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October 18, 2006
The YouTube Boom

An explosion shook the world last week. And I’m not talking about North Korea. Nope, the big story for our business is that three twentysomethings sold their dorm room startup to what was once a garage startup for $1.65 billion. Now while the diplomatic world is figuring out how to deal with Kim Jong Il, the marketing world is figuring out what to do with YouTube. Neither of these events should come as a surprise. Anyone who follows the news knows that P'yongyang has been working on its nuclear program for years. And anyone who follows our business should have more than a passing familiarity with YouTube.

Odds are you’ve been using it for a while — if only to view other people’s stuff via AdFreak or some other online hub where we go for relief, gossip, and inside looks at the work everybody is suddenly talking about. While not offering great-quality video, YouTube has made it possible to view content fast and across multiple platforms. It’s become so useful in fact, that it was starting to be taken for granted, until last week of course, when Google decided to make a deal. Money talks and now a trio of entrepreneurs are splitting upwards of a billion bucks. And more immediately, some agency people have become overnight believers spreading the gospel that YouTube is the new paradigm.

What does all this mean for us? For starters, a flurry of emails — mostly from agency’s new businesspeople sent mainly to chief marketing officers — promising to get them on YouTube. We can only hope that CMOs remain skeptical and those agencies on the YouTube epiphany bandwagon don’t give us all a bad name. While it’s important to be nimble, it’s more important to be right. YouTube is certainly cool. But it’s not the new paradigm. It’s just another step in an evolutionary process.

Over the past 10 or 15 years, our business has gone from being about advertising to being about brand communication. Over the past 5 years, it’s gone from being about broadcast and print to being about experiential touchpoints and interconnectivity. We’ve evolved with the technology, and so have consumers. They expect more from the brands we’re representing — at minimum they’re demanding respect and insisting on a dialogue. If consumers engage, they do it on their own terms. If consumers decide to care about your brand, they’ll make it theirs. “The consumer is in charge” has become a cliché. But like most clichés, it’s true. And it’s not easy for us, because it means we’re no longer in control. But if there’s one thing we can learn from Darwin, it’s this: adapt or become extinct.

Of course, just about everybody I know in this business can talk ad nauseum about interactive consumer engagement and the death of traditional media. But the truth is, most of us still depend on advertising logic and traditional media to build our cherished brands. It’s still content — which means it’s still about ideas. This means planners, account people, creative thinkers, designers, and technicians working together — with our clients — towards that proverbial big idea. How we get the ideas out, and how we tailor them to the media, is work in progress. But what we should not be telling our clients is that we’ll post their message on YouTube. With any luck, we shouldn’t have to. If we’ve been doing our jobs, the work should already be there.

Much of the work this agency has done, along with many of our competitors, is already available on YouTube. In our case, you’ll find spots from nearly 20 years ago along with work done in the past few months. Funny thing is, we didn’t post them: consumers did. People saw stuff they liked on TV and decided to share it with their friends. Borrowing a phrase from Alex Wipperfurth, the work got hijacked — and spread independently of our efforts. We never promised the client this would happen; it just did.

This is not to say that serendipity is a proper strategy for marketing virally online. Anybody working in the digital space knows that getting your content to the right users via the right sites exponentially increases the likelihood you’ll be passed along. There are key influencers with engaged audiences who are hungry for the right content. Get them talking and sharing, and you’ve got buzz. But this doesn’t happen by posting something on YouTube. There are too many millions of videos to choose from. It happens by crafting a great message. It happens because you’ve tapped into a consumer truth and married it to something relevant about the brand. Because you understand your target — not just as a demo but as individuals with passions and points of view. It happens because you’ve developed a comprehensive approach, found the magic, and executed flawlessly. It happens because at the end of the day, consumers connect with your content, feel an affinity for the message, and want to share it with others. YouTube is but a small part of this. And one thing should be clear. It happens, but it doesn’t happen for free.

An online viral program might cost less then a network TV plan, but it doesn’t happen for nothing. While you might pull something off for as little as $25,000, odds are you should commit to something closer to $200,000. Spend a million and you’ll have all your bases covered. You also need to be patient — allow 6 weeks to several months to seed it and for it to take root. And again, at the end of the day, no matter how much you spend, if the content isn’t great, it’s not going anywhere. — no matter how much you spend.

Checking back in on the news, there’s now talk that the North Koreans’ bomb may not have been a nuclear explosion at all. Or that it was so small as to be rendered a failure. Either way, they’ve sent a clear message and the world is certainly listening. Google also sent a message. And our world is definitely listening. But let’s keep our wits about us. Remember that things happen over time. And that if you’re playing with fire, know what you’re doing or you can get burned.

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Gregory Pruitt is president of Pruitt+Partners, a U.S.-based business development consulting practice. Pruitt previously served as VP/Director of Business Development at Cliff Freeman & Partners -- where during his tenure, the agency more than doubled its size and billings. Before that, he held senior business development positions at DeVito/Verdi and Ogilvy/141 Worldwide.

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