Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Why Super Bowl Ads Said More About Marketing Than About Brands, Part 2

A couple days ago, I wrote that evaluating the likability of Super Bowl ads has become big business for media outlets like USA Today, regardless of whether that likability translates into marketing effectiveness. That was one way Super Bowl advertising spoke more about the state of marketing than it did about the brands being advertised. Here's another way: Ad agencies continue to have their place in the marketing world threatened.

It wasn't long ago that ad agencies had a confident and safe role in the creation of media plans and ad production. Clients turned to their retained agencies year after year to set where and how the brands would spend their marketing budgets. For decades, relatively little changed with consumers' media consumption habits, so relatively little changed with respect to the way clients and ad agencies collaborated.

But over the past decade, ad agencies have been losing control of some of the services they traditionally have furnished for clients. One responsibility that some clients have been taking away from advertising agencies is media planning. Long the purview of ad agencies, brand marketers are beginning to grumble that their agencies may not be giving newer media their due diligence and may be inclined toward recommending media plans that earn the agencies the greatest fees.

For example, in 2007 Kimberly-Clark made waves by transitioning media strategy duties to Naked Communications, which specializes in "channel neutral" strategic planning. Naked's role is to work with K-C and its agencies to help identify the channels in which K-C's brands will invest. In a Brandweek article, a K-C representative notes, “Simply put, Naked Communications will help us and our agencies no longer take a ‘shotgun’ approach with our marketing programs by relying on a 30-second TV spot to reach consumers with our messages.”

(Full disclosure: The digital and experiential agency at which I work has Kimberly-Clark as a client, enjoys strong relationships with its agencies including Naked and JWT, and has a great deal of respect for the contributions all have made to K-C's success.)

The idea that ad agencies may be in an increasingly difficult situation came to mind when reading about this year's Super Bowl ads. Two of the most talked about TV ads came from minds far outside the walls of any ad agency. These days, it seems everyone is in the advertising business!

The ad that received the most media attention and won the top spot in USA Today's Ad Meter (for what that's worth) was Doritos' "Crystal Ball." The ad earned viewer consideration and laughter with genuine humor and the secret weapon of many viral videos--a painful groin shot. I liked this spot not just because it made me smile, but because it did so while putting the brand front and center. The consumer wishes for "free Doritos at the office today" and then makes his wish come true.

As you most likely know, this ad wasn't written by an agency Copywriter, storyboarded by an agency Creative Director, and shot by an agency Producer. Instead, it came from the minds of two unemployed but aspiring filmmakers. To give credit where credit is due, the UGC (User-Generated Content) campaign that motivated the two filmmakers to create and submit their ad was developed by Frito-Lay's ad agencies, but the point remains that the most experienced and capable agencies in the world had their top ideas and ads--the crème de la crème produced for the year's most watched television event--bested by a couple of amateur advertisers.

And to add insult to injury, the two guys created their Dorito's ad at a fraction of a fraction of the cost of a typical TV ad. The total cost to produce this ad was $2,000. The average production cost for professionals to create a 30-second spot? According to a recent AAAA survey, it's $361,000.

This wasn't the only non-traditional Super Bowl ad that received attention in the media. Another spot was Pepsi's Pepsuber ad. As noted in MediaPost, "Pepsi's agency Omnicom Group's TBWA/Chiat/Day had little if any involvement in the commercials. (They were) produced by 'SNL' executive producer Lorne Michaels." According to MediaBistro, Pepsi paid $3 million for the three special Pepsuber ads that ran the night before the Super Bowl during Saturday Night Live, one of which appeared during the big game on the following day.

This unusual deal is a taste of things to come. NBC entertainment co-chair Ben Silverman told TVGuide.com that NBC is in talks with other potential partners about "finding [similar] ways to use our entertainment vehicles to help their brands." According to PopMatters, "The need to find innovative new ways to make money has everyone rifling through everything they have on hand to avert disaster." Adds Lorne Michaels, "These are perilous times. I’ll do whatever is necessary to support the network."

With clients questioning the objectivity of agency media plans, amateurs obtaining tools and skills normally associated with professional graphic and video production, and entertainment companies and networks desperate for new sources of revenue, the outlook remains challenging for advertising agencies. They aren't going anywhere, of course, but as this year's crop of Super Bowl ads demonstrates, there's never been more pressure on agencies to produce results and keep ahead of the competition. It's an environment that is sure to yield continued changes in the ad agency and marketing world in the years to come.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Why Super Bowl Ads Said More About Marketing Than About Brands, Part I

I know it's a little late for a blog post about Super Bowl advertising. Most bloggers and media outlets did their Monday morning ad execing (the advertising equivalent of Monday morning quarterbacking) more than a week ago, but sometimes it takes a little time for the lessons to reveal themselves amid the noise and spin. This is the first of a two-part series on why this year's Super Bowl ads said more about the state of marketing than about the brands advertised.

As I read all the hype and attention of the Super Bowl ads, it seemed evident that the way consumers and the media evaluate advertising is all wrong. That, in and of itself, isn't really a problem, but when marketers and ad agencies start buying into the super wrong Super Bowl ad analysis, brands and the discipline of marketing suffer.

Like everyone else, I hunkered down to watch the big game as much to enjoy the ads as to see football. And like everyone else, I gathered around the metaphorical water cooler the following day to trade observations about the "best ads." This sort of attention and Word of Mouth (WOM) is exactly what marketers want when they invest in the most expensive ad time of the year, but what is this chatter worth to them? I liked the hilarious Doritos ads and praised their UGC (User-Generated Content) source, but I haven't had an urge to find a bag of the snacks; and I abhorred the offensive and meaningless GoDaddy's ads, yet I visited their site for a WHOIS search this past week.

The fact consumers evaluate and rate Super Bowl ads as if they're talking about competing sitcom pilots in a new TV season isn't lost on the news media, so they've jumped on the advertising-as-entertainment bandwagon. The USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter, which reports on "real-time consumer testing of how much (consumers) liked the ads as they aired," is tremendously popular. Check out the Quantcast chart below--through a hotly contested presidential election, traffic to USAToday.com was steady, but the week of the Super Bowl saw visits to the site rise by 300 to 400 percent!

Ad agencies hang on the USA Today Ad Meter results like Hollywood moguls awaiting opening weekend box office takes, and they use the outcome for bragging rights. Less than a week after the Super Bowl, Omnicom issued a press release announcing it had "captured seven of the top 10 spots, including five of the top six, in the Super Bowl Ad Meter conducted by USA Today."

I suppose one can't blame Omnicom for giving into the temptation to brag about these results, but is there really a reason to brag? It strikes me as being akin to a horse owner issuing a press release crowing that its horse was voted the prettiest in the Kentucky Derby field; that's great, but did the horse win the race?

Is Omnicom in the entertainment or the marketing business? Do their clients want popular, likable ads or persuasive, effective ads? If ad popularity is what Omnicom's clients wanted, then they are to be congratulated for achieving goals. We can surmise, however, that in this economy with profits plummeting and marketing budgets under extreme pressure, the objective of these expensive ads and exorbitant media buys was to increase purchase intent and sell more product, not to amuse viewers.

While likability is a great attribute for entertainment--for example, likable TV shows garner higher ratings and earn more ad dollars--how exactly does likability benefit advertisers? The logic is that a likable ad will stick in the brain, impart some positive emotional attributes to the brand, and be sought out, viewed, and shared online. Certainly in an age of ad skipping by DVR viewers, you can't fault marketers for wanting their ads seen, but likability is like a key to the door of consumer's attention--once you've opened that door, failing to walk in and leverage the attention you've earned is a squandered opportunity (and a very costly mistake).

Twenty-five years ago, a very likable ad for Wendy's became a pop culture phenomenon when Clara Peller demanded, "Where's the beef?" The ad became so popular that presidential candidate Walter Mondale famously used the catchphrase to ridicule his opponent at a debate, but this ad didn't stop at likability--it used that attention it earned to say something about Wendy's in relation to its competition. Consumers considered the quality of the beef and size of the burgers they ate, and the outcome was an increase in Wendy's market share. That's likability that matters!

Did any of the most popular Super Bowl ads change consumers' perception of the brands advertised? We don't know because the USA Today Ad Meter doesn't tell us, but there is evidence of how little likability matters in advertising.

Look at the bottom of the Ad Meter results--way, way at the bottom. Two of the bottom four Super Bowl ads were for Hyundai. One ad suggested Hyundai's competitors were jealous that the Hyundai Genesis was named the North American Car of the Year, and the second ad promoted the Hyundai Assurance program, which permits consumers to return their new car without penalty in the event of layoff or disability.

Those were some seriously unlikable ads, so clearly they failed, right? Not so fast. The International Herald Tribune, in an article entitled, "Hyundai grows by offering buyers value, assurance," notes that "Hyundai Motor Co.'s sales rose 14 percent last month, the envy of an industry that saw U.S. sales overall fall 37 percent from a year earlier."

So, who would you rather be? Budweiser with two of the top five most popular ads on the USA Today Ad Meter or Hyundai bucking the economic trends by increasing sales and profits in one of the hardest-hit industries by the recession? And which agency has earned the bigger bragging rights--the one with "seven of the top 10 spots" in the Ad Meter, or Goodby, Silverstein & Partners who is driving effective consideration for their Hyundai client?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Social Media and the Job Interview You Don't Know You're Having, Part II

Several months ago I wrote, "Social Media and the Job Interview You Don't Know You're Having ," an article about how your Social Media activities may say more to a recruiter than your resume.

If a potential employer Googles you or reads your Facebook or Twitter chatter, what will they learn of you? In Social Media, are you professional, inquisitive, informed, and smart? In addition to letting your personality shine through, do you post links to business articles and blogs? Do you demonstrate any passion for your profession or only for sports, TV, music, and socializing?

That article got some reaction from friends and peers, some in support and some who felt it unfair that employers would use a candidate's social meanderings--intended for friends and recreation--to make professional judgments. I found the feedback interesting, but in the end this really isn't a topic of opinion but of fact. Employers are judging candidates based on what they find online, and why shouldn't they? Selecting the right employee is critical, the cost of recruiting failures is high, and there's so much to learn about people on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and elsewhere.

My earlier post came to mind reading "My Blog Ate My Career" on the Boston Globe's site, Boston.com. Linda Keenan writes, "I'm perfectly qualified for a job -- just don't look me up online." The former CNN head writer and senior producer notes, "The fact is: I wouldn't hire me either. Further, I'm not sure I'd let me in the PTA, or even near my kid. An employer typically looks for someone trustworthy, helpful, courteous. My attributes, etched forever in the digital record, read like a perversion of the Boy Scout Law." Among the many offenses Linda found when she took a hard look at her own Social Media identity included her declaration that her "toddler (is) more mature" than some news anchors with whom she worked.

Another recent incident reminded me that, even though people tend to treat Social Media like some sort of private/public diary, it's still a communication medium. That means it involves a sender, a receiver, and a message--and it isn't the sender's intent that matters but the receiver's understanding.

As recounted by NPR, a "mommy blogger" who Twitters under the nickname Thordora posted a Tweet someone found alarming: "If I smother my 3 year old, who will NOT GO TO F****** SLEEP, is it REALLY a crime?" One of her followers, concerned for the wellbeing of the children, called the police and a visit to Thordora's home resulted. The Twitterer was indignant--indignant!--that someone would demonstrate such care for the safety of her children and call the cops. The emotions continued to play out on Twitter, were Thordora wrote, "Don't do any venting in public. Don't network. Don't show anything LESS than perfect bliss…" while others responded, "I would rather see someone err on the side of caution than to turn a deaf ear on what could be a cry for help."

This incident struck me as another powerful reminder that Twitter, Facebook, and other Social Media tools haven't rewritten the rules of communication. The purpose of speaking isn't to make noise but to deliver a message that is heard and understood; the purpose of Social Media musings isn't to create a personal journal but to have others know you, gain an understanding of your singularity, and learn your opinions and tastes.

Choosing to communicate in Social Media doesn't absolve you of the obligation to consider how others will construe your messages, because like it or not, every listener in every communication medium retains the innate human right to interpret, judge, evaluate, catalog, retain, and act upon what he or she hears, reads, and feels.

Don't like it? Want to compare your coworkers to infants or fantasize about smothering your children? Delete your Facebook account and buy a diary.

Here's a challenge to those of you who care (or fear) what a future potential employer might think of you and your Social Media persona: Find an acquaintance--someone who knows and can be honest with you--and ask them to check out your Twitter feed or Facebook profile. Have them play the role of a recruiter and share their assessment of what they learn and how they interpret the online you.

If you become concerned about the identity you're creating online, it may be time to consider different accounts for different purposes. Some folks are creating personal Twitter and Facebook accounts for friends and different ones for professional networking.

One of the big changes and improvements I expect we'll see in Social Media tools in the next year or two is an intuitive and easy way to manage different personas and communications to different groups of people, but for now--if you have any professional goals--it would be wise to consider not what your closest friends think of your status updates but what a recruiter might think.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Why the Agency RFI/RFP Process is Contrary to Marketers' Goals

The time has come to consider doing away with the RFI/RFP (Request for Information/Request for Proposal) process used to select marketing agency partners, or at least we need to make it work for brands rather than against them.

Full disclosure: I work at an interactive agency, and there are a lot of selfish reasons for agencies to hate RFI/RFP processes. For example, they're time consuming (and hence expensive) and many companies lay claim to ownership of the ideas that come out of the RFP process even when agencies are not paid to participate. Also, despite the appearance of objectivity, most are rife with personal preferences and subjective decisions.

I should hasten to say that not all RFI/RFP processes are created equally. We're currently pursuing work through an RFP process that is being managed in a smart way and as a result, I believe the company and brand will succeed, no matter what they decide. We also were recently part of one of the most frustrating RFI processes of my career.

It is our experience with the good and the bad of RFIs and RFPs that gives rise to my belief that many hinder rather than help effective agency selection. Fair or not, I blame the involvement of procurement specialists, who seem to believe that great marketing services can be evaluated in the same way a company assesses paper or computers vendors. Procurement processes emphasize sameness and low cost, which may be great when purchasing 100,000 #2 pencils but seems a poor priority for vital strategic services that will affect how consumers think and act with respect to the brand.

The challenges with the RFI/RFP process that agencies and clients should seek to resolve include:
  • First and foremost, provide the right information! In marketing, we have a serious disconnect between our actions and our talk. So much ink (in both a physical and digital sense) is dedicated to the importance of results, analytics, measurement, and Marketing ROI. These things come only when professionals act based on a careful and thorough understanding of the target audience's needs, beliefs, and habits; the competition; the brand’s current and desired positioning with consumers; and the desired outcomes.

    But most RFIs/RFPs contain only cursory information about the current situation or desired outcomes. As a result, the ideas presented are too often cobbled together based on past experience (possibly dated), work done for other brands (possibly not relevant), cursory research (rarely specific and thorough) or worse yet assumption and speculation.

    We all know the concept of "garbage in, garbage out." Keeping this in mind, RFIs and RFPs should be veritable cornucopias of information. Marketers should overwhelm their agency candidates with so much information, data, knowledge, and expectations that the onus for responders is not to fill in the blanks but to demonstrate how completely the agency understands the brand and how effectively it will be activated to real, flesh-and-blood consumers.
  • Give agencies time to provide the ideas that will change your brand. Sketchy information puts agencies (and brands) at a disadvantage; to add insult to injury, agencies are often expected to develop a year or two of insightful strategies, ideas, and tactics within a matter of two to four weeks.

    We all know time is of the essence in business, but when the time frame for agency response is compressed, what is measured? Is it the value and effectiveness of the ideas and the thoroughness of the agency's understanding of the brand and its audience? Or is it the agency's ability to re-purpose past ideas and make them sound fresh? Or, maybe it really tests the staffing model of the agency--some agencies charge a higher hourly rate and then keep a team employed who are great at responding (but the prospect may never see these people again once the prospect becomes a client).
  • Ask the right questions. It seems obvious, but if you want to make the right decision, you must get the right info and this means asking the right questions.

    Rather than speaking theoretically, I'm going to share some real information from the aforementioned RFI. The document started by stating, "It is expected that the awarded vendor would become a strategic partner and could potential [sic] grow as additional brand opportunities may arise." The questions they asked included: "How does your company design websites?" "Do you utilitize [sic] software?" "What design software do you utilize? (Include version numbers if known.)" "Which graphic formats are you able to support?" "Does your firm utilize pre-purchase templates?" "Do you utilize lossless compression for files?" "What is your typical sample turnaround time for new designs?"

    It is hard for me to understand how software version numbers, file formats, or compression techniques would allow a national brand to select an appropriate strategic partner. And trying to figure out how to answer a generic question like "how quickly can you turn around new designs?" becomes an exercise in figuring out what the client wants to hear rather than furnishing truth, accuracy, and insight.
  • Allow flexibility. Organization don't hire CMOs by asking only yes/no questions, nor do they make important hiring decisions based on data submitted on spreadsheets that limit candidates' ability to convey experience, knowledge, and nuance. So why is it that agencies hired to deliver marketing results are chosen in this manner?

    An alarming trend in recent years is for third-party procurement specialists to severely define and limit the ways in which agencies can respond to RFIs. This practice gives the illusion of objectivity since every agency must answer the same questions in the same ways, but spreadsheets seem a poor way to find strategy, ideas, and partnership, don't they?

    Another example from our recent RFI may help to make the point. The question asked was, "Can you provide Doorway pages?" Any interactive agency can provide a doorway page, but the important question here is should they? Doorway pages are a relatively discredited tactic for improving SEO results, and they should only be utilized in careful ways that provide real value to the consumers who arrive via search engines. The specific RFI in this instance allowed only for a yes/no answer, so our agency lost the opportunity to furnish our experience and knowledge and the client lost the chance to understand whether their candidate agencies understood the latest and best practices for SEO. No one won as a result of the inflexible RFI format.
RFI and RFP processes have other pitfalls and issues, but the most significant problems could be solved if brand marketers furnished a great deal of information, allowed appropriate time for agency consideration and response, asked only the questions needed to assess the desired strategic services, and permitted agencies the flexibility to respond in the best and most thorough format possible.

Think of it this way: when you purchase a ream of paper at your local office products store, what's your evaluation process? You want a given weight and color at the cheapest price and your goal is to make a decision with a minimum of time. The same is true when organizations procure paper by the palette--information is objective and quickly assessed, and price is the prime (and perhaps only) decision factor.

But what about when you have a disease? How do you evaluate competing medical specialists? Is your approach to give them little information about your symptoms, demand a response in a short period of time, ask about their favorite music or the car they drive, and require all answers be submitted via spreadsheet filled with the questions you think are important rather than the information the specialists want to provide? With brands needing ever more specific, informed, and customized attention from agency specialists, why would we think this sort of process is no less ridiculous for marketing services than medical services?

The question shouldn't be, "Does our RFI/RFP process allow us to be as objective and efficient as possible in choosing marketing services?" The only relevant question should be, "Does our selection process allow us to choose the absolute best partner who can enhance our brand and increase the profitability of our business in a rapidly changing world?" If you are a brand marketer and your RFI/RFP process prioritizes efficiency over effectiveness, toss it out and build a new process!