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Coming Out Party: Anonymous Blogger Alan Wolk Wants To Say Hi

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Meet The Toad aka Alan Wolk, the man behind the long running and previously anonymous ad blog, The Toad Stool. That’s right kiddos! He’s out of the adblog closet and ready to talk shop. Grab your lunch and settle in. Alan is going to take us through why he was anonymous; what his agency, DraftFCB thought about his blogging, as well as his take on what role and how social media plays out in the ad biz. Enjoy!

1. You’ve been penning your blog, The Toad Stool, anonymously since December 2006. Why did you originally seek out anonymity and why now, have you discarded it?

When I started the blog, it was really just as an experiment, to familiarize myself with the space. I didn’t think anyone other than the three or four friends I’d told would actually read it. I also didn’t know where I was going with it, and so a pseudonym seemed like a good idea.

Once it actually did start to take off , “Toad” became an incredibly strong branding device. Goofy as the name may be, it set me apart from other bloggers and added an air of mystery. But more importantly, it allowed people to focus on what I had to say, rather than who I was. So people were reading things like “Your Brand Is Not My Friend” without any preconceived notions as to who the author was and where he was coming from. That proved to be a real benefit.

Once my blog was established and I became a real voice in the social media and blogging community, I realized that the next step needed to be merging the actual Alan Wolk with the “Toad” brand. The anonymity had served its purpose, and the time was right to bring everything together and take advantage of all the equity I’d built up as “Toad.”

2. You describe yourself as tradigitalist. What’s your experience in both of these realms and how does it inform your view of advertising?

I call myself a “tradigitalist” (and hat tip to Techno//Marketer’s Matt Dickman for inventing that phrase) because I have a traditional ad creative’s grasp of conceptual advertising along with a native understanding of the digital realm and how people operate in it. It’s proven to be a more unique combination than I’d realized.

As for background, I started out in traditional advertising – my longest stint was at Anderson & Lembke, which was a hot boutique shop in the mid-90s. It was a wonderful place, sort of this advertising Brigadoon that rose up from the mist for about ten years and then disappeared. There were so many smart and talented people working there and the guys who started it really had some great ideas about process and structure and the value of an ad agency.

After A&L’s demise, I wound up at Atmosphere, which became BBDO’s web shop. I was employee #8, I think– I remember using boxes as desks those first weeks because we didn’t have furniture yet. Those were pretty heady days, during Web 1.0, as we were inventing it all from scratch, doing everything for the dot com clients from shooting their TV commercials to building their websites. But eventually the party came to an end and I went back to working in traditional for a few years at Ogilvy and JWT and then back to digital at Ogilvy and finally DraftFCB. Which left everyone confused as to what it was I actually did.

The real excitement of those 1.0 days didn’t start coming back until about a year or two ago, when all the 2.0 technology really took off. My role, as I see it, is to be the voice of reason, to be an evangelist for this new paradigm, while providing a reality check for all the Kool-Aid drinkers. Hence series like “Social Media Is Only Social If You’re Alone.”


3. What did your last agency, DraftFCB, think about your blogging? You just left a week or so ago.

Brad Kay, who runs the interactive department there, was very into it- he’s recently started his own blog – and he 100% got why it was a good thing for me to be so involved in this arena.

The rest of the agency, beyond the digital department (the old FCBi) was still busy sorting out the effects of the merger, so there wasn’t much opportunity to open up about it. I was only there a short time – maybe 14 months- so there wasn’t a whole lot of history or expectation to deal with either.

4. What role, if any, do you think ad blogs play in the industry? What role did your blog play?

What The Toad Stool hopefully does, is introduce social media and the major paradigm shift that comes with it to a traditional advertising audience while showing people on the other side of that equation how the lessons of traditional advertising still matter.

In “Your Brand Is Not My Friend” I talk about the mistakes marketers and their agencies make in social media by assuming that people want to hear from them and then I offer suggestions for the 99% of brands who aren’t lucky enough to be “Prom King Brands” – the Apples and Nikes of the world who people really do want to hear from. That series really got a lot of people thinking about how much we were assuming and how consumers were as likely to tune out a Facebook app as they were a TV spot. So I feel like I accomplished something there.

The other thing my blog does – and there are a bunch of bloggers, from all sorts of backgrounds who also make up this community – is give people a forum to figure all this out. Everything is changing so quickly, new technologies are being introduced daily, and it’s nice to be able to discuss them with likeminded people. It’s all pretty geeky, but the idea of how and when to use video on a website, will a video microblogging service like Seesmic take off – that’s all fascinating to me. And so it’s been great to find out there’s a whole community of people who share my fascination. (And as you know, Agency Spy, we are all always continuing the conversation on Twitter.)

As for blogs in general, there are so many different flavors out there, and they all serve their own purpose, from taking a poke at some of the industry’s more pompous characters to showcasing really amazing new work. They all have their own audiences and I’m not sure how much overlap you really get. I have a pretty distinct audience and a goodly percentage of them aren’t traditional ad agency people, but rather marketing consultants, journalists, clients, VCs, strategists, and even students. And it’s been great to get introduced to all those different viewpoints.

5. Now that you are out of the blogging closet what are your plans for the future? Do you want to work full time at an agency or is there a book or lecture series in your future?

Well, first on the agenda is to land a full-time job. My goal is to find something that lets me use my leadership position in social media, someplace that sees me as more than a CD who can write clever headlines or sell a $100K microsite to a client, but rather as someone who’s able to get involved in the strategic end of things, in a major way, right from the start.

And yes, once I’m settled, I’d love to start speaking at conferences and spreading the word around. I do also have the outline of a (long-promised) book prepared and the start of a few chapters, so that’s definitely in the works as well.

6. Everyone seems confused about social media. As an expert, when it comes to such tools/technologies, what lessons do you think shops need to learn right now that would help them to create more successful, stronger campaigns?

Internalizing “Your Brand Is Not My Friend” is a start. And what’s important about that is the notion that social media is all about “what do I want to hear from you” not “what do you want to tell me.” That’s a huge paradigm shift and too many marketers get in their own way by trying to cram all sorts of marketing speak and selling points into their social media efforts, as if they were product brochures or something. Which is the marketing equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting out “I’m not listening!”

A good example of what to do right is Travelocity’s “Cities I’ve Visited” Facebook app, which is just that: a world map that lets you mark off the various cities you’ve been to. The underlying message is something to the effect of “travel is cool” but that’s it – there’s no sell there beyond the Travelocity logo at the bottom, no desperate attempt at “messaging.” Which is likely why 7.8 million people installed the app.

You’ve also got to be prepared for pushback. Consumers expect a conversation and they’re not always going to say something nice. Rather than try and censor them, use the encounter as an opportunity to learn and to actually listen to what your consumers have to say – remember, if they didn’t care about your brand at all, they likely wouldn’t bother commenting in the first place. To wit: When I wrote about Zappos.com and their Twitter campaign, someone left a comment on my blog detailing a customer service issue they’d had. Tony Hsieh, who is the CEO of Zappos, left a follow-up comment (and his email address) offering to rectify it. He did, the reader left a follow-up comment to that effect and not only does Hsieh have a satisfied customer, he has a Google-able record of Zappos’ extremely proactive and personalized customer service. And that encounter alone is worth more so much more than a throwaway line about great service crammed into the body copy of a print ad.

7. Everyone is concerned about the future of the ad biz and its slow shift toward innovating the business and its model. What do you think the biggest change is that general market agencies could make to stay at the top of the game and successfully fend off over eager PR and media agencies?

It’s a tough one. As I’ve written, there’s only so much agencies can do to change the paradigm if their clients aren’t willing to play along. Agencies can say they want to get involved with things like product design and customer service training and everything in between. But clients have to be willing to pay them for those services, and all too often that’s not the case: they already have a product design vendor and don’t see why they should turn that role over to the people who make funny TV commercials for them.

So step one has got to be to get clients to start seeing agencies as resources for things other than banner ads. And then finding ways to get paid for those services the way the McKinseys and Bains of the world do, so we’re not just focusing on specific deliverables.

Step two in that process is for agencies to bring in the sort of people who truly understand that things have changed and that it’s never going back to the way it was.

Ever.

A comparison I keep coming back to, is the immigrant experience in America: there are some immigrants who realize that the old country, the old way of doing things, is permanently and forever behind them, and that it’s time to become Americans and start adapting to the new culture. And their experience is a lot different than those immigrants who cling tenaciously to their old culture, who resist even learning English and spend a large portion of their time negatively comparing everything American to the way things were back home.

You’ve got the same thing going on in agencies now. People who were brought up in traditional advertising implement changes only to the degree necessary to stay in business, while idealizing the good old days and griping about the clear banality and uselessness of the new world they find themselves in.

And changing that mindset is not as easy as bringing in a bunch of twenty year olds, as Lee Clow recently suggested at the 4A’s. It’s about bringing in people who are more strategic, more collaborative, more concerned about finding out what consumers want to hear than they are about finding the exact right shade of blue.

Which is not to say we need to throw craft out the window. Craft is more important than ever. It’s just that we need to realize that craft is mostly about the consumer these days, and to paraphrase David Ogilvy, the consumer isn’t another art director, she’s your wife. Ads – in whatever form they take – don’t have to be boring to be consumer friendly. In fact, just the opposite should prove true, since “what I want to hear” is never going to be a series of pre-packaged, client-dictated selling points.

I know it’s a cliche and then some, but I really do feel like this is an incredible time to be in the business. So much is changing, on a daily basis, and I find it really exciting and energizing to be a part of it.

Right now, anyway.

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