After an August in which almost the entire ad industry turned off the lights and headed for the sun, it's back-to-school time for adland this week. Expensive tans are wearing new season Mad Men suits (now even clients are sporting T-shirts it's time for the creative industries to rediscover style), conversations are "Nudge"d by the latest industry buzz book (the essential beach read and more of which later), BlackBerrys are fired up to take party season bookings, credit-crunched cost cuttings are hatched.
So as the industry regroups and sets its face towards recession, what more fitting welcome back than a chilling vision of the communications future.
It's called Coma and you'll find it on Crackle and it could be a blueprint for a new commercial model. First, all you need to know about Crackle: it's a multi-platform video entertainment channel, it screens its own shows. But you can upload your own videos to share with others, and the whole thing is owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment. Find it at http://crackle.com.
Coma is a new show on Crackle. Have you seen it yet? Oh, you simply must take a look. It's just like a Tarantino, you know. It's his style. Love the ice cool soundtrack, the razorblade cinematic editing. It's even got Reservoir Dogs' Mr Blonde, Michael Madsen. And George Hamilton. You've heard of them, of course.
I haven't detected a fathomable plot yet but since we're only two episodes in I'll let that ride. So far Coma has all the marks of a self-consciously slick, super stylish noir thriller. Throw in the celeb stars and you've got a web series that's several leagues above the current norm.
So Coma is watchable. It's entertaining. It's also a very smart commercial. Entertainment as advertising; advertising as entertainment. Take your pick. The series is sponsored by Sony Electronics. It will showcase the new Sony Vaio PCs. And Microsoft's put some money on the table, so we'll also get a dose of Vista Ultimate promos. And there's more. It's all shot on Sony's high definition cameras and a Sony Blu-ray disc of the director's cut will be distributed free in the US this autumn.
Get the picture? Sony, Sony, Sony. No money spent on media placement, no money spent on traditional creative agency services. And though the whole deal was architected by a media agency – Universal McCann – you can see a scenario where Sony gets it's corporate act together sufficiently to be able to organize all this itself.
Then what? The truth is that some of the world's biggest advertisers are leveraging their own creative resources to build new ways of promoting their brands without recourse to the traditionally structured advertising industry. It's not entirely a new trend. Remember last year's Where are the Joneses?, the online comic soap brought to you by Ford. But Coma's artful weaving of the Sony family of brands takes the whole concept on a leap.
It was only ever a matter of time before advertisers took control. For years they seemed content enough to slip their small commercial messages into the little pauses that broadcasters made for them between the nice programmes and to pay media owners and agencies for making it all happen. Now they want to make the programme, star in it and broadcast it themselves. No agency necessary.
The big flaw in the master plan so far is that viewing figures to web shows are still, relatively, small. And viewers are unlikely to tune in without either some traditional advertising to point towards the shows, or some clever PR to launch them. Or both.
And branded content is unlikely to replace high impact brand advertising for some time yet. Sony knows that better than most: it has some of the best, award-garnering, advertising around.
Still, you can see the possibilities. And for the big entertainment groups like Sony, the web is becoming a powerful tool to distribute content without losing out on revenue. Sony is already using online taster shows to drive sales of DVDs. It currently releases 100 or so movies direct to DVD and from 2009 several of those will be trialled and promoted on the web first.
Similarly, Paramount took to the web to sell its Jackass 2.5 movie, streaming it for free online to generate word-of-mouth, then releasing it straight to DVD with the option to pay for an ad-free download version.
Add in commercial support, product placement, sponsorship and online advertising opportunities and the commercial possibilities mushroom. The smartest ad agencies will now be working out how to leverage their own creative resources to carve a role in this new world order. Otherwise more big brands might try the DIY route.
Barnet is not quite where you'd expect to find the heartbeat of fashionable marketing thinking. But students of adland's latest essential beach book, Nudge, will be interested to note that the London borough is about to put into practice the theories currently being showboated in agency boardrooms across town.
There's always an adland "book of the moment", dropped artfully-casually into power conversations and stuffed into powerpoint presentations: Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics have been there before. This summer it's Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's Nudge that's got adland posturing and Barnet plotting.
Here's my thumbnail guide to the plot: behavioural economics is the study of how our seemingly free choices are actually affected by the way we're presented with all the options.
So our choice of food in a café depends on where the different plates are placed as we slide our trays past; we're more likely to make healthy choices if the fruit is easy to see, easy to reach and the chocolate cake is pushed to the back. In the supermarket we'll buy the magazines displayed at the checkout where there's little time between impulse and purchase.
There are some very valuable lessons here for marketers keen to nudge purchase of their brands. Nudge, though, is about more than how to manipulate our consumerist decisions. It has a social conscience. And that's where Barnet comes in.
The borough has just been given a £100,000 grant by the Department of Communities and Local Government to devise ways of encouraging residents to reduce waste, based on the Nudge principles. The ideas are likely to pivot around making levels of waste a very visible "badge".
So the borough's most recycling savvy residents might be given smaller rubbish bins as a public marker of their reduced wastage. Or homes might be supplied free energy meters so they can easily track their energy usage. It's all about nudging us to make sensible choices rather than imposing punitive rules.
In a climate where overt commercialism, like overt consumerism, is becoming less palatable, the Nudge theories could unlock a new marketing solution. If they also provide a key for government to encourage greater social responsibility, even better.
Claire Beale is editor of Campaign
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