Lessons From the Microsoft Photoshop Fiasco

Agencies, Marketers Need to Think Globally, Even for Regional Work

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- A lot of global marketing is about translating a single idea for dozens of markets. But, let's face it, local executions don't stay local for long, especially if they offer bloggers a chance to embarrass a multinational brand.

Microsoft Photoshop jobEnlarge
Microsoft's Photoshop gaffe

Microsoft learned this last week, when blogs and mainstream media alike seized upon an image from Microsoft's Polish business website featuring a clumsy Photoshop job that turned a black man white. The original image appeared on Microsoft's U.S. website and featured an Asian man, the black man and a white woman sitting around a conference table. On the Polish website, the same photo appeared with a white man's head pasted over the black man -- if you look closely, the black man's hand is still there --apparently because of Poland's homogenous population. While Microsoft has since apologized and taken down the photo, evidence of the racially insensitive gaffe remains on major news sites such as the BBC and ABC, and countless blogs.

It's a simple fact of digital life that ads spread without regard for borders but one that's been forgotten by a few marketers, including Absolut. Last year, a print ad for Absolut vodka that ran only in Mexico garnered outrage from Americans when the blogosphere took it outside its intended market. From TBWA's Mexico City shop, the ad featured a map that redrew Mexico's borders to include the U.S. Southwest and caused negative mainstream media attention, even going as far as tens of thousands of LA Times poll-takers claiming they'd boycott the vodka.

So, how do agencies and advertisers prevent local efforts like these from offending potentially international audiences? Ad Age checked in with a couple of ad folks for some tips on how to prevent unwanted international attention.

1. Remember that your audience is always bigger than you think it is.
"When you talk about ways to avoid this from happening, the first thing is to acknowledge is that we live in a communication environment where the actual audience of our work is much wider than what we define in marketing terms," said Leo Premutico, cofounder of creative agency Johannes Leonardo.

In other words, for all your best efforts in segmenting and targeting audiences, the audience reached could be much bigger and have a different set of sensibilities and value than the one intended.

"Brands need to consider wider audiences than who they are specifically targeting," Mr. Premutico said. "The best thing that both clients and agencies can do is acknowledge the times we live in and understand potential reactions, and assume a broader mindset even when creating regional work."

2. Think globally, even for local work.
Another good way to prevent gaffes like these is to consider regionality irrelevant and infuse all efforts with global perspective, added Mr. Premutico, whose New York-based agency handles global work for soccer brand Nomis, Clarins beauty products, the TED conference and Chanel.

3. Execute your work knowing that consumers are going to edit it and interpret it for you.
"It seems like there's some execution factors that have triggered this response for Microsoft. The way things are executed are absolutely crucial," Mr. Premutico continued.

"In the past we've designed work that treats our consumers as a destination. What we've seen since digital technology has become a force is that our consumer is actually passing on our work and interpreting our work, and sometimes making it worse. Consumers have become the medium. This is an advantage or disadvantage, depending on the work we put in their hands."

4. Understand local agency objectives.
"When you work on a big global piece of business it's hard to have control over the regions, the local geographies have a lot of their own goals and their own money and need to generate demand," said Seth Solomons, global chief marketing officer for Digitas, the digital agency of record for Samsung across 50-plus countries. "They'd rather be in market with stuff that's passable than to wait for approval or something provided by a global campaign. Many of us have been there in some shade. It's very hard to police. A lot of clients are getting very smart and moving to a better editorial process. At least then there are global standards for a borrowed image."

5. Designate an editor in chief.
Mr. Solomons outlines a quality-control framework for brands using global assets across local markets. If the brand uses assets globally, like Microsoft did, the head agency needs to act like the editor in chief of all locally produced creative. Mr. Solomons said he agrees that set messaging and imagery are needed to provide brand consistency globally, but after local operations craft ads, the Frankensteins of those assets need to be fed back to a central checkpoint.

"There's a movement away from traditional agency structure, copywriters and art directors," Mr. Solomons said. "It's a lot easier for us to be able to run stuff through an editor or an editorial staff and then get it out to the region. There needs to be some semblance of order between the global agency to the local translation shop. I don't think it's about consolidating, there just needs to be structure for local regions to feed into. Agencies need to become more flexible. It's moving toward an editor in chief with a small staff; there may be four or five people who are the approvers of local flavor, some combo of agency and client collaboration."

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