Perhaps we can lay blame on the Creative Revolution of the early 1960s. That era of broadcast communications produced, on a relative basis, the largest volume of advertising we have ever seen. It is now 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 mad men.
As competition grew in the late 1960s and the phone stopped ringing, ad agencies turned to their public relations cousins and asked for help to stand out. From the mid ‘60s on, this took the form of pumping out press releases and cultivating media to cover agency activities. The vast majority of the content was announcing new clients an agency had picked up and awards won at the ever-increasing number of shows. Both of these items quickly became table-stakes material, contributing no real differentiation for the agencies. Sadly, the biggest innovation agencies introduced in subsequent decades was hiring public relations professionals to work in-house. All this did was reduce cost as these folks brought little new to the equation.
The result is advertising agencies have confused public relations with brand building for the past 50 years. Do not get me wrong: Public relations has a part to play in ensuring an advertising agency is top of mind. However, most public relations practiced by agencies remain incredibly traditional and shockingly boring for an industry that prides itself on creativity. Avi Dan, founder of Avidan Strategies, wrote in a Forbes article that agencies that hire a public relations firm as a way to solve new business struggles are soon disappointed.
The fact is each and every advertising agency needs to be its own case study in how to build a brand. It should demonstrate to clients and prospects that it is constantly innovating and experimenting with its own communications. I recognize that agencies should not make themselves the stars. Agencies exist to turn client businesses into stars. As BBDO has consistently stated, it is “the work, the work, the work” that provides differentiation in the industry. But that does not mean showcasing the amazing work done for clients is mutually exclusive from building the agency’s brand. In fact, they are one in the same.
Yet take a look around the industry, and you will discover that few agencies do this well. Even when they do something that turns heads and generates discussion, it is highly episodic because the advertising culture trains them to think and work with a campaign mentality. Not surprisingly, the campaigns are fun but predictable, like the posters promoting Biedermann McCann in Paraguay and Young & Rubicam in Ukraine.
It is not only the traditional agencies that are stuck in this rut. I am amazed that digital agencies, even with the amount of talent and tools they have, end up looking undifferentiated from each other. Websites seem static, and capabilities such as interactivity and social media come across as commodities based on the incredible similarity across the category.
The solution is to build a brand communications strategy based on thought leadership, creative excellence and real evidence that work for clients has tangible impact. This is not to be confused with sending out a press release on the number of Cannes Lions or Effies won. One frustrated marketer recently peppered me with questions: Does the advertising industry suffer from low self-esteem? Are all these awards to make you guys feel better somehow? What is the deal with all this patting on your own backs? This flustered person could not understand the extent of self-congratulation within one industry and went on to question the relevance and authenticity of the activity.
The way to go to market, be on top and stay ahead is to consistently and creatively communicate thought leadership. We all love to see finished campaigns, but there is also an opportunity to show how the agency got to the finished product. Agencies are overly concerned with either giving up something proprietary or revealing they actually have nothing proprietary. Clients know that agencies do not have a repeatable, secret sauce that works in every situation. In fact, most tune completely out when agencies share their process in new business pitches. So, there is no danger in sharing more of ‘how we do what we do.’ It is the ‘how’ not the ‘what’ that helps differentiate an agency.
The second step is to showcase creative excellence. Agencies do this pretty well but most of it has no context so the work is presented like a pristine showroom of past glories. In fact, every agency website is basically a catalogue of client campaigns that says, “See, you could have something just like this if you work with us.” Thought leadership provides the context needed to present the work in a way that actually differentiates an agency. The aggregate of the industry’s websites, print materials and social media sites is one big Pinterest board — it is visually appealing but devoid of content or context.
The third area continues to scare the industry and that is providing evidence of real business impact. I have heard and been part of this discussion for more than 20 years, and it has gotten boring. Agencies need to demonstrate that they improve the client’s business; clients need to prove that agencies add value. Surely, there is some common ground where there are metrics and measures that both can claim as the result of working together? Savvy clients are finally — and rightfully — asking prospective agencies to share business results from work with existing clients. This is where tangible differentiation resides.
As always, history is a great source for inspiration. While writing a book on the history of marketing, I came across an example in N.W. Ayer. I firmly believe it was the most influential advertising agency at any time. It was smart, self-deprecating, confident but not arrogant, innovative and focused on making clients successful. Is that not a fabulous advertising agency brand? One bit of tactical brand building it put out in 1937 was in the form of an advertisement. This clever piece communicated client satisfaction, strength of relationships, ability to service clients in multiple markets and the longevity of the business. The subtle message said ‘we know what we are doing, and you can trust us.’
N.W. Ayer built its brand in another fascinating way. The agency took it upon itself to champion the advertising industry and to answer many objections that criticized its practice. To be a symbol of integrity for the entire industry was inspired branding. Throughout the 1920s, the agency’s communication strategy told mini-stories of the role advertising played in business success. One stated: “Production is a liability until consumption is assured. That is why the experienced imagination of advertising has been so instrumental in making dreams of great industries come true.”
Brand building is not solely public relations and it is not a campaign. It is a commitment to inventively and consistently communicating thought leadership, creative excellence and real evidence that work for clients has a tangible impact. I know that some agencies are capable of this if they would just acknowledge and invest in the communications their own businesses sorely need.
A controversial archaeological mystery, 13 crystal heads have been found in regions around the world, from the American southwest to Tibet. They’re dated between 5,000 and 35,000 years old, and were supposedly polished into shape from solid quartz chunks over a period of several hundred years. Although according to Hewlett Packard engineers, they bear no tool marks to tell us exactly how they were made.
The heads are thought to offer spiritual power and enlightenment to those who possess them, and as such stand not as symbols of death, but of life.
Founders, Dan Aykroyd (yes that Dan Aykroyd) and John Alexander wanted the opportunity to get closer to the myth of the 13 crystal heads. After more than two years in development, their moment finally arrived. When their glass depiction of a head was complete, Milan-based manufacturer Bruni Glass declared it to be a bottle of unsurpassed complexity and quality.
The bottle has become a sensation with people displaying and using it in creative ways.
(with content from the company’s website)
RIM, Reinvention & Canadian Pride
Jeff Swystun joined the national CBC Radio program, The Current with host Anna Maria Tremonte and fellow guest Tamsin McMahon, an Associate Editor at Macleans Magazine to discuss the Blackberry Brand.
Hear the interview and checkout all the coverage here: (http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2013/01/30/rim-reinvention-canadian-pride/)
Jeff thanks the CBC, Anna Maria, Idella, Vanessa, Jessica, and Tamsin for the great experience. And best of luck to Blackberry in what will be one of the more fascinating business and brand stories of the year.
There are about 210,162,000,000 Girl Scout Cookies sold every year.
The Mercedes-Benz motto is “Das Beste oder Nichts” which means “the best or nothing.”
McDonald’s sells more than 75 burgers every second.
In 2000, Japan named Instant Noodles their best invention of the 20th century.
The French eat four times as much butter, 60% more cheese, and nearly three times as much pork compared to the rest of the world.
In 1994, IKEA became the first company to feature a homosexual couple in a commercial.
Movie theaters markup the price of popcorn by an average of 1,275%.
If you bite down on a Wint-O-Green LifeSaver in the dark, you will see sparks.
Every 20 minutes, 1,851,000 statuses are updated on Facebook.
Everyday, Americans collectively buy 5 million products that are related to Mickey Mouse.
It is that time of year again when media is flooded with predictions for the coming year and retrospectives on the year ending. A related practice is to put together a ‘top ten’ or ‘best of category’ list.
Through the years, I have contributed “best” business and marketing book list for various websites and magazines. Those opportunities were flattering but I was never completely comfortable labelling any book “best”. So in recent years, I assemble my own annual list.
I call my book selections ‘Top-Drawer’. This tongue-in-cheek title is meant to describe books that are top-of-mind, notable, relevant, well written, practical, thought-provoking, and innovative. Many are ones you may not have connected directly with business and that is the ultimate benefit of this list.
Life is too short to drink cheap scotch – equally so there is precious little time to tolerate books that are not ‘Top-Drawer’. Last year 13 made the list while this year 12 did with one to look for that will be published on December 31. Enjoy and I look forward to feedback on the selections that follow in no particular order…
Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit by Joseph Epstein
Epstein has a great style and is a prolific writer based on his observations of human behaviour. He makes the case that Gossip has impact both negative and positive and it will never be eradicated. After reading I made the case to colleagues that gossip is important to businesses and marketers because it is a ‘channel’ of communications that can be harnessed. There are risks associated with this idea but it is definitely worth examining. If you do not buy the business angle, then read the book solely for the enjoyment of this peculiar human practice.
Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love by Fran Hawthorne
Consumers “want an affordable, reliable product manufactured by a company that doesn’t pollute, saves energy, treats its workers well, and doesn’t hurt animals—oh, and that makes them feel cool when they use it.” But do hip companies really deliver against these often competing objectives? The author examines six brand favourites: Apple, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, American Apparel, Timberland, and Tom’s of Maine. Can a brand be hip, ethical and profitable … and remain relevant? If so, have we been led to believe they are awesome but they are in fact not too different from the vast majority of businesses that are simply mediocre. The book delightfully explores what is fact and what is marketing.
The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting (and Why it Still Matters) by Philip Hensher
When was the last time you sat down and penned a handwritten letter? It has been a long time for me partly because of my ghastly penmanship. But I did so after reading this book and the result was a messy looking communication but one that was incredibly expressive, far more so than the sterile and forced e-mails I type day after day. It caused me to slow down, think about my words, what those words represented, and what I was truly intending to convey.
The author says, “Writing this book, I’ve come to the conclusion that handwriting is good for us. It involves us in a relationship with the written word which is sensuous, immediate, and individual. It opens our personality out to the world.” For me, it confirmed that handwriting is an amazing form of self-expression that we have lost due to technology and speed. I contend that if you write your next business or marketing plan out long-hand, it may be messy but it is going to be incredibly well thought-out and robust in content and intent.
Creamy and Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food by Jon Krampner
Mark Kurlansky seemingly created a new history sub-genre with his work on Salt and Cod. Now comes Peanut Butter and that seems like a good idea for a book given 75% Americans consume it. The book is a fun romp through almost every possible angle: diet and nutrition, allergies, advertising, cultural impact, recipes and peanut butter etiquette. Readers just have to get past the fact that despite their name, peanuts aren’t nuts…they’re legumes.
How They Got Away with It: White Collar Criminals and the Financial Meltdown edited by Susan Will, Stephen Handelman, David C. Brotherton
Years ago I read Diane Francis’ Contrepreneurs and forever have been amazed by brilliant people who could have made money in very legal ways but go another direction. It seems as the 2000s have been rife with these types of folks and their corporate shenanigans (even though this period is not unique in history…unfortunately). This book is actually a collection of essays from an international team of scholars with backgrounds in criminology, sociology, economics, business, government regulation, and law who examine the historical, social, and cultural causes of the 2008 economic crisis. I would like to have learned more about individual motivation because assigning it solely as greed is relevant but oversimplified.
Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing by Douglas Van Praet
Why we buy what we need and desire is fascinating stuff. Author Van Praet is Executive Vice President at Deutsch LA, where his responsibilities include Group Planning Director for Volkswagen amongst others so spends his days thinking about just that. His stance is controversial—that consumers make the vast majority of their decisions quite unconsciously, and, ironically, the vast majority of marketing practices ignore this cognitive truth. The book is worth it because he takes campaigns and screens them against his theory so this is not a dry treatment. I do not recommend branding and marketing books lightly because most offer nothing new. Why this book works is because it talks about the behaviour of both consumer and marketer.
Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer by William Knoedelseder
I am a big fan of business biographies and this one delivers on its promotional promise of “The engrossing, often scandalous saga of one of the wealthiest, longest-lasting, and most colorful family dynasties in the history of American commerce—a cautionary tale about prosperity, profligacy, hubris, and the blessings and dark consequences of success.” Basically the iconic company really lost its way for some very familiar reasons…less than capable family members and something specific…being purchased by InBev. It delivers as a business lesson and as entertainment.
Man vs. Markets: Economics Explained (Plain and Simple) by Paddy Hirsch
This reminded me of a book from a few years back called The Economics of Everyday Things. Every once in awhile economics and business is tackled by an author that wants to clearly explain what all the mumbo jumbo means. The author does so in a refreshing and witty way without dumbing down the subject. He takes complex topics like Swaps but uses Jell-O to explain these financial instruments.
Custom Nation: Why Customization Is the Future of Business and How to Profit From It by Anthony Flynn and Emily Flynn Vencat
One size used to fit all and you could have a car in any colour you wanted as long as it was black. The authors examine the practices of Chipotle, Zazzle, Nike, and Pandora to see the benefits and the investment required to make mass customization happen. Companies now allow customers to get what they want, at a reasonable price, and have it delivered amazingly fast (you can customize your own Ford Mustang on the website’s “customizer”). It is an interesting strategy that has application in all businesses.
Uncorked: My Journey Through the Crazy World of Wine by Marco Pasanella
We often get caught up thinking only large companies and brands when so many lessons come from entrepreneurs and mom & pop businesses. Marco Pasanella decided at age 43 to open up and wine shop. The book is inspirational for that bravery, educational for the myriad of challenges he faces, and illuminating of the industry. Pasanella is the proprietor of Pasanella and Son Vintners, which opened in the South Street Seaport area of Manhattan in 2005. The shop has been included in top-ten lists in New York magazine and The Village Voice, and has received praise in Food & Wine, Elle, and Blueprint.
Designing Brand Identity: An Essential Guide for the Whole Branding Team by Alina Wheeler
This highly visual 4th Edition advocates “a proven, universal five-phase process for creating and implementing effective brand identity”. You do not have to buy into the prescribed process as the 30+ case studies are meaty enough for great ideas and include the impact of social networks, mobile devices, global markets, apps, video, and virtual brands.
Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man by Mark Kurlansky
Kurlansky is one of my favourite nonfiction writers and he has chosen an engrossing subject this time around. As the New York Times review stated, “He specializes in the mix of showmanship and small-bore scrutiny that gives minor-sounding material the patina of great relevance.” This is a biography of Clarence Birdseye, a small, mild inventor and businessman who died in 1956 after leaving the world with the means for freezing food and ensuring the oxymoron “fresh frozen” entered popular culture.
And one to watch for that comes out on December 31…To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others by Daniel H. Pink.