Backstage @ Signal P&G: Digital drives advertising futures

The auditorium stage at Procter & Gamble is dim; the armchairs are put away, as are the teleprompters and the cool lighting. The Silicon Valleyites have left town.

A one-day whirlwind last week, called Signal P&G, brought nearly two dozen Silicon Valley thought leaders to Cincinnati to weigh in on the state of the digital universe at the headquarters of the world’s biggest brand builder and advertiser.

Senior execs from Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Microsoft and elsewhere made their way to Cincinnati for a skull session on connecting with people through the rapidly evolving world of digital media. They’ve gone back to the Valley and the P&Gers and others who, by invitation, were there, have returned to their cubicles. So the question now is: what’s next?

Nearly 2,000 people either attended or listened in via Webcast as people like Dick Costolo, the CEO of Twitter, Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL, and David Fischer, a senior VP at Facebook, pointed the way toward brand-building in the digital future.

The technology is developing so quickly that we shouldn’t feel left behind if we’re trying to catch up, says Brian Cooley, editor of tech publisher CNET. “If you’re head’s not swimming, then you’re not paying attention,” he says.

The day was similar to other “Signal” events put together by Web publisher Federated Media. They’ve organized Signal LA, Signal Chicago and Signal Austin, but no corporation has hosted one – until last week in downtown Cincinnati.

As D.J. Patil, a data scientist for Valley consultant Greylock Partners says, “It’s a unique time for a lot of us to come together. It’s funny that we have to come all the way out to Cincinnati to interact.”

One big takeaway: The world’s biggest advertiser is very serious about spending more of its $8 billion marketing budget on digital, interactive and social media.

That has huge implications for ad agencies everywhere, including in Cincinnati, home to dozens of design, branding and advertising firms. So how to get on and stay on the leading edge of digital marketing and win business from P&G and other brand builders?

We ventured (virtually) backstage at Signal P&G and listened to some of the marketing wizards to find answers.
Dave Knox is co-founder of The Brandery, an Over-the-Rhine based accelerator, a former P&G marketer and now chief marketing officer of interactive agency Rockfish. He says taking a cue from P&G and getting in tune with what consumers are really doing in the digital world would be a great first step.

“How do we think with the consumer and how are they using those things,” is what marketers should know, he says backstage. “And not just the shiny object, but go after the one that’s really being used by people. It’s important to have a pulse not just on what consumers are doing, but on what they’re interacting with.”

CNET’s Cooley allowed that permitting failure is essential to success. “That’s one of the entrepreneurial traits,” he says. “Being able to fail elegantly, intelligently, gracefully and without being wounded. And that comes from the top – to say, ‘OK, you didn’t fail, you failed on this project.’”

Digital media is merely an effective way to communicate about something of value, says Tim Armstrong, the chief of AOL.  “When things are fun and new, people tend to use them, but brands get built by being fun and new on a consistent basis – innovation,” he says. “Over a long period of time, to build a brand, you have to have a real product and a real service.”

Possible Worldwide is one Cincinnati agency that creates a lot of digital work for P&G and others. Possible employs more than 300 marketers, designers and other creatives downtown, and is part of an agency consortium that claims offices in 24 cities. That in turn is a part of WPP, the London-based ad agency giant.

Among its most recent digital creations is a Facebook application for P&G’s “My Black is Beautiful,” a holistic marketing campaign that encourages African-American women to share their stories and upload images. Just launched in February, the site has more than 250,000 fans. For P&G’s Bounty brand, Possible redesigned the site, conducted eye-tracking research and re-oriented the site to give visitors quicker access to content. Because it was easier to navigate, web surfers spent more time there.

For Cincinnati-based Macy’s, Possible designed an interactive kiosk called “Beauty Spot,” where shoppers can search for and select lipsticks and other beauty products without wandering from one cosmetics counter to the next. Macy’s began testing the technology in October. For ConAgra’s Orville Redenbacher brand, Possible created the Pop Cam game, a Facebook application where players try to catch virtual kernels of popcorn.

Some of these Web creations are cooked up in Possible Labs in the basement of the agency’s West Third Street offices. It’s a sort of skunk works where Web designers get to play with the serious intent of making Web diversions that will engage consumers, get them interested in brands and persuade them to linger online.

“One of the things we want to do is move our clients from the age of communication to the age of participation,” says Marc Connor, chief marketing strategist at Possible Cincinnati. “Technology is the underpinning for that.”

Downtown-based Sound Images and its sister firm,, bring websites alive with sound and music. “Just about everything we do has a Web application these days,” says founder and president Jack Streitmarter.

His clients are often looking for “a dynamic treatment of what may be a very mundane product,” he says. “We need to give them a reason to go to their website and watch their movie.” He looks for audio engineers, video engineers, animators and illustrators to help do that. “These people have to understand the medium,” he says.

Along with technical chops, he also looks for people who understand storytelling and engaging consumers. “When a company comes to us, they may have the skills, but they’re asking us to tell the story.”

The story of last week’s Signal P&G may be a more robust embrace among Cincinnati’s marketing community of the value and urgency of accelerating the learning, skills and attitude to thrive in the digital future that is already here.

Backstage at Signal, Michael Lazerow, CEO of social media software firm Buddy Media, may have answered the “what’s next” question best: “It’s going to be a very significant driver, this meeting, of how people think, how the leaders of this company and the leaders of our companies think about growing their businesses, which ultimately is about changing the world.”

David Holthaus covers business for The Cincinnati Enquirer and

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