What business are you in?

Sometimes, the first question to ask a client is “what business are you in” and when you get the “are you stupid” response, you’ve probably asked the most important marketing question to ask.

Netflix can’t answer this question properly lately. Their newest “innovation” is to replace their five star rating system with the simplified “thumb up/down” rating.

United Airlines failed this test by forcibly removing a passenger from a flight.

Apple entered the driverless car market, while admitting they blew it when they replaced the big cheese grater style professional Mac computers that were infinitely and easily expandable with the “trash can” model.

For Netflix, this isn’t the first time to question if they understand what business they are in. When they tried to split off the disc delivery service as Quicksilver and then they showed they didn’t get it either. Netflix is the film fanatics club- for serious movie buffs to feed their habit. From the online reviews (which were hidden), to the removal of the DVD queue from the mobile app, from cutting off access to IMDB, Netflix has consistently isolated itself from its core business- being the movie purveyor to people who love movies. Even their default autoplay of the next episode gets it wrong- their core audience watches the credits, and doesn’t want to have them cut off (this feature, can be disabled in settings after searching).

Netflix built its brand on a better suggestion algorithm, now it tossed it.

While the bigger, newer audience may just be there to binge watch episodic TV, the people who built your business are not the people you ignore.

Read that last paragraph again after each example, substituting what the core business is.

United Airlines bloody logoUnited is an airline. Scratch all the added mystique and branding of “fly the friendly skies” or trying to romance air travel, which has been turned into a very dehumanizing experience for most commercial travelers, the primary reason people fly is they need to get from point A to point B faster than driving, a bus, a train. When you sell a ticket to a paying customer, forcefully removing him from his seat, once boarded has violated every part of your basic business premise.

To add insult to injury, this wasn’t an overbooked flight even, they were removing four paying customers so a crew could fly. Fundamentally, United’s business is to transport paying customers. Any questions?

MacPro 2012 vs MacPro 2013Apple is known for its ease of use in computing. It invented “desktop publishing” – which today sounds almost funny. Prior to the Macintosh and the LaserWriter, the ability for people to craft a page of print that had different sized type, photos, and print it themselves was unheard of (I know this is really hard to fathom for anyone born after 1984). They were the tool of graphic designers across the globe, the one people relied on to create everything from restaurant menus to revolutionaries handbooks. As Apple expanded the capability from print to video, the tools of the professional needed more horsepower, more options, more drive space, more memory. Apple saw things differently. Sure, the iPhone changed the world of communications, and the iPad finally made a device that could replace paper, but, the content that was viewed on these devices was crafted by the people who built Apple up- and stuck with them through some incredibly stupid moves.

And yet, the professionals are being shortchanged. The elimination of ports to be replaced by a plethora of dongles, memory and storage that can’t be replaced or upgraded, screens larger than 15″ for a portable no longer exist. Sure, Apple has changed the way they make money now- even though they fail to understand it (if Apple realized most of their profits come from app, software and content downloads, instead of device sales- they would have an answer for Chromebooks for education which are way cheaper than anything Apple tries to proffer and would have created an iPad priced to giveaway to newspaper subscribers to replace printing plants). The prices Apple charges for a terabyte drive in a MacBook Pro or a MacPro are now so insanely high, that professionals feel like they are being insulted when purchasing a new computer.

Apple doesn’t know what business it is in, at all. They are in the controlled content creation and delivery business, not a device or software business. The only thing that Apple should be worried about is putting content creation tools in the hands of the most people possible- and making it easy for them to monetize it through Apple’s secure and safe content delivery network. Cars are a distraction. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

  • When you own a restaurant, you are really in the making people happy business.
  • When you are a school, you are really in the self-actualization business.
  • When you are an ad agency like ours, we’re really in the help you make more money business.

So what business are you really in? Really?

Marketing plans versus Operational plans

A recent reviewer of a RFP/RFQ response wrote this in the evaluation/scoring:

Plan provided is NOT a marketing plan it is a Operational plan. RFP is for Marketing not a replacement of the Administration.

People who think marketing is something separate from operations shouldn’t still be in business anymore. That myth should have gone away a long time ago.  Wisdom from Leo Burnett should be a good starting place, and he died in 1971.

  • “What helps people, helps business.”
  • “Before you can have a share of market, you must have a share of mind.”
  • “We want consumers to say, ‘That’s a hell of a product” instead of ‘That’s a hell of an ad.'”
  • “The sole purpose of business is service. The sole purpose of advertising is explaining the service which business renders.” 
  • “The greatest thing to be achieved in advertising, in my opinion, is believability, and nothing is more believable than the product itself.”

Considering the potential client runs a service business, funded with tax dollars, and is getting a failing grade on every count, (a local school district) a new operational plan and way to communicate the new way of doing business is the key to changing perception and their fortunes.

Marketing does not exist in a vacuum, it’s interrelated to everything a business does. Looking to management guru Peter Drucker, who died in 2005, we find yet another quote:

“Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two–and only two–basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business.”

If that doesn’t tell you that an operations plan is marketing, you should reexamine your boss credentials.

Everything a business does, reflects upon its brand. And the brand is a story that the world tells each other, based on what they think they know about it. Apple, Nike, Google, the great brands- have a story that people can share without a whole lot of prompting- and for the most part, it’s a positive one. Sure, each has its detractors, but overall, the Q-score and the buzz line up with the company vision and goals.

To me, Apple started out as a “bicycle for the mind”- a tool to exercise your further your ideas and to help you share them. Nike reached into the competitor in all of us, and gave us an uplifting mantra- “Just do it” and Google, knew long before the rest of us, that with great power, came great responsibility and stated that their goal was to “Do no evil.” It’s take over a decade for most people to understand the power that Google had harnessed.

thumbnail of Actions Speak Louder than words

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Great companies do great things and communicate those things often and consistently. But here’s the key- it’s not through words or ads- “actions speak louder than words” should be the mantra of every ad agency across the globe. Doing good is doing well. Talking about yourself is just talk, and often times, boorish.

Need an example of actions speaking louder than words? I was at a minor league hockey game last night. I’ve been around hockey for at least 50 years, playing and watching. In a freak instance, a players stick was flung into the stands, and a fan caught it. Granted, sticks can cost as much as $300 these days- but, the team had the nerve to send down a team official to take the stick back. The crowd booed for at least 5 minutes. Considering the home team was down 2 goals, the players had to wonder why they should be trying their hardest to win- when they were getting a steady raspberry. Would a marketing-centric company dare to ask for the stick back?

The story that the fan will tell now is “I got hit by a players stick flung out of the rink” and they came and took it away. Or, the proper response, “I got hit by a stick at a hockey game, while sitting in my seat, and they came and checked to see if I was OK- and offered to let me come down after the game and get it signed by the entire team.”

Operations is marketing.



Superbowl 2017: what evoked trust & created lust

Very few people can play in the NFL, fewer in a Superbowl, and even fewer win it 6 times. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have better records with Superbowl wins than most ad agencies. Very few agencies get to play in the big game, and so those who do, go all out.

As do the critics the day after. And while there are plenty of opinions of what were the best and worst ads of the Superbowl, and there is the AdBowl and the AdMeter ad nauseum.

We look at ads differently at The Next Wave. It’s about effectiveness. Do they make their clients more money than they spent? Will they create good will with their target market? Will they evoke new levels of respect for the brand? These are the things that count with us. And most of it stems from the creative brief- is the campaign on target? Does it hit the right buttons?

Looking back at Superbowl LI or 51, or 2017, or the one where Tom Brady pulled a win out of his rear end, there were a few spots that performed incredibly well.The rest, helped the agency make money, or stoked some egos in the ad world.

The biggest winner was 84 Lumber. While they never could have anticipated their spot would get the GoDaddy banned treatment, it helped build some pre-game buzz. And while they and their agency don’t seem to understand how their ad was perfect, they lucked into something without knowing it. At least, from our read of the after game dissections.

84 Lumber had never bought a Superbowl spot before. Their ad budget doesn’t compare to that of Home Depot or Lowes. They don’t have the stores, the online presence, or the top of mind awareness. To most contractors, they go with the store that’s most convenient, has the best price, offers the best support etc. They don’t pick their vendor by their politics- and if they did, Home Depot and 84 Lumber are probably both as Republican as they get.

But, all of a sudden, with their “Journey” ad, showing the hardship someone is willing to endure to get to the border and become an American- only to face a wall, and then find the door and the final message “The will to succeed is always welcome here” they’ve done something that clearly separates them from their competition- they’ve won over every roofing contractor we’ve seen in the country- where Spanish has become the first language on rooftops. They’ve given the anti-wall people, a place to support, and while the country may have elected Donald Trump, more people voted for his opponent. They’ve carved out a clear point of differentiation in a whole new space that up until now- advertisers were terrified to wade into. There is already pushback against UBER for not supporting the taxi strike in NYC over the immigration restrictions, and some are canceling their Tesla orders because Elon Musk doesn’t hate Trump.

They may have spent $15 million making and running the ad, but, 84 Lumber got the talk around the water coolers that they couldn’t have bought for 10x that amount.

Budweiser also played in that arena, telling the real life story of how their founder made his way to America to brew beer. Another beautifully shot spot, its payoff was “When nothing stops your dream” which speaks to the public on so many levels, and brings a new respect for the hard work and effort that gets you to the top of your game. They don’t call it “The King of Beers” for no reason at all.

Budweiser is normally known for horses and dogs, and talking frogs, for them to get back to their roots in 2017, was a reminder to all of the work ethic we ascribe to being our collective story.

So far we’ve centered our discussion on the big production, high dollar, epic mini-films, so the next spot is going to seem like it’s coming out of left field.

Mr. Clean scored by building on a universal truth- at least to women, that the perfect man cleans up after himself. How you add sex appeal to a household cleaner, that sits on a shelf with a bunch of other products that no one really has a deep emotional attachment to- is something only a master of the craft can do- and this spot nails it. No superstars, no hype, just straight concept, executed exquisitely. Payoff “you gotta love a man that cleans” is a line that only Mr. Clean can own.

Then there are the spots that tried too hard. Sort of like the Atlanta Falcons for three quarters.

AirBnB had a political spot that was probably the cheapest to make- and was political as well, but coming from a company that had just got hoisted by their petards for not renting to minorities, they didn’t have the credibility to make a case for inclusiveness. Nor is their brand mark well enough known to rest on its own. “#weaccept” isn’t based on truth. And the online version has “airbnb” under the logo- the broadcast version didn’t.

We loved the Audi ad for the cinematography, and it even had cars in it- but, for Audi to try to talk about pay equality was a leap they didn’t have the right to make. The concept was one we’ve seen before- different execution.

This space is already taken. “____ like a girl” was Always- and they did it without insulting women. Need a refresher on how it’s done?

Hiring celebrities to connect your brand is always a risky move. And while we may pay attention to the ad because you hired someone we know and like, be it Jason Statham and Gal Gadot:

Wix you still suck.

Or John Malkovich for SquareSpace– yes, John, you’re an idiot for not buying your own domain name- and Squarespace isn’t going to build you a better website-

We’re not sure what Merecedes AMG is thinking, but the Coen Brothers should stick to movies. Peter Fonda, Easy Rider, biker stereotypes and Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild are throwing a bunch of easy to reach ingredients into a spot that is so totally off brief for a very expensive sport car for the 1% The testosterone is all in the wrong place. I wouldn’t be surprised if AMG dealerships saw more people cancelling orders than buying them after watching this clusterduck of the uninspired.

However, if you hire Christopher Walken to be Christopher Walken, and throw in Justin Timberlake for giggles with a cute take on his song and your brand name- we might actually forgive you and feign enough curiosity to buy your drink one time and see if we like it.
You go Bai Bai Bai.

And for all of your brands that don’t have your spot on your own YouTube channel and tagged correctly, you are failing internet 101. Sign up for now.

One last spot that used its placement as creative leverage was the spot for Genius, directly following Lady Gaga. Crossing her music with Einstein playing it on violin, complete with his bare feet, and the tongue full frontal made us take notice. Beautifully shot. Nice job National Geographic.

There were other spots we liked – Honda’s talking yearbook- but, did it sell anywhere near what it cost to use all those celebrities? We doubt it.

What did we miss? What do you think?

Unfortunately, the Effies don’t do a separate break-out for Superbowl spots, and of course, the whole genre was defined by Apple’s epic 1984 spot. But, then again, in 1985 Apple did lemmings- showing that genius in a Superbowl is as elusive as playing in the big game itself.

Hiring An Agency: The R.F.P. Guide (for Governmental Organizations)

Purchasing departments for school systems, city government, state government, federal government are used to buying tangible items or services that are easy to define. We need toilet paper is easy- how many rolls, how many sheets to a roll- price and done. Services are a little tougher- cleaning floors in a hospital has more variables, but still can be calculated in square feet, supplies and man hours.

Part of the problem in government purchasing, is that you are open to all bidders, whereas in the private sector, your agency search consultant can filter down your short list pretty quick. They do this based on their knowledge of the industry, the problems the client is facing and insight into client/agency cultures. They act more like a dating service than a purchasing department.

When it’s time to come up with a brilliant re-positioning of your school system, city, state or federal agency it isn’t something that can be accomplished better by more people, hours, or, even money. All the metrics that are usually used to evaluate the standard purchasing value proposition are out the window.

Hiring a creative firm is more like getting married and having kids than it is like buying a car. Even after divorcing your agency, there are still and always will be ties and connections to deal with. You can just sell the car and get a new one on the flip side.

When you hire an ad agency, you are buying the promise of hope, entering into a relationship that will either grow and blossom and be mutually beneficial, or it could end in a sloppy divorce or even devolve into something resembling a murder/suicide. What you are buying and what you’ll get largely depends on how well you know your institution, and how well the agency understands your problems and your markets. You are buying intuition and insight more than anything else. Marriages succeed when two people know each other’s faults and accept them, they grow, when they complement each other, they blossom when the synergy allows growth and builds value.

All that said, it’s about mutual understanding, respect and realistic expectations.

If your organization has a bad reputation, delivers shoddy service, creates havoc for your users, is difficult to work with- the best advertising in the world won’t help. In fact, it may hurt.

If your organization is driven to do great things, and is focused on excellence, a bad agency can probably do the job and you’ll still be ok.

Sometimes an agency has to be an outside conscience for their client to tell your organization how to do it right. When Crispin Porter + Bogusky told Domino’s it’s time to admit your pizza blows, it wasn’t what Domino’s wanted to hear, but when the consumers were told that the company finally heard them- sales went up and so did Domino’s fortune. Do you think Domino’s liked hearing it? No. Are they glad they listened? Yep.

How did Domino’s know CP+B was the right agency for them to hire? Even after they told them their pizza sucked? They understood who they were marrying. CP+B was an industry darling that had taken other brands into uncomfortable territory and created value. In this case, past performance is an indication of future success. Yet even CP+B loses clients to other agencies. One clients great savior isn’t necessarily the answer for another.

Government agencies aren’t typically well stocked with marketers in their organization, or in their procurement offices. While there are metrics of increased sales or even customer satisfaction ratings that business can look at, your local schools aren’t going out of business if the logo sucks or the campaign for your levy fails. So, how do you construct a useful RFP instrument and process to select that isn’t based on dollars, hours, deliverables and other tangible measurements? How do you cut through the slick presentations and marketing jargon, so you are able to really compare responses to your RFP?

Start out with a real budget for your potential agency to work with.

While this sounds easy, many government accounting systems don’t fully count what they spend on marketing. Every mailing you do to home- even if it’s to mail a water bill, or a report card is a potential marketing delivery tool. Every printed handout that students take home, even if it’s about school uniforms, has a chance to help build your brand. Are you accounting for all expenses and all potential opportunities? While you may think you know how much should be spent on billboards and TV spots and think you want numbers for reach and frequency, how do you account for likes and shares? Organic and paid? Have you determined the budget based on what you’ve always done? That should be a clear red flag.

Come out with a real budget number for the RFP- and ask the agency how they’d allocate the funds to maximize effectiveness. It should give you a clue of what media they are most comfortable with.

That’s a first test.

It doesn’t even have to be for your entire budget, sometimes just a smaller project is a good way to test the waters. Kind of like a first date.

Have goals and objectives- a creative brief.

What metric are you really interested in? Since it’s not “sales” or “profits” is there some action that you can index? What do you want to change? What is the desired result? Is it to enroll more people in your program, to better understand what resources you provide, to mobilize people to do something? Define the objective you want your new agency to solve. Keep it simple and short. Maybe it’s not comprehensive- maybe it’s just how to solve one part of your puzzle. This is about deciding who to hire- not to actually solve the problem. A creative brief is a document of constraints, aimed at focusing efforts to maximize results- your RFP is about evaluating resources for maximum result. Don’t ask for spec work, ask for examples of how they’ve done this before, or what they would do to solve your problem. Ask about processes, ask about how you’ll communicate, ask about implementation, just don’t ask for the campaign itself.

Provide a summary of what you’ve done in the past.

One of our favorite new client interviews began with the client walking in with a stack of his brands history, with packaging, logos, ads, and the story of the brand. While you may think everything someone needs to learn about your company is online, it’s probably not unless you are a fortune 100.

Instead of hoping the prospective agencies know your advertising, branding, history- have it in a neat package. It never hurts an organization to have its brand DNA distilled into a nice package (we like to call them brand books) to tell your potential customers your story either.

Ask for timelines and budgets

Knowing how much something costs is great, knowing when to have the money available is another. Ideas that can’t be funded aren’t really ideas- they’re pipe dreams. Both organizations need to be aware of when money is needed- including payment terms. Much like newlyweds, costs of a house, car, honeymoon, baby all have to be put into the picture. Put both payment terms, and approval times into the document so there are clear and binding expectations.

Who are the players?

Both sides need to know the real lineup. Agency principals can be there at the pitch- but will never see the client again, and the client who is purchasing the work, may never have to work with the agency. Ask for the agencies lineup- and share yours. These are the people that will be working together. Have them involved in the process. The people who will work together, should be the ones involved in the review and the interview.

Constraints are your friend

It shouldn’t take 150 pages to explain a marketing plan. Most great marketing ideas fit on a cocktail napkin. Limit the rfp responses to the bare minimum. If you have specific questions, ask them in the RFP, not later in the interview. “How do you foresee the rebrand being implemented” and “Cite an example of a rebrand you’ve done” are better than “we want comprehensive marketing services.”

Interview, scenario, visit.

Once you’ve narrowed down the responses, interview the agencies that seem to best understand your issues. This is where your people who will work directly with their people ask each other questions. It should go both ways. The client should be asking about the proposal, the agency should be asking about the clients comfort level with the proposal. This is a date still- not the marriage.

Having a scenario prepared to ask the agency on how they’d handle it is a good way to see how they think on their feet. “What would you do if a student was stabbed on the playground during the school day by an outside attacker?”  Or, “our last conference wasn’t as well organized or attended as we’d like, what could you do to change that?”

Have a timeline to work with, but be flexible. 20 minutes to present, 40 minutes to answer questions might sound efficient, but, for a long-term relationship, speeddating might not be the best solution.

Lastly, visit each others work spaces. Learn about your future partners in their natural habitat. Sometimes, it’s even smart to hold the first interviews on neutral ground- just to make everyone feel at ease.

Keep lines of communication open throughout the process

If a bidder is out of the running, let them know. If the process is going to take longer than expected, let the bidders know- however, at this point the terms of the contract will change. Make sure you clearly communicate to all bidders what is happening.

Scoring the bids

Since this isn’t private enterprise, scoring is critical, and open to scrutiny.

If your objectives were clear, the budget set, and the examples asked for are absolute, scoring becomes easier. Weighting the scores is usually where things get complex. Assigning points for things like “sustainability” turns you into a bond-rating agency. The financial meltdown should have proven that these sorts of evaluations are rarely accurate.

You are really grading two things: the proposal, and the likelihood that there will be synergy. How you determine these things can’t be split up into 15 categories and scored. Fractions of points are a joke. Come up with a list of big picture questions and try to rank the agencies by each in order. Assign points by ranking. Rank no more than 5 agencies, and put them in order for each question- 5 best, 1 least.

  • Seemed to understand our objective and have realistic solutions
  • Has relevant experience with our target audience
  • Demonstrates the skills we need
  • Efficiency in delivering message
  • Competency of team- likeability
  • Past performance with other clients
  • Demonstrated strategic thinking
  • Potential value add
  • How do they manage client communications, track projects

Feel free to add your own. But, weighing the value of one area over another starts making it more complex. If anyone can’t put the five agencies into a ranking based on the criteria- the criteria may be the problem. If your team thinks there is a tie- then cull the field and start again.

The Pre-nup

Ownership of ideas isn’t as easy to define as ownership of the pet dog or a couch. There are questions about ownership of the work, of payment for media plans, and work outside of the original scope of work. Both sides may want an annulment, or it may come down to a nasty divorce when lawyers get involved.

Does the client have rights to the working files, the b-roll, the code- or just the finished project? Who licenses the fonts? The stock footage? Do those rights transfer? Does the agency get a guaranteed minimum engagement? Are there penalties for early withdrawl? Agencies often make considerable investment ramping up for a new client – what guarantees are there?

Also, don’t forget with the management of social accounts, who has access? Who owns them?

We’ve often seen questions about our ability to pay for media on behalf of clients, yet they have a reputation for not paying on time. What safeguards are in place to make sure the financials are in order? And, the same goes for approvals? Is the job charged a rush fee because of slow client approvals?

Spending time working the pre-nup details out before the award makes for a much better relationship.

The thing to remember

You aren’t buying a car. It’s a relationship. Often the best work doesn’t come right away. Sometimes what sounded great in the pitch- turns into a nightmare to sustain. When the US Army fell hook-line-and-sinker for “ARMY STRONG” on the strength of one spec spot, they had a hard time figuring out how to keep it going after. The Marine Corps on the other hand, has never had to explain, “the few, the proud, the Marines” – and it helps that Marine Corps dress blues win hands down in the fashion show.

Can you help me right now is great, but will this relationship grow is more important. Will the agency be your partner in growing and extending your brand, or will it just be there for the one trick pony? Expect there to be growing pains. Ask questions about how they collaborate- and communicate- a lot. That’s the key to a good hire, and it takes both sides to make it work.

Just like a marriage.

For further reference:

The 4A’s has ANA/4A’s Agency Selection Briefing Guidance.

The ANA/4A’s Guidelines for Agency Search outlines best practices for clients and agencies.

How to run an advertising agency review?

Business Week on “How to hire an ad agency

Keys to a successful agency review

If you’d like help on how to review your current materials and prepare it to send to agencies for a review, we can help. Feel free to contact us.

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