Archive for February 28, 2010

Posted: February 28, 2010
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Wossy shows us what makes a great brand.

My feelings for Jonathan Ross are mixed.  There are times when he is nothing short of a complete arsehole and others when he puts together a show that leaves you gasping in awe, but at least he takes a few risks, which is how great things are achieved and the bloomers are par for the course.

Everything went right for Wossy last night though, he even made Andrew Lloyd-Webber look interesting, and massive talent though he may be, as one who has had conversations with the Lord in the past I know what kind of achievement that could be.  The show moved up a gear, though, with the appearance of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton in an insanely interesting  double-hander that left you thinking that Jonathan had left himself with nowhere to go, but he capped it in the most unexpected manner with an appearance of Sade performing a track from new album that was just breathtaking.

I defy anybody with an ounce of creative nous to deny that Burton/Depp is probably the most creative combination in cinema right now and although I might hesitate (for a nanosecond) before buying the house next door to either of them, even if I could afford it, they’d have to make the top of your dinner-party guest list.  These guys are true creatives.  Everything they do busts the envelope and, risky though such a strategy may be, in their case it has come off more often than not for the last twenty years.  People fork out enthusiastically to see their work and that’s a definition of success that a few marketers would do well tune-in to.

Sade, having been out of the spotlight for a while, looks like making a hell of a comeback if “Soldier of Love” is anything to judge by and there’s more like it, or rather nothing like it because she delivers a masterclass in a wide range of genres, on the new album.  She is simply a planet away from the regular chart-toppers in creativity and sheer dedication to her craft.  No wonder, like Depp and Burton, she’s proven so resilient.  The score for this number didn’t just happen, it’s the product of a meeting of extreme creativity with a level of technical genius that just makes you smile and a degree of sweated labour that, despite their protestations to the contrary few of today’s new talent would even contemplate.

The thing about all of Ross’ guests this week is that they stand out from the crowd and being distinctive, as we all know, is the essence of a strong brand and the key to the Brandships that serious businesses are built on.


Posted: February 22, 2010
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ESL communication gaff leads to indigestion.

Because I have worked in advertising in countries around the world, I am familiar with the practice of multinational organisations who re-use TV commercials in different markets and over-dub them in the local language.  This produces cringe-enducing howlers from time to time, one of which was brought to my attention this morning by John Ward of Not Born Yesterday and The Slog fame in his weekend Slogger’s Review Bar.  I just had to share it with you.

This classic from Gaviscon comes under John’s “In The Media” headline.  I’m not sure how it works, but my guess is that the storyboard he has shown is an English language commercial, translated into some foreign tongue and then back again to English to demonstrate the mistakes that ESL (English as a Second Language) produces from time to time.

If you can’t come up with Pants on Fire nominees to add to my previous post you might find the opportunity to post examples of ESL irresistable.  With stuff like this out there we could start a whole new blog!


Posted: February 18, 2010
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Nominate your Pants-on-Fire advertiser.

If it wasn’t obvious already, one of the plethora of BBC radio stations ran an on-line phone-in this week that demonstrated beyond doubt how short Auntie is of material these days.  OK, so at least they were trying and I am sure there was more than a hint of irony in the choice of subject, but to ask viewers to phone in and nominate TV commercials that they were indifferent to was taking things a bit too far.  However, completely missing the point that if you are indifferent to a commercial, by definition, you won’t remember it, people actually called in!

The truth of the matter is that while nobody could have been “indifferent” to the commercials they nominated, there were many examples that were clearly getting up folks’ noses, often because they lacked a clear message or were frankly just awful, and that’s just the kind of waste of client investment that pushes all my buttons!  The worst offenders are commercials that are clearly all about creative ego.  As an ex-creative director myself and mentor to creatives and creative departments in agencies in a number of countries, I’m the first to recognise and understand the importance of great creativity, but, as I find myself saying far too often, great creative work reinforces the commercial message.  It doesn’t disguise or, worse still, contradict it and it certainly doesn’t just clutter thirty-seconds of airtime with wasteful irrelevance.

The reason that there are so many commercials out there that break these basic rules stems from errors or omissions at the very start of the strategy development process.  It amazes me that so many of the organisations I go into still don’t have a clearly defined brand. I’m often told by organisations that they have a strategy, even a brand strategy, only to find that what they have is built on sand.  You simply can’t develop a strategy without first establishing what your brand actually is.  This isn’t as easy as it sounds and involves a level of honesty and self-acceptance that few marketing people seem able to live with, but if you don’t crack this first step, absolutely everything you do from there forward will be compromised and wasteful.

You can’t hope to accurately communicate who you are (your brand character) if you can’t recognise yourself and its essential to the success of your business that you are accurate.  The process of accurately defining brand character is what my Brand Discovery programme is all about.  It also embraces all the processes and tools that ensure you always tell it like it is.  However, there are still a lot of businesses around that are either dishonest, confused about their own identity or just plain crap at communicating it and you can see the results in their advertising every day so my challenge to you is to find the world’s most dishonest advertiser.

You know who I mean.  The advertiser whose commercials or ads leave you saying “Yes, right” with the same commitment that you had when Kraft Foods said they wouldn’t cut the staff count at Cadbury (and then announced the closure of a Cadbury factory within a week of completing the deal).

Wherever in the world you may be, nominate your Pants-on-Fire advertiser by commenting on this post, adding a link to the “evidence” and explain why the piece in question lacks credibility.


Posted: February 17, 2010
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Britain’s unemployed managers – the solution to SMEs’ problems

I’m back in the UK for a while and, inspired by the tales of the many struggling businesses in my local area, I’m trying to do my thing for SMEs .  I say “trying”, because, as my Granny used to say “You can’t help folks who won’t be helped”.

Most “small businesses” are small because they haven’t got what it takes to be big.  The deficiencies come in many forms and span all areas of business from lack of key skills like financial, operational management and marketing, to just being plain crap at what you do.  In a normal buoyant market there may be hope for even the least capable, but as conditions are now, if you aren’t sharp you won’t get to play.  As I have said before, this is a good thing.  Its the process of natural selection and we should come out of this experience, as a business community, smarter and better equipped.  However, I have my concerns.

Its no disgrace for an SME to lack a few key management skills.  If you are small, you are bound to be wanting in one area or another, its just a matter of where your strengths lie and what you do about your weaknesses that determines your destiny – that’s marketing.  My worries are two-fold.  Firstly, the natural instinct of far too many organisations in recent months has prompted an alarming HR trend and secondly, the support system for SMEs in the UK is failing miserably – and I’m not talking about the banks who seem hell-bent on some wild agenda to bring down the UK SME sector.

The HR trend I refer to is for firms to off-load senior people in pursuit of short-term payroll savings.  Its may seem an obvious quick-fix, but as I thought we all knew already, it brings only very short term benefit and beyond that its nothing more than the beginning of the end.   It affects organisations large and small in the same way, but simply because small businesses are less robust the effect it has on them is more often terminal.  Taking away managers (provided they are worthy of the title) from any organisation is like removing the rudder and the end result is invariably crash and burn.

In a similar way, organisations that think they are being smart by taking the Arsenal FC approach to business – hiring young inexperienced players and attempting to turn them into key strikers – are on a hiding to nothing too.  Inexperienced staff suck up key management time, involving them in micro-management that leaves them unavailable to perform their main leadership and innovation role.  It is also a customer satisfaction and operational efficiency nightmare that in times like these you just can’t afford.

To make matters worse, there’s nowhere for a UK SME that is short of management know-how, to go for help.  Years ago, a UK government initiative saw the foundation of an organisation called Business Link.  Basically, this was a joint-venture between the public and private sectors that was supposed to bring management skills to SMEs through a network of local consultancies.  Now, I have to put my hands up here and say that if I had my way they’d all be closed down and I bet nobody would even notice – apart from the exchequer who would immediately have a shed-load of cash to do something useful with.  Without exception, every SME that I have encountered, that has had any dealing with this bunch have nothing but disdain for them.  From what I have seen and experienced over the years they fail absolutely to operate as a network, they have no understanding of the realities of business and their methods are both outmoded and inflexible.  If ever there was a depository for no-hope graduates, with lots of meaningless qualifications and absolutely no grasp of reality, its Business Link – a typical public sector organisation in fact.  Anyway, rant aside, expecting Business Link to lead your SME out of recession is on a par with expecting Gordon Brown to win a personality contest – It ain’t going to happen!

Against this background I have been trying to get local politicians, government departments and business groups to consider ways of addressing some of these problems.  For example, most of the smart senior managers who have been victims of business cut-backs in recent months are still on the dole.  The managers with the very skills and experience that SMEs need right now are being paid (albeit a pitiful amount) to watch daytime TV and most of them are resigned to this reality for the rest of their lives.  That’s a fact supported by today’s unemployment figures and under-lined by a live phone-in on the BBC’s Radio Five Live this morning.    I approached one of the organisations employed by the Department of Work and Pensions to deliver Back to Work programmes for unemployed managers with the idea of devising a programme that would bring the need and the resource together and taking it to the DWP to seek funding.  It was like trying to raise the dead!  Rather than apply their minds to making something happen their every effort went into thinking of reasons why it wouldn’t work.  Just the kind of positive thinking we need to get us out of this mess!

I asked my local Tory candidate to help me get something going with the DWP and JobCentres, but got no reply.  I even offered free advice to a local trading group and received no reply to that either.  I approached the local paper and an independent employment agency with the idea of running a seminar for local managers of SMEs and neither were interested.

My mailing to a sample one-hundred local businesses offering them a free consultation that could get them thinking in the right direction had no takers and my follow-up calls revealed that they had mostly been approached by Business Link who failed them miserably and once bitten were put off the idea of consultants forever.

Its sad that our SMEs – our commercial future – are stuck like rabbits in a car’s headlights, while Theresa May the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary and the Employment Minister Jim Knight, who together have solutions to some of these problems in their gift, bitch about minutia and argue out party politics on national radio.  The inability to run a piss-up in a brewery is endemic in our society and clearly, it goes right to the top!  Maybe we should recruit our next government from the ranks of our unemployed managers?  Now there’s a thought!


Posted: February 15, 2010
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How customer service will drive growth for marketing services firms.

It seems that my piece on customer service has been made topical by Toyota who last week received all the wrong kind of media attention as they struggled to make the best of, not one, but two, recalls that seem to have miss-fired on them.  But it does give me an opportunity to quickly revisit the subject, which I feel is too-often paid lip-service and nothing more by organisations that should know better.

The squeaky-clean Japanese may have been undermined by nudges and winks to the media by their competitors, but with the markets being as they are, they are bound to have been looking for any opportunity to snipe away at a competitor like Toyota and the Japs should have seen it coming.  I can imagine the Toyota folks in their war room planning their strategy for these recalls, considering the merits and demerits of holding back while their suppliers manufactured accelerator pedal parts, getting them to their dealers and priming their dealers to undertake the upgrade.  The same with the brake software.  You don’t solve these problems over night and they must have been only a matter of a week or so away from fixing both of these issues in their usual efficient and quiet way when someone spilt the beans and wound up a journo or two, but shit happens and they should have been expecting it.

There is no doubting Toyota’s internal marketing skills though and when your back is against the wall like this its internal marketing that can save your arse.  As I have said many times before you can run a business with a strict set of rules, rigid processes, a stick and a carrot – Communists have run entire countries like this for decades, but we all know where they ultimately ended up and why.  When something comes out of left field the team that wins is the one comprising real experts with a clear vision of what they are trying to achieve, total commitment and license to make decisions and apply their skills how they see fit – that’s what internal marketing gives you.

On a smaller, but still global scale I have been involved with another sports equipment manufacturer recently, who it seems has a problem with one of their products that they have chosen to take a softly-softly approach to.  In this case they appear to have got away with it, but maybe only because their competitors aren’t as smart or blood-thirsty as Toyota’s.  They fixed the problem with a small change in the spec of the product in subsequent production runs, which was easier for them to achieve than a car manufacturer.  If customers spotted the problem with the early examples, they replaced them swiftly with interest.  An approach like this is only possible if you have good internal marketing.  It only takes a few retailers or distributors to short-change a customer with a grievance and you are stuffed.

Meanwhile, in the same week I had a run-in with my bank and received a £100 cheque in the post by way of an apology.  If a bank can get it anybody can, so maybe we are finally beginning to understand the relative value of existing customers and the two in the bush and the part that internal marketing and customer service play in the future of a business.

This brings me to my real point.  I’m still amazed at the scarcity of marketing services firms that recognise the opportunity that this represents for them to buck the trend to declining revenues.  On the most basic level any proposal that an agency puts together in response to a client brief should include an appendix of ideas for taking the campaign to the internal market – its a no-brainer, but most of the presentations I see miss that vital element.  It makes me wonder sometimes what the agencies are thinking about when they try to pass themselves off as “marketing experts”.

One of the most successful pitches I managed for an agency was in response to an advertising brief, but opened with a list of twenty key initiatives that the client could introduce to develop their business.  We prioritised six, one of which answered the original advertising brief.  Three were internal marketing.  All of these initiatives leveraged the fundamental communications skills of any advertising agency.  We covered all six in detail and won the lot!  It doubled the size of the agency and led to two more new large-scale clients and a new business unit.

What we did here was fundamental, marketing #101 – identify your resources and find new ways to apply them.  Any agency deserving a place in the broader marketing community will do this kind of thing instinctively.  Sadly few do and the demise of many speaks for itself but with the lessons of Toyota ringing in the ear of every marketer right now, there’s no excuse for any agency that fails to grab this opportunity.


Posted: February 1, 2010
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The increasing importance of customer service in on-line marketing

I have just gone through an interesting experience with a manufacturer that has really driven home to me the heightened significance of two elements in the marketing process brought about by the growth of Internet retailing.

My story starts with the on-line purchase of a pair of sports shoes.  I play a lot of sports, a consequence of which is the array of specialist technical shoes in my wardrobe.  I was keen to try a particular brand of shoe that I hadn’t worn before and although I was aware of the possible sizing pitfalls, because I had worn just about every other make over the years, I know what my size is and I understand the principles of construction and manufacture, so I ordered my shoes on-line with confidence.  Besides, this particular brand of shoe is almost exclusively an on-line product, so there wasn’t an option and I couldn’t do what so many people do with other brands and products and walk into a shop to try them on before ordering on-line.

Just to prove Sod’s Law, when they arrived they were too small.  Not just a nat’s too small, but significantly so.  The cost of postage was included in the deal with the retailer, but to return the shoes for exchange was going to cost me £5.00, so I paused for thought.  I rang the retailer and who was blithely unaware of the sizing discrepancy, but said it explained the high number of returns he was getting.  However, he couldn’t tell me what size I should take, so I called the manufacturer.

Speaking to the category manager I learned that they knew of the sizing problem and had addressed this in later production runs, but as a result there are now at least two different sizing systems in circulation for the same product on a variety of retailer’s shelves – chaos!  To make matters worse, they hadn’t advised retailers of the problem.

The standardising of sizes is clearly a big issue for apparel manufacturers who rely to any extent on on-line retailers and as I discovered, where shoes are concerned the subject is a minefield.  It seems the world is not confined to the European, UK and US sizing systems, but tens of others too and depending on where in the world production is based the factories are often translating sizes from one system to another.  Even this isn’t simple because the size increments vary widely between systems so a European 42 for example may be roughly equivalent to a UK 8, but a Euro 43 is somewhere between a UK 8.5 and 9!

This brings me around to the second of my two elements – customer service.  As far as I was concerned the reputaion of this manufacturer was saved by their customer services team.  After trying three different sizes, I found a fit in the shoes I originally wanted, but had it not been for the dilligence of the customer services person I was dealing with, I would have been faced with a bill for mailing at least three pairs of shoes and I would have just reverted to a tried and tested brand.  Plus, as I am always quoting, if they had ever wanted to sell me anything else again, it would cost the offending manufacturer one-hundred-times the cost of an initial sale to entice me back again.

There are so many lessons to be learned from this its difficult to know where to start.  For example, I’d like to compare the cost of the necessary additional customer service to the saving offered by the on-line channel and I’d be interested to follow through on the satisfaction levels of customers who had purchased these shoes already.  Sales of these models might be OK, but what is going to happen in the future and if, as I suspect, volumes will fall in coming seasons as a result of this issue, what will be the cost to the company of  rebuilding its market share, in an increasingly competitive sector?  There are lessons for internal marketing in the exclusion of the retailers in the information chain and brand equity too.

One thing is clear however, this is a vivid example of what can happen when one link in your integrated marketing strategy fails.  In this case, it was the product development or manufacturing operations elements that were at fault, both critical areas of marketing as is customer service, which in this case saved the day for the manufacturer and at least ensured that they live to battle for business next time around.


Posted: February 1, 2010
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Bridging the gap between insights and action

A while ago I sat through a credentials presentation by the MD of one of the leading international data management consultancies.  At one point in the process a slide came up and the presenter went into a series of claims saying that they had shown so-and-so organisation how to save twenty million pounds and another client how to save thirty million etc.  Now, I’ve been in these situations before and even if I hadn’t, I would have been sensitive to the weasel, so I asked the obvious question.  “So, you showed them how to save all this money, what did they actually save?”  – Stunned silence.

It quickly became clear that the consultancy didn’t know how much some of the organisations in question had saved, or even if they had saved anything at all, because their proposals often weren’t acted upon.  In other cases the saving was minimal or nothing.  This isn’t unusual of course.  The ideas that the consultancy had offered were probably quite sound, but the problem that all these people have is that their clients are rarely capable of introducing the changes to processes or programmes that the data identifies as necessary and they themselves are not equipped to help beyond the point, at best, of identifying the kind of action required.

Its a few years ago that Jim Taylor in his book Space Race was lamenting the failure of advertising agencies to respond to their clients’ demands  for integrated solutions, but, sadly, things haven’t improved much.  The management consultancies as Jim prophesied, have taken the lead and the ad-agencies have just watched them disappear in a cloud of dust over the marketing horizon.  This is perhaps understandable when you consider that advertising agencies have for decades sat at the head of their clients’ marketing support roster, but things move on and today the traditional advertising role is revealed for what it is – just a very small corner of the bigger picture.  Sure, its a tough pill to swallow when you are used to being king of the hill, but I find it disappointing that even today the majority of advertising people I come across continue to describe what they do as “integrated marketing” which only illustrates how far they are away from understanding the wider landscape or the role they could play in it.  In fact, there are significant new opportunities for advertising agencies in the world of new model marketing that, if they just gave up trying to persuade us that they are still running the show, they could adjust to and solve the problem of their dwindling revenues.  I know, I’ve introduced a few agencies to these new opportunities and helped them add tens of millions of dollars in incremental billings as a result.

What clients need is an end-to-end seamless process for delivering truly integrated strategies and if the marketing services sector doesn’t come up with a model that works clients have no other option, but to take control, assemble narrowly focused marketing services specialists into project teams and make them work to eye-wateringly constrictive briefs.  I’ve helped a few clients of mine put teams like these together.  They are not for everybody, but they work well once you have all the resources.

The biggest impediment to achieving the single-source, end-to-end solution is culture.  At one end of the process sit the data nerds whose lives are written in binary code.  At the other are the creative advertising folks.  They don’t make good neighbours at the best of times, but trying to get them to agree on a single business model is a little like introducing George Dubya to a MENSA convention.  The reason that the management consultancies, as Jim Taylor predicted, are doing so well out of this, is that they sit with their structures and practices perspective, somewhere in the middle.  They aren’t great at data or creative, but manage a sort of average attempt at a solution that’s acceptable, in a businesslike sort of way, to a lot of half-arsed client organisations.

It seems to me that the people to watch right now, even though they probably have further to travel than any of the other players, are the aformentioned data folks.  Sapient and Experian appear to be leading the field, but are taking different routes to the same conclusion.  Experian, or rather those very smart folks at Clarity Blue, who they acquired a couple of years back, seem to be building out from their established base in the direction of the objective, adding new skills and resources that understandably, because of their parentage, appear rather more functional that creative as yet.  Meanwhile Sapient dropped an advance party by helicopter, right at the objective, by acquiring one of my current favourite advertising agency networks, Nitro last year and are now have the task of working backwards to set up a supply line.  They probab;ly stand an equal chance of creating the necessary end-to-end process, but I’ve always seen the “big idea” as a vital component in any marketing strategy so my money is on Sapient’s Nito approach being first to deliver the goods.  Watch this space!