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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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Sodastream ad controversy bubbles on

December 5, 2012

Sodastream adWhatever are the people at Sodastream complaining about? Having their ad pulled from television by the donkeys at Clearcast, the TV advertising vetting service, is a gift. It’s the sort of thing Rupert Howell and his team at HHCL used to have wet dreams about – the possibility of the regulator stepping in and banning their latest offering for Tango. Think of the attendant publicity, a priceless multiple of the original advertising budget.

And all the more so in Sodastream’s case. Back then, in the Tango era, YouTube and the viral were waiting to be discovered. What’s more Sodastream seems to have a case based upon rectitude rather than meretricious provocation. Any reasonable man on the Clapham omnibus would have difficulty in understanding the legitimacy of Clearcast’s complaint. Judge for yourselves:

What I see in this ad is each squirt of Sodastream saving you (and the environment) the cost of thousands of eco-unfriendly glass bottles a year. The claim is a trifle exaggerated perhaps, unless that squirt is a metaphorical one signifying a year’s usage of the soda-water maker, but its basis is surely unexceptionable. To any, that is, but those sitting in judgement at Clearcast, which represents the 5 major UK commercial TV companies.

And which bit of the governing Code of Advertising Practice (CAP), do the regulators believe Sodastream has transgressed? Well not, interestingly, 3.12   “Advertisements must not mislead by exaggerating the capability or performance of a product or service.” No, they’ve gone for:  3.42  “Advertisements must not discredit or denigrate another product, advertiser or advertisement or a trade mark, trade name or other distinguishing mark.”

Come again? Let’s look at that ad, in slow motion. Where’s the “product, advertiser or advertisement or a trade mark, trade name or other distinguishing mark”  – unless that last be a glass bottle? I’m one with Fiona Hope – the former Coke executive ultimately in charge of Sodastream’s UK advertising – here: it’s very hard to see how Clearcast, and subsequently its appeal committee, a) arrived at the notion that the ad “denigrates” the bottled drinks industry; and b) in what way article 3.42 of CAP is relevant justification for that view. Oddest of all is the fact that nowhere else in the world has the Sodastream campaign, devised by Alex Bogusky’s new advertising vehicle Common, fallen foul of the regulatory authorities.

One possible explanation for Clearcast’s bizarre behaviour is that the advisory committee suspected Bogusky of mounting a veiled assault on Coca-Cola – no small TV advertiser. As is well known, Bogusky – the former “B” in CP+B – was once creative servitor of the Coke Zero account. Now the breakaway wunderkind – and healthy-living freak – seems intent on war to the knife against his former paymaster. Note, for instance, this recent video for the Center for Science in the Public Interest that pillories Coke in all but name.

Clearcast, as a matter of tactics, would surely have been better advised to let the Sodastream ad air and allow the “bottled drinks industry” (whatever that may be) to complain to the Advertising Standards Authority – the proper forum for this kind of debate. Instead, the stubborn intransigence of its appeals committee has left Clearcast staked out in an indefensible Alamo.

Roll on Hope’s legal challenge to Clearcast’s judgement. Whichever way it goes, Sodastream can be confident of acres of free publicity – which should help UK sales no end.


Kony 2012: Is there a marketing angle? No

March 23, 2012

The trade publications are still full of it. Kony 2012: the marketing angle. Apparently, the 30 minute video viral, which has now attracted about 85 million viewers on YouTube, is replete with key “learnings”  for anyone working in the marcoms biz.

Just what these lessons are eludes me. To be sure, the exposé of child murderer, rapist and serial sadist Joseph Kony is a story compellingly told, which probably accounts for its success in holding the butterfly attention of the social media generation for a full half-hour, rather than the conventional 2 minutes maximum prescribed by digital lore.

But to infer from this that amateur film-maker and social activist Jason Russell has distilled an alchemistic formula that can be meaningfully applied to brands and brand management is, frankly, ludicrous.

If there is a universal truth behind this amazingly successful video viral, it is the one first coined by Andy Warhol: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

Sadly, that 15 minutes of fame has been visited upon Russell, and he has paid the price in inexpungeable personal humiliation and a nervous breakdown that has landed him in hospital, probably for months. Most of us, like Russell, are not very good at handling fame when it comes knocking at the door.

Personal misfortune aside, is there anything else to be learned from Kony 2012? Surely, the cynic will say, it is no more than an amplified instance of “Fenton/Benton” with a bit of social activism attached.

Or, more precisely perhaps, a supercharged version of Corporal Megan Leavey’s titanic struggle with US military bureaucracy, played out on Fox Television and the social media, to rescue her dog Sergeant Rex from undeserved euthanasia. Like Russell, Leavey has managed to activate her campaign “offline” by winning support from useful celebrities and important people on Capitol Hill. Nothing new in that. It’s simply the scale of her achievement, leveraged by social media, that surprises.

That’s not to belittle Russell’s own coup de theâtre, merely to put it into context. Kony 2012 does provide considerable inspiration for a certain kind of marketer – the cause-related one, typically a charity such as Amnesty International or Oxfam. But its relevance to the brand manager’s marcoms arsenal is strictly limited: to PR, and in particular, “advocacy”.

It’s very easy to see why. Brands are never likely to excite, of themselves, the emotional engagement that permeates Kony 2012. And, if they were ever to attach themselves, except ever so marginally, to such a political hot-potato, it would surely spell unwelcome controversy.

Controversy there has certainly been with Kony 2012. A searing media searchlight has scoured Russell’s Invisible Children charity after allegations of fund mismanagement came to light (one of the the things that seems to have driven him into “temporary psychosis”). And the prime minister of Uganda has – via YouTube – personally called Russell to account over an erroneous factual narrative – which, he claims, has done great damage to the Ugandan tourist industry. If this is not “ambush marketing”, I don’t know what is:

Brands are not there to grandstand and take sides: they are there to serve their customers.


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

June 8, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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


How to destroy your business with an internet viral

October 29, 2010

Marketers beware: you are only a malicious viral away from disaster. Here’s a cautionary tale, courtesy of The Guardian.

The Maldives is a small Muslim archipelago republic in the Indian Ocean which relies almost exclusively for its income on upmarket tourism – or rather, it did.

A Swiss couple wishing to solemnise their marital vows in a more exotic setting than their alpine homeland alighted upon the resort of Vilu Reef. That proved a big mistake. Hotel staff played an unkind practical joke on the pair by substituting for the marital vows a stream of sonorous expletives, the gist of which is contained in the two words “infidel” and “swine.” Only, the couple were unaware of their ritual humiliation because it was carried out in the local language.

All this might have mattered  little  – it was probably not the first time the joke had been played – had a video of the ceremony not gone viral on You Tube. Now there’s all hell to pay. The Maldivian government is in melt-down over the crisis. It has issued a grovelling personal apology to the unfortunate couple and threatened all manner of retribution to the mischievous malefactors. That probably means a good flogging for the foul-mouthed “celebrant” and the 10 or so hotel staff present at the ceremony who did nothing to stop him.

But the damage is done. It has taken 40 years to build the Maldives’ status as a world-class tourist destination. And the silliness of one person playing with the internet to cripple it.


BP brand plunges from Deepwater to Ground Zero

May 11, 2010

I’m beginning to feel sorry for Andrew Gowers. Having had an exemplary career at the Financial Times, he had the misfortune to become its editor. In the wake of a complex and expensive libel case, he was ‘let go’  by senior management in 2005. With contacts like his, why worry though? A glittering future in PR beckoned.

And so it proved when he became head of communications at blue-chip investment bank Lehman Brothers London. How was he to know that, in two  short years, he would be at the epicentre of the global financial meltdown? Never mind, pick yourself up, dust yourself down and move on to…BP. Weeks later, the Gulf of Mexico explodes into uncontrollable life.

Avoiding reference to Jonah, I’ll confine myself to the observation that, for a man with Gowers’ peerless experience of crisis management, he seems to have been pretty slow on the uptake. Yes, he’s been indefatigable on the airwaves, mainly pointing out that it’s not all BP’s fault. Which it isn’t: try the Swiss-based company which leased the rig to BP, and the US maintenance outfit which passed the defective shut-down valve as fit for purpose. Also, BP is only a two-third investor in the oil well. But no one wants to hear about that; certainly not President Barack Obama and the American people.

What Gowers, and his colleagues, conspicuously failed to do was mobilise their chief executive fast enough. The oil rig explosion took place on April 20. BP may not have known the leak’s rate of flow, but it certainly knew this was a very serious industrial accident indeed. Yet it was not until three days later that the company released its first statement from group ceo Tony Hayward and, as far as I can make out, not until May 3 that Hayward himself made a broadcast public statement.

Did it really take that long to determine this oil spill is quite possibly the worst man-made ecological disaster to date? Not in the minds of journalists who – like nature – abhor a vacuum, and fill it with speculation. And not – crucially for any crisis management specialists these days – in the social media space, where any half-way decent speculative theory gets magnified a gigafold. Does Gowers or BP viscerally understand this? I suspect not. Until very recently, if you had looked up “BP Oil” on Google you would have found hundreds of references to the incident – on blogs, Twitter, YouTube and the rest, but almost none seeded by BP itself. Does BP imagine its investors take no notice of all this? £19bn knocked off the share price suggests otherwise: they will get their information wherever they can.

Credit where credit is due, Hayward is now cleverly framing the disaster as a common threat, with BP in the front line of resistance. His language has an appealing Churchillian ring to it. But the initiative may already be lost.

Of course, from a corporate standpoint, BP’s caution is entirely understandable. Make light of the disaster while it is still unfolding and it projects an uncaring image which will do endless damage to the brand later. Rash admissions, on the other hand, will expose it to years of litigation, with its toll on management focus and corporate profits. No one knows this better than Hayward, who has spent three years cleaning up the company’s reputation and settling claims after the March 2005 explosion at  BP’s Texas City refinery, which killed 15 workers and injured about 170. Corporate negligence ill fits the image of a company that has struggled hard to position itself as environmentally friendly with a cuddly logo and a $4bn alternative “Beyond Petroleum” energy initiative.

And yet all that misses the point. The speed of mass communications these days no longer permits – if ever it did –boardrooms to dictate the pace of events. Another fine example of crisis mismanagement, admittedly on an infinitesimally smaller scale, reinforces the point. Johnson & Johnson is rightly considered a model in consumer marketing circles for the way it dealt with the 1982 Tylenol scare, in which seven people died after some pain-killer capsules were laced with cyanide. But now it has come a cropper, after the US Food and Drug Administration warned that some of its proprietary over-the-counter medicines for children (including Tylenol) had too much active ingredient in them, and thus failed to reach the acceptable public safety benchmark.

Although there is no evidence of anyone being harmed, and J&J acted promptly and efficiently in organising a voluntary recall, it failed to explain itself to anxious parents, who have become increasingly restive. They quickly availed themselves of Twitter, Facebook and various parenting blogs to express their frustration at not being able to get a straight answer out of the company about what was going on. This is only the latest of a number of poorly explained recalls, which could have catastrophic knock-on effects for the company’s reputation. As one parent, quoted in the New York Times, put it: “Another recall for baby Tylenol. Well no more baby Tylenol, back to generic brand.”

Although J&J can scarcely blame the forces of nature for its self-inflicted disaster there are, nevertheless, parallels with the BP situation. In both cases, the companies seem obsessed with procedures and asserting internal control, which conveys the unfortunate impression that cover-up rather than communication is the ultimate agenda.

As I commented in my blog post on the Maclaren baby pushchair crisis last autumn, a bunker mentality is the default company reaction in these situations, and it’s actually disastrous. True, some crises are worse than they seem; acting upon them could aggravate their severity, whereas left alone they may quietly subside. But can you really afford to take that risk? Suppose this is the big one, the corporate reputation-wrecker?

Whatever you do, don’t hide behind PR flunkies and hope it will go away. Get the chief executive out there early, personally engaging with the media. Maclaren didn’t do that, with disastrous results for sales in its main market, the USA. BP and Toyota eventually did, but I bet they wish they had wheeled them out earlier.


Fake sex ad leaves Sprite unshaken

July 22, 2009

SpriteI’m not surprised everyone – including YouTube and the ostensible advertiser – was confused by the sexually explicit Sprite commercial until its faker, MTV director Max Isaacson, put his hand up and admitted what he had done.

These days, it’s difficult to put a sheet of censor’s paper between what’s real and what’s fake. Take those naughty Mattesons radio ads, which have just been firmly corralled in an adult watershed after complaints to the advertising regulator, the ASA. The script included such gems as:  “I’m renowned for my big sausage hot pot. People are always calling by for a bit and my husband Roger loves it.” Silly fourth-form locker room humour perhaps, but the ASA was not amused and decreed that the ads “could cause harm to children”.

Now back to Sprite and oral sex. Initial confusion over the banned commercial was caused not so much by inappropriate imagery as the fact that the production values were so good they were indistinguishable from the real thing. Isaacson’s motive? Pure self-promotion. And it’s paid off: Coke, which owns Sprite, won’t be suing it seems.

Talking of the real thing, let’s say the Sprite fake goes some way beyond the raunchy 1976 Perrier ad in explicit imagery. But as Adfreak points out, that doesn’t necessarily make it more interesting.

For more background (now that the ad has been deleted from the record by YouTube): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWr_hlxS8Ck


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