A Monday Morning Visual Quiz

roundhouseworkerLook closely at this photograph.  Check out the color, the rich lighting and resolution, those freaking awesome goggles.  How old do you think it is?

Would you guess fifty-seven years?  This portrait of a railroad worker taken in the roundhouse of the old Proviso Yard in Chicago exists as part of an online collection in the Library of Congress.  Originally commissioned by the Farm Security Administration, this rare color photograph from 1942 looks like a movie still from some recent period film–probably because we lack any cultural references to relate to a full color snapshot from that era.  As far as I can tell, WWII was fought in grisly black and white, as opposed to the more visceral jungle green and blood red of the Vietnam War newsreels.  That’s just how we’ve always seen it…

What’s even more remarkable is that this entire archive was the vision of a government official.  Roy Emerson Stryker fought in the Great War and later earned a degree in Economics from Columbia.  When he lectured, he would illustrate his talks with his own photography.  Eventually, his Columbia colleague Rex Tugwell left to head the Resettlement Administration, which evolved into the Farm Security Administration.  Roy followed him there, eventually setting up one of the greatest photographic documentary projects in history.  To effectively communicate the hardships the Depression wreaked upon the American heartland and some of the promise of the New Deal, he sent dozens of photographers out on very specific assignments to bring back images which they would feed the press.  By the end of his project, the American public owned 77,000 published prints and 644 color images.

This economist, this manager, this amateur photographer proved to be one of our nation’s finest curators of artistic documentation.  He could just as easily have chosen to be another anonymous bureaucrat, punching the clock and biding his time until his 6pm highball or his twenty-five year gold watch, but not Roy.  His mind didn’t settle for the mundane but imagined something far more vivid.  And because he bothered to think of it, we have a remarkable trove of images that pack an eye-opening empathy.

Do yourself a favor and spend an hour or two with his work by clicking here.  After all, you own these images too.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

At At Minimum, Spokespeople Should Be Able to Speak

Earlier this week, Advertising Age posted a story about the Kellogg Co. consolidating its agency roster from thirty down to five.  As anyone who has lived through this nail-biting process well understands, a lot of agency people will be losing a lot of sleep for the duration of this process.

The comments regarding this story decry ad agencies for everything from pushing a dated creative model to displaying a crippling lack of differentiation to cowing to the commodity-creating evils of empowered procurement departments.  Yet none of them mention a part of those six terse paragraphs that comprise the story which set my teeth on edge.  Apparently, a “tight-lipped” Kellogg spokeswoman e-mailed this in response to an interview request: “On an ongoing basis, we have discussions across the broad remit of our partnerships regarding maximizing the effectiveness and efficiency of our operations and efforts…  Those ongoing conversations are confidential.”

Time To Head Back.  Again.

Time To Head Back. Again.

For crying out loud, that overwrought tripe was put out by a spokesman?  That’s not communication, that’s robotic oration.  In one compound sentence, she manages to choke the communicative potential out of twenty-five words.  Legally-sanitized whitewash like this treats communication like a commodity; devoid of color, intonation and differentiating clarity.  I would have preferred that she write “Lorem ipsum dolor…”; it would have at least communicated her corporate obfuscation more colorfully.  And ‘remit’?  Come on…  To my wife’s ongoing embarrassment, I’ve read “It Pays To Enrich Your Word Power” in The Reader’s Digest for over thirty-five years, yet never once have I been tempted to reach for the word ‘remit’ let alone the more hysterically-florid ‘broad remit.’

Worse, it’s the wrong usage.  ‘Remit’ is most commonly used as a verb; as a noun it refers to a legal process of transferring records from one court to another.  So while Kellogg currently enjoys a ‘broad roster’ or a ‘broad aggregation’ or even a ‘broad assemblage’ if you feel compelled to get all fancy-pants, their thirty agencies do not comprise a ‘remit’ broad or otherwise.

But I bet they have plenty of people who could make a more compelling spokesperson…

RT #Twitter Contains 40% "Pointless Babble" http://bit.ly/1V1UN

A recent Pear Analytics study finds that 40% of Twitter messages from a random sample of 2,000 tweets amount to “pointless babble.”  Items like “I’m eating a sandwich” clog the micro-blogging service, followed closely by conversational messages between users at 37.5%.

In other words, nearly 80% of Twitter content amounts to little more than incidental conversation.  Which should serve as a stark reminder that Twitter–and Facebook, MySpace and hundreds of other smaller social networks–are all about the social.  Overeager advertisers looking to exploit low cost media platforms need to take a hard look at this communications environment: it’s hardly a welcoming audience to commercial messages.

Of course, not knowing the people of Pear Analytics or their credentials, I decided to grab ten tweets from this morning’s Element 79 feed and analyze them.  In fairness, being an ad agency  and not an individual attracts a disproportionate number of industry reps, job seekers and for some reason, people who tweet in Spanish and Mandarin, but that is mostly a result of an earlier non-discriminating ‘you follow us/we’ll follow you” policy: a basic no-no of effective social networking.  Anyway, here are this morning’s ten:

1.  @JBajancopymaker:  This would be Babble.CT

2.  @tkdainc:  This pitches an artist who creates doe-eyed anime creatures sporting tatoos and furry hats with ears.  This is Sales.

3.  @redsquareagency:   A link to camo-wearing, gun-toting Hispanic military men, two of whom sport this agency’s t-shirt.  This is Sales, and depending on your perspective, funny or ill-advised.

4.  @richandcom:  A link to a news item about well-financed quick buck schemers hosing longterm investors.  This is News, of the irrelevant and vaguely depressing sort.

5.  @Oshyn_Inc:  A link to a blog about “Live Server Dynaments.”  I wandered at “Live Server” and they lost me at “Dynaments.”  News.  Kind of.

6.  @GuyKawasaki:  A funny link to Craig Damrauer’s witty morenewmath.com .  This is Humor, and depending on your perspective, funny or time-wasting.

7.  @charlottehrb:  This is a Conversational Message between users.

8.  @kevin7211:  This, the first of three Tweets within three minutes, spotlights some ad guy selling mobile with a ‘context over content’ message.  Wants to be News, But it’s Babble.

9.  @drdue:  Sales pitch for girdles.  Bad targeting.  Sales.

10.  @LuckyIntern  RT of an Adweek article.  News.

So by the strict parameters of this carefully-conducted study, the predominance is split between Sales and News, both at 30%, with Babble and Conversational Messages at 20% each.  Of course, by personal standards, the Kawasaki link was the only thing worth following.  For a quick laugh.

Laughter definitely has human value, but it’s kind of hard to bill to a client…

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

YouTube and The Next Level For Mass Amateurization: Cash

Yesterday, YouTube announced a significant change in policy that will reward anyone who posts popular user-generated content with cash.  Essentially, they will identify any video as it gains popularity, then contact the owner who posted it and ask if they will allow their content to carry advertising.  The two parties will then split the proceeds based on views with the content-provider earning the majority.  In the words of a spokesman, “Very popular videos can make thousands of dollars a month.”

youtube-money-200x83All of which is a pretty amazing reset of the status quo.  Until now, YouTube has functioned as a predominantly-amateur crowdsourcing community with the only real reward for amateur posters being pride and public recognition…and possibly a Tonight Show appearance if they earn spectacular hits.  Now however, they are introducing cash into the equation and on at least some level, that positions YouTube as a viable commercial platform for producers of micro-video content.  Find a prairie dog making a funny expression, cut it to a ten second clip and you could conceivably make thousands for your hobby: that’s YouTube’s new premise.

Of course, larger providers already do this.  Record companies post videos with integrated pitches to sell albums or downloads, TV shows post their content to advertise their programs (Susan Boyle anyone?).  In these instances, adding further advertising would create a meta situation: attaching advertising to sell a product to advertising already selling something else.  But that really isn’t their play.  Instead, they are squarely targeting the amateurs posting clips of a muddled young Davids dealing with dental anesthesia, jolly, giggling babies and skateboarders taking spectacular faceplants.

Will bringing money to the equation upend the crowdsourcing community currently posting nearly a year’s worth of original content to YouTube every day?  Will it be seen as polluting the site’s democracy with professional commerce?  And will this platform ultimately pay off for advertisers?

Only time will tell, but once again, our media landscape continues to evolve with breathtaking speed, introducing ever more legitimate niche platforms.  It will be interesting to see if this leads to a new video gold rush, as stage-parents and pet lovers and kid-auteurs add to the already-dunning crush of original content YouTube posts every day.

In fact, I should call a few makers of  skateboarding safety equipment: I have an idea for a smart new place to invest their tiny marketing budgets…

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

A New Local Network: ChicagoNow.com

The people over at Tribune Media just debuted chicagonow.com:  a new blog network launched two weeks ago after three months in beta as chicagosbestblogs.com.  Aggregating seventy+ blogs that loosely share a Chicago-centric theme, this site aims to attract young, digitally-savvy readers uninterested in their daily paper and fill the widening hole in the Tribune’s demographic mix.

All News (and opinion and jokes and gossip) Is Local

All News (and opinion and jokes and gossip) Is Local

I wish them well, though I’m clearly not in their demographic.  I subscribe to the Trib and until someone comes up with an elegantly-interactive digital crossword, I’ll stay analog.  Moreover, I like the illusion that my news at least postures as objective; the injection of obvious left or right bias in every item both exhausts and depresses me.

ChicagoNow appeals to its nascent audience with a pretty wide variety of News and Opinion, Life and Style, Arts and Entertainment, and Sports blogs–category headings seemingly taken right off their print mastheads.  A quick skim of their content reveals a largely newspaper-like tone, albeit with the amped up personality and opinions of the individual bloggers.  For me, the reading experience was not unlike an evening of Chicago Improv: a few remarkable moments separated by a lot of meandering development.  Then again, the analog version contains a lot of material I skim or ignore as well.

The word ‘community’ appears repeatedly throughout the site’s background pages; something that will prove simultaneously crucial as they pitch potential advertisers and challenging as their biggest potential stumbling block.  The best online communities build organically (for perspective, check out this month’s Wired magazine’s article on Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist).  As Clay Shirky writes, Web 2.0 means we no longer need organizations to organize.  Moreover, the user experience needs to come first and foremost and on that count, ChicagoNow seems to be doing it right.  You don’t need to register to access the content, but it does unlock other features like comments.  The ill-fated, arrived too early, saddled-by-regulatory redtape Bud.tv ultimately collapsed due to those onerous restraints as the hassles to the user outweighed the benefits of the content.

Will ChicagoNow take off and ultimately fill the expanding gap in the Tribune’s audience with new, revenue-generating readers?  It’s too early to say, but as a fan of newspapers, I hope it does.  And if nothing else, good on them for trying.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Even Online Video Consumption Bows To Dinner

Engagement matters more than ever in these hyper-connected, hyper-distracted times. As a connected culture, we want to know, we don’t want to miss, we can’t wait to forward the next sparkly, shiny, useful message thing that comes our way.  And yet a recent poll from Interpret regarding online video viewing patterns proves that even this always-on medium bows to the dominance of dinnertime.

Yes dinner, that lovely day-ending repast that delineates “on” from “off” and “work” from “play” stands out as the sole time of day when the consistent consumption of online video takes a break.  From 6pm-9pm, we set aside the keyboards and pick up forks and spoons.  As a human being, I find that deeply, deeply reassuring.

Come Back After Dinner

Come Back After Dinner

Because how many times have you ridden an elevator where everyone scanned their Blackberrys and iPhones, desperate to fill the silent, yawning moments between floors?  How often have you noticed people sitting outside on a beautiful Summer day, focused solely on their laptop?  On a recent vacation, my own family spent more than one hour together, each of us tied to a different computer.

So the fact that online video must wait for mealtime?  That’s fine with me, just fine indeed.  LOL cats and Colbert clips can wait a half hour.  Despite being woefully underrated, analog conversation is still a skill worth developing.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Exhibit A: One to One Selling

Last Thursday, around Noon, I got an e-mail from Bob Garfield, the advertising critic for Advertising Age.  Rather cryptically, he wrote:

 i know payback is a bitch, but here’s your chance to reverse roles:  thechaosscenario.net

You Can Probably Get It On Kindle Too

You Can Probably Get It On Kindle Too

I’ve known Bob for a long time.  Over the years, his opinions have made me smile, laugh, and pull my hair out, though rarely at the same time.  We’ve created long e-mail strings, tossing barbs and one-liners back and forth debating various points of contention.  In print, online and in person as he emcees all manner of advertising events, he’s a man of great humor, fundamental decency, and unflinching honesty in calling them as he sees them.  Which is why I immediately ordered his new book “The Chaos Scenario.”

And like he does so often, he nails it here.  His theme is familia: the game-changing reordering of media and marketing brought on by digital technology.  With tons of examples–including his well-publicized ‘Comcast Must Die’ campaign–Bob talks about what he calls “The Death of Everything” (the man does have a flair for the extreme).  He paints a sobering portrait of our communication and sales landscape as it undergoes significant upheaval and offers some guidance for emerging areas of opportunity.

Bob didn’t sell me with an ad campaign, but rather his one-to-one e-mail, and by extension, a form of permission marketing: both of which fit perfectly with his thesis.  Happily, this book is really, really good and I recommend it to anyone in this business.  If you’re curious, you can download the first three chapters for free here.

And as Bob was quick to remind me in a follow-up:

thanks for buying it. remember, christmas is just around the corner.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

The Cost of Format Change

Remember learning that the spaceships on the first Boston album were actually intergalactic guitars?  Did you ever spend hours staring at Shusei Nagaoka and Ria Lewerke’s cover art for ELO’s Out of the Blue double album?

Dig It Man, They're GUITARS!

Dig It Man, They're GUITARS!

You wouldn’t do that with a Greenday CD…

CD’s lack the visual impact of vinyl LP covers. And mp3’s lack any visual impact at all. Musically, these format changes have made the music experience far more convenient, but we’ve lost the visual entirely.  Which as the vinyl set might say, is a bummer.

It’s also why the whole mobile computing revolution leaves me deeply ambivalent.  Yes, the iPhone is an amazing device (though ATT makes it a lousy phone), but the more time I spend staring at it’s bright though diminutive screen, the more I realize aging’s effect on my eyes.  There is only so much information I want presented to me on a 2″x3″ screen because it’s hard to read.  Think about it: most mobile screens are smaller than a business card.

So the mobile revolution scores major points for convenience, but as a longterm platform or even a replacement for larger screens?  I don’t think so.  That makes as much sense as giving up your grocery store to shop exclusively at 7-11.

Or as the vinyl set might say, giving up 33’s for 45’s…

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79 

After This Reset, What's Ahead for Advertising?

Something happens during natural disasters–something oddly positive.  As the floodwaters rise or the fires spread, people reach out in cooperation, banding together as ad hoc communities with a common cause.  Long after the damage is over and property has been repaired, people remember those tense moments and how quickly they created a thrilling closeness, a powerful bond.

Oh.  That bump.

Oh. That bump.

I can only hope we’ll all feel a similar communal sense when the current storm of advertising changes finally passes and we once again achieve some semblance of equilibrium.  In the latest Adweek/Brandweek, Steve McClellan interviews a number of industry leaders for a feature that tries to identify just what that new normal might be like.

Among quotes from industry leaders like Google’s Eric Schmidt and WPP’s Marty Sorrell, Sue Mosely, Initiative’s worldwide director of research, noted that “Brand loyalty has been badly shaken.”  

Indeed.  And there’s growing concern that consumers who have traded down might not trade back up later.  Perhaps this new fiscal austerity will stay, benefitting discount or store brands at our clients’ expense.  As people in the brand-building business, this represents an alarming scenario.  So what can we do to protect the eroding value of our brands?

For decades, ‘trust’ has been one of the bedrock brand value, but we can no longer assume ‘trust’ alone will suffice.  In a more cost-competitive world, it can come off as a nebulous benefit.  Planners and creatives alike will need to take up the charge and uncover or create compelling new reasons for people to invest in our brands.  How can our brands help?  How can they make things better, easier or richer for people?  What else can they bring to the experience?

Finding ways to add value and keep consumers engaged with our brands will become the new marketing imperative.  And given the increasing parity within the marketplace, it will no doubt stay the imperative for a long time to come.

In An Imperfect World, Intelligent Iteration Is A Crucial Skill

Picture 2Eighteen years ago, photographer John Terence Turner created this instant classic for Nike.  The shot captures a lone runner mid-stride in one shaft of light amidst the shadowed canyons of Seattle and features the brilliantly understated caption, or perhaps even encapsulation: “There is no finish line.”

I flashed back to this visual after listening to Mark Earl’s August 11 video clip on “3 Minute Ad Age.” Mark is now an author but as the ex-Head of Planning for Ogilvy London and Europe, he has some very intelligent viewpoints on marketing in this social age.

Primarily, he questions the wisdom of advertisers’ perpetual quest for “The Big Idea.”  Mark believes that it’s unrealistic to expect a single creative concept will span the incredible diversity of viewpoints in a global marketplace.  Life isn’t just multiple choice, it’s multiple solution as well.  So why should we place one big bet?  Wouldn’t it be smarter to lay down a number of little bets?

Scientists refer to the latter as ‘the iterative method’ while those of us who were liberal arts majors might be more inclined to just call it ‘common sense.’  How valuable would it be if we could get over our industry-wide predilection for polishing and instead, crank up the production machine and generate a number of good ideas, with the caveat that once we produced and shared them, we’d analyze their in-market impact?  We could test for things like sales results, engagement and favorability.  More importantly, we could then try to assimilate those results into actionable guidelines for future work.  It’s the equivalent of firing a cannon, seeing where the shell hits, and then making incremental adjustments to bring each subsequent shot closer and closer to your target.

Learn and apply: it’s a simple notion really.  Unfortunately, it’s far less simple to be honest about what we learn and disciplined with subsequent applications.  But we can try.

Because as the ad says, there is no finish line.  If there were, the Nike brand would still be about exhorting yourself toward physical self-improvement instead of evolving to the culture-shaping dynamo they’ve become.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79