For once, they're unpaving a parking lot, and putting up a paradise.
(apologies to Joni Mitchell)
Steve Meraska (our SVP Connections Planning) & I spent last week over in London. While there we got to catch up with the seedy underbelly of London's planning community at BeerSphere. Saw some old friends, met some new ones, and finally got to
thank Faris in person for all the stuff I've shamelessly plagiarized
from him. Thanks to Faris for organizing, and to Johnny Vulkan for getting me drunk: as enablers go, you're both as classy as they come.
Among other things, we were over there for the extravaganza that was the Contagious Magazine/Leo Burnett Wildfire Conference. The speakers were generally quite good - I won't bore you with a play-by-play; Contagious has done a good round up here.
Among the highlights: Anomaly's Johnny Vulkan taking everyone to task for being complacent in contributing to the industry's problems, and Russell stirring the pot by suggesting that perhaps charging big money for conferences like this one isn't really a sustainable business practice. His point was that many of the speakers regularly give away their thinking and would be happy to come talk to you for free. It's true, the whole model of conferences is based on the idea of information being scarce and centrally controlled, a situation that doesn't really exist anymore. Although personally, I still enjoy these things, but that's mostly because it gets me into a dark room where I'm not accountable for anything for a few days.
Over the course of the conference, it became clear that many of the presentations were getting at the same thing. This wasn't a bad thing: it was good to see that after a few years of chaos and hand-wringing, we're slowly coming around to agreeing on some new rules. Most of the speakers talked about brands needing to be more interesting, be more useful, be more open and flexible, and experiment more.
But the focus of many of the coffee-break conversations was that for most agencies and most clients, this remains an abstract discussion: we know how to talk about things differently, but when it's time to actually do stuff, we go back to the old ways. Knowledge isn't enough if you don't have ways to translate that knowledge into action. And many of our current systems, beliefs, compensation structures, and people are deeply entrenched: Rishad Tobaccowalla coined this trying to implement Web 2.0 in Organization 1.0.
So we know where we want to go; the challenge is getting everyone else there with us. While a few companies embrace the new world, the reality is that saying "change the rules", "give up control" or "fail more" still doesn't fly in many boardrooms. How do we get the rest there? I figure the next year or two is going to be about finding ways of talking about all of this that clients and agencies can find palatable and prudent. How do we help reticent and conservative organizations feel comfortable stepping into a new world? How do we create compelling arguments for courage?
Like Elvis said, "A little less talk, a little more action baby."
If you live in Toronto, chances are you're spending way too much time on Facebook right now (waaaay too much time). Don't worry, you're not alone. Toronto has over the last month become a huge hub for the expansion of the social networking site du jour into the adult market. Sometime this Saturday morning, the Toronto user group passed 500,000 members. This is a startling statistic for two reasons.
One is Toronto's a city of 3 million (or as much as 5 million if you count all the extended suburbs). Factor out all of the under-12, and over-50 population (although there are a handful over 50s on there), people without internet access, and non-english speakers, and 500,000 means that somewhere between a third and half of Facebook's target audience are on it in Toronto right now.
The other reason is that Toronto far surpasses other cities for membership. As Arieh over at OneDegree points out, all of California has around 350,000 members. NYC has 200,000. London has 345,000.
This is really fascinating to me. We're used to talking about how new technologies and services can appeal more to certain demographics (eg young adults) or to certain psychographics (eg trend-setters, urban hipsters, etc). But we often think of them as borderless - transcending physical space. So a social networking service appealing more to certain cities or regions is interesting and unexpected (to me, anyway).
Anyone care to hazard a guess at why there are such disparities in its local, physical usage? Anyone ever seen this with other technologies or services?
Someone seems to have nominated us a few times in the Bloggers Choice Awards. We're nominated for "Best Business Blog" and "Best Marketing Blog" (we're also nominated in a few other categories that we clearly don't belong in, like "Best Blogging Host Platform," so someone must have been a little overenthusiastic).
As they say, it's an honour just to be nominated, but - to paraphrase Howard Gossage's Fina ads - if you have a few minutes, and feel so inclined, and don't have anything better to do, and don't get distracted by something else along the way, do pop over and vote. And thanks to whomever nominated us - we appreciate your overenthusiasm.
You can vote for Best Business Blog here.
And for Best Marketing Blog here.
This week's our first blog birthday. Well, technically it's the anniversary of the decision to start a blog. We didn't actually post something until late May, because we spent a month trying to figure out how to tackle
this whole blogging thing. Which, in hindsight, is a bit
ridiculous. But that's how agencies can be sometimes.
A huge debt of thanks goes out to you for being a part of this experiment by leaving comments, linking to posts, or just choosing to make this site a small part of your reading. The fact that so many of you have done so is an honour, and a development that leaves us grateful, humbled, and befuddled in equal measure.
For me personally, the best part has been the people I've had a chance to get to know, some in person and some virtually, because of this community. So thanks.
Here's the year in stats. I recommend imagining it as a slide show with Green Day's "Time of your life" playing over it for the full effect.
I'm sure the accountants at the Publicis Groupe will be especially grateful for the extra $6.61 that we've added to the coffers.
Over a nice lunch last week, Dino and I talked about theory vs practice, and talk vs action. About the feeling that once we start to get an idea of what we want to do with our clients and their brands, we then face the harder challenge of actually doing it.
And while we were talking, one of the key challenges I've been struggling with crystallized for me.
There's been a lot of talk (including some on this site) about taking risks vs doing the same old safe things; the discussion usually steers towards clients being reticent to try something new, while implicitly portraying agencies as the ones valiantly trying to push things forward. But there's another dynamic which plays out within agencies, one that we've been struggling with a lot. I've started calling it Sophie's Choice.
As one of the big "old-school" agencies, a big challenge we face is that many of the new and interesting things we want to recommend to our clients, from social media to events to immersive urban games to interwoven transmedia campaigns, are - to put it bluntly - things we're not very good at executing yet. Of course, it's stuff we want to and will get better at, and the only way to get good at it is by doing it a few times and learning.
But until we do, we're left in an odd position. Do we recommend that we do something that we don't really know how to do the first time out? To, in essence, ask the clients to fund our trial and error? Or stick with another year of stuff that we're very good at executing, but which we know have diminishing returns and won't give our clients much of a competitive edge?
There's another complicating factor which is that the new stuff also requires a lot more agency resources. A :30 TV ad or a print campaign can often be executed by a mid-level account manager without much oversight. But many of the new, exciting, and different things we're dreaming up require a lot more senior time and thinking from a range of disciplines from planning to media to IT to production. And - here's the kicker - we're not usually compensated any differently. So we actually make far less money (on some clients we've lost money this year) when we try to do something new.
This leaves us stuck in an odd place. Do we recommend doing something new and interesting for our clients, while knowing that we will probably only be able to execute it at a 5/10 the first time around, and not make any money while doing it? Or do we stick with the tried and true vehicles that we can execute at an 8/10 or 9/10 and keep making a profit. It's a difficult choice.
We've found some middle ground on a few projects this year by recommending that a 3rd party execute certain ideas - partnering with an expert in events or pop-up retail or widgets or whatever. The hope is we can shadow them and learn enough to possibly do it ourselves next time. But even this solution isn't ideal - it cuts into both our revenue and our creative control. And agencies have a hard time sharing.
I'm not sure what the right answer is - but it's becoming clear that with the way we're structured and the way we're compensated, to get where we want to eventually be there are just as many internal obstacles as there are external. But that's not a bad thing. Challenges lead to opportunities, and it's given us the chance to ask ourselves what we think the agency of the future needs to look like (...more on that later).
As widely reported a few months ago, the Brazilian city of Sao Paolo passed a law banning all outdoor advertising. The law came into effect earlier this year, and the last few months have seen all of the ads dismantled and taken down. Now Tony de Marco, a local flickr user, has put together a cool photoset documenting the strangely barren adscape. It's kind of haunting, like an advertising zombie movie.
Is the ban progress? Or does it remove some of the character of the city? I'm not sure.
It's clear our industry has gone a bit mental sticking ads on every surface we can find. And we could use a few wake-up calls. But the answer is surely not an outright ban - it never is, regardless of whether we're talking books, films, or what have you. Hopefully instead the industry will smarten up and realize that finding ever newer and bigger ways to interrupt people isn't the answer. Being interesting and useful is. And with any luck, the interesting and useful stuff will be proven more effective, and the interruptive stuff will continue its decline in effectiveness, eventually reduced to a quaint historical relic.
Via boing boing (thanks Alona!)
Anyone else going to Wildfire: the Conference in London next week? Anyone thinking about blogging it? I'll be there, would be great to meet up with anyone else.
And if you're still on the fence, there are a few tickets left and the speaker list is amazing.
UPDATE: for those who are going, Faris has been kind enough to organize an evening of carousing the night before. And the drinks are even free.
My Sunday mornings would be much poorer without the NY Times Magazine. Well, that and strong coffee. Every week there's something great in there (the magazine, not the coffee).
Two good pieces this week. One is a Rob Walker column about the Martin Agency's Geico cavemen campaign, and its path towards becoming a TV series. He makes the observation that since part of the campaign's appeal is that they haven't spelled everything out, leaving room for people to speculate and be drawn in, the writers face a challenge maintaining that openness in a sitcom format.
[Online] people debated whether the cavemen were gay, or asserted that the ads “cleverly play with race issues.” ... In the mainstream press, the campaign has been described as mocking political correctness, but the online deconstructions have been more varied, more subtle and, in some cases, so obsessive it makes you wonder about the routine claims that nobody pays attention to advertising anymore.
In fact... it’s exactly because we’ve seen only brief glimpses of the cavemen that their stories are so open to interpretation. In the comparatively limiting and formulaic context of a sitcom, characters have back stories (and usually a defined sexual orientation), and plots are linear; there’s less room for ambiguity and thus for engaging speculation. And of course, sitcoms are generally on just once a week, on one channel. If a caveman sitcom materializes, its great challenge will be figuring out how to make an already-popular concept work in such a staid, predictable context.
The other piece is a fantastic article on why the entertainment industry can't predict hits. The reason is our herd mentality. We like to like the same things that everyone else likes, but how does that start? It turns out the events that start one song/movie/book (and not another) on that bandwagon are actually fairly random.
The reason is that when people tend to like what other people like, differences in popularity are subject to what is called “cumulative advantage,” or the “rich get richer” effect. This means that if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors — a phenomenon that is similar in some ways to the famous “butterfly effect” from chaos theory. Thus, if history were to be somehow rerun many times, seemingly identical universes with the same set of competitors and the same overall market tastes would quickly generate different winners: Madonna would have been popular in this world, but in some other version of history, she would be a nobody, and someone we have never heard of would be in her place.
Interestingly, the author has conducted some ingenious research to demonstrate this. It's all given me a bunch of thoughts about how this applies to brands and marketing which I'll write up tomorrow.