According to communications research company IDC (, Internet usage in December 1996 was limited to only 36 million people, or 0.9% of world population. By June 2009, Internet World Stats measured nearly 1.7 billion Internet users worldwide, accounting for 24.7% of the global population.

For those of us in the marketing and communications industry, the difference between 1996 and 2009 is huge. Although the essence of what we do is unchanged in many ways, it has been like learning a new language as we work to tap into the vast potential of an always on and available online home for our clients’ brands, messaging and promotions.

And now, although Facebook and Twitter have been around since 2004 and 2006 respectively, these new web-based communications channels are again revolutionizing how virtually anyone with a message communicates with an audience.

But, it feels different this time.

The Great Recession of the last two years has really changed attitudes very quickly. Some of the same clients who even last year weren’t interested in a Google search campaign are now very open to new strategies that involve dialogue and engagement through social networking.

So although all of us will be glad when the recession is over and sustained economic growth returns, the pain of a downturn will not have completely been in vain. The quick leap of advancement being made in marketing and communications practices will be good for our industry and good for our clients. And I’m convinced these advancements would have taken a great many years, if not for the financial pressures of the current recession.

Viva la Revolución!

Going to Boulder to drink the Kool-Aid
Going to Boulder to drink the Kool-Aid

My colleague Carlton Wood and I just attended a fantastic seminar at Boulder Digital Works (BDW) in Colorado. Thanks to a nonstop schedule, we barely saw the Rocky Mountains, but we did have the chance to hear from some of the leading voices in digital marketing.

BDW, a joint venture between Crispin Porter & Bogusky and the University of Colorado, is a graduate school that offers both a 60-week program for full-time students and an immersive workshop for working advertising professionals. Instructors are working creative and strategic leaders at top agencies like Crispin, Colle & McVoy, RAPP, Mullen, Modernista, and Victors & Spoils.

The session was sponsored by ICOM, our international agency network. It was revealing for Carlton and myself to work side by side with agency principals from the US, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Finland, India, and beyond. After each session, we went into breakout groups and concepted digital ideas and solved problems, based on the information we had just learned.

A few takeaways from our seminar that seem well worth sharing:

Everyone knows that social media is playing a larger role in marketing campaigns now, and that there is movement toward a two-way conversation, rather than just a creative broadcasting of a slogan or positioning.

BDW instructors spent a great deal of time talking with us about the next wave of digital marketing—the notion that a brand’s communications should not only be powerful, but useful, to consumers.

If the first stages of the Web were about microsites, e-commerce, and brochureware, and today, it’s about a two-way conversation with consumers, what lies ahead is a fully-integrated digital ecosystem. It’s not just your website, or your Facebook page. It’s about shaping your brand at every touchpoint of contact. Are you the same company in your print ads as you are on your mobile website? Does your social media speak in the same voice as your event advertising? What about emails, banners, and search?

Kip Voytek, SVP Communications Planning at RAPP: It’s no longer about talking at consumers—it’s about talking with them—listening, helping, inspiring, and facilitating conversation. (If this sounds a lot like the language you’ll find on the Lewis website, we think that’s good news; it’s a sign that we are headed in the right direction.)

Mike Caugin of Colle & McVoy had this memorable observation:

Web 1.0 = The Information Age
Web 2.0 = The Participation Age
Web 3.0 = The Helpful Age

He cited companies that were pioneering helpful, such as Google, Netflix, and Kayak. In his words, “the lines are rapidly blurring between what is marketing and what is operations.” It’s challenging marketing departments and the people who actually create product to work together in new ways.

A great example is Apple, and the fact that the advertising, storefronts, and product are so seamlessly integrated that you can barely tell where one ends and the other begins. Great marketers are looking past media messaging and searching for ways to more powerfully connect with consumers at every touchpoint of a brand. At the same time, powerful storytelling will remain an essential part of a great brand.

Scott Prindle, Interactive Creative Director at CP+B put it this way: In the expanding digital ecosystem, brand utility is a key component of the marketing mix. How can we be useful in our interactions with consumers, in a way that’s congruent with our brand? This mix of utility and brand story will define the great brands of the future.

At our BDW seminar there was also a great deal of talk about the emergence of a new team member. The “creative technologist” is becoming a vital new member of the creative team: the technically-savvy individual who introduces the latest technological possibilities into a creative concepting session. Ideally, this is someone who speaks both advertising and technology and who can bridge the gap for the other players.

Two other key trends: the rapid adoption of smartphones is going to define our marketing efforts in the next few years, and the proliferation of crowdsourcing is definitely changing the advertising and communications landscape.

Carlton and I loved getting to work with our ICOM counterparts from agencies around the world. Agency networks sometimes are only mentioned in passing during new business pitches, but our experience reminded us that these ties are real, powerful and useful. As part of the ICOM network, we have the ability to gather research or get assistance from agencies all over the globe, and to share our knowledge with them. Being able to meet and work with these people firsthand really affirmed the value of the ICOM network for me.

The passion of volunteering
The passion of volunteering

I have volunteered all my life – not sure if it started with Brownies (a younger version of the Girl Scouts) or whether it was following my Mom around “helping” her with countless charitable organizations she worked with during her life. So I guess it’s in my blood or, “The way I was brought up” as many say.

But as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that I get so much more out of volunteering than I could ever give, and it’s just something you do, because it feels good. So I guess it’s not surprising, that the civic organization I’m most passionate about right now was started by my Mom. She helped start McKemie Place, the only overnight shelter for single women within a three county area based in Mobile, Alabama. She started McKemie Place with such passion because she didn’t want these ladies to sleep on the streets one more night. Was every single detail in place? Absolutely not. But she was determined to figure out a way, sooner rather than later, and made it happen. She could pretty much do that with anything she set her mind to do.

Not long after the shelter opened, my Mom was diagnosed with cancer and she lived only a few short months after her diagnosis. The bad part was that McKemie Place didn’t yet have an operational fund structure set up – so for the next several months it was struggling to make the monthly operational fund budget. When I began working closely with their director to help, there were possibilities on numerous occasions that we may have to close for random nights because we couldn’t make payroll. I think that’s where the passion truly kicked in for me. These ladies were not going to be left on the streets – I knew the data and research and I knew what could happen to them. We had to find a way to keep the shelter open every night.

Before I knew it, I was co-chair of the charter advisory board. It has been a long but inspiring six months since then. Many a night I wake up and wonder…what in the world am I doing? How can I do this as a single, working Mom? I don’t know if I can do it… Even though I’ve been on numerous boards, I’ve never started one! What was I thinking?

I was thinking about passion and the passion that I had gained from the experience of not only working with the ladies as guests at McKemie Place, but the countless other volunteers, foundations, government entities, etc, who had stepped up to the plate to help us pay the bills each month. Not to mention the way that the team at Lewis jumped in and took hold of the reins.

I believe it all started with my Mom. She had passion like there’s no tomorrow. She taught not only me, but countless others so many things. Do I think you can teach passion? I don’t think so, but you sure can show folks what it looks like. When you see it, you want a part of it and it’s contagious.

competitor keywords
competitor keywords

We’ve all seen it by now. You’re searching for Steve Madden boots or your favorite restaurant, and not only are you given choices in the main search results — you also get several ads that are associated with what you’re looking for.

Many times those ads directly relate to your search, but every now and then, you may notice an ad that doesn’t match up.

Is this an accident or a competitor’s strategic advertising ploy? It could be either, but search advertisers often bid on their competitor’s names in hopes that someone will click on their ad instead. They also look at this as a way drive brand recognition since people may start to associate their search with the competitor’s name.

Great idea, right? Well, actually no.

For starters, most people who search for something want to get results for that exact brand or product. They usually won’t click on a link for something different.

As a result, your search campaign will have a very low click through rate and Google (or other search engines) will flag your ad as being irrelevant to the terms you’re buying. Upon this realization, the search engine will require that you bid more and more on these terms.

In addition to lower click through rates and higher costs, keep a couple of other things in mind as well.

If you start bidding on a competitor’s keywords, who’s to say that they won’t start buying yours? At that point, both advertisers would essentially be wasting money to run ads that cancel each other out.

Finally, there are potential trademark issues. For example, you can currently legally bid on a competitor’s brand term, but in most cases you can’t include a competitor’s name in your ad text. To further complicate the matter, these rules vary from country to country. So, if you’re an advertiser in the U.S. and you’re conducting a search campaign targeting Europe, you need to study these rules very carefully.

Although it can seem like a savvy strategy at first, bidding on your competitor’s brand could be far more damaging than beneficial in the long run.

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.

Social Media as Conversation
Social Media as Conversation

While people spend countless hours each day checking social media sites, their reasons for doing so aren’t always as “cutting edge” as those of us in the marketing world would like to believe. A recent study published by Pew Research Center found that 91% of people active on social media sites say that simply staying in touch with friends is their motivation to use.

Too many marketers refuse to acknowledge that the way those of us in the communication industry use social media isn’t typical, as compared to the average consumer. If companies and brands using social media are really looking to drive ROI through these channels, they need to start offering information as valuable as a post from a friend.

Early in October, I received a call asking me to handle the marketing for an event at The University of Alabama. Seven UA departments were collaborating to bring Soledad O’Brien to campus, and if you haven’t guessed already, the first issue brought up was how social media needed to be the main component in our marketing strategy.

The primary social media channels being used were UA Ferguson Center’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, which had significant followings of more than 3,000 students. My challenge was to figure out how to engage students with the Ferg to drive the desired result: a packed house for the night of Soledad’s speech. I did a little research and found that most students were looking to feel like they got some sort of one-on-one time with Soledad during her visit.

After this discovery, I made two very simple additions to the marketing strategy that drove positive results on both social media accounts—not to mention a standing room only crowd on the night of the event:

I. We asked students to submit questions for the Q&A session held after her speech via Facebook and wound up with hundreds of submissions.

II. We set up and promoted a Twitter hash tag so students who weren’t able to attend could still participate. We had over 50 students tweeting on our live chat the night of the event.

These simple tweaks were not only effective in engaging students for the Soledad event, but have served to revitalize the Ferg’s social media presence. Tweets per day are at their highest level ever, Facebook comments and unique page-views are higher than they have been in months and we even had students solicit our team via Twitter asking to write a post on the Ferg Blog, which rarely sees any activity outside of UA employees.

Why not take this example to heart and show your online community that your focus is on what they want rather than what you’d like to tell them? Try sharing information they see value in rather than the self-serving, one-way marketing updates we are all guilty of sending out far too often.

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.

Every year, I play center field on a team with about 13 other past-their-prime athletes in an over 35 baseball league. Keep in mind, this is not softball. This is real baseball with umpires, uniforms, 90 foot base paths, sliders and stolen bases. We play about 25 nine-inning games each season, and we play them pretty well.

Many of the guys in the league played in college, making the level of play very competitive. Granted, none of us are as good as we used to be, but there is always a play or two in each game where you cant help but be impressed. And for me, it is still incredibly satisfying to run down a fly ball in the gap or turn on an inside fastball and rip it down the left-field line. Those little individual moments keep me coming back each year.

But those moments wouldn’t mean as much without the camaraderie in the dugout. I consider most of these guys friends, and I’ve played with several of them for almost 15 years now. What we all have in common is our love of baseball.

In that time, I’ve gotten to know these guys very well. Many of us come from different hometowns and backgrounds. The educational level ranges from a couple guys who didn’t go to college all the way to two guys with PhDs. One of our outfielders is a sheriff’s deputy. Our first baseman works for the city of Birmingham. One of our pitchers is a law clerk, while our catcher is a self-employed house painter. There are opposing political affiliations, alternate social viewpoints and even different tastes in music.

For the most part, I know what is important in their lives and their families. And having this insight helps me in the way I approach my job as an art director. We certainly strive for awards in advertising, but awards don’t really matter if your message doesn’t reach the people its intended to. In addition to just enjoying them as teammates, these guys practically serve as my own private focus group. Whatever project or campaign we’re working on, someone on my team usually falls within the target audience.

Now it’s not like I bring my presentation boards to the ball park and go over concepts and layouts in the parking lot before the game. And I’m not on this team as some sort of social experiment. I’m on this team because I like playing baseball and being with these guys.

Having this added level of understanding of the people we’re working to communicate with is most certainly a bonus. In the end, I believe it helps me do my job that much better.

Should a car tweet?
Should a car tweet?

I eagerly awaited the delivery of my 2012 MINI Cooper, tracking it day by day on the boat from Southampton, England to Brunswick, Georgia. When it finally arrived, I was practically giddy.

Meanwhile, most of my coworkers glanced in the parking lot and shrugged: “Uh, what’s the difference?” After all, it was my third red MINI.

But I was excited about this one because of the addition of a new feature called MINI Connected.

What is MINI Connected? Watch the Official MINI Video.

By now, most of us are used to some level of iPhone integration with our cars. Many of us have cables that allow us to control our music from the dashboard, Bluetooth to make calls and that sort of thing. But MINI Connected takes the bleeding edge of automotive technology to a whole new level.

It consists of two components – an enhanced navigation system built into your dashboard, and an app you download from Apple’s App Store.

It’s a little bit unwieldy, because you have to launch the app on the phone, plug it into the dashboard cable, and leave it on the console.

But to hear BMW engineers tell it, that inconvenience is by design. Texting and driving has become an incredibly dangerous habit on our roads. And c’mon, tell the truth: you know you’ve checked a Facebook update at a traffic light.

What MINI Connected (and its similar but not identical sister, BMW Apps) aspire to do is give you some of the functionality of your smartphone, but delivered in a way that’s safer and more car-friendly. Meanwhile, it reduces that temptation to reach for that cell phone and check just… one… more… message.

It includes about a half dozen features, with more being added. Part of the beauty of this is that now adding new functionality is as easy as updating your iPhone. Suddenly, the electronics in your car aren’t a total dinosaur three years after
you buy it.

What can MINI Connected do? You can do a Google local search and program the results into your nav system. You can use Google Send To Car to pre-send various addresses from your home computer to your Cooper nav system. You can subscribe to RSS feeds. You can listen to web radio. I couldn’t be happier to have access to one of my favorite stations, Birmingham Mountain Radio, wherever my travels take me. Or, you can listen to your iTunes, with the Cooper suggesting a mix of music, based on your current driving style.

And you can check your Facebook and Twitter feeds. On a three-hour road trip, I find Twitter especially useful for keeping up with the news. You can read friends’ updates and “Like” or retweet as desired.

Wisely, BMW engineers have made it impossible for 70 MPH motorists to tap out status updates while driving. Instead they helpfully offer a rather hilarious selection of pre-written tweets, based on activity on your iPhone and your car:

“It’s 92° outside and I’ve just talked with
Lewis Communications on the phone.”

“I’m listening to Nirvana and will arrive on
Peachtree Street at 9:32 PM.”

When disconnected, the iPhone lets you carry vehicle stats with you – how much gas is left in the tank, how many miles of range you have. But for me, the most compelling feature is a brand new one. MINI Connected now includes MOG, a music service similar to Spotify. Now, I can drive down the road and listen to virtually every CD on the planet, for $9.99 a month. It takes a toll on your iPhone’s data usage, however, so I’m grateful to be grandfathered into AT&T’s unlimited data plans.

I love the way BMW and MINI are continuing to bring value to my new car with app updates. I suspect that in three years, most cars will come with a 4G LTE connection, and we won’t need smartphones as a bridge.

But if this is where the future is heading, I Like.