Why We Merged With Laughlin Constable

After merging with Partners & Jeary, Laughlin/Constable will have Steve Laughlin, left, as partner and Michael Jeary as president of the New York office.

After merging with Partners & Jeary, Laughlin/Constable will have Steve Laughlin, left, as partner and Michael Jeary as president of the New York office.

Today the partners and jeary agency is merging with Laughlin Constable to become Laughlin Constable NY. I thought you might like to know why.

About 11 years ago, Steve Laughlin and I met at an annual meeting of the 4A’s. Over the years a strong friendship emerged based on mutual respect, a shared value system and common approach to the business.

Unlike Steve, however, I was a late-blooming entrepreneur having traded in my CEO stripes at Saatchi & Saatchi for an agency with my name on the door only a short time earlier.

Laughlin became my mentor and ideal. That’s why when we first discussed the idea of merging our firms last year and working together to leverage the considerable resources of Laughlin Constable for all our clients’ benefit, it seemed to me to be a natural progression in our business relationship.

Our merger expands the geographic footprint of the Laughlin Constable brand in a cost-effective manner and adds talent and revenue to its strong employee base. It also brings to our business here in NY, additional Laughlin Constable “Full Circle” branding capabilities (interactive, PR, promotion and planning) so necessary in meeting the needs of our clients and new business prospects today.

A long time ago I learned two key lessons in business 1) we succeed when our clients succeed so we better anticipate their needs and 2) change fuels everything, so we better embrace it. Today, I‘m glad I stayed awake during that class.

Click here to read The New York Times article covering the merger.

All The News That’s Fit To Digitize

I work back and forth between our Chicago and Milwaukee offices, so I pay close attention to three local major daily newspapers. One’s in bankruptcy, another’s stock is trading for $.59 and the third’s stock is trading for $.03. The daily paper’s themselves cost more than a share of their stock. Last time I checked a package of Cottonelle toilet tissue was selling for $3.59, just to put additional perspective on the value of newsprint.

There’s no mystery to what the problem is.  I can go online and get the same or more up to the minute content for free, so why pay?  But, this doesn’t seem like a sustainable business model either.

It’s pretty clear that people are as hungry for news as they ever were. Yet most of the online links still serve content that is funded by an old school print or broadcast brand. If they go away who exactly will pay the people who write the news? This is where advertising always comes in. If the newspapers are lucky, they’ll monetize their websites before all their reporters and columnists drift off into the blogosphere. The survivors will make money. They always do.

After all, brands are a short cut to understanding. So the online brands that gain awareness will grow and prosper. It’s interesting that bloggers are now migrating into branded websites so they can become sponsored content. Maybe the future won’t be neatly divided into main news, local news, sports, lifestyle and business. But don’t bet against it. How many different websites do we want to bookmark after all?  One thing’s for sure, the need to know what’s going on won’t go away.

Maybe the new normal will begin to look like the old normal. Only with fewer trees and dirty fingers involved.

Chicken or Eggonomics

The most predictable thing about the economy right now is its unpredictability. The only growth area is the noise level of speculation about when it will start growing again.

The majority of my friends who make a living predicting these sorts of things feel things will get worse before they get better. Most believe 2009 will be worse than 2008. From what I can tell, the people who use numbers to divine the future see darkness.

My world is less well defined by statistics. Brands are about how people feel. Perception is reality here. Our chicken or egg economic questions are: Do economic conditions drive human behavior? Or, does human behavior drive economics?

The answer to both questions has to be yes, but if consumer spending is the sign of a healthy economy, perceptions will lead reality. In that regard, I believe the economy will get better before the numbers say it will. In all likelihood, things might be better already.

How can I say that? Well, we have a new president. That fact in and of itself produces optimism. On top of that, we’re just weeks removed from a process that saw our candidates for president spend $300,000,000 in advertising that reminded every voter how bad things are and how important it is to elect the only person who could possibly make things better. The election itself took a lot of air out of the bad news balloon. As far as new bad news, we’re becoming inured to it. So we’re now at a point where good news has more potential to create more good news than bad news can generate bad.

We can also look at human nature. We’re essentially optimistic by nature. We have a constitutional right to “pursue happiness.” We play slots and buy lottery tickets in the belief that we’ll win in spite of the odds.

Maybe that’s why busts don’t last as long as booms. This once-in-a-lifetime bust may have some life left in it, but there’s no doubt in this professional optimist’s mind that 2009 will end much more optimistically than 2008 did.

Obama. A better president? Maybe. A better brand? Definitely.

If one thing is certain in this moment in history, Barack Obama won the branding battle.  When we see the now familiar new age patriotic symbol of a round blue circle enclosing an earth of red and white stripes, we immediately fill in a sense of hopefulness and change, a new political order.  Criticized for lacking specifics, Obama won the broader, more emotional war of themes.  He seemed on message all of the time forcing McCain to constantly react.  McCain’s message became of litany of don’t rather than do, of can’t rather than can, won’t rather than will.

There’s no question the financial market crisis that is unsparing in its carnage has put perhaps only one person into a better place.  Barack  Obama.  The economy has even turned Joe Biden into the “other Joe” in the campaign as Joe the Plumber has come to symbolize our rude awakening from the American Dream.  I hope this Alpha Joe has a good agent.

There’s no more powerful change agent than a bad economy, but that aside Obama’s ascension is a case study in the market dynamics of new brand versus old.  Positive versus negative.  Simple and direct versus detailed and pedantic.  Emotional versus rational.

Being new doesn’t hurt.  Many of today’s most familiar brands were unknown ten years ago.  Amazon, Prius, Yahoo, iPod, Starbucks, Ikea, Jet Blue, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Red Bull, Ultimate Fighting Championship, even Al Qaeda.  In spite of McCain’s try to make more, pardon the expression, liberal use of the word “change,” Brand Obama came to represent it.  The newer face has advantages here.  If Sarah Palin supporters are about to raise their hands in protest, let’s not ignore that new also represents risk.  That offsetting position was McCain’s advantage and biggest counterpoint.  Whatever he gained from choosing Palin as a running mate was certainly compromised in the lost opportunity to position Obama’s newness against him.

That being said, here are four things all brands should do in their message strategy, that Obama simply did better:

  1. Avoid the past.   That’s where brands go to die.
  2. Don’t be negative, be comparative.  There’s an art to pointing out the deficiencies in your opponent using tact rather than venom.  Think Mac versus PC here.
  3. Take a position your opponent can’t.  Or, better yet out flank your opponent by taking their best position away from them.  Obama anticipated a historic weakness in the Democratic brand perception of tax and spend, so he got out in front of the issue early by offering the entire middle class a tax break.  McCain was trumped on his best issue.
  4. Keep it simple.

It’s not likely that great brand strategies alone can make great presidents.  But they can make one brand win over the other.  Which can put the winner in a position to let all the other tests determine his or her greatness.

Seeing Around Corners

Chief Marketing Officers are under increasing pressure as the economy slows. They’re expected to produce instant results with some marketing fairy dust. The average tenure of a CMO is something south of two years. This churn suggests a lot of companies are creating change for its own sake. It seems that all of the media coverage of new media versus old and the collapse of mass media has led to an expectation that there’s a solution right around the corner that surely a new CMO will know all about.

Expecting CMO’s to predict future media habits is little like asking someone to read an eye chart with the letters on the back.

One of the more interesting people I’ve met, Ryan Matthews, makes a living as a marketing futurist. He calls himself the Black Monk, a moniker that justifies his sizable day rate all by itself. He’s self-confident enough to admit that predicting the future is inherently a fraudulent practice. Dark and mysterious is this future business.

Matthews points out that most predictions are the result of projecting the most recent history. The new, new things are harbingers of the next big thing. This is like imagining what’s down the road by looking at the rear view mirror.

Retailer, The Gap recently announced it was no longer using television advertising because it was no longer effective as a medium. We could easily use this as yet more evidence for the end of the 30-second spot. Yet, sister company, Old Navy, is running one of their best TV campaigns in years. Same company, two divergent brand strategies.

Maybe the reality is that marketing will always be best described by the famous John Wanamaker observation, “I know that only half of my advertising works. The trouble is I don’t know which half.”

The irony is that the work that is most measurable, that requiring immediate action, is also the least emotional, the least sticky over time. So at a time when marketers want to shake things up, it’s quite often the tried and true that produces the immediate result. It seems to me the smart brands are adopting new things incrementally and resisting the temptation to always be on deal.

2008 is the Chinese Year of the Rat. You have to give the lowly rat credit for at least one good characteristic. It’s a survivor. Appropriate if we’re thinking about how brands need to adapt in the future in order to avoid extermination in a tough global economy. While it would be smart to know more about the Chinese than what year it is, let’s also keep in mind it wasn’t long ago that everyone was conceding the future to the Japanese. While the Japanese continue to be best-in-class manufacturers and marketers, they’re certainly not steam-rolling the world the way futurists in the 80’s were predicting.

I’m convinced planning for the future is like managing a financial portfolio. Since no one can possibly know what’s going to happen, why not decide how much risk you can or should tolerate and plan accordingly? All too often companies want to blow up their marketing platforms and revolutionize things.

Yet the best brands seem to make the subtlest changes, they evolve slowly, steadily and ceaselessly.

Cottonelle toilet paper is out there using guerrilla marketing in addition to traditional media. Dove soap made wonderful use of publicity, traditional media and the web in its “real beauty” campaign. IBM is selling high-end, high technology business-to-business products like blade servers on mass media network television. These marketers know they have to try new things, yet they see the value of doing many of the same things in interesting, integrated ways.

When times get tough, it’s good to remember that the changes you make are no more important than the changes you resist.

Sudden, radical change is probably never a good idea. It takes a long time for people to catch on. So it’s probably much riskier to do something radical at precisely the time you’re most tempted to.

Mark Twain described himself as being opposed to change, but in favor of progress. I think that pretty well summarizes how one might want to look at the future. The fact is we’ll never need to change everything if we’re continually making progress with the things we’re doing. Good times or bad.