>>>The following is an interview from NYTimes magazine with BENJAMIN PALMER (the C.E.O. of the Barbarian Group, an Internet advertising and marketing firm based in Boston. He helped create the ‘‘Subservient Chicken’’ online campaign for Burger King), LARS BASTHOLM (chief creative officer at AKQA, where he has worked on campaigns for Xbox, Coca-Cola and Motorola) and ROBERT RASMUSSEN (executive creative director of the Nike account at R/GA, an agency that specializes in digital media. He has created campaigns for ESPN, Sega and JetBlue).<<<
I. THE END OF FLOW
Jack Hitt: I read a study recently suggesting that Americans now swim through most of their day looking at some kind of screen — screens on their cellphones, on their desks, in their kitchens, everything from digital billboards on the highway and in the back of a cab to the eruption of screens in urban centers. Times Square is no longer an unusual attraction; it’s the norm. The side of a building can now be made to broadcast video. There is hardly a public space left — a bar, a gym, the dentist’s office — that hasn’t been vanquished by some kind of screen. Now, let’s say I’ve got something to sell. This multiplicity of screens would seem to be a good thing, wouldn’t it?
Benjamin Palmer: What the proliferation of screens has done is give a bazillion creators the power to publish. There are now billions of hours of content, which means new places for advertisers to latch on to — lots of content that pockets of people find interesting. But the shift you’re describing makes things more complicated for advertisers too. When the TV networks held the reins for content, all advertising had to do was buy into the public consciousness of entertainment, which was television.
Lars Bastholm: It used to be really easy for us to advertise anything because consumers had no idea what they were buying. We could basically sell them whatever we wanted. But the Internet has made everything so transparent.
Robert Rasmussen: A brand could tell people what was cool because there was less freedom of choice in media. A brand could say, “This is the latest thing, and everybody’s doing it,” and if the message was persuasive enough, you might believe it. Now you can check on that on the Internet and see whether everybody actually is doing it. Brands have become transparent, and that’s changed the tone of advertising. Now you have to try to be more authentic — even if it’s just authentically acknowledging that what you’re doing is advertising.
Bastholm: Most media, like television, used to be a kind of flow. You’d sit down, you’d turn it on and you’d watch. The reason advertising is completely broken is that the flow doesn’t exist anymore. There’s no prime time. There’s no such thing as must-see TV. Everyone’s composing their own flow. And once you start becoming the composer of your own flow, you can’t go back. You’re like, Why would I have somebody dictate to me what I watch when I’m used to programming for myself?
Rasmussen: So advertising is by necessity a fractured narrative. We have a story we want to tell, and we use different media channels and different touch points to tell it. We have to rely on the consumer to pull the story together.
Palmer: Marketing has actually always been very comfortable with the notion that a brand story can exist in multiple forms. Even before the Internet, advertising had to come up with a point of view that would work well in a magazine, on a sign, along the side of a bus or on TV, all at the same time. We needed to be able to tell a story that could exist in fragments, and no matter which fragments people saw and in what order they assembled them together in their head, it still added up to the same message. Now that’s happening with content, too. People are consuming all their information and their stories from multiple sources and putting the pieces together on their own, and sometimes the content is not written to hold up to that kind of fragmenting and reassembling. But advertising has actually always been made to hold up to that. So the way people put together marketing is actually the way everybody is absorbing new forms of media now.
Hitt: So you’re saying that even 10 years ago, advertising was delivering piecemeal narrative.
Rasmussen: You just didn’t realize it. Remember “Star Wars”? The bigger narrative was about the way people involved “Star Wars” in their lives: the T-shirts, all the talk about it, the fan fiction, the nicknames, the dialogue people quoted. People were willing to brand themselves with all these other elements that were outside the movie experience.
Bastholm: In those days, though, there was usually more of a brand monologue. Your brand would just spout whatever values you were trying to instill in your consumers. If it worked, great. People would talk about it around the water cooler.
Hitt: And that doesn’t work anymore?
Bastholm: Right. That process became too transparent. Now our job is to have a conversation with your consumers about whatever story it is you want to tell about the brand.
Hitt: Which companies do you think are having that dialogue successfully?
Bastholm: EA Sports, the video-game company, is a good example. On YouTube, someone posted a clip of himself playing the company’s Tiger Woods golf game. He put it up as a joke, laughing at EA Sports, because he had discovered a glitch in the programming that allowed Tiger to walk right out onto a pond next to the golf course and shoot his ball from there. So the company saw the video, and in response, it uploaded this ad to YouTube that said: “It’s not a glitch. He’s just that good.” The ad showed the real Tiger, in live action, actually walk on water and shoot a ball. That’s a great example of responding to how consumers interact with your brand.
Palmer: It used to be that companies would commission a study at great expense to find out what people thought about their product. Now you just go online and find out. It’s really scary at first. You realize there’s a whole dialogue going on outside your brand, and you can’t control it.
Bastholm: The feedback you get, though, is so much richer and more immediate than what we used to get. In focus groups, there’s always one guy who sort of steals the room, so you wind up getting his opinion and no one else’s. On YouTube, you put your ad up, and right away you can read the comments. It’s such a democracy.
Rasmussen: Online marketing is kind of like a video game that way. You can keep track of precisely how many people see your content and exactly how much they relate to it. As soon as you put it out there, you can keep score.
Bastholm: And that’s scary as well, because of the instantaneousness of it. I mean, people will call you on things in a heartbeat, and then you’re stuck with a mess that everybody is describing as such.
Hitt: Are there brands that are resisting this kind of change?
Palmer: Sure. Almost any household brand you would find under your sink or in your medicine cabinet. The macaroni-and-cheese products of our daily lives. They assume their business practices will carry on forever. A couple of years ago, I decided that I wanted to do some bleach advertising. I wanted to do something that everybody has in their house and nobody ever talks about. I remember meeting some people from Clorox and being like, “Man, we should do some cool stuff and get people talking about bleach.” And I doggedly stayed with it for a while, but it just didn’t fit into their consciousness.
Rasmussen: It’s not just Clorox. Even brands that are doing very well are resistant to this change. They want to take advantage of all these new media channels, but they’re afraid.
Bastholm: We used to joke that advertising was “lying for a living.” We got away with that back then. We can’t anymore. And now, if we get caught in a lie, we’re in trouble.
II. FACEBOOK OVERALLS
Hitt: Let me give you a scenario. I’m the somewhat desperate C.E.O. of a company called Jack’s Overalls. We manufacture functional clothes, and in the era of corporate farming, our market is fading. My younger vice presidents are telling me that we need to try new media. So I’m turning to you: Why should I even consider these emerging media? Can’t I just spend my money on old-school, 30-second spots on prime-time television?
Bastholm: Well, we do have a ton of different new media and new ways to use them. But before we get there, I would suggest that first, you take a step backward and ask yourself, How do I make my brand relevant? Overalls are a staple of Americana, a cultural icon. The question is, How can you make overalls relevant to people today, and how can you use these different media channels to accomplish that?
Palmer: Your customers in the past have been farmers. Overalls are a commodity.
Rasmussen: Very functional. And your market is shrinking.
Palmer: So you have to create a new market. Farming may be going away, but what’s on the rise? Right now your overalls are made with special pockets and holders for farming tools. Maybe we retool them for urban farmers, as it were, and their specialized gear. You have special pockets for your iPhone and your BlackBerry, and a pocket for your headphones, another for your wallet, your subway card, your keys.
Bastholm: Let’s really take the brand into the 21st century, shall we? Why don’t we put a ShotCode on the front of every single pair of overalls. A ShotCode is like a bar code. You scan it with the camera in your cellphone. And then something comes out the other end. With bar codes, it’s a price. But with a ShotCode, it could be a song, it could be a picture, it could be a link to a Web site.
Hitt: People would come up and shoot me with a cellphone?
Bastholm: Yes, with a phone camera. So you’d be wearing a pair of overalls, and you have your own personal ShotCode on the front. The ShotCode might take people online to a new Web site you’ve selected. Or a picture you took that day or your favorite song. All of a sudden you have a uniquely personalizable pair of overalls that can say something different about you on a daily basis. You’d utilize a whole bunch of screens that we haven’t really seen used in clothes before, and this loop of screens is creating something completely unique.
Rasmussen: Maybe that’s something you do in partnership with Facebook or MySpace.
Palmer: But you don’t want to suddenly be seen as, like, this newfangled Internet overall company. If you’re talking to somebody who’s over 40, that’s going to freak them out, you know? So this becomes your special-edition ShotCode overalls. You place ads only on social networks, like MySpace or Flickr. Facebook users can buy the Facebook edition of these overalls. They come precoded with your Facebook page embedded as your ShotCode. But if you’re not a Facebook person, you’re never going to know about this unique brand.
Rasmussen: You can market 100 different kinds of overalls and sell those to different target groups.
Palmer: It’s self-selecting, actually. The more narrowly you talk to your audience through these new screens, the more people and products will gravitate toward one another. And nobody else will necessarily know or care that that’s happening. Take Vans, for instance. They do all sorts of special customized editions. Like they’ll do an Iron Maiden edition of Vans. But if you’re not into Iron Maiden, you might never see that. You see it only if you gravitate toward it through these screens.
Rasmussen: I would recommend a Web presence built around a utility that engages consumers and allows them to take your brand and own it. Maybe you give customers the ability to mix and match your overalls with other clothes. Maybe you create a widget that lets you drag your overalls and drop them onto an existing image. And the program blends the overalls with the outfit, so you can say, “Boom, that’s how it would look if I wore a pair of cord overalls with a blue jean jacket.”
Bastholm: Yeah, create a little viral engine called You Need Overalls, where you can take current events and just drag a pair of overalls onto whoever’s in the news.
Rasmussen: We could also create a small card — like a business card — with your overalls and a logo and a URL on it. The overalls are perforated and can be punched out of the card. People can then hold the cutout in front of somebody cool and take a picture with their digital camera: there’s Barack Obama wearing his jacket and a pair of overalls, giving a speech. Click, I send it in to your Web page. Maybe you have samples of these user-generated images playing on digital screens in stores, on television screens in cabs and on digital billboards.
Bastholm: My company developed this mobile application called Nike Photo ID, where you take a picture with your cellphone of anything and it sends you back a pair of sneakers in the two dominant colors in that picture. So maybe we create a site called Overall This. Send in a picture of somebody and get them back in overalls.
Rasmussen: Then you can post the images on your Web site. Create a gallery that shows how overalls can mesh with many styles, from metro to hip-hop to blue collar. People can comment and vote on their favorites.
III. FRAGMENTING KATIE
Palmer: Mistake. You should have bought “The Colbert Report.”
Rasmussen: I’m embarrassed to say that until last week, I had never watched Katie Couric in my life. So the other day I TiVoed the CBS news. And I gotta tell you, sitting in front of the TV for that long watching news was painful to me. I realized that I never get a half-hour’s worth of predigested content from one source anymore.
Palmer: I don’t even have a TV.
Bastholm: Most people no longer “watch the news.” Every morning I check the latest headlines on the BBC’s Web site. There’s a Danish newspaper that I check out every day, because that’s where I’m from, and then I look at The New York Times. I get a Twitter feed from CNN as well.
Rasmussen: I get some news online, some I grab through my phone, some through blogs. I get multiple feeds, I gather it all up. Katie Couric is an outdated product, an outdated model; it’s not really relevant to me.
Palmer: What Katie Couric is not giving us, as a mainstream evening-news anchor, is an invitation to participate. So what if we changed the format of her show? Every day she gives us a sneak preview of whom she will interview over the next week. And you can go online and post your own questions. Maybe two or three user questions end up on the evening news, and you’re like a big star if she uses your question. She says your name: “This is Robert Rasmussen’s question.” You’re totally psyched. You feel awesome. And then on the Internet we post the other 17 user questions and their answers. We put those on the Internet, so there’s actually like an hour of content. A half-hour is on TV, and the other half-hour is on the Internet. You start involving people in the conversation. You start using television as the theatrical component to the Internet. Because what TV offers that the Internet doesn’t offer is a guarantee of fame. You know that millions of people saw that bit of you on television.
Bastholm: I think there’s a bigger issue here. The problem with these established news shows is that they’re trying to be everything for everybody. And in a situation where we all specialize and go into silos and seek out what we’re interested in, that superbroad thing is going to have a really hard time working. A better brief would be to say, “Let’s ensure that Katie Couric becomes part of the stream that people dip into.” Not necessarily on TV, but in that bigger stream of news screens that we move through all day long. Cut her up into snippets and distribute her wherever it’s relevant with content that people are into. That will become the thing she’s famous for. She’ll be the one who delivers the news you want, wherever you want it — on your cellphone, on your outdoor screen, on TV.
Rasmussen: I think consumers need to be able to control their media a little bit when they deal with Katie Couric. So say you’re in a taxi and you see a little promo of Katie Couric. Maybe there’s a menu that says, “These are the topics she’s going to be talking about today.” And you can get your phone to ping you when Katie Couric is talking about something you’re interested in: “On the news tonight at 6:45 she’s going to talk about X.” Then you start to get a little bit of that dialogue going back and forth. Personally, I might listen to Katie Couric only for news about politics or sports or technology. Maybe the three things I choose will be different than if I were a Middle-American mom. So Katie herself becomes a kind of menu.
Bastholm: She also needs to change from being a persona to being a person, and that’s what digital is best at. I’d begin with a Twitter feed where she’s talking about what she’s actually doing during the day. She’d talk about all the behind-the-scenes stuff that you don’t see when she’s interviewing, say, Sarah Palin. Talking very openheartedly about how she experienced that the second after she’s done with the interview. So you kind of start to feel you know the person who’s doing the interviewing versus just the anchor posing the questions.
Palmer: So it’s like, what does Katie Couric think about sports? What does she think about politics? What does she think about pro wrestling? What does she think about human-interest stuff? What does she think about whatever? And because we’re marketing Katie Couric through numerous screens, we’re giving people more ways to interact with her. It’s just like the way we were using different screens to market overalls to different audiences. It might turn out that, in an ironic sort of way, I really love watching Katie Couric talk about soccer because she has no clue about soccer, and to me, that’s awesome. So I have a completely different relationship with her than somebody who watches her because they think that she has a really serious approach to the economy.
Hitt: How does any of this help CBS?
Bastholm: It helps CBS because you can start establishing the brand Katie Couric, and she happens to have her digital home on CBS.
Palmer: So maybe you get all Martha Stewart on Katie Couric. Maybe there’s a Katie Couric channel and KatieCouric.com. Maybe it’s not Katie Couric who works for CBS News but it’s more like Katie Couric powered by the CBS infrastructure. Like “Intel Inside.”
Rasmussen: People need to accept the brand of Katie Couric into their lives. You need them to want to spend time with Katie Couric. They’re not willing to do that right now. The more time they spend with Katie Couric, whether it’s for free or pumped out through a million channels, the better it’s going to be for CBS.
Bastholm: You can’t turn her into Walter Cronkite. That model’s dead.
Hitt: There is an interesting contrast between this fixed 6:30 p.m. news show and this idea of this fragmented narrative throughout the day that we’re going to feed Couric into: the screens in the back of the cabs, the screen in my pocket, all the other screens poking up all over town. How would that work practically?
Rasmussen: If you want to attract new viewers who might want to interact with the news, you need to locate streams of content where those viewers are. Maybe you put streams up a bit at a time, in subway stations and inside bus shelters. Maybe you buy digital posters that have streams of content. And you should think about what’s important in the geographic areas where you locate those streams, too — the bits could be relevant to what’s going on in the cities and even the different neighborhoods where the posters are located.
IV. THE DEATH OF THE MASSIVE MONEY MACHINE
Hitt: Do I really need all these new gimmicks? Why can’t I just air a 30-second ad on Super Bowl Sunday for the “CBS Evening News” and be done with it?
Palmer: The Super Bowl has become an advertising event. Everybody watches and talks about the ads. But Super Bowl ads actually don’t work in a persuasive way anymore. They work in a dancing monkey kind of way.
Bastholm: No one is saying that a Super Bowl spot won’t work. As a way to launch the conversation, why not? But you have to have lots of digital follow-up planned ahead of time.
Rasmussen: That’s the way you really create connections with a brand. If there’s a parity of products, and each competing TV network feels similar to me, but I’ve had this dialogue back and forth with one brand, then that’s the brand I want to succeed; I care about that brand.
Hitt: You care about the brand, you engage with the brand, but ultimately all you’re really doing is seeing the brand — raising name recognition — which is what used to happen in old advertising, right?
Palmer: There’s a difference. A Super Bowl ad is broadcast and everybody sees the same ad, and it comes from a single source. And so you may have a preference as to whether you liked this ad in comparison to this other ad in the block of ads that you just saw. But when you feel like you’ve discovered something on the Internet, it’s a different relationship to the brand. Say I was one of the first thousand people who saw that Cadbury gorilla ad — where he drums along to Phil Collins — and I send that out to all my friends. There’s a pride that I have in having discovered that, a connection that you actually can’t get with broadcast advertising.
Rasmussen: Think of digital as the mythical water cooler, magnified many times.
Hitt: Let’s say I take your advice and fragment Katie Couric, divide the news into a million different streams. How does this make anyone money?
Rasmussen: You can make revenue off multiple streams of content. If you’re giving somebody two minutes or three minutes of content, they’re probably willing to accept a brief ad.
Hitt: So every tidbit of content flashing at me on a screen will come monetized by some version of advertising?
Bastholm: Yes. But you have to make sure people don’t stop watching your content because there are too many ads around it. They’ve always got the option of downloading it from a torrent somewhere, ad-free. There’s a happy medium somewhere, and Hulu, the online video service, actually seems to have found it. On Hulu, you get about seven minutes of advertising per hour, which is a quid pro quo that most people seem to be willing to accept.
Hitt: But how long will that last? Digital media has essentially eliminated the bottleneck of complicated technology needed to transmit visual content, right? Just as it did in eliminating the distributors of the record labels and this newspaper. Are you all potentially presiding over the dissolution of your business, like everybody else in the media?
Rasmussen: I’ve heard that said before, that some of these big advertising agencies are managing their own demise. They’re becoming less relevant, less profitable and less necessary. Look, I’m not saying that everything we’re doing right now is perfect or that all these multiple streams are going to last forever. I think what we are saying is we’re being adaptive to the way consumers take in and interact with brands. And is that advertising or is it marketing or is it participation? Those lines are getting blurry.
Bastholm: At my company, we’re starting to redefine ourselves from being an ad agency to being an entertainment and technology company. Because that’s basically what we do; we deliver branded entertainment of various sorts through a number of different technological channels. You used to have this monolithic structure where your output was 30-second spots that cost an increasing amount of money to make, and it cost more and more money to put them on TV. That massive money machine is probably going to go away, but I think the money spent on all these different channels, at the end of the day, will probably be equal to what used to be spent on TV spots.
Palmer: I’m not sure it all equals out. I think that for people in the marketing industry, it’s objectively more difficult to get the same results or make the same amount of money as you did before.
Bastholm: Trevor Edwards, Nike’s main marketing guy, had a great quote. He said, “Nike’s not in the business of keeping media companies alive, we’re in the business of connecting with consumers.” That sums up digital pretty nicely.
Rasmussen: Clients are not saying, “Make us ads” or “Make us Web sites,” they’re saying, “Create interaction between our brand and our customers.” That’s our job now.