Mar 13

Fear Sells (Or Does It?)

As someone whose firm has represented countless insurance companies over the years, I’ve noticed a cyclical nature to the marketing themes and lemmings-like mentality of the field.

In recent times, for example, it’s been hard to find a single insurer that hasn’t employed comedy, a humorous situation or an actual character a la Allstate’s Mayhem to depict how truly dangerous, and fleeting, our lives are (but, in a laugh out loud funny kind of way).

Recently, though, Principal Insurance decided to change the rules and began playing the doom-and-gloom card. This one-minute video is a typical example.

There’s no question that fear is a powerful motivator. But, there’s a fine line to tread between scaring someone half to death and providing sound financial planning advice.

I think Principal stepped over the line in this particular spot. I’d be hard pressed to suggest any additional optics, music or non-verbals to convey a more depressing family crisis.

I wonder if playing on fear in a world ruled by fear is a smart and sound strategy?

During the Depression, for example, the downtrodden poured into movie theatres to escape the grim reality of their lives. And Hollywood provided them with a respite, however brief.

I’d argue that marketers of all stripes have the same responsibility today. I’m not suggesting they market their wares by employing slapstick comedy, but I do think the entire country needs a healthy dose of fun and entertaining content. And Principal’s medicine is the wrong tonic for the wrong audience at the wrong point in time.

Jan 23

Nice to see NBC Won’t be Taking a Knee

One story that was completely overlooked during the recently completed round of NFL playoff games was NBC’s staunch decision to spotlight kneeling by Super Bowl players of color during the playing of the national anthem.

That’s a pretty gutsy move considering any number of conservative, America First, deep-pocketed advertisers are probably deciding right now whether to yank their advertising or let it ride (or, if they don’t pull their spend, Tweet an immediate corporate response distancing themselves from NBC and the kneeling players).

Many organizations would see the kneeling question as a real conundrum:

1.) If we don’t cover kneeling players, we won’t lose millions of sponsor dollars. But will we be doing the right thing?

2.) If we do cover the kneeling, we’ll undoubtedly lose millions of dollars. But, we’ll be staying true to our values.

NBC didn’t flinch. Their Super Bowl Executive Producer, Fred Gaudelli, said, “The Super Bowl is a live event….and when you’re covering a live event, you’re covering what’s happening. So, if there are players that choose to kneel, they will be shown live.”

Holy Trump Tweet in the making, Batman!

NBC’s decision tells me two things:

1.) The organization will not be cowed by politically conservative sponsors (and, god knows what the ripple effect might be. There’s a very real possibility that some neo-conservative advertisers will threaten to yank ALL of their NBC sponsor dollars).

2.) The Matt Lauer disaster notwithstanding, it’s obvious that Gaudelli’s decision was supported by the C-Suite and driven by the organization’s corporate purpose.

In my mind, corporate purpose has evolved from a warm-and-fuzzy “nice to have” statement to becoming an organization’s North Star guiding top executives to make the right decision, double down on their core beliefs and convey clear, consistent messaging.

Afterword: Considering the fact the Super Bowl will be played in February (which also happens to be black history month), I have to believe we’ll see quite a few Super Bowl players take a knee. It’ll be interesting to see how many corporate advertisers stand tall or take a different type of knee and yank their ads.

Nov 07

The clock is ticking

Check out this fascinating Advertising Age interview of Facebook marketing guru Andrew Keller. While Keller expounds on any number of topics in the piece, he hones in specifically on the rise of the term “six seconds” in advertising.

While the Facebook executive, and his fellow advertisers, are fixated on six seconds, research shows the average human actually has an attention span of eight whole seconds. That’s one second less than a goldfish.

But, the six (or eight) second discussion should extend far beyond Keller’s focus on digital advertising and videos.

Split second responses are table stakes in ALL forms of communications today.

In the new normal of Trump Tweets, fake news and Kevin Spacey/Harvey Weinstein-type transgressions, individuals and organizations have about eight seconds to gather their thoughts and determine:

  • What will they say?
  • Will they say anything at all?
  • What criteria determine whether a response is warranted?
  • Who should make the statement?
  • What channel would make the most sense?

Here are two very quick cases in point. One is a worst practice; the other a best:

  • UnderArmour completely blew the NFL player-kneeling controversy by first Tweeting the firm’s commitment to diversity & inclusiveness. Then, when right-wing customers expressed their disapproval, UnderArmour Tweeted a revised comment that included “..and show respect for our flag.” In doing so, UnderArmour created a whole new news cycle that, ironically, unified outraged right and left-wing followers who agreed on one thing: the brand was speaking out of both sides of its mouth.
  • @POTUS recently attacked General Motors in one of his 3am Tweets. Rather than respond with a Tweet correcting the president’s erroneous charges, Ray Dey, GM’s CCO decided, instead, to share the facts with trusted beat reporters who routinely covered the car company. Once their articles were published, Trump didn’t have a leg to stand on and quickly moved on to attack someone else.

The point is this: While no brand should be expected to respond in eight seconds or less, every organization should prepare now for what cannot be anticipated, and create new protocols for the new normal.

Getting back to digital advertising and marketing content of all types and forms, I completely agree with Keller. Organizations have six (or eight, depending upon the target audience’s attention span) seconds to engage, connect and begin the process of consideration. The day of long-form storytelling is dead.

Split second communications is the currency of the realm, now and for the future.

Feb 14

Commoditizing a commodity with comedy

Sheep_herd

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it's a poor substitute for strategy. Take the insurance industry, please!

Geico broke out from the pack long ago with a hip and irreverent campaign that alternated between the gecko and the sad sack caveman. Aflac followed suit with its duck and Progressive wasn't far behind with Flo. Next came State Farm and Allstate.

All of a sudden, a commoditized industry was commoditizing itself again with lookalike, soundalike commercials.

To test my theory that, when everyone says the same thing no one says anything, I asked 10 friends to name their favorite insurance commercial. Nine selected 'mayhem', but only four could correctly identify the advertiser: Allstate.

The pack mentality works well in the wild, when strength in numbers is needed for defense. But, it fails miserably in marketing where a distinct positioning and point of view is critical.

I experienced the pack mentality first-hand, back in the dotcom days. We were being paid $35,000 per month to launch an interactive web designer. When we presented a suggested positioning, the CEO hit the roof. "I don't want to be different. I want the market to see us, and price us, just like Sapient and Scient (two white hot IPOs of the day)." We disagreed, and we're soon shown the door.

Needless to say, the 'me too' dotcom failed. And, while these major insurance companies won't fail, their campaigns will. And the CMOs will soon be looking for new jobs.

Talk about mayhem!

Feb 03

Agencies look for rising stars, not waning ones

Repman

Advertising Age's cover story about 55-year-old creative director Dave Shea's trials and tribulations in finding full-time employment should be a cautionary tale to any reader of any age.

Shea was a successful copywriter and creative director at such blue-chip advertising agencies as the legendary Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, the equally legendary (and the original) Saatchi & Saatchi, Campbell-Mithun and, most recently, Geppetto, a small agency within the vast WPP network (where Ed and I once toiled).

Geppetto canned Shea (and refused to tell Ad Age why) about 15 months ago. He's been high and dry ever since.

Shea's epic odyssey to find full-time employment is a positively spell-binding story. According to Ad Age, no matter how hard he networked or how many cold calls he pursued, Shea simply couldn't get to first base. Every agency ignored him because, at the age of 55, Shea was untouchable. His gray hair was a red light.

Source after source told Ad Age that firms turned a blind eye to the eminently qualified Shea. One summed it up beautifully by saying, 'Agencies look for rising stars, not waning ones.' (Ouch. I hope you have a nice day as well).

The Ad Age article confirmed what I'd already suspected: advertising agencies are positively spellbound by the digital revolution, Mark Zuckerberg and the next, bright shiny object. As a result, they mistakenly believe Millennials are the ONLY ones who get the hottest trends, technologies and talk. As a result, experienced veterans like Shea have no chance whatsoever of landing a decent job.

The article was a show-stopper for me for a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Ad agencies STILL don't get that social media, digital, Web 2.0, or whatever one chooses to call it, is nothing more than a communications channel. Guys: Hello! It's not about the technology. It's about the conversation and how best to engage in it. Happily, that's what PR firms do best. It's also why we're winning more and more of the client's overall marketing spend.
  • However gifted and uber cool they may be, Millennials lack the broad perspective and innate understanding that's fundamental to deciding what to say, when to say it and to whom. Sorry kids, but you don't get it. Not yet anyway.
  • Age discrimination is not limited to advertising agencies. There's no doubt in my mind that PR has just as many 55-year-old Dave Shea-types who have been shown the door by WPP, Interpublic, Omnicom or Publicis, and find themselves permanently unemployed. PR trade publications simply choose to ignore it:

Reporter: 'We really should do a Dave Shea-type story.'

Editor: 'Age discrimination in PR? No way, Jose.  So, how many new accounts did Edelman win this week?

Reporter: 'The usual. One every 13 seconds.'

Editor: 'Great. There's our headline!'

I count my blessings that, unlike Dave Shea, I decided to bid adieu to my holding company mother ship in 1995 and, along with Ed, build my own thing. If I hadn't, the odds are good I'd be just like Mr. Shea; mailing my resume, placing phone calls and sending e-mails to headhunters and holding company recruiters alike. And, there's no doubt I'd receive the same response as Shea: deafening silence.

A quick after word for my Millennial readers: you'll be dealing with your very own age-related issues faster than you can say Father Time. So, enjoy your time in the sun while you can.

As Sir Mick & The Boys once sang, 'Time waits for no one, and it won't wait for me.' Or, you either.

Nov 15

A funny thing happened on the way to the commercial

A recent Stuart Elliott column in The New York Times reported on a trend I’ve been aware of for some time: advertising agencies get the strategic advantage comedy can provide to a marketing campaign. For some reason, though, my humorless peers in public relations don’t.

Major advertisers such as Capital One, Cover Girl and Kellogg’s have retained the services of famous comedians such as Jimmy Kimmel, Jerry Stiller and Ellen DeGeneres to sell their wares.
And, National Public Radio has leveraged the white hot Alec Baldwin to launch a series of hilarious, counter-intuitive radio spots urging listeners not to make the financial contributions critical to NPR’s very survival. Click below to listen:  (Alec Baldwin Wants to Destroy Public Radio . . .).

Charles Torrey, vice president, marketing, for Minute Maid Pure Squeezed Orange Juice, explains why he’s opted for comedy in his commercials: “Humor is a way to differentiate our brand in a stodgy category,” he says, adding that it also humanizes the brand and makes it seem more relevant. Marc Mentry, senior vice president, advertising & creative at Capital One Financial Services, agrees, and added: “We’re very serious about your money, but we don’t take ourselves seriously.” (Hey, that’s been Peppercom’s mantra for 16 years. Do I smell an intellectual property lawsuit in the making?).

Elliot opines that comedy is hot right now because people need to laugh when times are bad. He cites the likes of Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Fred Allen and Jack Benny as three, top Depression-era comedians who did the exact same thing for brands way back when.
I don’t agree with Elliot. I think comedy is a universal and creates a distinct, strategic advantage in good times and bad.

Advertising people are using comedy solely because their market research tells them it will resonate with the 99%ers and others in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement. And they’re right. But most advertisers will also abandon comedy when happy days are here again. That is, except for the savvy ones who know that when people laugh, they fall in love with a product or service.
Comedy is incredibly effective in external and internal communications. It’s also a critical building block for creating better presentation skills as well as enhancing employee morale.
It’s nice to see the advertising guys finally getting comedy, if only as a short-term remedy during a recession.

As for my peers in public relations? Keep focusing on your dour, statistical-laden, off-the-shelf communications plans while we’re busy figuring out smart and subtle ways in which to inject ours with self-deprecating humor. Oh, and by the way, we also offer stand-up comedy experiences for Fortune 500 clients that are just now starting to take off. Talk about a non-traditional way in which to engage with a client that’s already listed Weber or Edelman as their AOR. Give it another year or so and we’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.

 

Oct 07

Big agency think

As I mentioned in yesterday's blog, I recently had the opportunity to speak on a cable industry panel that addressed such subjects as client-agency relationships, social media and what's next.
100802.logobigger1 I was paired with a branding expert and a big agency guy. The former was somewhat out of his depth since the audience was far more interested in discussing media relations 101. The latter was all about basic blocking and tackling, so he was eating it up.

The big agency guy waxed poetic about his knowledge of the media, the intricacies of wire
service reporting and how best to construct a press release. I kid you not. It was all smart and on-target, if somewhat rudimentary,
 
But, then, the moderator asked a question about the Holy Grail of PR: measurement. She asked if we experts had found the right solution. I said if we had, everyone in the audience would already know about it and you, the moderator, wouldn't be asking the question.
 
That's when the big agency guy barged in and said, “We rely on advertising equivalency to validate our programs. For those of you unfamiliar with the approach, we determine the cost of a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal, for example, and tell our clients that's how they should measure an article of the same length.”
 
I was speechless (which is quite rare for this blogger). Anyone and everyone in strategic communications knows that equating advertising with editorial is an ersatz approach. And, using it to evaluate the ROI of a PR campaign is misguided and disingenuous. Here are the obvious reasons why:
 
– A company pays for advertising. As a result, it determines what it says as well as when and where it appears. The end result: zero credibility from a reader standpoint.
 
– An article written by a professional journalist contains no company bias whatsoever. The article is balanced, contains positive and negative commentary and appears when and where the media property's editors decide. As a result, the content is far more credible to a reader.
 
I'd like to think my fellow panelist's POV on measurement was an anomaly. But, something tells me it reflects the archaic, stultifying thinking that can infect many holding company cultures. The big leagues love to pitch their depth and breadth but, sadly, many of their top people seem stuck in the 1980s when it comes to thinking about what's next. And, that's fine with me. I've always thought the best ideas and smartest people work at the smaller firms. Wednesday's panel only reinforced that belief.

Oct 04

Prostate cancer needs a Susan G. Komen

Pink-pimp-3-20102One would have had to be color blind to miss the splashes of pink adorning every NFL player and stadium this past Sunday. The same goes for the bright pink worn by countless walkers, runners and cyclers participating in National Breast Cancer Awareness Month events. And, that is as it should be.

But, did you know that September was National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month? I sure didn't. And, I didn't see one NFL player or stadium sporting light blue, which is the initiative's official color. Nor did I see any walkers, runners or cyclists supporting the cause.

A quick check of Zero: The Project to End Prostate Cancer (insert link) revealed these sobering facts:
– One in eight American women is diagnosed with breast cancer. But, ONE IN SIX American men is diagnosed with prostate cancer.
– Prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed disease among men and is the second leading cause of men's cancer.
– 240,000 men contract prostate cancer every year.
– Sixty percent of men who contract prostate cancer are African-Americans.

According to Zero, '…Significantly more federal dollars, more attention and more support are being afforded breast cancer.' They don't say why, but I can hazard a guess: the Susan G. Komen Foundation. It has to be one of the most powerful marketing and fundraising machines of our time. Sadly, though, there is no male version of Komen; no prominent, well-healed victim who can strike a chord and rally a cause.

I think the NFL has bowed to political correctness and wrapped itself in pink for two reasons:

– Perhaps one simply doesn't say no the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

– It's smart marketing. The NFL already has the full attention of every red-blooded American male. By embracing breast cancer, the NFL is doing some very smart target marketing towards women. It's a no brainer.

I should note that, unlike the NFL, Major League Baseball hasn't ignored prostate cancer. Indeed, MLB has declared Father's Day, June 18th, as prostate cancer awareness day.

So, why can't the NFL launch its season with a prostate cancer awareness month and adorn its players and stadiums with light blue wristbands, socks and bunting? There must be a reason. While it's probably not the case, perhaps the Komen folks demanded exclusivity with the NFL?

It's high time the NFL lend a helping hand to its core male audience. It's also clear that prostate cancer desperately needs its own Susan G. Komen to jump start a long overdue need.

 I'd love to help. I'm a big supporter of the Young Survival Coalition and would gladly lend my support to Zero or any other organization that, unlike the NFL, won't turn its back on half the American population. Besides, powder blue has always been my favorite color.

 

Sep 26

There’s nothing gray about this name

Grey Healthy People is the horrendous name chosen for the new, combined healthcare unit of Grey Group, one of hundreds of agencies within WPP (insert link). 

Abc_blue_man_080731_mnThe global division will specialize in advertising for health-related products and services. But, let me ask you something, would you retain the services of a communications company that so badly bungles the naming of its own health care unit?

When I hear Grey Healthy People, I think of any number of things:

– happy-go-lucky octogenarians frolicking at a Del Boca Vista poolside.
– a group of people who, despite their sickly skin color, are somehow healthy.
– albino exercise and nutrition nuts who refuse to set foot outside.

This naming disaster wouldn't be so bad if Grey weren't an advertising agency that specializes in image and reputation. I mean, if it were Grey Healthy Squirrels, I'd nod my head and think, “I'm happy for you rodents. It's about time you started marketing yourselves.” Or, if it were Grey Healthy Bathtubs, I'd think, “Well, I'd probably still opt for the classic white model but, maybe, there's something special about this particular tub?”

But, Grey Healthy People? Good night nurse. This name is DOA which, as healthy and unhealthy people alike know, is a bad thing. A really, really bad thing.

Aug 04

I wouldn’t pitch ‘The Pitch’ either

Looking to cash in on its breakout hit, 'Mad Men', AMC is scrambling to create a new reality show called 'The Pitch'. It's intended to be a behind-the-scenes look at real ad agencies pitching real   pieces of new business.

No pitch There's only one problem: AMC can't find ANY agencies to participate in the reality show. Securing marketers hasn't been a problem though. Two tarnished brands, Yahoo! and Kodak are champing at the bit to get some positive exposure.

But, Madison Avenue's top players have shown no interest in becoming a real life Don Draper. To date, BBDO, TBWA, DDB, GSD&M, Mullen, DraftFCB, Carmichael Lynch, Gotham and Hill Holiday among others have all turned thumbs down.

Agencies say they're worried about having their creative ideas stolen or an existing client catching them pitching a larger, conflict brand (yes, Virginia, these things do happen).  Then, of course, there's the issue of allowing the entire business world to witness the utter chaos that is a new business pitch.

The latter would be my greatest concern. While most advertising and PR firms would like clients to think they have a definitive, proprietary, state-of-the-art new business creative process, the facts are quite the opposite.

New business presentations are almost always an 11th hour, all hands on deck fire drill that sometimes come together beautifully at the last second, or completely crash and burn. We've had classic examples of each:

– For a large technology company, we were scrambling right up until the last moment, changing creative strategies, arguing with one another about approaches and even disagreeing about who should be on the presentation team. I still recall Ed saying, “This is going to be a disaster.” But, it wasn't. We rallied, came up with a great idea, made a superb presentation and won the huge account.

– For a leading retail brokerage company, we were heading to the Midwest for the final presentation knowing we'd totally impressed the prospect through the early stages (a fact later confirmed by the CMO, who said we were “the firm to beat”). But, we were beaten because the final presentation was completely overhauled during the flight and was so jumbled that we ran out of time during the pitch. We lost.

I love the thrill of the chase. And, there's nothing more satisfying than beating an Edelman or Weber for a significant piece of new business. But, there's no way I'd ever open Peppercom's doors to a behind-the-scenes reality TV show. I know I speak for most PR firms (and ad agencies) when I say the process for arriving at a final presentation is a steaming pile of sh*t that is best kept under the covers.