Raising the Stakes

I can count on one hand, with plenty of fingers to spare, the number of times I’ve raised my voice in anger in a professional context. Given the endemic tension in my line of work, I’m proud of this fact.

The first time will always stay with me.  It was crisis in the minutes before a deadline: shouting ADs and PMs on the verge of tears.  An all-too familiar scene to anyone in the ad business, but it was new to me, and flat-out ridiculous.  I wanted to shut it right down.  People, get ahold of yourselves. We’re not curing cancer, dodging artillery, or rescuing disaster victims. We’re selling a cheap bottle of mediocre alcohol. Nobody will die if this ad doesn’t ship. Nobody will lose a job, a loved one, or a limb.  Less than twelve people will even notice.  Yes, it’s important; sure, we should do it right and well; but my god, just breathe for a minute.

I hang on to this memory not because of my own imagined eloquence, but because ever since the rant left my lips, I’ve been haunted by the daydream of what my job would be like if it wasn’t true.

Two discoveries this week have brought the thought back to the forefront of my consciousness. The first, Rory Sutherland’s disarmingly funny TED talk on the power of perception management.  [Watch it below. It’s worth the 16 minutes. It’s most of what Art & Copy could have been, and failed to be, in a fraction of the time.]  “Engineers, medical people, scientific people, have an obsession with solving the problems of reality,” Rory challenges, “but most problems — once you reach a basic level of wealth in society — are actually problems of perception.”

The second, just such a worthy problem of perception.  The US Army issued an RFP for an ad campaign aimed at winning hearts in Afghanistan. The key metric for measuring performance? Reduction in the number of IEDs that blow apart Humvees.  Literally, life and death.  When I raised it in the weekly new biz meeting, of course, it became a funny joke about moderating focus groups in Kandahar.  Fair enough.

The secret irony of being an agent is that we have very little agency.  We’re one step removed from decisions and thousands of miles insulated from real accountability.  Most of us have built up a comfortable credibility as consultants based largely on the fact that we’ve consulted for others in the past.  Even after a decade of web-based performance marketing that can count success down to the minutia of clicks and conversion rates, we still channel prestige more by who we’ve performed in front of than how we’ve performed.

Here’s an arresting thought about the gap between prestige and proof:

If we’re actually good at what we claim to be good at, we should be able to launch wildly successful consumer brands with uncanny consistency, from scratch, blindfolded with hands behind our backs.

If we’re great at it, we should be doing more.  Changing lives.  Leading cultures.  Curing the diseases of perception that turn people against each other, themselves, and their planet.  As elite agents of cultural change, we should have long ago vanquished injustices with ideas.  It shouldn’t have even been much of a struggle.

Why haven’t we?  Plenty of reasons.  Those problems aren’t so simple, of course.  And there’s no client to pay for that kind of work.  There’s no time to work on it anyway. And even if there were, it would be polarizing — you’d have to take political positions. Make risks even beyond the investment of time and money. You’d alienate people and strain relationships and put yourself in the morally-questionable position of deciding the right direction to lead culture in the first place.  You’d be accountable if you failed.

They’re reasons that are all true and valid and logical and deeply prohibitive.

But are they good enough?

Open questions on the Crisis of Confidence

Giant shareholder meeting courtesy of japan-zone.com

The business case for the service economy is written into the fundamentals of capitalism: divide labor. specialize. trade.  Consultants, lawyers, landscapers, hair dressers and, yes, ad agencies all exist because it’s inefficient for people to build their own talent for many specialized functions.  It’s far easier to hire out.  In the immaculate zen of oversimplified market ideals, we all do exactly one thing perfectly, trade for everything else, and live happily ever after.  Adam Smith rests in peace.

But anybody who’s ever made a buck walking a dog or writing a contract or selling an ad campaign knows that reality is rarely so rosy.  I’ve long been unsettled by how easy it is for these basic market relationships — between clients and agents, buyers and sellers, co-workers and company partners — to break down to painful inefficiency.  I’m starting to believe that these disconnects aren’t just the symptoms of mismatched engagements.  I think there’s something more fundamental going on.

I believe the service economy, at its heart, depends on a crisis of confidence.

The extremes of specialization, designed to make everyone feel like an expert in one specific field, have the unavoidable effect of leaving too many people feeling like clueless novices in everything else.  This insecurity is what drives the demand side of the service economy, and in the clean white pages of economic textbooks the system turns smoothly on the wheels of mutual trust.  But trust is a hell of an assumption to make in a model of human behavior.  All too often the real world resorts to far less efficient tradeoffs: battles of ego, layers of decision-crippling bureaucracy, unhealthy obsessions with quantitative metrics.

The crisis of confidence (and the overcompensation it incubates) can be particularly acute here in the industry of cultural influence.  From movie studios to brand consultancies, artists and theorists and MBAs form awkward alliances based on the mutual interest of shared resources and reapable profit.  But the exchange of trust and respect between specialists is hardly common currency.  The complex politics of taking credit, displacing responsibility and jockeying for authority are an endemic ramification of a systemic lack of self-assurance felt by individuals and organizations alike.

The crisis of confidence is what leads to drawn-out decisions by overly cautious committees.  It kills brilliant ideas with numbingly dull research and pits partners against each other in silly scenarios of feigned realpolitik.  It is a form market failure that, ironically, is deeply fundamental to the function of the market in the first place.

No, I don’t have an immediate solution.  Sure, this is a rant.  But the point of recording it is to do more than vent; to reach a point more productive than frustrated rhetorical questions.  If the crisis of confidence is indeed rooted in the overspecialization of the service industry, then there are more important assumptions to challenge.  I’ll save the “can’t we all just get along?” for a more bitter evening, and instead pose a series open questions to self and industry:

What if we all tried something new?  What if we made good on the sales pitch of liberal arts educations, and started weeding focused specialists out of the service economy?  What if we started stocking it with a force of savvy generalists instead?

Would we work more efficiently together?  Armed with a broader set of skills and self-assurance, would we be more likely to admit insecurities?  Would we trust each other more?

Or would we devolve into even more complex skirmishes of overlapping ego?  Are insecurity and overcompensation just a basic cost of business in the macroeconomic balance sheet of specialized services?

It’s out of character for me, but I want to be an optimist on this one.

MegaPlaza in MultiContext

ReMaxHonduras

A visit to my LinkedIn page just taunted me with the reminder that it’s been over sixty days since I took the time to record a thought here.  Not that I’m a manic blogger, but that’s a long lapse.

It wasn’t for lack of thoughts.

The last eight weeks have seen a lot of change, with little time for public reflection.  I made the rough decision to leave a great job, moved from the bottom to the top of the West coast, married an amazing woman in the company of wonderful people, gallavanted around Central America and returned to dive head first into a wide-open new opportunity.  After years of annual moves and biweekly travel across oceans and deserts, these two months have been like a climactic montage of radical context changes.

There’s always an awkward balance of humor and discomfort in the collision of contextualities.  Honduras was full of them.  A bright Re/Max For Sale sign 12.5 miles up a dirt track road in Pico Bonito, teetering in front of a thatch-roof hut under a power line patched inside a plastic Fanta bottle.  The shell of a shopping center under construction next to a scraggy field full of impoverished cows breathing visibly around exposed rib lines.  Suppose they appreciate the irony of the Wendy’s being erected on the corner, an anchor brand of the shiny new MegaPlaza?

Should I?

As a strip mall anywhere in the developed world, this sight would have barely registered in my memory; a vaguely depressing blur in a scenery of suburban banality.  But here it seems jarringly out of place, offensive to my expectation of a secluded tropical island honeymoon destination.  Its unlit neons burn with an endemic injustice, just the latest signs in a long legacy of radical income disparity that dates to pirate ships and carries through to private yachts.

Those first reactions are soon challenged by further explorations of context.  What about all the job creation?  And who am I to say that Roatan’s middle class and visitors shouldn’t enjoy the occasional Frosty?  What right do I have to expect a culture of poverty just because I’m disillusioned with culture of quickserve gluttony?

This isn’t a blog about political economy and I won’t rant further about the moral merits of Central American development strategies.  The point is, living in MultiContext forced me to think long and hard about MegaPlaza.  Had I expected it, I never would’ve thought twice.

Disappointing at its own ends

Elvis Costello talked to NPR recently about what it takes to stay successful and satisfied in the music business for more than three decades:

I never set out with an objective that I had to, you know, invade Russia by next week or something.  That’s not a healthy way to carry on in music.  When I’m asked for advice by people whose children are considering music as a career, I say, “make sure it’s actually music they’re pursuing, and not fame,”  because fame on its own ends is liable to be disappointing, but music is very rarely disappointing.

In other words, don’t be a musician just to get famous; don’t sell widgets just to get rich.  You’ll let yourself down.

Thanks, Elvis.

It’s a spirit written into the the modern American dream — the hope that pursuit of passion will always lead to accidental profit and assured prosperity.  It’s also built into the foundation of brand consulting: companies inspired by big ideas will always be more successful over the long term than companies looking for a quick fix.  We turn this into convincing, sometimes even emotionally moving arguments for common rallying cries and higher callings.

But is it really true?  Is it really possible to sell insurance for the sake of peace of mind?  To parse endless lines of enterprise accounting software code in the name of productive efficiency?  Is that sense of ultimate purpose really what it takes to run a successful brand for decades?

Is, say, Nike really around to drive the essence of sport to the next level?  Like Mr. Costello, would they describe themselves as champions of sport first, and accidental business starlets second?

I asked their investor relations homepage.

nikeisagrowthcompany

I know, that’s a completely unfair conclusion.  Nike has nurtured an amazing brand from a backtop in Eugene, OR to a multi-billion dollar global business.  They stand apart in recognition and success because of their ability to nurture that brand, and to do so they take constant inspiration from a big idea that resonates.

But you won’t find much about that big idea in their 10-K.  The awkward reality that we brand consultants must come to terms with is this clumsy separation between big ideas and business models.  The fact that we believe in the power of brands but still struggle to quantify their value in balance-sheet terms.  The smirks we share when we take credit for bottom-line results.

If there are more than ‘intangible asssets’ at play, it’s time to find them.  Let’s make sure it’s actually brands we’re pursuing.

What’s the big idea?

A broken bulb that illuminates via theletter.co.uk

My ongoing quest make nice between the worlds of green and brand usually involves finding places where these disparate disciplines can learn from each other.  But more and more, I find myself focusing on common problems instead of shared solutions.  There’s one conundrum that’s been nagging me for a while; it reared up again while debreifing Sustainable Brands ’09 with a co-worker who attended last week:

Do good ideas have to have ‘big ideas’ behind them?

Within both fields, this is almost a blasphemous question to ask.  The stalwarts of sustainability are deeply invested in a culture where any product not directly contributing to planetary salvation is to be publicly stoned with accusations of greenwash.  This separates the committed from the casual.  It gives rise to a plethora of standards organizations from the USDA to the USGBC who exist to put labels on legitimacy.  It justifies price premiums and creates superiority quotients.  It’s what keeps sustainability a movement.

Likewise, a global congregation of brand strategists and agency planners has invested four decades in building an industry around the ritualistic worship of the big idea; the doctrine that design is conceptual, that culture can be distilled to concepts, and that concepts can and must be mapped along abstract axes in cryptic PowerPoint slides. This is how work is sold.  It’s how creative is inspired. It is, ultimately, the justification for expensive answers that are rooted in common sense but can’t be empirically tested.

Certainly, organizations need a reason to exist.  Movements need a method of quality control.  Great brands need to make a promise beyond products.

But when you silence the rhetoric, shut down the projector, and step out into the front lines of both green and brand, cracks emerge in the omnipotence of the big idea.  It’s time we stopped ignoring them, and asked some introspective questions instead.  A few problems worth chewing on:

  1. Research is only one part science. The other ingredients are performance art and artful hogwash.  Social research isn’t about coldly-rational validation; live human subjects won’t ever just tell you exactly how your carefully-worded positioning statement or colorful stimulus board will impact their purchase behavior.  They don’t know yet.  Research — especially that of the qualitative variety — is about producing knowledge in the moment as much as measuring facts.  It’s about inspiration and ideas.  Similarly, the popular reporting of scientific discoveries, be they of the marketing or climate-science variety, is about politics and framing as much as collaborative learning.  Every answer is incomplete, loaded, and manipulated.  It’s just part of the game.
  2. Pop culture runs on a chaos of small ideas. Part of the fallacy behind the rationality of research is the fact that culture and nature can only be empirically measured in the past.  Big ideas are assembled by looking back and stitching together a retroactive narrative from a sea of micro observations.  All history is a story; all stories choose which details to include and leave behind; all histories fundamentally change the past.  Every forward-looking statement, strategy, and product based on that historical revisionism is a theory, not a proven fact.  An educated guess or a blind gamble, depending on how much homework you’ve done.  The big ideas we sell are guesses based on the pieces of the past we’ve stitched together.  Meanwhile, culture marches on as a disorganized mess of fads, trends, products, and people.
  3. The real world is messy. This chaos of small ideas is where the majority of people make purchase decisions and express their everyday identities.  It’s an environment that is inconsistent, unpredictable and only so controllable — an instability that will only be more pronounced as brands become more social, movements more decentralized, and customers more empowered.  The tendency toward metabrands mean that the big ideas are created from the decentralized sum of small ideas; the uncontrollable democracy of billions of decisions made by millions of actors.

Big ideas, in short, are chosen.  They build from the small ideas we offer and they evolve as the terms of those ideas are altered by the people who put them into action.

Why, then, do we invest so much time, money, and pomp into the big ideas?

Could we have a truly post-environmentalist ‘green’ movement?  Would it be a movement?  What would a small-idea brand strategy look like?   Could it build a brand?

Am I crazy?

Discovery vs. exclusivity: the emerging tragedies of the digital commons

Sheep on the commons via Brian Griffiths

This is getting intense.  It was one thing to read that women over 55 are the fastest growing demo on Facebook.  It was another for that reality to hit my home page.  In the last week alone, I’ve been friended by an aunt, a friend’s mom, and the den mother of my second grade cub scout troop.  I’ve watched my humbly-unaware parents struggle to interpret the snickeringly-inappropriate status messages of my little brother’s friends.  I’ve seen similarly-blushworthy updates posted by people I’d grown up thinking of as grownups and never imagined doing certain things in Vegas.

Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing but love for family and distant friends, I think it’s healthy for people to take each other out of context, and I believe that broader networks which facilitate greater discovery are (almost) always a good thing.  But this sudden diversification of my Facebook stream is indicative of a deeper tension building across the social web; the symptoms of a problem whose solution will fundamentally alter the way we interact online.

The web has always thrived on more users, more content, and greater access.  These things cost essentially nothing and drive the fundamentals of value for everyone involved — users benefit from more things to do and more people to interact with; publishers benefit from more traffic, clicks, page views, contributions, and passalong; advertisers win with more interaction, enhanced tracking capabilities, and of course revenue.

But. There are at least two critical roadblocks that undercut this interconnected value of more.  The first is a classic Internet paradox: more users and more content has always meant more clutter.  The web faces a persistent relevance problem. Signal-to-noise ratios are a fickle factor in the success and failure of almost every great Internet brand.  Google made its first fortune by cutting through the noise with relevant results, but now thrives on the proliferation of content from which to monetize.  Microblogging is on an opposite arc, bursting with the novelty of multidirectional noise but now facing the real challenge of organizing an overwhelming stream of irrelevance.

There is another paradox built into the relevance battle, however, and it’s more abstract than the functional challenges of filtering massive content streams.  The ironic secret ingredient that has nurtured the infancy and adolescence of the social web is precisely that — an element of secrecy.  Exclusivity.  Superiority.   It’s the edge that keeps early adopters adopting and the intrigue that leads the masses to follow.  And it’s in serious jeopardy.

Practical resource scarcities like access and bandwidth aren’t the real threats to the social web.  The emerging tragedies of the digital commons are a crisis of relevance, a bubble of attention, and an impending crash of exclusivity. It’s this ominous threat that pushed Twitter to hastily limit @replies last week and has driven Facebook to refocus on filters and friend lists.  And it’s this brewing storm that is lifting the wings of next-generation micro-communities facilitated by services like Ning and FourSquare.

I believe that a new era of disintegration is inevitable, driven by offline social groups and common interest areas.  What will it mean for the future of cares, causes, and communities?  Will metabrands like green become increasingly isolated as the uninterested tune them out?

Is that a bad thing?

Institutionalizing the (Social) Enterprise

Unintentionally-ironic paper dolls borrowed from the consultants at Akashi.us

I’ll be honest: the idea of social enterprise has always intrigued but perplexed me.  On paper, of course, it sounds great.  We’ll apply the principles of entrepreneurship to solve social problems; we’ll be far more efficient than governments or NGOs and maybe we’ll make some money in the process.  It’s an idea that gives a whole throng of bright, young, business-savvy but corporate-skeptical people a reason to rally.

But there are at least two problems that have kept me lingering on the wary rim of the social enterprise punch bowl.  The first is a logistics issue: it just doesn’t seem like altruistic capitalism is at all scalable, and it’s hard to find an example that proves me wrong.  The second is more of a meta-cynicism problem: even for a guy like me who relishes in contradictions, altruistic capitalism is a big oxymoron to get over.  The firmly acculturated bulkhead that stands between the social roles of charities and corporations marks any attempt at a mashup with a distinct smell of skepticism.

Two discoveries this week have me rethinking this response.  Specifically, I’m learning to live with the first problem and am excited to see someone working on the second… in the mucky thick of tax law, no less.  Grant tipped me off to an interesting development: over the last few years, states like Vermont and Montana have been quietly introducing legislation that defines a new type of tax status for business: the Low-Profit Limited Liability Corporation, or L3C.  This is a purely tactical play that makes it easier for foundations to legally invest (with hopes of a small return) in social causes instead of just donating.  But it’s also a soft step toward institutionalizing the idea of a corporation driven by more than market cap.  An official marker that legitimates an idea which has previously had so much trouble fitting into oppositional categories.  A badge for the metabrand.

I’m still skeptical about scalability.  But case studies like the White Dog Cafe have me toying with the hope that scale can happen at the systemic level if not the organizational level; that the long tail decorporatization that works so well on the internet can spill over into the world of brick, mortar, and better paychecks.  Here’s to hoping.


thoughts at the collision of business, brand and creativity

I'm Ryan Cunningham. I help companies and culture play nice with each other. At CREATURE we call this Brand Strategy, a term that carries a nice halo of reliability and structure. Here, I'm just another guy who thinks about the world and writes it down from time to time.

The result is a pile of knowledge to be used in, and for, the future. Feel free to sift through the heap for useful connections.

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