Ad man David Berkowitz is Chief Marketing Officer at Publicis Groupe's MRY, a New York City-based digital marketing and technology agency. He heads up marketing operations, directs the agency's communication strategy and tries to gain visibility for clients such as Visa, Coca-Cola and Adobe.
MRY, formerly known as Mr. Youth, was founded in 2002. The agency was acquired in 2011 by LBI, which in turn was purchased by Publicis a year later. MRY absorbed LBI’s North American operations when LBI combined with another Publicis digital agency, Digitas, in 2013.
Since joining the firm shortly after that merger, Berkowitz launched pilot programs such as Mobile Week and the world's first Vineathon, "an event where people come together to create content for no reason other than to learn by doing." In addition, MRY won accolades in 2013 as Mashable's Digital Innovator of the Year and MediaPost's Social Agency of the Year.
Writing, Speaking, Sharing
Before MRY, Berkowitz was VP of emerging media at Dentsu's 360i, were he worked for more than seven years. He contributed to the marketing strategies of a number of Fortune 500 clients, including Coca-Cola, Oreo, Smirnoff, Bravo and Oscar Mayer.
Berkowitz has published MarketersStudio.com since 2005 and also writes for several other publications. He's spoken at more than 250 events globally, including Cannes Lions, SXSW, CES and iMedia, and has given guest lectures at Yale, MIT, Google and Coca-Cola. He's also mentioned regularly in the press, and has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and USA Today, among others.
But today, we're featuring him in CMSWire.
Sobel: Back in 2000, you created the collateral for a startup whose main product was Popupshop.com, which promised "end-to-end e-commerce in a pop-up window." Recently media analyst and critic Douglas Rushkoff described the business model of this startup that died twelve years ago in his book Present Shock.
He stated, "In the upcoming rather holistic model of online marketing, the banner ad is no longer a click-through to some other website, but it is the store itself. The ad unfolds and the customer can make a purchase right there and then." That was the PopUpShop.com business model. Can you talk about that?
Berkowitz: It was eerie to read one of my favorite authors and prognosticators inadvertently laud the business model of my first corporate employer. Rushkoff also may have been stretching too hard to make a point there, as the banner ad itself is at best a necessary evil and more of a remnant of some other time, like the digital version of our coccyx. Popupshop.com's idea was to take that ad and superimpose it over whatever else you were trying to do digitally, and ‘allow’ consumers to shop in that ad. It was way too interruptive.
Yet the Popupshop.com and Rushkoff versions of the melding of retailing and advertising are coming to fruition in various ways. Advertisers and publishers are focusing more on creating experiences for consumers — ideally experiences people want. It’s the driving force behind native advertising (an overused buzzword, but useful here). For instance, if you’re reading stories about the best ways to save money traveling, you may well want to search for deals from an ad rather than leaving the site.
What Rushkoff and Popupshop.com got wrong though was that when retail and advertising collide, the best experiences tend to look like Instagram or Pinterest, where people are sharing their interest in and advocacy for products and brands. On such platforms, so much of the content there is advertising that no one paid to distribute, so ads fit in seamlessly and are often embraced.
Sobel: In 2006 you joined ad agency 360i as VP of Emerging Media. In that role, you co-founded agency's social media marketing practice and helped build its Emerging Media practice, developing and executing strategy for Fortune 500 brands around social media, mobile marketing and other channels. 2006 was very early in the world of social media. How have things changed?
Berkowitz: In 2006, few marketers believed social media mattered to their business. That was the first big challenge. All the digital marketing pioneers spent years trying to get brand-side marketers familiar with how search engines worked, and suddenly we started saying, "Instead of caring what search engines say about you, you should start caring about what your current and future customers say about you."
It was, at the time, a Herculean effort for marketers to shift from focusing on their reputation in Google to their actual reputation. Google was almost a distraction. It's as if marketers cared so much about sweeping the sidewalk in front of their store that they weren't paying attention to the people shopping there.
Another big change is that media companies didn't have any great ways for brands to reach people via social channels. Facebook in its fairly early days was tapping Microsoft to sell banner ads on its site. Meanwhile, MySpace let advertisers somehow make its site even uglier than it was before. It’s as if every ad was designed by Michael Bay. Marketers could also connect with bloggers, but even the word "blog" sounded like a noise people make once they realized they got food poisoning. Marketers weren’t in a rush to change tactics.
Today, it's all much more sophisticated. Social has scale. You can target whoever and whatever you want. Instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars on a big social push as was the case in 2006, you can spend tens of millions of dollars. But it's not all for the better.
There was a little more idealism back in the early days. Not everyone wanted a quick buck. Not every blogger demanded cash up front before looking at your product. Marketers could take part in conversations about their products without paying for every last bit of exposure. Today, everyone wants to get paid. As soon as a platform like Vine gets big, even if they're not selling ads, the people getting big there are selling out as fast as they can.
Sobel: In 2013 you joined MRY as CMO. You’ve had quite an interesting 18 months in that role. Can you tell us about some of you achievements?
Berkowitz: There's a lot that I'm proud of over the past year and a half at MRY. I'll give one recent example from late last year that I take a lot of pride in. In late November, Snapchat came out with a way for users to send money to each other within the app.
Right after it happened, a couple strategists came up to me and said, “We want to do something with this where MRY will accept payments for something.” That was pretty much the entire idea. I right away said, “Great. Let me know what you’re thinking, and if we can hit on a good idea, I’ll promote it through MRY’s channels and get the budget for it.” It wound up being a big idea, where MRY would accept briefs from actual businesses for $20, and we’d have a team set up to come up with taglines, logos and positioning statements.
We launched SnapAds on Giving Tuesday in early December with the tie-in that we’d donate any funds received to Pencils of Promise. By then, the strategists had worked around any legal issues, found a way for a corporate entity like ours to accept money through Snapchat, and launched a microsite as the hub for the campaign.
As you can tell throughout all this, I didn’t come up with the idea or do anything that mind-blowing myself. But I get to contribute to a culture where great ideas come from anywhere, and my first instinct is to say yes to anything promising rather than look for ways to shoot it down. I’ve got an excellent marketing team (namely Kate Bryan and Adam Ilenich) to handle public relations, promotion through social channels and other aspects of the job. I’ve got the support of the CFO and CEO to shoot first and fill them in later.
I wish I could have ideas as good as SnapAds every day, but then again, I work with hundreds of people who have their own ideas, and if we can use our own brand of MRY as a test case, then all the better. We can and should be faster than our clients typically can, and we can afford to be a little less precious about our brand. That kind of flexibility and adaptability in turn defines the brand and makes it possible for everyone with an MRY business card to take ownership of the brand they represent.
Sobel: In a recent posting on your blog, you wrote, “Once upon a time, an industry became obsessed with storytelling. But it gradually came around to the idea that no one listening to those stories could remember anything about them, so the industry people found a more meaningful way to connect with their audiences. And they all lived happily ever after. The end.” Can you explain?
Berkowitz: There are few things more gratifying than to unleash an idea and see it resonate with others. The story about the end of storytelling is something that was more than a year in the making. The more that I went to events focused on storytelling, the more the whole idea seemed so archaic. Heck, a lot of the discussion around storytelling would involve someone invariably bringing up the stories our distant ancestors would tell in caves tens of thousands of years ago. I’d like to think we’ve learned a few things and changed since then.
Storytelling is emblematic of the broadcast mindset and very 20th century. The operative part of the word is “telling.” It’s not about what works well in the current century, such as listening, sharing and collaboration. Coke can say its tagline is “live positively,” and there isn’t one Coke drinker in a hundred who will know the slogan and not one in a thousand who will go to livepositively.com.
It’s fine as a mantra to rally the company around, and perhaps very important for such a purpose, but Coke telling people to live positively isn’t going to change anyone’s behavior. Yet when Coke came out with its cans last summer that had people’s names on them, people were sharing those cans with friends, creating videos about them, and telling their own stories. For brands, your story doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as the stories your customers tell about the brand.
Sobel: Last April on the MRY Blog you wrote an interesting story entitled “Augmented Reality is No Match for You Tubed Reality." In the posting mentioned a marketing stunt by Pepsi MAX UK. You said “The marketer overhauled a London bus shelter to make it seem like UFOs, robots and tigers were invading the street in this made-for-YouTube campaign that stopped traffic for a few hours.” Can you share you thoughts here?
Berkowitz: The main reason brands care about investing in big out-of-home marketing stunts is YouTube. One of my favorite stunts is the Telekinetic Coffee Shop Surprise to promote the movie Carrie. It has tallied 60 million views so far, and it’s hilarious. How many people were in that coffee shop for the few hours or so that this happened? How many could shoot a good enough video to properly show what was going on? The only reason the stunt worked is that there were hidden cameras ready to capture every angle so that an editor could put it together in a way that hooked viewers and then promoted the movie.
As far as “augmented reality vs. YouTubed reality,” the technologies used in a made-for-YouTube stunt don’t matter. It could be drones or flying cars or virtual reality or alchemy. If there’s some YouTube video that goes viral about someone turning lead into gold, it doesn’t mean alchemy is making a comeback, but rather that someone mined alchemy for a great video. With the London bus shelter, the stunt featured an application of augmented reality, but augmented reality was the means to the end, and it’s the end that matters. Typically, such stunts all end up on YouTube.
Sobel: In 2012, when you were still with 360i, you went to Israel and met with Carmel Ventures, where you presented to their partners, startups and other guests on How Startups Can Connect with Brands. Can you share with us some of your suggestions?
Berkowitz: It’s interesting reviewing this presentation today, because a lot has changed since the spring of 2012 in terms of the tactics for how startups can work with brands. Now, there are some great services like Partnered where startups can offer pilots and respond to brands’ requests, and those options didn’t exist at all in 2012.
When I met with Carmel Ventures, the talk was a bit different. It was explaining to startup and venture capital executives how brands should evaluate opportunities to partner with startups. In essence, it was a crash course in what people like myself were thinking about so they could hone their offerings better to what marketers wanted.
I mentioned four criteria in particular that brands should use to evaluate startups. First is Value: what’s in it for the brand, and how can working with that marketer add value for the startup’s audience. Then there’s Applicability: what makes it more relevant to that brand rather than any other. Could Ford do some activation just as easily as Nike, and even at Ford, is it more applicable at a certain time for a certain brand?
Next is Prominence: how can the brand stand out in that experience and get its message across, albeit without turning off the app’s users?
And finally, there’s Ingenuity: why the marketer should work with that app as opposed to any that are similar. There are some wildcard factors too, like the management team, service, cost and scale.