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Friday, October 30, 2009

Trade-Off, Required Reading for Marketers

Last month an excellent new book was released. It should be read by everyone involved with branding, advertising, and consumer behavior. The book is entitled Trade-Off , Why Some Things Catch on and Others Don’t. It is written by Kevin Maney who often writes for Wired, The Atlantic, and Conde Nast Portfolio. The book’s publisher is Broadway.

What struck me about Trade-Off was the elegant simplicity of the premise. Maney states that with virtually all purchases there is a constant tension between Fidelity and Convenience.

Fidelity basically sums up the quality of a consumer experience. You go to a rock concert knowing that the sound will not be as good as you get on a CD at home. But you go to see the band, see the lighting, the special effects, be part of the crowd, and perhaps most importantly to be able to tell people that you were there. All that rolled up together spells fidelity.

Convenience is pretty obvious. It is how hard or easy it is to get what you want. Sometimes you go to a concert to get the entire fidelity treatment mentioned above. But, often you chose a low fidelity but high convenience experience like listening to your favorite group on a digital music player that is stuffed in your pocket. Sound quality may be a bit problematic.

With most purchases we make “a fidelity swap.” And, this swap is to Maney largely the key to business success or failure. Is the business set up for fidelity or convenience?

Other factors that play into the “swap” are:

1) The Tech Effect—you had to expect this in late 2009! Improvements in technology can improve both fidelity and convenience. Boundaries between the two are real but they are always changing.
2) The Fidelity Belly—if you are not extremely high fidelity or convenient you fall into the fidelity belly which he calls the “no man’s land of consumer experience. The tech effect is always redefining the borders of the belly so you brand may get swallowed up or become passé with the consumer if you are not careful.
3) The Fidelity Mirage—this one is dynamite. Businesses often say that they can do it but achieving both high fidelity and convenience seems to be impossible. If you try to do both you waste lots of time and even more resources and almost always fail. Starbucks expanded to the point where they often had locations on either side of a street corner. They were commonplace (and their baristas did not seem as well trained to me!) and when the economy started to tank, did you really need a $4.00 cup of coffee and an experience that no longer felt special? Familiarity truly did breed contempt and they have closed many stores and are now retrenching.

Coach built too many outlet stores and opened 94 conventional units between 2004 and 2008. Maney states that a big part of fidelity is maintaining aura and identity, and that is especially true with fashion and accessories. Convenience dissipates the aura and allure. Coach has lowered prices, closed locations and appears to be clawing back but they must never again become the McDonald’s of luxury.

Amazingly, even Wal-Mart tried to do both. Remember when they went in to New York City a few years back? That was a complete departure from their heritage. Wal-Mart grew by being the one stop shopping place for people in rural areas. They never entered major cities until they had surrounded them by working far outside and then gingerly stepping in to suburbs. Their empire was built on letting rural people go to one store instead of a dozen.In New York, shops abound and they are close to one another. After they closed New York, they amazingly shot themselves in the foot again by stocking higher priced and more fashionable clothes than ever before. I remember seeing TNS Media Intelligence reports stating that they were advertising in Vogue! At lunch that same day, I stopped at a newsstand and cracked up when I saw their ad was actually there. They were trying for both fidelity and convenience. Wal-Mart wanted aura it seemed and had abandoned its roots. The campaign flopped and they killed the better clothing and came back with “Save money. Live better.” As the economy sank, they rose as everyday low pricing reigned supreme again.

4) Super fidelity or Super convenience—Maney does not hedge; this is the province of winners. Most products that are hits fall at either end of the spectrum thus avoiding the dreaded fidelity belly. Apple put the i-phone at the top of the fidelity axis and they conquered despite a high price and limited geographic availability. Wal-Mart is back on top in retailing by returning to being the high convenience winner making shopping for basics cheaper than anywhere else. So Wal-Mart has poor fidelity and the i-phone is not very convenient to buy. But would you want to own either franchise? Of course!

Another example is from our industry. NFL Football with spectacular production values is the highest fidelity program in sports television. ESPN (sans MNF and college basketball) provides convenience in sports. There is always something in sports to watch on their networks.

This is only the tip of the iceberg but what struck me is that Maney has put his finger on something very important. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen companies harm or destroy their franchise because they fell for Maney’s Fidelity Mirage. You cannot be all things to all people. Yet, people believe they can. This approach is an excellent filter to use to help with positioning, expansion and pricing issues.

Get your boss to read Trade-Off, your creative heads as well, and especially the account planners!

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Monday, October 26, 2009

Hug Your Traffic Person!

Over the last month or so, something unusual happened. I frequently get suggestions from readers regarding topics for future posts. But, this time three people who I cannot imagine know each other and who live in different parts of the U.S., all suggested that I write about traffic managers at TV and radio stations, and cable interconnects. The more that I thought about it, the more I thought a story was there. And, when I put the topic out to some of my panel members, the response was amazing. Several had, unbeknownst to me, started out in traffic and had some strong opinions.

The core issue from all three who requested a post was that the traffic function is vital for all forms of TV and radio. It is a thankless job, low paid, and the only time anyone gets any recognition is when something does not air properly and the finger pointing goes right to the hapless traffic person or team.

My panel members had a lot to say and here are comments from three of them:

“….I agree wholeheartedly on the value of a good traffic person. Especially here in cableville, they are more important than ever and their roles increasingly complex. When I did it (20 years ago), the goal was simply to accommodate the spots sold. When we were tight, there was stress; but other times the job was a breeze.”

“Today, the stress is compounded tenfold by the sheer volume of inventory being juggled. Computers do aid the process but no traffic system is intuitive enough to deal with all the asterisks we place on each buy. This guy is an annual. That one paid a premium. Another buys volume. A fourth is a make good spot from last week. This one we owe rating points.”

“And this could be happening on 50+ networks, across 5/10/25 cable zones. It is the real world incarnation of the plate-spinner from the old Ed Sullivan show.”

Everyone commented that salespeople think that their job has concluded when the order is written. Another cable exec expounded on that by saying “I think that cable still has somewhat of a do whatever you can to get the business mentality. This often times leaves the traffic department to deal with all kinds of added value issues and special requests. I think that the other factor that comes into play is that cable is still not always easy for agencies to purchase. When they do, there are often times many hoops to jump through to make the billing work. This usually becomes a traffic nightmare.”

A local broadcaster writes “traffic is a dumping ground. We totally rely on them and rarely say thank you. If I send candy or flowers to the traffic people after a particularly stressful stint, my colleagues laugh and say why bother? My manager never includes them in group luncheons or gives them tickets to concerts or ballgames which some of them would dearly love. I do what I can personally but the message from on high is that they are expendable. It is so sad.”
Over the years, I visited hundreds of TV stations. Only about 10% would take me down to the basement to meet the traffic folks. They were all pleasant and lit up like Christmas trees if you expressed any appreciation. One manager told a lady that I knew a lot about baseball cards. She told me that she had been trying for years to get a card for her father’s hero, a journeyman who was not Hall of Fame material. When I got back home, I went to a card shop and for the princely sum of 35 cents, picked up three Topps cards of the player in question and mailed them to the Midwestern traffic lady. You would think that I had sent her bars of gold bullion. Our service from then on was extraordinary. I did not do anything of note but show her a mild kindness.

When creative was late, I would sent flowers to the traffic person who had to stay late due to our lack of professionalism. And, sometimes that generousity had enormous consequences. Back in the 1980’s, my agency was a serious player in the arcane world of regional network television. We often aired different copy in different regions and sometimes cut in a different commercial in several markets over the national spot. It required a lot of detail and perfect execution at the network end. At the end of a negotiation in New York, I asked if I could go downstairs and meet the cut-in crew. The salesman looked at me as if I were insane but the sales director smiled and nodded and personally escorted me to the technical area and introduced me to the team. I simply thanked them for their help and the youngest, Lou, asked what accounts that I handled.
When I told him that one of them was Klondike ice cream bars, his eyes lit up and he told me that he loved them. Reaching in to my briefcase, I gave each member a coupon good for a free six serving package of Klondikes. Sounds hokey, but remember all they received from clients was complaints.

A week later prior to a fall holiday weekend, I was trying to finish up some work at 6:25 pm so I would not have to come in over the weekend. The phone rang. It was young Lou from the cut-in crew. “Don, we must be the last two people working in broadcast in America”. I laughed and had to agree. Lou went on, “copy did not arrive for our Northeast advertiser in Monday Night Football. If you can give me an isskey code (commercial number), I will put Klondike in as no charge unit.”

Clearly, I had the number and we received a commercial in 25% of the U.S. with a street value in those days of $52,500 and all because I gave the crew the smallest bit of attention. Needless to say, they got all the free ice cream bars that they could eat after that!

Traffic people deserve our consideration and respect. As we move toward more :05’s and :03’s and more cable channels, there job will get even trickier. Catch them doing something right and salespeople, please give them the direction and follow-up which they must have to do their jobs right.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Is It Really Account Planning?

In recent years, more and more advertising agencies of all sizes claimed to be account planning centered. It would be fantastic if they really were. Sadly, many still grind out some very mediocre advertising despite their claim to be totally driven by account planning.

Just what is account planning? The textbook definition goes something like this: The process of conducting research that is relevant to the client’s product or service and can be used in the development of creative strategy as well as all other aspects of an Integrated Marketing Communications campaign. The account planner’s role is to serve as the eyes and ears of the consumer and represent the consumer in every agency department.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? A few do it really, really well but for most the staffers dubbed account planners are really just window dressing for the clients.

When the account planning boom-let got started a number of years ago, I and dozens of other veterans at many shops immediately became suspicious. It always seemed that an account person or maybe a market researcher would attend a seminar for three days and come back full of enthusiasm about what they learned. Then, within 30 days his or her business card would change and the account person would instantly morph into an account planner. It impressed prospects at new business meetings but never really took hold back at the office. The creatives still did a lot of what they wanted and media people at many agencies were not let in to the process until very late.

In my career, I have only had relationships with two people who were extraordinary account planners and I never formally worked in the same company with either. One was a burnt out creative who sadly was really a hack by the time account planning came into vogue. He managed to reinvent himself as an account planner. Garrulous, enthusiastic, he devoured the trade press and all that was going on in marketing and consumer behavior. While his days as a creative executive had passed him by, he wrote the best creative briefs that I have ever seen. When the creative team got their marching orders from him, they were well armed for the assignment. I was pulled in for media counsel as an outsider and was always stunned at how current he was with evolving new media, especially online, and began to look forward to his endless questions. His enthusiasm was contagious and what little I contributed to the entire process was enhanced by his zeal and constant encouragement to keep reaching for more.

The other was a Brit who learned it in London where account planning was formalized. She was a renaissance woman; she did not know a little about everything, she knew a lot about everything. An omnivorous reader, she started every phone call with “what have you been reading lately.” Within 3-4 days, I would get an e-mail with a critique of the book in question. We did not always agree but she lived and breathed the game 24/7 and always was bursting with ideas. Unfortunately, I never worked with her but she had me on her “panel” or kitchen cabinet and I loved it when caller ID told me that she was reaching out once more.

Recently, I got in touch with a former colleague who is still at it after several decades. He runs a highly successful business far outside of New York and, looking at his reel, it is obvious that authentic account planning is taking place even on accounts with very modest budgets. Interestingly, he made the trek to London a long time ago and did NOT spend a long weekend there and then call himself a planner. He studied it closely, saw the flaws, and saw through the British pomposity that hid what was truly going on.

To quote him we find that “account planners are qualitative researchers, quantitative researchers, media sensitive, and sales message understanding. They weigh in on media weights, schedule timing, word selection and parsing, color themes, the entire process. A good account planner is a student of the game, a diplomat, and his/her greatest strength is pure curiosity and the endless use of the word WHY.”

His breaking of the code was that account planning often came down to dramatically improving internal communications. I could not agree more. It always stunned me when a CEO would talk about how valuable an account planner was to a prospective client. If they meant that account planning can help all clients because the agency is run better, okay. To me, they were really more valuable internally to keep the creatives in line and on track and get media involved early in the project. They pushed both disciplines to explore new options in recent years and they never forgot what the consumer had said to them. To hell with how fun a spot a young writer wanted to do would be or how it would look on her reel. They fought to do what was right.

My old colleague says that account planning is much more than a title; it is a culture that has to come from the very top. “Every ad has a strategy that consumers can understand. Management has to make it easy for all to sit around and get rejected or congratulated as a team.” Some small shops have done account planning almost by default because communication is generally far better than in larger agencies. Mid-sized shops can go either way but can implement it if the CEO empowers the planner(s) and gets involved personally as well.

How do you spot a psuedo-planner? Here is one test that I use and it has been foolproof so far. When someone tells me that they are an account planner, I ask who they think is the best consumer behavior guru among Martin Lindstrom, Paco Underhill, or Rob Walker? Amazingly, some planners at large shops say that they have never heard of any of them. The odds are good they took the three day course. Also, get suspicious if they just want to talk about Malcolm Gladwell. Everyone reads Gladwell and he is really in another genre. If they start to argue about which of the three guys mentioned above (my gurus for 2009-2010) is strongest, you at least have someone who reads widely and is trying to stay current.

If you run an agency, where can you turn for account planners? Here is an offbeat idea. Go to a large shop and try to raid a bright young media researcher. Today, the good ones have one foot in conventional media and one foot in new media. Usually, they are translating all the new terms for everyone and the boss doesn’t want the Google reps to meet them for fear of losing them. If they are personable, have a reasonably good feel for creative and are not too meek, you may have the makings of a really good account planner.

The process of account planning is happily here to stay. Just make sure that you get the real thing when you hire an agency.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com