Jan 30, 2009

Advertising’s Opportunity

One of the recurrent “silver lining” themes of the current economic meltdown is the notion that our best and brightest minds will no longer be sucked in by the lure of Wall Street and will actually gravitate towards jobs where they can make a difference and impact the culture.

And while no one would put advertising in the same league as teaching or medicine, it does offer a chance to impact the culture.

So how does the industry start attracting the best and brightest once again?

There are several issues that need to be overcome before advertising once again becomes an attractive industry to work in:

Salary (or lack thereof): A combination of shrinking profits and pressure from the ubiquitous holding companies has put agency compensation in a downward spiral over the past two decades. So what was once a road to a very comfortable lifestyle back in the Mad Men days is now a path to just-barely-doing-okay. If advertising is going to be competing for talent with consulting firms, internet companies and Hollywood, there needs to be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow to attract people long term.

Evil: From the new series Trust Me that’s set in a Chicago ad agency to the 40+ comments on an Adweek story about Ogilvy & Mather, the word “evil” comes up a lot. As in ad agencies have devolved into notoriously evil places to work in ways that few other industries can match. That’s saying a lot. There needs to be a serious reevaluation of the culture of backstabbing and prima donnas and disrespect if we are to attract the best talent, especially from a generation that’s grown up in a culture of praise. Ditto the culture that calls ageism, racism and sexism part of the landscape. That has to stop too.

Relevance: Agencies have stopped being relevant. Much of what they produce is reactive, out-of-date and lacks any real thought process. Hence their reputation for the ability to focus on finding the exact right shade of blue while ignoring the actual purpose of the ad in question. Agencies need to get back to their position as thought leaders, as the people who invent trends and influence pop culture. That means hiring people who can think and actually giving them some authority.

All three of the elements I’ve listed are interdependent. In other words, good people may put up with a lower salary in exchange for a supportive work environment and a chance to do something that makes them famous.

But it does seem like it’s now or never for the ad business.

If advertising, as business, is to be anything more than an interchangeable collection of subcontractors, these changes need to start happening now. It’s not an impossible task. Just one that needs to be acknowledged and worked on.

And Super Bowl weekend, when the ad industry is at the pinnacle of its relevance, would seem an ideal time to start.

Jan 28, 2009

The Shelf Life of Revolutions – Part 2

The rapid growth of the web in the mid to late 90s resulted in a fundamental shift in the way products were marketed and the value we attached to them. By allowing access to a vast selection of merchandise, the companies that gave birth to what’s now known as “Web 1.0” made price a secondary focus.

The forty-year run of our Western consumer society meant that an entire generation had grown up with a steady supply of well-priced consumer goods, making their existence less of a novelty than a given. So selection was the next frontier: once we’d become accustomed to having all these goods, we wanted the exact ones we wanted when we wanted them. And Web 1.0 businesses like Amazon.com were only too happy to oblige.

This focus on selection was echoed offline as well, with the growth of superstores like Wal-Mart, who, in addition to low prices, offered an incredible selection of basic consumer goods: every kind of soap known to man (or at least to the marketing departments at Unilever and Procter & Gamble) as well as every conceivable type of consumer good right down to groceries. While low price was Wal Mart’s price of entry, their vast selection was what made them famous.

In the media, this shift to a selection-based model was mirrored by the proliferation of cable TV channels. Whereas the Price Era was defined by the three TV networks, the Selection Era, with it’s line-up of single-interest networks like CNN, ESPN and The Weather Channel told us that we could pick and choose at will from a growing array of content. Our choices would no longer be dictated to us.

That explosion, which Bruce Springsteen referred to as early as 1992, in his hit, “57 Channels And Nothing On” paved the way for the rapid growth of the internet several years later. The explosion of the web not only allowed us to buy anything we wanted, it also allowed us to read about anything we wanted, as an army of professionals and amateurs rushed to throw up content on any and all topics. On the internet, it wasn’t necessarily about quality but about choice: we were no longer limited by the confines of our local libraries or bookstores: we could read whatever we wanted whenever we wanted. Media had become all about selection.

Advertising soon followed suit as the lowly banner ad became the perfect vehicle for The Selection Era. Rather than have to sit through whatever commercials the TV networks threw at us, we were able to select the banner ads we wanted. And initially we did select: in the early days of Web 1.0 following a banner was as interesting as anything else online. It wasn’t until later, when content started to have real value, that clicking on a banner became beside the point, something advertisers are still coming to grips with ten years later.

Politically, the brief period between the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 attacks provided a respite from any real global conflict as the entire world seemed headed for freedom and democracy. This interbellum Pax Americana gave birth to the concept of “globalization,” as new markets opened up and emerging middle class societies in Asia, Africa and Latin America provided us with millions (if not billions) of new consumers for all our goods and services.

The Selection Era proved to be short lived, however, as consumers quickly grew used to being able to have whatever goods they wanted, whenever they wanted them. It was a behavior that survived both the shock of the post-9/11 landscape and the collapse of the Web 1.0 bubble. Having gotten used to the benefits of selection, consumers were looking beyond that and demanding something of more value along with their products, something more satisfying and personal.

And so began the Service Era, which will be the subject of next week’s post.

The Shelf Life of Revolutions - Part 1
The Shelf Life of Revolutions - Part 3

Jan 26, 2009

Those Who Ignore History Are Doomed To Repeat It

Dave Trott is a UK ad legend whose influence extends way beyond the London ad scene.

His blog, simply called Dave Trott's Blog is a real inspiration in that he shares all he's learned over the past decades and it's all still incredibly relevant and important to the challenges we face today.

Anyone who's read this blog for a while knows that I am skeptical of "experts," "thought leaders" and the like.

But Trott is the real deal. So much basic knowledge of how marketing should work is lost on those working in digital media and (particularly) social media because of their insistence that all the old rules should go out the window. Oh, and because some of them never actually worked in marketing, advertising, PR or corporate communications.

But I digress.

Read Trott's blog. You will learn so much more from it than from any self-evident list of "Ten Great Ways To Improve Your Tweeting."


Jan 25, 2009

Tipping Point

Now that a goodly percentage of my Facebook friends are people who don't work in advertising, marketing or anything remotely related, I've stopped having Twitter automatically update my Facebook status.

The result is my Facebook status updates are mostly about broader life events while my Twitter updates are primarily work related.

It's a bit more work, but I find that my friends and family members are now actually reading my Facebook updates (and commenting on them) rather than dismissing them as "more of Alan's work-related geekery." And since I finally figured out how to link Facebook to Delicious, I can share articles I like without overwhelming people, since Facebook posts them as a list. (A trick I learned from Noah Brier, who I often joke serves as my personal online librarian.)

Not sure if this is a harbinger of things to come or my own personal tic, but curious to hear how others are bridging the gap.

Jan 24, 2009

Social Media Is Still Only Social If You’re Alone

There’s a lot of hoopla around the CNN/Facebook pairing during the inauguration and I admit to participating in it both as a user and as a blogger.

But before we get carried away with calling this is dawn of a new era, let’s remember why this proved to be such an attractive option: the inauguration was a daytime event that took place on a workday. That means a whole lot of people were alone in their offices and welcomed the chance to interact with their friends.

If those same people were home, watching the inauguration with their families and/or friends, they would not be talking to people on Facebook.

Okay, maybe in certain dysfunctional families they would be, but you get the picture. Twittering, status updating, blog commenting all involve taking yourself out of whatever real life situation you are in and inserting yourself into a virtual one. It’s every bit as annoying and disrespectful to the other people in the room as the coworker who feels compelled to answer several personal cell phone calls in the middle of a meeting. And let's be honest: most people's real world friends are not going to stand for that sort of narcissistic behavior.

TV/Social media integration is great for shared events like the Super Bowl or the Oscars and a real boon for anyone without a viewing companion. It’s even a great way to do a quick, discreet check to see what “everyone else” is thinking. But as vital and useful as they are, our virtual communities are never going to replace our real ones. And those of us at the forefront of the social media movement only look foolish when we insist otherwise.

In other words, it's time to put down the Kool Aid.

Jan 20, 2009

I Had No Idea

Yesterday I wrote a post asking why Facebook hadn't launched its own Twitter-like service for the Status Update, given how many people already use Twitter to update Facebook.

I had no idea that Facebook was planning on answering that question today via their link-up with the CNN.com coverage of the inauguration.

The CNN feed wasn't perfect-- it dropped out a lot-- but the Facebook integration worked really nicely and allowed for real time conversation of the sort that went on via Twitter during the debates. (David Burn of AdPulp articulates some of the reasons here.)

But what was probably the most crucial thing here is that many social media newcomers got to see what a shared experience felt like. Regardless of platform. And while clearly the inauguration was far more significant, in our little corner of the world, this felt pretty significant too.

Time For iYahoo?

So I had really come to rely on the iPhone optimized iGoogle home page.

I had it set up so that every morning I could read the New York Times headlines, the local weather and my Google calendar (with appointments) all from the same page.

It was a great solution and the page looked really nice. But this weekend, Google pulled the plug on the iPhone optimized page, redirecting it to the cheesy looking mobile page. Where Google calendar and the Wall Street Journal feed don't work and the rest of the functionality is pretty useless.

What's worse- they didn't tell anyone- like nearly every other pissed-off user on this Google help forum page, I thought my phone was broken for a day or so. Really a bad move on Google's part.

This creates a golden opportunity for others, Yahoo in particular, to create iPhone optimized versions of their portal pages. Let's see if they grab it.

Jan 19, 2009

Will Facebook Be The Death of Twitter?

An epidemic of endless retweeting is making Twitter a whole lot less fun at exactly the same time the “Here Comes Everybody” rush to Facebook (allegedly 600,000 people a day) is making that platform a whole lot more fun. And it’s left me wondering what that means for Twitter.

Those of us in social media have all witnessed the recent arrival of dozens upon dozens of our real world friends and relatives on Facebook. Everyone from old classmates to far-flung relatives to current day friends and neighbors seems to be on there. And as this article from Time magazine notes, while other social media platforms encourage people to connect with strangers, “Facebook is more geared toward helping people maintain existing connections.”

That’s a huge plus in our time-starved world and Facebook is rapidly becoming the default way for people of all ages to stay in touch with their real-life friends and relatives, the people who really do care what they made for breakfast and what their vacation pictures look like. Cementing these relationships is enjoyable because interacting with people we know and like is enjoyable. (For the most part.) And the one-stop-shopping aspect of Facebook makes that platform all the more appealing.

Twitter, on the other hand, is becoming a lot less fun.The Carnival Barkers have invaded, as users bent on “creating value for others” and showing off their vast knowledge of social media are turning the Twitterstream into a virtual version of the county fair. Step right up ladies and gentlemen, get your retweets here!!!

“RT: Another amazing insight from the king of insights: http://tinyurl.com/xxx!!”

“RT: YOU MUST READ THIS POST IMMEDIATELY: http://bitly.com/yyy !!!”

“RT: The Most Useful Post You’ll Read This Year: 5 Ways To Make Your Tweets Count!! http://is.gd/zzz”

No one seems to have told the Carnival Barkers that there just aren’t 37 brilliantly insightful blog posts being written each day. (Most weeks, we’re lucky to find just one.) And while it’s easy enough to filter out the noise they're making, the resultant atmosphere has a chilling effect on conversation and can make Twitter feel like a giant echo chamber.

But that’s just part of it. Facebook already does all the things that Twitter does: status updates, links and conversation, and it does them better and more efficiently.

I can post what I'm doing (in more than 140 characters) to my Facebook status update

People can comment on my update and see their comment as part of a threaded conversation.

I can see links people have posted and rather than the Twitter formula of clicking some oblique is.gd or tiny.url address, I get the headline, first paragraphs and comments others have left about the link before I decide whether to click through to it.

I can chat and email with my friends over Facebook, one on one, which is a much more effective way to have a conversation.

What’s more, I’m sharing all of these things with actual friends, people with whom I have a real world relationship. That means I can put all of their output into context, something I can’t really do with complete strangers on Twitter.

So then what exactly is the point of Twitter?

I don’t have an answer for that one. Right now, the main benefits seems to be that it’s searchable. And that it’s easily accessed from my phone or a free standing app.

The latter isn’t particularly difficult to replicate and frankly I’m surprised that Facebook hasn’t attempted to do so (though I assume that’s what their attempt to purchase Twitter was all about since many people already use Twitter to update their Facebook status.)

The former-- searchable status updates-- falls under the issue of privacy concerns and in reality is of far more value to marketers seeking free research than it is to actual users, who likely prefer their status updates remain private.

Twitter does encourage us to interact with complete strangers and that alone-- the chance to expand our networks-- may be reason enough for us to use it. But I find that most "power users" use apps like TweetDeck to segregate the strangers in their Twitter streams, a functionality that's far less elegant than Facebook's "less about this person/more about this person" options.

So here's my question: if Twitter devolves into a series of personal press releases then who is actually going to read them? I mean it’s one thing to broadcast your own PR, another to spend your day perusing everyone else’s. That feels like work and work isn’t a whole lot of fun. It may be that Twitter works best as a news broadcasting service, similar to the one I mentioned in this post. And that the serial retweeters become just another broadcast channel.

I’m not going to make any predictions here-- the only certain thing about new technology is the uncertainty. But it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

UPDATE: In talking with commenters on here this morning, it's becoming clear that Twitter's most distinguishing characteristic is the way it encourages connections between complete strangers. If a significant number of people feel this is something they feel strongly about, then Twitter may be able to carve out a niche for itself, despite (or in spite of) its asynchronous follower/following protocol.

UPDATE 2: If you don't feel like reading through 30+ comments: Where we're netting out is we're wondering why Facebook doesn't launch something very much like Twitter using the Facebook Status Updates feature. (e.g. a free standing app that auto-updates a la Twhirl or Tweetdeck.) The difference would be that on the Facebook version, the conversation would be between people who all knew each other, wheras on Twitter it's often between strangers.

My take is that there would be room for both, but the Facebook version would be much more popular, given the over 30 crowd's aversion to strangers online and desire to spend what time they have connecting with their existing networks.

Jan 16, 2009

eBook: Marketing in 20009

Valeria Maltoni, who writes for Fast Company (among others) has put together a free eBook called Marketing in 2009. It features some very smart people in the business. And me.

You can read a description of it here at Valeria's blog or, if you're one of those people who figures that any book with Alan Wolk in it is worth downloading (e.g. a member of my immediate family) you can get it here.

Also featured, in alphabetical order:

Olivier Blanchard
Matt Dickman
Mike Fruchter
Francois Gossieaux
Beth Harte
Lois Kelly
Christina "CK" Kerley
Jennifer Laycock
Amber Naslund
Connie Reece
Mike Wagner

Jan 15, 2009

Stanza Rocks - Update

So I finished reading my first book on iPhone's Stanza app (see original post on it here) and I'm definitely pleased with the experience.

The typeface was easy to read (much easier than reading email or web pages on the iPhone,) the application automatically took me back to the last page I was at, and there was no need to keep the lamp on if I wanted to read at night (an occasional bone of contention in our house) and I didn't miss the feel of the actual book anywhere close to what I'd anticipated.

It's definitely a habit I'll keep up, especially if Stanza keeps getting more and better titles.

UPDATE: Even cooler: Someone from Stanza got in touch with me on Twitter to thank me for the post and to ask for any suggestions. Nicely played.

Jan 14, 2009

The Shelf Life of Revolutions - Part 1

Twenty years ago, I worked for a small retail ad agency, whose old school outer borough proprietor would always tell me “there are only three things in retail: price, selection and service. It all goes in cycles. Everybody’s talking price, you tell ‘em you know from selection. They all got selection, you’re the king of service.”

It wasn’t something he’d thought up himself: Price, Selection and Service have been the three pillars of retail from the days of the agora. Yet here we are in 2009 and so many of the leading marketing pundits are seeing companies succeed by emphasizing service and acting as if they’d single-handedly discovered the Northwest Passage.

Service is important these days. Primarily as a way to distinguish yourself from your competitors. The tools of web 2.0 allow for 1:1 interaction and that makes it easy to emphasize service. But let’s be clear that service wouldn’t need a whole lot of emphasizing if anyone had been doing a decent job of it over the past several decades.

The post-World War II era was all about price: mass production meant that items previously reserved for the elite were now put in the hands of the many. For people who had grown up during the Depression, these “homogeneous mass-made widgets” were things of wonder and the whole consumer culture made them feel wealthy in a way few could have imagined during their childhood. Not everyone felt this way, as the song “Little Boxes” made clear some 45 years ago, but price was still ascendant throughout this period as the underlying selling point for most products.

The realities of the Cold War too, made the price strategy work. The abundance of low-priced consumer goods was often touted as a prime advantage of the West over the Soviet block nations where choice was reserved for party apparatchiks. The tale of the Russian émigré marveling at the array of goods in an American supermarket remains one of the most enduring and apocryphal tales of that era. Thus, it was in our national interest to support the culture of well-priced consumer goods.

And finally there was television: the three network model was arguably yet another form of mass production, and the television commercial an excellent way to alert consumers to the existence of yet another well-priced consumer good. For that was always the underlying message: here’s one more fruit of America’s bounty. Yet another great product at a price you can afford.

The formula for serving up that message, devised by Bill Bernbach and others during the early 1960s, and termed the Creative Revolution consisted of a neatly paired combination of copy and imagery that allowed for humor and personality, a dramatic change from the straightforward hard-sell advertising of the previous era. But charming as Bernbachian advertising was, the underlying tone was still delight and wonder at the way our post-war society had made all these goods available to us all.

Look at two of the most famous commercials of the Bernbachian Era: Volkswagen’s “Snow Plow” and Apple’s “1984.” Both spots, despite the obvious stylistic differences, are touting the mass availability of yet another amazing new machine. And of course “mass availability” is implicitly a price message: the Beetle and the Macintosh were not playthings of the aristocracy: they were designed for mass consumption and their (relatively) reasonable prices reflected that. Everyone could have one.

The Price era began to wane in the mid-1990s, due to the confluence of several key events: the fall of Communism meant that the abundance of inexpensive mass produced items was no longer a Western prerogative. The birth of the Web 1.0-era internet allowed for a shopping model based on selection. And the growth of cable television and the resulting loss of share of the major networks meant the common mass culture that had been forged from the 1950s forward was rapidly losing its grip while enabling us to choose media more in line with our specific interests: in other words, Selection.

The next installment will talk about the short-lived Selection era and its effect on marketing and media.

The Shelf Life of Revolutions, Part 2
The Shelf Life of Revulutions, Part 3

Jan 12, 2009

"Knowing Armano" on Daily Fix

Another week, another Daily Fix article. This one stemmed from a conversation Ann Handley (the editor of Daily Fix) and I had about what it actually means to "know" someone these days: can we actually know someone we've never met and does the fact that people are adopting that nomenclature have ramifications for brands:

Last week, David Armano, a well-known blogger, prolific Twitterer, and real-world friend, did a very noble thing: with just one tweet and one blog post, he harnessed the power of his 8,000+ member Twitter network and raised close to $20,000 for Daniella, a woman fleeing an abusive husband. The effort was notable for many things, foremost among them being how quickly the money poured in: I believe the first-night total was somewhere around $15,000. It was a wonderful, feel-good moment and David was justifiably moved by the response.

But there was something else that struck me about all this: How many of the people who contributed that first night cited “knowing” David as the reason they felt comfortable donating money. And what struck me was that in reality, few of them actually did know him. At least not in the traditional sense.


Jan 10, 2009

More Outside Reading

Stumbled upon Slate magazine's site The Big Money, which is now doing ad and website reviews.

Worthwhile reading, since they're not coming from an insider's perspective.

This first piece, a video review of Dentyne's website by one of their recent college grad interns makes many of the same points I've been harping on about: namely, why would anyone want to spend time with a corporate website? So of course I'm digging it:

The second piece, an essay about Burger King's new Whopper Sacrifice, is typical of the sort of "fast food is evil so I can't condone someone making it seem un-evil" school of commentary. But worth reading nonetheless for its non ad industry POV. (The author is a food columnist.)

Jan 9, 2009

Social Media In The Real World

Fascinating piece in Ad Age by a thirtysomething ad guy named Peter Madden on why he finds Facebook to be a strange and creepy experience populated mainly by high school friends he hasn't heard from in 20 years.

I'd urge all of you to read it, mostly because he offers an experience completely contrary to what most of the readers of this blog are likely to have and because I believe that he's far from the only person with that sort of take on social media.

Is it the majority POV? I doubt it. And I suspect it's a hiccup rather than a full-on fail. But read the comments-- Madden is not alone. As marketers, we need to keep in mind that not everyone regards Facebook and other social media sites as addictive godsends.

Jan 7, 2009

Another Cool Use Of Twitter

Alex Wipf and I used to share an office back in the day when we both worked at Atmosphere. He's since moved on to become Head of Planning at Leo Burnett back in his native Germany, but we've kept up on and off over the years and social media tools have certainly made that easier as of late.

Alex has been a tour of Australia for the past month and he's been keeping his friends updated via Twitter throughout the trip.

He doesn't over-tweet-- just an update or two a day, plus the occasional map or picture. But it's been great to go along with him on this lengthy trip, so to speak, and hear about what he's been up to as he's experiencing it.

Now I can't imagine caring about Alex's vacation if he wasn't a friend of mine, but since he is, I'm finding it a very cool way to use the medium.

Jan 6, 2009

Stanza Rocks

To start off my New Year’s resolution to use this blog in a more Tumblr-esque fashion, I wanted to alert you all to the very cool things happening with iPhone’s book-reading app Stanza.

The classic novels and unknown authors have been supplemented by a bunch of hot new work from Random House and other publishers.

To wit: I downloaded David Liss’ new book The Whiskey Rebels last night. For free.

I’ve enjoyed two of Liss’ previous books—A Conspiracy of Paper and The Coffee Trader. His stuff makes for great bedtime reading in that they’re on the literate end of the mystery genre. And I’m always a sucker for historical novels.

Stanza’s interface is very easy to use- tapping the right side of the screen advances the page forward, tapping the left side send you backwards.

Jan 5, 2009

Scoble Blindness at MP Daily Fix

New post up at MP Daily Fix:

I’ve often written about “NASCAR Blindness” -- the strongly held belief that if no one in your little bubble of upscale artsy BoBo friends is into something, then clearly no one else could be either-- and how it afflicts the advertising community. But there’s an equally insidious syndrome affecting the tech community: Scoble Blindness.


UPDATE: Robert Scoble responds (favorably) in this post on his Scobleizer blog

Jan 4, 2009

That Thing I Do

As many of you know, I've been running my own independent consulting business for about 8 months now and I finally got around to fixing up my website so that it reflected the work I've been doing.

You can find it at either alanwolk.com or toadstoolconsultants.com - they both bring you to the same place and you can see what I've been up to in great detail. Maybe even pass it on to a potential client or something.*

I created it using iWeb 08, mostly because it's so easy to update things on the fly, and I do a lot of updating on the fly. But thanks to Tore Claesson from Hello, Darling for his help with the overall look, something that definitely needed help in the first iteration.

The site is still kinda sorta beta, so any feedback would be appreciated.


*Blatant hint