Too much spin on Tim Bell’s PR spin-off

May 31, 2012

Tim Bell’s getaway plane has received permission for take-off from the control tower and is now taxiing down the runaway. But will it actually manage lift off, or be bought back to earth with a pancake landing? Sadly, we’ll only know the answer on June 18th, date of the next gripping episode of this increasingly bizarre soap-opera.

The story so far. Bell, outwardly the bluff, iconic, chairman of highly successful communications company Chime, is inwardly tormented by thoughts of long-deferred retirement. How can this man of three-score years and ten enjoy his autumnal felicity without undermining the standing of the company in which he has invested so much? Initially in greatest secrecy, he and his boon companion Piers (whose own thoughts have been moving in the same direction) plot their escape – and come up with a foolproof plan to fund their retirement. What they’ll do is take with them a teensy-weensy bit of the company’s business and call it their own; so small in fact that shareholders won’t really notice it has gone.

After discreet soundings, it turns out that other members of the board are like-minded, though for slightly different reasons. They’ve never much enjoyed the core element of their otherwise respectable company being described as “The Dark Arts”; and have long since wondered how to pension the old boy off, without too much fuss. What a gift that Tim’s exit plan should, in a trice, rid them of both concerns!

The problem is, shareholders are not at all of the same opinion. On the contrary, they persist in the delusion – cultivated assiduously over the years by none other than Tim himself – that the dark arts are quintessential to the company’s wellbeing. And without shareholders’ assent, nothing is going to happen. At this stage someone (necessarily anonymously – we are, after all, talking about a publicly quoted company) comes up with a brilliant flash of inspiration. Why not confide the details of this plan – in strictest confidence of course – to Tim’s journalist mate, Mark? That way, everyone will know about it ASAP, and it can be presented to shareholders as a fait accompli, without the need for interminable negotiations to gain their consent.

In due course, a fully fledged management buyout document for Tim’s getaway vehicle, BPP, makes its appearance. It’s going to cost a very reasonable £19.6m, this new company. Reasonable for Tim and his friends, because that’s not an awful lot of money for what turns out to be 5 healthy PR subsidiaries. Reasonable for the board as well, because quite a lot of that £19.6m is going to be in cash, heading straight for the bottom line. And should it turn out that Tim and Piers have, unaccountably, been a little economical with their profit projections? Never mind, because Chime will still have a 25% stake in those profits – as holder of 4.1 million BPP shares.

So, perfect all round. But wait a minute, some of the shareholders are none too happy… one rather loud but diminutive individual is crying “Stitch-up!”.

Cut to runway again. A large fleet of dark-windowed Ford Mondeos is racing at top speed towards Tim’s accelerating aircraft. Will it be airborn in time? Find out on June 18th…

Will GM’s Manchester United sponsorship deal shift more Chevies?

May 31, 2012

For years the auto industry has been asking: how long before the Vauxhall marque becomes Opel? Maybe the question now needs rephrasing: how long before Opel becomes Chevrolet?

Certainly Opel becoming – in the fullness of time – Chevrolet would be one logical outcome of the sponsorship deal its owner, General Motors, has just struck with British Premier League football club Manchester United.

But that’s just a side-light on a global marketing communications strategy that actually has very little to do with Europe, where Chevrolet accounts for only 1.5% of total car sales. Symbolically, the sponsorship agreement between GM and Manchester United has been inked in Shanghai. Recent research by Kantar found that over half of Man U’s estimated 659 million fans worldwide are to be found in emerging markets, such as the BRICS. That is exactly where GM is targeting most growth for its prime brand, Chevrolet.

All very fine, you may say. But isn’t this just another example of fame-hungry GM global marketing supremo Joel Ewanick grabbing the headlines? And a costly one too, which may not eventually stack up. After all, what traction does a British football club – even one whose brand has achieved substantial recognition in the rest of the world – have in the market where Chevy currently sells most of its 4.76 million units a year? Not that much really (despite Kantar’s projection of  a 35 million Man U following in the USA – who are these people?).

Some might go even further and claim Ewanick and GM are actually being unpatriotic. What this sponsorship deal is really about is cocking a snook at America’s prime sport, baseball: Ewanick has personally decided that Super Bowl ads are too expensive (at $3.4m for 30 seconds prime time, a not unreasonable point of view) and he’s perversely made his point by concluding  a deal with a sport that cannot have any discernible uplift on US sales in the immediate future. Nor is this an inexpensive gesture. Recent sponsorships deals with Man U have not exactly cost peanuts. In 2010, for example, the club struck an agreement with insurance firm Aon worth £80m ($125m) over 4 years.

There may of course be a grain of truth in these objections. Ewanick’s behaviour is clearly tactical as well as strategic in intent. It is designed, at one level, to bring the Super Bowl ratecard (and let’s throw in the Facebook ratecard while we’re there) to heel by demonstrating there is a marcoms alternative. But a tactic is exactly what it is. My betting is he cannot afford to boycott either platform in the longer run.

Seven-day-a-week newspaper publishing revolution shatters The Mirror

May 30, 2012

The Rabelesian guffawing in The Mirror’s newsroom when Trinity Mirror’s chief executive announced her unlamented departure is now reduced to a sullen whisper.

Who will be next, the hacks timorously wonder as they survey the seismic damage caused by this morning’s fresh round of top-level sackings? Out, in short order, have gone Richard Wallace, editor of The Daily Mirror, and Tina Weaver, veteran editor of The Sunday Mirror. In has come Lloyd Embley (who? – formerly editor of the People) as the new editorial supremo of a “merged” 7-day-a-week Mirror newspaper.

In a classic example of tabloid double-think, Embley told his shell-shocked team: “This is not a slash and burn exercise. Nor is it about managing decline.”

Isn’t it, Lloyd? Difficult to see what else it might be. Certainly not a strategic decision, made from strength. Nor, to use some ghastly marketing jargon, is it “proactive”. Indeed, as so often in the world of newspapers, Rupert Murdoch continues to take the credit, having got there first with the 7-day Sun – while Trinity hobbles behind, a lame second. If the two editors were stunned by the manner of their summary dismissal this morning, they can hardly be surprised by its ultimate cause. All the circulation gains accruing to The Sunday Mirror after Murdoch unexpectedly closed the News of the World were wiped out almost overnight by his introduction of The Sun on Sunday.

If this brutal step-change really is, in the words of the Trinity statement, “a further step towards creating one of the most technologically advanced and operationally efficient newsrooms in Europe,” why on earth didn’t senior management have the courage of their convictions and implement it before?

Because, let’s face it, it isn’t really a step-change at all. And because, where newsrooms and newspapers are concerned, there are more important things than being “technologically advanced” and “operationally efficient”. Like keeping your journalists on side. Which is difficult when you are savagely cutting their numbers to achieve shareholder “value”.

What seems to have occurred here is some highly expedient corporate chicanery. How can it be that Sly Bailey, the lame duck outgoing chief executive, has been allowed to make these changes, changes she would never have dared to make before she resigned? Simple. The new board, and particularly the new chairman David Grigson, needs someone to hide behind, someone who is now totally expendable.

This may not have been Grigson’s only calculus, however. The suspicion is Trinity used this occasion to cleanse its Augean Stables. We’re still waiting to hear the full unexpurgated version of former Mirror editor Piers Morgan’s flirtatious relationship with the truth about phone-hacking, but last week moved a little closer to full disclosure with Jeremy Paxman’s testimony to the Leveson Inquiry. Wallace and Weaver were both later contemporaries of Morgan, who stepped down from the Mirror in 2004. Like two Wise Monkeys, they have joined Morgan in a deaf-and-dumb denial of complicity in phone-hacking culture. Which – who knows? – may be entirely justified. But just in case, why not get rid of them at this opportune moment? They are, in any case, very expensive; and they were, no doubt, utterly opposed to the concept of sacrificing one of their editorships on the altar of a 7-day newspaper.

And yet the real casualty here is the brand. Sunday newspapers, and not just red-top Sundays, are looking like an endangered species. Who will be next to join the 7-day bandwagon? The Independent/Independent on Sunday? The Guardian/Observer?

Sunday newspapers are being eroded not simply by shrink-fit publishing economics but by changing reading habits. After all, who these days seeks the wow-factor of a good old-fashioned scoop over their Sunday bacon and eggs?

Social media explained – with the help of some dubious statistical illustrations

May 28, 2012

If only the maximum character count were 200, 90 million Germans could finish a sentence on Twitter… Already, 150 children have been given a first name starting with @…. 27% of Facebook server capacity is taken up storing “LOL”… The second biggest lie after ‘I love you, too’ is: ‘You have been successfully unsubscribed from our database’.

These and numerous other imperishable social media factoids are to be found on a video made for satire site The Poke. It purports to be a parody of a promotional video for Erik Qualman’s book, Socialnomics, though the parallel is light and the irony heavy:

My thanks to George Parker, at Adscam, for that. And here’s the video Technology Will Kill, for Qualman’s latest:

What will The Poke do with this I wonder?

Mother’s $600,000 Chevrolet campaign triggers SEC conflict of interest inquiry

May 26, 2012

These days, General Motors advertising seems more adept at making the headlines than selling metal.

Yesterday, GM was forced to report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which regulates the corporate governance of publicly-quoted companies, that it had inadvertently awarded a $600,000 ad contract to an agency where the wife of GM’s chief financial officer, Dan Ammann, is a partner.

The agency in question is Mother New York, and the brief was Chevrolet’s 100th birthday anniversary (see below), which ran last autumn. Ammann’s wife, Pernilla Ammann, is both a partner and chief operating officer at Mother New York.

Apparently, evidence of a conflict of interest only “popped up” last week when the governance committee of the board of directors was reviewing GM contracts.

GM directors are contractually required to disclose personal ties to outside companies, which Dan Ammann signally failed to do.

Now, I know what you’re going to say. How could GM have committed such an obvious oversight? The clue’s in the name, isn’t it? “Ammann”, on the Mother head sheet, partner, pretty unusual, sounds a bit like our CFO’s. Could they by any chance be related?

But of course, bureaucracies (which is what all multinational companies are) don’t work like that. They don’t make lateral connections; they function efficiently only in silos. So, though it took GM a long time to recognise the oversight, and though the oversight is worrying in itself, the fact that it happened should not surprise us.

What I’m more interested in is what Mrs Ammann was doing all this time (apart from keeping mum). Did she never mention over the K Flakes: “Honey, the strangest thing happened. Your company has just offered our agency a nice little advertising brief”? Admittedly she may not have worked on the brief, but she must have known about it. It would have been irresponsible of an agency COO not to have. After all, one of her jobs is to handle legal issues and “contract negotiations”, according to the agency website. One thing is for certain: she can hardly have been so naive that she didn’t know what constitutes a conflict of interest.

Maybe she’s estranged from her husband. Maybe she doesn’t talk to him at breakfast, or at any other time. In which case, I think we should be told.

In any case, there’s always email.

Yell name change to hibu is the kind of makeover that makes you want to scream

May 23, 2012

Yellow Pages owner Yell has just changed its name to hibu, to the corporate fanfare of a £1.4bn annual loss.

If you want to draw attention to the fact that you are a loser, this is the way to do it in style. Don’t just disappoint your shareholders, really get their hackles up by spending yet more of their money on a makeover that will involve changing everything down to the last dot on letterheads and corporate literature.

It’s the kind of thing that gives rebranding a really bad name. The corporate equivalent of a crooked car dealer pushing a cut-and-shut write-off through the body-shop, in the belief that some mug out there will buy the flashy new paint job.

So why do it? Mike Pocock, Yell’s chief executive, claims to have a cunning plan. He’s actually proud  of the fact that hibu (unlike its predecessor, Yell) is a meaningless word. Yes, readers, unironically he spells it out for us: “high-boo”. As opposed to “low-boo.” Now you know.

Apparently, trendily ungrammatical hibu (lower case ‘h’, with some meaningless umlauts thrown in) is going to “connect” with under-25 year olds for whom telephone directories are relics. And while we’re there, let’s not forget “digitally-enabled housewives under 45 who have money to spend”. No, really. Must be the Sid and Doris Bonkers market that satirical magazine Private Eye has made its own.

By way of explanation, Pocock says nonsense words are now very much in vogue: “If you go back 15 to 20 years, Google and Yahoo! didn’t mean anything. It’s how you support the brands.”

You couldn’t make it up, could you? Please, Mike, stop digging and throw the spade away.  Google and Yahoo may have been nonsense words, but they represented thriving new businesses that earned the right to use a neologism. Not so tired old Yell, shackled to its Yellow Pages print platform. The best place for nonsense words is in the poetry of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.

WPP’s Landor, who dreamt up “hibu”, must be laughing all the way to the bank. Now comes the expensive advertising campaign to let Sid and Doris know they are being targeted.

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