Monthly Archives: March 2011

False Prophets Convention

Multi-Conferencing in Austin

Within the span of one mercurial week — a week that included earthquakes, tsunamis, financial market extremes, stateside tornadoes (and that’s just one guy, Charlie Sheen) — Austin, Texas hosted two of the most anticipated industry conferences of the year: the 4A’s Management Conference and South By Southwest. Last week, more false prophets descended upon the Land of the Longhorn than can be found in the entire Koran. Good thing they have all those bars downtown.

The big spin coming out of the 4A’s event (dubbed “Transformation 2011”) is the advertising industry is “coming back”. The New York Times headline chronicling the event heralded “Marketers Celebrate Glimmers of Recovery”. We are an industry known for celebrating glimmers. The statistics supporting said glimmers include increased budgets for the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards and at P&G and Kraft. Pardon my lack of participation in the celebration. This news could not be less relevant to the majority of 4A’s member agencies.

The American Association of Advertising Agencies consists of hundreds of small and mid-sized regional agencies. Its existence and survival relies upon a constituency of maverick, entrepreneurial local companies that we used to call ad agencies. Most of these firms will never get near Cincinnati (P&G) or Chicago (Kraft) no less produce a Super Bowl or Oscars spot. Like our society, the rich may get richer — those global, multi-national agencies fortunate enough to be on P&G’s roster — but the little guy will have to wait for the rest of the economy to recover. You’ll get nothing yet, and you’ll like it.

Conference attendees were assured that “what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger”. It figures that when all else fails, we resort to Nietszche, Existentialism and ultimately, Nihilism. I remember hearing this backwards battle cry when I worked at BBDO (often collaborating with 4A’s CEO Nancy Hill, not-so-ironically). But, I never understood it. It was our way of reconciling a lost new business pitch. I always thought that what makes us stronger is what makes us stronger; silly me. Neither Coca-Cola nor orange juice kills us. I’m betting only one actually makes us stronger. Don’t get me wrong, I like Nancy Hill a lot — once placed her with TBWA back in the day. If anyone can breathe some life into the 4A’s, it’s probably her.

When I first read the NY Times article on the conference, I was with a CEO at his agency which he founded in 1987 (with roots in the 50’s). They were 4A’s members for 20+ years and they recently withdrew their membership. Why? There was no tangible benefit to the agency. Once a database and research center , the 4A’s intelligence offerings drag behind newer, less-expensive alternatives. They encourage agencies to adopt newer technologies, yet embrace few themselves. Other than access to some proprietary research readily available or created elsewhere, why would a 20-person shop join the 4A’s — to be discovered by Procter & Gamble?

I always get a kick out of the perfunctory lip-service acknowledging the dearth of original budding talent in the industry. This year, the 3 Blowhards: Sorrell, Wren and Roth held a panel discussion on the ghastly vacuous black hole of talent coming up through industry ranks. In 2008, I sent a series of essays to the 4a’s to be considered as a “Best Practices” offering on Recruiting, Nurturing and Retaining agency talent. They were rejected on contact. And maybe they should have been because they were overly optimistic. The introduction to those essays is here:

Aside from having to suffer through cliche-ridden pep talks laced with aging and deceptive buzzwords such as “nimble” (glaciers move faster than WPP, IPG and Omnicom), “robust” (mid-sized agencies are down 30% pretty much across the board) and “agnostic” (code word: “inexpensive”) — member attendees got to throw back some Shiners and be posers at the conference and blues bars on 6th Street.

Speaking of 6th Street, one day after the agency honcho (brand-new-purchase-at-Allens) cowboy bootheels went a’wanderin’ out of town; and the next, a mass infestation of music industry hangers and hangers-on converges upon Austin like locusts. Sheesh. How much false optimism can one city deliver? It is somewhat fitting that two industries in the toilet would descend upon a cow town for salvation. When was the last time somebody white made any money in the music industry? That’s a tribute to true entrepreneurialism, not a racially biased observation.

Once upon a time, when rock and roll was actually relevant, South By Southwest was a place where young recording artists could get a record deal. It teemed with A&R types that could “discover” exciting new songwriters and swing a label deal and a publishing contract. The internet changed all that. iTunes changed all that. Technology changed all that. Ironically, the technology types have swooped in to “save” the very carcasses they created. Sadly, SXSW (what would it be without a tweetable acronym?) is now a technology marketing event. There are more marketing leeches in town than artists; and rock and roll remains an endangered genre. More hash tags came out of Austin last week than out of Haight-Asbury in the ’60’s. Problem is, like most of technology communications, there ain’t much money in it. At least for white folks.

As an aside, I recently heard a Chuck Berry interview from the early 60’s on WMLB AM. He was railing on Brian Wilson for blatantly lifting “Sweet Little Sixteen” and turning it into a “surfing soundtrack” for White America (note for note, “Surfin’ USA”). He eventually won his lawsuit. It’s poetic justice to see that kind of creative liberty come full circle, with the Brothas lifting riffs from Whiteys like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Aerosmith to mash-up rap hits. They make money. Why doesn’t anyone at SXSW?

The Anatomy of a New Campaign

What’s the Beef?

Beef seems a rather newsworthy topic these days. First, the 38% Taco Bell scandal (frankly, I’m surprised there is that much real beef in their taco meat). Just when we thought it was safe to swim in the erstwhile Mad Cow waters, and our national taco stand belies public trust with beef that is nearly two-thirds not. The resulting vitriol from special interest groups and the public grew to incendiary proportions. You would think they were guilty of bio-terrorism or something. I fail to see the logic in any legal complaint grounded on the claim that QSR chains disingenuously sell nutrition or food value. No, duh. We don’t need Morgan Spurlock or even Owen Marshall to know that. Imagine a class-action suit founded on the fulcrum of fast food total disclosure? Count me out and save the stamp for the time-sensitive proxy vote mass mailer.

On the heels of this national QSR beef debacle, America’s Last Roast Beef Stand, Arby’s, has rolled out a new advertising campaign to breathe life into their anachronistic brand. I have always loved Arby’s — the Jamocha Shakes, the Beef n’ Cheddar, the Horsey Sauce. Ever since Roy Rogers disappeared, Arby’s has been the last dinosaur standing in the roast beef subcategory of QSR. And for an unashamed beefy guy like me, that fostered an enduring courtship that has become a rare and reliable relationship. Extra rare.

So Arby’s recent business struggles hit particularly close to home. For awhile it seemed as if the brand was on the brink of extinction. They disappeared from the QSR conversation, with the possible exception of old-school carnivores like myself. Faced with the looming anxiety of roastbeefophobia, I began tracking the brand, its value proposition and its equities and tried to figure out if America really wanted a (kinda) roast beef sandwich out of a window.

Certainly, the brand faced more than enough external obstacles. For one, Subway changed the SANDWICH conversation with the $5 foot long (Arby’s average ticket is 30% higher for half the sandwich). For another, Chick-Fil-A delivered on a perceptibly healthier and tastier product. But, more than anything, the new economy forever cemented dollar menus and value meals as staples in the QSR world. Arby’s, had none and couldn’t get out of their own way to boot. They lost their way, rolling out something called a roastburger (it was NOT actually burger, but… you guessed it, it was a roast beef sandwich). Talk about confusing your customers and torpedoing your point of differentiation.

Enter a hotshot new CMO with high-profile creative campaigns in his portfolio and a commitment to rebuilding the brand. How do you make a high-waisted khaki clothed, bad wristwatched, short-sleeved-dress-shirt-wearing square like Arby’s seem cool? Or relevant? Or, how about if we just start at tolerable? You do what Burger King did when it was in the scrap heap of QSR also-rans: you hire a hot creative ad agency to speak to your core in a cool way. Arby’s is a bit of a cult, a 3,600 unit cult, but cultish among QSR’s nonetheless. You grow your cult by speaking to your core and inviting others to listen in.

Enter BBDO NY, the agency renown for big-budget, celebrity spokesperson TV commercials. When Arby’s hired them in December, I couldn’t wait to see what they were cooking up — maybe Charlie Sheen? Someone topical and unapologetic — “I’m rarely hungry, but when I am, I go to Arby’s because it’s better for you than drugs”. That would have been pretty cool. Or maybe even Clint Eastwood selling his line and doing a $10 million spot “Go ahead, make my day. I’ll take an Angus Wrap Combo.” Why not? Chrysler spent $11 million for a Super Bowl spot 15 months after a federal bailout and sold Eminem back to us as nationalism. I mean if you’re not going for the big TV spokesperson thing, why hire BBDO? Not to do guerilla or live billboards, I hope.

Ironically, it was Crispin Porter + Bogusky that resorted to spokespeople for Burger King (quirky types like Darius Rucker, Erik Estrada and Tony Stewart). But, they featured them in cool, non-linear ways. Shockingly, BBDO and Arby’s didn’t. The new campaign broke last week. And I’m not quite sure what to make of it. It’s so un-BBDO and un-Arby’s that I’m actually stunned beyond immediate comment. I feel a bit like the audience at “Springtime for Hitler”, the play-within-the-play of the Broadway revival hit, “The Producers”. At first, my jaw dropped — not just as an ad guy, but as a member of the Arby’s cult. I felt a bit like they were “insulting my Fuhrer” (another “Producers” reference). And then, I laughed. And then laughed louder, and harder; so by the end of the first :60, I had laughed so hard, I was nearly crying. And I’m not sure if I laughed at the spot, or the irony.

Truth be told, Arby’s is the genuinely quirky  brand compared to Burger King. And what BBDO has given us is a quirky “vehicle”: a Conan-esque Everyman character leading Fast Foodies through hybrid “We are the World”-meets-“Glee” verses with Mitch Miller bouncing ball lyrics super-imposed on the bottom of our screen. The new tag line,”Good Mood Food” is supposed to remind us that we are better off when we eat at Arby’s. It’s a choice that we should feel good about. At least better than the way we feel after eating a re-heated frozen puck that somewhat resembles a burger; or that meat they pull off the waxed paper at Subway; or the chicken they fry in pickle brine at Chick-Fil-A. And without question, certainly better than a visit to Taco Bell.

I’m still somewhat stunned by it all. So, for once, I don’t have an opinion. Not yet, at least. I invite you to influence it (role reversal is sexy). This is the first ever Palma Poll. The new Arby’s campaign from BBDO. Yay or nay? Comments welcome.