January 31, 2011

Torturing The Data

If, like me, you are required to sit through a great many advertising and marketing presentations, I am pretty sure you've noticed something. These meetings have become far less about ideas and far more about numbers.

The advertising industry is trying its best to shed itself of the one thing that made it valuable and interesting -- ideas -- and become as one with its clients.

Before I dig myself a hole here, let me say that there is an important place for numbers in advertising. As a former science teacher, I have a very large bias toward basing advertising decisions on facts.

However, in a large percentage of meetings I attend, facts are not used to enlighten. They are used to confuse or mislead. This is done in two ways:
1. Using data disingenuously.
2. Using data without proper perspective.
This has always been true to some degree in traditional advertising. It is alarmingly true in the world of digital advertising.

The strategy often employed is to torture the facts until a piece of data that looks impressive on the surface can be squeezed out of it. Then it is presented out of context.

For example, while making a pitch for online display advertising, you will often hear a planner or digital media guru make a statement like this --
"According to Nielsen, 60% of people surveyed said they had clicked on a banner ad in the past 30 days."
On the surface, this "fact" seems substantial. Then you realize how many thousands of ads are served each month to the average person, and how it only takes one click to get over this threshold. Here are some more things that are wrong with the above statement:
1. Who was surveyed? Unless you know who the sample is, the statement is meaningless. The statement says "people" were surveyed. What people? People online? People in Cupertino? People with unintended click disorder?
2. It is self-reported. Most self-reported data is nonsense. The only way to get a true number is to measure actual behavior.
3. It blatantly and intentionally disregards the key fact. The key fact about clicking is that only one served display ad in a thousand gets clicked on. Any  discussion of display advertising click rates that does not start with this fact is intentionally deceitful.
One of the key tricks of this type of deceit is the cynical use of mathematical terms instead of plain English.  Ask the planner or online guru what the click-through rate is for Facebook ads and the answer you will get is "point-0-2." The purpose of answering this way is obfuscation. It is a lot less clear to say "point-0-2" than it is to say "2 in ten thousand."

Another disturbing part of the numbers-oriented presentations I see is the lack of perspective. Slide after slide of charts and graphs are shown without an ounce of perspective on what they mean. It reminds me of what the financial industry must have been like before the crash of 2008.
They had incomprehensibly complex formulas for derivatives and other financial instruments, and no idea at all what these numbers really meant or where the formulas lead.

Anyone foolish enough to think that our digital gurus understand more about their metrics than the PhD's on Wall Street knew about theirs, deserves everything he gets.

January 27, 2011

Culture Lag

For years I have been writing about the foolishness of marketers who squander their budgets marketing to young people.

They make a lousy primary target for most marketers. Yet they are the default (and sometimes unspoken) target for everything from cars to banks, even though they provide substantially less opportunity than other target groups (for stats on this, see The Amazing Blindness of Marketers.)

I have blamed this phenomenon on a number of things -- the callowness of media buyers; the dread that cmo's have of being thought of as anything but ultra-hip; the idiocy of calculating "lifetime value"; and the legends and rituals of marketers and ad agencies.

Recently I thought of a name for this phenomenon. Sometimes just giving something a name clarifies what it is. I call it Culture Lag.

Culture Lag works like this. Once in a while there occurs a unique cultural phenomenon. This phenomenon has a profound effect on society. When this phenomenon is over, the echo of it resounds for years (sometimes decades) even though the phenomenon no longer has power. This "echo" is Culture Lag.

When advertising came of age in the 1960's -- with the advent of universal television ownership -- there was, coincidentally, an enormous demographic phenomenon coming of age known as the Baby Boom. The Baby Boom was an unprecedented societal phenomenon with a huge bubble of population passing through the snake.

In 1964, the first of these Baby Boomers turned 18. These people provided marketers with an astounding and unprecedented marketing opportunity.

Intelligent marketers understood this and took advantage of it.

In the process, they got used to the idea that young people were an essential target. They forgot that the basis of their targeting was not that the people were young, but that there were zillions of them and they were a unique consuming force.

The social phenomenon called the Baby Boom required a new way of thinking. Forty years later, this is now an old way of thinking.

Economics and demographics tell us that young people are no longer a terribly attractive target for most marketers. Over 75% of the wealth of the country is in the hands of people over 50. And yet our advertising and marketing strategies today, if anything, are more focused on youth and youth culture.

Marketers have gotten used to a cultural phenomenon that is far weaker than it once was. Until they wake up, they will remain mired in Culture Lag.

January 26, 2011

Pepsi Screws Up The Narrative

Last year, in a much ballyhooed move, Pepsi-Cola dropped its long-standing annual commitment to Super Bowl advertising in favor of a social media campaign.

This sent shock waves through the marketing chattersphere.

It was highly trumpeted as another symbol of the ascendancy of social media and the decline of that dead old bird, the 30-second tv spot. The media loved the story, as it confirmed the narrative they had fabricated over the previous 5 years about the death of TV advertising and the magical power of social media.
From Mashable:
"Such a large move is noteworthy for any company, however Pepsi’s symbiotic relationship with the Super Bowl makes this shift to new media that much more seismic."
From Huffington Post
"In 2010, each of our beverage brands... will be less about a singular event and more about a movement," ...said a Pepsi spokesbozo.
From Time magazine:
"This is exactly where Pepsi needs to be," ...said the CEO of a brand-consulting firm.
Some other published nonsense:
"...instead of flash and celebrities, Pepsi is attempting to engage consumers in community service.
"...But the real story is about the industry... even traditional-marketing mainstays like Pepsi have to get the best return on their dollar. Pepsi knows the mass media mega-buy story... Pepsi’s saying that they expect get more value by connecting with their audience directly. "
If you enjoy a good laugh, go back and read all the pompous nonsense that was written last year. And also don't forget to check the videos of social media "experts" clucking over this.

Well, as luck would have it, Pepsi's absence from the Super Bowl wasn't quite as "seismic" as predicted. According to press reports, they're dropping a ton of cash in the Super Bowl this year.

As is typical, Pepsi's return to the Super Bowl is getting significantly less attention from the media than its departure did.

You see, it just doesn't fit the "narrative."

January 25, 2011

Death Cab For Bobby

I was in New York City recently. As a former resident, and frequent visitor, I am a confirmed subway user. However, on this recent trip circumstances dictated that on a few occasions I had to take a cab.

Apparently there is now a 10 question test they give before they issue a taxi license.

Here is the test:
  1. Have you ever taken a shower? 
  2. Have you ever had an article of clothing laundered or dry cleaned?
  3. Can you imagine any circumstance under which you might smile?
  4. Have you ever stayed in one lane for more than 30 seconds?
  5. Do you know how to operate a turn signal?
  6. Have you ever answered a direct question with a direct answer?
  7. Have you ever stepped gently on an accelerator or brake pedal?
  8. Have you ever made a left turn from the left lane, or a right turn from the right lane?
  9. Have you ever been helpful or well-mannered?
  10. Are you aware that every cell phone has an "off" switch?
If you answer "yes" to any of these questions, you are disqualified.

By The Way...
...my father was a NYC cab driver so I don't want to hear from any weenies about how elitist/prejudiced/insensitive I am.

January 24, 2011

The Young And The Witless

Here at Ad Contrarian global headquarters, we believe that one of the sacred responsibilities of a self-styled contrarian is to annoy the shit out of robo-thinkers.

Consequently, when we get comments from them that are critical of our opinions or our charming personality we are secretly delighted.

One of the disheartening things we have noticed, however, is the frequency with which negative comments from young-ish people are accompanied by ad hominem attacks revolving around age. The typical attack-comment has the following plot line: "You, Mr. Ad Contrarian, are an old geezer and I am a young hipster. Therefore you don't get it and I do."

It's pretty clear that there is a moron-logic-world in which young equals smart and virtuous, and old means stupid and corrupt. One doesn't need an autographed picture of Justin Bieber to appreciate the intellectual vapidity of this logic. Nonetheless, it seems to have great power in the new world of marketing -- particularly in the narcissistic lives of some young advertising people of the digital variety.

I certainly don't mean to imply that there is a lot of this going on. In fact, one of the reasons I keep writing this blog years after I've run out of things to say, is that I've found there are a great many young ad people who follow and enjoy it.

Whatever you may think of my opinions about advertising and marketing, I believe you will agree that I try to build my arguments on facts and logic. I can't remember a post I've written in which the argument was based on being "older and wiser." In fact, I find very little evidence that wisdom is correlated with either youth or age. I know just as many old fools as young ones.

The difference, however, is that the negative comments I get from old fools seem to be about the subject matter. The ones I get from young fools seem to be about the vain and imagined superiority of their youth.

January 20, 2011

Is The Magic Over?

Could it be that the spell has been broken?

Is it possible that the silly season has at long last ended?

Can it be that the infantile belief in the magical power of web advertising is finally hitting the wall of reality?

Yesterday, a piece in Mashable (deliciously entitled, "Contrarian Survey Shows Advertisers Ditching Digital for TV") reported a significant drop in interest in web advertising. The report comes out of a company called Strata, which is a Chicago-based "customized media management agency," whatever the hell that is.

Strata apparently polled 100 clients of advertising agencies earlier this month. Compared to last quarter, the clients were...
...24% more interested in television advertising
...75% more interested in radio advertising
...19% less interested in online advertising
According to the article, one of the reasons for the drop was that agencies "expressed disappointment with digital advertising’s efficacy."

This really sucks. It's going to ruin my career as a blogweasel.

If agency knuckleheads start to take their heads out of their butts and see what's going on around them, I'm going to have nothing to write about. No one to make fun of. Nothing to rant and rave over. I may even have to do some work --  which would really suck.

Let's all hope that this little survey is just a minor aberration and the marketing world will quickly return to its lovely enthusiasm for pissing away money in digital fantasyland.

Let the magic live!

January 19, 2011

Decontaminating The Web

Advertising was once a much more interesting business.

It wasn't run by mealy-mouthed lawyers and financiers. It was run by foul-mouthed entrepreneurs and craftsmen, who actually knew how to make an ad. It wasn't about technology and metrics. It was about ideas and strategy.

American neighborhoods were once much more interesting places.

Each had a unique personality. There were shoe stores and tailors and hardware stores. Now every neighborhood is the same. Gaps and Radio Shacks and Taco Bells. Dallas looks like Atlanta. Sacramento looks like Providence.

Next up for de-personalization is the web.

We can't see it because it's happening before our eyes, but the web is quickly becoming a big corporate blob. It used to be the Wild Wild World Wide Web. It is becoming The Google, Yahoo, MSN, Facebook web.

This is the result of two things: natural economic forces and extraordinary greed.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, the large players on the web are gathering frightening amounts of data on us. This gives them enormous economic advantages when selling their services to marketers. This keeps them growing. But their short-sightedness and greed will have another effect. It will bring government into the picture.

When an industry is too rancid and self-absorbed to put reasonable limits on itself, the heavy hand of government will inevitably be felt.

If you have enjoyed the craziness and chaos of the web, I have bad news. It won't last.

If you like stability and order I have good news. The corporate-government web is on the way.

January 17, 2011

The Legend of Marketing Man

Basically, there are two types of men -- Feckless Weasels and Smelly Hairballs.

Your classic Feckless Weasel lives in Berkeley, drives a Subaru Outback, spends 80% of his time trying to please his shrill harridan of a wife, and wastes the other 20% of his life "reasoning" with his horrid children ("Now, Joshie, you remember we said that in a restaurant you shouldn't put your feet in other peoples' food...")

The Smelly Hairball has old banana peels in his golf bag, is at least three months behind in his alimony, has an expired driver's license and is quite fond of the phrase "I said, shut the fuck up!"

In the rich pageant of manhood there is, sadly, very little fertile ground between the Feckless Weasel and the Smelly Hairball.

There is, however, one exception -- Marketing Man.

Marketing Man is an imaginary character (or as we like to call him, a "target audience") who exists mainly in ad agency briefing documents and marketing department Powerpoint presentations.

Marketing Man is handsome and well-groomed. He is thoughtful and considerate. He is a close shaver. He coaches soccer and is concerned with his wife's feelings. He is helpful in the kitchen and undemanding in the bedroom. He keeps his closet neat and his weenie in his pants. In other words, he's a total fucking dork.

Well, Marketing Man now has an online place all to himself where he can gather with other Marketing Men and have conversations about...oh, I don't know...sauces?

It's a super-slick website called Man Of The House, sponsored by P&G. It's billed as "a man's guide to grooming, gadgets, fitness, relationships, clothes, parenting, careers & home repair." That's right, everything that makes contemporary life such a total pile of shit. (Couldn't they put in just a little about strippers, booze, weed and golf?  Just a little?)

Here are some of the things you can learn this week at Man Of The House:
  • Tips for Surviving a Weekend at Disney 
  • What Does Your Wife Want From You?
  • 4 Reasons Not To Tuck Your Shirt In
  • How to Clean a Toilet in 30 Seconds Flat 
and great tips on having a
  • Family Pizza Party
Hemingway is spinning.

January 13, 2011

Pseudo-Scientists At War

According to Ad AgeForrester and Nielsen can't agree on how much time people spend with TV and the web. As a matter if fact, they are so far apart it's ridiculous.

Forrester says people spend as much time each week on the web as they do watching TV -- about 13 hours each. Nielsen says, no way. They say people spend less than 13 hours on the web and 34 hours with TV -- almost three times as much. It's very clear that someone is very, very wrong here. Who? Damned if I know.

As regular readers know, I used to teach science in middle school. As a result, I have nothing but admiration for the scientific method and nothing but contempt for most of the advertising, marketing, and media research I see.

There is little rigor in it, there are almost never adequate controls, and the interpretation of results is usually done for the benefit of whoever paid for the study.

Many research companies will throw a few questions up on the internet or interview some people and think that they've done science. This "research" would be hooted out of any reputable science lab in the world.

In the dispute between Forrester and Nielsen, Nielsen claims that Forrester's research is based on a survey (i.e., self-reported) and their (Nielsen's) research is based on observed behavior.  If Nielsen's characterization is correct, then I have to lean toward their numbers being closer to reality. Self-reported data is almost always nonsense.

By the way, I'm not the only one who has contempt for much of the research conducted in marketing and other soft sciences. Here's a clip of Nobel genius Richard Feynman, which I have used before, on this subject:

What's Are 3.7 Million Fans Worth?
Great story in the NYTimes yesterday about the evaporation of MySpace. My favorite part is about Tila Tequila, the famous-for-being-famous disposable pop star, whose MySpace page has 3.7 million fans. Only problem? 
"...she does not even remember her MySpace password."

January 12, 2011

Brilliance of the 30-Second Spot

Woody Allen once said that 89 minutes is the perfect length for a movie.

I think the ad industry may have accidentally stumbled upon the perfect length for a video message when it decided on the 30-second TV spot. It's just enough time to establish a premise, deliver a sales message, throw in a gag, and get out.

Of course, there is no more maligned artifact of "traditional" advertising than the 30-second TV spot. According to the new masters of the marketing universe it is the embodiment of everything that is wrong with marketing and advertising.

The fact that so many feckless new age marketing gurus agree that the 30-second spot is dead, leads us here at Ad Contrarian World Headquarters to assume that there must be something uniquely wonderful about it.

When the convergence of the Internet and TV finally occurs (which the same gurus have been predicting relentlessly and incorrectly for over 10 years) neither may survive in its current form. But here's one thing I'll bet on right now -- the 30-second spot will.

In our never ending search for truth, we have been scouring the web looking for examples of the fabulous videos that were supposed to have displaced the allegedly moribund 30-second spot by now.

Our research has lead us to the following conclusions:

1. Most commercial web videos -- whether of the "viral" or paid variety -- are just longer or shorter versions of forms and structures found in traditional TV spots. In fact, most are merely re-edited or re-purposed 30-second spots.

2. Those that are not, tend to be awful. It's as if agencies have taken teams that used to write table tents and meta-tags and said, "Okay, nobody's gonna see this shit anyway, go ahead and make a video."

3. While YouTube reports 2 billion views a day, it seems like not many of these 2 billion are views of online commercial videos. There are dancing cats with millions of views and, to be fair, some very well-produced commercial videos with millions of views. However, the vast majority --  I am tempted to say somewhere in the 90+% range -- of commercial videos posted online appear to have about no one looking at them. It seems that the only people watching these things are the sorry fools who paid for them and SAG reps searching for contract violations.

4. The farther from traditional ad structures the videos stray the more likely they are to be terrible. Here is an example. This interminable, stunningly unfunny video is part of an online video campaign for HungryMan. It features an actor who can't decide if he's Chico Marx or Borat. It reaches its comedic apex when he visits the Technological Institute of Technology (T.I.T. -- get it?)

I don't know what this video cost HungryMan but it's getting a whopping 5,000 views a month.  Sometimes this stupid-ass blog of mine gets more views than that in a day.

Let's not bury the 30-second spot quite yet. 

By The Way...
...if you've been writing table tents and meta tags and you get the opportunity to write a spot, here's some very sage advice from Vinnie Warren.

Just One More Thing...
My semi-gorgeous face adorns this week's print edition of Adweek. It's on the "Feedback" page, in which they print reader reactions to stories and columns they've run, including my piece entitled Big Brother Has Arrived, and He's Us which ran in Adweek's online edition 2 weeks ago.

January 10, 2011

Your Web Metrics Are Wrong

Last weekend I read a terrific article* entitled TV Leaking Billions Of Dollars To Online Media. It's about the fallaciousness of web metrics. In it, the author states:
...billions of dollars in sales are incorrectly being attributed to online advertisements that are completely or partially being generated by television.  This is resulting in an incorrect ratio of perceived value between television and online media...
In case you think this conclusion was reached by a TV sales rep out to make a buck, the author is Brian Burdick, who...
...led product development for Microsoft AdCenter for Search, AdCenter for Contextual, AdECN (Online Exchange), and Specific Media. Brian is an inventor of over 35 pending and granted patents in disparate types of online advertising and business intelligence. Brian is on the advisory board for Technorati and the Technology Advisory Group for Olympic Venture Partners.
Burdick made some excellent points in his article. The dumb blogger version of the points he made are these:

- You see a TV spot for Bob's Cruises. The spot tells you to go to BobsCruises.com. You go to BobsCruises.com. You sign up for a Bob's Cruise. Even though the TV spot created the demand and the web acted as a fulfillment vehicle, the web advertising gets full credit for the clicks and the sale. The TV spot gets credit for diddly.

- When DR TV ads used to direct you to an 800 number, nobody ever credited the telephone with the sale. Now that DR TV ads direct you to a web site, web hustlers are taking credit for the sale. More than 50% of DR TV sales are now made over the web.

- Online attribution systems are corrupt.
Online advertising attribution systems are assigning credit to any online advertising that may happen during navigation or general browsing after TV ads run.  Even minutes after a very high reach television spot runs... if a Google search happens to be involved – 100% of the sales attribution will likely be given to online mediums for generating the demand ...The result of this is the online advertising agencies and tracking technologies are significantly inflating their ROI calculations...
- In a test of the impact that TV advertising has on online sales, a TV campaign (with no change in online advertising) resulted in a 2000% increase in online sales. 50% of this (or a lift of 1000% in sales) would be typically attributed to Google or other online media. This is a joke. Without, TV the lift would be zero.

Brian concludes:
  • Attribution of online sales to online media is vastly overestimated
  • TV is contributing (leaking) billions of dollars in ad value to online media
  • The advertising and media industries need to figure out how to assign credit for sales properly across advertising channels
I am a copywriter, not a media expert and I've probably misinterpreted, misunderstood, or missed some fine points of the article. I strongly suggest you read it.

By the way, in my opinion, this is not only true of television. Any ad in any medium that directs you to a website or leads you to a search is probably contributing to the inflated value of online advertising.

*Big thanks to Rich Cerussi for sending me this article

January 06, 2011

Groundhog Day At The 4A's

Stop the presses!

The 4A's is having a conference. And it's about "transformation." Yeah, that's right, in case you hadn't heard, digital is changing everything! Oh my god! Why didn't anyone tell me?

From an email I recently received promoting this conference:
"...The marketing landscape has changed, permanently and irrevocably. The consumers are in control. Digital means everything. The mood has evolved from disruption to partnership..."
They've managed to cram every muddle-headed new-age marketing cliche into four short sentences. A truly commendable performance.

We have come to expect hyperbole and bullshit from brand babblers, web hustlers, and other marketing and advertising phonies. But an industry organization like the 4A's is expected to to be a little more sober and sensible in its pronouncements. They are not expected to exploit the kind of trendy nonsense that pervades the trade press and ad agency new business pitches.

Just in case anyone at the 4A's is interested in some facts about advertising -- so the next time you send out an email you don't sound like a freshman online copywriter at a start-up in Williamsburg -- here are some facts:
  • Online advertising is projected to be 9% of total advertising* in 2011. Which means 91% of advertising is not digital. (The way it works is this -- you subtract 9 from 100 and you get 91. See, math is fun!)
  • Of the 9% that is digital, almost half of it is search. Which means it isn't really advertising. It's a listing or something.
  • Some things that have not changed "permanently and irrevocably"...
  • TV is still by far the most viewed, trusted, and effective advertising medium. 
  • "Interactivity" with online ads has dropped like a rock -- 97.5% since the mid-90's.
  • Only 2% of all video is viewed on a computer
From Bloomberg News, Nov. 27...
"TV viewing is at an all-time high," (said) Philippe Dauman, chief executive officer of Viacom.."
The average American viewer watched two more hours of TV per month in the first quarter of 2010 compared with the same period last year. 
So, on balance, I think I'll just skip this conference.

Is It Just Me...
...or has the 4A's been holding the same freaking conference over and over again for the last 10 years?

*This figure may be out of date as a more recent projection from another source puts it at 13% globally and 17% in US.

January 04, 2011

Creativity Without Talent

Someone once asked me about a copywriter who had worked for me. "Is he creative?" the person asked. "Very" I replied, "and it's a shame because he's not very talented."
I, too, am burdened with this frustrating affliction -- more creativity than talent.

I spend an inordinate amount of time writing and playing musical instruments. I love doing these things. But, alas, I'm just not very good at them.

I have written some decent ads, some pretty good blog posts, and some passable songs. But no one would accuse me of being terribly talented.

But this post isn't about me, it's about advertising.

We are often confronted with the lament that advertising isn't very good. This is true, and one of the reasons it's true is that the ad industry is chock full of people like me.

I've seen them from all sides. As a copywriter, I've worked alongside them. As a creative director I've supervised them. As an agency head, I've recruited them.

They are hard-working, diligent, and well-meaning. Unfortunately, they're not very talented. By definition, the average creative person is, well, average.

We often blame the absence of excellence in advertising on tin-eared clients, unimaginative strategies, or weak-kneed account work. The truth, however, is a little more complicated.

Talent is a rare and precious thing. Every now and then I'll see a spot and it will blow me away, "Oh, so that's how you do it."

It's not that we don't want to do great work. It's not that we don't try to do great work. It's just that great work is really, really difficult to do. It takes exceptional talent, and sadly, exceptional talent is the exception.

January 03, 2011

My Top 10 New Year's Resolutions

Here are my New Years resolutions for 2011:
1. I will not slow-dance with Eliot Spitzer
2. I will answer the telephone in French 
3. I will not pick up my dog's poop unless he picks up mine
4. I will take at least 3 showers this year in a suit
5. I will actively work for the deportation of digital natives
6. When they ask for my order at the drive-thru window, I will use my super- funny yodeling voice
7. I will stop trying to pick up girls at the genius bar
8. I will change my online user name to "King Larry the Fourteenth of China" 
9. I will not Join The Conversation
10. I will try to breathe every day