Category Archives: Ad industry

Going native.

“Native advertising”—what we used to call advertorials in the world of dead-tree media—are having a moment, and part of me hopes it doesn’t last much longer than that.

It’s somewhat impolitic of me to say that in a public (if lightly trafficked) forum, since my agency, like most others, is dabbling in the medium for some of our clients.

The premise is simple enough: disguise the fact that your ad is an ad, make it mimic the editorial format it’s placed in, and readers will lower their guard and be more receptive to your message. People consume media for its content, right? Ads are something to be endured, ignored or skipped. Make your ad look like editorial content and people will engage.

Well, maybe.

Since this blog exists in a data-free zone, I can’t verify one way or another if this ploy works in digital media. I know, or think I know, it doesn’t work very well in print, even though you see it all the time, especially in lifestyle publications. Usually it’s what is absurdly termed a “value added” media buy: put an ad in our rag,  and we’ll put some pseudo-editorial focusing on your brand nearby.

In practice, what happens is either a) low-level creatives at the agency are assigned the advertorial, which does nothing for their portfolio and which calls for journalistic skills they likely don’t have; or b) the publication assigns its own hacks, who do an equally execrable job. To make it worse, all this ad-plus-editorial crap is usually segregated in its own free-standing section within the mag, making it that much easier to skip the whole thing. Advertisers still do it, because it feels like getting something for nothing, but most people I know just ignore this stuff, and are under no delusions about what it is.

But what about digital?

Well, the nature of the medium is such that, frankly, it’s easier to disguise your paid-media identity. Aggregating sites like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post are very busy visually, and it creates ripe opportunities for subterfuge. Here’s one example, from Buzzfeed:

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 4.21.44 PM

 

Man, you gotta look real hard to realize there’s a wolf among those sheep. That Intel…thing in the lower right looks pretty legit. And I’m guessing it got a lot of clicks. But to what end? No one likes getting played for a sucker, and clicking on what you think is a tech article and winding up looking at some bogus Intel corporate “content”—how does that build brand loyalty?

Nowhere in this screed have I even touched the ethics of all this, because advertising people talking about ethics is like 1-percenters talking about food stamps. But still, let’s be clear: native advertising is, by its nature, disingenuous–the Devil in disguise.

And while ads–real ads– aren’t always as truthful as they could be, they make no attempt to be anything but what they are: an exercise in selling, a tool of commerce. People know an ad when they see it, and whether they pay attention or not has to do with whether they care about what’s being sold and the craft of the message itself. That, ultimately, is something I believe in my bones: that good ads go naked into the world, armed with nothing but words and pictures, and, faced with indifference and scorn, somehow prevail.

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If we just had another petabyte of data, we could totally crack this brief.

One of the most oppressive memes of 2013 surely must be “big data.” It has bubbled up out of the quant swamp and gone mainstream. This week’s Ad Age dubs itself “The Data Issue”—irrefutable evidence that big data’s moment is just about over.

The cover story is about “How Data Spawned the Geico Gecko” but a close read reveals quite the opposite. Here, in an interview, is Geico’s CMO Ted Ward:

 “The Gecko was “hatched” with absolutely no research or even the intention of producing a long-running, iconic campaign.  The fact is we analyzed results from running the first set of Gecko TV spots and liked the bump in business volume. We were able to attribute the increased business to the campaign and decided to move forward with additional Gecko executions.”

So…the idea was a lucky accident, but it seemed to be working so you decided to stick with it. That’s Big Data? Please. That’s advertising. That’s why there are still agencies around and not just server farms.

Data and analytics can help you spot an opportunity in the marketplace. It can help you understand your customer. It can tell you what’s working and what’s not. It cannot, and never will, riff “Geico” into “Gecko.” Why pretend otherwise?

I admire Mr. Ward’s Geico campaigns, and the team at Martin who produces them. Both the gecko and the Cavemen were felicitous one-offs that the marketing team had the good sense to recognize had more potential. The fact that both ideas happened on the Geico account suggests a good working environment and a trusting agency-client relationship. Luck, after all,  favors the prepared. Suggesting that sifting through mountains of shopping data takes the luck factor out of the creative equation is just magical thinking.

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I want Nate Silver testing my ads.

Where have I been for the last 6 months?

Refreshing Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight blog ten times a day, like a rat hitting the treadle for morphine. Silver’s last electoral map projections are still up on his site: 50 for 50. He’s left it up like a war trophy—a scalp. And the scalped head in question is most likely Gallup’s. Silver has been beating Gallup like a rented mule all election season, and with good reason: it blew the last two election cycles badly and was a major Romney-leaning outlier all the way to the end this time.

“It was one of the best-known polling firms, however, that had among the worst results. In late October, Gallup consistently showed Mr. Romney ahead by about six percentage points among likely voters, far different from the average of other surveys. Gallup’s final poll of the election, which had Mr. Romney up by one point, was slightly better, but still identified the wrong winner in the election. Gallup has now had three poor elections in a row. In 2008, their polls overestimated Mr. Obama’s performance, while in 2010, they overestimated how well Republicans would do in the race for the United States House.”

Why has Gallup been getting it wrong? Like Mr. Romney and his party, it’s a bit stuck in the 50s, depending on land-line phones for its polling.  “Research by polling firms and academic groups suggests that polls that fail to call cellphones may underestimate the performance of Democratic candidates.

The roughly one-third of Americans who rely exclusively on cellphones tend to be younger, more urban, worse off financially and more likely to be black or Hispanic than the broader group of voters, all characteristics that correlate with Democratic voting.”

Well, duh.

But there are laws restricting access to cell numbers and the ability to make unsolicited calls. So what is a polling outfit to do? The big winners  this year were the research firms

who depended partly or entirely on online polling, which is where most Americans do their fact-finding and opining.

The stunning obviousness of this methodological flaw is

matched only by the glacial slowness with which traditional research firms are changing to adapt.

All of which got me to thinking about advertising research, which in 2012 is still rounding up the usual underemployed or retired suspects, sticking them in conference rooms with 2-way mirrors and showing them animatics or “adlobs.” It is as stuck in the 50s as Gallup, which itself had its roots in advertising research, and the reliability of the results is just as suspect.

If the triumph of Nate Silver teaches us anything, it’s that good data isn’t about the answers people give. It’s about who is giving the answers, and who’s asking the questions.

 

No one here but us old white people.

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These are gone. I’m still here.

I turned 60 today. Thirty six of those 60 years have been spent in The Belly of the Beast, churning out ads.

While the plot lines of this business are as well-worn as an old married couple’s arguments (clients are tasteless/account people are spineless/creatives are clueless), the vocabulary used to express it has changed. Here are 20 terms and names in common use in ad agencies when I started which are no more, thanks to technology, death and consultants: 

Bullpen

Hot type

Interlock

Letraset

Copy contact

Pica

Double truck

17.65

Moviola

Steenbeck

3/4 inch

Slop print

Kabel/Windsor/Avant-Garde/Bookman

Laminate

Overhead

Burke opening

Spec (as a verb)

:45

Above the Line/Below the Line

Elbert Budin

Want to know what these terms mean and too lazy to google them all? Go to seidensays.com, my agency’s blog, for the full rundown.

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You can judge a book by its cover. Unless it’s the digital edition.

A story:

It’s 1955. A carpenter is wrapping up construction of a beautiful new staircase and bannister for a homeowner. The homeowner comes by, admires the carpenter’s handiwork, and then asks him a question: “Hey, Joe, do you know any electricians who know how to install those new TV antenna thingys up on the roof? My wife’s been after me to put one of those things up there and connect it to the new television console we just bought.”

The carpenter says, “Sure. Why don’t I have him drop by tomorrow?”

The next day, the doorbell rings and the homeowner opens the door to find this same carpenter, now outfitted with a ladder, electrical tape and wire cutters rather than saw and drill. “I thought you said you were sending someonewho knows about TV antennas,” the homeowner, confused and slightly irritated, said. The carpenter, who had spent years clambering around roofs, attaching everything from weathervanes to cupolas to (more recently) TV antennas, said to the homeowner: “I did.”

The homeowner looked at the tradesman’s truck parked in his driveway with the words “Joe’s Carpentry” emblazoned on the sides. “Sorry Joe,” the homeowner says. “You’re a great carpenter. But I need an antenna expert here.”


Change the date to 2012, change the new technology to digital advertising and/or social media, change the homeowner into a client, and welcome to the world of full-service advertising agencies.

Clients, desiring to take advantage of a new medium but too unsure of themselves and this unfamiliar new world to judge the actual work or the expertise behind it, are looking out at their metaphorical driveways to see if the word “Digital” (or 2.0, or X or something that sounds like a sixties band, like Virtual Noise) is painted on our metaphorical trucks.

Agencies, who know damn well that an idea is an idea is an idea, and that you craft the idea to be appropriate to the medium it’s in, are trapped. If they point this out to the client, they look defensive. If they don’t, they’re playing in the digital agency’s house. Either way, they lose. And clients lose, too, because any possibility of truly integrated work goes away when the traditional agency and Virtual Noise 2.0 split the account.

This is not to suggest in any way that clients are to blame. Let’s say, to take the homeowner metaphor into the present, you want to go off the grid and convert your home to solar electric power. So you’re the client. Who are you going to use to do the installation–Joe’s Electric who has been your go-to guy for putting in  new outlets and lighting fixtures–or SunStrong, whose motto (printed on all their solar-power trucks) is: “The Next Generation of Power Generation”?

Exactly.

Provenance counts.

Provenance counts in buying art and antiques because the product’s expensive and you’re afraid of being bamboozled. That’s why Gagosian, Christies et. al stay in business.

Provenance counts in buying healthcare because the stakes are so high and the subject matter is so beyond your grasp. So seeing the words New York Presbyterian or Mayo on a surgeon’s lapel pocket are very reassuring.

And provenance has always counted in advertising, where David Ogilvy has won more accounts taking a dirt nap than the rest of us have wide awake and pumped up on Red Bull, fear or other stimulant of choice.

But now it counts more than ever, trumping common sense, experience and trust.

These things have a way of working themselves out over time. No one has wondered for a very long time, as Procter & Gamble must have in the early 50s, whether their ad agencies, grounded in print, radio and outdoor posters, could make ads for TV as well.

And the day will come–trust me on this–when brands will be able to sample their wares via a texted code to unlock the customer’s 3-D printer or makerbot. When that day comes, the words “Digital Branding Strategists” on the business card won’t look so hot anymore.

Silly wabbit. Virtual is so 2012.

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Teamwork? More like reamwork.

Anyone who admires Jeff Goodby is pretty much OK by me. So I’m not here to talk smack about Joel Ewanick and I’m not rooting for Commonwealth, his cobbled-together Franken-agency for Chevrolet’s global account, to fail.

Why? Because, while the comparison is inviting, it’s not Enfatico, the much reviled “agency of the future” assembled for Dell that, like that client’s product, was ugly, unloved and under-powered. George Parker beat that shop like a mule, and rightly so.

Also: because I don’t want anything bad to happen to Goodby.

The thing that fascinates me about Commonwealth and other attempts of this sort is the extent to which clients do not understand the feral, foam-at-the-mouth loathing that agencies forced into the yoke of “teamwork” have for one another.

I used to think it was arrogance. Years ago, when I was a creative director on AT&T’s consumer business at Ayer and McCann had the B2B and FCB had direct marketing, we would periodically all be summoned to client HQ to be briefed on jump-ball projects. It was like the holding area in a cock-fighting arena.

The clients droned on with their presentations, oblivious to the stink-eye flying around the room. Did they not see? Did they not care? My assumption back then was the client believed buckets of revenue trumped petty rivalry, so get with the program.

I don’t think Joel Ewanick is that stupid, or arrogant. I think clients, who succeed in large companies by their ability to work in teams and build consensus, just do not understand, at a visceral level, that agency luminaries succeed by building personal mystiques, owning famous work, and/or wearing signature outfits. Not, like Jeff Goodby and Joe Garcia, by doing public trust-falls into the arms of their frenemies.

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I hear their hooves, I feel their hot breath.

Yesterday the New York Times reported hocking its own building for cash, the Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy, ad spending was predicted to decline 30% next year and an editor friend found out her editorial company was closing up shop December 31st.

Bad mojo all around as the year slides into solstice darkness. I am incredibly thankful that our agency is healthy but the Four Horsemen of the Ad Apocalypse—Recession, ROI, DVR and Online Search—are approaching.

Before they get here, our agency’s holiday card is a propos: