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Clients 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, 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.”

He also noted that while “the WPPs and the Omnicoms of this world are all moving fast to build the capabilities out . . . they all have a ways to go.”

The most recent participant, Colgate, brought CEO Ian Cook and 38 other executives to Silicon Valley two weeks ago, a week after Bacardi sent 25, including CEO Seamus McBride. Coca-Cola opted for a meeting at CES in Las Vegas and brought 40 people to it. Months before each trip, the tech giants are briefed on client issues, with the expectation that Facebook, Google and others will present viable solutions—and not boilerplate presentations.

For Kassan, aka Mr. Slipstream, the confabs represent an efficient way to create credibility, even if they come at the expense of his agency brethren. He acknowledged that WPP Group CEO Martin Sorrell has accused him of marginalizing agencies, but in some cases, he noted, the traveling clients bring agency leaders with them.

Besides, Kassan merely seems to be exploiting an agency credibility gap that already exists.
Because the meetings are designed to bridge the gap between branding experts and technology geeks, Kassan isn’t planning any reverse trips for techies to visit marketers or agencies. He hinted that he has lined up more major marketers but declined to name them.

Whether these confabs spark substantive new digital initiatives or are just the modern-day version of corporate golf outings remains to be seen. But Unilever, for one, is a believer.