March of the Lemmings

Social media was supposed to change everything.

Especially in marketing.

TV, radio, print, and posters were dead.

All your shiny new campaign needed to succeed was a boatload of data-driven content: posts, tweets, feeds, blasts, banners, Likes, Impressions and Shares.

The customer, we were reliably informed, was in control and, henceforth, all commerce would now revolve around the twin whizz-bang-magic-dust precepts of “conversations” and “relationships.”

Naturally, the smart thing to do was to move a hefty proportion of your budget online.

And, like lemmings, that’s pretty much what everyone did.

Without hesitation.

Without comment.

Without analysis.

A healthy dose of skepticism was sorely needed and, as luck would have it, duly sounded.

Bob Hoffman began to challenge some of the more outrageous claims made on behalf of social media marketing on his blog Ad Contrarian.

The first red flag was the effectiveness of clicks.

It transpired that the average click rate for an online banner ad was about .07%. 

Or 7 clicks per 10,000 ads. 

Yeah, pretty miserable.

The more he dug, the worse it got. 

Thanks to Bob, we now know that: 

95% of content generates next to zero engagement. 

E-commerce accounts for less than 7% of retail sales in the U.S. 

Fewer than 2% of retail transactions happen on a smartphone. 

And the whole damn thing is riddled with fraud. 

It’s quite the shit show.

You can read the motherlode of his findings here: https://www.bobhoffmanswebsite.com/newsletters

However, here’s the best bit: 

88% of marketers believe online advertising has no measurable impact on their business, yet we continue to pour millions into it.

Why? 

I’ll take a wild guess and say fear.

Fear of looking foolish.

Fear of appearing out of touch.

Fear of going against received opinion. 

Fear of not being part of the latest trend.

It’s created a blind spot where it’s easier to believe the fantasy than face up to the facts.

But one day the penny will drop.

Questions will be asked.

Numbers demanded.

Accountability called for.

The lemmings will revolt, and upon reaching the cliff edge, one of them will turn to its peers and say:

“I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to call bullshit on this one.”

Left Leaning. Right Minded.

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“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” – Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Today, the nation goes to the polls.

Never has so much hinged on a Mid-Term.

Ordinarily, they come and go with little or no fanfare.

Not this year. This year is different.

The United States of America, the land of the free, the home of the brave, the country I’ve called home for more than 20 years, stands at a crossroads.

A pathological liar with a penchant for hate speech and orange candyfloss hair has been spewing a divide-and-conquer line in vilification and mendacity for over two years now.

It cannot continue to go unchecked. 

Over the next 24 hours, it must be countered.

More than anything, a majority of the people need to put a marker down and say: “Enough.”

Enough with the lies.

Enough with the threats.

Enough with the fearmongering.

Enough with the demagoguery.

Enough with the intolerance.

Enough with the bigotry.

Enough with the misogyny.

Enough with the racism.

For let’s be under no illusion: we are on a perilous path.

Few foresaw the implications of Nazi Germany in the early 1930s, but the parallels are clear.

All too recently, we’ve seen members of the opposition party sent bombs and the anti-semitic murder of 11 innocent people in a house of worship.

The vilification of immigrants, nationalistic rhetoric, and attacks on a free press also bare the ugly hallmarks of a quasi-wannabe Dictator-in-Chief

The Republican elders let the hourly falsehoods of a man clearly unfit for office to pass without comment for the sake of power, expediency and the chance to pay back their donors in tax cuts. And while we live in the hope that the less supine of their number may yet take a stand, I, for one, am not holding my breath.

“The only question that matters is where one’s real sympathies will lie when the pinch comes.” – George Orwell, Why I Write

History will not look back fondly on these times.

With luck, it will be seen as a misnomer.

A temporary aberration.

Alternatively, it could be the moment when the soul of a great nation was irrecoverably cast aside.

We’ll know soon enough.

Today, the rants, the rallies, the offensive slogans, the vicious placards, the twisting of language and weaponizing of words, all take a back seat in deference to the exercise of democracy.

And as dark as these days are, therein lies the answer.

A remedy as old as the country itself and more potent than any hate speech or act of domestic terrorism.

VOTE!!!

“Dictatorships foster oppression, dictatorships foster servitude, dictatorships foster cruelty; more abominable is the fact that they foster idiocy.” – Jorge Luis Borges

Apples & Oranges

Steve Jobs

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the company was in turmoil.

It had a bloated roster of bland products that included a dozen different versions of the Mackintosh. 

Within weeks Jobs had reduced it to just four.

Legend has it he lost it during a particular turgid product review meeting. Grabbing a marker pen, he marched up to a whiteboard and drew a two-by-two quadrant. Above the two columns he wrote “Consumer” and “Pro”; next to the two rows, “Desktop” and “Portable.“

“Here’s what we need,” he declared.

And that was it. 

Everything else was scrapped.

Armed with this new stripped-down, laser-targeted objective, Jobs’s engineers set about creating a series of products that would come to define their categories for a generation.

Later, anyone enquiring into an Apple product in any of the four product quadrants Jobs had identified would be faced with just one option. And it would be exceptional.

More than exceptional, in fact.

When Apple unveiled the iMac in 1998, its iconic style, intuitive functionality, and vivid colors profoundly changed everything we thought and felt about the home computer. 

The world and his dog wanted one.

In 1997, Apple had posted a $1 billion loss. In 1998, it posted a $300 million profit.

Jobs’s insight was to realize that less is more. 

Less clutter meant more focus, ingenuity and innovation.

How would it be if agencies and brands lived by similar principles?

Instead of cramming every last product feature or reason to buy into your communications, why not concentrate on just one? 

But make it a compelling one.

Take a stand.

Execute against a single thought and do it exceptionally well. 

If you’re a company, product or service, find the one thing you excell at and dedicate your energies toward it.

The ability to be the best you can be is a whole lot easier when you have nothing else to distract you from your goal.

You can’t be everything to everyone.

But you can be something to someone.

After all, if you throw someone 12 oranges, they probably wouldn’t catch any of them.

But if you throw them just one, they’ll catch it every time.

It saved Apple. 

Think what it could do for you?

Built Ford Dull

Ford Mantra

This came across my desk today.

It’s some sort of manifesto, rallying cry or mantra from Ford.

The new Ford, I’m guessing. 

The one that’s trying to throw off the shackles of a troubled past, the legacy of years of woeful management and a product line that simply has never run as well or lasted as long as its Japanese competitors.

Don’t get me wrong. The TV spots with Bryan Cranston are exceptional. Reved up on blue-collar grit and brimful of no-nonsense, zero bullshit attitude, they do a fantastic job of resetting expectations. An excellent first step in what promises to be a long process of brand invigoration.

But this… this is just sloppy.

How best to put it?

Muddled?

Flabby?

A random mish-mash of meandering paragraphs bereft of any semblance of flow or story?

I’ll stop there and offer the benefit of the doubt.

Almost certainly there was something better in the beginning. 

I’d go further and say that a respectable missive went into the Ford Corporate Prose Mangler ZX211® and after a series of mindless executive tweaks, suggestions, mandatories, revisions, and changes, we ended up here.

I’ll give you that. But, folks, now its time to send for the cavalry.

This sucker needs a re-write. 

A big gun to bring a little clarity to proceedings, add an injection of poetry, vim, energy and, pardon me for this one, drive.

As luck would have it, our industry has recently laid off a huge swathe of very senior ad writers, experienced pros one and all, many with gongs and Gold Award thingamajigs. Anyone of them would kill this brief.

Alternatively, get the team that worked on the TV to have a crack at it.

Give ‘em a week. I guarantee it’ll be night and day.

I applaud the intent and desire to galvanize everyone connected with the brand: The consumers, the dealers, employees, engineers, the men and women on the line, etc.

Reiterating your purpose after a turbulent couple of decades makes perfect sense.

All the more reason then for this thing to sing not sag.

Ford, buddy, you deserve better. 

Throw this out and start again.

Give me a call if you need some help.

No one cares about your ad

Sorry to break it to you but they really don’t.

Today’s consumers don’t care how long it took to prepare the brief.

Or the rounds and rounds of revisions the creative work went through.

They don’t care about buys, flights, analytics, reach or the fact that you managed to incorporate five product benefits into the whole shebang instead of the original one.

Oh, and that last-minute change of image? 

Yeah, they don’t care about that either.

They don’t care because they’ve got much more pressing things to worry about. 

Mundane everyday stuff like buying groceries, dropping the kids off at school, making rent, paying down debt, getting a raise, getting fired, getting laid, getting coffee, etc. 

You know, life. 

It’s this indifference that accounts for the fact that only 4% of advertising is ever remembered favorably. 

And the secret to being one of the lucky 4%?

Be noticed.

Stand for something and, by doing so, stand out.

It’s not going to be easy.

You’re going need to be creative.

Not lip-service creative. 

Provocative creative.

Never-been-done-before creative.

The kind of creative that’ll need to be championed, supported and stood by.

Exactly the kind of creative, in fact, that gets killed or dumbed down by the machinery of the modern approval process.

Risk-averse superiors, overzealous legal departments, all conspire to rain on the parade.

They win the battle but lose the war.

The war for the customers’ attention.

If your new ad campaign doesn’t compel, intrigue, shock, move, surprise or otherwise engage the recipient, chances are no one is going to read it, watch it or engage with it.

They’re certainly not going to act on it.

And isn’t that the whole point of advertising in the first place?

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

George Tannenbaum, author of the blog Ad Aged, wrote a great piece on Content Marketing recently.

Do yourself a favor and give it a read: https://bit.ly/2q3eWRs

It covers a lot of bases but what I particularly liked was his assertion that in our rush to take advantage of every social opportunity, we’re losing the capacity to properly marshall the work and exercise brand oversight.

This shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise. As we devolve the powers of content creation to more and more people, it is perhaps inevitable that the quality of the work wavers.

Here are a couple of factors.

The cost of entry for potential content makers has never been lower. A couple thousand bucks will get you a professional standard camera, a mic kit, and a passable lighting package. Editing, sound, and FX can be executed from a laptop. 

The result is that soup-to-nuts production options are everywhere. The vast majority are good, many flat-out great, but let’s not pretend the bad and the downright ugly aren’t out there, too.

The other contributing factor is the experience levels of those entrusted with the stewardship of the brand.

There is an enormous gulf in nuance and understanding between the Head of Marketing with 5-10 years’ tenure on a brand and a new account coordinator who, out of necessity, is immediately charged with overseeing the brand’s smaller, less attractive projects.

This is not to apportion blame, only to point out a simple truth. 

The result is that the average Joe and Josephine Schmo are receiving mixed messages.

To take automotive as an example. One moment they’re being presented with a luxury TV spot that looks like a million dollars and probably cost as much. It boasts high production values, is voiced by a movie star, and utilizes the very latest FX to support its claims of styling, performance, and advanced engineering.

Later the same day, they are subjected to a poorly made piece of content in their social feed. 

Same brand; two totally different brand perceptions. 

The recipient may not be able to articulate what’s wrong with all this but they will feel it. The feeling is one of confusion and an overwhelming sense of being short-changed.

The real question is what can we do about it?

I have a couple of suggestion, take them as you will. 

I would start by embracing the idea of “Less is More.”

Rein things in so that fewer people have the authority to act on the brand’s behalf.

Ensure that those that do are senior, knowledgeable and proven.

Next, try and instigate a policy of 360 quality. Allocate a reasonable budget and swear off the falsehood that the need to turn things around quickly makes cheap and shoddy work okay.

It doesn’t.

Either make a pitch for larger resources (easy to say, I know) or cut back on the number of executions in order to maintain consistency. 

If we all hold to the belief that everything is branding at some level or another, then the poorest execution will lower and stain a brand far more egregiously than a slick production will lift it up.

It’s a tough nettle to grasp but grasped it must.

The brand that lives in the heart and minds of its audience must be the best possible iteration of itself. It can’t waver or be subject to whim, circumstance or parsimony.

Our industries brightest and best already know this. It’s why they earn the big bucks.

They might need to earn a few of them right now.

The real cost of cutting costs

Real Cost

Reduced budgets. Belt tightening. Downsizing.

Seems like everyone is looking to reduce costs.

All the time.

“We need to do it for less” is the mantra of our times.

“Why?” “Well, … because.”

If I’m honest it’s not clear to me why anyone would actually believe this to be a good idea.

To be sure, the world is not short of big brands with the wherewithal to apply a boatload of downward pressure on their agency or design group.

Don’t want to submit to the new budget parameters? No worries, there are plenty of other potential partners out there that will. 

But is it really a sound strategy?

Is the knee-jerk of cutting agency fees (and expecting more out of them) or halving last year’s production budget really such a no-brainer?

The agencies that agree to the reduction will only pass on the pain to their vendors. Or they’ll try and keep it all in-house

To compensate for lost revenue they’ll fire the more expensive senior members on their staff and replace them with cheaper, younger ones – bright, eager and inexperienced.

They’ll also opt for people who can be utilized in a number of different ways – Jacks and Jills of all trades who’ll sadly be masters of none. Perhaps a junior exec who can take good meeting notes, knock out a brief and do a little social. Or a tyro Art Director who can also point a camera, edit a little, and dabble in after-effects.

The work gets done. 

But none of it is great. In fact, it’s deathly average.

And if the work is inferior, you can bet the results will be, too.

Ineffective work. Indifferent performance. Damaged brands. Not good.

That’s why it’s crunch time for those who know that this is a fool’s errand.

Who’ll be the first on either side agency/client divide to say “Enough”? Who’ll be the first say to their immediate superior “If were going to do this right, I’m going to need more resources.”

Never going to happen I hear you say.

Perhaps.

But I’ve yet to see a brand save its way to success.

Or cut its way ahead of the competition.

On the other hand, I’ve seen hundreds of great ideas – fully invested in and realized to their full potential – transform a brand’s fortunes forever.

Because a great idea is worth its weight in gold.

What’s more important?

What can be saved?

Or what might be lost?

“You’re a writer!”

You're a writer!

The British don’t go in for the whole High School Reunion thing.

Sure, there may be the occasional get together here and there, but ritualized gatherings at five, ten, fifteen and twenty-year intervals? Not going to happen.

I was mulling over this fact recently and got to thinking: What would my former schoolmates say if they found out I made a living as a Creative Director and more to the point, as a writer and wordsmith?

Answer: They would say, “Ian David? A Writer? Are you freaking sh*$ng me!”

To be fair, I think the 16-year old me would have agreed.

Truth be told, I was a bit of a dunce back then. I lolled and gagged, drifted aimlessly between classes, and showed little or no interest in learning about anything. I was particularly useless and inattentive in the two subjects that with hindsight I really wished I’d pull my finger out in: English and French.

My only saving grace was that I was good at Art. Not great at Art. Just better than most of my peers – a top 3 sketcher and doodler in any given class from the age of 6.

Looking back it was a lifeline to something different, an opportunity to stagger towards some kind of vocation, and to my credit, I took it. Not actively or with full consciousness but with all the vagueness that you’d expect of a 16-year-old preoccupied with football, Deep Purple and this strange new phenomenon called girls.

At the time, I only knew what I didn’t want to do – I didn’t want to work in a factory, bank, or shop or anything frankly that reeked of sweat, dirt, and physical labor.

And when the results of my exams came in I knew another thing: I had to improve my grades. 

College required 5 Ordinary Level Grades and 1 Advanced Level Grade. I had one O Level. And that was it. I had two years to get an A-Level in Art and find 4 more O Levels from somewhere.

So it was that I took an elective English class filled to the brim with reformed dullards like me.  Benefiting from the fact that everyone in the class was there for a reason and actually wanted to learn, the kindly teacher introduced myself and the class to “To Kill A Mockingbird”

It was a watershed moment. Light bulbs went on, clouds parted, vistas appeared. Suddenly I got this whole reading thing. Really got it. The second book she plonked in front of us was “Catcher In The Rye.” I was off.

This would be the conversation I would have if my school ever had a reunion.

It never will, of course.

But on the slim chance that any of my old classmates from Greenford High School follow my blog and are reading this, my name is Ian David and I’m a Creative Director, Writer, and Blogger. 

I love what I do and people seem to think I’m okay at it.

I know it sounds crazy but it’s true.

The Office

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This is my office.

Well, it’s one of them.

I have several stashed all over the country.

New York, Chicago, Austin, Denver, San Francisco, wherever I lay my creative hat I’ve got a coffee house to call home.

Because that’s the great thing about being a creative partner in a virtual agency: you can work anywhere and the coffee is WAAAAY better.

No more agency Keurig pods of dubious pedigree.

Just a double shot cappuccino, fresh roasted from Columbia’s finest in a spot where the vibe is always good and the ambiance invariably conducive to creativity.

These are attributes of a typical morning at the office.

They also constitute the only overhead to running a 40+ network of professional advertising talent.

From the bean infused environs chronicled above, I can write, create, oversee, strategize, pull together the teams, review work, produce, direct and generally run the whole shebang from a single soft backed chair.

It works and it works well.

Moreover, it seems to me that this decentralized creative set up thingy is increasingly becoming the model-de-jour.

The ongoing quest for better and smarter work, more provocative strategic thinking, and greater freedom to pick and choose partners is leading brands to increasingly ditch the traditional agency in favor of a more diverse and flexible pool of creative talent.

Ford recently announced it was ending its 75-year-old, $4bn relationship with WPP,  the latest major client to feel the need to walk away from the horizontal, monolithic “team” agency approach. https://bit.ly/2OjBxYz

Bad news for dinosaurs, good news for nimble networks like mine and many others. 

As the CD of a fluid entity founded on the principles of straight-talking strategy and no-holds-barred creative this should afford us opportunities.

In agency days of yore, I’d beat a path to the bean house when I absolutely, totally and emphatically needed “20 minutes to get some shit done!”

Now I get 8 hours to do it

With a break for coffee, of course.

Safe = Invisible

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Safe advertising is advertising that looks like everyone else.

Acts like everyone else.

Thinks like everyone else.

Safe advertising doesn’t rock any boats.

It doesn’t stick its head in dangerous places or venture into unchartered territory.

Safe advertising is what happens when people are afraid to take chances.

What if my immediate superior doesn’t like it?

What if everyone hates it?

The more unique and intrusive a piece of advertising, the more likely it is to generate opinion and the possibility of adverse reactions.

So fear sets in.

It’s why most car ads all look the same.

Who’s going to be the client that doesn’t show their marque vehicle – the one that’s been in development for 5-years – driving down Pacific Coast Highway 1?

Fear.

It’s same with banks, financial institutions, drug companies and airlines: the more money involved, the more expensive the product, the safer the advertising.

But surely the point of investing all this time, effort and expense is to get noticed?

To outsmart your competitors.

To surprise your audience.

That’s the way to move a needle, change a mind or make a difference.

And you can’t do that if no one sees your ad.

As Bill Bernbach said:

“If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you, and nobody for you.”