May 06, 2013

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3 Convenient Illusions If you watch Mad Men regularly and filter out all the illegal and non-PC stuff, it becomes pretty clear that not much has changed in Adland in sixty years. Agencies are run pretty much the way they are depicted on TV. Evidently the great management and technology revolutions sidestepped Madison Avenue. If you doubt me ask how many Six Sigma black belts work in your agency or describe which consultants re-engineered your studio or production departments. And while there has been significant increases in financial controls and cutbacks, ad agencies are notorious for lack of predictable and consistent business processes, spotty project management and the inability to forecast and deliver profit and productivity gains reliably. Never ones to miss a fad, agency executives have embraced a number of new concepts in an attempt to demonstrate to prospective clients and employees how forward thinking and innovative they really are. These “innovations” are comfortable and convenient illusions that help agency managers sleep at night. But they’ve had little or no impact on either the chronically broken agency business model or the productivity, creativity or profitability of agencies. The dream makers need their own illusions, too. Consider these 3 concepts that have gained widespread conversation and adoption if not, business traction among ad agencies. Creative Technologists. Like unicorns, these mythic hard-to-find creatures are part creative, part techie and part wizard. Having one suggests that an agency is able to generate breakthrough tech savvy ideas that become global memes, give traditional campaigns smart digital executions or enable agencies to make applets, apps, widgets and viral or video memes that are as cool and shareable as those created by Google or Intel. What isn’t clear is how these new hybrid players are accepted (or not) by traditionally run and managed agencies who barely understand the need for interaction and engagement much less complex, two-way digital, mobile or social technologies. Frequently embedded in creative departments with the idea that they will form a triad with copywriters and art directors, most practitioners are frustrated by the lack of baseline technical knowledge, among their peers and co-workers, the reluctance to give a pure digital guy a seat at the ideation table or the inability to prioritize digital thinking and organically connect digital assets to core creative concepts. In the last few years, agencies have acquired people with these titles to keep up with first movers and to demonstrate their technology prowess in credentials meetings. The breakout creative executions that have resulted across the industry are concentrated in a handful of agencies and can be counted on one hand. Project Management. For decades account guys managed client relationships and projects. As the digital era dawned and technical production became more complicated, agencies added project managers charged with managing timelines, budgets and project QA. Unfortunately while many agencies embraced the position in the hope to better control timelines and budgets, results have been mixed. There is no consensus on the job description, the tool set, the degree of authority or responsibility granted or the technical competences required. People were recruited fresh out of school, from traffic departments, and among failed account guys. Some nag and pester creatives. Others hide behind endless revisions of Excel spreadsheets, hot lists or MS Project Gantt charts. Still others send out the invitations for and attend every meeting but contribute only carbon monoxide. To a great extent, agencies faked themselves out. PMs add a layer of expense and friction, lengthen the production process and gain very little either in terms of quality assurance or staff productivity. Now everybody can claim to have project management as a core agency discipline. But very few agencies can quantify their impact on process improvements, staff efficiency or in added margins. Digital Integration. Fifteen years ago when digital agencies emerged from primordial bits and bytes, technology was new and alien. It had to be carefully scrutinized and considered before being bolted onto agencies. As the Web grew many people in shops of many sizes and configurations mastered web technologies. Agencies allied with and acquired digital capabilities to reduce competitive pressure, defend brand stewardship, while grabbing a bigger slice of client retainers and provide through the line media neutral communications in service to client commercial goals. This momentum has continually built up year after year. As consumer behavior shifts toward a digitally centric lifestyle no agency wants to be left out or appear to be a dinosaur. To compensate many traditional agencies hired marquee Chief Digital Officers away from digital-only shops...
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Death to Blogger Whores! After reading a number of case studies describing how brands have used social influencers to drive commercial success, I get the feeling that bloggers are like Congressmen; they can be easily bought and paid for. And while FTC rules demand full disclosure, it seems that the journalistic ethics of early bloggers has succumbed to the easy baksheesh offered by brands, and their PR or social marketing firms, eager to marshal what appears to be consumer endorsements or momentum. Duane Reade’s “Show Us Some Leg” campaign outlined in the May edition of Internet Retailer , got me thinking about this. Working with a firm called Collective Bias, they identified likely bloggers using social listening tools. Then paid selected bloggers to go to the store, buy the products and crow about both experiences early and often. Duane Reade claims that over the 6-week campaign hosiery sales increased 28 percent. Though they aren’t really willing to attribute the sales spike solely to suborned bloggers. They paid up but they aren’t sure what they got in return. Zach Reiss-Davis of Forrester Research points out that it’s a cheap way to rally peer-to-peer reviews and to present what appear to be brand endorsements from fellow consumers. Marketers looking to efficiently buy word-of-mouth advertising can get some blog love to “bend a conversation in your direction.” As a long-term independent blogger, there’s something skeevy in this. Maybe I’m old fashioned. Or maybe I’m getting cranky in my old age. But if you’re a paid endorser, taking products and talking points from a brand, you absolutely have to disclose. It’s not only the law; it’s the right thing to do. Otherwise you’re just a covert whore. Similarly, agencies and firms organizing fake groundswells of social conversation ought to be held accountable, exposed, embarrassed and fined by the FTC. Brands can buy ads, pay endorsers, hire spokespeople, deploy affiliate programs and run all kinds of interactive events and experiences. Consumers understand the deal. They know who is talking to them and why. The great thing about social media is that it can be a real unvarnished conversation among people who share ideas and interests. Undercover advocates pollute and skew the genuine organic interaction between people that honest bloggers and credible social networks have worked hard to create. Fakers and liars should be rooted and hooted out.

Danny Flamberg

I am a veteran marketing consultant working with leading and emerging brands

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