Archive for February, 2009

At Element 79, we chose February 28 as our Founder’s Day, a day to celebrate each year’s growth and changes.  But this year, part of that change meant saying goodbye to the inimitable Marty Sherrod, a founder of our agency and a key member of our executive committee.

I will admit I am not particularly good at goodbyes.  I pine for the talented people who leave and as my assistant Mary knows only too well, I can never go to anyone’s farewell party: it’s just too painful.

So tonight is sort of a bummer, because Marty represented a unique kind of person in the world of advertising: deeply engaged, totally committed, unfailingly human.  After we lost the Quaker account–a company he dedicated a quarter of a century of his career to–he decided to retire from agency life and take a fundraising position as the CMO of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago, a church he has been deeply involved with for quite some time.

To say I wish him well would be to vastly understate my affection for the man. Marty’s humanity, decency, and fundamental goodness made him a soul match for the old Quaker and a bulwark for our creative organization.  But time marches on and everyone must find their level.  This links to the video we made to recognize how Marty touched all of us at Element 79.  And I’m not too proud to admit, it made me tear up as I pieced it together on iMovie.  It’s not a great piece, but it’s how I, and so many E79 colleagues, feel about Marty.  He will be missed.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

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A week ago, Adweek named R/GA their Digital Agency of the year for 2008.  In the past ten years, few saw the sea changes coming to our industry like Bob Greenberg.  So he harangued clients, award show juries, the media–basically anyone he could buttonhole–with his zealot’s vision of a vastly altered communications landscape.  And today we’re living it.  Nice job Bob.

Adweek's Digital AOY.  Again.

Adweek's Digital AOY. Again.

But the thinking behind his shop’s “Apps not Ads” philosophy is nicer still.  In R/GA’s opinion, disruptive marketing techniques don’t work, so they strive to direct their technology in helpful and useful ways, to create positive branded experiences.  In a cluttered world of parity brands, that idea makes a ton of sense.

But this thinking should not be limited to technology.  Social media, microsites, events, sampling, even the humble recipe print ad: all sorts of marketing tools and techniques can provide tremendous opportunities to engage consumers less by being intrusive and more by being helpful.  Thinking creatively, we can bring usefulness and meaningful value to our communications by carefully considering their context and content.

In these times when advertisers no longer control the brand story…  When web 2.0 empowers consumers to share their version of the story…  When social networks enable those consumer stories to spread swiftly, far and wide…  We need to rethink our assumptions about effective messages.   We need to imagine ideas beyond an interruptive, attention-demanding context to a polar-opposite POV: empathy.

But not just empathy, radically-immersive empathy.  We need to get inside our customer’s lives and schedules and values to really understand their needs and wishes. Because the more we can empathize, the more we can innovate ways to intersect their lives with positive, meaningful and memorable brand experiences.

Radical empathy well might be the new creative frontier.  At least, I think so, even if that hasn’t always been valued as a creative strength.  And so I imagine, much like Bob Greenberg back when people like me knew R/GA only as that movie title company, I could well be talking to myself for a while…

But hopefully, it will start making sense before too long.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

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The ever-astute Mike “Bear” D’Amico raised a fair question after a recent post, asking “So, just to get my lingo down, is social media no longer considered a part of Web 2.0?  I thought the interactivity and social nature of wiki, digg, facebook, etc. was the whole 2.0 thing.”  Obviously you thought that because you are so wrongheaded, Bear…

No, no, no–heavens no!  Mike makes a very good point: considering that Social Media is a direct byproduct of Web 2.0, why have so many marketing people leapt past the revolution of interactivity to focus almost obsessively on social media?

First, they haven’t entirely.  The deep, easy interactivity that Web 2.0 provides creates ongoing opportunities to forge deeper, more engaging brand experiences for consumers, so marketers won’t be walking away from that anytime soon.  But the huge draw of social media lies in its numbers, its tonnage, its ratings points.  Specifically, Americans have adopted wholesale changes in our media consumption away from TV and print, to phenomenon like Facebook, MySpace and the blogosphere.  And we’ve done it with breathtaking speed.  With some estimates putting the percentage of daily media activity in social media as high as 30%, advertisers need to innovate ways to meaningfully enter these platforms, because the one media principle that endures remains to “fish where the fish are.”   Today, more people surf online, deeply engaging with social media.  Sure, Web 2.0 heightens those engagements, but social media are the end result.  And this huge new platforms spells opportunity–or oblivion–for advertisers.

To Quote the Rolling Stones: "It's The Singer, Not the Song."

To Quote the Rolling Stones: "It's The Singer, Not the Song."


In a way, Web 2.0 is to social media as Illinois is to Lincoln: the rail splitting abolitionist made his home in Springfield, but his reputation and place in history live on a nation level.

When any cultural trend grows this large this rapidly, marketers pay close attention.  Social media provide advertising it’s biggest new creative platform since the launch of the modem-equipped PC.  Aside from these, advertising creatives have kept themselves busy polishing formats and incrementally innovating techniques first developed decades ago.

But social media is fresh snow that beckons all of us to carve the first glorious tracks through it.  As an online friend put it, if you missed the digital dance five or six years ago when Web 2.0 first rumbled in, here’s your chance for a reboot.  Because social media is huge.  It’s still new.  And no one owns it yet.

Get busy Mike…

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

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The massive changes in technology and consumer communication platforms mean a great many recognized truths in the world of advertising no longer hold.  We work in a time when the very notion of brand advertising must make a Copernican shift…

  Ads can no longer reliably build a brand by themselves.

  The notion of ‘campaigns’ seems antiquated as consumers take far more active roles in any brand’s story.

  The conceit of media flights fails to acknowledge how brand conversations happen every hour of every day, often in ways that radically impact brand sales and reputation…

Put That Way, It Doesn't Seem So Hard.

Put That Way, It Doesn't Seem So Hard.

Recently, my agency filled out an RFP for a manufacturer who placed great emphasis on a potential agency’s B-to-B experience.  Of course, I believe with a modicum of direction, any creative can work within established parameters for anything from the binding legaleze of pharmaceutical advertising to the conventional wisdoms of ‘car guys’ and on to the specific platform demands of viral, DRTV and web platforms.  I naturally rebel against this blind reliance on specific prior experience but the evolved marketplace actually backs up my truculence.  Because what do B2B agencies do aside from identifying audiences, their specific needs and hot buttons, and the specialize media they consume?  Not much.  That doesn’t imply they do their job poorly, just that their job pretty much resembles any agency’s job: we find an audience, surround them with relevant, engaging interactions—it’s all B2B, because B2B is a social platform.

So now that every one and their brother recognizes how various groups of consumers inevitably find like-minded others to affiliate and congregate with, every marketing agency is in the B2B business.

Whether we claim to or not.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

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In today’s New York Times, Stuart Elliott provides the back story on Tropicana’s ill-received packaging redesign.  This issue first came to my attention back around the New Year when my wife spotted it in our local grocery store and succinctly opined “Yuck.”  I knew right then they were in trouble…

The Old...  The New...  The Old, Now New.

The Old... The New... The Old, Now New.

Anyway, this story once again highlights the unprecedented power that access affords today’s consumers.  Through blogs and emails, Tropicana fans demanded the return of their familiar package and it’s easily-recognized-on-a-crowded-shelf Straw In Orange brand symbol.  They also didn’t shy from critiquing the ‘generic store brand’ feel of the rather flat new graphics.

In the spirit of full-disclosure, let me admit that I worked on this brand through a string of division President’s and CMO’s from 2001-2008, and that further, I’m not much of a fan of Pepsi’s recent and pricey product redesigns—with the notable exception of a much-improved Sierra Mist.  However, I kept my opinions to myself while a groundswell of others apparently didn’t.  And so, mere months into this very expensive process, Tropicana recognized the wisdom of embracing this public feedback.  And good for them.

Interestingly, their President, a UK transplant named Neil Campbell, cites the negative response from their most loyal consumers as key to the reversal, admitting “What we didn’t get was the passion this very loyal small group of consumers have. That wasn’t something that came out in the research.”

Of course it didn’t come out in the research.  Any practicing creative could tell you that.  Those of us who make a living dreaming up ideas quickly grow skeptical of the dodgy pseudoscience behind market testing and the mystifying faith too many clients put into their measurements of consumer opinions.  Somehow, this entire industry built its metrics around what people say, often in public among a group of peers.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but people lie.  We all lie.  We lie all the time, for reasons good and bad, but the inescapable fact remains you can not put all of your faith in the veracity of peoples’ words and what they claim in a focus group.

Happily, the web’s mighty data engine now allows us to measure what people actually do and how they act in the real world, as opposed to the often groupthink statements they make while being interviewed in the windowless confines of focus group rooms. 

So while many will recognize this Tropicana incident as yet another cautionary tale about the ever-expanding role consumer influence has on brand marketing, we can also take away another critical lesson: we need to update our testing methods to take advantage of our easy-access to the real world, behavior-based data all around us.

You want to determine the relative merits of two marketing approaches?  Don’t make some mock-ups and hold a focus group–create rich media banners of both of them and run online test markets and see which one performs better out in the real world.  This type of production costs very little—and unlike animatics, the creative materials actually drive sales as they’re being tested.  Imagine that: faster, cheaper, and more accurate testing awaits all of us online…

Why exactly is anyone still debating this?

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

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As part of Omnicom’s admirable ongoing commitment to education, I attended a short but wonderfully informative session, mostly focused on digital and emerging media.

They instructed us to approach digital as a language, not a technology or media platform.  This approach makes all sorts of intuitive sense.  Digital does work like a language: everybody talks, but very, very few make inspiring poetry.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

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Bill Gates, Devolved 500,000 Years or So

Bill Gates, Devolved 500,000 Years, Give or Take

As budget cuts, media confusion, and the baleful world economy wrack our incredible shrinking advertising world with round after round of staff reductions and pay cuts, we all worry about tomorrow.

But today, I attended an Omnicom DAS seminar where Jonathan Nelson, co-founder and chairman of Organic. addressed the current situation and how social media will reset the marketing game once again, with the same sort of revolutionary impact as Web 2.0.

He provided resonant insights and perspective on our changing business but one anecdote hit me like a ton of bricks.  Back during the dot com bubble of the early 90’s, Organic had 1280 employees.  Then the bubble burst, and within twenty-four months, Organic shrunk to 160 employees.  In other words, nine out of ten employees lost their jobs.  Moreover, of the thirty-nine web development agencies back then, only five survived.

Now I remember the dotcom bubble being bad from a general viewpoint, but I had no real empathy for just how bad that must have been until today.  Our troubles loom large; very good people have already lost their jobs and industry stability still seems out of reach at the moment.  Yet as Jonathan tells it, this bitter experience taught digital agencies how to expand and contract better than their traditional counterparts, which can be a real advantage in a scary marketplace.

But taking the uptside, more than anything this anecdote reinforces that business flows in cycles; even the crappiest craptastical crapfest of crap-crap-crapellicious times eventually passes.  And you can quote me on that.

Though you might want to rephrase that last bit if you have kids…

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

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bloggySo the new Sports Illustrated features a photo spread of open wheel racer/cheesy hussy Danica Patrick.  That in itself, is not a story.  After all, this is the same press-hungry Indy Driver who acquiesced to the post-adolescent idiocy of the past few years of godawful Go Daddy commercials. No, this story springs from the routine photoshopping that the magazine did to Ms. Patrick’s photos.  Again, not a real story since almost any attractive person you see in a magazine has been photoshopped to have whiter eyes, smoother skin and a more flattering figure.

Danica however, had her lower back tattoo removed.  And apparently without her knowing. The editorial staff at SI determined that ink on her sacroiliac would either offend or disinterest their readership and so they removed the design altogether.

I won’t bother arguing whether this kind of photoshopped revisionism is a good or a bad thing.  Certainly if I were modeling, I’d like every possible visual enhancing technique brought to bear and I would thank the good Lord that I had the fortune to be born in this, the digital age.  However, what I do take umbrage with is that the twentieth century’s most gorgeous and powerful example of automotive power–the Shelby AC Cobra–serves as a mere backdrop for this crass cultural footnote.

Look Sports Illustrated–you want sexy?  Lose the cheesecake altogether and just show that car…

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

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Perception v Reality: A Fightcard Perennial            

Perception v Reality: A Fightcard Perennial

In the marketing business, the smart money always lays down for perception.  And in today’s converging marketing business, that creates a classic brand challenge for traditional agencies: how do you enhance perception for your own company’s brand?

Last week during a TV shoot, a client announced that he had hired a ‘viral’ agency.  In his mind, they offered what we couldn’t because they specialize in viral–that’s all they do.  Further, they’re young and we’re old.

Really?  Huh…

Never mind that this viral agency’s calling card remains a nearly five year old effort that made a naughty but modest splash compared to our traditional agency’s “Ballgirl” effort that grew into the biggest viral hit of last Summer.  And really never mind that any marketer paying attention has already moved past the rather simplistic ‘views = viral’ mindset to require added dimensions and brand engagements for a deeper consumer experience beyond mere view counts.

No, in cases like these, facts don’t matter: perception does.  As it always does. Perception–even misperception–is reality.

On our already crowded agency ‘to do’ list, clearing those up just shot to the top.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

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Consider the word “Comportment:” one of those dusty, remainder bin nouns on par with dated terms like “dungarees” and “sarsaparilla.”  On those very rare occasions when people use this term today, it refers to some sort of dated propriety, a finishing school bearing usually cited with a tall helping of irony.

And yet, marketers would serve their clients well to consider how comportment online and offline affects their client brands.  In a world that enables quicksilver consumer reaction to every brand and action, how companies communicate can be as important as what they communicate.

Unintentional Collateral Damage

Unintentional Collateral Damage

This nineteenth century word popped up this morning when my wife groused “I hate Netflix.”  That seemed odd.  We no longer subscribe, though we did for a while (of course, this was before discovering the wonders of $1 DVD rentals through one of the 12,000 amazingly convenient RedBox locations: not coincidentally, a valued agency client).  It turns out, whenever she clicks the main browser window closed on Safari, she finds the same Netflix banner behind it, forcing her to click that window closed as well.  Not a major issue, but since it happens time and again, it frosts her pumpkin.

As I reset her preferences to thwart pop-up windows, I thought about how oblivious Netflix must be to this unintended impression.  And how dangerous that kind of thoughtlessness can be when multiplied over the millions of impressions that happen online.  While advertisers should think of the web as a vast data engine, they should also realize that it is an intimate communications platform.   So behaving like an uninvited guest and refusing to leave won’t build your brand.

Sometimes, cheap media can really cost you.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

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