Because we should never stop challenging ourselves.

Why is an account man an ambiance manager and no longer a sales man? What are the real implications of mobile? Why should we constantly fight conventional wisdom? Why is digital an era and no longer a channel? Why is Apple getting old? Why should we celebrate our brands’ intangible values? Why care, why share?

/the renaissance of Lego.

For a recent client meeting, we had to prepare by presenting our favourite brand. In the shadow of Apple and Coke, few would have chosen Lego. I remember spending hours mixing the content of Lego boxes collected Christmas after Christmas to build my own creations, just like, today, some commissioned artists amaze my eyes in the isles of our department stores. Lego might be one of the longest ideas ever created. They come back from nowhere and I have noticed 3 key factors to their success.

Staying true to themselves – the father and son story. In a time of recession, most brands have shifted their messages towards their heritage, going back to their brand’s roots, product classics or local heritage. Lego will forgive you for not knowing they are a Danish brand, as long as you remember their rectangle bricks, and the countless edifices you have been crafting and building with your dad. That story has even been the focus of their recent ad.

lego dad and sson

Innovating and diversifying – They went beyond their category to build a strong, all round brand. Not many toy brands count a theme park, a fashion range (that I surprisingly spotted in Copenhagen airport) and a blockbuster film to their name. From a product perspective, they’ve also diversified through new product lines to reach girls with the successful launch of Lego Friends.

Staying relevant by celebrating popular culture – the partnerships with strong equities such as Star Wars to even create a collector piece, once retailing at $500 (and probably more on e-Bay), the hype around the launch of a Simpsons range or the celebration of Breaking Bad. They have followed a strategy of brand association, which could prove successful (Angry Bird with Rio and Star Wars edition) or disastrous (Cover Girl Hunger Games edition). Not only did they broaden their audience, from fathers and sons to nerds saving to buy their collectors, but they have also managed to respond to a growing competition in the bricks building market by keeping their name at the top of consumers’ mind. To the point that porn star Christy Mack chose Lego when challenging her audience for an interesting reward (mind you, I’m not interested). Or even Cern’s competition by hiding Legos in Google Street View. Speaking about nerds, what about some new ideas for your Halloween costumes?

Lego came from nowhere indeed but – having experienced with innovation – they managed to find the right balance between keeping their heritage and embracing the Now. And that’s just clever marketing. The challenge will be to remain focused and not overwhelmed by spreading around with no clear direction or brand vision. But we shouldn’t worry too much about that since they probably learnt from their past mistakes.

lego man

/is Apple getting tired?

Apple’s slick product development strategy consists of permanently avoiding the maturity phase of its products by spreading the deployment of their existing innovations over time. This ensures consumers will keep upgrading their devices and flourish the company’s cash flow with minimum R&D. Perhaps what they didn’t realise is that this strategy is, today, leading the company itself to its maturity phase, as they are seen as lacking innovation as a whole.

Is Apple getting tired? The fact that this happened when Steve Jobs left the Earth is a mere coincidence to me. This trend had already started before he left. Maybe the answer simply relies in the fact that competition managed to catch up. Apple’s current trial with Samsung – the company behind the development of the iPhone’s nemesis – unveiled an interesting letter that says it all about Samsung’s threat on Apple.

steve-jobs-ipad-7

These two companies are differentiated by a key aspect of their marketing. Samsung never really had a strong brand equity, nor vision. If they have one, it is nowhere near the one of Apple (I wouldn’t wear a Samsung T-shirt – would you?). But they embraced Android like no other and managed to create a simple yet innovative and powerful product line in the name of the Galaxy range, which has quickly matched the appeal of the iPhone. Apple on the other hand, have established one of the strongest brands ever and have been challenging the status quo since releasing the first Mac with an ad to remember in 1984. That said, the recent releases of their products have been disappointing to say the least, with some little evolution that has been beaten by Samsung and other players in the market. A focus on a strong brand vs. a focus on a strong product.

What did go wrong for a company that was seen untouchable 5 years ago? Any new technologies they proudly launched have been matched by the competition, be it Siri or Face Time. They released a new iOS, which, to me, seems to take some hints from both Windows Mobile (design) and Android (functionality). Just like they seem to align on their competitors, with the rumoured launch of a bigger screen size after resisting it with the argument that you could reach the whole of your iPhone 5 screen with your thumb. And their anticipated attempt to release a cheaper version of the iPhone – the iPhone 5c, which is basically the iPhone 5 with a plastic colour cover reminiscent of the relaunch of the iPod Nano range – failed to deliver with a hefty price of around £450.

24071_large_Evolution_Of_Apple_Wide

Maybe that last point is the beginning of the answer. When Apple released what everyone expected as an entry-level iPhone, they were actually never going to trade off their premiumness which is what their brand stands for and simply released a colour range rather than compromising on who they are. Can focusing on their brand keep them out of the water for long? The launch of the iPhone 6 at the end of this year is still fuelling conversations and will definitely be a turning point should they fail to deliver ground-breaking innovation. Their activeness on the patent front might be reassuring. There are also new battlefields this year, such as the wearable tech, with Google and Samsung being key players. So let’s not list them as dead just yet. After all, maybe that mind-blowing ad (and the way it was launched at the back of the Super Bowl storm) is reminding everyone of who they are. The question, though, is not about who they are but about what they will do.

 

/the dominos effect.

When was the last time you flew low cost on a short haul trip? My flatmate is addicted to it and it doesn’t take a PhD in sciences to understand why. Firstly, it is 2 to 4 times cheaper than flying on a major airline. Secondly, what would you get by paying more on a major anyway? I mean what did major airlines become today? The last short haul flights I took on BA were no better than flying on EasyJet if it wasn’t for being assigned a seat, having relatively better looking stewardesses and a complimentary – yet disgusting – snack with my free soda. Yet I can remember flying on major airlines 10 years ago and it wasn’t like that. So what happened in between? Low cost airlines happened.

With a clever business model based on “no frills”, they became massively price-competitive against major airlines. One of their strengths was to target remote airports and cities that were ready to cut their costs down and to subvention the carriers on the basis that they were bringing a new flow of tourists in these areas. They’ve impacted their Industry and beyond. Firstly, they managed to open some new routes to tourists who could not have afforded it otherwise, which brought a lot of business to those targeted cities. You would therefore be right to see a positive side effect in low cost airlines but Majorca city doesn’t really see it this way, claiming that low cost travel actually brought a new type of tourists – and one from the lower economic tier of the population. Put it this way, budget airlines offered the poor the chance to fly like the rich and enjoy the same vacations, which resulted in the rich leaving to pastures new, and therefore not really benefiting these cities from that economic growth I was mentioning earlier. Another side effect is what budget travel did to major airlines, threatening their business, resulting in the latter finding ways to compete and also trending towards the no frills business model. Finally a – so-called – negative side effect of budget airlines is their impact on the environment. More flights mean more gas emissions that aren’t good for Mother Nature. “So-called” because aviation is only responsible for around 2% of all gaz emissions and that beef eaters (cows being responsible for 20% of these same emissions) should think twice before pointing to the sky.

brit holidays

These side effects, whether they are desired/ controlled or not, have a name: externalities. 

A side effect or consequence of an industrial or commercial activity that affects other parties without this being reflected in the cost of the goods or services involved.

A good example is the LoJack as well spotted by Levitt and Dubner in Super Freakonomics. LoJack is a security device that can be hidden into a car and that will track that car – when stolen – via GPS whilst alerting the police. Very efficient but its prohibitive cost of $700 means there are only a few being used. Now, since a car thief can’t tell the difference between a car with and without a LoJack, he might think twice before stealing ANY car. This shows the very positive externality your rich neighbour had on the whole neighbourhood.

Now even though most externalities aren’t controlled, one can benefit from looking at the bigger picture when action on the market. Economist Keynes established a theory in which the government should be highly present in the economy of a country to ensure its growth. In a nutshell, he said that if the government, say, would decrease interest rates, and build good infrastructures to a city, then foreign investment would come, creating new businesses, diminishing unemployment, decreasing poverty and crime and so on. The virtuous circle. Most governments today are tackling unemployment by spending money on companies that are reluctant to hire, and job centres. Is this really the best solution? You can’t force a company to hire more people if there is no business growth to justify it. So why not spending money on that growth? Why not following Keynes’ theory? Externalities proved us that you can be more effective by looking beyond what the problem is. The dominos effect.

DOMINO-BUZZARD-2

/the common point between the iPhone 4 and a bottle of Coke.

I have spent 3 years on Nokia’s global communications. One of the interesting things you learn while working on global campaigns is the differences in shopper behaviours across markets. For example, research has shown that in most developed markets shoppers purchase their mobile phones on a contract, therefore trust the operator or phone specialists to sell them the device, usually at a much lower cost and alongside an engagement over time. The operator therefore plays the role of sole trusted distributor on the market, which allows him to dictate most rules such as the format of the end product (adding in their branding on both soft and hardware), price promotions or even back margins. Now why would this matter?

When Nokia’s ex-CEO (may he rest in peace) announced in 2009 that his company would now focus on selling mobile solutions (i.e. devices and services) as opposed to manufactured products (i.e. device only), this only highlighted an established trend that eventually allowed more players to enter the market (since developing a software is relatively cheaper and less painful than prototyping a new hardware). That is in that context that operators such as Orange or O2 started to launch their own mobile services and to preload it on the devices they were selling, sidelining the manufacturers’ offering.

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The power to dictate the rules has switched from the manufacturer to the operator, in a context where both of them are trying to sell mobile services that have the same consumer benefits. So why do we persist on doubling up? How does Nokia justify its Ovi Music marketing budget in the UK, where Orange (one of its main distributors) will sell Nokia devices with Orange Monkey? Why don’t the 2 players work hand in hand to develop common platforms that would be even more compelling and less confusing for consumers?

Mind you, these assumptions aren’t a rule of thumb. A great software such as the successful Ovi Maps proved that the manufacturer can overturn the market’s standards and allow consumers to download the service they wish to use. Another exception is the Apple iPhone that managed to rely on strong brand equity to reverse the trend and dictate its rules to operators (exclusive/ selective distribution, exclusive use of Apple services, share of revenues etc…).

An acclaimed brand gives it the right to switch the balance of power between suppliers and distributors. This is not new at all. After all, Apple only did exactly what Coke did to all its grocery retailers (ever considered a grocery store without bottles of Coke?). There again, it’s not the product or the service, it’s the brand and the way you sell it.

/is less really more?

Long dead are the days of the Ford T. One product, no customisation, simple communications, simple message. Today’s theatre of brands means that differentiation is key to start with. This eventually means that brands are trying new things to better engage consumers or simply announce a new product. This unfortunately often comes at the expense of the consumer’s confusion. So can simplicity still be a topic in our ad agencies meeting rooms?

I have been stunned at the journey an idea takes in an agency. One of the brands I’ve worked for wanted to get consumers to “experience” its latest product at retail in a memorable and impactful way. The product’s KSP was really making a claim in itself and was way above competition. But we needed to set up an “in-store experience” for the consumer to test the product. 4 months and 2 – initially approved – concepts later, we all ended up with something no one would have expected, having seen the initial brief. My view was that the experience was so complicated, the bulk of our audience would be put off by it and would leave the store without even trying the product.

There is an interesting fact about airplanes when they take off. While they obviously need to reach a minimum speed to leave the ground, exceeding a certain speed will stick them to the runway. In that case, too much can be devastating. So why complicating things when doing simple could actually be the key to that differentiation everyone is obsessed with?

  • Everyone is busy trying harder
  • The consumer will get it
  • Well, it is simple

ipad

Brands have entered into a war against each others, whereby the weapon is differentiation. Smart campaigns and marketing tricks are fired up on the battlefield. In my opinion, a brand should never forget who it is selling to – consumers and not competitors. Steering away from simplicity can sometime lead to trying too hard… in which case your campaign’s success won’t go beyond the creative award night.

/video CV and other ways to market yourself.

Bleustein Blanchet – one of the late fathers of advertising – once said that the Communications Industry was all about difference. I could not be more in agreement with him and have even extended this statement to Marketing and our every day’s life. Having a look at the employment market, the release of the “Doyoubuzz” website highlights this quest for differentiation: job applicants are now more than ever looking at ways to differentiate themselves from the crowd. That’s right, this is individuals marketing themselves on the job market.

black-sheep-of-the-family

If the CV and the covering letter are evolving, one would be mistaken to think they are disappearing. The CV is, to me, the ultimate way to give the employer what he wants (on top of its administrative purposes). It needs to be simple and almost standardised – imagine everyone using the same template for their CVs just like most corporations are now asking us to fill in these lengthy questionnaires that literally re-organise the information already presented on your CV. With this in mind, the only way to differentiate yourself will be to do anything around the CV that will be clever enough to 1) make your voice heard, and 2) sell yourself.

A (very) basic way to understand the message in Marketing Communications could be to split it between the What and the How. The How could be a ATL comms, raising awareness whilst driving engagement through emotional cues, and the What that could be a retail leaflet or a company website, providing your audience with detailed info about the product in a convenient format. Back to our employment market, the How will be your covering letter (showing your personality and getting your reader to consider your CV), and the What will be that very CV. Again, agreeing that all CVs should be standardised, your only opportunity of differentiation will be your covering letter or whatever this is. Let’s look at an interesting example: the video CV.

Typing “video CV” on YouTube will give you a broad range of good, bad and even ugly executions. I have given myself a try at this risky exercise (risky as, if it will undoubtedly give you fame, that fame can easily turn into bad publicity) after graduating, and therefore having a fairly “light” CV in terms of experience. Here are my advices to any fellow ambitious risk-takers:

  1. Have a clear goal. This will narrow your ambitions, making your video to the point and relevant. There is a huge difference between “I want a great marketing job with great money” and “I want to be a successful advertising account executive in London”.
  2. The idea. This is not a CV but an inspiring deliverable with sole goal to inspire your employer to read your CV. Ideally, the end frame will actually call the viewer to download your actual CV.
  3. Relevance. I have seen some fairly bad examples that were so famous they probably destroyed these guys’ careers. Why? Because you don’t make a video of yourself if you don’t have that minimum of charisma, creativity or if you have nothing better to say than reading your CV in front of a camera for 5 minutes. Relevance also covers the Industry you are after. You wouldn’t do a video CV to land a part time job at McDonalds would you?
  4. The execution. Remember that the execution supports the idea, and not the other way around. You could simply post it on YouTube and wait for the buzz to take off, or send it directly to employers with a catchy line, or you could combine both into a clever activation plan whereby you will start broadcasting it (online and auto-generated buzz) to then narrowcast (direct emails)

The video CV is just one of the ways to market yourself on the employment market, just like putting yourself on eBay for auction. Remember to always stay true to yourself, to showcase your personality instead of replicating your CV in audio, and to execute it as part of a well-thought activation plan. Here’s mine open to critics… I would steer away from Barney Stinson’s execution!

/is any publicity good publicity?

Is there really no such thing as bad publicity? Probably the biggest unresolved mystery on Planet PR. Blogs are full of it and no publicist will be able to give you a proper answer. First of all what is publicity? Above and beyond its definition from the schoolbooks, it’s greatest strength – gaining true trust from consumers – relies on its greatest weakness – a lack of control in its creation and deployment.

charlie-sheen

Isn’t that adage misleading? Ask BP after its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, who had to spend millions to rebuild its image, and is – regardless – remembered for it, whether it is through some bad press or through infamous Halloween costumes. How about Tiger Woods and the loss of 6 sponsorship deals, let alone his recent performances on the green? Toyota and its products recall? And the list goes on. As it would be too easy otherwise, there are also examples of brands that did benefit from bad publicity. Kanye West (like other singers) and all his related controversy ended up being at the top of consumers’ minds and saw his albums sales jumping. How about these awful movies which always end up landing at the top of the box office?

Last summer, at the Cannes Lions (the biggest worldwide annual event of the advertising industry gathering agencies, clients and like-minded), Grey thought they’d make a splash by hiring a plane with one of those trailing banners. One human mistake later, they were all over the press and blogosphere as an agency that cannot even ensure quality-checks on a 4-word banner – hardly a reliable partner for a client. Working for that same agency, we discussed it internally, not accepting that it was a “mistake”. Some argued that if the job was to get Grey’s name out there at an Industry event that is pretty much the equivalent of the Superbowl, the job was purposely well done. Some accepted the mistake but thought the best way to handle it was indeed to claim it was a clever stunt.

publicity_grey

A study ran by Alan Sorensen (Stanford) showed that when a known author was subject to bad critics, his book’s sales would plummet. He also realised that the opposite was happening for unknown authors. We can therefore claim that bad publicity actually helps unknown brands. That school of thought can be supported by the fact that a dissatisfied customer will tell 10 people whereby a satisfied one will only tell 3. If it’s noise you need, then maybe there is no such thing as bad publicity.

So, is there really no such thing as bad publicity? I don’t think there is a straightforward answer. It’s all down to the specific brand and publicity (no doubt that if Kanye West would have rapped a teenager, that controversy wouldn’t have helped him sell albums, let alone that he’d be writing it from jail). If one thing is sure though, it is that all publicity is good if it is intelligent, whether bad or good and depending on the way it is handled. Grey managed to be famous and to get people talking, Apple managed to reinforce its strong position and to seize the opportunity to trash its competitors, and some politicians managed to gain their audiences’ sympathy using auto-derision. Is all publicity good publicity? No, but all publicity is good if it is intelligent.

/imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

The word “inventing” comes from a lot of meanings. Whilst an “invention” refers to something new, an “inventory” refers to something existing. I find that quite interesting as it can be a way to understand the concept of innovation. Going back to its Latin roots, innovare means renewing or changing an existing concept/ process/ product or what have you. One might therefore be mistaken to believe that innovating is bringing something totally new to the world. Sit down Steve J, I’m only starting.

immitation

Innovation tends to be massively used in dynamic Industries such as the high technology sector. This is logical since differentiation in this sector is driven by the novelty of its products, even though the brand can still play an important role e.g. in Apple’s case. But innovation means patents, industrial spying, many (many) lawsuits and other childishness. Which brings us to the question: can imitation be considered as a form of flattery?

I have been using an HTC Desire HD for the past couple of months and I must admit that some of its hardware and software features clearly come from the iPhone’s famous innovations. One day, I have shared my new purchase on my Facebook profile and most of the underlying comments were quite disrespectful to HTC, stating that they had “cheated” on the iPhone to make a break on this market. Yes, HTC wasn’t the first to use multi-touch and other – once groundbreaking – features that today became a standard in smartphones. However, they have – alongside the Android OS – brought a lot of new innovations such as its processor for an improved speed, a revisited interface and the ability to customise your device the way you want. They have done what is standard practice in open source software: “study how the program works, and evolve it to make it do what you wish”. This trend isn’t specific to an Industry either: new advertising techniques are also imitated, then improved and so on.

Competitors tend to rely on what one has created to improve their own products and services. While some might see this as cheating and disrespect, others will see it as a recognition of the initial innovation as well as taking part to the ongoing improvement of the product, and in turn, to the dynamism of the market. The trick is then to ensure consumers remember you were the first one to introduce that novelty.

/clientocracy.

Ad agencies love being the bearer of new trends. It makes us look smarter and more creative, which is eventually what our clients pay us for. So here we all are, inventing never-seen-before advertising techniques such as booking a whole TV ad break, inventing new job titles such as “Junior Senior Account Executive” (meaning they’re running out of excuses not to promote you but that you’re almost there so hang on to it), and even new words such as “Meritocracy”. Ah, that “Meritocracy” word you’ve been hearing at job interviews, during your appraisals, and at your agency’s local pub, while talking about your career with your boss.

The funny thing is that Meritocracy is an existing word that has been introduced by a British Politician. It is defined as:

“A system of government wherein appointments are made and responsibilities assigned to individuals based upon their “merits”, namely intelligence, credentials and education, determined through evaluations or examinations.”

meritocracy3

So Meritocracy was first used to refer to governments and agencies decided to extend it to their Industry. It makes sense. After all, an ad agency – like any business entity – works like a government: people at the top taking decisions, people at the bottom actionning (yet another verb invented by ad agencies) theses decisions, with the people at the top rewarding the best – or the ones with most merit – to join them at that top. I have witnessed – directly or through some peers – fair and misleading use of this Meritocracy. For instance, some agencies, with a very blurred and inconsistent appraisals policy, will end up not rewarding their people’s merit as they should. I hear you saying that the reward should not systematically happen after an appraisal – correct, so comes another example. I have countless recollections of people who have been performing above expectations, bringing a true added value to their agency and clients alike but who haven’t been rewarded accordingly. Agencies arguments usually revolve around budget constraints. The funny thing is that, in most cases, these people were eventually being given that reward (promotion or pay rise) when the employee threaten to give their notice.

Budget constraints, client pressure… I think it would be fair to introduce yet another new word: “Clientocracy”. Unfortunately that word also already exists and is also informally used in the world of Politics. Irish 2007 elections candidate Parlon defined the term as:

“Where the select friends of influential parliamentarians get to reap the benefits.”

We could also very well make this definition more relevant to our Industry.

A business entity victim of an unbalanced agency/ client relationship, resulting in making most of its key decisions based on their direct and indirect outcome on that very client.

Yes an agency should always bear its clients in mind when making key decisions, but should it do it to the extent of its people’s careers? In our business, a client is usually paying a yearly fee for a pre-accounted amount of campaigns, that will be provided by a certain amount of people, each at a pre-defined level of seniority and expertise. Therefore, and apart from budget constraints, I don’t see how this would restrain an agency to reward one of its employees’ merit. And even if budget constraints were the issue, then how would you explain that a simple threat of leave would change things? And it works both ways, with another example of an employee being promoted very early (or without merit), because of that same client needs and budget constraints: promoting someone – whether or not he is ready – can be less expensive than hiring a new person at that level. Here again, the client indirectly dictated the promotion, at the expense of that employee’s healthy career (and financial) development.

Just like a true democracy shouldn’t have to yell the fact that it is one, a true agency should be proud of its business and therefore maintain healthy and balanced relationships with its clients for better productivity. It is just against ethic rules to have a client making over 80% of an agency turnover, therefore indirectly dictating each of its business decisions (they may as well acquire and run that agency). Serve your client, but don’t be his slave. And if Clientocracy is definitely a no go, Meritocracy seems to be more used as an excuse to hide the former rather than really rewarding people on their merit. It’s just another utopia – like any word ending up in “cratie”, really.

meritocracy2

/it’s being smart that counts.

Who hasn’t noticed LG’s latest move? More importantly, who stayed indifferent to its message: “it’s being smart that counts”? I questioned myself quite a lot on this. Did LG really see a gap for smartphones with no aesthetic at all? How about Apple’s slick iPhone 4, the Nokia N8 and C7 or even the latest HTCs? Is product design and aesthetics really not a key aspect of the offering for a smartphone today?

Smart that counts

Relying on my Telco experience, all high-end smartphones are pretty much aligned in terms of performance today. There was a time when Apple managed to surprise everyone with ground-breaking technology but this has now been matched by the likes of HTC and Android devices, and Apple’s strong appeal now only relies on its brand equity and the success of its App Store. In this context, making a claim about a tiny detail can make the difference: an aesthetic detail, HTC Sense “lock and track” feature that allow a user to remotely control a stolen or lost device, an App Store and you name it.

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So why would the LG Optimus One‘s claim only be about being smart, at the expense of, not only discarding any info about its design, but worse, claiming that they do not value it s a brand. Back to the ad (above), you will notice that the packshot is showing more than one angle – is that not showing off the phone’s design? And how about that partnership with Kelly Brooke? Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure she is also very smart.