The Inconvenient Truth About Real-Time Marketing

Can Brands Respond to Unexpected Inspiration Both Quickly and Appropriately?

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Until Sunday night few people outside the state of Missouri or the SEC football world knew who Michael Sam was. Sure he was Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the best football conference in the country, but he isn't a pro, yet. He didn't play in the Super Bowl. He's not going to Disney World. He's not even going to get a rainbow Google Doodle or yogurt-cup stack like some brands hoisted on athletic endeavors taking place in Russia this month. But he could and should be considered for all of those things.

Michael Sam summarized himself this way on Sunday night, according to ESPN: "I'm not afraid to tell the world who I am. I'm Michael Sam: I'm a college graduate. I'm African American, and I'm gay."

It's impossible to separate the workplace culture of professional sports as it pertains to race and sexual orientation -- but this isn't about that. There are a lot of columns to be written and opinions to be given about how this one individual's disclosure will impact his future employment. People will discuss how it will impact his draft stock and what his future teammates will think. Some will acknowledge his college team, the Missouri Tigers, went 5-7 in 2012 and then 12-2, reaching the SEC championship game months after he disclosed to the entire team that he was gay. Others will simply use anonymous sources to argue that this is not going to fly in locker rooms.

But this is about what a remarkable announcement, in this case one that will lead to the first openly gay athlete playing a major pro team sport in the U.S., reveals about the ad world's ability to rapidly come up with something worthwhile and appropriate to say.

Even in this new era of vocal brands and real-time marketing, the announcement by Michael Sam has been met so far by silence from the advertising world. This is where my growing frustration with RTM exists. A strategic decision to transform your logo around the Olympics is smart, but also pre-planned and calculated. Extending your four million-dollar Super Bowl ad is strategic, but it's as obvious as buying the spot in the first place for most brands. Following Twitter and copying someone's joke about a Grammy award winner's hat looking like your logo is cool, if not strategic, and elevates your brand in some way.

None of that is really adapting in real-time. For years the digital prophets and evangelists sold brands on the "Always On" nature of the internet. They belabored the point about your doors never shutting, customers always being there and your obligation of being ready to serve. Now comes the real moment of truth for that community.

Perhaps marketers didn't want to risk seeming to take advantage of a young man for their own corporate profit. But it's at least as likely that they couldn't move quickly.

Michael Sam is the latest, but will not be the last, individual to present an opportunity. Every advertiser looking to reach a given audience should know how to be authentic and enhance the moments they wish to be associated with. They all were ready last week during the Super Bowl, but there was no blackout (like the year before) and the score was lopsided, so the envisioned moments never appeared for most.

There are brands dying to be associated with inspiring moments like this and yet few to none are really prepared, a week after the biggest day in football and in advertising, to even congratulate Sam or say "Looking forward to seeing you in the league." Until that changes, RTM is no more real than it is real-time.

Chris Copeland is CEO at GroupM Next.
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