Digital Agency Versus Agency Born Digital

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Like everyone else I have been fascinated by the ‘agency of the future’ debate over the last few years. I now have the answer, I really do. The agency of the future is the agency “born digital”. Let me recap the debate or at least my take on it.

Is the old Ad Agency model dead or can they evolve by embracing and integrating digital? Can Digital Agencies come of age and become lead partners by offering more mature strategic planning and ideas that that integrate on and off-line? The answer is yes, no, maybe. My view has always been that as markets develop they segment to offer wider choices according who needs what, when and why (hate the word ‘needstate’). It’s a both/and world we live in. So there will be a place for specialists and full service, the digitally focused and the off-line oriented – clients will pay their money and make their choices.

That said, however, it seems clear that the conventional Ad Agencies are increasingly and more confidently offering a full service that includes digital. They are buying digital agencies, forming JV’s with them and in some cases bringing them into the heart of the business. I have been skeptical about this. It reminds me of how they used to treat media. “OK, we have about 10 minutes before lunch so here is Dan to tell you about the media plan”. They never really got or valued media, it was an after-thought. Same with digital. “OK, having shown you how the idea will work in press and TV it’s over to the geeky guy in the T-shirt who will tell you about some ideas we’ve had for the web site and a phone app”.

I don’t beleive that Ad Agencies really understand how digital people work and what creativity means to them. Digital people start with technology and data, this is as much (probably more) an inspiration to them as some flaky consumer insight gleaned from an equally flaky focus group. They need to be included at the formation of creative strategies. They don’t just consider ROI, they use it to optimize their implementation in real time. I could go on (and have in this short eBook) but the fact is their brains are wired differently. I can’t see how they can easily be integrated into a conventional Ad Agency team and Ad Agency approach.

Digital agencies for their part are beefing up their strategic offer by using digitally but also brand savvy people. That seems much less of a stretch. They are increasingly recognizing that the best digital campaigns work hand in hand with off-line activity, feeds off it in fact. Simple example – digital campaigns and assets (e.g. your web site) need content and that very often comes from the brand events (check out the Smirnoff Web site for and example of this). Digital agencies partnering with people with off-line skills seems an easier task for the simple reason that ego does not get in the way in the way it does with the Ad Agency. I may be a bit biased here but my experience of digital people is that they are more natural team players. I think there are two reasons for this. Firstly, technology is such that nobody has all the experts so you have to work with other specialist at some point. Secondly, digital people respect data and metrics. They will collaborate to get a result that can be measured.

I was confirmed in my view about the inherent ego of Ad Agency people in a conversation I had recently with the head of really successful Ad Agency. I really respect this person and the agency but was interested when they told me about the new JV they were forming with digital “partners”. There was no doubt they saw them as junior partners, it was clear in the body language. “We know that increasingly this is what client’s want so we will make sure we are the ones that can give it to them”. They did not include the new partners in the ‘We”. I’m not blaming the old guard in Advertising  – this is how they were raised, to believe that they are, or should be, the clients lead advisors in all matters to do with marketing. They are not team players, they are team leaders.

Anyway a fascinating debate, who knows how it will all play out, almost certainly with all colours of the rainbow being offered in terms of agency models. At least that is what I used to think. The other night I had an epiphany. I think it was started by a debate Quirk had been having about what to call themselves (in the context of all this momentum to embrace more than just digital). They used to call themselves an “eMarketing Agency” which as it happened I and the CEO quite like but everyone else felt was very 90’s thinking. No-one really liked the alternative, “Digital Agency” for the reasons outlined above – they are moving on from this. So they have settled  – as have a few others – for “agency born digital” with some nice words about technology, creativity and results.

But that got me thinking. What does ‘born digital’ mean? How would you spot the difference between a conventional agency and an agency ‘born digital”? How do you spot the difference between me and someone much younger than me who was ‘born digital’. In the case of the agencies is it all the stuff I have been banging on about, in the case of people is it obvious things like age or habits? Well yes, but that’s not the real point

And then it hit me with blinding clarity. A conventional Ad Agency is founded on, and obsessed by, paid-for media with TV at its heart. An agency born digital is founded on and obsessed by earned media with social media at its heart.

The difference between me and my kids is that I grapple and play with social media, they live their lives through social media (and gaming in a social context).

Then it struck me that this fits with where brands are going. Advertising used to be called ‘truth well told’ and I have heard people like Dan Wieden talk about how great brands that have a great story to tell. Marketing is about writing and telling that story. But in today’s noisy media rich world, you don’t just tell the story, the brand must live it and in so doing it creates word of mouth that is amplified to global proportions (sometimes) through social media. In other words brands earn their media through what they do not just what they tell you.

The agency of the future will be agencies that are born digital and that value earned media over paid for media. Or as the guy from the Geek Squad says “Advertising is the tax you pay for having an unremarkable brand” i.e. a brand people want to make remarks about in social media.

Duchy Originals – A License to Print Money Unless Your Mum Already Does

HRH Prince Charles started Duchy Originals, a range of wholesome organic products, as a way of generating funds for his charity, The Prince’s Trust. The charity supports disadvantaged young entrepreneurs and is a really worthy cause. Britain needs entrepreneurs and the Trust provides seed capital and mentorship to kids who, having grown up on the wrong side of the track, would otherwise never be given a chance. It gets corporate and private sponsorship but the Prince thought it would be a good idea to create an annuity income from one of his entrepreneurial ideas.

Charles has always been convinced that original is better and environmentally friendly is essential. He prefers old style architecture and any ‘back to nature’ way of producing food. Since he feels he represents British values at their best (so I was once told by someone in his entourage) he believes that deep down we all want to be like him. So when, on his Highgrove Estate,  he came across a nice biscuit made with organic ingredients to an old fashioned recipe or bacon from free range organic pigs he reckoned, given the chance, we’d all like to pay a premium for these foods. He founded Duchy Originals – or at least he had some of his people do it – and launched a range of products the best of which, in my opinion, were the biscuits and the bacon.

He put some professional managers in charge and for a while it did OK – it got to 4 million plus turnover at its best and the charity received some annual dividends. Charles was known to boast playfully that he was “a self-made millionaire” on the back of the success of his business start up. So far so good.

I met people who worked at Duchy Originals and while they tried to be discrete it was pretty clear that the business significantly under-performed because, allegedly, HRH could not stop meddling and forced on them whatever latest crackpot idea he had come up with. If he happened upon some tasty Lemon Curd or sturdy Garden Sheds, he insisted these be added to the range irrespective of whatever carefully laid business plan they were working to. Worse still he also foisted on them whichever business or marketing expert he happened to meet who showed any interest in Duchy Originals (which you would, wouldn’t you, if you met HRH and were trying to make conversation).

Nevertheless, some might say that he deserves full credit for founding the charity and having the gumption to start a business that he believed in, and that would provide some extra funds. Yes, but…… What Duchy Originals is, in effect, is a commercial application of the Royal Warrant, the special seal of approval the Queen bestows on any product she uses personally. The Royal Warrant is strictly non-commercial – if the Queen happens to patronize your brand of Waxed Shooting Jacket or Umbrella or biscuit you can apply for a Royal Warrant. If it is awarded you may feature this in your advertising or on your product but there are strict rules as to how this is done and no money changes hands. You only have to look at what the Duchess of York pocketed for her full blown endorsement of Weight Watchers (genius move on their part by the way) to see how much the Royal Warrant could be worth if you could really exploit it. Ditto Duchy Originals. How much money could you make – especially in the USA and Asia – if you could launch a company with a range of products under the HRH Prince Charles Brand? Hundreds of millions, billions even if it was well managed.

How high did HRH drive the revenues– 4 million quid at best, and this slumped last year to half that and a loss of 3.3 million pounds. So he has licensed Duchy Original to Waitrose – the upmarket grocery store that are the most enthusiastic stockists of the Duchy range – in return for a guaranteed donation to the trust of 1 million per year. Waitrose will do well with Duchy Originals and one assumes at last it will get the less fettered professional management and development of the brand it deserves, but one can’t help feeling Duchy Originals could have been a license to print money for a very worthy charity.
Mind you, if you are the heir to the throne that does print the money there are probably easier and ways to generate extra funds for the Prince’s Trust than selling biscuits one happens to enjoy with one’s tea.

God Bless him, Prince Charles is the best weapon we British republicans have.

Only Old Guys Care About Privacy

David Rowan is the editor of Wired UK and he recently wrote about why he is not active on facebook. This interested me. I’m much older than David – who admits to being the wrong side of 30 yrs while I try not to admit to being the wrong side of 50. I, too, am very inactive on facebook. It’s partly a brand thing – feels more relevant to my kids than me – but I confess to a certain unease about sharing too much stuff on a social site motivated by profit.

David Rowan is much more explicit about his worries. Apart from the general point that sites like facebook are not motivated by your self – interest he goes on to list several other concerns. Giving away too much information makes it harder to reinvent yourself (mature maybe?) in later years. Information supplied for one purpose will invariably be used for another that you did not sign up for and indeed, may be used against you – are you happy to share everything about yourself with a prospective employer? People can be selective in what they choose to republish about you to paint a less attractive picture – people like journalists. Social sites lull us into revealing more than we realize and clever search allows that to be singled out.

Facebook have a Privacy policy that runs to some 5,830 words, nearly a third longer than the US Constitution, but it amounts to “we can do what we want with what we know” apparently. If this seems alarmist on David Rowan’s part you might like to bear in mind that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been quoted as saying he believes the world would be better place if none of us had any secrets. Hard to argue with that. We would behave better if we felt every thing we ever said, did, wrote or thought was freely and readily available to all our fellow citizens. We would be good – but not for goodness sake. Not sure that’s the world I’d like to inhabit (it is of course the world you already inhabit if you believe in God and divine retribution).

Rowan wrote his piece in response to a colleague’s taunt that only old guys care about privacy. In fact the proportion of younger users of facebook who are becoming more circumspect and private in terms of their use of the site is higher than the older users. We all care about privacy, perhaps if you are older you are better able to understand why. You have more experience of the benefit that comes of mistakes you were able to keep private versus the downside of the ones sadly you were not.

I am a firm believer in Permission Marketing especially in today’s ‘Wired’ World. I think the transaction must be clear – I tell you certain things in return for you using them to my explicit benefit. I am involved in one such business and am aware of others that are being developed. I think we’ll see more and more of this. People will share information about themselves if they can see you will use it responsibly and transparently and they get something out of this. No harm in marketing to people if they want you to. I love cars and would happily share insights on what I own, what I like, what I think about cars etc. if you promise to reward me with great deals and interesting content about my particular hobby. However, I’m not sure I want you to market some diet pills to me just because I confessed to being worried about my weight on facebook to people I thought were my friends or if I uploaded some photos where I looked a bit podgy (which would be any photo of me).

Young people (and old people) read about their favourite celebs in magazines like Heat and Hello. Their facebook page is their chance for a bit of fame if they share what’s going on in their lives. They are copying what they see celebs do (or have done to them) in terms of publicity, reaching for their 15 minutes of fame.

So, I have adpated an old Cat Stevens song as a warning to young people who, in their search for internet celebrity, are not sufficiently wary of facebook:-

Oh, baby it’s a wired world,
It’s hard to get by just upon a smile.
Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wired world
I’ll always remember you just like a child, girl.

At least I will if you are not careful about the photos you upload to facebook.

Is the Internet Changing our Brains?

I have been involved in a debate about whether the internet has changed marketing. It began in an exchange between myself and Paul Feldwick in Market Leader, the UK Marketing Society’s journal, and then moved on-line. There have been, as we hoped, some great contributions, including one from Elen Lewis who referenced an article in The Guardian that features several very eminent scientists (and a novelist) debating whether and how the internet has changed our very brains. I was interested in this since a big part of my argument that marketing has fundamentally changed as a result of the internet is based on the fact that society and people have changed. To be able to show that our brains have changed is therefore a killer point.

The article is worth reading in its entirety and being given some quiet consideration rather than surfing this short post to get the gist – you will realize the relevance/irony of this recommendation if you do. However, if, as a child of the internet, it is gist you want then here it is. Yes the internet is changing our brains. Some argue that it is for the worse, some argue it is just different with pro’s and cons, others argue it is our choice whether or not we allow it to change our brains (reading more books would help us retain our intellectual reasoning apparently).

For me the most interesting comment in the Guardian piece comes from Ed Bullmore, Cambridge Professor of Psychiatry no less. He argues that the internet resembles a human brain and how it works and therefore we can learn a lot about how we think by studying it. He calls the internet “a prosthesis of our collective memory” that’s an artificial brain to you and me. I know extrapolation is a dangerous thing but it has struck me before that if, at some point in the near future (near being imminent in evolutionary terms) everything that has ever been written and conceived, everyone one of us, every artifact and idea is digitally coded and available on the internet, and if every person on the planet is uploading their thoughts and conversations in real time, and if there are search engines and social networks able to allow each and everyone of us to access and connect all of these things again in real time, that is in effect one global brain is it not? This sounds a bit far fetched I agree. So do the views of Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. Far from being shame-faced that community information has leaked out he believes that everything should be transparent and publically available. He thinks – this is really crazy – that the world would be a better place, we would all behave better, if there were no secrets, if we were all honest with each other. Actually there must be a flaw in this argument since I have only one brain and I’m not honest with myself.

Anyway, the fact is that the big brains agree the internet is changing our brains and how they function as well as how we interact in our global cyber society. I think that means marketing must be changed fundamentally since at its heart it is about influencing how people think, behave and choose, individually and collectively, to the commercial benefit of a business. In fact I’d say that was game, set and match Paul! I’d now like to move on to a debate about the cult of celebrity and its role in our slide into destructive global decadence (aka Paris Hilton will be the death of all of us).

Any takers?

Risky Business

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Risk management has become a bit of a hobby-horse for me. It’s part of corporate governance for UK Plc’s and US corporates. I was exposed to it first when I was on the board of Tempus Plc and then again at SABMiller Plc. It’s fair to say that like a lot of corporate governance, company directors regard Risk Management as at best a necessary chore and at worst a pointless exercise. Business is at its heart a risk/benefit decision process and well-run businesses would claim that their normal management processes take care of risk assessment. Every time Risk Management came on the agenda at SABMiller, my old boss, Graham Mackay, would, with some irritation, point out that the origins of Risk Management lay with governance for banks and their particular needs rather than manufacturing businesses like ours. He had a point and to be fair SABMiller is an extremely well run business.

However, always the contrarian, I really enjoyed Risk Management (I was on the RM committee at Tempus and had to oversee its implementation for the marketing function at SABMiller). The arguments made sense to me:-

When businesses suffer serious calamity people with hindsight always say the risk could have been forseen. They are right more often than not. In fact, more often than not someone in the organization or a disaffected former employee claims they wrote a memo about it.

An exercise where you take a hard look at what could go wrong and then discuss ways of either avoiding, mitigating or insuring against it, is a fundamentally very strategic exercise. Of course you see risks but you can also see opportunities. At the very least you get fresh insight.

There are various ways to approach RM (good old Wiki lays them out) but it is essentially fairly straightforward. An experienced and accountable group of people look at all the potential risks for all aspects of the business and draw up a list. They then catagorize the list into how likely they are to happen (high, medium, low probability) and how serious the effect would be if they did (high, medium, low impact). This then gives a matrix and of course you start with the highest probability/highest impact and work your way through them. Can they be avoided by improved management processes and/or better monitoring? Can they be insured against? Is further work or more fundamental change required? Logical stuff.

The point is, the risk is brought out into the open – what is the worst that can happen, how likely is it, what can we do about it? It’s impossible to do this without getting some great insights about the business and identifying some sensible actions to manage the risk.

The reason I am so obsessed by this subject is that for me it lies at the heart of what triggered the Recession i.e. the failure of the banking system (ironic that isn’t it?). It is also the solution, for me, as to what we should do to prevent a future reoccurrence of the systemic failings in the financial institutions, and a preferable one to lots more regulation and red tape.

Surely if Risk Management had been effective – that is to say applied with conviction and purpose – at Lehman Brothers (and the rest of the banks) they would have realized that they were massively exposed if house prices turned down? Does anyone now believe that Risk Management (forget the ethical questions just focus on the good business sense argument) was alive and well under Lord Browne at BP?

We don’t need loads more legislation. We have Risk Management – we just need to ensure that it is taken entirely seriously. And whom do we rely on to do that? Non-Executive Directors, that’s who. There has been a lot of whinging and whining among that elite group NED’s on the boards of the big corporates. They complain that they carry so much accountability and responsibility for very little by way of reward as a result of all this pesky governance. How can they be held accountable, they have to rely on what the executive board tell them about a business they get involved with only 6 or 8 times a year? Bullshit.

A well chosen, vetted and experienced Non-Exec should know enough to be able to ask the tough questions and should be relied upon to see that protocols like Risk Management are taken seriously. Are you telling me an experienced banker could not have asked a few probing questions about toxic debt and the impact of a downturn in house prices (especially given how deep Lehman and others were into it)? Are you telling me an experienced oil man could not have spotted the shortcuts that BP were taking and the risk they were exposing themselves, their shareholders (which includes a lot of pensioners) and all of us to? I’m bloody sure I can in marketing which is my chosen area.

We do not need to change much. Keep the governance and regulation we have, just make sure it is applied vigorously and hold the NED’s to account if it is not. The one change I’d make is to have a potential Non-Exec vetted and approved by an independent authority. And I don’t buy the argument that any of this will put the good Non-Execs off joining a board. It is very prestigious, very interesting and already well paid. They get circa $50 -100,000 to attend 6-8 board meetings a year (and read the papers and take an active interest in the business). This fee could be increased – surely it’s worth it – but in my view that is not the issue or the barrier to having good non-execs. Breaking up the cosy club of senior businessmen and well connected retirees and opening it up to better qualified people is the issue. No names, no pack drill but I have met some truly ineffectual and disengaged Non-Execs in my time.

Business is risky and the impact of corporate calamities affects all of us. It can be made much less risky and no less profitable with a bit of common sense.

Post Script

For those interested in the application of risk management thinking specifically to marketing you might like to read ‘Brand Risk’ by David Abrahams. You’ll see some contribution from yours truly but despite this, it is an interesting book from a smart author.

At least I think it is but then Risk Management is a hobby-horse of mine.