Newspaper 2.0?

Friday’s report that Hearst will launch a wireless e-reader for magazines and newspapers, similar to Amazon’s Kindle, is deeply encouraging news for those of us who hope that reports of the death of traditional media are exaggerated.

It’s a risky venture, to be sure; hardware is a completely different business from content, and not all the reviews have been kind. But, many of its critics miss the point. The e-reader plan, coming from a giant publisher like Hearst, is an example of the kind of bold experimentation that’s necessary if newspapers are to survive and the traditional advertising model is to be reinvented. The goal of the venture seems not only to give Amazon some competition. It’s also about recapturing precious ad dollars that are leaving mainstream media in an online format well-suited to a magazine or newspaper, while slashing production costs.

Whether it survives or not, the more options that are on the table, the better for consumers, publishers, and even advertisers. In a year, there will be far more alternatives to the Kindle. The final chapter is far from written.

Truth and Consequences

Transparency and honesty are good things, right?  They build trust, and trust engenders loyalty.  But, here’s a dilemma.  What happens when telling the truth makes the situation worse?
Case in point:  President Obama cautions that a full economic recovery could take years, and the market shudders.  Senator Dodd refers to bank nationalization, which most experts believe is inevitable to some degree, and it takes a dive.

The market runs on emotion, and the current financial crisis is so complex, and market conditions so fragile, that what would on any other day be called straight talk is precarious today.  So, a little sugar-coating is called for, right?

Wrong.  Even the President’s soaring words that the stimulus package marks “the beginning of the end” of the crisis didn’t help matters; in fact, it seemed to breed cynicism.  When the chips are down, honesty’s the most direct path to building long-term trust.

Frugal Is The New Black

Last night I had dinner with an old friend who does stock market analysis, and our conversation around the economy was pretty much “an orgy of pessimism,”  in the words of Philippe Daumann. But, enough about that. The more interesting part of the discussion was about “the new frugal.”  My friend feels that no marketers have yet managed to align their brand with the trend and position thriftiness as chic and cool. I disagreed, yet couldn’t think of many brands who’ve adapted to the recessionary economy in a creative way, apart from those who’ve always stood for lower prices, i.e. Wal-Mart, Costco. Determined to come up with some good examples, I conducted a straw poll of the staff, and we came up with a short list of brand and initiatives who’ve adapted to the environment in an appealing way. Call it the “New Frugal” Honor Roll.

Rock & Republic’s “Recession Special” still isn’t cheap, but the campaign to pre-promote a limited edition recession special makes us feel it’s cool to dress down along with the economy.

DeBeers’ “Here’s to Less” campaign is another good example of an upscale brand that’s willing to address the issue directly. The copy, which is pretty powerful, tries to differentiate diamonds from other “stuff we buy but never love.”  Okay, I’m convinced.

I’m not so sure about the Porsche “I Can” platform where you pick your model and then visualize owning it through desktop wallpaper. To me, the copy sounds too much like a new age affirmation gone horribly wrong, but the wireless campaign execution seems much more on-target. It addressed the buyer “perception gap” – it seems many people think a Porsche is pricier than it really is – and successfully targeted the young and upwardly “mobile.”

The most winning, and heartfelt, example, however, may be Allstate’s “Depression Chic” spot that reminds us the insurance giant opened its doors in 1931, weathered the storm while helping its customers do the same, and is still here today, some 12 recessions later. The fact that it features longtime spokesactor Dennis Haysbert, who to me will always be America’s First Black President, the cool and steely-minded David Palmer of “24” fame, pushes the whole campaign close to perfection.

Finally, at least one agency client deserves a mention, with one more to come next week.  Comparison shopping search engine has added amenities and features that actually make online shopping fun, while promoted by campaigns that soft-sell what it offers – value.

Random Thoughts In Defense of “25 Things”

Given the backlash, it’s hard to admit that I can’t get enough of “25 Random Things About Me,” the annoying, addictive chain-letter-cum-confessional that got started on Facebook and now is taking over the world. Yes, it typifies what many don’t like about Facebook and Twitter — the over-sharing, time-sucking, sometimes self-indulgent posts, games, applications and invitations that go on without end.  I was startled to read a calculation that, assuming it takes someone 10 minutes to come up with their list, roughly 800,000 hours of worktime productivity have been spent in what’s been called “an exercise in viral narcissism.” (Of course, the most surprising aspect is the assumption that a mere 10 minutes is enough to perfect one’s oh-so-random list.)

Then there’s the set-up; it’s a little disingenuous.  You’re meant to tag 25 friends “because you want to know them better,” but most people who aren’t raging narcissists stick to close friends and family members.  So, most likely, you’re talking to yourself.

Even so, most of the “25 Things” Lists I’ve read amused, entertained, surprised, or even moved me.  I learned new things about my own sisters, cried with laughter over forgotten anecdotes, and faced up to a few quirks of my own, (see #25).  When I peeked at lists of casual friends where I wasn’t among those tagged, it felt vaguely voyeuristic, but fascinating.  A former colleague mentioned the loss of her father when she was three, slipped in between her love for pasta fagiole and Alicia Keyes.  A childhood neighbor casually but poignantly referred to his coming-out. A relative’s list made me remember how much I really want to know her better, despite the fact we’re family.

But, in the end, it’s not just the sharing.  It’s the sheer randomness.  The bite-sized packaging, the juxtaposition of the silly, the profound, and the mortifying, and the ubiquity of the thing just make it irresistible.   Like it or loathe it, get ready for a whole new crop of social network games…”25 Random Things” may be only the beginning.

A New Chapter

Today marks our official rebranding as Crenshaw Communications, and we couldn’t be prouder or more energized. Though we’ve all been working together at Stanton Crenshaw, our old firm, for many years, it’s exhilarating to launch a new brand and website.

I’ve had my own PR business, in a partnership, for over a dozen years, so little of this is new.  But being a sole owner changes the entrepreneurial experience. Make no mistake….I think PR is fundamentally a collaborative discipline, and having colleagues and partners to share in the creative process, as well as the risk, is a tremendous positive.  But, one advantage to sole ownership among colleagues is a more singular and actionable vision for the business.  We’re free to focus where we’re strong, to add resources as needed, and to shape our firm according to client needs, which have in many cases changed dramatically as the economy has changed.  Finally, there’s the ability to move quickly when there’s only one, um, decider.

When I was struggling in an agony of indecision over whether to forsake my senior position at a global mega-agency and take the entrepreneurial plunge the first time around, in 1996, someone close to me said, “Don’t obsess over making the perfect decision; there are pros and cons to everything.  Just make the best decision you can and do everything in your power to make it come out right.”

Good advice then. Good advice now.

A Reputation Up In Smoke

It’s a shame that Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has taken a hit (so to speak) and lost a key endorsement over a few puffs of (illicit) smoke. But, there are more than a few lessons in his experience.

For years, clients have asked us about the risks and benefits of linking their brand with a celebrity.  For the record, I believe  when there is real relevance, the deal is properly structured and the individual fully vetted, the risk of a Phelps-type incident is still low, despite widely-publicized examples to the contrary.

But the Phelps kerfuffle is one more reminder that there is no such thing as private behavior, particularly for those whose names and accomplishments are marketable commodities.  Any public figure or future officeholder who has cheated on a spouse, used illegal drugs, “forgotten” to pay taxes, or committed any other indiscretion must expect the behavior to become public, and to act quickly when it does. (Are you listening, Christian Bale?)

That’s the reason President Obama smartly exercised advance damage control by mentioning his youthful drug use in his biography, and why NY Governor David Patterson felt compelled to call a press conference to tell us more than we ever wanted to know about his extramarital activity.
Phelps isn’t old enough to have a checkered past (and he probably deserves some fun after so many years of dedicated training), but it’s beyond naiveté to assume that private behavior is ever truly private, then or now.  Whether we like it or not, in the YouTube culture, those days are over.

I Want My DTV…Now!

But, it’s not happening.

As everyone who follows the digital TV transition drama knows, the postponement is back on.  The House had overturned the Senate bill that would postpone the switch until June, but in yet another twist, the delay is expected to stand after a second House vote later this week.  Read more here.

Of course, a key reason given for pushing back the changeover is that roughly 6 million households, mostly the poor, rural, or elderly, haven’t yet been able to obtain a converter box to change the analog signal to a digital one.  The government agency supplying coupons to subsidize the cost for those with older TV sets seems to have run out of coupons.

While this is unfortunate, it’s also pretty inexcusable.  We’ve had two years to prepare for the switch, and I’m frankly skeptical that the on-again, off-again delays will do anything other than confuse people.  Most experts agree that  there will be those who just won’t get with the program by the deadline, no matter when it happens.  The transition has many benefits; beyond better TV quality and more broadcast channels, it will free up valuable spectrum for new wireless services, and it helps local TV stations who are paying dearly to broadcast an analog signal in addition to digital.   The best outcome would be if the bureaucracy could get out of its own way and let the transition take place as planned on February 17.  Regrettably, this won’t happen.