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Online ads are brilliant

Now is the time for all brands to rethink the point and use of online display ads.

I’ve seen two opinion pieces recently about online display advertising, Jonathan Briggs’ piece asking whether online ads are outdated and James Erskine asking why brands persist with banners and MPUs. Both arguments are interesting but are based on clickthrough rates, failing to include data on brand metrics, engagement and offline, as well as online, sales.

Brand metrics, engagement and offline sales

Clickthrough is a useful stat, god knows how addicted I am to monitoring clicks. I love clicks. The problem with clickthrough though, is that it only tells a tiny, tiny part of the story. If I were a brand like Nestle or Cadbury running a campaign to sell chocolate bars and no one clicked on my online display ad – not a dickie bird – but I’d spent £200k on 60 million online display impressions, resulting in people knowing the bar was on sale, were x% more tempted to try it and a week later 2 million people did buy it, would I not be happy? I’d be over the bloody moon!

In fact, Cadbury have gone on record to say that they can make £3 for every £1 spent online. There are thousands of other case studies that prove online advertising’s effectiveness. Burberry is one that saw its revenue jump by 18% on the back of an online campaign.

Now is the time to rethink online display

It’s 2011 and online ads are a billion miles away from what they were in the past. They can carry high quality imagery, animation, video, interactivity like games and forms, and yes, you can click on them. What I would suggest, however, is that you approach them as if you are buying content space on another site.

I believe online ads’ biggest strength is in delivering a brand message. If you want purely direct response, perhaps email, search, affiliate and lead generation are some better options. However, online display ads are brilliant at delivering this too if you plan correctly. The best direct response ads I’ve seen online include all of the response mechanisms in the ad without the need to go to another site, like the O2 ad I showed on this blog a couple of years ago (on the right).

Please, please, please let’s all, as an industry, make this the year that we stop questioning online ads’ effectiveness based solely on clickthrough.

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In the thirty years before 1933, Germany won the Nobel Prize 33 times.
The USA only won it 6 times.
But then something changed.
Because, in the next thirty years, Germany only won the Nobel Prize 8 times.
And the USA won it 52 times.
So what happened in 1933?
Adolf Hitler came to power.
He passed a law that only people of pure Aryan race could hold public office.
This meant that 3,000 Jewish professors were dismissed from German universities.
That was 20% of the entire teaching staff.
Mathematicians, physicists, chemists, biologists, all the professors.
Not dismissed for incompetence, dismissed for their race.
Nothing to do with their work.
Hitler wasn’t concerned with their work.
He only wanted Aryan professors teaching German students.
So all those Jewish scientists left Germany for the USA.
Among them were Einstein, Schrodinger, Haber, Teller, and Fermi.
Also two of the most influential in starting the Atomic Bomb project:
Frisch and Peierls.
Luckily for the world, Hitler wasn’t interested in their work.
He was judging something else.
Obviously, what he did was stupid.
But we’re all guilty of that sometimes.
Judging factors other than the quality of the work.
Take the agency pitch situation.
Often clients make a decision based on liking the people.
Or the agency’s location, or the decoration, or the ‘vibe’.
Almost everything except the work.
Personally, I’m a simple person.
I judge something for what it does.
How much I like it, depends on how well it does what it does.
There’s an old saying about advertising.
“No one wants a nail. They want a picture hung on the wall.”
That’s how I am.
All I want is a solution, not a friend.
If I’m ill, I want the doctor who can cure me the quickest.
Not the one with the best bedside manner.
If my car’s broken I want the garage that can fix it fastest.
Not the one that remembers my birthday.
Most pitches occur because the client’s got a problem.
Usually their advertising isn’t working.
So they’ve been told by their boss to get the advertising fixed, quick.
The client knows their job depends on getting the answer right.
So they’re worried.
They’ve got to look at a lot of agencies and spend millions of pounds on a solution that could determine their career.
At this point, I wouldn’t be thinking about who I liked.
I’d be thinking about who I could depend on not to let me down.
That means I’d be looking at the work.
Not at how much they smiled, or how attractive they were, or how stylish, or how trendy, or how charming.
If the advertising doesn’t work none of that matters.
So IMHO, you judge everything on the work.
Luckily for us Hitler didn’t do that.
He depended on people he liked, and that wasn’t enough.
In truth everyone, even consumers, knows that isn’t enough.
Years ago in New York, Chase Manhattan Bank spent a lot of money on an ad campaign.
It showed people shaking hands with the smiley bank staff, waving, and hugging each other.
And throughout, happy music was playing.
At the end came the strapline “You’ve got a friend at Chase Manhattan”.
Shortly afterwards, their competitor, Bankers Trust, ran a different sort of ad.
Their bank manager talks to camera.
He says “If you need a loan, or a better rate of interest, or any serious financial advice, come and see us.
If anyone can help you, we can.
Remember, if you want a friend, get a dog.
You’ll find a banker at Bankers Trust.”

It made Chase Manhattan look so ridiculous that, shortly afterwards, they had to stop running their campaign.

Big money in social media- quite literally!

If the buzz across the social sphere is to be believed, Facebook and Google executives have entered initial acquisition talks with Twitter, estimating the value of the microblogging site upwards of £10 billion. Combine this with LinkedIn’s recent IPO announcement and we have proof beyond Facebook that there is big money in social media – quite literally.

We all know that a sustainable business model must turn a profit, or at the very least, cover cost. Is it any surprise therefore that, as a company currently haemorrhaging cash, Twitter has entered into such talks? However, how does one value a company with little to no turnover? Is the value in the quality of its user data, on its suggested monetisation ‘potential’, or is it simply that Google doesn’t want Facebook to have it and vice versa?

With such a remarkably different culture to Twitter, could an acquisition of the platform by either of these two internet giants allow it to sustain its high-pace of continued evolution in light of a demanding commercial focus?

The answer is found in the post-investment success of Facebook, achieved in large part by its ability to maintain its core focus as a social platform. Yes, the network displays advertising to monetise the site, but in such a way that does not take away from the user experience, from the social experience and essentially the core function of the site in allowing users to ‘connect and share with the people in your life’.

Whilst there will be an obvious pressure to monetise its offering, this consistency of focus will be the ‘do-or-die’ approach if Twitter is to maintain its prominence in the social sphere.”

When brands become broadcasters

Debenhams TV

On 10th January, Britney Spears’ latest single, Hold It Against Me, premiered on iTunes and other online mp3 shops to buy before it was played anywhere. Interestingly, Britney’s single instantly went to number one in the US without any prior airing on radio or online. It was the brand, hype and immediate praise on social media that sent it to the top.

This is one example of a growing trend where brands understand how online turns them into extremely capable broadcasters in their own right, able to significantly build brand themselves alongside paid-for activity.

Using your online presence for brand building broadcast

Britney Spears and retailer Debenhams share one thing in common: they both have a massive audience already. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people visit both of these brands’ sites, sign-up to email newsletters and engage with their social network presence each month. In reality, brands have always been broadcasters because of newsletters and websites, even using high street window displays. However, the last 12 months have seen brands turn a corner because of social media and online video use.

An online presence will rarely exist in isolation from other media and paid-for advertising, but what Britney Spears has learnt is that by placing online at the centre of an integrated marketing campaign, it’s possible to use your own audience for brand marketing. Clearly Debenhams understands this too. It recently invested in a vast amount of video content for its website (using AdjustYourSet), which can also be found on its Facebook page.

“Today is a showcase to the industry to demonstrate that Ben De Lisi [range of products] isn’t about restraint, restraint, restraint”, says De Lisi in one of the recent Debenhams videos. This is clear brand building activity on Debenhams’ own website, and one that well produced online video is brilliant at delivering. Even SME’s are using it, like 5 Minute Angels – an in-office massage company – who’ve experienced an increase in sales enquiries since adding a brand building video to their site.

Can your brand become a better broadcaster?

Online offers a suite of marketing tools, and a brand’s own online presence is one of them. In 2011, due to the growing use of social media and online video, we’re witnessing an adjustment of use of the brand online presence.

As a result, brands like Whiskas, Marks & Spencer and Lady Gaga have successfully turned their own online presence into a broadcast channel. Yours can too, but to act like a broadcaster you also have to think like one.

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I’m a Micro Medici.

I bought an album last month by David Mead, one of my favourite singer songwriters. I say bought, I spent $15 on an album that doesn’t actually exist.

You see I became a backer on the US website Kickstarter, which is a funding platform for artists, designers, filmakers, journalists and musicians. The site promised me nothing less than the chance to ‘fund and follow creativity.’

It’s an all-or-nothing approach where projects must be fully funded in a certain time or no money changes hands. Think ‘Just Giving’, only instead of your mate running the marathon, it’s your favourite artist running with an idea.

It certainly worked for me. Last December I received a short video from David Mead’s dog ‘Stan’. Stan informed me that David needed to raise $20,000 to make his next album and would I support him via the Kickstarter site. Well if Kanye West needed $3 million to make his album, 20 grand seemed like a bargain.

Exploring the site was like being a kid in a David Mead sweet shop. For $15 I got the album. But by upping my sum I could be sent video footage. I could listen to demos, I could visit the studio, I could become an executive producer. Hell, he could even write and record a song especially for me.

I’m pleased to say David Mead reached his target. Recording began and for the next three weeks I received updates and demos. It’s the closest I’ll ever come to being George Martin, and the best experience I’ve had purchasing a CD.

Having said that, another professional singer songwriter I know nearly choked on his pint when I told him what I’d done. “What about artistic integrity?” he spluttered into his Hook Norton. But the arts have always been about patronage. It wasn’t just Pope Julius II and the Medicis; Picasso, Tchaikovsky, the Velvet Underground, they’ve all had patrons while keeping their artistic integrity too.

And right now the Picassos of this world need all the help they can get. With all the cuts in public spending here in the UK, the arts are going to be one of the biggest losers. So instead of relying on multi-millionaires for backing, now we can all do something about it. And with Fundraising Managers decrying the cuts and predicting the imminent collapse of the Big Society, isn’t there a place for group philanthropy? Shouldn’t we all become micro Medicis?


I recently watched a TED talk by a professor from The Columbia Business School.
I wasn’t expecting much.
I was wrong.
An elegant Asian woman with a long white cane walks to the podium.
She’s obviously blind.
She reads from her notes, in Braille.
Her name is Sheena Iyegur and her lecture is about choice, and the assumptions we make about it.
1) We think choice is a good thing.
2) We think the more choice the better.
3) We think we should always choose for ourselves.
She begins challenging those assumptions, one by one.
One by one she shows that our assumptions aren’t infallible.
1) Choice isn’t always a good thing.
2) More choice isn’t always better.
3) Sometimes we’re better off not choosing for ourselves.
In fact, choice itself can be an illusion.
Not a fact at all.
She said sometimes the most interesting examples of choice happen to her because she’s blind.
This makes her an outsider in a sighted world.
Which makes her better able to observe it.
She was at a cosmetics counter trying to choose a shade of nail varnish.
She asked two sighted women which shade of red they thought went best with her skin tone.
One said she thought a colour called ‘Adorable’ was best
The other said she preferred a colour called ‘Ballet Shoes’.
The blind professor asked them to describe the difference.
Both women agreed they’d describe ‘Adorable’ as more glamorous and ‘Ballet Shoes’ as more elegant.
So it would depend on what mood she was in, what clothes she was wearing, whether it was evening or daytime, and what sort of occasion she was wearing it to.
The professor found this intriguing.
Because she couldn’t see either of the colours, she found herself being influenced by the names.
She wondered if that was true of sighted people, too.
She decided to conduct an experiment.
She got her team, at Columbia University, to recruit a group of women.
They removed the labels from the nail varnish and asked the women which they preferred.
An interesting thing happened.
Straight away fifty per cent of the women accused her of asking them a trick question.
They were convinced the bottles were the identical nail varnish.
So she got her team to reattach the labels to the bottles.
When they brought them back, roughly half the women chose ‘Adorable’ and the other half chose ‘Ballet Shoes’.
So she got her team to take them out, switch the labels and bring them back.
This time the same women chose the same name, even though it was now attached to the other bottle.
The interesting thing for me is what it shows us about how the mind works.
Not just the consumers’ minds, our minds.
We already know that, in a parity situation, brand can influence choice.
We know, everything else being equal, brand is often the only differentiator.
We know. when there’s nothing to choose between two products, consumers will choose brand.
We all know that.
But the three key phrases there are “in a parity situation”, “everything else being equal”, and “when there’s nothing to choose”.
That’s usually when the name (the brand) makes a difference.
In our business we have a prejudice that people always, and only ever, buy brands.
That nothing else is ever important.
We don’t even need to look at the product being sold, just the brand.
Just like the ladies in those groups, we don’t bother looking at reality.
We don’t question reality the way the blind professor could.
Lack of eyesight made her use her brain instead.
Because she couldn’t see what the others saw, she couldn’t be complacent.
And she saw something much deeper.

She saw that people, and that means us, choose what’s in their head not what’s in reality.

Engagement – Is it an Objective or tactic?

In this world of marketing buzz word bingo, words like ‘integration’ and ‘engagement’ are sadly in danger of becoming marketing clichés. Whether it’s our trade press, seminars or even just industry get togethers, everyone is talking about engagement. At TDA we position ourselves as an ‘engagement agency’.

So what does it actually mean? As marketers or fundraisers, it’s clear why we want an audience to ‘be engaged’ when we communicate. But the first question has to be, ‘is engagement a process or an event?’ I have worked on many projects where one of the lead objectives has been cited as engagement (especially around loyalty and membership programs). However, more often than not, when we study the metrics that accompany the objective, invariably these are primarily transactional.

So the tactic of engaging, in order to get the best environment/set up for an ask or call to action, is clearly not engagement.

As a tactic, it is phenomenally powerful. But as a strategy, it’s a whole different world. As a strategy it has to be long term, multi-channel, truly integrated, with clear metrics that are long term and not transactional or immediate ROI.


When he was young, my dad joined the police.
On the first day, all the new recruits went into a big classroom.
A police Inspector walked to the front of the class.
He told everyone to take out their exercise books and copy down what he was going to write on the blackboard.
As he was writing, another man entered the class and handed him a message.
The Inspector put the message in his pocket and carried on writing.
When he’d finished, he turned to the class.
He said “Let’s see how observant you are.
A man just came in and handed me a message: how tall was he?”
The Inspector said “Nobody? Alright, how old was he?”
The Inspector said “Okay, how much did he weigh?”
He said “Was colour was his shirt?”
He said “Did he have a tie, if so was it patterned or striped?”
He said “Did he have stubble, or was he clean-shaven?
What colour were his shoes?
When he gave me the message, was he right or left handed?”
No one said a word.
The Inspector slammed his chalk on the table.
He said “You all say you want to be police officers.
That means you cannot behave like ordinary citizens.
You cannot go around oblivious to what’s happening.
You cannot afford to switch off.
You must be aware, AT ALL TIMES, of everything that’s going on all around you.”
Of course none of those recruits had noticed the man giving the Inspector a message: that was the idea.
The inspector knew they’d still be acting and thinking like civilians.
Only capable of concentrating on one thing at a time.
That’s why he told them to write in their books.
To make the point that people don’t notice what’s going on around them.
Of course, that affected my dad’s behaviour from that point on.
As a policeman, it became his job to be aware of everything.
Especially things other people didn’t even notice.
It became his job to notice everything.
Now, unfortunately, in our job we don’t deal with policemen.
In our job we deal with ordinary people.
People who don’t notice anything.
People who are only interested in one thing at a time.
People who are conditioned to filter out distractions.
People who are doing the opposite of what policemen are trained to do.
And yet we treat consumers as if they were all policemen.
Trained to notice every detail of every ad.
The brand personality, the subtle messaging, the ironic sub-text, the typeface, the style of animation, the nuances of the humour, the relevance of the music, the casting, the lighting, the editing.
When, in fact, they aren’t even looking.
They don’t care, and they don’t want to care.
They’re not trained policemen.
They are sleepwalking civilians.
See, the real issue isn’t, is our advertising saying the right things?
The real issue is, how do we even get noticed?
£18.3 billion spent yearly in the UK on all forms of advertising.
4% remembered positively, 7% remembered negatively, 89% not noticed or remembered.
The worrying number isn’t the 7% (advertising doesn’t always have to be liked to work).
The worrying number is the 89%.
Because it means 9 out of 10 ads are as invisible as the man who gave that message to the police Inspector in front of the class of new recruits.
And, unless we want to be part of that wasted £16.5 billion, we need to change the question we’re asking about our advertising.
Because the question we should really be asking isn’t, is it right?

The question is, will anyone even notice it?




One day, when I was at art school in New York, I was sitting in the canteen
and a guy sat down opposite me.
He was older than most of us, clean and tidy, pressed clothes, short hair.
He nodded “How you doing?”
I said “Fine, just on a break between classes. You?”
He said “First week here, I only just started.”
I said “Really, how come?”
He said “I’m here on The G.I. Bill of Rights.”
Now this was interesting.
The G.I. Bill of Rights was a way for ex-servicemen to go to college.
You did your time in the military and, when you got out, the government paid your tuition fees.
I asked him what branch of the military he’d been in.
He said he’d been a captain in the artillery, in Vietnam.
Mainly his job was guarding the DMZ.
The DMZ was the De-Militarised Zone: the strip of land between the North and South that was no-man’s-land.
No one was supposed to be there, and anyone who was, was killed.
He said the main weapon they used was called Lazy Dog.
Lazy Dog was an artillery shell: a massive amount of explosive, around which was packed millions of needles.
Lazy Dog would burst in the air over the target.
Then anything underneath was shredded as if it had been put in a blender.
He said the entire DMZ had listening devices planted in the ground.
Whenever they heard a noise, they fired off a few Lazy Dogs.
Next day they’d go out and investigate.
Most of the time all they’d find was just some blood and fur.
Because it had usually just been an animal rooting around.
I said it didn’t sound a very effective way to spend millions of dollars fighting a war.
He agreed, he said it was the weakness of the US military that they couldn’t do anything without vast amounts of technology.
He said the Vietcong knew that.
As long as US soldiers had access to their expensive technology, they’d be superior.
But they knew that if they could get to them without their technology, they could beat them.
He asked me if I knew the Vietcong ‘Rule-Of-Thumb’ for shooting down helicopters.
I said I didn’t.
He said “Shooting something with small-arms fire just depends on how far away it is.
In the US Army we have complicated range-finding technology to tell us if something is close enough to hit.
The Vietcong don’t have any of that stuff.
When they hear a helicopter they look up, stretch their arm out, and hold their thumb over it.
If the chopper is bigger than their thumb, it’s close enough to shoot down with pretty much anything.
If the helicopter is smaller than their thumb, it’s too far away.”
How brilliant is that?
Range-finding technology that the simplest peasant can carry in their head.
So there you have two views of technology.
On the one hand we can spend millions upon millions of dollars doing something that makes us feel reassured, but is totally ineffective.
Just because we have a belief that technology must always be superior.
As long as we’ve got the newest, most expensive, most complicated technology.
On the other hand we can spend no money at all.
We can use what’s around, combined with a great idea, to do something really effective.
An idea so good it will go viral among the entire population of a country.
Even without any Internet or a single computer.
Can you see any parallels with the world we work in?
On the one hand we can worship technology for itself.
We can believe in it like a religion.
We can trust that it’s always the answer to every question.
Then our strength becomes our weakness.
On the other hand we start from the point of having a great idea.
Then use technology to propagate that idea.
When and where it’s relevant, according to the job that needs doing.

Because technology is a tool.
And, like any tool, we can either hold it by the handle or the blade.