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I Am (Trying to Be) Harry Crane

  |  October 8, 2010   |  Comments

Forget about Don Draper. Mad Men's Harry Crane was onto something big. Are you?

We in advertising tend to be a tribal culture. We stay close in to our groups and communities, pledging absolute allegiance to our agencies first, and greater communities second. We clearly identify with the companies that pay our salaries, but are willing to become nomadic when clients decide to move elsewhere. And, regularly, we all gather around the (proverbial) campfire and listen to legends of our ancestors - stories of their glorious victories and tragic failures. Through this listening we come to learn about the heroes: the people in our past who have exhibited greatness and provide us with a model of both who and how we want to be in our own, very real lives.

I'm, of course, speaking about Mad Men, the tremendous TV show about a fictional ad agency in the 1960s. I've been addicted since the premiere. I love the dialog and the characters. I even find the pacing of the show mesmerizing (most people complain that it moves too slowly). I know lots of others in our industry who are similarly obsessed with the show. Most of them (especially the men) see bits of themselves in Don Draper, the charismatic creative director. While I admit I am not immune to Don's charms and ways, I think maybe there is another character who I want to ally myself with: Harry Crane.

There's Something About Harry

If you need to get more familiar with the show, definitely visit forums, boards, and archives dedicated to it. Rather than outline the entire cast, I want to just focus on the character of Harry Crane for his one, specific action: he worked to establish a television department at the agency. Early in the series, the agency was focused on print ads. Harry saw the future of television and insisted that the agency commit to it. Or, more appropriately, he recognized the change in the media behavior of the consumer and insisted that the agency adjust to it.

Harry is a bit of a smarmy character, for sure. But that moment must have actually happened at agencies all up and down Madison Avenue at some point during that time frame - someone, somewhere decided that they needed to begin thinking seriously about television. Certainly there was probably more talent in the shop focused on print ads, but being great at something second best is not the road to success.

While the (ad) world is watching Don win friends and influence (female) people, it is clearly time we look a bit deeper and see how the channels through which we send brilliant things are changing and whether or not we are ready to not only embrace them, but to truly use what is different and special about them to achieve goals. There is generally a reason why things change. If we understand those reasons, maybe we can determine new ways to use those things.

How to Be Harry

Harry Crane was an agency world hero because he turned the agency in a new direction based on an observation about the changing nature of media and media consumption. What is happening today that suggests that the same thing may be afoot, and how can you be ready to direct your team in a new way? There are a few key signs:

  • Ads that sell relationships. The emerging advertising platforms have introduced a new step in the common sales cycle. Where we normally thought of advertisements as a way to sell products, we are seeing a dramatic increase in ad units and models designed to sell relationships. Consider Twitter. It has introduced a series of new options for advertisers, but really they are only ways to advertise either a conversation (like promoted tweets) or a Twitter handle (featured accounts). This is way different from what we have come to know and expect from companies like Twitter. We all expected it to offer something similar to AdWords, where offers for relevant products are placed next to content. No products offered here; it is selling the chance to have a relationship.
  • People as network hubs. The concept of a network is critical to the practice of advertising. In order to achieve our goals in a fiscally responsible way, we need efficient methods of distributing messages to masses. Networks allow us to traffic content to a single place and have it broadcast. For a long time, those networks were under the control of the people who put out the effort to build (and therefore own) the technology. Today, those builders are more focused on creating and owning platforms. Yes, you can call Facebook and place an ad, but those ads are only designed to connect to a person, who then distributes it to their network of friends. The big shift in media here is that we need to target people not only as potential customers, but also as potential distributors.
  • The divorce of content and form from device and location. The biggest anachronism in media/technology today is the phrase "digital living room." Some of the biggest companies in the world have been arguing over who is going to own the digital living room, and it ends up that the concept of the "living room" - the single space where content is consumed - has all but evaporated. We cling to the notion that the family gathers in a common space and all watches the movie of the week, but the prevalence of technology to display content coupled with the pervasiveness of digital signals means that anyone watches/listens/plays whatever, wherever, and whenever.

Shifting the Gears

If those are the three most powerful trends in media today that are pointing a new direction, it is critical for an organization to begin building toward it. The challenge between now and the Era of Crane is that there's no single box where all of the change is happening. It was (relatively) easy to just say "Right: let's figure out this very specific and particular thing called TV." Instead, we have to contend with a shift that is defined not so much by invention as by open chaos.

The thing that cuts through it all, though, in both cases, is the person. The person is always seeking to have more control and greater flexibility in media. That means that, if you had to pick one single thing to focus on, it would be her. That's why that second trend - people as network hubs - is the prime mover in the new era of advertising. If you focus your efforts on connecting with people, you see why you are supposed to use advertising to sell relationships and you see how you can follow that person as she bops around the media landscape.

And, I suppose, that has always been the case. If you look to where and how your consumer is living in the media landscape, you can start to find ways to lead her. And, ultimately, you will find that you are able to lead them back to your brand.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gary Stein

Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.

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