Nation shocked to its marrow by sexy Marks & Spencer lingerie ad

November 30, 2011

Warning to all advertisers: the merest suggestion of female carnality in a public place will now be punished by a rap over the knuckles from the Advertising Standards Authority.

The regulator has holed a second high-profile brand below the waterline. Last week it was Unilever’s Lynx. This week it is – wait for it – Marks & Spencer.

M&S corrupting our youth? That bastion of frumpy, middle-class, Daily Mail-reading Middle England? Whatever is the world coming to? Next, they’ll be banning mince pies.

And yet, there it is in black and white, in the ASA’s official rescript: M&S is “socially irresponsible” because it has plied us with a “sexually overt” ad.

The ad in question is one of two which ran on bus-sides during September, featuring models sporting M&S’ most gossamer lingerie – and little else. To forestall complaints about gratuitous sexiness (unsuccessfully as it turned out), M&S decided to gloss the posters with a “filmic” finish – ie, it blurred them slightly. The ASA conceded that the context was relevant to the sector (how else do you display lingerie on a poster – on a washing line?). It also acknowledged that M&S had taken considerable care not to make the models’ poses too provocative. But it drew the line at one particular execution:

We considered that the pose of the woman kneeling on the bed was overtly sexual, as her legs were wide apart, her back arched and one arm above her head with the other touching her thigh. We also noted that the woman in this image wore stockings.

Shocking, a glimpse of stocking. You have been warned.

Mind you, it’s probably time someone brought M&S to book over its increasingly licentious conduct. Not a Christmas seems to go by these days without saturation scheduling of M&S’ most sexy models parading their underwear on our television screens.

If only M&S spent a little less money on its models and a little more on tarting up its far from glamorous interiors, perhaps we would all have less to complain about.

Chevrolet Volt crisis gives General Motors’ recovery plan a nasty electric shock

November 29, 2011

Effervescent General Motors marketing supremo Joel Ewanick now has a lot more on his bulging agenda than reviewing global ad agencies. GM is facing a full-blown image crisis, thanks to its flagship vehicle – the hybrid Chevrolet Volt – having an unfortunate tendency to burst into flames.

I should say it’s not the car itself which is a fault, but the lithium-ion batteries critical to powering it. And “smouldering” rather than “spontaneous combustion” is nearer the mark. Plus, there aren’t, as yet, many recorded cases. Never mind, all the ingredients are there for an outbreak of public hysteria, ventilated by the media.

As with most of these PR crises, the actual threat to human welfare is difficult to assess. Much more certain is the disproportionate negative impact on the manufacturing company’s reputation once the matter has entered the public domain. Especially if the beleaguered company fails the test of  immediate and effective remedial action. A few years ago the self-same problem of lithium-ion batteries catching fire (in this case in laptop computers) caused Dell to instigate the biggest computer product recall in history.

For GM, the Volt crisis could not be more serious. Last Friday, the federal authorities, in the guise of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), decided to launch an official investigation. A successful Volt – which is the halo product of GM’s biggest car marque, Chevrolet – is integral to GM’s hopes of recovery, not in numbers sold (heaven forbid, about 6,000 so far!), but in terms of perception as a leading-edge automobile maker.

You may smile at that, but GM’s senior management is deadly serious. Not long ago, Ewanick suggested that Apple, rather than other car-makers, was the benchmark by which his company’s future performance should be judged. The hybrid range has been used to curry public favour and convince the world that GM no longer equals “gas-guzzler.”

And it gets worse. President Obama has made it clear that the e-car is critical to lessening America’s dependency on oil. He wants one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. What’s good for America is clearly good for GM. But not if the public is put off hybrid technology (of which it is, in any case, sceptical) by the suspicion that batteries may catch fire.

Predictably for a company under siege, GM’s immediate response to  the federal safety investigation was to issue a bland statement stressing the car’s safety – classic procrastination. Its crisis management team has now moved up a gear with the announcement yesterday that GM will provide free loan cars for any owner inconvenienced by a Volt “incident”. I wonder what other measures are on the way.

In the meantime, GM’s flagship remains firmly anchored in port. The Volt global export-drive has been beached.

Volkswagen – which has hugely benefited from its rival Toyota’s set of reputational issues – will be watching GM’s discomfort with interest. Toyota and GM are its principal competition. VW has come from behind and is now comfortably cruising towards being the world’s largest car-maker.

SS hero Otto Skorzeny a suitable role-model for advertising? Ask Dave Trott

November 28, 2011

Dave Trott, renowned creative director of the “Hello Tosh, Gotta Toshiba” era, has lost none of his ability to surprise and shock.

The other day, Stephen Foster, at MAA, had the audacity to suggest that small quoted marketing services aggregators, like Media Square, never amount to much because they can’t exploit scale: only the big boys, such as WPP and Omnicom, really know what they are doing.

It so happens Dave works for Media Square: his ad agency Chick Smith Trott (now CSTTG) was acquired by the self-same at the beginning of last year. Dave, being Dave, took highly creative exception to Stephen’s thesis, which he rebutted with a fascinating (historical) parable demonstrating the power of original ideas over force of numbers.

Dave’s story is persuasively told, although I am not sure he was wise in his choice of protagonist. But I’ll leave you to decide on that.

Its improbable hero is one Otto Skorzeny.

Who? Well, for those who aren’t military buffs, here are a few background facts. Born in Vienna, 1908, Skorzeny was (on his mother’s side) the scion of a professional military family serving the Austro-Hungarian empire. Everything about him marked him out for martial glory: his powerful build; his commanding, charismatic, personality; his extraordinary personal courage – witness the deep facial scar acquired in one of 13 duels fought as a student; and finally, and most importantly, his completely unconventional approach to military tactics. Everything that is, except a theatre in which to exercise these gifts. After 1918 Austria was an embittered rump state, castrated by the Versailles Treaty: it had no place for soldiers.

Then along came Adolf Hitler and World War II. What a golden opportunity for the still young Skorzeny. To say the least, he did not disappoint – ending the war as one of the most highly decorated soldiers in the Third Reich. Skorzeny’s precocious speciality was commando warfare – what today would be called special forces operations. And in these he so excelled that he can easily bear comparison with David Stirling, founder of the SAS, or Orde Wingate, leader of the Chindits.

Let’s take two examples of the man in action (those selected by Dave, as a matter of fact). In September 1943 Skorzeny and a few hand-picked German commandos daringly snatched the former Italian dictator Mussolini from under the very noses of his now-Allied captors. Mussolini was apparently impregnably guarded in a mountain fastness approachable by a single cable car. Skorzeny’s flash of military genius? While everyone else was thinking land defence, he attacked from the air by glider.

Example 2: Operation Greif, December 1944. Skorzeny trained and led a unit of 2,000 German special forces whose mission was to operate behind the lines in the opening stages of the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last big offensive. Controversially, Skorzeny’s forces were drilled in American English and acquired American uniforms, American weapons and Jeeps for the occasion, marking them out for execution as spies if captured. The aim was not to kill as many GIs as possible, but to sow confusion in the enemy ranks. It seems a few commandos were, at great personal risk, to allow themselves to be captured – in order to disseminate under interrogation the entirely false rumour that their real mission was the assassination of the Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower.

In the event, the operation was botched, though not by Skorzeny. Only three dozen or so of his unit were able to carry out their original mission, of whom up to 18 were shot by the Americans after drumhead trials. Never mind, the rumour got through. Eisenhower did indeed have to spend that Christmas closeted in his distant HQ – hampered by absurd security precautions just when the Allies were under maximum pressure. Operation Greif very much shows Skorzeny’s ruthless creativity at work, levelling impossible odds by means of a clever ruse. As do other  – ultimately unsuccessful – operations credited to his name: the aborted assassination attempt on the Allied Big Three, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill, at Tehran in December 1943; and the attempted but failed assassination of Yugoslav partisan leader General Tito in May 1944. Which, if nothing else, underline the ambitious scope of Skorzeny’s thinking.

Here’s a clip taken from the German news archive. It depicts Skorzeny in triumphant Errol Flynn mode immediately after the rescue of Mussolini, and well illustrates the kind of hero Dave would like Skorzeny to be. Sorry about the lack of a translation, but you should be able to follow the storyline easily enough. Skorzeny is the one in the getaway Fieseler Storch, standing just behind “Der Duce”:

The trouble is, I’ve forgotten something here, and so has Dave. Skorzeny was not just a brilliant professional soldier reluctantly doing his bit for Adolf and the Third Reich under compulsion of his military oath (as von Manstein, Guderian and many other Wehrmacht generals subsequently claimed to have done). Skorzeny was an obersturmbannführer (lieutenant-colonel) in the fanatically Himmlerian Waffen SS  and a deeply committed Nazi.

He joined the Austrian Nazi party indecently early in 1932 and in 1938 enthusiastically assisted Hitler’s overthrow of Austria’s legitimate government, in what was euphemistically called Anschluss (Union). Much later, in 1944, he was one of the first to pitch up in Berlin after the failure of von Stauffenberg’s July Plot, to help prop up Hitler’s momentarily tottering regime. Even with the war lost and Hitler dead, Skorzeny remained wedded to the cause of helping high-ranking Nazis by means of the ODESSA network, which he himself had taken a lead role in creating. He finished his days under the benign jurisdiction of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, advising the Egyptians on how to hit back at the Israelis, and the Greek military junta on how to repress their own people. Other clients included the South African government and, topically enough, Colonel Gadaffi.

So, at the end of all this, I’m not quite sure what Dave is trying to tell us. Other than something slightly unconvincing about his theory of “predatory intelligence”.

Yes, Skorzeny was a brilliant creative thinker in his way; but then, Hitler – as Bernie Ecclestone recently reminded us – was a brilliant road-builder. The trouble, in both cases, is the facts have been over-selected, making the insight almost worthless. Context is everything.

Unilever gets dressing down for smutty Lynx ads, but ASA needs to widen its aim

November 23, 2011

It’s official: we, or rather our children, have been seeing far too much of Lucy Pinder’s ample cleavage, and it’s got to stop.

That is the verdict of ad regulator the Advertising Standards Authority on the latest Lynx online and poster ads, which show the glamour model in assorted demi-nues poses.

Whether in reality La Pinder, who routinely appears topless in a variety of newspapers and magazines freely available to all, is corrupting the nation’s youth by testing the power of Lynx’s anti-perspirant control remains highly debatable. But the fact is Unilever, owner of the Lynx brand and generally deemed a responsible advertiser, has clumsily transgressed one of the great contemporary pieties: the need to protect our little ones from the merest taint of precocious sexualisation.

This was a slow-motion accident waiting to happen. Lynx is inherently laddish. It self-consciously appeals to the sort of young male (17-27 years old) who avidly devours exactly the kind of mag in which Pinder tends to appear topless. Yet the difficulty for Unilever is not primarily the positioning of the brand – although its treatment of women as blatant sex objects does sit increasingly oddly with the infinitely more respectful approach adopted by Dove, also a Unilever brand. It is in the sloppiness of the media placement: a case of creative strategy being highjacked by the media buying/planning agency.

As a result, Unilever has become the first high-profile casualty of the David Cameron-endorsed Bailey Report, which strongly recommended protecting young children from just this kind of commercial “smut”. One key proposal was that there should be a clampdown on erotically-suggestive posters. And yet Unilever and its agencies wilfully went ahead with the idea. Despite the fact that, after pre-vetting, the ASA’s CAP Copy Advice unit had already cautioned the ad was likely to be banned.

Less obviously culpable, perhaps, is the placement of the online ads. That they have also been banned suggests you simply can’t be too careful these days when posting ads in such apparently child interest-free zones as Yahoo and Rotten Tomatoes.

I won’t say the ASA zealously hit the wrong target in singling out Lynx, because it didn’t. But let’s face it, when it comes to taste, decency and the issue of inappropriate commercial intrusion, the regulator needs to broaden its aim.

Take a look at this Littlewoods Christmas commercial (produced in-house) which is creating quite a furore on Facebook:

To quote from Marketing Magazine, which ran the story:

One [Facebook] commentator said: “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it is too irresponsible to allow. It promotes copious spending, which is what started this damn credit crisis – people spending money that they haven’t got because they felt the need to compete with the Smiths, or buy love.”

Another commentator said: “What a great example to kids to know that what makes a mother a good one is how much over-expensive bling she buys them at Christmas.”

Quite. Corrupting our kids isn’t simply a matter of prematurely exposing them to seamy sex.

IBM shows what a clever clogs it is at analyzing social media trends

November 22, 2011

Did you know that the height of a woman’s heels is a reliable indicator of economic prosperity? Neither did I. I’d heard of champagne sales, the availability of London taxi cabs, the length of skirts. I’d even devised my own indicator: counting the number of recruitment advertising pages in Marketing Week during a certain week of January. But this one I had never come across.

What might be dubbed the Jimmy Choo Indicator is brought to us by those clever folk at IBM Global Business Services. Clever because, besides uncovering some heretofore abstruse economic trend data, they have also hit upon a skilful self-promotional ploy which scores on at least 2 indices. Not only have they dug up a mediagenic piece of insight (which is after all the business they are in), they have also creatively exploited social media to garner their predictive data. Which should impress clients present and prospective no end.

Ah, you say sceptically, but isn’t this just a flim-flam gimmick that doesn’t stand up to more rigorous analysis?

I’ll leave you to decide. Here’s more on the inverse correspondence between economic growth and the height of fashion-shoe heels, courtesy of the IBM website:

A look back at the last 100 years of shoe fashion trends reveals that heel heights soared during the most prominent recessions in U.S. history.  Low-heeled flapper shoes in the 1920s were replaced with high-heel pumps and platforms during the Great Depression.  Platforms were again revived during the 1970s oil crisis, reversing the preference for low-heeled sandals in the late 1960s.  And the low, thick heels of the 1990s “grunge” period gave way to “Sex and the City”-inspired stilettos following the dot-com bust at the turn of the century.

But what of the future? According to IBM GBS consumer expert Dr Trevor Davis, an analysis of the last 4 years of social media shows a potential deviation from trend:

Discussions of increasing heel height peaked towards the end of 2009, and declined after that.  For example, key trend-watching bloggers between 2008 and 2009 wrote consistently about heels from five to eight inches, but by mid 2011 they were writing about the return of the kitten heel and the perfect flat from Jimmy Choo and Louboutin.  This is not to say that the sky-high heels have gone, rather that, as the economic downturn has worn on, they are discussed as glamwear and not for the office or shopping trip.

That’s one way of putting it. Alternatively, fashionistas are just as confused as the rest of us about the direction of the global economy, and are simply hedging their bets.

Google ads continue to pleasantly surprise

November 21, 2011

It’s good to see Google’s flush of Lions winners at this year’s Cannes International Advertising Festival is no flash in the pan.

Currently, there are two excellent campaigns (or at least, two that I am aware of). They’re concise, to the point, and extremely well crafted. They even manage to make complex, potentially dull, subject matter amusing. Who would have thought technoraks capable of such a thing?

One, which I noticed for the first time in today’s Guardian (although it has been running for a month) is the Good to Know campaign, devised by M&C Saatchi and Glue Isobar (part of Aegis). It’s essentially a public service campaign, endorsed by the Citizens Advice Bureau, which by means of simple line drawings and even simpler text manages to distil such recondite concepts as online tracking, private browsing and IP addresses down to their most basic context. Naturally enough, the tone is upbeat. Those concerned with the more sinister implications of behavioural targeting, “private” browsing and “unsafe” search would presumably be well advised to consult the proffered website, or indeed their local CAB directly. Nevertheless, the campaign performs its function well. I would not (while we’re on the subject) be surprised to find its scheduling has something to do with the high-level discussions going on in Brussels over the regulatory future of BT, which I covered in an earlier post.

Equally gem-like is a Google Analytics offering from Google Creative Labs (the in-house ad incubator that was behind those Cannes winners). The “slice of life” film uses a supermarket setting to skilfully drive home the point about irritating, counter-productive e-commerce security protocol. For you and for me all that stuff about timing out, tedious usernames and unintelligible word-games raises a hollow and knowing chuckle, no less resonant on second viewing. But we are not the audience. The aim is to teach web-publishers the error of their ways. User-friendly sites produce better sales results, and the best way to find out what works and what does not is to check out Google Analytics.

It’s rare to find a B2B ad that really shines. This one should encounter little competition in the “business services” category which it occupies. Sadly, for that very reason, it will probably not receive the wider feting it undoubtedly deserves.

FIFA sponsors are the only ones who can splatter Blatter

November 20, 2011

Well, what a week of wasted moral outrage that was, even if it did produce one of The Sun’s finest headlines for a very long time.

Make no mistake. “Splatter Blatter” may have sold extra copies of the red-top, but will do nothing to remove the Teflon Man, whose life’s achievement has been to carve himself an impregnable position as world football’s supremo.

In a way, you’ve got to admire him. Like Bernie Ecclestone, whom he resembles in a variety of ways, Blatter is a master tactician at the top of his own, very particular, game: not the administration of Formula One or FIFA, but the administration of power.

The secret of their supremacy is the same. It lies not (or very little) in formal status, but in a second-to-none understanding of how to manipulate an opaque global system that has no loyalty beyond its self-perpetuation.

To be sure, FIFA and F1 are, or have, venerable governing bodies guided by what appear to be democratically elected representatives acting in accordance with a constitution. In reality, the election of these officials is manipulated to suit insiders; and the workings of the institutions they represent are so complex and well-defended that they defy almost any outside attempt to hold them to account.

If there is any parallel to representative government, it is the quaint Rotten Borough system that existed in Britain before 1832. Boiled down to essentials, it involved the King and his chosen First Minister fixing a parliamentary majority by procuring the election of their chosen placemen in all the seats that actually mattered. For placemen read “men in blazers”, and you get the picture.

Corruption was the indispensable lubricant of this system. It involved greasing people’s palms, and not just at election time. The disbursement and retraction of patronage – primarily offices of state awarded on the basis of interest rather than merit – was key to successful management.

Recognise the parallel? Allegations of corruption have plagued Blatter’s 4 consecutive terms of office, culminating in the 2018 World Cup scandal that broke earlier this year. As for F1 scandals, need I enumerate them?

But what do Blatter or Ecclestone care about that? The same opacity which protects these organisations from outside investigation also insulates their ringmasters from public criticism – and any punitive measure that might result from it. Hence the stream of crass remarks that regularly issues from their mouths. For Bernie, Hitler was an OK bloke who built excellent roads even if he did later succumb to a power complex. For Blatter, racism on the pitch is a non-issue which can be settled with a handshake at the end of the match. Out of touch, clearly. But then, so what? They’re also out of reach, and they know it.

Blatter has deftly deflected calls for his departure from the likes of David Cameron, David Beckham and The Sun by portraying the outcry as a case of sour grapes. Only Britain has worked itself up into a national lather over racism on the pitch. Why? Because England lost out in the contest to become 2018 World Cup host, and is now conducting a vendetta against the man perceived to be its nemesis.

So, can he now blow the final whistle and move on? Not quite. If there’s one chink in Blatter’s armour, it’s money – or rather its threatened withdrawal. What if the sponsors – household brand names, with household reputations to maintain – deem he has gone too far and pull the plug on the hundreds of millions of pounds a year that FIFA depends upon for its survival?

Ordinarily, that simply wouldn’t happen. However much they may privately tut-tut about Bernie’s ex-wife spending £12m on their daughter’s nuptials, Max Mosley’s grubby sexual antics or Blatter’s moral insensitivity, the last thing they are going to do is scupper a strategic investment with a noble gesture. Their investment is, after all, in the global game, not the administating organisation and the people who lead it. And their justification for inaction the not unreasonable conjecture that most football and motor-racing aficionados have little knowledge and less interest in the shenanigans of sports administrators.

One sponsor’s uncharacteristic response to Blatter’s racism episode is what, in fact, makes this furore so interesting. True, most of FIFA’s six official partners have played entirely true to form. Coca-Cola has categorically rejected a review of its sponsorship; while Visa, Hyundai/Kia, Sony and Adidas have contented themselves with more or less bland statements condemning racism in sport. But Emirates has broken ranks by taking the almost unprecedented step of reviewing its sponsorship.

Whatever next? Not Blatter’s resignation, for sure. But perhaps the beginning of the end of his reign.

Another scandal at Aegis leaves Jerry Buhlmann looking like Mole Whacker

November 4, 2011

It’s lucky for Aegis Group – as my old chum Stephen Foster points out – that its financial performance continues to delight shareholders. Only the other day we had Quarter 3 numbers that revealed an astonishing 11% organic growth rate. And, a little earlier, Aegis managed with considerable aplomb to unload its margin-sapping research business Synovate on Ipsos. All of which reflects very favourably on CEO Jerry Buhlmann’s grasp of the Big Picture.

If I were him, though, I’d be a little worried about some of the Detail that keeps emerging. Granted media buying companies, with their inherent penchant for surcommission (backhanders), are more prone to financial shenanigans than other arms of the marketing services business; but let’s face it, Aegis seems more unfortunate than most. Maybe it’s simply that rivals are better at covering their tracks. Whatever, Buhlmann is beginning to look a bit of a Mole Whacker.

First we had the Ruzicka scandal, which resulted in the German head of Aegis going to jail for a number of years. Then the Rumasa affair, as a consequence of which the company had to write off over £25m it had failed to collect in time (which was rather careless, to say the least). Now comes news that 2 senior executives who used to work in its US outdoor operation, Posterscope USA, have been indicted for fraud by the federal government.

Briefly, the facts are as follows. Todd Hansen, former US division president, and James Buckley, former finance director, have been charged with a $19.75m accounting fraud that stretched over 5 years (from 2004 to 2009) apparently without being detected. The two are accused of deliberately and artificially inflating company revenues in order to meet personal performance targets involving higher salaries, bonuses and stock options. In all, Hansen is alleged to have illegally salted away an extra $1.1m, and Buckley $650,000. If convicted, they face up to 20 years in prison.

Presumably another Aegis financial restatement is on the way. Although its size is hardly likely to cause more than a ripple of embarrassment.

UPDATE: On this last point, apparently not. This is what Aegis has to say: “We can confirm that the events that led to this action will have no implications, financial or otherwise, for Aegis and its US business, as from an accounting perspective the matter was closed in 2009.” Aegis adds that it initiated the investigation into Hansen and Buckley.

How The Guardian helped to make Tim Lefroy’s case for the advertising industry

November 4, 2011

Tim Lefroy, chief executive of the Advertising Association, is now a very happy man – and with good reason. At last, he has found the perfect opportunity to evangelise his most cherished belief among an uncomprehending British public. And it is? The unpopular and startling notion, around which he has built the AA’s Credos thinktank, that advertising can actually do some good in society.

The improbable cause of Lefroy’s felicity is The Guardian and its eminent leftie columnist George Monbiot. Monbiot had a full-length rant the other week about the sinister, pernicious effects of advertising on our general welfare, in an article headlined ‘Advertising is a poison that demeans even love – and we’re hooked on it’.

The headline did not disappoint. Below, and at tedious length, were all the usual signs of conspiracy dementia. Apparently, we are all a prey to a small group of highly organised manipulators who “stitch” “the system of hypercapitalism” together. Were these banks, big business, lobbyists, politicians, influential journalists even? Any of these might have been applicable candidates. But, no: they are admen, exploiting the latest, devious, findings of neurobiology to control our minds.

They might wish. Anyone spending time in the chaotic, haphazard world of adland would quickly dismiss any notion that monolithic thought-control is its defining characteristic. Constant politicking and ramshackle pitches more like; it’s an industry which is riddled with insecurity. None of this, however, is of the remotest interest to Monbiot, who is hooked on The Hidden Persuaders myth. Indeed, his thesis could neatly be summarised as Vance Packard II: The Digital Upgrade.

One dividend of this foaming invective is that it has given Lefroy a rare platform to air his views in a national newspaper, by way of right of reply. Wisely, he refrains from counter-polemic. Lefroy makes no overblown claims for advertising’s social utility: “Advertising is not a drug, but neither is it a panacea. It’s not good, and it’s not bad.” All the same, he manages to gently remind us of the dystopia that might result from its absence: no media plurality, little consumer product innovation, no Google. I’d take his point a little further. We know what sort of society we’d get if advertising were entirely expunged from it, because we’ve already experienced it. It’s called the Soviet Union. And it’s chararacterised by long queues for basic consumer commodities that never turn up, shoddy industrial goods and the total suppression of media freedom by a thuggish internal security service.

Another dividend is Monbiot’s serendipitous timing. His column, and Lefroy’s response, happen to neatly coincide with the publication of Credos’ long-matured report on The Contribution of Advertising to the UK Economy. Ordinarily – fascinating though its conclusions might be for insiders – this would not be the sort of stuff to set the public’s pulse racing. But the background noise preceding it may have created more of an appetite for a few dry facts. Among them, that the advertising industry makes a £15.6bn contribution to the economy, double the figure last reported by the department of culture, media and sport in 2008; that, after electronic and software publishing, it is the biggest component in our fast-growing creative sector; and that, broadly defined, it employs 300,000 people.

Go ahead and suppress advertising, George. But in your quest for moral purity, remember the multiplying effect your action will have on UK economic output and other people’s jobs.

All right, advertising may not be a cuddly calling, and the industry certainly has its fair share of rogues and charlatans. But, then, so does journalism.

StrawberryFrog is up for sale, but will anyone want to buy it?

November 3, 2011

Word reaches me that StrawberryFrog, the maverick international advertising network, has hoisted a discreet “For Sale” sign. Whether it will succeed in its objective is open to doubt, as will be seen below.

First a little background. StrawberryFrog – curiously named after a colourful, nippy and spectacularly poisonous Latin American amphibian – was founded in 1999 by Canadian entrepreneur Scott Goodson as an agile alternative to the big, cumbersome, advertising holding companies. Goodson, who remains to this day head honcho, likes to see himself, and his company, as an avatar of what is called Movement Marketing, a concept first dreamt up by sociologist Neil Smelser. Stripped of jargon, this means “avantgarde” or “revolutionary”. In practice, Goodson was one of the first to spot that small, manoeuverable agencies with strong creative ideas that travelled well could use digital leverage to undercut the legacy giants – with their expensive but increasingly quaint bureaucratic structures wedded to traditional advertising.

For a time things went extraordinarily well. With only 2 offices, one in Amsterdam and one in New York – which deployed a staff of no more than 70 “Frogs” (but rather a lot of freelancers) – Goodson and his co-founder in Amsterdam, Brian Elliott, pulled in some extraordinary global business. We’re talking Sony Ericsson (when that was still a name to conjure with), Mitsubishi Motors Europe, Pfizer, RIM’s Blackberry, Ikea, Heineken, Morgan Stanley, PepsiCo, Emirates – to name but a few.

In 2009, the agency reached its apogee when – against all odds –  it seized the prized global digital account of Procter & Gamble’s biggest brand, Pampers, from under the nose of Publicis Groupe’s Digitas and WPP’s Bridge Worldwide. It was not even a P&G roster agency. Pampers remains StrawberryFrog’s most prestigious account.

But that was then. From thereon in, it seems to have been downhill.

Already, the cracks had begun showing when in 2008 Elliott broke away, rechristening the StrawberryFrog Amsterdam business Amsterdam World.

True, Goodson (left) patched up the network. He set up a new Amsterdam office, and had already opened a successful Brazilian boutique in Sao Paolo, a shop in Mumbai and disclosed his intention to set up an office in London (project later aborted). But he signally failed to control his New York hub, which has gone into freefall.

Not a week seems to go by these days without news of redundancies, stories emerging of Goodson’s increasingly tyrannical behaviour and acrimonious exits by senior staff. Two of his former top team are, I’m told, suing. One, ex-chief strategy officer Ilana Bryant, wants $2m for alleged breach of contract (I should add in fairness that StrawberryFrog is counter-suing her for $50,000).

All of which, as can be imagined, does little to impress clients, who have become still more alarmed by rumours that StrawberryFrog’s NY office is increasingly reluctant to pay its suppliers’ bills.

By way of illumination, some interesting “numbers” recently came into my hands – from what appears to be an unimpeachable source. They are as follows:

NY office: Dire. Revenue has declined from $17m (2010) to  about $12m (2011). A loss of $600,000 is expected this year. NY has about 40 employees, down from 76 a year ago.

Amsterdam and Brazil have different ownership structures to New York: Amsterdam is smaller by revenues, and expected to generate a $200-300,000 loss this year; Brazil has about 80 employees with $8-9m revenue – it is profitable.

Back in 2007, StrawberryFrog came quite close to sealing a deal with Publicis Groupe (it failed at the due diligence stage). This time a sale is more urgent. But I wonder whether Goodson will be able to find a buyer.

%d bloggers like this: