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    This is the personal blog of Simon Kendrick and covers my interests in media, technology and popular culture. All opinions expressed are my own and may not be representative of past or present employers
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Frontline: The Merchants of Cool

Frontline: The Merchants of Cool is a fascinating, albeit highly cynical look, into the way teenagers and children are marketed to.

Narrated by Douglas Rushkoff, it is close to ten years old, having been first broadcast in February 2001.

One of the programme’s key themes is that teen culture is fast-moving and transitory. Yet hindsight has proved this to be false.

It would seem that the more things change, the more things stay the same.

The programme was made pre 9/11, pre X Factor, pre Youtube, pre Facebook, pre Obama and pre Spotify (to name just half a dozen things that have shaped our entertainment culture in the intervening years). Yet it remains highly recognisable and relevant to teen culture today.

And so despite the assertion being wrong, it still remains required viewing for marketers, researchers and media folk – each of whom have the spotlight placed on them within the programme.

Discovering what teens want

Even back at the turn of the millennium, teens were seeing 3,000 discrete ad impressions per day, meaning that they would have been exposed to 10m of them by the age of 18.

Yet the programme asserts that surly teens are unresponsive to brands – they instead respond to what they perceive to be cool.

In order for content makers and marketers to know what kids think is cool, they need either formal research or an informal direct line to teens. The programme highlighted four methodologies used:

1. Cool Hunting – as typified by Dee Dee Gordon and Sharon Lee’s’s Look-Look. They start of by identifing teen influencers – early adopters, vocal advocates and people that regularly explore outside of their regular sphere of interest. After speaking to these people to find what they think is cool, they might recruit and train these kids up to be correspondents. They in turn go off and identify the next generation.  All information goes into a database that their clients pay a subscription fee to access.

This seems like a great business model for several reasons

  • It is a relatively low-cost model of both intelligence gathering and recruitment, meaning that the company can operate on a relatively small income
  • Due to the proliferation of research agencies and consultants, they will never have more than a small share of the market and so anyone that subscribes to the database stands a good chance of having a comparative advantage over rivals sourcing their information from elsewhere
  • The business is perpetual. Once something is identified as cool, it has been taken away from the cool kids and so is no longer cool. Thus they need to move onto the next thing

2. Under the radar marketing – Represented by Cornerstone Promotions, this odious tactic pays kids to “smuggle messages” onto forums or even in conversations, essentially paying kids to be walking, talking billboards without disclosure.

3. Ethnographic visits – Self-explanatory (though perhaps it was less well-known in 2001), where researchers and execs go spend time in people’s homes to observe them in their natural environment

4. Screen tests – Inviting kids to test to agents for various entertainment professions. Jessica Biel was discovered in one of these tests.

From these techniques, two key role models/personality segments were discovered – one for males to aspire to and one for females

  • The Mook – where arrested adolescence and crudeness are celebrated, typified by Tom Green and Jackass
  • The Midriff – where your body is your best asset so flaunt it even if you don’t understand it. Britney and Christina were the key role models

Does it sound familiar? So does teen culture perpetuate across generations, or are we on an irreversible trend towards sexualised stupidity?

A critique of these research techniques – and research in general – is that they don’t understand teens as people. Instead they are just customers. After all, the industry is named marketing research and not human research.

Although this is primarily a semantic argument, I think that, broadly speaking, the programme makes a valid point and it is still something that hasn’t been properly addressed in either marketing research or brand/market planning. Something to think on.

Content and marketing trends

Without a true understanding, it means there is essentially a giant feedback loop in play. The media sells kids images of themselves to themselves, and they in turn aspire to it.

There was the example of a Sprite party on MTV. Guests were paid $50 to show up, artists that played got paid and PR, MTV got cheap, aspirational TV and record labels got their exposure and sale. Yet, while it seems to benefit everyone, it ended up being quite conspicuous marketing,  and thus a turn-off for teens.

To be new and exciting to teens, boundaries need to be broken. After all, teens are about rebellion and anti-authority. If Dawson’s Creek is primetime (don’t laugh, it did cover some pretty edgy themes at the time), specialist outlets need to up the stakes. This meant that counter-culture icons such as the Insane Clown Posse and Limp Bizkit eventually got packaged up and sold to teens

A line from the programme I liked is that ICP are “so crude and intolerable that they are essentially indigestible”.

So is this an irreversible trend to the gutter? The edges are always different to the centre, and it would appear that for anything to reach a teen mainstream it needs to be largely digestible. Despite the questionable authenticity, contemporary trends such as 3oh!3 and Look at this fucking hipster seem largely harmless, while  Jersey Shore et al keep up the trend of sexualised stupidity.

Frontline have maintained an excellent website with a full discussion of the trends and coverage of the various interviews – it can be found here. The programme is also available to watch in full – either there or on Youtube (part 1 is embedded below, for RSS readers)

The situation today

The programme does maintain a sense of middle class adult bemusement throughout, but it still makes some great points about the attempts of marketers to pass off fake authenticity, with continually more explosive and extreme angles that try to stand out in the onslaught.

Yet one thing that has exploded over the past decade is the sheer supply of media and entertainment – I’m sure these 3,000 impressions a day have been far surpassed (particularly with the rise of branded entertainment). So marketers are needing to move away from disruption to find ways of actually engaging with teens on their terms – through opt-in involvement rather than unwanted interruption.

Will this fragmentation reduce the power of the mainstream? Rather than two teen idols, is there now two dozen? I’m not so sure. Teens have always been tribal and the hierarchies of social groups within schools aren’t going to fundamentally shift as we get more technologically advanced and savvy. They may not sell as many tickets or items as they would have a decade or two ago, but Lady GaGa, UFC and the Twilight saga are just as important cultural icons for teens today as Madonna, WWE and Point Horror were for previous generations.

But rather than focus on the markets, should we shift our focus back to the audience? I think so. Researchers and planners should essentially be an ombudsman for their target markets – representing them with a clear voice to be heard and respected when designing strategies and tactics.


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The Penny Drops: Olswang Convergence Survey 2009

The 2009 Convergence Report from Olswang has been released, and makes for interesting reading. Some of the key findings I took out/inferred include:

  • Over the top TV (such as Project Canvas) will only take off through inertia and a shorter upgrade cycle
  • Unless e-readers become cheap fast, they will be superseded by multi-functional tablet computers
  • Windowing (phased international release dates) is more of a threat than an opportunity, due to the difficulties it presents with existing distribution channels
  • iPhone users have much greater willingness to pay – and this is more down to the easy payment mechanism than level of disposable income
  • Micropayments are more viable for TV than newspapers

While the third point is somewhat contentious, the other four points make intuitive sense, and correspond to the research I have carried out in the area.

However, the survey was conducted online using a panel. I absolutely agree that this is the best, most cost-effective approach but it does skew the data – particularly with respect to online/digital behaviour. There is no mention in the report of sampling and weighting.

I can understand why – this stuff can be quite boring – but without it I’m left looking at figures such as

  • 8% of the sample owning iPhones
  • 38% of people streaming music
  • 65% of adults using social network sites

And then wondering what other data and findings in the report are overinflated

Nevertheless, a thought-provoking read and a useful – if flawed – resource to refer to.


Power to the People – new data and the challenges

Universal McCann have just released Wave 4 of their “Power to the People” social media tracker. The public report can be downloaded here or viewed below (RSS readers may need to click through).

Looking through it, there are some curious results from the UK participants in that fewer people are engaging in certain social activities online. There are a couple of possible reasons as to why these scores have appeared.

Before I look into these, I want to stress that I am not trashing their research. UM have been very clever in setting up this tracker. On the one hand, they publish topline figures that are widely sought after and thus generate excellent PR. And on the other, they keep the details and breakdowns for their own internal use, which gives them a competitive advantage. Doubly beneficial.

The challenges of tracking are wide-reaching and not particular to this study. So, while I use the UM tracker as a case study, I hope my points are construed as general and not specific to their methodology.

1. Non-constant audience – UM have concentrated their study on active internet users (and fair enough – it doesn’t make sense to track non-use). But whereas demographics are largely consistent over time, the internet isn’t yet fully matured and so this audience will change. As such, the universe for wave 3 of the tracker was 17.8m UK 16-54s who use the internet every day or every other day. During Wave 4 the universe had expanded to 19m. Late-comers aren’t going to be as interested in social media or the internet as a whole, and so they will be less active.

2. Absolutes or percentages – if the universe is expanding, a percentage drop may still be an absolute increase. For instance, video viewers dropped from 86% in Wave 3 to 79% in Wave 4 – this is cited as a surprising change. But factoring in the audience size and looking at absolute figures – the number of people participating only fell from 15.2m to 15m – a 1% difference that is within the realms of sampling error.

3. Dips and seasonal effects – the UM tracker takes annual dips, rather than consistently tracks. Our behaviour is highly seasonal – we consume less of some things over summer as we go on holiday, and more of some things in January as we enjoy the novelty of our Christmas presents. The 4 UM waves to date have been in September, June, “completed in March”, and “between November and March”. This will have an effect.

4. Changing the survey options – as much as it pains me to say, respondents don’t fully and honestly answer surveys. They get bored. The more things we seek to track, the less time they will spend thinking and considering each option (though in total the time will be greater). If we give a respondent four options, they may answer three. If we give them 16 options, they would answer 12 times if they went in the same proportion, or fewer times if they got bored. Therefore answers become more spread out, and percentages for some may fall. As UM track more types of behaviour, they may be dissuading some respondents from answering completely.

5. Context – Research studies don’t operate in a vacuum – the external and interconnected environment need to be factored in to place the research in context. For instance, perhaps Christmas 2007 saw more sales of laptops with webcams than Christmas 2008. Therefore, in 2007 you have more people experimenting with uploading videos. As this isn’t particularly sticky behaviour, fewer sales the following year could explain the dwindling number (this is abstract speculation – sales of webcams may well have risen in 2008)

6. Anomalies – we survey in samples, and not censuses. Despite quotas and stratified sampling, there will always be some quirks. There is always the danger of reading too much into one data point, when it should be the general trends that are considered. So, we should wait to see what Wave 5 shows before coming up with any conclusions.

One of the projects I’m currently working on is setting up a tracker. As the above six points indicate, it is a tricky endeavour. Universal McCann have set up a great resource (I used the data several times while at ITV) and I hope to replicate their success in my work. There are plenty of challenges to meet before this happens though.


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See Sir Ken Robinson speak

For those that live in or near London, I sincerely recommend signing up for the talk Sir Ken Robinson is giving at the Royal Society on the 5th February.

It is a free event and forms part of the excellent RSA Thursday series of lectures and seminars. Sir Ken will be sharing thinking from his new book – The Element – the point at which natural talent meets personal passion.

I have signed up and recommend you doing so by going here.

For those unable to make it, instead I suggest you either watch or re-watch his classic TED Talk from 2006 – Do Schools Kill Creativity? Follow the link to download audio or video and participate in the discussion, or watch the embedded Youtube video below.

The 20 minute speech justifiable won a standing ovation (not bad when you are sharing a stage with a former Vice President and the man that invented the Internet).

Some of the points he makes in his talk include

  • “It is education that is meant to take us into this future that we cannot grasp”
  • “Creativity is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status”
  • “Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go”
  • “If you are not prepared to be wrong then you will never come up with anything original”
  • “The whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance”

He is both hilarious and insightful when he talks about creativity and intelligence (diverse, dynamic and distinct), and he ends with an inspirational anecdote on the nature of success.

You will be hard-pressed to find a better way to spend twenty minutes online than watch the video, and I’m confident that the upcoming talk will prove to be just as worthwhile.


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Slideshare links – 14th December 2008

Winter sickness creates lethargy. Thankfully I’m not this sick – I think it is more a case of being a self-inflicted result of this and this.

Anyway, as it is easier than trawling through a few weeks of delicious links, here are 5 Slideshare presentations on marketing that I have recently read and enjoyed. All are variations on a theme – marketing should be useful and valuable.

NB: If you are viewing in an RSS reader, then you may have to clickthrough to see the embedded slides

The Seven Misconceptions of Youth Marketing by Paul MacGregor of the Three Billion Project.

“Don’t think about advertising. Think about entertainment”

Go the Slideshare page

Goodness and Happiness – Why Generosity is the Future of Marketing Strategy by Neil Perkin of IPC

To use the old Google mantra, don’t be evil. And to paraphrase Hugh Macleod; marketing should be useful, not a punch to the face.

Go the Slideshare page

Planning Needs Some Planning by Gareth Kay of Modernista!

“The future of advertising isn’t messaging. It’s in ideas that solve business problems in a culturally positive way”

Go the Slideshare page

Strategy: Beyond Advertising by Adrian Ho of Zeus Jones

Zeus Jones are proponents of marketing as a service. This presentation looks at the failures that may be necessary to reap success

Go the Slideshare page – as I don’t think this format of presentation works in WordPress

Reconsidering the Advertising Industry by Alain Thys of Futurelab

An overview of the Futurelab Agency report, looking at challenges, remedies and future models for the advertising agency.

Go the Slideshare page

As a bonus link, Peter Kim has accumulated predictions for social media in 2009, constituting the thoughts of 15 leading voices in the sphere. Check out a summary or download the full report here.

My Slideshare links are found at the bottom right of this blog. Alternatively, you can visit my profile and subscribe to my favourites.

SIDENOTE: One aspect of my behaviour that is positively correlated with my lethargy is Twitter usage. Go figure.


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IAB/PwC data shows continuing growth in online ad spend

The latest stats from the IAB / PwC Internet spend report show that the online advertising market is now projected to hit £3.2bn in 2008. In the first 6 months of the year, £1,682.5m was spent on online advertising. Like for like, this is up 21% year on year.

This is continuing the phenomenal growth trend that online has seen over the last 5 years. However, there is a sign that the market is starting to mature. Like press and TV, online appears to have a seasonal effect. Q2 is relatively weaker than Q1, as Q1 is strong on travel (January gloom leading to holiday bookings), autos (new registration period) and finance (end of the fiscal year).

In Half 1 of 2008, 18.7% of the UK advertising market was taken up by online spend. This is up 4 percentage points in a single year – quite a significant shift. It can only be a matter of time before online overtakes display press and TV.

However, a note of caution must be made here. Online is essentially four media in one. Press spend is split out by classified and display, so surely Internet should be split out into search, classified, display and solus email. If it were, the share graph would be modified to look like the below (solus email is accounts for less than 0.1% and so is omitted).

(Click through for the bigger version. Apologies to the IAB for messing with their chart)

This is by no means meant to detract from the massive growth in online spend. Aside from cinema, online is the only media that saw an increase in spend in H1. If online growth had been static (and ignoring any substitution effects), the advertising market would have fallen by 4.6% rather than 0.7%.

The full presentation can be found here, but is restricted for members only. The press release available to all is available here (pdf link opens in a new window).


We Need to Change: Presentation on Market Research

Helge Tennø has created several visually arresting and thought provoking presentation decks and the latest is no exception.

We Need to Change is – in his words – a loosely structured collection of thoughts and references regarding the mediocre but promising state of market research

(RSS readers may need to click through)

I like the general thrust of the piece but don’t wholeheartedly agree with the conclusion. Ethnography is useful in situations where complex interactions can be synthesized and extrapolated to a wider population, but it is not a fix-all solution.

Saying that, I recognise the intrinsic flaws of rational surveying and am fully supportive of the moves to complement, or even supplant, survey data with observed behavioural information on a mass scale.


When did we start trusting strangers?

Following on from their (very useful) Social Media tracker, Universal McCann have released some follow up research entitled When did we start trusting strangers?

(RSS Readers – you may have to click through to see the slideshare presentation)

It explores the influence that we wield online, and how consumer generated content – whether blogs, reviews or comments – affect our purchase behaviour.

It is well worth checking out, and I completely agree with their conclusions.

Everyone matters and brands have to embrace these new forms of communication to reach out and interact (openly and transparently) with their current and potential customers.

The word conversation is horrendously overused but there is a huge amount of chatter out there. It is far better to be a part of it than it is to look in from the outside or – worse – ignore it.


Winners of the 2008 Slideshare Presentation Contest

To combat the cynicism of my previous post on bad research, let me congratulate the authors of the three fantastic presentations below.

They show that irrespective of whether the message is serious or whimsical, it is possible to truly engage an audience via PowerPoint/Keynote through thoughtful and creative design.

For additional category winners and honourable mentions, go to the results page here.


Free Baby Free

Richard Laermer has made his new book 2011: Trendspotting for the Next Decade (click through for the Amazon link) available as a free download.

Divided into 9 chapters and 77 sub-chapters, it offers a funny and irreverent look into what we can expect in the coming years.

Well worth a download scan (force of habit), in my opinion. Go to the Free Baby Free website, fill in your email address and it will be sent over.