The Curse of Cannes strikes again

July 19, 2010

They’ll shortly be calling it the Curse of Cannes. Win a gong at the International Advertising Festival and sooner or later you’re bound to bomb.

First there was the Old Spice Guy, who waltzed off with the film grand prix, only to walk slap-bang into a controversy over the brand’s lacklustre sales performance.

Now Lean Mean Fighting Machine, the first UK outfit to have won the Cannes interactive ad agency of the year award, has come a cropper with one of its major clients, Coca-Cola, after an embarrrassing foul-up over a Facebook promotion. I doubt that they will be remaining on terms for much longer.

Coke has had to pull the internet promotion, featuring its Dr Pepper brand, after it was accused of enticing children by making reference to a pornographic movie. From what I can understand, users had to give the company access to their Facebook status boxes, which then filled them with silly (but largely harmless) messages designed to give their internet mates a bit of a rise.

All went well, with over 160,000 people signing up, until a certain Mrs Rickman noticed that the profile of her 14-year-old daughter had been updated with a direct reference to a hardcore pornographic film, Two Girls One Cup (aka Hungry Bitches). Perhaps hardcore doesn’t do it justice: coprophagic fetishism would be a polite description of its main theme. Unfortunately for Coke, Mrs Rickman is an adept of social networking site Mumsnet. Result: uproar and a hasty pledge by Coke to can the promotion and mount a full-scale investigation.

Even then, Coke couldn’t get it right. To quote Mediaguardian:

‘She was offered compensation of theatre tickets for a West End show and a night in a London hotel.

“Fat lot of use to me, we live in Glasgow,” she said.’

Coke has admitted the nominal responsibility (with the extraordinary claim that it had approved the offending reference without realising its true significance). But I suspect it won’t be taking the blame.

For that we must look to LMFM, an offshoot of Tribal DDB which was set up six years ago and is chaired by advertising luminary Paul Bainsfair. You can’t be too careful with internet promotions. Someone is always watching over you. Even so, it was unusually bad luck for an agency which only won the account in spring – after it devised a successful April Fool’s Day ad for Coke. This time, the joke backfired.

AND IT GETS WORSE. I gather Coke, under the guise of reviewing its overall digital media strategy, is now considering sacking LMFM, full stop. Only this week, it landed the digital ad account for the Zero brand. For more insights into Coke’s ineptitude over its LMFM hiring see Jim Edwards’ post on bNet.


Look at the man next to you, now back to me, now look at the Old Spice sales figures, now back to me

July 17, 2010

Flushed with success at Cannes, the progress of Procter & Gamble’s Old Spice Red Zone Body Wash campaign, featuring hunky actor Isaiah Mustafa, seemed unstoppable.

Now the geographical focus has switched from one end of France to the other: Waterloo. Not only has an ambitious foray into the real-time web, involving interactive video, gone into meltdown, but some embarrassing sales figures have emerged. It’s tempting to believe the two things are connected, though that’s doubtful.

“The man your man could smell like”, devised by Wieden & Kennedy, has been an undeniable succès d’estime, but it doesn’t sell product. Not, at least, if we give credence to the SymphonyIRI figures printed in Brandweek: during the 52 weeks ending on June 13, sales of the brand have dropped 7% (excluding the amount sold in WalMart). Bear in mind that the W+K campaign was launched at the Super Bowl in February, so it’s had plenty of time to register a difference.

Taken at face value, this is yet another example of a hackneyed and disagreeable truth. Great creativity may surprise and delight, but often fails to sell product. As Jim Edwards at bNet points out, that’s a great shame because it sets the cause back. Once, P&G was lambasted for its controlling and philistine attitude towards creativity. Now it has changed its ways, it’s probably going to be pilloried for not slashing the price and turning the brand into a moribund cash cow. Or something equally unimaginative. Is Old Spice a dad’s brand, beyond redemption? I don’t know. But it’s certainly possible the marcoms is too sophisticated for the task in hand.

To use a rare (for me) sport analogy, would Germany have won the World Cup had it stuck to its usual, brutally regimented, style instead of adopting the free-flowing, elegant, possession football identified as “gay” by its critics? At the end of the day, it’s all about scoring goals.

UPDATE 27/7/10. Have I been too harsh on the Old Spice Guy’s performance? New sales figures, produced below and printed in Ad Age, suggest a more complex picture than that originally conveyed by the Brandweek article. At first sight, Old Spice seems to have done well, especially in June. On closer inspection, however, P&G’s Gillette has done a lot better. The real winner in the period is probably Unilever’s Dove Men & Care, relaunched in the spring. As Ad Age points out, category uplift has been complicated by heavy couponing and price discounts. Whatever else they may be, the sales figures are not a clear-cut endorsement for Old Spice creativity:

Michael O’Leary avoids his Gerald Ratner moment of truth – for now

July 17, 2010

I picked up Thursday’s Guardian with mounting anticipation and turned to page 9, as instructed. There it was, half a page of sheer, undiluted schadenfreude!

A half-page ad in which Michael O’Leary is forced to apologise fulsomely for calling his EasyJet rival Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannu a liar in print. Appearing in the Telegraph, too. And all paid for by Ryanair.

That’s the sadness of the Ryanair brand. For all the gritty enterprise that has made it Europe’s first airline, we don’t very much like it, or its leader. In fact, we can’t wait for him, or it, to get their come-uppance.

Not that O’Leary will be losing much sleep over such sentiment (see my Horlicks post). If anyone thinks this is his Gerald Ratner moment, they are very much mistaken. O’Leary’s arrogance is not yet so overbearing that he has lost touch with his market. Granted that both he and Ratner have the same contempt for the people they have served. But the difference is that O’Leary’s judgement of human nature is much shrewder. Spookily, he seems to know us better than we know ourselves. Just how much more are we prepared to be abused at the check-in counter, treated like cattle as we board and sheep once aboard, before outraged human dignity finally overcomes our greed for lower prices? A lot more, I suggest; even after Ryanair introduces the single paying loo. Ryanair never forgets that, despite our better selves, we don’t really have a choice – and rubs our noses in it.

Still, we can have a few laughs along the way at the great brand’s expense, and this is definitely one of them. The knife between Stelios and O’Leary is an outstanding illustration of mutual corporate and personal loathing. Others examples include Sir Richard Branson and Willie Walsh; and Sir Martin Sorrell and Maurice Lévy. My favourite, however, (for which I am indebted to the BBC News website) is the case of the two Dassler brothers, one of whom (Adi) set up Adidas, and the other (Rudi), Puma. The hostility between the two of them was so visceral that for many years the Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach, where both had factories, was in a state of undeclared civil war.

The end of a riveting tale – BBH resigns Levi’s account

July 15, 2010

It’s probably entirely coincidental that BBH’s resignation of the Levi’s account, which the agency serviced with distinction for 28 years, surfaced about the same time as the jeans manufacturer’s second quarter financial results. A constructive coincidence, all the same. If not exactly dire, the results graphically illustrate how far down in the world the Levi’s brand has come: the company compounded a multi-million dollar loss.

In its day – 15 to 20 years ago – Levi’s was a sobriquet for jeans, at a time when everyone of consequence thought it cool to wear jeans. Now they don’t. Or if they do, it’s 7 For All Mankind for upmarket, Gap for downmarket and Diesel for youff – with Levi’s perched somewhere uncomfortably in between. The market for nostalgic Americana has vanished, probably for ever.

Levi’s iconic status arose, in business terms, out of a structural imbalance. The company’s own retail presence was extremely weak outside the USA – even today it does not own all its outlets, leading to an impression of inconsistency. Advertising supplied the deficit, literally driving people into the shops to buy the stuff. That’s a relatively unusual situation in the rag trade; even more unusual is the idea of trusting the agency’s judgement in these matters. But Levi’s did, with astonishingly productive consequences.

You can view BBH’s contribution as a number of discrete, highly visual campaigns – from Launderette, Swimmer through to the Flat Eric vehicle and beyond. Everyone has their favourite. The magical insight, however, was not so much what they looked like, but what they sounded like. The estates of, among others, Marvyn Gaye, Eddie Cochrane, Sam Cooke and Dinah Washington (Mad About the Boy) have every reason to be grateful to BBH. A few years later, in the mid-nineties, the agency moved on from resurrecting the fortunes of dead artists to making the fortunes of new ones, such as Babylon Zoo in “Spaceman”  and Mr Oizo in “Flat Beat”.

Latterly, however, Levi’s seems to have lost faith in advertising and BBH in Levi’s. It’s not just that the jeans brand is becoming more penny-pinching as it tries to cope with commoditisation; BBH has, these past two years, found it a great deal more difficult (I understand) to get its creative proposals accepted. Even so, it must have been with a heavy heart that Nigel Bogle, BBH group chief executive, composed the letter firing one of his original, and signature, clients.

Marketing ITV – it’s all about content, stupid!

July 15, 2010

Does marketing really belong in the commercial department? Not according to ITV’s new bosses, who have just made it a subset of content creation.

How serious they are about the proposition is, of course, a matter of debate. At one level – the level of employment lawyers – what’s going on looks suspiciously like constructive dismissal. Change the senior reporting structure in a company and you potentially diminish the authority and budgetary power of those who are “reorganised”.

That’s certainly one interpretation of the imminent departure of group marketing director David Pemsel and head of research Chad Wollen, announced yesterday afternoon. Only a week ago, it emerged that marketing and research, hitherto separate and under the control of the commercial department, were to be integrated and rerouted to content czar Peter Fincham (aka director of television, the chief commissioning role).

The conspiracy theory gains traction when we consider what else has been happening at ITV recently: chiefly the sacking of most of the old guard. After commercial director Rupert Howell fell on his sword and was replaced by Fru Hazlitt, we have had a very crowded departure lounge. Studio bosses Lee Bartlett and Remy Blumenfield are queueing at the exit, as is online director Ben McOwen Wilson.

And that’s just scratching the surface. Underneath, a full-scale cleansing of the Augean Stables is underway, as chairman Archie Norman and chief executive Adam Crozier take a pitchfork to the “shambles” (their word) of the Michael Grade regime. Humiliating psychometric tests applied to the 120 senior managers who remain add a defining touch to this melancholy picture. (I bet Crozier wishes he could have applied those self-same tests to the board of the Football Association during his tenure as chief executive – now there’s an organisation that really isn’t fit for purpose.)

Yet none of the above is inconsistent with implementing a strong, alternative, strategic vision; some of it already apparent in the quality of new senior hirings. Hazlitt is widely viewed as an inspired choice to succeed Howell. Her natural enthusiasm and client-servicing skills should help to repair damaged relationships with media agencies. She also “gets” digital (just as well really). Mind you, how she will co-exist with Gary Digby, master of the dark art of  TV trading, is a moot point.

Moreover, vesting more power with strong programme-led talents such as Fincham and Kevin Lygo – poached from C4 and now head of production (or ITVS, as it is called) – surely makes a lot of sense. The Grade regime talked a good game about improving the quality of content, but in reality it was fixated on refurbishing a brand built around yesterday’s trading system.

Witness the amount of corporate energy spent in repealing (fairly unsuccessfully, as it turned out) the Contract Rights Renewal (CRR) regulatory straitjacket encasing its main, analogue, channel – ITV1. Just to put things in perspective, here are a few statistics. When in 2003 Carlton and Granada merged to form ITV, the flagship channel’s share of the commercial television audience was 43%. By the end of 2008, it was 28.5%. Add in ITV’s (relatively neglected) digital channels and the figure rises to over 40% again. And yet, ITV has singularly failed to monetise that digital presence. Last year, online revenues were only £35m, up from £23m in 2006.

I’m not necessarily saying the Crozier/Norman 5-year plan will work– maybe nothing can at this late stage. But at least it represents a reality check firmly breaking with the nostalgia of the past. Superior programmes, especially hit shows that travel effortlessly across the multimedia and geographical landscape, are the only way ahead. In that sense, putting marketing at the service of the creative department is a no-brainer.

Abolition of FSA will give food industry more shout

July 12, 2010

Come on, we all knew a Tory government was going to abolish the FSA. It’s just we got the wrong one in our sights. How devious of them to lead us up the garden path like that!

While the incompetent Financial Services Authority (a watchdog steeped up to its dewlaps in responsibility for the banking crisis) has got off lightly with a root-and-branch reform instead of threatened abolition, the other FSA, the Food Standards Agency, which was threatened with root-and-branch reform but not abolition, is the one that is actually going to get the chop. Health secretary Andrew Lansley, we are told, will shortly announce that the organisation set up in 2000 in the wake of the BSE crisis will have its regulatory remit (safety and hygiene in the food chain) devolved to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and its responsibilities for advising on public health and diet (primarily the obesity debate) given to the Department of Health (DoH).

The immediate aim is to save about £1bn by breaking up a department with 2,000 people and a budget of £135m. However, commentators on both sides of the food divide have been quick to discern a not-very-hidden ideological agenda.

Nannyism: Out of fashion

With one stroke, Lansley has struck a lethal blow at the heart of nannyism. Even the food industry seems a little taken aback by the suddenness of the blow. And yet it is entirely consistent with Lansley’s promise – implicit in his decision last week to give industry a bigger role in Change4Life – to substitute “nudge” (persuasive technique) for cumbersome and expensive legislative coercion.

A happy by-product of this policy, so far as the food, soft drinks and alcohol companies are concerned, is that it puts them more firmly in the driving seat. We will hear no more of “traffic lights”, the simplistic but consumer-friendly food labelling system which the FSA has espoused with such zeal, much to the annoyance of Big Food. Similarly, I imagine the threat of a TV advertising watershed imposed on certain food and alcohol categories is definitively a thing of the past; and the medical caucus will – for now – be more hesitant about calling for an outright ban on the consumption of alcohol.

Critics of Lansley’s plan will no doubt point to the conflict of interest inherent in placing regulatory control within a department, Defra, which is also responsible for the supply side. One of the reasons for the FSA’s foundation as an independent body was the perceived inadequacy of MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) – Defra’s predecessor – in dealing with the BSE crisis, thanks to its cosiness with farmers. But that’s one for the critics. For the food and alcohol sectors, the FSA’s abolition marks a famous victory, not least in the communications war.

UPDATE: Some furious back-pedalling by Andrew Lansley’s special adviser has led to the following terse statement being issued on the DoH website this afternoon: “No decision has been taken over the Food Standards Agency (FSA). All Arms Length Bodies will be subject to a review.” Meaning? The electric chair will have to wait, but it’s definitely (or should that be indefinitely?) Death Row for the FSA. Emasculation by innuendo. NICE next?

Cookeing the media-buying goose

July 9, 2010

Outrageous indeed. I couldn’t agree more with IPA director-general Hamish Pringle’s take on Thomas Cooke’s contribution to an increasingly acrimonious global media-buying debate.

The travel operator is reported to be demanding a £1m signing-on fee at the conclusion of its £30m media review – in addition to “a reduction in agency fees currently paid” and “a minimum 10% saving through consolidated media buying” stipulated in the original brief for the 3-year contract.

And yet, the Thomas Cooke affair is only the most egregious example (to date) of a ripple of client practices which are causing stupefaction in media agency circles. It’s the way the world is going.

The principal bugbears in the debate are Unilever and Reckitt Benckiser. It is no coincidence that they are, respectively, India’s number one and number two advertisers. India, land of the cut-price call centre and the $2,500 Tata car, is after all where most of the low-cost action is to be found these days.

By way of background, read (if you haven’t read it already) a column by Les Margulis, an American media veteran – 22 years at BBDO. Promisingly entitled ‘When to walk away from an energy-sucking client’, the content below the headline does not disappoint. It’s a withering diatribe aimed at Rahul Welde – VP of media at Unilever for Asia, Africa, Middle East and Turkey – in particular, and cheapskate clients in general.

What (apart from an arrogant manner) had Welde done to deserve this opprobrium? About a month previously in a keynote speech encompassing the future of advertising, he had had the temerity to suggest that “marketing is all about brilliant ideas”. And one of them, apparently, is screwing down agencies, creative as well as media, to zero costs – if necessary by posting the brief on the internet and doing a bit of on-the-cheap crowdsourcing. See also George Parker on “Vindaloo Rat” and Jim Edwards at bNet.

Reckitt has stoked this controversy to fever-pitch by going one step further. Allegedly, it plans to charge each of the participants in a pitch for its Indian media-buying business up to $10,000. The suggestion has so upset the Advertising Agencies Association of India that it is advising member agencies not to pitch.

This bit may be a storm in a tea-cup, as I am assured by those in a position to know that RB has not actually asked for money (or is that just wiser-after-the-event back-pedalling?). Even so, the proven terms could scarcely be considered lenient: the “winner” will have to rebate volume discounts paid by media owners as well as offer compensation for any drops in TV ratings.

Which brings me back to Thomas Cooke’s modest contribution to the “media, it’s just a commodity” debate. What puzzles me, given that media agencies are being awarded virtually zero compensation these days, and are expected to indemnify the client against loss, is this: how does anyone make any money? It’s certainly not on the overnight interest rate. And yet media agencies continue to queue up and be plucked.

As for Thomas Cooke’s proposal, my only surprise is that it didn’t come from Ryanair first. Now that really would be “rapacious”, to use one of Michael O’Leary’s favourite words.

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