Advertising

And God created…a Remix by Dan Weingrod

I tried hard not to watch the Superbowl this year. The teams weren’t that interesting and the ads felt even less compelling, especially the uninspiring “previews”. Besides, I knew I’d be able to catch up on them afterwards in the numerous review pages. But the blackout conspired against me which meant that when the enforced episode of “Downton” ended, there was the fourth quarter waiting for me. And, as it turned out, what was by far the best ad of the entire game, Dodge Ram’s “So God Created A Farmer” ad.

The strength of the ad was in the way it broke through the clutter and sameness of the typical Superbowl ad. No safe frat jokes, schmaltzy humor or CGI overkill. Simply by using  a spoken word soundtrack and striking photography it teased the viewer into following a story and the soft sell, slow reveal of its sponsor.

 

 

By the next day, it was revealed that the ad, that was already generating a great deal of positive buzz, was pretty much lifted from this YouTube video created by Farms.com.

 

Farms.com had given Dodge full approval and support, as you will likely see in their video. But this certainly brought up all sorts of questions about the creativity and originality. For years marketers have begged, borrowed and outright stolen cultural artifacts and pop themes from their creators in the name of creativity and staying ahead of the curve. This case is really not all that different with the exception of the tone and level of production.The monologue in the Farms.com video includes a mild joke about the male farmer enduring “visiting ladies”, (and the audience laughter in the background). The photos are a mixed bag, they include women, but are in and out of focus, include women, but some appear to be from Canada. And many include farm equipment and vehicles, but none made by Dodge or their partners Case Tractors. The Dodge video airbrushes many of these faults by editing out the joke, using striking, high quality photography and subtly inserting their own vehicles in the images.

Brands have been steadily increasing their role in curating and creating social content. What’s interesting about this case is that the flow has gone in a different direction. Instead of brands creating content and allowing it to be socialized, in this case the brand has taken social content and branded it. I think this is an interesting flow and one that we’ll likely see more of considering the critical success of the ad. (Though I really doubt it will sell more trucks).

In this flow from social to branded content what does seem to get lost is the freshness, originality and vibrancy of the original, amateur, content. What Dodge did with their production and especially with their photography was to create a highly iconic and nostalgic view of the farmer. And while this is often what advertising is supposed to do, there is a danger here. Nostalgia reminds us of times that never were and at often can make us comfortable with our prejudices. This was brought out strongly when many pointed out that over 50% of farmers and farm workers in America are Hispanic. It’s clearly not part of the vision of the farmer that Dodge wanted to put up, and an issue that I don’t think comes to mind in the Farms.com video with all of its amateur naivete. But we're now in a new world of remixing, where anyone can create and define their own iconography and nostalgia. So when the Brave New Foundation, posted their own remix, below, they again reversed the content flow, and helped complete a more accurate picture.

 

This Is Not A Chair by Dan Weingrod

Maybe it was their billionth active monthly user, maybe it was just by chance, but Facebook launched its first television ad last week called: “The Things that Connect Us”, but by now we probably all know it as Chairs.

There’s a lot of familiar in the ad. It features imagery in the typical powerpoint style that’s been favored for a while in creative presentations. Big, simple, direct images with one stark large word or phrase superimposed. DOORBELLS - Discuss. It makes you wonder if the initial creative always was a powerpoint presentation.

When the images move they are shot more or less in that typical“montage” style we’re so overly used to these days. Lots of cuts between seemingly random imagery of people doing mundane sometimes happy, sometimes sad things all backed with slightly morose and ponderous music and a serious young woman’s voice telling us what we’re looking at.

The question of course is why? Why is Facebook advertising on television, why now and, why we should care? It’s always odd when a hugely popular digital service advertises on television for the first time. For Google it was tantamount to hell freezing over. So was it a celebration of that billionth user? Maybe it was about the fact that more and more, both from my own private focus group of 19 – 27 year olds, and from other Facebook users I hear variations on Casey Neistad’s theme that Facebook is:

“just this constant flow of internet diarrhea posted by people I only sort of know”

So perhaps all of this is pointed at Facebook’s declining user growth in the USA, because of late, Facebook’s only growth has come from outside the US.

In this light, the ad feels like an attempt to redefine Facebook and maybe bring back all the charm and reasons you joined in the first place, but it tries to do it within a larger, mystical, “adult” context. But the opening of chairs, bridges and waterfalls with its vision of simplicity fraught with deep mystery soon gives way to some more troubling ideas: A “Great Nation”. Huh? Is this a tacit reminder of the Arab Spring, reminding us that Facebook can change nations? Or is it a call to spur more allegiance to this nation or tribe that we, like it or not, have created using Facebook? What’s worse comes next: “The Universe, it is vast, and dark” (and suddenly very pretentious). The big idea here seems to be that without this great Facebook nation we have to face our lives alone and unconnected in cold dark space where no-one can hear us scream. When I saw this all I realized that Woody Allen had expressed this much better years ago:

The real problem with the ad is that trying to define Facebook is like trying to define a directory, a phone book, because at its heart that’s what Facebook is all about. A service that helps you connect with friends, but as content and inspiration for storytelling it’s really very limited. Yes, it does what it does much better than anyone else, it has the critical mass of users, but really it’s a phonebook and reading the phonebook is not very exciting, unless maybe it's this guy. If you are trying to define a great service, why not use the service to define it and let the viewers imagination fill in the big descriptive visuals like Google’s “Hell Freezes Over” did so well.

Ultimately the missing words in this ad are probably “grown up” or “investors”. The purpose here is not to define Facebook, but to let its confused, downcast investors know that Facebook is willing grow up and do some “traditional” marketing that they understand in order to support their brand. Its also about misdirection, by defining Facebook as a great nation protecting us from the cold dark universe, we might spend less time thinking or considering all the new ad platforms and targeting techniques being hatched around our chairs, doorbells and bridges. When I first saw the ad I thought of Magritte’s “this is not a pipe” painting. It was only when I looked it up that I discovered that the paintings actual title is: “The Treachery of Images”. Somehow it seems very appropriate.

Why I Left < > by Dan Weingrod

This morning’s feed opened up with two high profile posts about departures. The one that made the bigger news was Greg Smith’s, featured on the front page of NYTimes, on why he is leaving Goldman Sachs, the second was from James Whittaker, a self described technology executive, on why he’s leaving Google.

It’s not every day that you have such public departures from iconic firms and in both cases the immediate impulse is to think of these as canaries telling us what’s really wrong with company x or y, or at least confirming our worst suspicions. In Smith’s reasons for leaving Goldman easily confirmed my own suspicions, but Whittaker’s reasoning was a bit more nuanced and what links the two is really the issue of culture and business model.

For Smith it’s all about the culture of making money at all costs and a leadership that will no longer support bigger ideals:

The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.

For Whitaker it’s also about culture, ideals and money, but from a slightly different tack:

The days of old Google hiring smart people and empowering them to invent the future was gone. The new Google knew beyond doubt what the future should look like. Employees had gotten it wrong and corporate intervention would set it right again.

Smith’s post is easier to digest, a lot of what’s there is very much about confirming all of the expectations we have of Goldman, (and not even the worst expectations). So while it is shocking in its kimono lifting openness, it doesn’t really surprise.

Whitaker’s post is much more complicated. He also has a problem with the money culture at Google, but it’s the culture dedicated to making money from advertising that he has a problem with. He meanders and forth between decrying advertising as a reason for Google to make money to supporting the “old Google” advertising model. But what he’s really talking about is Google’s push into social and its relentless move into becoming as Facebook-like as possible, especially around maximizing and utilizing user information.  In a way, one of the biggest similarities between Smith and Whitaker is in how they see their respective giant corporations denigrating their customers. For Smith its how Goldman looks at customers as “Muppets”. For Whitaker Google “creeps me out” by blending G+ social content into search results and Gmail ads.

Whitaker’s departure from Google seems to me to be about culture and the long standing conflict between engineering and advertising. It’s surprising to see the discussion because Google, as he points out, has been an advertising company for at least ten years. But engineers who are committed to building the best possible product often chafe at the idea that the end goal has to be a better marketing product. After all, their goal is to build the best possible product for their customer.  Unfortunately for the best way to support this type of product development culture is to charge users for the product. But we’re not there yet, or at least Google isn’t.  (imagine charging for Gmail?), so we’re stuck with advertising as the primary way to make money from Web based software.  Google knows this and its move to social, which Whitaker castigates in pretty harsh terms, is part of making sure that the ad revenue keeps growing, at the expense of engineering culture

It’s a tough balancing act. Google has tried to maintain its startup culture, but the problem is that as startups mature, or become Google, its pretty hard to maintain their mojo. This tweet from Brian Morrisey at SXSW summed this up nicely:

sxsw brings together ad agencies fascinated by startups and startups that hate advertising

Whitaker has already decided which side he’s on in this debate. He left Google to go to…Microsoft of all places. Its actually not such an odd decision because he left Microsoft to go to Google three years ago, what is interesting is that he went back a company and culture that had always championed a payment instead of ad based revenue model for software.

 

Image courtesy of Striatic

What I Heard at CreateTech by Dan Weingrod

I was fortunate to be at the 4A’s first CreateTech conference last Friday. Not just to have a chance to see the 4A’s make a major commitment towards what I believe is a critical agency role, but also to see how the elusive Creative Technologist is being defined and the issues around that definition. Below are some of the quotes and takeaways that resonated for me from the presentations:  

"The household is no longer physical"

JP Rangaswami, Chief Scientist of Salesforce.com seemed like an odd choice for the opener. A technologist yes, but seemingly more representative of the client side, nevertheless his discussion of social objects and what Salesforce is doing in helping to build the social enterprise helped focus a the kind of strategic opportunity and big idea vision that CT’s might bring to the table.  The quote about the household goes to the role that interactivity, location and context is playing and will continue to play across communities and social objects of interest. It also goes to the, at times a bit creepy, role that data mining by Salesforce, (and us marketers), will play in it.

 

"Ads used to be the be all and end all of campaigns, now they are terrific drivers to other experiences"

Trevor O’Brien and Glenn Fellman of McKinney showed that there are agencies who are really getting it about integrating technology into their process…and they’re getting results. In their tandem presentation they gave structure and life to a CT’s role within a more traditional agency. There was lots to like in their new approach: No Ganntt charts, really embracing transparency across the creative organization, using planning poker and especially their encouragement to “Bogart the good stuff”; Keeping the really challenging and interesting work internally so you can attract and retain the best talent.

They also talked about how McKinney is encouraging innovation by creating a Google like 10% innovation time. What was interesting here was the process, or rather “non-process” of forming innovation teams at McKinney. Instead of creating a mandated team of “one part creative, one part copywriter and one part developer”, teams came together around shared interests and ideas. Proving that maybe culture, as well as process, needs to be changed in order to bring value to the CT role.

 

"The advertising industry model of the creative black box is going away, if we have an idea we’ll go and white board it with the client"

When Scott Roen of American Express and Brian Skahan of CP+B started to present Amex’s Open platform it felt ominously like a promotional presentation, but when the discussion moved to platform, process and the agency/client relationship things got much more interesting. Amex and CP+B have moved past the traditional linear, (and by association waterfall), process and have replaced it with a more circular, flexible Agile process based on regular release cycles and sprints. The benefit and relevance for the CT is that everyone sits together in a team that includes art director, coywriter, technologist and experience designer. The benefit for the agency/client relationship was that the client was very much part of the team. On both the creative and the development side there seemed to be a client willingness to be involved and readiness to accept the inconsistencies, pivots and launch delays of a tech based creative project.

 

 

Andy Hood of AQKA was the first presenter to really take up the thorny question of the definition of a CT. He started by putting up a number of quotes from the “introduce yourself” thread on the LinkedIn CT group. The self-definitions were entertainingly different, but then he polled the audience to see how many were coders and how many were still coding, (60% and 40% respectively). So does a CT need to know how to code? Based on this straw poll the answer seems to be yes, but the challenge still remains as to how the CT can take this capability and express it across an agency.

Hood’s perspective of going from Cobol programmer to leading CT at a top digital agency brought a great deal of depth and possibility to this question. What interested me was how he and his team found themselves more engaged with strategists and user experience types than the usual suspects of creative and copywriter. This was interestingly at odds with a conversation I had during a break about how developers, presumably working in more traditional agencies, felt that strategists were among the biggest roadblocks for digital ideas. Perhaps the challenge for more traditional agencies looking to build a CT role is to adopt a culture closer to that of digital agencies. Hood, based on the quote above, might agree.

 

"The smaller the budget the greater the chance an agency will be creative"

This came out of a panel discussion featuring Marcel Kornblum, Stuart Eccles, Scott Prindle and Saneel Radia. But before we got there an interesting moment appeared  when the panel veered into a discussion of sequential liability, (huh?), a topic I didn’t even know existed, but one that seems appears to becoming critically important . If I got it right, Sequential Liability sits on very slippery borderline of IP ownership where opensource code, code reuse and custom coding live in an uncomfortable truce. The crux of the issue seems to be that if you are committed to the opensource community, how can you grant full ownership rights of code to a client? If you are interested in this topic, and I’m sure I’m missing something, the 4A’s has actually published a point of view here .

And as to that other quote above. That was Marcel Kornblum responding to Stuart Eccles successful attempts to stir up the pot. The comment brought up some interesting, and slightly cynical, discussion in the room and on twitter. My take is that while no one is really out there hunting for small budgets, big budget projects, overloaded with multiple requirements and locked-down briefs, can often become the proverbial battleship that agile and creative thinking may not be able to turn around. When you consider the movement towards minimal project thinking found in the Lean startup movement and books such as “Little Bets” it seems that perhaps working at a smaller, more rapid scope, (and smaller budget), within the context of a bigger idea may be the more creative and effective approach.

 

"What is Open?"

Gary Koelling, Director of Emerging Platforms at Best Buy, took things in an unexpected direction by challenging the whole notion of the name Creative Technologist. He illustrated this by talking about Edward Jenner, the physician who discovered the discoverer of the smallpox vaccine and essential founder of immunology. Jenner used intelligent and creative insight combined with openly available tools to pursue a hunch he had about smallpox. He didn’t pay a license and shared his learning openly. It was impressive and encouraging to hear this discussion of Open coming from someone working within creative and tech in corporate America. As pointed out above it seems like there are some stirrings on the client side to think ahead of or at least in parallel with the agency side of things. A good sign or a warning? I’m not sure, but something worth preparing for. As an example Koelling closed with this video, made internally by one of his Best Buy team members.

 

"It's your privilege, honor and responsibility as a maker to find out how people are using your systems in real life"

I was expecting that Kati London would be talking about her work at Zynga, but instead, and to my delight, she covered her work with Area/Code (which recently became Zynga New York). The work included some familiar faves like Drop7 and Discovery Channel’s Sharkhunt, but of greater interest were some of Area/Code’s latest real-world community based games.

Macon Money uses the concept of mix and match “bonds” to help disparate communities in the same city meet and interact. Battlestorm is a game that combines physical sport, reality shows and online interaction to build hurricane preparedness, its first iteration occurred this past weekend. Aside from the social relevance of these games, it was also great to see the positive way they both bridged the gap between the virtual and physical world, something we don’t see much these days where everything seems to be all too easily “gamified”. I liked the fact that there was a commitment to portability and especially learning, nicely summarized in the quote above, which extended beyond the initial game experience and into further learning and iteration.

 

"I think they just backed up a Kinect truck and poured it into the exhibition hall"

I’m not sure I have this quote right, it was getting late, but the spirit makes sense. It was from the final, very high energy, panel of the day that included Matt Powell, Eddie Smith, Shailesh Rao, Adam Petrick, and Mike Dory. The panel was ostensibly about “Commercializing Innovation”, but it more or less morphed into a discussion of the ease and delight with which new digital applications are being produced, tested, adjusted and optimized in a culture, (or is it a bubble?) that continues to be open and receptive to it. The quote above was in reference to the latest ITP show where all sorts of Kinect projects seemed to dominate the room. Kinect seems to be one of the best symbols of the energy of a quick hack culture that has sprung up.  Warning signs appeared when the panel discussed tempering client enthusiasm to “do everything”, but overall the energy of this discussion could have had me listening for even another hour.

Takeaways:

  1. I’m still not sure that there’s a working definition of what a Creative Technologist is, (and I’m not sure it really matters any more). Much of the definition will likely depend on agency culture, but it does seem clear that a CT needs to at least know how to code, if not be coding regularly.
  2. Clients seem to be getting it. Maybe this was a crazy random sampling, but the clients who presented as well as the CT’s within client organizations demonstrated a dedication and understanding of the issues and opportunities of working with technology. This could ultimately be the biggest reason why agencies should embrace and create viable roles for CT’s.
  3. Biased here, but agile and iterative processes are likely to be the tools that help create the kind of culture that will allow CT’s, and digital, to thrive within agencies.

I’m sure I missed or likely misrepresented some things. If you were there, what did you hear? If not, what do you think?

 

When Software Companies Think Like Agencies by Dan Weingrod

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One of the best parts of the Lean Startup sessions at SXSWi this year was not just the presence of the Lean All Stars, (Eric Reis, Dave McClure and Steve Blank), but also how true the sessions were to the tenets of Lean by presenting real case studies and prototype discussions. This ranged from very specific examples to expert panels and even to a King of the Apps showdown, (complete with crown and robe), focused on going beyond ethereal process discussion to real issues of failure, pivot, learning, iteration and success. The best of these case studies was Manuel Rosso’s “Concierge MVP” presentation, because it made me realize that for all the talk in the Ad world about agencies needing to think like software companies, software companies have grabbed this bull by the horns and are already thinking like agencies. Rosso is the founder of a web site called foodonthetable.com. Hs case study was about was his team’s unique approach to customer development and creation of an MVP.  An MVP, before you think this is a sports column, is a “minimum viable product”, or a product with the smallest feature set that will appeal to customers. What was unique about Rosso’s approach was how they achieved the MVP quickly, effectively without spending money on additional resource and by essentially using a variant of research techniques that agencies have been using for years.

Foodonthetable’s essential proposition is that weekly meal planning is difficult, time consuming and costly and that their target audience, Moms, needed a simple effective way to approach it. Their idea? Create a website that maps sale items at local supermarkets to a customer’s food preferences, relate these to a set of tested recipes and create a healthy meal plan and shopping list. In the digital world this value proposition might be the time to start coding a prototype. In the agency world we’d likely take this idea, do some broad market research and put it all in a brief to hand off to a creative team.  What Rosso and his team did was to start with one customer and with this:

They found a Mom in their target group who they thought would be interested and sat down with her in a Starbucks across the street from her local supermarket. Together they stepped through the above page and input information about where she shopped, what her food preferences were, how much she wanted to spend and other information. They had in hand the supermarket’s weekly sale circular and used their laptops to look up recipes online and a printer to print out the shopping list.  Everything was done by hand, no code was involved, no logos were created, (note the “Food Site” logo in the upper left corner), and no tag lines or copy written. Based on the scrawled writing on the form it’s also clear that there was plenty of room for improvisation and change based on actual customer feedback and physical realities. Do we need photos of the food? Let’s write that in for now. Should we add date and time? We can scrawl that in over here.

As time went by the form was adjusted based on customer feedback and actual experience until they added a second customer. The second customer added more variety to the feedback loop, but they continued to use this analog “concierge” approach to define and build a product through actual, real world, experience. Only when they got to the third or fourth customer, and an additional supermarket, did they realize they actually needed put something into code. In this case it became clear that having a database of local supermarket sales and specials would actually save them time over the analogue process of eyeballing weekly circulars in order to build menus.

The result was that after an eight week process Rosso and his team were ready to actually begin the process of coding and automating the processes that led to the finished site. The site itself is rapidly growing across the nation and features a home page one of the best examples of a clear, “why you should sign up” value proposition I’ve ever seen.

When progressive agencies and marketers think about integrating with “digital” or “technology” we often consider the benefits of using technology related processes already ingrained in tech companies. What the foodonthetable.com experience reveals is that we already have many of the right processes and thinking, it’s just that software companies just might be doing a better job of using them. As an ex-CPG marketer Rosso understood the value of consumer research, but he also knew that doing it in the traditional manner would take too long, be too costly and would not deliver the necessary opportunities to test and iterate. What he did understand, and what is at the core of customer development, was that the only way to succeed was for him to get out of the office, listen to customers and create a product based on small, fast iterations and feedback loops. And if it didn’t need to be polished or coded, so much the better.

Agencies have all the tools to implement these approaches, but our culture and traditions don’t seem to allow it. We listen to customers in focus groups instead of individually, we go through long, torturous research on customer needs and profiles without actually talking to customers. Worst of all, we then take our valuable research and present clients with a “finished” recommendation that calls for costly investments that offer no opportunity to revert or iterate. We might consider paying attention to the fact that software companies are using the tools that we’re traditionally expert at to make small bets, fail more quickly, spend less money, but ultimately end up with better results. Instead of worrying about how agencies need to think like software companies maybe we should think about how software companies can teach us to make better use of our own tools.