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Q&A: Butler's Cotton

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SAN FRANCISCO Ed Cotton, director of strategy at Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, is considered the shop's secret weapon for new business by his fellow executives.

His reputation is confirmed by clients of the independent Sausalito, Calif., ad agency, which is best known for its Mini and Priceline work.

Cotton runs InFlux Strategic Consulting, a division of Butler, Shine that handles account planning, cultural insights and data analysis. He also writes a blog about branding (influxinsights.com) that attracts about 1,500 daily readers, oversees cultural tours for staff and clients and hosts an annual cultural insights conference for marketers and colleagues. And he is known to e-mail co-workers in the middle of the night with a new idea for a project. People wonder when, or if, he sleeps.

Cotton, 43, slowed down to share his views on the future of branding and the restless nature of modern consumers.

Q: What is a key challenge facing marketing as we go forward?
A: The new breed of communicators is in conflict with media people. Media people are opportunistic at the expense of the brand. They're willing to put ads on security checkpoint trays at airports, or on cell phones. No one asks consumers if that's what they want. Hallmark wants to put ads on greeting cards. I think that's shameful. As consumers see ads as pushing into their lives they will push back and it will become harder for all brands. Also, marketers have to be careful about making promises they can't keep. For instance outsourcing is starting to turn around, and companies are bringing customer service back inside the company because customer service has suffered and has poorly represented the brand. There is the saying, "No good things come of good words without good deeds." It's true.

How are consumers different in this digital era?
Brands need to offer consumers more utility before they even start a marketing conversation. Even then, consumer loyalty is much more tenuous than it used to be, people are more fickle and willing to switch around and try things. Netflix users love Netflix, but they are curious enough to try Blockbuster's latest movie rental service. Brands may think they have a premium position, but it doesn't last. The culture is, "What are you going to give me today?" As a marketing agency, it makes our job harder and more challenging. Marketers need to find clever ways of helping their customers.

Your agency split with Converse last week after four years. What lessons did you learn handling that account?
I can't really talk about the split. The account taught us how important it is to integrate the meaning and attributes of a celebrity with the essence of a brand. My work involved working with the creative directors to study Converse pitchman [NBA star] Dwyane Wade—uncovering who he was and what he meant to people. For example, we hung out with fans in Miami during the playoffs in 2005 and made a 10-minute documentary about Wade for the creative directors, called "The Wade Effect." I think it is naive to dismiss the power of celebrities in popular culture. And I also think too many marketers just want to get the celebrity to shout their name, and that's lazy.

Speaking of Converse, how do you think sports marketing fits into the evolving branding landscape? Is it ahead of the curve or behind the curve?
Ahead of the curve. Brands can learn a lot from sports franchises about the passion and enthusiasm of supporters. Sports, especially football, basketball and baseball, tap into layers and layers of emotion and play an important role in American culture, all things that powerful brands aspire to. For instance with the NFL brand, all of its marketing and communications show respect for its history. Sports teams are brands that understand that fans are a critical part of their livelihood.

What is your sport?
I was a cross-country runner in school in England. Now I'm training for the running portion of a triathlon that the agency is participating in. It's in June, it's eight miles and I have to get in shape.

How does your Influx team communicate brand attributes to clients and agency creatives?
We bring briefs, ideas and consumers to life using creative tools. We make brand books and brand films, such as in the Sun Microsystems pitch in 2004-2005 and we won the business. We like telling stories, and books and films are a good way to communicate.

Do you have particular people outside the advertising world that you tap for insights?
Influx has a consultant who we give the title, "head of cultural insights." He's James Friedman, a 28-year-old Brooklyn DJ who is very plugged into the music community and cultural trends. I talk to him two or three times a week. You can see his work at www.emergetrends.com. James also makes quarterly presentations on emerging cultural trends to clients and the agency.

Do you ever feel misunderstood?
We don't market the Influx group very well. People see the Mini work our agency does and they think of Mini as a client that likes to take risks and try nontraditional things. But [observers] don't realize that we have more research on Mini than any other client. This work is not just cool creative but it is a campaign that is working within a clear strategic framework.

Why did you leave McCann Erickson in Seattle eight years ago to come to work for a small agency like Butler, Shine?
I worked on Coke for McCann, which was fine. But I felt geographically isolated in Seattle. I wanted to come to San Francisco and to work in an entrepreneurial environment. People I knew at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco knew these guys and called for me and made the introductions. I was the first in-house planner for the agency.

You've been in the ad business for a while and embrace digital technology. Do you think traditional focus groups are dead?
Not at all. Many of them are bad, the ones that try to be a hybrid of qualitative and quantitative [research]. They should be conversations with the customer about the brand and the category and should be used as a guide in the marketing. They are not about science and math. They are not about dissecting a spot. There is a disciplined way to manage the discussion and the group dynamics to get valuable feedback. Also, they should be held in nice facilities so it feels like you are in a living room. Done well, I think they can be very useful.

Back to you. Tell us about your cultural tours and annual conferences.
We conduct one-day tours with any client or prospect that requests them. We did one recently for a San Francisco-based fashion brand, taking them around the new emerging cultural centers and retail locations in New York. We have also done sessions with our creative department in San Francisco, including a curated tour of a prominent art gallery, an afternoon discussion with both a magazine editor and a musician, and a meeting with one of the leading sneaker collectors in the city. Our conferences started in 2003 and the idea is to present thought leaders, such as Chris Anderson, Howard Rheingold, Eric Ryan of Method cleaning products, and Nike's trend team. Leading marketers and ad agencies from all over the States attend. I think planners should be looking ahead and this event helps by energizing us and exposing us to new things.

Who reads your blog?
Agency creatives, agency planners and marketers such as Gap, Procter & Gamble, Sony and Disney, among others.