the Hollywood model of marketing


In the old days, corporations knew where to go for new marketing ideas. They would pick up the phone and order a new meme from the ad agency.

In due course, this was delivered by groovy people dressed in Manhattan mufti, so marked by their beauty, stylishness and a security badge that there was no danger that they would wander the halls and wreck havoc. Once the meme was delivered, the agency people would be sent away, and everyone would sigh with relief. “Thank God, I honestly thought they’d never leave.”

The advertising agency served as a kind of virus containment laboratory. It was a place where new ideas were allowed to bloom. But it was also nicely sealed away from the corporation. In this way, the corporation could have its cake and eat it too: there was creativity on tap, but no danger that this creativity would infect the proceedings or prowl the hallways.

Creativity in the corporation has always been a kind of necessary evil. Necessary because is often the source of competitive advantage, category leadership, brand profile, growth, profit and share price. Evil because it’s just so hard to manage.

Corporations thrive on system, process, top-down control, stasis and discipline. Creativity prefers fresh thinking, rule breaking and getting outside the box of conventional practice. On balance, it seems better just to keep creativity “over there” at the advertising agency.

These days are over. Now that new ideas are the very fount of value, the corporation tis getting serious about its own idea creation. And there are lots of things going on: skunk works, off site brainstorming sessions, hiring more mavericks, loosening the place up a little, and creating corporations that act more like “complex adaptive systems.” In sum, system is looking for ways to let creativity in.

But what if we had the right idea in the first place? It may just be that a rapprochement of corporation and creativity is never going to work very well.

Three reasons:

First, there is the problem of system. Management is about command and control, how generously we seek to re-imagine it. To this extent, the corporation may well remain a place that is essentially inimical to creativity.

Second, there is the problem of office politics. Every corporation is filled with people who compete for budgets, for CEO attention, for pride of place, and most of all for advancement. This means the corporation systematically creates people who will interfere with the realization of other people’s ideas, however good these ideas are.

Third, a lot of corporations make people miserable. The sheer press of business, the multiplicity of projects, the conflicting agenda and objectives, the grinding need to “make one’s numbers” every quarter, all these conspire to make life overwhelming, exhausting and grim. One effect: talented people turn into nay sayers. The corporation has found another way to staff itself with people who block innovation.

So what are the alternatives? How about a “Hollywood” model? Most of the marketing functions of the corporation would be stripped out of the corporation. Idea innovation (especially new products, brands, positioning, and campaigns) would be handed to outside partners.

We don’t want to return to the advertising agency approach. Not now that Hollywood has gone it one better. In the Hollywood case, each project demands a new talent team, purpose build and evanescent. It draws together the best people from a pool of good people, and it lasts only as long as the project. This supplies a more perfect fit of people to people and people to project.

I can hear the objections. First, what about all the things the corporation has learned about its products and brands? We don’t want to give this to strangers. And we can’t expect strangers to pick up our deep stocks on knowledge on the fly.

Nonsense. In fact, very little about what we know about our markets is proprietary. Second, the corporation is porous. Consultants see to that. More important, consultants demonstrate that people can pick things up on the fly.

Second, what about continuity? Who will help preserve the long term strategies of the corporation and its brands? The fact of the matter is that we are no longer a continuity culture. Every “brand team” is a rotating door of personnel. If the corporation really cares about continuity, why does it endure this? But more to the point, brands are themselves whirl-winds of discontinuity. They are constantly being redesigned. So too are the consumers for whom they are intended. The nut here: when continuity management gets in the way of dynamism management, it is costing us more value than it is creating.

Hollywood long ago learned now various and changeable the world has become. There was no point in making the next picture just like the old one. Consumer taste and preference changed so fast, it might sense to treat the new product as a new project. (The sequel franchise is the exception that proves the rule. The use of genres is another matter. Let’s talk.)

In the words of Bob Wright, GE’s entertainment boss, and CEO of NBC Universal Inc.:

One big difference in television or movies is that every project is very different. It’s a very project-oriented kind of work. So it’s hard to get repetitive process. It’s also hard to streamline production of a show, because by the time you get everything running just how you like, the show is over. You don’t get savings with volume.

Now that all consumer taste and preference acts a lot like fan taste and preference, perhaps its time for marketers to steal a page from the Hollywood handbook.

In a culture of discontinuity, all innovation is start-again innovation. Perhaps all marketing teams should start again as well.


Barnes, Brooks. 2004. Wright’s Hollywood Script. Wall Street Journal. December 23, 2004, p. B1.

McCracken, Grant. 2004. On naysayers in the corporation here.

Last note:

Apologies for having been slow to respond to comments. I have been overwhelmed with comment spam and I am spending most of my spare time weeding. MT has hired that wizard of the black list, Jay Allen, and promises a fix soon.

6 thoughts on “the Hollywood model of marketing

  1. Ennis

    How about the Google model – you give people time off on a regular basis to work on neat stuff in the hope that it will be of use to the company, if only by keeping employees sharp and creative?

  2. Spiny Widgmo

    In the industrial economy, one of the things happening is ISO certification. This certification drives the companies to break ALL aspects of the business into documented processes. Whether you are assembling parts, billing invoices or conducting R&D, you job is broken into processes with well defined inputs, outputs and steps. Effectivly the entire organization’s organic knowledge can be ecoded into an algorithm, in which there is a make/buy/automate decision to be made on every task. Because there is deep documentation on the jobs/tasks/processes, management no longer needs to be as deeply experienced to understand how the job is done.

    I think once a company has thoroughly documented, then designed their processes, the Hollywood model can work very well with a thin persistent layer of permanent employees.

  3. Ginna Dowler

    I’ve posted some thoughts on this topic at I wonder if you are considering that the majority of products are not marketed to consumers at all?

  4. Tom Guarriello

    I must say, and it’s probably impolite for me to do so, but this statement, made by one of my fellow commenters, astonishes me: “Effectively the entire organization’s organic knowledge can be encoded into an algorithm, in which there is a make/buy/automate decision to be made on every task.”

    Kind of like taking a cat apart to see how it works and then putting it back together, don’t you think?

    The system’s complexity is “emergent,” which is what makes the Hollywood project-model so dicey. Often effective, often not.

  5. steve

    Pedantry time! The appropriate organization model for innovation depends upon the nature of the innovation. Check out Clark and Wheelwright, Managing New Product and Process Development, Free Press, 1993, Chapter 6 for a detailed discussion.

    Grant seems to be considering innovations where the hard part can be encapsulated as a marketing problem–product design, engineering, operations, etc. are pretty much a routine afterthought. In such situations, design, manufacturing and distribution can be treated as separable utilities. Think about a toy concept, say, where the detailed design can be fobbed off to a design house, the manufacturing can be done by some Chinese plastics factory, the distribution can be performed by the usual wholesale system, etc. A Hollywood model seems fine there.

    But in situations where something of strategic importance is happening, where technology or manufacturing or distribution must be adapted or radically reshaped in order to exploit the marketing concept, it’s problematic. Truly radical innovations may require autonomous “tiger teams” or skunk works, with direct control over all the resources they need to complete their projects. At the other extreme, when the hard part is modifying tightly integrated and/or captial-intensive production facilities to push out a new product or service, a functional “tollgate” system or lightweight product coordinator organization may be optimal. In those cases, changes to existing routines are the essence of the innovation, and an isolated team that doesn’t know those processes won’t be competent.

  6. Matin

    i am more interested in finding the hollywood model, Can anybody point me some really good site, articles, journals or books where i can find out what hollywood model is and how it works etc? It will be really helpful.

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