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Why Cancer Research UK’s death threat is wrong

Last week, I received a letter from ‘cancer’. Written in the first person.

This is some of what cancer told me  “Everyone knows me and the devastation I cause…for those people (who get cancer) their friends and families, things won’t ever be the same again….I don’t care who I hurt. I’m still tearing lives apart…every two minutes I take hold of another person….and I won’t go away without a fight.”

Scary stuff. But if that’s not enough, it also talks of death: “Now they are saying that someday soon I won’t be a death threat anymore….because scientists are outsmarting me”.

In essence, if you don’t give to Cancer Research UK, cancer might carry out its death threat. On you.

Of course, the conceit is too clever by half. But smart-arse rather than smart creativity is not the real issue here.

Cancer is a subject that calls for maturity and sensitivity. For instance, someone at the charity (if not the agency) should have thought about the impact this could have on someone who’s just been diagnosed. Or is living with secondary breast cancer. Or who has no idea what their prognosis might be. Or whose child has just been diagnosed.

Cancer patients are often in a very delicate emotional state. It doesn’t take much to scare them. To cause panic. So it really isn’t smart for our leading cancer charity to talk about “a death threat”. Under any circumstances. The language is wrong. We all know what cancer can do. And is a threat really the best way to make the case for research? This is not brave creative. It is stupid creative.

Understatement is far more powerful. Quiet dignity more moving than rage. There is not even an apology anywhere in the piece that states “if this reaches you at a difficult time we are very sorry for any distress it may cause….”

So excited were the team about this conceit that the rest of the pack appears woefully neglected. There’s no human interest, not even any exciting news on research, just some dull corporate puffery (“We receive no government funding” being highlighted twice) and a direct debit form. Oh and “Genome mapping” is not the sort of language I’d employ in a door drop especially with no explanation as to what it means or its relevance.

It’s a shame, having spent all that money on the re-brand, that the first piece of Cancer Research UK print many people will see is this. It lacks humanity, sensitivity and clarity. I fear the the tone smacks of a large organisation that has now lost touch with the people it is ultimately there to help. Let’s hope that future work shows a better understanding of patients and their needs and a clearer grasp of how research can provide answers.

Are agencies behaving badly?

A couple of things have happened recently that might appear to put agencies in a bad light.

Firstly, we had Jonathan Stead in Campaign somewhat brazenly announcing a new Rapier, whilst the body of the old one, hurriedly buried along with its creditors, was still warm.

And then Will Harris took to Marketing Magazine to moan about profligate agency staff taking taxis when they should be on bicycles, like him.

It’s as if, with these two completely separate incidents, we’re being accused of  learning nothing from the excesses and outrages of the 80s and 90s.

I may be biased, but I see precious little evidence of conspicuous excess in agencies these days. I do see a lot of bright people, working very hard, often for salaries that don’t match their clients’. I don’t see large, extravagant offices or many signs of profligacy.

If there is fat, it probably lies in the labyrinthine layers of senior management so beloved by international groups – people who fly around ‘EMEA’ going to meetings that never decide anything nor relate to a client’s business.

As for the Rapier situation, Jonathan Stead would appear, prima facie, to be guilty of little more than a lack of self-awareness and a degree of insensitivity. Businesses do go bust…it can happen to anyone. I’m sure Jonathan did everything he could to avoid it.

However, I’ve no idea which creditors or staff are likely to lose out as a result of Rapier’s administration, but if it were me, I’d probably have kept my head down for a bit – especially if it had been revealed I’d taken £2.9m out of the company just a couple of years previously. Whatever may have happened, it doesn’t look good.

Personally, I think these two cases are pretty small beer in the great scheme of things and certainly not unique to agencies. From banks to big charities you can point to super-egos who are indulging themselves flamboyantly.

The real concern must be that so many agencies are struggling to make any money at all. Margins have been squeezed and expectations on costs and timings (especially with regard to all things digital) have added to that pressure. Investment in skills and training is not what it was. Service levels are suffering as clients switch to ‘project by project’ contracts. That’s what we should be addressing. Maybe there is over-supply? But compared to a few years back it is a pretty buttoned-down world.

We’re still not perfect, but the vast majority I meet work hard and conscientiously for market rate salaries in an industry with precious little security. Do you agree?

Why Tesco should open up its Talking Shop

Marketing Magazine revealed this week that Philip Clarke, its CEO, is kicking off a blog called “Talking Shop”. Sainsbury’s already has its ‘Views’ and Asda has its ‘Aisle Spy’.

Mr Clarke is to be applauded for venturing into the public domain. He didn’t have to.

But the problem with Talking Shop, and for that matter almost every corporate blog, is that they are not blogs. They may be according to the letter, but they are not within the spirit of blog lore.

The best blogs are lively, irreverent, provocative and topical. They are written in everyday English. They invite comment, which is the yardstick of success

Corporate blogs are none of those things. They are there to serve a corporate purpose. They are written and approved by PR professionals. They descend into corporate jargon. Philip Clarke uses the word ‘organisation’ 4 times in the second paragraph alone.

Basically, corporate blogs are little more than notice boards for press releases. However, fine words are easy. Fine deeds are another thing altogether. If Philip Clarke was serious about “being in the market for your feedback, ideas, corrections, criticisms, and bouquets” he would accept comments. Sainsbury’s does. So does Asda.

He doesn’t have to enter into a dialogue with every nutter who starts to rant, but one thing big brands are slow to learn is that digital engagement is about dialogue, not monologue. Sometimes that dialogue may be “off message” but that reflects the real world where customers live, rather than boardroom at Head Office where they don’t.

So go on, Philip. Prove that Tesco means what it says and accept some comments. I promise to post a nice one.

Will Royal Mail’s MarketReach take its chance to deliver?

Last week I attended the launch of Royal Mail’s new MarketReach initiative. Despite some of the comments I had made about the focus being too heavily on small volume ’boutique’ mail, it was good to see Royal Mail back on the front foot.

What became increasingly clear, talking to some of the guests and staff attending the event, is that mail has a very powerful role to play as a mass medium to certain audiences and for particular products. And more importantly for Royal Mail, that their brand delivers an uplift in response to many demographic groups compared to other suppliers.

As a long-standing (but not blind) advocate of mail, I would love to see MarketReach forcefully make that case. No-one else can really do it. For instance:

  • Middle England still responds in healthy numbers to mail
  • Mail forms a key part of almost every charity’s fundraising strategy
  • Financial services (especially for those with wealth) are presented most compellingly in direct mail
  • Mail is a superb online driver, especially via a personalised url
  • Paper coupons and vouchers are more valued than a ‘discount code’ on the High Street
  • Mail is highly effective for small volume B2B acquisition (where email is ignored)
  • Mail can still deliver a ‘delight’ in a way no other media can


Royal Mail can stake the strongest claim to all those territories and a few more – newsletters, customer magazines, billing etc. But it needs MarketReach to articulate its case in a very vocal way. And I would like to see them come out and demonstrate how Royal Mail can deliver a better ROI than other suppliers, especially as their brand is still recognised and respected amongst swathes of more affluent and older people.

So there’s the challenge. Over to you.


Could Twitter save Barclays?

Today, the chairman of Barclays accepted his company’s reputation had been dragged through the mud as a result of its manipulation of Libor. Now, they’ve pulled their advertising until the storm passes.

Where to from here? Doubtless they will be receiving plenty of advice from the PR ‘reputational rescue’ gurus.

But could a massive, international, corporate brand like Barclays ever face up directly to its detractors on Twitter? Or would it inevitably appear heavy-handed, out of touch and inflexible? Would it be as excruciating as watching your Dad dancing?

Even Femfresh, a far more youthful and and vibrant brand, appeared clumsy when they tried to defend their ‘froo froo’ campaign on Facebook. They relied on  ‘marketing speak’ to make their excuses, rather than searing honesty….”very sorry….looks like we’ve misjudged this….we better get back to the drawing board with this campaign, hadn’t we?”

It would take a massive cultural leap for Barclays to use Twitter effectively to win over the critics. They don’t have the language. Or the attitude. Most brands don’t.

Twitter has been instrumental in telling many brands a few home truths. But by and large those brands have been baffled as to how to best respond. That’s not to say Barclays couldn’t do it, but it requires humility, honesty and everyday language. And deft management once the comments start flying. All qualities that the brand has not yet displayed.

They should actively encourage people to tweet or post along the lines of:

“look people….we realise that things went badly wrong our end…we know that a lot of you are not happy with us… for which we’re genuinely sorry…we messed up…but we want to do things better in the future so here’s your chance to have a go and tell us what you think…be as critical as you like….we won’t be able to do everything  you ask but this time we promise to listen…”

With honest and humility you disarm your abusers. And how refreshing would it be for a bank to behave like that?

Why Royal Mail’s Moya Greene should not be at the V&A

Yesterday I received the heaviest piece of direct mail I can ever recall. It was for Royal Mail’s new MarketReach concept. Had anyone else mailed it, it would have cost £10.30 in postage alone. Open the brown packaging and it contains a large, elegant red box inviting me “to discover the power of real…” ???

The box contains a letter, leaflet and a copy of  “British Design from 1948″ a very large book published by the V&A and weighing in at an impressive £40 per copy. Wow. I thought the £50 mailing pack died in 2001.

This is all to invite me to the launch of MarketReach at the V&A. The copy states that “we believe no campaign is complete without an element of real, because without real, there is nothing.” My thoughts exactly.

MarketReach quite sensibly brings together all the Royal Mail’s services that might help you run more effective direct mail campaigns… or as they put it “to introduce an element of real into your next campaign.”

I suppose by ‘real’ they mean physical as opposed to virtual. They also allude to ‘real customers’ (we know where they live?), and real results (direct mail is still the most accountable medium).

At the V&A we will be addressed by design guru Stephen Bayley, M&C Saatchi’s Exec Creative Director Elspeth Lynn and Mark Earls, a behavioural change planner (I think).

All eminence grises in their own fields I’m sure, but I bet none of them have had to find a way to beat a cold mailing control for a leading credit card issuer. Or been briefed to raise funds for a charity without spending more than 30p a pack (ex postage). Or asked how to exploit personalisation opportunities for a one-piece mailing to 10 million people. Or asked to cut 30% off the production cost of a registration pack without affecting response.

Or for that matter, asked to explain to a disbelieving client where and how direct mail fits into their marketing mix now that digital offers cheaper and faster alternatives. Especially as 2nd class post has now hit 50p.

I’ve done all those things.

There is no bigger advocate of the power of direct mail than myself. But even I feel this campaign and its extravagance betrays a hankering after past times. The whole notion of deliberately positioning mail alongside icons of design smacks of 1995 and Craik Jones’ Landrover campaigns. Happy times for many of us but about as relevant today as fax machines.

Moya Greene even references vinyl records and cupcakes(?) as examples of the revival of ‘real’ things. I’m sorry but the case for direct mail has nothing to do with design (sorry) or a nostalgic yearning for a world where you still had your milk delivered to the door and the post arrived before breakfast.

Direct mail is supremely accountable. That is the case it has to make. To that end, the speakers should really explain how and where direct mail can still demonstrate an acceptable ROI and how it fits into an integrated campaign without simply adding cost. Customers may well prefer to receive a ‘real’ mailing to a ‘virtual’ email but the former might cost £1 and the latter 5p. For 100,000 contacts that’s quite a big difference.

The trouble is, the Royal Mail’s big red box and the speakers they’ve selected say to me that they still don’t appreciate the dynamics of large volume consumer mail or where the medium sits alongside digital. Maybe, like vinyl, they want it to become a small scale boutique industry.

It doesn’t work for everyone,  it doesn’t work for every brief and it doesn’t work for every brand. But there are MANY audiences, roles and products where it fits perfectly, generating sales, donations or leads with a positive ROI that other media cannot match.

I just don’t think you’ll find the answer at the V&A.

What the Femfresh campaign teaches us about Facebook

The Femfresh Facebook page has been pulled and the brand put out of its social media misery. Phew!

Not before they ran an explanation as to why the ‘froo froo’ campaign got the green light. Apparently research had revealed that many women give their body parts funny names and “advertising bodies” (the ASA?)  had warned them that referring to vaginas in copy would be a big turn off.

I also presume that Femfresh’s agency showed focus groups some of the concepts and they were enthusiastically endorsed?

So if  they see green lights all the way on research why did the campaign crash and burn so spectacularly? Two reasons:

Firstly, qualitative research is only as good as the interpretation and is far more limited than most researchers would ever dare to admit. Not only is the research environment totally artificial, but group dynamics (go with the crowd) play a major part in dictating views (although a good moderator should counter this).

More fundamentally, groups will tend to tell you what they “like” but that is not always the same as what will work. I’ve sat through countless focus groups telling me “we like the pretty concept with nice colours” whereas that is the one that almost inevitably bombs when tested live. You have to overlay your experience onto the themes that emerge. Someone, somewhere should simply have said “this campaign isn’t very grown up, is it?”

Sometimes a concept gains traction yet you know that for all sorts of reasons – political, moral, ethical, historical – it cannot run. In the days when traditional advertising was a one-way street (ie no consumer interaction) you could get away with something that might rile a few people. But with social media, you don’t.

Which brings us to the second reason: The culture and behaviour of posters on Twitter, Facebook, youtube and all the other public forums can be brutal. Anyone who takes issue with what you say can readily do so and build up momentum against you. This is what happened with Femfresh. The fact the early posters were so witty and engaging got the crowd on their side. The Femfresh ripostes seemed clunky and corporate.

And then sadly, it doesn’t take long for almost any thread to descend to puerile abuse. When blokes (not all of them) got wind of the story they brought more toilet ‘humour’ to the comments. And from then on it just deteriorated.

If your brand is in “feminine hygiene” then you should be more sensitive than most to playground behaviour. I think maybe the issue with the brand is that it is not quite sure if it is a health product or a beauty product. If the former, you need to refer vaginas, infections, cleanliness etc… if the latter you should probably focus on the scents, freshness, confidence…

Whichever route they go, I’m sure they will make Facebook work. After all, you learn far more from your failures than your successes.

How Femfresh’s facebook page caused an awful stink

If you are not by now aware of the social marketing car crash that is Femfresh’s facebook page  I don’t know where you’ve been. It is at and all over Twitter (after appearing on the Wall blog yesterday).

Basically, they’ve been running a campaign based upon the infantile names women supposedly use in place of vagina or vulva. The fact that the names Femfresh suggest – nooni, lala, kitty and froo froo – sound like teletubbies just adds to the unworldiness of the idea.

The attacks from all and sundry have been relentless and some of the comments are genuinely hilarious. However, the longer term damage done to the brand is less about the puerile campaign and more about the questions now being raised about the product and the category. Read More »

After the Falklands, how will WPP police its agencies?

Y&R Buenos Aires has “gone rogue”  and produced a piece of propaganda on behalf of the Argentine Government featuring a hockey player training on the Falkland Islands with the tag “To compete on English soil we train on Argentinian soil”.

It’s understandably upset a lot of people in the UK and despite requests from Y&R New York and the British Government, the Argentine Government has refused to pull it.

Both Sir Martin Sorrell and Y&R New York have apologised. Their man in Buenos Aires has said the ad belongs to the Argentine Government and was never meant for an audience outside his country. Read More »

What charities should learn from Whitewater’s demise

The news this week that Whitewater, the specialist charity agency, is going into liquidation is good news for no-one. The industry needs all its agencies to thrive.

It is VERY hard to run and manage and agency profitably these days. That applies to big and small. Whitewater fished in a single pool – charities – which made it vulnerable to a downturn in the sector. And if you are operating with a long lease and a number of senior staff on commensurate benefits, it can be very hard to reduce your cost base quickly enough once income falls (I’ve no idea if that was the case with Whitewater).

A single sector focus delivers expertise but I’ve never been convinced that it is healthy. Or that it actually delivers the best results. Charity clients can benefit from learnings gained on commercial brands as B2B clients can learn from consumer brands (an exception to this is probably pharmaceuticals with its specific technical demands and regulations).

I’ve always thought expertise in a discipline makes sense, be it customer acquisition or retention, direct marketing, PR, brand advertising as these are requirements demanded by all types of clients. I can understand why charity clients are seduced by a proposition of “we only do charities” but then they are more likely to get a formulaic ‘charity’ answer. That may well be what they’re after, but these days the old formula and traditional media don’t work as they did.

Furthermore, if you are a smaller charity client amongst some big ones you are unlikely to get the service or attention of those bigger names. On the other hand, if you are a small charity at an agency that perhaps has only one other charity client, you are more likely to receive disproportionately good service, if nothing else than for the creative opportunities you provide.

In the meantime, I send my best wishes to the staff and founders of Whitewater and hope they all find suitable employment very soon.



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