The New Platform is Relentless Reinvention

We live in a time of relentless technological change. The web as we know it, barely 15 years old (if that), is pronounced dead. Platforms vie — Windows, Linux, Android, Apple — as do languages — Flash, HTML5, and so on.

While there are some standards, for the most part, standards are up for grabs.

Blogs, those dense textual renderings, once so revolutionary now seem passe.

Games and movies begin to resemble each other.

The means of marketing have shifted — web banners, web experiences, the social, branded utilities, complex configurations of integrated campaigns.

Business models morph, adapt, disappear, explode — sellers, rellsers, auctioneers, platforms, apps, amalgamators, curators: they come, go, borrow and steal from each other.

But it is a mistake to think this will settle down, that there is a war to be won, that a plateau will be hit. No, these are the conditions of digital technology: relentless change, constant innovation. It is the very nature of the beast. The digital — the computational — is a medium of constant reconfiguring. That's what it does.

Welcome to the new media world, a place of relentless reinvention.

It's hence a mistake to ask: What's the next big thing? The question is: How do I invent another thing?


In this new media world, who runs strategy?

Brand agencies, web agencies, digital agencies, ad agencies, PR agencies, media agencies, package design agencies: In this ever shifting world of new media, who dictates strategy?

There are not only multiple touch points — each with its own technology, reach, function, and metrics — the very notion of the touch point is shifting. Where marketing was once purely a matter of seizing people's eyes, ears, and attention, it is now a matter of insinuating a brand into people's lives. It's no longer just ads or banners or websites or viral videos; it's useful iPhone apps, interactive kiosks, and websites that talk back.

And, perhaps most importantly, it needs to all be integrated: TV needs to speak to billboards which need to speak to web which needs to speak to the guy Tweeting for you which needs to speak to apps — and vice-versa and back again. Everything needs to speak to everything.

I worked for an agency in 2000 that claimed to be integrated — web, print, advertising, marcom, brand, naming. But, of course, we were better at some things than at others. And, even if we were good at everything, our clients just couldn't see it that way: we were a web shop, those guys did brand, those other guys did print.

So while an integrated agency sounds great, it's a difficult thing to pull off. The reality is that that web has very different demands in terms of knowledge and staffing than TV advertising does and these are different than branding and naming and those are different than media buying and then there's packaging and POS displays and store design.

A truly integrated agency that does everything equally well poses certain insurmountable obstacles.

But this doesn't mean the thinking can't be integrated. The question, I think, is this: Who owns that nexus? Who sees all the moving parts? Who runs strategy?

I did a gig for a media agency several years ago and they felt they were in the best position to dictate strategy. After all, they sit at the juncture all media, that place where different touch points intersect. I could see their point.

I've worked with digital agencies who feel they're the ones to do it. The world is digital now. And understanding the digital is really understanding how people interact with a brand. It seems natural to move from digital thinking to strategic thinking. So why not let the digital shop run strategy? Makes sense to me.

Then there's the branding agency, the place that specializes in strategy. In many ways, this makes the most sense: Set the brand strategy and let it cascade down through everything else. There is no doubt that the brand agency is in a unique position to dictate strategy. And there's no doubt that having a good brand strategy is an essential ingredient — fundamentally, what does the brand want to accomplish?

But does this mean the brand agency is the owner of the integrated strategy? Does it have a deep understanding of the web, of digital, of advertising and of how they all intersect? Perhaps.

Maybe it's a matter of agency collaboration, an always sticky undertaking.

Maybe it's not a matter of digital vs. brand vs. media but of this agency vs. that agency. This brand agency gets digital; that digital agency gets brand. Go with one of them.

Or maybe the new role has yet to emerge. And maybe this role is not agency-side but client-side, a great conductor of the media orchestra, not a CMO, not someone who knows the numbers but someone who knows media and strategy, someone who understands trees while seeing the forest.


Don't Simplify. Articulate Complexity.

Often, we encounter clients whose brands or desires seem overly complex — decentered messaging, random use of logos, sites that try to do too much, copy that tries to say too much. And we imagine it our job to simplify this complexity, to wipe away the excess, to reduce the noise. And we tend to call this simplicity. Indeed, simplicity is a mantra among designers.

But I want to suggest that these are false and misleading terms. What we encounter is not complexity; it's confusion. When we do our job well, we prioritize, organize, and distribute. We lend shape to the shapeless, form to the formless, sense to the madness. Sometimes, if not often, this means eliminating unnecessary or confusing components — wordy paragraphs, noisy web sites, murky icons.

But this work is not simplifying. It's clarifying.

It's our job to articulate the complexity of a brand as best we can — the networked milieu of employees, leadership, history, consumer desires, future needs, the competitive landscape. And to do so in a way that is at once clear, organized, meaningful, and delightful.

The simplicity/complexity dichotomy is a strategist's and designer's red herring. It is our job to give eloquent voice to the complexity.


What is Brand? People doing things

It seems that all too often companies approach their business reactively or in a vacuum: they create something and then figure out how to sell it. The first step in this selling, they imagine, is developing a brand. What should we look like? Sound like? What are we promising? What makes us different? What do we need to say to sell our goods?

Indeed, this is how most branding engagements go.

But what if these companies considered people in the world, what they do, what they've done, and what they will be doing in the future? It would be productive and profitable — for the company and for the world — if the brand was less a way of selling something than a way of enriching people's lives through actual experiences.

Hence, rather than asking how best to position their goods, a company would ask how best to fit into the complex, networked lives of individuals. Look at the Prius. Toyota was so far ahead of the curve because they actually considered their product in the real world, in its network of energy, fuel, politics, personal desire.

Or the obvious example of Apple who over and over again consider how people interact with technology and the world. They don't invent something and then figure out how to sell it. They figure out how to create behaviors, actions, and experiences that suit the lives of individuals and cultures. They don't as much create a technology and brand it; they create behaviors, experiences, that enrich, empower, excite, satisfy.

I know, I know: this seems so obvious. And yet we find ourselves doing the same old branding engagements: here's our product, says the client, how can we position it to sell more? They don't ask: how does our product fit into the ever shifting landscape of the interaction of people and technology? They don't ask: what's changing in the way people think, interact, desire, work, live, love, experience?

A brand engagement should not just entail writing a positioning statement with a list of attributes. A brand engagement should craft the architecture of the experience of an individual in the course of a life, in a network of other people, things, experiences, desires, and possibilities.

A brand, then, is not just the way a company speaks. It is not just an architecture of attributes. A brand is an architecture of experience. A good brand enhances, enriches, empowers, redefines the way people actually do things.


New Architectures of the Social Web: On Chatroulette

It was not until I experienced Chatroulette.com that the issues with Facebook were brought into such relief. Facebook is premised on the old concepts — what's your name, your job, who are your friends, what do you like and dislike. That is, its questions of identity are the old questions, its answers the old answers.

There is little new in Facebook; it simply accelerates what already is. It's an easy to use phone book, mailbox, and bulletin board. Of course, this acceleration changes things. But not so dramatically.

Chatroulette changes the very architectures of the social. It asks new questions and demands new answers. It is no longer: Who are you? Rather, it's: What do you want from others in this moment?

By stripping away the meta-narrative — your name, your place, pictures of your friends, your status — Chatroulette introduces the unmediated encounter. There is nothing to buy. Brands are banished and with them, the pyschographic identities we use to assess others. There is nothing to do here; just the experience right there before you on the screen. You will not hook up or meet at a party. You will engage and be engaged. Or not.

There is an incredible intimacy here as your living room is turned inside out. Suddenly, there are strangers walking through your home. And this is scary and erotic, a whiff of the dangerous.

And yet there is total anonymity. Just hit "next" or close the window and your living room is your living room once again.

Part of what makes it so scary is that it is one-to-one communication. There is no broadcasting your status; there's only engaging another individual. And yet the success of Chatroulette turns on there being a vast network, another person when you click next.

This is a new architecture of the network: a collective of individual moments.