Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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One More Note on Why Brands Aren’t Going Anywhere

Yesterday I posted a few points in response to James Surowiecki’s New Yorker piece on the role of brand’s in a world of better information. I made a specific distinction between research-heavy products like cars and a product like soap or toothpaste, which people generally choose on brand alone. On Twitter someone asked whether that meant car brands are actually less valuable in this new world and I thought it was worth answering here as well as on Twitter.

First, the answer is no, they’re not less valuable even though research does even the playing field to some extent. But there are two important points about how people buy cars that need to be addressed. First, people generally choose out of a subset. If you want a “luxury” car you’re choosing between a BMW, Audi, or Mercedes. You don’t get to that point without brand. If you’re Kia right now, you’re advertising the hell out of your new car because you want to be in that decision set. While your ultimate decision may be purely on product merits (though it’s likely not), you have eliminated 99% of the other car options off brand alone.

Second, just want to reshare something I wrote a few months ago. This argument about brands is part of a larger anti-brand argument that’s best categorized by the quote “advertising is the tax you pay for being unremarkable.” Back in August I explained all the reasons this isn’t true and they still apply here.

February 11, 2014 // This post is about: , ,

Revisiting Stock & Flow

Last week I wrote a piece on AdAge revisiting Stock and Flow. If you’re interested you should read the whole thing, but here’s a snippet:

To answer that question, let’s start with what’s changed. The core social platforms, Facebook and Twitter, have continued to explode. Mobile has enabled a host of new social platforms such as Pinterest and Snapchat to grow at breakneck speed. LinkedIn has added informational content like LinkedIn Today, LinkedIn Influencer and sponsored updates. Google has built a massive social system with the deepest mobile integration of any platform we’ve ever seen (thanks to Google’s Android mobile operating system). “Native” advertising has come to the fore. And search and social have crashed together: According to SearchMetrics, seven of the top eight signals in social now come from search.

The rest at AdAge.com.

January 29, 2014 // This post is about: , , , ,

Advertising is Not a Tax for Being Unremarkable

I’m sure you’ve all seen this quote. It’s attributed to Robert Stephens, founder of Geek Squad, and goes something like: “Advertising is the tax you pay for being unremarkable.” (I was reminded of it most recently reading Josh Porter’s blog, Bokardo.) It sounds good and, at first blush, correct, but it’s not for lots of reasons.

Broadly, the line between advertising, marketing, branding, and communications has always been a blurry one. Depending on who you talk to they have a very different definition. For the purposes of the quote, let’s assume when Stephens was talking about advertising he was specifically referring to the buying of media space across platforms like television, magazines, and websites.

With that as the working definition, there are lots of complicated reasons big companies advertise their products. Here are a few:

  • Distributors love advertising: If you’re a CPG company you advertise as much for the supermarkets as your do for your product. The more money you spend the better spot they’re willing to give you on the shelf (the thought being that people will be looking for your product). I don’t think there is anyone out there that would argue shelf placement doesn’t matter. At the end of the day supermarkets are your customer if you’re a CPG company, so keeping them happy is a pretty high-priority job.
  • Advertising is good at making people think you’re bigger than you are: Sometimes a company or brands wants to “play above its weight,” making people think they’re bigger than they’re actually are. When we see something on TV or in print, we mostly assume there is a big corporation behind it. Sometimes that’s more important than actually selling the product.
  • Sometimes you’re not selling a product at all: There are many companies who advertise for reasons wholly disconnected from their product. GE, for example, isn’t running TV commercials about wind turbines to solely try to communicate with the thousands of people who are potentially in the market for a multi-million dollar purchase. A part of why they do it is to communicate with the public at large who is both a major shareholder for the company and also the end consumer of many of their products (many planes we fly on run GE engines and our electricity probably wouldn’t reach our house without GE products). How remarkable their products are has no bearing in this case, since we would never actually be in the market for the vast majority of the things they produce.

Broadly, though, the point I’m trying to make is that while many write off advertising as having no purpose (or being “a tax”), it’s just not true. What’s more, as advertising becomes a more seamless part of the process of being a brand in social, I think this will only become more true. If you see a piece of content performing well on Twitter or Facebook why would you not pay to promote that content and see it reach an audience beyond the core? At that point you’ve eliminated the biggest challenge traditionally associated with advertising (spending tons of money to produce something and having no idea whether it will actually have an effect on people). Seems to me if you’re not willing to entertain the idea you’re just standing on principle.

August 4, 2013 // This post is about: , , , ,

Why Sponsor NASCAR?

I’m going to write about NASCAR and marketing, if you don’t care about either of those things, you can quit reading now. I’m writing this for three reasons:

  1. I’m a big NASCAR fan (it’s more than just going around in circles, I’m happy to explain it sometime)
  2. I spent some time working with a NASCAR team and learned a lot about how the business side of the sport operates
  3. The New York Times had a story yesterday about how the NBA can learn something from NASCAR in regards to it’s thought about adding sponsors to jerseys. This article almost entirely missed the real point of NASCAR sponsorships. (I can’t say I find this shocking as NASCAR is hardly the number one beat for the Times.)

For some reason the article focused on how sponsors can affect the behavior of the athletes. This is sort of interesting, but pretty far from the real story of NASCAR sponsorships. While the business of NASCAR is struggling for a bunch of reasons (financial meltdown, arms race in technology raising the cost of fielding competitive teams, more competition than ever for ad dollars), what makes it work has not changed. When a brand buys into a NASCAR sponsorship (which goes for ~$20 million for a full season), they are buying two big things: Loyalty and activation opportunities.

Let’s start with loyalty. This is what the article really misses. When brands sponsor NASCAR they get a real understanding from the fans that they are responsible for the car on the track. The drivers get it, the teams get and the fans get it. This is hugely different from slapping your logo on something (whether it’s soccer where it’s displayed in giant form on the player’s belly or basketball, where they seem to be thinking about some little sponsorship patch). People in those sports think the sponsor is responsible for the team in the same way no one will ever walk into a Brooklyn Nets game and say “thank you Barclays for making this possible.”

The numbers in NASCAR back this up. I used to have them, but the league and teams generally trot around a number of 80%+ loyalty of a fan to its driver’s sponsor. If Jimmie Johnson is your guy you go to Lowe’s not Home Depot. That’s just how it works.

Okay, onto activation. Take a look at the official sponsors of NASCAR teams and you see a few different kinds of companies: Car-related companies (NAPA, Shell, Mobil 1), CPG (Budweiser, Mars, Miller Lite) and a lot of retail/franchise businesses (Burger King, Target, GEICO, Farmers Insurance, Home Depot, Lowes, Office Depot). The first set is obvious, the average NASCAR fan likes cars and car-related stuff. The second is about audience as NASCAR skews heavily male and sometimes guys are hard to reach. The last, though, is the most interesting to me.

What all these companies have in common is lots of employees (you could throw FedEx in this group too and UPS was a long-time sponsor of the sport). One of the more interesting things about how brands actually utilize their sponsorship is that they do fully integrated program where they use a sponsorship to reach not just consumers, but also employees. Target, Home Depot and Lowes have 900,000 combined employees (365, 331 and 204). That’s a lot of people to keep happy. One of the ways they do it is give them something to root for. It’s not shocking, or even all that interesting, it just sort of makes sense and means that the investment is offset into a few different departments.

Anyway, I don’t have a real conclusion to all this, just felt like writing a little bit about what I know about NASCAR. Hopefully it was relatively interesting.

October 22, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Helping People Discover

I’ve been saying the ability to build awareness is the biggest strength of Facebook (and more broadly social). Intent is great and Google has built an incredible advertising machine, but most brands need to create intent, not harvest it. Interesting to see that Fab agrees with me:

Forbes says retail site Fab it’s spending $25 million in Facebook ads this year.  CEO Jason Goldberg is adamant on his company’s “digital ads” preference according to Forbes. “Facebook ads are  more effective than Google search or display ads, because Google ads are based on intent, while Fab is designed for people to discover new items they aren’t searching for. Fab is designed to be a site people sign up for and browse around and eventually make purchases, Goldberg says.”

October 19, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

My Favorite Marketing(ish) Articles

This post is the intersection of a few different things I’ve been thinking about lately. First is Percolate. Part of the process of introducing the company to new people is frequently recounting the story of where the product came from. James and I have probably sent each other a thousand different articles back and forth and I asked him recently for his list of top articles that really inspired his thinking in the space. The second thing is Robin Sloan’s Fish which is all about the difference between liking and loving content. It made me think about the list of the content and marketing-related articles I’ve read that I come back to frequently. This is that list. Some of these are newer and may not hold the test of time, but most of them are things I’ve come back to (at least in conversation) about once a month since I’ve read them (they are distributed over the last 10 years).

Without any further ado, here’s my list:

Stock & Flow
Not specifically about marketing, but it’s all about content. Stock and flow is how we’ve taken to thinking about content at Percolate and this is really where that idea came from. I’ve written a few things inspired by the idea and use it frequently to explain how brands should think about content (and why Percolate exists).

Many Lightweight Interactions
This is the most recent article of the bunch and comes by way of Paul Adams, who works in the product team at Facebook. It was a really nice way to explain a lot of the stuff I’ve been thinking and talking about with clients over the last five years. Specifically it talks about how the web (and specifically social) offer brands an opportunity to move from a world of few heavyweight interactions (stock in Robin’s parlance) to many lightweight interactions (flow). The one thing I’d add is that I think the real opportunity is to take the many lightweight interactions and use them to understand what works and inform the occasional heavyweight interactions brands need to succeed.

Who’s the Boss?
This was written by a friend of mine 10 years ago. It’s short, but the core point is that brand’s live in people’s heads. This was what inspired Brand Tags and has colored lots of my thinking about how brands behave.

Why Gawker is Moving Beyond the Blog
Not specifically about marketing, but Denton’s explanation of why he’s moved from the classic blog format is a great explanation of how content works on the web.

How Social Networks Work
Another slightly older one, this was the first time I had read someone talked about the idea of social as exhaust data (basically our digital breadcrumbs), which seemed like a really good way to think about it (and helped explain why brands struggled). Lately I’ve been using this to help explain why brands struggle in social: Exhaust data is a very human thing. You need to consume in order to create this trail and most brands don’t do that.

How Owned Media Changed the Game
From Ted McConnel who used to be head of digital at P&G. I really liked this quote: “Recently, in a room full of advertising brain trustees, one executive said, ‘The ‘new creative’ might be an ecosystem of content.’ Brilliant. The brand lives in the connections, the juxtapositions, the inferences, the feeling of reciprocity.” This was one of those articles that really wrapped up a bunch of stuff I had been thinking about. It’s nice when that happens.

That’s it for me. What would you add? What am I forgetting?

May 22, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

On Facebook, Intent and Marketing

This is a cross-post from the Percolate Blog. I thought you all might enjoy reading it here as well.

Let me get something out of the way before we get started: In case you haven’t heard, Facebook is going to IPO this week.

Okay, seriously, all this IPO talk has driven people to dive into Facebook’s business model and lots of folks are coming up with doubts. As Peter Kafka points out, even Facebook has its doubts, mentioning as much in their IPO filing: “We believe that most advertisers are still learning and experimenting with the best ways to leverage Facebook to create more social and valuable ads.”

But what does that mean really? And what’s the opportunity? And, most importantly in many people’s eyes, does Facebook really have the opportunity to be a bigger company than Google?

While I don’t know the precise answers to those questions, I do have lots of opinions and since it happens to be Internet Week in NYC, I’ve been having these conversations a lot (mostly on panels). The bulk of the argument against Facebook revolves around their lack of “intent” data. This, of course, is what Google has in bulk and is the reason they are a multi-billion dollar business. Being able to target people at specific points in the purchase process changes the way marketing works. It allows advertisers to do something that was all but impossible (you could buy in-store and outdoor around stores, but that’s a whole lot less efficient). This is an amazing thing for marketers and Google’s market cap reflects it.

But if you ask most advertisers why they spend millions (and sometimes billions) on traditional ads, it’s not to harvest people who intend to buy, it’s to create demand: continuing to grow a business requires continuing to bring in new customers constantly. However it makes you feel, most ads exist to remind you that you need something new. That shoe company with billboard isn’t trying to get you to buy their shoes over a competitor, they’re trying to remind you that you need new shoes and, they hope, when you walk into the store you’ll spring for their brand.

That’s where brands spend real dollars. When startups show off “the chart” (you know, the one with the gap on time spent versus ad spend), they are looking at the effect of digital platforms not having a good answer to intent creation.

That, I believe, is where the opportunity for social is. We’re not there yet, but the promise is that you can use your understanding of a user’s interests to present them with messages that let them know about things they want before they want them. If Facebook figures this out it will be a bigger company than Google.

So how does content fit in?

Using the traditional purchase funnel, I think you still have a gap between awareness and intent. Once someone knows about your brand or product, how do you create need? One really good way of doing that is to remind them you exist (a large portion of CPG ad spend is used for just this). The way to remind people you exist is to create content they’ll see. To create content they’ll see on Facebook you need to a) be engaging enough that it builds organic activity and pushes beyond the base distribution you get through EdgeRank or b) buy Reach Generator. The two big goals (awareness and intent creation) have paid actions associated with them in Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. If these companies continue to build on these ideas and find better ways to target users based on their interests they will be solving a real problem for advertisers, something that hasn’t really been done on the web since paid search in the early 2000s.

Of course, there are lots of ifs here. The products are not quite there yet (targeting, for instance, is still largely based on social connections instead of interest connections), but I think these platforms will get there and I think they’ll succeed.

May 16, 2012 // This post is about: , , , ,

Super Bowl Ads Work

This is for everyone that says Super Bowl ads don’t work. From Pando Daily’s article on GoDaddy:

Those ads unquestionably worked. They ran the first one in 2004, with no idea if it’d be brilliant or a colossal waste of money. But the company was paying for it out of cash flow, not venture capital, so why not? Go Daddy had 16 percent marketshare at that point, and the week after the ad, it jumped to 25 percent — and stayed there until the next year. The next Super Bowl ad got it to 28 percent share and the next one got it to 32 percent share. Even when one of the racy ads was preempted by the station, the numbers just kept growing.

I’ve always suspected this, but never had the numbers.

May 14, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

After the Slash

This is a really interesting way to think about the power of Facebook:

Google could still put ads in front of more people than Facebook, but Facebook knows so much more about those people. Advertisers and publishers cherish this kind of personal information, so much so that they are willing to put the Facebook brand before their own. Exhibit A: www.facebook.com/nike, a company with the power and clout of Nike putting their own brand after Facebook’s? No company has ever done that for Google and Google took it personally.

The rest of the article is worth a read as well. It’s a former Google engineer explaining why he left and what’s changed inside the organization in the last two years with the transition to social.

March 14, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Going Native

[Editor’s Note: I posted this over at the Percolate blog and thought it was worth posting here as well. Hope you enjoy.]

Andy Weissman wrote an interesting post about what he calls the “golden age of internet marketing.” Essentially his vision, which I mostly agree with, is that a few large platforms are going to create native monetization models that better align the interests of brands, consumers and platforms than display advertising ever did. Google and Facebook are the two clear winners in this world so far, as both have found ways to serve brand needs while creating a better experience for users (at least with paid likes in the case of Facebook).

There are a few additional thoughts I have on this whole conversation, though. First, what are the ramifications of a web that is controlled by a few successful platforms? Andy gives the example of Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram and Soundcloud amongst a few others. All of these platforms have managed to generate a ton of user engagement and some are already at the user scale needed to support native brand interactions. However, this number will always be very small (in terms of total platforms, not total consumers). I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, but I’m also not sure it’s a good thing. I believe deeply that the relationship people have with sites is different than the one they have with platforms, and there will always be value there. The problem is, essentially, to be successful with an advertising buy on a website these days you need to do something native for their platform (the site), which will never have the scale that a Facebook, Google or Twitter does.

Second, I think a lot of Andy’s article places the onus to get this figured out on the brand, but I’d argue an even bigger responsibility lies on the shoulders of the platform to understand how brands actually work. A few weeks ago I wrote about some comments from Jack Dorsey at Twitter about their model. Dorsey talked about capturing intent, which has been a big buzzword around marketing Google’s search advertising was coined as an intent miner. As I wrote then:

Twitter’s value is not about intent, in the classic funnel definition, it’s much more about awareness and interest: About exposing you to new products and services you didn’t know you were interested in. If Twitter can actually deliver this it has a truly differentiated ad product, but I worry they’re following the Google model too much and thinking too low in the funnel.

This may seem like a semantic difference, but I don’t think it is. I think generally Silicon Valley has not done a good enough job understanding what brands are all about and what they’re trying to accomplish with their spend. I actually think there are a lot of startups that think brands are stupid, which seems crazy to me considering most of them are ad funded. What I’m trying to say is that building a native marketing unit requires respecting your customer (the brand) as well as your users (the consumer). At the end of the day what truly separates Google’s search ads from other marketing units is that it’s respectful: It believes the user is smart and the brand knows what it wants.

Last, but not least, I think these platforms are going to need to be careful not to overextend themselves. When Facebook reads an article like the one from Emily Steel at the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago about some of the top brands spending a bunch of money buying likes and then shifting the spend to content to keep those likers engaged, they’ve got to pause for a minute to think about how they can capture more of that value. A native marketing unit can’t capture the entire chain of value and it shouldn’t. Google doesn’t keep you in Google when you click an ad and (hopefully) it never will. But when platforms like Facebook look at the numbers will they be able to not get greedy and try to capture a bigger slice of the pie? Or will they try to become more and more of a walled garden: Controlling as many pieces as possible and causing that beautiful alignment of interests between the platform, user and brand to get out of alignment.

November 28, 2011 // This post is about: , , , , ,

Being a Market Leader

Felix Salmon expands on some of the stuff I wrote the other day about brands as publishers. Specifically, he points to an interesting example I didn’t know about in the Gates Foundation. The non-profit gave the Guardian a $2.5 million grant to suppor the Guardian’s global development microsite for three years. Felix explains:

The Gates Foundation actually launched the site in 2010, spending an undisclosed sum to do so; the new grant keeps the site going for another three years. As part of the deal, every page in the site — be it blog post or news story — gets prominently branded with the Gates Foundation logo, right at the top of the column where all the editorial content goes. (In fact, the logo is significantly larger than the Guardian’s own logo at the top of the page, although the site looks and feels like the rest of the Guardian site, and lives at guardian.co.uk.)

At the end of the post Felix asks a few questions, including what does the Gates foundation get out of an arrangement like this? I’ve got a guess, which is they get more awareness around the issues. That sounds like a bit of a throwaway answer, but the Gates Foundation is an interesting position as a brand: They are a market leader. When you’re a market leader your goal becomes less about building your own position and more about building the category.

Take BabyCenter as an example. Johnson & Johnson dominates the baby category. Last time I heard their marketshare was up above 50 percent. Their objective with marketing is less about displacing the competition and more about building the market: They want parents to take more “care” of their babies by buying more products. If they take just their regular percentage of the new market it’s a big deal.

I’ve written about it in the past, but Google is one of my favorite examples of a market leader marketer. Their dominance in search makes in inefficient to try to steal share from competitors (how will they even find the small percentage of people who use Bing?). Instead, they spend money growing the category with products like Android and Chrome. Here’s what I wrote about the strategy in 2009:

What that means is everything Google does is about getting more people to use the internet more. Use Android as an example: It is absolutely in Google’s best interest to release a mobile OS that makes it easy to browse the web because that means more people using the internet more which means more searches on Google (because of that market dominance) which means more clicks on the paid ads. Voila, you’re rich.

I suspect Gates thinks about the approach in a very similar way. The more people are thinking about these issues, the more effective they can be in enacting the change they are pushing for. I’m actually surprised they bothered with the branding on the pages, though it likely makes the Guardian much more comfortable.

The broader question, which Felix seems to be getting at, is what can we learn from programs like this and is there a model here for media companies? I suspect the answer is yes, though the first thing we need to figure out is how to apply the model to non-market leaders. When you’re promoting a lifestyle, idea or category you lead, it’s easy to see how getting people to think about it more makes sense. If you’re a brand who isn’t in that situation (most), how do you build value in a similar way?

November 19, 2011 // This post is about: , , , , , ,

Serendipity: Business Model Edition

I got sucked in the by the title of this article (“Can ‘Serendipity’ Be a Business Model? Consider Twitter“), but I’m not sure it lives up. About a year ago I was doing a lot of research into serendipity, and most interestingly (to me at least) was that the definition is “the ability to find things you didn’t know you were looking for.” I do think Twitter is a pretty genius solution to this. By essentially allowing you to overhear conversations it exposes you to a kind of ambient data that is otherwise hard to come by. When it comes to their ad model, this will clearly be a big part of the value. But I think the way they’re positioning it (in this article at least) as being about intent is totally wrong. Twitter’s value is not about intent, in the classic funnel definition, it’s much more about awareness and interest: About exposing you to new products and services you didn’t know you were interested in. If Twitter can actually deliver this it has a truly differentiated ad product, but I worry they’re following the Google model too much and thinking too low in the funnel.

November 15, 2011 // This post is about: , , ,

Online Advertising, Content & Percolate

I was going to wait and talk more about Percolate a little later in the week when I had a chance, but then Felix Salmon went ahead and wrote a pretty epic post about what he saw as the future of online advertising and now I’m left with no choice but to write a response (because I found myself nodding so much, not because I disagree).

The world Felix lays out is the same one I’ve been seeing and thinking about for the last seven years. It’s a world where online advertising, mainly banner ads, has fundamentally failed brands in a crazy number of ways. The dirty secret about the business is that brands, agencies and media companies all run banners knowing that they mostly don’t work. Everyone is in on it. It’s not that they don’t care about their effectiveness, it’s just that there’s not really another easy way out there. All parties know the web is important and banners are the easiest way to check the box.

That’s never been my bag. I joined The Barbarian Group a few years ago because I fundamentally believed that for brands, earning attention was more valuable than buying it. I don’t believe there’s no place for online advertising (I’m using the word in the narrowest sense to mean the buying of placements on media sites), I just don’t believe it’s the center of a successful digital marketing strategy. Period.

I think most people point to the shift from one-to-many to one-to-one as the primary difference between the offline and online world for advertisers, but I think there’s something else at play. This morning an article I’ve been working on for a month or so came out on Adage, where I explain how I see the shift:

The idea of “buying media” always struck me as a bit odd. If anything, what brands have been doing is renting: Paying the media owner to borrow the audience’s attention for a short period of time. In the pre-internet days, rental was pretty much the only game in town and that was just fine.

But then the web came along and started to play with the economics. All of a sudden you could pay once and message continuously. (Think: Brands buying fans on Facebook.) The thing is, because of the peculiarities and rates of audience rental in traditional media, brands (and agencies) are built for campaigns instead of sustained communication.

Sustained communication is a real shift in thinking for brands (and agencies). Lots of people talk about this shift as a move from campaigns to products, but I think calling it sustained better explain the shift and value opportunity. That value opportunity is about building on top of previous success (and audience) instead of starting over every time. Microsites were probably the best example of this: Buy a bunch of advertising, drive people to a new .com, stop advertising, stop getting traffic, tear the site down, repeat.

Like Felix, I believe content needs to be at the center of a brand’s sustained communications strategy. Agencies seem to agree, bringing in content strategists en masse to work with clients on become publishers. The issue I’ve seen is that most of these strategies just aren’t sustainable. In my Adage article I put it in terms of stock and flow:

Traditionally, brands have been quite good at creating stock content in the form of ads and some of the more forward-thinking ones have found really interesting ways to translate that capability to beautiful web video and interactive experiences. While that’s great for short bursts, creating a sustained messaging strategy requires a combination of both stock and flow: longer-form, higher-quality content coupled with the quick-hit links to other interesting and relevant content on the web.

How does this look? On the extreme end it’s BabyCenter, RedBull.com or AMEX OPEN Forum, those brands are so far out ahead of everyone else from a publishing standpoint it’s just amazing. And look at the value they’ve created for themselves: Their sites are big enough that other brands want to advertise on them to reach the audience they’ve amassed. Not necessarily the most important thing for the brand, but a pretty good statement about what they’ve accomplished.

Now obviously those aren’t the most accessible examples and the two most common concerns marketers have when they hear them are 1) I don’t have the permission to speak to my audience in that way and 2) I can’t afford to build a content organization in the way that those brands have.

The idea of Percolate (you knew I’d come around to it) is to make it answer those questions and make it possible for every brand to create a sustained platform. On the permission question, it’s really just a problem with definition. Every brand with customers has permission to speak to them, they just need to find their voice. Look at the work of Weiden + Kennedy and BBH on deodorant brands if you don’t believe me and American Express is a credit card brand, that’s hardly the most exciting category on the planet. On the second point (staff & costs), it’s about a good balance of stock and flow and having the right tools in place (like Percolate) to make it all happen. The way we see it breaking down is in these three components:

  1. Calibration: To begin consuming, you’ve got to decide what to consume. If you’re a person, that’s easy, you’ve got your tastes and interests mapped out. If you’re a brand, it’s a little more difficult. We’ve worked out a method that we use to back out of brand/campaign strategy, and into a set of sources for Percolate to sift through.
  2. Algorithm: Separating the signal from the noise is even harder if you’re a brand (or an editor at a brand) than if you’re an individual. The algorithm does a lot of heavy lifting to try to get to the most interesting content.
  3. Publishing: The real point of all that lifting isn’t so it can display it in Percolate, it’s so the brand can find interesting content to comment on and push back out.

When you put the content produced in Percolate and combine it with the beautiful content that is an agency’s bread and butter you get a compelling publishing platform that can actually be sustained over time. Once you get that down, it’s only a short step to start thinking about what you do with the content, which is where Felix and I converge again:

It’s easy to create an ad unit which is primarily links to third-party sites; I’m sure with a bit of effort and creativity you could put one together which is even better than the Counterparties unit on Reuters.com. Start placing that ad over the web, and people will, for the first time, actually have a reason to want to look at your ad; when they see it, they’re even likely to click on it! Sure, that click won’t take them to your site — but it’s still a great measure of engagement. And they will love you for sending them to great content.

We’re not quite at that part yet, but hopefully this helps lay out the vision and explain what the hell we’ve had seven people holed up in an office on Bond Street working on for the past year.

November 14, 2011 // This post is about: , , , , , ,

The Marriage of TV and the Web

Shiv Singh, head of digital at Pepsi, makes some points I agree with (and a few I don’t) in his thoughts about the future relationship between TV and the web. One I’m with him on is this: “When TV ads become teasers for digital experiences, the ROI on the investment will improve significantly as the digital experience will stretch out the brand experiences beyond the 30 second clip.. The ROI won’t be measured by the impact that the TV ad has when it’s aired but also by its residual influence on engagement in other mediums in the weeks that follow the airing.” I think this is going to spell a big change for the agency landscape and spell the first real opportunity for digital shops to bite off a larger piece of the advertising pie.

Also reminds me of something one of my favorite internet thinkers, Duncan Watts, wrote a few years ago about how brands could use “viral”:

Imagine, for example, that an advertising firm makes a standard ad buy on the Web, or directs TV viewers to a Web site, or uses an e-mail list to contact potential consumers directly. Regardless of the method used, the campaign will yield some large number, N, of conversions—people who are sufficiently interested to click on the Web ad or embedded link. Traditionally, that’s all it would be expected to achieve, but imagine now that these N viewers can also share the ad easily with anyone else. In other words, what would previously have been the entire audience for the message also becomes the big seed for a viral campaign in which the newly added people can forward the message to their friends, who may forward it to their friends in turn, and so on.

Thought Watts is a lot more academic, the point is the same and the science is simple: If you have a big enough seed, your odds of seeing something catch fire is higher.

November 11, 2011 // This post is about: , , ,

What If An Agency Had An API?

Left this in the comments of Neil’s post about the possibility of agency APIs: “The real data in a creative agency probably lies somewhere in ‘ideas’ (thoughts, sketches, designs, presentations). Starting to think about how an agency would build an API on top of that is very interesting (more for the agency itself than clients). But the problem there is one of structure: To build an API requires starting with structured data. The reality is that most of what agencies do is still mostly soft and not-so-easy to arrange.” I then went on to talk about brand APIs a bit, which I still think is a really interesting concept but haven’t put enough thought around to understand properly yet. Go read the whole thing and feel free to skip my comment.

November 2, 2011 // This post is about: , ,

Designers versus Users

I’ve never seen anyone make this point about the relationship between the screen size of designers and that of users, but it’s a good one: “The weird thing is this: On the one hand, web designers seem to work on increasingly large monitors; on the other, the displays used by readers tend to shrink as more people browse the web on notebooks, tablets or smartphones.”

October 31, 2011 // This post is about: ,

On Creative Technologists

I’m out of the agency game now, but I still think about it and obviously still have a ton of friends spread across the advertising world. One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately (for the last two years really) is the rise of the “creative technologist.” In theory, at least as I understand it, creative technologists were meant to bridge the gap in understanding between the advertising world and technology, as well as help to elevate the position of engineers within agencies to the pedestal that the creative department is held at. This was all nice in theory, but there are lots of things wrong with this, not the least of which is that changing titles hardly ever actually has the deeper effect of understanding and respect that it intends. But that wasn’t all, the other big effect of the new title was that schools started creating programs that taught people to be “creative technologists,” except those people were far more creative than technologist.

And so it became that there were a lot of creative technologists around who couldn’t write a lick of code and that made me sad because there are plenty of technologists, even in agencies, who are very creative. They were creative even before they got the title and then, after they got the title, absolutely nothing changed except they got more competition for their jobs from people who couldn’t actually do their jobs.

All of this is a long introduction to Igor Clark’s long piece about how you shouldn’t hire creative technologists that can’t write code, which made me very happy inside. He talks about a lot of stuff, some micro and some macro, but generally his point is that it’s the ability to make things, really good things, that matters and hiring someone who can imagine, but not execute, is besides the point. As Igor notes (and I agree), agencies are going to struggle for awhile to figure out how to attract engineering talent, especially in the current startup climate, but to thrive they are going to have to figure out how to acquire and retain the sort of people for whom being creative and being a technologist was never a thing they needed a fancy title for, but instead was a thing they followed out of passion.

Basically I’m glad someone wrote this.

October 29, 2011 // This post is about: , ,