Q&A: AKQA’s Bedecarré

SAN FRANCISCO Tom Bedecarré, CEO of AKQA, works for global clients Nike, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Visa, among others, and is constantly shuttling from the 12-year-old agency’s headquarters in San Francisco to offices in London, Amsterdam, Shanghai, Washington, D.C., and New York. General Atlantic, a private equity firm, bought his $100 million shop in February for an estimated $250 million.

In an interview with senior writer Joan Voight, the 51-year-old account veteran talks about the challenges American brands face as sponsors of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the future of digital communications and why some marketers are “missing the boat.”

Q: How are your global clients, including Olympic sponsors Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Visa, approaching the Summer Games?
A: Most are fascinated by the opportunities in China and are using the Olympics as a way to reach out to the Chinese. Their interest goes beyond selling more shoes or hamburgers or sodas. There is genuine interest in how Chinese cities and consumers are like us, and how they are different. I find it intriguing to see the Coke executives from Korea and Nike executives from Australia who are raising their hands to relocate to marketing positions in China. I see our clients wanting to use their Olympics marketing as a cultural bridge. There has been this incredible warm-up among marketers to the big coming-out party for China, which is the Olympics.

How does digital communications fit into this coming-out party for China?
The Olympics are a global cultural exchange, a time when you really care about that Russian weightlifter and want to learn about him. There is a feeling you want to get to know the world better and that is exactly what the Net is good at. Digital communications are a natural global medium. In China the difference is that more Chinese access the Web on their mobile phones than on PCs. Because of that, brands such as Coca-Cola have run Web promotions [in China] in which more kids sign up via their mobile phones than via PCs. Without a doubt, mobile marketing will be a bigger component in this Olympics than it has ever been before. Mobile phones (which are essentially pocket PCs) are what’s happening there—and eventually will be what’s happening here in the U.S. When you see what the Web looks like on the iPhone or another pocket PC, that’s our future.

What are the other digital differences in China?
Online video games are insane there. A crazy number of people play them. Something like 10 times as many people in China make avatars of themselves compared to the U.S. For the Chinese it is an everyday experience. Also they use Internet cafes to go online, so the cafes have these online gaming tournaments. In the cafes you can market products online and offline at the same time.

What are the unique political issues that Olympic sponsors will face in China?
In China there is more content control on the Internet. If you have a social networking campaign there, you can’t let people download anything they want and you can’t encourage them to be as outrageous as they want. The media is more controlled and digital content has to be more moderated.

What advice do you have for smart U.S. marketers, as the world gets more digital?
Make the investment now to use mobile marketing globally. Because mobile is not big in the U.S. does not mean that you don’t need to learn it. Also, if you are a consumer product company and your digital budget is less than 15 percent of the total marketing budget, you are missing the boat. Compare your spending with how much time your customers are spending online via PCs, interactive kiosks, mobile phones and other devices. Smart marketers such as Nike decide from the top that digital is going to receive significant funding and tell their marketing managers to work out the spending allocations. On average, companies are spending half of what they should be spending. At smart marketers I find that there is a catalyst or evangelist with a digital point of view that keeps them ahead of the curve. For example, Unilever and Diageo bring digital best practices to all their marketing groups.

Some online marketing people say that consumers don’t want to always be engaged, spoken to or listened to. They just want their content and their product. Your reaction?
I disagree strongly. Some customers may not want to have a conversation on your Web site, but they want lots of engagement in lot of other places online. Smart marketers will reach their target audience online wherever that target happens to be. Marketers can engage them in social networks, or to share some funny video or enter a contest or to sign up for an e-mail reminder. For instance, our agency developed a Sprite contest in which consumers created a theme song for a LeBron James TV commercial. More than 12,000 songs were created and the winner garnered thousands of votes. In another example, Nike sponsored 10k races one day this year in Latin America and more than 100,000 runners competed.

When will the digital marketing hit for the Olympics?
Look for them to start in the fall. Our clients [such as Coke and McDonald’s] are so big it takes time to get full approval. It is ambitious for these companies to do anything global—marketing directors all over the world have to buy into it.

Are you going to acquire any other agencies or marketing specialists in the near future?
We are talking to lots of agencies and looking for opportunities to add to our capabilities through acquisitions. Our approach is similar to the deal that just happened [July 30] with iCrossing, a search agency buying Proxicom, a Web site building company. Except we would be buying the search, data analysis or other digital specialist.

Is education part of your service to clients?
Yes, we help educate some of our clients internally. In fact, I have never before been asked to talk to clients about marketing so much as in the last two years. Clients, including very major advertisers, will say to us, ‘We know we are behind what do we need to do,’ and sometimes we feel like asking them back, ‘Where have you guys been?’