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March 11, 2010
The Bigness of Small, Powerful Targets

Can today’s agencies handle microtargeted campaigns?

Unless you’re a political or news junkie, you might not be aware of Lou Dobbs’ recent departure as the host of a CNN Headline News show. It's no big deal. News anchors come and go, right?

There’s a bigger story here: Advertising played a big role in amping up the pressure on CNN to remove him or force him to quit. Typically, that means advertiser pressure, as in “call his advertisers and demand they remove their ads from his show.” No, this was different -- and damned effective.

Advocacy groups who didn’t like Dobbs and his political views hired a firm who placed Facebook ads targeted specifically at CNN/AOL/Time Warner employees. Then they ran ads on political blogs who break political news first and in turn, reach reporters from all over the political spectrum. Combined with other PR efforts, the idea of Lou Dobbs and his future at CNN turned from an advocacy advertising effort into a news story.

Are more consumer brands going to employ this strategy? Are most ad agencies even capable of pulling off this type of result? In today’s business and political climate, are consumers -- or people in positions of power -- the ultimate brand influencers?

We’re going to see more of this type of marketing, not less. A recent Supreme Court decision paved the way for corporations and unions to spend whatever amounts they want directly on Congressional and presidential races. At first, it won’t be an overt effort. You won’t see a Senate campaign sponsored by Monsanto or GE.

But it’s possible that a range of social change ideas, grass-roots ballot initiatives, and political candidates could have nearly unlimited corporate-funded advertising budgets behind them. Corporations and unions know that from a business standpoint, influencing politicians is often more vital to the well-being of their brands than influencing the public. Do most advertising agencies know it?

Clearly, this type of work is not a core competency of most ad agencies, but what if you knew the most potentially effective or influential idea for your client was outside your area of expertise? Would you pursue it? Would your agency encourage it?

Yes, there are firms that specialize in issue-oriented advertising, but I’d say the effort to pull Lou Dobbs off the air would make a great case study in microtargeted marketing for any ad agency, even one that does consumer work. I’ve worked on any number of campaigns where our target was comprised of “decision-makers,” yet we were given scant little information about how to reach them beyond traditional advertising methods like a direct mail campaign. In contrast, the effort to reach Lou Dobbs’ colleagues and influential media/political types showed real savvy in finding the right audience where they live. An idea like that doesn’t need to involve an issue or cause to prove its effectiveness.

We may also be looking at the future of pro-bono advertising. Agency folks love to do fancy pro-bono commercials and print ads in the name of doing good or reversing the negative karma we feel pushing endless consumerism. But how many would pursue a strategy like the one that affected Lou Dobbs? There’s little that’s sexy -- or potentially award-winning -- involved in that kind of effort. That’s why small, microtargeted tactics may be overlooked.

The way most agencies are structured now, orchestrating a small yet highly targeted effort like this would require a disproportionately large combination of digitally oriented thinkers, account and media planners, and creatives. Combined with the knowledge of what really makes a brand, and the company behind that brand, tick. It also requires a willingness on the part of the agency and its management to propose the most effective tactics to its clients, not the biggest, sexiest, or most profitable.

Clients are looking for results, and in many cases, mass marketing isn’t what they need. They’ll turn to whatever type of firm -- SEO firms, PR firms, advocacy agencies -- who can deliver. In today’s political and business climate, they’re willing to do and spend whatever is necessary to gain an advantage. I’m wondering if ad agencies are willing, too.

Otherwise, we may be targeted, too. For extinction. 

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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