I just read the New York Times piece on today’s down day on Wall Street. One sentence stood out: “Shares of Wal-Mart dropped $1.35, or almost 3 percent, to $48.30, after the retailer said its May sales growth would be at the low end of its expectations.” Think about this for a moment. This mammoth retailer is giving monthly guidance on its sales! I run a small public company and I know how hard it is to predict sales with any certainty. To be giving monthly guidance seems crazy to me and reflects the way stock trading has changed since the bubble. It seems we now expect companies to be able to report by the minute how their business is performing. Why? Because it can be done of course. Not because it actually means anything. I can all too easily see how with the use of technology companies will have their stocks traded 24 hours a day seven days a week. To feed this constant market, they will be expected to report with ever-greater frequency. This is simply not a good thing. It drives businesses to run on shorter and shorter cycles. This means they stop investing in the long term and start responding simply to the latest analyst forecast. I’ll be honest the only solution I see to this problem is for all companies to adopt the stance taken by Google that has been so widely ridiculed by Wall Street – namely not go give guidance. If everyone stopped giving guidance and simply let the analysts try and figure it out, we’d have a few rough quarters while they learned how the businesses they watch really work and then my guess is we’d end up with a much less volatile market full of businesses far more focused on the really important issues – like their customers.
In recent months there have been some unusual announcements in the technology industry. Only on Friday we had the surprise departure of Tom Perkins from HP‘s board. What made it surprising was that nobody gave a reason, not that he actually left the board. The resounding but thoroughly unconvincing ‘no comment’ from HP made it clear that something ugly must have happened but the PR people were clearly told to stick to the classic rebuttal. Even though it’s clear even a poorly trained PR person could have come up with something better. “He felt his job was complete now that Hurd has clearly got HP back on track,” would probably have done it.
The other surprise news last week was that Intel finally lost its stranglehold on Dell. After years of trying, AMD finally secured a foothold in the PC giant’s line-up. What interested me is that it’s not that long ago that Intel secured its first place in Apple‘s lineup. Does Dell know something Apple doesn’t? As the saying goes, ‘as another door opens…’
As Interpublic continues to struggle, the question becomes: “When will they get taken out?” rather than if. It’s quite clear from IPG’s most recent set of poor earnings (they’ve had a string of them), that the business is not about to turn the corner anytime soon. To try and correct matters the group has made significant changes to the management team and its corporate structure. None of which would appear to have worked. Revenues are sluggish compared to its peers and profits are, well.. they don’t make a profit and haven’t for some time. Reuters last week described the business as being in a ‘tailspin.” A mixture of accounting scandals and client defections is at the heart of the matter. The former has ratcheted up the accounting costs for the company putting it in to loss, while the latter has weakened the foundations of many of the Group’s businesses.
All of this points to the prospect that WPP, Publicis or Omnicom will take out IPG. Of course you may argue that they don’t need to. IPG would seem to be giving away their business right now. That said the business does still have sizeable revenues (around $5Bn a year) and would surely do better as a part of one of these Groups. I can only imagine then the pressures IPG shareholders are placing on the IPG board to find a suitor and get a deal done. So in my mind the question is definitely ‘When?’ not ‘If?’ and of course ‘Who?’
Every so often the PR industry heads get rightly annoyed by clients that effectively steal their IP. It happened to me earlier this year when a pretty big company took some pretty extensive thinking done as part of a pitch and simply used it without paying for it. Now in this instance it was hard to actually go and charge the prospect for the work without looking cheap but a principle was being broken which was hard to sit back and watch. But like most agencies we sat back and we watched. Sadly you tend not to get paid for sitting back and watching.
This event has troubled me for some time, not because the client effectively stole the IP but because the client didn’t even think it was a problem. In truth I’m not sure many clients realize where the IP we as an industry create starts and ends. After all, it’s tough to describe most work as being truly unique, especially when most campaigns are in effect a rehash of an idea used for another client. That’s a pretty harsh but in some cases fair description. Indeed, if you spend any time judging awards in the PR industry you will notice the same ideas being used time and again for different types of companies, with different effects. Looking at this another way, what the industry is really doing is taking the same common ingredients and then cooking them in a different way to produce a different dish. Of course a chef will staunchly defend their ‘unique’ recipe for a certain soufflé, yet a PR pro will struggle to defend their unique approach to a product launch. Here-in lays the challenge to protecting IP in our industry.
A critical element to protecting IP is finding a way of charging for it. I recently met with a firm in the UK that charges clients for the value of an idea, not for the time it took to create. The argument here is that a client should take the best idea, not the one that took the least or most amount of time to dream up. On this basis the agency won’t discard the first ideas they generate for fear they’ll only be able to bill the client for 10 minutes of brainstorming. Instead, they can hold an exhaustive brainstorm and genuinely pick the ideas they truly believe in. I personally like this approach but in talking with some of my industry colleagues who’ve tried it they’ve often found clients baulk at the concept. It seems their procurement departments fear that by accepting there is IP being purchased they will open the door to ongoing charges for use of that idea. Now of course such practices are common in the advertising world. Perhaps this is what the procurement people are trying to prevent.
Another critical element in the IP struggle is the documentation of the ideas. Now in truth the law says that you don’t need to register copyright to own it. All you have to do is to be able to show that you documented your ideas first. That’s assuming of course your fear is that your ideas will get stolen. Of course this is easier said than done. I’m pretty sure that I could come up with a derivative of an idea that would sound pretty different to the original. While this is technically covered by the law, I’m guessing the originator would struggle to make a claim given the sheer costs of taking legal action in this country.
In truth I think the biggest issue in the IP battle is one of education. By this I don’t just mean the education of our clients, though I do believe this to be critical, I also mean the education of our staff. If they don’t appreciate the true value of the work they’re doing how can they expect the client to do the same?
The missing link (to business processes)
By truly understanding the value of our ideas and thinking we open the door to solving the IP problem. After all if we recognize that our IP is simply a good tag line or creative stunt, then we have to expect the client to pay accordingly. Great IP is more than this. Great IP is a set of thinking that links to business processes – it may even create them. If we educate our people to come up with thinking that links to the way clients run their businesses, or better still improves the way they run their businesses, then there is a far greater chance the client will appreciate the full value of the ideas being presented. This in turn will shift the needle away from PR being commoditized and towards being a tool that really builds businesses and brands.
So if PR wants to become a true form of consulting it needs to think long and hard about the ways it links to the client’s business and stop thinking just about how many hours were spent on a particular program. While the latter should get paid for, in the long run the real opportunity is to use our skills to significantly improve the fundamentals of clients’ businesses. Now that’s what I call real IP.