An Ad Agency Tipping Point

Starting any business is a bold move. Not all survive and few truly thrive. Those that do face the challenges of managing growth and staying true to what made them successful in the first place. This is an interesting tension that I recently discovered in working with four advertising agencies.

These businesses had grown to 100 or more staff. Of course, that metric in, and of itself, is not an indicator of sustained success. The good news is the agency leaders know that. In fact, these leaders were concerned because interesting things happen when the payroll hits 100. Here are some issues that arise:

  • Agencies of 15 or 30 or even 75 employees possess a start-up or boutique feel. When you hit 100 this weirdly begins to dissipate.
  • You don’t know everyone any more. Small agencies talk of being saatchi-saatchi-office-funkt-1“family” where everyone has each other’s back. While a strong culture can keep this rolling as staff size grows, it cannot mitigate the realities of being larger. This is compounded when they open up other offices.
  • A bigger payroll and presence prompts new business pressures. This can mean chasing the wrong work to keep the machine humming.
  • Founders and principals move from client service oversight to functional roles. Marketing, people, service and product development and other areas need full-time leadership. This transition can be bumpy and skill-sets are stretched.
  • Specialisms and differentiators begin to lose their luster. You simply cannot make the same claims. Being “nimble”, as an example, gets called in to question.

Read more

Ad Agencies Need to Obsess About Loyalty

The company, Access Development, tracked and recorded, and recently shared every publicly available piece of data available concerning customer engagement and loyalty. They call it the Ultimate Collection of Loyalty Statistics. These data points, insights and themes are interesting unto themselves but add up to one big fat fact they did not note…any marketing business is in the business of loyalty.

I mean advertising agencies, marketing consultancies, public relations firms, market research bureaus, digital agencies, performance marketing shops, telemarketers, brand consultancies, social media marketers, media buying services, promotional material providers, influencer and celebrity marketing 200464106-001advisors…well, you get the idea. Any agency, firm or service that is in the business of marketing exists for one purpose. Of course, this includes those prescient to be specifically in the business of loyalty marketing.

The past, present and future of marketing has and will always hinge on loyalty. No company wants a one-time customer. Even businesses selling bomb shelters in the 1950’s wanted a client’s second home or to upgrade the first. Apple wants to sell customers a new cellphone every time there is a new release or every 22 months which is the smartphone adoption average.

Agencies and consultancies continue to talk about brand positioning, awareness, consideration and trial. Important stuff for sure but only the start. All efforts and spend should have loyalty as the end goal. Anything else is a dodge, a feint, a run from the real focus and fight.

Not one single advertising agency, brand consultancy, PR firm, media buyer is really talking about loyalty.

I see not one single advertising agency, brand consultancy, PR firm, media buyer talking about loyalty. This leads to churn, inefficiency, ineffectiveness and the regurgitation of the same ideas whose only result is a client’s frustration and dissatisfaction…and poor results.

Why spend money on branding and advertising if not to have repeat customers?

Let me say it again, no company wants a one-time customer. That is why marketing’s purpose is loyalty. You only need to give a cursory examination of Access Development’s aggregation to arrive at the same conclusion. We thank them for the following…and for also proving loyalty programs are a tactic not a strategy.

Read more

The Real Reason Clients Hire You

I have spent my career in professional services. From Price Waterhouse to Interbrand to DDB to now running my own agency. Over that time I have become an expert in branding and marketing professional services. At least that is what peers and clients say. To make that claim myself is analogous to me telling you that “I’m cool” or “I’m funny” or “I’m smart”. The credibility is in others saying it. Having others speak well of you is the goal of branding.

This specialty allows me to work with law firms, management and marketing consultancies, advertising and digital agencies, and accounting firms. An engagement with an investment management firm led to an insight about how and why clients truly decide on one professional over another.

screen-shot-2016-09-20-at-8-58-40-pmFor a long period we assumed that clients first and foremost chose expertise. This assumption led ad agencies to talk about themselves way too much, law firms to numb clients with superior high-minded jargon, and management consultancies to dazzle with mysterious black boxes of proprietary processes. To their credit many professionals identified this as a problem but mistakenly identified the solution. They chose to switch emphasis and focus on the prospective client’s situation.

Read more

Ad Agencies Confuse Public Relations with Branding

Perhaps we can lay blame on the Creative Revolution in advertising from the early 1960s. That era of broadcast communications produced, on a relative basis, the largest volume of advertising we have ever seen. It is viewed as the pinnacle of Madison Avenue’s influence. At the same time, the public relations profession was having its own golden days. The masters of spin were as sought after as the martini-soaked mad men (apologies for reinforcing the stereotype).

Soon competition among ad agencies grew in the late 1960s and the phone stopped ringing. Work dried up so agencies turned to their public relations cousins for help. From the mid ‘60s on, this meant pumping out press releases and cultivating media to cover agency activities. Most of this trumpeted new business wins and awards gained at the ever-increasing number of shows. This contributed no real or meaningful differentiation especially given all agencies followed the same playbook. The biggest innovation agencies introduced in subsequent decades was hiring public relations professionals to work in-house.

TheOffice

Read more

Marketing is a Human Activity

Marketing-Jeff-Swystun

This originally appeared in WPP’s Sparksheet.

As bots become more and more prevalent, as brands take an aggressive approach to social media, and as everyone drowns in data, it’s worth remembering that successful marketing has always been about one thing only: a personal connection.

Every marketer is bombarded with overwhelming and conflicting information. Most companies (and marketers) can barely digest the data they produce let alone turn it into actionable insights and strategy. Add the utopian promise of Big Data and we have a real issue because the most sophisticated systems will never spit out a marketing roadmap. More importantly, we must never forget that marketing is an intensely human activity.

There are ever-increasing raft of studies, rankings and surveys that pelt the marketing community every day. In branding alone there are now 294 studies tracked on the website, Ranking the Brands. Most of these are celebratory lists pitting brands against each other on one dimension or another. And the tech industry is an expert at producing reports that skew towards ‘technology-as-savior’ conclusions. Add on consumer and market research studies and marketers are now buried in elephant-size data dumps.

I am a part of a team researching marketing studies for a prospective book. Our intent is to discover commonality and difference in content. One thing that we found immediately was the need to clearly understand the wants and needs of consumers. Everything else is blinding white noise. Marketers know this but get distracted by shiny new toys and theories promising better performance.

The practice and profession of marketing has never changed. It has always been predicated on human behavior. It exists to understand consumer’s motives and give them justification for making a purchase. Everything else either supports or erodes this fact.

The relationship between brand and consumer was pretty much a fair relationship until the Mad Men, mass communication era. That marked a point when brands took the appearance of control through the ubiquity of advertising. This went on for a few decades then the balance of power shifted back towards consumers…but was then interrupted by the advent of social media.

Read more

Brand Names are Illiterate

The last season of the comedy, Parks and Recreation, finished up in 2015 but was set in 2017. Much of the plot focused on a fictional business named Gryzzl that is a thinly veiled amalgam of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google. Gryzzl employees tout collapsible transparent tablets that can be used as a skateboard, use treadmill desks, and don’t really appear to work. Their tagline is, “It’s the cloud for the cloud.” and the hI773Ke-company mantra is, “Wouldn’t it be tight if everyone was chill to each other?”

People surf free Gryzzl Wi-Fi, communicate through Gryzzl’s social network, and Gryzzl drones deliver creepily personalized gifts. A youthful executive of the company says, “I hope you can see now there is nothing scary about Gryzzl. We just want to learn everything about everyone and track them everywhere they go and anticipate what they’re about to do.”

Satire aside, the reason I bring this up is because of the name, Gryzzl. It alone made me laugh when I saw it. The name captures the silliness in brand naming these days. Granted, it is extremely difficult to find an original name so for the sake of legal ownership and URLs, many companies are bastardizing spellings and meanings.

Read more

Agency CEOs Are Chief People Officers

I recently had lunch with an agency CEO. It was revealing because the content was raw and real. In short, he lamented the lack of hours in the day to deal with everything on his plate. There was little I could recommend short of cloning and ruthless prioritization.

If you are an agency CEO or if you marvel at the responsibility they take on, then you know that it is overwhelming. CEOs have to be a master of the balance sheet, superior in business development, aware of technological developments, substantive in interaction with clients, Biz Mensavvy in the press, excellent public speakers, tireless in the pursuit of growth and profit, and role models for the agency’s brand.
And all of this depends on people. Any variable in performance is due to the collective talent of the agency. What this proves is that the CEO is as much the Chief People Officer as anything. Every industry and business can claim, “Ours is a people business” or “Talent is our greatest asset” and that would be fair, but it is especially accurate and evidenced in the agency world. The loss of a key person can sink an entire office. The right person leading the right team can propel an entire agency to dazzling new heights.

Read more

Seagram’s Ads Predicted the Future

If only The Seagram Company could have seen the future they would avoid what Charles Bronfman called, “a disaster, it is a disaster, it will be a disaster…It was a family tragedy.” He was speaking of the demise of his family’s business founded in 1857. Before the company’s ill-fated forays into entertainment and its breakup of assets that were acquired 1979_seagrams_adby Pernod Ricard, Diageo and Coca-Cola, Seagram’s developed and owned nearly 250 drink brands and was the largest distiller of alcoholic beverages in the world.

They were also one of the coolest holding companies of all time. The Seagram Building, the company’s American headquarters at 375 Park Avenue in New York City, was designed by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson. Seagram’s made Canadian whisky a must-have. Crown Royal, 7 Crown, 83 Canadian Whisky, Five Star Rye Whisky, and Seagram’s VO were seen as luxury liquors.

My dad drank Crown Royal exclusively. Open a particular closet in our home back then and you would have drowned in royal blue felt-like bags with a gold tasselled drawstring (later they would be purple). Crown Royal was sold in these keepsake sacs. Kids would keep marbles and other toys in them. Ladies used them for jewelry. My dad housed scores of golf balls in the plush bag.

Read more

The Persuasiveness of Great Language

The advertising industry has a rich history. Much, of course, is based on lore made greater with each telling. It is rife with characters both created and those who lived. The Marlboro Man, The Morton Salt Girl, Cap’n Crunch, Aunt Jemima, Mr. Whipple, The Jolly Green Giant, Miss Chiquita Banana, The Pillsbury Doughboy, Tony the Tiger, Mr. Peanut, and the Coppertone Girl are Pillsburyiconic brand representatives. Many of these creations were spun from the agencies of Leo Burnett, David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach.

These Madison Avenue greats produced intriguing quotes. The thoughts of these revered and referenced gentlemen continue to be trumpeted and contextualized to be made relevant today. Leo Burnett is economical and bit gruff. David Ogilvy was prolific having identified the power of a soundbite from his earliest days. Bill Bernbach was a furious and detailed writer. I know this having sat close to his archives while Chief Communications Officer at DDB Worldwide.

One bit of the latter’s writing recently came to my attention. I had not seen it while at DDB. It Mr. Bernbach’s 1947 resignation from Grey Advertising. It is a delightful but forceful blast of prose. Firm in conviction and clear in intent, the letter is a summary of his disappointment and hope for advertising. It is rant in defence of craft over technique and science. It is a cry for differentiation and distinction.

Yet, what I enjoy most is the emphasis on selling. In recent decades, marketing and advertising has become entertainment. You are hard pressed to hear the word “sales” and “selling” in agencies. That is the industry protecting itself against age-old indictments of being deceptive and manipulative. The irony is, all business communications exist to sell something whether it be a product or idea…so why cover up that fact?

Below is the text from the letter and the original. Read it and come to your own conclusions. I think he does a wonderful job of proving “to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.”

Dear collegues,

Our agency is getting big. That’s something to be happy about. But it’s something to worry about, too, and I don’t mind telling you I’m damned worried. I’m worried that we’re going to fall into the trap of bigness, that we’re going to worship techniques instead of substance, that we’re going to follow history instead of making it, that we’re going to be drowned by superficialities instead of buoyed up by solid fundamentals. I’m worried lest hardening of the creative arteries begin to set in.

There are a lot of great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best bernbachgame. They know all the rules. They can tell you that people in an ad will get you greater readership. They can tell you that a sentence should be this sort or that long. They can tell you that body copy should be broken up for easier reading. They can give you fact after fact after fact. They are the scientists of advertising. But there’s one little rub. Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.

It’s that creative spark that I’m so jealous of for our agency and that I am so desperately fearful of losing. I don’t want academicians. I don’t want scientists. I don’t want people who do the right things. I want people who do inspiring things.

In the past year I must have interviewed about 80 people – writers and artists. Many of them were from the so-called giants of the agency field. It was appalling to see how few of these people were genuinely creative. Sure, they had advertising know-how. Yes, they were up on advertising technique.

But look beneath the technique and what did you find? A sameness, a mental weariness, a mediocrity of ideas. But they could defend every ad on the basis that it obeyed the rules of advertising. It was like worshiping a ritual instead of the God.

All this is not to say that technique is unimportant. Superior technical skill will make a good ad better. But the danger is a preoccupation with technical skill or the mistaking of technical skill for creative ability. The danger lies in the temptation to buy routinized men who have a formula for advertising. The danger lies In the natural tendency to go after tried-and-true talent that will not make us stand out in competition but rather make us look like all the others.

If we are to advance we must emerge as a distinctive personality. We must develop our own philosophy and not have the advertising philosophy of others imposed on us.

Let us blaze new trails. Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.
Respectfully,

Bill Bernbach

BillB_Letter

Lessons from the Lemonade Stand

The dependable lemonade stand is not only an enduring summer icon but also a slice piece of trade rich with business lessons. This past summer I made a point of stopping at those I spotted. I learned that the exchange of flavored water for a few coins may appear simple but represents aspects critical to business. If you look closely the humble stand provides a mini-MBA covering funding, strategy, production, marketing, customer service and reinvestment. It all starts with thinking about the lemonade stand “industry” which is:

Fiercely competitive with low barriers to entry

Both seasonal and weather dependent

Reliant on a commodity, easily substituted product

Seemingly undifferentiated overall

Unattractive from a revenue and profit perspective

For each of these conditions, one has to tailor the business to succeed. As daunting an industry as it is this has not stopped thousands of young people from starting them up each and every summer. Here are five lessons for your children and your own enterprises.

Delight with a Superior Product

Of course, we will all part with our loose change to help out a tiny entrepreneur. But if the lemonade is tart, weak, overly sweet or thimble size we will force a smile, wish them luck and complain about the product back in our car or as lemonade-stand_5we cycle away. This reaction is no different from any other disappointing purchase. I have gone back to a stand twice if the lemonade is legitimately pleasing in taste.

A superior product differentiates, communicates care and quality, provides value in the exchange, engenders loyalty and prompts word-of-mouth.

Pick a Smart Spot

Location has always been critical to business. As a child, I ran a stand at my home in Winnipeg, Canada situated on a quiet street and later that day while dumping the warm, unsold liquid treat down the drain vowed to learn from the experience. The next time I loaded up my wagon, trundled half a mile, and set up outside the gates of The Tuxedo Golf Club. With that experience I learned another lesson – have adequate stock. My location was so good that the would-be Tiger Woods cleaned me out fast.

Read more