Jun 02

The death of an agency

Modernista just died. Rip

For those of you unfamiliar with the firm, Modernista was founded in 1999 and within a very brief period of time, became a white hot advertising agency that, at its peak, boasted 130 employees and clients such as Gap, Hummer, TIAA-Cref, Converse and Cadillac.

I remember reading and hearing all about Modernista, their daring creative and sterling reputation from clients and prospects alike.

And, then something changed in 2006. That's the year Modernista's Gary Koepke said, "We felt like we arrived." But, for Koepke & Company, arrival signaled departure because they stopped doing all the little things that had made them successful in the first place. He says Modernista lost its mojo after 2006 and simply became too comfortable.

They tried to stay abreast of change, particularly social media, but nothing worked. Koepke says the 2008 recession and client bankruptcies made managing the business tougher and tougher. Tensions grew and, somehow, they found themselves being labeled as '…that old stuff.' (Read: a traditional advertising agency).

You can scan the rest of Koepke's sad tale in the attached article, but he does pass along eight warning signs that are worth reading whether you toil for an impersonal, global holding company or a hip, Modernista-type start-up:

1.) Nobody wants to admit things are bad.
2.) Staff begins to depart for other agencies.
3.) Your eight-year-old daughter asks, 'What's wrong?' every night.
4.) Projections aren't met and overhead is tipping greater than revenue.
5.) In pitches, other agencies tell the client you're going out of business (note: I couldn't imagine a sleazier thing to say or do to another firm).
6.) When you do win the business, it's often only the smaller fish, not the big ones.
7.) You start having conversations about M&A or bank loans.
8.) You have this nagging feeling things aren't getting better and it doesn't go away.

I feel really bad for Koepke and Modernista. I can't pinpoint exactly why they failed. But, I do know why we've survived and why we're on track to post our best results in at least five years. We keep changing. We keep asking what's new and what's next. And, if we don't have the core competency to meet client needs, we strike strategic partnerships, acquire other firms or hire non-traditional talent.

Business success is all about staying one step ahead of change. It's also about NOT sipping your own Kool-Aid, reading your own press clippings or, as Koepke admits, growing too comfortable.

Modernista: 1999-2011. R.I.P.

May 25

Advertising’s early warning system

WynfordVaughn-ThomasbbAdweek is to ad agencies what radar was to the Royal Air Force in September, 1940: an early  warning system.

Adweek, and its peers, Advertising Age and The Delaney Report, never hesitate to warn agencies about badly behaving clients. Consider Adweek's April 25th column entitled, 'Is Heineken the Worst Client Ever?'

According to Adweek, nine agencies have represented the beer brand in just six years! Talk about a revolving door. And, get this, the $60 million account is once again up for review, and Publicis and Wieden are pitching it. Why are they wasting their time?

Adweek did some digging to better understand Heineken's heinous habits and cited churn in the leadership ranks (four CEOs and four CMOs since 2005). Yup. That'll do it. The new sheriff almost always boots out the incumbent, regardless of how good the team or how effective the work. That happened to us no fewer than three times in 2008 and '09. New sheriff. New agency. Sure as rain.

Now, as part of our due diligence in new business, we warily check the prospect's churn record. If it's anything like Heineken's, we run away faster than you can say pop top bottle.

Frequent agency churn not only damages the firms, it hurts the client's marketing efforts. As Ken Robinson of search consultancy Ark Advisors says of Heineken, “…how can you possibly put together a cohesive positioning when they switch agencies so often?” Amen, brother.

All of which prompts a question from this blogger: how comes PR trade journals don't provide a similar watchdog service? How come they can't (or won't) 'out' serial prospects as their advertising brethren do?

The client coverage I read in the PR trades is limited to:

– Case studies
– Personnel announcements
– Updates on the latest crisis du jour and accompanying statement (“Pigglesworth & Swine take these allegations very seriously,” said Jane Hare, VP of corporate communications)
– A fawning profile of the VP, Corporate Communications (“His peers at Toxic Chemical say Jim Electron is strategic, creative and positively unflappable; rare qualities indeed in a Fortune 500 executive.”)

PR trades could do a tremendous service to their tens of thousands of agency readers by tipping us off to a serial prospect on the prowl (akin to British radar's alerting the R.A.F. of yet another Luftwaffe sortie).

Radar saved Britain. The ad trades are aiding ad agencies. So, how come the PR journals aren't stepping up to the plate? If they did, I'd be the first to step forward, quote Churchill and proclaim, “This was their finest hour.”

May 23

Judgment Day is every marketer’s dream

HeaderI don't know about you, but I had a blast in the minutes, hours, days and weeks leading up to  6pm, Saturday May 21, 2011 (AKA Judgment Day). Sure, nothing happened. But, so what? There were so many great tweets, blogs, status updates, videos and new comedy bits that it made the whole non-event a mega happening.

That's why I think President Obama should declare May 21st Judgment Day. And, it should be treated as an annual national holiday. I know marketers would absolutely love it. Retailers, for example, could own Judgment Day Eve. Just imagine the TV commercials:

– “Special end of the world prices like you've never seen! You'll agree Best Buy is positively otherworldly!”

– “You want some rapture? Check out our Judgment Day Eve prices at The Gap!”

– “Radio Shack's prices are the absolute lowest you'll find in this life.” 

Sales on Judgment Day Eve would totally eclipse Thanksgiving's Black Friday (and, give a whole new meaning to the color black as well, thank you very much). As a matter of fact, Valspar, Dutch Boy or some other paint brand should create a special 'Grim Reaper Black' shade for the occasion).

Turning to sporting events, I envision:

– Judgment Day doubleheaders at baseball stadiums (the Anaheim Angels would, of course, be featured on the national game of the week)
– 'End of the world' World Cup soccer matches (India vs. Pakistan would make for a neat opening match)
– And, how about a special pre-season college football game pitting the University of Notre Dame against Brigham Young University? I'll bet even He would tune in for that contest. And, I guarantee a mega sponsor would snap up the rights faster than you could say Adam and Eve. I can see it now: 'Ladies and gentlemen, and viewers around the world, welcome to the 2012 Quiznos Judgment Day Bowl.' And, just imagine if the Fighting Irish and Cougars end up tied at the end of regulation? Talk about sudden death overtime. Wow. The Batesville Casket Company should think about that particular branding opportunity.

But, wait, there's so much more marketers could do on Judgment Day. K-Mart, Wal-Mart or one of the other big box chains should copy Macy's and sponsor a parade. Harold Camping could be named honorary marshall in perpetuity. Cities could compete for hosting honors (a la the Olympics). And the winning city would earn the right to rename itself Sodom or Gomorrah for the day. The sponsor could hold an online contest to select Lot and his wife (and, wouldn't the latter search be a superb branding opportunity for Morton's Salt?).

Judgment Day could be the new crystal meth for marketers. Like eternity itself, it has limitless possibilities.

It's the mother of all days, and deserves to be repeated year after year after year until, god forbid, it actually becomes the REAL Judgment Day. Until then, I'd like to hear from each and every member of my flock. What branding opportunities am I missing?

May 18

We need the Navy Seals to take down the bin Laden of Burgers

Some 55Presentation10 leading health care professionals and organizations have signed their names to a  full-page advertisement running today in six national newspapers. It's a call to action pleading with McDonald's to stop its sleazy, subversive marketing to kids and to retire their damnable corporate icon, Ronald McDonald.

Fuggedaboutit! The ad won't work because McDonald's won't stop marketing to kids. They can't. The impact on future sales would be too horrible to contemplate. (Could you imagine life without plus-sized families wolfing down Big Macs five times a week? How positively un-American.)

Instead, America's health groups should get serious, mobilize their monies, marshal their troops, and declare war on McDonald's. And, public enemy number one of what I'm calling 'Operation: Waistline' should be Ronald McDonald himself.

In my mind, Ronald's the bin Laden of Burgers, the Pol Pot of Poor Diets and the Hitler of Healthy Living.

And, I'd engage the same elite Seal 6 team that took out bin Laden in his Abbottabad compound for this surgical strike. Why not? They've got a proven plan and are ready to roll.

I'd have the Seals initiate a midnight raid on Mickey D's Oakbrook, Illinois, headquarters. I'll bet they'd catch Ronald watching the tube (hopefully nothing worse than PG-13 content). I picture him lying in bed, wearing just his red overalls. He'll have an arm draped around one or more of his morbidly obese wives while puffing on a cigarette and scarfing down some fries and a chocolate shake.

As was the case with bin Laden, I'd tell the Seals to take him down ASAP. Who knows what a cornered corporate icon might do in a moment of desperation? Waste him. Plus, no one wants Ronald McDonald alive and put on trial. The guy's a real charmer and that red and yellow costume might just sway a jurist or two. No, I'd tell the Seals to put one bullet just above Ronald's eye.

Then, let's bury him in an undisclosed location in Lake Michigan. We don't want McDonald's fanatics making a shrine out of Ronald's final resting spot.

The Mob likes to say if you 'cut off the head, the body will die.' I think health care professionals need to adopt the same strategy with McDonald's. Whack Ronald and watch our nation's obesity epidemic (and waistlines) slowly, but surely, contract.

One caveat to the Seals, though. Do yourselves a public relations favor and don't adopt an American Indian code word such as Geronimo for Ronald. There's no need to undermine the results by alienating an important minority.

So, let's get to work. Let's infiltrate Ronald's inner circle, use some advanced terror techniques to determine his daily habits, get some spy satellites to focus their cameras on his compound and get this deed done. If Obama doesn't want to issue the final execute command, I will.

Ronald McDonald must die if America is to live. It's go time!!!!

May 03

There’s no joy in Soyville

598tThe market for soy food and beverages dropped a whopping 16 percent in the last two years,  according to a report from market researcher, Mintel.

Soy watchers blame rising prices, new alternatives and the fickleness of health-conscious consumers. I'd add one other ingredient: taste. Yuck!

Having dabbled with such foodstuffs as soy milk and soy ice cream over the years, I can personally attest to being part of the 16 percent drop. You couldn't pay enough me to buy soy stuff.

The pocketbook's also playing a huge role in soy's demise. When times are good, consumers will pay extra for what they perceive to be a healthy alternative. They'll also buy ‘green' products because, well, who doesn't want to reach out and give Mother Earth a great, big hug?

But, when the Great Recession hit, yucky-tasting, high priced food began gathering dust on store shelves. Ditto with all those higher-priced green products. I've always believed that, whether it's a global multinational or a multi-tasking housewife, green is a nice-to-have, and not a must-have. And, when sacrifices have to be made, a nice-to-have is the first to go. (Note: That same Repman truism holds for PR in a down economy.)

So, what's a soy boy to do? Well, according to the Ad Age article, the industry's not doing much to rally the troops. First, they've been extremely slow to react to what Carlotta Mast of newhope360.com says has “…been a lot of innovation in the vegetarian and vegan markets.” Second, says Ad Age, the industry has had “…to deal with conflicting news reports about cancer.” Ouch. Smart, fleet-footed competitors, yucky taste, high prices AND a possibility of an increased risk of breast-cancer recurrence in survivors? Talk about the perfect storm.

Phil Lempert, who runs supermarketguru.com summed it up beautifully: “Gluten-free products are fueling their own growth through innovation. Soy got lazy.”

So, we've got a lazy, yucky-tasting, high-priced product linked to cancer whose competition is eating its lunch. Or, we've got what we in PR call an opportunity.

So, putting on my branding hat, let me take a stab at a few re-positioning campaign themes for the soy industry:

– 'Soy stinks. Life is short. Let's both move on.'
– 'Soy: We'll be back' (with the Governator as its new spokesman)
– 'Tastes bad. Costs more. There we've said it.' (This might be a nice co-branding opportunity with Big Tobacco, BTW).

I'd love to hear suggested campaign themes from Rep readers, especially Lunch Boy. Hey Lunch? Do you do soy?

May 02

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Or was it?

If two leading trade journals are any indication, the advertising industry is suffering from a Mood-swings1 severe case of manic depression.

On the one hand, there's The Delaney Report (TDR), which humbly bills itself as 'the international newsletter for marketing, advertising and media executives'. TDR just ran a lead story entitled, 'We'll Take It from Here.' The text provides a sobering report about inroads being made across the board by public relations. “No longer is it uncommon to have a PR agency compete for a client's services (PR, digital, advertising and direct) versus a traditional advertising agency.” TDR says, “PR is now in the sweet spot of a company's marketing plans.” Nice. Very nice.

Unfortunately, though, TDR then dives deep into PR's gains in social media and corroborates its thinking with observations from the heads of three PR holding companies: Harris Diamond of Weber, Gary Stockman of Porter and Ken Luce of H&K. Now, I could be wrong, but I'll bet an annual subscription to TDR (a damned pricey proposition, BTW), that none of these three, old white guys personally blogs, tweets, posts comments, podcasts or does anything else that would remotely resembles engaging in social media. Asking these three for their views on social media is akin to asking a couch potato what it's like to compete in a 230-mile cycling race. “Tough, dude. Very tough.” C'mon TDR, show some journalistic chops, dig a little deeper and interview PR executives who actually walk the talk.

And, now, for something completely different, take a gander at another ad industry trade: Michael Wolff's supercharged revamp of AdWeek, which calls itself 'The Voice of Media.' Methinks this particular voice suffers from laryngitis.

How else to explain its love fest with all things advertising? You'd never know traditional advertising is staggering like some drunken sailor on shore leave. Or, that other disciplines such as PR and interactive are stealing away market share faster than you can say land grab.

Instead, AdWeek's pages are an unapologetic homage to the 30-second TV spot (ugh) and mainstream TV advertising in general (Yuck. What's become of one-on-one marketing and engaging in a conversation with customers?). There are even photographic retrospectives of Doyle Dane Bernbach's and McCann-Erickson's offices from the halcyon days of the 1960s (should PR Week retaliate with a photo essay of, say, the Lobsenz-Stevens offices of the mid-1980s featuring an adolescent wunderkind named Edward Aloysius Moed?).

Like just about everything else, I suspect the truth about advertising's massive struggle to reinvent itself lies somewhere in-between TDR's doom-and-gloom report and AdWeek’s sunshine-and-roses tome.

I'd suggest readers view the two the way I do The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and Fox News and MSNBC, respectively (absorb the extreme POVS of each, realizing the truth lies somewhere in the midst of the murkiness).

In the meantime, though, a quick note to the big agency PR guys: I'm happy to issue an apology if you fellas actually do engage in social media.

Apr 28

Does anyone read in-flight magazines?

Do you read in-flight magazines? You know the ones I'm talking about, right? They're shoved into  an airplane's seat back right alongside the evacuation instructions and vomit bag.

Since I've been traveling relentlessly of late, I've decided to pass my time during the endless delays to observe my fellow passengers to see if any actually picked up and read the magazines. No one did. Not a soul. Not the morbidly obese man on my left or the pajama-clad, trailer park denizen on my right. And, I'm positive the toddler sitting directly behind me and repeatedly kicking my seatback wasn't flipping through the articles eitArticle-1200719-005E374800000258-743_468x330her.

This wouldn't matter if airlines weren't relentlessly cutting costs and adding a la carte pricing faster than you can say sleeping air traffic controllers. 

Just imagine how much money every airline could save (and pass along to passengers) if they did away with in-flight magazines. The publications serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever except to show me diagrams of various airports and maps of the world. (So, that's where Ceylon is, eh?)

Back in the mid-13th century when I plied my PR trade as an account executive, securing a placement in an in-flight magazine was a HUGE deal. In fact, most clients considered it an A-level hit, right alongside a Times article or GMA appearance. I guess that's because, in the days before iPads, iPods and laptops became ubiquitous, airline passengers actually read the damn magazines. Nowadays, though, I can't think of a single new business proposal or year-long plan that so much as even mentions gaining publicity in an in-flight magazine.

So, why do they still exist? You'd think one of the more progressive airlines such as JetBlue or Southwest would have banned them years ago, announced the move as a further reflection of their eco-friendly ways and made a big splash about passing along the cost savings in a massive advertising campaign. Nah, that would be too obvious.

Sometimes the easiest solutions are the ones staring you right in the face. So, here's hoping some airline executive wakes up and cancels his in-flight magazine order at the same time he gives air traffic controllers a little more vacation time. The flying public would thank him for both.

Apr 19

The death of the role model

Remember role models? They were the athletes, celebrities and other influencers who we looked  up to as kids. Mine included Joe Namath, Paul McCartney and Muhammad Ali. And, while each had a dark side (Joe Willie had a fondness for the ladies, Sir Paul liked his hallucinogenic drugs and Ali perfected, if not invented, trash talk), none ever purposely endorsed products that were bad for kids.

Snoop-dogg-smokingBut, that was then and this is now. Now, we have role models such as Charlie Sheen, Barry Bonds and the Kardashians. They're all train wrecks. But, their personal lives aside, some of today's role models have become dangerous because they're endorsing products and services that are anything but good for our nation's kids.

Take Snoop Dogg. Please.

  An article in Monday's New York Times profiles a new advertising campaign for Blast from Colt .45. Snoop stars in the fully integrated campaign. In a YouTube video, for example, the Dogg poses in a white fur coat, surrounded by models in skimpy dress and holding a can of Blast. So what's my problem? Well, it turns out that Blast is the latest, coolest, cutest and hippest gateway beverage that introduces kids to the wonderful world of alcohol. One alcohol industry watchdog calls Blast, which comes in flavors such as grape and raspberry watermelon, an “alcopop."

Tom Burrell, author of Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, says: “What is happening here is an obvious attempt to foist this stuff on young African-American men. Colt .45 has invested in the black consumer market for years, and if they weren't looking for an African-American audience they wouldn't be using Snoop Dogg.”

But, why should Snoop care? According to industry analysts, the flavored malt beverage category generated some $967 million last year. And, the Dogg's getting a long, green sip of that brew courtesy of his endorsements. Proving what a terrific role model he is, Snoop's been nice enough to mention Blast on his Facebook page (where he has eight million followers) and on Twitter (where 3.1 million fans follow him). He also mentions Blast in "Boom", a single in his new album, 'Doggumentary'. Daren Metropoulos, who owns Pabst, Colt's parent company, says Snoop's adoration of the toxic beverage is “…just him being a true partner and saying I'm not just an endorser.” That Snoop. What a stand-up guy!

Would Namath, McCartney or Ali have knowingly promoted gateway drugs in their prime? It's hard to say. But, I doubt it.

In the meantime, we're left with role models like Snoop Dogg who make sweet-tasting, brightly colored, highly potent alcoholic beverages seem cool to unsuspecting, underage kids. Snoop is one dog who's leading his pack astray and being paid handsomely to do so. And, here's the saddest part of the tale: we're doing nothing to stop Pabst, Colt .45 or Snoop.

Apr 15

Hype without substance is as phony as a three dollar bill.

A client in the education software space was recently sharing the results of a global survey that  showed her organization's customers rated it poorly when it came to service. She stared at the marketers around the table and said, “It's our job to improve these numbers.” I disagreed, and said so. I told the client the best marketing in the world wouldn't move the needle if her organization didn't first fix its poor service.
 
Beef-300x282The same holds true for the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club (AKA 'The Mets' or 'Los Mets' as they're known to my Spanish-speaking readers).
 
The Mets stink. Period. The club has been in a slow, but steady, death spiral since blowing the biggest late-season lead in baseball history a few years back. Many of the perpetrators of that atrocity are gone. And, the team has a new general manager and field skipper. But, the basic model remains broken. And, ownership can't afford to fix it, because they lost their shirts fiddling around with Bernie Madoff.
 
Despite the broken service offering, though, the Mets continue to hype each and every one of their upcoming encounters with all the drama of a Hollywood premiere: 'Tune in Sunday as David Wright and Jose Reyes lead the Mets into battle with their arch division rival, Chipper Jones and his Atlanta Braves!' Puh-lese. I'd rather watch grass grow.
 
No one cares about the 4-9 Mets, as was exemplified by the tens of thousands of empty seats at Citi Field on Thursday (where Los Mets dropped both games of a doubleheader to 'Troy Tulowitzki and his Colorado Rockies!').

Hype without substance is insulting. And, whether it's a client who thinks a thought leadership campaign can improve the findings of a future branding study or the lame superlatives used to convince Mets fans to turn on the tube or turn out to Citi Field, the end result will be the same: failure.

Fix what's broken first and don't try to spend three-dollar bills.

Apr 08

Ask not what your cable programmer can do for you; ask what you can do with your remote control

'The Kennedys', a new mini-series on ReelZChannel, is to cable programming what the Bay of Pigs  was to JFK's administration: an unmitigated disaster.Kennedy cigar bay of pigs

While it may provide a momentary ratings hiccup for the totally anonymous network, the series itself is abysmal. The plot's predictable, sophomoric and hackneyed. The acting is stilted and the sets are positively amateurish. Indeed, the fabled Hyannis Port Compound looks more like the dilapidated bungalow from 'Jersey Shore'. I half expected to see Snooki leap into Jack's arms.

ReelZChannel rolled the dice with The Kennedys after The History Channel exercised its pocket veto and wisely decided to pass on the poorly-told tale.

I understand the logic behind ReelZChannel's move. They hoped, like AMC did with 'Mad Men', to catch lightning in a bottle with The Kennedys and leapfrog into the A level of cable programmers. That decision may qualify as a profile in courage, but it makes as much sense as JFK's alleged dalliance with Mafia moll Judith Campbell in the early 1960s.

Mad Men was an original drama with a first class ensemble of actors who beautifully captured a bygone era. The Kennedys, on the other hand, is a hastily pulled together mish mash of well-known family stories mixed in with salacious gossip (and endless commercial interruptions).

Family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy is portrayed by the grossly over-exposed Tom Wilkinson (who seems to be Britain's answer to Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro; once distinguished actors who continue to prostitute their craft with highly-paid gigs in terribly scripted movies).

Greg Kinnear plays Mr. President and does, in fact, look a lot like Jack. But, he can't pull off JFK's gravitas or charisma. And, Katie Holmes is Jackie Kennedy. I think that speaks for itself.

The ReelZChannel took a major image and reputation risk that, I believe, will end badly. I think the me-too network will enjoy a temporary buzz and then sink permanently beneath the waves.

And, so my fellow Repman readers, ask not what your cable programmer can do for you. Ask what you can do with your remote control. And, if you happen to land on a ReelZChannel replay of The Kennedys anytime soon I suggest you, er, ah, channel surf faster than an ICBM headed for er, ah, Cuba.

UPDATE: Apparently, SNL shares my opinion.