Monday, December 21, 2009

The Real PR

The world of PR remained a mystery to the masses for years. A company did a newsworthy thing, and alas! their information ended up in the papers, on television, or maybe even got reviewed by a media mogul of some repute. Then, suddenly, the whole PR thing became a mystery -- even to the professionals that had played in that space for decades. Hmmm… I think I understand why…

As ADG continues to leverage a still new and ever changing suite of social media tools to better expose our clients to their intended audience, we’re discovering more and more that e-outlets like Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere at large are indeed, the most “public” of public relations…

PR in the past was really just “MR” – for Media Relations. You see, the PR professional of yesterday spent more time working on how to impress and persuade the media to get coverage for their client than figuring out what the waiting public actually wanted -- or needed -- to hear. That’s not an indictment on them... they really were just doing their job. After all, let's face it, not impressing media “gatekeepers” equaled not getting exposure for the folks that wrote the checks for agency services. That’s where things have change – and changed big.

Enter; the real PR.
Now don’t hear me wrong… social media is not a silver bullet. It’s not a replacement for strategy. It won’t make bad products good. It won’t (completely) take the place of other media outlets. And it won’t, so far as I’ve seen, bring about world peace – despite the jeers of the web’s latest pioneers. But it certainly gets information into the hands of the public. Yes! The public! And if somebody (think your ad agency here) understands the medium and the clients they’re working for… the public that receives messaging through Social Media channels just might care about what’s being said!

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia just posted that “Wikipedia is about the power of people to do extraordinary things.” I think that’s the key… “extraordinary things.” If it’s newsworthy, it’s newsworthy. What's changed is that there’s a new way to beat a path to the consumer’s front door – and it actually goes way past the front door and right into their den, bedroom, study, and any other place that there’s web connectivity. It’s a brave new world… prepare to meet your public.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Too Many Empty Rooms.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” OK, I get it… but lately, I’m having trouble with what’s on the other side of most doors. The better mousetrap used to be “the thing,” now the mania is all about the path. Silly I say…

I’m in the business of branding. When I say branding, I’m referring to the naming, identifying, positioning, and promises presented by business entities. You know; what they do for their customers, partners, and constituents. Done well, branding affects culture, economics, psyche, and the competitive landscape itself. The American Marketing Association (AMA) says “…branding is not about getting your target market to choose you over the competition, it’s about getting your prospects to see you as the only one that provides a solution to their problem.” This is my job.

I’m not a geezer, but there was a day when my job consisted of ideas and a sketchpad. Now I use tools. Lots of tools -- and most of them electronic. There are still some age-old tools like newspaper, mail (of the paper kind,) and television (ain’t it funny how TV seems age-old these days,) but most of what I use lives inside my laptop -- which connects to millions of other computers all over the world. The Internet has become king in the race for brand dominance, and my go-to weapons to fight in the battle mostly consists of things like social media and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) where algorithms and patterns, at times, are considered more valuable than ideas. Mind you, this is not the voice of a cranky old-school ad guy. I really love the new challenges and frontiers in successfully positioning a company, but I believe that many businesses will fail in their mission if they swap foundational marketing principles for the secret sauce of social media and the like. Think of these new modern tools more like a condiment, and less like a meal. The main dish, after all these years, is still the brand. Prove it? The world’s largest corporations continue to recognize their respective brands as their greatest asset (Coca Cola’s brand is ranked third after Google and Microsoft at nearly $70 billion dollars*).

So here’s my gripe: some companies fail to realize that getting the highest rankings in Google does not equate to selling the most products or gaining the most customers. Amassing the most Fans on a Facebook page may, in the end, only serve to grow the corporate ego. And followers on Twitter? You could probably get more business benefits from a real-life stalker if your efforts aren’t targeted to align with your brand strategy. Oh, and an added danger: many organizations get so wrapped up around the statistical victories (or losses) of their web 2.0 efforts that they take their eye off the ball and forget what’s really important… serving their customer, not the search engine.

Although I know that industry types will disagree, the web tools of today are (mostly) tactical – not strategic. I confess, you can lead more people to your door today than ever before, but if your visitor finds an empty room when the door swings open, they will not enter in.

No business can ignore the power of digital media, but invest in your organization’s brand first. There’s no better welcome mat, and no better way to make sure that visitors do more than just ring your doorbell and run.

The Third Annual BrandZ Top 100 - Millward Brown Optimor

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Snow Blind

If you’ve ever seen a documentary on Mt. Everest, you’ve no doubt heard about Snow Blindness (medically known as ultraviolet keratitis.) The ailment is a painful eye condition, caused by exposure of unprotected eyes to ultraviolet rays. The closer you get to the mountaintop… the greater the danger.

As I watch commercials (on television, online, on the train, and in hotel elevators...) grab direct mail from my mailbox, click-through on email blasts, ignore web banners, receive “friend requests,” scan my RSS feeds, and more, more, more… I’ve searched for a metaphor that might help to identify the recent phenomenon that I – and millions of others – are experiencing. After some pondering, I've concluded that "Snow Blindness" seems to say it all.

As we continue to climb the mountain of mass communication and perhaps with the addition of social media, we’re reaching the top – my eyes seem to feel the painful condition described as sunburn of the cornea when speaking of snow blindness. Often – especially online – I don’t really know what I’m looking at, or if I even asked to see it. The Wiki says that most people don’t realize they’re going snow blind until it’s already happened to them. Hmmm… I think we’re there. My source goes on to say that the only real cure is total blackness for a period of time. Don’t see us going dark as far as our Internet and media intake is concerned, so maybe a preventative measure or two…

Use eye protection (figuratively speaking) that filters out the marketing fodder. That is to say, keep your blinders on for things that only serve to distract. Remember that there is an “opt out” button on emails from advertisers that you’d rather not hear from again. Don’t buy the notion that forwarding junk to 10 friends will win you $50k -- it will only server to tick off your friends. Realize that not every blog is true or worth reading (although I would submit that this one is!) And – the age-old truth that states "not all that glitters is gold" still prevails.

As far as the “total blackness” approach to recuperation from our social and marketing media over exposure… I, for one, cannot do it. My business runs on the Internet. But I’m learning to walk away now and again. Re-learning to use my noggin instead of my CPU. A little time to think… just a few minutes away from Instant Messages dinging, email alerts chiming, web ads popping. If I can turn away from the flash for long enough, I just might see the light once again.


Friday, July 10, 2009

A blog is worth a thousand (or million) words...

First, a prediction: I'm the kinda' guy who buys something -- and then it goes on sale. To that end, this blog entry on Web 2.0 will probably serve as the inauguration for web 3.0, thus making my commentary seem irrelevant and woefully out of touch. Nonetheless, I think that it's noteworthy that the English language (already bloated with more words than any other) added its millionth word last month. The word? You guessed it; Web 2.0 (wait, isn't that 2 words? Or at least a word + number?) For those having slept through the recent transition from version 1.0 of the web to version 2.0 (I blinked and it was here,) "Web 2.0 refers to what is perceived as a second generation of web development and web design. It is characterized as facilitating communication, information sharing, interoperability, user-centered design and collaboration... (and has) led to the development and evolution of web-based communities, hosted services, and web applications (like) social-networking sites, video-sharing sites, wikis, blogs, mashups and folksonomies."**

The progress of the Internet is, without a doubt, interesting. The advent of our millionth word, perhaps a bit more interesting. The fact that language continues to grow in a time when words can seemingly mean nothing at all may be the most interesting thing of all. Let's shoot for less words -- and more substance. Any takers?

* Source: The Global Language Monitor
** Source: Wikipedia

Monday, June 1, 2009

Raising UP the Standard

Cartoons are far from kid stuff. And as the box office would prove, there's apparently no end to what the x-celluloid (now complex computer-generated) characters can do. Disney still reigns as the original pioneer (in my humble opinion,) but Pixar has planted life in its productions. Their most recent offering, UP, is no exception.

The artist in me would love to talk about the technology behind UP's beautiful imagery, cleverly rendered cast members, realistic depth of field (that makes you almost believe the environment is real,) and vibrant portrayal on screen... but there's a greater subject to consider; that of "story." Ah yes, that long forgotten concept of plot, dialogue, and connection with the audience. Pixar's technology and creativity is unparalleled, but they have exercised their knowledge and grasp of the human condition to tell a tale that would make the hardest heart shed a tear (and all of this over a cartoon!)

I won't ruin it for those wanting to see the animated marvel, but the Pixar team under the supervision of Director/Screenwriter Pete Doctor (who also worked on A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, and Monster's Inc.) has taken emotion, story, cinematography, technology, business sense, and innovation, and blended the ingredients into a cocktail that, while it may not be Gone With the Wind, will have an intoxicating impact on the film industry and the individuals who sit in the theater being bathed by the brilliance that is UP. It's an optimistic tale that doesn't skip over the pains we experience in real-life, and that's what makes Pixar's approach worth the time to see their films. Silly as it may seem, somehow a cartoon has left this grown man feeling very UP.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Resting on the brand.

I've probably said "A brand is not a picture... it's a promise..." a few hundred times in presentations and capability briefings, all in an effort to break the stigma that a logo is not, in itself, a brand.

Well, for those wanting to rest a brand promise (literally and figuratively,) and actually experience an organization making good on it promise -- I invite you to visit a Weston Hotel near you (book your stay at The Weston is a recent winner of the 2009 Traveler's Choice Award, and when you visit, you'll understand why.

I recently stayed at the Weston Boston Waterfront and it was among the finest hotels I've ever stayed (U.S. or European.) From check-in -- where the Weston has done away with the high counters that have served as a wall of separation between hotel staff and guests, to the sleek, comfy, and modern lobbies that -- despite their huge expanse -- feel like an old friend's study, beautiful but lived in. One of their slogans is "every touch works together." At the Weston, it does indeed. And, the greatest physical distinction I found -- a bed with pillows that feel like clouds -- no kidding.

Weston's corporate web site says, "(The Westin is) a haven of serenity and a distinctive alternative for those who appreciate a higher standard." I've stayed in near a dozen hotels since that trip, and none has compared. The aesthetics are notably high, but the service is equally impressive. Oh, that this was the standard instead of the exception in hospitality, the world would no doubt be a kinder place.

Sadly, you can't package good "brand execution," but if you want to take a little bit of your experience home with you, the Starwood Group sells their beds and linens online. Don't believe me? Just ask me why I'm sleeping a little better these days... It's refreshing to rest on a reliable brand.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

"Eating with our Eyes" or "What's in a Name?".

Although I'm unsure who said "presentation is everything," it was celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck who grew famous telling us that we "eat with our eyes." As a guy who has spent a career dabbling in the aesthetic, I agree whole heartedly... but how about a little anthropological data to support what I (think) I've always known?

Food TV personality Ted Allen hosts a show called Food Detectives, where food myths are debunked or validated, and all things culinary are considered. I saw a segment this week where 2 test groups where set at different times to give reviews of a particular meal. The first meal was prepared and served in a simple dining area with standard overhead lighting, no table cloths, no table accouterments,  and no embellishing the food's presentation. The second seating spent more time on the environment -- lowing the lights and placing candles on the table, and dressing up the meal presentation itself. 

But here's the other side of this experiment... each seating included a menu for those dining. Menu one simple said it how it was -- fish was labeled "baked fish," green beans were listed as such, and the wine was labeled "New Jersey Red," which was served in plastic cups. Yum. In round two, the "baked fish" had become Panko crusted St. John's filet, green beans were listed as Haricot verts (pronounced hair-co-vere,) and the Jersey hooch was relabeled as Napa Valley Cabernet.

Remember, both meals were identical. After each group had dined, they were surveyed. On a scale of 1 - 10, the results averaged as follows: Group 1 = 3/10, while group 2 = 8/10. Additionally, each group asked what they would expect to pay for a meal like the one they had just received. The staggering results... group 1 averaged a price tag of $10 per person for the less impressive dinner, while group 2 was happy to fork over $38 per person.

There's certainly a lesson in aesthetics here, but the amazing expectation that proper "naming" sets is well worth considering. Perhaps it's the difference between saying "enjoy your meal," and "bon apetito!"

Monday, March 23, 2009

Don't write like a band... write like a piana'

"You don’t write like a band... you write like a piana’. We were a big piana’." -- Eddy Byrne speaking on his playing with Thelonious Monk.

Simplicity is an art seldom perfected. Einstein is noted as saying, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." That is, well... simply brilliant. I just purchased the documentary Helvetica (trailer can be seen HERE) and it supports what I've been feeling recently (I thought it was old age creeping in)... what's passing for communication these days is often just clutter. Cool and whiz-bang is ok -- and even invited around ADG... but concept and messaging needs to be clear, and alas, simple.

I heard a great NPR segment recently called Monk At Town Hall celebrating 5 decades of the genius that was Thelonious Monk. During the radio cast, trombonist Eddy Byrne spoke of playing with the great pianist as well jazz heroes like bassist Charles Mingus, and Miles Davis -- whose legendary trumpet skill is, even today, some of the finest ever recorded. Despite the monumental talent of each individual contributor, Burke and the collective strove to sound as one voice. "A big piana'" as he so eloquently put it. Complexity well formulated and thought out is simplicity at its finest.

Try this: black coffee, big chair, dim lights, and Blue Monk (one of his best offerings, available here at Amazon.) Life is undoubtedly complex. Here's an opportunity to simplify, if only for the 10 minutes and 13 seconds that the legendary pianist tickles the ivories on my favorite tune by the master.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Look Inside

One of our esteemed creatives, Evan Davis, Director of Strategy is fond of saying that "Everybody likes sausage... but nobody wants to see how it's made." I find it hard to disagree, but none-the-less, here's a sneak peek into the meat grinder that is ADG. And yes, that's a real cow brain... Enjoy (if you dare.)

Filtering Through the Noise.

I had an opportunity to hang out in a music store for a few hours this weekend while shopping for new audio gear to fuel ADG's expanding production facility. The retail venue is huge, and sells everything from guitars (hundreds of them) to stage lighting and fog machines. For some reason, the sea of musical instruments and amplifiers (big, loud amplifiers) are like a pied piper for unskilled 15 year old musicians, and I use the term "musician" loosely. Not only were these pre-pubescent rock-n-rollers far from capable of pulling off their favorite Metallica song, but they seem to believe -- like so many of us when speaking to someone who doesn't speak English -- that being louder somehow bridges the gap. No surprise, it does not.

All of this to say that in the midst of the audio-rich experience, I worked with an associate manager named Chris who was very knowledgeable, helpful, and glad to advise me on my purchases. As a show of empathy, I said "man, I don't know how you deal with all this noise all day long." His response surprised me.

St. Chris (as I now think of him) said "it's the sound of business being done." Sweet and simple... "this is why we're here." His reply cut me to the quick -- I work in a service industry... I should have seen this right away. But now I'm thinking (and blogging) about this. Everyone has things in their job that cause them to want to scream and pull their hair out -- but often, the things that irritate us the most boil down to just being the cost of doing business. These things distract us from the very reasons we get into the fields that we're in to begin with. I love customer service. I love overcoming difficult challenges. I love pulling things off that many other firms cannot. But sometimes I forget that's why we're here. Remembering just requires a little "filtering through the noise."

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Smoke On The Water...

OK, there's no shortage of opinions about the recent events surrounding Michael Phelps and his illegal drug usage. Is it fair? Was he careless? Are the rulings from USA Swimming just? My perspective on the matter will add no additional value or clarity -- but I would like to comment on the forgotten victims in this ordeal; his sponsors.

Who hasn't purchased something, only to get it home and find out that the picture on the box didn't represent the product within? And when this happens we're ticked, right? Without any attack on the amphibious athlete's character whatsoever, the packaging simply no longer resembles what corporate America purchased. High cost endorsements are, perhaps, a blog for another time... but celebrity beware: as Yoda once said, "...with much power comes much responsibility."

Once you sign on the multi-million dollar dotted line, you are no longer person -- but product. Mr. Phelps, you've been found defective, and have been returned. We'll wait to see if you end up on the bargain table.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Size Matters

Just a quick note about grabbing a Rolling Stone magazine at the newsstand the other day. I've never been a subscriber, nor have I been a frequent peruser of the rock-and-roll rag... but whenever I would see it on the rack, I would be drawn to the strong brand, compelling imagery, and skillful design that always graced the publication's cover. But more than that -- I think the size caught my eye. Rolling stone was big. "Was." The former layout would dwarf the other less outrageous offerings around it by sheer dimension -- but I noticed that this most recent issue had shrunk. Who knows, it may have shrunk months or years ago and in my oblivion, I just never noticed... but now it is small. Or, at the very least, it is the same boring dimension as the offerings all about it. The magazine being big made sense. It covers big personalities. Big entertainment. It demanded big attention. I think the change is a big mistake. -- JA

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Blessed To Be Among the Best

Proud but not prideful. That's how I felt when I discovered that Baltimore Magazine had voted ADG as one of Baltimore's Best Workplaces. Proud of the work that we do... proud of the clients we serve, and the relationship that we've built with them over the almost two decades that we've been around... but prouder still of the team members who make up the ADG organization. When Karen and I started this firm in 1991, we had no idea -- nor expectation -- that we would be connected to such stellar individuals, and be so blessed. Thanks to each of you for making ADG what is -- and for being part of what we will become. I'm proud to call you our creatives. -- Cheers, JA

Baltimore Magazine's article from the February 2009 issue follows.
For more information on the release, visit ADG's web site at

ADG Creative
Location: Columbia Employees: 29
Who they are: An advertising, design, and corporate identity firm
What we love: Inspiring leadership, cool space, fun work

When you walk into the nondescript corporate office building that houses ADG Creative, the first thing you might notice is the space itself—it’s sleek and funky in a way that most corporate office parks can’t pull off, no matter how hard they try. Inside, there are all the elements you’d expect from a creative company: comfy collaboration spots where employees can trade ideas; the foosball table; the dart board (which is frequently in use).

What you might also notice, though, is ADG founder Jeff Antkowiak, a fixture in the operation. You’re more likely to see him huddling next to an employee’s desk or pitching in on a video shoot than commanding an executive meeting in the boardroom (although he does that quite well, too).

In ADG’s culture, collaboration is the key word, and Antkowiak, the chief creative officer who says he’s “still a producer in the company,” leads by example. Although ADG attracts those with a passion for work—and long hours aren’t unusual—“we don’t crack the whip,” says Antkowiak. “It’s a culture of ‘how can I help the people I work with?’ And that’s rare.”

Those who thrive in that culture are also a rare bunch. And ADG is frank about that upfront. Instead of simply subjecting would-be hires to personality tests to see if they fit, ADG leaders give candidates the results of those leaders’ own personality tests. “So they can see how nuts we are,” jokes chief operating officer Craig VanBrackle.

Once new hires are in, ADG focuses not just on getting work out of them, but also on “their skills and their development,” says VanBrackle. “The expectation is that everyone in the organization is a leader.”

Along the way, ADGers get to do some pretty cool work, whether it’s creating web applications, dreaming up clever ad campaigns and branding messages, or creating videos onsite. Clients are large and small and come from a variety of fields (which is one reason Antkowiak says ADG should fare reasonably well even in a recession). Sometimes those clients are really big: In 2008, one ADG employee was asked to demonstrate a software application for then-President Bush.

"I'm a Creative"

ADG provides an environment where all of our team members -- be they accountants, designers, developers, or interns -- are all viewed as vital parts of the collective "creative." We talk about our organization being like "gumbo" -- each ingredient has a distinct flavor, but only when you mix it all together does the magic start to happen. Take a look at the video above to be introduced to a few of our favorite creatives, and visit adg|creative's web site to get a closer look. Enjoy!

Technology that Teaches

I've always been a bit resistant to the notion that computers in classrooms were necessary for students to learn. Mark Twain said that "...learnin' can happen with a teacher on one end of a log, and his student on the other." That said, I believe that technology -- while not learning itself -- provides incredible tools that assist in the teaching process. That's why when ADG was presented with the opportunity to donate some slightly-used technology to the Foinix Center, we jumped at the chance.

The Foinix Center is a place where at-risk children are given access to computers, the Internet, computer-based training, and other technology resources to increase their opportunities to develop into positive and successful citizens. The center is located in the Juvenile Justice Center in Baltimore City and it serves as a tribute to fallen friends and as a safe haven for children.

For more information on how you can help, please contact our friend Mike Veronis.

Confessions of a Dormant Blogger

Bloggers, forgive me...
for I have sinned. It's been 1 year since my last blog. At least my last "public" blog. Oh, how the ideas bounce about in my noggin. I've written dozens of posts in my head, inside thoughts flying faster than I can type (which isn't saying much.) But alas, I have returned. Committed to blogging, as I have asked our clients to commit to as well. So, I hope that I'm forgiven... this post hereby gives permission to hassle me if the blog begins to collect cobwebs again. I look forward to having the brainjuice show itself on these pages again. It's good to be back. -- JA