The Unwritten Rule of Social Media

Should social media management fall under the care of an advertising agency? You may think that since it’s all about communicating to online consumers, then it should be the responsibility of an ad agency. Or more appropriate, your friendly interactive agency. I’m not so sure about that.

Social media management essentially consists of all efforts that either initiates contact with prospects online or responds to online activities that reference your product or service. I’ve defined it rather simply because it is actually as simple as that. Anything that you do or the consumers are doing online with regards to your business must be monitored regularly by a dedicated team. Be it an internal team in your organisation or an agency that specialises in social media management, which I think is non-existent here in Malaysia.

Think about it. Let’s say you ask your existing ad agency to take care of social media management. Stuff like creating and updating Facebook/MySpace pages, publishing an informative, relevant and interesting blog and responding to comments about your product in third party blogs. This requires a concerted, calculated effort because of it’s never ending nature. As more and more consumers discover the wonders of going online, the more comments, approvals and criticisms there will be about your product or company.

And who do you think most likely be managing your company’s online presence in this ad agency of yours? Wait for it. Yes! It’s your overworked, multiple-account-handling and possibly clueless copywriter… and maybe a planner or strategist if you’re lucky. Would you really let the future of your brand’s online direction rest in the hands of one or two persons?

You may think a copywriter is suited to handle social media, true but not entirely. I’ll give you 2 reasons:

  1. Copywriters are trained to write marketing copy. Anything that smells like regular copy, especially words like “Buy”, “Free” and “Exclusive” are ignored by users. Social media is all about the influencing power of peers and not an advertising wordsmith.
  2. To make interesting blog posts and respond to comments or criticisms, the copywriter has to have an extensive knowledge of the product/service, brand and company. No, a powerpoint outlining company history, brand guidelines and product catalogue will not do. How many companies will allow a writer to be embedded with them for at least a month? Not many.

Social media is a different ballgame altogether. Relying solely on a copywriter is like asking a property lawyer handle your criminal case. While it’s possible, the risks are far to great. Your brand might just end up in the slammer.


Malaysia Ad Spend 2009

Advertisers in Malaysia spent RM5.9 Billion in 2009. That’s an increase of almost half a Billion from 2008, which was at RM5.5 Billion. Advertising spend is perceived to be a strong indicator of a nation’s economy.

Well that’s what the Malaysian Advertisers are spending, but are the consumers buying? It’s hard to tell really, because sales figures are closely guarded secrets, so there’s no way of knowing for sure. But for discussion’s sake, let’s say that we’ve managed to make people spend money they don’t have on things they don’t need quite admirably in 2009.

Think about it. Almost RM6 Billion. That’s a six followed by 9 zeros – 6,000,000,000! And why are advertisers spending such insane amounts of money? Essentially, it is in hope that consumers return the favour. Yes, so that consumers consume more and ‘invest’ in products and services perceived to be of better quality.

ADEX in Malaysia by Media (RM Mil)

RM6 Billion spent on Media by advertisers in Malaysia in 2009
RM6 Billion spent on Media by advertisers in Malaysia in 2009
Source: The Star, 2 Jan 2010.

Please note that the above figures are only Ad spend on Media. Meaning creative cost not included.

So how much do you think all the agencies in Malaysia charged their clients for creative work in 2009? Definitely not RM6 Billion I’m sure. And I wonder how handsomely my fellow creative workers have been compensated last year? Well, if all the money is spent on media, what left the agencies?

Maybe because spending on good creative and strategies were so little, it didn’t even merit a mention. I guess it’s the norm. The middlemen get the dough, while the fishermen get peanuts. And they complain there’s not enough creative talent to go around!

I want to look for a job in media.


About Branding

Okay. I know I’ve been envisioning a world where advertising will be transparent, seamless, targeted and minus all the mumbo jumbo that we’ve become accustomed to. But to reach this level of efficiency, a product or service has to first establish itself in the market. Herein comes the matter of branding.

A quick example. When Apple launched the iPhone, it did virtually no advertising. The mere mention from Steve Jobs that Apple is launching a phone was enough to create a ripple onto the sea of consumers. A buzz was created first among newsmen and techies then all the way to college nerds and the average consumers. People formed opinions about the iPhone months before it was even officially launched. And when it did hit the stores, the demand for an iPhone was overwhelming. Even that that time, advertising was minimal.

So what does this tell us? It’s not that Apple didn’t have to money to advertise to create the desired buzz, they just let consumers do it at almost no cost. But to be able to do this, there are 2 key criteria:

  1. The product has to be revolutionary and ground-breaking. Something that consumers have not seen, heard, felt or used before. It has to be a product that taps into a relatively untapped market. In the case of the iPhone, it’s Mobile Phone Entertainment.
  2. An established brand presence; especially as a leader in your market segment. In the case of Apple, it’s The Most Innovative Tech Gadget Maker. It also helped that Apple had already launched other successful products: the iMac and iPod come to mind.

Granted, the big boys with the dough have the advantage. They can leverage on their big brand presence and seamlessly transition into an advertising future that’s becoming more and more minimalist. Let’s say Google announces it plans to launch an application that scans the world’s online documents and creates an article on any subject in a click of a button, with contributing writers compensated. You pay a fee of USD3.99 for each article churned by this application which is fact-checked, referenced and annotated.

Now Google is a big, trusted online brand and people would be happy to part with their money for a product that they know would be of quality. Now if Microsoft announced it wanted to launch a similar product, well let’s just say there could be a couple of issues. Remember Windows ME anyone? Here’s while the product is revolutionary, the brand that is advocating it may have a problem convincing consumers due to past functionality problems. For the record, I would just like to say here that I have nothing against Microsoft.

So what can up and coming brands that do not have the presence do? For them, the product or service becomes critical. They must get it spot on. It has to be of real use to the consumers. It must create a new market or venture into an underserved segment. In short you have to be the first in your brand category, a pioneer. No one else must have what you intend to offer, even differing USPs won’t work; it has to be a brand new product or service.

Here are some success snippets as examples:

Apple, a now revered tech company, created the iPod, a portable, intuitive digital music player.

Nescafe, the world’s largest selling coffee, was the first instant coffee.

Old Town Coffee, now a successful franchise, was the first upmarket “Kopitiam”

Perodua, now the No.1 local car brand, was the first to introduce compact cars in Malaysia

Digi, a leader in the pre-paid business, was the first to introduce prepaid calling.

A word of warning though, just being first isn’t enough. You must also be the first in the minds of the consumers. And you must work to keep the brand presence at Top of Mind levels consistently. This is why Proton is not the No.1 local car manufacturer anymore. It was the first, but never really did anything after that.

When I Grow Up

I wonder what would happen if we show this video to every aspiring ad man or woman out there.

You know, the fresh out of Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia greenhorns whom are contemplating a communications design course. The college freshmen who think advertising is all about getting to work at noon, writing a couple of headlines and scooting off to lunch. And the 25-year old executive who’s unsure about his career and thinking of advertising to get his juices (creative or otherwise) flowing.

The video is actually a parody of a Monster recruitment ad, created to promote the ADDY Advertising awards based in the States. I liked the idea of using kids to ‘sell’ the advertising industry, because kids tell the truth. At least kids who have yet to accurately identify right from wrong. The kids in the video however have laid bare all the symptoms of an industry that’s tired, unforgiving and complicated.

Now, would I have jumped into the deep, dark ravine of advertising had I seen this video as an undergraduate? Hell yeah! I wouldn’t trade where I am now for anything else. Granted, things could be better, but it’s stuff like this that makes advertising… well… advertising. It’s a love/hate thing… few understand, many falter and for some of us it’s a way of life.


The End of Advertising as We Know It

Forgive me for the rather long title. But then again, it is still within the 8-word limit, which is presumably the threshold of an effective headline. But then again again, this and pretty much every other ad-rule that you and I have painstakingly learned over the years could turn out to be antiquated junk. Remember the ‘cow-gum’ anyone?

While we’re haggling on the most catchy headline or where not the place the logo or how many more slides it will take to convince the client, the industry is evolving at breakneck speed, right under our noses. Ignore the signs at your own peril:

1. Mass advertising is dying: TV audiences are dwindling, newspapers are seeing reduced readership and radio listeners are tuning out.

2. Consumers are becoming or are already smarter: with a wealth of information just a search away, consumers are making purchase decisions way before they even go to a retail outlet or pick up the phone.

3. Clients are becoming increasingly results oriented: viewership, readership and strong creative do not faze clients anymore. It’s Click-Through-Rates, Page Views, Cost Per Impression. Bottom line… ROI.

4. Ads have to work harder and quicker with the amount of clutter that permeates the media. Consumers are seeing through the creative fluff, which is becoming increasingly cheesy.

5. Shouting FREE! and EXCLUSIVE! don’t seem to work: okay, let me rephrase, they don’t seem to work as well as they used to. The audience know exactly what they want and crave relevancy, quality and newness over freebies or empty promises.

These are just 5 early warning signs, from the top of my head, pointing to an advertising future that may become unrecognizable sooner than you think. I guess we’d all be happily trudging along had it not been for the internet, which is threatening the livelihood of traditional advertising. But the web is not the only contributor to these winds of change.

There’s a far more powerful force that is dictating the evolution of advertising, and yet we hardly notice. If fact, we are part of this force as every time we use it, it becomes better. This entity began with a humble quest of ‘organizing the world’s information’ and I must say it have succeeded admirably. I am referring to none other than our favourite surfing buddy… Google.

What has Google got to do with advertising you ask? Everything I say.  For the average user, Google is a tool to search for content online. Google’s business is search, and it was just search in the beginning. Slowly but surely, Google has evolved into a media cum content cum advertising agency. It has made advertising even more transparent, bridging the divide between advertisers and potential customers. There will come a time where you will be able to buy almost anything online (if that’s not the case already). No more fancy advertising agency, kick-ass creative or mind-boggling strategies.

Advertiser signs up for a Google account, and with a ridiculously low budget creates a targeted, virtually risk-free advertising campaign. Consumers search for a product or service, sees the sponsored link on the results page by an advertiser and clicks on it. The consumers are now at the advertiser’s doorstep to be done with as pleased. Simple, effective, direct, focused, efficient and economical.

You may argue that this is just an online trend. How would this work in a real, physical world? Technology is moving at such a blinding pace that we will become more and more wired as the years or even months roll on. There are web-enabled mobile phones, GPS navigation systems and the now humble laptops to encroach into our increasingly wired world.

Imagine this scenario:

You walk out for lunch from your city-centre corporate office. The restaurants are crowded, there’s hardly a spot for you and your lunch buddies.

Normally, you would ‘tapau’ and dine on your desk while pretending to be a model employee. Well, that’s so… hmmmm… 2.0. Fast forward a few years into the future and this is how your lunchtime might pan out.

You whip out your phone (which is a PDA cum netbook cum camera cum navigator cum alarm clock) and search for restaurants with a table for four in your area. You make a reservation, which will be held for, say, 10 minutes.

Now that’s lunching made easy. Now where does advertising come in all this? Can you see it? Subtle but effective. The restaurants will actually pay the Lunch Search Service to be listed.

Isn’t that advertising at its fundamental form? Connecting businesses with potential customers? No art direction, no compelling copy, no insightful strats… no fuss!

You know what? It’s not too far away I tell you.


Hocus Focus

Most people think advertising is like a magic act. You know, the pull-rabbit-out-of-hat or a skimpy-blonde-levitation type. Just because they ran an ad, which of course they had a lot of hand in; it is expected to work wonders.

Consumers rushing to the stores early in the morning the very next day armed with wads of cash buy this wonderful product. The e-commerce website crashing as it is unable to handle the large volume of visitors. The customer service line ringing off the hook due to people calling to enquire the availability of the advertised product. In an ideal world, we in the industry would love for this to happen, but these are the stuff of dreams really.

So it’s not magic or a voodoo that puts people into a crazy eyed trance, craving for an advertised product or service. It’s part art, part science and a heck of a lot of luck. This is actually only the first layer of problem. There’s a far more chronic disease afflicting advertisers, one that has a far-reaching consequence to ad-spend. It’s something very fundamental in nature, the utmost basic communication principle. No, it’s not semi-naked woman promoting a product, it’s FOCUS.

Ad-space or media is at a premium. You would think that with the advent of the more economical and targeted online advertising, things would change. Not a chance! Be it a TVC, Press Ad, Direct Mailer, Brochure, Online Banner or a bloody Lamppost Bunting for crying out loud, stuffing them with mind-numbing content is a real problem.

There’s this aversion to empty space that bewildering. A press ad for instance is treated like a plot of land on which the real estate of images, design, illustration, masthead, logo, headline, overline, subhead, crosshead and bodycopy compete for attention. To add to this, the ad is littered with multiple messages, diluting the communication into a broth of sewer waste. Trying to make sense of some ads is like attempting to put together a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

The problem intensifies online. Web pages now are made up of a concoction of images, content, animation (especially the annoying GIF type) and then littered with Google ads. Research has shown that nearly 30% of site visitors drop-off if a web page is perceived to be cluttered. Although the research finding is a no-brainer, I think they actually went ahead with the research to get into the head of ‘experts’ with a thick skull.

What happened to making a single, direct, compelling proposition to the consumer? Not enough that the media is cluttered as a whole, we have ads that are cluttered within. It’s like asking someone to hit your head with a hammer and then grabbing the hammer and hitting yourself in the head. You can’t do much about media clutter, unless you are willing to spend obscene amounts of course. But you can minimize clutter – or some may refer to this as ‘busy-ness’ – in your ads, be it in any media. The term less is more is probably very apt as a rule of thumb to keep in mind; especially for clients.

In conclusion, if you can’t find than one message to focus on, you probably need to rethink your strategy. Draw up a list of USPs and rank them based on the appeal they will have on your target market. Remember, your ad’s job is to stand apart from the others and your strategy is to win the war of awareness. It’s okay to have a singular main message and then accompanied by oh-by-the-way kind of messages. But no more than 2, or your ad will not rise above the clutter.

And one more thing – no matter how tempted you are – try not to say the same thing your competitor is saying. That’s their niche. Find your own voice, that one single most important message or benefit and keep your ad concise. Everything else should fall into place in your quest of achieving an ad that actually sells. And that’s just pure magic!


The Accidental Ad-man

Most, if not all, in the industry will never admit it. They will say:

“I was born to do it” (clenched fist on desk)

“I’m passionate about advertising” (eyebrows raised, eyes bulging)

“The creative flame burns in me” (palm to general area of the heart)

“I live and breathe advertising” (inhale, exhale)

“I don’t own anything else but T-shirts and Jeans” (picking lint out of pocket)

Allow me to buck the trend. I stumbled into advertising. Yes, you read it right: stumbled, by fate to be exact, rather unknowingly.

You see, I wanted to be a journalist. But the extent of press freedom in Malaysia made me reconsider my decision. I knew I didn’t want to be crunching numbers, work in a suit or become a pop star. I had a vague inclination towards the act of creating something out of scratch, without pre-set guidelines or templates. I had a fetish for generating ideas, daydream and perhaps let my imagination run wild.

There was no indication that my weird preferences would lead to the seemingly pleasant but in fact utterly insane world of advertising. I wandered from one job to another, and with each passing year wondered what if I was not in advertising. Truth be told, I can’t think of doing anything else. But I am doing it by choice and not due to circumstance. I’m hanging on to a thin thread of hope that the industry will change to how it should be.

Creativity is almost non-existent with clients, budgets and timelines taking prominence. Selling the idea has become the prime concern, while selling the product/service with compelling creative takes a back seat. The industry is overrun with textbook regurgitating suits (at both client and agency sides) that lack hard-knock-life experience of giving birth to a campaign.

Nowadays, you hear certain catchphrases more frequently with each passing year:

If it’s not done before, don’t do it.

If you can’t do it, I’ve got 5 other 2-bit agencies waiting.

Are you crazy? We don’t have time for that!

My boss like purple. (grammar error intended).

Get this done by End of Day.

I’m not sure what I want, propose to me first.

Target market? Everyonelah!

Ok, I’ll go with version 37-final-2a-final.

I want the animation to be like (insert Hollywood film).

Can you present to my boss’ boss’ boss?

Before you conclude that this is just another frustrated agency lad without the required number of nuts to overcome typical industry barriers, allow me to set you straight. I have been ‘accepting’ these lowering standard in my beloved line of work for close to 10 years now. Head down, no complains and just get it done was my mantra. If I continue this way, the future looks very bleak indeed. I don’t want to be the one to torch myself in a pile of client briefs after hearing for the umpteenth time that the copy needs to be more… errrr… catchy.

So what am I going to do about this situation? Well, here’s the anti-climax… not much really. But what I can do is spread the word on how I think advertising in Malaysia needs to be tackled in this day and age. If I see, hear or experience something worth of note – either right or wrong – you’ll find it here. It could be about agency on-goings, creative revelations, product insights, consumer guides and everything else in between. And I’ll be looking at the big picture here, without bias to any communications field in particular.

This could become another accident in the making. But if it’s at least half as good as the accident I’m already in, then my objective would be achieved. So check this space, as often as you wish, for a personal view into the world of Malaysian Advertising. Godspeed!

The writer feels a cosmic energy field of resentment heading towards him.