Thursday, July 01, 2010

Why Design Matters

Semi Permanent is an event on the creative community's calendar that is not to be missed. This year I am going to give a general admission ticked to a student.

If you are studying design or a design related topic you can enter to win the ticket, which is worth $290.

How to enter
To enter, send me an essay on the topic of 'Why Design Matters'. Just a short essay - no more than 500 words. If you are more comfortable with images and visual communications then make an ad or a poster, as a PDF (up to A3 in size), if physical objects are your thing, make a visual of your concept that makes the point. I will publish entries online.

As far as rights go, entrants will retain all copyrights but by entering grant license to me to use or publish the work in any way to promote the promotion.

The Finalists will be those voted for in comments and then I will pick the winner from the finalists.

Visit the Semi Permanent Website

If you know a student who would appreciate the event…pass this on to them.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Why Banner Advertising should go down the gurgler

There is a monumental swirling mass of waterborne toxic plastic and debris called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It offers me a visual metaphor for the Internet, though of course the Internet is bigger.  We’ve developed an infinite ability to create crap and find a place to leave it so that we can conveniently ignore it, or selectively see what we want from amidst the mess.
Take advertising. It’s been elevated to an art form in many media; advertising is sometimes enjoyed more than the content it pays for. But online promotional activity is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch of the advertising business. Banners, buttons and ‘skyscrapers’ pollute content sites with their insistent flickering.

One of the problems with this form of advertising is that clicking a banner or button links you to another place on the web, and not always to a useful or nice place. So I stick with the content I sought out and ignore the siren calls of neurotic touts. Like many consumers I have developed banner blindness. I don’t even see the messages.

Not only does banner blindness lead to pathetically low click-through rates, but it does nothing to enhance the reputation of digital advertising or the brands that use it. The artistry in the best television or print advertising cannot be supported in the junk market. Why assign a creative budget to a throw-away? What self-respecting creative talent wants to produce clutter that simply swirls around in the sinkhole of the web?

Maybe Apple’s entry into the advertising fray with iAd will change things a little in the mobile arena. Their product cleverly addresses the fundamental flaw of banner advertising on the web by allowing the user to remain within the application they are using. This interstitial form of advertising is similar to an ad break on television (though with the added function of allowing the ad to be closed) and, like television advertising, the ads can be used to fund free content and applications because Apple will share 60 percent of the value of the ad with the developers who embed the code into their apps. On the other side of the ledger, Apple also offers a creation service where, for US$50,000 or more, it will produce an interactive experience for your brand that will suit the format—to Apple’s high aesthetic standard.

Attracting attention with flashing, flickering doodads on the web is the lowest form of advertising (matched only in the real world by ugly, intrusive billboards that appear without invitation or any relevance). It’s little wonder they are ignored, but still they hover and lurk ineffectually: visual spam.

Maybe the rise of search as a marketing tool will bring about the demise of junk banner advertising. Directing visitors to online experiences that are specific and relevant makes much more sense than cheap, random, in-your-face intrusion. Creating brand experiences delivered online that people will talk about and share on Facebook and Twitter will also be more and more significant. Human curation and recommendation will trump a nasty hawker’s pitch every time.  

This column first appeared in the current issue of Idealog magazine. Happy to report the magazine (which I co-founded) has just won the Magazine Publishers Association (MPA) Business Magazine of the Year…which it has done every year since we started publishing. A great credit the talnted team who make every issue come alive with stories about creative New Zealand businesses. Subscribe here…it's worth it.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Don't you take me to 'Funky Town'

Nestle in Australia have launched a promotion called Take Time Back with the Kit Kat Desk Jockey - who is working like a machine so you don't have to.

The concept is based on the idea of having a virtual assistant (I suppose to save you time - a tenuous connection to the long running position of 'Have a break, have a Kit Kat').

Visitors to the site request the assistant to perform tasks on their behalf. It's obviously not serious. The tasks include celebrating something Mexican style to which the assistant attacks a Pinata (in Kit Kat colours) with a rubber chicken - while wearing a sombrero - in Kit Kat colours.

The 'show' is live cast for four hours a day, with a highlight reel and interstitial promotion run the rest of the day. Viewer requests are shown in a stream below the video window. The requests are a little haphazard such as 'Could you get me a Wii' or 'Could I have a family pass to Taronga Zoo'. There is also a twitter feed and Facebook fan page and the concept is supported with a national television campaign.

Aside from all of the fun, there is a sales activation promotion where people who buy Kit Kats earn rewards which increase in value depending on the number of chocolate bars consumed (from digital downloads to time saving home services)

What is interesting to me are Nestle's comments on their media selection for the campaign, reported in AdNews magazine. They express the view that television is still the medium to reach the mass audience needed for a product like Kit Kat but that the way forward is to engage on a far more personal level with consumers. Being the hard-nosed marketers they are Nestle also ensure that their is a mechanism for producing a tangible return on their investment. The budget to produce the Desk Jockey campaign was taken from the pots that would otherwise have been spent on print and outdoor advertising.

Putting aside any value judgment about the creative execution (which is cringe worthy to me but probably hilarious for some) the strategy seems to be the perfect approach for FMCG marketers to deploy social media and branded content campaigns. Combine the power of TV with interactive web content and a sales promotion to extend it beyond a 'feel good' experience for the brand.

In New Zealand we have seen campaigns for Yellow directories that have taken a similar approach to content on TV and the Web - but the missing ingredient has been the integration of a component to activate sales. It could be argued that the intention of the Yellow campaigns has been to increase awareness of the brand (or some other nonsensical non-metric), but Yellow doesn't need awareness. Everybody is aware of the brand. Indeed the process of creating a Yellow chocolate bar probably only confused many Yellow customers who spend all of their marketing money every year on a simple listing. For them the campaign probably incited confusion and anger - serving only to remind how costly the listing is and how profligate the company. Ironically the Yellow business is in dire straits while the ad campaign has been picking up accolades.

The risks in embarking on campaigns that have significant online components:

Assuming 'if you build it they will come'.
It pays to remember how big the web is. The chances of randomly stumbling across any content are about the same as finding a needle in in a nebula. SEO, Facebook and Twitter will all help bring traffic to your content (assuming it is worth talking about), but television is still the killer app in media if your goal is mass reach. Why have kick-ass content that no-one sees?

Failing to leverage the investment or assign real goals 
In the second half of the 20th Century, the hay-day of modern advertising, brands were in the ascendant - in many cases the brand's positioning was the only thing that separated one product from another. Advertising that centred on the notion 'love my ad, love my product' prevailed. Today the choice of brands is all but infinite. You need to give people a reason to buy your product. Branded content is all well and good, but it should be placed in the context of sales activation. The best engagement with a consumer is for them to trial/use your product or service. Who cares how many friends and followers you have if they don't buy what you are selling?

Being led down the garden path to 'Funkytown'
Because digital and interactive is relatively new and requires a skill-set that is sometimes arcane it is easy to assume that only kids in pork-pie hats and pointy shoes can plan and implement a campaign or that they understand what the online audience wants.
What is true is that sound understanding of your audience transcends fashionable execution and development of quirky doodads.
Don't be sucked down into a rabbit hole. Keep a firm hand on the tiller and expect that any bell or whistle proposed is going to serve some purposeful utility. Online audiences are less forgiving of irrelevant things than in legacy media because of their active engagement - pulling the content towards them.

Link: Take Time Back - Kit Kat Desk Jockey

Friday, May 07, 2010

Design = Inventertainment

I get a kick out of good design.

Not only from an intellectual point of view, but also on an emotional level.

I know I am not the first and certainly not the last person to fall in love with Apple products, for example. It's hard not to respond to something so well thought out that it just functions beautifully and is enrobed in a package that makes you feel pleasure. (I'm typing this on the keyboard of my MacBookPro, the one with the silky metallic keys. It's getting dark and the characters have lit up. It's a thoughtful, intuitive response to a problem. Even though my machine is a couple of years old and has been superseded I still enjoy my old work horse.

There are plenty of perfectly utilitarian products that execute a task exactly as they are intended to - a $2 tin opener does the job just fine. An OXO opener costs considerably more, but the pleasure you get from using it is correspondingly greater - even if you don't suffer from arthritis.

The same goes for hand crafted luxury goods. An Hermes or Louis Vuitton bag will give its owner a great deal of pleasure in the knowledge that they appreciate its quality, authenticity and exclusivity.

Design is sexy. It gives us pleasure.

It is always the product of an inventive mind as well as the craft and skill required to execute successfully.

So, in an idle moment I have given it a new name - Inventertainment.

Tell me about a product or service that matches that description…

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The end of ad as spectacle

The meaning of the term 'media' has changed dramatically. Where it once meant the physical vehicle, the medium, by which information was conveyed - it now represents mediation between people and the world. How we view and understand the world is mediated by the media.

It might seem like a convoluted semantic argument but, the more I think about it, the more it makes sense to me and suggests some strategies for the future.

One of the fundamental planks of media has always been that of access. I can't know what is happening in the halls of power, because I am but a plebeian schlub. But Woodward and Bernstein do have access and they become my avatars under the great domes of democracy.

Now that media has become social and we plebs now have direct access to audiences, unmediated, disintermediated, wholus bolus and it means a tectonic shift in power has taken place. We the peeps…

Or has it?

Here's the thing. I may be a blogger…here, on Posterous, on Twitter, Idealog…but that doesn't necessarily give me access to influential people (maybe Idealog does, a little).

There has always been a grudging accord between journalists and the powerful. It goes along the lines of: 'if a tree falls in the forest…but no one is there to hear…does it make a sound?. So politicians and business people, movie stars and artists grant access in return for fame and the triumphant glory of an airbrushed spread in Hello! magazine, …vanity fare.

In an era where advertising no longer interrupts the content but is the content the currency of advertising needs to change. In the era of branded content we must offer people access to ideas and people who are relevant, interesting, sexy, fun…insert adjective…but to do that we need to have access. For our clients we have to be able to broker access to the right audiences for their messages.

It is an entirely new and different skill set from the historical approach to advertising where I 'create' and you pay attention. It is entirely more participatory and the winners will be those who understand by doing, not by theorising about a market's motivations based on vagaries and abstractions like 'household shoppers'. Forget about 'target markets' and the message. Synthesising messages down to 30 second fantasies will be as a quaint as pamphleteering seems now. Telling stories and documenting interesting lives will replace the crude spectacle that advertising became. The spectacle will become a lens. Access will be crucial. Make sure you have a back stage pass.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Where there's muck, there's brass

One of the most difficult tasks in marketing communications is developing promotional messages for your own company. Perhaps the most obvious reason is that we lack objectivity - the very objectivity that makes us valuable to our clients.

One of the temptations is to describe our business as something more complex or grandiose than it actually is. In conversations with the principals terms like 'paradigm shifting' seem to erupt with a curious regularity. Other buzzwords include 'engagement' slide in with the greasy ease of jargon du jour.

I'm inclined to think in terms of outcomes. Rather than waffle on about ourselves, doesn't it make sense to think in terms of what our customers want? Things that have real value - even if they are real simple?

The process of identifying the correct messages - how we meet underserved needs -has the secondary effect of forcing us to think about the kinds of product innovations are worth developing for our clients and prospects.

Our company is a very pragmatic entity. Our advertising products are systematic, rather than idiosyncratic conceptual offerings. While other advertising companies treasure the 'creative' product we simply produce advertising that is quicker, cheaper and proven to be more effective than the more conventional, bespoke alternative.

In order to better understand how our staff perceive the company the call went out to write a short description - a lift pitch. My pitch is that BrandWorld is the Toyota Corolla of advertising: It goes well, is reliable, not too fancy, has had loads of happy customers and is a bargain.

I realise there's not much status in owning a Toyota Corolla but in all honesty I would rather have the value generated by all of the Corollas in the world than ever dollar spent on Aston Martins.

Hopefully we won't be distracted in our ultimate communications decisions. Our products may not be 'sexy' by the usual measures (All of our main products have won marketing awards, but would show well in 'creative' beauty parade), but they succeed on every other scale.

Sometimes there's truth in truisms. Where there's muck, there's brass.

BrandWorld's website

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Old School Rules

A group of my colleagues attended the Clemenger Group's digital training academy last week. They returned to the agency abuzz with a 'noobs' appreciation of 'digital'. They've had their epiphany, their road to Damascus moment.
No-one preaches like the converted.

Most of the work our firm has done over the years has been concentrated on developing properties that make highly efficient use of television. Most of the products we promote (last year 150 campaigns for some of the 90 of the world's biggest brands) respond well to promotion in our media properties (such as Family Health Diary, Eating Well and Discover. If you live in New Zealand and have never seen at least one of these I'll wager you don't watch very much television).
A 20% lift in sales is a modest result for our clients in most cases.

The market is beginning to shift though, and online video in particular is becoming an important tool that will be used by marketers to reach more niche markets with messages that are more enduring as part of a 'long tail' strategy.
We have developed programes for James Hardie The Drawing Board, Toyota Showroom, and Westpac Bank Talking Money Sense.
Going online means we will have to learn new ways to create efficiencies. If the data reveals that attention to videos lasts for a median 2.6 minutes and that on 16% of viewers stay with a clip until its end, then it makes no sense to leave the purpose of the communication to a vague pay-off.

Creating a complex, obscure gag with a punchline might be a disastrous strategy. It makes sense to be clear from the beginning what the purpose of a communication is. To function in this new environment will not only require the kind of person who is both creative and analytic but also values results over fawning peer praise for 'production values'.

David Ogilvy inspired me to get into advertising via his classic book Ogilvy On Advertising. I have included the classic clip of Ogilvy because if you replace the words direct marketing from his monologue with the word digital or interactive it makes perfect sense today. Digital is almost inherently meaningless now. It simply means distribution without physical form - bits rather than atoms (it is also worth rereading Nicholas Negroponti's seminal book Being Digital which, though it was first published in 1995, will come as a revelation to those of you yet to experience the digital epiphany).

The most obvious expression of the digital era is the fact that messages will be delivered via screens - TV, computer and portable devices. The risk for advertising and marketing communications practitioners is that we imagine that the creation and distribution of messages is the business we are in. That is just the starting point. We have gone beyond the dissemination of ideas that are, effectively, instructions to purchase, to ideas that our customers can make their own and share with their friends.

In the past it would be unlikely that someone would video record a commercial to show to friend. Having no tangible (atomic) form means a clip can be shared with a personal network in moments. This is mother's milk to you, I realise. But it is still not commonly appreciated by even sophisticated marketers.

I still hear advertising people talk about how awards are 'the currency' in the advertising agency business.
They are wrong and getting more wrong with each passing day.
The digital era makes everything measurable. Things you wouldn't imagine
could be measured /will/ be measured as new uses for APIs are developed.
The creative product is going to be a constant iteration and reiteration of ideas. The bits that work will stay. The bits that don't work will be discarded.
Every communication will be a test, not a work of art. Or, if is is art, it will be performance art.
A stand-up comedian doesn't keep telling jokes that don't make the audience laugh.
That's called dying on stage.
If you are measuring the performance of your marketing communications by brand metrics you are sadly out of step.
The key metrics are customer centric.
Brand equity is replaced by customer equity. What matters is the lifetime value of the customer.
Even terms like 'engagement'; liberally bandied about as brand oriented people segue to demi-digitals, are half hearted and ignore the supremacy of conversion.
Did you meet your objective?
If your objective isn't results oriented then you are simply tinkering about.

Does that mean creative isn't important?
Quite the opposite.
It just means that what you create has a very specific purpose and if it isn't fit for the purpose it is modified or thrown away.
The best people in advertising have always felt this way anyway. A willingness to 'kill your babies', the ideas you fall in love with because they are cute - or simply because you worked hard on them has always separated fey prima donnas from successful advertising practitioners.
Does that mean messages shouldn't be skillfully crafted?
No. Again, quite the opposite. But the craft is to hone the performance by degrees.
The day of the magnum opus, the blockbuster, are over Buster.

The old school rules apply like never before.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Flying by the seat of your pants.

Air New Zealand has just launched new seating concepts, to be introduced on long-haul flights in November of this year.

The significance of the press event seemed to me to be less about the actual design of the seats—handsome and innovative as they are (and I think they will certainly impress the travelling public)—and more of a reinforcement of the significance of Air New Zealand itself to the New Zealand economy and our national identity.

Seats symbolise the airline business more so than wings or smiling cabin crew. Seats are the carrier’s inventory. An empty chair on an aircraft can’t be stored, repriced and sold at a later date. The complex inter-relationships of, not only seats sold, but also at what price margin is as significant as the variable cost of fuel and the cost of the funds (paid in US dollars). There are other factors, but these will determine how much profit or loss the business makes.

There are also functional requirements for convenient timetables, attractive destinations and favourable rates/landing arrangements at airports around the world. Who’d want to be in the airline business? Many operators have made a small fortune (usually out of a large one—even Air New Zealand has experienced its share of turbulence in the past).

Airlines are also notoriously difficult to differentiate from competitors. All of the above factors are common to all; no one escapes the operational complexity. Combine that with simple fact that most airlines on long haul routes buy or lease the same aircraft types and have limited ability to reconfigure the cabins. Aside from colour schemes and cabin crew uniforms most passenger jet experiences are interchangeable.

As Air New Zealand’s CEO, Rob Fyfe points out, the inflight experience drives the airline’s investment in the new cabin configurations, seating, entertainment and service. It is this experience that defines the passenger’s impression of the brand. In-bound holidaymakers represent a much higher percentage of travellers with Air New Zealand than business travellers and because the distances covered are far greater than most other national carriers, the opportunity is to turn a potential negative into a category leading positive. As the national carrier there is the added responsibility to predispose travellers to New Zealand long before they even set foot on our soil and reinforce their experience on the journey home.

The process of redesigning the long haul cabin experience has been a long haul in itself. General manager of the international division, Ed Sims, says the process began four years ago. Internationally-renowned design consultancy IDEO was commissioned to guide the company through the early stages of development. IDEO rapid prototyping and anthropological approach to useability and function are something of a legend in the design community. Some might find it curious that an international firm be commissioned to lead the process, but the stakes are sky high. The result seems worthwhile so far. By including four leading local structural design firms to assist in the design implementation the cross pollination of ideas and expertise adds value to the design community.

Air New Zealand says there is an opportunity to license the designs to other airlines. Hopefully that policy will be judiciously deployed. It would make little sense to diminish hard-won competitive advantage by offering it to rivals on the same routes you travel.

The initiative is a significant one for the airline. It could pay-off in spades. It doesn’t take much to get me to hop on a plane; I’d probably travel in a cabin with passengers who have brought livestock aboard (I have, long story). But the prospect of experiencing a much more comfortable journey, with great, simple food and happy, proud cabin crew takes the promise of a long-haul flight to a whole new level.