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Agencies – what one client really thinks of you

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Last night I went along to the Revolution Awards, celebrating all things digital. And I ended up chatting to one of Britain’s top marketers. I won’t divulge his name, but it’s safe to say he’s the man behind some of the best-known ads in the UK of the past few years and has a pretty formidable track record across the industry.

So naturally, I decided to probe him a bit for what he really thinks about the agencies that he’s worked with. And after a few glasses of wine, he was more than forthcoming. In no particular order:

1. The best you can hope for from an agency is a couple of good ideas a year. Often you won’t even get that. And he’s talking about some of the best agencies in London when he says that – BBH and Dare are two he mentioned.

2. BBH are ‘difficult to work with’, but obviously get results.

3. He really didn’t think much of Rapp – ‘you’ll be waiting a long time to get a good idea out of them’. They are ‘just a machine’.

3. Ogilvy are another agency he thinks are all mouth and no trousers. And they should never have moved to Canary Wharf.

4. JWT are now a very weak agency in his opinion. In fact, he questioned WPP’s takeover strategy, saying it seems to have created big, bland networks.

5. One of his biggest complaints was the sheer lack of talent within agencies. There are normally only a handful of people in an agency he’d actually want to work with. That’s a common complaint, and the reason agencies are such brittle businesses – a couple of important people moves and they can be in real trouble.

6. Media agencies could have cornered the digital space (a couple of Revolution Awards actually went to media shops). But they’re not smart enough to see the opportunity.

Pretty damning stuff, really.

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Written by davidtiltman

April 9, 2010 at 7:21 am

Six reasons internet measurement is rubbish

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The greatest fallacy in digital marketing is that the internet is the most measurable medium. It’s not. Yes, it’s the medium with the most data (absolutely phenomenal amounts), but making sense of that data to get a true picture of what consumers are actually doing (ie measuring it) is still far from an exact science.

Last week I journeyed into the heart of data geekery, spending two days at the biennial I-com conference in Lisbon, a conference dedicated solely to online measurement. I’d be lying if I pretended my brain didn’t hurt by the end of it. But several themes emerged over the course of the conference that deserve recognition outside this specialist world. For marketers (precious few of whom actually attended the conference), sorting this stuff out will be vital if they’re ever going to spend serious money online. And for publishers, this stuff is key to the way they will sell online performance.

1. Even the things you think you know, you don’t. One of the key problems with measuring online activity is that the data comes from machines, not humans. Linking up what we know from humans (ie panels) with the data deluge from the internet is tricky. The result is that we often assume the machine data tells us things it doesn’t.

Take unique users for example. Sounds like a pretty basic piece of information, and something most campaign metrics seem to look at these days. But as one speaker pointed out, measurement of unique users is usually based on cookies. Now people use multiple devices to access the web (mobile, home computer, work computer etc etc), and each has a different cookie. Also, they are increasingly using multiple browsers on single device, adding even more cookies. Some users, said the speaker, had around seven separate cookies. So what does that make a unique user?

2. Clicks are pointless. This isn’t new news, but that doesn’t stop click-through rates being used as a measure of campaign success. Yes they’re easy, but they mean absolutely nothing unless an ad is purely a direct-response piece. What’s more, click-through rates are declining fast; that means campaign measures based on clicks are looking at a diminishing audience. Also, there are, said one panellist at the conference, no correlations between click-through rates and other brand scores.

3. The last click tells you little. All the action is still around the last click – this particularly applies to search, where search engines make their money from people clicking on links. But much of the hard work in terms of taking people through the purchase funnel comes much earlier – and this bit is really hard to measure. Doron Wesley from Cheil/Samsung admitted at the conference that the brand had not even started to look at so-called ‘attribution’ – working out where and when a consumer interacted with a brand online and what the influences on purchase were. If a brand like Samsung can’t do this, not many others can either.

Search is an interesting one, because on the surface it is so measurable. But in truth it is still extremely difficult to measure search’s total impact. How do you measure ROPO (research online, purchase offline)? Or even the branding impact of search activity?

4. People can’t even agree what needs measuring. Many years ago, when I first started writing about online marketing, an agency boss told me that the medium needed reach and frequency measures like TV to get marketers interested. Imagine my surprise when I find the exact same argument is raging in 2010. In Lisbon it was the GRP system that holds such sway in the US that caused debate – does the internet need to adopt GRPs to be able to get marketers interested? There’s no consensus here – everyone knows the internet needs some sort of standard measurement currency, but nobody can agree on what that should be.

5. Increasingly the action is in social, but that’s even less measurable. Social media is increasingly used as a PR tool. Terms such as ‘engagement’ and ‘conversation’ abound. But what does that mean and how do you work it’s delivering.

The last couple of years have seen all sorts of buzz-tracking services launch, and some were at the conference. But they didn’t really have an answer when one delegate asked why, when he asked five different word-of-mouth measurement companies to track his Superbowl ad, he got five different responses. These services sell themselves as tracking tools, but actually they are hugely reliant on human input to categorise brand mentions on social media. They’re better than nothing, but they’re still flawed.

6. Don’t even start on mobile. The mobile expert that appeared on stage simply described mobile measurement as ‘icky’. Nuff said.

As Geoff Ramsey, CEO of eMarketer, put it:  “Right now, we’re in the dark ages.” And as one of the few clients at the conference told me, without a proper currency online that allows some sort of comparison between media, he cannot advise heavy spend in digital.

So next time you hear an agency lazily praise the measurability of online media, it’s time to ask a few hard questions.

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Written by davidtiltman

March 17, 2010 at 1:58 pm

Digital marketing – the ad world’s ginger stepchild*

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I’m busy writing up this year’s Digital Media Top Asian Brands report. This is the third year Media has looked at consumer attitudes toward brands and their online activities. It’s based on some pretty meaty research from TNS covering Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and Thailand.

Obviously I’m not going to give anything away before the data is published, but there is one very interesting finding that deserves to be aired and discussed. The data shows quite clearly that people really don’t like most of the established forms of digital marketing.

I’ll publish the full chart post-publication, but the key finding is this: across these Asian markets, the seven least trusted forms of marketing (online and offline) are all digital. Ads in video games, mobile SMS, email ads, banner ads and, interestingly, search ads are among the marketing channels with very low trust scores.

At the other end of the table, the most trusted marketing channels also include a few digital options. Unsurprisingly, recommendations from friends and family is the out and out leader. But expert reviews on websites, manufacturers’ websites, consumer opinion on blogs and consumer reviews on

Maybe digital does belong to PR after all!

Watch this space (and the Media magazine and website) for more data on this. I’m doing a feature on it too.

*No offence intended to those of red or strawberry blond persuasions. It’s just a phrase!

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March 5, 2010 at 5:45 pm

Facebook to open Asian office

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So Facebook looks like it’s finally going to set up an office in Asia. And about time too.

As I’ve written before, last year was the year of Facebook in Asia (Southeast Asia particularly). It managed to dislodge former leader Friendster to become the leading social network in several Southeast Asian markets, with user numbers jumping 78% across Asia between January and September.

The interesting thing is that it managed to do this with no Asian presence. It has no office in the region that I’m aware of, and has outsourced its ad sales to companies such as Pixel Media and iHub.

That looks set to change. Facebook has commissioned a research company to look into how Facebook is perceived in Asia’s media-buying community and to advise on its best market-entry strategy. They’re speaking to the great and the good of Asia’s media community. I know this because they’ve approached me to give them some input too (though I’m not really great or good). One of their competitors I spoke to has heard that Facebook is currently debating between Hong Kong and Singapore for their regional hub.

The questions they’re asking make it clear that their priority is boosting their Asian ad sales. (Interestingly, the questions cover the basics of the media landscape in SEA, suggesting that the Facebook team still know relatively little about the markets they’ve conquered.)

Unless you’re employed by Friendster, it’s good news that Facebook is doing this. There’s been so much buzz about it in Southeast Asia over the past year, and the site needs to have its own people on the ground evangelising on its behalf. Another powerful voice for online can only help the industry as a whole.

It seems to me that there are two big challenges ahead though:
1) Facebook often seems to be handled as a PR tool. The way social media has been sold has been ‘get involved with the conversation’. That means branded pages, comments etc – which advertisers can do without paying Facebook any money. It needs to show marketers it can work as a Yahoo-style display platform too. Hopefully that means we’ll see some user numbers.
2) The low level of online spend in Southeast Asia and HK. With online spend still hovering around 5% of total budgets in the markets Facebook will be focusing on, the site shouldn’t expect to make big money in a hurry. Just like the rest of the industry, it needs to educate clients first of all. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Facebook joining IAB Singapore.

All in all, this is something to follow. Watch this space.

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February 22, 2010 at 1:37 pm

BMB’s Mumbai move: what is Cheil planning?

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Interesting interview with Cheil’s Bruce Haines in today’s Media, talking about the plans for UK agency BMB, which the company purchased in 2008.

Haines says the Korean company has decided against launching BMB in Singapore, opting instead for Mumbai as a first port of call for the agency in Asia, with Shanghai and Sydney possible follow-ups:

“We need to invest prudently and to grow new acquisitions in markets where we’d have the best chance. So we changed our minds on Singapore but we could re-visit this.”

“We were also mindful of the way agencies had tried to enter the market here. That’s where our attention moved to Mumbai as our first stop for Asia. We are considering Shanghai and certainly Sydney as a next stop. Those markets themselves are so substantial that I think it will give us a better chance. We are in heavy discussions at the moment.”

Mumbai’s an interesting choice. There’ll certainly be plenty of business flying around, but it will end up a very India-focused office. If you look at micro-networks like BBH and Iris, they’ve set up shop in Singapore first and done a good job at expanding their model. Simply because Singapore is so small, these agencies quickly adopt a multinational outlook.

But Cheil is already in Singapore, and Thailand too now. And this begs the question, is BMB there to ‘fill in the gaps’ in the Cheil network, or is it a separate agency within a holding company model that has to live or die without the crutch of the Samsung account (Cheil is owned by Samsung)? Haines points to the latter in the piece, and I’m pretty sure I know which one the guys at BMB would prefer – their website makes no mention of their link to Cheil at all. Are they ashamed?

The decision to expand BMB (and possibly do the same to Barbarian Group) marks Cheil out from Japan’s Dentsu. Both have traditionally been huge players at home but have not set the world alight overseas – Dentsu has ended up with a patchwork of joint ventures, stakes and even the odd wholly owned overseas agency, but the decisions are still made in Tokyo and none of this has been properly knitted together in a network.

Cheil seems to have decided that to expand overseas, it needs not only to buy overseas firms, but to rely on its acquisitions to do the expansion for it (a recognition that Western companies find it easier to do this, perhaps?)

It’s worth seeing whether BMB’s expansion ends up fitting round Cheil, or whether the company’s bid to recast itself as a holding group will run as far as allowing the two businesses to compete in the same markets. This will tell us a lot about the type of company Cheil really wants to be.

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February 18, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Brands and Chinese New Year

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Kung hei fat choy, as they say in Hong Kong. That’s happy new year, as Sunday marked the start of the year of the tiger.

People in the West don’t really get what a big deal Chinese New Year is – a cross between Christmas and New Year with a dose of astrology thrown in for good measure. It’s really interesting in China especially, as it sees hundreds of millions of city-dwelling workers trek back home (sometimes thousands of miles) to celebrate. It’s the planet’s biggest voluntary migration. An estimated 2.54 billion journeys will be made this CNY.

So it’s no surprise that brands have been looking into how best to approach the festival. With so much goodwill going round, it should be a perfect time to do a bit of brand-building. And the good news for brands has been that TV plays a big role in the festivities – the annual CCTV gala, a variety show of often questionable acts on state TV, is the biggest television – and, therefore, advertising – event of the year. CCTV claims 50% of households watch it.

But the last few years have seen brands become more adventurous. And rightly so – this year the internet appears to have played a bigger role in CNY entertainment. There was a great piece on Media’s website on marketing during CNY. It pointed out how important work on transport media is during CNY (think of all those journeys). It also pointed out the importance of returning urban workers as brand ambassadors. And it pointed out that the further south you go, the fewer people watch the CCTV gala.

The work to keep an eye on is Coca-Cola’s. Last year it took a bold approach to CNY marketing by trying to create a whole new ritual around it. The brand introduced the ‘First Coke of the Year’ – the idea that you should pick somebody special with whom to share your first bottle of Coke of the lunar new year. The campaign involved TV – and in particular an ad starring former champion hurdler and Chinese celebrity Liu Xiang. Importantly, it also had a strong online element, with e-cards that could be sent to friends. The take-up was very impressive and seemed to lay the foundations for an ongoing initiative as Coke sought to take a degree of ownership of CNY – much like it has with Christmas in the West.

This year it has shifted even more of its focus online, with a campaign offering consumers the chance to customise a festive bottle label. The campaign involves uploads of new year greetings and celebrity involvement from Taiwanese pop band Fahrenheit.

To be honest I was expecting a more obvious follow-up to First Coke of the Year – video upload contests are pretty standard in China these days. But either way, it’s worth checking on the results of this campaign over the next few weeks, as Coke seems to be the brand thinking most intently about CNY.


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Written by davidtiltman

February 15, 2010 at 10:50 am