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Trust Web Times Interview Series: T. Alex Blum ; Blum Consulting Partners
October 25, 2022
Marc Goldberg
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Marc Goldberg is a contributor for the Trust Web Times. Marc is also the Principal at Stages Collective. Stages Collective helps companies at different life stages in a variety of ways. Business Development, go-to market strategies, Landscape analysis and as an additional recruiting resource.

T. Alex Blum is the Founder at Blum Consulting Partners

 

We exchanged emails for this interview and it has been slightly condensed and edited.

Marc Goldberg: Tell us about your journey.

T. Alex Blum: My personal fascination is problem solving, which is really about the puzzle, identifying the issues, getting to the root cause of a problem, figuring out how to solve it, and identifying the best path to get to the destination. My partner, Andrea Ruskin, is all about process, so working with brands to get them to solve for whatever transformation they are looking for is kind of a no-brainer for us. Since big corporations are challenged to achieve desired change, for all the obvious reasons, there are always new opportunities!

I started my career working in an agency in Paris, which is about the best first job anyone ever had.  That led to a long career in creative production before I ever started working with brands. I worked my way up in the commercial production world, and ran a series of major production companies, including the US office of a major UK production company, and then I founded my own company, Headquarters, which I ran successfully for 10 years. We won every major award in the business multiple times, including Cannes Lions and AICP Awards, and worked with some very talented directors, many of them DGA award winners. We did a ton of Super Bowl spots and all sorts of other exciting creative work. Then I ventured into feature films and had a deal at Fox for about five years, during which I produced two major studio films, Behind Enemy Lines (20th Century Fox 2001) and Flight of the Phoenix (20th Century Fox 2004).

From there, I transitioned into consulting, and I guess by nature I am a bit restless, so doing a job which is all about dealing with problems and addressing challenges is a good fit for me. I think having a creative and production background is a major advantage because I actually understand, in a very direct way, exactly what it takes to get a creative project out the door. In production, failure is not an option, there is too much at stake. So whether it is working with someone to build in-house capabilities, or helping a brand produce long-form branded entertainment, or getting to the root of dysfunctional internal processes, it’s all problem-solving and getting the client where they want to go.

MG:So what does your consultancy do?

BLUM: Our specialty is Creative Process Consulting and Process Optimization for marketers. That means that we work with brands to do whatever they need to do to get the most out of their creative execution process. That can be starting from scratch and building an entire internal agency or studio from the ground up, it can involve working with a brand to help them get the best creative results out of an agency relationship that isn’t delivering on expectations, or it can involve diving into an established, mature internal agency and getting to the bottom of structural dysfunction that can’t be solved from within.

Consulting is not an offshoot of some other primary line of business at our company. We don’t do agency search, and we are not a staffing agency, or an advertising agency pretending to be a consultant. We don’t sell software, or SAAS solutions. If a client needs those solutions, we can make recommendations and provide the expertise to drive the decision-making process, but our business is to teach our clients to fish, not to get a job as their permanent chef.

MG: So Agency – Client relationship is broken, is it fixable?

BLUM: Not all agency / client relationships are broken, but enough are that it feels like a trend. From our perspective, it’s fixable if both sides would listen more, and avoid making obvious mistakes that damage the relationship. Clients should stop wasting agencies time and money with pitches that go nowhere, bad briefing, lack of annual planning, and unclear strategies and goals.

Agencies need to show a greater commitment to being responsive, nimble, and providing value. Often, agencies are caught between the need to perform for their clients and the need to show results that drive the holding company bottom line, and that is a pretty impossible position to be in, and one that does not necessarily prioritize good, effective work..

MG: Everyone runs to an In House conversation, eyes wide shut. Is it a simple Yes/No answer? How are you speaking with your clients?

BLUM:At this point, the question of whether to bring work in-house, and if so, which work to migrate, is a question that is going to ask itself. It’s not going to surprise anybody, and if your external agencies are surprised by it, they are in Rip Van Winkle land.

The questions that don’t get asked enough are all about the why. What are you trying to achieve? Are your internal stakeholders aligned on the goals? Is it realistic? Is the organization prepared for the disruption it may cause before it is running smoothly and achieving the goals? Is it worth it?

And, your external agencies need to be engaged in the discussion, because collaboration is what it is all about.

Take the time to really get clear about what you are trying to achieve, what are the obstacles, and where is the resistance going to come from. Because there is always resistance.

MG: Creative is often subjective and hard to quantify, Procurement is a bottom line business. How do you help people value quality?

BLUM:Advertising creative is actually a lot like screenwriting. It’s creative in service of a downstream goal, it isn’t meant to stand on its own merits. It’s about clarity of the mission. If you have a clear understanding of what you want the creative to achieve, you can judge its effectiveness and from there, its value. Is it about brand building, awareness, differentiation from the competition, launching a product, customer loyalty? Once you know where you are going, the rest is just negotiation, and that’s where procurement comes in.

MG: What’s the best advice you can give your corporate clients that want to set up internal capabilities?

BLUM: There is something that should be talked about more that very few companies anticipate and plan for when they start down this road. There is a big difference between corporate culture and creative culture.

Big corporations have a lot of rules and processes, and these things can become real obstacles to a smooth-running creative execution process. If you have an in-house team, how do you give them enough autonomy to do good work, but still treat them like an integral part of the organization? You can’t spend three months onboarding a new creative vendor if you are trying to produce something in 6-8 weeks. If you want to be nimble, you can’t harness the creative team to enterprise-level technology that doesn’t serve the creative agenda. These issues can become huge obstacles to success and these types of  details can derail a major project if they are not planned out in advance. It’s important to know what to watch out for, and what to plan for, because internal stakeholders can sour on the in-house experience very quickly if they feel their needs are not being met, and nobody really cares what the problems are. Marketers are too busy for that.

MG: In your opinion, what  is in the way of creative partnerships?

BLUM: Prioritizing short term unrelated business goals over brand building and effective marketing strategy. The influence of Wall Street in the advertising industry has not been a net positive. For example, clients can alienate important creative partners by imposing unfair payment schedules just to goose short term quarterly results for earnings calls.  Ultimately those business practices can drive consolidation in the supplier set because only big companies can carry the cash flow, and that stifles innovation. I’ve talked to procurement people that understand this, but often finance is too insulated.

Taking on a mountain of debt to diversify by buying other businesses without recognizing that you are diluting your brand and confusing your customers is a long term negative. How many companies do we see spending billions on expansion only to re-sell the assets at a loss a few years later? Look at Verizon, for instance, buying Yahoo and AOL. Who thought that was a good idea? A bunch of hedge funds and investment banks who made colossal fees, that’s who.

And the entire holding company model, which revolutionized the industry, has nothing to do with creativity or innovation, and on balance, it has been bad for advertising, and by extension, marketing in general.

In the end, using leverage to drive value is mostly about the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many, and the advertising business has been no exception. Martin Sorrell may be a genius, but he’s not Dan Wieden, he’s not an advertising genius, he’s just the guy that figured out how to use leverage to take the advertising industry away from people who actually make advertising.

MG:What do you think about the future of broadcast advertising considering all of the cord-cutting and the dominance of streaming services.

BLUM: Everything old is new again. It’s amazing how everything comes full circle. Streaming was supposed to kill “linear TV” and cord cutting was going to kill cable, and now all the streaming services are going to an advertising model because the investment model ultimately didn’t pay off, and you can’t monetize subscribers without advertising because there is a hard ceiling on how much subscribers will pay. So here’s my question, if I watch it on my TV, and it has advertising, and I have to pay extra for it to be ad-free, how is it different from cable? And now when I watch Thursday Night Football, I have to watch the commercials because the functionality of fast forward technology on streaming services sucks. From where I sit, the streaming services are networks, supported by advertising, but it used to be free, and now I have to pay for it and I have to tolerate the advertising anyway. Can I have my direcTV back, please?

MG: What is your favorite TV creative in the last two years?

BLUM: For me, without question, it’s the Beats “You Love Me?” creative, from 2020. They did something that few brands other than Nike really do. They showed what they stand for by telling the story, not by making PR announcements. At its best, advertising reflects the society, it makes you think, and then it lets you decide where the brand fits in. That’s what this work did. It’s brand building at its best.

MG: What is your favorite Digital creative in the last two years? And why is it impossible to answer this question. What does digital have to do better?

BLUM: This is the issue, isn’t it. It has to work throughout the funnel, and digital has to take the awareness that TV creates and turn it into connection and action. It’s a lot more tactical, so it’s not so easy to define. Good digital makes you notice and take action, without being annoying. It’s not that easy to do well.

I know it’s not from the last two years, but one of my favorite pieces of digital work is actually a piece of digital signage from 2014 for Apotek which really revolutionized out-of-home. It’s the subway ad from Scandinavia where the model’s hair blows when the train comes into the station. Another example is the British Airways billboard where the kid looks up every time a plane flies over. Strictly speaking, I don’t know if it’s digital, experiential, or OOH, but whatever it is, work like that is brilliant, it just changes the whole conversation. Suddenly, you can do something that gets people’s attention that you couldn’t do before. You can’t pay enough for people who have ideas like that, it’s lightning in a bottle.

You can probably tell I’m partial to OOH, particularly digital outdoor. For me, it’s the purest form of advertising, and digital technology has supercharged the creative in that medium.

MG: Alex you don’t want to be told what to read. But you can tell folks what they should read?

BLUM:

Yes, that’s kind of the joke, just putting it out there for whoever is interested. I am an avid reader, I’m constantly trying to broaden my understanding of my world, and the best way to do that is to read. Whoever it was who said that in the digital age, books were going away was an idiot. I think one of the reasons we have so many problems communicating in this country today is the death of nuance. Everybody is too lazy to get into details and really understand anything, so they are just repeating sound bites without substance, reposting things from other people, trying to come up with clever little truisms, and often taking things out of context, just to draw clicks. Talking at people doesn’t advance the discussion because no one has to meet in the middle. You want to be smarter? Read. I’m just providing a little push and some ideas for what might be worth somebody’s time.

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