Some days working in communications in Government can be tough. Yesterday was definitely one of those days. After a tetchy few weeks in the run up to the census, the first I was aware of the communications drama unfolding at the ABS was a series of tweets yesterday morning describing graphically how a number of senior bureaucrats and pollies were responding to what had clearly been a major systems failure on the census website. The various conversations seemed to be lurching all over the place. Was it an attack or not? Was data lost? Whose fault was it? The various spokespeople seemed to have differing views about the key message. As the drama unfolded, someone published the costs of the project on social media, creating another mini firestorm Meanwhile, the communications message was getting more and more garbled. We were given some insight about denial of service attacks (“like a truck parked across your driveway” apparently) and that such an attack was “always likely” and we heard language that included phrases like “an attempt to frustrate data collection” and that the problem was a “malicious attack” and a “false positive”. As we all became experts in hacking (or whatever this was), we learned that the system has been tested to be capable of handling a million submissions per hour. Some of us privately wondered whether that would be enough to cope with the early evening rush as people got home from work and settled down to fill in the online forms. And things became so tense that finally the PM and Treasurer hosted a press conference which referenced IBM and the Australian Signals Directorate. A difficult day indeed. So what can we learn? Hindsight is a gift to people commenting after the event, but a review of events does raise a question about the communications strategy. We now know that at 7.45pm on the night of the census, a decision was taken to close down the website. It appears that the first public announcement was a tweet from Census Australia some three hours later saying that the system was down and would not be restored that night. Knowing that meanwhile the ads were still running and public were getting increasingly frustrated, it’s the (lack of) activities in those three vital hours that are most instructive in terms of learning and moving on. There should have been a public message broadcast on national media as soon as possible following the decision to shut down the server. It should have come from a senior, well known and trusted spokesperson, not through an unnamed social media account. If the delay in making that announcement was based on the fear of likely public and media reaction, the alternative strategy of having multiple spokespeople with differing explanations appearing randomly across the media the next morning plainly didn’t work. In damage limitation mode, the first communications priority on the night of the census should have been to make that clear announcement about the website being down. This was a live issue affecting all Australians. The second priority should have been to pull all the ads still running on TV and digital media, with the third being to unite all communications through one senior communications team with total control of all messaging. In tactical terms, the wording of the announcement should have been designed to save people wasting their time logging on and (continuing to overload the servers) and to provide them with an alternative date for completing the census, accompanied by a sincere and personal apology from a senior statesman. I’m pretty sure that most people would have shrugged their shoulders, understood and got on with their lives. At the very least, many thousands of people would have been saved a wasted trip to a website that had already been shut down. Ahh…hindsight… Sometimes, even in the heat of politics, honesty is just the best policy.
If you've spent more than a few years in marketing, you've probably made a few mistakes along the way. I can smile now about hearing that thousands of golf balls meant to be on magazine covers were actually rolling around the floors of newsagents all over the country. I'm pretty sure my boss didn't use the words "health and safety" when he called me in for a quick chat.
When I come to write my media memoirs, I'll probably also recall an issue of Trout and Salmon that went out without a price and had to be given away free, or the cover mounted energy bars for Today's Runner that melted into a sticky mess of sugar and paper, or that time an editors car was stolen with three bags of competition entries in the boot or indeed the chastening tale of how Drive!, a tape of classic motoring rock anthems compiled by my colleagues on the mighty Q magazine came back from the printers looking like it was called Drivel.
There's more. A bookful. Mistakes, I've had a few.
But then again, I was lucky to spend my formative working years in a company that encouraged risk taking and saw mistakes as lessons to be learned from. Woe betide you made the same mistake twice, but the risk of stuffing up now and again was seen as the price paid for having a punt on crazy ideas.
Grahame Steed's maverick vision for a magazine about boy racers and cars with huge stereo systems could have been a big mistake. The Lamborghini loving experts on other car magazines certainly thought so. But thirteen months after launch, Max Power was breaking all records. Same goes for the genius who decided to try putting a girl on the cover of FHM after the first few issues had featured Vic Reeves and Chris Evans. And of course the Donald brothers who launched the true publishing sensation of the century, Viz, from their bedrooms in Newcastle. Drawing the cartoons themselves and selling it in the pub.
To err may be divine. But to create truly great new products, it's so important to have permission to stuff up now and again. And mistakes, other peoples as well as your own, are always opportunities for learning and improvement. Right now in Sydney, a great example is unfolding. From a government department.
I'm sure the people who have just launched a naming competition for Sydney's new ferry fleet would be aware of Boaty McBoatface. They'd be aware of the negative publicity and how the UK government were roundly criticised for not having a bit of fun. They'd have read expert marketers saying that Boaty could have been a triumph of marketing, with kids everywhere lining the streets to welcome him to their home town. (Actually, they were probably right). And they'd have read the tsunami of opinion from old school researchers in cardigans who warned, with the benefit of hindsight, about "the dangers of public consultation". (Wrong, all of them).
And maybe, just maybe, they learned from it and decided to go ahead with exactly the same plan.
Except the Sydney ferries version of Boaty is different. And better. They've made the final decision making process very clear from the outset. The judges here aren't faceless people in grey buildings, but instead expertly chosen independents. It's not a beauty contest where the highest vote wins. (In the Facebook era, that's never a good idea).
But like "Boaty", this is a community engagement programme that does in fact engage the community. Rare indeed.
They've approached their communications with a light touch and a sense of humour. They've offered gentle suggestions and made entry easy. They've received a heap of free publicity and backed it up with brilIiant use of their owned media. (As the young people call it...to you and me it's "house ads"). They surely knew that people would draw comparisons with Boaty, but what's that thing that Donald Trump says about publicity?
To me, the campaign to date is a masterstroke in marketing. The people behind this have learned all the mistakes made by the Boaty team, addressed them and then harnessed the terrific worldwide interest in Boaty to get their own front page coverage. But this time in a good way. And yes, people will post daft names on social media. But here it's working for them, not against.
I've been outside Government for a couple of years now and genuinely have no idea who is behind this, but well done to all. Proof once again that the idea that "Government marketing" is somehow cloistered from the machinations of marketing in the rest of the world is just plain wrong.
And on that point I'm sure I'm not mistaken.
The crowning glory of this campaign now would be to name one of the new boats "Bryan Ferry". There's your guaranteed front cover splash story on newspapers, social media, radio and TV all over the world right there. Publicity that puts Sydney, the world's greatest city, back on the map, boosts interest in Sydney ferries and doing their brand no harm along the way.
In years to come, July 27th 2016 may go down as an important date in the history of marketing. Maybe not so famous that people will remember where they were, but notable nonetheless. Because yesterday, The Australian newspaper carried the exclusive story that one of the world's biggest media companies was rethinking its "out with the old, in with the new" channel strategy. According to reports, the previous year WPP and their media buying teams had struck a landmark advertising deal with You Tube that looked a bit like a snub to terrestrial TV channels.
And now, a year later, the report says they might have had a rethink. it appears that the response rates from running television style ads on digital media may not be what was hoped. Whether it's the invitation to close the ad so you can get on with watching what you wanted, or news that a high percentage of people are watching Facebook videos with the sound off, this is the first sign that perhaps digital isn't actually the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Call it a tipping point if you will. But it shouldn't really be that big a surprise. It's been a common theme of our recent work with both advertisers and agencies that digital media and advertising are not natural bedfellows. Where job ads in newspapers and mail order ads in magazines were always seen as a valuable part of the product, it's just not true of digital media.
Thanks to the brilliant free service provided by Google, we no longer "browse" in the same way we used to turn the pages of a printed product. Google takes us straight to what we want. And then You Tube does it in pictures. The ads don't really fit in anywhere. Well not without being annoying anyway. As a result, we've been very busy helping clients build content driven strategies that reach people in a very different way. And I don't mean programmatic buying. Digital media owning advocates once tried to sell us the idea that people would somehow tolerate watching advertising on You Tube and pre rolls on newspaper websites out of gratitude for getting free content. Like me, the originators of those strategies were probably brought up on the Idea that there was no such thing as a free lunch. But people aged under 25 may have a very different view. These are the people who've been brought up in a world where Google, You Tube, Gmail, eBay, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Trip Advisor and almost every single newspaper in the world are all free. And fast. Can you imagine watching You Tube with a 56k modem? True, not everything is free. But an inexpensive Kindle subscription on Amazon gives unlimited reading and a monthly Spotify subscription for less than the cost of a Whoppa meal unlocks access to all the music anyone could need. And then there's Netflix. And Stan, Presto, ITunes, catch up TV and the rest... But as we hear the WPP team may be learning, all those new media channels don't mean a bonanza for advertisers. Given the choice to watch an ad on a phone or to click to close it, what do we think most normal people actually do? How many of us have ever voluntarily clicked on an online ad of any kind? And more importantly, how many of us ever will again when we have Google at our fingertips. For free. So if we're finally realising that digital advertising might not actually be the future, whatever will take its place? The answer may be staring us in the face. In Australia, the Financial Review still gets premium rates to advertise elite jobs with a capital E. Vogue magazine, God bless it, remains the first port of call for fashion companies. A UK tailor is finding that inserting leaflets into newspapers and mass circulation publications works pretty well. And on Friday nights, Channel Nine can still demand top dollar for ads running in live sport. (Content that few league and AFL fans will save for viewing later). Meanwhile, content rich global publications from the New Yorker to Private Eye to Tyler Brule's Monocle are leading a worldwide renaissance in quality journalism while at home we've never had bigger screens to enjoy Game of Thrones, Mr Robot et al in an absolute Golden Age of Television,(although sadly commercial stations in Australia don't seem cashed up enough to buy any of it) Weird but true. Despite falling circulations and revenue pressures, to coin a phrase, the death of old media may be slightly exaggerated. All the advertising industry has to do now is rediscover ways to cram ads into it. Plus ca change etc... About the Author Alun Probert is a media veteran and commentator. He heads up the GovCom group, specializing in public sector and mass market communications and coaches teams in effective marketing, communications and brand management. Find out more on alunprobert.com