September 27, 2012

The Man In The Gray Flannel iPhone

In the 1950s there was a very popular book and movie called The Man In the Gray Flannel Suit.

It was a complicated tale, but one of the key threads was about conformity.

The icon of 1950's conformity was the suburban male office worker, commuting by train to "the city," trapped in an unfulfilling life of materialism, social climbing, and status anxiety.

Like all cliches, this had elements of both truth and fiction. Even though most of us weren't there to experience it, in our mythology this caricature has served us well as a short-hand for the zeitgeist of the period.

While commuting to "the city" the other day, it occurred to me that there is a new and evolving type of male big city office worker.

I saw this person a lot last week. There was a very large tech-related convention in San Francisco and public transit was jammed with these guys. They wore clean jeans and had colorful oxford shirts with their tails out. They had expensive eye wear and messenger bags thrown over their shoulders. They were thumbing away on their iPhones which were attached to their heads via earbuds.

There is no way of knowing whether the future will be kind to these "types" or if they will become the contemporary equivalents of the "gray flannel suits" who have been universally lambasted by smug hipsters and intellectuals.

Which brings me to the point of this post. We in the trendspotting business are always ready to assert that whatever the latest mania is will have a transformative effect on society. 

In fact, viewed with a sensible perspective, most of our behavior is highly regular and remarkably recursive. Sixty years later, we can still make a pretty good case for the guy commuting by train to "the city," trapped in an unfulfilling life of materialism, social climbing, and status anxiety.

Mostly what has changed are the clothes and the gadgets.

September 25, 2012

In Enemy Territory

A few weeks ago I was a speaker at a social media conference in Minneapolis. I was facing a ballroom full of social mediacrats and was surprised at the graciousness with which my ungracious remarks were received.

Best of all, I escaped with all my major body parts intact.

It was billed as a "fireside chat" between the excellent Jason Falls, leader of the conference, and me. I had imagined a roaring fireplace, smoking jackets, and brandy snifters.

Alas, it's just Jason, me, and the world's largest chair.

September 24, 2012

Speaking So As Not To Be Understood

Throughout history the purpose of speaking and writing has been to be make oneself understood. Not any more. There is a new way of speaking and writing in the world of marketing, the purpose of which is to sound like you're saying something without actually saying anything at all.

Welcome to The Golden Age of Bullshit.

Now writers, pundits and industry bigwigs write and speak so as to be misunderstood. They write in ways that intentionally misuse language, and they speak in riddles to hide their vacuity. They hide behind buzzwords and cliches which they throw around willy nilly regardless of context.

The practice of creating a simple declarative sentence that means what it says is outmoded. Today's marketing pundit, in order to be taken seriously, must speak in tongues.

So we get nonsense like this:
"I have a deep love and appreciation of the different roles of product pricing, go-to-market, competitive differentiation, etc that make up the marketing value chain. I’m not discounting the strategic parts of making sure there’s a business model, but I’m focusing on the part that the vast majority of people think of as “marketing”. You and I might know this is more about promotions than the full range of marketing but most people don’t recognize this distinction."
Now you might think that the paragraph above was written by a not-very-bright junior college marketing student. But it wasn't. It was written by a person who claims to be a Stanford lecturer and a Harvard Business Review author.

Then we get this from the incoming Chairman of the 4As:
"Branded content was an interim expression. To me now, saying branded content is like saying advertising, because it’s all about content and how we insert the brands into that message to add true utility for the customer."

Here's a simple way to figure out who's full of shit and who isn't. If someone is saying something you don't understand, and it's not about quantum theory or special relativity, more likely than not he's full of shit.

September 18, 2012

Strategy Versus Tactics

These days the tactical always drives out the strategic. Strategies are what businesses love to talk about. Tactics are what they do.

I don't care how many months of meetings, focus groups, and powerpoints it took to derive your brilliant business strategy. I don't care how many teams of C-suite knuckleheads you had to present to and persuade. I don't care how many millions of dollars they agreed to invest in the new strategic direction. Just have 3 weeks of lousy sales and you'll be back doing "buy-one, get-one free."

Unfortunately, it is not just marketing that is subject to the tyranny of tactics. It's also why our political system is so screwed up.

In politics, strategy doesn't get you elected. Tactics do.

Everyone in Washington knows that we are headed for a fiscal melt down. Both parties agree that the current budgets are unsustainable. This is not a secret. But there is no strategy to deal with it.

A sensible, strategic way to deal with this is with a combination of tax increases and spending cuts.

But half the congress is loathe to raise taxes and the other half is loathe to cut spending.

Each party has its own tactics for getting votes, and each party refuses to abandon its tactics in favor of a strategy that would avoid the impending train wreck.

Strategy is the stuff of essays, off sites, and conferences. Tactics rule the real world.

September 17, 2012

This Just In: Advertisers Still Idiots

In case you were worried that advertisers had started to learn how to think straight, forget about it. They're just as dumb as ever.

This was confirmed in a recent article about TV on the Bloomberg Businessweek website.

A little background -- for years we have been writing about the stupidity of marketers who are constantly chasing young people. Just to recap, here are some numbers:
  • People over 50 control over 75% of the financial assets of the US
  • They dominate 94% of all consumer packaged goods categories
  • They purchase almost 40% of consumer packaged goods
  • Even in technology categories, where marketers assume young people dominate, baby boomers "are purchasing at rates just as high as other segments, and because they are often buying for their kids, many are double-dipping.
  • According to Nielsen, less than 5% of advertising is aimed at them
There have been a lot of articles in the past few years about how marketers are waking up to the foolishness of chasing people with no money and ignoring the people with all the money. No effing way. They're just as stupid as ever.

According to numbers in the aforementioned article, advertisers are paying 13% more for an 18-49 target than for a 25-54 target. Let's see what they're getting for their extra money.
  • The median income for someone under 25 in 2010 was $24,140.
  • The mean income for someone 45-64 was $60,700.
So for their extra 13% they're getting some people with less than half the income. But wait, there's more.

Since the difference between 18-49 and 25-54 is only the 5 years at either end, and since these 5 years represent only 1/6 of the total number of people in the demo group, advertisers were actually paying 78%* more for 18-25's than they were for 49-54's.

They paid 78% more for people with 60% less income.

Pretty smart, huh?

*Warning: This is copywriter math. If I were you I'd check it.

September 13, 2012

The Story Of The Facebook Monster And The Wrong Weapon

Once upon a time, there was a thing called traditional advertising. The purpose of traditional advertising was to create demand for things.

People did this with funny television and radio commercials and pretty newspaper and magazine ads and billboards and blimps and butt danglers and hooter wobblers.

Sometimes it was darn effective. And hundreds and hundreds of brands of soda pop and toys and toothpaste and cookies and cars and beer and paper towels and cake mixes and computers and sneakers and candy bars and... well, anyway, it grew and it grew.

Traditional advertising had a funny little cousin. It was called the Yellow Pages. The Yellow Pages was different. Its purpose was not to create demand. Its purpose was to fulfill demand.

So when Timmy had already decided he wanted a pair of sneakers, he went to the Yellow Pages to find out where to buy them.

It was a handy system -- traditional advertising to create demand, and its funny little cousin to fulfill demand.

And then one day the internet came along. Advertisers, who are very, very smart at understanding what used to be true, thought that the internet would be like traditional advertising. And they used it the same way. They used it to try to create demand. They put pretty ads just about everywhere you could put one.
On this kind of site and that kind of site.

In between things and on top of things.

Before things and after things. 
But there was a problem. After 15 years of doing this, not one of these online advertisers had created a single major brand of anything. No soda pop or toys or toothpaste or cookies or cars or beer or paper towels or cake mixes or computers or sneakers or candy bars or...

Then, one day, there came along a really smart monster. The really smart monster had a silly name -- Google. This monster realized that the internet wasn't really like traditional advertising. It was more like the funny little cousin. The monster thought that the internet wouldn't be so good for creating demand, but it would be really good for fulfilling demand.

So the monster built itself a home that was very much like the funny little cousin's -- where people could go to find things they wanted. And the monster was right. And it grew and it grew and it grew.

Now the story gets spine-tingling. One day, another monster came along. Its name was Facebook. And everybody loved this new monster. He was way more fun and friendly than Google.

Now there were two advertising monsters. And they were fighting. The winner would get lots and lots of money. The loser would get lots and lots of money, too. But not as much as the winner.

Each monster had a different weapon. The Google monster's weapon was fulfilling demand. The Facebook monster's weapon was... uh-oh, you guessed it... creating demand.

So even though everybody loved the Facebook monster, it turned out that the Google monster's weapon was 25 times more powerful!

Now here's the fun part. The people who spend lots and lots of money for advertising were so fucking stupid darn silly, that after 15 years they still didn't understand it. They still thought the internet was like television and radio and newspapers and magazines and billboards and blimps and butt danglers and hooter wobblers. They thought it was really good for creating demand. And they kept spending money trying to do this. Silly guys!

Well, believe it or not, this little misunderstanding gave the Facebook monster (known to everyone on his block as "that creepy Zuckerberg kid") the idea that maybe his weapon really was powerful after all, and that if he could just find a way to redesign it so it worked really well in a new carry-around container he could win.

But, uh-oh, the problem was not where the monster's weapon was used. The problem was, the monster had the wrong weapon.

But there's a happy ending. Even though the Facebook monster had the wrong weapon, advertising people were so fucking stupid kind and generous that he still made more money than you could ever imagine.

September 12, 2012

Strange Habits

Back when I was just a little baby copywriter, I used to have lunch most days at a bar and restaurant called Reno Barsochini's on Battery Street in San Francisco. Reno was a former baseball player and friend of Joe DiMaggio. He also had one of the great all-time names.

I don't know what kind of ballplayer Reno was, but he wasn't much of a restaurateur. He made a good hamburger, though, and that's all I needed.

Most days while I was eating my hamburger, Hal Riney would wander in and sit at the bar. He rarely looked at anyone and even more rarely talked to anyone. He would order a bourbon or two and sit there with a yellow pad and write. For all I know, he may have written "Morning In America" at that bar.

At the time, it seemed like a strange way to work. Now I find myself also having strange work habits.

First of all, I do most of my work at home. I go to the office every day, but mostly I can't concentrate there. The office is for meetings, and chatting, and lunch, and planning, and talking about work, not doing it.

For every hour I spend at work I spend at least an hour working at home.

Second, I do most of my work lying down. At home I do it lying on a sofa or lying in bed in the middle of the night. In the office, I do it lying on a sofa in my office. If I have mindless work to do -- answering emails, or doing time sheets -- I do it at my desk. But if I have to think, I need to get away from my desk.

I have developed a fondness for strange work habits. To my permanent dismay, however, doing good work seems to take more than just strange habits.

Wouldn't it be great if all it took was some bourbon and a yellow pad?

September 10, 2012

Top 10 Ways To Improve Ad Industry Morale

On Friday, The New York Times had one of those pieces that makes you think maybe your father was right when he said you should be a plumbing supply wholesaler. The title of the piece was An Ad Agency Crowdsources Its Own Employees’ Morale. I think a better title would have been The Clowns Are Doing The Clownsourcing.

The story, in a nutshell, goes like this: a NY agency ran a contest giving its employees some money for coming up with ideas for improving morale, particularly among their precious, super-pussified millennials. 

Apparently all these Gen Y weenies need to be hugged and pampered or they'll take their yoga mats and go back to mommy's basement.

There are so many things wrong with this I don't even know where to start.

First of all, when did a suggestion box become "crowdsourcing?" Was it when any lump of techno-garbage that actually worked became "user friendly?" When everything that didn't come in a plastic bag became "artisanal?"  Or when any piece of crap that didn't necessitate the killing of whales became "sustainable?"

Second, didn't we bury the rotten carcass of crowdsourcing last year along with "the conversation" and QR codes? Or are used-to-be-very-hip agencies still peddling this baloney?

Third, if a paycheck every two weeks, and a health plan, and a 401K, and someplace to drag their sorry asses every morning, and just a little bit of personal pride aren't enough to motivate these weenies, they can jump on their fixies and go back to Brooklyn.

And finally, what won the contest?  
"...turning over to employees about 4,500 square feet of space on the sixth floor of the agency’s New York headquarters, which they can use, individually and in groups, for personal, creative projects."
In other words, a playpen for the kindergarteners to do their finger painting.

Here's a personsourced idea. If you have 4,500 square feet of space sitting around in the middle of New York City gathering Higgs Bosons, how about turning it over to some poor slobs who really need it? Or is that not morale-building enough for these effete narcissists?

Okay, deep breath here.

Well, anyway, you know me. I'm here to help. So, as a service to those who are worried about morale in the advertising business, I have developed The Ad Contrarian's Top 10 Ways To Improve Ad Industry Morale.

Here we go:
1. Every Powerpoint slide must be written in Waloon and contain either a rainbow or a unicorn
2. Speakers at digital media conferences required to dress as their favorite Spice Girl
3. Move the Cannes International Advertising Festival to Orlando
4. Do a switch -- put the timesheets in the bathroom and the toilet paper in the HR department
5. Before being hired at an agency, candidates for the job of Social Media Director required to say the word "ecosystem" continuously until they throw up 

6. Criminalize webinars
7. Change everything that's global to worldwide, and everything that's worldwide to global
8. New FCC regulation: All truck spots must have at least one ballerina
9. At the opening of annual 4As Management Conference, Sir Martin Sorrell required to sing "Knock Three Times"
10. Upgrade E-mail to F-mail
I got your improved morale right here.

September 05, 2012

Invisible Advertising

As media options for advertisers have become radically more complex, our ideas about the value of various media types have become concomitantly more esoteric.

We analyze media efficiencies based on very advanced ideas of consumer behavior. We try to understand how and why consumers use certain types of media and we optimize our media efficiencies by following those behaviors. We use highly muscular targeting models to find exactly the right audience and exactly the right environment for our messages.

And yet, as our ability to target has gotten dramatically more precise  -- particularly for online  advertising -- our results have gotten progressively more dismal. So what the hell is going on?

The answer is that we have grossly exaggerated the usefulness of media science. We have also overlooked something far simpler and more consequential. There is one characteristic of advertising that we never seem to discuss, that never enters into the evaluation process, and that, in the end, may trump all the arcane media analyses and targeting models.

In addition to having strategic and executional properties, advertising also has physical properties. These physical properties may, in the end, have a greater effect on success than media science. The simple physical nature of an ad may be far more relevant in predicting its power than any of the mysterious media calculations.

The fact that an ad occupies a whole page, or a whole screen, may be a lot more germane to its effectiveness than how well it is targeted. A big old billboard that targets no one in particular may be, dollar-for-dollar, a more efficient media buy than a display ad that precisely targets left-handed Mennonite yogurt eaters, but is so physically insignificant as to be unobservable.

To state it another way, it doesn't really matter how well-targeted a Facebook ad is if its physical properties make it invisible. The fact that it is a tiny little thing sitting in an area of a page we have all learned to ignore is critical to understanding why Facebook ads are so alarmingly ineffective. The fact that it may be targeted with absolute precision is meaningless if it is essentially invisible.

Which leads me to a piece written recently by Seth Godin. The piece is called "Advertising's bumpy transition (and why it matters to you)." It is basically an apologia for online advertising.

Seth is a very bright guy and he makes some interesting points about media choices. He is particularly astute in his criticism of print advertising. But there is also a lot to argue with.

If I understand Seth's main thesis correctly (and frankly, I'm not sure I do) I think he is saying that advertisers undervalue digital advertising because they don't understand the power that is represented by "focus." By "focus" I think he means a digital environment that is specific and uncluttered and conducive to the particular interests of a distinct type of consumer.

He is correct that placing display ads in focused environments is probably a lot more judicious than throwing them willy-nilly all over the web. But they are still famously ineffective.

Seth believes that once advertisers understand "focus" they will have a deeper appreciation for the power of online display advertising. I don't think so. I think advertisers already have seen that while "focus" may be preferable to absence of focus, it has not led to terribly effective advertising.

The problem is not one of targeting or focus. The problem is that the physical properties of display ads render them essentially invisible. Until this problem is somehow addressed, display ads will continue to under-perform and their value will continue to deteriorate regardless of how brilliantly they are placed.

Categorizing ad types as "old media" versus "new media," or "traditional media" versus "digital media," or "online media" versus "offline media" is not an intelligent way to think about advertising. In fact, because of its physical properties an online display ad has much more in common with a small space newspaper ad than it does with a YouTube video or a website.

Media science notwithstanding, there are only two types of advertising in the world: visible advertising and invisible advertising. The farther away from understanding this you get, the more confused you become.

September 04, 2012

The Management Mystery

Since yesterday was Labor Day, and I'm supposed to be a contrarian, I thought I'd really go contrarian and write a little something today in praise of management.

I live in Oakland, California. It may be the most mismanaged city on the face of the earth. It is a city so teeming with incompetence that the police department has announced it will not respond to most crimes.

The city government has been the subject of an FBI probe. The Oakland School District is being investigated by a federal grand jury. Worst of all, children are being gunned down in the streets.

Meanwhile, the morons on the City Council are all hysterical because the feds are closing down the "medical" marijuana "dispensaries" that line Broadway. 

Some details of Oakland's pathetic "leadership" can be found in a NY Times Magazine piece from a few weeks ago called "The World Capital of Anti-Capitalism."

And yet, the citizenry of Oakland keeps electing the same ridiculous imbeciles over and over again despite their abject ineptitude.

I have a feeling that the reason for this is that people do not seem to understand the relationship between management and outcomes. Ideology trumps competence. If you sing the right song, it doesn't matter to most people how awful you are at your job, because they don't really understand what executives do or how they can make or break an organization.

Just as in city government, incompetent leadership in an ad agency will also create monstrous problems. The difference is, cities can't close down. Agencies can.

When I was a copywriter it was very easy to demonstrate my accomplishments. "See this ad, mom? I wrote it." But when I told mom that I had become president of an ad agency, she congratulated me. Then there was a long pause.... "so, what do you do?"

Management's failures are obvious, but their accomplishments are substantially invisible. People are prone to thinking that the buses just show up, and the streets repair themselves, and the garbage magically disappears. They don't realize how much planning and expertise it takes to get this stuff right. Not just by the people who do the work, but also by the people behind the scenes who have to make sure the right people, systems, and resources are in place.

Many people in agencies think the work just shows up. They think the new clients and the new hires just pop into existence. They think the pay checks write themselves. As a result, they are skeptical that the big shots in the front offices with their mysterious meetings and their ubiquitous carry-ons are really adding anything of value.

This is not to say that there aren't incompetent people running agencies. There are zillions of them. One look at the long list of former agencies is all it takes to prove how large the pool of lousy agency executives has been.

But before you allow childish rebelliousness to totally taint your view of the value of agency leadership, I suggest you do this -- try starting one yourself.