Something Else Ad People Can Learn from PR

I’ve grown increasingly obsessed with the convergence of advertising and public relations, driven mostly by the realization that social media amounts to a powerful new crowd-sourced form of PR for brands to harness and utilize.  As Public Relations grows ever more powerful through social media and other forms of empowered and viral word of mouth, advertising agencies need to recognize it’s influence and integrate the discipline more fully in service of brands.

But we can take lessons from more than just what PR does for brands; we can learn from how PR sells itself.  In many ways, they far outpace this industry.  For too many years, ad agencies have operated under the assumption that our worth was self-evident, that our value was well-recognized and understood.

Dennis Ryan, Element 79, Chicago AdvertisingUnfortunately, that’s not the case.  At least, not anymore. In a time of free media platforms, of unpaid brand ambassadors and most critically, radically empowered procurement departments, faith in the returns on advertising investments is no longer a given.  As a sales profession, we’ve done a lousy job of addressing this growing skepticism.  We’ve allowed the same people who could quickly enumerate the quality differences between a Mercedes and a Kia to apply uniform pricing to creative product which is every bit as variable.  And we’ve not compellingly refuted the growing notion that empowered consumers can handle advertising themselves, despite five years of high profile yet uniformly crappy Doritos ads in the Super Bowl.  For a sales based business, we’ve simply not sold ourselves well.

And yet PR agencies do that regularly through one of their most fundamental practices.  Every year–and often every quarter, they present a summary book or DVD that lists all the mentions their brands have earned, all the stories generated and media insertions to their clients.  These simple documents make their product tangible and real.

Ad agencies need to adopt this practice.  We are very good at listing what awards various projects may have won, but we’re far less facile at quantifying their market impact, at describing the ways they changed the conversation among consumers.

As skepticism around our industry rises, we need to tackle this issue head on.  We need to sell ourselves.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


The New Marketing Landscape of O.P.E.N. Media

In a culture where opinion has a mass channel and information spreads at unprecedented speeds, we need to rethink our notion of media mixes.  Today, a more holistic view could be O.P.E.N. media: Owned, Paid, Earned and unfortunately, Negative.

Element 79 Chicago Advertising Dennis RyanFrom the very beginning, a few marketers and brands have realized the value of the media they Owned.  Wheaties drew attention by putting athletes on their box, Bazooka Joe used his comics, and Apple has long sold their brand through the style-setting impact of their clean, elegant industrial design and packaging.  More recently, Uniqlo has done it through their ever changing, always fascinating websites and Anthropologie through one of the oldest and simplest retail mediums: the store window.

Advertising agencies developed to create content and strategize placement for Paid Media.  We’d buy TV and radio time, take out space in magazines, newspapers and billboards, and invest in sponsorships and events.  It required making choices about where you should place your creative bets, but by and large, it worked.  And still does.

More recently, the world of Social Media introduced the notion of Earned Media.  Smart brands invest time in creating relationships with influential people in the online and offline world, and earn positive public relations as a result.  Or they create content and provide it to news shows and video outlets for others to share.  In the end, a brand must do something worthwhile or interesting to encourage people to share their story; they must earn it (On a side note, some like to parse out Shared Media: the pass alongs made possible through services like Reddit and Digg.  To me, this is hair splitting: Shared Media is simply a subset of Earned Media).

And yet, there is a fourth Media all marketers need to keep in mind today: Negative Media.  Brands have always had to deal with cranky customers, with complaints and disagreements over return policies or product efficacy.  But these days, consumers can turn to a mass channel of opinion to post their grievance and spread their displeasure.  In this modern world of Immedia, news, stories and cultural moments spread with unprecedented speed through online ecosystems.  And few things spread as quickly as bad news–United Breaks Guitars, anyone?  If a story is presented compellingly or if it captures the public imagination, brands can quickly find themselves in trouble due to a virulent outbreak of Negative Media.  Dominos had those yokels blowing their noses on their pizzas, Toyota had the Prius problem, and a long list of brands knows what happened when Tiger blew his cover.

Negative Media is a relatively new phenomenon.  With the individual empowerment of Web 2.0 and social networks, the ability to spread opinion far and wide has never been cheaper, faster or more effective.  That’s why keeping an ear on the online chatter about your brand means so much these days.  A good social media policy can mean the difference between being caught by a story or getting ahead of it.

Negative Media is just another argument for converging traditional marketing and public relations, particularly Social Media.  Coordinating these disciplines from the outset of brand marketing enhances the impact of the traditional efforts that get brands recognized even as it activates the advocates to drive brand recommendation.  And it can insure all of these investments by continually monitoring online dialogue for Negative Media.

It’s a 24/7 world.  Now we gotta be always O.P.E.N.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


Debating the Rules for Brands in Social Media

In the latest issue of Advertising Age, the memorably-monikered Taddy Hall lays out Ten Essential Rules for Brands in Social Media.  Given the conflicting viewpoints regarding leveraging these platforms, these types of lists now clog every marketing outlet.  As someone clever once noted “Where there’s confusion, there’s money to be made” and advocates from all sides have leapt into the fray looking to profit.  But as the former chief strategy officer for the Advertising Research Foundation, Mr. Hall is no self-proclaimed spittle-lipped social media expert.  Instead, he drew data from hundreds of brand clients of his company Meteor Solutions to generate this shortlist of actionable insights based in proven fact.

Two of his essential rules really stand out as emblematic of the fundamental mindshift necessary for incorporating social media into marketing.  First is what he calls “The 1% Rule” where a tiny fraction of site visitors drive the lion’s share of total site traffic.  In case after case, his data demonstrates the power of heavy influencers to drive web behavior.  Importantly, that behavior goes beyond simply increasing site traffic to include a higher share of conversion.  For marketers, this means it is critical to identify, engage and reward ‘super-influentials’ when working in social media.  Historically, identifying and enlisting influencers on behalf of brands has been the province of PR.  Now that social media has grown so mainstream, that discipline must converge with general marketing if we want to effectively integrate our efforts.

The second is his “New Media/New Pipes” rule which shows that what consumers say about your brand means far more than what marketers say.  This is more quantified proof of the power of word of mouth and the need for a radical rethinking of how we present messages to the market.  More than anything, it means we must find more and better ways to cede control to consumers.

That’s hard.  Anyone with more than a few years of marketing experience has been steeped in the need to resist even looking at ideas from consumers for fear of legal exposure: brands must be managed, communication must be one way.  Except that today they aren’t, whether we like it or not.  Social media provide a mass channel for opinion.  More critically, that opinion can have more sales impact than our messages alone.  Content spread from consumer to consumer drives purchase intent far more powerfully than content directly from brands.  As an example, Mr. Hall says that brand content posted on a Facebook fan page has far less impact than the same content posted to an influential individual’s page.

The rest of his list makes for very worthwhile reading as well.  So much misinformation and conjecture fills the debate over social media; having guidelines culled from data, not mere experience, make this list actually worth reading.  Thank you for that Taddy.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Exhibit #1030: The Convergence of Advertising and PR

Picture 2“Flyvertising.”

Never heard of it?  That makes sense, because as an ad medium, it is a ridiculous conceit.  According to this story on the website Adfreak, a German advertising agency promoted their publishing company at the Frankfurt Bookfair by letting loose a swarm of Fliegenbanner; small ad banners tied to the legs of house flies.  Apparently the client logo is a fly so it all makes sense…

Except it doesn’t.  It doesn’t make any sense at all.

Flies do not soar gracefully on even, steady flightpaths.  Moving, insect-sized banners are not legible to an audience.  And most people prefer their houseflies at the business end of a swatter.  Apparently at the event, the proportionally-massive banners quickly exhausted the little critters which in short order started dropping like, well, you know.  As communication, the whole thing was impractical, non-scalable, and just kind of gross.

In fact, the only way a stunt like this makes any sense at all is if people pick up on it, spreading the client’s name Eichborn to all sorts of places far beyond the Frankfort Bookfair.

Oh.  Huh.  Waitaminnit…

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

PR Now Sidestepping Traditional Media Relationships To Pitch Consumers Directly

Advertising Age published an interesting item the other day on the rising trend among PR firms to take a pass on pitching traditional media outlets and go directly to consumers with their messages.

A cynic might contend that publishing and media layoffs have cut the ranks so deeply that there simply aren’t enough journalists to pitch anymore, but the reality is that the widespread availability and low cost of  earned media outlets make it easier than ever to get marketing content out.  The proliferation of highly-engaged niche audiences online makes finding the appropriate audience simple.  Add these modern media realities to the democratization of production and the PR industry faces a new reality with its go-to-market strategy.  Low cost HD cameras and simple desktop editing put the power of video storytelling in most anyone’s hands, the web provides a ready outlet, and so we upend one more vestige of the one-way marketing model as PR firms create YouTube channels, send bloggers content and distribute relevant video to online communities.

Which brings up yet another convergence-based issue: do marketers need separate entities to handle marketing and public relations?   Does paid media require one set of experts and earned another?  In the absolute, perhaps, but in the workaday world, that’s becoming less and less viable, both economically and strategically.  If your advertising agency develops a strategic idea platform for consumers and the web provides direct access to those consumers, why would you need to employ a separate agency to connect the two?  That responsibility should reside with your agency people who hopefully, are already far more skilled than the average bear at generating compelling video content.

The challenge is to help agencies understand that their primary responsibilities now include direct-to-consumer PR.  Opinion has a mass channel and our messages must be in it.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

In a Web 2.0 Empowered Society, Interaction Demands Feedback

This morning, an article in Advertising Age landed in my e-mail no less than four times before 9am.  Mike Wolfsohn, the Executive Creative Director of Ignited wrote a strong blog post on his agency’s site outlining his frustration with the Zappo’s RFP process.  He describes how Ignited analyzed the actual time spent with this potential client’s review of their comprehensive response and took issue that it amounted to only five page views averaging fourteen seconds each.Picture 3

The key issue amounts to the trackability of interaction, which Mike understandably views as cursory.  Given Zappo’s hard-earned reputation for outstanding customer service, he believes their consideration to be woefully inadequate.  In Zappo’s defense, they opened up this review to what essentially amounts to agency crowdsourcing. and given their desirability as an attractive roster client, they underestimated the overwhelming response they would receive.  By Brandweek’s estimation, more than 104 agencies responded to their very detailed RFP and the sheer volume of material that reached their small marketing department could probably fill a wing of the Library of Congress.  As it turns out, that estimation was low: in his thoughtful response to Mike’s post, Zappo’s head of Business Development Aaron Magness cited the number of actual respondents as 170.

As someone who has some experience with crowdsourcing, one of the biggest negatives about getting all that freely generated material is the respondents’ need for feedback, which can all too quickly bury the organization behind the effort.  Anyone who gives a brand their time and thinking rightly expects some sort of response for their efforts and when they actually do get it, the work improves substantially.  But it is a very tall order to respond to every submission with meaningful and focused feedback.  If you’ve ever lived through an all-agency creative gangbang, you know the problems.

The simple fact is that our society has recently and powerfully evolved to embrace a Web 2.0 empowered two-way marketplace.  We expect to give and get feedback.  When the demand for that feedback grows too large, the sheer manpower demands to answer chokes most organizations.  This is not simply a Zappo’s issue; this will be a growing issue for all marketers and one that will demand we evolve our organizational structures to answer.  The real convergence today is the rapidly colliding worlds of advertising and word-of-mouth PR outreach.  Marketing organizations need to create mechanisms not just to send messages out, but to prepare for meaningful, ongoing consumer dialogue and engagement.

The outcome of this particular situation remains to be seen.  But as one of the agencies who responded, I want to wish Zappo’s good luck with this challenge.  Of course, I would also be more than happy if anyone there wants to call me for advice.  Element 79 loves that brand.

by Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Getting Hit By A Skunk

Picture 5I let our dog out into the backyard last night and twenty minutes later, the unmistakable smell of skunk barged in through the windows and doors and seemingly the walls themselves.  If you’ve never smelled a skunk, it can only be described as a three dimensional odor of hammering disgust: intense, intolerable and inescapable.  The large-hearted among us may be inclined to excuse the skunk since its low status on the food chain bestows such a nauseating means of self-defense, but no one with even modest olfactory capabilities can–the stink is just too strong.  And so I spent three hours staining Jack’s bounteous ruff with tomato juice, trying to cut the stench from horrific to merely awful.  In the end, Jack still had to spend the night outside, his hangdog expression clearly communicating that this excretion offended even his adventurous nose.

When you get hit by a skunk, you have to act immediately to clean up and then…wait. There’s not a lot you can do other than try to address the issue as best you can and then…endure.  More than anything else, time diminishes the odor.

Dominos got hit by a skunk a few weeks back in the form of two bonehead employees with a video camera.  Their CEO went on YouTube reasonably quickly, showed his disgust and disdain, and then…waited.  And despite how those disgusting images sear into the synapses, time helps the image fade, particularly once you realize this was a rogue act of a skunk.  Our home state got hit by a skunk in the form of Rod “Pay to Play” Blagojevich.  Actually, Illinois has a history of living in a cloud of stench from skunks that go by the title of ‘governor’ or ‘senator.’  Someone like Michael Vick didn’t get hit by a skunk, he was the skunk for the Atlanta Falcons, and they too had to scramble to determine a response that would be strong enough, before stepping back and waiting it out.

When brands are opinions and opinions enjoy the mass distribution channels of social networks, the once separate worlds of advertising and public relations. must converge.  And nothing makes that more obvious than those unfortunate moments when you’re sprayed by a skunk.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Who Are You? Who Who? Who Who?

Actually, That's Not A Rhetorical Question

Actually, That's Not A Rhetorical Question


In a marketplace awash with product offerings, product extensions, and product parity, brands today must know exactly what they are and how they add value for consumers. Until brands recognize precisely where their most valued strengths lie, they can’t determine their mission.  And these days, a brand without a mission is a short term investment (Pat Boone’s metal album anyone?).

This may seem incredibly basic, but it’s not. Today’s world changes with dizzying speed, forcing brands to respond quickly and intelligently, and that’s an inordinately difficult task.  Frankly, most brands are not prepared to constructively and objectively criticize themselves.  

Back in the early 80’s, a few years after long-reigning metal pioneers Led Zeppelin broke up, their lead singer Robert Plant began the first of his post Zeppelin musical projects. Understandably anxious to be starting over after years of multi-platinum success, he spoke of being lost and fumbling for his identity now that drummer John Bonham was dead and he was no longer playing with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. But he related how a friend clarified everything for him by saying “Robert–you’ve always been more of a blues singer than a rock singer.”  That simple definition helped him launch a vibrant post-Zeppelin career that includes solo work, the Honeydrippers, Afro Celt Sound System and most recently, collaborations with bluegrass star Alison Krauss.

At Element 79, we were forced to learn a bit about self definition ourselves.  For years we were simply ‘the Gatorade agency’ but a new Pepsi regime hellbent on massive change pulled that and all of their other accounts from us a little over year ago.  That one stunning move cost us our easy identity and yet it ultimately gave us the necessary impetus to step back, reassess, and define what we truly are, what we can offer potential clients, and how we can continue to bring value in a changing marketplace.

We have a long, proud legacy of excellence in television creativity and production ( stuff like this, this, and the second one here).  And while some reactionary Chicken Little’s may believe television is dead, we recognize it’s merely diversified.  Telling a story with moving pictures happens on PC’s and cell phones, in games, virals, and user generated content.  So we remain committed to that strength, but have intentionally evolved with a mind to develop new capabilities in idea centricity and platform agnosticism.  We have forced creative convergence with an intensity we never would have had we not faced this disruptive loss.  And in many ways, we are stronger for it.

We still face the challenges of the recession, but we already began addressing them a year ago when all that business walked out the door.  As odd as it sounds, we actually had a head start which gives us a leg up in addressing these challenges.

Because today, more than any time in our seven year history, we know who we are, what we offer, and what our mission must be: to help define and then advance our clients’ missions.

And that’s a pretty cool job.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Regarding Convergence, Award Shows and Advertising Advertising Agencies

Advertising awards work an awful lot like brand reputation ads for agencies. In the best case, they draw attention to creative accomplishments, reinforcing and creating regard for an agency’s product.  At worst, they fail to engage any sort of relevant target market and merely serve as an expensive exercise in self-congratulation.  Of course, most fall somewhere in the muddled middle, much like most brand reputation advertising on television, garnering some attention but not nearly as much among the right kind of people as an agency might hope.

Apparently, E79 Got Authorization from the One Show

Over the past three weeks, Element 79 has enjoyed a very nice run among the major shows, winning an Interactive Silver Pencil from the One Show for our Tostitos web work, a Silver Addy for a Tiger Woods’ online game we developed for his Gatorade line, and a series of Silvers and Bronze awards at the New York Festivals as well, all for our digital work.  

To us, this is a validation of sorts.  Awards from more discriminating shows like these help drive home how we have worked digital convergence here at Element 79, moving beyond our reputation for television creative to demonstrate integrated creative thinking and execution across multiple platforms.  We are very proud of that.

But the truth is, awards shows alone make for a woefully incomplete media buy when you want to influence hearts and minds within the industry. Advertising our agency demands a much more coordinated effort emphasizing digital and word of mouth.  We need the right people to understand who we are and what we can do, and those people probably do not subscribe to awards show mailing lists.  They do however, trust their friends’ opinions, notice interesting work as they surf the web or cable and read trade stories about new business wins.  Those are channels we must work if we want to avoid becoming the proverbial cobbler who shoes the village yet lets his own children run barefoot.  In a world as fragmented and distracted as ours, no advertiser can rely on any one specific medium to carry their message and incite interaction among their most valuable customers, not even ad agencies.

Not even ad agencies with a gleaming new shelfload of shiny new objects.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Brands Are Opinions

I’ve read and heard hundreds of definitions of brands over the years and while many of them are compelling in one way or another, most of them get bogged down in intellectualism.  To me, the definition is simple: brands are opinions.  

Of course, thinking of your brand as a collective opinion of your market reveals the classic notion of brand management as a rather hollow conceit.  Today’s socially-networked, highly-viral world enables the exchange of opinions with unprecedented reach and speed, thus the idea of ‘management’ overpromises; a more precise word would be ‘advocacy.’

How You Feel About a Brand = The Brand

How You Feel About a Brand = The Brand

Further, the Web 2.0 revolution means we no longer control every brand conversation.  To be truly effective today, we must move beyond the static concept of reporting structure management to a more nimble, balls-of-your-feet stance. Protecting and advancing consumers’ often quicksilver opinions demands we stay highly aware, consistently focused, and quickly responsive.

When I first started this blog, the convergence of digital and traditional advertising seemed critical to this changing industry.  Yet despite all the jawing and posturing, that is currently well underway; digital agencies are hiring traditional agency people and digital people are increasingly mainstreamed within traditional agencies.

Nevertheless, convergence remains the central issue, but it is increasingly the convergence of advertising and public relations.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79