alan wolk, social media & being un-anonymous

Now that we all know that Tangerine Toad is really Creative Director Alan Wolk, most recently of FCBi, and the dust has settled a little bit on that revelation, it’s time to see if it was really worth it for him to do the big identity reveal and to ask other questions that I’m just curious to know the answer of.

Some people say that this post is late to the game, I just say that it’s considered. I’m sort of like the lone Apache that followed behind the main group of warriors to kill those who came out of hiding too early…not that the analogy is totally relevant or even useful (not to mention funny) in this context.

Let’s just move on to the interview with Tangerine Toad creator Alan Wolk, shall we?

Alan Wolk

Alan, now that your identity has been revealed, has the response been what you expected?

It’s actually been a lot better than I expected. To begin with, a number of friends actually emailed to say they’d been reading me for a while and how funny is it that it turned out to be me.

“De-anonymizing” has also allowed me to converse with people in the field as me, not some “anonymous blogger.” That’s been a real plus and made me realize that I really did establish something pretty special with The Toad Stool and that people want to hear from me. (Well, some people, anyway.)

Blogs are supposed to be a “conversation.” Do you find that industry blogs are engaged in meaningful conversation?

There’s such a wide range of blogs that touch on the marketing and advertising industries these days. Some are very serious, some very light-hearted. There are blogs that analyze the ins and outs of user experience, blogs that review ads and blogs where you can gripe if you feel screwed over by your last agency.

But there are a core group of blogs, the ones I find myself gravitating to the most, where people have serious conversations about the changes going on in our industry. It’s been very edifying for me to find people willing to have these conversations and to really give some thought to solutions. I’ve made a lot of new friends through the blogosphere.

It also comes as a great relief to the people I work with, no doubt, as I can now have these discussions online with like-minded people (such as yourself) rather than coercing unwilling victims into discussing the possible future benefits of 3-D virtual worlds or whether Starbucks is proof that design has become more important than advertising.

If “your brand is not my friend” how can brands be successful in the social media space

Brands need to bring utility to people. A brand that isn’t a Prom King Brand can still play in social media if they realize that people are not going to seek them out, even if they like and use the brand. Non Prom King Brands need to provide utility and value to consumers. That can be as simple as going onto sites their customers already use and sponsoring some sort of useful tool or providing a valuable coupon—something that acknowledges that they are a brand selling me something, not a friend hanging out with me and that as such, they need to do something for me, not the other way around. That’s a huge paradigm shift for most brands—telling customers what they want to hear versus telling them what the brand wants to say. But it’s the golden rule of social media.

To take another of your phrases, if “social media is only social when you’re alone” what does that mean for a marketer?

TV is a group activity, print isn’t. We still read the internet more than we watch it, though that’s changing. But social media, because it’s aimed at me, rather than us, is something I’ll need to do solo.

For marketers, that means that you need to figure out when I’m alone (work? late nights?) and what appeals to each individual- not the whole family. It also means that while Charlene Li is correct that “social media will soon be like air,” the family is not going to be eating dinner in front of their Facebook accounts any time soon. So we’ve got to target social media engagements to individuals as opposed to groups.

What Web 2.0 elements are here to stay and what were just flashes in the pan?

Well Twitter’s going to be a flash in the pan if they don’t get their act together soon in regards to their ever-crashing infrastructure. But if they do, I suspect that Twitter and its offspring are here to stay. I’ve been describing Twitter as being like an all day cocktail party that you can wander in and out of at will. It’s a useful median between one-on-one tools like IM and group tools like message boards. It also allows for both business networking and personal connection. People are still figuring out the boundaries and of course there’s always the issue of how to cashify it.

Second Life is often derided as being a flash in the pan. And way too many companies did jump onto that like lemmings. There was a cool factor among agency types too, in knowing what it was, even if your only exposure was a demo at a briefing. But ultimately it was the wrong move for most brands. That said, I think the technology behind Second Life can be useful and that the idea of virtual worlds is still valid. It just needs a less fantasy-based framework.

Then there are things like BrightKite, a location based social networking service. Many people I know (myself included) jumped at the chance to join and then when we got there it was “okay, now what?” But many people had the same initial reaction to Twitter, and look how that’s grown.

What’s important to remember is that a lot of these technologies grow organically and their primary use is defined by the people who use them, not the people who create them. Remember- YouTube was supposed to be a place to put up videos of your dog for your parents to see.

Okay, let’s talk about how social media fits within an agency offering. Should digital be a seamless part of a traditional agency’s offering like TV, print and radio or does it need to be separate?

Keeping digital separate is pretty foolish. It was done by necessity as the talent pool—and budgets—for digital projects didn’t match up to offline ones. And during Web 1.0 there wasn’t a whole lot of creativity to be found in digital.

But that’s changed dramatically and the distinction is becoming less and less valid. The value of traditional media offerings is dropping too: people consume less traditional media and when they do, they’re more skeptical of the ads they see there. As I wrote in “The Real Digital Revolution” TV and print ads are just there to remind us to go online and check out if the product is really any good. People are not using ads as their primary source of product information anymore. What’s more, sixty years of Bernbachian advertising has left us somewhat immune to its charms.

Can agencies make an ‘ad agency margin’ off of digital or was it sold too cheaply for too long?

It’s definitely been sold too cheaply. But as the industry matures, I suspect prices will go up. If for no other reason than clients will start demanding better production value. Handheld, unlit videos are great for a tiny YouTube window, but as we move to full-screen video, we’ll want better production value and better looking film and someone will need to pay for that.

We’ll also need to pay the people who make the ads (especially that Alan Wolk guy) and if profit margins are low, agencies won’t be able to attract the right people. And finally, the rise of social media will make Web 1.0 formulas like PPC (pay-per-click) less prevalent.

Are agencies structured correctly to respond to the quickly-moving digital world? Could they be structured better?

Most agencies are stuck in structures that were put in place about 60 or 70 years ago to produce print and (later) TV advertising for large national brands.

That structure is totally obsolete these days and is why so many agencies have trouble adapting to the new digital world. We keep trying to force fit these outmoded roles and job titles to the projects we’re tasked with and what happens is we wind up with both a lot of overlap and a lot of gaps.

The traditional art director/copywriter team was a wonderful way to create a print ad and quite a revolution from the old days when the copywriter came up with the ad and slipped it under the art director’s door.

But we need a new revolution. Today’s digital marketing programs require a whole new set of participants. Everything from user experience to technology to content creation. It’s a more involved process than before and requires more input and testing. (Not the specious “do you like it” testing that’s inflicted on TV commercials, but the realistic “do people get they’re supposed to click here” type testing that improves websites.)

That said, we need to remember that the less people that own a creative project, the better and that anything created by committee will unfortunately reflect that sensibility. So while other disciplines need to be brought in, there still needs to be a core group of people who concept the project and own the vision. What that core group’s titles and day-to-day responsibilities are is something we still need to work out. But as with most things social-media related, I suspect that the users (e.g. the agency teams themselves) will wind up defining the process and the way things are structured.

So, what’s next for Alan Wolk? What’s next for Tangerine Toad?

Alan Wolk is going to find himself a gig where he can put his social media and traditional advertising skills to work. As someone who gets both worlds, I’m in a unique position to provide agencies and clients with a bridge between the two: the ability to engage consumers and provide them with something entertaining yet conceptual along with the ability to innately understand the digital arena and why certain formats work and how to use them. I’ve been calling it a “creative strategist” role – almost a cross between a traditional creative director and a digital strategist.

The Toad Stool blog will still continue to be an important factor in my life and in getting the word out. I’ve actually found it’s easier to come up with post ideas now that I’m me (as opposed to Toad) and that I can focus on ideas I feel strongly about, like the growing class divide in America and its effect on marketing and media.

5 responses to “alan wolk, social media & being un-anonymous

  1. I’ll be curious to see if people care about him not that he’s not anonymous. It’s often much more interesting when the blogger is myserious unless you truly have a unique enough personality (George Parker for instance).

  2. @Chris – me too;)

    Though nothing I said was all that controversial as to make the “mystery” of my identity all that integral to my blog. I mean if you knew who Daily Biz, AdBroad or Jane Sample were, I don’t think you’d find them any less interesting.

    (As opposed to say, AgencySpy, where the mystery of her identity was a big part of the blog’s allure.)

    Time will tell.

  3. Mama Hemingway, Oak Park

    Now maybe we will also find out who Seth Godin is.

  4. That’s easy. Seth Godin is Barack Obama.

  5. @Cam – Ha! I knew there was a reason you never see them in the same room.

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