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When Headhunters get Headhunted

27 Jul

Having been freelance for four months now, I’m getting the hang of recruitment companies. Initially, the sheer number of them was overwhelming. Along with the supergiant Talent Businesses and Major Players are a plethora of other agencies who, I guess, are as good as the work I get from them. And this is not in any way an attack on recruiters, far from it. For the most part, they do a great job, and the smaller ones are often far (far) better at keeping in touch, answering emails and generally busying themselves with keeping us freelancers employed

It is not just that there now seem to be a hundred recruiters where once there were two or three; there has been a far more significant sea change in the world of headhunters. Agencies have wised up to the fact that they pay small fortunes to successful recruitment companies when they hire talent. Agencies hate spending money on things that they think they can do very well themselves, which is why so many agencies that previously only created sales promotion material are now having a go at TV, and why so many ATL agencies now have digital, social, UX and other strings to their bow. We live in an age where we all believe that, if we hire the right people, we can do everything.

If only this were true with headhunting. More and more agencies have brought their headhunters in house, clearly to save a massive buck. They loved these headhunters because they had their ear to the ground. They were good at sniffing out talent. They scattered their nets far and wide and formed excellent relationships with people who they might one day be able to place in agencies. But now, at least to those of us on the outside, it feels like these headhunters have been trapped. They are no longer on the radar.

How do I know this? I don’t know for sure, but it’s just a hunch. Since going freelance, I have been bombarded with headhunters linking in with me. Hello all of you! Thanks for making the effort, I do appreciate it. It suggests that these people are looking for talent to fill gaps in agencies, ie, doing their jobs. In four months, not one in-house recruiter, head of talent, creative producer (or whatever title has been given them) at an agency has made contact. The few that I have unearthed have not accepted my request to link in. It could be that they have looked at my work and thought ‘nah’, but no, LinkedIn logs every visitor, and they haven’t even got this far.

So now we seem to be in a situation where recruitment has been taken in house, but in-house recruiters are either impossible to get hold of, or reluctant to look outside of their existing circle of connections. Why do in-house recruiters not want to expand their network while other headhunters spend every waking hour doing just that? And can you really have your ear to the ground once you are out of an environment where you have access to every agency and every creative, and are now attached to the HR department of a multinational? I’m not sure how this new world order helps agencies do anything other than save money. If saving money is more of a priority than getting in the kind of talent that will win business and make money, then the system is fine. I just can’t help feeling that the system it replaced wasn’t broken.

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Missing the excitement

9 Jul

Fifteen years ago, advertising was incredible. It tingled. It seemed that with the dot com bubble at maximum inflation, everything was possible. And – with that infinity of possibilities – entrepreneurs, TV channels and even advertising caught fire. Dinosaur brands found new energy thanks to a new online opportunity. Everyone and everything lightened up. Seraphs and capital letters disappeared. New companies called Cake and Fish and Soup and Egg sprang up. Soho was electric. It was a boom time for ideas; this clunky thing called the internet that had so far only brought us amazon and ebay was coming into its own. Satellite and cable channels appeared overnight, often faster than it seems that the authorities could regulate them. It genuinely felt, at times, that the monkeys were in charge of the machines, and doing a bloody good job.

Back then, I too got caught up in the beautiful mayhem. I launched a website with a music exec, a primary school teacher and a fellow ad creative called idea-a-day.com, giving business ideas away free every day. I put a TV show on an obscure satellite channel and launched the TV careers of Justin Lee Collins and Alan Carr. I started my own agency and shared office space with Karmarama in Chalk Farm when they were just 8 people sitting round a ping pong table having meetings with IKEA. I even got caught up in rock and roll and spent my honeymoon on a tour bus with hair-metallers, the Darkness, touring the southwestern USA. Life was so unbelievably exciting. Forget New York, London was the city where dreams were made of.

For a while, I thought it was an age thing, but that wasn’t it. I was 36. It isn’t age, or parenthood, or property ownership that has made me feel that our city is less exciting. It just feels like we have all ridden a fantastic wave and we’re all asking: ‘what next?’ All we have now is an internet that seems to be entering middle age. Social media has proven to be a hollow promise with brands tweeting into a vortex and corporate Facebook pages broadcasting to no one. Even the energy in some of the most creative corners of our city has lulled. Hipster is an empty shell offering nothing of use. Where are the entrepreneurs and the visceral energy that drove the napsters and the easyJets and the last minutes? Where are the risk takers? The inventors? The makers?

I miss 2000’s London. Right now, we’re treading water. Working hard, making a buck, riding the tube home. My hope is that I keep floating long enough for the next thrilling, terrifying, all consuming wave to take me somewhere properly exhilarating, and to see what ideas I can have when I get there.

To Facebook, or not

10 Feb

like_us_facebookA-copy

Despite my enormous prejudice against any advertising that includes Facebook and marketing in the same sentence, occasionally I scan the internet to see if anyone has cracked the uncrackable and genuinely used this hugely popular website to boost sales.

With a billion users and now over ten years to perfect their pitch, if anyone can use social media to win big, it should be Facebook. And, as creative director of an agency handling some brands that have yet to become household names, I wanted to know how Facebook might help me. So I hit Google and found this blog from Hubspot, listing nine notable success stories.

My heart sank when I read the first case study: Nike. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like very much what Nike are doing on Facebook. Their page, like most of the other pages selected by the Hubspot blog, is run like a magazine. It is filled with a wealth of content and, being Nike, they have fingers in many sporting and lifestyle pies and so have a huge amount that they can talk about. No doubt they have employed writers and journalists to compile and collate. It is professional. This isn’t a page where, every other day, the client asks its followers what their favourite colour / day of the week / burger combo might be.

So, what exactly is the problem? Well, the problem is that this is Nike. A multi-national sport and leisure brand that has existed for over 40 years. A brand that leapt forwards the moment in 1988 when Dan Weiden penned those three immortal words: ‘Just do it.’ Facebook didn’t make Nike, nor did it make Microsoft, Universal Pictures or Taco Bell – other contenders on Hubspot’s list.

In fact, the learning from this list that is intended to inspire clients to truly embrace Facebook as a viable marketing tool, is that in order for Facebook to work for you, you need to already be famous. And while this is great news for software giants and fast food chains, how does it help a Japanese power tool brand that few people outside of Japan have heard of and which is thinking of setting up a Facebook page?

The message is that, if you haven’t made it using the conventional marketing tools of TV, outdoor, press, radio and PR or, in other words, if you’re not already a household name, Facebook doesn’t have much to offer you. If it did, we would be bombarded with the stories of brands which went from zero to premium shelf space in Tesco’s using only their Facebook marketing.

We can argue too over whether brands should bother with Facebook pages at all – I think they should. The bigger question is why they don’t invest the resource to make them as interesting as Nike’s. Too often, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are seen as a necessary evil – an add-on that agencies charge money for, which no one attaches any proper creative resource to and which transmit information rather than engage with fans of the brand.

Ultimately, social media was designed for people. Facebook originally existed to rate hot girls. It was never built to sell anything. Now that Facebook is well into its second decade, it’s time for advertisers to think clearly before filling up yet more server farms in Iowa with pages that simply tick boxes but don’t sell any.

[this blog also appears at noahlondon.com]

Filling space with stuff

5 Feb

old bus ads

When I arrived in London in July 1990 to try and make my way in advertising, it was a very different city. There was still a functioning tube station at Aldwych. The Jubilee line terminated at Charing Cross and you could still hop on and off Routemaster buses. Tubes still had wooden window frames and those dangling black plastic balls that people gripped onto while the train was moving. And everywhere I looked, there was advertising. Brilliant advertising.

I quickly learned that cross track posters were really just press ads for people with time on their hands. The posters along the platform and up and down the escalators were for shows and exhibitions. Inside the tubes themselves, the ads could be for anything. Ambient advertising didn’t exist, there was no internet and no mobile phones. That left TV, press, outdoor and radio. There seemed to be just a handful of advertising agencies creating the ads and every student knew the names of these idea palaces: BBH, AMV, Lowe Howard Spink, BMP, Bates, Howell Henry. And all of these agencies were fantastic at advertising. It was as if displaying a message in a public space really mattered. It was as if people knew that the public would see the work, and they created it accordingly.

Fast forward (and trust me, the last 25 years have gone very quickly) to 2015 and the picture is very different. There are still big agencies but the work they now do is very different. There are also a huge number of agencies who believe that they are as capable as those big name agencies of creating advertising. And where before there were just a handful of media spaces to fill, there is now a proper proliferation. Back in 1990, an ad on a sandwich bag or the back of a tube ticket was exciting and new. Now, every surface area and every electronic interface is seen as an advertising opportunity.

The danger with this is that, a bit like the picture from 1900s London above, we are often guilty of just filling space with stuff. When there is no thought or care given to a project, and a crass, poorly worded, poorly designed piece of communication finds its way onto a tubecard or a banner ad, it affects the whole. Advertising itself becomes weaker. Too many messages bombard people and they switch off. If I show a client twenty ideas in a meeting, they quickly become bewildered. They can’t hold all the information in their head, yet every day they are assualted by several thousand messages.

It’s easy for an agency to convince a client who knows no better that a packshot of their product and some bullet points placed in a train carriage will make a gripping and cohesive argument as to why the public should be interested. But given the state of much of the print advertising that I see, both underground and overground, this approach isn’t working. A client that thinks they are saving money by creating their advertising in house might actually be throwing money into a black hole because their ads are not grabbing anyone’s attention. Equally, a digital, experiential, social or A.N.Other agency that thinks it can cover off all the advertising that its clients need may find that they don’t have the expertise needed to generate a properly engaging campaign for their clients.

London is absolutely clogged by clients filling space with stuff. One or two agencies know how to fill it with advertising, and one or two clients are prepared to put decent money behind making an impact. London in 1990 was a different place in a different time, but the ads that I saw as I walked, tubed and bussed around town hawking my portfolio truly inspired me. Today’s students must be walking around thinking ‘anyone can do this’, and with so many agencies now to choose from, they’re probably not wrong.

(this blog also appears at http://www.noahlondon.com)

R.I.P. the campaign

5 Jan

Happy New Year.

Has anyone else noticed how few ad campaigns we are currently treated to in the UK media? Campaigns used to be exactly that – a concerted and ongoing series of advertisements aimed at creating a memorable message about a brand. These are the ads that you grew up with. These are the ads you loved before you knew you wanted to work in advertising.

So what happened to the campaign? Right now a campaign is one burst of activity with maybe a slogan that sits quietly in a bottom right hand corner or on an end frame. It is a campaign that lasts a season rather than (in the case of KitKat) half a century.

Students are told that an idea needs to be campaignable to be worthy of inclusion in a portfolio. Pitch ideas are sold on their campaignability, but inevitably, the client runs one or two ads and then shelves the ‘campaign’ when a new marketing director comes in six months later.

I find it ironic that our industry journal is called Campaign yet, with the exception of stalwarts such as Specsavers and Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, I can barely call to mind a brand that actually runs an ongoing ad campaign. Instead, a campaign is really now just an idea that can be used in a combination of media. Or in other words, a campaign is now a burst.

Campaigns work because repetition works. In a world in which consumers are bombarded with sales messages, continuity helps. And by continuity, I don’t mean a line like ‘Das Auto’ bolted onto the end of both a 3 minute viral and a quarter page in the Times. Continuity is the kind of single-mindedness that ensured every man woman and child alive in the 70s and 80s knew that ‘Mash means Smash’, and every beer drinker knew that ‘Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach’. We loved seeing Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins drinking Cinzano and Gold Blend was practically a soap opera. Campaigns get under the skin of a culture. Singable jingles (Shake’n’Vac), memorable lines (Naughty but Nice), loveable characters (Maureen Lipman as Beattie) endear a brand to a public that likes to think that it doesn’t much like brands or being sold to.

Maybe it is down to budgets. Or short term thinking. Or the belief that people get bored easily. Maybe clients switch agency and demand something new. Whatever the reason, with the loss of the campaign it feels like something good has been lost.

D&AD Awards – time for a rethink?

18 Dec

Adspike is away from his desk for a few weeks and has time to ponder the way of the advertising world. And before this undisguised assault on our industry’s premier awards and education organisation begins,  Adspike would like to point out that he has in his possession a number of D&AD trophies. So, this is not written in a spirit of bitterness, more one of fairness.

I have noticed in recent years not only a move towards international agencies doing pretty well at D&AD, but the nature of the work has changed. This year, for example, awards were given to a project where SIM cards were used to store text books for children in the Philippines. There was an outdoor campaign where wrecked cars were put up on billboard sites in Argentina to encourage safer driving. BA (or some other airline) created some kind of a booth to help people with jet lag. Someone else created a faux ten year old to lure paedophiles. And so it goes on.

The real problem I have with all this, is that 99% of us, particularly here in the UK, where D&AD is based, do not get given the kind of briefs that win D&AD. In other words, at the moment a brief lands on our desk, we have lost to a team in Brazil who pitch an idea at a client who is either truly open minded or is dazzled by the promises made it by the agency. A client who hasn’t already tied up its fortunes to a media agency that has dictated banner ads, a microsite and a DRTV campaign in the middle of Jeremy Kyle.

99% of us are given briefs that involve ads on TV. Ads on billboards. Ads in newspapers. Ads on the internet, radio and cinema. Occasionally we get to do experiential and ambient ideas but often these are less spectacular than we hoped for. No one looks at the YouTube video of our crowd bombing, The FC Barcelona players only show up for five minutes and leave more disappointment than elation. The viral ad doesn’t, well, go viral.

The reason for this is not simply one of our own inability. I like to think that most of us, given the right conditions, can pull off something pretty spectacular. Much of it is down to low expectations from our clients. Often its seems that all we have to do is ‘fill space with stuff’ and all will be well. The agency gets paid, the client gets to show something at an annual meeting and the people at the top of their respective trees continue to enjoy Verbiers and Antigua. Put simply, if the client isn’t prepared to go the extra mile to create an event that will make the world sit up, the world will remain sitting down.

My gripe with D&AD is that it appears to have forgotten its roots. D&AD was built on the graft of UK agencies and now awards (almost exclusively) those from overseas. Agencies in the UK still churn out good old fashioned advertising. And by that I don’t mean the idea, I mean the places where these ideas sit. Creatives in the UK still need to knock out posters and TV ads for clients whose media schedules demand posters and TV ads. D&AD however seems to have moved on into the etherial spaces of conceptual thinking where (in the case of the Filipino SIM card) it’s unclear who is advertising what and for whom. Is D&AD about pushing barriers? Or just excellence – a job done brilliantly? I understand the power an idea needs to win a black pencil but could not a few more silvers be thrown to the masses whose daily briefs don’t involve persuading a truck company to use Jean Claude van Damme and Enya in a viral film rather than send some DM to their potential clients? As it is, I look at the big winners and feel confused rather than inspired.

In not honouring the humble workhorses of advertising – TV, posters, print, radio, DM and so on – and in opening up the contest to any agency in any nation working for any client who will pay them, we risk a future where no British creative can compete. So maybe it’s time for a more local awards show – the one D&AD used to be. Not one run by partizan magazines like Campaign but one that awards British ads on pure merit. That way, D&AD can continue to be an annual advertising Olympic Games and the local awards can keep us advertising journeymen both inspired and encouraged that what we do has value and importance.

Social Media – the clue’s in the name

10 Dec

OK, let’s talk about the elephant in the room.

Social media.

There has been a lot of hot air expended on this subject and how it works as an advertising medium. In fact, is it an advertising medium at all?

The reason I’m writing about it today is because so many of our clients ask us for it. It is pretty much a mandatory on every brief, and no pitch is complete without a couple of slides (always at the end, just before the ones about point of sale) where we skim through what we plan to do on Facebook and Twitter and hope thatno one asks too many questions.

The problem is that most clients believe they should ‘do something’ on social media, without being active users themselves. They have also been convinced by media and advertising agencies that this is a cheap way of ‘starting conversations’ or otherwise getting a brand message across. I’m not sure what the actual stats are but from personal experience, I have never knowingly bought anything because of a tweet or a Facebook post. Nor have I engaged in a competition or game on a brand’s Facebook page. This is because I am busy and my idea of fun downtime is not scouring the web finding what interesting stuff brands might be doing online.

However, that is not to say that social media can’t work. I believe it can. It’s just that, as an industry, we are bad at doing it. It is seen as cheap advertising space and so very little resource is put behind it. Brands believe that all they need to do is tweet a fact about their products and a grateful public will rush to give them money. Social media is not a place to transmit, it is a place to chat, entertain and otherwise engage people.

It might be helpful to think of a brand’s Twitter page as a party, with the brand as the host. Firstly, people have to like the host in order to want to come to the party. Either that, or they know that there will be lots of free booze and food or at the very least, some interesting people to hang out with.

The question a brand that is hoping to use Twitter successfully must ask is “Am I interesting?” It’s all very well making good gin, or cars, or running a successful bank, but if you threw a party, who would come? How would you entertain them? And how would you keep them there after the one crate of beer you got in has all gone?

The answer is in the name. Social media. Are you social? A person who just barks facts about their work is actually quite antisocial. A person who doesn’t answer people’s questions or join in their conversations is definitely antisocial. A person who spends most of their time not even at the party they have organized is pretty rude. So the answer is simple. Be friendly. Be chatty. Be sociable. And most of all, be there.

A simple example would be to look at the media schedule for when your brand’s advertising will be on TV. And at this point it’s fair to say that it is very difficult to build any kind of brand purely via social media, unless of course that brand is Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Being on TV is where any aspiring brand should want to be. People still watch TV, worldwide in their billions. TV is not dead. Many people watch TV with a second screen and comment in real time on what they are watching. So, back to the media schedule. Find out when your commercial is airing and be there when people pass comment on it. If your commercial is on in the middle of Coronation Street, it helps to know the current storyline, who the characters are and to be a fan of the show. The people who will see your ad will be huge fans of the show. They will comment on it, who they love, who they hate. And when the ads come on, they will not stop commenting. They will comment on your ad. They may like it, they may hate it. They may be quite vocal about it. It’s easy to label people as trolls but trolls can be won round. Trolls are customers too. So when they heap praise or abuse at your door (on Twitter there is no middle ground), be there. And by being there, I don’t mean have an intern manning your Twitter, have someone who can write and convey your brand’s values confidently. You are a fan of the show. That means from the moment the show starts, you begin commenting on it. You have a right to be there – your brand is in one of the breaks. You are part of the viewing experience. Don’t try and sell anything. Be funny if you can. Reply to comments, even the negative ones. People with 100 followers freak out when a famous brand replies to them or retweets them. It is an exercise in building love.

Recently, one of our clients sponsored a major reality TV show. For three hours a night for twelve weeks, we chatted to an army of fans of the show who then became fans of our brand. We won over haters and even mentioned some of our fans on our TV break bumpers. It’s hard to tell if this generated sales, but when someone is in the supermarket and is faced with a staggering choice of breakfast cereals, or coffee, or chocolate bars, it’s possible that they may go for the brand who replied to their tweet the night before, who followed them and who said something about a show that you both love that echoed what they themselves were thinking. By doing this, you are in the same gang as your customers, you are all peers, and because the party was good, they’ll come back to the next one.