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!