stems from different compensation models and all that. But the fact remains that there are no million dollar men in the digital world.

And that leads to the widespread-but-unspoken perception in traditional agencies that "if they were any good, they'd be working on TV commercials." And the countervailing perception in digital agencies that they're dealing with "overpaid dinosaurs who can't even figure out how to open a PDF."

Once salaries even out-- and they will have to, as it becomes harder and harder to classify the new generation of creatives as one thing or another-- so will the hard feelings and negative perceptions. But until that happens, we're foolish to pretend that money isn't at the root of much of the current nastiness.

Jul 2, 2008

Social Media Cards

A little bit of fun to start off the long weekend:

Chris Thilk and David Griner started to create Social Media yellow and red cards for egregious behavior on Twitter.

And to help them out, I’ve compiled an official rule book.


Red cards will be issued for the following violations:
  • Four or more tweets plugging one’s own blog post within a 24 hour period, including tweets from automated services like Twitterfeed.
  • Use of the word “monetize” in an unironic way
  • Posts mentioning surprise at the number of followers one has, provided that number is greater than 1,000
  • Using a bot or interns or both to follow 1,000 or more people in the course of an evening.
  • Issuing 50 or more consecutive tweets without ever once responding to an @ tweet
  • Using Twitter for the sole purpose of promoting links to stories and/or posts that directly plug yourself or your company.
  • Tweeting the UUSWVW (Using Urban Slang While Very White) violation “My Tweeps”


Yellow cards will be issued for the following violations:
  • Greeting one’s new random followers more than once a week
  • 2 or more mentions of how Plurk is much better for conversations within a 6 hour period
  • The third tweet plugging one’s own blog post within a 24 hour period, including tweets from automated services like Twitterfeed.
  • UUSWVW (Using Urban Slang While Very White) violations other than “My Tweeps!”
  • UTSWMA (Using Teenage Slang While Middle Aged) violations, including, but not limited to, unironic uses of “prolly,” “hella,” and “BFF”
  • Referring to author Seth Godin without using his last name, unless one is an actual friend of Mr. Godin’s.
  • Using public @ messages to exchange information that is solely relevant to you and the recipient of said @ message.
  • Three or more references to meals and/or restaurants that are not culinary masterpieces or unmitigated disasters within a one week period.
  • Tweets about things best classified as “too much information” (TMI) including, but not limited to, the color of one’s body hair, the unpleasant mood of one’s spouse or significant other, the frequency or consistency of one’s bodily functions, the attractiveness of nearby strangers.

Must Reading For Creatives

My friend Kevin Amter, one of the first art directors I ever worked with in this business, is a very successful freelancer.

So successful in fact, that he actually wrote a book about it. It's called Minds For Rent: How Advertising Creatives Freelance and it's got great tips and much practical advice for a career path that desperately needed a "How To" guide: as smart as many ad creatives are, they sort of lose it when it comes to things like negotiating compensation and schedules and they constantly wind up selling themselves short.

Now Kevin is a web-savvy guy (he's even got his own blog) and so the book is available online as a download. For the very reasonable price of US$10. (Which is probably about half a Euro these days or 5 Canadian dollars.)

»Download it here

Jul 1, 2008

Tuesday Tip: How To Do Social Media on Scamp

BBH London CD Simon Veksner runs the UK's most popular ad blog, Scamp. Every Tuesday, he publishes a "How To Do" post, most of which he writes himself.

But occasionally, he taps someone else in the industry, and so I'm quite flattered that this week, he called on me.

How To Use Social Media, by Alan Wolk

Social Media is a broad term, and it’s often thrown at any and all online marketing vehicles that don’t fall into the banner ad category.

So let’s start with a brief definition: social media is anything that lets you share information with other people. That means... READ THE REST ON SCAMP