SXSWi - The Awesome and the Meh-some by Dan Weingrod

I’ve been late in getting my initial thoughts from SXSWi out. It’s been a combination of overload at the office and a bad stomach bug that kept me grounded for a couple of days, (nothing to due with ribs and beer). So, slightly delayed, here’s my first quick, somewhat random and very much personal take on what worked and what didn’t.

The Awesome

Does the Future Include Synthetic Life? Utterly humbling. Craig Venter, the man who led the drive to map the human genome described how his team has been able to create synthetic life by essentially treating DNA as software, reprogramming it, introducing it into cells and creating the first synthetic life . What was particularly striking to me was that their process really had to combine very deep science with very high art. The science is in the massive computational power is needed to program the new DNA "software", but the art is in their ability to mix new and old DNA together in the cell in a sort of messy, controlled serendipity. Or at least that's how I understood it. That along with the fact that the DNA code they produces included a URL and quotes from James Joyce and Richard Feynmann was simply a staggering and frankly uplifting display of technology. It made me feel very small, thrilled and a bit scared all at once.

The Lean Startup - This set of all day sessions was held in the clean, corporate ascetic confines of the AT&T Center nearly 2 miles away from the hubbub of the Convention Center, but were in many ways the most intensely relevant of my entire visit. The basic idea of Lean takes agile development processes and grafts onto them the concept of customer development, (or customer understanding), to create products that customers want in a highly efficient, creative and successful process. That’s a very thin explanation, but it’s something that anyone working in interactive media of any sort needs to be paying attention to. After all, wouldn’t we all like to know how to make a digital product faster, cheaper and most importantly, more delightful for our customers and us?

So where was the awesome? First of all in the presence of the all stars from the Lean movement: Eric Reis, Dave McClure and Steve Blank who all gave brilliant, inspirational presentations that went beyond what I had already seen on Slideshare and random videos. More importantly a solid supporting cast of panelists including startups, developers and UX experts went through real world results that covered not only how they succeeded, but also how and where they failed, pivoted, learned and moved on. This is what set these sessions apart from many others at SXSWi. Where many focused on positive demonstration and great results, not necessarily a bad thing, the Lean panels talked more about building the roots of success by moving quickly and positively past mistakes. Seeing real demonstrations of Lean in action from groups as varied as Pivotal Labs and startups like Food on the Table, (more on this soon), was downright inspiring and contagiously exciting.

The Last of the Launch and Leave 'ems

I learned last year to be careful about panels. When they work they can be great and when the don’t, (see below), they are an embarassement for all. I went to the launch ‘em and leave ‘em panel partially to finally meet @anjali28, the session’s moderator, but to also get a better sense of the thinking around sustainable Web products. Do we create Web sites or online products as short one-time campaigns? Do we sustain them through social media? and whose job is it to do that?

What worked here? Unlike others the panel really got to the heart of the matter quickly, through some well positioned intro slides by Mel Exon, (Update: you can find 'em here:, declaring that “agencies should show some respect and get out of the way” and Conrad Lisco maintaining that agencies have a role especially in amplifying the conversation between paid, owned and earned media.But the most refreshing part of the discussion came from, of all things, the client representative, Peter Parkes of Skype. Throughout the panel Parkes doled out equal, targeted praise and withering criticism at the agency side and client side alike. His candor with statements such as “Agencies say they can't sell in smart stuff, but why do we see so much crap online” and “Agencies have this bizarre fear of being the same” left many of us marketers in the room enlightened, but also wondering if we were on the wrong side of the table.

The Meh-Some

There’s always one panel that makes you swear you’ll never, ever go to a panel again. I should have known I was in trouble when the walk-in slide for this panel included the USA network logo and their tagline. The participants included a representative from Oxygen Network and a group from the USA show Psych, including the show’s star Dule Hill. The problem was, that all they really wanted to talk about was all the good things they were doing using social media to connect their fans to the show. Yes, there were a few of the expected nuggets about increased user engagement and recall, but overall this was just self congratulatory pablum. No real examples, no learning, no failures and pivots. The only bright spot was Dule Hill, who had only recently started tweeting. His newbie reflections on social media, “Now I know what you mean by the second screen”, were honest and on target. For the rest of us it was a waste of time that could have been better used elsewhere.

The other disappointment this year was the size and scale of the event. Last year, my first year at SXSWi, had 11,000 registrations and even then I was hearing complaints about how big things had gotten. This year the number was up to 20,000 and I was hearing the complaints from new and experienced visitors. The biggest impact of this new scale was the creation of 3 separate session tracks, (Journalism, Social Graph and Lean), located far enough away from the Austin Convention Center that it would be impossible to get from one location to another to see consecutive sessions. I wrote about this here and it pretty much came true. For me, this meant a lot more thinking, planning, tough decisions and ultimately missing out on panels I wanted to see as well as the serendipity of walking in on panels I knew nothing about.

Along with this change in scale, there seems to have been a change in participants. In one panel the audience was polled as to who was on their first visit. The vast majority of hands went up. When they were polled as to how many were in marketing the same vast majority of hands showed. An unscientific poll for sure, but it made me wonder if this year has really marked the triumph of marketers over the revenge of the nerds. It’s likely been coming for a long time, but if its true it does change the alignment of things. Its likely to be more and more about networking and more about networking within like minded industries. The promise I’ve always seen for SXSWi is that its one of the only places where people across multiple disciplines can really meet across common themes. The creation of the separate tracks and an overwhelming population of marketers could ruin that promise.

Mike Leigh: Agile Planner by Dan Weingrod

With the Oscars mercifully over I’ve been thinking about Mike Leigh. He had two nominations this year. In fact, since 1997 Leigh has been nominated for 7 Oscars for directing and screenwriting. He hasn’t won any yet, and his films aren’t exactly financial blockbusters, but it’s a pretty consistent track record. One of the things that fascinates me about Leigh is that he uses a completely unique approach and process for creating his films, and the more you look at it the more you can see echoes of Agile and Lean processes.

Leigh starts his film projects with a germ of a story idea and then gathers a group of actors around him to “workshop” it. When the workshopping begins nothing is written down. No script, no plot and no real idea of what the film is going to be about. Leigh says he has three rules he sets out for the actors when they begin:

“I can’t tell you what it is about. I can’t tell you what your character is because you and I are going to collaborate to make a character, to invent a character and also you will never know anything about this film except what your character knows at any stage of the proceedings.”

The actors go off and independently research their own characters, create their own stories and meet with Leigh to flesh out their characters against the background of the growing project idea which remains in Leigh’s head. Once the actors have completed this initial phase they come together and Leigh creates the outlines, scenes and situations that ultimately become the film. The actual film production is shot more or less traditionally, with the actors rehearsing and building scenes as filming progresses.

For Leigh, the benefit of this process is that it builds an environment where actors approach acting very much like real people. They know what they know and don’t know what they don’t know. They also have more “skin in the game” because they are a fundamental part of creating the story. This encourages risk taking, innovation and a sense of empowerment and teamwork. The results are films that regularly achieve awards for acting or screenplays, the key beneficiaries of this process.

What I love about this process is how it seems to use many of the principles of Agile and Lean. They seem have been adapted through trial and error to the filmmaking process and demonstrate the same effectiveness that can be seen in development:

  • Iteration is ongoing as characters are developed from a “minimally viable persona” are continuously iterated based on their relationship with other characters and the changing texture of the story.
  • Pivots occur as actors adjust their roles to make them more effective within the story or the story is adjusted as characters become more interesting. During the making of Happy Go Lucky, an actress who ended up playing a Spanish flamenco teacher was not Spanish nor did she know anything about flamenco. But when it was agreed that this was where her role would be going she suddenly had to learn everything about flamenco and create a Spanish persona, (and she gave a memorable performance).
  • The “creative team” is a cross functional team that reaches across traditional silos to drive critical input that builds the whole. The actors help create the story and the director helps shape the character. Within this interplay the final work is developed.
  • Most importantly, by approaching the project with the sense that the end result is unknown the entire project has a sense of openness and opportunity for testing and innovation.

Leigh’s films are rarely popular blockbusters and many people find them downright depressing, but they consistently achieve critical acclaim. In fact, it amazes me that they even get made. Try to imagine his elevator speech: “ I have a film, but I can’t tell you what its about” or “ I’ll need six months up front and then I’ll tell you what we’re making”. It has only been on the basis of past art house success, and great actors who are willing and thrilled to work within this process, that he has been able to continue to make his films and get regular Academy Award nominations.

We can learn a lot from Leigh’s experience because we often find ourselves trying to make the same elevator speech, but without the benefit of his prior success. We eschew the big “campaign” and recommend small, iterative steps. We try to connect experts across multiple disciplines or media to help us build our story, we try to work within a lean enough structure so that we can pivot if necessary and we regularly test our assumptions and we even approach projects without complete certainty that they will work.

When this works, the results are creative products and experiences that are truly useful, creative and add value to the client/customer relationship. A certain successful bodywash campaign may be a good example. Unfortunately it just doesn’t happen too often. It’s hard to sell uncertainty that may lead to success and its difficult to move people away from traditional blockbusters and campaigns. But if we were willing to open the door just slightly more for a more open, iterative and agile planning approach we may find ourselves reaping more benefits than we had imagined.

It’s not about the click by Dan Weingrod

I heard about Comscore’s latest click study via a tweet from a friend as I was going into a client meeting. The headline read: “Study Shows 50% drop in number of US Internet users who click on Display Ads”. By pure coincidence part of the meeting was to be about online advertising and this could not have come at a better time.

For years my mantra has been “the best thing about online ads is that they are clickable…and the worst thing about online ads is that they are clickable”. Display clicks feel like a cross that all online marketers have had to bear since the beginning of the online advertising. For too many years I’ve sat in meetings and heard “We’ve spent this much dollars for so few clicks” from marketers used to the overwhelming reach and frequency numbers of offline mass media.

But times have changed and online display advertising’s role has to be looked at in a different light. So the Comscore headline felt like an addict’s first admission in a 12 step program. “Yes, I am addicted to clicks and yes I need to break the addiction”. Why? Because clicks don’t deliver the real results we are looking for and should no longer be seen as the primary metric for online display effectiveness.

The Comscore study, titled “Natural Born Clickers” nails something many of us have assumed for a long time. There is a small share of the internet audience that is doing the vast majority of the clicking. If this is the case, should online marketers be tearing out their hair and foreswearing online display? No, because as Comscore puts it:

“… marketers who attempt to optimize their advertising campaigns solely around the click are assigning no value to the 84 percent of Internet users who don’t click on an ad. That’s precisely the wrong thing to do, because other comScore research has shown that non-clicked ads can also have a significant impact. As a result, savvy marketers are moving to an evaluation of the impact that all ad impressions – whether clicked or not – have on consumer behavior, mirroring the manner in which traditional advertising has been measured for decades using reach and frequency metrics.”

The “other research” referred to are studies that have shown what we have seen anecdotally, that display ad generates relevant searches for brand and products, builds interest and measurable sales lift. All that without a click. We’re looking at this as an online marketing funnel where a coordinated, trackable mix of online display and SEM, leveraging behavioral and demographic targeting can deliver impressive growth in awareness, action and sales.

So when our meeting got around to the online advertising plan it was kind of liberating to bring up this information and use it to move the discussion away from the addiction to clicks and over to the more relevant role of online display, building brand, awareness and action.

by Dan Weingrod

One of the best reviews of the success of the Old Spice campaign came in Simon Mainwaring’s blog about the top 10 reasons for the campaign's success. It's worth it to check out his list and appreciate the great confluence of talent, thinking, creativity, (and let’s not forget Isaiah Mustafa), that made this such a singular event for marketers and a successful event for the brand. One thing, however, that seems to have been missed in many comments is the fact that a key ingredient for the success was in the first two words of the first ad, before you even have a chance to register the environment, situation or even the product, "Hello Ladies..." declares that this message is directed at women. This was no accident, W&K's research told them, as shown in their own case study video, that women were the primary purchasers or at least influencers for men's body wash. So like any smart marketer they addressed the message to that audience and in a brilliantly creative way.

It should be no surprise at this point that just about any product that hopes to succeed online needs to address the role or the voice of women. Comscore recently released a study that confirmed that women pretty much shape the Web and especially the social web. What was impressive about the decision to address women so directly was the fact that Old Spice’s history has been all about men. Look at the sample below:

Or read Bud Caddell’s great post about how repetition led to the creative breakthrough of Old Spice, and you see that throughout its history Old Spice advertising addressed men directly with women serving as props and cheerleaders. In fact the tradition was that men defined masculinity in their own terms with women their to support this definition. Old Spice’s and W&K’s ability to turn this around and headline an, albeit tongue-in-cheek, female definition of manliness made a crucial difference in the success of this campaign from literally the second it launched.

Old Spice Lesson #2: My Precious by Dan Weingrod

John Winsor recently wrote a smart and provocative piece in Business Week regarding the Future of Advertising. In the article he decried how the relationship of trust between client and agency has been broken and cited client stories of "being charged $10,000 per second of video editing for clips to go on YouTube". In an amazing coincidence the first Old Spice response video was uploaded on July 12th, the publication date of Winsor's article. That first video posting was followed by 181 additional videos made over a period of two days in a call and response with social media channels, public figures and unknown tweeters.

Thinking about Winsor's article it struck me that what the Old Spice YouTube campaign has managed to do, aside from entertaining and influencing and selling more product, is to help start stamping out the kind of preciousness that we have always tended to grant video. This preciousness runs the gamut from the "$10,000 editing fees" to using standard production budgets for online video, insisting on "broadcast quality" when HD is now available on iPhones and other restraints left over from the world of broadcast television. The kind of production and budgeting assumptions that agencies have been used to will no longer work in the new world of adaptive marketing and social media. Video is now a viable social media channel and must be priced and produced with the kind of currency and flexibility that social media demands. This means lowering our "standards", simplifying production and, yes, even lowering fees to make them consistent with the nature of the medium and to allow for mistakes and regular response.

The Old Spice team was blessed with a number of excellent advantages including, I admit, a great, high quality, expensive broadcast video ad that set up the YouTube campaign. But with their willingness to lower the preciousness of the video approach in order to make it consistent with the nature of social media they brought one great thing back to the forefront: the power of great creative ideas. And that's one thing we shouldn't have to lower our standards for.