My office: Me, Bo and the Internet

Last year at this time I wrote about Martin Luther King’s inspiring Letters from a Birmingham Jail. It’s an amazing piece of writing (his not mine) and on this day, when we celebrate what would have been his 82nd birthday, I urge you to read it or his famous “I have a Dream” speech. Despite all evil in the world, we are better because Dr. King was in it.

But it made me think…the line between hater and follower is razor thin isn’t it? Look at the craziness surrounding the tragedy in Tucson. Gun sights on Palin’s blog! Dark postings from the shooter! The finger pointing online is as reckless and hate-filled as that assassin’s gun. Yet, however uncivil, it is the “conversation” we are having. It is representative of how we think and feel. Therefore it is valid.

That is the blessing and curse of social media. As a writer and creative professional, it is the reality I chose to embrace, as much from necessity as desire. To do our job, one needs to be versed in the good, the bad and the ugly of the Internet. And that includes vitriolic blogs. When I left my job last week the trade tabloid, Agency Spy posted about it. As of this writing it has engendered over 60 comments, which I have not read. Needless to say, I’m guessing they are not voting me into the Advertising Hall of Fame. Sometimes being part of the so-called conversation means getting your ass handed to you.

Popular culture is vulgar and wonderful at the same time. (Have you played Left 4 Dead?) Advertising has always been a reflection of that. In turn our creative ideas shape popular culture, taking it in wonderful and vulgar directions. Often simultaneously. As we move from mass media into more personal territory, the distinction between what is inspired and what is cruel, stupid and downright creepy blurs even further. Last year, Diesel won a Grand Prix in Cannes for its Be Stupid campaign from Anomaly of New York, work that championed bad behavior in the name of self expression. I found the ads vulgar and wonderful at the same time. Didn’t you? Is that, then, the current definition of brilliant? It was rewarded as such.

I rest my case.

Such questions are a cornerstone of this blog. And I hope it is with this same inquisitiveness that I create and/or look at work, deciding what to make and how far to push it.

Ideas begin crude. Refining them is our craft. Lately, however, the refining process has altered. Instead of polishing words and pictures we keep in some of the crude. We think it honest. In this way our craft is reflecting a self-disclosing popular culture. Crude is real. It also happens to be promotional (Whopper Sacrifice) and direct (Be Stupid). Ironic for all our digital savvy how blunt we’ve become…again. Fifty years ago we said let the buyer beware. Now we say let the consumer decide. I say what’s the difference? What goes around comes around, right? Damn right it does.

Let’s do the naughty ones first!

This time of year everyone is making lists: Who’s in and out? What’s hot and not? Winning and losing streaks. Brett Favre. Pop culture is a Petri dish of lists. Given that it’s December, let’s start with the penultimate list: who’s naughty or nice? Forget Santa, it is we who gush over this list. That most of us want to be on the nice list is a given. But yet we are obsessed by the naughty list, aren’t we? For without the naughty there is no line for which to measure the nice.

Judging from all the visitors and comments on my last post I should be making lists 24/7. There I chose my top advertising campaign for 2010: Leo Burnett’s “Mayhem” campaign for Allstate. Many of you liked the choice. Some of you didn’t. It’s terrific work and I stand by it. The point I’d like to make here is that by making a choice I was being provocative. And provocation is part of a writer’s job, is it not?

I’m pretty sure some aspect of list-mania is thriving in most ad copy. If it isn’t the ad probably sucks. I’m damn sure the dynamic is driving social media. Brands covet “followers” and “fans.” They want “likes” and as many as they can get. What is crowd sourcing if it’s not a compilation of choices? And is not Groupon the quintessential aggregator? Mom’s shopping list has been conceptualized and monetized. What about dad’s to-do list? Or junior’s wish list? Herein lies the opportunity.

Entities like Twitter and Groupon do it with aplomb. Advertisers are getting there. Crispin’s “Whopper Sacrifice” for Burger King is a great example: List ten friends you would ding from your Facebook and get a sandwich. There’s no coupon. Nor were they trying to build the brand. “Whopper Sacrifice” provoked people by allowing them to make a naughty list. That’s it.

Bubbling beneath the surface of their infamous Dominoes “Oh yes we did” campaign is a provocation to consumers to list what they hated about bad pizza. That drama is what fires the campaign. Without it the company would just be defending its crappy pizza.

Maybe that’s the big truth about SO-ME. Lists, for lack of a better word, fire us up. Therefore, the big question for all of us in marketing communications is how do we harness this human desire to ‘list’ in order to provoke consumers on behalf of our clients?

We Heart Advertising!

A version of the following recently ran in AdAge. I was very pleased 🙂

In the olden days enduring a sweep of commercials in order to receive free TV seemed like a fair deal. Some of us even liked the commercials, or loved to hate them anyway. Either way, we were acutely aware of advertising and easily motivated to consume. I remember my mother actually bought Vogue magazine for all the ads it contained.

It doesn’t work like that anymore. The Internet age and the subsequent customization of everything have changed our world forever. And people don’t have to endure anything but their mother-in-law.

The profound problem with online advertising is that in a search driven world, the advertiser’s target is totally accustomed to navigating through sites to get to what he or she is looking for. No matter what age or demographic, we all learned to use the Internet by navigating it. Therefore, online advertising –be it banners or anything with a ‘close’ box- are all merely hurdles to be navigated.

This may seem like 101 type stuff to many of you but it bears repeating: No medium was designed so thoroughly around its user than the Internet. Radio, TV and print are all projector mediums, meaning an active participant created content so a passive one could receive it.

While such a paradigm certainly exists online, the reality is people are “attached” to whatever it is they do online in ways those other mediums can’t touch. Therefore, not only is online advertising completely annoying to the user it is also completely avoidable. All he has to do is follow his new best friend, Skip, as in “skip intro.”

So what’s an advertiser to do? Experts agree the solution is one of two things, likely a combination: offer financial incentives or entertainment too irresistible to avoid. There is ample evidence this works.

But, dare I ask, is the Internet ultimately advertising proof? What if the end game is simply that small screens –be they laptop, desktop or mobile- just don’t support advertising very well, and in fact, never will? And is it possible early online marketing success stories were false positives? I’m not just talking about the hot button cases like “Whopper Sacrifice” and “Subservient Chicken.” I’m referring to all of them, every “fan,” every “like” and every “follower.” Likewise, all those views on You Tube. Especially all those views on You Tube. What if none of it makes a bit of difference at the cash register? There is evidence to support this view.

That would suck for us ad folks, wouldn’t it?

On the other hand go back to the criteria I listed for successful online marketing: financial incentives and/or irresistible entertainment. Are these not the same two options that constitute all successful advertising from the lowliest bench ad to glossy Super Bowl commercial?

I do think, however, extreme utility (Amazon) and customer service (Zappos) usurp the vast majority of online marketing shenanigans. At least that’s how it works for me, when I’m in a buying mood.

This summer I attended the Hyper Island Master Class (digital training for creative professionals). There, I learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t in terms of online marketing. “Useful,” stated Saatchi creative director and class presenter, Tim Leake “will be the new cool.” I completely agree.

Bob Hoffman, The CEO of Hoffman/ Lewis recently wrote an essay on the “fantasy” that people like talking to brands. My favorite line: “Most days, your sensible consumer doesn’t have the time, patience, or inclination to have a conversation with her husband. Why in the world would she want to have a conversation with (a brand)?”

Clearly, the modern creative will have to respect utility as much as high concept. Back when, the best creative ideas needed to sell as well as they amused. We now call the combination “engagement.” Apparently, the old cliché still applies: the more things change the more they stay the same. Sort of.

What if, however, people became desirous of advertising? Like my mother buying Vogue for the ads, what if consumers made it a point to seek out advertising and even share it with their friends? My agency’s celebrated office in Paris, BETC created a film for Evian, Water Babies that quickly became the most downloaded commercial ever –over 135 million views at last count! What this means at the cash register I don’t know but it sure as hell couldn’t have hurt! Still, that’s an exception. What I’m talking about is a cultural sea change whereby we all come to look forward to and even embrace marketing messages. Is it possible? It better be.

This past summer the Antwerp Zoo in Belgium created a social media campaign in anticipation of the birth of a new elephant. For the 8-month gestation period of this Asian elephant the people of Belgium were riveted to their computer screens and, ultimately, the zoo. That’s eight months of elephant-sized marketing to a captivated nation, and all of it in real time. No other media could have accomplished this, not for all the Euros in Europe.

In a free marketplace one inevitably has to advertise. The fear of being left behind is too strong. In many ways the Internet makes advertisers downright paranoid. With attention spans diminishing as everyone chews through content, a brand could wake up irrelevant. Whether this app or that online game actually generates sales is a conversation for the sidelines. Advertisers clamor for the new, new thing and we agencies, vendors and the like scramble to deliver it.