Saturday, November 18, 2006

L.L. Bean, Pile & Company called out by AdPulp.

It always boosts the ego to be called prescient, so it was nice to see Danny over at AdPulp recall my comments about L.L. Bean's last agency review. It seems that after just 14 months, following a review that was an exercise in futility, they've dropped relentlessly bland JWT as their agency of record.

Of course, the biggest culprit in the whole maroon was Pile & Company who, I'm quite sure, has probably conducted countless equally useless agency reviews since they led the folks from Maine to JWT. And certainly collected handsome fees along the way.

Since my previous entry about the L.L. Bean/Pile & Co. review was from July 12, 2005 and is deep in the blog archive, I've posted it again below. Enjoy.

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.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Sheesh. It's been a while.

My blogging has dropped of the edge of the earth as of late. I do, however, have good cause.

As some may know, I've recently moved to Short Hills, New Jersey. My wife has a job that is based in Manhattan and getting on a plane every week was becoming old. Even tougher now without the hair gel and the lotions.

Anyway, Kent Elliott and Kyle Maurer are still based in Kalamazoo and leading Black Lab Five. I'll continue working closely with them on Black Lab Five efforts and Local 59. I'll also get back to contributing on this blog.

That's it for now. More after I unpack the last boxes.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Airport insecurity in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

So here I am, sitting at the Grand Rapids Airport waiting for my hopelessly delayed flight. They have decent Herman Miller furniture and Wi-Fi so it's not all bad. When I go to sit down at an empty table, however, I notice a fairly substantial digital camera on it.

There is nobody else sitting at the table. The people at the next table don't know anything about the camera. As I ask about it, the airport announcement begins, "Do not leave any belongings an aiport representative or airport police officer immediately."

Now I tend to think we're all wired too tight since 9/11. But this is a large, seemingly valuable digital camera. And if it had two weeks of vacation photos stored on it, would someone not be rushing back for it?

I sit down at another table and look for one of those airport police officers. I spot one deep in the food court and, yes, he's working on a coffee. Donut as well, I'm sure, but I can't confirm from my vantage point.

The officer is stretching. Smiling. Talking. Quite an animated conversationalist, actually, for a law enforcement sort. I consider wading into the food court to tell him about the solitary camera, but I'm set up with my laptop out and a carry-on bag. Since I'm alone, I'm not crazy about packing it all up. Surely, I think, he'll be out and about in a minute.

Several minutes pass. All kinds of scenarios start to flood my brain, none of them featuring happy endings full of smiling, contented airline passengers. Finally, I flag a passing TSA employee and point out the camera. Eyebrow arched, he seems genuinely surprised. He asks other passengers about it and then moves toward the airport police officer in the food court.

The TSA guy tells the cop about the camera. I see the cop mouth, "Really? Where?"

I watch, expecting to see him spring into action with great alacrity. He looks down at his watch. Then, barely audible from my fair distance away, I hear him say, "I'll pick it up in a minute."

What the...?

I know this is Grand Rapids, Michigan. It's not New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. And I don't think we should all turn into paranoid freaks, even if the government seems intent on using those RED and ORANGE alerts to make that happen. (Funny how those disappeared so quickly after the last elections, isn't it?) But if we're going to blow through billions of tax dollars on Homeland Security, surely we can find a way to light a fire under the butt of an airport cop. Wasn't the bomb on the Pan Am flight hidden in an '80s boom box?

The TSA guy tells me the chatty food court cop is now aware of the camera, then sees another passing airport officer. When he tells her, she picks up the camera and takes it somewhere. Probably to a Lost-and-Found shelf outside the men's room.

Eventually, the food court cop departs from his location under the TCBY Treats sign. The camera has been gone for at least ten minutes. He scans the tables, wondering what happened to that camera.

I work mightily to resist my urge to head butt him, World Cup-style.

I do. Barely.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Ask a dumbass.

Irene Done over at Not Billable points us to some, yes, expert advice from Steve Strauss in USA Today.

When a newspaper has a guy like this wasting ink and trees, it really makes the hue and cry about the veracity of blogs questionable. No, I'm not about to defend commission-based media billing (and before Mr. Strauss says, "Gotcha, you're an agency guy," let me note that our agency doesn't use commission-based media billing), but this guy is completely out to lunch about how things really work. Volume is just one of countless questions he ignores. Pity poor Carlos in California who is know knee deep in the launch of his "ad agency" to support his – sandwich shop? paint store? tool and die shop? – business.

Yes, the ad agency business and its billing practices are pretty screwed up. But this solution for small businesses makes about as much as sense as General Motors hiring me to be their next CEO.

USA Today should be embarrassed. The smug photo of this Strauss fellow. The research that must have included at least three minutes on Google. The advice to designate someone in the office who has, "...the most advertising know-how..." to be, "...the point person."

Who's editing McPaper anyway? Oh, right. They must have just promoted the guy who used to create all the four-color pie charts.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Welcome aboard. Now get out.

Ad Age points out that the average tenure of a Chief Marketing Officer continues to shrink. What I'd like to know is if the amount of years that a CEO hangs on to a job has experienced a similar decline. Somehow, I doubt it.

I think it's more proof that even the smartest marketing people can't help lousy products. Customers simply know too much — you can't expect them to keep buying something that's just average when there are all kinds of choices that are far superior. When a CMO can't touch just about everything, the title may as well be Helpless Little Bunny. And we all know that the typical CEO is unlikely to be the kind of person who is moved to spare a helpless little bunny.

If you're a marketing person considering that dream job, make sure you've got some power to go with that fancy title. Or better yet, get a nice iron-clad contract that ensures you'll be paid a big fat chunk of change when people find out your big brain still can't move the mediocre product. You know, the kind of package that CEOs have.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Folger's. This is for !@#$%^&* Folger's!!!

Wow. Turns out there are still some people in this business with courage.

I don't know if it's right. But I sure love 'em for trying.

Wake up and be happy.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Your brand is not your damn logo.

Especially if you're a service company. Here's a good example.

I spent a couple of weeks in Italy recently. Our flight plans included layovers in Amsterdam. (Schiphol Airport is always an interesting experience in itself. Apparently, somebody mixed up the plans for an airport with some blueprints for a shopping mall. I've actually heard that people in The Netherlands go to Schiphol just to shop. To me, the idea of going to an airport for anything other than the necessity of travel is unfathomable but apparently it goes on.)

During our first layover, we headed to the KLM lounge near our gate. Uber cool. Great furniture, fabulous bar and food area, bathroom fixtures that I'd like in my own home. Interestingly, the lounge color scheme was Deep Red instead of that KLM Royal Blue. It made me feel great to sit there and, for a moment, air travel felt damn near civilized. It made me appreciate KLM for offering such a fabulous respite after six hours in a plane. And while I hardly noticed it at the time, there was nary a KLM logo in sight.

Fast forward to the return trip. Same airport, different lounge. This time, it was of an entirely different ilk. If the lounge from our first layover seemed ripped from the pages of Dwell magazine, this one appeared to be the work of a top designer from Coceascu's Romania. Cheesy seating. Utilitarian restrooms. Drop-panel ceiling.

But that wasn't the worst of it. The KLM logo was plastered everywhere. And that less-than-pleasing Royal Blue stubbornly lodged itself in every sight line. At one time, this was some KLM marketing wonk's idea of branding. Piss off, I thought. I'm trying to gather up some sanity before I embark on nine hours inside a metal tube with four jet engines strapped to it.

The inflight magazine on KLM actually featured a piece on the lounge from our first layover. I don't have a copy to reference names, but the designer of the space had a great point regarding the red color scheme and the lack of logos. I'm paraphrasing, but it was something like this:

"People already know they're in a KLM lounge. We don't to remind them of that fact. We need to make their experience in the lounge a positive one."

The fact of the matter is that my first layover was a positive brand experience. With no logos, no corporate colors and a flagrant disregard for any brand standards guide.

It's a good lesson for all marketers, but especially for companies in service categories like hotels or retail. Slapping a logo everywhere is a crutch for lazy thinkers.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The things we email.

One of my favorite kernels of information is the list of most emailed articles at I'm not about to claim that analyzing the tendencies of the typical Times reader is like getting research straight from Peoria, but this list offers interesting insights nonetheless, especially when it's reviewed on a regular basis. In fact, I think it can help marketers remind themselves that their customers are honest-to-goodness people who are interested in most things for very human reasons.

Here's the list of the most emailed articles right now:

1) Exploring Tuscany's Lost Corner
2) From the 'Dog Whisperer,' a Howl of Triumph
3) For the Families of the Dying, Coaching as the Hours Wane
4) The Dixie Chicks: America Catches Up With Them
5) Clintons Balance Married and Public Lives
6) What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?
7) Expanding on Jefferson
8) Home on the Range: A Corridor for Wildlife
9) Vast Data Cache About Veterans Is Stolen
10) A Desperate Rush to Save a Derby-Winning Colt

And my analysis:

1) We all loathe the thought of spending a vacation in a place that's overrun by other tourists. So cheesy and pedestrian. And no one cares about your stories when you get back because they've already been there. Humans love discovery.
2) Most people really love dogs.
3) We never get used to loss. We all want help or know someone who needs it.
4) Some love 'em. Some hate 'em. Polarizing people do get attention. So do polarizing brands.
5) Some love 'em. Some hate 'em. We're all still fascinated by what they do and how they stay married.
6) Proof that people still read books, love books and want to discuss books. Probably passed around by every member of a neighborhood book club.
7) Not every powerful American celebrity is in Hollywood. Many people are as sick and tired of Paris Hilton as you are.
8) We all want to escape the rat race. Until we actually do. Then we get bored and wonder where all the good restaurants are. Better to just read about it.
9) Identity theft freaks out everyone.
10) Animals have a curious pull on us. Who didn't cry when Old Yeller died?

Friday, May 12, 2006

Reposition this.

It looks like domestic crap beer makers are once again touting the repositioning of their brands. Gosh, there's nothing I like quite as much as a good old beer brand reposition. For the big brewers, this is an annual event. It's a wonder there isn't a trade show to go along with it.

I'd love to see some numbers on the repositions. I'll bet the success rate is about 1-in-5000. There is some rich stuff in this New York Times non-story about the big three brewers reaching out to older, more affluent types. I personally love the research that indicates Miller Genuine Draft appeals to men and women who know how to cook, want to own homes and entertain friends, and may not choose a night on the town all the time. Yes, that narrows it down. Watch that MGD fly right off the shelves and into those homes.

(There's also an amazing quote from Coors spokesperson Kabira Hatland that is breathtaking in its banality. Make sure you don't miss it. It sets new standards for stating the glaringly obvious.)

To be fair, the advertising for Miller Genuine Draft sounds decent. Which, unfortunately, only serves to point out the larger problem. New ad campaigns with the same actual product story rarely convince – they just send the B.S. meter into the red zone. (Of course, they do allow marketers to fire the hapless ad agency when sales don't improve. At least they're good for that.)

Fact is, communications can't reposition a brand anymore. People are too smart, too informed and have too many alternatives. A product needs to have some real surgery. Change the damn formula. Extend the brand somewhere unexpected. Find a new distribution channel. Something, dammit, before you start spouting off about repositioning with a new ad campaign.

Talk, as always, is cheap.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Lawsuits are so 1999.

Interesting post by the bloggers' blogger Jeff Jarvis on his Buzz Machine about a certain Tom Dutson of Maine, who recently used his blog to call out the problems created by that state's tourism ad campaign.

Seems the guy has now been sued by the ad agency behind the campaign. Feel free to judge the quality of this shop by its site. I'd share my honest opinions here except, damn, I might wind up getting sued. Let's just say that, on previous occasions, in entirely separate and different venues, on matters completely unrelated to said advertising agency Warren Kramer Paino Advertising LLC, currently domiciled in New York City, I have remarked that agencies who claim to be "fresh" usually aren't.

Interesting – but not surprising – that an ad agency doesn't seem to understand that suing people no longer stanches the flow of information.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

War News Radio.

Recently, I've been listening to a podcast from Swarthmore College called War News Radio. No matter what you think about the war, it's worth listening to this intelligent bit of podcasting – well-produced and, most of the time, offering more insight into life in Iraq than any network news, superbly coiffed correspondent can accomplish in ninety seconds. Check it out in the iTunes podcast directory or go to War News Radio.

If I was a parent of one of those kids who has the grades to make it into just about any college, this podcast would make me feel especially positive about Swarthmore. Certainly a lot more than one of those brochures with pictures of fresh, smiling – never hung over – students on some leafy campus. Why does every college insist on churning those out? I've always been amazed by the way these expensive brochures can make every institute of higher learning seem exactly the same. Harvard melds into West Hobart Technical College. Hey, is that Northwestern? No, wait, it's East Oklahoma Valley. I guess it might have something to do with the fact that some design firms do almost nothing but these brochures. One in every conference and you've got yourself a business.

But I digress. Check out the podcast.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Brand Tom Cruise.

The BBC dissects the crumbling Tom Cruise image.

Amazingly, they still tout him as one of Hollywood's most bankable stars. I'm not buying it.

I don't think men ever really cared for the dude, and now I think he's managed to turn off his female fans. Going bonkers over a woman seventeen years younger never really helps with the fairer sex. Saying that women should not use drugs to treat post-natal depression isn't such a good idea either. Letting people know that your wife will have a pacifier during birth so she'll keep her pie hole shut? Again, not especially wise. And, finally, glib comments about eating placentas – grilled or raw, we're not quite sure – pretty much seals the deal for many. The whole Scientology thing is his own business, but the guy just seems to be auditioning for the role of Dr. Bizarro.

In some ways, it's quite fascinating to see someone so liberated he seems to have absolutely zero concern about his image, much like watching a fiery car wreck that unfolds over a number of months instead of a few seconds.

Of course, there is still one future Tom Cruise picture that I'd love to be able to invest in.

The biopic that Bennett Miller will direct in twenty years.

Can marketers go backwards?

In the early days of television, programming costs were underwritten by a show sponsor. The one that most people probably know, thanks to Quiz Show, is "Twenty-One" with its Geritol sponsorship. (Incidentally, whatever happened to Geritol? If it's still available, I think I might start taking it.)

We all know that history often repeats itself. For a number of years, it's been clear that advertising is going to cede considerable ground to sponsored entertainment, and Stuart Elliott notes the latest developments in his recent piece in The New York Times. In a society that is increasingly impregnable to advertising, attaching a brand to the appropriate piece of entertainment becomes more than a little appealing.

So far, most of these efforts have been clumsy. The challenge might be that it requires a rather abrupt paradigm shift for the traditional marketing brain. In a business that has long prided itself on seeking pinpoint accuracy – always lauded, even if rarely achieved – sponsored programming requires one to take a giant leap, ceding control to others who know more about creating content that people will seek out. The problem is that marketers, the people at consumer companies and agencies who are trying to sell things, don't really think the same way as the entertainment types, who are trying to create things that are just plain interesting. This is a world without much in the way of pie charts or bar graphs.

I think that on the way to successful efforts – vehicles such as Extreme Home Makeover and American Idol spring to mind – we're going to witness to a great deal of clunkers. Programming that is thinly-disguised advertising will bomb, as old school sellers stumble and try to have things like taglines and other obvious signs of hackdom into scripts.

Real success will come to those who stretch, don't try to absolutely mimic the few efforts that have been successful and find news ways to go forward.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The new

Technology certainly is a demanding dance partner, isn't it? The New York Times has launched a redesigned web site and, with a few reservations, I think it's quite winning. Over at, Jack Shafer has his take on the new look – it's similar to mine.

The only question: is it too good?

Shafer actually says that, on the strength of the new site, he is now canceling his subscription to the paper version. As much as I've always loved the ritual of reading a printed newspaper, I have to agree that it makes even less sense to deal with the old, fully-inked version. The new design, as Shafer points out, does seem to combine the best elements of the newspaper and the web. The heirachy of a newspaper is now there, something that was always missing from the old

Of course, it wouldn't be the New York Times if they didn't do something extremely well and push themselves closer to winding up in a real bind. I'm still not sure if the ads on the site will ever have the impact of a full-pager in the paper in, say, 1994. Maybe the money is in sponsorship of the richer content they can provide online. And I must admit that I miss being able to read Thomas Friedman's pieces – they're part of Times Select, a subscription-only section. I may have to give in and start paying for them.

Whatever the case, I think the redesign gives us a look at the true potential of news site in Web 2.0. There's no question that blog formats have fueled a healthy chunk of it.

Kudos to the Times thinkers for improving something quite dramatically. Empathy for the finance guys who have to figure out how to make money in this new model.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Mobile content may be for early adopters now. Is it for anyone else later?

Countless hours have been passed at media and wireless companies by smart people trying to gauge the payoff on mobile content. If you're the CEO of a media or a wireless company, you can't afford to let your outfit sit on the sidelines while everyone else is taking a run at gathering up ears and eyeballs. Better to make sure you're in the game than to stay out, lose later and be summarily axed for your lack of vision.

Since I'm not a media or wireless company CEO (and shockingly, not on any short lists for current openings), I'll take a stab at the long-term impact of mobile content. As usual, it will be completely devoid of any empirical data or scientfically valid research and rely entirely on my gut instinct and zest for public debate.

My gut says mobile content will be a marginal play. Sure, there will always be people who do insane things such as, say, commute for two hours from the Pennsylvania to work in New York City. They might watch and listen to all kinds of mobile content. But that's not a huge group and a good chunk of them will choose sleeping over video or audio. Of course, there's also all of those kids — oh, those meddling kids — who are sharing mobile content with friends as easily as they chat on IM. There is no question that this audience likes mobile content. But they also loved camera phones, too. Today, I sense a lot fewer kids are saying cheese while their friend holds up a Samsung than a year ago.

But I still think we're going to see digital hubs — the computer as entertainment center — and not on-the-go entertainment, dominate. Consider podcasts. At first, all the buzz was about people listening to them on their iPods, but it turns out we're all more likely to play them on our computers. Even in our ADD world, we still like to sit down and take something in.

For most people, mobile content takes too much effort. A media hub appeals to our lazy, disorganized selves. My bet is on sloth.

You can find some actual research on the subject here. Those numbers, at this point in the game, still seem awfully low to me.