17 July, 2014

Public morality is a landmine

Melbourne Herald Sun, July 17, 2014

We regularly see landmines going off beneath some of our media personalities.

Maybe they had been the life of the team's night out when they were younger, a laugh a minute in the locker room. But one day on The Footy Show or commenting on a match or during some live to air transmission, they say or do or touch one topic too many and boom! the landmine goes off.

"But all I said was..." too late. Now they are spotlighted as a perv or a racist or devoid of moral conscience. From a golden life when everything was theirs, they descend into a hell of newspaper revelations, camera crews outside the door, people they haven't seen for 20 years revealing what they did then, every thoughtless act of the past suddenly revealed.

What they did then might have been funny then, but not now. Many a career has come crashing down when the laughing stopped. They have been caught on the pendulum of public morality. It was once ok but now it's not.

There must be a lot of middle-aged rock stars remembering back to the teenage groupies of 30 years ago and nervously wondering what exactly did happen, and what ages were the girls.

But the pendulum swings the other way too. Our greatest swimmer, Ian Thorpe, reveals that he is gay. Once that would have been the end of his career and support. Now I'm not so sure.

Any sponsor seen withdrawing after this week's fanfare would find themselves the subject of a massive backlash. In fact sponsors are more likely to come in rather than run out. Public morality has turned.

You might recall my column last week, where the ANZ supported the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras and decorated their "GAYTMs" with rainbows and kisses. A bank in drag?

But on the pendulum, while one sexuality swings up, another swings down. Men's magazines have suffered from the onslaught of the internet - but also I think, from a more moralist younger generation.

In recent times we have seen the "girlie" section of the newsagents slim down and magazines like FHM and Ralph plunged in circulation before disappearing from the shelves.

In their place have come the health and fitness magazines. But it's a funny thing though - look through their contents pages and as well as "Build the perfect abs" or "Is your body made for running", you'll find "Make sex incredible" and "Buy her the sexiest lingerie". So the boys' mags haven't disappeared, they have just changed their disguise.

The other day I went to the movies and a thought struck me. Seated either side were fellow patrons and they held wine glasses which they sipped through the film. I smiled. When I was a kid, there was no way you could take a drink into a cinema - you'd be marched straight out.

Yet every seat had a neat little ash-tray screwed to the back of it, to catch your ash and butts as you heartily smoked all the way through the feature. A girl with a tray sold Dixies and cigarettes down next to the screen. I don't think you'd get far lighting a fag in your movie seat today.

So how the times have changed. Drinks were forbidden, smokes were ok. Now it has completely reversed. Yes, public morality is subjective and changes with the times.

10 July, 2014

The paedophile honey-trap wins a Cannes Grand Prix

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday July 10, 1014.

It's the social issues, the tug at the heartstrings that always do well in any advertising awards. These public service ads can dramatise emotions and prod consciences much more boldly than any commercial for a supermarket product.

So it was no surprise that in last month's Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity - the grand judgment and celebration that, in the ad world, is as big as the Cannes Film Festival - social themes won so many of the big awards.

In a world that has been set spinning with tales of paedophiles and pornography, these themes came out at the top with a campaign called Terre des Hommes. It's not a product ad, more a charity.

The Dutch agency, Lemz, introduced a totally believable Filipina girl who goes onto chat rooms and announces herself as available. The men on the internet line respond in swarms - sometimes 10, sometimes a hundred an hour. They offer her money - but what they don't know is that "Sweetie" is computer-generated. And that while they are "chatting", their details are being obtained.

"In two weeks we identified more than 1000 men from around the world", said the group's head, Albert Jaap van Santbrink. The information was passed to the men's local police authorities.

Very worthy, but is it advertising? The judges had difficulty with that question and finally awarded it the Grand Prix for Good, a section for charities.

Last year it was McCann Melbourne that trounced the world with the Metro Trains campaign "Dumb Ways to Die" to pull in a best-ever five Grand Prix and 18 Gold Lions.

To show this talent was no fluke (though the number will never be surpassed) they pulled in a Grand Prix this year with "Guilt Trip" for V/Line. Here country parents plot ways to bring their city-flown children home for a visit by sending them guilty pangs and a train ticket.

The other Grand Prix local winner was the ANZ Bank with a surprising outdoor entry: you could call it a coming out. They sponsored the world-famous Sydney Gay Mardi Gras and celebrated it by decorating their ATMs with the campest glitter-and-rhinestones decorations since Liberace. They called them "GayTMs" and dressed them in sailor suits, rainbows and hearts and of course lots of lippy lips.

I can't judge how successful this will be in marketing terms but the goodwill factor has to be right up there. ANZ reports that 200 of their employees marched in the Mardi Gras parade, ten ATMs were dressed up, and 62 million impressions were sent out across 70 countries through media like Facebook and Twitter. And let's face it, it was a pretty brave move for a bank to make.

Back in the Netherlands - a place with some of the strangest ideas - the Product Design Grand Prix went to G-Star Raw. The young-fashion chain has produced a range of clothing made from recycled plastic waste fished from the oceans.

And that ultra capitalist, Coca-Cola, found that Peru was a nation with the saddest people. So they set up a series of photo booths, for the mandatory citizen ID cards, that would only take pictures when the subject was smiling. That won McCann Lima the Media Grand Prix.

Is all this advertising or social engineering? What happened to the snappy headline and clever commercial? Or if you like: where have all the Mad Men gone?

27 June, 2014

Is the media in decline, or do we just not know how to use it?

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday June 26, 2014

As businesses we have never in history been better, more closely connected between seller and buyer, as now. There are so many ways to reach your customer - the traditional ways, of course like tv and print and posters et al. Then there are the flood of new ways - Google, Facebook, emails, web pages, mobiles, tablets, tweets, personalised messages - scores of ways.

Yet what's happening? Everywhere you look you see "decline". Check the headlines. "Google's efforts to reverse ad-price declines aren't working"; "Print circulations and ad revenues down", "TV stations no longer licenses to print money".

In fact TV stations have suffered in recent times. Channel 9 skirted bankruptcy before being rescued, 20 months ago. Ten network has lost 90 per cent of its value in the past decade and stands on the showroom floor while overseas visitors kick its tyres. Seven has gloried in winning ratings, but none of the networks are able to recapture the heady days of the past.

Of course good television is expensive to make, whereas the reality tv shows, cooking lessons and quiz programs are relatively cheap. So we see lots of them, and lots of glamorous American TV shows that cost millions in production, but our channels get them for the over the counter price.

It's the same with the advertising. The clever, fancy ads all too often came in the same crate that delivered the product. Whereas our local ads tend to be arm-waving presenters and lots of product shots.

How can we avoid this decline in quality when now there are so many media to work with? Well I say we can. But it involves more work from the client - and from the ad agency.

We see so much puffery about the new media. As if it's the media that counts and delivers the results. Not so. In the end that's only a way of delivering a message, your advertisement. And if it isn't on strategy, cleverly written, and brilliantly delivered - it will fail. Then the advertising will be blamed. No wonder then that the board turns around and cuts the marketing budget - "well it never works anyway," they tell each other.

Advertising does work, but only when it is well-conceived. When a target has been carefully selected, a campaign developed, yes make use of all the media we now have available - but aiming at that one carefully determined target, with the highest quality production values.

Sean Cummins, creative director of Cummins and Partners, summed it up at a conference last week: "I want to bring media and creative back together again," he said. "Every time we name something it becomes the new trotted out buzzword."

He warmed to the subject: "It's not content. It's advertising. It's not social media, it's advertising. It's not activation, fulfilment, behaviour change, hash tagging - it's advertising." I've left out some of his more colourful expletives. "Dude, research isn't a tool, a shovel is a tool." Point being, stop talking up the psychobabble and forgetting that you have a job to do. It's advertising.

And this is where companies make their mistake, of not having their ad manager at the boardroom table. Reminding them that without that understanding, their truck does not have an engine.

Look at the most successful companies and check out their management. The best put big emphasis, and big budgets, into their advertising. Because they know how to make it work.

19 June, 2014

Will the postman call no more?

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday June 19, 2014

These days it seems as if the only mail I receive is the regular flow from Telstra and Optus, or gas and electric - all wanting money from me. Ironically I have to pay them to bill me. An extra $2 or so for receiving the accounts in print.

I choose to pay because it gives a certain solidity to the monthly cycle. If I received them by email they would get muddled amongst the hundred-odd mails I receive most days, they'd be easily forgotten so I'd print them out - which by the time you've accounted for the paper, ink and bother, would cost around $2.

Precious few non-accounting letters enter my mailbox, all the other matters are dealt with by email and text. So no wonder Australia Post is caught in a sharp descent. Between 2009 and 2013 the number of letters posted has fallen from 5.3 billion to 4.5 billion. And the rate is speeding up.

You can't accuse us of writing less. If you added up the typing of Twitter and Facebook, emails and texts, you would see that today you write much more than you did. But very little of it is posted.

On the physical side, less letters mean less stamps and less work - so Ahmed Fahour, CEO of Australia Post, indicated the loss of 900 jobs. He claims they will go from the administrative side of the business rather than the posties and retail staff. The Communication Workers Union makes a harder summary of the figures, adding a hiring freeze which lost 500 in 2013, a flow of 1000 jobs from permanent to temp, and ongoing tightening of hiring policies. Secretary Joan Doyle predicts a figure of 2500 in four years, from 32,700 employees.

But even as this happens, many of the operations will be strengthened, with post offices extending their opening hours and commercial and financial activities.

The push is on to allow them to grow their services. They already handle your phone and utility bills, so why not Centrelink pensions or driving licences? In Britain the Post Office savings book has been an institution since 1861. Now there are no more Australian state banks, why should they not take that role too?

In fact the internet has not been an ill wind. Through it they have received an enormous boost to their parcel delivery services as Australians turn to mail-order buying like never before. So while they may cry poor at the loss of $218 million in letter business, they recouped three times as much profit from parcels: $648 million.

Because of their legal obligations, most country towns still have a post office. It's a hub for the community and with the increased trading of recent years its value has grown. As the NBN reaches deeper into the country, the post offices will give it natural focus points, allowing country businesses to trade as easily as those in the towns.

No business person looking at the potential could help thinking: what a ripe, juicy plum for privatisation one day - when the government's feeling a bit skint.

Finally I predict a return of the letter. Christmas cards printed by your computer do not sit happily on the mantlepiece, and I notice no fall in activity around the city's greeting card shops. And certainly there is something very un-romantic about a purple ribbon binding a collection of treasured love emails.

12 June, 2014

Turkish dolmush meets Valley Uber to solve our transport problems

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday June 11, 2014

Many years ago I spent a little time in Istanbul, Turkey, and was impressed by their dolmush shared taxi service. In every large street you will see little huddles of people waiting. A quick question finds the group going to the suburb you need to reach. In minutes along comes a big sedan or mini bus, everyone piles in and you are taken to your destination. The fare is shared between the passengers, so it works out very cheap.
The memory comes back when I think about the crushing price of car ownership and city travel these days. The RACV calculates the cost of a car - a Toyota or a Commodore mind, nothing prestige - at $11,000 a year. If you live in the inner suburbs it will spend a lot of its life sitting on the kerb; if you're outer, you can multiply the cost of fuel and maintenance.

And if you've breathed the air in Beijing or Bangkok you'll know what the future holds for you and your children if we don't do something soon.

A lot of forward thinkers have applied themselves to the question, and they don't think deeper than in Silicon Valley. By last weekend the car-sharing service Uber had raised a staggering $1.2 billion investment, with a company valuation of $17 billion.

They are in Melbourne, as in 128 cities in 37 countries. Download their app and they can be at your service in minutes - the system hinges on a pushbutton smartphone application.

They claim some users have already given up their cars and rely on Uber for their driving needs. Boasts inventor Travis Kalanick: "With our growth and expansion, the company has evolved from being a scrappy Silicon Valley tech start-up to being a way of life for millions."

But he does not have the field all to himself. Even here in Melbourne. There are smartphone taxi apps like Ingogo and GoCatch. They have been aggressively pulling in conventional taxis and GoCatch has already pulled 20,000 onto its books. Needless to say CabCharge, after years of comfortable monopoly, is hopping mad.

Their protests about unlicensed taxi services taking fares of passengers have been heard. In a crossing of swords, Victorian Taxi Services Commissioner Graeme Samuel dealt Uber a blow by fining over 30 drivers $1700 apiece.

Uber parried by slapping down the cash for their drivers, some $60,000. (Mind you, with $1.2 billion in your pocket you can afford to be magnanimous.) Uber's head of global policy commented in Germany: "It is crazy that someone got a $1700 ticket in Melbourne for providing a service that is faster and cheaper than a taxi. Nothing about that to me feels criminal, nothing about that feels bad for the consuming public."
Other forms of sharing have emerged. Car Next Door calls itself "neighbour to neighbour car sharing". Again based on an app, you can find a car and hire it for an hour at $5, or a day at $25 - minimums depending on the car - at the times when the owner isn't using it.

And then there are services like Backseat, which automates car pooling. This has long been popular in the US and Europe - and locally like the Rideshare programme at Monash.

As your car sits, waiting to feed into the freeway traffic flow, you can't help noticing those thousands of shiny big cars passing, each with its single driver. And you think, "the Turks would sit three or four more in there."

05 June, 2014

Glass road can cut carbon emissions by 75%

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday June 5,2014

I've always believed that energy targets like "5 per cent by 2020" were penny-ante and pretty useless against the giant threat of global warming. If things were to change it would take a big idea, a paradigm shift in our production of energy.

Well now an idea has come along that's highly complex yet mind-blowingly simple: Turn the streets and highways into solar collectors. That's what a firm called Solar Roadways has done, with a little US Government research funding. A fortnight ago they turned to crowd sourcing of funds aiming to raise $1 million. So far nearly $2 million has come in.
The earlier funding enabled them to design and build a car park to test the system, the new funds will enable them to build a prototype manufacturing plant. This is already past the conceptual stage.

Here's how the system works. The existing road is covered by solar panels. Each is a hexagonal tile made of incredibly strong glass. Inside it is an array of photo-voltaic cells, 128 LEDs and a micro processor. The panels click together like the wall of a honeycomb, screwed into the tarmac or concrete - they become the road.

They've been tested to take endless trucks and heavy traffic. If one fails it can be replaced quickly. In fact its companion tiles will signal the failure and identify the tile position.

The LEDs can be programmed to light up as needed - as centre lines, as parking lot dividers, as warning messages to traffic, or just as illumination on a dark night.

During the day they soak up the sun and pour energy into the power grid. In America they claim the system would be capable of generating three times the amount of energy the country needs. For winter climates the units have built-in heaters to melt the snow - saving a fortune on snow ploughs and back strain.

A covered channel runs alongside the road, carrying the necessary wiring - and any other cables, glass fibres and power lines. Oh yes - by putting our electricity in there we take down the ugly power poles and the bush fire danger they threaten each year.

In Australia, of course, with our abundance of sun, this is the answer we have been waiting for. We don't have to build power stations, or debate nuclear power any more - we will already have an ample supply of electricity.

But don't worry, my readers in the La Trobe Valley, this isn't going to happen tomorrow. It will take a lot of time as streets, then parking lots, then roads are gradually transformed. And there will always be a need for generated power, at least for a long time to come.
Besides, think of the amount of work that will be created by the manufacture of billions of panels and paving of roads, and then the follow-up maintenance and programming. This is a whole new industry as big as the power companies.

The best part of it is, these roads will pay for themselves. The power they produce is a saleable commodity. They can also have roadside power stops to recharge your electric car.

Figures from the US have speculated that carbon emissions can be reduced by 75 per cent through this technology. Now that is the kind of pollution saving I want to see - forget the tiddly five per cent.

29 May, 2014

Ad giant refused to scream

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday May 29, 2014

When you hear "advertising" you evoke images of screaming pitchmen, anxious mums, cars on the Ocean Road in eternal helicopter shots, models with manic grins and waving cardboard hands, and always price.

How could someone who refused to do all these things build the world's third-largest advertising agency, and Britain's biggest?

To do that you have to be very good, and David Abbott was - the greatest copywriter of his generation, say several UK obituaries. He died last week at 75.

A number of his ads reached us here in Australia, and certainly his influence did.

In the 60s he travelled to New York where he worked under Bill Bernbach and then David Ogilvy - the two top copywriters of their own generation, if not the century. A couple of years later back in London he formed the agency that became Abbott Mead Vickers.

Determined that advertising could be ethical, they refused to take cigarette - or toy ads, believing that children's "pester power" was wrong. Then, when the country hit a slump, he would not make any staff redundant.

As it was, the great products found them. You may remember seeing his Vovo ad: "If the welding isn't strong enough the car will fall on the writer". It depicted a red vovo suspended by a wire around the door post, with Abbott himself lying beneath. No Photoshop, this was the real thing - Abbott insisted on that.

With Sainsbury's supermarkets he demonstrated that you don't need a screaming barra' boy tossing bargains. The One Show Hall of Fame, New York, described his approach to supermarkets: "Know your product, respect your audience, trust your intuition. Watch how people buy things, even listen if you can. By all means think about their deep-seated motivations but don't get entwined in them. Treat your audience as you would like to be treated."

Or as David Ogilvy said a generation before: "The consumer isn't a moron, she's your wife".

An example from 1982: "Just when you thought you understood Brie, Sainsbury's create delicious confusion." It gives a brief history of French and German brie with beautiful shots of four wedges. Not your usual cheese ad.

Over the years you must have noticed the witty one-line quotes in a red square, for The Economist. This campaign was created by Abbott, and the style has continued ever since. His most famous quote: "I never read The Economist." Management trainee. Aged 42.

Even his shocking ads were dignified. One newspaper spread depicts a tied black plastic bag, the headline: "This doggy bag contains a dead doggy". It's an ad for the RSPCA of course, urging people to think more carefully about how they let their dogs become strays.

Even in retirement he kept busy as ever, writing a novel and bringing his second to completion - literally - at death-knock.

He mounted his own little campaign, in support for independent bookshops that he could see were being crushed by the chain store giants.

In a YouTube talk he says he lives close to three independent bookshops and spends some of his favourite hours browsing and conversing.

"I'm rather hoping that heaven will be a cul-de-sac of independent bookshops, interspersed with French, Italian and Thai restaurants." If so, they have just acquired a favourite new customer.

22 May, 2014

From a high school lab to a test for cancer

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday May 22, 2014

Remember, two weeks ago, I wrote about the billions spent by Big Pharma on developing drugs and procedures to cure the major diseases we face? Well here's another way of doing it - how about a 14 year old boy in his high school lab and family basement?

This is what Jack Andraka did two years ago in Maryland, US. He was upset when a family friend died of pancreatic cancer, and he leaned that the disease was virtually untraceable in its early stages and by the time it was identified, some 97% of patients died.

Using his high school biology and lots of reading via Google and Wikipedia, he spent his summer holidays not surfing or partying, but locked in his room studying 8000 proteins, looking for the one that would make the ideal biological marker. It had to respond immediately to the presence of pancreatic cancer antibodies. Eventually he found one - the 4000th he tested.

Then, simply as if stirring a cake mix with water, he attached the molecules to graphene nanotubes one ten-thousandth the thickness of a human hair. He soaked the mixture onto filter paper and let it dry.

The tiniest drop of blood, if it contains any antibodies, will cause a reaction that can be detected by measuring the electric current flowing through the microscopic tubes. This he did with a $50 multimeter from the hardware shop.

It worked. It still needs much further development and medical testing, but potentially, said Andraka, "The test is over 90 percent accurate in detecting the presence of mesothelin [the marker]. It is also 168 times faster, costs around three cents, over 400 times more sensitive than the current diagnostic tests, and only takes five minutes to run."

His project won the $75,000 Intel International Science Prize and he became a media sensation. He was 15 - hadn't even done the equivalent of the VCE - and he was giving pep talks on TED.

Now he's older and wiser - all of 17 - and says he wants to complete high school and university, or at least his mother does. However if you check out his web site he is flipping to meetings all over America and the world (including Australia) and you wonder where he is going to fit it in.

The boy genius is also pretty smart. As soon as he was satisfied that he had success in his hands, he hired a patent lawyer. Presumably he is negotiating with some pharmaceutical giant who will take over all the hard running and pay him lots of cash.

A few months ago he was embarked on another project, though I expect he has run out of time for it. But it is a groundbreaking idea, no less than creating the Tricorder. Remember Mister Spock's amazing machine in Star Trek? The size of what, today, would be seen as a mobile phone, it was able to diagnose and analyse any disease known to man or Vulcan.

The communications company Qualcomm has offered a $10 million prize for the first team to create a real Tricorder.

It must have the ability to diagnose a set of 15 diseases. It will take blood pressure, breathing, temperature. And "measurement of health states through a combination of wireless sensors, imaging technologies, and portable, non-invasive laboratory replacements."

In other worlds a full-blown medical lab, capable of use by a non-doctor, in the palm of your hand.

There are two dozen teams competing - groups from the world's leading universities, companies, even NASA, a suitable tribute to Mr Spock.

15 May, 2014

How a gangsta becomes a billionaire

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday May 15, 2014

How do you make a billion? A lot of hard work - sure, but that's not enough. Talent? Definitely, but there are a lot of talented people around. Being smart and building on your ideas, that is a vital step.

Who would think the opportunity might be in the squalid streets of south-central Los Angeles? In among the street gangs and crack dens, a disaffected generation was creating its own music called gangsta rap, with its leading star Dr Dre.

He and his group NWA had hits, like the typical f- the police, but then he didn't slip back into the projects. He kept off drugs - "I think my thing was: if you ain't gonna make no money out of it, don't do it," is his philosophy. A good one in that environment.

He developed as a producer. He knew how to generate a great heavy-bass sound and raised artists like Eminem, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent and fellow NWA, Ice Cube.

He gained a reputation as a perfectionist, working his performers and staff long and hard, while pushing himself even harder. Observed one artist, "When Dre walked in, it was time to work. All work and no play."

With his own record companies and walls-full of Grammies and awards, he did something clever with his money. He invested in himself.

Years of churning out hip-hop and rap made him familiar with the shortcomings of his audience's playing equipment. He wanted them to hear it as good as in the studio. So together with Jimmy Iovine of Interscope he created Beat Headphones - superior, distinctive, very expensive phones.

To persuade young adults to move from $10 ear pods to bulky phones at over $200 was no mean feat of marketing, believe me.

However, clever positioning, lots of hype and lots of social pictures with celebrities showing off their "b" logo headware, finally made Beats trendy; cultural icons, even.

But good marketing never stops there. The Doctor prescribed Beats in partnership with Hewlett Packard for laptop and tablet; deals with General Motors, for your Chrysler car; and the ideal accessory for your HTC mobile phone. In every case, the Beats made the product look cool. They even have their own New York City store.

Hey, why stop there? They're writing the music, singing, recording, playing, and putting it out through their speakers - what next?

Well, just as music downloads have sacked the record stores, they in turn have started to feel the heat of competition.

Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio, have brought in the new phenomenon, streaming on subscription.

Are you following this? You don't pay to download a track, as with iTunes, you pay a subscription service which gives you the freedom of thousands of tracks, streamed so you don't get to keep them. This is where Beats Music launched, and it took off.

All these smart moves - the kind of marketing that was the hallmark of Steve Jobs - left Apple looking rather flat-footed.

Perhaps they recognised the footwork of a natural entrepreneur, but it has been only a year later and Apple can see how Beats can put some juice back into their iTunes. This is what has led to Apple's $3.4 billion bid.

The funky doctor seems quite taken by the idea which will net him personally $850 million. Together with his existing wealth this will take him close to billionaire status. Not bad for a boy from the 'hood.

08 May, 2014

The hunt for the magic bullet

Melbourne Herald Sun, May 8, 2014

American entrepreneur Robert Duggan made an investment, six years ago, into a drug company called Pharmacyclics because it had a promising brain cancer drug called Xcytrin. Millions of dollars later the bullet proved not to be magic.

However the company had another experiment, Imbruvica which was, unexpectedly, highly effective against certain leukemias. In 2010 the company shares soared, it partnered Johnson & Johnson, and Duggan became a billionaire.

In the world of big pharma, drugs cost billions to develop and test, and a high percentage of them just quietly fade away. What is unusual is the stroke of luck that saved this investor.

Many of our most prolific drugs started off as gambles and now the contest is ever more intense.

Currently the most hunted holy grail is the cure for Alzheimer's disease. Perhaps the driver is the legion of baby boomers who see the scourge looming before them and - as they always have done - they are determined to be the ones to beat it.

In the past 20 years scores of drugs have been developed but failed to pass the critical tests. Just this year two very promising candidates fell at the testing hurdles. But there's no doubt that riches await the company that delivers at least some answers.

In Australia we're used to our researchers being among the leaders in major pharmaceutical and surgical developments. For many years the CSIRO and universities have generated ground-breaking results.

Dementia is a strong area of research with economic benefits that even the government's Commission of Audit should be able to see. Unless some answers are quickly found, in ten years the number of dementia sufferers will rise from 330,000 today to over 400,000. Aged care spending will rise to become the third biggest expense on our hard to control health budget. We will have no choice but to provide the necessary care, there's no alternative - unless we find cures, and soon.

Science research and development are not ivory tower academic exercises. They play a very real role in this country's survival and growth as a prosperous nation. Every prime minister over the past 50 years has coined the phrase (or its variant) "The Clever Country". Yet finding the funds has always been hard. Somehow the science budget is always an early target. Now we don't even have a science minister.

But for a country that is watching its motor industry packing its bags, and its miners hunkering down for a length period of diminishing resources prices, we need to grow very smart, very quickly.

Surely the nation that gave the world WI-Fi, plastic money, and Aerogard - all hatched in the CSIRO nest - can come up with plenty of answers.

With the Budget just days away, the whole science community is tense with expectation. In fact a message came from a 60 year old flying saucer in Canberra: The Australian Academy of Science.

Our professors warned that, "The science and research sector has already been severely hampered by spending cuts over the past two years," then added, "Any further cuts will irreparably harm Australia’s capacity to produce the science and research needed to drive responsible economic growth."

They then called for a commitment to developing a 10-year investment framework for science, research and innovation. "So we can keep pace with our international competitors and nearest neighbours."

We've done very well as the lucky country, now it's time to put our money on the clever country.

01 May, 2014

Are typewriters the new diplomatic secret?

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday May 1, 2014

My friend phoned out of the blue, "I've been given this good quality manual typewriter - is it worth anything, can I sell it?"

I sucked my teeth in recollection. "It's so long since I had anything to do with them - and I ended up giving mine away, I don't think you'll find a buyer."

Well talk about coincidence: the very next day I opened a news magazine to read: "Typewriters are coming back". It suggested I was wrong, and it's all thanks to Wikileaks.

As you'll remember from earlier columns, I don't put much trust in security systems keeping our secrets safe - and even less in any promises governments make to protect our rights.

Well it seems us doubters aren't alone. Neither does the diplomatic corps. So far at least two memos have come out (leaked of course) telling Russian and Indian missions that any secret transmissions to their governments must not be written on a computer. In other words, dig out the Olivetti and the Imperial, and hammer the message out by hand. From there it will be entered - manually - into the code transmitter.

I wondered if by now all of the world's embassies have their equipment procurers hunting for typewriter factories. In fact it is known that Russia’s Federal Protection Service recently purchased 20 for the Kremlin.

Who are just as paranoid about their secrets as the diplomats? Corporations and companies of course. So unless that last Smith Corona was stored in the cellar, they will be hunting for typewriters too.

Have I uncovered a great business opportunity? Er...alas no. When I searched for facts, I found that our small number of shops that still sell or service typewriters have not been swamped by eager ambassadors.

"Most of our enquiries are for typewriter ribbons," we were told by Brian at Clayton Typewriter. "There are some older people who never got the hang of computers and need their manuals repaired."

"I get a number of enquiries from people who want to buy a new one, but none of the manufacturers do them any more.

"But in Bali, I found a shop full of new machines in their boxes. They are made somewhere in Asia and in Bali they use them in the upcountry villages where they don't have electricity."

He mused: "I should have brought a load back with me, I would have found a market."

Typewriters are not the only old technology finding an audience. Valve amplifiers and vinyl records are also on the comeback trail. A fortnight ago was Record Store Day - a world celebration of the vinyl platter.

Around the country record shops, markets and festive streets celebrated the sound of vinyl, often through valve amplifiers.

One participant, Sam Encel, said "There's a real resurgence for vinyl. In fact some expect turntable sales to exceed CDs in the future."

Ian Harvey, director of Australia's Music Retailers Association explained why: "It's about a record being tactile, it asks you to be more present." You can't touch and feel a streaming compilation.

There's another comeback happening: arithmetic. With two generations brought up on calculators, there are too many kids who can't add up in their heads. Now everywhere there are tutors advertising, if you search Google you will find thousands.

Remembering the blank look of any shop assistant who's lost their calculator, I would call this an urgent revival.

28 April, 2014

Who really cares?

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday April 24, 2014

The best new commercial of the past couple of weeks appeared in the UK, and I'm afraid I would not be allowed to tell you the headline in this family paper. You see it features a young man carrying a sandwich board on his shoulders through the streets of London and printed on it in large letters are the worlds: "F* the poor".

As he walks he calls out this slogan and passes out leaflets that repeat this sentiment, with a list of reasons why he dislikes the poor, homeless, addicted, downtrodden and the like.

His progress is followed by a candid camera as passers-by realise what he is proclaiming. A lady walks up to him and declares, "That's disgusting." A young woman snaps her head around when the words register: "What do you mean f* the poor?"

A black man tells him he's been homeless for two years. A Sikh says "I don't respect that at all." In the end a policeman books him for causing a disturbance.

The title comes in: "We know you care"

The clincher comes at the end, a little time later. Now our sandwich board says "Help the poor". The actor calls this out and shakes his tin. The crowds surge past without a glance, no-one even pauses. "Anybody got any loose change? Anybody?" But no.

Final titles: "Please care enough to give".

It was made for a small London charity, the Pilion Trust and aired on YouTube. You may argue about the effectiveness of its message and its rude language, but it's a commercial you won't forget. From our marketing point of view, it's a good example of how the best TV commercials seem to be no longer on TV.

Commercials on the telly seem stuck in a world of happy mums, happy car drivers, models wearing the new chain-store outfits that look a lot like last year's, and insurance companies outbidding each other.

If a commercial looks clever and polished, chances are it's the overseas ad with a locally-recorded voice over.

No, to find the clever ads you have to look at YouTube - here you'll find the funny ones, the sexy ones.

A particularly good campaign has just been launched by Audi and is viewed world-wide. It's what I call non-ads. You get barely a glimpse of the product logo, don't hear its name, and there are none of the helicopter shots of alpine roads.

They star comedian Ricky Gervais being unfunny, and he barely speaks two words in each commercial. The reason for this comes in the end captions: "Whatever you do - stay uncompromised".

It's like they're saying, "If you're interested in an Audi, find a dealership on your iPhone and go check them out. But don't expect a song and dance act from us."

This is the opposite to mum in the kitchen, and on YouTube there are numerous non-ads. It's a reaction to the modern blandness. But what is most missed is wit.

Ironically, the last series of Mad Men has just commenced, direct from the US. By now they have reached the 60s and early 70s. This was the golden age for advertising with giants like Bernbach, Ogilvy, Mary Wells in New York; in the UK Collett Dickenson Pearce and French Gold Abbott; in Australia the Campaign Palace. It was a flowering that came and then, alas, faded away.

Perhaps the answer is in YouTube after all.

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.