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After almost 18 years of being a partner in Ames Scullin O’Haire Advertising, the most surprising thing I’ve found is the number of clients who are in miserable relationships with their agencies.

In fact, a recent Chief Marketing Officer survey showed only 33% were happy with their relationships. Which leaves 67% unhappy–– but staying put.

I’ve heard the complaints: “my agency is too slow”… “too expensive”… “doesn’t know my business”… “isn’t creative”… “is unresponsive”… “isn’t strategic”… “has juniors cutting their teeth on my account”… “just wants to rack up billable hours”… “only cares about their P & L”… “just wants to win creative awards”… “doesn’t know new media”… “nickel and dimes me to death”… “doesn’t understand my customers”… “is always trying to sell more services”… “doesn’t understand our corporate goals”… “only cares about paying its global holding company”… and on and on and on.

Still, these miserable marketers remain loyal to their whipping children. Why? I’ve heard their response many times: “The devil I know is better than the devil I don’t.”

It doesn’t make any sense. With that outlook, no matter what you do, you’re still in hell.

My advice to those two-thirds of CMOs in unhappy relationships? Test drive another agency. One that’s done work you like, with people you like. Give them a real project, not some branding assignment jump ball (AKA: “come-play-the-let’s-get-lucky-lottery”).

Be totally open and brutally honest. See how the agency operates under real world conditions. If they’re as good as they say they are (we all say we’re fantastic, right?), then give them some more work.

Or, give them a shot at your whole business. You may not find immediate salvation, but al least you’ll escape the hell of the devil you know.

Annex - Cooper, Gary (Fountainhead, The)_01

It’s not often when an ad agency gets to be a client, but there we were years ago–– the partners of Ames Scullin O’Haire Advertising in the market for an architect to help us plan our new office space.

A friend in the office furniture business gave me three recommendations for great architects, and we scheduled meetings. Each firm brought a small team and a portfolio of projects. The architects took us through samples of their work. Some we liked, some we didn’t.

Each firm explained their process. Our eyes glazed over. What did we know about architectural process? What did we care? We wanted their great ideas and designs, well-executed, on budget and delivered on time.

Finally, every firm expressed its sincere desire to work with us. The lapdogs were licking our faces.

It all felt familiar. So depressingly familiar.

Architecture, like advertising, is a service business. Our produced work is our wares, and judging work is subjective, dependent on the tastes of the audience. Results are nice, but results will not trump a person’s visceral reaction to the work. As for process, process is our business. The people who hire may ask about process, but does anyone make her/his decision based on process?

Doubtful. They want your magic, and process simply tells them your tricks can de replicated.

As for enthusiasm in starting a relationship working together, well, that’s a given for service firms. Of course we want to work together–– that’s how we earn money (and money comes in very handy when you’re running a business).

So how do we make decisions selecting a service partner? By gut instinct. Do you like the people? Have they provided services you think are valuable? Are you confident they’ll be there when you need them? Do you believe they’ll give their all for you? Do you trust them?

Those are intangibles, chemistry. But they’re the stew we use to make our decision.

All three of the architects we met with were terrific. We selected the firm we felt would give us the most attention when there were bumps in the road, because well, there are always bumps.

We chose wisely. They were great partners and we love the space they designed.

Our experience drove home how difficult it is to sell a service. The buyer doesn’t know how good the service will be until the firm is hired and test driven. Until then, all we have is our past performance, process, face-licking and our ability to make a human connection.

And that last criterion is critical. In fact, no matter what your business, you better be able to make a human connection, because when things go south, technology won’t ease anger and frustration.

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Before social media, people watched the TV shows they liked. If you tuned-in and didn’t find it amusing seeing Hillbillies in Beverly Hills, you changed the channel. If you didn’t like watching a soap opera with pretty people in a hospital E.R., you didn’t watch it.

But today, there is the phenomenon of hate-watching–– willfully viewing something you don’t like just so you can bitch about it and be snarky in social media. What’s up with this?

I confess, I’ve engaged in this practice. I hate-watched my way through the second half of the second season of True Detective, then posted my sly criticisms on the Facebook playground where other hate-watchers joined the feeding frenzy. We chased this show like it was our white whale, throwing harpoons and riding it to the horizon until it died.

What did this say about us? Nothing good.

It said we were cultural bullies, trying to win favor with others with our clever, snide barbs.

What does it tell marketers about doing business in the social media age? It says now everyone has a voice and a megaphone to broadcast it, and you better be prepared to take on all opinions–– even those of the comic book store guy in the weeds.

It’s not pretty. And the worst thing you can do is try and control the conversation. People are going to say what they’re going to say.

Oh, and going back to TV viewing habits, some of us were amused by Jethro Bodine with his rope belt and impressive fifth grade education who knew his guzintas. “One guzinta two, two times. Two guzinta four, two times…”

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Remember when viral videos were all the rage?

Suddenly, every client demanded her/his agency create a viral video. “Just give me one of those videos that gets fifty, sixty-million hits and becomes a worldwide sensation.”

Gotcha, coming right up! You want a microsite with that?

Unfortunately, most clients brought their rational marketing brains to the table, then dictated that their videos communicate selling points, product attributes and features– demanding the film be treated like a jumbo-sized commercial. The clients felt good because this satisfied their rational marketing brains.

The videos were produced and released. The results? Farts in the bathtub.

They didn’t go viral, they barely infected a small group of people internally, plus the friends and relatives of the marcom department.

What went wrong? Forgetting human nature. A lack of understanding that what makes anything worth sharing is its being out of the ordinary–– humans like things that are entertaining, provocative, outrageous or funny as hell. Something different, something that doesn’t satisfy the rational brain but feeds our emotional spirit and delights us.

It’s the sharing of the joy the video brought us that makes it viral.

Not marketing briefs brought to life. Not strategies and tactics. People don’t share videos with notes like, “Hey, check this out! The strategy is spot on for the marketplace and I’ll bet it gets written up in ‘The Harvard Business Review’ as a great case study.”

Not understanding human nature and our insatiable need to be surprised has doomed many a viral video. Along with many marketing campaigns.

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In the twenty-first century, it’s never been easier to stay in touch, on this planet or in outer space.

We are all connected all the time. Then why are we all so damned lonely?

Last year, The National Science Foundation reported one in four people said that they have no one with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs. Take immediate family members out of the equation, that figure jacks up to fifty per cent!

If we’re all so connected, how can we feel so isolated? Because we’re each masters of our domain. The average American is staring at a screen (TV, computer, smartphone, tablet, etc.) nine and a half hours a day. Over half your waking time is spent watching objects projecting life, instead of living it.

But what about our enhanced interaction through social media? Our 982 Facebook friends, our LinkedIn connections, Twitter chums, Pinterest pals, et al? Yes, they provide the illusion of social interaction, and you certainly know more than you want to about someone’s political beliefs or pet urinary tract problems, but they’re mostly empty social calories.

We’re starved for real human interaction and connection. People still want and need people.

Which brings us to your responsibility as a marketer. Are you helping people through your understanding and empathy to their situations, their need for connection–– or, are you adding to the barrage of noise they are inundated with?

Without empathy, you may be writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear.

Gossage

Although he was a contemporary of David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach and Leo Burnett, he is not nearly as famous, which is tragic.

Howard Luck Gossage was an adman who practiced his craft in San Francisco in the Mad Men era, but he was no Don Draper. In fact, he threw rocks at his industry and said things like, “Advertising is a multi-million dollar sledgehammer driving a 49-cent, economy-size thumbtack” and “To explain responsibility to advertising men is like trying to convince an eight-year-old that sexual intercourse is more fun than a chocolate ice cream cone” and “I long for the day when advertising will become a business for a grown man.”

He became known as “The Socrates of San Francisco”.

Gossage was a philosopher king and patron saint of bay area advertising creatives. Jeff Goodby, Rich Silverstein and Andy Berlin were Gossage disciples who paid tribute to their hero when they launched Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein in 1982 with an ad proclaiming, “Introducing a new ad agency founded by a guy who died 14 years ago.” They had Howard’s picture in their lobby for inspiration. Jeff Goodby said, “The best of Gossage is the best advertising ever done.” No argument here.

Although Gossage’s own agency existed for only twelve years and never grew to more than thirteen people, the work it created stands as inspiration for generations. Housed in an old firehouse in North Beach, the place became a salon for artists, freethinkers and gadflies. John Steinbeck, Ken Kesey, Marshall McLuhan, Stan Freberg, Buckminster Fuller, John Huston, Joan Rivers and Tom Wolfe were some of the regulars stopping by for lunch, cocktails and spirited conversations.

Howard Gossage did not create traditional ad campaigns. Rather, he painstakingly wrote an ad and included a way for readers to react to it. Then, he measured the results, the feedback–– and wrote the next ad.

Welcome to early interactive advertising and social media. Gossage created PR-generating campaigns, and foretold radical ideas like media buying specialists agencies and Pay-per-View. He also ignited cause-related marketing and the green movement.

I won’t geek-out more on Gossage. Suffice to say, he was an ad god and if you’re not familiar with him and his work, do yourself a favor and get to know both. Two essential books to read are “The Book of Gossage” and “Changing the World Is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man”.

So, what was the pearl of wisdom Gossage said that was the smartest marketing quote ever? This:
“Nobody reads advertising. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.”

This quote encompasses everything any marketer needs to know. You must start with an understanding and empathy for your audience, and create something that will be interesting to it (with relevance to your product or service). Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Then why is so much advertising so bad?

Babies

It’s harder and harder to make an impression these days.
“LOOK AT ME!”

We live in an ever-present culture of bombastic messaging.
“HEY, LOOK AT ME!!!”

You can’t escape it. Not in home, at work, or, sequestered in the bathroom. Someone’s always got something to say, and they’re going to say it.
“WOULD YOU LOOK AT ME ALREADY?!!!”

Because it’s so hard to get attention, it’s natural for marketers to get desperate, allowing their flop sweat to fuel their insatiable desire to get noticed.
“LOOK OVER HERE, I’M NAKED!”

So, you get seduced by pranks and stunts and gimmicks to grab attention, mistaking attention for persuasion and brand-building.
“I’M NOT ONLY NAKED, I’M DANCING, TOO!!!”

Silly marketer. Attention isn’t enough. In fact, grabbing attention only for the sake of getting attention could be detrimental to your brand’s health.
“I’M NAKED, DANCING AND LIGHTING MYSELF ON FIRE. WATCH!!!!!”

Mean-spirited pranks, phony gags and stunts, shrill blasts into the pop culture abyss–– they’re all desperation in search of direction and meaning.
“OUCH, FIRE HURTS LIKE HELL–– HELP!!!!!!!!!!”

A friendly reminder: before you use your voice, use your brains.

As Bill Bernbach said: “Be provocative. But be sure your provocativeness stems from your product. You are NOT right if in your ad you stand a man on his head JUST to get attention. You ARE right if you have him on his head to show how your product keeps things from falling out of his pockets.”

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Social media’s all the rage these days, and why not? Who doesn’t like to believe people are passionate about their brand and want to “join the conversation.”

It’s like believing you’re the life of the party– who doesn’t think that (especially after a couple drinks)?

But social media isn’t a marketing panacea. Many believe it’s just a placebo.

The one thing that will ensure its demise is trying to control the conversation. Seeding the dialogue with bogus shills and glowing commentary. Once people suspect the legitimacy of rave reviews, they’ll lose trust. And that’s happening right now. You may believe Aunt Sally who tells you something about a brand at a family reunion, but what about Sally Creemcheck from Muncie who praises specific model numbers and limited time offers on the brand’s FB page?

People are too smart today, their B.S. detectors too finely-tuned thanks to our incessant blasting of promotional messaging and chest thump-ry.

We are all skeptical. Many are cynical, to boot. So naturally, we’re naturally suspicious. When people can’t or won’t trust people, look out. As more brands delude themselves that social media is the game changer, they’ll see consumers often don’t care that much–– certainly not as much as the anxious CMO will ambitious growth plans.

Don’t foolishly think modern marketing is as simple as playing the social media game. Don’t turn your brand over to consumers and let them determine your fate, or, try leading them down your primrose path of shiny propaganda and bogus praise in social channels. Don’t turn all your attention on earning likes. The value is quicksilver, marketing fool’s gold.

Social media is part of the puzzle, but it’s not the Rosetta Stone of marcom.

Listening to radio doesn't have to hurt.

Listening to radio doesn’t have to hurt.

I’ve judged many ad award shows, and judging the radio category is an experience as pleasant as slowly driving knitting needles into your ears.

Why is radio advertising so awful? Because most agencies treat it as an afterthought. The typical hierarchy of attention-paid-to-medium is as follows: TV, video, digital, print, social, flag semaphore, smoke signals, windshield flyers and finally… radio.

It comes down like this: everyone is working on the new campaign when suddenly someone says, “Hey, apparently there’s some radio in the media buy, so I guess we’ll need some spots. Quick.”

Off the assignment goes–– to the most junior writer (because the senior ones are off on shoots or in edit suites). Giving a radio job to a junior is like placing a loaded gun in a playpen. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen.

Radio is the ultimate writer’s medium; there’s no place to hide in creating theatre of the mind. Poor writing is enunciated, stupid gimmicks are amplified, and bad jokes fall on deaf ears crashing to the floor and causing fingers to dart in a frantic scramble to change channels.

But when radio is well-executed, when the concept, writing and production all work toward being interesting and entertaining, well, that’s a slice of heaven. Ear candy. A spot that entices, intrigues, entertains and commands attention and engagement.

Those spots are rare, which is a pity. Great radio is magical, it plays differently, perfectly on every listener’s stage. That’s the thing about radio, the listener is an active participant. She/he does the work of visualizing the entire spot, which is why the creation of a radio commercial is so critical.

Please, marketers, give radio spots the attention and respect they deserve. If not for your brand’s sake, then for the sake of humanity. (Or, at least, award show judges.)

We all crave that sweet, hot limelight shining on us.

L.A. used to be the butt of jokes because everyone there was perceived as being obsessed with the pursuit of fame. The narrative was that people on the left coast would do anything to grab some precious spotlight.

Now that fame culture and mindset is everywhere, with everyone. How else do you explain selfie sticks?

Today, anyone can be a star, and everyone wants to be one. Each of us is just a YouTube video away from immortality. We’re pathetic junkies looking to score some FaceBook “Likes”, broadcasting into the Twittersphere in search of amplification, posting to Pinterest and getting LinkedIn as if connections were life support systems.

We’re social media junkies, looking for that next hit of sweet, sweet social media love.

If Abraham Manslow was creating his “Hierarchy of Needs” today, he’d have to layer in a new level called “FAME” (sandwiched between love/belonging and esteem).

Each of us is a brand, and we’re all looking to build that brand. So what’s that mean for products and services trying to build their brands?

Trouble. Big, frickin’ hairy trouble.

Marketers face distracted audiences using screens as mirrors reflecting on themselves–– weary of chest-thumping transmissions from marketers interrupting valuable “me-time.” So, CMO, you’d better bring something of value. Critical, helpful information, relevant entertainment, meaningful emotional engagement. Something!

Because without taking into account the mindset of your audience and their craving for fame, you’ll never make your brand famous.

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