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The new Edelman Trust Barometer Study is out and causing quite a stir among marketing people. The buzz surrounding the report is primarily because it shows a significant one-year decline in the perceived value of “friends” as a trusted source re: brand trial and preference.

Many pundits are gleefully quoting this single datapoint as evidence that the social influence “fad” is starting to fade.

I think this is a big mistake.

For starters, words matter and the term “friends” has been severely cheapened and confused due to the social media lexicon. Real friends will forever remain a source of trust and confidence for Americans. We are greatly influenced by people we know and admire, and as media fragmentation continues, our reliance on these sources will increase.

Secondly, it is important to remember that brand “conversations,” as we define them here, have never been limited to or framed by the social influence movement. We don’t endorse a cannibalizing view of social media and we openly reject the “advertising is dead” mantra.

Instead, our position is that “we do work worth talking about,” no matter what the media. This is not a new position for our firm, nor is it an attempt to promote ourselves with a social media spin.

We are marketing communications experts who are passionate and gifted at stimulating, measuring and sustaining brand conversations — which is vital in an era of “always on, always accessible” media.

Therefore, while the term “conversations” may become a casualty of the social media debate, what should not be lost is a singular focus on helping customers better connect with and through a client’s brand.

This has always been the strength of great agencies and it will never lose its value.

See the good.

Partner Is Greater Than  Vendor
Partner Is Greater Than  Vendor

When I first started out in advertising, a very smart copywriter told me that you can either be a vendor or a partner to your clients. If your client sees your agency as a vendor, you can do fine work. But, if you can become a true partner with your client, those are the relationships that allow you to do your best work.

For many business people, the word “vendor” isn’t meant as a slight and I certainly don’t take it personally when the term is used. But as my friend Gary Brandon says, “Words matter,” and I’ve tried to be mindful of how I describe the companies that our agency works with to produce marketing and advertising for our clients.

Having just completed a lengthy RFP, the words “trusted partner” have been typed fairly often on my laptop. The truth is, Lewis has dozens of “trusted” and “valued” partners and very few vendors.

A couple partners I’d like to mention just helped us with a project in Haiti. Steve Moe of Wahoo Films here in Birmingham has shot dozens of spots with Lewis over the last 20 years and has long been a “go to guy” for our agency.

Proton, an edit house in New York, is a more recent partner the last five years, but has consistently delivered amazing work.

The video here is a labor of love for a pro bono client, The Joseph School. Steve traveled with our team to Haiti and shot most of the footage. Keith Olwell and James Long of Proton both gave generously of their time to make this project so successful. And, they introduced us to a very cool band from Iceland, Sigur Rós, who has graciously allowed us to use one of their songs as the soundtrack for the video.

So, whether your partner is in New York, Reykjavik, Nashville, Port-au-Prince or Birmingham, remember that you’ll always get their best work if you truly allow them to be your partner.

The President, a lizard and a cashier walk into a bar…
The President, a lizard and a cashier walk into a bar…

Who are the most ubiquitous and competitive brands in advertising?

Miller Light and Bud Light? Ford and Chevrolet? Burger King and McDonalds?

What about insurance?

In the last 10+ years, insurance, specifically car insurance, has become one of the most hotly contested categories in advertising.

Blame Warren Buffett for at least part of this. When the ‘Oracle of Omaha’ and Berkshire Hathaway snapped up Geico (Government Employees Insurance Company) in 1996 it enabled Geico to make serious investments in their brand and helped spark an advertising battle among insurers that helped catapult spending to record levels.

From 2003 to 2007, TNS Media Intelligence measured 103.8% category growth in ad spend for insurance from $1.67 billion to $3.41 billion.

When you look at TNS’ data during that same ’03-’07 period just for auto insurance spending, the growth was even more dramatic: 195%.

Why is this category so white-hot?

The ability to quickly quote several different insurance companies has provided consumers with a level of price transparency that has flattened the playing field. The problem for insurance companies is that they are now perceived to be about the same in the products they offer, the service they provide and the convenience of buying or updating policies. Right or wrong, car insurance is now seen by many as a commodity.

In response, Flo, the Caveman, and now The World’s Greatest Spokesperson in the World are all vying to be “the lowest cost provider” with the character making their sales pitch really the only differentiating brand attribute for each insurance company.

So, would you rather buy from the googly eyes or Erin the eSurance spy with pink hair?

The answer for insurance companies may not be to keep jamming more characters at consumers at 300 GRP’s a week supported by constant logo placement at sporting events. Instead, why not borrow a page from one of the most successful marketers in the world?

While it is a far jump from car insurance to personal computers and music players, Apple is a brand that more marketers should emulate. Their products look different and work differently and stand so far apart from other products that the products themselves are their first and best advertising.

Lee Clow the chief creative officer of Apple’s longtime ad agency has said as much, “The Apple Store was probably the best ad we ever did. Everything a brand does is advertising.”

So, maybe instead of focusing so much borrowed interest on characters and spokespeople, car insurance companies might have more success if they first focused on the products they sell and try marketing something truly different.

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Austal

In 2008, shipbuilder Austal, USA received a U.S. Navy contract to build the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) and the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). With these contracts, Austal had to ramp up employment from 900 to 2400 persons within 18 months. Although unemployment rates in the area have been in the 9% range, Austal needed to attract a highly-skilled and motivated work force to build these technologically advanced warships. After extensive research identified the target audience as action-oriented “doers,” Lewis Communications created “Do Something Extraordinary” to target this very specific audience.

Titanic lessons in advertising & branding
Titanic lessons in advertising & branding

Part II

In Part I I covered the first two of five lessons that Titanic can teach about advertising and branding:

1. If you’re coming head on into disaster, don’t avoid it; aim directly for it.
2. Be careful what you say. The message could turn on you.

Now, the remaining three of the aforementioned five lessons that apply to our job as communicators and brand stewards:


3. Don’t forget the keys to the binocular locker.

When it was determined that the White Star line was going to put only its best officers on board the Titanic for its maiden voyage, the existing officers were either outright replaced or offered lower ranks to stay on board. One of these officers was David Blair, the 2nd officer. Rather than accepting a lower rank, he instead transferred to another ship. The day before Titanic sailed, he left, taking with him the keys to a locker in the quartermaster’s office.

Normally, this would not be a big deal, however in this particular case, that locker just happened to contain the lookout’s binoculars. This brings up an important lesson for each of us in the communications business today. The advertising industry is changing in radical new ways.

Those agencies who embrace that change today probably saw it coming and weren’t caught flatfooted when things shifted. That kind of farsighted vision is an important tool to keep in front of every decision we make. Though some changes headed our way are small, they can have big implications. Just as not having a key to a single locker helped sink the largest, most advanced ship of the time, small things can have a profound impact on our business.

On that dark ocean on an April night long ago, if the lookouts had had the ability to see what was coming ahead of time, they would have reacted much sooner and we wouldn’t be talking about the Titanic right now.


4. No matter how accomplished you think you are, you can still freeze to death like everyone else.

A first class ticket aboard Titanic in today’s dollars cost $69,600. Needless to say, the first class section was a who’s who of American and European society. Titanic’s maiden voyage, if recreated today, would have the equivalent of Steven Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, Colin Powell, Brad Pitt, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Tiger Woods and 320 other heavy hitters on board. Yet for all their importance, influence or prestige, they drowned alongside 3rd class steerage passengers.

What is the lesson here? Our company philosophy has always been that the best idea in the room wins. Because I truly believe — like Chef Gusteau in the film Ratatouille says — “anyone can cook.” Great ideas are great ideas and it doesn’t matter if the high-paid CD or the greenest intern comes up with it. It is still a great idea. I have had the misfortune (as have many of you reading this) to work in shops that don’t have this basic respect for ideas. The danger is, when our own self-importance gets out of whack, self-justification can overrule our best instincts.

Everyone has value, especially in the new world where ideas must come quicker and in so many more areas than ever before. The days of a writer and an art director sitting in an office and creating the entire campaign are over. The new order of the day is for agencies to change their structure to embrace this idea. Some of the best ideas we’ve had this year came from a media planner and an account supervisor.


5. Don’t ignore the person who is trying to save you.

Just minutes before the Titanic struck the iceberg, they received a warning from an eastbound liner, the S.S. Californian. The Californian had been forced to stop to prevent striking a very large ice field, and they knew Titanic was within a few miles of their position — so they fired off a telegraph warning.

Unfortunately, Titanic was busy sending messages from its first class passengers to their relatives and friends in New York. So the wireless operator on Titanic rudely told the Californian operator to “shut up.” Which he did. He shut down his radio for the night and went to bed. The Californian was within 11 miles of Titanic and could have saved 1500 lives.

This is a perfect lesson for those of us in the advertising business who think we’ve got all the answers. We assert our expertise as we rush headlong into making yet another deadline. The problem is, we’re doing so much talking, that we may not bother to listen. I’m not going to quote David Ogilvy yet again for this conversation; you know what he said, but his assertion is right and wrong.

Consumers no longer have to sit and listen to what we are saying. They know a lot more than we think they do. And if we listen, we can learn a lot more than we think we know about them. Some of the best ads we’ve written were literally dictated straight from the people we want to influence. The internet is the best tool ever conceived for getting this information. So use it. Listen. Don’t talk. You might hear something you never expected.

Grand Theft Concept
Grand Theft Concept

This has happened to me before. I was watching the movie The Crying Game and developed an emotional attachment to the main character until something completely different was revealed about “her” at the end.And so I was left to deal with my emotional attachment—if it was right or wrong based on new information.

The same thing happened last night as I was mesmerized by the Dodge RAM spot that ran in the 4th quarter. I can’t remember another time I’ve watched a Super Bowl spot and been so completely blown away by such an artful, compelling piece. It was masterful. It was minimalist, yet larger than life. The lack of sound track combined with such a powerful voice from one of the premiere legends of radio—blended with some of the most moving still photos ever to grace a broadcast spot. I tweeted my excitement.

The artful world of advertising I have loved so long was back. And then I woke up.

This morning I discovered that the entire spot—the voice of Paul Harvey, the still photos, the lack of a soundtrack—all of it—was stolen verbatim from an earlier spot aired by Farms.com. It was “The Crying Game” all over again.

Only this time it hit closer to home. And it opens up some painful questions that we all need to consider in our advertising careers.

Where is the line? At what point does stealing an idea—verbatim—make sense for what we try so desperately to protect?

This happened a few years ago from another agency with a large budget stealing the entire “Whassup?” idea from an aspiring young director. His idea, but they got the credit because they had the money to “own” it. But was it their idea? No way.

Original ideas are what define this industry. Or at least they should. If you’ve spent any time in this business, there have been times when you had the same idea as someone else. In fact, every time I see someone have a really simple but powerful idea, their first reaction is “surely that’s been done before.”

And maybe as the years get added on it is harder and harder to have a truly original idea. But does that mean we should stop trying to attain it? This question opens up some deep wounds. Over the past year I lost one of my best friends and one of the best writers in the industry over a misunderstanding about this very same issue. We had worked on a campaign idea that had already been pitched to the client and sold (and was in production) before he told me he had already done it before. My rationale, for right or wrong, was that we had indeed come up with the idea independently of knowing about his. And since the campaign was already sold through, I let it go forward.

Judge me as you want, but at least I didn’t see a campaign and then steal every element of it as we see with the Dodge RAM spot. I won’t name the agency that did this because that is not really the issue. But I can’t excuse them just because they had far more money to produce the spot better than the original creators did. And I can’t excuse them for contacting the original creators of the message to get their permission. Stealing is stealing. There are a million different other equally great ideas out there. This farming spot had been done before. Move on.

Lee Clow would have. David Lubars would have.

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District Addys

Creative projects from Lewis Communications received four Gold and three Silver ADDY awards at the recent District 7 ADDY Awards Competition, which includes Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana. Lewis won for Vanderbilt Sports Medicine, Brannon’s Restaurant, Scribbler Stationery, Aquila Game Preserve, Upstate University Health System — and Best of Show in the Broadcast Television category for Alfa Insurance. Gold award winners from the district competition automatically advance to the National ADDY Award competition next month.

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history

Stony Brook University Medical Center captured the Gold Award for best total campaign for an Academic Medical Center at the 2009 Aster Awards. Individual honors went to Stony Brook’s microsite and print advertising. Clients Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt Medical Center and the University of Virginia Health System were also recognized for a total of nine Aster awards. In addition, Lewis clients received ten honors in the 2009 Healthcare Marketing Awards.


It’s fascinating to watch the advertising press get all atwitter (forgive me) about the advent of social media. The simple fact is that a company’s brand has never been defined by lush print advertising, clever TV commercials, or a stunning brochure or website.

The waitress who just forgot to refill your customer’s iced tea? She’s your brand. The door that squeaked awkwardly when your most important prospect walked in? Branding, that could use a little WD-40.

Everything a consumer sees, hears, believes, touches, encounters, smells or feels is the essence of your brand.

The biggest challenge for marketers today is being authentic. Because nothing will torpedo positive perceptions of a brand faster than a negative customer experience.

That doesn’t mean that you, your company, or your service has to be perfect. Consumers don’t expect perfection; they expect satisfaction. What it does mean is that you need to present yourself as genuinely obsessed with meeting your customers’ needs, and willing to step up and make it right when you don’t.