Friday, July 29, 2005

Would you invest in this business?

Imagine you're pitching an idea for a business to a group of venture capitalists. This is your basic pitch.

People ask us to make things. We make a number of different things in the hope that one of these things will be the precise thing they want. If it is, they'll continue to pay us to make things for them. Except that the other things won't be the same. They'll be similar, perhaps, but they will have to be different. There might be some efficiencies gained from the previous things we made, but they'll be marginal. Of course, we'll also have to maintain a vast array of resources that most of our clients will use only on an intermittent basis. In fact, many of our clients will use only a very small amount of our resources. Our fundamental business involves constantly making new things that our clients will expect to be original and exciting. In order to succeed, we'll have to do this over and over and over again. Oh, and we'll have to regularly upsell our clients on the value of those aforementioned resources.

Yes, you're pitching the standard advertising agency business model. And by the end of your pitch, you're speaking to a very empty, very quiet, very lonely room.

There's been no shortage of talk about the ad agency business model in the last few years. Still, I'm amazed by the slow pace of change. As the media landscape has shifted, the agency model has proven intractable. Agencies continue to work towards success through the basic model — working diligently, I might add. Fact is, there are many extremely smart agency people working very hard to succeed with a fundamentally flawed business model. Of course, clients who continue to shift accounts from one holding company agency to another holding company agency don't exactly force the issue either.

But I think business realities are going to force the next generation of shop to emerge. I'm sure you'll be shocked to hear it's hardly an agency and a bit like our startup. Seriously, I think agencies have to morph into being companies that create interesting stuff — harnessing the power of the talented people who work for them to produce films, web content, books and whatever else they can dream up. Including, on occasion, advertising. Sometimes it will be on behalf of existing clients and sometimes it will be speculative. Media buying arms will be the distributors and separate entities.

The venture capitalists still might not like this kind of creative enterprise — they tend to like widgets and software and anything with the prefix bio. But I think at least a few of them would stick around and listen.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Ads with boobs. Heh, heh, heh.

I've run afoul of the political correctness police a few times myself, so I'm hardly a candidate to become indignant when an ad displays
a woman's ample cleavage. (In the interest of being balanced, the link to the ad is over at Adrants, where they have a perspective that's different than mine.)

New York's Advertising Week, an event I've already weighed in on, has many worked into a lather with the print effort that promotes the festivities. It seems to be based on the old chestnut that sex sells — even when it's an industry most people have decided is clueless.

Fact is, it's not the sexist nature that I find disappointing. It's the turd-like qualities of the ad that are so disheartening. This seems like a student idea straight out of Creative 101 at the School of Visual Arts — it hardly provides an especially compelling reason for someone to advertise. Worse, I can practically hear the fossilized creaive executives at DDB as they reviewed the idea.

"So it's this photo of a woman with a really great rack, right? And she's undone an extra button, right? And then it says: Advertising. We all do it."

"Oh, man, that's great. And it's gonna be a really hot babe, right?"

"Oh, yeah. She's gotta be really hot."

This would be followed by much discussion about that woman from the soda commercial they shot back in '85. You remember, that totally hot one.

The ad was the work of DDB, the same massive agency that is relaunching — relaunching! — Subaru by using "Dust in the Wind" as the track in spots for the new Tribeca.

Finally, let me be clear about something so I don't get lumped in with morals and values types. If you hang around me long enough, you'll soon realize I'm not light on the profanity or short of testosterone-fueled thoughts that occasionally spill out as inappropriate comments. But at a time when our industry is desperately seeking credibility, this ad makes us look ridiculous. Like a bunch of clowns, really.

It seems the advertising industry is actually like many brands right now. We'd probably be better off if we didn't advertise at all.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Roald Dahl and Target Audiences.

With Charlie and the Chocolate Factory released, last week's New Yorker had a piece that sought to explain why author Roald Dahl is revered by children but loathed by adults. To me, it's more proof that the best products rarely have mass appeal. Success lies in reaching or creating an audience of enthusiasts.

It's a simple, often forgotten concept that's true of nearly everything from automobiles to people. When was the last time you respected a person who never did anything that someone else might not like?

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Andy Rooney made us do it.

I'm not a regular viewer of 60 Minutes, but like any American I have watched it from time to time. One segment from the show has stuck in my head for years.

It was back in the early 1990s. I was living in New York, fresh out of college and just starting to make my way into advertising as a copywriter. I was completely enamored with advertising and especially agency creative departments. Getting paid to be a bit of a smartass. No dress codes. Beer!

So there I was, watching 60 Minutes because the internet didn't really exist yet. And curmudgeonly Andy Rooney started talking. I should add that I've never been an especially big Andy Rooney fan — the grumpy old man bit wears a little thin. But, on this particular evening, he was talking about television commercials. More specifically, he was commenting on the fact that he found so many commercials incredibly clever. Smart. Witty.

Yes, I thought, those are exactly the things I want to create. Clever, smart, witty commercials.

But then he wondered aloud why people who were smart enough to make these clever commercials were content to spend their life making, ah, commercials.

"Ah, you grumpy old coot!" I said to Andy Rooney.

He went on. He believed that the creative people who make these commercials should use their talents to make things that are more lasting. Basically, things that would stick around in places besides dusty awards show annuals. Make something, he implored. Go out and make something people can use more than another commercial.

Since I was spending 90% of my waking hours trying to break into advertising, I tried to push Andy Rooney's thoughts out of my mind. But I could not.

For years, Andy Rooney has haunted me every time I worked on the fifth revision to a commercial that was on a fast track to mediocrity. I've heard his voice every time I've worked with a client who I truly admired because they were getting up every day and creating things that people might actually want to buy — beer, snowboards, cereal. And I am certain that I have actually seen Andy Rooney as I sat staring through a focus group window.

Damn you, Andy Rooney.

This year, here at Black Lab Five, we decided to do something about this problem. We wanted to design something and get it made. Naturally, it's our own line of steel furniture. Steel furniture and advertising being so closely related.

Whatever the case, we're getting things made. The pieces are designed by Kent Elliott, our Creative Director.

The brand is Local 59 . (Regular blog readers may have already visited the beta site. Thanks for the input.) Right now, we're selling a desk/table in two different sizes. We plan to introduce more pieces in the coming months. We're also selling T-shirts along with our furniture.

We're sure many people will dislike our furniture and, probably, our T-shirt. But we believe that products that succeed generate polarity of opinion. Otherwise, you're just average.

And even if nobody but us likes the thinking behind Local 59 , I'm still happy we've taken the plunge. At least I won't have Andy Rooney's voice in my head anymore.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Pile & Company Process the Usual Pile of ____.

So I hear that L.L. Bean is having an agency review after deciding to part ways with Martin/Williams. With the full understanding that inviting our firm to pitch the account would be about as likely as Dick Cheney joining the Democrats, I decide to send an email to L.L. Bean in the hope it might find its way to a sympathetic individual. This is what the email said:


Another ad agency, by the very nature of its business model, will be a lot like your last agency. Not necessarily bad, but not especially great either.

The challenges in modern communications are bigger than Martin-Williams. Or another agency creation of WPP or Omnicom or Interpublic.

The problem is that consumers are seeking dialogue and agencies are providing advertising.

I know. I worked at multi-national agencies in New York as a copywriter. I was the creative director and a partner at an agency here in Michigan.

Today, I run a company that does a lot more than advertising — podcasts, blogs, catalogs, uniforms. Sure, we do advertising, but we only do it when it's going to be effective. Our focus is on enthusiast marketing — snow and skate, craft beer, acoustic guitars are a few of our accounts. We believe that it requires different tactics and tone to reach people who are passionate about something.

What's more, since we've always felt that advertising people typically fail to understand the challenges of running a business that has to sell products, we're launching our own line of steel furniture next week.

Fact is, I think most clients don't need one agency anymore. Marketing departments are now run by thinkers who can form strategies and lead execution. They would be well-served by choosing the right partners according to the demands of each project.

I realize these are all probably points you've considered in the past and that you may have good reasons for ignoring all of them. But L.L. Bean is a company I've always admired and I decided to send along my thoughts.

I hope you'll read my blog and visit our web site — they're in my email signature. And while it would be a giant leap to go from an Omnicom shop to pursuing creative projects with an independent in the Midwest, I hope you'll call to talk about it.


Dean Gemmell
President, Black Lab Five

I wrote the note in five minutes. I didn't give it another thought until a few days later, when I received a voice mail message from the very sweet and polite Nadira Vallee at Pile & Company, the consultant handling the review process for L.L. Bean.

Poor woman. She was surely annoyed that she was forced to follow up after someone at Bean had forwarded my email, yet she maintained her impeccably professional demeanor. After some phone tag, we connected. As I said, she is a lovely and polite woman.

She reviewed the the criteria for agencies (full-service, integrated, global, all-knowing) that Pile & Company — pile is a rather unfortunate noun in a company name, isn't it? — had established with L.L. Bean. Of course, our agency failed to measure up and we were quickly dispatched. She was, however, willing to engage in some spirited discussion about what L.L. Bean really needed.

"You see," I said, "I think Martin-Williams is a fine agency. I think Mullen before them is a fine agency that did plenty of fine ads. So it seems to me that L.L. Bean may not really need an ad agency that makes money by producing lots of ads. Perhaps instead of herding together another flock of agencies (Crispin! Get Crispin in this thing, dammit!) to pitch the business, you should talk to your client about handling their business in a different way. Maybe they're just not right for an agency relationship."

Nadira, who I must stress once again was most lovely and polite, responded to my volley with the usual talk of integration needs and scope and so forth. Then she invited me to add our agency to their agency directory called Agency Compile . Which, of course, I was unable to do because I refuse to use Internet Explorer and wondered how a search firm in an industry dominated by Apple could insist on IE compatibility for a site. After some back and forth with their webmaster, he added us to their directory himself but the site would not allow me edit our profile. (Even in Firefox, I might add. I also noticed that Pile offered premium directory status for a, ahem, stipend. I noticed this fact, of course, after polite Nadira's talk about the rich tradition of ethics and integrity at Pile.)

At this point, it seemed best to cut my losses. I asked to be removed from the directory.

So here's my beef. And yes, I realize it's been a long journey to arrive at it. If L.L. Bean motors through two above average agencies, would it not be wise for a review consultant to suggest a different approach? The agency model is quite effective for many marketers, but old L.L. may not be among them. I'm quite sure their marketing department could handle working with several shops on different projects to reach their many different — hikers, skiers, canoeists, suburban Moms who go for walks — demographic groups. What's more, they're a catalog company that sends me a big, multi-page ad called the L.L. Bean catalog at least once a month. Will another series of ads from another ad agency be the solution? Sweet Nadira even mentioned that an invited agency would need direct mail capabilities. Please, lead me to the agency that will show America's venerable catalog retailer how to do direct mail.

I think someone should measure the length of client-agency relationships created by the various search firms. And the sales/share results that were produced. I doubt search firms produce tenures that are any better than clients who proceed without them.

Even worse, they're simply recycling the age-old "new agency" solution. Galling, when companies like Bean, with moderate marketing budgets and diverse audiences, need new thinking on communication partners.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Why we love to blow stuff up.

I've always found it interesting how the celebration of our independence has fueled a rich, time-honored tradition of blowing stuff up.

Not just on one day, but for days preceding the 4th and for days following the 4th. For a few days, it also becomes perfectly acceptable to allow your toddler to wander around with a crackling, flaming stick among other toddlers with crackling, flaming sticks. The tradition of fireworks is an incredible marketing success story and proof that it's content that really matters. There's no need for image advertising that aims to convince people that fireworks are cool — you just have to blow the damn things up.

Interestingly, it seems that even our national space program is not strong enough to resist the attraction of blowing stuff up. Hmm. Somehow, blowing up rocks in space seems miles away from the heady ideals of JFK and planetary exploration. But again, it's pretty cool to blow stuff up.

For an interesting take on NASA's rock blasting, podcasting and a few other topics, visit Amanda Congdon over at Rocketboom .