Monday, November 28, 2005

Nothing says it's the holidays like a woman being trampled and losing her wig.

Looks like we've once again kicked off egg nog season with a crazed stampede for $79 TV/DVD combos and $375 laptop computers. (Actual prices and products may vary.)

Black Friday has always been a bit manic and demented, but it definitely took a turn for the worse this year. Maybe it was that woman on the floor struggling to reposition her wig. Perhaps it was the man getting kicked in the nads in the parking lot. Whatever the case, the scenes that most sane people saw on the news weren't exactly festive.

Fair or not, Wal-Mart seems to be getting the worst PR out of the day. I'm sure it won't affect their holiday sales, but it's becoming clear that at some point their lowest common denominator approach will start to hurt them. Their move to offer different products on their web site indicates they might be thinking the same thing.

The whole thing makes me happy there's still an outfit like Shatto elevating something as basic as milk.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The truth works.

Last week, I walked past the window of a Huntington Bank (OOPS. LET'S GIVE CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE. IT WAS CHARTER ONE.) branch. There, tucked away in relative anonymity on the glass, was a line that read, "Realistically, you're probably never going to love your bank. But we're working hard on a long, extended like."

I'm probably paraphrasing – the actual line might have been crafted better. What struck me, someone who finds himself more and more resistant to advertising even as I work to create it, was the way this simple little line was so winning. It wasn't in some massive four billion point font either. In fact, the innocuous location on the window probably meant that either the folks in corporate marketing or this local branch were reluctant to embrace it.

Reading this little line led me to think about the rush by many marketers to what the industry has often referred to as stunts. Now, I certainly don't think that all of these stunts are a waste. There are plenty of them that I've loved – the soccer players on the side of skyscrapers for Adidas and Burger King's subservient chicken spring to mind – and I generally admire the agencies that have created such clutter-busting, buzz-making work.

I'm just not sure how deep these efforts go. Beyond the initial awareness they create, do these investments – usually quite significant – forge deep connections between people and brands? Or, more precisely, do they work as well as a simple, quiet statement of truth?

In our personal interactions, we're usually more inclined to seek out lasting connections with those who offer a certain blunt honesty. In fact, a self-deprecating nature – albeit one that stops short of self-loathing – is something most of us appreciate. For instance, we are less likely to engage the sort who arrives at a party in, oh, I don't know, johdpurs and a top hat because theyr'e c-c-c-crazy, than the person who is simply an interesting, straightforward, skillful conversationalist.

Of course, one great stunt that gains coverage across all kinds of media does have real value. It will create awareness among millions of people. The little headline on the window of that local bank branch will never do that. But if marketers were to invest time, money and energy in creating millions of honest, transparent connections with their customers, I think they would enjoy handsome returns.

Naturally, if money was no object, I'd still probably recommend a few stunts along the way. But considering today's marketing-resistant consumer, a relentless commitment to truthful communications might be the most intrusive approach available.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Your free gift is in the mail.

One of our clients is Buday's – a home electronics company that designs and installs fabulous home theaters and multi-room audio, along with lighting and shade controls. They take a very individual, personal approach to every project and are pretty much the complete polar opposite of, say, Best Buy. When they install a home theater or a new audio system, you can actually use the damn thing. Heck, even my in-laws can figure out how to use my system.

Recently, they wanted to send a smart direct mail piece to a very select number – 25 – of prospective clients. We wanted to mail something that people would not only have a hard time throwing out, but actually feel good about receiving. So 25 people will be receiving a DVD that's family-friendly but not adult-annoying – The Incredibles.

Since it is direct mail, we did want to prompt a response. Ergo, we removed the bonus DVD and replaced it with a call to action. (Sheesh. That sounds like a Folger's commercial.) To receive the bonus DVD, people only have to call Buday's for a low-pressure conversation about home theater. If they don't want to call, they still get a DVD for their collection. And Buday's won't bug them with a bunch of phone calls.

The principle is one that people talk about a lot in the 2.0 Web world – the more you give, the more you get back. Here's hoping the 25 people who get the DVD don't ruin that theory.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Amy Alexander doesn't like blogs. I don't like her reasons.

Driving back from Ann Arbor last evening, I found myself listening to Amy Alexander on NPR complaining – or, more accurately, bitching and moaning – about blogs. As traditional media types have done with alarming frequency these days, her points reveal ignorance and a closed mind.

(Here's the link to the place on NPR's site where you can listen to the piece. For some reason, NPR only offers Real Player and Windows Media options. Hope you can make it work.)

First, Ms. Alexander categorizes blogs as web sites that, "...people use as a diary or to advocate a political viewpoint." Sure, that's what a lot of blogs were three years ago, Amy, but I think it's pretty clear they've evolved beyond that. Tired stuff, that one. Does she really think that Ad Pulp , Design Sponge , Micropersuasion , John Battelle and, yes, The Curling News are pushing political agendas?

She talks about the problem with the lack of editors for blogs. I believe in editors and filters as much as anyone, but I also believe in the intelligence of consumers. I don't think people are suddenly casting off all other news gathering vehicles and substituting only blog information. Blogs are not about replacing other media – they're about adding new voices and providing a way for people around the world to share opinions. Of course, the traditional news media wouldn't seem so vulnerable if they hadn't let people like Judith Miller, Jayson Blair and Bob Novak sully their reputations so completely.

Amy says bloggers write about minutiae she doesn't care about. Hey, here's a thought, Amy. If you don't like what's on a blog, don't read the damn thing. I don't waste my time with useless blogs and neither should you.

Of course, then Amy does admit to to reading a few blogs. And isn't that the point? If we all gain a few new sources of information or entertainment, I think we might just arrive at a better understanding of each other.

Fact is, Amy is so damn close to her insider world of news media that she misses the point of blog discourse completely. Their role as a news source is one small aspect. Their instant publishing nature creates opportunities in conversation, connectivity and transparent commerce.

Finally, Amy ends her rant by saying that she is troubled by the proliferation of blogs, mainly because she wonders why anyone would want to write for free. That's when the true reason Ms. Alexander doesn't like blogs hit me.

She's too damn lazy to write one.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Kalamazoo Promise. Big money does something big.

The town that our company calls home did something big yesterday.

The Kalamazoo School Board revealed that a group of anonymous donors had stepped forward to offer the payment of college tuition at a Michigan university to the city's high school graduates. That's every graduate – not just one class.

There are sliding scales and so forth, but if your child went to Kalamazoo schools from kindergarten to 12th grade, they'll pick up 100% of the tab at a college in this state. The least they'll pay is 65%. You can get the details from The Kalamazoo Gazette.

I love it when I see big money do something dramatic. And so far, officials are completely tight-lipped about who is behind this thing. Fascinating.

At least our corner of Michigan is proving to be a lot more progressive than most people would ever guess.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Advertising award show season is underway.

Well, it's every old school ad-type's most critical time of the year.

Award show entry season.

Just to be fair, I will say that I believe there are some award shows that remain credible, progressive and ethical. They are:

1)The One Show.
2)Communications Arts Advertising, Design and Interactive Show Annuals.

That's it. Two shows that aren't the self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing embarrassments that color every other advertising festival of ass-kissing and boot-licking. And even these shows are far from perfect.

The first direct mail plea to cough up entry fee money arrived in my mailbox from The Telly Awards. It's a dreadful show with zero credibility – Tellys are most famous for their prominent display in the offices of production houses that still shoot with Betacams. I love the quotes from past Telly winners – revealing anecdotes include this from one Marcus Grandon of Grand Marquee Productions, "Winning has really helped the business...Our customers like to tell people that they are working with an award-winning production company."

Oh, Marcus. I think we've all seen "award-winning" used to prop up everything from HMO's to laser hemorrhoid removal. Surely anyone involved in modern communications realizes the value of the term burned out long ago.

When I reviewed the mailer from the Telly's, it revealed at least 149 different award categories. There may be more – it's just too much for my mathematically-challenged brain to accurately calculate. Visit the site to check out last year's list of winners – not to see who won, but just how many different people and companies claimed some sort of prize. The number of silver statues this show dishes out is extraordinary.

My real problem with all these crap award shows is the way they make communications professionals look like a bunch of insecure school girls desperate to win approval from someone. Anybody! Something!

Let's grow up. This year, no agency is allowed to enter more than three shows and bonus credibility points are awarded to the agencies that choose to enter just one. What's more, no agency is allowed to enter more than 10 pieces. No throwing 500 entries in the mix so your agency can walk away with 80 Silver somethings at the local show in Des Moines.

This year, let's show people in other businesses that we're not as shallow and self-serving as they think we are.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Whole Foods blogs.

Whole Foods is one of those companies that helped convince me customer dialogue is infinitely more valuable than traditional advertising. Sure, they have the advantage of retail locations, but they've never advertised and have built their brand on millions of relationships. You have to be relentless to make it work – they have been.

Now, of course, their CEO is blogging. No surprise. Whole Foods gets it.

Their blog, however, could use some help. Right now, it feels a bit like a reading list from a political science class I had in sophomore year. Yes, socio-economic rationale is an essential part of their brand DNA, but a little lighter touch might not be a bad idea.

Of course, blogs can evolve and improve without burning through a bunch of money and resources. Unlike that half-million dollar commercial that, even after countless edits and re-edits, remains a stinker that nobody notices.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Our newest podcast.

Our micro media empire continues to grow. This week, we launched The Snowboard Show, sponsored by Sideways People (one of our clients). Of course, it's in the iTunes Music Store podcast directory – just search "snowboard."

It's another interview show that we think will be a great tool for reaching snowboard enthusiasts. Not to mention an ideal environment for any advertiser trying to reach those elusive males in the 18-25 demographic.

Busted models.

Some amazing numbers from Jeff Jarvis at Buzz Machine on video and podcast downloads from Apple's iTunes Music Store.

One million videos sold in 19 days.

Four million podcast subscriptions to shows from National Public Radio.

(There seems to be some question about whether it is podcast downloads or subscriptions. I don't know if it really matters – most people will subscribe to download a single podcast. They can always unsubscribe later.)

Jarvis goes on to mention how demand for Diggnation video content quickly outpaced the demand for audio content. One of his points is that demand for online video is enormous – and he's absolutely right. The reason podcasts will persist, however, is that the cost to produce good audio content is so much less than video. It will be easier for inexpensive but original audio content to flourish.

But back to online video. I think the appearance of television show downloads on The Music Store was one of those seminal moments that most people will truly appreciate about a year from now. It's Napster-ish big. The business model of every network was already in transition – now it's imploded. Network execs are pacing the halls of their Bel-Air homes in the wee hours of the morning. They break into a sweat whenever they go past a Starbucks with WiFi that's packed with people at midnight.

Now people can download the shows they want to watch. Sure, ABC/Disney hopped right on it. They were happy to have people willing to pay $1.99 to see hot women get worked up in suburbia. More revenue is always a good thing. The problem is that while there's an audience that is happy to pay for Desperate Housewives and Lost – the two most popular ABC shows – how many people will download Freddie?

The pacing continues. Sleep remains elusive. The old model is busted.

Here's my thought. Maybe the networks start to use their big old broadcast technology as a way to basically advertise shows. Initially, shows run for free on the airwaves. The aim is then to convert people to paying for downloads of anything that's decent. Networks could launch shows on broadcast, then take them off the air and start offering them for a fee online. Or continue to offer them on regular broadcast with the downloads offering the advantages of time-shifting. Everything would be a pilot. The real revenue would happen when a show reached the popularity tipping point and people were willing to pay to watch it.

There is one thing I don't have figured out in this new model.


Not to worry. I'm sure Google will figure something out.