This is an edited version of a series of talks I first gave in New York over the past week, outlining my work at Columbia. Many thanks to Reinvent, Pete Leyden, Cap Gemini, Columbia University, Cossette/Vision7, and the New York Times for hosting and helping me.
The Los Angeles Times was the first newspaper I ever read – I even attended a grammar school named for its founding family (the Chandlers). Later in life I worked at the Times for a summer – and found even back then, the great brand had begun to lose its way.
I began reading The Atlantic as a high schooler in the early 1980s, and in college I dreamt of writing long form narratives for its editors. In graduate school, I even started a publication modeled on The Atlantic‘s brand – I called it The Pacific. My big idea: The west coast was a huge story in desperate need of high-quality narrative journalism. (Yes, this was before Wired.)
I toured The Washington Post as a teenager, and saw the desks where Bernstein and Woodward brought down a corrupt president. I met Katherine Graham once, at a conference I hosted, and I remain star struck by the institution she built to this day.
And every seven days, for more than five decades, Time magazine came to my parents’ home, defining the American zeitgeist and smartly summarizing what mattered in public discourse.
Now all four of my childhood icons are owned by billionaires who made their fortunes in technology. History may not repeat, but it certainly rhymes. During the Gilded Age, our last great era of unbridled income inequality, many of America’s greatest journalistic institutions were owned by wealthy industrialists. William Randolph Hearst was a mining magnate. Joseph Pulitzer came from a wealthy European merchant family, though he came to the US broke and epitomized the American “self made man.” Andre Carnegie, Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., and Henry Flagler all dabbled in newspapers, with a healthy side of politics, which drove nearly all of American publishing during the Gilded Age.
Which brings us to the Benioffs, and to Time. This week’s announcement struck all the expected notes – “The Benioffs will hold TIME as a family investment,” “TIME is a treasure trove of the world’s history and culture,” “Lynne and I will take on no operational responsibility for TIME, and look only to be stewards of this historic and iconic brand.”
Well to that, I say poppycock. Time needs fixing, not benign stewardship. While it may be appropriate and politic to proclaim a hands-off approach, the flagship brand of the former Time Inc. empire could use a strong dose of what the Benioffs have to offer. Here’s my hot take on why and how:
Don’t play down the middle. What the United States needs right now is a voice of reason, of strength, of post-Enlightenment thinking. Not a safe, bland version of “on the one hand, on the other hand” journalism. As Benioff well knows, politics is now the biggest driver of attention in the land, and taking a principled stand matters more than ever.
Learn from Bezos. Sure, the richest man in the world didn’t mess with the editorial side of the house, but then again, he already had an extraordinary leader in Marty Baron at the helm. But Bezos did completely shift the business model at the Post, implementing entirely new approaches to, well, pretty much every operating model in the building. New revenue leadership, new software platforms and processes, even a new SaaS business line. He thoroughly modernized the place, and if ever a place needed the same, it’s Time.
Invest in the product – editorial. But thoughtfully. First and foremost, the Benioffs should force the Time team to answer the most important question of any consumer brand: Differentiation that demands a premium. Why should Time earn someone’s attention (and money)? What makes the publication unique? What does its brand stand for, beyond history and a red band around the cover? What mission is it on? If anyone understands these issues, it’s Marc and Lynne Benioff. Don’t hold back on forcing this difficult conversation – including on staffing and leadership (I’ve no bone to pick with anyone there, BTW). American journalism needs it, now. I can imagine a Time magazine where the most talented and elite commentators debate the issues of our day. And what issues they truly are! But to draw them, the product must sing, and it must also pay. Abolish the practice of paying a pittance for an argument well rendered. It’s time.
Related, rethink the print business. Print isn’t dead, but it needs a radical rethink. There isn’t a definitive weekly journal of sensible political and social discourse in America, and there really should be. The New Yorker is comfortably highbrow, US News is a college review site, Newsweek is rudderless. Time has a huge opportunity, but as it stands, it plays to the middle far too much, and online, it tries to be everything to nobody. Perhaps the hardest, but most important thing anyone can do at a struggling print magazine is to cut circulation (the base number of readers) and find its truly passionate brand advocates. The company already did this a year ago, but it may not have gone far enough. Junk circulation is rife in the magazine business. It’s also rampant online, which leads to…
Please, fix the website. A site that has a nearly 10-month out of date copyright notice at the bottom is not run like a lean product shop. Time online is a poster child for compromised business decisions driven entirely by acquiring junk audience (did you know that Time has 60mm uniques? Yeah, neither do they). Every single page on Time.com is littered with half a dozen or more competing display banners. The place stinks of desperate autoplay video, programmatic pharmaceutical come ons, and tawdry link bait (there are literally THREE instances of Outbrain-like junk on each article page. THREE!). Fixing this economic and product mess requires deep pockets and strong product imagination. The Benioffs have both. Invent (and or copy) new online models where the advertising adds value, where marketers would be proud to support the product. I’ve spoken to dozens of senior marketers looking to lean into high-quality news analysis. They’ve got very little to support at present. Time could change that.
Move out of Time Inc’s headquarters. Like, this week. The original Time Inc. HQ were stultifying and redolent with failure, but even the new digs downtown bear the albatross of past glories. It’s soul crushing. As an independent brand, Time needs a space that reclaims its pioneer spirt, and encourages its staff to rethink everything. Move to Nomad, the Flatiron, West Chelsea – anywhere but a skyscraper in the financial district.
Finally, leverage and rethink the cover. One of the largest single losses in the shift from analog to digital publishing was the loss of covers – the album cover (and its attendant liner notes), the book cover (and its attendant social signaling), and the magazine cover (and its attendant declarative power). The magazine cover is social artifact, editorial arbiter, cultural convener. The digital world still lacks the analog cover’s power. Time should make it a priority to invent its successor. Lock ten smart humans in a room full of whiteboards and don’t let them out till they have a dozen or more good ideas. Then test and learn – the answer is in there somewhere. The world needs editorial convening more than ever.
There’s so much more, but I didn’t actually set out to write a post about how to fix Time – I was merely interested in the historical allegories of successful industrialists who turned to publishing as they consolidated their legacies. In an interview with the New York Times this week, Benioff claimed his purchase of Time was aligned with his mission of “impact investing,” and that he was not going to be operationally involved. Well, Marc, if you truly want to have an impact, I beg to differ: Please do get involved, and the sooner the better.
Some years ago while attempting to explain the thinking behind my then-startup Federated Media, I wrote that all brands are publishers (it was over on the FM blog, which the new owners apparently have taken down – a summary of my thinking can be found here). I’d been speechifying on this theme for years, since well before FM or even the Industry Standard – after all, great brands always created great content (think TV ads or the spreads in early editions of Wired), we just didn’t call it that until our recent obsession with “native advertising” and “content marketing,” an obsession I certainly helped stoke during my FM years.
Today, there is an entire industry committed to helping brands become publishers, and the idea that brands need to “join the conversation” and “think like media companies” is pretty widely held. But I think the metaphor of brands as media creators has some uneasy limitations. We are all wary of what might be called contextual dissonance – when we consume media, we want to do so in proper context. I’ve seen a lot of branded content that feels contextually dissonant to me – easily shareable stories distributed through Outbrain, Buzzfeed, and Sharethrough, for example, or highly shareable videos distributed through YouTube and Facebook.
So why is this content dissonant? I’m thinking out loud here, but it has to do with our expectations. When a significant percentage of the content that gets pushed into my social streams is branded content, I’m likely to presume that my content streams have a commercial agenda. But when I’m in content consumption mode, I’m not usually in a commercial mode. To be clear, I’m not hopping on the “brands are trying to trick us into their corporate agendas” bandwagon, I think there’s something more fundamental at work here. There are plenty of times during any given day when I *am* in commercial context – wandering through a mall, researching purchases online, running errands in my car – but when I’m consuming content, I’m usually not in commercial context. Hence the disassociation. When clearly commercial content is offered during a time when I’m not in commercial mode, it just feels off.
I think this largely has to do with a lack of signaling in media formats these days. Much has been made of how native advertising takes on the look and feel of the content around it, and most of the complaint has to do with how that corporate speech is somehow disingenuous, sly, or deceitful. But I don’t think that’s the issue. What we have here is a problem of context, plain and simple.
Any company with money can get smart content creators to create, well, smart content, content that has as good a chance as any to be part of a conversation. In essence, branded content is something of a commodity these days – just like a 30 second spot of a display ad is a commodity. We’re just not accustomed to commercial content in the context of our social reading habits. In time, as formats and signaling get better, we will be. As that occurs, “content marketing” becomes table stakes – essential, but not what will set a brand apart.
Reflecting on my earlier work on brands as media companies, I realize that the word “media” was really a placeholder for “experience.” It’s not that every company should be a media company per se – but rather, that every company must become an experience company. Media is one kind of experience – but for many companies, the right kind of experience is not media, at least if we understand “media” to mean content.
But let’s start with a successful experience that is media – American Express’ Open Forum. If I as a consumer chose to engage with Open Forum, I do so in the clear context that it’s an American Express property, a service created by the brand. There’s no potential for deceit – the context is understood. This is a platform owned and operated by Amex, and I’ll engage with it knowing that fact. Over the years Amex has earned a solid reputation for creating valuable content and advice on that platform – it has built a media experience that has low contextual dissonance.
But not every experience is a media experience, unless you interpret the word “media” in a far more catholic sense. If you begin to imagine every possible touchpoint that a customer might have with your brand as a highly interactive media experience – mediated by the equivalent of a software- and rules-driven UX – well now we’re talking about something far larger.
To illustrate what I mean I think back to my original “Gap Scenario” from nearly five years ago. I imagined what it might be like to visit a retail outlet like Gap a few years from now. I paint a picture where the experience that any given shopper might have in a Gap store (or any other retail outlet) is distinct and seamless, because Gap has woven together a tapestry of data, technology platforms, and delivery channels that turns a pedestrian trip to the mall into a pleasurable experience that makes me feel like the company understands and values me. I’m a forty-something Dad, I don’t want to spend more than 45 seconds in Gap if I don’t have to. My daughter, on the other hand, may want to wander around and engage with the retail clerks for 45 minutes or more. Different people, different experiences. It’s Gap’s job to understand these experience flows and design around them. That takes programmatic platforms, online CRM, well-trained retail clerks, new approaches to information flows, and a lot of partners.
I believe that every brand needs to get good at experience design and delivery. Those that are great at it tend to grow by exponential word of mouth – think of Google, Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, or Earnest (a new lending company). When marketing becomes experience design, brands win.
There’s far more to say about this, including my thesis that “information first” companies win at experience-based marketing. All fodder for far more posts. For now, I think I’ll retire the maxim “all companies are media companies” and replace it with “every company is an experience company.” Feels more on key.
(image) I took a rigorous walk early this morning, a new habit I’m trying to adopt – today was Day Two. Long walks force a certain meditative awareness. You’re not moving so fast that you miss the world’s details passing by – in fact, you can stop to inspect something that might catch your eye. Today I explored an abandoned log cabin set beside a lake, for example. I’ve sped by that cabin at least a thousand times on my mountain bike, but when you’re walking, discovery is far more of an affordance.
Besides the cabin, the most remarkable quality of today’s walk was the water – it’s (finally) been raining hard here in Northern California, and the hills and forests of Marin are again alive with the rush of water coursing its inevitable path toward the sea. White twisting ribbons cut through each topographic wrinkle, joining forces to form great streams at the base of any given canyon. The gathering roar of a swollen stream, rich with foam and brown earth – well, it’s certainly good for the soul.
I can’t say the same of my daily “walks” through the Internet. Each day I spend an hour or more reading industry news. I’m pretty sure you do too – that’s probably the impetus for your visit here – chances are you clicked on a link on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google, or in email. Someone you know said “check this out,” or – and bless you if this is the case – you actually follow my musings and visit on a regular basis.
But the truth is, we now mostly find content via aggregated streams. Streams are the new distribution. We dip in and out of streams, we curate and search our streams, we abandon barren streams and pick up new streams, hoping they might prove more nourishing. Back before streams ruled the world, of course, we had a habit of visiting actual “pools” – sites that we found worthy because they did a good job of creating content that we valued. (Before that, I think we read actual publications. But that was a long, long time ago…)
Which got me thinking. What makes a stream? In the real world, streams are made from water, terrain, and gravity. To belabor the metaphor to the media business, content is the water, publishers are the terrain, and our thirst for good content is the gravity.
As publishers – and I include all marketing brands in this category – the question then becomes: “What terrain do we claim as ours?”
Deciding where to lay down roots as a publisher is an existential choice. Continuing the physical metaphor a bit further, it’s the equivalent of deciding what land to buy (or lease). If your intention is to build something permanent and lasting on that land, it’s generally a good idea to *own* the soil beneath your feet.
This is why I wrote Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web two years ago. If you’re going to build something, don’t build on land someone else already owns. You want your own land, your own domain, your own sovereignty.
Trouble is, so much of the choice land – the land where all the *people* are – is already owned by someone else: By Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yahoo, and Apple (in apps, anyway). These platforms are where are the people are, after all. It’s where the headwaters form for most of the powerful streams on the Internet. It’s tempting to build your brand on those lands – but my counsel is simple: Don’t. There’s plenty of land out there on the Rest of The Internet. In fact, there’s as much land as you want, and what you make of it is up to you as a publisher.
Quick: Name one successful publisher that built its brand on the back of a social platform? Can’t do it? Neither can I, unless you count sites like UpWorthy. And those flying near the social network sun risk getting seriously burned. There’s a reason publishers don’t build on top of social platforms: publishers are an independent lot, and they naturally understand the value of owning your own domain. Publishers don’t want to be beholden to the shifting sands of inscrutable platform policies. So why on earth would a brand?
Despite the fact that my once-revolutionary bromide “all brands are publishers” is now commonplace, most brands still don’t quite understand how to act like a publisher.
Which takes me to this piece, Facebook is not making friends on Madison Avenue (Digiday). Besides the quippy headline and the rather obvious storyline (a burgeoning Internet company failing to satisfy agencies? Pretty much Dog-Bites-Man), the thing that got me to perk up was this:
One point of frustration is Facebook’s ongoing squeezing of traffic to organic brand content. A digital agency exec described a recent meeting with Facebook that turned contentious. In what was meant to be a routine meeting, the exec said the Facebook rep told him the brands the agency works with would now have to pay Facebook for the same amount of reach they once enjoyed automatically. That position and Facebook’s perceived attitude have led to some disillusionment on Madison Avenue, where many bought into the dream peddled by Facebook that brands could set up shop on the platform as “publishers” and amass big audiences on their own….
…The cruel irony in all of this is that brands themselves greatly helped Facebook by giving it free advertising in their TV commercials and sites, urging their customers to “like” the brand — and paying Facebook to pile up likes. Facebook has returned the favor by choking off brands’ access to those communities. That’s one expensive and frustrating lesson that it’s better to own than rent.
Put another way: “Wait, I did what you asked, Facebook, and set up a big content site on your platform that drew a fair number of visitors organically. Now you’ve changed the rules of the game, and you want me to pay to get their attention?!”
Yup. You leased your land, Mr. Brand Marketer, and the rent’s going up. If I were you, I’d get back to your own domain. Spend your money building something worthy, then spend to drive people there. Your agencies have entire creative and media departments that are good at just such practices. They might even spend a fair amount carefully purchasing distribution through Facebook’s streams. I’m guessing Facebook will be happy to take your money. But there’s no point in paying them twice.
A rather welcome diversion from our industry’s endless NSA revelations, the enigmatic barge floating off Treasure Island had been widely assumed to be a floating data center of some kind. But today a local CBS station is reporting that the massive box is custom built for….marketing. No one suggested *that* when I asked for wild speculation yesterday. Answers ranged from “a place to store Google’s cash” to “a hide out for Microsoft’s next CEO,” but “a seaworthy rival to Apple’s retail stores”? Nope, no one was that drunk on Halloween.
From the CBS story:
The project, which has been in the planning stages for more than a year, was created at Google[x], the secret facility that Google reportedly runs near its corporate headquarters in Mountain View. It is personally directed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin and is Google’s attempt to upstage rival Apple and its chain of popular retail stores, sources said.
A source who has been onboard the vessel, which is moored off San Francisco’s Treasure Island under tight security, told KPIX 5 the first three floors are designed to serve as “dazzling showrooms” that can be outfitted with chrome features and floor lighting. There is an upper “party deck” meant to feature bars, lanais and other comforts so Google can fete its upscale customers.
The barge can reportedly be taken apart quickly and shipped to anywhere in the world. Like, say, Davos. The thing’s apparently one huge, mobile marketing stunt.
Earlier this year I sat down with a videographer at the Bazaarvoice Summit in Austin. He asked me about the future of marketing, in particular as it related to data and consumer behavior. Given what I announced earlier this morning, I thought you might find this short video worth a view. Thanks to Ian Greenleigh for doing all the work!
Last week I was fortunate to be in New York City over the weekend, accompanied by most of my family. I had meetings with senior marketing executives at companies like Coke, Citi, and many others, and they stretched from the previous Weds. all the way into Monday of last week. I hate being away on weekends, and my wife is from New York, so she brought my daughters to visit their grandmother, who lives right in the middle of Manhattan.
Now, a weekend in New York with your family is special anytime, but last weekend was particularly notable because of the annual Pride Parade. This celebration of LGBT rights is one of the largest in the world, and this year’s was historic – just the week before, the Supreme Court had voted down the Defense of Marriage Act, a major civil rights victory for the gay community and, by extension, for citizens across the country. Last Sunday, our family joined tens of thousands of others who cheered the parade down Broadway, marveling at the exuberance and yes, sometimes at the show of skin as well.
But what stuck out with us was the pure joy of the day. Both my daughters, one fifteen, the other nine, joined in the celebrations, waving flags, cheering, and slapping high fives with passersby. Everyone was so happy, and the party snaked down Broadway for hours. What really struck me was the diversity on parade – gay fireman and policemen (that can’t be an easy world to live in) marched in uniform, followed by politicians like Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Charles Schumer. There were community centers on floats blasting dance music, and a long assortment of “firsts” – the first gay married couple in New York, the oldest married couple in New York, etc.
And then there were the brands. Yes, the brands – sponsoring the parade, and marching as part of it. I was prepared to be disappointed, and even cringed when I saw the first banner announcing a brand – I think it was Vitamin Water, a Coke brand. But instead, I was inspired. I had just met with many of the brands that were represented, and it made me proud to know the folks who had the courage to stand out and stand up for what was right.
As I watched the parade I was struck at how deeply and how honestly these brands were part of the celebration. Sure, Vitamin Water gave out free drinks, but the real story were the legions of employees – from Citi, L’Oreal, Wells Fargo, Coke, Delta and many more who marched, proudly wearing their company’s logo, proud of their individuality, proud of their voice, and proud that their businesses have stood behind them on their journey to this historic day. It felt very real – these companies clearly had backed their people on the long road to full civil rights, and their employees were proud to celebrate their brand connection – they very much believed that in their lives, the brand on their t-shirt had made an important difference. It was a very honest moment, and that’s not always the case when it comes to sponsorships and marketing. It should inspire all of us in the media business to follow the path of true human connection in our work. It certainly inspired me.
This short Slideshare deck, an extremely clever satire of the now infamous NSA slide deck, should be Slideshare’s marketing calling card. It’s a promotional gift to the service, timely, clever, and leveraging the product perfectly. If this ever happens to you, use it in your marketing!
Echoes of the Tide and Oreo executions that are getting such plaudits recently. Love it.
Thanks to our sponsor Google, we got the full first day of last week’s CM Summit, featuring Fred Wilson fresh from the Tumblr deal, Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann, and about 20 speakers in between for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!
I won’t beat around the bush. I want you all to come. I’ve lowered the price, because I heard from many of you last year that the ticket was too high (it sold out anyway). But this year, the conversation is too rich for anyone to cry poor over. Come and join us.
Speakers include Pinterest founder Ben Silbermann, Yahoo CMO Kathy Savitt, USV partner Fred Wilson, Aereo CEO Chet Kanojia, Jacki Kelley, CEO North American of IPG Mediabrands, Amanda Richman, President of Starcom MediaVest Group, AOL Networks CEO Ned Brody, GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving, AppNexus CEO Brian O’Kelley, Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Perretti, and many, many more.