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The real winner at Cannes? John O’Keeffe, WPP’s worldwide creative director

June 27, 2011

When you can’t come up with a great idea, do the next best thing – plump for an all-star cast and baroque production values. If the ad is slick enough, maybe no one will notice the difference.

Except we do. And we have, at the Cannes Creative International Advertising Festival. The winner, the crème de la crème, this year’s Film Grand Prix, simply wasn’t up to snuff. Nike’s Write the Future is a tired old trope, made worse by poor judgement in fielding Wayne Rooney. Mind you, it wasn’t as if there was much competition. I liked BBDO Argentina’s Braids and it was gratifying to see Deutsch’s Force (aka Little Darth) also pick up a gold. But they weren’t exactly compelling alternatives to Wieden & Kennnedy Amsterdam’s World Cup hymn. As my chum Stephen Foster drily points out, 2011 was not a vintage year for adland’s finest creative minds.

So who was the real winner this year? W&K? Droga5 (3 grand prix, 2 more than good old GB, which had to make do with AMV BBDO/PepsiCo garnering the new effectiveness award)?

Neither of these. I can exclusively reveal it was WPP’s worldwide creative director John O’Keeffe. He has managed to bag more prizes than anyone else. Not personally, you’ll understand, but on behalf of WPP – whose ecstatic CEO, Sir Martin Sorrell, was able to waltz off with the first-ever Holding Company of the Year award.

Readers of this blog will recall the acrimonious battle between WPP and Publicis Groupe 2 years ago over who had come second at Cannes. Last year, WPP nearly caught up with Omnicom, which regards being top dog as practically a birthright. And this year, O’Keeffe has finally kicked Omnicom’s supremacy into touch. The points-count, for those interested in “statue statistics”, was: WPP 1,219; Omnicom 1,152; Publicis 744.

Must be worth a few bob come bonus time, John.

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RIPping the heart out of government comms

June 24, 2011

If you want an exemplary lesson in how to throw the baby out with the bathwater, look no further than the Cabinet Office’s muddled plans for superseding the Central Office of Information.

Admire, first of all, the masterly language of its press release: economic to the point of curtness, yet replete with the kind of ambiguity that once sent the Light Brigade charging down the wrong valley. Clearly the release is written by – and at the behest of – people who haven’t got a clue about the most basic principles of marketing. They seem to think it’s just another branch of PR.

Now let’s move to some of the detail, such as it is. Ostensibly, Cabinet Office “Enforcer” Francis Maude has finessed the advice of his recently departed top adviser, Matt Tee, into a much more economical proposition. Tee’s report, it may be remembered, recommended the COI be streamlined into a fleeter, rebranded, organisation of only 150 employees (2 years ago, it had a staff of about 730). Maude has got the bit between his teeth and evidently believes that government can dispense in its entirety with the services of a formal centralised body orchestrating its communications.

Instead, all government marcoms will now be remitted to the departments of state where they originate, unmolested except by “a new governance structure” of 20 people, dedicated to the ruthless eradication of all duplication and waste. So important is this new department of oversight that it has as yet no name, being referred to quaintly as the ‘Communications Delivery Board’. Another of the heretofore COI’s critical functions, the appointment of agencies, will be hived off to a small “specialist communications procurement unit under the leadership of Government Procurement”. Let’s see how the department of shoes and ships and sealing wax deals with that one. Finally, the rag-tag-and-bobtail of “specialist services” will be placed in “a shared comms delivery pool”, whatever that may be.

The important point to note is that the dismembered functions of the COI will now operate as fully-fledged arms of the Cabinet Office, rather than being semi-detached from it. In other words, they will be vulnerable to covert, if ignorant, political manipulation in a way they were not under the ancien régime. The litmus test of manipulation will be in the appointment of the CDB’s new executive director. Currently, the COI retains some private-sector savvy assets in the form of its chairman Chris Wood and its non-executive director Simon Marquis. It is not clear, however, that either of these will, or will wish to, succeed to the new, attenuated, top role. The most likely appointee will be someone with Tee’s kind of background – a director of comms, skilled at garnering positive press headlines but with no practical knowledge of marketing.

Not everyone will be dissatisfied with this outcome. The big-spending departments of state, such as Health and Transport, are no doubt savouring a famous victory. Under Tee’s proposals, they would have been issuing P45s to many of their dedicated marcoms people. Not only has that idea been kicked into touch: these departments will now be in control of their expenditure in a way they can only have dreamt of a decade ago, when the idea of departmental UDI first erupted during Carol Fisher’s contentious reign as COI chief.

Alas, Health and Transport are the exceptions that prove the rule. They can boast of high profile, successful campaigns – such as Drink Drive and Change4Life – with considerable resources irrevocably committed to them, even in the present austere climate. Elsewhere, the glee may be rather short-lived. Take more occasional users of the taxpayer’s shilling, such as the Department of Justice. No amount of astute manipulation of the headlines by its press secretary was ever going to win the public over to the odious idea that dangerous prisoners might be let out earlier if they owned up to their crimes. The winning argument – centering on making the overloaded justice system more effective and less profligate with public money – is a subtle one, best embedded in a long-running strategic campaign. And who better qualified to help devise it than the old-style COI, informed by the most up-to-date techniques of behavioural nudge?

No chance of that under the new regime. Indeed, with so few experts employed, it would be no surprise to see the government’s communication programme collapse under the weight of its workload. The complete abolition of the COI is a cynical economy too far. Sadly, the Government will probably only come to realise this as we approach the next general election – and marcoms spend soars once again.


Facebook in decline? It’s a matter of trust

June 22, 2011

The trouble with urban myths is they have a habit of gaining credibility if enough people retweet them. No, not the one about Jemima Khan and Jeremy Clarkson. This one is practically cosmic in its significance. Facebook, they say, is perched on the edge of vertiginous decline and will never make the 1 billion users its avid investors are banking on for an IPO.

The rumour appears to have begun with a plausible article, whose headline says nearly everything you need to know: ‘Facebook sees big traffic drops in US and Canada as it nears 700 million users worldwide’. I don’t want to become entwined in a discussion which has all the nit-picking allure of a symposium on the Arian heresy conducted by the early Roman Catholic church. So I won’t. The gist is that Facebook’s tsunami-like growth in developing countries conceals an actual audience decline of 6 million people in the USA during the month of May.

So far as the statistics are concerned, they seem to have been robustly rebutted by Henry Blodgett over at Business Insider. His distilled point is that the so-called decline ignores mobile use, which in fact increases steeply as high school kids and students pack up for the long vacation. So investors and advertisers can relax. There’s no decline at all, just a bit of a hiccup.

Whatever, it’s started people thinking – and many of these people seem to be older-profile Facebook users. A poll conducted by OnePoll among 1300 UK users for Marketing magazine reveals that a majority of over-45 year olds are considering exiting from Facebook. Youngers ones aren’t that chuffed either – more than a third said they had thought of quitting recently.

This may indeed illustrate Facebook fatigue, but more likely reflects growing alarm about Facebook’s perceived abuse of privacy (58% said they were unhappy about Facebook’s use of personal information).

Either way, Facebook should be concerned (although it says it is not). Forget the statistics. What matters here is engagement. As growth inevitably slows in the more advanced economies such as the USA and Britain, so Facebook will have to expend more effort on creating greater dwell time, by launching new and more useful tools. Alas, these tools come at a certain cost, if they are to be of use to advertisers – they involve ever-more sophisticated manipulation of personal information.


Blackberry and Nokia: Twilight of the cellphone idols

June 17, 2011

Nothing dates quite like fashion, and nowhere is this truer than the technology sector – as Blackberry-maker RIM and Nokia are finding to their cost. In 10 years’ time, it’s conceivable that Blackberry will be no more than an extension in someone else’s brand repertoire, and Nokia – still, if only just, the market-leading brand in handset manufacturing – will have no more resonance than Ericsson does today. They are the brand equivalents of Shelley’s Ozymandias.

Salience in the consumer technology sector is all about keeping abreast of the latest trends. And it is clear that Nokia and RIM have not. Nokia has failed to conquer the smartphone market, while RIM has failed to continue dominating it. Both companies are now beset by lengthy delays in product launches, increasing investor pessimism and, that natural corollary, plunging share prices.

At a technical level, both these companies seemed singularly blind to the two-pronged threat from the iPhone and Android operating system until it was right on top of them. Nokia has belatedly discovered, under its new chief executive Stephen Elop, that its smartphone operating system is not up to snuff and is having to broker a last-minute and doubtful marriage with Microsoft’s superior version. RIM, on the other hand, had grown complacent about its apparently unassailable position in the elite corporate sector, with the result that it failed to adequately prepare for the advent of the touchscreen phone and the 10in tablet.

A case of sclerotic corporate cultures fatally mesmerized by their legacy of previous success? Only up to a point. Nokia and RIM, looked at more strategically, are victims of haphazard technological convergence. Who, 10 years ago, could have seen that mobile communications would come to be dominated by a formerly ailing computer manufacturer and an ingredient brand dreamed up by the world’s largest search engine? And who, even once the trend had become established 3 years ago, would have had the corporate courage, or foolhardiness, to bet all their assets and legacy on it being the inexorable path of the future?

It’s a sad truism that companies spend billions of dollars every year on insight and trend-spotting. But usually lack the judgement or willpower to make proper use of it.

UPDATE 4/7/11: “RIM is the Wang of mobile phones.” That was how Charles Dunstone (CEO of Carphone Warehouse Group) referred to the Canadian Blackberry-maker at last week’s Google ThinkMobile conference. Wang was a classy corporate-oriented computer company that specialised in just one thing, word processing. But it was blown away by Microsoft’s Office. Wang filed for bankruptcy in 1992 and eventually disappeared into Netherlands-based Getronics in 1999, never to be seen again. I wish I had thought of that parallel first, Charles…


Regulator cracks down on car makers living in Cloud Cuckoo land

June 11, 2011

The time when the car was simply an internal combustion engine on four rubber tyres that got you from A to B has long since passed. Now it’s a mobile computer, equipped with cloud technology that maps your route automatically, gives you business listings, traffic information, sports news, stock market prices, local petrol station locations, cinema listings, reads out your email and text messages, and much more besides.

No self-respecting car marque is without its patent system. Ford has Sync, General Motors has OnStar. And even Hyundai is about to bring out its own market-challenging product, Blue Link – whose maker ATX also supplies BMW and Toyota.

Hyundai Velostar: One of the first models to get the Blue Link cloud technology launched next year

It’s easy to see why they are so popular. Customers love the gadgets, the systems give the car brand an extra cutting edge, and there’s a tasty aftermarket as well. Some car-makers charge a hefty annual rental for the services. OnStar, for example, costs up to $300. And, while we’re there, let’s not forget the commercial value of local search and location-finding services. Groupons at your local service station anyone?

Unfortunately, automobile telematics – as they are known in the business – are also killers. The top US safety regulator, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, reckons that every year thousands of motorists and their passengers end up in the morgue because of needless driver distraction. And what’s more it intends to douse the white heat of technological advancement with some very cold water.

Like Daniel striding among the lions, the NHTSA’s top man David Strickland chose the Telematics Detroit 2011 conference to put this unholy alliance of car and software manufacturers on notice:

“A car is not a mobile device… I’m not in the business of helping people Tweet better… We will not take a backseat while new telematics and infotainment systems are introduced. There is too much distraction of drivers,” he told a dismayed audience.

Wherever the regulator in the top automotive market goes, you can be sure the rest of the world will soon follow.



Yeo Valley Marketing Society gong does wonders for the tired old TV spot

June 8, 2011

It’s nice to see one of the ads I tipped as last year’s best of the crop has come up trumps. The Yeo Valley rappers have just won a top effectiveness award – the Marketing Society Awards Grand Prix no less.

Which must be mightily gratifying to the organic yoghurt brand and BBH, the agency that bet Yeo’s ranch – and possibly their reputation – on the success of a single, high-profile TV campaign. It was by any standards a massive gamble. Yeo is a regional player (of West Country origin), of limited budgetary means, operating in an unsexy sector. It had never, to my knowledge, used TV before and yet was persuaded to blow mcuh of £5m on a single 2-minute slot in the X Factor last autumn.

All right, it wasn’t just TV. Digital support, via a website, Twitter and subsequently YouTube (1.65 million viewings, and rising), played its part: but they were just that, support – and a minuscule part of the spend. Without the high awareness created by the ads, the viral effect of social media may have amounted to very little.

So, a plug here for the good, old-fashioned TV slot. It’s not dead yet – and nor is BBH’s reputation as one of its prime purveyors.

In the 3 months following the campaign, the Marketing Society blurb tells us, Yeo Valley became Britain’s fastest growing brand, with an extra 500,000 people buying its products, and sales swelling by £3.5m. As one of the bucolic lads in the ad claims: “We changed the game, it will never be the same.”

Though it may well be the lass who harvests the biggest dividend. I hear Surrey girl Alexandra Evans’ modelling career is going gangbusters.


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