What Marketers Need to Know From Ad:Tech San Francisco

Early in my career as an advertising manager at a software company, we used a fax machine to place ad insertion orders. Guess what? Those are still in use at many companies, according to AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, who delivered the opening keynote last week at ad:techSF. It was just one of many inflection points for an industry that is rolling in dough but still playing catch-up with the pace of the world. And then there was the appearance of P.Diddy/Puff Daddy/whatever he’s calling himself today… (but we’ll save that for the end).

The Advertising Industry is Stronger Than Ever (But Still Inefficient) 

To begin with, the number of exhibitors at ad:techSF nearly doubled this year from 2013, a clear sign of growth in the digital ad space (worrisome though on how many companies had the words “spy” or “facial recognition” staring back at me from booth graphics).

eMarketer kicked off the event with some industry stats: Advertising is anticipated to be a $50B business in 2014—that’s a whole lotta media buys. And another huge growth spurt for the current media darling: native advertising: 73% of all publications have adopted some sort branded/sponsored content program. This popular method of advertising has ignited the flailing publishing industry with a model that looks here to stay (learn more about sponsored content here). Despite all the good news, manual inefficiencies still plague the industry (like the aforementioned faxed insertion orders), flying in the face of the digital world’s frenetic pace. Which leads to my next takeaway…

Advertising Needs Better Automation With the ‘Human Touch’

Convergence. Omni channel. Multi platforms. Cross screen. Second screen. Call it what you will, but they all mean basically the same thing—the all-on digital consumer viewing ads on multiple devices. Your potential customers might see an ad on TV and switch to a tablet, meanwhile someone else is viewing it on their phone. The problem is that media buys are transacted in silos so there are not accurate measures of ad performance. And purchasing inventory in separate buckets doesn’t allow for immediate insights into consumer buying  patterns either. Yes, there is real-time bidding but that doesn’t resolve the complex cycle to target, purchase, and analyze an ad campaign’s results in concert, and quickly. This has become a huge thorn in the ad industry’s side at a time of huge growth.

One solution is the potential of “one-stop shopping” for all of these cross-platform buys, but that too has a hitch: Armstrong argues that while there needs to be “programmatic advertising“, the best media buying decisions can only occur with “mechanization”—the human+machine working together. That means computing automation can go so far, but doesn’t have the human brainpower to soak in rich data and make smart decisions on the fly to test or purchase across platforms quickly, or even switch the ad plan altogether. No surprise: AOL will be launching a one-stop solution later this year, and I’m sure other media conglomerates and start ups alike will introduce new methods to attempt to conquer this issue. Either way, the ad industry is clearly thinking about the future and taking steps to resolve the issues.

The Sales Funnel is Disrupted by Digital and Mobile

With the all-on consumer, the traditional sales funnel has become more chaotic and unpredictable for brands and media buyers to navigate. Gone are the straightforward days of TV, print, and radio buys. Cross-platform viewing and buying continues to create disarray to the familiar consumer purchasing process. The Zero Moment of Truth when a person decides to pull the (sales) trigger can no longer be pinpointed in the classic linear path of awareness-interest-intention-purchase. To witness: People spend more time on their computing devices than watching traditional TV in their living rooms (right now the difference is about 2 minutes; in 2018, digital consumption is expected to surpass TV altogether). Add to that, mobile is poised to overtake desktop computers and exceed its usage by 2016. This also underscores the need to have an advertising “central command” to respond to buyers’ behavior quickly.

The Rise of Real-Time Marketing (and it’s Free)

Real-time bidding isn’t the only buzzword these days. Real-time social selling is all the rage too. One of ad:techSF’s smartest and most engaging keynoters was Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes, who shared “secrets” of his company’s success in social marketing (though it appeared he was gently coerced into changing the title of his presentation for effect). Holmes gave examples of how brands can get in on the story of the moment (for no investment) by taking a nimble approach to their content marketing, as when Hootsuite released its version of the Harlem Shake immediately after the original went viral. It included both office staff and the adorable Hootsuite owl mascot (“Be the show, not the commercial”). Holmes also pointed out how companies can amplify and piggy back on an existing campaign, like the JCPenny #tweetingwithmittens, which won the Superbowl ad race with its social media stunt and enabled other brands to get in on the action (ironic given JCPenney’s poor performance off the social media stage, but that’s another story). Holmes also called for company marketing departments to build up their “newsrooms” (yes, folks, this is part of the “branded journalism” movement, it’s a real thing). And if you’re going to tell that story, do it, in Holmes’ words, with “heart.”

The Final Lesson: P.Diddy’s “Keynote” and What Not To Do

This one is easy (unfortunately): 1-Don’t show up 30 minutes late. It’s rude and disrespectful to your audience. 2-It’s best to know what conference you’re attending and why you’re there (side note: might not to tell the audience that you’re unaware of both). 3-Even if you’re asked lame questions by the interviewer, try to respond with answers that might make sense to the audience instead of vague, unrelated statements. 4-Product placement is OK but drinking and mentioning your alcohol-infused “product” the entire time? Not OK. 5-Swearing every other word (even for me, who appreciates some good sailor talk) does not add to your credibility, likability, or intelligence quotient. If you want to get the full effect of the uncomfortable and perplexed vibe in the room, check out the live tweets. 

But back to the good news: the state of the advertising industry has never been stronger, despite the challenges of yesterday’s inefficiencies and today’s complex media buys. The rise of the digital, always-connected consumer leaves a wide open space for brands and media buyers to take advantage of new opportunities to reach and engage them where they are, all the time, and in creative ways. It also means the methods ad purchases are constructed, measured, and responded to will require more sophisticated, converging levels of automation—but also knowing where those human lines should intersect. How that happens, we might not know until next year’s ad:techSF, but undoubtedly a bevy of ad revenue will provide breadcrumbs along the path.

Image: Hotel Marketing Strategies


I am Mommy Blogger: Hear Me Sell

“No pink for my child!” said my sister Sondra before her baby shower. “OK OK” I said. And this was just the beginning of motherhood consumerism angst for her beautiful daughter and my niece. Sondra, fulfilling her lifetime dream of having a  child, was knee-deep into the new world of “Mommy Marketing” a whole universe to her and Auntie Janice too.

Before Barbaraciela—or BC as we fondly call her—was born, I had also heard the term “Mommy Blogger” once or twice, but just as my aunty radar was becoming finely tuned and interest in blogging was growing, I encountered the perfect storm of mommy bloggers at a chance meeting at Blog World in Los Angeles last year. A male friend and I attended a speaker panel about monetizing blogs and were confronted by an all-female, all-mother panel. Both of us were shocked and perplexed: Where were all the other bloggers that were making money? Could my friend be a “Daddy Blogger” someday? What did this all mean? One thing for sure I knew, that Mommy bloggers were a powerful force to be reckoned with.

Admittedly, the term “Mommy Blogger”, even if I were a mother, is not exactly a lofty description (though I recently saw the term “Mompreneur” which should be stricken altogether). I realize the mommy-lingo trend started a while ago with “mommy track,” “mommy wars” and even “mommy porn”, but somehow when discussing parenting, it takes on an infantilized, dare I say demeaning sense. Why not “Motherhood blog” or “Mom blogs” as the prevailing term? Something more…grown up? Not as catchy I suppose.

In any case, their blogging power is backed up: a recent Mommy Blogger infographic reveals some interesting stats on this exploding niche:

  • There are almost 4 million mommy blogs in the U.S — that’s a lotta mammas writing
  • Of those, about 500 have some real pull and marketing power
  • The average age is 37
  • Most active mommy blogs are populated in just six metro regions

The most eye-popping stat in The Digital Lives of American Moms Infographic revealed that a whopping one out of every three bloggers is a “Mommy”. Add to that there are conferences geared just for mommy bloggers (replete with the companies that court them).

I asked my sister about the Mommy blogger trend and her take as a new mother.

Why do you think Mommy Blogger culture has grown so much?

Mommy blogging has taken off crazily as more stay-at-home-moms, or SAHM as they’re called, either work from home or are not working outside the home. Blogging gives them an opportunity to express themselves on an easy-access platform and it has also attracted companies to them to push their products. The blog itself reaffirms these ‘mommies’ as “working” although they may or may not be receiving a paycheck at the end of the day. They might also receive products in return for a good review or a paid sponsorship.

Yes, but marketers have used mothers for decades to push products in advertising. What makes it different with mommy blogs?

Now women themselves are directly marketing and soliciting advice to other women and are sponsored by companies, get paid or get free products for reviews, and even give away products to their readers. It costs the advertisers a fraction of what they’d normally pay to do advertising and they get much more reach and buzz. The marketing starts even before your child is even born since a lot of expert sites link to company web sites, which in turn click to Mommy blogs and create instant-future-worry about everything with your child and preying on insecurity and fear of the new mother. A lot of these sites are focused on the home and safety and how dirt and danger lurk behind every corner of your home. These bloggers take stabs at politics, broken marriages, and sex, but many discuss make-up, clothes, and dolls. In fact, they often appeal to an old-fashioned sensibility reminiscent of the 1950’s and earlier times that praised the cult of domestic femininity.

What do you mean by “cult of domestic femininity”?

If you look at various mommy blogs, they range from stories with self-degrading humor to pompous cries for mommyhood. Yet underlying these blogs are unwritten scripts that embellish the home as a safe and good place that follows current medical advice and corporate marketing themes, especially for warding off germs with cleaning products, baby-proofing the house, promoting the safety industry, nutrition for food products and toy products. Reading all of these blogs, there is no way that any parent can keep up with the sanitation requirements and needs to buy products, so you always feel somehow inadequate. Some of the assertions are backed by “research” and others just give subjective opinions, many of them impassioned and often written in folksy ways to appeal to their readership and to create a community of avid mommy subscribers—that is—anyone who identifies crucially, as, “mommy”.  As for me, being a mother isn’t my only identity. I once scanned “thinking mom” blogs and some were pretty scary—imagine having to distinguish yourself as ‘thinking’—what does that say about how they regard motherhood itself or themselves as women? I especially dislike the blogs on “Me Time.” Who is the “Me” here?

What do you think these mommy blogs are missing?

Few to any mommy bloggers discuss real problems pertaining to the politics of motherhood or to issues surrounding modern-day parenting. They add illusions rather than deal with the social issues like child poverty or women sinking into poverty upon becoming mothers and on-the-job inequalities of working moms. And what of families with two fathers, other-mothers  (aunts, close neighbors, nannies, etc..) and grandparents? Parenting is solely that of “mommy” and no one else.

So essentially these blogs end up serving as a mouthpiece for motherhood and marketers?

Yes, and they are also a lightning rod for all the “Disneyfication” of products and consumerism seen in these blogs through cross-promotion. For instance, my daughter needed a Band-aid and the only one available at the time was one with a Sesame Street character. Disneyfication starts so young, gets settled in with TV and other advertising and is reinforced with blogs directly or indirectly pushing products. It also feeds in to the “pester power”–kids see something somewhere and want to have it, like Dora the Explorer on a box of cereal or seeing Winnie the Pooh toothbrush on BC’s first dentist visit. It’s instantly fun and memorable for them and of course they want it. It’s hard to avoid since it’s pretty much everywhere you look and go.

So how do these blogs end up affecting you as a parent?

The principal focus of most of these blogs is to be the “perfect mommy”:  This means being the best consumer of kids’ products, having expertise on child development, and being the child’s first teacher of every imaginable thing from play date etiquette, hygienic practices, and pre-school know-how as well as self-control in handling kiddo’s tantrum—all with a smile and a sense of humor. Between the blogs and the pushing of products everywhere I look, I see a world where marketers want my daughter to grow up as quickly as possible so they can sell her the next stage of her life. It feeds into that sexualization of childrens’ clothing, particularly girls, with faux fur, “sexy bikinis” and the like. Think: pester power planning for young women.

So what can a parent do on an individual basis to avoid the mommy marketing trap?

Well for starters, we don’t have a TV—although I do watch it sometimes on my computer—so BC is not blatantly exposed to even more product marketing. We find the alternative industry is big enough that you can find practically anything. We buy her clothes and toys in our neighborhood second-hand stores where there is a lot of variety—and from different decades—and not just TV and movie characters and logos. We also trade clothes with family and friends. We buy our food principally from our neighborhood co-op and our local farmer’s market so we have a say on what we want to see there and support local growers. We also have a small p-patch where we grow vegetables so BC can see where they come from. She is well-aware that she has many important caregivers in her life—it’s not me alone who is raising her. We aren’t trying to be perfect (hyper) parents but we are trying to be critical consumers and join organizations and read up, when we can and have the time, to be a part of a growing movement of people who don’t want multi-national corporations raising children. Our biggest hope and goal is that our daughter is happy without thinking she needs certain things.

More about Mommy Blogging and Marketing:

Why Brands Love Mommy Bloggers

Much Ado About Mommy Bloggers, Mobile Apps, And Paid Posts

The Mighty Mom Bloggers

Mom Bloggers and Brands: What They Want, What You Need

Why I hate Mommy Blogs and Hate Even More the Daddy Blogs That Don’t Exist        

 Why Mommy Bloggers Are Great For Product Marketing (be sure to read the comments)

Photo credits: Bruce Sallan, Our Busy Homeschool, Z Magazine


So What’s So Wrong About Product Placement in Films? The Good, The Brand, and the Ugly

I was half-watching “Kindergarten Cop” at my gym last week. Rest assured I was a captive audience as it was  the only thing on the TV. One of the scenes is Arnold Schwarzenegger taking a plane – Alaska Airlines to be exact – just shown long enough to see and short enough not to think why this is still on the screen. This was 1990, but a blip in the radar of movies with commercial product. Flash-forward to 2011.

With product placement and tie-ins around for decades and firmly woven into the TV and film landscape, Morgan Spurlock of “Supersize Me” fame takes on this sticky issue in a satirical yet serious way in “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold”, a documentary within a documentary  (or “docu-buster” as he calls it). The film chronicles his quest to get “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” financed by brand sponsorships. Spurlock sews together an engaging, satirical look at how Hollywood and Madison Avenue not only share a bed, but openly exchange bodily fluids.  It’s an entertaining documentary tucked inside a marketing lesson.

As provocative and interesting as Spurlock’s film is, it might have advanced past marketing 101 to explore how brands, whether we like it or not, give a film part of its storytelling cred.  While the presumption that there is something sleazy and inartistic about brands and film merging, Spurlock only scratches the surface of how potent this combination can be used with today’s sophisticated, over-materialized consumers.

Don’t get me wrong, the film is a must-see to understand how movies and marketing morph together in the back office bankrolling of Hollywood. It cleverly cuts between Spurlock’s narration, interviews with cultural luminaries and film makers, sponsorship “sell” meetings with company execs, snippets of product placement in pop culture, and of course shameless plugs of sponsored brands such as POM, Hyatt, Sheetz, and, yes, Mane N Tail – the only shampoo for horses and humans (about which he constantly pokes fun). Spurlock reminds us of what we are all painfully aware of – the ubiquitity of branding in film and the increasingly blurry line with crass commercialism. The takeaway from the film: the all-mighty branding dollar reigns supreme in Hollywood movie making.

And this is where we get back to brands and their impact in a film narrative. What Spurlock doesn’t discuss is how products and lifestyle brands provide an instant, rich telegraphing of place, time, and status in film. In other words, the branding adds flavor, spice, color, and real-life.

Gone are the days of a can with “Beer” written on it in block letters. Filmmakers must include actual products to resonate with today’s viewer for an instant “got it”.  The question remains of which product and why (insert dollar signs here).  To connote a home without much money, there would much likelier be a Sharp 20″ TV with rabbit ears than a Samsung 80″ theater-style one. Likewise, James Bond would not be driving a Hyundai. Nor would Clark Kent wear an Armani suit. Thus, the brand becomes part of the story.

The fact is, companies and consumers alike are hyper-aware of how brands create personality, tone and place, whether it be a film, book, or pop culture art. Likewise, the shoes we wear on our feet, the car we drive, the food we consume, and every other decision we make on how to spend our money on “stuff” – consciously or unconsciously – not only tell the world who we are but who we want the world to think we are.

One of the most enlightening parts of  “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” is when Spurlock goes to an agency to get his “brand personality” analyzed for the appropriate sponsorships for the film – as if he were a product being primed for the grocery store, shopping mall, or online. We follow him through the process as he is grilled with hundreds of questions by branding experts to hone in on the essence of Spurlock.  Turns out he is “playful” and “mindful” among other descriptors as his personal brand-therefore outlier-types such as Mini, POM, Target, and JetBlue are a good match. Not so much for Guess or Cadillac.

Spurlock concludes in his film that branding, money and co-sponsorships in films are here to stay and will only get more entrenched as time goes on. That may be true, but using this fact to its full potential is what it’s all about. Blockbuster film-makers and indies have different priorities when making a film: For Big Hollywood it is all about the green. For indies it is about making good films first. But rest assured both will seriously evaluate what brand of TV to place in a working class family’s home and a millionaire’s mock French château.