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Brands Go Direct to Tech

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Can weeklong trips to Silicon Valley teach old-school marketers new digital tricks?

Colgate-Palmolive, Bacardi, Unilever and Coca-Cola—which have built their global brands largely on the back of traditional advertising platforms—are hoping that they can.

The treks, which involve groups of 20-40 from each company, are arranged by Michael Kassan (pictured), CEO of Los Angeles media consultancy MediaLink and a slick operator who never met a conference panel he couldn’t moderate. The marketers visit Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Microsoft, Amazon and Yahoo in search of digital solutions to marketing problems—a clear acknowledgement that today’s digitally savvy consumers are forcing the hands of brands that continue to spend the bulk of their marketing dollars on traditional advertising.

Implied in these tours is skepticism about the depth of digital knowledge and capabilities at ad agencies. Yes, many shops have hired digital gurus, but marketers wonder if these creatives actually know the technology well enough—and are leading edge enough—to move quickly from concept to execution.

A former media agency leader with clients in both the technology and marketing worlds, Kassan books and curates the trips, which cost each marketer hundreds of thousands of dollars and feature group meetings that last three hours each. Brands bring a variety of top-level executives, including CMOs, CEOs and division chiefs.

Unilever, which went first in May 2010, took a group of 20 that included CMO Keith Weed and president of global foods, home and personal care Mike Polk. “The catalyst for going was the broad recognition that we need to stay on the leading edge,” Polk said. “We have had an extraordinarily high payback on the investment in that time.”

During the trip, according to Polk, Unilever inked a deal to become a charter advertiser on Apple’s iAd platform and laid the foundation for a partnership with Facebook. Since then, he added, the company’s category leaders have used digital channels in a “more detailed and informed way.”

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