17 April, 2014

How to make millions out of a bag of rubber bands

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday April 17, 2014

I noticed my granddaughters working quietly on a couch, knotting some elastic bands into bracelets. A few days later, on a tram, a couple of young schoolgirls were also knitting the bands. Looking more curiously, I started to notice how many mums were wearing the bands, and how elaborate the kids' had become.

Aha! I realised it was a trend taking off which most of us probably did not even notice. The birth of a fad.

As a marketer you dream of creating a fad - of your product in everyone's hand, discussed on everyone's lips. Alas, it happens just a few times a decade, so your chance of winning the jackpot is as slim as Tattslotto.
The bracelets are made on a Rainbow Loom - a little peg board devised by a Michigan engineer. On it you intertwine a few score colourful rubber bands and create pretty designs that delight both young girls and boys.

Three years ago, Cheong Choon Ng invented the game for his daughters. Then they persuaded him that the world might like it too, so he invested $10,000, to create the first batch of the plastic looms and bands. Then he waited for the orders - which did not come.

He took them to stores and toy shops but had little response until a craft shop took a small quantity. Because they were set up for craft demonstrations, they were able to show the Loom at work - and rapidly sold out. They re-ordered, so did their chain around the country.

They now understood the sales method: show how it works on YouTube, and promote it on Google. Soon girls and boys from all over America were making Rainbow videos, and orders were flooding in.

By August they had finally been noticed by the big stores - Wal Mart, Toys-R-Us - and were flooded under pre-Christmas orders. By year's end he'd moved 3.5 million units.

He now has world sales - we know about Australia, but also Canada, Mexico, France, Germany, Japan, Israel, even Turkey - the list grows daily. At the beginning of this year it won the Toy of the Year award.

What is wonderful about this success is the total lack of electronics, shooting ranges, and mobile media, except for discussion on Facebook; and the chance for our children to actually learn a craft and use their fingers to make something, rather than just press buttons. It doesn't even beep!
Fads, of course, have their limited life spans and then subside back to a quiet level - though always greater than where they started. They never really totally die.

Think back: did you ever keep a tamagotchi? Or perhaps you walked tall in the playground with a set of Pokemons. Girls had to have Barbie dolls, or perhaps a generation earlier, Cabbage Patch Dolls?
In almost every case you had an enterprising inventor who, hopefully, went on to make lots of money after his idea was picked up by the toy manufacturers. It's well to remember that toy makers are always looking for three or four "hits of the year" for their range - they need something new to take to the store buyers every sales cycle.

So what was your generation's fad - Rubik's Cube perhaps? Or earlier - hula hoops, yo-yos? So long as you didn't get into one passing fad, tattoos. That one's hard to take off and put into the back of the cupboard.

No, stick to weaving elastic bands. When you've had enough, they're easily undone.

10 April, 2014

Judges need to learn the marketing defence

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday April 10, 2014

It's one of the truths of life: the less people know, the louder they shout. Sometimes it's about the scores of a footy match and it doesn't matter much if they have their barney. But sometimes it concerns more serious topics, and then they start to threaten the very society we live in.

You may wonder why I bring this up under marketing, but it's about a group that is particularly poor in the skills of communicating their complaints to the public. Our judges.

They face issues that are thrown at them through political advertising, lobby groups, resident associations and the police - yet most of the time they are stoically silent in return.

If they speak up, all hell breaks loose. On Monday this paper reported letters from Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Warren and County Court Chief Judge Michael Rozenes suggesting that Victorian government sentencing law changes would have "a dramatically negative impact on the administration of justice". In other words, don't take the lid off Pandora's box because the consequences that flow out will be disastrous.

Already our prisons are overflowing, with the population jumping by 11 per cent last year alone. Now the tighter restrictions on parole and suspended sentencing, and increased penalties for crimes, have forced more and more offenders into the overcrowded cages - even shipping containers.

When our leading judges asked for some sensible discussion of these matters the response was howls of derision from a vocal section of the population. "Who do they think they are?" "Sack the judges!" "They are letting criminals free". Just reading the comments below Monday's article, you could picture the mob with flaming torches.

Are judges such bad judges? In my journalistic career I reported on courts for several years, both in England and Australia. It gave me a chance to study judges and magistrates at their work, day after day administering justice to an often unappealing line of offenders.

Some offences - speeding, drunken affray - were dealt with swiftly. But with serious offences - murder, assault and battery, burglary - the judge would subject the facts, the witnesses and the perpetrator to lengthy questioning. The case was examined minutely and no aspect was avoided.

I would find myself thinking, in the press box, "He's so obviously guilty, just convict him and get this over with." But no, judges do not take short cuts, they would pursue the evidence to the end.
Part of this work, through days of probing and analysis, would uncover the defendant's background, school records, community relationship, spouse, children.

Then came the difficult decision. Lock him up for two years and have him emerge a fully-formed criminal? Or base his correction on strict curfews and educational requirements that might help him - and his family - return him to the straight and narrow? Any of the scores of possibilities between these extremes, with the aim of fishing him or her out of the criminal stream they had taken.

I saw how much work and advice a judge would take in making the decision. Then a few days later see the commentators, shock jocks, talk-backers and barroom lawyers decrying how wrong, light, inadequate the sentence was. All declared by experts who had not been in the court or even read the transcript.

I've got to tell you I've never found judges soft or pushovers. They are highly intelligent with flinty perception. In fact much smarter than the average politician. They just need a good marketing campaign.

03 April, 2014

Showrooming: the death of the retail store

Melbourne Herald Sun, 3 April, 2014

They call it the death of the retail store, the treachery that will destroy our way of shopping - along with thousands of jobs, stores and shopping centres.

The term is 'showrooming' and we've all done it at times. You walk through Myer or Harvey Norman looking for a TV to suit your need. You find one that really seems to be the goods. Make a careful note of the model number and sticker price. Then, maybe sitting in the store's own cafeteria, you search out the model on your smart phone, looking for a better price.
Order on line and you might get it a hundred dollars cheaper. Just click your credit card number for delivery.

As you can imagine, the store managers are not happy to have their expensive retail location used as a free display centre for their competitors. For the past couple of years they have been at a loss, unable to catch this slippery sales loss.

But they are learning and getting smart. A mixture of technology, training and psychology is being brought to bear and you can believe that around the world there are thousands of specialists and consultants developing anti-showrooming techniques.

A lot depends on smart sales staff. At this year's National Retail Federation show in New York, speakers and trainers focussed on the issue. They showed how a well trained sales person can spot a potential buyer and win them over with their own technique.

Armed with a tablet, they can build on the big advantage a store has - the physical TV sets, side by side for comparison, say. Then using their tablets they can show the small difference in the internet price (probably knock a few bucks off for "being such a good customer") and make the winning stroke: to put the set in their hot little hands and in the back of their car right away.

This is not simple to achieve. You have to show good merchandise, have it readily available for purchase, have your sales assistant as bright as a button in knowing their moves. But it can be done.

IBM recently released a study which shows that while in 2012 some 50% of internet sales followed customer showrooming, in 2013 this had fallen to 30%. Hopefully this meant that a percentage of sales were intercepted before they flew into the ether.

It also means that more customers are going straight online without visiting the store first. So more needs to be done to bring them into the bricks and mortar premises.

IBM questioned 30,000 consumers around the world to find out what they really want out of technology. Price, availability and ease of delivery came out, not surprisingly, as major. But what is important is the closer marriage of the online and in-store experiences.

If asked, they are willing to give data like their GPS position - so that they can receive special offers when they are in certain parts of the store. One group, called the Trailblazers, are making full use of technology, for their showrooming, model research, user comments, delivery progress - and while they are just 12% of the respondents, they indicate the direction the market is taking.

It's called "omnichannel retailing", the combination of online, mobile, and in-store. And storekeepers that want a thriving business need to tune in, quick.

27 March, 2014

Don't tweet your twerking to the French till they find the words

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday March 27, 2014

Imagine that 50 years ago you stumbled into Dr. Who's Tardis and suddenly found yourself in the middle of today's Melbourne. To orient yourself you read the advertising poster at the tram stop: "Unlimited broadband bundles with no gotchas, from Optus." Your head spins. This must be another country, another language - because that ain't English! You don't understand the words, or not as they are written.

We sometimes need to stand back and look around at our world to realise how much it has changed - and how much we have learned.

Each year the Oxford English Dictionary accepts about 1000 new words. And a lot of them you understand, because bit by bit your own vocabulary is growing. Every day you are hearing and absorbing new words, or new ways to use old words. What do you make of this?

"Check out this muggle who selfied his twerking and tweeted it under his hashtag onto his main's blog but then got unfriended from Facebook for it."

Believe it or not you can understand most of that paragraph, yet nearly all the active words are little more than a decade old, in that usage at least. You're learning a new language without really trying.

Of course this new speech is attractive to the advertiser - it's a chance to look like they are up to date, abreast with trends. That's what leads to those cringingly embarrassing commercials that try to be cool. Sprinkled with "awesomes" and high-fives and, yes, "cools", they turn into omnishambles. (Yes that's another new one for the OED.)

In a copywriting class my advice would be: unless you thoroughly understand the word and have heard it naturally spoken a few times by your target people - don't use it. A group of kids can spot oldies writing trendy copy from a mile off. It ends up tainting your product and your being branded a tryhard.

Of course some prefer to fight against these words. Look at the French. For nearly 400 years their Académie française has defended the purity of the French language. Consequently, while an English speaker has a million words to choose from, the Francophone has only 100,000. (Yes I literally mean it - the latest Global Language Monitor count is 1,025,000 English words.)

Words are born when concepts and goods appear that were non-existent before. English just borrows a suitable word from any other language, or invents one and tosses it into the air to see if it flies. If it does, it eventually finds its way into the dictionary - like laser, pulsar, rom, chill, Blu-tack, ethnobiology. If the world fills the gap we just plug it in willy-nilly.

However even the Academie does makes progress, if somewhat glacially. It is ruled by the most eminent men, and some women, in the French-speaking world. They are called the 40 Immortals and only retire when carried from the grand table horizontally.

To much fanfare they have allowed some 21st century worlds into their dictionary.

These include words for: email (courriel), hashtag (mot diese) and the LOL sign off - MDR (for mort de rire). Their General Commission of Terminology and Neology is another committee, responsible for technical words. After a couple of years they still haven't agreed on a term for 'cloud computing', having rejected several suggestions.

However, they did solve one hard problem: a replacement for the term 'sexting'. The translation has only just emerged, and frankly I find it a bit cumbersome: textopornographie.

Ah well, it's something for the Paris crowd to think on as they go for le weekend.

20 March, 2014

The days of our soaps

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday March 20, 2014

Will Marlena air a sex tape in church to expose Kristen? Will Sami kill Nick so as to save Gabi's life? Don't worry, you won't miss out on these compelling questions when you tune once more to Days Of Our Lives.

Yes, despite its rude expulsion by Channel Nine last year, after 45 years of loyal pain and anguish, Days is back, rescued by Foxtel. Ten special episodes have been cut together to bring loyal fans up to date, and then they will run episodes the same day as in the US - so their world-wide network of devotees can email and tweet their discussions of events just passed.

Purple-prose dramas are the bedrock of the broadcast industry, going right back to Chicago radio in 1930. Then, they quickly became the housewife's afternoon staple, encouraging a continuing flood of detergent and floor polish advertisements that has never abated. Hence the title "soap operas".

In Australia the same pattern was followed, with Big Sister from 1942 and of course Blue Hills, from 1949-76.

Soaps have great advantages for networks. They are cheap to make, help to top up the local content percentages, and fill those long afternoon and evening hours in the programming. As an ad schedule they are much lower cost, and often more effective, than prime time.

While imports like Days and The Young and the Restless have their devoted following, it is the local programmes that have built the big ratings numbers.

From the 80s, shows like Neighbours and Home and Away caught the youngsters arriving home from school or work. This, in turn, locked Dad and Mum into the channel up to the evening news, and the belief in television is that once they are on the channel for the news, they will probably stay there for the rest of the night. So it is an important move in the chess game of TV ratings.

Soap operas have been so successful that they have turned into profit centres themselves. Neighbours sells into over 50 countries and many times has protected its long life by becoming more popular in its export markets than it is at home. In the UK it became the highest-viewed afternoon TV program outside of the News.

In 2008 it moved from the BBC after 22 years, to Channel 5, reputedly because Aunty would not agree to a fee of 300 million pounds. Now that's a useful addition to any station's budget bottom line.

But the soaps do a great deal more than earn coin in the markets they have conquered. Shows like Neighbours and Home are daily 20-minute commercials for Australia. The overall impression they leave is a country that's sunny, young and sexy.

No-one will ever calculate how much that's worth in terms of trade and goodwill, but every day the arriving Pommie tourists make a bee-line for Pin Oak Court, Vermont, to see the real Ramsay Street.

If we're talking about exports enriching Australia, we can't overlook some of the greatest creative wealth to come out of soap. Like Kylie, Jason, Russell, Guy, Delta and now Margot - they don't even need surnames any more, world-wide. When they eventually come home to retire, they'll help to balance the national debt.

As well as a training ground for young actors, soaps also provide the work expertise for directors, writers, producers, cinematographers, film studios - our movie industry.

So though imports like Days and The Young and the Restless have their avid fans, the local soaps are fiercely supported. This is one branch of industry we don't fear will be retrenched.

13 March, 2014

Whistleblowers Take the Stage

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday March 13, 2014

The SXSW Festival in Austin Texas is a huge affair. This year - it's running right now - it has 72,000 attendees on the books - that doesn't even begin to count blow-ins. Its events have become the leading edge in technology innovation, music, film, advertising, marketing, and generally making deals.

A crowd of 2000 packed in to see Saturday's keynote speaker and burst into cheers and applause for - Julian Assange. Not in person, of course, he's still in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, but by video link. He talked and answered questions for an hour, with an eager audience.

Wait a minute, you think, isn't he supposed to be a spy, hunted by a score of governments, denounced by the United States? Why are they cheering? There was more excitement a couple of days later when the speaker was Edward Snowden, calling from Moscow. He of course is the other big whistle blower, on the run.

They were cheered because governments and authorities work so hard at keeping secrets from the public. Too often the only way to find the truth is through the blast of a loud whistle. Look at the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which we have only read because of Wikileaks.

As marketers, surely we know by now that there are no more secrets. So much of what we do trades on data. Media selection has become a highly-programmed dissection of information gathered from check-outs and mail order, viewing patterns and even political preferences.

"The ability to surveil everyone on the planet is almost there and, arguably, will be there in the next couple of years," said Assange in his talk. And it's not just governments - he also pointed to giants like Google and Facebook who harvest vast amounts of knowledge and sell it for great profit.

Have you ever noticed how when you download your new mobile phone app, you tick a little declaration that virtually says, "Anything you learn about me through this program you can use any way you like"?

It's nearly 30 years since a great controversy blew up when Bob Hawke wanted to introduce the Australia Card, a kind of tax office ID with people's tax file number on it.

I couldn't see much reason for objections - check your driving licence and you'll see name, address, age and date of birth, photo, physical disabilities, demerit points - I didn't see the tax file number would make much difference. But it was a big issue, still is.

Yet Snowden tells us they have been collecting all our phone information, too. If the calls are all as boring as the ones I overhear in the tram and the street, I pity the poor blighter who has to listen to them.

But let's face it, in this technological age there are no secrets any more. "They" know all about "us", and thanks to our leakers we now know a bit more about them.

From the marketing perspective, we learn ever more about our audiences. Technology - the kind they promote at SXSW - can even tell whether your eyes are following the TV commercial, or grandad's gone to sleep again.

As for Assange, Snowden, Manning and a guaranteed flow of others to follow, it does not matter if you like them or not, they are just the tools of this information age. The guys who reached out and turned on the taps.

But the information was always there. More is collected every minute as you read this and no amount of breast beating and law enforcement is going to change it. Go and ask the crowds at SXSW.

06 March, 2014

Should you refuse the Godfather's offer?

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday March 6, 2014

It's every marketer's dream. To tie the customer to a chair, threaten them with dastardly consequences and say: "I'm making you an offer you can't refuse". Then offer up their product whether it's cars or meat or the end of season sale.

The line was first whispered by Don Corleone in The Godfather in 1973 - Marlon Brando was planning to transfer a horse's head to a film producer's bed I recall - and it has been rumbled out in countless commercials ever since. Yes, marketers like that kind of offer.

I don't. I find gangsters and their bullying and torturing, stomach-churning. They do not favourably dispose me to a product. So am I supposed to laugh and enjoy a sense of fellow-feeling when a South American drug boss tortures a bound and hooded Aussie chef with a meat cleaver?

The product in this case is the Oporto chicken restaurant chain. The premise is strong - they are adding steak to the menu after nearly 30 years of chickens so they have a high perception wall to climb.

The commercials are cleverly made and acted parodies of the gangster movie, talking about only the finest Aussie grass-fed steak and beating up on a chef who had produced microwaved frozen steaks.

But under the comedy there is the violence that is too real in places like Mexico and Colombia. Remember it is happening right now across the Pacific.

Even M&Ms face gangland butchery. The round yellow chocolate bean sits innocently as a fierce Russian gangster don vividly describes how the sweet will be chopped and diced and sprinkled on ice cream. Fortunately in Russian, which M&Ms don't understand.

Who would have thought of a Mafia scenario to sell e cigarettes? Remember I've been telling you about their booming growth? Well now they're even in the hands of the Mob. Redon Productions of the UK have made a typical 'victim in the back of the ute' commercial. This time he escapes by showing off his cigarettes - electronic cigarettes called White Fog. Well, it's nicely filmed even if I don't get the connection.

What about exaggeration? Last year a European commercial for Nissan Patrol depicted a mafioso leaving an assignation when his car is blown up. Massive clouds of smoke, car disappears. Some seconds later it lands back on earth, intact, and is driven away. That's puffery.

When The Godfather was first filmed, the Italian community in New York objected to what they regard as the dark side of their history. Its huge success confirmed their fears that they would be seen as brutal gangsters and they are still sensitive to the parody.

In Spain a restaurant chain called La Mafia traded from 2000. But last year they started to be noticed in Italy and the pizza hit the fan. “Can you imagine what would happen in Spain, if Italy opened a pair of restaurants dedicated to terrorists from ETA?” La Repubblica’s veteran Mafia writer, Attilio Bolzoni, declared. And certainly the 34 eateries are already doing a roaring trade in Italian dishes at a price range you can't refuse.

This fascination with crime is an ancient expression. You'd always raise a good crowd for the public executions in days gone by. Quentin Tarantino creates brutal characters who audiences find funny because they spout poetry even as they murder.

And we're prime subjects here in Melbourne, where the string of Underbelly TV series have brought this town fame and notoriety, and coach tours of the killing streets of Melbourne.

27 February, 2014

Taking comics into the classroom - is this the future?

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday February 26, 2014

Can anything be done to save the book? We see great bookstores close down like Borders and Angus & Robertson, there are less books to be seen on trams and trains, as the constant fiddling with mobiles and tablets is more about digital games and Facebook than the reading of a book.

How are we going to get kids reading books again, or is it already a lost cause? That ability to read words off a page and run the movie through our heads is a wonderful skill we can't let them lose. Especially when it comes to the "difficult" books - the classics. So much of our cultural identity is built on them.
Now don't throw up your hands in horror, but maybe the answer is to bring comic books into the school. I know, it seems to belie everything I've just said but give it a minute. When I was a schoolboy, if I were caught with a comic in the class I'd face detention or even (in those barbaric days gone by) the cane.

Yet in defiance of the law I'd sneak one into my schoolbag. And often as not it was a Classics Illustrated. They were thrilling colourful comic books. But through them I got to meet Macbeth for the first time, Oliver Twist, The Time Machine, The Man in the Iron Mask.

Later I went on to read the books but my first encounter was as an 11 year old reading comics with the same exciting graphics as Batman and Superman. And I don't think it corrupted my taste for the classics.

Someone who agrees is publisher Hugh Dolan. His background as a former RAAF intelligence officer, shows in the way he has craftily produced three exciting war comics for the kids - concealing the fact that they are carefully researched historical text books covering key moments of Australian history. Gallipoli: The Landing; Kokoda: The Bloody Track; and The Fall of Singapore.
These are not just gung-ho war comics, though the battles are in there. They also set out factual background material, footnoted for history teachers under the National Curriculum.

Dolan is signposting the way for what could become a new wave of encouraging kids to read books. Watch a three-year-old manipulating Bananas in Pyjamas on their iPad and you'll see how deeply visual a child's learning is. No wonder they are now called digital natives.

So steering these natives onto books needs clever planning. And the comic is a half-way step connecting the sound that a word represents, with the picture that they see. The story needs to advance quickly while the brightly coloured pictures connect in the imagination.

Although very few new Classics Illustrated have been produced since the series ended in the 70s, some 160 titles are still available if you search the internet. A British site called Classic Comic Store has been digitising and re-colouring the magazines and is building up an educational range. Plus there are many of the originals for sale on eBay, at widely varying prices.

Even successful writers will speak in favour of the medium. Here's what Ian Rankin had to say:"My son Jack didn't like English at high school so I bought him a lot of comic versions of classic books such as Jekyll And Hyde, Kidnapped and Macbeth - now he wants to go to see the Shakespeare play. It's a great way to get people to read. The problem is that there just aren't enough comics out there any more."

Perhaps he can put his Rebus character into comic form. He'd fit in, next to Jekyl and Hyde.

20 February, 2014

E-Cigarettes Become a Billion Dollar Market

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday February 20, 2014

A year ago I wrote an amusing story about the new way to smoke: electronically! A new form of smoking, called e-cigarettes, was moving from the small ads in the back of the magazines, into the marketing mainstream.

What was surprising was how closely they were being watched - the big cigarette companies were taking an interest - and with them came the potential to invest millions of dollars.

Suddenly - it seems, with the blink of an eye - the world is flooded by an estimated 100 e-cigarette brands, and they are beginning to carve out a niche of market share. In the US they are already selling $US2 billion of the products, and expecting to hit $US10 billion in another three years.
In the UK, British American Tobacco are launching their Vype E-Cigarette promotion on Monday with a sophisticated TV commercial in a campaign that is said to cost "millions". It will be the first time the tobacco company - best known for Dunhill, Lucky Strike and Kent - will have been seen on TV for some 40 years. But not quite seen.

UK law prohibits anything that looks even remotely like a cigarette on the screen. And definitely no satisfaction for the "vaper" (they try to avoid the word "smoker").

So our romantic couple are shot separately, running in slow motion and leaping through a cloud (perhaps suggesting cigarette smoke?) to the line: "Pure satisfaction for smokers - Vype E-Cigarettes. Experience the breakthrough."

Even this much innuendo is being deeply debated by authorities in Britain, with the anti-smoking lobby totally against the campaign. They are claiming that just the mention of these smoking key-words can start the whole "corruption of youngsters" controversy again.

In Australia the tobacco companies could not even go that far. At present, e-cigarettes are in a legal limbo with a ban on their sale. Yet a very steady underground market exists for the products.

They are being reviewed by the Therapeutic Goods Administration - just like drugs, medicines and therapies. The TGA has invested large amounts of time and resources verifying smoking aids like nicotine patches and gum. The government view seems to be that these cigarettes will have to jump the same hurdles before being let loose.

The main problem is the nicotine, which is a scheduled poison. Now most e-cigarettes use vapour perfumes rather than nicotine. But it is also possible to buy the nicotine separately - again, under the counter.

"People purchase stuff on line," said Scott McIntyre of British American Tobacco. "It's been brought in from Asia by cowboys and you don't know what the quality is."

The tobacco firms claim that they could control quantities and quality to protect the consumer. Allison Davis, Philip Morris Corporate Affairs, issued a statement saying: "It is essential that governments establish a rigorous regulatory framework to deal with the broad range of alternatives to cigarettes, including e-cigarettes."

When I wrote my previous story, an old friend with a 40-year, pack a day habit, thought she'd try the gadget out. Now, for the first time in her life, she has not smoked tobacco for almost a year. It may be too late for her emphysema or damaged gums - but at least she has stopped filling her lungs with soot and tar.

A survey of one is not very scientific, but what I saw has convinced me that these e-cigarettes ought to be available to those who want to trial them.

Too old or too qualified?

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday February 13, 2014

Can you be overqualified for a job? And if so, what can you do about it?

This is a popular discussion point when you get a number of old friends together. Once they start to loosen up, the stories come out, particularly in the marketing and advertising arenas.

My older friends see it as a simple fact they have to accept: they are too qualified, too old, and therefore unemployable. No matter how far and wide they search, they cannot find suitable work.

What makes this particularly odd is that they are some of the most brilliant minds I know, who have in the past built successful companies or run multi-million dollar accounts. Why wouldn't a company jump at the chance of scooping in all of that knowledge and experience?

Alas too many organisations suffer from the Dwarf Company Syndrome. Think back and you will recall seeing it in most of the places you have worked.
The name comes from a paragraph written by the patron saint of modern marketers, David Ogilvy. Back in the early 60s, the time of the Mad Men, Ogilvy wrote a book called Confessions of an Advertising Man, in which he candidly set out the rules for creating good advertising, and the campaign tactics we still observe today.

His first commandments talked about building an agency: "If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs," warned the pipe-smoking philosopher, "But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants!"

And he did, seeking out people he admired, who could create or manage better than him. And the company became a huge world success.

But that's not the way so many companies think. Too many managers seem to worry that if they hire too well, they could end up losing their job to the newcomer. So if you are looking for work, sometimes you need to play down your superiority.

Pam Kaplan is a freelance copywriter. The fact that she was Creative Director of Badjar Ogilvy for many years, and could run circles round any ad person in town, is not part of her self-promotion. "I don't go in the door and pretend I'm the grand old lady of advertising," she laughs. "What they want to know is, can you come up with the idea?" And she can.

The challenge comes with the digital revolution. Our "digital natives" really do believe anyone born before 1980 is digitally barren.

What they don't take into account is that many of the oldies started with the "hobby" in the mid-eighties, when personal computers became available, so they have had up to 30 years to practice.
And ultimately, the idea really is what matters. All the rest is window dressing. Whether it be a newspaper ad, a TV commercial, a phone app, a Twitter campaign or a streamed YouTube commentary - it has to have that creative spark to make it take off.

It's still the big idea: that will get it posted on a million FaceBook pages or emailed to your sports club or Tweeted far and wide. It's the idea that counts, the rest is technical design to broadcast it.

Fortunately computers haven't developed originality and wit, these are traits we can still keep to us humans. And the more you have been able to invent and practice them, the better your ideas. With time you get to think, and act, like a giant.

06 February, 2014

To get rich, take a loser and turn it around

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday February 6, 2014

The fastest way to get rich is by finding a total bargain company - and then turning it around. It can be done, it has been done. But it needs nerves of steel.

Like Scottish septuagenarian Ann Gloag. Busy with her charity work she happened to find a great buy: an airport, for £1. Bit of a change from the usual knitted tea cosies and dog-eared paperbacks.

Well, to come clean, Mrs Gloag is founder and director of UK's Stagecoach transport company, and owner of two Scottish castles.

Manston Airport in Kent has been making losses for years and she has recently acquired it for £1, declaring that it will be brought up to great success and profits.

In 1980 her career was as a nursing sister, and you know how strong-willed these nurses can be when they put their mind to it. Probably dealing with doctors and matrons is good training for dealing with aviation bureaucrats.

Turning companies around is never an easy task and even the biggest players throw down their racket and walk off the court. Like Google, which bought Motorola two years ago for $12.5 billion.

It seemed like a good fit, Motorola was successfully integrated into the Android family - but these giants aren't as nimble on their feet, in highly competitive markets like smartphones.

In the end it just got too hard and this week they sold out for $3 billion, to Chinese computer company Lenovo. Maybe they should have hired in a Scottish grandmother to do the job.

There are plenty of other bargains you could chance your hand on. Like the Big Day Out festival. Strong rumours say the events have had half their expected audiences and losses could be from $8m to $15m. Now, if you made Texas franchise owners C3 an offer, they might be happy to take it and hurry on home.

Perhaps you'd rather deal with food? The story is that Thailand, with all its institutions in a tangle, has an urgent need for revenue. Supposedly the government is offering its rice stocks at slash sale prices for cash in hand. Of course then you have to work out how to get it from the hands of the farmers, soldiers and police and into your ship. Sounds too hard to me.

Well then, how about you get healthy? Each year the Turnaround Management Association votes for Australia's most successful company turnaround. For 2013 it selected Fitness First, the chain of fitness centres that operates throughout Australia, as part of an international network. In fact it's the biggest health club in the world.

But it had lost its fitness and tone. In fact it had debts of over a billion dollars. Turnaround experts, 333 Management, were brought in for urgent repairs. Unprofitable franchises were let go, gymnasium rental contracts were renegotiated, management and staff were reviewed and reduced.

In the end, TMA judges assessed a buffed and toned Fitness First as working its way back to profitability, and pinned on the medal.

If you're as smart as Steve Jobs you can take an ailing brand, breathe new life into it, turn it around and make billions. Unfortunately, most of us aren't, as Warren Buffet pointed out:

"Both our operating and investment experience cause us to conclude that “turnarounds” seldom turn," he warns, "and that the same energies and talent are much better employed in a good business purchased at a fair price than in a poor business purchased at a bargain price." Now there's someone who knows.

30 January, 2014

Why would a company need an advertising agency?

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday January 30, 2014
Do companies still need advertising agencies? Especially the big corporations, which these days control most of the food we buy in a packet, the supermarkets we shop in, the cars and petrol - just about everything we consume.

Each has a big staff of marketing people, and PR divisions, all very bright and qualified and highly paid. So why bother with an agency at all?

Modern computer graphics mean after a few months' training a bright secretary can produce an acceptable looking ad. Even TV commercials are easy - hire a freelance cameraman, pick presenters from staff, maybe even run an office competition for ad ideas.

The advertisements have already been written - by the company's sales and marketing teams during their goal-setting bonding weekend at a resort in Queensland or Bali.

You know what you want to say because you spent a whole day developing your mission statement, and that covers it all.

Your marketing manager gives the campaign to a media placement company which negotiates excellent spots on the top-rating TV shows and in the best pages in magazines and newspapers.

Just name the date, everything is done, didn't need an agency at all, it's launching on Sunday.

And the world is exposed to yet another meaningless, excruciatingly boring, totally mis-directed advertising campaign, of which we are seeing so many these days.

The trouble is that companies, with a few notable exceptions, do not understand advertising. In fact some of the big ones scarcely understand marketing. Yet they believe they can develop an advertising campaign.

Well it's all laid out for them. In the world of the board room it all comes down to the share price and stock holders' returns. If a product is doing poorly it will be axed or retired to the back of the stock cupboard.

If an innovative competitor is making inroads into their market, that's great. They buy it, making the inventor happy and rich, and add it to their stock list. They already know that the public wants the product, so they don't have to create anything new.

The alternative is to bring in a favourite from an overseas division. "This sweet is a huge hit in Brazil and taste tests show Aussie kids will love it too." And the work is done. Marketing with your eyes shut.

But those of us who aren't giants, still have to market the old fashioned way. Develop a product, cultivate a market, generate consumer desire, find distribution and sell furiously.

Here companies face a problem. Their marketing people know the product too well, they see it with all its history and problems, talking to the same people about it every day, they lose the big picture.

This is why they still need agencies. Ignorant of the history, agencies are outsiders - a team who don't know your product intimately, but they do know what the public is searching for, they know the consumer's heart.

The company knows where the product fits in their manufacturing and financial mix. But a good agency can identify a product's consumer market position. Their objective view is not always the same as the client's.

Then the agency, if it's any good and the creative process is allowed to run freely - can add that sprinkle of magic dust. The creative campaign, which will get the product noticed, tried, talked about. It has to make the product exciting, desirable. The client has lived with it for several years. The agency should see it with fresh eyes and present it as new and sexy.

Phil Ruthven Shows the More Things Change, the More They Haven't Changed At All

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday January 23, 2014.

Those were the days my friend, eh? Well, actually, no. Those supposedly great bygone days were rather crummy and if there was a very best time to choose to be alive - this is it.

I've been reminded of this in a report by one of my favourite people, economist Phil Ruthven. We are lucky to have Phil around in this land full of bull dusters and fantasists. Because when they tell us that we are working harder, earning less, struggling more, suffering bad health - Phil takes up his keyboard, punches in a century's worth of Australian Bureau of Statistics and other data, and proves that it just ain't so.

What about that hard work you're doing, and all that commuting? Well it turns out the number of hours worked in a lifetime are the same now as they were in 1800. What has changed is your lifetime - you have twice as many years to spread out those 80,000 hours, so each day's work is halved.

What about "a woman's work is never done"? They work harder than men don't they? No. Years of surveys have shown that adding up the things that men work at and those that women do - maybe one drives a truck, the other feeds the kids - give you much the same number of hours worked by each.

So have we run out of full time jobs compared to the good old days? No, the figure of 40 percent of the population in a daily job has been pretty constant for 120 years.

Gee at this rate we'll have nothing left to argue over at the pub! What about the fact that we are all getting old? Well yes, the average work participation age is around 40, whereas in 1901 it was 30. But then, what is old? It no longer makes sense to say "Life begins at 40" because most of us are still well into the swing of things at that age. Instead we hear "70 is the new 60". In just 50 years average life span has gone from 67 to 78 years, so 40 is just half way.

Much of the improvement in our lives comes from science and medicine, social flexibility, nutrition and education. And it's in these areas that politicians need to encourage, finance, allow growth - and stand back.

A half century has seen the throwing out of oppressive sex discrimination, homosexual illegality, wife bashing, child beating. Some still happen of course, but now they are not "allowed".

Trade is free almost anywhere, any time, whether it's shops opening or ships importing. There's universal superannuation. And our university population has risen from 50,000 to 1.4 million. All in just 50 years.
What have we have lost - stable marriages? No. For three hundred years marriages have averaged 20 years. It's just that living longer, we are more likely to take a second or even third pick of the cherry. 20 years at a time.

But with the growth of violence around the world we have more murders now? No. Recent figures put the homicide rate at 1.3, down from 1.9 in less than a decade. That's your chance in 100,000 of being done in. Should make you feel pretty safe.

OK here's a good one: we all have more vehicles than ever. Yes? Nope. If you count your horse, bicycle, buggy, whatever was your "personal transport", you get an average 1.6 vehicles per home - for 200 years.

We didn't have TV, computers, cheap flights - so you're living in the golden age. Enjoy it.

16 January, 2014

Why use a travel agent when you can book it yourself?

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday January 16, 2014

Do you need a flight anywhere in the world? From Lagos to Vladivostok? A hotel on Copacabana beach? An hour exploring the internet will find you dozens of choices. So how can a travel agent survive in this DIY world? Aren't they all going to wither on the branches and fall away?

But wait a minute, some travel agents have never done better business. They operate flat chat. So what's their secret of survival in our changing business world?

I asked my long-time friend Anne Rogers how she did it. For three decades she has weathered the storms of the internet flood, the changes in business in her Wings Away Travel Agency in Essendon. She is still here, in fact the business is healthier than ever, even as scores of other agents disappear from the high streets. What does she know about the internet - or her business?

"The Internet will only take business from you if you are not adding value to the product you supply," she says emphatically. "If you just want a flight to London you can do it yourself," she's the first to tell the one-stop customer how to do it; in fact her agency handles very few domestic bookings - with all the bargains advertised there is no point, and very little profit.

No, the business walks in as soon as things start to get difficult. "They come to us because to organise a multi-faceted trip on the internet - well you wouldn't live long enough to get it right," she smiles. By the time you've coordinated the best fares, travel times, hotels, side trips, car hire - you're wrestling an octopus.

Years ago in London I spent a day on the phone trying to change the return flight to Australia, to no avail. Then in desperation I called my Melbourne agent and one of Anne's girls took up the battle. Lord knows what time it was around the world, but in an hour she had rung me back with the problem fixed.

This is a major lesson from the internet. Business is not just turning out the goods and punching the till. We have to offer our customers what they can't do by themselves, much of which comes from our length of practice and experience.

Cruising is growing massively these days. It has boomed as a holiday choice, and in turn the ships have become floating palaces. No more deck quoits and watching the gulls. Each ship has a dozen different restaurants, music and variety shows, gourmet food and fine wines.

The escorted tours are dazzling - just from Australia you can sail with Marina Prior, Elaine Paige, John Waters, even have a Countdown cruise with Molly Meldrum and Daryl Braithwaite. Would you prefer the tropical moonlight rockin with Jimmy Barnes or serenaded by hunky baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes?

Anne - like the other dedicated travel agents - spends a lot of her year sampling their products. (I know it's a hard job but somebody has to do it...)

It means an agent can give you up to date advice whether from the Rockies or Himalayas, the Amazon or Siberia, African game parks or Antarctica.

And boy, aren't people getting adventurous these days? Cruising starts in the 40s, the "junior retirees", Anne calls them. The advantage of a cruise ship is that even the slow and creaky don't have to be house-bound.

"I know they make a lot of jokes about zimmer frames and wheel chairs on the ships, but a cruise makes these exotic destinations available to them." And Anne's mission is to bring the exotic to all.

12 January, 2014

We're the natives of the great Chinese cargo cult

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday January 9, 2014


Every new year I revisit the Great Australian Cargo Cult. Like the natives of post-war New Guinea we Australians await the arrival of cargo planes full of consumer goods - refrigerators, cars, shoes, clothes, cooking pots - all sent by some far-away god because we are the lucky ones.

Without great effort we receive it all and demand more. And if the flow at all falters, we cut down our leaders and find more promising ones. We want our goods and we'll do as little as possible for them.

Well this year I’m looking at the cult from the giving side. I’m writing in Yunnan, south-western China, having crossed the great Middle Kingdom that donates to our welfare. What a land! A hive of over a billion people all working feverishly. Day and night fresh skyscrapers and factories are being built. In the east, new subways are tunnelling under Shanghai and the airport boasts a 430 kph maglev magnetic train.

There are 160 cities in China with over one million population and looking at the one I visited, Kunming, these ain't populated by hungry rice planters. The cityscape is a forest of skyscrapers; freeways and rail are connecting with Bangkok, Hanoi, Mandalay and Chittagong. It's a huge manufacturing region most Australians don't even know about.

They are quite happy to keep supplying our cargo goods, and so long as we supply all the raw materials they demand and keep signing the IOUs, we are a convenient quarry. But if you look at Chinese history, they do expect strict compliance from their vassals - we pay for those toasters by doing what we’re told.

From what I saw of Kunming, they were not waiting for cargo cults. They were creating their own future. They have revived their ancient silk and tea road trading. They have huge iron and steel industries, factories, universities, and are expanding their tourism.

China is a big wide world with an even bigger one outside it. I'm afraid Australia does not even register within these circles most days, they certainly don't feel they owe us anything. Not even a bamboo plane.

Just Kunming district has five million people full of determination to prosper. There are the usual equivalents to our state and federal demands and tussles, but ultimately there is a willingness to invest and grow, both from government and private sectors.

It doesn't surprise me to see that China now has more industrial researchers than Europe, education is a national focus. The recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report put Shanghai at No 1 in mathematics - and Australia at No 19. We're also 16 in science and 14 in reading. Yes, Shanghai is No 1 both times.

At this rate we'll have difficulty keeping tally of our bales of straw as we work on our Cargo Cult airport. It certainly won't take us into the high-powered literacy and scientific advancement we will need to keep up with even one small Chinese province.

Allow me a final boast. My five-years old Chinese granddaughter spent two months attending a Queensland school this year. Bi-lingual, she quickly adapted with the local kids. And immediately, she was the best reader in the class. In English.

I know I've said it many times over the past nine years, but push aside the straw and bamboo and let's build a real future for this country. And have a wonderful, prosperous New Year.

08 January, 2014

Winning business between the feet of the battling elephants

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday December 12, 2013

When elephants battle, it takes caution to keep clear of their feet. But the nimble field mice can dart in and out, gathering the threshed corn and setting themselves quite a feast on the sidelines.
So it seems to be shaping up in marketing. Giants like Unilever, Procter and Gamble, Nestle and the like have their mighty contests in the supermarkets. Who themselves are fighters on the field with their growing range of home brand and increasingly glamorous private labels.

If a newly launched product does not reach the expected millions in sales by the end of the first year's sales cycle, it is ruthlessly chopped. Supermarkets in turn are cutting down the product lines on the shelf, to one or two by the majors, and the rest their own brands.

The drive for efficiency cuts deep. Just last week Unilever warned it was cutting its world marketing staff by 800 jobs and some $500 million in costs. Unproductive products will be trimmed - as will its marketing and advertising budgets.

It is all economically rational, sewing loose ends and "trimming of the tails". And it's great news for the also-rans. Because every time one of the big players cuts back, it's an opening newly created. It means the customer has less and less variety of choice. And it gives an opportunity to the small manufacturer or the startup with a good idea.

Look around, you'll see them everywhere. Some of the newest trends are also some of the oldest. Most obvious is the boom in farmers' markets, in every country town and it feels like, every city suburb. Once a week, or once a month, the chalked blackboard signs pop up on the highways and a flood of passing cars drives in. Farmers' markets don't necessarily offer better prices - our supermarkets are pretty cheap anyway - but they give us the variety and feeling of choice we demand.

The other booming market is electronic. You don't even need a table and umbrella to open an on-line shop for your goods. And you don't need to pay shopping centre rents for the shopfront - on line, every fresh browser page is a store window.

They also don't have to be in your neighbourhood. Amazon is everywhere in the world, with a growing range of products. For that matter there are thousands of small business trading through eBay.

Sometimes on-line can be aggressively competitive, like Ruslan Kogan's fast-growing electronics retailer, Kogan Technology. "Work out what your competitive advantage is and flaunt it,” he says. His advantage is not being encumbered by bricks and mortar stores or rents. He then flaunts it in the faces of Gerry Harvey and JB HiFi.

For Kogan the rational economics of the big boys give him strength. As he said last month, “We teach our staff to swim upstream, to innovate continuously, to question absolutely everything. It’s in the culture of the organisation.” His philosophy is working - he was tagged as Australia's richest person under 30, a year ago, and has set up a subsidiary in the UK that is run remotely from Australia.

Our field mice are small and agile and able to quickly change in response to customer demands or fashion whims. They jumped on social media for intimate contact with their customers, they are creating a new shopping experience. In the US they have already started to take nibbles out of market share, just one or two percent but growing rapidly. They'd better watch out.

05 December, 2013

Moving your ice cream upmarket

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday December 5, 2013

As the weather warms you start to notice the ice cream fridge in the milk bar, again. As soon as the mercury heads into the high 20s and 30s, the ice cream and soft drink companies can take deep breaths of relief before ploughing into a frantic six months of money making.

Back to the fridge - I became aware of a stunning range of products, expensive stick ice creams from Connoisseur, with names like "Kangaroo Island Honey with Pistachio" and "Murray River Salted Caramel with Macadamia". I tried one and sure enough it was first rate. "Who is this company?" I thought.

A little detective work - called "read the fine print" - revealed that this line comes from Peters. Aha - clever marketing!

The venerable company will forever carry memories of Dixie Cups, vanilla scoops and Zig and Zag. But meantime the world is getting older and tastes are moving upmarket.

When Streets introduced the premium Magnum bar in the early 90s they raised the price point, changing what the adult consumer was willing to pay. Peters responded with the me-too Heaven range. But now, by bringing in Connoisseur, they are moving the goal posts again.

They took the name from their premium tub range, but deliberately gave the product an adult, very personal treat image. You're willing to pay the extra because this is classy, it's delicious, just for you - give the kids Icy Poles, spend that extra couple of dollars on yourself.

This demonstrates how to take your product upmarket. Because just putting on a higher price tag won't do the trick. If the brand were not changed, it would retain the thought, that it's just a Dixie Cup tarted up. You have to remove the product from a lifetime of history and persuade the consumer to look at it for the first time.

So when Toyota realised they had reached the glass ceiling of perception with their cars - no-one was ever going to believe a Toyota could be as good as a Mercedes or BMW - they had to re-invent themselves. And the Lexus was born.

It had all the touches and gadgets and finish of the pricey Europeans, it had style and performance. It had a separate showroom - usually next door to Toyota's. It was different, posh. Fortunately they delivered what they promised and had a huge long-running success.
The supermarket giants, after so many years of slugging each other on price, have pushed upmarket with the Battle of the Chefs. Curtis Stone, for Coles, has done wonders for their daggy high street history. So much so that Woolworths have been forced to retaliate with their own bovva boy, Jamie Oliver. They both have that combination of kitchen expertise and boyish sex appeal.

The hardest job was McDonald's. The customers were looking for a little more than a two-minute drive-through experience, or a hasty burger and chips in the midst of a kiddie birthday party.

It took franchisee Anne Brown, in that distant outpost of the McDonald's empire, Melbourne Australia, to persuade them to let her try the idea. In 1993 she created an island of calm in her restaurant with espresso machine and easy chairs, where customers were invited to sit and chat: the McCafe was born.

It succeeded, improving revenue by 15%. Management were impressed. But they didn't open one in the US till eight years later, after 300 had opened in 17 other countries.

Moral: if you're looking for leadership, don't wait for head office.

28 November, 2013

Choice watches over the guardians' shoulders

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday 28 November, 2013

Who guards the guardians? At a time when governments, regulators and the law watch over our shoulders at everything we do, who in turn is watching over theirs?

For many years now we have looked up to Choice as the strict moral judge in our society that we can always trust. Not just for their comparisons of electric kettles or kiddie pools, but for more social matters too.

Whether it's proper regulation for free-range eggs, or forcing banks to be transparent over credit card interest rates, Choice is often the first to wave the banner on the consumer's behalf and lead yet another campaign for citizen justice.

As the Australian Consumer Association, it has 160,000 members. And we know that if they are going to join Choice, they are pretty outspoken defenders in the first place.

There is no clearer example of the social concerns than their current campaign. They will be pitting their muscle at the World Trade Organization negotiations, to be held in Bali in December.

Their complaint? That while the Trans-Pacific Partnership deals have been cobbled over the past three years, not a word has been passed to the public. The negotiators plan to show us the document once it has been signed, sealed and delivered.

Ironically this protest will pitch ACA into battle with the Abbott government. Had a few thousand votes gone differently last September, the fighting would have been just as fierce, against a Rudd government.

Governments love to keep their secrets, especially in this case, where the treaties look like making concessions which would force back-downs over our food labelling, public health, energy, copyright, import and export regulations, and most stirring, intellectual property laws.

Ironically, the parliaments of the nations involved, including US Congress and Australian MPs, have also been locked out of the room and what we now know has come from a WikiLeaks release of a draft bill this month. It seems we get freedom of information only when we can steal it.

The ACA depends on its large membership for its claim to be the voice of the Australian consumer. But like most other organisations, they have problems recruiting young members. Where once a social group could rely on a steady stream of new recruits to more than replenish the drop-outs, this does not happen as it did and the groups just get older. So I suppose that explains Choice's new advertising campaign. In step with the times, they have created a commercial they hope will go viral.

But I can only describe it as weird. A man in his mid-twenties stands baffled in an appliance store, confronted by rows of similar-looking coffee machines. He pulls out his phone, and quizzes the Choice web site, receiving instant recommendation for the unit he should buy.

This gives him the spare time to day-dream about a flying, rainbow-emitting, fortune-making goat in an alpine meadow. Yes that's what I thought too: what...? Perhaps my younger readers will understand the significance better than I - cause I'm stumped.

The best way to sell the magazine - and its services - is by getting prospects onto its web site. There they can see how many thousands of products have been closely studied and tested, and evaluated against each other.

Then if you're shopping for a new car, a new baby, or a new slimming diet - you'll find the scientifically researched, un-commercial advice you want.

21 November, 2013

Getting to know who your customers really are

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday November 20, 2013

It's the first question you ask a new client: "So who are your customers?" Invariably they respond, with wide-eyed surprise that you should need ask, "Why, everybody!"

At this point the job of marketing begins. It's not everybody, of course. It's a small group who are particularly attracted, or have need, for the product - or your competitors'. So you need to get to them first, but who are they?

In fact you do have records of who your customers are. Buried in your files and figures there are names, account addresses, warrantee forms, spending patterns, a wealth of information. Probably it is sitting in your database, unused because right now it does not have any meaning.

Last week, Roy Morgan Research CEO Michele Levine gave the pollster's annual "State of the Nation" review. She proudly displayed their new analysis product called "Helix Personas". This, it turns out, could be the answer to your problem.

The exotic name reveals a new take on psychographic segmentation of the market. In other words, they are taking a deep look into your customer base so you better understand who they are, where they live, and what is important to them.

These days our media are fragmented to a point where nobody can afford to hit at "everybody". If you spread too broadly, you will end up paying for promotional shots that hit targets who aren't interested, and totally miss the targets you need to reach.

The claim of Helix Personas is that it has broken down the market into 56 different segments. So a family from the "Leading Lifestyles" segment lives in its own house in the inner suburbs, is tertiary educated and highly paid. Now they are obviously going to be different from the "Getting By" family, not high earning, children at home, living in the outer suburbs.

Through decades of polls and research, Morgans have a vast store of information from every corner of Australia. In developing this new system they have merged it with the up to date Census data. Then the client's own data is added to the mix.

Out will come the clear knowledge of customers. Who, what, where and why.

Banks are quickly responding to the promised information. They know where their customers are - but which products will they respond to? The "On Their Way" family might want a mortgage loan; the "Bluechips" an investment, the "Family First", insurance.

The idea is to identify these groups in your database for the most effective communication.

Selling cars is expensive. Your advertising has to be closely targeted. You don't send a glossy car brochure to a "Metrotech" who is very technology oriented, but would respond well to a Twitter link to an on-line test-drive simulation.

The supermarket chain will seek out the "Career and Kids", while travel agents will look for the older, affluent "Set For Life" segment. Your approach to a "Rural Traditionalist" would differ from a "Rural Realist".

Each of the 56 "personas" helps clarify a group of your customers and their needs. Now you can produce communication that knows who you are talking to, and what needs to be said to them.

Currently the big corporates are trialing the system, but Morgans are quickly moving to make it available to smaller companies.

14 November, 2013

Confession of a silent Twitter

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday November 14, 2013

Now this is an embarrassing admission from a journalist about a medium that floated, just a few days ago, for nearly $47 billion. But the truth is, although I signed on nearly five years ago - I never really learned how to Twitter.

I know plenty of avid users: friends like Stephen Mayne, Winston Marsh, even my distant boss, Rupert Murdoch, and every politician from Barak Obama to Tony Abbott and the Pope - but I kinda never got it. Recently with all the interest of the share launch, I have been querying why some leap at Twitter and others fall back.

So what is it that has stopped me jumping into this pot, as opposed to the many I've plunged into over the years. You will need to go through this process yourself and ask: Does Twitter have a use to you?

Twitter is quick and newsy. It's loved by those who have a quick thought, rapidly jot it down and communicate it, then move on to their next train of thought. As opposed to those who think more like a steam train chugging along on a single track. Toot toot, one thought at a time.

If you haven't used it much before, the only way to find out where you fit is to jump in. It's simple enough to install, try "Download Twitter" in Google, or the app store on your phone, and follow the prompts.

A brief study of the site will quickly give you the basic information, so then find a few heroes to follow. Maybe movie stars or politicians, TV favourites or particular interests. I'll leave you to it here, there's masses of good advice on line.

The problem has passed to Dick Costolo, Twitter CEO. He now has to justify the $47 billion that has just been invested by eager share buyers, who no doubt will along the line want to see some return. In the first three-quarters of this year, it lost $143 million, so it has a way to go first.

The money will be mainly generated through advertising, and I can assure you that any business will want to see some pretty high visitor numbers to justify paying big ad budgets.

For Costolo that means getting more joiners through the door - and cutting the number that leak out the other end. Currently they have 232 million active users each month, whereas Facebook has three times as many.

So they need to widen the base of newcomers - how many more people can there be who want to know every detail about Katy Perry or Justin Bieber? (They each have 47 million already.)

Assuming that there is more in this world than the lives of pop stars, the Twitter crew have to work on ways to introduce newcomers - and even old hands - on how to expand their horizons.

Rather than random messages from celebrities, this is also an ideal medium for what old computer hands know as "chat rooms". Through your hashtags, you can gather with those of fellow interests - be it collecting porcelain or comparing pubs, or chatting about tonight's episode of Beauty and the Geek. We see this already with the stream of comments that litter the bottom of the screen in Q&A.

One chat group feeling very cosy are the creators of the phenomenon. Evan Williams is now worth $2.8 billion more; Jack Dorsey $640 million; Costello $195 million; Adam Bain $47 million. And to think he gave up a job at NewsCorp before joining the risky venture.

07 November, 2013

Getting that first agency job

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday November 7, 2013

The hardest part of an advertising career is getting into your first agency. There are hundreds of bright young people who would love an advertising job, but only a small number of vacancies each year for newcomers.

For any kind of work, you need your basic skills - a degree in English or psychology, or at least some impressive VCE results. Media and account service will look for some evidence of maths ability. Computer skills need to be more than adequate these days - so many agencies are rooms packed with hunched hackers. So you need to make yourself good - a bit of an expert. If your inclination is artistic, study graphic design and computer graphics.

But most importantly, you need a real vision and desire to get involved with marketing. Agencies have tended to value selling ability, street smarts and flair, over purely academic honours. They don't give points for meekness. And you'll never get a start-up agency job through a search site - by the time you see it on your screen, it's gone.

So your first and most important selling job will be persuading the agency's general manager or creative director, that they want to give that precious spare seat in the office to you.

Some of the most seriously determined door-knockers are those who signed up for RMIT's three-year advertising studies course. In their determination to meet the prospective employers, they now run an annual "RMIT Pitch Night", a type of speed-dating game where agency and client management meet third-year students, eat sushi and browse their portfolios. They have gained sponsorship from the likes of Greys, George Patterson Y&R, Ogilvy & Mather and marketing magazine B&T, for the most recent event.

Like speed dating the students have a limited time to speak with industry guests, impress them with their work and personality, and hopefully get that important "let's talk" phone call in the morning.

Back in the 1990s, the late Seth Prokop devised a brilliant RMIT advertising short course. It would take about 30 keen students and over the first two months they were lectured on the various components of an agency, what each job involved, and a basic understanding of marketing.

Then for the last two months they had to form themselves into "agencies" with designated titles: managing director, media manager, creative director, art director, research manager.

They were then given a brief. One was the setting up of a national pizza chain; another time it was launching a new pasta sauce - with Heinz participating as the "client". Each agency received the same brief and had to develop a full campaign, with the same allotted "budget".

The amount of work those kids put into their agency was amazing. I had delivered some of the lectures and was part of the client's judging panel. I was highly impressed by the quality of research they carried out, the creative ideas they developed, the bright media innovations, the professionalism of the documents they produced.

They learned so much, not by sitting receiving lectures but by being a functioning advertising agency. They also learned the torture of being in a competitive pitch with not very sympathetic clients and hostile competitors. And for all but one agency, there was the pain of failing to win.

Not all of the kids got their agency job, but a surprisingly large number of them did. They were able to approach the pavement-pounding, door-knocking weeks ahead with a determination and confidence that got them noticed, and often opened a door.

31 October, 2013

You want lamb leg and veggies along with your cookbook?

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday October 31, 2013

Late for birthdays, gifts for interstate, seeking a title that's hard to find - bit by bit we have all come round to using Amazon a few times, if not often. But can you see it supplying the meat, Weetbix and veg?

Give it time and that day will come, is the claim, as Amazon.com looks to expand its huge retail business into more areas, across markets and around the world. Already it sells toys, electronics, computers and phones, movies, fashions, cosmetics - its growth is constant.

Last year it lost money, but that has never slowed Amazon's development - for years it continued to grow without making a cent. No it has always looked to its promise, as articulated by the boss Jeff Bezos, and he has expanded the company beyond belief.

They have now spent the past five years establishing and growing the home-delivery grocery business in the Seattle area and just expanded to Los Angeles. San Francisco is promised to follow soon. Warehouses and investments are rumoured around America and the UK has also been primed. No doubt Australia is not too far down the target list.

Of course, mail-order groceries are nothing new down here. Coles have a very sophisticated nationwide system as does Woolworths. And here we have the advantage of the stores and supply chain already fully functioning. Here all the delivery developers had to do was tap in to the supermarket giants' sophisticated existing networks.

Even this took time and a lot of lesson-learning. Groceries are a very tricky commodity. The profit margin on food is much smaller than on clothes and electronics; they have short use-by dates after which everything must be thrown out; and delivering a basket of groceries is not as simple as dropping off a parcel of books.

However they all see the lessons from overseas, to know that online groceries are a huge growth market. In the UK they are far bigger and better established.

The business is making some $10 billion in sales now, and is expected to double that by 2016. France, Germany, Netherlands and Switzerland are a little later on the wagon, but they too are expected to double their growth in the period.

World-wide researchers IGD announced the projections last week, with Britain being closely followed by France, now growing the sector. Joanne Denney-Finch, chief executive of IGD, sees the figures indicating fundamental changes to the way people shop: “Online retailing in food and consumer goods is growing at a phenomenal rate across Europe."

She points out, "Technology is empowering people, fundamentally changing the way they buy groceries. Online shoppers are becoming more demanding and the divisions between online and bricks and mortar stores are blurring."

In the US, mail order goes back to the beginnings of the young nation, so online grocery is no surprise. One of the first entrepreneurs in the country was the great Benjamin Franklin - yes the one with the kite - who sent out catalogues of scientific and academic books.

Right now, Amazon has some formidable competition before it, with equally deep pockets - especially Walmart. They have been trialing for the past two years, using their huge existing stores as regional warehouses for the service.

With so much global focus on the sector it is no longer a fringe activity, this is a market repositioning in action. So I can guarantee it will soon enough touch you and me. If it hasn't done so already.

25 October, 2013

How many clicks and tweets make a double page spread?

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday October 24, 2013

So you think that designing an advertising plan for your products is a difficult business now? Well take a grip of your computer because the way things are headed, working out an advertising schedule is going to need tertiary mathematical skills.

You might remember how simple it was. "I'll have three flights of TV commercials and two press ads a week for the next three months." The ads were made by your agency and you watched closely to see if they were working or not.
Well it doesn't happen that way any more. Now there are tweets and clicks, banners and mobiles, the mechanics of a viral campaign, and the arrival of the "complex native ad ecosystem". Baffled? So is everyone, and a huge new marketing industry is being born out of it.

"Native ads" describes the vague cross-over between advertising and editorial. We are used to this in "advertorial", common enough in all newspapers, supporting the car or property pages. But here you clearly know that the display ad on the page is paying for the supporting copy up above. It probably says "advertising" at the top of the page.

Native ads are different, perhaps more subtle. With mobile media or search engines, they respond to the key topics you're looking for. They don't necessarily hit you with a bright product ad, but perhaps an answer to the question you haven't even asked yet.

It may be an article by a journalist, sounding very reasonable. This is where the card-carrying journalists raise their hackles. Most, yours truly included, were taught the 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not mix editorial with advertising". But the intelligence of technology has made that line hard to draw.

Arif Durrani, head of media at Britain's Campaign Magazine, sees native ads as the way which will make digital media work. "Display ads, not least those large banners on most websites, have failed", he insists. "They have failed to capture the attention of readers. They have failed to generate enough revenue for publishers. They have failed to provide enough traffic for advertisers."

He points to the launch of BuzzFeed in the UK and now Australia, as an indication of trends. This on-line magazine was not taken too seriously - until it started to stack up the numbers in the US and attract the big investors, more than $46 million to date.

Just last month Forbes magazine quoted BuzzFeed's global audience at 85 million, and growing fast. That's a lot of viewers for cute cats and endless "top 20 lists". But now they have hired real journalists and started reporting political news, covering the election and the Washington shut-down.

News Corp was among the first of the major media to dip its toes into the digital sea. By erecting pay walls around The Australian and then the other papers, it had a lonely time until all the competitors came rushing to follow.

But the online dollar still doesn't cover the "rivers of gold" that the old newspaper model supplied. So are native ads the way to go? How many clicks does it take to pay for a double page spread? How does sponsored advertising retain credibility?

The younger publications have little problem bending the rules - they didn't write them in the first place. Whereas the establishment are more cautious. There's a flood of questions in the minds of the world's media execs, there are no easy answers. Just some hard maths for the rest of us.