Beth Comstock and Kara Swisher on Irritants and De-riskers (coming to a corporate culture near you.)

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[This essay was published on Medium on Sunday (December 2)].

This is a wonderful interview. Two smart people expressing themselves at speed with power and precision. Swisher stops from time to time to sing her own praises. But I’ll take it, especially now that podcast practice is often sloppy thinking coated with a syrupy glaze of “the only thing I really owe you is the sound of my enchanting voice.”

This Recode interview is plain spoken, tough minded, and more or less unfreighted by fashionable ideas. It’s a troika driven bracingly through woods and snow to the safety of a country inn stacked with useful ideas and a blazing hearth of creativity. For the moment, we are rescued from the cold (and those nay-saying corporate cossacks).

Success Theater

Comstock talks about “success theater,” the way an organization beguiles the CEO with an appearance that all is well, that every one of her ideas is irresistibly sensible, and the deep reassuring promise that her kingdom come, her will be done.

Innovation Theater

Comstock also gives us a glimpse of “innovation theater,” those moments when everyone puts on a bright face to embrace the new orthodoxy. Yes, we are well outside the box. Yes, we are going to reinvent near everything. Dude, no problem.

The reality, Comstock knows from her experience at NBC and GE, is otherwise. People are frightened, competitive, and often blinded by a narrow reckoning of their own self interest. Worst of all, new ideas provoke our provincialism. (Surely, NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard] is the least worthy and the most dangerous reason to refuse the future. Because, really, if the future is not in your backyard, you’re are, as a professional and an organization, just asking for trouble.)

Failure

So there’s no “isn’t the future wonderful?” blather here. This interview is about the sheer and dour difficulty of change. We have all heard the “war stories” from the early innovators. Too often these are “just so” accounts that conceal the importance of failure and politics. And not just failure as in “ok, that didn’t work, let’s pivot!” But failure as in “oh, shit, we are committed to an idea that hemorrhages value as it loses altitude.”

Comstock is candid about her failures, including iVillage.

“Bought iVillage. It didn’t work. It took it a while not to work.”

Comstock learned something from iVillage as it was failing. This is how we win even when losing. If we are not learning, then the investment really was squandered. But if IP comes out of failure then the loss was a win and the investment worked. This will demand a C-Suite time-line not to mention accounting subtleties we have yet to master.

Comstock built an early in-house content studio. This was a chance to see what worked and what did not, at a time when nothing was obvious or intuitive. You had to try stuff. Comstock’s group invented The Easter Bunny Hates You and Microwave Gorilla. And then Comstock had to protect her lab from the broadcast mothership which really only grasped big, formulaic TV shows, not to mention C-suite carnivores who felt they could spend these resources more intelligently…not to mention an organization that wanted any kind of short-term success for the sake of balance sheet and PR.

Hulu

Still more trial and error, and before you knew it, Comstock had invented Hulu. (Which, thanks to this interview, I now think of Hulu as a kind of YouTube for old media.) And this in turn forced new forms of advertising. Suddenly there were 10-second “post-rolls.”

Lots of useful self criticism. Here Comstock is on politics.

Politics (or, stop being so University of Chicago)

One, I think the big mistake I made, personally and with the team, is kind of the cool kids versus the not-cool kids. And I think that happens a lot in change and I hired a bunch of digital Turks and we were gonna take on the world and I was out with my face on every magazine cover, like, “Yay, digital’s the future.” And I didn’t spend enough time building the bridges and building the partnerships internally.

I think many creatives and strategists tend to think the idea is everything. (Certainly this is the idea I brought out of University of Chicago. And it is, someone told me, the attitude of many Israeli innovators. Both see politics and anything promotional as so much time-wasting and glad-handing.) Both say, “Once we have the idea, we’re done!” The reality is of course, very different. Ideas are where you start, not where you end.

Irritants

There is also great thinking here on the role of the irritant. (The term is Swisher’s.) The idea is that someone has to tie the bell on the cat, someone has to say to Mark Zuckerberg, “What? Are you kidding me? No!” Who dares risk their career like this? Who wants to be the sacrificial lamb? Only those with Swisher-scale self confidence need apply. They know they don’t need their present position. At all. They can be truth tellers because the world is their oyster, er, option.

(This has wacky implications for hiring. Now we have to hire people we want to keep precisely because we know they’re going to leave. And, er, we want them to. Huh? (I leave this puzzle to the team at Coburn Ventures who recently met to contemplate these issues.)

De-riskers

In additional to irritants, we need those who mint permission, “de-riskers” as Swisher calls them. Someone has to make it OK for others to take risks. Swisher points out that Elon Musk made it ok for Ford and BMW to take the risk on electric vehicles.

Because he paved the way for them. He was the early risk-taker, right? He was de-risking it for them. So you need somebody in your organization who is willing to take the arrows.

The thing we especially forget when beating the innovation drum is how hard a really new idea is to think. In the usual “biz lit” prayer book, innovation is a joyful experience. We just summon our courage. And jump off the deep end. Eazy peazy. Right?

Wrong. New ideas are painful and frightening. The innovation zone is not sunny or fun. Things we haven’t thought before are strange and weird. Eventually we will skin them with familiarity, but when new, brand new, ideas either resist thinking altogether or pin-wheel around inside our skulls like a Hot Wheels stunt truck. Too often, senior management (well, everyone, really) doesn’t want to think new ideas until they are nice and smooth and worn with wear. Because before the novelty disappears, everything looks like the Microwave Gorilla and provokes a “yeah, right” skepticism.

Or as Comstock puts it,

You have to get out in the world and discover. You have to go where things are really weird. You have to make room for it and people have to see it’s valuable.

Multiplicity

But my favorite piece here are thoughts from both Swisher and Comstock on the importance of multiplicity in the way we think.

Comstock:

I think companies don’t spend enough time thinking through [different scenarios]. I always liked those red team, blue team exercises that came out of the military, where you deliberately seed one point of view versus the other and you kind of set up a cage match. … I think if you’re really serious about innovation, and your investors are serious about you having a future, you have to have a separate lane where you’re investing in some of these things, longer return, you’re testing ideas.

This is not the first time, Comstock has talked about multiplicity. See her comments here. I have tried to imagine a scenario-centric corporation here.

Swisher:

I wanted to do scenario-building. I was obsessed with the idea of what are the 10 things that could happen … that’s how I do my reporting actually. That’s my little secret.

Comstock:

Journalism is a great background for that.

Swisher:

I make up things all the time, and then one of them is right.

Comstock

Yeah. Because then you’re testing. You’re constantly testing.

Swisher:

Yeah, then I’ll call people and they’re like, “How did you know?” And I’m like, “I just made it up. Turns out to be true.” One of them is true. Like it’s interesting and it’s always pushing against something.

This is, or should be, management and journalism now that the world rushes in at us. The time between first sighting and ‘right on your doorstep’ is collapsing by orders of magnitude. So you have to spot things early, imagine them ferociously, and domesticate them fast. Otherwise, we are captives of catch-up.

This is where multiplicity and complexity come in. We have to surround ourselves with many versions of the world and we have to learn to manage the intellectual complexity this makes necessary. And this surely means that some captains of industry may not have quite enough intellectual omph to make the journey. For this group, Microwave Gorillas, not to mention much of the rest of the world, must remain an enduring mystery.

Color is culture (disruption watch)

Watching for the future feels optional.

Watching for disruption, that’s more urgent.

One way to look for disruption is to watch our color palette.

Cause color is culture. And that means it can tell us that culture is changing.

I was reminded of this when I went to an artisanal fair in Hudson, New York. Everyone around me was dressed in autumnal hues. I had turned out in a bright yellow that can only be called nautical. (I wear this coat not because I sail, but because I am very much hoping I will not get run over when walking at night.)

Autumnal colors, good. Nautical yellow, bad. Color matters because color is culture. (Thank you, Peter Spear, for your patience with a tone-deaf visitor.)

So last night, watching TV, I couldn’t help notice this new ad for Cadillac.  Notice the riotous use of color.

This struck me especially because Cadillac recently used a very different palette, showing new models drifting through the moody, monochromatic, streets of Soho. Very quiet, very hip, very dialed down.

So what gives with all the colors? No, I’m asking. What gives?  Is this an indication of a change in culture? Is this the future whispering in our ear?

But of course, this could well be an eccentric choice on the part of the brand or the agency. That’s always possible. But let’s assume that the people at the brand and the agency is listening to culture as hard as we are…and possibly, just possibly, they think they’ve heard something, they’ve spotted a future, they have seen a disruption in the works.

As I was suggesting in the last post (How to read a t-shirt) we cannot follow everything happening “out there” in culture. We have to rely on other listeners. We have to divide the labor of our disruption watch.

The question now: Are big, extravagant colors coming? And does this suggest something in culture that might be big and extravagant too? Is the new prosperity going to change our palette, our messaging, and the messages that matter in brand building? Is the economy going to drive culture in new directions?

No, I’m asking. Is it?

Postscript.

You know who might have an answer to these questions is Ingrid Fetell Lee who, as it happens, has just published a book called The Aesthetics of Joy. For more details, see  Ingrid’s website here.

Peter Spear has a great newsletter called That Business of Meaning. I think you can subscribe here. Otherwise visit Peter’s website here.

 

How to read a t-shirt (and the future)

Screen Shot 2018-11-06 at 3.15.59 421PMListening for the future is a tricky thing.

If we listen far enough out into the future, we are dealing with very weak signals. Or, better, we are dealing with noise that may or may not be signal.

One way to solve this problem is to enlist the aid of others. To let them listen for us. We need listening stations. Where ever they present themselves. (And they are likely to present themselves in the most unlikely places.)

One example caught my attention recently.

The first came from an essay by Lauren Sherman. Sherman is an impressive journalist. She examines the fashion world broadly defined and has a gift for seeing the pattern in the whirlwind of data that comes spinning up out of this world almost daily. (She writes for Fashion of Business.)

Recently, Sherman wrote about t-shirts.

Traditionally, the t-shirt is a perfect example of a commodity market. It may begin with robust margins but it’s not very long before people are slugging it out for tiny increments barely above cost.

But Sherman noticed a company called Everybody.World was doing very nicely indeed. Everybody.World had discovered that it can sell wholesale in the very teeth of the commodity market.

There was margin here. And lots of customers. The Trash Tee was a hit with streetwear brands including Noah NYC and No Vacancy Inn. It sold to to Shake Shack, Standard Hotel, Google, Airbnb and Dropbox. It was a feature of music festivals like Coachella.

This is a god send for someone who cares about the future. The t-shirt is a message from the future, a glimpse of the world in the works.

Case study learnings (from the ground up)

1. We can’t monitor everything.

2. We enlist the help of others, listening to the listeners, so to speak.

3. In this case, the journalist Lauren Sherman surveys the fashion business and spots something.

4. Everybody.world is making a success of t-shirts (of all things).

5. This is a big and unlikely change: The lowly t-shirt, once the unloved and unlovely child of the clothing biz, and almost the classic case of a commodity market, is undergoing its own little apotheosis. It has escaped the status of an undergarment, night shirt, softball team uniform and college wear. It is now punching above it’s weight and is now the medium for some very interesting messages. There is something to learn here.

This is where the culture watching really begins.

For starters we are looking at the expression of a couple of new sensitivities. These are, or should be, familiar territory, specifically:

6. People prefer things that are recycled.

7. And they prefer things that are manufactured in America.

Let’s treat these as “so noted.”

But the rest is new to me. How about you?

8. These t-shirts reveal something astounding about music festivals. They work there because they help festival organizers speak to 20 different segments. 20! (And the t-shirts work here because these groups are not going to signify their difference with a cheap and flimsy piece of polyester.) We are put on notice that festivals, once monolithic and a little repetitive, are now various. Very various. Certainly we have absorbed the “diversity” lesson from other sources…but this kind of cultural diversity tells us something about consumer taste and preference that our economic models were never designed to content with. Are we ready?

9. These t-shirts sell as street ware. The world of fashion is changing. Design and branding comes not just from on high from the great fashion houses and god-like designers. It comes also from the fearless, endlessly provocative efforts of people who routinely break the rules of the fashion moment. (In the current world of fashion, the insurgent designer, as Scott Miller would call him, is powerful and rising.) Let’s contemplate what this means for branding and PR. If we think we can speak to the world in the big booming voice of corporate self assurance…well maybe it’s time to think again. Everyone in the marketing and innovation biz is taking a risk on new voices. (Consider Nike as a recent case in point.)

10. These t-shirts work for companies like AirBnb and Google precisely because these companies are working hard to get away from that big booming voice of corporate assurance. Nothing says playful and propositional like a t-shirt. Especially when compared to the official bumpf issued by PR at HQ.

11. The t-shirt are also a calculated effort, as expert Sophie Wade tells us, to send a message to the Millennial employee for whom all companies must now compete. A t-shirt says, “look how much fun it must be to work here! We’re, like, super casual! And also totally awesome.”

12. Perhaps the biggest take-away is the evidence these observations give us of a world in which the basic rules and regs are changing. Three worlds, to be specific. That of the Music Festival. That of the street. And that of the organization. All of them have embraced the t-shirt for their own, revealing, reasons. All of them are primed for change. Are we monitoring these changes? Have we read the t-shirt? Have we grasped its message?

The Bill Belichick disruption (and what we can learn from it)

screenshot 2(This post was originally published on Medium two days ago. It is reproduced here with light editing only.)

How do they do it? How do the New England Patriots win so much?

Yes, Belichick is a genius. Yes, this system is the beneficiary of continuities at owner, coach, quarterback and players other teams can only dream of.

There are lots of answers. Every football fan has pondered them.

But here’s one I hadn’t heard of.

On Get Up (ESPN), Dan Orlovsky said this about the Pats offense.

“I don’t really believe that they have wide receivers or running backs.
They just take a bunch of guys [who are] football players and they move them all over the place to get match ups. Their running backs, sometimes they look like wide receivers. Their wide receivers, sometimes they look like running backs. Edelman, Wes Welker, James White, they all kind of look the same, playing different positions.”

This Belichick innovation is something more than a clever adaptation. It’s exactly the kind of thinking we prize these days. It rises above the architecture of thought and solves a problem in a new way. This is a classic disruption, a veritable black swan. The opposition can’t see it coming until there it is on the field.

Other coaches are prisoners of convention. They start with the positions specified by the age-old architecture of football. They find the players that fit these slots. And only then do they begin the work of strategy and execution.

Belichick’s innovation says, in effect,

“We don’t have positions to fill. We have problems to solve. We have plays to run. We will ask our players to conform to the play…instead of asking the play to conform to conventional thinking. Luckily, we have players so talented they can change their stripes from play to play.”

Has Belichick been reading Complexity theory? It’s possible.

What does the Belichick disruption mean to the rest of us?

Most organizations are slaves to convention. There’s the hierarchy that distributes power. There’s the division of labor that tells people what to do. We ask our personnel to conform to these conventions. Instead of turning them loose to solve the problem at hand.

Why can’t we be more like the Pats?

Attributions

The photo is public domain.

Are podcasts a wasteland? (with a post script about Kurt Wagner)

This image of Rebecca Walker is from the Wikipedia entry for Third Wave Feminism (I can’t find an attribution for the image on this page or the one for Ms. Walker.)

(This post was originally published a couple of days ago on Medium. I’ve added a post script which does not appear there.)

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts the other day, and was shocked to hear the guests talk about their clothing brand as if it were very special and blindingly original.

They insisted that their brand spoke to young women with a feminist message of empowerment. I kept waiting for the host to gently point out that there were a couple of precedents here.

For starters: One hundred years of suffragette feminism, Gloria Steinem, and Rebecca Walker (pictured), to say nothing of the work of Dove and the brilliant “Throw Like a Girl” videos by Lauren Greenfield for Always.

But no. He sat by while his guests sang their own praises. The best he could muster were obliging prompts on the order of “so tell me, would you say you were totally awesome or merely utterly fantastic?”

The host is from the creative world, so he’s not trained as a journalist. And podcasts are, as we know, a planet still forming.

More’s the pity.

Edison Research found that 48 million people listened to podcasts last year. The number grows steadily. This universe expands steadily. But it’s not clear that it is maturing as a form of discourse. My fear: that it is expanding but a little witless, that it’s agreeable but a little toothless.

The world of journalism has taken this question on, and the podcast has something to learn from this precedent.

The Society of Professional Journalism has code of ethics. The code asks that members adhere to four principals:

1. Seek Truth and Report It.

2. Minimize Harm.

3. Act Independently.

4. Be Accountable and Transparent.

In the podcast world, this might be boiled down to a simple imperative:

cut out the shameless glad handing and ask real questions in the pursuit of real answers. Do not suffer fools.

Post Script

No sooner had I published to this post to Medium than I found myself listening to a Recode Media interview by Kurt Wagner of Nick Bell, Snap VP of Content. I was impressed by Wagner’s willingness to ask the difficult question. Several of them. How well was Bell’s company doing and what did he (really) think about the share price? Why does Bell use “sexy selfies” when we might expect “serious journalism?” Most devastatingly, Wagner asked Bell if he regrets having failed to engage the creator community. (This is a difficult question because it suggests a fundamental failure to grasp perhaps the biggest change ((and opportunity)) in the digital world.)  Bell took these questions in stride, but the interview was now richer and more illuminating. No glad handing here. (It occurred to me that one behavioral marker of the difficult question is the awkward silence. There were a couple. You could almost hear Bell thinking, “He did not just ask me that!”)

I looked Wagner up and was interested to see that he puts the “ethics question” at the center of of how he describes himself.

Kurt Wagner
Senior Editor, Social Media

Kurt Wagner has been a business and tech journalist since 2012 and was previously reporting for Mashable. He also covered general tech and Silicon Valley news in his first job as a tech reporter with Fortune magazine, based in San Francisco. Originally from the Seattle area, Kurt graduated from Santa Clara University with a B.S. in communication and political science. He served as Editor-in-Chief of The Santa Clara, the university newspaper, for two years.

Ethics Statement

Here is a statement of my ethics and coverage policies. It is more than most of you want to know, but, in the age of suspicion of the media, I am laying it all out.

In June 2016, my then-girlfriend, now-wife took a job as an administrative assistant with Instagram’s marketing and community team. She is now a member of Instagram’s brand marketing team. She does not share material information with me about specific company projects or plans. She has been awarded a small stock grant as part of her compensation package, in which I do not have any ownership or control.

I have various 401K and IRA accounts, as well as non-retirement mutual fund stock accounts that invest in a wide-ranging basket of stocks, over which I have no control. I do not own stock in any individual tech companies.

I do not consult for any companies, nor do I accept gifts or products of value from companies I cover. I do not accept travel or accommodations from companies I cover.

Recode is owned wholly by Vox Media, a company with an audience of 170 million worldwide. It has eight distinct media brands: The Verge (Technology and Culture), Vox.com (News), SB Nation (Sports), Polygon (Gaming), Eater (Food and Nightlife), Racked (Shopping, Beauty and Fashion), Curbed (Real Estate and Home), as well as Recode (Tech Business).

Vox Media has a number of investors, including, but not limited to, Comcast Ventures and NBCUniversal, both of which are owned by Comcast Corporation.

My posts have total editorial independence from these investors, even when they touch on products and services these companies produce, compete with, or invest in. The same goes for all content on Recode and at our conferences. No one in this group has influence on or access to the posts we publish. We will also add a direct link to this disclosure when we write directly about the companies.

Blogger, heal thyself

It’s all very well to play the “J’accuse” card. In point of fact, I do not have a Wagnerian statement of ethics that lets the reader know what standards they can expect of this blog. And I should. (And it says something about the haze of self congratulation that surrounded blogging in the early days that it never occurred to me to criticize blogging in the way I am now criticizing podcasting. Bitter? Ok, a little.)

I will leave the full statement for another day. But I can say this much.

1) I have never expected, solicited, or extracted any sort of payment for a blog post.

2) I have never written in a laudatory manner about anyone for whom I have served as a consultant.

I have written a lot of laudatory pieces. My “beat” at this blog is contemporary American culture and I am especially interested when I see people (by which I mean creatives, writers, agencies, brands, journalists, bloggers) making interesting (witty, rich, powerful) contributions to that culture. My guiding assumption is that much of American culture comes from commerce and we have done a poor job looking at the intersection between culture and commerce. Inevitably this means I look at the work of branders and agencies in an approving way. How does they express culture, how does they improve culture? But in 1.5 million words, I have not got any sort of payment for these posts. Before or after the fact. I’ve never even got so much as a bottle of scotch or a note of acknowledgement. (Agencies like to think they exist sui generis. And this says a lot about why the creative and commercial world struggles so much these days. But it’s also a good thing. It keeps temptation at bay.)

3) It’s one thing never to write in a laudatory manner. If we are to follow the example of journalism in general and a journalist like Wagner in particular, we are obliged also to write negatively. This blog has lots of criticism. I have criticized Gillette, P&G, and Coca-Cola, to name just three. Bad work (i.e., lazy, stupid, craven work) deserves to be called out and scorned. I am sure this has cost me clients who supply the income that keeps my “self-funded anthropology” enterprise afloat. So this has been something more than a cosmetic gesture. It’s cost me.

There may be an official anthropology code here. (And it is almost certainly an exercise in the field’s solipsism, effectively discouraging all interactions with all parties. God forbid, the field should let in data that might disturb its orthodoxies.)  But certainly there is an unofficial “University of Chicago” ethics code. This says, “you are in this inquiry for the inquiry, and the moment you start to shill, you cease to inquire.”

American culture* and problem solving (case study #7)

At the Culture Camp in June, we will be applying our knowledge of American culture to the following topics.

1: Futures of work (the physical, hierarchical and emotional changes in how we work)

2: Futures of social (meme making, identity construction and pinging the hive)

3: Futures of storytelling (TV, marketing, movies, advertising)

4: Futures of branding (artisanal, consumer packaged goods and brand you)

5: Futures of retail (the mall, Main Street, fighting the Amazon dragon)

6: Futures of consumer engagement (brand activation and other Culturematics)

7: Futures of financial services (speaking to different segments, in new languages with new logics)

8: Futures of Health & Wellness (new cultural ideas of body, mind and spirit)

9: Futures of the American Home & American Family (critical contexts for CPG)

10: Futures of Tourism & Hospitality (engaged travel, share economies)

11) Futures of Social Good (the economy of social change)

I can hear someone saying, “But you can’t possibly cover all this territory in a day.”

But that is the beauty of a cultural approach. It gives us knowledge that is deep and broad. It gives us a single set of principles that apply across the board.

Culture operates everywhere to shape the American experience (and experiment). So it can be used to solve a great breadth of problems.

Or to use the visual metaphor that features in my opening deck on culture.

Any and every culture looks like London from the air. A great mass of detail and complexity. Like this:

But once we do our study of culture, this world looks a lot more like this:

We can see the parts, the wholes and the relationships. More than that, we can see the logics that make this world make sense. This has always been anthropology’s promise. It casts the net wide. It struggles to see things whole. We will show how we can use anthropology to solve a range of problems. Come join us.

✻ Why do I call it “American culture?”

To distinguish it from “corporate culture.” There are two kinds of culture an organization must understand and a manager must manage.

Culture Inside: this is the culture of an organization, the “corporate culture.”

Culture Outside: this is American culture.

We sometimes confuse these. But that’s a little like confusing American football and European football. My Culture Camp is dedicated to understanding American culture, the culture outside the organization. This is where we find blue oceans of opportunity. This is where black swans of disruption find us. It’s time we made the distinction.

American culture* and big data (case study #6)

American culture is a dynamic thing. It is busting out all over. There are several ways to contend with this blooming confusion, and we will look at several of them at culture.camp on June 7. (Please come join us.)

One of our best opportunities is big data. Here are some very big data indeed, courtesy of ESRI. This is a screen-grab of their real time rendering of Boston.

 

This is Boston. From a God-like point of view. (Though I think we know God abandoned Boston a long time ago.)

I have a dream. We listen to Boston by listening to its data streams. This data can be SKU (stock keeping unit) data, vehicular traffic, pedestrian traffic…well the possibilities are now many and diverse.

What are we listening for? Departures. It’s a little like SETI. We are listening for something, almost anything, that breaks from the baseline we have established. We are listening for a signal…instead of all that noise.

For instance, we are listening for a spike in SKU data. Or a shift in traffic. And we are really listening for two streams of data both departing from baseline at once.

Hey, presto. There’s a place downtown that is selling a selling new kind of drink and we can see by traffic patterns that this bar is attracting a new volume of attention.

The map is showing us American culture in action. It may be an artifact. It may be a mirage. It may be a figment of our over-eager imagination.

But what if it’s something? What if we just got a message from the future? What if we are looking at something that will someday transform consumer taste and preference in the spirits category?

What is this worth to us? What would it be worth to Pernod Ricard or Diageo to have 6 months of advance notice of this shift. Peter Schwartz says the American corporation lives in a state of perpetual surprise. This “big board” system would return to an “advance warning” model. With all the strategy and planning advantages that that confers.

I had a chance to talk to ESRI people at an IIR conference in Florida in the spring. (Thank you, Romina Kunstadter. Thank you, Dominik Tarolli.)

ESRI sees their geographical data in layers, as below.


And this is a pretty good metaphor for the way we want to bring American culture together with kinds of other data.

Really, there are two objectives. How do we make the cultural layer make other layers significant? How do we use these other layers alert us to cultural developments and help us understand them?

We can imagine the scenario.

“There’s this bar in the North End! Something is happening there!”

This is where we send in the anthropologists, the ethnographers, the design thinkers, the likes of IDEO, the Canvas8, Trend watching, perhaps a creative class from SVA or the dSchool at Stanford. We are there at the beginning.

Culture is the cause and the consequence of much of what happens in American markets. But like everything else in those markets, it is also diverse, complex and dynamic. Big data to the rescue. And I think we can argue that the “rescue” works the other way around: culture can make data meaningful that is now merely big.

✻ Why do I call it “American culture?”

To distinguish it from “corporate culture.” There are two kinds of culture an organization must understand and a manager must manage.

Culture Inside: this is the culture of an organization, the “corporate culture.”

Culture Outside: this is American culture.

We sometimes confuse these. But that’s a little like confusing American football and European football. My Culture Camp is dedicated to understanding American culture, the culture outside the organization. This is where we find blue oceans of opportunity. This is where black swans of disruption find us. It’s time we made the distinction.

American culture* and platforms for producer creativity (case study 5)

1950s officeYesterday we talked about platforms for consumer creativity.

Today we will talk about platforms for the producer creativity.

The corporation was meant to serve as this platform. It brought together the people and processes needed to create innovation and extract value.

But sometime after World War II, the world began to see that the corporation was actually not very good at creativity. (May it please the court, I enter the photo above as evidence.)

Part of the problem was that the corporation was better at keeping things out than letting things in.

It had thick boundaries. It contained silos. It demanded a certain manner of dress and speech and sometimes thinking and thought. This excluded many things and it especially excluded American culture.

It was a tragic trade-off that created an efficient corporate culture at the cost of essential knowledge.

Tragic and kind of dim. When we removed cultural intelligence in this way, we rendered the organization incapable of understanding the consumer it claimed to care about. From the deep well of the corporation, the consumer was virtually inaudible when not completely invisible.

Various expedients were created to make the corporate culture more sensitive to and inclusive of American culture. There were agencies and consultants who plotted an orbital course around the corporation, far enough away to know something about this American culture, but close enough to the corporation they could “airlock” this intelligence in.

Those days are behind us largely. Every corporation cares about innovation, and at least sometimes this is a de facto acknowledgement of caring about the world “out there.” The corporation is making itself less siloed, less boundaried and more porous. American culture now pours in. Well, flows. Ok, trickles.

People are still a little nervous about Karl in the mailroom. (The chief question: Are ALL the tattoos really necessary?) But now that so many people have tattoos even this anxiety has subsided. Diversity hiring has also helped break down the Us and Them distinctions that so diminished the conversation. Popular culture is steadily less idiotic so conversations at lunch are often a useful, if unofficial, review of things happening in American culture.

But it remains the case that every organization has staffed with people who know much more about American culture than they are ever allowed to say. My friend Tom Guarriello is good on this theme. He says that most organizations “leave money on the table.” They hire people and then fail to consult them on what they know. For some organizations, amnesia remains the order of the day. Too often the “go to” expert on American culture is the intern.

This really is a question of how American culture is made to articulate with corporate culture, and this will be a lively question for the culture.camp on June 7. We have deeply knowledgeable people in place. I hope you will join us.

✻ Why do I call it “American culture?”

To distinguish it from “corporate culture.” There are two kinds of culture an organization must understand and a manager must manage.

Culture Inside: this is the culture of an organization, the “corporate culture.”

Culture Outside: this is American culture.

We sometimes confuse these. But that’s a little like confusing American football and European football. My Culture Camp is dedicated to understanding American culture, the culture outside the organization. This is where we find blue oceans of opportunity. This is where black swans of disruption find us. It’s time we made the distinction.

American culture* and platforms for consumer creativity (case study 4)

What happened to mass culture, mass marketing, and mass media?

Well, several things.

One is the inclination of consumers to make their own culture. Once passive recipients of someone else’s mass creative efforts (TV shows, ads, magazine stories, journalism), the world has got very Do-It-Yourself. We make our own culture in the form of blog posts (like this one), fan fic, YouTube videos, Twitch performances, and spoken word.)

My favorite example is fan fic. According to UC Berkeley professor, Abigail De Kosnik, there are 1 million words in the Harry Potter novels written by J.K. Rowling. Fans have written 6 billion words with Harry Potter novels as the jumping off point.

The Rowling novels create a platform that supplies characters and story lines, and a variety of other fictional materials. And these supplies the bits and piece that readers variously reimagine and augment to tell their own stories. And tell them and tell them and tell them.

What should we make of this great profusion of creativity?

Many people just seem to shrug and move on, as if to say

“Kids, what are you gonna do?”

The Chris Anderson answer was “build a pipeline.” Capture value by being the conduit through which the new diversity of contemporary culture flows.

A second answer is “build a platform.”

And this means doing deliberately what J.K. Rowling did by accident. What we want to do is to “fund” the creative efforts of “fans” as deeply and as generously as possible. Create the starter kit that spares them having to start from zero. (These people have absorbed so much contemporary culture they could, and often do, start from zero. But some of us would like someone to play the “early investor” from a creative point of view, to supply the “upfront” investment needed to get things started.)

Having created a platform, we want to build an economy.

We need to find a way to reward the best fan fic writers. I think the best way to make this happen is to ask a big brand to fill everyone’s “tip drawer.” Now when we are traveling through the Harry Potter fan fic universe, we are able to tip the best writers for their efforts. This doesn’t have to be big money to make a big difference. As it is, very talented fan fic writers will spend this summer working at McDonald’s. Instead of telling stories and extending their talent. Picture Shakespeare in a paper hat. Too stupid. Too cruel.

A big brand can change that. And the rewards would be immense. Building and funding a fan fic platform takes a big telecom, or unicorn, or CPG brand from self satisfaction and a too vivid sense of their own grandeur to an enterprise that actually grasps what is happening around them. Does this build consumer interest and loyalty? You have to ask?

But it’s not only an opportunity for brands. Want to be the new Jack Dorsey? Build a platform that enables and rewards fan fic creativity and you will be worshipped as a god. You will be the Medici of the postmodern age.

I know that people like to praise fan fic as a flourishing of the gift economy. But, ladies and gentleman, let’s forgo the tearful declarations and put away our hankies. We’re not the ones who have to work at McDonald’s this summer. Let’s make ourselves useful, by enabling and funding American culture. The marketing rewards are simply astronomical.

✻ Why do I call it “American culture?”

To distinguish it from “corporate culture.” There are two kinds of culture an organization must understand and a manager must manage.

Culture Inside: this is the culture of an organization, the “corporate culture.”

Culture Outside: this is American culture.

We sometimes confuse these. But that’s a little like confusing American football and European football. My Culture Camp is dedicated to understanding American culture, the culture outside the organization. This is where we find blue oceans of opportunity. This is where black swans of disruption find us. It’s time we made the distinction.

The image: I am meaning to do a post on this Spring ad for ages now. It captures something about the new, newly creative, consumer. Those who know the ad will know where I’m headed. (And if you could please tell me, that would be very much appreciated.)

10 questions for world builder Gerry Flahive

10 Questions for Gerry Flahive

Gerry Flahive is the creator of a fictional character, Bert Xanadu. You remember, Bert Xanadu? Mayor of Toronto in the early 1970s? Owner of Imperial Six Cinema? And complete figment of Gerry Flahive’s imagination.

Gerry tweets in Bert’s name and some of this work is miraculously good.

One example:

@MovieMayor : Ticketed and towed today: Mrs. Eeeni Mosport’s 1961 Ford Spatula, parked inside the lobby of Massey Hall; Mr. Norman Tamblyn’s 1970 Fiat Arrivederci, idling with lewd connotations; a delivery moped from Tip Top Tailors, spewing cordouroy fumes. #TOpoli #TrafficAlert

The internet has encouraged some beautifully wrought world building. Someone armed with only a twitter account or a Youtube channel contrives a character and a world. The work of Kyle Humphrey & Graydon Sheppard (Shit Girls Say) and Bud Caddell (Bud Melman at Sterling Cooper Advertising) come to mind.

I got to know Gerry when he was at the National Film Board and I was at the Royal Ontario Museum. Canadians love to create culture as if from the big guns of a battle ship. It’s regulated, thoroughly mediated, and official. But (or so) they also have a passion for making culture that is unregulated, unmediated and unofficial. (Leora Kornfeld and Nardwaur take a bow.)

The MovieMayor is not only a great example of the second. It’s a running commentary on the first. And for my money, this makes it freeing and slightly vertiginous. Bert Xanadu is reckless, imaginative, unpredictable. He is a Canadian unconstrained by his Canadian-ness, and, heavens, he’s actually in charge of something. Bert is charmingly large and in charge, and more or less out of control…always a compelling combo. Bert is interesting, funny and a little terrifying.

I wanted to find out more about this immensely gifted creation from it’s immensely gifted creator. So I asked him the following questions. The interview quickly turned into a sprawling conversation. (Sprawling? “Prison break” is probably better. What did I expect from Gerry Flahive?)

So first the questions that I had planned to ask.

Mayor Xanada’s answers follow.

There is a video record of this interview and I will attach it to this post when technical issues have been sorted out.

1. Gerry, who is Bert Xanadu in your own words?

2. ​How did you come to invent him and why?

3. ​What’s it like to share consciousness with a guy like Bert?

4. ​Henry Jenkins and our own Sam Ford are doing some interesting work on how communities can use story telling to find and define themselves. How does Bert find and define Toronto, then and now?

5. ​Why did you put Bert at the intersection of big city politics and Hollywood? And what does it mean for the storytelling?

Y. ​You don’t have a ton of followers.not nearly enough to honor the greatness that is Bert Xanadu. And we like to think that the digital world is better at finding and publicizing great work than any previous cultural era. How come Bert isn’t more famous?

7. ​The creative, design and marketing world is now obsessed with story telling and branded content. We are about to see the publication of a book called Storynomics. What has Bert taught you about story telling?

8. ​Any thoughts on our current preoccupation with branded content?

9. ​Several of us are working on the Artisanal Economies Project, and, in a perfect world, Bert Xanadu and Bud Melman would count as artisanal efforts who generated financial rewards. They would help someone make a living. Comic book writers, graphic artists have done this. And in the process they have made themselves the “R&D lab” for popular culture. You are working on a book. What are the issues here? Is there a “business model” here that does not interfere, or give someone else the right to interfere, with your creativity? Or do we always have to have a day job?

10. What else?

(The following transcript has been lightly edited by Grant McCracken and Gerry Flahive.)

Grant: [00:02:45] Let’s. So who is Bert Xanadu, in your own words?

Gerry: [00:02:50] Well Bert Xanadu is actually a combination of a couple of people,.some from my own past and some from popular culture and my imagination.. And that was not by, it wasn’t immediately by design but he did seem to come out of my consciousness fully formed. Yeah it was not it was not painful at all actually. So maybe I’d been carrying him around for many years, but the first the first inspiration was that I worked at the Imperial Six, a multiplex cinema that opened in 1973 on a grimy stretch of Yonge St. It actually existed and it was a fantastical cinema palace that was actually very symptomatic of Toronto history. It’s now called the Ed Mirvish theater. But it was built in the 20s as a vaudeville house called the Pantages. So it was this grand 3000 seat jewel, you know one of those kind of theaters. And then in later years it became the Imperial Theater as a cinema, and the last film that played there was The Godfather premiered there and seventy two or so and then it closed for a year and it was converted to the Imperial Six. But they you know it became this sort of very garish 70s six plex which was so unbelievable when I was an usher. I was hired there as a 16 year old usher at the week before it opened. We actually the doors opened without showing movies just so people could come in and look at it. It was remarkable to people that thre could be six movie theaters in one building it seems. So now so much time has passed that it’s been converted back long since been converted back to traditional theater that looks kind of like you know a plastic version of what it was in the 20s. So the Imperial 6 was this, you know, it’s sort of like if you know if the parliament buildings in Ottawa had been the parliament buildings and then briefly a strip club and then been returned to being the parliament buildings you know some years later. like gets it’s this weird invisible thing that was in the middle of it. But the manager there was actually this guy named Phil Traynor, and I found out later that when I was 16 he was about 30 but he seemed like he came from old timey show business. He wore a tuxedo on Saturday nights. He had smoked cigars and he was terrifying. And when I was an usher there it was the early 1970s, so it was the end of the old sort of movie showmen, which which I found incredibly romantic and sort of enticing. Going to a movie people got dressed up, it was a big deal — we had huge lineups around the block. So all of that it was like the last gasp of that old time show business and I got a little glimpse of it so. So Bert Xanadu is part Phil Traynor, part Robert Moses [infamous New York public official who massively tore down and rebuilt much of the city] who was not interested in anybody else’s input in his huge ideas about restaging the city. You know he’s just driven to to do what he wants. He’s part , if you remember, Fred Mertz who was the neighbour on I Love Lucy, that sort of a rascally guy with very high waisted pants who was also aggressively bald. The actor who played him, William Frawley, was a sort of C-level gangster or kind of irascible store owner or something always on the sly or on the slow boil — always on the verge of exploding in anger. But in Bert’s mind he is Errol Flynn. Af little known fact for Bert Xanadu fans: Bert was not first called Bert Xanadu — my first name for him was Bert Wemp, because that was an actual name of a mayor in Toronto in the 1920s. And I just thought it was the perfect Toronto name: Bert Wemp. And so I tweeted as Bert Wemp for a while until I was contacted by Bert Wemp’s grandson, who was quite offended that I was using misusing his grandfather’s name so I you know I thought how can I combine the mundane parts of Anglo Canadian culture and Hollywood. So Bert Xanadu of course from Citizen Kane.

Grant: [00:08:04] Did you think, “Listen, I need a character” or did the character force himself into consciousness.

Gerry: [00:08:15] And you know it it was more of an opportunity. And it’s interesting I was thinking about some of your questions about how culture or sort of micro cultural creations. You know, whatever his thoughts about himself , Bert is not a full opera on his own. I mean he’s just this sort of minor character, I sometimes think of him as like the 28th character in the tail credits of Citizen Kane or something. So to invent that character without you know anything around it yet is kind of exhilarating in a way. I mean you can either be yourself on Twitter or you can create a character on Twitter or create a kind of “I’m going to pretend I’m Donald Trump’s wig and that’s a character and I’m just going to say funny things”. But I guess I felt from the start that you know Bert actually existed in a world that was both real because he’s in 1973 Toronto that I know very well because I was 16. You know it’s the first time I went downtown on a regular basis — the CN Tower was under construction, and the block across the street from the Imperial six was being torn down to build theEaton Centre. We ushers used to climb up secretly on the roof of the Imperial Six and watch the construction of the shopping centre. So the future city was being built as I was first you know a 16 year old of going down to work at the theater all the time. But the creation of Bert was really just an opportunity, and I think a lot of cultural stuff comes about not because somebody has some grand vision to write the next great Canadian novel or something, it’s just like “would you like to do this. OK I’ll I’ll try that.”

And I was offered a chance to continue because I’d been tweeting as myself during the Toronto Film Festival, and a local website picked it up because I just I invented festival parties that I was not actually invited to. So I just made it as if I were at these parties with celebrities some of whom were dead and some of the parties were held at you know Home Depot like completely unlikely celebrity events. And they liked it so much they said well now that the festival is over, do you want to continue doing it, and given that I had a day job as a producer at the National Film Board, I thought you know I probably shouldn’t be too mischievous as I’m working for the government so, I need I need a fake front for this. I don’t know if I spent more than five minutes thinking about doing it — I thought well I love movies and I love urban things and urban life I love the city of Toronto. So how can I merge those things together, and of course the mayor owns a movie theater. It was a goofily logical path I could go down.

Grant: [00:11:03] And that’s really brilliant. Combining those two because those are, in the Canadian scheme of things, especially in the early 70s in Toronto, kind of mutually exclusive worlds.

Gerry: [00:11:22] At that time, and one can even argue that still the case now, is that when people think of movies and Toronto, they think of the Toronto Film Festival. And of course it’s you know in a way it’s like a spaceship that lands once a year. All of Hollywood comes in, people watch American and European films, and yes there are some Canadian films there, but it’s basically a sort of global cultural spaceship that lands in Toronto and then it leaves. But the rest of the time you know that there are not a lot of Canadian movies showing in cinemas, and and Canadian show business is a kind of an oxymoron. So in the 1970s the idea that anybody would be making movies in Toronto, that just was barely happening. There were some people doing it. Bert actually is fine with that. He thinks Hollywood is the place where movies are made. He’s really good at showing movies..

Grant: [00:12:25] And that’s the hard part. To be honest.

Gerry: [00:12:27] His greatest skill is showing up really well, and Bert’s pride in that is that he has the greatest cinema. A secret idea that I’ll save for another Bert book down the road is that he wants to build the Xanadome, which is a 25,000 seat movie theater it’s part of his dream. So his showmanship connects for me, because it reveals a passive audience that is not engaged in making stories about itself. It just likes to look at stories, the audiences that come and watch all the dreadful, wonderful and weird movies there. And that’s the truth of it. I mean in the two or three years I was head usher at the Imperial Six I can think of maybe one or two Canadian movies that played there. There were six movies playing, changing every week. So out of hundreds and hundreds of movies maybe two of them were Canadian. One was a documentary about Stompin Tom Connors.

Grant: [00:13:31] So it’s that Canadians in those early in the early 70s were sort of embarrassed by Hollywood in popular culture. That wasn’t official. It didn’t have the official approval of of the Canadian scheme of things.

Gerry: [00:13:45] Yeah. And I think what I think you put your finger on something with the imperial six wasn’t. And what Bert’s attitude definitely is not is plugged into official Canadian culture, you know in fact he’s quite dismissive of people. He’s always ragging Pierre Berton about writing another boring doorstopper. He’s always mocking some artsy show at the Royal Ontario Museum. Whatever ‘official culture’ is Bert has no interest in it at all. At the Imperial Six people were seeing a Bruce Lee film or a slightly erotic dubbed European film or the Godfather Part 2 — it was this amazing. It was an amazing film education for me, but there was no question that most of these movies would never get a theatrical release now – or even get made in the first place. The other thing is that it was the era as just before home video. Soif you wanted to see a movie you had to go to a movie theater to do it.

Grant: [00:15:05] Yeah I think for a lot of Canadians in that period and even in the present day popular culture is a guilty pleasure. And the great thing about Bert is that he doesn’t even accept the terms of the argument. Right? I mean that you should treat it as a guilty pleasure when it’s just obviously and manifestly a simple pleasure.

Gerry: [00:15:22] Yeah I mean there’s no there’s no greater pleasure than plopping down and you know having some Twizzlers — you know he also has experimental foods at the snack bar, like potato and leek soup on a stick or something like that just to enhance the experience for people. So it’s completely genuine on my part. It wasn’t fucking exciting place. I mean it wasn’t just that sense of showmanship and excitement. I don’t want to say manufactured, but there is something that makes a cultural experience exciting. Why wouldn’t it be exciting lining up for an hour in the rain to see THE TOWERING INFERNO with thousands of other people. And when I worked there on a Saturday night in the busiest times, big movies were coming out. As Head Usher actually represented a wonderful moment in my life, and I’ve never had such authority since then! I had 33 ushers under my control on a Saturday night, and we were using megaphones to run the lineups.

We also had a lot of fights. The manager would just instruct us, if somebody was drunk and harassing the cashier, to just beat them up, and we’d start punching them and throw them out. The notorious Yonge Street strip was right in front of the Imperial over a few summers, so there were bikers and strip joints right there. it was the grimiest stretch in the street’s history. So it was pretty raw down there, but you’d also have couples formally like dressed up to come in to see the new Bert Reynolds movie or something. It was like the crossroads of the universe in that way, and it was thrilling and sexy.

Grant: [00:17:18] Yeah. Could we have a little bit about the process of the creativity out of which Bert comes. I don’t know if this is the right figure of speech, he’s a part of your consciousness. Yeah well you’re sharing consciousness with Bert. What is that like? Is that the right way to think about it?

Gerry: [00:17:43] A good way to think about , as I’ve written almost 8000 tweets and a couple of dozen articles and things as Bert, it’s very easy for me to hear the voice in my head. I’d say that any novelist, I would assume, tries to get to a point where the characters takes them places. It’s like “well Bert would do that, no he wouldn’t really do that”. “Well he’d sort of sound this way”. I I didn’t find it difficult to find his voice, which is very pompous, it’s over the top. His words hurt a little. You know he was born in 1911, so he came of age in the 30s, and he’s still use slang from then. It’s now out of date and his kind of grandiloquence — because he’s also the mayor — he plays like an insider and an outsider. I don’t think he ever takes off the chain of office, because it’s kind of it’s a uniform: a tuxedo and a chain of office. After almost ten years as Bert, I find I can look at anything in the city or in pop culture and just say “what would Bert say about this?”. But in his 1973.

Grant: [00:19:03] You literally say what would Bert say or is that just a stream of consciousness in consciousness?

Gerry: [00:19:09] I don’t really have to work very hard. The tweet is a perfect creative object, it’s like a haiku. It’s just a perfect form and I have I have written longer things definitely. And that’s not that much harder. You know if I find a theme like his plan to redevelop the Toronto Islands or to fix traffic in Toronto (by banning pedestrians). I get on kind of a roll. But it is it’s a kind of arcane speak. It does speak to the way Canadians had this over-respect for figures of authority. Mayors and captains of industry, and that sort of thing, and Bert definitely is that realm. I was doing research recently for an article I’m writing, and I was talking to a linguist in Toronto who specializes in standard Canadian English. And he also told me about an accent that he that I think Bert would have. I never was able to define it, but it’s an accent that this linguist called Canadian dainty. The accent it’s gone now pretty much, but it’s the way, let’s say, the Governor General would talk in the 1950s. You know it’s the voice of Canadian aristocracy who had been educated in England. And so it’s not it’s not Mid-Atlantic which is actually a different accent, like Katharine Hepburn or Gore Vidal. It’s more Mackenzie King yelling into a microphone with very, very precise pronunciation, and very formal. It somehow just evokes authority, but also a kind of cardboard dictatorship or something. I don’t know what, but that’s just Bert to me – he’d give a speech at the drop of a hat. He’d he cut the ribbon to open a fire hydrant if they’d let him.
He’s low culture and high culture.. He’s very sophisticated, and he goes back and forth to Hollywood, he’s had an-almost love affair with Marlene Dietrich. One be so sophisticated in Toronto in the 1970s. I remember seeing Northrop Frye on the streetcar with his groceries, Marshall McLuhan on the subway. We didn’t have the high mavens that New York or London would have.

Grant: [00:22:41] Yeah. Does he ever take umbrage at anything? Is he ever indignant? I sort of feel like he he doesn’t need to take issue with the world? If it doesn’t work as he thinks it ought to he just moves on.

Gerry: [00:22:56] Yeah I think. Sometimes I will present him as filled with rage. He has an ongoing battle with the projectionists union at the Imperial Six, and the union is run by communists, and they bring prostitutes and booze into the projection booth, and they want the right in their contract to project in the nude. So he’s in a rage about that sort of thing. He’s very right wing in a way that would not be considered right wing at the time. People should know their place.. But he’s also got this kind of paternalistic thing which is almost like a Ronald Reagan, a sense of he wants to be everyone’s buddy. He is just a working schmo like you guys, so he’s always going down to see the workers who spread the road salt in the winter. This is true — they have a camp down in Don Valley where they sleep during the winter because they have to be ready at a moment’s notice, so he’s always down there showing them his own 16 millimeter print of STALAG 17, or helping them stage productions of Gilbert and Sullivan to relieve their boredom, because he’s just a ‘regular guy’. But you know if they went on strike he’d cut them dead immediately. So he’s like an angry father who really loves you. Do as I say, not as I do.

Grant: [00:24:45] Some of the tweets are unmistakably poetic and [that creates] a strange kind of duality then. Bert’s not poetic. You’re the one being poetic and just a case in point here. “Ticketed and towed today. @MovieMayor : Ticketed and towed today: Mrs. Eeeni Mosport’s 1961 Ford Spatula, parked inside the lobby of Massey Hall; Mr. Norman Tamblyn’s 1970 Fiat Arrivederci, idling with lewd connotations; a delivery moped from Tip Top Tailors, spewing cordouroy fumes. #TOpoli #TrafficAlert.” I mean that’s just fabulous.

Gerry: [00:25:17] The Toronto of Bert Xanadu is always 1973. I mean he has New Year’s Eve parties every year. For them it’s 1973 again. So so it’s always 1973. But it’s a surreal place. I mean I try to mix enough of what the city was really like and the truly surreal. I found an inadvertently hilarious book in a used bookstore, an academic volume published out of York University in 1969 or 1970. Essays by different academics about the underworld of Toronto the underworld, which included “homosexuals”, prostitutes and drug dealers. And you know as late as the early 70s, parts of downtown Toronto, for example where the Toronto International Film Festival is now , it’s all gentrified now, so condos and upscale restaurants and everything that was there – the extreme poverty and collision of dirty industry and rooming houses, and cheap bars, etc. has been erased from memory.If you go to the Lower East Side of New York you’re aware first because of the massive amount of popular culture we’ve seen set in a place like that. Everything from the Bowery Boys to Taxi Driver but also because there’s still it still evokes a sense of its past,, that this must have been a pretty horrid place. But if you take somebody and you drop them at the corner of Queen and Spadina and said this was this was grimy, slaughterhouses and like chemical spills, and fights in the street beer parlors. They’d say what are you talking about? Where is that? It’s all gone. It’s all erased. And so I sometimes evoke that in Bert Xanadu’s tweets, but it sometimes seems surreal. I have a regular place in Bert’s’s world called Simcoe Street Goatworks. Which, well, I don’t go to a lot of detail, but basically thousands of goats go in there and they don’t come out alive. In my mind it’s right around the corner from City which it might have been. And so some of that seems surreal, but also I feel like that world that I’ve created has to have a 23 percent surreality. I’m not trying to I’m not trying to be faithful to something, but by being surreal I feel I am faithful, because much of what a city does is weird. It’s like layers of bureaucracy at City of the many, many, many things it regulates. For example, Bert’s in charge of deciding what the soup of the day is. You know like that might have actually been something in Soviet Bulgaria in 1937. It might have had somebody in charge of that. But because we just have this tolerance in Canada and Toronto for layers of things that got regulated and managed, you had to fill in a form to do things. So I just tweak it a little bit to make it more surreal.

And sometimes people don’t quite get it. Bert will announce sometimes with a tear that, say, Toronto’s last known vaudeville dentist in Toronto is finally closing up shop in 1973. I once I had somebody from CBC Radio call and ask me where is this place.. There were probably never ventriloquists’ dummy strip joints, it probably never existed, and now it’s gone. That kind of keeps me keeps me interested I think because, one of the questions you had was about building a storyworld, and I think the thing that I have to remember, because I’m building this kind of palace I guess one little Lego brick at a time, is that is you need to have consistent rules. You have to create rules. And whether it’s the Star Wars or Marvel Universe or it’s a series of novels by Philip Roth. There are things that can happen, and other things that can’t, so I have to I try to be disciplined about that and remember how this might function, how this place might actually function. But you know it’s kind of fun because nobody’s really paying attention to the consistency of that. And so I’ll just try to sometimes tweak it with something surreal and feel yeah that’s kind of you know the fact that the police department would have a Striped Pole unit, which nabs barbers illegally dumping hair clippings. Or that raccoons had taken over the second and fifth floors of City Hall and there were tense negotiations going on with them you know, that kind of seems like Bert’s world that could be.

Grant: [00:30:56] Yeah yeah. So that’s something worth pursuing. And we had talked in advance in the call to wonder about various topics and I think that came up and that’s the kind of you’ve engaged in the kind of worldbuilding if that’s not too grand a term for it. Well that’s the kind of the cumulative effect of some of these experiments online end up over time, building a character and making that character kind of it’s super episodic, right sitting down to the several episodes of several TV shows result in which the show installs itself in your consciousness. But you’re having to break from your world to attend to this stream of stuff whereas this Bert is actually entering our consciousness one tweet a time so this wasn’t tweets overall which in which means, well you tell me about the the overall effect, the overall story that is the result.

Gerry: [00:31:59] Well I think that it’s actually sparked something larger that I want to do with the characters I had. I’ve never lost the sense of fun. So if it never turned in anything other than this that’s fine by me. And because each tweet is fun, but if you’d taken, say, 7000 or 8000 photographs of houses in Amsterdam or something, you might say “I should probably look at these and see if there’s something emerging here or some pattern that I can’t see, or maybe there’s something larger than I can do with this now”. I reached the point where I felt I could assemble them into a book. But also maybe do more with this world as well. So for me it’s actually it’s spawned another thing I’m working on with Bert, which is which is an actual novel that’s not just built out of tweets, and I’ve outlined the whole thing. It’s called The City Fantastic. it’s comes from this world that I built. It’s Bert. He’s been mayor for too long, he’s been mayor too many times. He’s kind of at the end of his political career, he’s in his 60s. People are tired of him. And he’s just trying to hang on. He’s trying to hang on to something that he’s always known and the old tricks aren’t really working. He’s sold people fantastical schemes and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, and they’re just fed up with them.. So he attempts one last re-election campaign. And in a way it’s sort of the real world intervening. You know I have a character who is a kind of a John Sewell-type, who became mayor of Toronto briefly, but in the 70s he was like the hippie Alderman, a social activist and really challenged the old guard. So I have a character challenge Bert, it’s almost like someone who enters from the real world, and Bert’s PR spin doesn’t work anymore. So what Bert does is he in desperation is meet up with one one of his many foreign jaunts with a kind of a kind of star architect and urban planner, sort of a Le Corbusier figure, who sells Bert a plan to completely redesign downtown Toronto. As it turns out, it’s just a plan he designed for Karachi or somewhere, and he’s just dusted it off and relabelled it. Essentially it involves tearing down every building in downtown Toronto and rebuilding it as the city of the future. And this is what Bert signs up for, inadvertenly, as he hasn’t actually read it. Part of the plan is to raze all of the buildings and not replace them for about a year or two, and just pave it as a giant parking lot just for revenue purposes. Everybody would have to be moved out of the city and everything. So he’s now in this deep panic, like how does he back away from this. Toronto was really good at erasing its past and building pathetic little fractions of a future. And yet in a way it is the future that I saw in these overheated plans from Buckminster Fuller and people like that in the 70s who came to Toronto. It’s actually sort of happening now in the city with you know I think to new eyes it doesn’t quite look like Shanghai, but it’s starting to get there. Right now we’re getting 90 story buildings now in this city. But of course I have a happy ending that have already figured out you know that where Bert you know ascends to power again and everything’s right but there’s a twist at the end in a very Bert way. I feel like I’ve got the architecture of this Bert storyworld, and now I can kind of walk around in it.. Perhaps it is a weird way to develop a storyworld — just start with one character and just write thousands of tweets for nine years. A more disciplined way, I supposed, would be to initially consider the many, many facets of this storyworld. I guess people would probably think of George Lucas as someone who had it all figured out. Or look at James Cameron. It seems sort of insane.10 years after Avatar comes out he’s got four more movies coming, and he’s apparently been spending all this time developing the storyworlds even further. I remember actually writing a parody. When Avatar came out they published a book which was a guide to all of the animals and plants of that planet. He’d hired like biologists and zoologists to write this. So I wrote a parody in The Globe and Mail called The Planet of the Very Specific Things. And that’s what I think he’s probably engaged with now. You know it’ll take another ten years really to come out. it must be exhausting to have to map every corner of a storyworld and still try to have fun. I just dropped Bert into a world – a surreal/real Toronto of the 1970s — and then together we just built it along the way. And I’m sure somebody could go through my thousands of tweets and say it’s inconsistent here and consistent there but that’s ok, whatever. I feel it’s the world in a grain of sand. Toronto in the 1970s. A movie theater. That’s enough. There’s like this decades of stuff I can work with there. It’s not like I I wrote a short story set on a farm in northern Ontario and I’ve kind of run out of things to talk about. It’s a city and it’s the movies, and that’s a bottomless well.

Grant: [00:39:25] Yeah I mean that’s surely one of extraordinary things that’s happened thanks to the advent of the digital production of culture that someone like you can create an entire world with a Twitter feed. And a lot of posts but otherwise apart from the time and creativity that you invest in Bert you know your production costs are nothing. James Cameron or Lucas you know having to invest hundreds of millions of dollars just to and then to get something into a theater just to tell any part of the story takes heroic investments.And it’s not clear that what they’ve created is very much more interesting than Bert.

Gerry: [00:40:12] With something like Star Wars I you know I’m I’m not a big fan I enjoy the films and I go to see the films. But I always feel that there’s somebody off camera scolding. You you can’t do that. No no that’s not consistent with this or that. I would think that would be a very pinched way of of creating, but now it’s it’s a massive business. These movies are as big as most corporations. So you know you can’t screw around with that. One of the reasons I really love, Logan the last Wolverine film out of the Xman series. I thought that was an incredibly brave thing to do. Logan is almost like a film noir. Hugh Jackman’s character is old, weaker, and driving a limousine in Las Vegas. To do that with a mainstream Hollywood thing it was amazing, so I love that kind of bravery, but it also speaks to people’s love of that character. But it was very daring to make him you know almost like a pathetic figure. And so I admire that as opposed to people who are just like ‘here the seven thousand rules we must follow in the storyworld’.

With Bert I had no aspiration to do anything larger with it, just doing it one tweet at a time. But if I was to set out to do this again, I might do it the same way, but I would just do it a lot faster. I like the idea of building it kind of brick by brick rather than designing it.

Grant: [00:43:18] So you know in a digital culture we have so many more people participating because the barriers to entry are so much smaller. But the promise has always been on many more people participating but you know what talent still rises. We have a way of finding them and when we find them we can communicate so effortlessly using social and one kind or another. And that hasn’t happened in the case of Bert. I mean your numbers are are fine but they’re not great.

: [00:43:55] It is a little bit puzzling because, I would just think through sheer longevity by now maybe I’d have 3000 bots following me. You know that would be satisfying if some Russian bots were following me, I’d be OK with that. Maybe I should just buy some followers. But you would think there’d be this sort of slow creep of people who would just stumble across it. Brent Butt, the creator of The Corner Gas sitcom in Canada, which is probably the most successful television series ever in Canada, has a lot of followers, and he tweeted he likes Bert. He recently retweeted one of my Bert tweets, and it was seen by 12000 people, as opposed to the 200 or so who might normally see it, but I didn’t get any followers as a result of that. I think maybe if you picked up a copy of some gigantic sprawling novel like The Lord Of The Rings again but just read one sentence, you’d ask yourself ‘what do you think are you in?”. And so it may be that piece by piece Bert is not very comprehensible. I’m very conscious of trying to be funny, so I’m always trying to tell a joke. But it may be so localized and so weird that if you just stumble across it it’s not enough to bring you along. Maybe I need to be more strategic. One of the rules I follow is I never leave 1973. I try not to use hashtags. I almost never do. I try not to reflect on what’s going on in the real world. I mean, if it’s winter in Toronto today, it’s winter in 1973, that’s about as much of an echo that I’ll play with. If the Leafs are playing, I have the Leafs playing in 1973, but they’re playing some fictional team that never existed. Maybe I could do more to kind of pander to people who might stray across it, but I don’t know. Maybe just a narrow narrow taste window.

: [00:46:32] And that’s always possible but I can’t believe the windows as small as number walo as you have.

: [00:46:36] Yeah this is a very Canadian answer.

: [00:46:42] But maybe it’s an infrastructural question. I mean you think about fanfic is people engaged in acts of creativity and their voices in the wilderness and perhaps not much read were it not for things like wattpad and other interventions that say look we’re we’re making it easier for you to find the content you like and to stay in touch with the content you like and upload the stuff you want to share that. So that’s happened. It’s almost as if we’ve got various genre if you wander or forms cultural forms springing up on the web and some of them organize well and some of them organize badly and it feels like we’re all careening through a tweet stream. It’s just not organized.

: [00:47:26] Well it hasn’t.

: [00:47:28] Yeah I think you’re right.

: [00:47:30] Maybe one of the weaknesses of this approach — and it’s maybe been a blind spot for me — is that the thing that’s kind of missing from the storyworld is other people. I mean, there are characters other than Bert Xanadu, there are some recurring figures, but barely. They’re in his peripheral vision, or they’re just they’re just ciphers. Maybe there’s something there, in that that’s the way Bert sees the people of Toronto. They’re all just you faces in a crowd to him. So I may have missed the mark there. If I had a a cast of 25 recurring characters who engaged with Bert. I haven’t done that , and it is a good and healthy part of fan fiction, for example.

: [00:48:44] Or get somebody else to begin the work of.

: [00:48:47] Maybe it’s just a page on Facebook that reaches out to all the people doing this. Are you aware of many many other people doing story building of the kind.

: [00:48:56] A lot are just telling jokes. But I have to say that the quality and speed and the verbal dexterity is great — I’m in such admiration of so many people I’d never heard of before Twitter. I wrote for years and still do occasionally for The Globe and Mail. I wrote satire in my own name, it was sort of making light of some recent thing in Canadian politics or whatever. I once wrote that when Saddam Hussein’s son ran for the Iraqi Senate, he won with ninety nine point nine percent of the vote. So I wrote his acceptance speech in which he reached out to the .1 percent who didn’t vote for him, but I made it sound like it was the acceptance speech that a junior congressman would give in Ohio, except it very dark references to military limousine highways in Iraq, etc. I wrote stuff like that for 20 years before social media and now it’s you know like I mean whatever Donald Trump does, there are a thousand hilarious takes on it within 20 minutes on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, and often it’s graphic design, it’s music it’s everything. I think it’s fantastic. But in terms of actually building a storyworld you know I haven’t seen as much. And I say again, that if I were in business to do this I’d say that my approach has been practically medieval. So we need to pick up the pace Gerry. You know like we DO have vehicles with motors in them now. You don’t have to use a horse drawn cart anymore. If you set out to build a storyworld in this current environment then it’s almost like a transmedia obligation to make sure that it’s got all the scaffolding to hold up every possible part of it.

: [00:51:48] The other one I’ve done is one that you inspired me to do. When we saw each other some years ago I created @chipthrust I’ve probably tweeted 500 tweets over five years as Chip, and I kind of forget about it. He’s a slogan writer who doesn’t have any clients, so he just write slogans for products that don’t exist. He’s pretty much gone insane. But he writes slogans in the hope that someone will hire him. So that one is literally just jokes because I haven’t I haven’t done enough, and I haven’t spent enough time with him as him to really erect something. I don’t know if he’s in New York or if he is in Toronto. I don’t have a clue. So it doesn’t have very many followers. Nobody refers to it and you know that’s about that. But it’s fun to do.

: [00:52:44] So I think how do we bought and fanfic has had it’s you know a certain amount of ink has been spilled on behalf of fanfic right.

: [00:52:53] Npr has done a documentary and and in wattpad is now involved and people know about it.

: [00:53:00] The academics are involved the wonderful woman at Berkeley working on fanfic. When when does first of all we need a term for what what this is right and it seems to me as somebody who worked the National Film Board you might have a sense of how we could persuade a documentary filmmaker to seize this opportunity and I’m assuming there are lots of filmmakers are looking for new kinds of culture emerging. I mean is there some way you see some if you put on your end of the hat. Is this what’s the solution here.

: [00:53:38] Well in my work in my day job as a documentary producer I actually I was quite hostile to documentaries that simply documented things . I felt documentaries are an art form. It doesn’t mean that every documentary is artful, but a documentary in my view is held down by its severe addiction to journalism, which just wants to document and tell stories about things that are happening. They are what I call ‘about’ films because they’re just about something, andthey are not a creation in and of themselves. And so my instinct wouldn’t be to make a documentary about this kind of world. My instinct would be to, say, let’s get 25 documentary filmmakers to each play in this kind of realm. I just don’t think documentary is the answer to everything to bring something to people’s attention. You know I’ve done a lot of consulting since I left the NFB. It’s it’s not. I wouldn’t call it what I do Transmedia consulting, Because I think of transmedia as having work that feels obliged to be on multiple platforms. My approach is more like ‘what are you trying to do?’. What are you trying to say?. Who is it for?. And let’s do that thing. And if it’s making a film, if it’s doing tweets, if it’s creating an installation, or it’s creating a performance, whatever, let’s just don’t say ‘well I’m a filmmaker so I have to make films’. Well maybe it isn’t.

: [00:55:25] I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean I think there is there is such creativity on Twitter. It may just be that there’s just almost so much noise too.

: [00:55:38] Ultimately we still live in a world of gatekeepers, and no publisher has come calling looking to work with the Bert Xanadu character. No screenwriter has called and said I’d like to write a screenplay based on this character. Maybe when I finish the book that that might happen. We all know examples of things that were really on the fringes and then became part of mainstream culture, and that’s even more so now that you know an obscure band or an obscure piece of fiction or something can suddenly be catapulted. I mean I’m old enough to remember when Whoopi Goldberg was an underground comedian in New York, only talked about in the back pages of the Village Voice. It’s hard now to imagine a more mainstream humor figure than Whoopi Goldberg.

: [00:56:57] I guess the thing is where we see these overnight success stories, we really in the same economic engine that we always have been. It’s just got different gears and different people pulling them to lift something up. It’s like the influencers on YouTube feels like a new thing. But ultimately it’s making stars out of people in the environment we’re living in literally this week, finding out what we all felt in our bones is that Facebook knows everything about us and is selling it to the highest bidders right. The idea that there’s some natural evolution of an obscure little cultural creation into something larger is maybe just deeply naive.. And now we’re in the realm of branded content which is obscuring even more the distinction between commercial promotional content and independently editorially independent author-driven content.

: [00:58:24] You know just the beyond a blur. I mean it’s the point where yeah that’s fine. I. I don’t know this film was paid for by an insurance company.

: [00:58:35] Whatever you know that this article was written to promote Coca-Cola, but it doesn’t quite promote Coca-Cola, it just makes you feel better about Coca-Cola. I don’t know what it would be like if we were reading novels that were fully funded by pharmaceutical companies. I’m sure such things exist, actually.

: [00:58:58] You probably know going back to the 50s you know the CIA funded.

: [00:59:03] You know like avant garde American art in the in the Cold War that you was subversive in a way, having certain kinds of jazz in the Soviet Union would have been subversive. So maybe that’s the world we’re in. Every cultural product needs to serve a higher master.

: [00:59:26] I mean I sound like I’m deeply cynical saying that you’ve made the project work as a side gig side hustle kind of thing. And are you done for long enough that I have to suspect that you might even prefer it this way. So is there any sense of you just love doing it. You Bert yes. You know when I was in in finding good. So there’s that question then the other question is if indeed you’d like it to be something more than your your side gig.

: [01:00:00] What’s the what is the best the business model the least in terms of the most acceptable business model for you.

: [01:00:09] It is kind of it is just me and Bert, and I think the reason I enjoyed doing it so much for that long while I was working is that in my day job as a documentary producer it was deeply collaborative. No matter how much of an egomaniac you are as a producer and filmmaker you have to work with other people.

: [01:00:31] With this kind of writing and I don’t have to collaborate with anybody. I can do whatever I want, and good bad or indifferent it’s totally mine. So that was a very nice balance for me. I had developed this kind of approach, this sort of balance between input and output.

: [01:00:51] Some films I worked on were large feature documentaries, and from the time we started thinking about them till they released, it could be five years. Often it was a lot of waiting around, and checking, and getting approvals, Whereas when I write a Bert tweet I might be on the bus on the way to work. It just took me two minutes and you know a bunch of people saw it instantly, or I’d write an article for The Globe and Mail in half an hour, and it was in the national newspaper the next day.

: [01:01:18] So it’s like it’s perfect Zen-like balance between input and output. And there’s something deeply satisfying in that. In terms of I’m trying to get to a business model, doesn’t bother me.

: [01:01:36] I would see a successful business model as simply proof of people liking something. If it happens to bring in revenue that means people people like it enough to spend money on it. In the Canadian realm publishing has always seemed fragile at best, and in this country a best-selling book might sell 3000 copies.

: [01:02:03] And it’s always puzzled me that I think there still is this lingering part of what you very eloquently sort of described as a sort of establishment culture, or a large mediated, big guns of a battleship of a culture. And I see that in book publishing. Books are still revered, certainly some nonfiction books as things in this country that set an agenda.

: [01:02:33] They start a conversation, and maybe 3000 people read a book, but half a million people watched a documentary and it doesn’t get treated with the same respect , it doesn’t have the same resonance or echo. Maybe that is slowly changing with social media, but in terms of a business model I don’t know. There were discussions 10-15 years ago about micro payments, that would be how people would be able to create small work, or artist driven work, because you don’t need a big gatekeeper. And so I guess I thought we’d see more models like that you by know, for example, the ‘one thousand true fans’ model, or micropayments applied more by now and I’m not really seeing that.

: [01:03:58] I just think if I publish a Bert Xanadua book or somebody will publish it for me, it might sell seven hundred copies. I don’t imagine anything more than that. And my motivation to create more Bert stuff in other formats you know isn’t diminished by that, because I’ve never looked at it as actually ever having any potential to make any money. It’s the other work that I do that that sustains it. I figure Bert is sort of like this statue in the middle of Bloor and Yonge that people have to go check on occasionally to confirm, that he’s still there.

: [01:05:44] You know it would be useful for us to consult here would be your Cornfeld. Does that name ring a bell. She still had a rock show on CBC called Radio Sonic.

: [01:05:55] Oh yeah yeah yeah okay yeah.

: [01:05:57] And but she’s made herself a student or master of this kind of these economies that are now springing up online and working or not working we’re kind of working but not really working.

: [01:06:08] So she’s kind of the expert here.

: [01:06:11] Werman I mean I don’t you know I guess the thing with with Twitter is that you know there was I think a new York Times report recently is that the scandal.

: [01:06:19] You have to have hundreds and hundreds of thousands of followers before you can have a business plan that really is driven by endorsements.. And many of those are fraudulent. They’re just always just purchased fake followers. Even if I got there organically, if I reached 100,000 followers or something I would have no interest in Bert having to do something to feed that.

: [01:06:52] Bert often endorses fake products that always completely fail. I briefly had a one crossover tweet between Bert and Chip Thrust, I think Chip’s weird slogan for something, and Bert endorsed it, but it wasn’t exactly like the Marvel Universe crossovers, let’s put it that way. You know these two characters met in one tweet and the world did not explode.

: [01:07:20] I have to say I’m torn. I love your thoughts on on this tension.

: [01:07:24] On the one hand I despise the idea of commercializing somebody like Bert and doing anything to diminish the genius you bring to his the freedom and the and the generosity and the creativity you invest in his in his manifestations in the world. On the other hand I listen to academics who in the very pious way and from the high throne of the tenured position that pays them very handsomely thank you very much. Tell us how wonderful it is that we’re blogging or posting for free because we’re participating in a gift economy not doing everything you know.

: [01:08:02] But isn’t that the sort of the ultimate mistake that was made with the Web, that everything was given away for free until it wasn’t. Grant, you know the New York Times can put up a paywall and people are, OK I’ll pay for that, but I can’t put up a paywall in front of Bert, people will just turn away and walk away. I have to convert him into another cultural platform. The money on Twitter is not there for me. It’s not possible. Facebook, it’s not possible that that I can see. There’s no little incremental business plan that I can come up with. Unless it’s a book or it’s a movie or something.

: [01:09:18] And you know I just I don’t see that happening either because nobody would be willing to back it. So there are three or four Bert books that I would like to write, and as long as I can do them and not lose my shirt, or not have no one read them and have them appear on the remainder table the next day, I may do them just for the sheer pleasure.

: [01:09:49] I mean I think I’m just a little bit ignorant of any other success where people have kind of converted a tiny fictional character into some kind of viable business model or whatever that might be.

: [01:10:02] Yeah well let me deucedly or you’ll know the answer to that.

: [01:10:05] Oh great yeah next. Thanks.

: [01:10:08] So this has been superb. Thank you so much Paul. Thank you. Last the hour.

: [01:10:12] I feel like I’m I feel like I’m in a you know in a church confessional but I’m getting your pay me a thousand dollars for this right aren’t you. No no absolutely. That was my understanding that’s the only reason I agreed to do it. And I’ve been I’m deeply deeply honored and I love to see an extension of autonomy always in your other work and what you’re doing.

: [01:10:37] My work has taken me across some interesting paths, and I find there’s almost no corner of culture and commerce that isn’t potentially relevant to I did some of the work I’ve done for Cirque du Soleil and now for MaRS. I like to find how those things connected.

: [01:11:32] Certainly all the clients I speak to, what many of them don’t seem to have noticed is that every organization in the world is in the content creation business. So even you know CBC or the NFB or others, they have millions of people as competition —at least as competition for people’s attention.

: [01:12:47] But Bert Xanadu only has the tools available to him in 1973. So he’s handicapped a little bit. But that’s ok.

American culture* in the digital space (case study # 3)

I

This is a series of posts that examines how and why American culture matters to American business. The opening post was “American Culture* and the Harvard Business School discovery,” and you can find it here.

I promised I’d look at several case studies in support of my thesis which is:

American culture matters and business is bad at it.

The opening case studies were about a commodity called orange juice and a Consumer Packaged Good called Coca-Cola.

This raises the question: does culture matter to other kinds of enterprise?

I have a friend who gives advice to startups in Silicon Valley. (I will give you his name if he gives me permission.)

A couple of years ago he was talking to a couple of guys who were persuaded that they had created an app that must take the world by storm.

It wasn’t quite clear to my friend what the app was for or how it created value.

To help the guys clarify, he asked,

“So who’s your user?”

The guys looked at him with surprise.

Then one said,

“Well, the user!”

This is what things sometimes happens in Silicon Valley. It’s a little like a return to the 19th century. American capitalism made stuff that was manifestly useful. A hammer, for instance. You didn’t have to know anything about the “user” here.

Except that apps, networks, and digital instruments are not manifestly useful. They are less like a hammer and more like a possibility. Often they are a solution in search of a problem. Not very clear at all.

We know this because it often takes us several false starts to discover how to use an innovation.

Take the case of photographs. The digital space courses with photographs. There are 95 million photos and videos shared on Instagram each day.

This is a mystery.

I mean, if the number was much smaller, a couple of million, say, I would be inclined to say, “Sure. People like to share their photos.” But 95 million? This is not a casual interest.

In fact, a third of the 800 million users on Instagram say they look at the platform several times per day. Wha?

This passionate interest took everyone by surprise. The digital world was slow to see that photographs would matter so much. They absolutely did not see that photos would become the “secret ingredient” of the internet economy. (One exception here might be Chris Hughes, the guy who persuaded Facebook to take photos seriously.)

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post called “the mysterious properties of the photograph.” If I may, I will quote a couple of paragraphs.

“We tend to think that photos matter because they are a record of the world. But this is only the necessary condition of their significance. The reason they really matter is that they are the single, smallest, richest, cheapest, easiest token of value and meaning online. We mint them. We trade them. We accumulate them. We treasure them.

Individually, photos are content coursing through our personal “economies.” They are the single most efficient way to build and sustain our social networks. We gift people with photos. They reciprocate. Hey, presto, a social world is confirmed and enlarged.

Collectively, photos create a currency exchange. They are a secret machine for seeing, sharing, stapling, opening, sustaining and making relationships. Want to know where networks are going? See who is giving what to whom, in the photo department.

Photos are in constant flight. They are a kind of complex adaptive system out of which some of our social order comes.

Why did Zuckerberg pay $19 billion for Whatsapp? He was following the photos, that secret ingredient of the internet economy.”

I missed something when I wrote this post. What I didn’t see is that these photos matter because people use them to craft public images and personal identities (aka “personal brands) in a culture that makes everyone their own press agent. This is one of the things it means to live in a celebrity culture.

Studying American culture helps us see that,

  • photos have a larger, cultural, significance
  • people take and share them for specific, non-utilitarian, purposes
  • advantage goes to the digital players who best aid and abet these purposes

Sometimes the consumer / user / person is looking for a hammer. They’re looking for the most practical solution for the most obvious of problems.

But sometimes they are engaged in social and cultural work. They are building social networks and personal reputations.

And in this second case, a deep understanding of American culture is the difference between buying WhatsApp for a couple of million and several billion. This thing called culture, it can save you a fortune.

✻ Why do I call it “American culture?”

To distinguish it from “corporate culture.” There are two kinds of culture an organization must understand and a manager must manage.

Culture Inside: this is the culture of an organization, the “corporate culture.”

Culture Outside: this is American culture.

We sometimes confuse these. But that’s a little like confusing American football and European football. My Culture Camp is dedicated to understanding American culture, the culture outside the organization. This is where we find blue oceans of opportunity. This is where black swans of disruption find us. It’s time we made the distinction.

American culture* and the new new Coke

Coca-Cola_PopBottles1This is a series of posts that examines how and why American culture matters to American business. The opening post was “American Culture* and the Harvard Business School discovery,” and you can find it here.

I promised several case studies in support of my thesis and this is:

American culture matters and business is bad at it.

Here’s the second case study: American culture and the Coca-Cola company

Consider Coca-Cola.

Soda sales have fallen in the US for 12 straight years.

The Coca-Cola Company has responded with all kinds of innovation. Water is now a big seller.

But all innovations have had a partial quality. Nothing produced by the Coca-Cola innovation pipeline has had any promise of making a Coca-cola product as compelling to the American consumer as Coke once was.

If Coca-Cola had read culture well and early, it might have mustered the will to begin again. Instead, it responded with partial, sometimes half hearted, incremental innovations.

What we needed was a big picture, a demonstration of two new, bitter truths:

1) the glory days of the Coca-cola company were never going to come again.
2) the Coca-cola company could not increment its way back to accustomed profit and share.

What we needed was a radical act of reinvention, a new new Coke.

What would this product have looked like?

My colleague Kevin Clark has an answer. He says it would probably look a little like gazpacho, or its commercial equivalent, V-8.

Except that it would be exemplary on every dimension…in a way that V-8 is, um, not.
The new new Coke would have ingredients that were organic, locally sourced. The nutrition would be exemplary. This new new Coke would be not an acceptable trade-off, not a forgivable compromise, but the very thing we want to drink a lot of. The taste, the packaging, the design, would all be perfect, all in keeping with the culture motifs and meanings of the moment. And we would communicate this new product according to the new rules of marketing (little, local, hand crafted, playful, counter-expectational) as brilliantly as the old Coke used the old rules of mass marketing and mass media, the ones perfected by the likes of Thomas Nast and Norman Rockwell (below).

boy-scout-coke-crop-swscan06879The new new Coke would be as superbly “social” online as it once was in the 20th century soda fountain and fast food drive-in. And of course it would live online as much as it lived in the world. It would be a “Mona Lisa [in] overdrive.”

The new new Coke would be invented, customized, crowdsourced and localized, crafted as much by consumers in all their blooming diversity as it was by a group of people in Atlanta.

In short this product wouldn’t look like a product at all. The brand wouldn’t act like a brand. The marketing wouldn’t proceed like marketing. The “drink” wouldn’t really be a drink. This product would be as superbly responsive to our present America as Coke was to the 20th century.

I can hear someone saying, “I don’t think you understand how difficult this is.” Um, actually I do. Here’s what an anthropologist knows about “Culture Inside,” the culture that defines thought and action inside the organization. Almost everything about this corporate culture conspires to keep people locked in the ideas and practices they know and trust. And the vested interest! Yikes! Could the existing bottling system deliver the new new Coke? Not without massive, painful and incredibly expensive change.

The full scale of the challenge is almost impossible to overestimate. The only way to create the new new Coke is to break from the past. And this means breaking with the institutional heart, mind and memory of the company.

But a single overwhelming truth must be made clear: that the old model is over. It will play out for many more years. It will throw off a fortune in the process. It will decline profitably but it will decline inevitably. This is tragic knowledge, and humans will do virtually anything to avoid tragic knowledge.

There is a strategy for managing change of this order. Call it the Saturn model. Around the existing organization, the mother planet, we want to build a ring where people are allowed to reinvent with no obligations to existing practice or orthodoxy. This is the skunk works strategy except that what is happening on the ring is not a merely an experiment, not a quirky act of imagination. It is deadly earnest. It’s the future.
“So where does culture come into this?” you may be asking.

Working with American culture stretches us in two directions, in time and in space.
It broadens us in the moment. It says that it’s not enough to focus on the existing business model. It’s not enough to maximize and optimize. It’s not enough to “stick to our knitting.” In the famous words of Theodore Levitt (so this impulse has been part of management philosophy for a long time), we must ask “what business are we in?” For survival purposes, we need a place to see black swans, blue oceans, threats and opportunities. The American culture approach says, “put that knitting down and look around you.”

The corporation used to live in a narrow “here.” There were no surprises “out there.” Now of course surprise is the order of the day. Opening things up, we see the full competitive, technological, demographic, economical, political contexts. This is what happens when we embrace culture. It is one of the ways we cast the net wide and expand our “here.”

We also need to expand our “now.” In the old days, we could focus on the moment. This was the best way to harvest value, to spot and act on opportunity. But a strange thing happened to our “now.” It was invaded by the future. We are now living with innovations from startups, competitors and the gurus of Silicon Valley, the nature and effect of which are extremely difficult to determine. Any one of them might take our market away. All we can say for certain is that somewhere out there there is a black swan with our name on it. When it comes for us, and it will come for us, we will have almost no time to react. And this means that a narrow “now” is a very bad idea.

So we want to build pictures of the futures, scenarios that acquaint us with some of the ways the future might “break.” We need to map the future to capture the sheer multiplicity of possibility. We have big data. We are getting better at visualization. Why not use the big data to light up a picture of possible futures? I love the idea of a management team meeting once a week (or in times of crisis, once a day) in a war room that really looks like a war room. Maps. Visuals. Movements. Bets made. Bets doubled down upon. Bets rethought and repurposed. People reading the future as if they were standing in an air traffic control tower.

This is what the “future of the future” looks like for the corporation. And this is what is required of the Coca-Cola company. It needs the ideas and initiatives that give permission, provocation, proof necessary to start again. It looks incredibly difficult and dangerous. But what is the burden of senior management, of sterling leadership, if not this?

✻ Why do I call it “American culture?”

To distinguish it from “corporate culture.” There are two kinds of culture an organization must understand and a manager must manage.

Culture Inside: this is the culture of an organization, the “corporate culture.”
Culture Outside: this is American culture.

We sometimes confuse these. But that’s a little like confusing American football and European football. My Culture Camp is dedicated to understanding American culture, the culture outside the organization. This is where we find blue oceans of opportunity. This is where black swans of disruption find us. It’s time we made the distinction.

American culture* and the story of OJ

[This post was originally published on Medium and LinkedIn.]

This is a series of posts that examines how and why American culture matters to American business. The opening post was “American Culture* and the Harvard Business School discovery,” and you can find it here.

I promised I’d look at several case studies in support of my thesis and this is:

American culture matters and business is bad at it.

Here’s the first case study: American culture and OJ

Consider a glass of orange juice.

glass-of-orange-juice TINY

For a very long time, OJ was in the words of the Atlantic, “the very image of refreshment, packed with vitamins and radiating with sunshine freshness…America’s classic morning drink.”

OJ was a piece of American culture* and its definition of “breakfast,” “morning,” “mothers,” “mealtime” and “nutrition.” It was part of a complex of meanings and rules that define what, when and why Americans eat what they do.

OJ took some of its value from this meaning.

We are accustomed to thinking about value as something that comes from utility, from functional benefits, from what Christensen calls “purpose.”

This is merely part of value. Value also comes from meaning.

But functional value is the thing we measure when we price. Meaning is largely invisible to our calculations. This is why culture is the “dark matter” of American capitalism.

And this brings us to the story of OJ.

Not very long ago, a new idea stole into the American consciousness.

The glass of OJ, once the picture of health, was now being called “a glass of sugar.”

tall_glass_sugar TINIER

The effect was spectacular. Between 2002 and 2017, the Nielsen-measured retail U.S. orange juice market declined by 50 percent. The WSJ heralded the death of this “breakfast table star.” Everyone suffered, farmers, an agricultural industry, and brands like Tropicana, Florida’s Natural, and Minute Maid.

It was a beautiful, if painful, experiment. OJ still had all its functional benefits. It was still charged with Vitamin C, minerals and all that non-specific “goodness.” The only thing that had changed was the cultural meaning. What was once “the very image of refreshment” had become an object of suspicion.

So what changed, precisely? American culture changed. What culture gave, it took away. What it valued, it devalued. What it charged with one meaning, it charged with another.

Specifying what OJ meant in its heyday is the work historians, semioticians, anthropologists, sociologists, strategists, planners, and other “trained professionals” who can comb through American culture and tease out the what, when, who and how of OJ’s rise to its place as “the very image of refreshment.”

Specifying how OJ fell, this falls to the manager, the C-Suite, the leaders of the organization. They may take these truths to be incontrovertible:

1) the meaning of OJ is arbitrary. It’s a little like the price of OJ on commodity markets. It responds to forces outside itself.

2) the meaning of OJ is the outcome of all the forces that now make up American culture, the companion trends, opinion leaders, experts, and marketers who shape and reshape how Americans define “breakfast.”

3) we need to map and track these cultural forces and actors so that we can anticipate the shifting consensus that will decide the fate of OJ. The advent of “big data” puts superb, sometimes real-time data at our disposal. Picture a visualization that lights up one end of the boardroom, showing the various forces at work like an air traffic control array. Behold, the future of OJ.

4) We must get ready now. We want to do this even when OJ is in its ascendancy. Because the first principle of a cultural understanding of Americans markets is biblical: “this too shall pass.” Every consumer taste and preference, however inevitable it seems to us now, is in fact arbitrary, vulnerable and at some point vanishing.

Somewhere out there is a new Alice Waters. She is riding a black swan. She is coming for a market we take for granted. In a superheated marketplace, the time to respond is not when prices are taking a header. The time to respond is when we have deep pockets and breathing room.

Increasingly, American enterprise lives in a state of defensive, ad hoc, reaction. We are being stripped of strategy and planning. We are not so much agile as engaged in a mad scramble of blind response. Getting good at American culture can help fix this. It can return to us some of our powers of anticipation, preparation, and adaptation.

And so ends this first case study in the series called “American Culture* and the Harvard Business School discovery.”

Tomorrow: “American culture* and the Coca-Cola Company”

✻ Why do I call it “American culture?”

To distinguish it from “corporate culture.” There are two kinds of culture an organization must understand and a manager must manage.

Culture Inside: this is the culture of an organization, the “corporate culture.”

Culture Outside: this is American culture.

We sometimes confuse these. But that’s a little like confusing American football and European football. My Culture Camp is dedicated to understanding American culture, the culture outside the organization. This is where we find blue oceans of opportunity. This is where black swans of disruption find us. It’s time we made the distinction.

American culture* and the Harvard Business School discovery

 

IMG_0906

[this post was originally published on Medium and LinkedIn]

When the Harvard Business School invited me to teach a few years ago, I had one question.

“Why?”

Why, I wondered, would a business school want to hire an anthropologist?

The answer was illuminating.

“We are good at solving business problems, but we notice that around 20% of the time we are wrong. Not just wrong but spectacularly mistaken.”

“Really?” I exclaimed.

“Really,” they assured me.

“We do a postmortem to figure out what we did wrong with our analysis. And often the answer is American culture. We don’t know how to think about culture. You do. Help us.”

I now think the figure might be higher than 20%.

American culture is the dark matter of contemporary business. People know it’s out there. But they don’t quite know what it is or how think about it.

Still.

Hence the Culture Camp I’m teaching in June. (More details here.)

I am running this camp because I believe understanding American culture has become an imperative for every organization, for the C-suite, for anyone who cares about how people buy, vote, seek entertainment, engage with culture, and respond to communications, innovation, advertising, and PR. American culture is where the blue oceans exist and the black swans swarms.

And not a moment too soon.

I believe there is a new American culture in place. The future is here. It is not, as William Gibson used to say, “badly distributed.” It’s right under our noses.

I believe that there are 5 structural properties that now define American culture.

But more on that later.

Let’s concentrate on the HBS discovery:

that American culture matters and business is bad at it.

Over the next couple of days, I will offer the following tiny case-studies:

Case Study 1: What happened to orange juice? (Wednesday, May 2)

Case Study 2: Fixing Coca-Cola (Thursday, May 3)

Case Study 3: The crisis at P&G (Friday, May 4)

Case Study 4: Using culture in a Silicon Valley start up (Monday, May 7)

Case Study 5: Making memes out of American culture and American culture out of memes (Tuesday, (May 8)

Case Study 6: The trouble with “cool hunters,” “trend watchers,” and other observers of American culture. (Wednesday, May 9)

Case Study 7: American culture and its 5 new structural properties (Thursday, May 10)

Come join us at Culture Camp June 7, New York City. The details, again, are here.

✻ Why do I call it “American culture?”

To distinguish it from “corporate culture.” There are two kinds of culture an organization must understand and a manager must manage.

Culture Inside: this is the culture of an organization, the “corporate culture.”

Culture Outside: this is American culture.

We sometimes confuse these. But that’s a little like confusing American football and European football. My Culture Camp is dedicated to understanding American culture, the culture outside the organization. This is where we find blue oceans of opportunity. This is where black swans of disruption find us. It’s time we made the distinction.

Beth Comstock and 7 truths for the C-suite

beth comstock

(This post was first published on Medium, April 3, 2018.)

Anyone who works as a creative, a strategist, a planner, a story teller, a PR specialist, or a meme-maker knows the frustration of persuading the organization to grasp and act on culture. (No, not corporate culture. American culture.)

It should be easy but it’s not.

In fact, culture remains a kind of “dark matter” for the organization. Senior managers know it’s out there. They know it matters. They know things go disastrously wrong when they do not “factor culture in.”

But getting these managers to “get serious” about culture has been a struggle.

May I introduce Beth Comstock, until recently Vice Chair of General Electric and the person in charge of GE Business Innovations?

Here is Ms. Comstock on dual themes that are dear to everyone concerned with contemporary culture: multiplicity and fluidity.

In our lives, we are multidimensional people. We don’t want everything to be exactly the same all the time and we have different moods. I think there’s a huge segmentation going forward for marketers, for businesses where it’s state of mind. It’s contextually relevant at the moment. It’s not just, “I am a woman.” It’s not just, “I am X age. I am an American. I am a east coaster,” or, “a southerner.” I think those things are maybe more analog, and going forward, it’s much less binary; it’s much more fluid; we have gotten used to — culturally have much more gender fluidity. I think there is going to be much more interest and experience fluidity. It’s going to be challenging and exciting for certainly business and marketing people.

Who could ask for anything more? This remarks puts Ms. Comstock so far out ahead of the average manager, it’s impossible to measure.

In a more perfect world, this understanding would be “standard issue” for managers, one of the adaptions that help them navigate the complexities of contemporary capitalism. But as it is, there may be only one senior manager who grasps this point this well. Beth Comstock.

When someone doesn’t understand the new realities of the American market place, the following things become more difficult to grasp:

1. that the American consumer is now a creature of new complexity.

Shouting at consumers with dumb advertising is not just ill advised. It is an invitation to outright repudiation. It destroys brand and financial value.

2. that American marketing in general must surrender some of its “keep it simple, stupid” laboriousness for a new control of nuance and subtlety.

Let your creatives do their jobs. They understand culture, or should do. They know how to negotiate its subtleties. They know how to extract meaning that will become value. Don’t keep putting your oar in. You don’t ask their advice on a new M&A strategy. They don’t want your advice on meaning and message making. Leave it to the professionals.

3. that the American brand in particular must be a house of many mansions. It can no longer define itself in a monolithic way or speak in a single voice.

This is a special challenge for American marketing, so long the devotee of simplicity, repetition, and, um, well, repetition. Contemporary consumers, and the younger they are, the more this is true, HATE the obvious. They can do much more with much less. Stop yelling at them.

4. that American corporation can only speak to this diversity by containing some of this diversity.

There are many Americas out there. Perhaps once everyone was prepared to “go along to get along” with a set of shared meanings. Less and less so now. There are new and emerging fundamentals. But there are also differences that will never go away, and these are blossoming everywhere: race, gender, age, ethnicity, locality… Do you know them? Have you embraced them?

5. that some of the new richness and turbulence of the world out there comes from the new richness and complexity of culture.

(You’re afraid of “Black Swans” as a source of disruption? Many of these come from culture. You’re keen on “Blue Oceans” as a place to discover innovation? Many of these come from culture.)

6. that “culture” is something the corporation must devote itself to understanding.

A couple of years ago, I proposed that the organization appoint a “Chief Culture Officer.” This fell on deaf ears.

7. Let’s start with this fundamental truth, that when we say “culture” we are not talking about corporate culture. We are talking about American culture.

I wish people would stop conflating the two! The confusion was charming for a brief period. Now it’s beginning to resemble a chronic inability to distinguish between American football and European football. It’s really not a good look. Trust me.

It’s one thing to grasp these 7 truths. It’s another to put them to operationalize them as working assumptions and active ideas.

Ms. Comstock has taken the lead here as well. She grasps complexity in a practical way. Listen as she talks about Rachel Shechtman’s experiment called Story.

Meanwhile, I mean, there’s a store here in New York, I am a big fan of the founder and the store is called Story. Rachel Shechtman started it, and every six weeks it’s like a magazine and a media experience and an event. Every six weeks, she changes out and curates a new experience in retail every six weeks. So it’s hard to — it’s a hybrid. It’s hard — is it retail? Yeah. Is it media? Yeah. Is it experiential? Yeah. She has three or four different business models. That’s just one example. You are seeing more and more of those. So I think it really is this interesting mash-up of things. The winners are going to figure those two, the analog and the digital, out together.

All hail Beth Comstock. Let’s hope that, some day, all managers have her gifts.

Source of quotes:
From a podcast interview of Ms. Comstock by Mike Kearney in the Deloitte’s Resilient series here.

Conflict of interest:
None. I have never met Ms. Comstock. As far as I know, I have never worked for her, even distantly.

Photo credit:
With thanks to Joi Ito
Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) here.