New Razorfish report discusses how marketers have responded to the recession

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Today my employer Razorfish announces the publication of the sixth annual Razorfish Outlook Report. This report takes a hard look at trends affecting the chief marketing officer, drawing on essays from thought leaders and an analysis of 2009 media spend by Razorfish clients. Here are a few highlights from the 2010 edition (#RZOR):

1. Good news/bad news: economic recovery is here

An economic recovery is under way — which is good news or bad news depending on whether you innovated during the recession. Optimism about a recovery stems from the fact that Razorfish clients increased their media spend by 4 percent in 2009 versus a 13 percent drop in 2008. We believe that the CMOs who used the down time to innovate and advance their brands are in a great place. Those that failed to do so are going to fall further behind the innovators. MillerCoors innovated during the recession, for instance with a new product feature, the cold-activated can. Mercedes-Benz USA innovated with the launch of the E-Class sedan. Those companies are poised to fully benefit from an economic turnaround.

2. Recession = digital experimentation for many

Razorfish clients had an appetite for experimentation with their media spend in 2009. One hundred percent of Razorfish clients that spent on digital-out-of-home did so for the first time in 2009. Eight out of 10 clients who invested into ad exchanges were doing so for the first time (as opposed to simply carrying over their spend from 2008). All told, the channels that were most popular for experimentation in 2009 included data brokers, digital out-of-home, and ad exchanges.

3. Watch out, Google

Google still dominated search in a recessionary environment, but not for long. About 45 percent of Razorfish clients’ media spend in 2009 was invested into portals and search. Google still leads the search category. However, Razorfish expects the combination of Microsoft Bing and Yahoo! to challenge Google’s dominance. Bing is a good example of how innovation can occur even with a tried-and-true form of marketing — search.

4. Think and act locally

Many clients are also learning how to think and act locally as they emerge from the recession and seek to grow globally. The popular credo “think globally, act locally,” does not adequately explain what those marketers need to do. In fact, global marketers need to immerse themselves in the increasingly sophisticated and fragmented micromarkets around the world — thinking and acting locally several times over if you will. That’s why the Razorfish Outlook Report contains perspectives on the growth of global markets (in a chapter known as “Looking Ahead”). For instance, Razorfish Strategy Executive Joe Crump contributes a tantalizing point of view on Brazil, an increasingly powerful and digitally savvy market crucial to global players like Nike. Joe discusses “Classe C,” an increasingly upwardly mobile economic cluster of 70 million people who are shaping the future of Brazil. Joe asserts that the digitally savvy Classe C has rapidly made Brazil too important for any serious marketer to ignore. Joe is now launching research into Classe C that will be unveiled later in 2010.

I invite you to explore the report, and feel free to download charts and graphics from flicker. I welcome your comments. What I’ve summarized here barely scratches the surface.

Would “Exile on Main St.” have survived Twitter?

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The build-up to the May 18 re-release of Exile on Main St. has been nothing short of astonishing especially for an album that received mixed reviews on its release in 1972. Jimmy Fallon hosted Rolling Stones Week culminating in the premier of a new documentary about the band, Stones in Exile (coming to DVD in June). Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair were among the publications devoting heavy coverage that amounted to the re-christening of what is now remembered as one of the greatest albums in rock.

In truth, Exile on Main St. was an acquired taste on its initial release– a sprawling, messy album that took some time to understand and appreciate, which helps explains why it took years for the rest of the world to catch up to it. As Mick Jagger said recently to a typically cranky Greg Kot, “What’s interesting about it is that it has so many sides to it, so many different musical styles, very bluesy, and it has soul, gospel, and the other quirky little bits that perhaps you wouldn’t have put on a record with only 12 songs . . . Which perhaps explain why it wasn’t immediately reviewed as stunningly wonderful. But after a while, people get to appreciate the breadth of it.”

Which prompts me to wonder: how would Exile have fared if social media — especially Twitter — had been around in 1972? It’s not an inconsiderable question given the knee-jerk nature of Twitter and its ability to build up or derail a brand in a matter of minutes. Here’s what I think:

  • We have no reason to believe that the initial reception among the critical elite like Rolling Stone would have been any different: mixed. However, under pressure to meet harsher deadlines in the digital age, I think the reviewers would have been less thoughtful in their analysis than they were in 1972.
  • The amateurs (like me) would also have had our say. And I’m sure there would have been a good deal of meaningful insight offered. But more likely, given the polarizing nature of the album, we would have witnessed a loud, nasty argument between Stones haters and Stones loyalists with little interesting discussion of the music itself occurring. Some amateurs would have taken the time to link to reviews on Twitter and Facebook in order to open doors for more conversation. But I suspect the album would have inspired many emotional replies bereft of enlightenment. Remember, by this time, the Stones had been around 10 years and had no problem inspiring love and hatred.
  • The Stones themselves would have been oblivious to it all. By 1972, their status as celebrities had far transcended their notoriety as rock stars. The Stones had become a self-sustaining entity answerable to no one but themselves.

I say all this not to take pot shots at social media but to put its value in context. To wit:

  • There is no questioning Twitter’s value as a mechanism for broadcasting important news, curating content, and being responsive to customers, fans, etc. But Twitter leaves much to be desired as a forum for meaningful discussion — especially for anyone creating content that takes time to appreciate, whether you’re an author, speaker at an event, or musician. At events like SxSW, too often we have seen Twitter become a mechanism for mob rule and empty-headed criticism. I cannot see how any speaker should care much about initial reactions on Twitter anymore. It’s the thoughtful analysis delivered after you’ve had a chance to digest and analyze new information that matters.
  • I don’t care what the pundits say about consumers being in control. We are more empowered. But we are not in control. Some brands are just too big, too powerful, and too indifferent to care about how many Twitter followers they have. And in some instances — notably the world of art — I applaud the indifference. Artists cannot be led around the nose by fans if they are to grow. (In other cases — notably the world of commerce — we would like to be in control but are not. Do we really think the notorious “United Breaks Guitar” video is really going to turn things around at United Airlines? Think anyone at BP cares about no-names like me whining on our blogs about inconvenient oil spills?)

Where I think social media can play a major role in the world of art is bringing our attention to newer, emerging artists — musicians, authors, and the like whose options for gaining public attention are shrinking as the music and publishing industries wither away. Bringing attention to the next Exile — now that’s a role anyone can and should play.

To get creative, get “Lost”

Lost

How do creative ideas flourish? The May 14 issue of Entertainment Weekly provides one perspective through an oral history of the development of the pilot episode of Lost, as told by many of the principal players, including J.J. Abrams. Two lessons emerge for me, and I think these are relevant to anyone who creates a major deliverable, whether an event or a viral marketing campaign:

1. The right spark can ignite a creative fire. The most astonishing part of the EW article occurs when J.J. Abrams describes a seemingly minor detail that emerged from co-developer Damon Lindelof as the two brainstormed on the pilot episode: “[Lendelof] had this detail of a guy waking up and having a vodka bottle in his pocket. He was not looking at it from the point of view of the horrors of the crash. He was looking at this crazy detail as a way in, which was the greatest way ever. All of a sudden, we started riffing on characters and ideas we loved — Twlight Zone, Star Wars. And we very quickly realized that this could actually be something very cool . . .”

Notice what Abrams and Lindelof did not do. They did not ask themselves, “How can we make Lost different?” and then sketch out a plot treatment full of off-the-wall ideas. They did not second guess why a tiny detail like the image of a vodka bottle was unlocking such a powerful tidal wave of ideas. They just went with the brainwave. Similarly, one of the best cop movies ever made, Bullitt, grew from a seemingly prosaic passion for cars shared by Steve McQueen and Director Peter Yates. The “way in” — the creative spark that became a movie — was the automobile. And practically the entire song catalog of the Beatles emerged from odd, random moments in the lives of Lennon and McCartney; moments most of us would ignore — but they chased.

2. Then-ABC Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun originally conceived of Lost while on vacation in Hawaii. But the show was nothing more than a rough idea until J.J. Abrams was assigned the job of developing a script. Abrams came onboard with the caveat that he needed a creative partner — which turned out to be crucial, for the collaboration between Abrams and Damon Lindelof added the supernatural touches of mystery and narrative flashback that made Lost a success. And the collaboration between the two and the ABC brass was not a predictable story of creative hot shots versus corporate suits. In fact, Braun loved the eccentric ideas that Abrams and Lindelof produced, like the emergence of the mysterious hatch, even though (or perhaps because) they had nothing to do with his original vision for Lost. On the other hand, ABC executives resisted a proposal to have character Dr. Jack Shephard killed off halfway into the original script. And the suits were right. It’s almost impossible to conceive of Lost without him.

I have blogged about collaboration and creativity before, most recently in a post about the Eagles. Lost once again shows that with the right chemistry, a team can inspire greatness, not produce mediocre groupthink.

I am also struck by the iterative nature of creative collaboration as described in the story of Lost: develop an idea, test, improve, and keep developing. By contrast, the creative process as depicted Mad Men is like baking a delicious cake: all the ingredients are carefully nurtured in an oven leading up to the big reveal.

In the real world of advertising, the days of big reveals and prima donnas working in isolation are rapidly fading away, one of the ideas explored in the forthcoming 10th Annual Razorfish Outlook Report (from my employer Razorfish). In the essay “The Power of Small Thinking,” Razorfish Chief Strategy Officer Brandon Geary argues that CMOs and their ad agency partners need to let go of their obsession with big ideas that produce one-shot campaigns.  Especially because CMOs are under pressure to prove their value over and over in a constantly changing marketplace, a more suitable approach to creative development is a test-and-learn mindset that produces a daily infusion of ideas.

In its own way, Lost is a testament to the power of small thinking — seemingly little ideas that blossom when embraced, tested (against the demands of internal collaborators and TV audiences), and then improved upon.

Stay tuned for more about the Razorfish Outlook Report May 24.

Tornadoes are sexy beasts

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My, how the tornado has become a sexy brand.

This morning, I visited Weather.com to find out what kind of day May 10 was bringing to Chicago (always a giant question mark). I was hit smack in the face with the image of a shimmering, purple tornado and the headline Outbreak!, which invited me to watch a video forecasting severe weather occurring in the United States (complete with colorful graphics and enthusiastic reporting).

On the same website, I could also read an article predicting the likely outbreak of severe weather on May 10 across the central and southern plains — and as if to assure me that The Weather Channel really has its act together, the website proudly stated that The Weather Channel uses a “forecast product”  known as TOR:CON, which predicts the likelihood of a tornado occurring within 50 miles of a given location. And on top of that, the website invited me to visit Facebook to learn more about Severe Weather Expert Dr. Greg Forbes (wouldn’t you know — TOR:CON uses his expertise).

But Weather.com was just a mild warm-up to the May 10 print edition of Chicago Tribune (yes, I still read print). The front page masthead was mocked up to depict a dark, stormy sky, with a bold headline announcing that that  WGN chief meteorolgist Tom Skilling would be chasing “storms in tornado alley” — all week. The Page 4 jump announced that a “team of experts will travel throughout the Midwest and Plains states in an unprecedented effort to learn more about how [tornadoes] form and how they can be better predicted.” The full-page spread used those colorful graphics again (with the requisite tornado menacing the plains) to explain geeky tornado-chasing terms like the sticknet (an instrument that collects data as a storm approaches).

Tornadoes have come a long way since providing a supporting role The Wizard of Oz. They’ve run amok on YouTube, landed at major museums, run roughshod on television, and toppled book shelves, physical and virtual. On top of all that, they’ve demolished a website, too. The tornado has captured our imagination in the same way Godzilla has: with a mixture of fear, awe, and fascination. The tornado is a brand to be reckoned with, made even more formidable with the cooperation of the overlapping news reporting and entertainment industry.

No doubt the abysmal 1996 movie Twister had something to do with the ascendance of the tornado as a brand. It’s one of those movies so bad that I love watching it for laughs. Obstensibly Twister stars Bill Paxon and Helen Hunt as two storm chasers rekindling a romance (don’t ask). But the real star of this special-effects laden storm orgy is the tornado itself, which fairly bursts through the screen replete with groaning and writhing worthy of Jenna Jameson. The movie-going public made Twister the second-highest grossing movie of 1996. Universal Studios Florida would later launch an attraction, Twister . . . Ride It Out based on the movie.

For a short time during my childhood, I live in Indianapolis, where my family spent our share of days huddled in a closet waiting out severe weather (including at least one tornado). I did not need books or movies to impress upon me their ability to terrorize and bewitch with their overwhelming power. But these days, it does not matter where you live: a tornado is coming your way. And there is some value in this multi-channel experience: if you looked closely enough at the May 10 Chicago Tribune tornado spread, you could learn about the Vortex Project an undertaking created to improve tornado forecasting. So the reporting does call attention to a public service. You just have to find it through the storm of hype.

PS: how come tornadoes don’t get names like hurricanes?

Actions speak louder than words for BP & consumers

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Jeff Bezos once said famously that a brand is formed mostly by what a company does, not by what it says. If that’s the case, then the BP brand is in serious trouble — provided that consumers are going to take action, too. About 10 years go, BP repositioned its brand to stand for “Beyond Petroleum,” a sign of its commitment to making the world a better, cleaner place through a commitment to environmentally sound practices. As BP is fond of saying, “our products and services contribute to a better quality of life.”

Now let us consider the April 20 oil spill in the Golf Coast caused by the sinking of a drilling rig under the operation of BP. The spill has cost the lives of 11 crew members and created a “potentially unprecedented natural disaster” in the words of U.S. President Barack Obama. As reported by Guy Chazan in the May 3 Wall Street Journal, “The oil, still spewing from the well on the ocean floor, threatens to blacken the Louisiana shoreline and BP’s reputation.”

Now what was that about BP contributing to a better quality of life?

To be sure, BP is attempting to show it is taking action in the aftermath of the spill, as documented on the company’s website.  But we should expect nothing less than a response to a catasrophe of BP’s own making.

Now for a hard question: how much will negative fall-out from the oil spill hurt BP in the long run? Yes, there is outrage over what BP has done.  But at least in the United States, we call ourselves consumers for a good reason: we do like to consume things. Like cars. Gasoline. And all the goodies that you can buy at BP full-service stations.

Our short-term emotional response to the oil spill will compete with our long-term desire to consume — including all the things BP does to fuel our lifestyles. For consumers, actions speak louder than words, too.