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The Digiday Agency conference was a wealth of information on the ever-expanding digital ad world.

The Digiday Agency conference was a wealth of information on the ever-expanding digital ad world.

This week, it dawned on me that the world of digital advertising has become a morning commute from hell. I envision sun glare, tractor trailers overturned on off ramps, gaper delays, highway construction crews, crumbling infrastructure, and side streets not designed to handle the traffic they are swollen with.

What led me to that conclusion was sitting in on the excellent, well-attended Digiday Agency conference on Monday. Digiday assembled a sterling lineup of industry experts from the agency, publisher, and technology sides who made individual presentations, participated in panel discussions, and offered wide-ranging articulate opinions on the landscape of all things consumer digital advertising. I was probably the only business-to-business guy and one of the few creatives present, so I came to listen and learn. Here is what I came away with:

  • Things continue to morph faster than anyone can keep up with, let alone get ahead of. Digital now encompasses digital display, search, social, video/rich media, mobile, and more across a vast span of publisher and affiliate sites, plus desktop, laptop, tablet, and smartphones that accept advertising. Throw in TV advertising that leverages and attempts to cross-link digital, social, etc. and you have media planning that often collapses under its own cleverness and targeting potential.
  • Analytics and metrics are overrated. One of the more incredible statements of the conference was a derisive one about digital display advertising measurement being still stuck in the stone age — specifically, the continued importance placed on click-through rates. The speaker noted that the demographic of those most likely to click on display ads is populated with low/no income types, online gamblers, and assorted tire kickers.
  • Video, Social, and Mobile are the future. Pretty obvious shift driven generationally and by tablets and smartphones. Of course, by the time that the ad industry sorts it all out, we will be on to other new technologies and tools.
  • Remarketing (retargeting) via browser cookies of those who visit advertiser web sites is only going to get bigger. A number of speakers used the funnel analogy of awareness advertising at the top and very targeted, directed messaging at the bottom to catch buyers when they are now informed and ready to make a purchase.  The theory is great. I just don’t believe that ads relentlessly targeting people whom cookie data has identified as hot prospects is going to be ultimately successful or a great idea. I still believe that the average person is suspicious of Big Brother approaches and privacy concerns trump marketing opportunities.
  • Digital media buying has been reduced to an RFP process. Publishers spoke about how hard it was working with agencies in digital space because the media planning contacts are all junior people and there is a revolving door between agencies. Not much time or room for relationship building and value adding when it becomes a “give me your best deal” RFP request.
  • Agencies are being courted as digital advertising venture capitalists. That seemed like a completely foreign concept to me because running lean and mean continues to be the norm outside of Madison Avenue; however, a number of shops spoke very intelligently on this subject.

Ironically, a couple of days after the conference, I came across this article on Adobe investing heavily in traditional agency territory and challenging Madison Avenue in the data sweepstakes of this space. There were a lot of technology companies like Google present at the conference, but Adobe wasn’t one of them. I suspect they will be heavily discussed when Digiday holds the west coast version of this event in Los Angeles in early 2012.

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Brave new 2.0 world out there. Iconic brands are finding it is dangerous to play with familiar icons. Last year, GAP got hammered in social media for rolling out a new logo. In recent days, Coca-Cola, perhaps the most revered brand of all, especially at holiday time, has taken it on the chin for changing its familiar red can to polar bear white (and silver).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bdxrVabe_C0

You can see Coke’s noble intent here with a temporary can redesign meant to promote giving to the World Wildlife Federation tied to its long-running polar bear commercials. However, the road to hell is paved with similar do-gooder, feel-good efforts. Aside from creating brand confusion at the point-of-sale between Coke and Diet Coke cans, the more worrisome concern was over those for whom the ingestion of sugar is a health issue, namely diabetics. Hard to believe that a company like Coca-Cola hadn’t considered some of these issues.

Not long before this story broke, I was in the soda aisle stocking up for the arrival of Thanksgiving company and it occurred to me how confusing buying Coke has become — there’s caffeine-free regular Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero, Cherry Coke, Vanilla Coke, and there’s the familiar Coke of the past century, with caffeine, and in a red can, but not on the shelf when I was looking, which caused me to pause, but not be refreshed. Perhaps it was already sitting there in the white/silver can and I like many others just missed it.

From a pure package design standpoint, with the exception of all-important color, Coca-Cola did a nice job of carrying over brand identity; however, with so much identity tied up in red, that misstep is not a minor one. To me, it is actually a surprising one. You don’t get to world’s most familiar/popular brand by making many errors in judgment. Beyond the New Coke rollout fiasco, I had to wrack my brain to think of another significant stumble.

The only instance that stays with me is an account in David Meerman Scott’s excellent “The New Rules of Marketing and PR,” about the company’s reticence to participate online and offline when the Mentos dissolved in Diet Coke, creating Old Faithful backyard science experiments. Mentos embraced the goofy nature of it all, while Coca-Cola got all stodgy corporate because they could not control the consumer fun. If the same thing happened today, I am guessing it would be front and center on the company’s Facebook page (where by the way, the Coca-Cola arctic home message is still up and front and center — well, at least the WWF donations effort did not suffer the same fate as the white/silver cans).

Coca-Cola's white can redesign went south, but WWF/arctic home donations are hopefully still heading north.

Coca-Cola's white can redesign went south, but WWF/arctic home donations are hopefully still heading north.

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Conan turns to blimps and digital and tv to build his brand.

Conan turns to blimps and digital and tv to build his brand.

No wonder advertisers get confused about how to allocate media dollars. It is an absolute free-for-all. A day does not go by without another news item suggesting how one medium or platform is overtaking or supplanting another. I routinely remind myself of the progression that TV did not kill radio when it came on the scene, and likewise, the Internet did not replace TV. Every form of media is still in active use (papyrus scrolls and carrier pigeons excepted). I see latest Conan TV ads feature blimp advertising blended with mobile platforms. As a big fan of Team Coco, I am hoping for Goodyear associations, not Hindenberg.

A quick sampling of recent stories should give everyone pause about claiming superiority over another medium or about writing a competing medium’s obituary.

This intriguing story from Advertising Age suggests Facebook is voraciously eating the lunch of major magazine brands. It left me scratching my head about how Burberry, frozen in my own brain as a conservative British purveyor of fine raincoats, has attracted over 8 million followers on Facebook. I visited their pages and came away still scratching my head. This Google search revealed a few clues — fashion launches via Facebook and iPads, free samples of a new fragrance, interactive videos, and easy-to-follow followers like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Still, that is a staggering number of followers, but more power to them. Whatever Burberry is doing, it’s working.

Next up, two stories from Digiday. One reveals how Google is preparing a full frontal assault on newspapers’ biggest cash cow — Sunday circulars. Imagine a digital version of a circular that gives a retailer all kinds of local control to customize content by store, pricing, and product category. Also from Digiday is a rather depressing, confusing  picture of the landscape of digital advertising tech companies. The bar is low for entrants. The result is a mixed bag of options and results for advertisers. Not sure who is being served by this.

This week, New York magazine devotes an extended article to Twitter and whether it is becoming too big for its 140-character britches, er tweets.

If you’re not completely boggled yet, here is video reporting by the print-based Wall Street Journal delivered online from their web site to explain how tv ad spending can be rising as viewership is dropping. Got that?

My next media recommendation? Burma-shave style billboards but delivered with a twist — constantly changing messaging on a series of digital billboards. The product? Attention-deficit disorder drugs.

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Before the Internet, before Facebook, before smartphones, local advertisers concentrated their ad budgets on TV and at least some of them felt they needed to work very hard to get noticed. Faux (or forced) insanity was the order of the day. The king of this method of advertising was Crazy Eddie, the NY metro area consumer electronics retail chain, that brought a heightened sense of urgency to take advantage of sale prices (and of Eddie himself) to everyone’s living room.

Not sure why the yelling announcer model became so popular, but it was employed by car dealers, restaurateurs, the Atco Speedway, and at least one local merchant in every city. In Philadelphia, Ben Krass made himself a hometown celebrity selling his Krass Brothers suits surrounded by a harem, usually in bikinis.  All of these “mad men” wanted to ensure that viewers didn’t miss their schtick by heading to the bathroom during program breaks.

It’s likely even then that mental illness advocacy groups lodged complaints about turning affliction into an attention grab. Most viewers, however, just found the spots obnoxious. Still, they did their job, created awareness and buzz for these businesses, and moved a lot of product.

Today, local advertisers would have to be truly loco to pass up the amazing range of online options for geo-targeting and reaching prospects and customers. They could save their vocal cords and save a lot of marketing budget dollars in the process. The array is dizzying. Local is the new focus of Google, which has hired local salespeople and repurposed its Local Business Center as Google Places. Businesses know that with so many spending so much time on Facebook, they need to be there with pages and ads. Yelp and Foursquare were ahead of the curve on helping advertisers build local followings. Groupon, Living Social, and in Philly Metro, Dealyo have bought couponing and promotions into the digital age. Then, with Microsoft Tags and QR Codes, retailers can build their own brick-and-click campaigns to generate sales with smartphone users.

Next week’s blog post is devoted to yet another local program/platform called Matchbin that gives local businesses a wide range of ways to connect with customers. So many choices for those looking for asylum from the crazy method of advertising.

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