Friday, 27 February 2015

Social Media and the Absence of Negatives

Social media, by the headlines in the trade press and the regular press, carries some hefty negatives for brands which engage in it.

Just yesterday Dunkin’ Donuts was caught out by a tweeted image of the Liverpool Football Club’s emblem which had been edited to be a bit of a silly Dunkin’ style graphic.

To do so they edited out the Eternal Flames on the emblem which commemorate those killed in the Hillsborough disaster.

Not the wisest of decisions.

With the internet being what it is, any mistake made by a brand can be captured and repeated and paraded across the world in moments – instant tsunamis of disapproval sweeping away months of built-up good faith.

This pattern has played out across multiple channels, many brands, and is simply a part of the fabric of social advertising at the point.

But why do brands take on the risk of such a fast-paced media? It’s not as though they gain much out of it. It’s rare to see many brands using social media for the purpose of direct sales. Most of the time it’s simply for branding purposes.

The answer is, to a large degree, to remove a negative.

Social media isn’t generally much of a positive. But the absence of social media is a real negative for brands which ignore it. It’s as much to show face as to show an attractive face.

As with the Burberry case earlier, being in control and being consistent in your brand voice are key. Social media is about defending your brand and not ceding the territory – either to other brands in the market or to negative perceptions of a poorly done and underfunded social presence.

Now, of course there is the viral quality of social media. This can cut both ways and can be a huge benefit in terms of awareness, certainly if you’re a large brand. But it’s hard to build a campaign around a hypothetical viral success, especially now that every brand and its mother (parent company?) are trying to do the same. These things have a limited predictability.

So how do you consistent succeed at social media? Again, it’s all about removing negatives. Successful social media is in large part simply about consistency, and thoroughness. Slipping up is both more likely and more dangerous. You just have to be careful, constantly.

Which is why brand social media is generally either dull or wildly controversial.

Which is why brand social media is so often just a game of damage limitation.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Do Ads Have to Sell?

There’s an ad running in the UK right now for Freederm (a skincare, anti-zit brand). It’s all about a bird who gets sick of flying in formation and wants to be free. He flies off and gets up to hijinks around the world. The end tagline is “There’s nothing like being free” – and then it says Freederm. I love this ad.

I also really can’t think that it’s good advertising.

That might sound strange. But entertainment doesn’t equal advertising. And there’s the problem. That Freederm spot is fantastic, beautiful, playful – and it barely mentions the brand or the product.

Now at this point branding gurus may pop out of the woodwork to say that this is all about positioning, about creating good feelings about the brand. There’s a logic to that idea. Quite often brands do feel the need to bolster their popularity and their positivity.

But here’s the question. Has Freederm earned the right to make a spot that is just about branding – with nothing about its actual products? I don’t mean a moral right. They can advertise how they please. 
But broadcasting a branding position without having clear defined products is a risky business. McDonalds runs branding advertising because it also runs advertising about its products. I would argue McDonalds barely has to run product advertising anymore, its products are so well established that all that really needs to be said is the branding.

But can the same be said for Freederm?

That’s a difficult question. When I first saw the spot I would have said absolutely not. But with repetition I think a part of me is growing to accept it. Maybe it’s just that good. 

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

What is Wrong With Andrex?

Andrex wants to have a national discussion about shitting.

I shit you not.

It’s possibly the single-most bizarre marketing decision that any brand has made in years. Why would they choose to change their entire brand proposition from cute puppies and oblique references to talking about shit and how your ass feels after?

There was a great article about the move by Andrex shortly after the initial campaign began last year (the already infamous “Scrunch or Fold?”), written on Marketing Magazine. In it Helen Edwards argued that the whole point of toilet paper advertising is that we only accept it and allow it into our national discourse and advertising world because it is subtle and cutesy and doesn’t really talk about the subject matter (other than cushiony softness and the like). Andrex seems to be betting that they can change that.

But the real question about this is why Andrex? Andrex is dominant in the market, at least in its branding. If you ask anyone if they know a brand of loo roll I guarantee you, the first name that will come from their lips will be Andrex. They really didn’t need the shake-up – you’d expect this from some newcomer with a new proposition (though what that new offering could be in the world of pieces of paper with which to clean yourself is, I confess, beyond me).

So we’re left with this question. What will this do to Andrex? Ultimately the answer may simply be nothing, at least for the time being. Andrex has that brand dominance, and it won’t give it up anytime soon. But it’s still a strange, strange decision.

There’s a further point to all this. Andrex took a radical new campaign on, a huge turnaround from its traditional marketing. Why? Was there some evidence that the brand needed to change? That there could be a huge market gap in targeting people who like to talk about bowel movements?

It’s hard to imagine. But perhaps they simply fell victim to the allure of novelty. Perhaps they simply wanted to make something different, to shake things up for the sake of shaking things up. That’s bad marketing though, and it’s worth remembering this fact. Never drop a campaign that works just because you’re bored with it.

(If nothing else, remember that you probably get bored with it a lot faster than the public will.)

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

If You’re a Junior You Should Buckle Down and Shut Up

Let go of the ego.

I mean it seriously. We’re all ambitious. We all want to kick arse and be successful and advance. I wrote a post explicitly saying you should be selfish and work for yourself. That remains true.

But when it comes to the work you do within your agency, you have to be humble. Be a churchmouse. Let your ego go.

Because you cannot advance without showing a capacity for humility. Put simply, you have to be willing to work, regardless of the work.

Fetch coffee. Set up lunch. Collect a stuffed rooster from the other side of town for a photoshoot. You know why you need to be willing to do that?
Because someone has to do it.

And if you don’t, someone else will. And it needs to be you that does it, because if you can’t do that, what good are you?

Obviously you want to do well for yourself. Obviously you don’t want to do menial tasks. But someone will always have to do that. And until you prove yourself, it has to be you. And that is entirely right.

It’s one of the best lessons I learned at my first internships. Let go of the ego. Be humble above all else. Because you don’t know anything. And because even if you do know better than the people giving the orders (and you probably don’t), you still have more to learn. And you might as well learn it.

The top priority when you start out has to be this: How can I make my boss more successful?

If you have a shit boss, move on. But otherwise, that has to be a priority. You can’t be successful by being selfish. That’s just not how advertising works. It really is a team game.

And you need to earn your place on the team.

And you won’t get anywhere without earning it.

Someday, maybe, you can call the shots.

But you have to earn that right first.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

We Interrupt Your Scheduled Advertising Post to Bring You a Post About Job Hunting

Or more accurately, about job hunting cover letters.

For years I was always taught to personalise my cover letter whenever I applied for a job, to research the company thoroughly and make a specific pitch, for myself, to the company.

For years that was my method. And it worked, to a degree. But coming out of university into the big bad world of advertising agencies and realising that the competition for junior roles in an agency is basically a thousand squawking ducks fighting for one piece of bread, a rethink was in order.

So, based on my admittedly anecdotal evidence, I recommend that the best way to stand out and appear creative, interesting and engaged is to have a standard cover letter when applying to agencies, and barely vary it once you have a formula you’re happy with.

A tad paradoxical perhaps. But the reality is that in all honesty, personalisation isn’t that much of a bonus to how you appear to an agency. And why should it? In theory, yes, agencies want you to show personal interest in their company. Commitment. Invested time. But you don’t have that time. You have too much to do. You can’t just apply to one agency, you have to apply to every agency you can find. Because you can’t put all your career eggs in one agency basket- or even ten, or even a hundred.

And in any case, once you have a good cover letter why change it? Too often personalisation to fit a company turns into bending over backwards to seem like what you think that that company is looking for. Not only is that dishonest, and bad practice, it’s also very unlikely to work. Even if you get past the cover letter, you’ll be found out at the interview. And even if you get past that you’ll be found out when you start working there.

And yes, there is no such thing as bad experience. But given the variety of agencies and opportunities out there you might as well make yourself attractive to the ones that would genuinely suit you.

So what does that mean? It means making a cover letter that is the best version of you. Sell yourself, certainly. But sell your real self. Don’t mess things around and pretend to be someone you’re not. Make it interesting. If you think you’re funny, make it funny. If you consider a specific skill or trait to be important to you, make it part of your story. The agencies that see your cover letter and think that you’re the one for them - they’re the ones who have gotten what you offer and recognised it. The ones who read what you have to say and recoil in horror - well, I guarantee you, you never wanted to work for them in the first place.

In a sense it’s a question of putting yourself first. It’s easy to think when you’re starting out that you have to take every chance you can. It’s a tough economy. You’re nothing special. And certainly, junior ad people are not a rare commodity right now. But you can do well. You owe it to yourself to fight for what you want.

And that means writing a cover letter for yourself. Not for an agency. Not for what you think a future employer wants. But for what you want for yourself.

(Within reason, of course.)

Why is Amsterdam the Centre of World Advertising Right Now?

Of course that’s begging the question to an extent. But if you ask around you’ll find that most people see Amsterdam as the place to be for great advertising, and the place to go if you’re an ambitious AE or creative. More to the point, the number of international accounts with global brands being snagged by agencies based in Amsterdam is huge.

So why Amsterdam? There are a lot of reasons really. Even more so than London, the city is diverse, culturally and linguistically, and has a reputation, rightly or wrongly, for toleration and cultural liberalism, the heart of the ad industry. Everyone speaks English.

It’s also a beautiful city, and one with a lot more to offer than meets the eye (the food is great too). But all of these traits can be attributed to other great cities, from London to New York. So why is Amsterdam on top right now?

The answer lies in a comment made to me by an agency CEO who has been working there for a number of years. “Agencies around here are friendly, they’re neighbours, they get along, they don’t worry about accounts being lost amongst them, or partners moving from place to place. They know that an account here or there is not the end of the world." The goal is the work, not the politics behind it.

Perhaps this attitude is only maintained because of the growth in the AMS ad world. Perhaps only optimism prevents infighting. But that’s not what I see there.

Creativity often comes from adversity, but it rarely springs out of politicking and rivalry. The great UK ad agencies are not the ones fighting aggressively over accounts, but the ones confident, pitching for what they want rather than for the table scraps.

Amsterdam has learned the lesson from the London ad world, the lesson that London itself has not. Advertising is not improved by politics. Advertising is best when formed in a culture of multiculturalism and curiosity.

Let’s be serious. M&C Saatchi is a dying firm. So is Leo Burnett. Why? Because they have become bureaucracies, more fixated on infighting and bitter turf wars inside and outside of the agency.

The best agencies are those that have realised that success means not caring about wins or losses. That, despite the pretentiousness of this statement, the journey is more important than the end result. Because the journey is what makes the end result a result.

Amsterdam agencies have realised this. They’ve realised that advertising is not the same as business. It has to be engaging inside and out. And that fighting just isn’t as good as cooperation in growing ideas.

SNCF and Giving People What They Want

SNCF (the French rail network) has some of the best advertising out there, at least in the sphere of direct (e)mail. I say that for a simple reason. SNCF doesn’t assault you with information. It doesn’t offer you irrelevant goodies to make you resent it less for its constant emails.

What it does is make you want to travel around France. Admittedly this shouldn’t be too difficult a sell for most people. But SNCF sells it in a pure, and effective way.

Every few days you get an email which tells you about places you can visit. And it tells you how much it costs to visit them. And that’s about it. There are pretty pictures, though not too many of them. There are blurbs, and seasonal offers, and special deals. But for the most part SNCF’s DM really boils down to a simple and compelling proposition.

Here are some places you will probably want to go to. SNCF can take you there, and do it for cheaper than you might think.

In a time of airline competition and squeezed budgets, it’s a refreshingly straightforward, no bullshit sales pitch. I’m sold.

Burberry and the Power of Self Control

Not that kind of self-control. But sort of.

What’s impressive about Burberry is a pair of simple facts. In the 1990s, Burberry was in the shit. Burberry was the fashion of criminals. And not even classy criminals (heaven forbid).

Today, Burberry is one of the most valuable brands in the world.

What happened?

A lot of things happened. Rebranding. Reworking. Rethinking. Refashioning. A million things happened. But the crowning point, the real change, was self-control.

What does that mean? It means, simply, that someone saw what the situation at Burberry was, and had a single minded vision on how to change it. That someone was Christopher Bailey.

And in a lot of ways, what he had in mind to change things is not the important part of the story. The important part is the fact that things changed.

If you read this blog for any length of time you’ll find that the most important point of any brand transformation is not the transformative idea, but the transformative person. Why? Because much though it should be the other way around, transformative ideas are ten-a-penny. Transformative people are the real rarity. Transformative people are those who can find and identify and implement transformative ideas. That is what changes the fortunes of a brand.

Now. Is Bailey a genius of advertising? Perhaps. Perhaps not. At this point we may as well say he is. Sometimes bloody minded optimism is a substitute for advertising genius regardless of what you’re selling.

And what is really exceptional about Bailey is not what he sold, or how he sold it, but how he sold the reselling. That’s not a good turn of phrase, but it is accurate.

He committed to a remaking of the brand. He didn’t attempt to claw onto Burberry caps, to be a brand for every person, to have a thousand faces, to please every punter. He took Burberry, and cut away the extraneous.

And it worked.

Not because of advertising genius. Because of bloody-mindedness. Because quite often, having a plan and sticking to it is as important as the plan itself.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Trust and Great Advertising

This is an article I wrote for an agency blog while I was interning with them- for obvious reasons they didn't go with it. It's a bit more of an 'internal' piece.

Trust and Great Advertising

What makes great creative work? People love to talk about this. There’s always a lot of emphasis placed on off-kilter thinking, on radical ideas and deep insights. All of that is important to be sure. But something that’s rarely talked about in earnest is how crucial confidence and trust is, between the client and the agency.

Why? Because without a strong relationship, no truly ground breaking, great ideas will be approved by the client and make it out into the world.

As an example, take a look at the Volvo Test Drive series, one of the most awarded campaigns of recent years. Volvo had so much confidence in Forsman & Bodenfors that they put their president in an ad. He was standing on top of a truck hanging from a crane in the middle of Gothenburg harbour.

Or think of the famous Levi’s ads by BBH. Levi’s were certainly nervous about the unusual approach taken by their new agency. But they took a chance, and put their faith in BBH. It paid off.

Good ideas aren’t enough if the client doesn’t trust you enough to use them. Great advertising which no one gets to see isn’t advertising. But you need to give the client reasons to trust you.

Think about it like a vase of flowers. The flowers look good, but they aren’t going to last.

So what does that mean for us? We need to lay down roots. It means we need to be more engaged with the client, with the aim of building their confidence in us- and a belief that when we give them a risky idea, there is good, sound reason behind it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we need to be crazy and take wild risks. But we need to be brave enough to back great creative, even in the face of opposition.

And I say this with all the authority of a high powered intern.

Friday, 6 February 2015

The Importance of Being Local (and Being Local Everywhere)

We all know the HSBC slogan. "The World's Local Bank". It's a great line. It sums up one of the most important qualities for international brands- or at least a lot of them. Some brands can get away with being monolithic, unchanging, global. But most have to bend to local trends and mores in some way. And for many, embracing the local is how to really win over the audience, and create a rapport.

A great example I've heard of recently is Maybelline. (You might be able to guess I'm not part of their target market, but I still like it.) Maybelline New York is, as you might guess, proud of its US heritage. It is explicitly tied to New York, to New York style, to the image of New York glamour.

But (and this is key) it does not present its proudly New Yorker style through only one lense. Maybelline is global in its approach because it engages with its audience country by country. Take its YouTube page- or rather, its YouTube pages. It has multiple pages for different countries, each reflecting the Maybelline core brand, but each also reflecting the realities of local interests.

My personal favourite is the Maybelline Sweden page. It has all the trappings of a well formed social media content page: branding, lifestyle tips, news announcements. Some are in English, some in Swedish. Still better (and this is half the reason I've written this entire post) they have a local fashion stylist who stars in videos and adds a level of fun and engaged, personal service to the page. (The guy is Jonas Hallberg- according to a Swedish friend of mine he's a judge on Sweden's Next Top Model. All I know is he's hilarious and awesome.)

It's a simple trick. Make content relatable. Even if you have a global brand, little tweaks can be enough to turn something from merely interesting into something genuinely engaging.

Check it out here

Gawker: Making the World a Worse Place

Coca Cola made a tie-in social media project for its Superbowl campaign. It wasn't anything gratuitous, just a funny Twitter program that changed negative tweets into funny text shapes. Something to make online trolling a bit less negative, to spin things around, to inject some happiness.

How dare they.

Gawker wouldn't stand for such behaviour, and so they tricked Coke's program into tweeting images using bits of text from Hitler's Mein Kampf. When Coke found the tweets, and with people complaining, they deleted them, and halted the campaign. And so a campaign designed to fight back against the pervasive negativity of so much of the internet was destroyed by the pervasive negativity of the internet.

Thanks for that one Gawker.