The classic daytime TV soap opera is an entertainment format on its very last leg (and a spindly one at that). But the ridiculous melodrama, improbable plot twists and sheer cheesiness of the genre lives on in other realms. Most notably in the modern advertising or marketing agency.

Just consider the following if ad agencies were soap operas:

  • #1: BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT = Search For Tomorrow
  • #2: ACCOUNT SERVICES = General Hospital
  • #3: CREATIVE = The Young and the Restless
  • #4: SENIOR MANAGEMENT = All My Children
  • #5: STRATEGISTS = The Guiding Light
  • #6: ACCOUNTING/FINANCE = Dark Shadows
  • #7: INTERACTIVE = Another World

This OUT and IN pairing deserves its own post.

OUT: “Expert” | IN: Expertise. During the 19th century gold rush era, when a miner staked a claim it didn’t mean he was rich. It meant he had the potential for riches if he owned the right plot of land and worked it diligently.

These days, just about anybody can (and does) declare themselves an “expert” and then sashays that mantel around without a lot of challenge.

But there is a huge difference between declaring oneself an expert and earning expertise. In marketing, and especially in social media, there are so many “experts” around you wonder why it is that so many efforts fail.

Here’s why: Nobody is born an expert, and in an emerging, evolving environment it takes trial and error, recalculation, grunt work and sheer force of will to learn, apply and eventually find successes.

Expertise is earned. Declaring oneself an “expert” is b*******t.

[For the record, this principle can be applied to any industry or activity. Just in case the social media “experts” are feeling bullied.]

It’s a new year (still), the perfect time for belated resolutions and soapbox pronouncements about how we could make 2012 better than any year that preceded it. Here are Agency Babylon’s in and out recommendations for marketers, including agencies and clients alike.

OUT: Faux-thentic | IN: Authentic. So much that is presented as authentic is falsely relevant or truly disingenuous. To connect with customers, clients and others you’d like to influence try seeing things from their perspectives with a bias for how it happens in their real worlds – not your bias. Then go to work crafting messages and experiences with which they’ll genuinely connect.

OUT: Blame | IN: Accountability. Inevitably, things go wrong. At least some things some of the time. Rather than turning that into an opening for recriminations and fault-finding try to leverage it for better performance. Sure, someone might have done something “wrong,” but if it wasn’t willful or fatal, park your ego and make some lemonade. Accountability is always in fashion, though, and should be both delegated with clarity and embraced with maturity.

OUT: Silos | IN: Collaboration. Silos are fiefdoms erected by egos without an organizational perspective. Collaboration is borne out of a sense service and tends to float everyone’s boat. If you’ve built a silo, then you’re not a leader and should step aside (or be made to for the good of the larger enterprise).

OUT: Sales | IN: Development. There is absolutely nothing wrong with sales or selling. Except when it’s tone-deaf relative to the needs of the customer. And when it happens absent a larger strategy and the full support of the organization. Taking aim at agencies here, that is still too often the case and that leads to bouts of blame (see above). A development mentality need not be painstakingly strategic but it should envision both short- and longer-term planning. All the better for being around when 2013 ins and outs are proclaimed.

OUT: Backward | IN: Forward. Resting on your laurels is tempting. So tempting in fact that individuals and agencies feel compelled to make their case based solely on what they did in the past. Unless you invented the wheel or harnessed fire, however, smart clients and employers are at least as interested in what you will do going forward. By all means learn from and leverage the past, but be sure to apply that to today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.

OUT: Talking | IN: Listening.This one is self-evident. Realistically, you should strive for a balance here.

What do you think should be OUT and IN for marketers in 2012? Share your pairs in the comments section.

For 2012 I’ve pledged to make my world smaller. At least my social media world. Because in the rush for scale and perceived clout I – and way too many people using social media – opened the flood gates of way too much chatter. And like the roar from a sudden rush of water, it’s become impossible to distinguish individual sounds (voices) and prioritize them according to desirability.

So, I’ve begun pruning connections on Twitter, in LinkedIn and even a bit among my Facebook circle. (Other than experimenting with Google+, Tumblr, FourSquare and other platforms, I never fully engaged at any of these so my work here is done.)

The thing is, I’ve matured to a less-can-be-more sensibility. I want to actually value experiences and instead find that my time in social media has become of diminished value, less special and decreasingly relevant. I crave the truly authentic (more on that in another post soon), and too much information from too many connections just doesn’t deliver that.

When all is said and done, our social media experiences are about us as individuals. We get to choose which voices we want to hear, what connections are meaningful, and who really is a friend privy to our daily life’s check ins.

In a spooky coincidence, I recently caught an exchange on Twitter between a person doing exactly what I’m doing and some of those she was unfollowing. Although she did her best to explain that her choice was not personal, she had a bit of a backlash. But her timeline is her timeline, and she has the right to choose what content constitutes that timeline.

Truth is, I had already slowed my Twitter interactions to a trickle so I doubt that anyone will notice my absence. And I prefer it that way as I enjoy a more tailored, relevant and informative experience in social media.

It’s a little bit fascinating and a lot perplexing that there is so much debate – in Europe, North America and elsewhere – over product placement and brand integration in entertainment content. [See the Advertising Age article “How European Media Companies Are Dealing With Product Placement.”]

If the goal of a television show, movie, web site content or even a game is to truly engage an audience, then the presence of actual brands in that content is completely natural.

As I sit at my desk writing this, I have an Ice Mountain water bottle within reach. The Holmes fan is circulating air in an otherwise stuffy space. My Macbook Pro is making this blog post possible – as long as my Avaya phone doesn’t ring or I don’t grab that bottle of Windex to clean my Quartet white board.

When I get home and enter my Pella door I’ll sweep into my kitchen filled with an Asko dishwasher, Kitchenaid refrigerator and other brand-name appliances. Maybe I’ll sip a San Pellegrino water at my Silestone island counter from Crate and Barrel glassware while watching the news (OK, actually John Stewart and Stephen Colbert repeats) on my Sharp Aquos TV.

The point is, our real lives are immersed in brands. We see and hear them. Touch them. Use them. And have full-on visual contact with logos. Everyday. Everywhere. It’s normal.

So why shouldn’t we see them in our entertainment content? Is it more honest to sanitize content of actual brands, possibly making the setting less relatable? They sure think so in Denmark, where any product placement is banned. (Alas, what would Hamlet think? Would he even care?)

And so what if money has changed hands to get the brands into the scene. Last time I checked honest consumers have been happy to give money to get branded items into their lives.

Most people are savvy when it comes to consuming content. If a product placement feels forced or insincere, people will direct their attention elsewhere. More folks, by far, get duped by phone and online phishing schemes than they do from product placement.

So, let’s get over the hysteria and get on with the show. And that means letting audiences make their own decisions about how well they like or dislike brands in their daily dose of entertainment.

I once “under-reported” my degree of competitiveness in an annual review with my boss. It was one of the few times I ever saw her laugh.

Fine. I’m competitive. But when asked to self-assess how competitive I was what came to mind was the kind of take-away competition that is ultimately limiting and possibly destructive.

Competition can actually be healthy, even if one party benefits more in the outcome. And that brings me to the false debate over where advertising dollars are best spent. Not the best media strategy mind you. No, it’s the industry nattering that pits one platform against the other. As in, TV as an ad medium is dying and marketers “must” move dollars to online, mobile and elsewhere.

That zero sum philosophy was on self-serving display in remarks by Yahoo’s executive vice president of the Americas, Ross Levinsohn, which he delivered at the Interactive Advertising Bureau “The Future of Display” conference this week. His comments, reported in Direct Marketing News, keep alive the false competition among media platforms for advertisers.

I share my comment to the article reporting Levinsohn’s POV here, and invite you to share your opinions as well:

Rather than being the either-or proposition so often predicted but yet to come, we’ll eventually come to understand that entertaining content will be the connective tissue that links TV with digital advertising once and for all. I imagine a time – once preconceived constructs are laid to rest – when quality content moves seamlessly across platforms. Perhaps in ways modified to take best advantage of each platform, yet consistent and compelling no matter where it is experienced. Smart advertisers and marketers will dismiss all this ad dollar take-away thinking and begin crafting content that works where audiences chose to engage.

This post also appears in the eFangelists blog from Met|Hodder.

When it comes to conferring legitimacy, “authentic” versus “manufactured” fan activity seem to be in conflict.

Things really go viral, its imagined by those in the “authentic” camp, when the fans themselves discover and champion the object of their enthusiasm. Creators and marketers need not engage.

It’s hard to resist the pun of calling this scenario a fantasy – at least in most cases of fan-worthy popular culture. In fact, the very introduction and nurturing of a popular culture artifact is the job of commercial creators and their handmaidens – marketers. That’s true if it’s a movie or music, television show or sports team. Even down to playing field pros and entertainment stars of all types.

Simply put, the objects of fan attention more than likely have been “made” to some degree or another. That’s no disrespect to genuine admirers whose potent word of mouth and homemade enthusiasm can be astoundingly influential.

But…sorry, indie kids, but “Pulp Fiction” was not hand-crafted in the corner of Quentin Tarantino’s bedroom. Nor has Arcade Fire’s “Suburbia” become a best-seller via street-corner busking.

Increasingly, the “authentic” and “manufactured” camps are finding common ground. And it seems that the manufacturers are going more than halfway to bridge the gap.

Smart marketers and promotions pros are becoming increasingly creative and flexible in how they stoke fan interest, and ultimately passion. A primary way is by going to the fans (or potential fans) where they themselves live, play, communicate and create.

Take the new Syfy network drama “Being Human.” [Full disclosure: Met|Hodder counts Syfy as a client and has worked on aspects of this show’s launch promotions.] The January 2011 launch of this show held a lot of promise, but it also posed challenges for Syfy.

The promise was that the show – which focuses on the lives of three younger-than-usual-for-Syfy characters – could draw a younger demographic to the network. The appeal of that, beyond a young demo being the bread and butter of advertising sales, is that it means exposing younger viewers to the network as a whole.

The challenges were even more interesting.

First, Syfy’s “Being Human” is an adaptation of a beloved, well-established and currently airing  series of the same parentage on the BBC (it runs on the BBC America network here in the colonies). So, how do you win over those fans and fend off the expected push back?

On top of that, the series has had to overcome the near-saturation in pop culture of stories involving supernatural beings. Especially vampires but now including werewolves. (Ghosts are under-exploited these days, so the show’s spectral character is yet to be scorned.)

And, of course, there are all the usual hurdles of successfully launching a new television series these days.

Faced with these challenges, the promotions folks at Syfy took extra effort to meet their prospective fans on their own turf. They launched a multi-platform campaign that ranged from the traditional (on-air, outdoor, print) to the imaginative (social media, partnerships with non-mainstream media, Shazam music integration – a first).

Perhaps it was the one-two punch of traditional and imaginative, but the early ratings success for the show seems to have proven Syfy’s strategy.

The lesson for marketers is: The authenticity of fan support matters as much to the seeding and success of popular culture as the often-corporate makers of fan-worthy output.

The lesson for fans is: Without the creativity and marketing muscle of popular culture creators, your buzz – for all its potential power – might not make it around the corner if not for something really worth fanaticizing over.

A final thought: The devil (not too many shows about them), of course, is in the details. Consider that there are two paths. “Ham-fisted manufacturing” of popular culture content is developed to be force fed to potential fans. But “thoughtful manufacturing” is authentically nuanced to nurture and amplify the fan’s passion. The former is still too common a practice, but the latter represents the inevitable future of marketing and promotions that relies on fans for success.

Poor Buddy.

When I left him at home that morning, my aging but otherwise spry basset mix was doing just fine. Sure he’d been battling a chronic illness, but his meds were working and his prognosis was up and to the right.

Imagine my shock when later that day I received condolences via e-mail about Buddy’s passing from 1-800-PetMeds.

What?! Wait! How could they know about something so important before me? Work is engrossing and all, but my dogs get top billing in my life. What the heck was going on?

Turns out that bad marketing was the culprit that killed Buddy. Killed him virtually, that is, in 1-800-PetMeds’ misguided effort to commune “authentically” with a customer. Ex-customer to be precise, and that change in status with them is exactly what triggered this morbid and intrusive communication.

See, I had contacted the leading online purveyor of pet medications and supplies to put a final nail in my long-standing account with them. The reason for that is a whole other story involving exactly where they buy media time to promote their service. But let’s not go there.

Seems that when you terminate your account with them they need to check a box in their system to indicate why. And since there was no box that said “customer is offended by your advertising placement choices” they apparently decided to delete Buddy from their system by reporting him as deceased.

That generated the smarmy condolence message and set me off on a rant about false intimacy in marketing.

While this kind of cut-and-paste message was intended to demonstrate the company’s personal relationship with me – being there by my side in the mourning process – as a customer it was simply not welcome. Even if Buddy had really died (he hasn’t, just to be clear) I would have found the message presumptuous. Because I only ever saw myself as a remote customer of theirs. We never spoke nor had I ever crossed their threshold. It was strictly a business relationship from my standpoint.

In the rush to forge “relationships” with customers some companies go too far. Other than taking my money and giving me my product in return, 1-800-PetMeds never made any effort to get to know me or my dogs better. There was only a financial relationship, not an interpersonal one.

That’s a danger with marketing these days, whatever communications platform is in play. Marketers might think they’re clever by personalizing communications. But if the customer doesn’t see himself in the same kind of relationship the tactic not only backfires, it can create a level of hostility.

Empowered consumers know they have choices. And they can nurse grudges that pull them away from brands. Some find another product or service provider while others just opt out of the category. Unrequited love never feels good. But when marketers make erroneous assumptions about the level of intimacy they’ve earned with customers they can be scorned for life.

In my last post I waxed eloquent about the economic reasons for pursuing a diverse client base. “Duh,” you say, despite the many agencies that ignore that obvious rule.

Yet there are other reasons for diversification, all of which have their own economic underpinnings but get at larger agency management practices. Here are a few – along with an invitation to share your insights here as well:

CULTURE

  • Diverse client work keeps the creative from getting restless. Sure, they whine anyway. But you can tolerate it better when you know that you’re doing all you can to keep their fertile minds challenged, amused and engaged. You still might find their legendary and ubiquitous carping an irritant, but now you can smugly dismiss it.

BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT

  • The ability to tackle different kinds of challenges makes you more valuable to existing clients. The more you can do – and learn to do well, even for other clients – the more valuable you might be to a client that uses your skills in only one way.
  • A willingness to embrace the new keeps you relevant in the marketplace. You know, that place where your prospective clients live. It’s a cliché anymore to say how rapidly changing advertising, marketing and media are. But it’s dead true. If you aren’t learning how to solve new problems with the next generation of strategic thinking, technology and creative adaptation, then you are the admiral of a sinking ship.

RECRUITMENT

  • Building a reputation for diverse capabilities also helps in recruiting fresh, hot talent. What agency animal with any go in him/her wants to move to your zoo if nothing exciting ever happens there? And with fresh talent should come better service for existing clients, new approaches to prospects and many even a new recruit who brings a client along with her/him.

Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. Or something like that.

The key words to that paraphrase of a truism are “learn” and “doomed.” But let’s replace the “and” with “or” to get to my point a little faster than usual: Learn or Be Doomed.

When it comes to crafting and curating an agency’s book of client business it’s amazing how many once-promising shops forgot that a key to long-term viability is diversification.

Diversification certainly means having a balanced portfolio of different clients, ideally ones with businesses that are counter-cyclical. That’s a tall order to actually fulfill, yet it’s a worthy effort to make. It also means growing the ability to solve more kinds of problems for clients: Wider ranging creative capabilities, more facility with multiple marketing platforms, the addition of strategy to creative – and vice versa.

The case for diversification has painfully obvious (yet often ignored) foundations and some possibly less obvious.

If lack of diversification means too much revenue from any one client, then you are at economic risk. Because too much upside could easily become an awful lot of downside if:

  • Your direct client leaves and his/her replacement brings another agency on board.
  • The client company changes its agency philosophy from mono-agency preference to best-of-breed preference, which means that it would rather shop around its work to many and forsake fidelity to yours.
  • Budgets get slashed for any number of reasons (and none of them have to be rational). You’d think this was obvious, yet I’ve known plenty of agencies and creative shops that have ignored it – to their eventual dismay. One defunct agency had as clients multiple business units in one giant corporation – about 90 percent of billings. They thought that constituted diversity of the client portfolio because the business units served a wide range of markets. That worked until the new CEO came in under a singular cost-cutting, share-boosting focus. He made sharp, fast cuts across the board. You can guess what happened to that agency.
  • Someone from your team ticks off the client and the harm is irreparable. (Oh, yeah. I’ve seen that happen.)
  • Your work gets stale and they need to find fresh horses.

There are just as compelling but perhaps less obvious reasons to pursue diversification. I’ll visit some of those in the next post. In the meantime, start diversifying.

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