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.

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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

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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.

nokia

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.

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re-defining advertising.

Advertising is a term that is proving hard to define. Of the countless definitions you can find on the web and in those academic books, they all seem to have the same recurrent words: paid; non-personal; communications; influence/ persuade/ raise awareness; target audience; products/ goods/ services/ persons/ entities. It is fairly hard to define such an evolving term. I mean things have changed since the first adverts aired in the 19th century. Interactivity – that “red button” for instance – has massively changed the way advertising works (name a print ad without a website address, a QR code, an SMS number or a social network link). Yes, technology has changed the way adverts act on us but is this the only massive evolution we could see in advertising?

Rory Sutherland is a brilliant adman. He couldn’t have thought of an easier way to put it across: “advertising is all about intangible values”. Of all the definitions I could find on the net, none was putting the accent on the brand, that intangible asset that supports these products/ goods/ services/ persons and entities advertising is supposed to have an effect on. Take the fragrances market, which is both interesting and challenging for 2 reasons: you can hardly differentiate a product from another since they are all subjective (be it for the liquid itself); and there are countless new product launches every year further cluttering the market. So how would you create that USP that will give you the edge over your competitors? You act on aspects that are peripheral to the product e.g. the packaging, the price (and promotions), the distribution and, the most important asset of all, the brand (selling more than a smelly, you actually sell a mood or a lifestyle endorsed by a brand or a celebrity). Nowadays, consumers don’t say beer but “Carling” or “Stella”; they don’t ask you for your MP3 player but for your “iPod”; just as no one seems to have a mobile phone anymore but a “Nokia” or an “iPhone”. Some brands managed it better than others (have you ever used the word “cola” in a sentence?), but overall, they all understood the new use of advertising in a market cluttered with look-alike products and politicians.

When butter brand Lupark challenged W+K to increase the sales of their product, never the agency would have thought of changing the product, or even its packaging or its price for that matter. They went for a far smarter and cost effective solution, and changed the one thing the competition wouldn’t be able to imitate later on: they’ve altered its brand perception by telling consumers it was “the natural choice to enhance good food”. The activation that followed is genius and I recommend the read.

lupark

Whether it is Sutherland’s hilarious Diamond Shreddies anecdote, or Belgian beer Stella Artois positioning itself as being French, advertising allows to change a product perception without even touching it the slightest. But as every magic power should not be abused, a brand needs to remain credible and consistent in its claims and positioning so as not to confuse or, worst, lose its audience. I mean why would everyone be so pissed off about Robert De Niro now playing in cheap comedies eh?

shreddies

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Apple v.2.0.

Many people have anticipated The 2nd of March for a while now. Steve Jobs – or his future successor – is due to announce his latest “revolution” to the World, namely the iPad 2. The press has rumoured Cupertino’s latest baby to sport a slightly different design, a frontal camera for video calls as well as a higher resolution screen (probably that “retina display” they’ve introduced with the iPhone 4). They might also release more versions (screen size and internal memory) to reach a wider market. So sleeker design, more versions, and addition of technologies already used on their current portfolio (camera and “retina display”). Rings any bells? That’s exactly what they’ve done when releasing the 2nd version of the iPod Touch.

I’ve been trying to understand how does Apple succeed so well. Sure their branding and marketing gurus have made it a purely inspiring brand with a vision, but there is more to that. I have been on their website and listed all the products they were selling for their main product lines. You will be surprised to see that that brand’s simplicity that everyone is praising actually extends to its products portfolio:

Apple table

The above table shows that Apple sells 38 products (a number about to increase on the 2nd of March).  Now looking closer, Apple actually sells 13 products, from 4 product lines, each declined in multiple versions. Looking even closer, you will see the differences between all these products: camera or not, retina display or not, screen size, internal memory or processor’s power. Logistically speaking, it would be safe to say that Apple actually release one great total product, and then remove/ lighten a few of its features to “multiply ” it in other versions and allow for it to be released upgraded a year later. This assumption also applies when you analyse the above chart across all products. The iPad for example, is literally a bigger iPod Touch (earlier version) with a bigger on-board memory, a bigger screen, and uses the same OS than the iPhone and the iPod Touch – that’s a lesson in economies of scale. All that doesn’t apply to their “lower end” devices (iPod Shuffle and iPhone 3Gs) that are only available in one version, or the iPod Classic that has been here for ages, using brilliant marketing techniques to sustain like the famous bottle of Coke, or even Hugo Boss “Hugo Man” fragrance.

iconic design

So how does Apple succeed so well? Steve Jobs relies on a few core platforms – Mac and “i” ranges (iPod, iPad and iPhone) – to then play with technologies that can be applied to all them. The trick is then to know when and how he will release it. Therefore, anyone shouting that Apple is amazing as they have so many great products would be mistaken since they actually only have a couple. Now let’s open our marketing books to see what this technique allow them to do:

  1. Regularly refresh their products with features perceived as groundbreaking by their early innovators – eventually purchased by innovators and the rest of the gang
  2. Avoid the maturity phase of the Product Life Cycle (PLC)
  3. Reach a wider audience with products that are not significantly different but for which you are ready to pay a significantly higher price (up to £1k on Macbook Pro, £2k on Mac Pro)

So next time you see an ad stating – with their usual modesty – “this changes everything, again”, read it as “it changed everything a year ago on this so we ran it on that, thanks for your continuous custom”.

iphone4-changes-everything

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self-derision sells.

How many times how we laughed out loud in front of a humourist mocking himself on stage? If an ignorant might claim that the human race became massively masochist, the wise will see that most of these humourists became famous and loved by that same public laughing at their “misery”. Is it because we relate to these people in some way, thus are laughing at ourselves unconsciously? Or is it because we feel some kind of sympathy for these characters? In any case, I’m far to be the only one who saw underlying marketing opportunities in self-mockery.

The most obvious opportunity was in Politics. If a humourist can make himself famous nationwide by simply mocking himself, then why would a Politician with no clear programme not have a go at it? French President Jacques Chirac admitted in an interview that his success in the 1995 elections against Edouard Balladur was partly due to the derision given to his character in the 2.6M-audience French Muppet show Les Guignols de l’Info. The show presented him as a no-programme-man lazy moron, who only wished he’d finally be elected against Balladur, who betrayed him. This made him the most famous and liked Muppet in the show ahead of presenter PPDA for the 2 years ahead of the election.

LES GUIGNOLS DE L'INFO

It wasn’t long before smart and edgy ad agencies pitched to convince some of their clients to try themselves at this exercise. Kapferer found that VW “style of expression is one of humour as shown in its attitude of self-derision, false modesty and impertinence towards competitors as well as in the use of paradox”. Gillette latest spoof ad is a more recent example where the brand takes one of its consumer’s insights i.e. “one day they’ll be selling us 10-blade razors” and embraces that cynicism by humouring themselves, as well as creating some buzz over their brand equity.

So, smart or risky exercise? Since not many brands are risking themselves to such a niche practice, one could argue that differentiation could be a good motive to such positioning – bearing in mind the products (or people in the case of our politician) concerned usually hardly differ from their competitors. Rod A. Martin stated that ‘‘they are making use of the peripheral rather than the central route to persuasion”. That said, relevance is key and in most cases the antidote becomes the poison. Ask Chirac what he thought of his Muppet in Les Guignols de l’Info in the 2002 elections…

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big freeze, big loss, big profits.

Mother nature was far from a Christmassy mood last December in Europe, impacting on our travels and our shopping sprees. Bearing in mind I’m living in London (the most dynamic hub of Europe, located in the North hence likely to be affected by bad weather), allow me to ask why this is happening for the second year in a row? Was our very own BoJo too busy launching his cycle scheme and starting a war with tube drivers? I mean is Helsinki airport closed half of the year? I hear you saying that the required equipments are costly, but aren’t they worth limiting the huge loss witnessed by our economy?

bigfreeze

We have learnt for the second time in a row that our economy – now more than ever weakened by the recession – does not like catching a cold. The impact of heavy snows around the UK almost feared some of a double dip recession, with numbers far from reassuring. Quite a logical assumption isn’t it? For starters, transport – that wasn’t at its best this year with terrorism fears, business travel restrictions, increasing oil charges and the Icelandic volcano eruptions – was a heavy loser of the Big Freeze. Construction was also badly hit, as well as high streets retailers (this happening on a key consumption period), agriculture, the entertainment sector, as well as energy (no doubt many of you worked from home all day with the heat on and a relaxing bubble bath break).

But was it really that bad for everyone? As BBC’s Anthony Reuben rightly discussed, it’s all about the point of view we stand by. For instance, UK airports surely had to hire more staff to handle the huge rush of people flooding their terminals – that’s giving temp’ jobs to those who didn’t have any at such a key period. Sales of cold weather gear also surely rose above expectations. Doctor’s appointments, garages for car repair, energy companies, salt mines, snowploughs drivers and you name it! One huge winner was the online sales sector. 25% rise year on year is just crazy, bearing in mind this sector will be winning even beyond that since it will have attracted first-time buyers who had mainly emotional barriers to purchase online (fear of data security, lack of familiarity with high technology etc…), and who now will form part of their productive databases. However it is not that simple. The fact that people were unable to move might have boosted online sales but the hard weather meant that deliveries could not be handled in time for Christmas, adding in yet another barrier to online shopping. There are also some interesting facts about the relation of consumers’ stress on price sensitivity in that “consumers experiencing higher stress levels will demonstrate a higher level of price sensitivity”, meaning marketers will have a tougher job in conveying value for their products.

Marketing is about understanding its environment to spot underlying opportunities. A problem means a solution just like a virus means an antidote – the trick is only to find it first and adapt quickly. A new situation means winners and losers. It also means losers can diversify to winners’ activities. The recession meant that people were less likely to have dinners in town, so Sainsbury and M&S started to launch appealing campaigns to show how you could make a great dinner at home with their grocery products. Again, it’s all about the point of view you stand by. After all, ask G.W. Bush what he thought of the 9.11 attacks.

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