It’s the Age of Google and Sorrell has no time – or money – for Twitter

April 29, 2013

Martin SorrellThe most interesting thing about WPP Group’s first quarter financial results were not the numbers, but its chief executive’s obiter dicta.

The numbers themselves were a curate’s egg. They beat the revenue forecast, bizarrely enough they delighted in Britain, but they disappointed in the United States. Which is just about the only part of the world economy currently showing signs of dynamism.

The obiter dicta, on the other hand, were curiously memorable. WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell used the occasion (well, near enough: he was actually speaking at the FT Digital Media Conference the previous day) to highlight a singular phenomenon. So far as his company is concerned (and it  is, after all, the number one spender of advertising money in the world), Google will soon become a bigger destination for his clients’ money than the biggest traditional media owner in his stable, News Corporation. Google is currently in receipt of $2bn of WPP’s quarterly spend; while NewsCorp gets about $2.5bn. But, given the Google figure represents a 25% increase year on year, it can only be a short time – Sorrell assures us – before the search giant moves into pole position.

I say “search giant”, but that of course is history. Sorrell’s underlying point is that Google – after some initial fumbling – has made the transition from a techie company, peopled by nerds, into a multi-media corporation with global reach. He calls it  “a five-legged stool”: there’s search (of course); display advertising; social media (google+); mobile (via Android and AdMob); and video through YouTube.

Note well where Sorrell places his chips, however. From an advertising point of view, the Age of Google (as he calls it) is primarily defined by video. YouTube has made big inroads into what traditionally would have been television viewing. He’s bullish about mobile, too: Android is now the most popular smartphone platform and in some developing markets, like China, it accounts for two-thirds of all mobile sales.

But social media: Oh dear, what an advertiser’s no-no! Yahoo, though generally lacklustre these days, garners about $400m of WPP spend. Facebook, infinitely more successful with its audience figures, receives only $270m. And Twitter a lot, lot less. What’s the logic? Well, Yahoo “gets” the commercial need for a five-legged strategy (indeed, TechCrunch speculates it is about to buy Dailymotion, a smaller competitor to YouTube). Whereas Facebook and Twitter do not. Facebook, Sorrell reckons, is important for brands – but in a negative sense – absence of criticism, which has little to do with any advertising content. Twitter, on the other hand, is simply a PR medium with almost no value to advertisers.

“It’s very effective word of mouth,” Sorrell told Harvard Business Review last month. “We did analyses of the Twitter feeds every day, and it’s very, very potent…I think because it’s limited in terms of number of characters, it reduces communication to superficialities and lacks depth.”

Maurice Levy, CEO of Publicis, speaks during the Reuters Global Media Summit in ParisThat last may sound a little harsh. And is certainly not a universally accepted view among admen. Significantly, it is not shared by Sorrell’s deadliest rival, Maurice Lévy – chief executive of Publicis Groupe. Lévy has just announced a four-year pact with Twitter which will involve PG’s media planning and buying arm Starcom MediaVest Group committing up to $600m of client money to monetizing Twitter’s audience. Details, at this point, are sketchy.  It is clear, however, we are not just talking “pop-ups” here. Lévy makes specific reference to video links and “new formats” yet to be developed. He admits to there being “some risk” involved in the project, though whether this relates to his own reputation, clients’ money or both is not apparent.

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Telegraph Group joins Gadarene rush with folding of Sunday title into 7-day operation

March 13, 2013

Telegraph 7-day operationThe newspaper is dead, and the Telegraph’s decision to merge its daily and Sunday titles into a 7-day-a-week operation is yet another nail in its coffin. Long live the free press.

By “free press” I mean not the plutocratic oligarchy (absent the Guardian and Observer owning Scott Trust) that maintains a diminishing stranglehold over printed national news, but that other sense of free – “free of charge”. The internet, with Google algorithms in the vanguard, is slowly, inexorably, doing what no politician could ever do: it is breaking down the cartel.

No qualitative judgement is made or implied about this being a Good Thing for the advancement of civilised values. Indeed, on balance, it may well be a bad thing. Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, so there is no such thing as free journalism. If we are all able, in a matter of moments, to find out what is going on by tapping a few words into a search box at virtually no cost who, exactly, is going to pay for the many hours of sweat, journalistic nous and training that went into crafting the news item in the first place?

It’s a conundrum that digital content strategists frequently explain away by reference to the woolly wisdom of “creative destruction”. Darwinian metaphor is highly misleading, however. Paper dinosaurs may well be on their way to destruction. But there is nothing inevitable about the evolution of a genus of fleet-footed digital mammals to take their place. The ways of evolution are multiform, mysterious and rarely linear. While it is entirely understandable that legacy media institutions should present themselves as the natural guarantors of smooth transition, the reality (with the possible exception of such venerable specialist titles as the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal) may be very different. More likely there will be a period of chaotic evolutionary stasis before something commercially semi-vertebrate emerges anew from the economic goo.

I mention all this after briefly reviewing the latest set of national newspaper circulation figures (ABCs). My, how the mighty have tumbled. The Guardian, for example, shed 5.31% in just one month (February) Admittedly this followed a price hike, but the circulation figure is now around 193,586 which – as MediaWeek reminds us – is The Guardian’s lowest headline figure since records began, in 1949. The paper is worried about having breached a psychological barrier, even after sales were pumped by a recent BBH ad campaign. Not so long ago, I seem to remember that psychological barrier was 400,000, not 200,000.

Guardian print circulation may be in freefall, but its trend is by no means atypical. The Sun on Sunday is down nearly 5% month on month, representing a 41% collapse since Rupert Murdoch phoenixed it last year out of the ashes of The News of The World. The Sunday Express has descended below 500,000; The Mirror is barely achieving 1 million; The Sun itself, not so long ago hovering around the 3 million mark, is now gliding towards 2 million. Only the i – a scarcely economic 20p news digest – managed an increase, and that a miserly 1.45% to just shy of 300,000. Those with a head for historical statistics might like to note that its host, The Independent, now boasts a circulation of no more than 75,000. Even The Sunday Times – psychological barrier once 1 million – is now drifting down to 875,000.

In light of this dismal picture, it is no surprise to find The Sunday Telegraph (February ABC: 429,346) huddling closer to The Daily Telegraph (541,036) for warmth. As with the Sun, Mirror and The Independent 7-day operations that have preceded it, the rhetoric of the Telegraph’s transformation is radical and upbeat. The grim reality – and ultimate rationale for the move – is jobs lost. And with them, irreplaceable experience.

Murdoch MacLennanTrue, the headline figure of 80 print jobs out of 550 editorial staff being culled is not the whole picture. It emerges that Telegraph Group chief executive Murdoch MacLennan (left) will offset some of these losses with 50 “new digitally-focused jobs” – including a new position, director of content who will sit over both editors – and inject £8m into his “number one” priority of completing “our transition into a digital business.”

No matter how many time he incants the mantra “digital business”, MacLennan is unlikely – any more than his rivals who have trodden the same primrose path – to extricate his titles from the financial doldrums. The damage to the brand – particularly the Sunday brand – with its more considered, investigative magazine-like approach – is likely to be considerable. The strategic upside, after an initial financial up-tick, on the other hand is doubtful. Expect to see more circulation decline once disappointed Sunday readers reject the graft.

On the face of it, digital global readers, in whose name all this 7-day stuff is being done, look a worthy prize. For a start, there are lots of them. In January, for example, The Telegraph’s website traffic (by no means the most voluminous among newspaper brands) grew 11% over the previous month to 3,129,599 – the sort of circulation figure that no UK newspaper has been able to boast of for a very long time. But it’s fool’s gold. Digital readers are fickle and rather more likely to be driven by search than brand loyalty. Advertisers have recognised this by tightening their wallets. As former Google CEO Eric Schmidt long ago observed, there’s no better way of turning advertising dollars into cents than migrating to digital publishing. Nor, for the aforementioned reason of declining brand loyalty, are paywalls a viable financial alternative. Unlike the customers of banks, digital readers do have a choice. And they’re using it.

On the other hand, senior newspaper management cannot be seen to be doing nothing. They must inject energy and excitement into a task which, increasingly, looks as suicidal as the rush of the Gadarene swine.

How long before The Observer and Guardian – estimated to be losing about £50m a year – follow the same headlong path?


Cameron The Brand Slayer

January 25, 2013

BorgIf it weren’t for the fact David Cameron watches so little television, I would be forced to conclude he has been modelling his recent behaviour on Borg, the Viking Himbo now fronting Tesco’s advertising.

How else explain his assault on multinational brands in recent days – which has all the subtlety of Thor laying about him with his hammer after a particularly drunken binge?

Last week, it was Coca-Cola that got stomped all over, when Cameron told the House of Commons that he regarded it as his solemn paternal duty to prevent his children consuming “excessive” amounts of the sugary beverage.

This week he was at it again, telling the World Economic Forum in Davos that brands which avoided paying their fair share of corporation tax needed “to wake up and smell the coffee” – an unvarnished reference to Starbucks and those other egregious “tax dodgers” Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Google (and, er, Coca-Cola). And the tirade didn’t end there: so sick and tired is the British public of the multinationals’ fiscal chicanery that Cameron has decided to make clamping down on corporate tax-avoidance a central plank of our G8 Group presidency later this year.

Whoa, Dave. Is this your idea of a soft close? Britain shut for business before you oblige us to pull out of the EU?


Witch-hunt against corporate tax dodgers can damage jobs, as well as brands

December 3, 2012

StarbucksThere’s a grave danger that the witch-hunt against global brands who fail to pay their “fair share” of UK corporation tax will boomerang on the political class that has instigated it.

Google, Amazon and Starbucks have been chief whipping boys in an excoriating grilling by the powerful parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, headed by former Labour government minister Margaret Hodge. They are but the frontline of a phalanx of household multinational names – eBay, Facebook and Ikea prominent in the second rank – which are being prepped for humiliation in the court of public opinion. And behind the PAC’s bullying is a fully complicit Treasury – its head, George Osborne, desperately aware that falling corporation tax is contributing to the ruin of his re-election strategy.

Of course, what these brands are up to is hardly ethically defensible. To quote but a few examples, and bearing in mind that UK corporation tax on larger companies is currently levied at 24% of profits: Google claims to have a global profit margin of 33%, but its UK unit paid only £3.4m in tax last year; Starbucks paid just £8.6m on 13-year UK turnover of £3.1bn; Amazon’s UK tax bill last year was £1.8m on reported sales of £207m; and in 2010 eBay paid £1.2m in tax on UK sales of £800m.

Not the stuff of sincere corporate citizenry, and – consumer brands being peculiarly vulnerable to criticism – these companies are deservedly squirming as the rock is lifted from their unedifying activities.

But because we don’t like their behaviour that doesn’t make it illegal. Tax avoidance is something we would all get up to, if we had an army of tax accountants at our disposal. And maximising profits is one of the fundamental tenets of capitalism, as germane to the micro-entrepreneur as the multinational corporation. What hurts is the unfairness of it all. We small folk must contend with HMRC harassment, escalating fines and a brutal bailiff when we don’t pay our tax bills; big corporations, by contrast, merely cut a highly advantageous deal with the UK tax authorities who, to all appearances, are sycophantically grateful for anything they are given.

Margaret HodgeSo, what politicians are doing here is stoking the politics of envy: pitting the grievance of the many against the privilege of the few. It’s an easy populist game to play and amounts to a form of blackmail. You, Amazon, Starbucks et al, pay up or we will whip up a consumer boycott against you. Already, Osborne’s deputy, Danny Alexander, is “abstaining” from Starbucks coffee (although, in fact, admitting to only drinking tea) and Hodge (above) has knocked Amazon off her Christmas shopping list. How they’re going to hit Google in the googlies I’m not too sure, but the elements of a national campaign are there. Starbucks, for one, is already buckling and (in the words of the inevitable headline) waking up and smelling the coffee.

But wait. Enormously satisfying though this condign corporate punishment may be, could it not become a little, well, counter-productive if the trend really takes wing? Corporation tax, even if levied at the notional statutory level, makes – or would make – a fairly small contribution to the Exchequer when weighed against the other, less high-profile, benefits these companies bring to the national economy. Profitable companies create jobs, and the people who occupy these jobs pay income tax and national insurance contributions, which are of vastly greater importance as tax receipts. Though no economist, I’m tolerably certain that anyone who did the modelling would find that  “zero-tolerance” enforcement of higher-level corporation tax is inversely related to job creation.

As for stirring up a consumer boycott, it’s merely killing the goose that lays the golden egg. Politicians, have a care.


Will the real Grant Shapps please stand up

October 6, 2012

The Advertising Standards Authority must be rueing the day they had their remit extended to website jurisdiction, after unwittingly becoming a political football in the poisonous fracas over Tory Party chairman Grant Shapps’ personal integrity.

It all began innocuously enough when blogger The Plashing Vole drew our attention to the upwardly mobile Tory minister’s apparently harmless multiple personality disorder. In his younger days, Mr Shapps had posed as a certain “Michael Green”, web entrepreneur and wheeler-dealer millionaire.

However, Mr Green, unlike Mr Shapps, was far from being a person of stainless reputation. Mr Green’s line of work was creating internet companies like howtocorp.com which peddled “Self Help” and “Get Rich Quickly” software packages at $500 a pop, rather in the manner of snake-oil salesmen and the travelling apothecaries of the Wild West. By way of example, one of How To Corp’s top products was something called TrafficPaymaster, which purported to bring gullible or unscrupulous customers instant riches by “scraping” – or, to use the vernacular, “plagiarising” – other people’s web content and claiming the resultant Google-generated ad revenue. Google has reprimanded TrafficPaymaster for being ‘unethical’, though it was not – I hasten to add – actually acting illegally.

Michael Green’s websites have now disappeared from the internet and Mr Shapps assures us that he has long since overcome the Green personality psychosis. Part of the therapy has involved displacing Green’s identity onto his wife Belinda, who has manfully managed the internet marketing company all on her own since 2008.

Alas, there has been an occasional relapse. In 2010, for instance, Michael popped up as the author of a book called How to Bounce Back from Recession, replete with Samuel Smiles-style self-help platitudes and lots of ‘$20,000 in 20 days’ guarantees.

The exposure of a ‘Michael Green’ relapse might be considered embarrassment enough for a Tory politician shinning up the greasy political pole, but there was worse to come.

Mr Vole, aka Dr Aidan Byrne, senior lecturer in English, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wolverhampton and fencing master extraordinaire, has descried a further Shapps alter ego in the person of “Sebastian Fox”. It turns out Mr Fox has taken a proprietorial interest in How To Corp, to the extent that the website is now called Sebastian Fox’s How to Corp – The Home of Great Toolkits on the Net.

Vole – and he cannot be alone in this – felt such conduct unbecoming of a former, and no doubt future, minister of the crown.

“After a bit of digging,” he tells us, “I decided that the enthusiastic endorsements by happy customers of HowToCorp might be just as fictional as Grant’s alter egos.” So, he complained to the ASA about it. And great was his joy when they agreed to investigate: “I have a reply from the ASA. They’re going to conduct a proper investigation. This might be a little uncomfortable for Shapps and his wife Belinda. They will have to demonstrate the existence of Fox, Green and the endorsers… which might be a tad difficult.”

That was on September 28th, and things have moved on a bit since then. The ASA have got into a state of high dudgeon over Dr Vole sharing with his readers their “confidential” missive to him and are threatening to can the investigation. All trace of Sebastian Fox’s How to Corp now seems to have been expunged from the internet, although readers eager for an insight may treasure this memento on YouTube:

Meantime, Shapps is at the centre of a media circus, and not enjoying every minute of it. In fact, he’s acting like a cornered wild beast, lashing out at anyone with the temerity to have a go at him – Ed Milliband being the latest victim. Not surprisingly really: in the light of these revelations, we must at best regard Shapps as slightly crackers, and at worst, downright dodgy. Is this the kind of man who should be put in a position of public trust?

And it’s not just Shapps’ conduct that ought to be taken into consideration. He is part of a pattern – of bad judgement on the part of David Cameron. Or, as Volely puts it:

So far we’ve had David Laws fiddling his expenses. Jeremy Hunt hides between trees and secretly promotes the interests of Rupert Murdoch over the public good, Michael Gove using his wife’s email address to hide his dodgy and partisan dealings in the education sphere (in an attempt to evade the Freedom of Information Act), and Liam Fox forced to resign after he failed to make any distinction between his friends’ arms-dealing and intelligence businesses, sinister military-industrial pressure groups and his responsibilities as a government minister.

May I respectfully add to this compendious catalogue the name of  Shapps’ immediate predecessor as Party chairman, Baroness Warsi?

You’ve scored a palpable hit, Dr Byrne. Just what’s needed before the annual party conference.


Brands show their sensitive gay side

July 11, 2012

Pink: it’s the new black. Brands are falling over each other to “out” themselves as fellow travellers in the Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender community (hereto after, LBGT).

First we had Kraft, with its Gay Pride rainbow cookie, posted on a Facebook page. Then Google joined forces with Citigroup and Ernest & Young to promote a joint campaign that  is to highlight the privations suffered by LBGTs around the world. And now – improbably enough – a famous Premier League club has joined the throng.

No, not Chelsea attempting to smother the unpleasant odour of racism emanating from the John Terry court case. Or, for that matter, Queen’s Park Rangers. Liverpool is the first Premier League club to be officially represented in an LBGT event in Britain. A banner featuring the club’s crest is to be carried by staff and members of the women’s team at next month’s Liverpool Pride.

According to Liverpool FC managing director Ian Ayre, the initiative is all about ridding football of homophobia. Earlier this year he helped organise a Football v Homophobia tournament hosted at the club’s academy. Good luck to him: it’s an all-too-evident flaw marring the Beautiful Game, and he’s trying to do something about it.

Less clear is what Kraft (and the others) are up to. Is there an identifiable gay cookie sector? Or do LBGTs simply consume cookies like everyone else? The Facebook campaign, which consisted of an image of an Oreo cookie with six layers of rainbow-coloured creams and the caption ‘Proudly Supports Love’, certainly managed to court controversy. Within a few days, there were 38,000 comments on the site, and nearly 250,000 ‘likes’. Most of the comments were positive, but some were decidedly hostile – and within a few days a ‘Boycott Oreo’ page had sprung up on Facebook, fueled no doubt by neat Bible-Belt bigotry.

Was Kraft really standing up to be counted? I doubt it. More likely, Barack Obama’s forthright backing for same-sex marriage has given brands “permission” to go mainstream on the subject.

By way of explanation Basil Maglaris, Kraft’s associate director of corporate affairs, tells us: “As a company, Kraft Foods has a proud history of celebrating diversity and inclusiveness. We feel the Oreo ad is a fun reflection of our values.”  A “fun reflection”, eh? The smile may be on the other side of its corporate face if Kraft visibly falls down on its employment diversity programme any time soon.


Taint of scandal touches Google as ICO reopens Street View investigation

June 13, 2012

I wonder what we should call it? Googlegate? Datagate, perhaps? Google’s inept handling of rogue data captured in the course of its Street View surveys is giving the search giant an unsavoury corporate reputation. It’s hard not to detect parallels here, albeit on a minor scale, with the Murdoch scandal.

And these parallels are? Out-of-control employees apparently breaking the law in pursuit of a private agenda; the abuse of private data; a corporate cover-up involving middle to upper reaches of company management; weak and complaisant regulators who have been forced to reexamine the inadequacy of their earlier rulings.

The UK spotlight has been turned back on Google only because of some disturbing findings uncovered by a Federal Communications Commission inquiry into material gathered by Street View cars – which have specially adapted cameras – in the US. Earlier, the UK regulator – The Information Commissioner’s Office – had dropped a probe into the affair after receiving assurances that Google had collected the data – which includes emails, email headings, visits to pornographic sites and personal medical information – purely by accident.

Not so, it now transpires thanks to the US investigation. A Google software engineer – we’ll call him Engineer Doe, because that’s what the FCC calls him – deliberately built a program capable of capturing all this stuff and then put it into operation between 2008 and 2010. Engineer Doe, it seems, “intended to collect, store and review payload data [as it is known] for possible use in other Google projects.” I wonder what these could have been? iSpy or Gotcha perhaps.

Engineer Doe told two other engineers working on the project what he was up to, one of whom was a senior manager. But the senior echelons at Google deny all complicity.

Having reopened its inquiry, the ICO now wants to know what type of data was captured; when exactly Google managers became aware of the rogue capture; and why Google had previously failed to disclose to the ICO the exact nature of the gathered data.

Extraordinarily, Engineer Doe and his two colleagues still appear to be in the employ of the company. Although, presumably, they are deployed on alternative projects.


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