Smart cookie Microsoft fails to keep track with advertisers

June 11, 2012

Microsoft stirred up a hornet’s nest among US advertisers a couple of weeks ago when it introduced a new version of Bing. Why? Because version 10 of its internet Explorer browser in Windows 8, which accompanied the Bing relaunch, has apparently gone soft on the civil liberties lobby, and set up a nasty precedent for restraint of trade.

Need a bit more unpacking? Fair enough. It’s our old friend behavioural targeting – sometimes called behavioural analytics – that’s causing advertisers’ pulses to race. BT is the new frontier, allowing advertisers to plot an accurate path through our internet interests via specially implanted cookie files (more on this in my earlier post here). Without it, they are flying blind, or rather they are dependent on old-fashioned demographics-based contextual advertising, which is a bit like trying to find your bearings from a soggy map in the open-air cockpit of a pre-war biplane.

Anyway, back to Microsoft. It has embedded a ‘Do Not Track’ functionality in its highly popular browser, with a default setting in the ‘On’ position. And the Association of National Advertisers, the US equivalent of  our Incorporated Society of Practitioners in Advertising (ISBA), is very angry about it:

“Microsoft’s decision, made without industry discussion or consensus, undercuts years of tireless, collaborative efforts across the business community — efforts that were recently heralded by the White House and Federal Trade Commission as an effective way to educate consumers and address their concerns regarding data collection, targeted advertising and privacy. We reject efforts by any provider or other group to unilaterally impose choices on the consumer in this critical area of the economy…”

…. says Bob Liodice, president & CEO, of ANA. Just why ‘imposing choices on the consumer’ is such a bad thing is not immediately apparent. Surely choice is at the core of the consumer society? But we know what he means: Microsoft hasn’t exactly been helpful to the cause.

I have yet to discover whether Microsoft will be inflicting a similar burden of choice on consumers in Europe. UK  advertisers have been breathing a collective sigh of relief now that the tireless efforts of ISBA, the Internet Advertising Bureau and EASA (European Advertising Standards Alliance), which had been arguing for a laissez allez approach to BT, have finally borne fruit. Privacy regulator The Information Commissioner’s Office (director-general, Chris Graham, pictured) has, after much havering, decided that what the new EU ePrivacy directive actually means is “implied consent” to carry on cookie-tracking. Which comes as a huge relief to thousands of website owners, let alone advertisers, who feared they were going to have to bombard users with innumerable trade-impairing pop-up warnings every time they wanted to activate a cookie. “Implied consent”, in other words, firmly shifts responsibility in law from the advertiser and website owner to the consumer.

Not unnaturally, the industry has praised Graham – former director-general of the Advertising Standards Authority – for his “pragmatism”. But doubts remain about what will happen to the British position – which is, shall we say, a unique interpretation of the ePrivacy directive – once it is tested by case law elsewhere in the Community. Doubtless Microsoft’s decision back in the Land of the Free will not be considered helpful.

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Buy an IKEA bed and have it away in Thailand. Promise

June 5, 2012

And now for something in the great tradition of Opel cars that break down, but only in Spain – and Pepsi Cola that brings your ancestors back from the grave, if you’re Chinese.

The IKEA Redalen bed, on sale in the global furniture retailer’s recently opened Bangkok superstore, is apparently a lot more seductive in Thailand than Sweden – Redalen sounding suspiciously like a word meaning advanced foreplay. Presumably, the bed can be bought in a job lot with the Jättabra plant pot, which appears to offer seventh heaven into the bargain. Bewildered Thais could not be blamed for attempting to invoke the local version of our Trade Description Act on discovering the products were not, after all, vested with mysterious aphrodisiac powers.

Product names getting lost in translation is an increasing problem for companies as the whole world becomes a potential market. Some other recent corkers:

The Mitsubishi Pajero: the car company noticed too late that pajero means “wanker” in Spanish. It was later renamed Montero.

When Sharwood’s spent millions of pounds launching a new curry sauce in 2003 called Bundh, the firm was deluged with calls from Punjabi speakers who said the new offering sounded like their word for “backside.”

In China, Microsoft’s search engine Bing sounds like “illness” or “pancake” when spoken in local dialects. Microsoft executives expertly changed the search engine’s Chinese name to biying, which also referred to a longer Chinese expression ‘you qui bi ying’, roughly meaning “Seek and Ye Shall Find.”

IKEA’s solution to the problem has been to employ a team of local Thai translators who purge the furniture names of stressful double entendres.


Nokia, Microsoft and AT&T hold their breath for Lumia 900 smartphone launch

April 9, 2012

Like me, perhaps, you missed one of this year’s most critical product launches. That’s because, for reasons still not entirely apparent, it took place on Easter Sunday.

Never mind that though. All the most influential tech reviewers are agreed: the Nokia Lumia 900 is undoubtedly one of the finest smartphones money can buy, with its big, 4.3in screen, intuitive operating system, 8 megapixel rear camera and VGA front-facing cam, not to mention 4G LTE data capability. And at the astonishing price of only $99 (terms and conditions apply, 2-year contract only, sorry rest-of-the-world, you’ll just have to wait and see…), it looks like a snip.

But will it be? The Lumia’s significance lies not so much in it technological prowess as who’s behind it.

This may be the first and only chance for Nokia, Microsoft and AT&T to break the iPhone’s increasingly assured stranglehold over the sector. Nokia, once hailed the world’s leading mobile phone manufacturer, has so far made almost no impact in the dynamic smartphone sector dominated by Apple and Google/Android. Microsoft, developer of the admired but definitely connoisseur-only Windows Phone 7.5 operating system, has so far lacked a suitable vehicle to gatecrash the market. And AT&T, the US carrier with sole Lumia launch rights, is playing a desperate market catch-up game with its rivals Verizon and Sprint Nextel, after earlier losing exclusivity over US iPhone sales.

Little, apart from that quirky Easter Sunday launch date, is being left to chance. And with some of the world’s powerful brands behind it (AT&T, for instance, is America’s second biggest advertiser) it seems hard to conceive of abject failure. AT&T alone is spending $150m through BBDO on the Lumia launch campaign – more than it ever spent on the iPhone. And there has been much hullabaloo in Times Square with a spectacular live event – watched by “tens of thousands of people” and videoed on Facebook – featuring 60-foot CGI-generated waves which cascade down a building.

If only smartphone marketing were simply about price, position, product and promotion, the Lumia 900 would have a field day. Alas, it’s also about apps. As a leading member of the tech commentariat David Pogue, of the New York Times, points out:

The Lumia 900 is fast, beautiful and powerful, inside and out. Unfortunately, a happy ending to this underdog story still isn’t guaranteed. Windows Phone 7 faces the mother of all chicken-and-egg problems: nobody’s going to write apps until WP7 becomes popular — but WP7 won’t become popular until there are apps.

And it’s anyone’s guess when that might be.


Nick Brien heads for McCann exit. But who would wish to step into his shoes?

March 16, 2012

Word reaches me that Nick Brien, chief executive officer of Interpublic Group’s troubled leviathan McCann Worldgroup, will be stepping down very shortly. Possibly within a few weeks.

The size of Brien’s no doubt handsome severance package is likely to remain a mystery, the reason for his departure less so.

McCann has, in recent years, been a slow-motion accident gradually picking up speed. The traditional banker of Interpublic, accounting for 30% of group revenue (according to the Wall Street Journal), it was once a licence to print money on account of 5 foundation global clients. These were: Unilever, Exxon Mobil, Nestlé, L’Oréal and General Motors. More recently it has come to rely upon Microsoft as well. Here’s the recent tally:

Unilever (mostly Walls) has long gone, and the souring of the relationship can hardly be blamed upon Brien (even though the last bit of media did leave in 2011). Less excusably, his 2-year tenure has coincided with serious difficulties afflicting the other five.

Nestlé? McCann lost the crown-jewels global Nescafé creative account (worth about $25m income annually) to Publicis Groupe. McCann had handled the vast majority of the business for several decades.

Exxon? Lost the $200m creative account (which went back to 1912) to BBDO after a year-long review completed late last year. Universal McCann, MRM and Momentum have, however, managed to cling on to media.

General Motors? McCann lost out in the recent contest for GM’s $3bn global media business (of which Universal McCann had a substantial chunk), and is still on tenterhooks over whether it has won, lost or drawn in a creative review of the worldwide Chevrolet business, which accounts for the bulk of GM adspend.

Did I mention the Microsoft débâcle? About a year ago, UM and Mediabrands lost more than half Microsoft’s global media business after a review which saw the $615m US business pass to Publicis’ Starcom MediaVest.

And so to L’Oréal – perhaps the single most important McCann relationship, accounting (I’m told) for about 20% of its operating profit. Brien made a fundamental wrong turn last year when he sought to shoehorn Maybelline into a standalone shop, Beauty Village, which was also to house L’Oréal’s main brands. Characteristically (for a former media man), he had spotted the cost benefits of ruthlessly streamlining the business. Equally characteristically, his critics would say, he showed almost zero client empathy in setting about the task. When L’Oréal’s ‘C Suite’ finally tumbled to what he was doing, they were apoplectic and nixed the whole project.

Worse, it would appear, is on the way for McCann. L’Oréal now seems poised to take a considerable amount of its creative work in house. From what I hear, it will drop one of its two global agencies. And given that Publicis is the Paris-based home team, currently rejoices in a better brand name and – in Digitas – a superior digital operation, who do you think that unlucky agency might be? Driving L’Oréal’s thinking, sources say, are potential cost savings of $50m a year.

An indication of the way the wind is blowing may be detected in the recent defection of McCann’s L’Oréal worldwide account director Aude Gandon, who joined Publicis Worldwide last month. Gandon was a Brien protegé. She was formerly managing director of Leo Burnett’s beauty, fashion and luxury division, Atelier-lb, and was brought into McCann shortly after Brien got the top job.

Hers is not the only departure. Note that Garry Neel, the GM brand leader at McCann is quitting (although he will stay on as a consultant). As is Matt Freeman, who was hired as chief global chief innovation officer and vice-chairman less than a year ago. Only last week, Cathy Saidiner, president of McCann LA since 2008 – and a key Nestlé contact – also quit, according to an AdWeek report which also carried a denial that Brien is about to step down.

Against all these losses, McCann under Brien has yet to nail a significant new business win. Sense a pattern, anyone?

Equally interesting, while on the subject of Brien’s imminent departure, is who might replace him. Who, now that Brett Gosper has quit, has sufficient stature within McCann? And if an external candidate, which first-rate suits would be prepared to risk their reputation in taking on such a vertiginous challenge? The ideal candidate might well be Andrew Robertson, BBDO Worldwide CEO (who has not so far landed that top Omnicom job he was rumoured to be angling for). But why would he want to go to McCann? Surely not for the money.

UPDATE 19/3/12: Another top level casualty: this time Tom Gruhler, global managing partner at McCann Worldgroup, who is heading off to Microsoft as vice-president of phone marketing. Gruhler, who joined McCann in 2003, oversaw a specialist technology and telecoms unit the agency was developing. Previously, he was point man on the Verizon account, but much of that defected to agency-of-the-moment McGarryBowen in 2010. There’s now an inescapable whiff of the Führer Bunker, April 1945, in the air.


Strong Interpublic financial results swell optimism in global ad recovery

February 24, 2012

Things really must be getting better in the global advertising economy, the cynical might observe. Interpublic, the world’s fourth-largest and most financially challenged advertising conglomerate, has just reported a decent set of Q4 results.

Despite a heavy kicking from principal clients SC Johnson – which quit after decades at IPG subsidiary DraftFCB – and Microsoft – which withdrew all its media strategy and planning business from media powerhouse Universal McCann – IPG was able to report profits (net income) up nearly 40% (50 cents compared with 36 cents per share) on revenue slightly ahead at $2.07bn.

Admittedly IPG chief executive Michael Roth was wary of calling a recovery. “We have some local wins and some existing clients spending money, but I wouldn’t say that the recovery is taking hold and we’ve seen bottom,” he said during the conference call.

But that cautious scepticism was surely belied by his assertion elsewhere that the company is setting out on the acquisition trail.

Besides, a slew of uplifting data elsewhere seems to suggest that IPG’s positive figures are not an isolated anomaly. Publicis Groupe and Omnicom, respectively numbers 3 and 2 in the world, have already posted Q4 results ahead of analysts’ predictions. WPP has yet to report, but there is no evidence the results will be grim. On the contrary, I have every reason to believe pre-tax profits and revenue will be well ahead of analysts’ expectations.

More circumstantially, but no less significantly, the US Advertiser Optimism Index – roughly equivalent to the IPA/BDO Bellwether Report over here – has just reported the second-highest level of confidence in ad budgets being raised since 2008. The index, published by research company Advertiser Perceptions, measured the sentiment of advertisers and agencies during October and November.

Finally, UK-based WARC has just produced a report suggesting America is leading the world out of (ad) recession. “Marketing spend in the Americas increased sharply in February,” it noted in an update to its monthly Global Marketing Index. Even doldrum European ad markets are experiencing “improving conditions”, it seems.

Let’s hope IPA/Bellwether doesn’t spoil the party with its next quarterly report, which must be coming out quite soon.


Publicis Groupe raids top Chinese shop Betterway after corruption scandal

February 20, 2012

News reaches me that Publicis Groupe has raided one of its most important marketing services outlets in China, after corrupt practices came to light.

Betterway/Publicis Dialog, the outlet in question, is China’s largest field marketing network, with offices in Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu and Guangzhou.

The company is said to have raided its subsidiary last week and to have sent all staff home. Arrests are rumoured, but unconfirmed.

The driving force behind Betterway is CEO York Huang, a former Procter & Gamble executive, who joined the company in 2001. In 2006 PG acquired an 80% stake in Betterway. Huang and junior partner Jenny Zhang remained minority stakeholders.

Two years ago, PG claimed Betterway had 346 full-time employees and 15,000 part-time staff operating in over 100 cities. Principal clients include Wrigley, Kraft, Microsoft, J&J, L’Oréal, Coca-Cola and Samsung. Betterway won a substantial contract from China Mobile and China Telecom to represent them at the high-profile 2010 Shanghai Expo.

What has gone wrong? It seems that despite the Chinese marketing services economy growing at over 10% a year, some just can’t get their hands on enough money. The speculation – and I stress that it’s no more at this stage – is certain senior Betterway executives created a ‘shadow’ agency which then pumped revenues into Betterway in order to inflate revenue, and thereby substantially boost their earnouts.

Publicis has had problems dealing with corrupt practices in its Chinese operations before, of course. Readers of this blog may recall that, in September 2010, it fired Vivaki Exchange’s chief executive Warren Hui and general manager Ye Pengtao .

More on the Betterway story when I have it.


Dentsu delivers the coup de grâce to its strategic alliance with Publicis Groupe

February 17, 2012

The only surprise about the dissolution of the Publicis Groupe/Dentsu strategic alliance is the speed with which it has happened. Less than two weeks ago, PG chief executive Maurice Lévy was telling shareholders he couldn’t pay them a better dividend because he had to hoard every last euro in case the Japanese wanted their money back.

In point of fact, the decision to terminate must already have been made, even though the strategic alliance of 10 years still had some months to run. This morning, Dentsu announced it had sold almost all its remaining 11% shareholding (and 15% voting rights) back to Publicis for €644m (£535m). Dentsu retains a 2% stake for the time being, but it’s of little consequence.

Dentsu made a profit of £17m on its investment. Small recompense – it must be said – for a strategic alliance which, from the Japanese point of view, has been largely a sham.

Right from the beginning, Dentsu found itself wrong-footed. It originally founded the alliance with BCom3, a combination of Leo Burnett and MacManus Group, only to find that Publicis had crashed the party by acquiring BCom3. Where previously it might have expected to play a more preponderant role, the addition of Publicis fundamentally changed the balance of power. And reduced Dentsu to an (even more) passive role as a minority shareholder in PG, albeit with some powerful voting rights.

Stripped to essentials, the alliance was supposed to bolster PG’s then-weak position in the Far East, and supercharge Dentsu’s underperformance in North America and Europe.

In practice, it was very much more favourable to Publicis, which had in any case benefited from a massive injection of cash to bankroll acquisitions.

Most mortifying of all, Dentsu eventually found itself not only in direct competition with its ally for scarce North American digital assets – but coming off worse. Notably in the case of the Razorfish acquisition, where Dentsu put a heady $700m on the table, but was swiftly outplayed by Publicis – which enjoyed an inside track with the then-owner of the digital agency, Microsoft, and irritatingly managed to buy the agency for a lower price.

Dentsu soon signalled its growing disenchantment by forcing a sale of 4% of Publicis stock for €218m. Not long thereafter, it showed new and uncharacteristically aggressive intent in Western markets with the unveiling of Dentsu Network West – captained by US Dentsu chief Tim Andree. Where, for years previously, Dentsu had got things spectacularly wrong in the USA, Andree has got at least one big thing spectacularly right. Had he done no more than acquire McGarryBowen – feted by both AdAge and AdWeek as their current agency of the year after a string of high-profile business wins – Tokyo would have good reason to be hugely grateful to him.

In short, Dentsu has outgrown its foreign markets inferiority complex, which gave birth to the alliance in the first place. While Publicis now has an urgent reason to dispose of the corpse as soon as possible. Whoever eventually takes over the hot-seat from Maurice Lévy would have little thanked him for bequeathing them an embittered major shareholder.


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