Buzz on the Street: Proactive Partners

I work with about 20 active clients of varying sizes and interactive needs every day. One of the common themes which has emerged among several of them lately is a common demand/complaint:

“We’re looking for you to be more proactive about our websites. We aren’t the interactive experts — if there’s something our website needs, we expect you to be proactive about telling us.”

The marketing industry has changed

In grad school we took for granted that the needs of the business community were vastly changing in the face of the internet. It was such a given at the theoretical level that we really didn’t spend all that much time talking about it. After all, it was so self evident to us as students that we had bellied up to the ivory tower for $30K in higher education just to prepare ourselves to be able to navigate these new and confusing waters.

As usual, the tactical world took some time to catch up. To be certain there are and have always been thought leaders and trend setters within the interactive business arena. Yet the great majority of businesses generally seem to still be stuck somewhere between begrudging acknowledgment of the web as a disruptive force that somehow needs to be tamed into behaving like more traditional communication channels, and those who have accepted the fact that the web is changing the rules of the game forever but aren’t ready to admit that this interactive influence is changing more than just the way the marketing/advertising dollars are being spent.

Not so any more. It is both frustrating and heartening at the same time to watch this shift of expectations, and a little bemusing to watch as everyone’s response is the same general line of thinking. “You interactive guys seem to know something about the internet, why haven’t you warned us about these changes which are happening and helped us to stay ahead of the trends?”

You’re my agency, educate me!

The tragic thing is that in most of these cases the interactive agencies have been fairly screaming at their clients to take certain directions and make certain changes to the means of communication in order to maximize the use of interactive tools. In many cases, we’re still attempting to advise and provide strategic leadership and information every day.

The difficulty is that we aren’t even yet at the point where we can educate our clientele yet about the grander scheme of things. It feels to me in many ways like we are struggling to teach our clients the basic vocabulary and grammatical rules of a foreign language and they complain bitterly that they aren’t Shakespeare or Voltaire yet. Even with a high degree of proficiency of this new communication form, there’s still a huge gap between operational mastery and genius, and we’re still working at finding ‘genius’ ourselves.

The real challenge with being proactive

Being proactive when you take it to its theoretical conclusion means that we, as a business partnership between each client and ourselves as an agency, need to do more than just react to the market. To be truly proactive, we will need a philosophy shift from ourselves and our clients, to push ahead and do more than just what is currently done and available. Breaking new ground somehow, forging ahead.

But all of the lessons that we are learning from the collaborative and open source online communities is that it’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel, just repurpose existing materials to make the wheels spin faster. So do we spend the time trying to break boundaries and really be proactive in the sense of finding something that is going to garner interactive street cred for both our clients and ourselves as developers and executors? Or do we lower the bar of proactive to simply mean that we take a more aggressive sales approach toward pushing our strategies onto our clients? Because as a veteran ad/marketing/promotions agency employee, let me just tell you <sarcasm> that works so well. </sarcasm> At most we gain ammo for future use with the ‘I Told You So’ gun.

And then, there’s the money.

Part of the real challenges with being proactive partners with any client is that agencies do what we do to make money. A long time ago (like, 10 years), the net used to be cheap. KInAB (‘kid in a basement’) used to run everything. Pages were static brochureware sites. Dinosaurs surfed the web. ‘Https:’ was a misspelling.

Not so any more.

The interactive sector is still going strong even with layoffs and the horrid economy. It seems that the business powers that be among clients still recognize (perhaps grudgingly) that interactive is the new marketplace. Even with the economic downturn money is still being funneled to agencies to help build, maintain, and upgrade interactive services.

But if you want to play, you have to pay. That’s the rules of the game, and they’re different rules in many places than the traditional agency billing structures of the offline marketing and promotions world. I’ve worked in three agencies and in all three, the interactive department was 100% time and materials. Meaning, if a client calls and I pick up the phone, that’s billable time for us and a fee that’s going to have to be paid for. Unlike the offline side where there are annual contracts with certain amounts of retained bodies and hours which come ‘free’ to the client with the annual payment schedule, interactive agencies tend to bill more like lawyers and less like advertisers.

And if you want us to be proactive, it’s going to cost you. No really, all those times that your Project Managers submitted scopes of work to you with time included for things like ‘Strategy’ and ‘Metrics and Analytics’ time? You remember, those line items that were first to be crossed off the list because of how expensive they were? Well, that’s the proactive part. Those are the areas which establish strategic thinking on the one side, and then measure to see if the strategy succeeded on the other. Pretty important line items in any budget.

The magic words for clients

If you are a client, and you are thinking, “We have this exact same problem with our own interactive agency! What should we do to get the right kind of strategy out from them?” then here’s my answer.

Here are the magic words to get proactive service out of an otherwise reactive agency relationship:

“I would like to begin a Discovery project. I want to do a site and content audit for the current site and engage your strategic services to generate a plan for our website for the coming year.”

That’s it. Those are the magic words. When spoken to your day to day Account Executive contact, immediately upon hanging up the phone or closing  the email box they will hit a secret button on their desk and  the red phone to the strategy department will come out. Your strategic importance to the agency (and if you don’t think we sort our clientele that way, you need to) will suddenly increase.

You will have to pay for this service. And you will need to pay for the SEO/Metrics and Analytics packages on the back end too. They will not generate any ‘thing’, except a proposed plan and maybe some Information Architecture documents. But you will see your agency put together a strategy document with supporting numbers and figures, and you will generate a new plan. If you do this project before your budgeting cycle, then you’ll also know how much to plan into your budgets for the following year.

Magic words. Every year. Eventually, your agency will remind you that it’s time for your interactive check-up, and then, finally… you’ll have a proactive agency.

A moment watching Hung

I admit it, I’m a fan of Hung, HBO’s new kinda-dark snarky comedy that airs on Sunday nights. And I would like to thank HBO’s writers and directors for creating the quintessentially perfect verbal set up with their lines and pauses from last night’s episode. It was the mot juste equivalent to a volleyball set and spike combination. Made all of us watching laugh, too, so it was a good scene, albeit somewhat Rocky Horror-esque.

The premise of Hung is that Ray Drecker, a high school history teacher/basketball coach, is hung like a horse and is making money to rebuild his home by getting pimped out as a straight male escort through the efforts of an ex-lover. Ray is talking to his pimp in the scene, and she is presenting him with a business plan which happens to include a budget for interactive.

Ray, reading the list, says, “What’s this?  $1,000 for a web site; $1,500 for a viral marketing campaign… that’s crazy!”

At which point, out from my mouth flew the words, “You can’t get anything interactive for that little money anymore.”  We laughed, but it made me think… I need to make a request.

Please help the interactive industry, HBO writers

By using those prices in the episode of Hung you are unfortunately reinforcing an out of date set of expectations which seems to be quite common, that interactive projects are by their very nature, cheap.

They’re not.

Back in the day (circa 1995), everyone spoke about the web as being incredibly cheap as a medium. And in many ways, it still is… when you’re talking about the functionality of the web back then. A web site was nothing more than text and images in a painfully constructed table format. It didn’t change. It didn’t move. It didn’t connect.

Welcome to Web 2.0. Things change. Sites are database driven and dynamically updated. A successful web site nowadays does more than just communicate static information, it creates an environment where the user can interact with the web site create or add to the content, thus enriching the experience and making the web site ‘sticky’, or a place where people spend a lot of time.

OK, bad word choice when using Hung as the frame

So maybe ‘sticky’ isn’t exactly conjuring the same picture given that we’re talking about a modern gigolo business. But still, HBO writers, please do us all the favor of updating your budget numbers because now you’ve effectively sold in the idea that even a “small” web site can afford to put a viral marketing campaign into place for as little as $1,500. Add another zero, or two if you want a really effective global viral marketing  campaign, and you’ll be closer to the truth.

Because the truth of it is, as with anything… you get what you pay for. And there are no small web sites, only small budgets. Meaning that potential clients will always complain that their web sites are small, and therefore deserve a hefty discount because the effort involved is minor. And it’s not. It never is. What’s really small isn’t their expectations, its their budgets.

Correct the problem please, HBO

So please, HBO. Maybe some time in season 2, revisit that concept of the budgets. Have the mousy pimp lady complain bitterly about how she underestimated the price of *good* interactive services, and throw in some realistic numbers. $25K – $150K would be more reasonable for the development of either a web site or a viral marketing campaign. Especially since your subject matter is selling adult entertainment services. If there’s any cash cow ever to be found on the internet it’s adult services. So where there’s a realistic expectation of regular income, the interactive companies are not going to be providing discounts AT ALL. In fact, they jack up (ahem) the prices because of the social taboos and hazy legal risks.

And besides… Ray Drecker is going about this all wrong. Take a page out of Season 1 from Heroes. Ray can make a crapload more money by investing all of his time and energy into running an adult website based around himself. If he’s truly hung like Boogie Nights hung, then he doesn’t need to whore  himself out. He can pick up cute women he likes from the bars, or even hire professionals from the adult industry scene, and tape sessions of himself in sexual situations with them. Those can be consolidated and offered on a subscription adult web site. He just needs  to protect his day job through some clever device, like always wearing a mask or a hood, etc. Do some solo scenes and that opens the door to both sides of the adult services audience.

Oh well. They never think these things through beforehand, do they? I guess that’s why we like watching these shows, like Hung and Weeds. The train wreck is already in progress and we just get to go along for the ride.