Category Archives: Marketing Watch

Church, state, and the new rules of marketing

selbst fotografiert

selbst fotografiert

Buzzfeed has leaked an internal report from the New York Times.

I was struck by this passage:

“The very first step … should be a deliberate push to abandon our current metaphors of choice — ‘The Wall’ and ‘Church and State’ — which project an enduring need for division. Increased collaboration, done right, does not present any threat to our values of journalistic independence,” the report says. […]

“It’s the old world where the publisher and the editor work together,” senior editor Sam Sifton, who worked on the cooking project, told the report’s authors. “It’s not lions lying down with lambs. It’s a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship.”

I just finished working a project for Netflix and Wired, and I got to see collaboration up close.

Certainly, this project represents a repudiation of the old “church and state” distinction.  The “state” called Netflix paid for content that appeared in the “church” called Wired.   (And I wrote the “copy.”)

Some people will accept this as the kind of break-through that Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed has been arguing for for some time.  Others will decry it as the invasion of capital into journalism.  Still others (AdAge’s Michael Sebastian, to be exact) suggested that this story might give us a glimpse of the future in some of the ways that NYT’s Snowfall did.

But there is an anthropological observation to make, and that is none of us (and by “us,” I mean Netflix, Conde Nast and me) appeared to be looking to make this content shill for the sponsor.  More to the point, we were not conflating church and state.  If anything we were being at least as fastidious as the old order.

None of us was looking to amp up the pitch.  No one said, “Grant, can you dial up the emphasis on Netflix, please.”  In fact, the only editorial intervention was the removal of the names of shows that I had used to illustrate the power of the new TV, and this was occasioned by the fact that non-Netflix properties did not want to have their shows appear in a piece sponsored by Netflix.

Why were we being so fastidious?  I think there is a simple marketing answer here.  Any marketing exercise that shills now actually diminishes the power of the communication.  Consumers just dial that stuff out.

We have entered a new era in which viewers, consumers take intelligence and imagination as the necessary condition for their attention.  Shilling is clumsy and overbearing.  It disqualifies itself.   

This is what happens when popular culture, driven by commerce, becomes culture plain and simple.  It has to stop acting like a shilling exercise, or suffer the consequences…and these are immediately exclusion from readerly interest.

“Oh, it’s only an ad.  Next!”

The new rule of marketing says you can’t buy your way into people’s lives.  If you make marketing with scant regard for the way this marketing draws on and contributes to culture, you provoke an instantaneous push back from the consumer.

This must qualify as good news.  Even as the “grey lady” (aka NYT) wonders whether she can risk the conflation of church and state, the world of marketing is finding that it is obliged to be fastidious.  Whew.


Thanks Rick Liebling for the head’s up.

New media fundamentalists, how will they react to the revolution in TV?

Maurice_Levy_2008I read with interest  remarks by Maurice Levy (pictured) on how he thinks about life after the failure of the Omnicom -Publicis merger.

“We have a strategy, and we will accelerate that strategy. It calls for strengthening our digital operations to reach 50% of our revenue [from 40% currently], and investing in big data and accelerating the capabilities we have in integration.”

Levy knows much more about the industry and about Publicis than I ever will and I defer to his greater knowledge.  But I have to say these remarks sent a chill through me.

There’s no question that the digital revolution continues and that it will change everything we know about marketing, advertising and communications.

It is also true, as I have been laboring to show the last couple of days, that there is a revolution taking place in old media as well.  TV is changing at light speed.  (See posts here, here, and here.)

It looks as if Levy is concentrating more on the digital revolution than the TV revolution.  To be sure, this is a bias that has swept through the advertising business.  A new generation came up, insisting that it was now going to be all digital advertising all the time, that the 30 second spot was done for, and that TV was now just another victim of the technological revolution. New media fundamentalists scorn old media and especially TV.

(Just to be clear, I am no old media apologist.  My book Culturematic assumes new media.  No culturematic is possible without new media as a means and an end.)

The trouble with new media fundamentalism is that it misses what is perhaps the single biggest story concerning popular culture in the last 10 years.  Against the odds, and in the teeth of the hostility of the chattering classes, TV got better.

And this revolution means several things.  That consumers as viewers are getting steadily smarter.  That they are now accustomed to and expectant of a new order of story telling.  I think it’s far to say that old media is still better at telling stories than new media.  This is another way of saying that old media (both TV and advertising) may have been trailing new media…but that they suddenly caught up.

I know some readers are going to take this as the voice of reaction, an attempt to return the old order to former glory.  So just to be clear.  I’m NOT saying that old media is better than new media.  What I am saying is that those who now diminish old media because of the rise and great success of new media are missing something.  And just to be really clear: as cultural creatives, as content creators, whether they like it or not, new media fundamentalists can’t afford to make this error.  They are after all in the business of NOT MISSING THINGS, ESPECIALLY THINGS AS BIG AS THIS.  Sorry for shouting, but there is a new media orthodoxy in place and shouting is sometimes called for.

And no, this is not an argument that says advertising was perfect just the way it was.  There is work to be done in the world of old media, lots of work.  Remember when the ads on a show were often better than the show? These days have mostly passed.  Now the ad surrounded a show looks shouty, simple minded and a little clueless. Like it doesn’t know what is going on around it.  Like a revolution took place and the brand and the advertiser didn’t notice.  Oh, if there is something that is NOT ALLOWED in the branding and advertising business, it’s not noticing.  

So it’s not as if anyone wants us to go back to old media circa Mad Men and the 1950s.  Old media must now evolute as ferociously as new media.  To catch up.  To keep up.  That revolution on TV tells us that our culture is changing in ways no one anticipated at speeds no one thought possible.  And anyone in the communications game (using old media or new media) is going to have evolve in something like real time.

Our culture is becoming a hot house.  Those who want to contribute will have to flourish to do so.  It makes me think of that Wieden and Kennedy moment after a recent SuperBowl.  W+K had floated that Old Spice ad and as they looked at the tidal wave of online content they have provoked, they thought, “Damn.  Better get on this.”

A group of them retired to a building somewhere and just started turning stuff out.  Call and response.  Call and response.  Real time marketing.

This may be where we are headed.  There are so many things in play, and they are moving at such speed, concatenating in ways we can’t anticipated, this is perhaps not the time to up your digital bet, Mr. Levy.  In this very dynamic world, we want to use all our media all the time.

My Contagious Interview

Paul Kemp-Robertson was kind enough to interview me for the British magazine called Contagious.  He was following up on the FutureFlash conference at which we both spoke in the spring. 

Here is the first page. 


Here is the second page:


Thanks again for Paul for including me in the pages of Contagious.


Kemp-Robertson, Paul.  2008.  Abandon ‘Consumer,’ An interview with Grant McCracken.  Contagious.  Volume 16. Third Quarter, pp. 28-31.

Marketing reimagined: revolutionary implications of the Watts-Thompson reply to Gladwell

Fast_company_masthead Last night I went to the Fast Company office in New York City to hear Clive Thompson interview Duncan Watts.

Duncan Watts (a research scientist at Columbia and, for the moment, Yahoo) argues that "influencers" are less influential than Gladwell’s Tipping Point model would have us believe.  He argues that news travels as readily through ordinary people as influential ones.  This means that our world is not "hub and spoke," with some individuals acting like O’Hare and the rest of us like Cleveland or, pause, Dayton.  No, as Thompson put it, networks are  democratic.  We are just as likely to "get the news" from a friend as we are from an networking paragon.

The argument seems to me compelling.  And these two, Watts and Thompson, make superlative pitchmen on its behalf, the first as a cautious but quietly charismatic academic,  and the second acting on the evening as a kind of "key light," stepping in occasionally to make certain points "pop."  But it also seems to me that the Watts criticism should not be given rights of free passage anymore than Gladwell’s argument.  (The latter is now used so freely that it threatens to become the marketer’s all purpose conceptual tool.)  We must resist the temptation to generalize.  (Occasionally.)

Watts’ arguments seems to me to apply to the network as "transmission device," i.e., when it serve as a way of moving something from one place to place in the network.  In this case, one link is pretty much as good as another.  But clearly networks sometimes serve as a "thinking machine"…as when ideas ricochet from blog to blog, and the wisdom of crowds assembles itself to identify the problems we care about and the answers we think plausible.  In this case, surely, links are not all created equal.  In this case, Clay Shirky’s opinion matters much more than mine.  (The bastard).  And so it should.  (The bastard.)

Never mind.  Even in this narrow form, the Watts-Thompson argument has revolutionary implications for the world of marketing.  If their argument is true, it feels like we are looking at a turning point, not a tipping one.  Many marketers thought that Gladwell’s model gave them a way to "game" the diffusion effect.  All we had to do was influence the influencers and entire markets will fall before our approach.

There is always a substantial part of the marketing community looking for that open sesame, the magic formula, the hidden panel, the hot button, the wand and incantation that will allow them to trick the consumer.  These marketers are in effect looking for a cheat.  In the place of an intimate knowledge of the consumer and the market, in the place of a superlative productive or service, they look for a shortcut.  Let’s call these people "mechanistic" marketers.  They want to "operate" the consumer automaton by divining the secret levers within. 

How grim.  If marketing learned anything in the 20th century, it is that consumers are smarter than this, that there are no tricks in any case, that the world is not about process, it is stubbornly about content. If the marketer wants influence, the solution remains what it has always been.  The answer is to build great products, brands and messages.  It is these, and not "memes" or "viruses," that capture attention and prompt choice. 

It turns out, hey presto, that consumers like things because they like them, not because someone told them to like them.  Consumers like things because these things are a lot like consumers themselves: smart, creative, interesting, lively, topical, winning or otherwise engaging.  And if the consumer doesn’t like a product or a service, it doesn’t matter how hip, authoritative, or viral we make them or our agents.  They don’t like them.  End of story.

Mechanistic marketing threatens to be cheap trick marketing.  Worse than that, it threats to be lazy and insulting marketing.  It’s diminishing, not just to the consumer but also to the marketer. There is no substitute for getting to know the consumer, building products and brands they care about, making and managing meanings well.

Well, forgive my bad temper and the eagerness with which I embrace this point.  Clearly it is self serving of me.  If Watts is right, it’s good news for anthropology.  Now the first objective of the marketing game must be to get to know consumers and the culture from which they come. Why is this a lesson we have to keep learning?  When do we learn to resist the siren call of the cheap trick and simply apply ourselves to thoughtful, passionate, engaged discovery?


Thompson, Clive.  2008.  Is the Tipping Point Toast. Fast Company.  Issue 122.  February. here

Product placement and the FCC

Img_2608 Kevin Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission says he wants to examine product placement on TV.

"I believe it is important for consumers to know when someone is trying to sell them something and that is it is appropriate for the commission to examine these issues."

Hmm.  The thing about product placement is that it’s not clear there is any selling going on.  Marketers are so unhappy about being TIVOed out of existence that they are happy merely to get things on TV.  They don’t get to control how products appear there.  They don’t get to build a brand proposition.  They don’t actually make a pitch of any kind.  They merely to get the product on TV.  Marketing, it’s come to this. 

As I say, there’s no selling going on. 


Teinowitz, Ira.  2007.  FCC May Examine Product-Placement Rules: Chairman Kevin Martin Proposes Inquiry as Networks, Marketers Increase Integration.  Ad Age.  November 29, 2007.  here

Celebrity sighting

Faith_popcorn_by_riccardo_vecchio_i I think someone said of Gerald Ford that he had the ability to make people around him less interesting. 

I had the chance to watch Faith Popcorn at work today, and I was impressed with her ability to do the opposite.

Everyone seemed to get a little smarter, a little more imaginative.  Clients, participants, the BrainReserve team, all boats rose on the  charismatic tide.

Ms. Popcorn managed somehow to oxygenate the room.  You felt you had permission to think ambitiously, to cast the net wide, even as something in her clarity made you understand that sloppy thinking or intellectual self indulgence were not to be indulged.


To Riccardo Vecchio and the Stanford Medicine Magazine for Vecchio’s remarkable rendering of Popcorn.   You may see the image in its original context here.

Marketing’s Great Chain of Being?

Grant_spa_3 Pam and I stayed in a NYC hotel this week.  She was recovering from surgery in Manhattan and we didn’t want to move her.  (The surgery went well and she is recovering nicely, thank you.) 

Sitting on a shelf in the hotel bathroom, I found something the size of a business card. There it is to the right.  The card reads:


Create rituals for yourself

Rituals help ground us, especially when we feel out of control.  A ritual can be as simple as going for a morning jog or enjoying an evening bath. 

This reflects a couple of things at work in marketing and capitalism:

1) the movement from utility to meaning

Capitalism used to be about making and selling things, useful things.  Marketing helped sell these things.  The sale was about trumpeting the usefulness of the thing.  Marketing was about information.  In the 1980s, some of us, following the lead of Syd Levy and Irving White, proposed a broader view.  Goods were about meanings, meanings the individual could use to help construct the self, the home, the personal world. 

2) the movement from the sale of objects and services to the sale of experiences.

Capitalism used to be about making and selling things.  Marketing helped sell these things.  Now marketing imagines grander things for itself.  We can thank Pine and Gilmore and their book, The Experience Economy, for this development.  Things are mere props, part of the theater the brand supplies.

3) the movement from engagement to the restorative.

The real deliverable, this approach says, is relaxation so deep it amounts to restoration.  To dive so deeply into an experience that the world falls still.  To detach from the furious pace of contemporary life and reset all our activity clocks to zero.  In the words of hotel wisdom, to become "grounded" again. 

4) the movement from the mundane to the enchanted. 

Several companies with whom I have worked can hear the siren call of the new age movement.  They now to seek to offer the consumer something like enchantment.  They see the consumer climbing to spiritual heights, establishing contact with planetary harmonics, and/or their inner child.  (This is enough to make my inner child throw a tantrum, but never mind.)

Thus does marketing accommodate the changes taking place in our culture.  Thus does our commerce stay in touch with our culture.

And while these lofty missions are pursued, many marketers wrestle with the problem of commodification: the ability of competitors to duplicate a product and shave its price.  Brands turn back into products.  Margins begin to shrink.   A newly powerful channel ( on line and Wal-Mart at the mall) demand discounts and more price cutting.  Margins grow slimmer still.  Before long, competitors are locked in a "race to the commodity basement."

Many brands are caught between hell below and heaven above, between the nether world of commodification and the intellectual challenges and profit opportunities that come from selling meanings, experiences, restoration or enchantment. 

We might even go so far as to say that the marketer is caught in a great chain of being.  In the Renaissance case, here’s how the "chain of being" worked. At the apex of the hierarchy stands God.  God is pure intelligence.  Next in the hierarchy are Angels, creatures who have pure intelligence.  Then came earthly creatures: Saints, the hierarchy of the church, blessed with elevated intelligence.  Man, stood in the middle of the hierarchy, a kind of linch pin, capable of intelligence, but always distracted by the passions and inclined to error.  As we continue down the hierarchy, we move ever further away from intelligence.  Animals have no reason.  Inanimate objects are insensate.  (This is imperfectly remembered, sorry.)

In this hierarchy, man was mobile.  As he exercised his reason, as he devoted himself to spirituality, he moved upwards in the great scheme of things.  As he refused his gift of reason, he moved downwards, becoming finally like unto a beast.   

Marketers are mobile too.  As our brand succeeds, we move upwards into the realm of ideas, concepts, experiences.  If we hold parity, we play a game of optimization, tinkering with our positioning, but without resources to contemplate experiment or much in the way of risk taking.  As our brand fails, we descend into a commodity hell, we are destined to slug it out with promotions and channel play. 

We are caught between heaven and hell.  The higher we climb, the closer we get to the realm of pure idea.  The more we are called upon to exercise a our intelligence, creativity and strategic sense.  The lower we fall, the closer we get to something brute.  We are now in a reactive mode.  (This is of course unfair.  Plenty of brain power and strategic sense is called for here. I am letting the metaphor do the talking here.)

Could there be a great chain of being in the marketing world?    


Lovejoy, Arthur O.  1950.  The Great Chain of Being: the study of the history of an idea.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.  (acknowledged here with all due apologies for my imperfect recollection and liberal use)

McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Culture and Consumption II: markets, meanings and brand management.  Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 

Pine, Joseph and James Gilmore.  1999.  The Experience Economy.   New York: Harvard Business School Press.