30 January 2008

The Google-Publicis Partnership

Kevin Heisler’s post on the searchenginewatch.com blog states that “Google’s Tim Armstrong, president North American advertising and commerce, and Penry Price, vice-president of North American sales, with Digitas Chairman and CEO David Kenny will lead the global Google-Publicis partnership.” Thereby, repositioning the role of advertising, and advertising agencies, in the world of business.

But what does the Google-Publicis partnership mean to the world of advertising and business?

As I understand, the attempt is to provide personalised and customised messages to very clearly- and sharply-defined target customers so as to provide higher returns on advertising and marketing spends. It’s something direct marketing agencies have been trying to do for many years, but, somehow, have not been able to achieve the desired result as the right technology has not been available to them.

The Internet, of course, has changed all that. And, although direct marketing agencies, along with others, have made their moves through online advertising and CRM initiatives, traditional advertising agencies, which manage the bulk of media spends, have never really embraced the Internet and its potential. That’s because advertising agencies have (a) been too wrapped-up in their creatives, and (b) not understood technology.

The Google-Publicis partnership is expected to change all that. Mostly in the outlook and the thinking in the professions of advertising and marketing, as well as in the deliverables advertising agencies are accountable for. How will this new partnership strategy work? In a recent Advertising Age article, Publicis, Google Take Things to the Next Level, Abbey Klaassen discusses the new strategy:

“Publicis chief Maurice Levy and Google CEO Eric Schmidt last week outlined a plan to create products to make agency life more efficient. While the statement was ambiguous, it did introduce a plan to exchange talent, embedding Google engineers within media-planning and -buying groups and bringing agency executives to the Googleplex to get a crash course in internet technologies. And while the deal may have been instituted at the holding-company level, it will be implemented among Publicis Groupe’s creative and media shops.”

The article continues to say, “The idea is that certain agency functions -- for example, online-ad trafficking -- could benefit from new technologies to make it more efficient. The talent exchange will not be limited to agencies' online functions but will include offline areas as well, such as spot media, cable TV or radio-ad buying. It also will help Google develop relationships with Publicis creative shops, such as Saatchi or Fallon.”

According to the Advertising Age article, Maurice Levy, chief of Publicis Groupe, views this partnership as a triple win for clients, Google and Publicis, calling it a “collaboration ... based on a shared vision of how new technologies can be used to improve advertising.”

However, not everyone in the industry has welcomed the Google-Publicis partnership. For instance, Sir Martin Sorrell, chief of WPP group, has commented that Google is likely to be a short-term friend and a long-term enemy to Publicis… and to advertising agencies in general. Apparently, Sir Martin had used the term ‘frenemy’ to describe Google.

[Citation: Advertising Age article, Publicis, Google Take Things to the Next Level, dated 28 January 2008, by Abbey Klaassen. Also, Kevin Heisler’s blog post Google NYC and Digitas Lead Google-Publicis Partnership on searchenginewatch.com.]

29 January 2008


“Global ad spends on digital media will double by 2010. In the days to come, the spend on digital media would take over spends on TV ads. There will be a shift of economic power from traditional media to new media.”

– Mark Read, Director - Strategy, WPP, and CEO, WPP Digital UK, as quoted in a recent Exchange4Media article on the India Digital Summit 2008

The growth and potential of digital advertising cannot be denied. More and more marketers are moving away from traditional advertising and towards digital. In fact, it’s not just digital advertising which is of consequence to marketers today, but the whole gamut of digital marketing which is changing the way marketers look at advertising and communication – and marketing of their brands.

Today’s digital advertising agencies are capitalising on this change since they understand how to interact with the target customer, tailor messages to suit audience preferences, generate responses, track responses in various ways, and deliver an accurate return on the marketer’s investment. Using state-of-the-art technology, digital advertising agencies are optimising on campaign delivery through real-time targeted online advertising.

The name of the game is accuracy. Accuracy in terms of customer segmentation, customer profiling, creation and delivery of tailored messages, responses elicited and collected from different vantage points, and spends controlled to offer higher returns on investment. This, in turn, helps improve accuracy of marketing and communication strategies. Though, I must say, without the right technology, none of this would be possible.

At the centre of this digital marketing is the customer, not the brand. Thus, traditional brand-centric advertising agencies which have been slow to welcome this change, have fallen prey to newer and smarter digital advertising agencies. Hence, the recent collaboration between Publicis Groupe and Google Inc is a landmark event in the world of advertising and marketing.

26 January 2008

Digital advertising: collaborating into the future

Earlier this week, Reuters released a story about a collaboration between France’s Publicis Groupe, one of the top four global advertising groups in the world, and Google Inc. If anything, the story defined a possible strategy for the future of digital advertising.

Here’s an extract:

France's Publicis and Web search engine giant Google Inc on Tuesday revealed they were combining their expertise to expand in the fast-growing digital advertising market.

However, the pair did not wish to give details just yet. They would only say that Google would exchange its technological know-how for Publicis's analytical and media planning expertise.

Eric Schmidt, Chairman and CEO of Google, and Maurice Levy, Chairman of Publicis, told journalists the two companies had been cooperating for more than a year.

Maurice Levy said the collaboration would allow Publicis to “grow the business of our clients through better use of the Internet, sending the right message at the right time.”

Read the full Reuters story Publicis, Google reveal digital advertising cooperation here.

25 January 2008

Digital has redefined advertising

It’s probably clich├ęd to say this now, but I’ll say it anyway: the Internet has changed everything. It has redefined our work, our businesses and our lives. From what we want (materially, that is) to when, where and how we want it. Fuelled by the parallel growth in telecommunications, our world is now defined by the digital.

Not so much, perhaps, in the Third World where Internet penetration and ownership of computers as well as basic/mobile telephones are still low, but the phenomenon has definitely changed lives in developed countries. And, along with it, it has changed the way marketers want – or, rather, have – to reach out to their customers and service them.

This, in turn, has put a lot of pressure on traditional media (like print, TV, radio and outdoor), and advertising agencies which rely on them to deliver brand messages, in order to offer digital advertising solutions. Mind you, this change is not just about advertising on the Internet or on the worldwide web, which usually means online advertising. It’s about media becoming digital.

It means that, now, the way we conceive an advertising campaign has to be different. Not only in the way technology has to be used to deliver the messages, but also in the way (a) advertising messages have to be planned and created, and (b) media has to be mixed, negotiated and bought. In short, it means the digital world has redefined the world of advertising.

This obviously requires a change in the way advertising agencies think and do their business. However, if you look around you, you’ll find that most advertising agencies across the world – particularly their creative teams – have remained static. They have neither changed their thinking from traditional to digital media, nor invested in building skills and capabilities to offer digital advertising solutions to their clients.

Is it any wonder that marketers are turning to new media agencies?

24 January 2008

The DM disconnect

Not only are advertising agencies inadequate in handling technical and B2B products and services (see my previous post), they also lack sufficient skills in handling direct marketing, or DM. That’s because there are fundamental differences between advertising and DM, which advertising agencies cannot, do not, or are not willing to grasp.

While advertising is about building brands, DM is about building and managing customer relationships.

While the ‘brand’ takes centre-stage in advertising, the ‘customer’ is at the centre of all DM.

While advertising is a one-to-many (typically a B2C) mass-media communication targeted at customer segments, DM is a personalised one-to-one communication targeted at individual customers.

While advertising is a one-way flow of brand information and brand benefits to the customer, DM is a response-driven communication which encourages the customer to participate and interact (and not just be a passive receiver of information).

While advertising washes its hands off after the ads are released in the media, DM takes accountability for every response received (or the lack of it) and every rupee spent on the campaign.

Although DM proves that it works, there is a vital disconnect from the practitioners of advertising who believe that, since it lacks the glamour and the marketing spends of mainline advertising (see here), DM is down market, below-the-line, and not worth their trouble.

23 January 2008

The B2B block

A couple of weeks ago, a client of mine with a portfolio of B2B products and services (from one of the leading business houses in India) was lamenting about her advertising agency’s inadequacy in servicing her organisation.

My client stated that, since her organisation’s business was both B2B and technical in nature, her advertising agency did not possess the requisite skills to service her account. That, leaving aside the skills and knowledge needed to do the job, neither her agency’s creative nor the servicing team even showed any willingness to understand the nature of her organisation’s business.

To be fair to the advertising agency, it isn’t always possible to quickly pick up skills and knowledge in technical matters, and churn out amazing advertising campaigns – or sets of sales collateral which are heavy with technical product/service information. After all, an advertising agency’s job is to create great advertising and optimise on the campaign’s media spends, not become a master in every technical product/service it handles.

That is why companies that sell technical products and services need to provide relevant, and sufficient, product/service information and knowledge – and even training – to their advertising agencies prior to expecting any campaign ideas. Unfortunately, too few agencies make this clear to their clients, thereby falling into an expectations trap.

Of course, to be fair to the organisation with its portfolio of technical products and services, this sharing of information and knowledge does happen – though, in the eyes of its advertising agency, it does not happen often enough or sufficiently enough. Hence, while developing communication programmes and sales collateral for its customers and business associates, an organisation with its technical portfolio often runs into serious communication problems with its advertising agency… with one blaming the other.

However, there is one area where advertising agencies falter. And, that is in their lack of understanding of the B2B marketing process. Perhaps because advertising agencies are so wrapped up in campaigns for consumers and consumer products, they have a poor understanding of the B2B selling and decision-making processes. Agencies sometimes refuse to accept that the nature of B2B business is very different from selling directly to a consumer. And that, the B2B communication process may require a different approach.

This makes me wonder if advertising agencies actually have a mental block in creating campaigns for B2B products and services. Perhaps, that’s what my client meant when she spoke of the lack of willingness that her advertising agency showed towards her organisation’s business.

18 January 2008

Not glamorous enough

I often run into confrontations with advertising agencies. Advertising agencies, particularly in India, are so self-absorbed with branding that they overlook a vital tenet of marketing – which is to sell the client’s product. Unless the client’s product sells, no amount of advertising or branding can justify the company’s communication spends. Well, not for very long.

Advertising, though often central to marketing, is only one of the many channels of communication. To sell, a company needs to prepare and use other communication channels as well: product brochures and catalogues, sales presentations, mailers, posters, promotional collateral, technical data sheets, demos, customer lists and testimonials, installation and user guides, etc. This is particularly true for selling engineering or technical products.

However, advertising agencies find these (what they call) below-the-line communication channels not glamorous enough. What's worse, these communication channels don’t command high spends. Plus, they require deeper understanding of the client’s product, customer behaviour, as well as the sales process. Sometimes, they demand faster turnaround times from concept to delivery.

To advertising agencies, these communication channels are too labour-intensive and not remunerative enough. So, they shun away from working on these below-the-line strategies and creatives – and stick to big advertising campaigns. In so doing, I feel, advertising agencies fall short of fulfilling the wider role of marketing. But then, that’s how it has always been.

17 January 2008

An inherent paradox

Like historians, the marketing/business strategist can draw meaningful conclusions from experiences and data from the past. To do this meaningfully, the strategist needs to keep an open mind; to act like a pioneer exploring unknown territory and, then, arriving at a destination which may not be of her/his choice.

The job can be tricky. Experience and data reveal the past; drawing conclusions lead to the future. The tasks are opposite in direction. One task requires investigation; the other, invention. It’s as if a paradox is inherent in the job of the strategist.

Moreover, as the strategist works in the present, s/he has to manage the participation of the team members at work on the project, as well as the politics that governs them. This is not always easy.

When people come together on a project, they bring with them their past experience and their current concerns, both as individuals as well as members of corporate/business teams. They bring into the project their egos, insecurities, personal interests and commitments that may transcend the problem at hand.

Yet, these people determine the shape and the outcome of the project. Sometimes discretion, or withholding proprietary information, or just plain ignorance may prevent an otherwise acceptable solution from being considered.

This, too, is a paradox inherent in the job of the strategist.

16 January 2008

Why is it so?

In my work as a marketing and business strategist, history plays an important role. Not history in general, but the history of the brand or business I am assigned to work on.

Unfortunately, my clients, in their hurry to get on with the project – which is, typically, to formulate a strategy to take the next steps in their marketing initiatives – almost always overlook the history that precedes the marketing problem at hand. They feel what’s done is done. They need to save the day by jump-starting onto the future. That’s because, with competitors edging in, time is of essence.

But, getting the facts right is important too. Facts related not only to the sales performance of the brands in question (after all, generating revenue is critical in business), but also to the events and the decisions which have led to the problem or situation the brand/business is in right now. Analysing these facts is important as they lead not only to better understanding of the project in hand, but also to sudden discoveries and solutions.

Sometimes, asking a simple question like ‘why is it so?’ can lead to solutions. This was pointed out to me, when I was in school, by an American physicist called Julius Sumner Miller, through his educational programmes on ABC TV (i.e. on Australian Broadcasting Corporation). Professor Miller used to insist on going back to the sources, breaking things down to their basics, and then thinking one’s way back into the problem.

Professor Miller used to say that this method was more fun, if not effective, as it involved the imaginative exercise of suspending one’s knowledge of how things turned out, so as to recreate the possibilities which might still be open to the scientist.

For marketing strategists, this learning and practice are invaluable. When working on a marketing problem, we need to know what the choices and possibilities were at a given time. We need to know why a particular strategy was adopted, and why others were not. We need to know what went through the minds of the people when they formulated and adopted a specific strategy to bring us where we are today.

In marketing, as much as in science or history (see my previous posts), asking ‘why is it so?’ is critical to finding solutions to current problems. That’s because, in marketing, as it is in science and history, a strategy/solution once adopted in the past can easily mask, or undervalue, the original problem of the brand or business. Thereby, misleading marketing strategists in their work.

14 January 2008

How it all turned out

I often wonder what India was like in the past. I wonder how India, whose boundaries stretched from Baluchistan to Burma, shrank over the years to become what she is today. I wonder why India was invaded so many times – by Arabs, Moghuls, Pathans, Huns, Sakas, Greeks, etc. – and yet, the people of India never ventured out of her boundaries to invade and conquer other lands.

I wonder why, even though written records were maintained as early as 3rd century BC, there is so little documentation of our history before the Muslims came into our country in the 12th century AD. Or, did the Muslims come into India 400-odd years before that when Muhammad ibn Qasim entered Sind? I guess that’s a part of Pakistan’s history now, not ours.

I wonder if, originally, India was a Hindu state, does it mean that, in view of all the invasions and colonisations, we have actually been under ‘foreign rule’ for the past 1,500 years or so… until our Independence in 1947? And, I wonder if a concept that is built on the idea of ‘breaking away from foreign rule to re-build a Hindu state’ will influence the politics of our country now?

One of the reasons why many of us don’t pay attention to history is the fact that we know how it all turned out. It’s written in our books. We can see some of it right before our eyes. Our present is a proof of what happened in history. And, considering our preoccupation with the present, and plans for the future, we can’t be bothered all that much by the past.

And yet, so much of our present, and our plans for the future, are actually rooted to our past. We are the way we are because of what happened before us. If we examine our past, perhaps, we can have a better understanding of our present – and make better plans for our future. It’s not just ‘how’ it all turned out that should matter to us. It should also matter ‘why’ it turned out the way it did.

10 January 2008

What were they thinking?

There’s something about knowledge, or learning, that fascinates me. It’s the fact that once something new is known, or learnt – i.e. once something new becomes old news, or obvious, or standard practice – that new learning becomes the lowest denominator of our knowledge. We no longer rely on the old knowledge. The new knowledge replaces the old and becomes second nature to us… as if we knew it all along. We quickly forget what it was like not to know what we know now.

Does this sound confusing? Well, let me try to explain.

Today, most of us are very familiar and comfortable with mobilephones. The mobilephone is as much a part of our lives as, say, a wristwatch is. We had telephones before this, but they didn’t quite cut it. When we were on the move, we couldn’t use our telephones we had at home or at work. We needed a communication device which was smaller, lighter, wire-free… portable. With advancement in science, technology and telecommunications, the mobilephone solved our problem.

But now that our problem of talking over distances while on the move is solved by a mobilephone, it is difficult for us to think about our old problem in the old way. What was once unknown to us has now become obvious – a fact of life. What had once tested our ingenuity and skill is now known even to a child… thanks to the collaborative efforts of many skills, technologies and disciplines of knowledge.

This phenomenon of knowledge transfer affects not only the immediate past (with reference to mobile telecommunications), but the distant past as well. Today, when historians dig into our past to determine what happened, say, 2000 years ago, they use their current knowledge base and their modern tools. But, couldn’t this be a faulty approach to determine how life was 2000 years ago and how human civilisation progressed over the years?

Shouldn’t history be put into its context – in that specific period in time – when both ideas and civilisation developed from what men and women knew then (and not from what they know now)? Shouldn’t history be focusing on what men and women were thinking then – and what they were doing then to improve their lives? Shouldn’t historians be focusing on what was possible then – on what was imagined, and practiced, by men and women then?

If historians have to invent, to fictionalise, their narratives, they might as well get their contextual framework right. Using modern knowledge and modern technology may not be the right approach.

09 January 2008

A more accurate picture of our past

“Historical explanation then becomes an enterprise in which the refinements of concepts and theories are a constant necessity, not only because of the availability of fresh evidence from new sources but also because of greater precision in our understanding of the categories which we use to analyse these sources. It is a bi-focal situation where the frame of reference provided by the analysis of ideology remains the distant view while the historian’s use of a theoretical explanation of the data indicates the closer reading.”

– Romila Thapar, eminent Indian historian, in Early India: An Overview.

In certain aspects, historians are like scientists, systematically collecting, recording and analysing data from our past; and then, forming theories which, after some corroboration and peer reviews in journals, finally, end up in our history books.

History is not just a string of narratives – stories – as we normally think it to be (and I had laboured under this limited view for many years). Like science, it is a systematic gathering and dissemination of knowledge, with newer and newer versions replacing old records and theories – so we can have a more accurate picture of our past.

[Citation: Quote reproduced from the chapter Early India: An Overview from the book Cultural Pasts: Essays in Early Indian History by Romila Thapar, pg. 88.]

07 January 2008

History and interpretation

I’m not sure if conflicts in interpreting history are any less in number than the actual conflicts (i.e. wars, revolutions, civil unrests, etc.) history has recorded through the years. In both cases, conflicts have been – and still are – fought on establishing one’s right over another. Only one is less bloody than the other. But, it is true that differing interpretations have led to political, religious, racist and ethnic violence.

In India, we are no strangers to such conflicts. In fact, at times, this has been worrisome and even scary. And yet, interpreting history cannot be avoided. So, how should one approach the subject of history and its interpretation?

To find answers to this question, I turned to eminent Indian historian Irfan Habib. Here is an extract from one of his articles from The South Asia Citizens Web:

“That different views on medieval India should be influenced by the individual historian’s subjective views of the contemporary world is only to be expected; these must, however, first meet the criterion of support from historical evidence. In fact, so long as new views appear and provoke a fresh or extended exploration of the historical documentation, one can only welcome the tendency not to take the given history on trust. But historical evidence must always remain the touchstone.

A major problem today is that only a small and declining number of people in India have access to Persian, in which language so much of the source material of medieval India is to be found. Not only does this large body of material need to be studied, but the collection of documents in all languages has also to be encouraged, as well as local antiquarian and archaeological work.

With every passing day the evidence on paper, metal or brick or stone is being destroyed. If the hand of destruction is to be stayed, the people’s interest in the country’s past needs to be aroused. In this effort all those who, without necessarily being professional historians themselves, have yet a care for all aspects and phases of our heritage, can play a most crucial part.”

[Citation: Quote from History and interpretation – Communalism and problems of historiography in India by Irfan Habib; reproduced from The South Asia Citizens Web. Irfan Habib’s full article can be found here.]

04 January 2008

The problem of interpretation

History is replete with instances of political dogmatism (e.g. Communism in Russia and China), diktats from religion (e.g. The Crusades, Islamic jihad), cultural and social acceptance of a certain country or a certain period (e.g. the caste system in India). In spite of available hard facts, and human reason making sense of these facts, interpretations can change everything.

For instance, by most records, Vasco da Gama is considered a hero in Europe for having sailed across the seas to discover a route to India, bringing back with him riches in spices, cloth and gold. However, in India, Vasco da Gama is looked upon as an invader; an exploiter of Indian hospitality and wealth.

Which interpretation is true? Which interpretation of Vasco da Gama’s discovery of India will you believe in? Which interpretation should be published in the history books for all to read?

Perhaps, there is a middle path which presents a neutral picture of what happened in history; a path which recounts history in a narrative that best explains what truly happened.

Apparently, there is such a path – a ‘best histories’ path. I did not know about ‘best histories’ until a year ago. It was pointed out to me by a friend from Australia, Robert Edwards, who is some sort of an authority in history. The following paragraphs are quotes from Robert’s emails to me, when we discussed the issue of interpreting Vasco da Gama’s feats:

“The best histories tend to try to marry the two perspectives (or five, or ten!) into a narrative that tells each of the two, and tries to reconcile them.

For example, ‘To Europeans, and in particular the Portuguese, Vasco da Gama was a great maritime explorer who discovered India and established the spice trade between Europe and the Asian Subcontinent. However, to Indians, he was an invader who exploited the people of India and paved the way for their further exploitation and subjugation by the ensuing waves of European conquerors.’ might be a more balanced way of telling the story of Vasco da Gama, which puts the two narratives together.

Credit can be given where credit is due, so you could say that ‘while Vasco da Gama was an intrepid explorer of parts of the world that were previously unknown to Europeans, an excellent mariner with great bravery, he was also responsible for cruel deprivations and the exploitation of existing problems between Indian groups to establish trade by force with his Portuguese masters.’ or something like that. You need to be able to discuss the bad aspects of someone’s feats, provide all perspectives. This would be the right way to do it, rather than just a celebratory piece about how wonderful da Gama was.

While historians may agree on the hard facts, such as the date of the Treaty of Versailles, the date that Vasco da Gama arrived in India (depending, of course, on the calendar you use), it takes a lot of arguing to agree on the interpretation of those facts.”

[Thank you, Robert.]

03 January 2008

Inventing history

As we step into 2008, we look at the events of the past year and the years before that as history. We take it for granted that that’s what really happened in history. But, how much of it is true? How much of it can we rely on as not an invention of the facts?

Historians, too, rely on their imagination while documenting history.

Finding and deciphering fragments of past data, most of which is destroyed, is a difficult task. As far as prehistory and ancient history go, even dating fossils and artefacts accurately is a problem. Historians have no choice but to use their imagination to piece together what they think history is (or was).

That’s not all. When historians rely on available records – even in cases of eye-witness reports – there is an issue of ideologies and prejudices to overcome, or neutralise. This includes the historian’s own ideology/prejudice, as well as the ideologies/prejudices of the people (and the period) prevalent at the time.

There is also the issue of version – or point of view – of history which is determined by those in power. Those in power – emperors, kings, sultans, political parties, etc. – write history in their own voice of authority. They record history and publish history books, making their version of history the definitive one.

For instance, in India, history was not recorded (i.e. was not available in writing – I’m not too sure about this; there must’ve been some recorded history) for thousands of years… almost until the time the Moslems came into the country in the 12th century. Since the Moslems were (and still are) great at documenting history, much of Indian history has a Moslem bias, which present-day historians are trying to set straight.

Later, when the British arrived in India in the 18th century, something similar happened and much of modern Indian history was written – and re-written – by the British with a colonial bias. Once again, present-day Indian historians are trying to set those records straight. So, you can imagine the confusion and debate in constructing actual Indian history!

The point is, there’s always an element of invention in writing history. I feel this makes history interesting. However, ‘inventing’ history can be a dubious exercise. We don’t want to build civilisations on lies. As new evidence emerges, historians have a responsibility to set the records straight. Rewrite the history books, if that’s what needs to be done, to give us a more correct picture of what really happened in history.