Marketing as Commodities

I’ve run and led several consultancies since I started my communications business under the Paul Robbins & Associates name when I first put out a shingle as a political and public relations consultant many years ago.

Later, I partnered in the ad agency business with Gerry FitzGerald at FitzGerald & Robbins in Springfield, Massachusetts, where we collectively served some well-known clients like Eastern States Exposition (The Big E), Jiffy Lube and Peter Pan Bus Lines. My line of work morphed from political campaigns to comprehensive communications work of every stripe.

Right under the masthead of FitzGerald & Robbins was the line “Advertising – Marketing – Public Relations.” As the world of communications continued to evolve, with technology changing everything, my own thinking started to evolve a little over 10 years ago about the role of a communications consultant or agency.

It occurred to me those three words under the F & R masthead was not the full or even accurate story of what an agency renders for its clients—those items represent commodities. This was also around the time I was reading one of my favorite authors, Thomas Friedman, and his The World is Flat. In the book he spoke of how almost everything in everyday life was becoming a commodity that could be produced cheaper somewhere else in the world. Even things like income tax preparation were being done in India, leaving accountants looking to provide a deeper and more strategic service to its clientele.

The commodity revolution was hitting the communications world with even more force around the same time. You could find, as we started to say around the time things started to change, “a guy in his basement” doing great video work, and stock photography and website tutorials became easily available on the web.

Another revolution that is upsetting the world order of the ad agency business, and circumventing them, is crowdsourcing, which allows companies or organizations to put a small cash prize out there on the web for the development of something like a new logo, often producing dozens of entries from designers around the world, many of them fabulous. Crowdsourcing allows for a diversity of approaches, rather than the sometimes-narrow view of a small design shop at a marketing agency. This is heresy for many in the marketing business, but it also represents the new, and a lot of times better, way of doing things where diversity of thought produces something inspired. 

As creative director for a decade for The Big E, one of the largest state fairs in North America, I remember my first encounter with marketing commoditization. In “the old days” you would have to pay a pretty penny for a national quality voice-over talent for a radio or television campaign. In looking for a particular kind of voice for Big E TV and radio spots one year, we used an online voice-over source where you offer a small amount of copy from a script to be read by whoever responded. Voice-over talent from around the country would bid on the project, even negotiating down their price, just to win the job and create exposure for themselves. Great for us in keeping tabs on our production budget, but not so great for the voice talent out there trying to make a living.

So what are agencies to do? If they are to continue being relevant, they need to embrace that they are in the strategy business and that the commodities of communications are simply a means to a strategic end. In The World is Flat, Friedman suggests that the winners in the American economy will be those utilizing brain power, strategic brain power, and those orchestrating the commodities—like web designers, graphic artists, videographers, photographers—being guided by a strategist. More can be done with fewer people in a centralized place than ever before in history. Access to talent and creative collaborators outside of the confines of a traditional agency housed inside of four walls is not only the wave of the future, it is the future, and the present.

I offer a quick case study. In our work as communications consultant to the Reading Success by 4th Grade initiative in Springfield, our task is pretty direct— engage the public and parents of young children in picking up a book and reading it to their young children every day.  This seems like a very simple idea—backed by a lot of brain research—but a pretty lofty and really hard-to-attain goal, nonetheless. In the old world, maybe an advertising campaign using traditional media to raise awareness would be a natural impulse. 

After facilitating several focus groups with Springfield parents of young children to find how to engage them in early reading and about parenting, the idea of a traditional campaign was scrapped. Not surprisingly, the parents we spoke with indicated that the vehicle to use in reaching them was their own personal smartphone. 

So, here’s where strategy meets commodity. If you think of media defined as commodities easily accessible to whatever audience you are trying to influence—TV, news shows, newspapers, online publications, smartphones—then you have to determine the most efficient method of reaching your target.

In the case of Reading Success by 4th Grade, the parents made it pretty clear—text me if you want to get a message to me. Thus 413families/familias was born. Knowing that messages about early reading could come off as preachy—we developed a more wide-ranging strategy to engage a number of community partners to be part of 413families, rendering content that is fun, enlightening and free to families struggling to pay bills while raising their children.

So, we engaged the Springfield Libraries, Springfield Museums, the YMCA, WGBY TV and their focus on children’s programming and Springfield Public Schools in partnering and providing content. We learned about best practices—no more than two or three texts per week— and chose a national vendor (the commodity) EZ Texting. We started in February of 2016 with the lofty goal of attracting 1,000 families to opt in by August of that year, and surpassed that. Today, we are approaching 3,000 families opted-in to the program.

The beauty of digital-based communications is that the analytics are readily available, and they don’t lie. With billions of ad dollars spent on TV, it is still hard to prove TV advertising works—though it does in spite of the huge amount of waste in broadcast advertising— as opposed to digital platforms that offer real-time data. 

With 413families we know who opts in, who opts out (not very many), who opens our messages and when they open them. While it is still a moving target to quantify if more parents are reading to their children overall (we do know that through a lot of local work reading scores are on the rise for the targeted 3rd graders in Springfield), our 413families have shared that they are reading to their kids, what they are reading and when. 

The moral of this story is that the successful “marketers” will have spent the time on developing a strategy informed by data and research and not on assembling a random collection of commodities to dangle in front of those we serve.

Photograph of Paul Robbins
Paul Robbins