Blue Smoke in a Box

If you’re interested in marketing, advertising and PR, you probably started this morning’s lengthy profile of Robert M. Greenberg in the New York Times business section, but about half-way through started wondering if the story would ever deliver on its promise to tell you how Greenberg believes “advertising needs to be shaken up, and shaken up immediately.”

I mean, Greenberg certainly has been an innovator, as the story amply documents. He was a pioneer in use of digital graphics, first in motion picture titles, then in advertising. If you remember being amazed at seeing Paula Abdul dance with Groucho Marx, or Woody Allen shaking hands with Calvin Coolidge and Babe Ruth in “Zelig,” it was Greenberg who was doing the amazing. The story is heavily freighted with these bits of digital history.

And yeah, Greenberg agrees with everyone else; it’s tougher for anyone marketing anything out there because,

“It’s not about linear communication, and the millennials understand that; it’s about symbols and icons and you click here and you click there and you control it,” he says. “Corporations have to create products that people want and customers are going to help them make that decision — and that means quality, imagination and transparency.”

This sounds right, but I would imagine that anyone responsible for putting this kind of insight to practical use might feel like they’re being asked to put smoke in a box. Well, the New York Times isn’t here to help you do your job. Neither am I…but at least I have been close enough to the process myself to understand the desire to find out what, really, is next.

So, in case you got IM’d in the middle of reading the story and want to get the takeaway, here it is:

Too many agencies, (Greenberg) believes, are tethered to a “30-second TV spot” mentality because “agencies get paid based on 30-second spots and that financial incentive keeps them from changing their model.” Whip up those spiffy Super Bowl ads and those catchy print ads as much as you like, he says, but their impact is fossilizing and the companies that foot advertising bills are increasingly aware of it.

Direct mail remains the most heavily used advertising medium because its impact is clearer and more response-oriented than most print, TV and radio ads. Spending on Internet advertising still amounts to a small fraction of that for other media, but it has measurable impact. And digital interactions can be tailored in an infinite number of ways.

Other marketing frontiers are arising, and Mr. Greenberg is happy to tick off some examples: quick response codes embedded on movie posters that allow trailers to be downloaded directly onto cellphones placed near them; billboards used by companies like Dove that let consumers vote on themes or messages by cellphone; instant messaging and ads streamed through game consoles like Xbox or online gaming networks; and wireless services like Dodgeball that help people find peers at bars and restaurants within a 10-block radius after they pinpoint their own location by sending a short text message to the service.

Ah dunno. I’m about 30 years too old to be a millenniel, but this all sounds like a combination of annoying and useless to me, and a diversion from a marketer’s perspective. You ever watched someone play a game on Xbox? I’d sooner take a piece of prime rib out of a pit bull’s mouth than interrupt a serious gamer who’s about to reach the next level on Halo with an instant message or an ad. If the ad is somewhere in the background, they’re apt not to register it beyond a vague sense that some idiot must’ve paid a lot of money for a meaningless placement.

As for voting with your cell phone? I hear pitches all the time to do this during ballgames. Hit some four-digit code if you think the manager should put in a left-hander. I never do it, and I love second-guessing the manager. You’d have to be really bored to vote on a Dove ad. The idea of being able to use your cellphone to cast votes like this, or momentarily control an electronic billboard in Times Square, or download a movie trailer; all that might be a testament to your cell phone’s heretofore hidden powers, but it doesn’t add much to the value of the billboard that first caught your eye.

Dodgeball is, of course, a fascinating idea, which isn’t all that new even though it’s yet to be widely applied. Still, isn’t that just another “gee-whiz” feature for your cellphone, or iPod, or heart monitor, or whatever device the technology gets attached to? It sells what? Maybe the bar where your friend is hiding from you, but I’m not sure what else.

In short, I’m not overwhelmed by the vision of the future described in this morning’s story. Greenberg seems like a brilliant visualizer, but either he has no better handle on the future than I do, or the reporter nodded off at just the wrong time. The search for the truly new and useful continues…


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