Dec 29, 2009

Toad Stool Top Nine of '09

With a hat tip to the BBH Labs blog for inspiring this, here are my Top Nine Blog Posts from 2009, in Lettermanesque reverse countdown order:

9. "BORN DIGITAL" (July) A look at how the perpetually wired preschoolers of the Bobos are the first generation we can say was truly "born digital."

8. "DON'T SUCK" (July) Why having a good product or service is the best defense against social media blunders.

7. "CROWDSOURCING IS JUST CREATIVE GANG-BANG 2.0" (September) How certain ad agencies see the crowdsourcing trend as a way to recreate the creative gang-bang for free.

6. "LIFE IN THE BUBBLE" (November) A look at how and why the majority of social media users are observers rather than active participants.

5. "MAGIC ADVERTISING WORDS" (September) On why many marketers still cling to the outdated notion that the right ad can blind consumers to their product's shortcomings.

4. "THE END OF CREATIVE HEGEMONY" (September) Why the Mad Men era creative department, of the sort still in power in most traditional agencies, is no longer relevant, and what creativity will look like going forward.

3. "DOES CREATIVITY STILL MATTER?" (February) A look at the role of "creative" advertising at a time when consumers increasingly rely on search for product information and where it does and doesn't make a difference.

2. "THE STUBBORN, MULE-LIKE TENDENCIES OF REACTIONARY THINKING" (October) Why most marketers and agencies have a tough time accepting all the things that "we" accept as the converntional wisdom, and how and when they'll catch up.

1. "THE SHELF LIFE OF REVOLUTIONS, PARTS 1 - 3" (January/March) A psycho-economic historical overview of twentieth century marketing trends and how we wound up where we are now in the Era of Customer Service.


How To Lose A Customer: Citibank Mortgage

We've had the mortgage on our house for seven years and, thanks to an automatic payment system, the mortgage has been paid ahead of schedule every single month.

This month, however, Citibank Mortgage managed to somehow lose track of the payment. (Our bank has records showing that it was paid and money was transferred on the usual date.)

The harassing automated calls began sometime last week (we were away) and continued through this morning... despite our getting on the phone 3 different times and speaking with someone at Citi Mortgage who claimed they'd rectify the issue.

This morning we received another automated call, this despite the Citi mortgage website showing that we are actually paid up through February 2010.

Another call to Citi Mortgage, another profound apology. (Based on the South Asian accents of the people we spoke with, I can only but assume we are actually speaking with a call center in India and not anyone in any position of authority.)

So here's what I don't get:

1. Why, after 7 straight years of prompt payment, would they feel compelled to immediately subject us to 4 harassing phone calls a day over a payment that, if it were late (it wasn't) would only have been two weeks late? I can understand if we were consistently late or if we had a funky adjustable mortgage. But we don't. Wouldn't a polite call or note asking what was up been the smart thing to do?

2. Why has no one in a position of authority with Citi Mortgage called to apologize? It's not like they're the only game in town and in the midst of The Great Recession, good customers are hard to come by. Harassing a good customer over the holiday for an error of your own creation seems like just the sort of circumstance a "we're very sorry let us make it up to you" letter calls for.

One of the great things about the digital era is that we can record shabby service for posterity and I firmly believe that it will eventually catch up with the perpetrators. Good customer service is often seen as wasteful because it requires real humans with the power to make decisions exercising subjective judgment rather than computer programs acting on a set of pre-programmed variables.

The problem is, in the long run, the latter is always going to prove far more costly.

Dec 16, 2009

The Art of Conversation


People often talk about how Twitter is great at conversation, but the majority of folks I know rarely experience it as anything other than a one way street.

But sometimes a great conversation does happen, most often spontaneously.

The attached PDF is a loose transcript of a conversation that broke loose for about a half hour involving 18 people the other night based on a simple tweet I put out asking whether David Armano's accepting a position at Edelman said anything about the struggle between ad agencies and PR agencies for control of social media. (And since there was no hashtag involved, I'm sure I missed out on several side threads that took off.)

It took on several interesting tangents, and while I know most of the participants in real life, I did get to meet some new people as a result.

Which is why Twitter proves so addictive.

The Downside of Clever

One of my pet peeves are ads that try too hard to be clever and wind up ignoring the product and audience.

To wit: this morning I saw an all-type bus shelter ad for J.C. Penney that read "For the record, no kid wants a sugarplum."

Clever line, will likely win some awards and the creative team will proudly display it in their portfolios.

But what does J.C. Penney get out of it?


If my own reaction is common (and I suspect in this case it is) my thoughts immediately turn to Hanukkahs past and my dismay at receiving clothing of any sort as a present instead of toys. Which then immediately leads me to Toys'R'Us or GameStop or Amazon or even Target- any store that I know sells lots of toys-- and how I should make sure all my kids' gifts are toy-like.

J.C. Penney sells clothes as far as I know. And while the website indicated that they do sell toys (I just checked) they've given me no reason to choose them over the aforementioned stores: the ad tells me nothing about the size of their toy selection or even that one exists. (Or if it does, I haven't noticed it after about a dozen viewings.)

Clever is good and can help create a strong brand image, particularly in a parity category.

But clever for clever's sake? #Fail.

Dec 14, 2009

How We Judge

With apologies to Dave Armano and Mike Arauz, the masters of the chart, it struck me the other day that there's a world of difference in how we judge most websites vs most ads and that the inability to wrap their heads around this sea change is the one thing that holds so many brands, people and agencies back.

Dec 9, 2009

The Decade Without A Name

So what do we call the decade that's about to be behind us in around three weeks?

No one's been able to come up with a universally acceptable name.

I've heard everything from "the two thousands" to "the zeros" here in the US, while my friend Ben Kay tells me that the Brits are referring to it as the "oughties" (this is the same pattern that has them referring to garbage cans as "rubbish bins.")

None of those names really seems to have stuck though and we'll soon be looking back upon a nameless decade.

This is no doubt causing a great deal of angst in the rapidly depleting hallways of People, Time, Newsweek, the E! network and other places prone to running cover stories featuring "the decade that was" type retrospectives.

But what about the advertising and marketing communities. Certainly someone here can come up with something clever.

Can't they?

Dec 6, 2009

A Bigger Big Idea

There’s an ongoing debate in the ad world about the death of the “Big Idea” - an overarching notion like “Just Do It” or “Got Milk?” that defines a brand in its advertising messages.

The gist of the argument is that the current media landscape makes the Big Idea obsolete and that the best notion is to create lots of little ideas which will coalesce into a Big Idea depending upon consumer’s reaction.

And while there’s much truth to that argument (which has its basis in what’s now commonly lumped under the umbrella of “Design Thinking” ) I’d like to present another possibility, which is that brands need Big Ideas and Bigger Ideas.

A Big Idea is a marketing message, designed to get consumers to try a product or service. These messages are often very granular and brands and ad agencies often spend weeks tweaking the brief or the tag line to create what they feel is the exact perfect combination of words. And while much of this fine-tuning is no doubt pointless, having a unique message is quite valuable when you’re faced with parity products in a mature market and brand image is the sole differentiator.

But orienting your web messaging around the sales-oriented “Big Idea” is a mistake. Consumers encountering your brand online didn’t just stumble upon it: they took a decisive and purposeful action in order to land there. So you need an idea for this gray area that defines your brand without being overly “sell” oriented.

Hence the Bigger Idea.

Consumers, as many of us tend to forget, don’t think like marketers. Which is to say they aren’t that keen on the fine distinctions and you’re lucky if they can keep one large idea about your product in their heads.

That’s why, you’ll want to cut back on your sales pitch: your message is different and all you need to keep in mind is what your core proposition is, the Bigger Idea that sums up where you sit in consumer’s mental map.

So while the marketing line on my Pert Shampoo may read “Crazy Good Hair Without The Craziness,” your Bigger Idea is “Pert = Convenience” Not particularly sexy, but the Bigger Idea is never going to be couched in pretty marketing language. It’s flat and consumery, but if you can own "convenience" in the shampoo category the way Volvo once owned “safe” you’re golden.

Once you’ve gotten that Bigger Idea down, you can start experimenting, adjusting all your smaller ideas, provided they map back to the Bigger Idea in some way or another.

It's an easy plan to put in motion and eliminating the need to force fit things like mobile apps into the constricted logic of some marketing speak tag line will only serve to make everyone's life easier.

Nov 24, 2009

The Best Marketing Video Ever Made

The "Microsoft Designs the iPod" video is still the best marketing video ever made.


Because it reflects, in a clear and visceral way, the impetus behind what I'd estimate to be around 90% of the unnecessary input into any marketing project.

It's the inability to push back on that input, what my friend Don Miller calls "being pecked to death by chickens" that ultimately dooms so many projects.

The impetus of the fictional Microsoft team-- and that of so many clients I've encountered-- is to create something bulletproof, something that answers each and every critic they've encountered along the way. That includes internal critics (e.g. the ones in their own heads) as well as external ones, critics with valid opinions and those who are just looking for something to say.

While the impulse may be valid, the result is not: each attempt to further explain and clarify just winds up muddying things even further so that the perspective consumer gives up rather than digs in.

I'm always tempted to show that video to the combined team at the start of any marketing-based project. It's a strong reminder of the dangers of ignoring the old dictum: when you try to please everybody, you wind up pleasing nobody.

Nov 12, 2009

Announcing the Hive Awards

The Hive Awards are now live!

The Hive Awards started as a pipe dream, about a year ago, when I was looking at web award shows and realized that none of them rewarded things like user experience, content strategy or even coding. At least not on any significant level. What’s more, the awards that were being given out seemed to go to big, high profile sites in glamor industries. Which is not to say that those sites weren’t deserving, just that they didn’t seem to reward all the people working in the trenches, what I called the unsung heroes of the internet.

And so an idea was born.

When I pitched the idea to International Awards Group, they immediately understood the value of such a show and agreed to work with me to develop it. Together, we came up with the name Hive Awards as a paean to the “hive mentality” inherent in building a web site or application. There are many people with many different roles, all of whom must work together and build off what the others have created. It is only by cooperating and working together that they’re able to create the final product. Our show recognizes that dynamic and seeks to reward each function within the hive.

We’ve also divided up the different job functions by industry category. Because we realized that the content strategy for an entertainment site is always going to be a whole lot sexier than the content strategy for an insurance industry site. By allowing each industry category to be judged separately, we’re leveling the playing field and giving everyone who's done something unique and special a chance to be recognized.

Finally, we see the Hive Awards as a chance to help set standards in the industry and to give newcomers something to strive for. The interwebs are still so new and evolve so quickly that having something to point to and say “this is what good work looks like” should prove very useful.

Since this is our first year (and in keeping in line with the notion of “hive mentality”) we’re looking to our audience to give us feedback and suggestions. (If I was the type of guy who liked using buzzwords, I'd call it "crowdsourcing.") So if there’s something that doesn’t make sense or you feel could be made better, please let me know, either here or on the Hive Awards site.

Discount Deadline ends December 31st, which is sooner than you realize, so start working on those entries.

Welcome aboard.

Nov 8, 2009

Life In The Bubble

Over the past year, I'd say well over 150 of my friends and relatives joined Facebook, none of whom work in any sort of media or technology related function.
  • Maybe 5% of them post regular status updates
  • Maybe 5% of them post pictures beyond the half dozen or so they put up when they joined
  • Maybe 2 or 3 of them regularly share outside articles on any topic.
  • Maybe 5 of them have actually shared an outside article, period.
  • Maybe a dozen of them have used Facebook at some point to promote their own business or a charitable endeavor they've been a part of.
  • Maybe 2 or 3 of them do that sort of promotion with any regularity
  • Maybe 15% of them have even bothered to "like" someone else's update or article or even their Bejeweled Blitz score.
  • Maybe 50% have ever commented on someone else's picture.
  • Of that 50%, maybe a dozen of them comment on pictures with any sort of regularity.

I've also had about two dozen of these same friends and relatives join Twitter over the same time period.

None of them stuck with it.

Literally, none of them.

While I'd never be so egotistical as to claim my own personal experience is universal, I do suspect it's not particularly unique: there will always be more audience members than actors.

Just something to think about as we're chasing after all the bright shiny objects.

PS: If you have a minute or two to leave a comment, I'd be very curious to hear what other people's experiences have been with their non-media/tech family and friends.

Nov 5, 2009

Enough With The Guilt, Facebook

"Your mother is just sitting there. Alone. In the dark. But that's okay, you're busy. You go right ahead and play Bejeweled Blitz. I'm sure she won't mind."

Facebook has introduced a lot of boneheaded features over the years, but one that seems particularly insidious is the new configuration of the "Suggestions" feature, which "suggests," you get back in touch with people whose wall you haven't written on in a while or whose profiles are only half filled out.

You see, if my "social graph" is any indication, one of the most common Facebook Suggestions is the account holder's mother, followed closely by great-aunts, long-lost cousins and other non tech savvy relatives.

It's a move that would make a room full of old school Jewish mothers proud, but one that's making logging onto Facebook an unwelcome guilt trip for many of my friends.

Only good news is that Facebook's been pretty good (not great, but pretty good) about adjusting features the audience finds unappealing.

And this is certainly one of them.

Nov 3, 2009

Towards A Two-Tier System of Media Consumption

One of the trends I’ve been keeping my eye on is the speed at which we seem to be headed towards a two-tier system of media consumption, with commercial free content available for those willing (and able) to pay for it, and ad-supported content for those who are not.

It’s a trend that’s mirrored in other industries, from health care (many doctors in affluent areas no longer take insurance: they have enough patients who are willing to pay out of pocket and take whatever “out of network” reimbursement they can get in return for what they regard as a superior, more patient-centric experience) to the airline industry, where the difference between first class and steerage seemingly grows more pronounced with each passing month.

Media is ripe for this sort of bifurcation as there is a large pool of people who’ll gladly pay to avoid commercials of any sort. For as much as we protest that people “read what interests them” and “find value in well-targeted messaging,” the truth is that commercials are inherently interruptive and that if one is truly engaged in whatever content one is consuming (e.g. if you’re really enjoying that episode of Mad Men) they’re about as welcome as the Spanish Inquisition.

No matter how well-targeted or interesting.

As I noted the other week, once we’ve sipped from the commercial-and-preview-free fountain of iTunes, it’s hard to go back to watching anything else. And while the $2.99 it now costs to buy an HD iTunes episode is pretty cheap, I suspect the networks could get away with charging several times that amount and still find takers who’ll pay a premium for the enhanced experience. (Not to mention the bragging rights.) Apple is allegedly already looking for takers for an iTunes monthly subscription service and Hulu, Google (YouTube) and even Netflix are all allegedly looking at similar models.

Given that scenario and the continued reliance upon the ad-supported model for “free”-- it’s easy to see a two-tiered system evolving for many of the more popular platforms.

It’s not much of a stretch to see either Twitter or Facebook introducing ad-free subscription models (e.g. pay $10/month and you’ll get no ads and some enhanced features while free users will start seeing more and more prominently placed ads.)

That system is already in place for mobile apps, many of which come in two flavors: a free version with ads and a paid version that’s ad-free and comes with a few more bells and whistles.

The two-tier system is not necessarily a bad thing though, except, perhaps, to those trying to market Range Rovers and Rolexes. It allows people to place a value on content according to how important it is to them: I may consent to watch commercials during a show I’m not all that interested in (which would probably increase the likelihood that I’d pay attention to the commercials) but pay to be able to watch a show I do like with no interruptions.

I’d say it’s inherently classist, but the low cost of entry makes it an affordably luxury for most people. If not all the time, then certainly on enough occasions as to make the scenario seem equitable.

As such, I can see the two tier system spreading beyond what we now think of as ad-supported media: cell phone service could be made to work this way: pay a greatly reduced price (or nothing at all) to have ads continuously streaming across your screen or pay more to avoid them. Popular media blogger Ben Kunz has even suggested an advertising model for books that I can see working both for library books and/or for books the reader views as disposable.

The trick here-- across the board-- is going to be striking a balance between what the market will bear and what the provider needs to earn. That’s an equation that’s going to have to be figured out on the fly and there are sure to be some casualties along the way. The end result though will be a system that ultimately gives the consumer more control and makes advertising of all sorts less onerous.

Oct 28, 2009

The Stubborn Mule-Like Tendencies of Reactionary Thinking

Three random events transpired recently. Each fairly innocuous, in and of itself, but together they served to remind me how much the world hasn’t changed once you leave our particular neck of the woods. (Or the internet, as the case may be.)

The first epiphany happened during a session with a client, when I was trying to explain why flash sites had fallen out of favor. I decided to use that old standby as an example of the sort of flashturbation and “ha-ha you can’t figure out what to do next” interface that was once held out as the gold standard. And in that ten-second interval before the page loaded, I found myself thinking that surely they must have updated the site, that someone would have realized how out of touch it made them look.

But then the screen filled up and there it was, in all its spinning, black penciled glory. When you moved the mouse, the pencil drew little lines and it was 2004 all over again.

In our world we know that this is just bad UX, that agency sites like those maintained by Big Spaceship, Barbarian Group, Mullen, even Boone Oakley are showcases for what’s good and true and right.

But not all agencies-- or their clients have caught up to that. And there are still CMOs and agency search consultants who are dazzled by the “creativity” of flashturbation and dismissive of the “boring, overly dense” sites we hold so dear.

Another day, another scene.

I’m scrolling down some random web page using a giant ergonomically correct mouse I’ve recently inherited and I accidentally click on a banner for some product I have no interest in. This happens a couple of times a week, regardless of what mouse I'm using. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I intentionally clicked on a banner and I rarely stay on the accidental clicks long enough for the landing page to actually load. And it dawns on me that my behavior (and clumsiness) is probably more common than not.

Yet we’re still judging banners by click-through rates. Or using the negative click-through rate as proof that banners don’t work. We know that click-through shouldn’t matter, that banners pretty much serve to drive awareness and that no matter how much they move and dance and jiggle, no one's going to click on them because they’re too busy doing whatever it was they originally went online to do.

But we are not the ones controlling ad budgets. And the people who are controlling ad budgets still view click-through rates as the Holy Grail and they judge both their agencies and the state of digital advertising on their vicissitudes.

Final event: In our world we understand why the whole “Good Enough” economy makes sense. Wired’s even done a whole article on it. We get why experimenting and getting things out first and changing them on the fly is important, and, more importantly, why it’s what consumers are coming to expect.

But try explaining that to someone who doesn’t get it, as I recently was called on to do. No matter how you word it, it sounds like you’re just making excuses for shoddy work. For something you should have just stayed up later and done better.

And so releases are delayed, products and apps and sites are polished and repolished and clients sneeringly turn away from companies that use terms like “embracing failure” and “fixing things on the fly.”

A few things to take away from this meditation:

  1. Change happens quickly at first, then slowly. Once you get past the early adopters, getting the rest of the world on board takes a while. Most people don’t like change, will resist it and will often become hostile in the face of a growing tide of apostasy.
  2. We can’t expect everyone else to get it. And we can’t treat them like idiots because they don’t. Patience and reasoned explanation goes a lot farther than anger and hostility. No matter how dismissive you want to be when a client sneers “you’re just going to let people write whatever they want about us on this blog?”
  3. We will eventually triumph. Progress almost always does. Rarely as quickly as we’d like, perhaps, but it does eventually triumph. And these truths that we hold to be self-evident, will, in time, become self-evident to everyone else.

Oct 21, 2009

Real Time Goes Prime Time

So it seems like both Bing and Google are in the process of cutting deals with Facebook and Twitter to use their databases for real time search.

The result would seem to be a boon for Twitter and a potential land mine for Facebook.

Most people tweet with the understanding that their tweets are public, searchable (on both search engines and on and function as a broadcast medium. As such, Twitter results on many topics will be both relevant and interesting. Particularly in regards to breaking news stories.

But Facebook? With the influx of the over-30 crowd, Facebook’s become a very different animal, far more about conversations between friends than a broadcast medium. As proof, I’d offer the number of people who’ve stopped having Twitter update their Facebook status over the past year.

Updating your Facebook status more than once or twice a day is considered bad form in most circles and with the Facebook “hide” feature, it’s easy enough to ding violators without hurting their feelings.

And so Facebook’s become the place where we talk about the larger things we’re doing in life (going on a vacation, spending the weekend shopping for a wedding gown) along with the occasional Dilbertesque quip and Bejewled Blitz score. And if we are sharing links on Facebook, it’s far more likely to be a funny video than a Mashable story about a newly launched iPhone app or a picture of Balloon Boy: Facebook seems to lack that sense of immediacy that Twitter has.

That’s why I’ll be very curious to see what the Facebook real-time results wind up looking like. First off, because they’ll most likely be opt in (or opt out, in the who-cares-what-users-think-let-them-go-to-MySpace-if-they-don’t-like-it way of thinking Facebook often exhibits.) So the results will only be from people who have a certain exhibitionist streak, the sort of people who don’t currently keep their Facebook pages hidden from the eyes of non-friends.

Because the biggest issue for Facebook is going to be that a major part of the sales pitch to the later adopters was the walled garden aspect, the notion that no one except a select group of friends was ever going to be able to see their Facebook page. And if status updates start turning up in search results, you’re going to have a whole lot of freaked out Facebookers. No matter how many times you explain it's other people's Facebook pages, not theirs.

Contrast that to Team Twitter, whose users are more likely to be absolutely thrilled to see their names turn up at the top of a Bing results page and to start trading tips on how to get them there.

We'll learn how this all plays out soon enough, as Google and Bing announce their Real Time Search strategies. In the interim, it's well worth keeping an eye on Twitter and Facebook at they prepare their users.

Or not.

Oct 20, 2009

More Magic Advertising Words

The Wall Street Journal' Kara Swisher reported yesterday that Yahoo! was moving its ad account from Ogilvy to Goodby. The news was greeted in ad circles with the usual schadenfreude and proclamations that golden child Goodby would “finally give them a good campaign.”

If only it were that easy.

Once again we have a case of a company relying on the power of Magic Advertising Words to save them from doom when the real problem is a less-than-ideal product.

I’m not going to fix Yahoo in a single blog post (though this one, from Nicholas Carlson over at BusinessInsider, is a good start) but the recent changes the company has made to its homepage, email and mobile sites have been more or less universally greeted with a great big shrug.

And that’s not good.

Yahoo needs an image makeover. But the days where that could be accomplished via a really clever ad campaign are long gone. (If indeed they ever really existed.) The product is still popular and still has a big user base, particularly with people who are less internet savvy, but hey, wasn’t that what we were all saying about MySpace around this time last year, and look what’s happened to them. (And it’s not like we can even say Yahoo’s really popular with up and coming rock bands or anything.)

Blaming the ad agency or the advertising for a product’s poor performance is always a simple solution: we make great scapegoats. And while “It’s Y!ou” was probably not doing anyone any favors, Yahoo’s problems are not going to be solved by a new ad campaign.

Not until they invest some more in R&D, anyway.

Oct 15, 2009

The Power of No-Roll

I’m convinced that when historians look back on the early days of the 21st century, they’ll concur that one of the major nails in the coffin of the broadcast television model was the decision to allow iTunes to broadcast entire shows without even the hint of a commercial break.

Because it’s the rare consumer who doesn’t find the experience of watching a show from start to finish without a single interruption completely liberating. Especially when that experience can be had for just two dollars and ninety-nine cents.

Think about it: we’ve never even had that kind of ad-free experience at the movies, where at the very least, five to ten minutes of trailers preceded the main feature. Even DVDs come loaded with can’t-skip trailers and sales pitches before you get to the main menu. But iTunes has no trailers. No “previously on Lost.” No post roll. Nothing but the show itself, available the same week it was first broadcast on television.

Having experienced that kind of liberation, some consumers are taking the next step and realizing they don’t need broadcast TV. It’s happening with the “early adopter” community, time-crunched twenty and thirtysomethings who are concluding that it’s far cheaper to pay $300 a year to iTunes to watch the ten series they like than to pay $120 a month to their cable provider. (Note to Luddites: hooking a laptop to a big screen HDTV is quite simple.)

And while cable spurners are still a rather small percentage of the overall population, at some point the NBA, NFL and other major sports leagues are going to figure out that they can sell their games directly to consumers too, and even more viewers will begin to flee their cable systems for an online a la carte model.

So while much of the argument today seems to center around pre-roll and post-roll and creating compelling commercials that consumers won’t skip or will interact with, I’m afraid the cat has been let out of the proverbial bag: once you’ve experienced no-roll, anything that’s interruptive is going to seem incredibly irksome. We're too busy to put up with it anymore and we'll gladly pay to avoid it, particularly if all we're paying is $2.99.

The only question seems to be how long it takes before this becomes the norm rather than the deviation.

Oct 13, 2009

More Me

Time for another BeanCast podcast. This one featuring the lovely Åsk Wappling of Adland. Ken Wheaton of Ad Age. Bob Knorpp (our host) and John Wall of Marketing Over Coffee.

Topics included the FTCs new guidelines for bloggers, the power of online reviews, is YouTube making Google more creative, and why users love pre-roll.

It’s a great discussion and Wheaton actually manages to make me seem perky and uplifting by comparison ;)

You can find the show’s notes here, or download the entire thing via iTunes here.

Oct 11, 2009

First Ad Age Column

Ad Age editor Jonah Bloom and I appeared on the same BeanCast podcast a few months back, and the result was an offer to start writing for Ad Age.

My first column is this week and is online now:

Niche Brands Should Embrace Big Market for Offbeat Content

One of the wisest bits of advice I've gotten in my advertising career came from an old creative director who once noted that "there's a reason 'America's Funniest Home Videos' is a top-10 show."

His point, which predated You Tube's sneezing pandas and dancing babies by at least 10 years, was that the most popular entertainment is often the safest. Which doesn't make it bad or wrong or awful. It's just not cutting edge.

It's something to keep in mind as we move... READ THE REST AT ADAGE.COM

Oct 2, 2009

Fear and Loathing in Adland

I don’t know Curt Detweiler. Never even heard of him until this morning when, catching up on my ad trades, I clicked on this article announcing that he’d been named to a senior creative role at McCann in San Francisco.

There were over 50 comments attached to the article. But what was truly odd was that while most of them were both positive and completely innocuous (e.g. “Curt is a great guy! I wish him well! Great hire!”) not a single poster used anything remotely resembling their real name. (Which happens enough on Adweek, but rarely to this degree.)

Now my first thought was that maybe these comments were a PR effort from McCann or from Detweiler himself, a thought echoed by several commenters.

But it seemed like an awful lot of effort for the PR agency. A dozen comments, maybe. But 50?

Which leaves the other option: that people in the ad business are so scared of actually being seen to have an opinion on anything, that even something as banal as publicly congratulating a co-worker is thought to be akin to career suicide.

I’m at a loss to understand why though. What are people afraid of and why are they so loathe to be seen as having opinions?

There’s the “you’re not Bill Bernbach” factor, something I had discussed with Ana Andjelic not too long ago, where there’s a strong undercurrent of “only famous people are allowed to have opinions” sentiment within the industry.

I’m thinking that comes from the fact that everyone-- from clients to their spouses to the guy in the next seat on the airplane-- thinks they can write ads. So that people in the industry develop a fierce attachment to the idea that they alone possess the talent and expertise to create ads. As such, only the most talented of this already talented cadre are allowed to express opinions. Everyone else just needs to shut up and let the professionals do their work.

This circling the wagons effect is no doubt exacerbated by the spate of user-generated content advertisers are turning to and the fact that digital media seems to rely less and less on clever headlines, funny visuals and all the other things that once allowed advertising creatives to set themselves apart.

Or it could be nothing more than a follow-the-leader type thing and once the first 5 commenters used pseudonyms, everyone else did too.

But somehow, I don't think so.

Sep 29, 2009

The Power of Buzzwords

Those of you who’ve been reading me for a while know that few things make me cringe like buzzwords, particularly when they’re used in place of simpler language that would make the writer’s point both clearer and easier to comprehend.

Buzzwords are the refuge of those who doubt their ability to lay out a cogent argument, who know that cloaking everything under a vague term like “storytelling” or “engagement” is a perfect way to deflect any kind of criticism: if you’re not really sure what someone is saying, it’s tough to actually disagree with them.

That said, buzzwords are incredibly popular and, as students of marketing, it’s worth stopping to reflect on why they’re so well-loved.

My theory is that since buzzwords allow a statement to mean all things to all people, they allow readers to conclude that the writer is brilliant because he or she is in complete agreement with them. And that, in turn, lets the reader feel like an absolute genius too.

So that no matter what your actual definition of “engaging with consumers” is, a blog post preaching the benefits of engagement will leave you feeling wiser and more on top of things, since the writer is just reconfirming your sage thoughts on the topic. That's why (subconsciously, for the most part) so many people are likely to repeat the word or phrase: using it makes them feel smarter.

It’s a tactic I find prevalent in most mainstream publications, regardless of topic: their purpose seems to be solely to reassure their audience that they do in fact understand the topic while providing them with well-crafted quotes to use in their next report. Something to the effect of “not listening to your consumers is like not wearing a coat in the snow” -- nothing objectionable there and broad enough so that whatever your take on “listening to consumers” may be, you can walk away feeling smart.

Now taking the leap to brands, it would seem that the lesson we can learn from buzzwords is that the broader the message, the more likely it is to resonate. Buzzwords have a POV, but it’s a POV that most everyone can find themselves agreeing with. Sharablity (who doesn’t like sharing?). Engagement (who wouldn’t want to engage a customer?) Groundswell (grass roots support? Always a good thing.)

Buzzwords, in fact, have a lot in common with tag lines. (End lines, for you Brits.) A great tag line like “Just Do It” speaks to serious athletes and amateurs alike, soccer fans and baseball fans, runners and badminton players. The universality of its message--- along with its unarguably upbeat premise-- allow a world of executions to exist under its umbrella.

Which is just the sort of thing the new consumer-lead digital landscape calls for: a broad theme that can hold a variety of executions.

Don't believe me? Just crowdsource it ;)

Sep 21, 2009

Magic Advertising Words - A Brief Update

Interesting piece in Brandweek about Subaru that confirms some of what I was talking about in the “Magic Advertising Words” post earlier this month.

Seems that Subaru sales are up 4% in the midst of the recession, despite having what Brandweek calls a “mediocre ad campaign.”

And the reason for that? Well, Subaru makes a really good, really well-priced car, that, despite years of bad and/or inappropriate advertising, has managed to replace the now high-priced Volvo as the L.L. Bean of automobiles: the sensible, well-made car that’s acceptable for people in leafy upper middle class suburbs to own.

Subaru’s current status seems to have everything to do with the car’s unique-yet-sensible design, excellent repair and safety ratings and rave reviews from publications like Consumer Reports and nothing to do with years of overly twee advertising, of the sort Randall Rothenberg wrote about so brilliantly in Where The Suckers Moon.

The lesson here is that when you have a great product, the wrong advertising matters less and less: positive word of mouth from your fans will eventually create the image the brand deserves. In Subaru’s case, it’s the anti-BMW, the “I don’t need to drive a status symbol” car that also says “I did my homework.” (Something the Brandweek article bears out: it seems most Subaru owners pay cash and come to the showroom ready to buy.)

That’s an image most Subaru owners can live with. I know I can: confession- we own two of them.

Sep 17, 2009

Crowdsourcing Is Just Creative Gang Bang 2.0

Anyone who spent time at a big ad agency over the past several decades is familiar with the notion of the creative “gang bang,” an exercise in futility wherein dozens of creative teams, both in-house and (high priced) freelancers spend a month of fifteen hour days and even longer weekends to try and “crack the big idea” for a new television campaign. (And despite all the lip service to digital, it’s always about the TV campaign.)

The end result is almost anything anything but breakthrough, and is in fact, often considerably worse than what was presented in the early rounds.

But no matter: these agencies are convinced that the amount of effort is what’s important and that good ideas only happen after weeks of hashing and re-hashing. Or they’ve convinced their clients of this, anyway. The clients aren’t blameless either-- its why they hire big agencies-- big companies like the idea of spending millions to have dozens of “creative geniuses” devoting months of their lives to figuring out the best way to sell kitty litter.

Given that scenario, it’s not all that surprising that big agencies are looking at crowdsourcing like it was manna from heaven.

Because not only do they get the perceived brilliance of hundreds of people working on their projects, they get it for free and they get it without any actual human contact.

No more $1,500 a day freelancers coming up with ideas that make the interns look brilliant. No more sullen faces when the new team’s work is rejected in favor of the campaign from the team the creative director plays poker with. No more hiring dozens of students from the local ad school as “interns” so they can work long hours for free.

It’s all the benefits of a giant creative gang bang with none of the negatives. So long as the agency can position itself as The Great Curator, the only one capable of separating the wheat from the chaff-- they’re golden. The administrative costs and hassles of a crowd sourced project probably don’t come close to those of conducting a full on gang bang and it actually frees up staff to concentrate on actual client work.

So why wouldn’t big agencies be all over it? I mean other than the fact that at some point clients are going to figure out they don’t need a whole agency to do what hundreds of fairly talented freelancers are willing to do for free.

Oh right. That.

Sep 14, 2009

The End of "Creative" Hegemony

“Why is an account guy coming up with ad ideas?”

It’s a line I heard way too often during my years in ad agency creative departments because, you know, the two years spent in portfolio school clearly gave us a knowledge and understanding of funny and clever that exceeded that of the common man.

That was-- and still is-- the law in most traditional ad shops: the “creatives” come up with the “creative”-- the TV spots and print ads that are the agency’s raison d’etre-- and everyone else is just there for silent support. It’s a mindset that continues despite numerous claims of “integration” and “we're an idea shop.”

And it’s killing off any chance these agencies may have of being taken seriously again.

If there’s anything the past few years have taught us, it’s that the slavish devotion with which many creatives pride themselves on being able to determine the exact right shade of blue, the exact distance from the edge of the page the logo must exist in 128 languages, or the exact moment a pun crosses the line from cool to corny is not really all that much in demand anymore.

That’s because the smoke and mirrors that once worked on consumers has lost its magic now that we can get our product information from unbiased (or uninterested) sources. (e.g. The Real Digital Revolution.)

And so the only way to change consumer perception is to change the actual product or service.

I mean seriously, when was the last time an ad made you think that “hey, this thing is not as bad as I thought” unless, of course, the product had actually undergone a significant upgrade. Ditto new product launches: how many times have you bought something that had awful advertising mostly because you thought “ginger-pomegranate” sounded like it would taste really good or because when you went online to research the category, everyone seemed to be raving about it.

Now these changes do not signal the death knell of creativity, but rather the narrow definition the ad industry bestowed upon it. Creativity is a much broader term these days, as it encompasses everything from a media strategy to a product development cycle to the content strategy on a Facebook page. And the agency of the future is going to have to jump on all these loose threads and tie them together into some sort of cohesive something.

Now the good news is that I see this new model of creativity in place at many of the smaller digital shops I work with; even a few of the somewhat larger ones. Where the creative department is just one of many, and the media guy offering up an idea doesn't feel the need to preface his comment with “I’m no copywriter, but...”

In other words, there’s hope.

Sep 3, 2009

Magic Advertising Words

VW’s claim that they are firing Crispin Porter Bogusky to search for an agency that can help them “dominate” the US market and triple sales this year is emblematic of just how removed so many companies are from the changes brought on by the Real Digital Revolution.

You see the problem with VW isn’t the advertising, it’s the cars themselves. At a time when most people’s first stop in the car buying process is Google (or Bing) it’s clear that what VW needs is not better advertising, but better cars.

Regardless of your opinion of the recent CPB ad campaigns, the buck stops when the consumer goes online and finds out that no one really thinks all that much of Volkswagen’s cars.
“(T)his would be forgivable, if Honda, VW's Japanese nemesis, didn't already make a significantly better minivan.” (Jalopnik on the Routan)

“The name SportWagen is a little misleading, as the car doesn't offer what we would consider an exciting driving experience. (CNET on the Jetta SportWagen)

“The 2010 Volkswagen Passat ranks 15 out of 23 Affordable Midsize Cars.” (US News & World Report)
Yet Volkswagen remains convinced that a new agency will come up with some “magic advertising words” powerful enough to make consumers overlook the cars shortcomings. That just like in some mythical version of Mad Men days, they’ll see the clever commercials and then blindly flock to the showrooms, oblivious to the fact that other cars get significantly better reviews, word of mouth and digital word of mouth than Volkswagen.

For those of us in the trenches of the social web, it may seem like borderline insanity to think that an ad campaign can actually change perception of a product that doesn’t live up to the hype. But this belief in the power of magic advertising words lives on in the minds of many marketing managers who truly believe that just one big idea will prove so charming and alluring and all-powerful that we’ll throw reason to the wind and rush out to buy their product.

Ads, and the image they create, can certainly get people to consider your product, even desire it.

But that’s it.

Because once they get to Google, you’d better have the goods. If you don’t, not only will they go to your better-reviewed competitor, but they’ll be pissed at you for lying to them. Really pissed.

Not exactly the path to total world domination.

Sep 2, 2009

But Wait... There's More!

Just when you thought the DDB/WWF thing couldn't get more over the top, what with Keith Olbermann calling them the Worst People in the World (see video above) and mainstream media beating up on them, it seems that there's also a TV commercial that goes with the print ad.

And then, because these things take on a life of their own... DDB and WWF issue a press release, as reported by Ad Age:
DDB Brasil and the WWF hammered out a statement posted in Portuguese on both groups' Brazilian websites Wednesday afternoon apologizing for the ad and attributing it to "the inexperience of some professionals on both sides, and not bad faith or disrespect toward American suffering."

The statement continued, "WWF-Brasil and DDB Brasil reaffirm that the ad never should have been created, approved or run. They deeply regret that this happened, and apologize to everyone who has been offended."
The matching TV spot? Well, that's easily explained away too:
A DDB Brasil spokesperson in Sao Paulo said a video version of the ad being circulated on the internet was not done or authorized by the agency or the client. She said DDB execs first saw the video, which features slightly different copy, on the internet and don't know who created it. (emphasis added)
And more still: it seems the reason we're all aware of the ad is because it "accidentally" slipped into a packet of ads that the PR department was sending out. (also via Ad Age article.)

I guess if you're going to go for it, you might as well go all the way: sleazy ad, sleazy response.

It just makes all of us look really, really, really bad.

PS: If you want to get a taste of how this is being perceived by the Brazilian ad community (and how much they dislike the US), check out this blog (English translation via Google)

Sep 1, 2009

Nice Save

Sometime this morning, both AgencySpy and AdFreak both ran copies of an ad (click above to see a larger version) for the World Wildlife Fund that capitalized on the tragedy of 9/11. The ad was from a Brazilian agency and the AgencySpy post even included full credit.

The ad was highly offensive although many of us had our radars set off since (a) Brazilian agencies are somewhat notorious for producing fake ads for award show purposes and (b) like many fake Brazilian ads, this one was in English. (Brazilians speak Portuguese.)

A number of people, myself included, tweeted about this ad or commented on it and almost all the commentary was negative.

Within a few hours, the US branch of the World Wildlife Fund used its Twitter account to spread the word that the ad was likely a fake, that they had nothing to do with it and also found it highly offensive.

They subsequently sent out this press release confirming that is is indeed a fraud ad that never was approved by them from an agency they never hired.

Even better: the ad won a One Show Merit Award in 2009!!! (Update, 9/2: The One Show has removed the ad from their site, but Gothamist has a link to a screenshot along with the curious comment from The One Club that "The ad was withdrawn by DDB Brazil. It is not a merit award winner in the One Show and will not appear in the One Show Annual.")

The fact that the WWF literally contacted everyone who tweeted about it, and that they did so within hours, shows social media savvy not usually associated with non-profits. It was, as the kids say, FTW!

Nicely done.

UPDATE (9/2/09): The story is being picked up by the mainstream media: Fox News, NBC and the New York Times all have stories on it today. What's unfortunate is that despite the headlines and the copy emphasizing the ad is fake and WWF condemns it, some commenters are missing that entirely and blaming the WWF.

Even more south of the border sleaziness... see the update post!

Aug 31, 2009


The problem with jumping on the “Who’s Really a Social Media Expert” meme-- as so many have been doing as of late-- is that there’s absolutely no way to do so without coming off as a bitter, jealous failure.

And I’m often at a loss to understand the motivation behind those posts. Sure there are a lot of people out there whose ability to get themselves hired surprises me, but more power to them if they’re able to get work. If they’re frauds, they’ll get found out soon enough.

But I’ve been in this business long enough to know that sometimes just hiring someone for a certain role is all it takes to get the troops motivated. And that sometimes, someone who’s more motivational speaker than marketing expert can prove to be the right person for that role.

The “I-Know-Better” urge isn’t just limited to rooting out allegedly unqualified social media experts. It’s been playing out in the whole “Teens Don’t Twitter---Wait, Yes They Do” farce over on Mashable and Silicon Alley Insider.

It’s not the constantly changing tone of the articles that’s at fault-- writing on such tight deadlines rarely results in careful journalism-- it’s the (literally) hundreds of authoritative declarations on why teens allegedly forsake Twitter from commenters fully convinced that they alone know the true reasons and what’s more, that the world is just waiting for them to share this enlightenment.

Now I’m not really sure what feeds this need other than good old-fashioned insecurity: sounding like an expert (and/or declaring that others are not) makes us feel better about our own status.

And while that’s relatively harmless, the need to pontificate has a funny way of preventing us from doing the one thing that just about everyone agrees is most important online: listening.

Aug 21, 2009

Location, Location, Location

As Twitter announces plans to make location-based tweeting an option and as FourSquare continues to take off amongst the digerati, I’m reminded that there’s still a goodly number of people who view EZ Pass (the computerized toll-paying system) as a true invasion of privacy.

It’s possible they have a point.

The promise of location based social networking has advertisers all but drooling. They’ll be able to target consumers in context with ads that are relevant and timely.

The typical example given by boosters is that a consumer who posts that they are getting hungry can quickly be hit with a coupon from a nearby restaurant they’ve eaten at in the past, or where their friends have eaten in the past.

And that all sounds well and good: it’s lunchtime, I’m hungry and Green Garden Wraps, one of my favorite restaurants, shoots me a coupon. What could be better?

If I don’t know where to eat, I can see where my friends have eaten and when I announce I’m going to The Parkview Diner, I’ll find I’ve been sent a coupon for first time customers..

The problem starts however, when I start getting coupons from ten other restaurants. All of which I’ve (purposely or accidentally) given permission to. Some of which aren’t even particularly local. (Don’t think that’ll happen? Just look at the physical junk mail you get. And unlike emails, those letters cost cash money.)

Advertisers can’t be trusted to exhibit restraint. Certainly not all of them. And it’s not their fault: there will always be agencies and other practitioners who’ll encourage them to more or less spam customers. Because you never know when someone might want to drive 25 miles for a hamburger, right?

So rather than wind up with a useful system that provides me with ads-I-want-when-I-want-them, I now have a system that hounds me based on where I am rather than just where I live. I mean it’s not too hard to imagine some nightmare world where I sit down to breakfast and my computer starts trying to convince me to have Corn Flakes instead of Special K, and didn’t I really want a Chiquita banana with that?

An unlikely scenario, of course, but so is one where advertisers all act responsibly and with as much respect for the consumer as possible.

(And speaking of location, I'll be off on vacation at a very nice beachfront location next week, so catch you all the week of the 30th.)

Aug 17, 2009

SXSW Panel Proposal: Don't Suck

It's that time of year again when we get to vote on SXSW panel proposals.

If you remember, last year, this video of a panel I did with Brian Morrissey, Ian Schafer, Michael Lebowitz and Noah Brier (featuring a special guest appearance by Cam Beck) was selected for Extended Content.

This year, I'm hoping to make it to the big time with a live panel called "Don't Suck: Sound Strategies For The Social Web" and YOUR VOTE COUNTS.

You can read all about the panel and vote for it here. Even tell all your friends to vote for it. Maybe promote it on Twitter and Facebook.

Or not.

Here's a brief description from the SXSW site:
Success in social media boils down to two simple words: Don't Suck. What that means is that if people actually like your brand, they will rally to your defense when missteps happen and they will do your advertising for you. This panel will discuss ways companies can make sure their brands don't suck and offer up case studies of brands who have successfully used "not sucking" as a way to turn around a potentially bad situation.
(FWIW, you can see the original "Don't Suck" post here.)

Aug 14, 2009

Tweens On Twitter - The PowerPoint

The frequent appearance of tween oriented content on Twitter's trending topics list had me wondering what was going on: why, if few people under 24 were allegedly using Twitter, were Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers all over the twitter stream. Was it spam? Or something more insidious?

The presentation above explains it all.

Feedback welcome.

UPDATE: Check out the comments on Slideshare from noted anthropologist Danah Boyd, of the famed study pointing out class differences in MySpace and Facebook users (long before said differences became glaringly obvious). Great stuff and flattered to have her insight.

Aug 9, 2009

Mad Men No More

I found it somehow telling that the debut of the new season of Mad Men coincides with buzz around a party that showcases just how low today's Mad Men have fallen.

Ad men, back in 1962, were a pretty good catch. They made what my grandmother would call “a very nice living,” certainly comparable to that of other white collar professionals like doctors and lawyers. Advertising was considered a glamorous profession and working for an agency made you sort of a big deal.

How that’s changed is best seen in the above promo for a much-reported-upon party called “Fashion Meets Finance” whose goal is to introduce women in the fashion industry to men in the finance industry, because… well, because guys in finance are rich and successful.

A seriously mercenary take on dating, marriage and all that, but here’s the kicker: the tag line for the event (as seen in the screen shot above) is “Ladies, you don’t need to worry that the cute guy at the bar works in advertising.

Which is a polite way of saying “Shallow gold diggers, you don’t need to worry that the cute guy at the bar is a loser who’ll never make all that much money.”

And while discussion of whether one would actually want to meet the sort of people who attend these events is beside the point (I think we can all agree we wouldn’t) what’s relevant is that “works in advertising” is now cultural shorthand for “low-paid white collar loser.”

That’s a long way from Don Draper’s reality, where gold diggers considered ad men fair game and a reflection of where our business is heading.

You can see it in Erik Proulx’s excellent documentary Lemonade (check out the trailer here) about how laid off ad people are making new lives for themselves in fields only tangentially related to the ad business. And it’s not, as some blog commenters have suggested, because they weren’t really committed enough—it’s because the industry they signed up for doesn’t exist anymore and the jobs and skills they had no longer carry the sort of prestige and salaries they once did.

Which is not to suggest that I think we need to go back to that era. It’s over and done with and isn’t coming back. Ever. It’s just that every so often it’s worthwhile to take a pulse check. And the unlikely convergence of Mad Men and Fashion Meets Finance provides us with a very good reason to do so

Aug 5, 2009

Facebook Is Not Twitter. And Why That Should Make Us Happy

Two trends I’ve noticed lately: (1) the last stragglers seems to have given up having Twitter automatically update Facebook and adopted Selective Twitter or some other plan instead. Like so many of us who were active on both platforms a year ago, they’ve realized that their Facebook friends, an unlikely mélange of childhood pals, high school and college classmates, neighbors and work mates really don’t care what Mashable just said about Four Square. At least not on an hourly basis. Amazing what a bit of eye rolling, gentle ribbing and good old fashioned peer pressure can do.
Facebook has emerged as the place where all the disparate elements of your life converge. I find it oddly comforting in a warm and fuzzy sort of way when I’ll post a picture or something and get comments from a range of friends from different eras of my life who then start talking to each other. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s pretty cool the way Facebook can unite disparate threads of my life, and introduce people who actually know me on more than a superficial level.
Which is why I’ve not been surprised by trend #2: the expression of surprise over the fact that Twitter is a much better place to get traction for links of all sorts than Facebook.
You see the sort of people who enjoy sharing links gravitate to Twitter because it’s where they find people who give them the best links to share. Most of them have no idea who these people they’re following are: they’re merely vessels who provide them with the latest news stories and breaking memes on topics they’re interested in. (Said topics, in my experience, being invariably centered around the nexus of technology, marketing and social media.)
So it stands to reason they’ll find those links far more valuable than links provided by the kid who grew up next door to them, someone they spent most of their childhood with, but whose shared Facebook links are mostly to local news stories about her kids hockey team.
And you know, that’s all for the best.
For a while there, it looked like Twitter and Facebook might be converging, especially given the Twitter-like feel of the Facebook redesign, but now it looks like they’ve taken distinctly separate paths.
I remember noting back then that Facebook is about people you know and Twitter is about people you don’t know* and that the former is going to be the more popular proposition. That’s a distinction that still holds true and has, more than anything defined their divergent paths.
Yet another reason why evolution is just so fascinating to watch.
*Some people suggested making that “people you want to know” but I’m still not 100% buying it: while many people do use Twitter for networking, I think a lot more are more interested in retweeting their Twitter pals than in actually getting to know them

Aug 4, 2009

An Actual Reason For The Toad Stool Facebook Fan Page

I've been searching for an actual reason why someone would want to join the Toad Stool's Facebook fan page.

And I've finally found one: Posterous.

I have set up a parallel site over at

I will post shorter pieces on there, often comments on breaking news stories or similar stories that I found interesting for some reason or other and seemed to require more than 140 characters worth of commentary (plus the hope that you'll add some of your own.)

And if you're a Toad Stool fan on Facebook, those posts will show up in your news stream, giving you an incentive to actually become a Facebook fan. (Previously, all you'd get were the same posts you could get here, which really wasn't much of a value proposition.)

So check it out: you can become a fan right here.

PS: I put up for Posterous links today. That was mostly to experiment with the platform and see how the whole posting thing worked. Future output will not be nearly that bountiful.