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Lights out on a wild 2010. How was YOUR business year?

30 Dec

If it was anything like ours, it was a Wild Mouse ride from beginning to end.

In January, faced with the reality of overhead in a recession-frightened, post-retainer, digital world, we changed our essential business model from mostly-in-house to mostly out-of-house, transforming our full-time creatives into contract workers, free to pursue other things while often occupied with the same work they’d been doing with The Fiddler Group (at a higher hourly rate). I won’t claim it was part of a brilliant strategy. And it certainly wasn’t easy. Like most big changes, it was simply an obvious necessity.

For our clients, the change was virtually invisible: we still did the same things, on the same schedules, with mostly the same people.

For us, the change was more transformative than we thought it would be. Freed from the necessity of bringing work that would fill the plates of everyone on staff, while still somewhat nourished by ongoing clients and projects, we soldiered on. But faced with a radically different daily landscape, we soon found ourselves asking a question we thought we knew the answer to: What are we now?

Our essential mission hadn’t changed. We were still brand builders, dedicated to helping our clients — most of them medium sized challenger businesses — discover what makes them unique, enhance it and leverage it for growth. We still had all the processes and wisdom we’d developed over the years. And we still had access to all the talent our clients appreciated. But looking around the office, it was obvious: we were different.

At first it was a little depressing. The place was quieter (especially during the Big Snows of January and February, when the office was nearly inaccessible). We needed to negotiate with partners when clients needed certain work that we’d always done in-house. We had to become better project managers. More work was done at a distance, without benefit of the office pop-in. We felt diminished, even a little ashamed sometimes of our lower head count. But over the course of the year, little by little, through some dark days and some brighter ones, it became apparent that what we’d done by shrinking our staff was grow our capabilities. By changing our business model, we’d increased our value to clients.

Now at year’s end, we are not only helping clients realize their brands, we’re helping develop strategy and execute with a greater pool of resources (from a much larger geographic range) and a higher degree of expertise. They’re connecting with their customers in more ways than ever, through social media,  video, and who knows what all, as well as traditional media.  The walls have truly fallen. And we’re giving them the leadership they deserve.

So who are we now? Brand builders, yes, but evolved to build brands in ways we haven’t even considered yet, in a world we know will be unpredictable. We’re offering more to existing clients, and have begun attracting clients we might never have attracted just a year ago.

The year that began with such consternation and anxiety, and which at times looked dark, now flows into another with much more promise. I wouldn’t call 2010 a fun year. But, gee, it could have been a lot worse. We survived it. We’re better. And I expect a day will come when we point to it as The Necessary Year.

How was yours?

We Have Seen the Future and It Is Them: Brandvertising’s Three Starring Roles

17 Dec

Back to the FutureLast month, Fast Company published a brilliant article by Danielle Sacks about “The Future of Advertising.” I can’t imagine anyone in our industry not recognizing the chaos she describes. And if you’ve been in the business more than five years, for sure you found your blood running cold with the shock of recognition.

She describes a world  (ours)  in which the old models — of media, of agencies, of client relationships — have been smashed, to be replaced by, well, as of now, chaos. Of course, she talks to lots of people who have done lots of different things in the new environment, most of them leaving big agencies and starting renegade business of some sort, some of them successful. All agree things will never be the same, that the digital revolution will sweep away the old guard. Listen closely, the sound you hear is the clicking of Madame Defarge‘s knitting needles.

But while technology has forever altered the advertising business, just as it has altered the music, radio, newspaper, television and retail businesses (to name but a few), clients’ top level needs have not really changed. Clients still need to find ways to build brands and drive sales, just like they did in Mad Men days. Just because the answer to these needs is no longer “run some TV spots and see what happens” doesn’t mean they don’t need help from teams of smart people with special knowledge and skills.

Of course, technical skills, such as programming and multimedia development will be in demand. And while commercial TV as we know it is evolving, I doubt the thing we know as the TV spot is going away anytime soon; someone will have to make them. But here are a few communications professionals that should be in high demand in post revolutionary Brandland.

Branders Who Get It. Brands aren’t losing importance. In fact, if anything, in a world where price is increasingly transparent, brands take on increased importance, simply because brands simplify choice. They’re the x factor beyond price. But whereas brands used to be highly controlled and viewed through the peephole of traditional advertising and packaging, brands are now in a fishbowl. A brand essence statement and simple Brand ID Guide doesn’t cut it. The people who craft brands need to consider not only how they look, but how they sound, smell, taste, sing, laugh, converse, not to mention how to maintain some sort of internal consistency across every conceivable encounter with customers. Understanding your brand on the most fundamental level, so you can live it within the maelstrom of media and competition has become essential. Branders who understand this and can help organizations navigate the new landscape will be needed and I suspect will take over much of the strategic work ad agencies have traditionally handled, because it’s no really just a prelude to doing traditional advertising. Brand building is an ongoing activity that may or may not involve what we now call “advertising.”

Real Writers. Once upon a time, advertising was the province of great writers such as Hopkins, Caples and Ogilvy. With the coming of TV and better printing— art directors became the stars. In the new world of Brandvertising, with its insatiable appetite for content, writers are once again in demand. But this time, it’s not just to write advertising copy. Blogs, eBooks, videos, they all require writing. And who knows what else will pop up. It’s good news for all the journalism school graduates looking at a world of dying newspapers.

Connectivistas. We now have “Social Media Gurus” (or “Evangelists,” or whatever else you call them) on one side, traditional media types on the other. But in the end, they’re all responsible for the same thing: creating pipelines that connect brands with people, and vice versa. In the new world, as the distinctions blur, we need people who understand how to integrate them. I suppose you could call them Media Professionals, but Connectivistas, or something like that, is probably more accurate, because the responsibility could extend to areas beyond what we think of as “media.” A Connectivista should be able to develop a full-out connection strategy that includes digital media, social media, traditional media, SEO, PR,  point of purchase, events,… you name it. It’s an Integrated Marketing Communications professional squared.

I’m certain the list above is just the beginning. Brandvertising is, after all, a new world. But once you get over the culture shock, it sounds kinda interesting, no?

Brand Promo: The 9% Solution

2 Jun

You want to know how to kick start a brand in a new territory? Hint: it’s not Facebook.

Our client is a franchise restaurant with a new franchisee who’d been sucking wind since opening his Kansas City-area location about a month ago. Was the location lousy? Right behind the Wal-Mart — probably not. The food? Nope; they sell a fantastic charbroiled burger and fries at a reasonable price in a pleasant fast casual atmosphere. Besides, there hadn’t been enough customers since opening to judge the food good or bad.

We‘re engaged to help the franchisor build their brand for the long term. But this franchisee needed help — fast. With limited money, a fractured media environment and a ticking clock, we opted for a traditional solution — direct mail promotion — figuring if we could get a 1% response rate, delight the new customers, collect some contact info, and follow up, we’d help save the location and worry more about the brand essentials in the morning.

To his credit, the franchisee was willing to pony up a serious promotion — a free 1/2-lb. burger, fries and soft drink, no other purchase necessary.  Doesn’t get much better than that. We created a strong oversized postcard, communicated the brand essentials, and let it fly.

What a pleasure it was when we got the email one afternoon about lines of customers leading out the door into the parking lot. All told, we made almost a thousand new customers in less than two weeks — over a 9% response! And all of them sampled the signature dish.

Was the promotion a substitute for strong brand development? Of course not. Can we promote our way to success? No way. But in case we needed a reminder, we proved plenty of customers will respond to a big ol’ promotion simply delivered. And once you make new customers, a strong brand will keep ‘em.

4 1/2 Ways Good Clients Are Like Good Lovers

7 Jan

I’ve never liked the affectation some agencies practice of calling clients “partners,” or — for that matter — clients calling their agencies “partners.” True partners share the same goals. While an agency’s job is to help clients achieve the clients’ goals, the agency’s overall goals can’t be satisfied by any single client. And let’s face it: how many clients really care about their agency’s goals anyway?

It’s not that agencies don’t care about their clients, and vice versa; it’s simply a matter of priorities. That’s why the old analogy of an agency/client relationship being like a marriage doesn’t really hold water. How many newlyweds go on the prowl for new “partners” the way agencies do the instant the vows leave their lips? (OK, there are a few. But let’s hope they’re in the minority.) Figures differ on the average length of agency and client “marriages.” 5.3 years — and shrinking — appears to be a number that’s bandied about a lot. But given the average CMO tenure at a Fortune 500 company is now less than two years, that 5.3 year figure seems a little long. And clients never keep agencies around “for the sake of the kids.”

No, agencies and clients aren’t like married couples. They’re more like lovers, joined to milk precious satisfaction as long as the satisfaction lasts. Lest you consider me cynical, consider the value of a good lover (especially when there’s no spouse to tiptoe behind) and the potential longevity of a good affair. It’s not such a bad thing. In fact, it behooves both parties to consider not how to be great spouses, but how to be great lovers (figuratively speaking, of course).

Agencies pretty much know the game: be attentive, delight whenever possible, listen carefully, respond quickly, never call anyone an idiot. But most clients seem to be in the dark, assuming (like an inept lover) that it’s always all about them. Of course it IS always about them. But good clients — like good lovers — learn that knowing how to give the agency what it needs to please you can increase everyone’s satisfaction. (See how nicely this analogy works?) Here’s how they do it:

#1: They Tell You What They Need (“A little lower, a hair to the left, THERE, that’s the spot!”)
Decent agencies don’t need to be told how to do their jobs. But it doesn’t hurt to know exactly what would make the individual client happy before setting out on a project. Do you want to increase sales volume among heavy users? Increase new customer counts in the Mid-Atlantic region? Increase brand awareness among diabetic pre-teens? Cool. You say you want a new advertising campaign? What for? How will we know if it’s successful? If I had a dime for every time a client said “We just need to drive sales,” I’d be retired. Of course you need to drive sales. Everyone needs to drive sales. But where are those sales expected to come from? The late, great (and very profane) comedian Sam Kinison once did a bit about trying to please women in which he asked what it was they wanted men to do, finally screaming “Tell us!!!!! Just tell us!!!!” That’s the way agencies feel sometimes.

#2: They Give You What You Need (“What if we stayed at YOUR place tonight?”)
You want an agency to give you pleasure? Give them the information they need to do their jobs. Hit your deadlines. Give honest feedback. Don’t hide any agendas. Give them access to decision-makers, rather than hiding behind ineffectual coordinators. In other words, treat them like lovers, not prostitutes.

#3: They Trust You (“Handcuffs? Sure, have at it.”)
Funny how people try to live up to expectations. Expect someone to fail and they usually will. Expect people to do their best and they usually won’t disappoint. “Trust” is just another word for positive expectations. If you don’t trust your agency to bring back work that’s on target, they probably won’t. If you consistently second guess them in their  area of expertise, you’ll soon find they won’t offer as much of it. Does this mean good clients never question their agencies? Of course not. Questions are healthy. But you need to find an agency/lover you can trust, then proceed to trust them. If you find you can’t trust your agency to act in your best interest, you should treat them like an untrustworthy lover — dump ‘em. If you find yourself incapable of trusting any agency, you will never be a good client.

#4: They’re Adventurous (“Will I do it here? Um, what the hell?”)
This is the flip side #3. You want some reward, you’ll have to accept some risks. It’s an adventure. Advertising legend Stan Tannenbaum used to say “great creative always makes clients nervous.” Great clients understand nervousness isn’t always a response to a great idea, but are willing to close their eyes and take the leap occasionally. If you trust your agency, you’ll

#4 1/2: They Call You in the Morning (“Honey, that was great.”)
OK, this only counts as a half because, well, it’s nice, but if all you’re after is a one night stand it’s not absolutely necessary. But if you want to keep a great lover, stay in touch. You want to keep a good agency, tell them how they performed and thank them for the effort. They’ll remember that the next time another project rolls around. Keep your agency in the loop. Call ‘em up from time to time to share results.