Blitz Magazine: On the Business of Media Communications


Mike Cowan (August 2008)

The upswing of direct mail is no surprise. This is the age of ever-increasing media fragmentation, 'Do Not Call' registries, the growth of the Internet, and the emergence of other factors that have caused marketers to place a premium on one-to-one communications with consumers. Further, technologies have also made it easier than ever to measure ROI on marketing dollars, putting an added burden on marketers to justify their strategies. Overcoming such challenges has led to smarter solutions.

If you believe that great direct mail is about relevant personalization, then you’re going to love Personal URLs – or PURLs – the latest development in the personalization, efficiency and effectiveness of direct mail.

As any marketing professional knows, personal communication always delivers better results. PURLs not only enhance the personalization of direct mail campaigns, but they provide a number of other benefits that multiply their impact and returns.

Imagine creating direct mail pieces for donors, existing clients or prospects, customized with graphics, photos and text to match each individual’s preferences. Tailoring an offer to appeal to one person, and then modifying it to target another. Now imagine that functionality achieved in one press run, and further, driving each recipient to a personalized website where you can capture additional information and engage in a one-to-one conversation.

With PURLs, you can expect automatically-triggered follow-up emails to respondents, variable email content determined by web activity, and automatically-generated leads distributed via email, PDA or cell phone.

What’s more, all customer visits and online activities are tracked, and reports generated, to help fine-tune marketing activities, and data is automatically delivered for immediate upload to CRM systems. You can even watch the real-time results of your campaign in action. Tools like these offer the ability to optimize programs and offers, and ensure that your program achieves results.

Effective channel integration is the goal of every marketer.  How do you integrate email, direct mail, internet and mass advertising into a single campaign, and then watch the results from all channels unfold in real time on your desktop?  PURLs are the bridge connecting all the channels and the tracking mechanism.

Remember that 30+% of direct mail recipients prefer to respond online. Are you there for them? Direct mail and the Internet make a smart pair, offering two distinct flavours. And consumers like a little of both. 

So why do we continue to receive direct mail that is almost certain to engage the shredder instead of the intended recipient? The answer isn’t that complex. Some traditional direct mail campaigns continue to realize fair results, supporting the 'why change?' argument. In other instances, some mature organizations are simply challenged to execute change.

But if realizing greater returns from direct mail is part of your strategy, PURLs offer a smart solution. With relevant personalized messaging coupled with PURLs, it’s not uncommon to see response rates increase twofold.

With the Do-Not-Call registry due to launch in September, and the challenges this will pose to marketers, that PURLs' direct-marketing solutions will find their way into marketing plans. After all, when the Do-Not-Call registry launched in the US, 60% of American households signed up. I don’t believe we should expect anything less in Canada.

PURLs aren’t just a solution for big business either. As the cost of PURLs is primarily driven by the actual number of personalized URLs used, this solution can be tailored to match the needs and budgets of businesses of all sizes. A small retailer with a compact target audience has the same ability to execute a program as a national client utilizing two million PURLs. 

To make the most of today’s advanced PURLs however, it pays to follow some sage advice. Start by working with a PURL pro, someone who has learned from experience and understands how to navigate potential logistical issues. Make sure your PURL has compelling visuals, and flawless execution and web functionality. Before you move too quickly, develop a strategy. Finally, have a few people outside of your organization test- drive the PURL to see if it makes sense to them. Best of all, engage a one-stop-shop that offers all the solutions from digital variable printing, data work, and URL software under one roof. It will save you headaches, time and money.

Since this firm embraced PURLs late last year, we've been amazed by the results. As each execution unfolds, we discover new and unique concepts to make the delivery more creative and engaging. My hunch is that, as more clients try this technology, PURLs will increasingly win favour as the must-have component of any modern, direct mail campaign.

Mike Cowan is Director of Business Development at Vancouver's Kirk Integrated Marketing Services.


Sidebar: The PURL Process

Just a few years ago, the transition to intelligent direct mail was significantly more complex. Today, variable digital printing technology combined with PURL software is nearly bulletproof.

A PURL is an individual web address that marketers can use to have prospects log on to a website. That website is specific to that prospect. An example would be, which would direct Mike Cowan to a landing page tailored specifically for him.

A typical PURL assignment project starts with a brief consultation with the PURL provider. The database is handed over to the provider and a unique PURL field is assigned to each individual record. Artwork is uploaded and the web pages are designed. Questions and content can be tailored to support the program objectives. Each PURL can have different content, specific to the responder. The direct mail pieces are variably imaged with the PURLs, and then mailed out. Once the recipient logs onto his personalized web page, he is engaged and the interaction process begins. As the survey pages are completed, information is tracked in real time and available immediately via the tracking and reporting tools. The response triggers are immediate and come in two categories, internal and external. External triggers can be a thank you or confirmation of services e-mail, or a direction to complete an e-commerce transaction. An example of an internal trigger is a sales lead notification sent via e-mail, PDA or text message. This allows the service or sales process to be extremely prompt.

Pricing breaks down into three areas; actual set up, access to measurement and reporting tools, and individual PURL  assignment, which is typically a cost per record. Costs for set up and dashboard access are usually flat fees, regardless of PURL quantity. The cost per PURL generally decreases as the quantity increases.

The processes are really no different than those of a traditional direct mail campaign, except for this one additional step. Like any good integrated marketing campaign, all creative execution should be consistent between direct mail, e-mail, digital and mass media solutions. Choose the right partner and PURL integration is seamless.

Kristie Painting (November 2008)

No single innovation has democratized our world more than the Internet. With no more barriers to entry than a laptop and something to say, personal websites have flourished. And while the thrill of seeing your words writ large in cyberspace holds an undeniable appeal, many armchair publishers seek a greater dream of their achievements being recognized with monetary reward. But the vast majority of websites are never monetized. However, if financial gain is part of the game plan, here are a few vital requirements.

First and most important: content is king. This is true now more so than ever before, as demands on consumers' time become ever more staggering. If your goal is to hold users' attention, and compel them to return, you'd better have something meaningful to say.

Here are some key questions to consider. Is there an audience? Not all content is created equal-for yours to stand out, it has to be relevant and well-written. Is it unduplicated? Make sure that what you have to say hasn't already been said hundreds of times around the world. Is it fresh? Users may visit once, but if you want to compel them to return, you have to provide a reason. Content must be refreshed, and users must know when that has happened. Is it 'sticky'? Does your website draw people in, only to lose them seconds later? Make sure that your content is engaging and draws users further into your site. This leads to high user engagement, which is a valuable metric within the advertiser space.

The true value of creating a valuable content site, however, lies in its ability to build a scalable audience. Without scale, it is very difficult to monetize a site, regardless of its content. Smaller sites can join an ad network, where they may be grouped appropriately, and have ads run across the site. In those cases, CPMs and sell-through rates tend to be lower, and the overall size of the opportunity is limited by the size of the inventory. However, once a site builds an audience with scale, a few things happen.

Your site will start ranking on industry measures such as comScore Media Metrix, and advertisers start taking your calls, or start calling you themselves. You can move away from just monetizing your site through ad networks, and look for opportunities to represent your site as a stand-alone property. This represents the chance to capture a larger portion of an overall ad buy, rather than just a piece through an ad network. More importantly, with scale comes the opportunity to build custom sponsorships and integrations. These may require resource-intensive redesigns, hard codes and/or editorializing - and there's no way this work will be justified without the revenue associated with scaled inventory levels. One final note on scale: be absolutely confident in your technology solution's ability to grow with your audience.

Google can teach the rest of the world a thing or two about scale. Granted, it fulfilled the first part of the equation by getting into the market first, creating a search engine before anyone else had really thought about it, and piggybacking on Yahoo's growing audience to build its brand. Then, of course, it wrote a killer algorithm that worked better than anyone else's. But now, it has scale. This means that it can sell millions of search terms at pennies a click, and still post multi-billion dollar quarterly earnings.

Facebook is another great example. Having generated 35 billion pageviews worldwide in October 2007, it has made two things possible. First, it can leverage the volume of its page impressions to generate significant revenue by running direct-response ads against a cost-per-acquisition target. But more importantly, it has created a vast community that allows it to build multi-million dollar integrations for brands to talk directly to its consumer base. While this model is still unproven, the lesson here is: without scale, it's not possible to build it, let alone make money from it.

However, not everyone can be Facebook. Building massive scale is, by definition, reserved for only a few online giants. So how's a new website to get by? Let's go back to Economics 101. Bearing in mind all of the initial points about content, start by looking for niches that are in low supply and high demand. This strategy allows a site to charge higher CPMs for its content, and drive revenues with smaller levels of inventory.

Let's look at a few examples. Objective automotive sites, with strong content that attracts auto enthusiasts and car purchase intenders, experience extremely high sell- through rates and command excellent CPMs. Automotive advertisers are aware that consumers have selected their vehicles long before they ever step onto a dealer site, and recognize the value of positioning the messaging in front of these key buyers early in the process. And with only 1.5 million new vehicles selling in Canada each year, they are prepared to pay for the opportunity to intercept that decision-making process.

Another great example is the emergence of environmental issues at the forefront of society. Despite the focus on 'green' issues, good quality environmental content can be very tough to locate online. The result? An increase in its value - advertisers will be willing to pay premium prices to reach consumers with a timely message that resonates with their environmental concerns. In short, find a niche or gap in the online space where advertisers want more inventory than there is available, and you will find an opportunity to generate revenue.

Finally, but equally as important, is the functionality and design of your website. When building your site, take the time to look at other sites and think about design, functionality, and advertiser requirements. Your site must work, navigation must be clean, and the design must be appealing to users. Remember that you will have to appease advertisers to attract advertisers. This means including standard IAB ad units, ad placements above the fold, and a willingness to support rich media. There are many advertisers who will not buy any ad unit that falls below the fold. Factor that into your design thinking at an early stage. You should also consider what kind of integrated opportunities you are comfortable accepting, both from an editorial perspective, and a design perspective. Build those opportunities into the site at the outset so that you don't require a complicated redesign down the road.

Also, consult with professionals in the field. If you are just starting out, working with an ad network allows you to outsource your sales effort to professionals who are already in front of agencies, instead of trying to compete with them. This might translate to an ad exchange, or a semi-transparent network at the outset, and graduate to an advertising representation house as your site gains unique users and media profile. Or, if you decide to retain an in-house sales staff, invest in capable sales professionals to represent it in its best light, and negotiate the appropriate market rates for the inventory.

There is more to website monetization than If I Build It, They Will Come, but by following a few basic maxims, the road to success is fairly straightforward. Build interesting, unique content that either creates a mass market, or a desirable niche market. Make your site beautiful, functional, and advertiser-friendly. Then, take it to market with confidence, and enjoy the fruits of your labour.

Kristie Painting is Director of Sales at Olive Canada Network

David Cravit (November 2008)

Imagine that's it 1980 and you're 65 years old.

What have your life experiences been? How much longer do you think you're going to live? How much longer are people around you living? And how do the answers to those questions shape your behavior in the marketplace – and, thus, the attitude of the sales and marketing community toward you?

You were born in 1915 and you grew up in the Depression and fought in World War II. Your experiences made you cautious, a saver rather than a spender. You've been saving, in fact, precisely for this last phase of your life – 10 years, maybe 15, tops, in which to enjoy (hopefully) a relatively dignified and pain-free glide to the finish line.

Not surprisingly, members of the sales and marketing community have almost no interest in you. They figure your brand preferences are already set in stone. They note you're frugal, and probably living on a fixed income. And besides, you're going to be six feet under in a decade or less. So why should they bother?

This set of assumptions may have been fine for 1980. But it's wildly inaccurate for 2008. Yet, not only does this still govern most sales and marketing attitudes and strategies but, believe it or not, sales and marketing professionals are actually resisting the biggest and wealthiest segment of the consumer marketplace.

The Zoomers – Canadians 45-plus – add up to 14.5 million people, control almost 60% of all consumer spending, and are the only demographic segment whose net worth actually increased over the past 20 years. Yet the advertising and marketing world remain obsessed with the so-called 'youth market' – a segment whose share of the population and share of consumer spending has been in decline.

Not surprisingly, the Zoomers have noticed.

A study by US cable network TVLand indicated that almost half of Baby Boomers (the oldest now being 63) feel overlooked by marketers who advertise on television. Only 3% of them said they were extremely satisfied with the TV programming options available to them. And this is the generation that grew up on TV.

In the UK, a 2004 survey published by specialist marketing agency Millennium revealed that 86% of Boomers felt ignored by the marketing industry, and 70% felt patronized by advertising.

It's no better in Canada. In an online poll we conducted of our own audience at ZoomerMedia, 80% of respondents said marketers were not interested in them and not communicating effectively with them.

Why do so many in our industry still remain blind to the importance of the Zoomer market? And – aside from not allocating enough dollars to reach them – why are so many unable to frame their sales messages effectively?

In my experience, marketers are, slowly, beginning to catch on to the numbers. They nod their heads and say, "Hey, yeah, the's big..." But then they go on acting as if the Zoomer phenomenon simply means there are more "old people." In other words, they acknowledge the trend as a quantitative issue...but assume the qualitative issue is the same as it's always been. Old people aren't spenders, they don't have much time left, and their brand preferences are locked in stone, so why bother?

You have no hope of effectively tapping this market until you realize that the "old people" of today are not the same as the "old people" of any previous generation in history. In my book, ‘The New Old,' I make the case that this is a qualitative issue: "An astonishing process is under way today. It's just starting to take shape, and its influence will be felt for centuries – maybe forever. The process is being carried out by the demographic segment that has been poked, prodded, analyzed, loved and hated more than any other group in history – the Baby Boomers. What the Baby Boomers are doing is, quite simply, destroying our entire concept of aging. The Boomers are, in effect, de-aging."

The effects of this phenomenon influence groups older than the Boomers, hence our embrace of the entire 45-plus demographic under the umbrella name of ‘Zoomers.'

It shouldn't be too hard to understand what's happening because it's happening right before your eyes. Let's go back to that example I led off with – someone who was 65 in 1980.

Now let's look at someone who is 65 today.

If you're 65 in 2008, you were born in 1943. You grew up in the post-war Baby Boom era (although you're technically a year or two older than the earliest Baby Boomers) - a time of peace and prosperity. Also a time of high inflation, easy credit, and a non-stop proliferation of new products and exciting technology. A time in which it made sense to borrow, not save. When Pierre Elliott Trudeau was the hot new product in Canadian politics, you were only 25. You may have attended Woodstock. Your contemporaries include Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, George Bush and Bill Clinton. And, thanks to today's medical capabilities, you're probably looking at another 25 years. Minimum. In other words, you're still a player. And you've got the money to be a player.

You ought to be the most desirable audience for any marketer out there. But most of them still don't get it.

What do sales and marketing people have to do? How can they better understand, reach and sell to this demographic?

In ‘The New Old,' I offer a questionnaire that enables readers to evaluate to what degree their own organization is, or is not, responsive to the Zoomers. Since space here is limited, let's jump to some solutions.

First, let's look at the enemies of an effective sales and marketing campaign:

  • Condescension – I call it the "there, there dear" syndrome. It communicates the idea that the target audience is old and helpless and relatively disengaged. It's particularly lethal in the area of computers or other high-tech products, including the Internet: do not make the assumption that this market is too old to understand or use technology. The reality couldn't be more different: they're all online and over 1 million Zoomers spend 2+ hours a day on the Internet. In Canada, over 3 million own home theatres, over 4 million own digital cameras, over 7 million have cell phones; over 9 million have personal computers.
  • Vagueness – This is the generation that grew up on TV. They know how to tune out the bullshit. They're interested in information - in fact, they're hungry for information. They actively want to know how your product or service can make their lives better. They won't be fobbed off by vague imagery and soft content.
  • Insincerity – This is an extension of the previous point. Some companies feel they can reach this group by pandering to them through imagery that evokes their past lives and experiences. This will never work if it is seen as a gratuitous add-on. If your product or service is irrelevant to their needs (or if you can't explain why it's relevant), then you're not going to be able to save the day by shoe-horning a Grateful Dead song into an otherwise vacuous message.

So what are the buttons you should be pushing? What are the appeals that are likely to work?

The key drivers of Zoomer appeal are:

  • Health and Well-Being – Zoomers want to live longer and be healthy and active for as long as possible. Show how your product or service can contribute.
  • Quality of Life – They want the best. They want to be surrounded by interesting and enjoyable things. They particularly want to benefit from new technology.
  • A Feeling of Youthfulness – They act 10-15 years younger than their chronological age. A product or service that says "You've still got the magic" will be coveted.
  • Exploration, Discovery, New adventures and Experiences – They're still making plans! Anything that speaks to education, exploration, adventure and trying new things will generate strong interest.
  • Independent Living – They're going into that nursing home...never. Show how your product or service can enhance their environment, making it safer and easier for them to live independently.
  • Fashion, Style, Sex Appeal – They want to look good, feel good, and be seen that way by others. Does your product or service help them in this area? And note: Sex continues into the 70s and 80s.
  • Exceptional Service – Let's face it, these people can be very high- maintenance customers. They want service that is highly personalized, that anticipates their needs, that delivers superior quality for the price. You can win on this one attribute alone.
  • Convenience – They want products and services that are easy to use and shopping experiences that are as convenient as possible.

Tailor your product or service offerings, and the content, style and tone of your sales and marketing messages, to as many of these desired attributes as possible. This means digging deep into what you are actually offering, and trying to improve it substantively – you cannot rely only on the message.

Look at your product or service and run it up against each of the key drivers. Ask yourself:

  • How competitive is this product or service today, vis-à-vis each key Zoomer driver?
  • How could it be repositioned? Could some of its attributes be emphasized or highlighted so as to better fit with one or more of these drivers?
  • How could it be modified or improved to fit with each key driver?
  • What entirely new products or services could we introduce within our overall category of business, to better appeal to the key drivers?

This exercise will force you to constantly evaluate what it is you're offering and how you're framing it. Remember that the Zoomers is the all-time "been there, done that" market – this group wants the real stuff, its members are very good at tuning out fluff, and substance will always trump tap-dancing.

That said, when it comes to actual communication, there are some important dos and don'ts.

1, Think Products and Benefits - Not Psychographics

The trick here is not to over-think the psychology. What this market wants, above all else, is relevance. Zoomers want to quickly understand how your product or service relates to what they're looking for. Every Boomer can remember the classic Wendy's burger campaign, "Where's the beef?" Take that as your mantra.

2. Show, Don't Tell

Far too much of today's advertising worships creativity for its own sake and fails to communicate the benefits of buying and using whatever it is you're selling. I'm not saying your message should be boring. But the key is to communicate the benefits clearly, and to cast your product or service in the context of the Zoomer lifestyle. And this, in its own right, should be even more exciting than anything an ad agency's creative department can dream up. Think of it – the substance of your product or service is actually contributing to the Zoomer revolution. It is actually helping a generation that is shattering all the traditional ideas of what it means to age. Showing that role - bringing that experience to life – ought to be a creative assignment people would kill for.

3. Don't Let Anyone Under 40 Write Your Copy. And Make it a Firing Offence to Produce Work That Shows Any Sign of Condescension

I am completely serious. You are playing for tens of millions of dollars, perhaps much more. How can you let the message be created by people who are 20 or 30 years younger than the target audience? Especially since these people, in the experience of most observers of the ad scene (including me) have not demonstrated even the slightest ability to understand and communicate with Zoomers?

If it were up to me, your ad agency would immediately replace the entire creative team with Boomers. Nobody understands this market better than the people who are in it.

If that's impossible, require your copywriters to get a signed note from one of their parents before they submit any work to you. The note should say that the proposed ad or commercial has been read by the parent, and that the parent did not roll his/her eyes, burst into hysterical laughter, or want to punch the writer.

4. Create As Many Opportunities as Possible for Boomers to Engage in Dialogue with You

Zoomers are very interested in high levels of service, and in being treated as important customers. They've been that way all their lives. It's only now, as they butt up against the traditional frontiers of "oldness", that they discover that marketers are no longer interested in them.

Remember, too, that Zoomers have spent their lifetimes being cynical about advertising and sales, and suspicious of the claims of marketers, particularly where those claims have to do with the marketers' professed attitudes toward consumers. "Your call is important to us" – a staple of the automated telephone responses that are the norm in business today – is perhaps the most exquisite expression of "We couldn't care less about you, or why else would we substitute this recorded message for a live person?" Eventually, all these pious expressions of good will - so blatantly unfulfilled in the customer's real-life experience – become background noise, and all large organizations morph into the same remote, indifferent, incompetent blob, to be navigated around, rather than engaged.

This leaves a pretty big vacuum for someone to do it right. Why not you?

The Internet provides a quick way of achieving this. A Zoomer-focused site can provide many opportunities to solicit feedback, create dialogue (between Zoomers and your organization, as well as between Zoomers and each other), and give your organization a human face while showing the Zoomers how important you believe them to be. Consider

  • Polls, surveys and other feedback devices
  • The opportunity to rate products and services
  • Chat and forums, where your site can become a meeting place
  • Podcasts, webinars, and other online events, both archived and in real time
  • Virtual trade shows, fairs, exhibits, conventions
  • Blogs and videos from your corporate executives, with talkback features for the audience
  • Value-added "clubs" that offer enhanced services (or discounts) to frequent shoppers

The technology to execute every one of these already exists, and Zoomers are already heavy Internet users. Remember my earlier point: they are actively seeking relevant and helpful information.

5. Until the TV Industry Wakes Up, Your Best Media Are the Internet, Radio and Magazines

This audience grew up with TV and loves TV, but there is relatively little programming that appeals to it today. Indeed, the TV industry appears to be doing everything it can to drive them away. Until that changes, other media will get you there more quickly and efficiently. Remember that Zoomers like to read, and are hungry for information. The Internet is the fastest and most convenient medium for product research, and magazines offer the most focused and in-depth coverage of lifestyle or specific topics. Radio can also offer excellent reach: the audiences are growing older as the kids abandon the radio stations in favour of their IPods.

To sum up:

  • Canada's 14.5 million Zoomers control the marketplace
  • Before you can sell them effectively, you have to understand this as a qualitative issue. They are literally creating a revolution in aging, and they are emphatically not the same "old people" as ever before.
  • They want to hear what you have to say. They're rooting for you to have solutions they can use. What they don't want – and what they will punish, ruthlessly, in the marketplace – is fakery.

David Cravit has over 30 years' experience in advertising, marketing and consulting in both Canada and the US. He is now Executive Vice President of Zoomer Media, one of North America's foremost experts on marketing to ‘the new old,' and author of book The New Old, which will be released in October.

Peter Wilken (November 2008)

Thanks Coco!

It was Coco, our uber-friendly chocolate Labrador puppy, who introduced me to Louise, the editor of this magazine, in a lick-fest on the beach by the Maritime Museum (the dog and Louise, not me and...well you know what I mean).

By chance, I was wearing an old BBDO Asia Pacific T-shirt. In a former life I ran BBDO's Asia Pacific region out of Hong Kong. Louise commented on it, and we got talking. “How about a piece on your thoughts about what Vancouver can learn from the rest of world?” she suggested.

So, after 25 years in communications, brand and business consulting working around the world, if the Vancouver communication industry came to me for advice, what would I say?

It’s unapologetically subjective and, after only a year here, little more than skin-deep. Then again, when I consult to CEOs on change management, I encourage them to pay special attention to the newcomers. Why? Because they’re the ones most likely to ask the 'dumb questions' that challenge the status quo; they haven’t been brainwashed by the establishment and their cultural naivety is an asset.

Three Themes

Three of my favourite themes appear to me to be particularly relevant here:
1. Stretch your horizons. Reach beyond.
2. It’s ideas that count, not the style.
3. Focus, and collaborate.

Reach Beyond

Smash the imaginary dome over BC that’s limiting your horizon. Brilliant ideas and good strategy aren’t bound by geography or culture. Vancouver has an entrepreneurial culture and, from what I’ve seen, this applies to the communication industry. There are some very smart, talented, creative people here with the power to change the world with their ideas. Today, 60% of British Columbia’s GDP is from small companies, BC is a hotbed of entrepreneurialism, and it could become a mecca for ideas companies.

Why be limited to a BC client-catchment area? And why the tendency to look eastward to Toronto, New York or London?

In my day, the large networked-agency headquarters tended to view their smaller provincial offices as remote out-posts, necessary to keep the local clients happy, but not capable of generating the world-beating campaigns. But that's changed—the currency of the large traditional agency networks is now much diminished, both as a percentage of revenue and source of innovative ideas.

Twenty-five years ago the percentage of total communications services expenditure spent on the traditional channels of television, print and radio, cinema and outdoor would have been in excess of 75%. Today, companies like WPP (which accounts for 10% of total expenditure alone) have 54% of their revenues from 'alternative' marketing services--and are pushing for this to become two thirds of the mix. The diversification of these mega-communication groups has resulted in a rash of specialist consultancies and companies that provide creative services, idea generation and brand consultancy, all traditionally the territory of the advertising agency groups.

Change occurs at the periphery, not at the centre, or by committee. When there’s a fundamental change to the set of rules we’ve become used to (it’s called a paradigm shift but I hate that jargony expression), it’s normally created by the satellites, the mavericks or experts from other disciplines that challenge conventional wisdom with upside-down thinking. Charles Handy likened the change agents to fleas (the small companies) dancing around the ears of elephants (the big companies).

The old set of rules said: ‘We’re small because our clients are small. They're provincial clients mostly with small budgets. We’d like to deal with bigger international clients, but our HQ in (insert Toronto, New York, London or wherever) deals with them.’

The new set of rules says: ‘Every business wants brilliant ideas to build its brands and its business. We don’t have to be big to develop big ideas. We do need the confidence, competence and culture to do it, and we have that.'

Some companies are doing it already. One Vancouver design company I met with set out to target only international clients within a specialist airport and retail niche and has 100% of it’s client mix from overseas, mostly in Asia. Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and Bangkok are recognized centres of creative excellence - Vancouver could become one too.

It’s Ideas That Count

Spend your time creating, recognizing and nurturing brilliant ideas and bringing them to life. Don't waste your time polishing turds.

Lately, we’ve heard the phrase ‘lipstick on a pig’ a lot, mostly in reference to the US’s handling of the economic crisis. But it’s also an apposite reference for the vast majority of communications in Canada (and the rest of the world by the way). Yes, yes, there are some wonderful campaigns out there too.  But let's have a reality check.

When I started in advertising in London over a quarter of a century ago, it was the tail-end of the golden ‘Saatchi Age’ that had created a genuine shift in creativity in the industry that many others rose to emulate. Even then, of the total volume of advertising messages out there, perhaps only 5% were exceptionally brilliant, 20% were good to passable, and 70% were poor to insultingly dreadful.

How has that ratio changed in 25 years? Not much. And that’s a pretty sad reflection on our communication industry—even automotive manufacturers (at least the Japanese, Korean and Germans) have innovated and improved dramatically since then.

Here’s the thing: highly-polished turds are still turds. Superb craftsmanship and expensive technical execution can’t disguise a weak concept or the lack of a differentiating, compelling idea.

I’ve seen very little to suggest the Canadian communication industry isn’t still trapped in the ‘bang ‘em over the head’ mode...go on, repeat it again...talking heads is the thing...the more verbiage the better...spell out the strategy in case they don’t get it...brand name repetition is the thing...add the compulsory un-funny quip at the end...explain the joke incase they don’t get it…” (If you think I'm exaggerating I urge you to record the commercial breaks in a typical show and watch them back to back...or listen to any one of the number of automotive radio ads).

I advocate communications that appeal to the intelligence, rather than insult it. Messages that require processing, that involve and engage - these might actually begin to rise above the litter, actually achieve rule No.1 (get noticed), and then justify the intrusion.

Focus and Collaborate

As with nature and as with brands, the two dominant forces are diversification and entropy (moving from order to disorder, or decay) and diversification. If you use these forces to your advantage you’ll champion diversification and specialization to avoid decay.

Small companies can’t do everything, nor should they want to. Focus on what you excel at and enjoy doing, Celebrate it and be the best at what you choose to do...then collaborate with other ‘best’ small companies in diversified fields. Specialization means collaboration with other specialists to provide security and growth.

There are a lot of fun, confident, go-forward companies out there, and there are a lot of nervous, defensive ones. I believe that Vancouver can become a centre of creative and strategic excellence, and I’d go further to suggest the Portland/Seattle/Vancouver triangle should actively position itself as such.

Smash that imaginary dome over British Columbia that sets an artificial horizon - be yourself, celebrate your difference and conquer the world.

How do you focus? Well that's a whole other story in its own right, but it begins with a strong understanding of how you are currently perceived, then articulating your own compelling promise...

Peter Wilken is founder of the Vancouver consultancy Dolphin Brand Strategy.



Subscribe to our newsletter. Don’t miss any news or stories.

We do not spam!