May 24

Desperate times call for desperate measures

With the advent of the citizen journalist and the myriad of technologies that have empowered the consumer to decide how, when and where he or she deigns to receive content, it comes as no surprise that an increasingly desperate advertising industry is becoming increasingly desperate.

What else can explain the explosion of commercials we’re seeing in movie theatres across the country? Or, sadly, the very first "commercial" to be shown on a live theatre stage.

The nauseating event occurred last night before a performance of "Stomp" at the Orpheum TheatreCurtain_1   in the East Village and featured some sort of pitch by Visit London, a tourist organization. Visit London’s Communications Director Ken Kelling explained why he subjected theatregoers to the live "spot" by saying, "They’re a captive audience. They can’t switch channels or change over or walk out once the thing has started."

How sad. How offensive. But, we can expect to see more of these intrusions as desperate advertisers and their ad agencies continue trying to figure out a marketplace that no longer responds the way it used to. One day, they’ll wake up and figure out the power of word-of-mouth, "influencers" and public relations. But, until then, don’t be surprised if a toothpaste or cell phone ad precedes your long-awaited, much anticipated chance to finally see "The Producers." Hey, maybe they’ll even start selling the products and services they advertise on stage right alongside the CD’s and t-shirts they push on you after the show. I know I would have been open to purchasing some home furnishings after having seen "Pillowman."

May 22

This latest TV infomercial is real crap

Just when I thought TV content couldn’t possibly sink any lower, I happened to light on a new Sunday morning infomercial for a "two-part" cleansing solution intended to "free" the upper and lower intestines of unwanted fecal matter and generate stools with greater girth and length (just like the kind when you were a kid. Remember?).

The "inventor" of this product, who was joined on the Larry King-like talk show setting by a "doctor" Billboard_3 and "health care store owner and nutritionist" said his product helped offset all of the harmful toxins and anti-oxidants that abound in our post-modern, post-industrial, global warming-beset environment. It does so by acting as a roto-rooter that scours the intestinal walls of the unwanted fecal matter that hangs out in there. As "proof" of his claim, the inventor said the pathologists who performed John Wayne’s autopsy found 44 pounds of fecal matter in the Duke’s intestines. This guy then claimed Wayne would have lived many years more if he’d only produced healthy daily dumps (I guess the Western star’s "personal production" didn’t have the desired girth and length it should have). One can only imagine what the Wayne’s family reaction to this drivel will be. Can you spell lawsuit?

While the average, semi-literate viewer will hopefully see this ruse for what it is, I wonder how many other, less astute consumers might be duped (especially since the inventor also claims his two-part solution is a great weight-loss solution since it cleans out an average of five to 10 pounds of unwanted nastiness every 30 days).

Where is the FCC in this shitstorm? Did someone in authority actually screen the segment? Is anyone awake at the wheel?

While there are so many upsides to a free enterprise system, it takes something like this to remind me that what the great 19th century showman P.T. Barnum said way back when still holds true today: "there’s a sucker born every minute."

May 19

Bland, banal and boring best describes most print ads

I was skimming yesterday’s Wall Street Journal and was just about to put it down when I spied a half-page photo of a woman standing on a street corner. I decided to try and figure out what the ad was about without reading the text.

The woman is looking straight ahead, and is flanked by men walking away from her in opposite directions. She’s in front of a building, sports a conservative pants suit and has a Mona Lisa-like smile creasing her face.

So, what was the ad for? A new line of women’s business attire? A cell phone company? A promotionDoubletree_ad_1   for some upcoming walk for the cure of some disease? An incredibly subtle pitch for the DaVinci Code movie?

It was impossible to tell, so I decided to read the headline: "Work. Dream. We’ll leave that up to you. But, as far as taking care of you goes, you can leave that up to us."

Hmmmm. Was this a subtle move by Sanofi-Aventis to promote its beleaguered Ambien product? Maybe a mattress maker promoting its product? A sleep clinic?

Finally I saw the tiny Doubletree Hotel logo at the bottom of the ad. Ah ha. Then, finally, I realized that the woman in question was flanked by two carefully trimmed trees…..the Doubletree logo. Talk about subliminal advertising.

Print advertising rarely gets my interest or attention anymore. There simply isn’t any time on my part or, in my opinion, credibility on the marketer’s part. How much smarter might Doubletree have been to follow JetBlue’s lead and enact a viral, word-of-mouth campaign aimed at sharing customers’ favorite hotel experiences? It would dramatically heighten awareness, credibility and trust since prospects would be reading real-world stories from real-world business travelers.

Oh well, until then, Doubletree will have to count on people like me to "double back" and re-read their ads in order to figure them out. How that then translates to a buying decision, though, is beyond me.

Apr 06

I sure hope Ed doesn’t write a book

The ad world is agog at the $56 million lawsuit filed by Steven Dworin against his erstwhile business partner and advertising superbrat, Donny Deutsch.Donny

In the suit, Dworin alleges all sorts of foul and fetid foolishness on the part of Deutsch to attract and maintain business, including such gems as:

– using the excuse that his grandmother died to miss client meetings on several separate occasions

– improperly padding advertising production invoices (this is a biggie and could cause a major crisis if true)

– grossly exaggerating the size and capabilities of the agency up to, and including, the creation of totally false internal phone directories containing the names of fictitious employees (this tact brings back memories of my former firm which had gone through a series of downsizings and was a shell of its former self. To convince prospective clients otherwise, though, the CEO would have his admin place all sorts of folders and personal effects on empty desks to make it seem as if the "workers" were merely taking a break)

Dworin’s allegations go on and on, and mention Donny’s "…frequent trips to the lavatory, emerging with constant sniffing, and his subsequent incoherence in meetings." My favorite charge, though, has to be the quote from the agency’s then largest client, Steen Cantor, the president of Ikea, who Dworin quotes as saying he didn’t trust the agency because, "…Donny blows smoke up my ass, he is full of shit."

I’d have to believe Donny has his personal spinmeisters working 24×7 to combat Dworin’s attacks. But, what about his agency? How would you like to work at a place that’s accused of perpetrating so many heinous frauds? It would have to be demoralizing to say the least. And, what if you were a current Deutsch client? Might you think twice about reviewing that next invoice? I know I would.

I just hope my business partner, Ed, doesn’t decide to write a Dworin-type "kiss-and-tell" book one day. One thing’s for sure, though. I’m going to cut down on the number of men’s room visits I make during the day.

Apr 03

It’s one minute to midnight for some of the big ad agencies

It’s that special time of year when the advertising industry gets together at the "Four A’s Conference" and beats itself up over what it’s not doing right (see today’s Stuart Elliott column in the NY Times).

This year’s lament is the decline of the 30-second spot and the rise of small, independent shops who are landing mega accounts because of their flexibility and ability to offer solutions to the quicksilver changes in the marketplace.

The rise of the citizen journalist and technology-enabled consumer is causing a real migraine for the aircraft carriers of the ad industry whose business structures are predicated on the 30-second spot and whose management teams live under intense pressure from the holding companies to produce quarterly profits (or, in the case of Interpublic, to mitigate quarterly losses). It’s quite a conundrum for the big guys and is not unlike what Rick Waggoner and his GM cohorts must be dealing with. How do you totally change your outdated business model while simultaneously satisfying the ravenous demands of Wall Street? Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Happily, the sleek, smart independent shops are able to step into the breech and provide clients with new and immediate ways to reach consumers in a 1-to-1 manner. Not saddled with trying to sell yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems, these small firms are eating the big agencies’ lunches.

I’m not sure the same thing is happening in public relations since there is no equivalent to the 30-second television commercial model. That said, I still think the best small firms can out hustle and outthink our larger counterparts. But, then again, I’m prejudiced.

Regardless of what goes down in PR, it’s fascinating to watch the megalithic dinosaurs in advertising vent about the unfairness of it all. Somebody changed their world, and they’re not at all happy about it. In point of fact, they should be happy they still have a chance to turn things around….even if it is one minute to midnight.

Mar 27

Hey, Interpublic Group, could you fire me as well?

Interpublic Group, the beleaguered holding company, announced last Friday that they fired their CFO, Nicholas S. Cyprus, after only two years of service. While they wouldn’t say why they canned Cyprus, they were forced to disclose his severance package. Wow, talk about sweet. Check this out: he gets more than $1.6mm in salary, incentives and allowances, will be vested to receive 110,508 common and restricted shares of Interpublic stock, and options to purchase an additional 76,109 common shares. He’ll also receive up to $35,000 in outplacement and legal fees.

Phew! Where do I send my resume? If this is how Interpublic Group rewards failure, what must they do with the winners? Private villas on the Mediterranean? Fractional jet ownerships? A yacht or two?

More to the point, though, this sort of embarrassingly-high severance package will do nothing to assuage Wall Street that these guys have turned the corner and are making fiscally smart decisions. Some organizations seem hardwired to repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot. Sadly, Interpublic seems to be a classic example of the genre.

Mar 20

Ready…Fire…Aim!

Now that advertising agencies, PR firms and marketing firms have finally noticed that the Hispanic market is the fastest growing consumer market in the United States, they are more aggressively targeting this population. However, sometimes agencies are moving too fast and firing before they aim; think of it as a metaphorical Dick Cheney incident.

Case in point: the Volkswagen debacle which was recently featured in Wall Street Journal. Volkswagen’s ad agency, CreativeOndemanD, came up with the slogan "Turbo-Cojones" for VW’s new GTI 2006 model that was placed on billboards in Miami, New York and Los Angeles. Although Turbo_1 Americans use "cojones" colloquially to mean "gutsy," the literal translation from Spanish to English is "testicles." And, according to Luis Perez Tolon, an instructor at Miami-Dade College who was quoted in the Wall Street Journal article, "In English, Turbo-Balls might not sound so offensive. But in the Spanish-speaking community, it will always have a vulgar connotation."

How did VW react: they took down the billboards.

How can a Miami-based agency not be in tune with what translations resonate well and which do not work at all with the Hispanic population? How can any ad agency, PR firm or marketing firm, for that matter, which says it wants to target the Hispanic market not do their homework? And, it’s not just the Hispanic market. According to the article, a few Asian countries banned Australia’s new tourist slogan "Where the Bloody Hell Are You?"

Agencies and corporations must both be accountable and conduct the appropriate due diligence before trying to influence a specific market or culture. By not doing so, they are demonstrating to other populations just how ignorant they are and how much they do not care about the population’s culture. Why, then, should the targeted population care?

One misstep could result in months or years of trying to earn back the trust of the now alienated population.

Corporations are so concerned today about how to manage their reputations in the digital world of blogs and message boards. They need to be equally concerned about their reputation when focusing on traditional advertising, PR and marketing.

In this case, ignorance isn’t bliss….it’s "bloody hell" for the corporation, not to mention the agency.

Jan 10

This NFL decision should be penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct

LevitraSo, the NFL just announced it plans to cut its $18 million sponsorship agreement with Levitra, saying the erectile dysfunction drug campaign is "too risqué" for viewers.

Say what? Time out, ref! Time out!

Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. Is this the same NFL that for years has been allowing beer companies to run commercials with bikini-clad babes romping across the screen? Is it the same NFL that permitted ABC to run the incredibly suggestive T.O. and Nicollette Sheridan of Desperate Housewives commercial during the half-time of one recent Monday night game? And, is it the same NFL that’s been trying to distance itself from the Minnesota Vikings’ sexcapades on their Lake Minnetonka cruise boat and the Carolina Panthers’ lesbian cheerleaders brouhaha?

What’s next for the suddenly Puritanical NFL? What other commercials might they deem a bit too naughty? Those adult diaper spots can get pretty graphic at times. Or, how about those sleeping pill commercials? The ones with the nightgown-clad models who sigh and stretch oh-so-contentedly after finally getting a good night’s sleep? Aren’t they risqué?

The NFL’s move strikes me as pure hypocrisy. The league needs to clean up its own infractions before it throws a yellow penalty flag at advertisers who allegedly offend the general public’s sensibilities. In fact, I’m sorry, but I’m throwing my red flag. I’d like the officials in the booth to review this call.

Nov 16

You have to admire their guts, if not their logic

Ad agency Goodby Silverstein made a ballsy judgment call recently when it walked away from its $80 mm relationship with Discover Financial Services to pursue the much larger Visa USA, a direct competitor.

Sadly, Visa announced today it would select an Omnicom agency to be its new AOR, leaving Goodby with zero clients in the credit card sector.

I think most professionals would admire Goodby for its bold decision. They went for the brass ring and lost. You can’t say they don’t have guts. On the other hand, smallish clients might think twice about hiring the firm in the future, thinking they’ll be discarded like yesterday’s newspaper when a larger, more attractive competitive client attracts Goodby’s attention.

It’s all part of the client-agency mating ritual which, as Lewis Carroll might say, just gets curiouser and curiouser.

Nov 02

Putting all your Eggs in one Basket

I must admit to cringing when I read the dismaying news about ad agency Berlin Cameron losing its two anchor accounts last week and having to downsize 55 of its 90-person staff.

It was a "there but for the grace of God go I" feeling since Peppercom has twice faced similar circumstances in our 10-year history. One occurred when a division of GE and its 35 percent of our billings decided it needed a global firm to "best meet its needs." Another occurred very early on when a now defunct business insurance client was acquired by another one, and 40 percent of our billings disappeared faster than you can say or spell "actuarial."

These were painful but healthy lessons for us to learn. When a business relies too heavily on a few key clients, it creates too many vulnerabilities and, in my opinion, distorts the client-agency relationship since the client knows it wields tremendous power (and we’ve experienced a few, very abusive client managers who knew this fact and took advantage of it).

The "too many eggs in one basket" syndrome is a house of cards strategy that can immediately impact a firm’s image and reputation if the client(s) departs. Advertising Age, for example, ran this headline in covering Berlin Cameron’s double loss: "The fall of Berlin?" And they quoted an industry analyst as saying, "From a new business perspective, some clients may pause for a second and wonder what’s going on." Such comments can be the kiss of death for an agency and the beginning of a self-fulfilling prophecy that can only end in acquisition or Chapter 11.