Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Old Timers

Q: Introduce us to yourself and your company.
I'm the better looking half of the Brothers Einstein, a creative strategy and branding boutique. My brother Mike and I work with very select rapid-growth companies to help define and execute healthy brand strategies in an increasingly toxic media environment.

Q: Interactive Producers come from all walks of life, they are a hybrid of talents, tell us about your background and how you got interested in digital production?

I started my career as a digital producer back in 1984 (yup), when I co-founded the nation's first digital marketing agency, Einstein and Sandom Interactive (clearly the byproduct of two guys with way too much spare time on our hands), just after the publication of Einstein's Computer Guides, the first major how-to book series on personal computers. My partner JG Sandom didn't own a computer when we started the agency, so I became the producer and bookkeeper by default. Must have done an okay job because EASI was acquired a decade later by DMB&B, just as the Web was starting to make traditional ad execs look and sound increasingly like Darrin Stephens and Larry Tate.

Q: How do you stay on top of emerging technologies and keep your team informed and motivated?
I'm the entire team, so I don't have too much of a problem with motivation (usually). I also don't have many problems with emerging technologies because I generally don't deploy or think about them very often. Contrary to the industry at large, I always put technology dead last in my hierarchy of things that matter, and only after I've satisfied my concerns about the kinds and qualities of the relationships I want to engender and inspire. We exhibit a tendency -- nowadays more than ever -- to become what Thoreau called tools of our tools. This tendency explains why the media channels -- per Marshall McLuhan's prescient observation -- now work overwhelmingly against us and return what I call DROI, Diminished Return On Investment. Performance across all media is collapsing because we mistake our technological ability to say something with something meaningful to say, and because we mistake our technological ability to do something with a reason to do it.

While Global Director of Operations and Marketing for RappDigital (the digital division of Rapp Collins Worldwide) back in 2000, I built and managed a staff of 300+ employees across eight offices. An executive board of discipline leaders were all located in the NYC office, and it was their job to keep their respective teams informed and motivated. I kept the executive board motivated by mandating a bad news first policy, wherein they were required to inform me of the problems they encountered across the network on a weekly basis. Problems were thus transformed into shared challenges for the entire executive board, and network resources then arbitraged accordingly. Solutions almost always involved cross-discipline intervention(s), so fresh blood was always on tap, and discipline leaders were profoundly aware of and involved in what was going on across the entire franchise.

Complacency is always the enemy, and the initial challenge in each encounter, therefore, is to battle the inertia generated by our fealties and addictions to our own tools. That's why face-to-face encounters are so critical, and why email is so ineffective and unsatisfying. Nowadays we use our most sophisticated communications tools not to communicate but as first lines of defense, to shut down communications. Saint McLuhan would be proud.

Q: What does your ideal client/project look like?

We typically don't do project work, but my ideal client is one who is willing to ask and answer the question "Why?" before we ask the question "How?" Again, our astounding technological ability to do things nowadays changes us on a fundamental level and in the process inverts the proper sequence of the questions we ask. Unfortunately, we're obsessed with and addicted to the hows these days, and almost never ask why. The ideal client begins with the question "Why?" because technology is a lousy substitute for the fundamentals that actually drive business and commerce -- especially advertising.

Q: How do you educate your clients and set realistic expectations for a project?
I don't actively set out to educate my clients (see what we don't offer on the Brothers Einstein weblog). I talk to them. I talk to them about their families and their passions. We talk about why the media channels don't work anymore, and what we can do about it. We talk about the importance and power of language, of creating new vernaculars to accommodate brand personalities and idiosyncrasies. We talk about walking the talk, and then we walk the talk. In truth, the best clients teach me far more than I could ever teach them.

Re expectations: I know this sounds like heresy, but the onslaught of digital media has pretty much lowered everyone's expectations over the past 15 years. A short decade ago, the average CTR was 3-4%. Today, the average CTR is ten times less. Translation: a 97.7% failure rate. How can we claim to raise expectations as an industry when we are so consumed with and invest so much in such a small and inconsequential .3% universe? I say fuck realistic client expectations. It's far more important to raise our own expectations before we condescend to raise someone else's with a new 1.5" LCD and an opaque targeting algorithm du jour. Realistic expectations result from authentic agency/client relationships. If you don't know the names of your client's kids, don't waste your time or theirs with any discussion of realistic expectations -- because you're simply not equipped to handle it.

Q: What was the best project you have ever worked on?

Our current work with Jaffer Ali at Vidsense-- the Web's largest video ad network -- is about as good as it gets: compelling, engaging, fun, and challenging. Jaffer is a great friend, first and foremost, and the quality of our work together quite naturally reflects the quality of our relationship.

Q: How many projects are you comfortable producing at one given time?

We never take on more than one or two clients at a time, in part because we're a two-man band, and in part because we don't like to work very hard. In any event, I much prefer quality to quantity. So do my clients.

Q: What does your dream production team look like?

Me, my brother and my client.

Q: How do you ensure that your client's best interests are met?

I never assume my client's best interests, nor can I remember when my client's best interests were ever handed down to me unilaterally without my considered input. My client's best interests always evolve from our relationship. I don't worry about straying from my client's best interests as long as our relationship is intact and healthy. Again, if you don't know the names of your client's kids, you probably have very little knowledge of your client's best interests.

Q: What is your vision of what the next phase of our industry is going to look like?
The imperative of technology to accelerate itself and everything that touches it suggests to me that more automated media platforms will emerge as a means to eliminate the friction associated with the commercial sale and purchase of so much tonnage. The proliferation of friction-free automated platforms will in turn drive down profit margins across the entire media food chain, compel even more inventory consolidation among media giants, exert more pressure on small and mid-size franchises, and further erode per-unit performance of media across all channels. Media strategies and brand strategies will become indistinguishable as big advertisers realize that the only thing that works across the media landscape today is utter ubiquity, which -- of course -- constitutes the polar opposite of performance, and -- of course -- represents a strategy that only the biggest media budgets can afford.

The deep penetration of broadband and wireless is already converting the Internet from an information-based medium to an entertainment-based medium, suggesting that we may have less to fear from Orwell's 1984 Big Brother vision and more to fear from Huxley's Brave New World vision -- in which we essentially amuse ourselves to death. The revenue models to support the current transition from information to entertainment will elude most digital marketers as their misplaced fealty to and faith in new and improved targeting technologies continues to elicit DROI and general collapse across the media channels.

Smarter marketers and brands will begin to turn away from high-tech targeting technologies and automated platforms. Smarter marketers and brands will begin to understand that in an on-demand world it makes less sense to target your audience and more sense to let them target you instead.

Q: Please share a snippet of wisdom that you would like to impart on our readers.

To understand the true nature of advertising, you must learn the difference between hunting and fishing, and take the time to discover the power of your own authentic voice. Embrace your ignorance as your single greatest resource, always ask why before you ask how, and never check your email before 10am.

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