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helping others is scary…

Helping a sister agency within your network is a double-edged sword if ever there was one. In theory the helper gets the benefit of participating in important national or global business, which can mean lucrative assignments with blue chip clients as well as face time with your company’s top management. In theory…

The reality is often far less lucrative for the helper. For one thing, the help you provide is speculative. Aka unpaid. If they/you lose the pitch it stays that way, which actually is a loss, given whatever hours (usually plenty) your office sunk into it.

To encourage participation, agency brass generally promise and always imply that should the network win its engagement a fair share of the revenue will come your way. In my lengthy experience of helping –and, yes, also soliciting help- this rarely happens. With few exceptions, the soliciting office keeps the money, makes the work and holds all the key relationships.

And that’s the winning scenario!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before any verdict is rendered a shit-ton of work must be produced, the bigger the stakes the more work that is required. There are other reasons for soliciting help from a network partner (geography, skill sets, etc.) but it almost always comes down to increasing the breadth and depth of your agency’s response.

The only person who has the juice to request (aka commandeer) another office’s resources is the network’s CEO, (though the actual request may come from one of his lieutenants, perhaps the CMO or Head of Strategy.)

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“More resources…or I will release the hounds!”

Answering the dinner bell is is what constitutes your “face time” with top management. While this experience has genuine value, it is also far more one sided than you’d like. Trust me. Command central is only interested in winning. Once they’ve drafted you they are only concerned with your output. Not your opinion. Not your participation. Most certainly not your emotional health.

This means what you think it does. You are building a pyramid for Pharaoh. When “feedback” for your efforts does come, it will be a litany of change orders delivered by a fear driven messenger. He will smile and listen to you vent. It will change nothing. Therefore, any illusion you may have regarding a dialog with He Who Wears The Crown needs to be forgotten. Building a pyramid demands heavy lifting and your office can either do so angrily or stoically. It makes no difference to Pharaoh. Either way, you’re gonna do it.

All this being, said I’ve never declined giving help no matter the circumstances. And my guess is neither will you. Look. People are intrinsically good, even ad people. We are wired to provide assistance. We may fancy ourselves as solo creators but we also want to play for a winning team. What’s good for the goose, right? Yes, they will cry wolf once too often. Yes, you’ll be mortgaging your time on a loan that might never get repaid. And yes you will want to kill someone in the home office. But then you will get back to work. We always do.

The righteous drum continues to beat louder, calling for the termination of the Washington Redskins nickname, which got a huge assist when the United States Patent Office rescinded trademark rights for the moniker, deeming it offensive to Native Americans. Recently, the above commercial ran during the NBA playoffs.

The name is offensive. Period.

Anyone who believes otherwise, consider if the Redskins played a game against a team called the Seattle Slant Eyes or Miami Wetbacks. Why we took so long coming to this painfully obvious conclusion is the only issue worth debating.

Perhaps the biggest grotesque is that Washington DC is literally where, once upon a time, the orders were given to marginalize, if not wipe out, Native Americans. Naming one’s biggest sporting franchise after a people our forefathers nearly crushed out of existence is sick.

And yet the team’s owner, Dan Snyder is steadfast in fighting the injunction and any other measures demanding the team change its name. Claiming the term Redskins is a “badge of honor,” Snyder is not backing down.

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Dan, here’s an idea for a name.

Eerie the similarities to what’s going on with the embattled, soon-to-be former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. Holding on to old ideas like these have no place in the modern era.

I know the bar stool defense. Old timers rail at political correctness. They bellow: Where does it end? The Fighting Irish? Chief Wahoo? Maybe those do go away. So what? The University of Illinois got rid of their mascot, Chief Illiniwek in 2007, deeming it “hostile and abusive.” The games are still packed with fans. Life went on.

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Chief Wahoo. Ouch.

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Piss off!

Not long ago, Jacksonville named their NFL team the Jaguars –an animal that is all but extinct in Florida. I think that’s kind of gross. Yet, I hadn’t thought about it until now. Maybe they don’t change the name but a dollar for every ticket goes to helping this endangered animal? New thinking comes from new ideas, even bad ones. New ideas rile people up. And that’s good.

But let’s get off the soapbox and into the boardroom.

Snyder is a businessman. Does he not see the huge financial upside in making a name change? All new jerseys symbolizing doing the right thing: like those wouldn’t sell. Please. As for all that old merch it would immediately become collectible. Moreover, can he not picture the marketing potential such a move would engender? Social media was made for an “event” like this. Fans could be solicited to help create a new moniker, or vote on one. Even if the selection process were contentious the freaking proverbial “conversation” would be radioactive.

I know a thing or two about popular culture and the influence young people have on it. New fans are not beholden to tradition, even when they should be. You can’t tell me the multitudes of young people, who voted for a black president (twice) and adore and follow the multicultural mainstream wouldn’t embrace a new look Washington football team.

Look around you, Mr. Snyder. Athletes are coming out of the closet. Pot is legal. More and more so is gay marriage. The world is moving on. Evolving. Adaptation is sound strategy. Making a name change transcends political correctness; it’s just good business.

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From this…
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To this…

I first wrote this draft while I was between jobs, reflecting on some things that had challenged me most when it came to true integration and moving our agency from good to great. Revisiting them now, the following observations are still seldom discussed, let alone acted upon. I’m not sure why. They’re true, more or less, for all advertising agencies. Solving for them strikes me as critical in terms of which agencies compete and win. Let me know what you think.

1. The myth of good work at all costs. Unfortunately, that simply is not possible. First of all, “good” is entirely subjective. The agency’s most successful campaign may be a dog at award shows and vice versa. In addition, as we all know, some clients are less willing to take risks with creative than others. Forcing them to drink from the well never works. You might get one “good” piece of creative but the client will most likely hold a resentment and eventually move their business elsewhere. Few agencies are flush enough to call their own shots, especially now, during times of economic instability and seismic changes in media. None of this is new. But when agencies rhapsodize about doing brilliant work and then don’t the disconnect hurts inside the agency as much as out. For example, an account that does so-so work but generates good revenue fosters a dysfunctional personality within the agency.

2. The myth of 360 campaigns. Rare is the client that wants all its marketing from one agency. Despite our much pimped credentials to do it, we have precious few clients that want 360 marketing campaigns from us and us alone. This is a bigger deal than one might first think, impacting the people, the place and the work. For example, if an agency has a sizable client that only does work below the line, say direct marketing, catalogue and digital, then the agency has to staff accordingly. Those employees tend to be specialists, whether they like it or not. I say that because though the employees may be virtuosos at creating direct mail campaigns chances are they want to expand their skill sets, doing TVC’s for example. Because the agency has allocated them primarily for doing this work on that client, these individuals can feel pigeonholed, which frankly they are. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had my hand slapped trying to use some of these people on other projects. “They are not paid by that client. You have to look elsewhere for help.” Your staff becomes resentful and demoralized. “I thought this was an integrated shop,” one might say. “But this is all I ever work on.” In the long run nobody is happy with this arrangement. Employees complain and/or defect. If they stay their work becomes rote.

3. The myth of digital nirvana. The proverbial elephant in the room, so-called digital shops have begun to recognize that even their best and brightest people want to do something other than online campaigns. If these staffers perceive their shop to be digital-only they get antsy. This is why so many of those shops are exploring ways to build out their advertising capability. They want to make fabled 360 marketing campaigns just like everyone else, and not just because of increasing revenue streams but because their people want it, too. The creative staff craves the permanence of print and the notoriety of TV. Ask any headhunter. Despite all the talk of digital platforms killing TV, TV is precisely what many so-called digital specialists want to be making!

I’m reminded of the Dr. Seuss fable, The Sneetches, whereby the plain-bellied Sneetches (traditional creative) desperately want stars on their bellies like the star-bellied Sneetches (digital creative). Midway through the story the tables turn and, well, everyone feels slighted.

Many people, including me, have written about future creative departments containing mostly hybrid personnel, capable of working in all channels. However, we won’t get there if agencies keep holding onto old ideas about who works on what. Caste systems have always existed in agencies. Breaking down barriers in creative, production, and media is the only way to establish true integration. And not just for our beloved, bloated agency credentials but in our cliquey hallways as well.

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“Our new campaign rocks and so do we!”

I am delighted to report (with a bit of an eye roll) that one of the themes at this year’s B2B marketing conference in Chicago (BMA14), was the supreme value of internal stakeholders and employees when it comes to branding.

I’m happy because the internal audience is likely the most under-appreciated target market of them all. I roll my eyes because I’ve been singing this psalm for almost as long as I’ve been in advertising. Whenever a company produces a piece of marketing, particularly in the realm of branding, it simply must consider its employees. And not just a little. I’d argue first and foremost.

As many of my colleagues will tell you, I have a short list of marketing truths I hold to be self-evident (aka “Steffan-isms”) and my absolute favorite is this idea that a branding campaign is the company’s jersey. Ergo every employee should feel comfortable putting it on. Better yet, the wearer should be fired up, ready to represent the firm. Every morning, when an employee enters the parking lot, he or she should be made proud (at least somewhat) by the company’s colors, theme and logo.

The same way your university has a poetic uniform, your place of business has one too. Or it should. If you agree with me on this point then the key question is do you like your jersey? Are you the Fighting Irish or Stanford Cardinal or are you the Peoria Piss Ants?

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Does your brand look like this poor bastard’s uniform?

Answer affirmatively and your brand is probably in a good place or has a reasonable chance at getting to one. If a jersey is meh how can anyone expect the people wearing it to do a good –let alone great job?

I like using the above argument when trying to sell new campaigns to clients because it reframes the branding discussion into one that is more humanly relevant than a marketing funnel or other left brain algebra. It also forces the decision maker(s) to look at his or her brand from an insider point of view.

Granted, this does not always work. Fear of rocking the boat exists inside every company. Hence the old cliché “running it up the flagpole.” Yet, when we exalt the CMO as a quarterback or coach, and relay to him a new and improved uniform (or flag for that matter), it takes particular cowardice for him to demand blandness in the face of a bolder choice. Doesn’t mean it won’t happen. But I like to give my creative ideas every chance at succeeding. Rallying employees is a powerful way to do it.

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“Me hate thinking about ads.”

Read this piece by Bob Hoffman, former Chairman/CEO of namesake advertising agency, Hoffman Lewis and host of the popular trade blog, The Ad Contrarian. In the story, Bob laments how advertisers insist all their communications “close the gap” between them and the consumer. He writes: “We are always trying to force-feed a conclusion on consumers, when having the consumer draw her own conclusion would be a lot more effective.”

I could not agree more with Bob’s observation and lamentation. He is not just more or less correct. He is profoundly on the money. With few exceptions, the typical client has little or no patience for marketing communications that let a consumer draw his or her own conclusions. The typical left-brain MBA will not accept the notion, quoting Bob again, “that if a person is left to fill in the final gap, there will be a much greater chance that something will be learned rather than just heard.”

Even in the digital/social age, where we have supposedly learned that it’s all about the conversation, most marketers default to didactic messaging like mice to cheese. It’s almost like they can’t help it. As human beings they must know attraction works better than promotion. But the left-brain is just too powerful. Tell them it’s faster or cheaper, it says. Give them feeds. Give them speeds. Always be closing!

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No category is exempt, including the most modern businesses on earth. In many respects, B2B technology clients are even more culpable than classic advertisers. After all, this is where the suspect term “demand generation” comes from. From generating leads to downloading white papers, no group of advertisers has plumbed the marketing funnel like our friends in technology. They have proof that it works. If you serve enough ads to exactly the right people you will get click through.

But what they do not know is how lucrative an intuitive argument might be. Alas, the fear that people won’t pay attention is a crippling one. The voice of fear goes something like this: “People don’t know who we are or what we do. They don’t have time to learn. They only want solutions.” Or: “We don’t have the time or budget to tell a story. People need to get the message in three seconds or less.” Time and money. Always that. Yet, in a very real way they are also saying people hate ads so let’s just hook who we can and go home.

The great irony is these are the same folks who admire Apple’s ingenious campaigns and refer to them constantly. I can’t tell you how many first meetings I’ve been in where we’ve all marveled at this work together… then several weeks later we’re putting a CTA in a postage stamp sized banner. Like that’s going to make a difference.

We’re are not selling tacos to stoners. Technology companies are about important, innovative and complicated things. The people that buy these things are (presumably) some of the smartest people on earth. They think differently. Should not marketing to them be equally compelling?

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This is not a tirade about clients who don’t get it. When it comes to maintaining the status quo we are all complicit. Yes, we show big ideas. Often we even sell them. Then the fear creeps in. From them, it starts as a comment. “We love the idea but the message needs to be clearer.” Grows into a concern. An issue. Soon apathy for the idea blooms like algae.

Sound familiar?

Desperately, we tweak the work. Then we make changes. Death by a thousand cuts. Or, exasperated, we finally give up and look for a new idea that closes the gap: an equation with a lower common denominator. Creative algebra for the demand generation.

As an epilogue the agency and client agree that the big idea will come later. Next time. After we get our footing. Make our nut. Relationships are tricky and precious and as everyone in Adland knows without them there can be no next time.

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