The assignment was simple enough. Find someone who could critique CTAM’s Mark Award winners and the industry’s efforts to sell itself. I knew exactly who to go to. I called the guy, and he was game. But when I got to his office a few days later, he was reticent. Several factors were preventing him from going public with his judgments: His mama’s lessons in manners. (“If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all — at least publicly.”) Cable’s now-legendary brotherhood. (While the cable industry is pretty grown up and made of independent parties now, in the past it’s been one big, happy, sometimes dysfunctional, tight-knit family. Operators didn’t compete with one another. Hell, they didn’t compete with anyone. And everyone worked together as a team of sorts to propel the entire industry forward.) Survival. (This chap still works in the biz, so he wasn’t eager to dis current and/or potential clients.) Still, I knew he was perfect for the job. His marketing acumen is legendary, and he is very well respected among his peers. He’s also been in the cable business long enough to watch it grow from a mishmash of mom-and-pop companies that offered ten or 20 video channels to what it is today — a multiproduct behemoth that’s competing with very aggressive and competent competitors. So we came to a compromise I don’t usually consider: I’d keep his anonymity intact in return for his honesty and expertise. I’ll call him Mr. ME (as in marketing expert). We met and went through each of CTAM’s Mark Awards finalists, although we concentrated most on the MSOs’ ads. He had several general observations about this year’s slate of winners. For one thing, he saw little to indicate that cable had come to any kind of promotional epiphany. “I saw nothing here this year that jumped out at me,” Mr. ME says. “These spots aren’t a big leap forward. They’re extensions of what cable’s done in the past. It was just the same stuff made more current for this age and time.” Don’t get him wrong. He generally liked what he saw. “There were a lot of good, solid efforts, even if a couple of them missed their mark,” Mr. ME continues. “And you have to remember we’re just looking at one spot. We don’t know what the operator’s needs were, so we’re judging the ads in a vacuum.” That’s a bigger issue that CTAM may want to grapple with in the future, Mr. ME contends. Ads and campaigns are being pigeonholed into categories that are 20 years old. The business has changed dramatically in that time, and he believes some of the award categories should probably change as well. He suggests judging entire campaigns rather than pieces of them. “It’s not that the ads aren’t good,” Mr. ME says. “They’re all good, and there are many others out there that are very good and weren’t, for some reason or another, nominated for a Mark Award. But all these spots are just pieces of larger campaigns. On their own they may not inspire, but as a whole, they might accomplish their mission, which is to motivate consumers to buy their service.” Some of the spots have great creative elements, but their message gets lost. Other ads’ creative look and feel are straightforward and uncomplicated, and they get right to the point when it comes to whatever it is the operator is trying to get across. “It’s all about keeping things relatively simple,” Mr. ME says. “It’s all about understanding your audiences. It’s an old formula but one that sometimes gets lost, even for some of these winners. The cable industry needs to take things to the next level.” Of all the operator ads Mr. ME scrutinized, he liked the spots from Cox Communications best. “Every one of Cox’s ads is just a cut above everyone else’s [spots],” he says. “Time Warner Cable’s ads are well produced, and you can tell they are consciously trying to be on the cutting edge, but they often miss their mark in delivering the message they want to deliver.” After watching both the MSO and programming network spots, it was clear that the programmers still have a leg up in marketing their products. Of course, it’s easier for programmers to have slick ads and enticing offers. They are creators of content; they often have in-house talent they can call on to produce slick, eye-catching ads; and they only have to sell one thing — themselves. Mr. ME pointed to National Geographic’s spot which is not only beautiful to watch but captivates the viewer, who ends up wanting more. That’s exactly what a network is after — eyeballs — and the ad was fetching and successful. Mr. ME was also impressed with CourtTV’s ad telling viewers that stealing video service, be it from a satellite provider or cable operator, is illegal and noting that it isn’t a matter of whether they’ll get caught, but when. It’s a powerful ad that ties into CourtTV’s justice theme. At the same time it helps operators and DBS providers bring to light a multibillion dollar problem that has plagued them for years. At a period of time when the cable programmer/operator relationship is being tested at almost every corner, it’s a refreshing reminder that the two camps can work together for a common cause. Meanwhile, operators must grapple with the notion of having to sell everything on their shelves and still make an impact with consumers. They must convince consumers that despite a history of poor reliability and bad service, they can outperform and undercut the phone companies with their data and local telephone offerings and do a better job of offering video services than DBS and other wireline competitors. And they have to push their brands so that all those messages are easy to communicate. “The industry is learning how to accomplish this mission,” Mr. ME says. “It continues to learn and evolve. The issues they have aren’t tactical in terms of execution. It’s their ability to define and communicate what their business has become. That is the challenge.” Here’s what Mr. ME had to say about each of the MSO Mark Award finalists: The ad features several men talking about all the neat things (i.e. video-on-demand, high-speed data, etc.) Cogeco offers its customers in a slick, fast-paced package. “The message in this ad gets a bit lost. It looks good. But you can’t really determine what it is the ad is trying to tell you. And there are no women in this spot. Cogeco has to have women customers. In this day and age, it’s not a good idea to skip one of your most important demographics.” The spot showcases all the ways cable can connect you to your friends, and reminds you that Cox is your friend, too. “This is a great touchy-feely ad. It’s a terrific image campaign. It showcases all the products Cox offers but also reassures customers that Cox is a good service provider, too.” A golfer in a cart scurries through his game so he can rush home and use all the services Cox provides. “I liked this ad. The message was clear — ‘Go all-digital with Cox.’ Yet for an acquisition campaign, it was unusual to not have an offer tagged at the end of the spot. Still, it used humor effectively to sell the service.” The spot shows an elderly gentleman being a wallflower at a local dance while other couples cut a rug. He’s dying to dance but doesn’t know how. He turns to his high-speed data service to teach him all the moves. “I hope this ad was targeted toward an older demographic, because it’s going to get lost on the younger generation. It does have an offer at the end, but without a voice-over to keep you on topic, it’s easy to get lost. You see more dance steps from this guy than you do the computer screen. The ad never really talked about the benefits of high speed. And it didn’t do much to sell Optimum Online. He could’ve been using any online service to learn those steps.” A man walks around his house showing his girlfriend all the cool services he has in his house — digital video with hundreds of channels and high-speed data with speeds up to 50 times faster than dial-up. In the end, the girlfriend agrees to marry the man. “Again, Cox hits its mark with this ad. It has a clear, easy message. It tells the benefits of the services Cox is offering. It has a strong offer at the end, and they’re clear about wanting people to know that bundling their products is the way to go. The golf ad talked about voice, video and data. This ad talks about voice and data. Both clearly are targeting the idea of the bundle. They keep it simple and clear. They’re also successful at using humor to sell their products.” Guy dresses up like a satellite dish and is installed on a family’s roof. “This ad looks like a compromise where too many people had a say in how it was going to look. Advertising by committee rarely works. The ad spends too much bashing the satellite industry and not enough time telling the benefits of cable. It’s not very cute, even though that’s the flavor it’s going after. It’s just over the top. It reminds me of the Able Cable ads (of the 1960s), and I didn’t care too much for those ads back then either. You can either raise your bridge with whatever message you want to send or you can lower the water. This ad tried to lower the water.” A bunch of people watching The Sopranos tries imitating the dialect used by the characters. “Here is an example of the message getting lost in the creative. The ad is clearly related to The Sopranos. I love The Sopranos, but I’m not sure what it has to do with ‘The Time Zone’ theme. I think they’re trying to sell the idea of subscription video-on-demand with this ad, but that doesn’t come across well. It’s just not clear exactly what this ad is selling. And I can’t figure out what ‘The Time Zone’ means. The analogy is never fully developed so it leaves you more confused than inspired.” Man is watching TV in his hospital bed and is told by his doctor that he can go home. He looks at his remote control and subsequently does everything he can (including hitting himself in the head with a bed pan) to stay longer. “This seemed more like an image ad to me than a customer upgrade ad. The spot never really tells the customer what it’s trying to sell. Was the guy a Cable One customer? Was he watching digital cable? We don’t know. Upgrade means getting him to buy more. This is a better acquisition ad.” Guy is professing the benefits of Charter Pipeline Internet access service when he gets a phone call from a woman, thus demonstrating one of those benefits (no tied-up phone lines). “This is a cute ad and looks like it’s part of an ongoing campaign. It would be interesting to see the other ads in the group. It shares the benefits of what high-speed offers — it’s faster, it doesn’t tie up the phone lines. Its attempt at humor in the end fails (the guy is waiting for the woman who called to come over, and when the doorbell rings it’s his mom). Who doesn’t recognize their mother’s voice? But it’s basically a good ad.” Man walks through his house and his every wish and thought is fulfilled. Ad asks, “What if your television played whatever you wanted to watch exactly when you wanted to watch it…” “This is better than ‘The Time Zone’ ad. It has better message development. But there is no call to action and it is still a tad confusing. This is a better image/awareness ad than an upgrade spot.” Woman calls the salesman who installed her satellite dish to complain that her signal is gone. Guy asks her if it’s raining. She says yes. He tells her that’s the problem. She asks when will the signal come back. He tells her to watch the news and hangs up. She wonders how she’s going to do that if she can’t watch her TV. “This is a good ad. They took a real situation — rain fade in this case — and dealt with it in a very credible way. It’s anti-dish but isn’t over the top, and it creates a solution — subscribe to Cablevision and you won’t have to worry about rain fade. The spot also goes on to talk about the benefits of cable over satellite and did it in a humorous way.” People show various ways they’ve used their satellite dishes for things other than TV reception. One couple uses their dish as a fountain; a kid uses dishes as wheels for a soapbox car; a third guy has turned his dishes into a drum set. His sister says that’s stupid. “They made fun of dishes, but they never bring up any of the problems of the dish. They never told me why I should ditch the dish in the first place. They just show all the silly things you can do with it once you do. It’s a cheap shot at the competition without making an impact on cable. It’s a bad attempt at comedy and doesn’t build on a platform of credibility with consumers.” Normal guy Harold Disk gives a first-person testimonial about the problems he had with his dish and why he finally called Comcast for service. “Unlike the Adelphia ad, this spot tells me exactly why I should disconnect my dish and why I should call Comcast for video service. It poses a problem and presents a solution. That’s always good advertising. It’s cute and humorous and people will identify with the guy.” Cable installer dances around a soundstage that resembles the scene in Singin’ in the Rain with Gene Kelly. He’s invited into all the homes with satellite dishes to install Time Warner Cable service. “There is obviously a trend here with the rain fade issue. We’ve seen or heard several ads allude to it, which means it must be an issue that resonates with consumers. This ad is more subtle than the other anti-dish ads but the message is clearly communicated. But what is it with all the Time Warner ads? Every one of them is dark.” Hispanics talk about all the Spanish-language programming available to Time Warner Cable customers. “I hope we’re seeing the English version of this spot and that they cut a Spanish version, too. Why promote Spanish-language programming in English and not Spanish at the same time? Still, it’s a good spot. It tells people what’s available to them and hits all the buttons that research says entices Hispanic viewers. It also shows consumers that Time Warner Cable is committed to its Hispanic audience.”

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