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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.

How to save luxury brands (and American capitalism)

screen-shot-2016-09-15-11-10-57-amElizabeth Segran has a nice essay in Fast Company: The Decline Of Premium American Fashion Brands. What Happened, Ralph And Tommy?

As a teen, Segran admired ads by Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. That’s over.

Today, at 33, none of these brands interest me. They conjure up images of outlet malls.

The problem is widespread

I’m not the only one who feels that these iconic American brands have lost their luster. Many are on a downward spiral, hit by sluggish sales. Ralph Lauren is facing plunging profits resulting in the shuttering of retail stores. Coach is in a similar boat, having lost significant market share. Michael Kors recently devised a strategy of cutting back on discounts, since markdowns appear to have killed the company’s cachet. Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, which are owned by the same parent company, have seen decreasing sales in the U.S. market.

Luxury brands are, in short, a mess.

Segran consults several experts and they roll out the probable causes:

Luxury brands:

■ were pushed by Wall Street to grow
■ growth forced offshore manufacture and this created diminished quality
■ searching for larger markets lead to production overruns
■ overruns forced brands into the bargain and outlet channels.
■ finding Ralph Lauren in a discount bin at T.J. Maxx made it seem a little less luxurious

Other factors

■ new brands rose with a new, more social, sensibility, Everlane or Warby Parker

But something is missing here from this account. We are looking at a fundamental change in sensibility.

screen-shot-2016-09-15-11-10-57-amConsider the Ralph Lauren ad that Fast Company used to illustrate this essay.

Almost everything is now wrong with this image. But not one of these errors in the image is remarked upon.

Errors in the image: 

That this picture has a center to it.
(Younger consumers are social animals. They are networked creatures. They are distributed souls. Practically, for content creators, that means dump the “focus” and go for “foci.” See recent work by Fitbit and Android for the social “foci” view, and my thoughts here.)

That the center of the picture is a white male, apparently WASP and privileged.
(Do I really need to explain the rise of diversity and what it means to the models we want to see in our ads?)

That the male in question has a woman wrapped around his arm.
(This too should be unnecessary, but everyone is now a feminist. And this posture is absurdly subordinate and subordinating.)

That this woman has the strangest look on her face.
(It’s an expressive that appears to say, “This is all I want from life, to be by my man.” I mean, really.)

That there is a steely eyed friend.
(what is this guy dressed for? A trip to his place in the country, the ancestral home, all brick, beam and ‘old money made material’?)

That the surrounding group glows with youth, ethnic specificity, and privilege
(the first motive for luxury consumption used to be upward aspiration. A consumer culture fanned the hope that we too could rise in the world, into exalted social realms, away from the ordinary, “common,” “coarse,” “little” people. But this idea is now openly ridiculed.)

Attention, sellers! The single most important idea driving your market place is dying. This idea of status is dying. It is now a recipe for ridicule.

So let’s be clear. Yes, there are plenty of “internal” reasons why luxury brands are struggling. And thank you, Elizabeth, for discovering them. But there are external, cultural ones, as well.

These cultural changes are not recent. These have been in the works for several decades. And it is a perfect storm as we rethink our ideas of privilege, status admiration, upward aspiration, sexism, and the adoration of the wealth and privilege.

imagesWhat to do? How could luxury brands have prepared themselves for this cultural disruption? At the risk of repeating myself, the single simplest strategy is to hire a Chief Culture Officer. For instructions, read this book ➼.

There’s a ton of talent out there. A few names come to mind. Tom LaForge, Barbara Lippert, Steffon Davis, Ana Domb, Philip McKenzie, Sam Ford, Joyce King Thomas, Michael Brooks, Jamie Gordon, Monica Ruffo, Rochelle Grayson, Kate Hammer, Drew Smith, Rob Fields, Parmesh Shashani, Shara Karasic, Ujwal Arkalgud, Tracey Follows, Eric Nehrlich, Bud Caddell, Barb Stark, Mark Boles, Mark Miller, Helen Walters.

(For a longer list, see this Pinterest page filled with candidates.}

If only Ralph Lauren had had anyone noted above as their Chief Culture Officer. How much share holder value would have been protected? How many careers saved? How much more fun would it have been to work at Ralph Lauren?

American capitalism has become a bit of a punching bag. There are so many cultural disruptions in play. A crisis now haunts CPG and Hollywood. So that’s three of the great workhorses of the American economy. And it’s at this point when we can see a crisis running right through our economy, touching things as diverse as luxury brands, CPG brands and Hollywood pictures, that’s it is time to rethink what we’re doing.

Take a smart person with good credentials, give them resources and give them power. It’s time to make our marketing, design thinking, branding, and innovation intelligence responsive to the simple truth that’s visible to most cultural creatives and virtually every Millennial. It’s time to make the organization as responsive to culture as it is to everything else in the near environment. All other options are stupid and embarrassing.

 

Bud Caddell

Whenever I have the chance to talk to Bud Caddell, I take it. This’s because while I know the future is badly distributed (in Gibson’s famous phrase), I fervently believe it must be somewhere in the near vicinity of Bud Caddell.

In this 10 minutes of interview, Bud talks about the following things

00: 37:00 mark (~) that with his new company Nobl Collective, he is learning how to configure the culture inside a company to articulate it with the culture outside the company.

00:58:00 the digital disruption changes these things in succession

  1. culture
  2. how brands communicate
  3. how products are made
  4. the teams within the organization

1:39 On joining the world of advertising and why he left.

3:43 the thing about that very famous Oreo campaign (that it took 6 different agencies, and a lot of money). This was not the “safe to fail” experiments the world now holds dear.

4:20 companies are having to learn to both optimize and futurecast, and that these are opposing challenges.

6:00 there is a tension in the corporation between pushing the innovation team too far away or holding it too close. (Amazon is the case in point.)

6:43 Nobl believes that companies take human choice away from teams. The point of Nobl is to restore that choice.

10:20 Bud is concerned that, all the noise to the contrary, we are actually moving away from small startup entrepreneurialism. Bigness is not dying, it’s once more on the rise.

11:56 Bud is concerned that with this culture inside, the culture outside (i.e., American culture) could narrow and something like a 50s monoculture

11:18 organizations are inclined to treat employees like errant children or robots. The point of the exercise find their strength, not assume their weaknesses. Give them autonomy. (Because they can’t navigate the future, they can’t create value, without that autonomy. My words, more than Bud’s. Sorry!)

??:?? Nobl aims to construct core teams with 4 properties

  1. customer obsessed (prepared to “leave the building” to find out more
  2. closely aligned with one another
  3. autonomous, free to discover an idea and test it
  4. organized by simple rules

Thanks to Bud for the chance to chat.

I am hoping to do more of these interviews. My assumption is that we are all works in progress working on a work in progress in a work in progress, and that to listen to one another as we configure works1, works2 and work3 is interesting.

One last note on method. This interview might stand as a grievous example of “leading the witness.” I was shocked when listening to it again to hear that my questions were more about me and less about Bud. Yes, you have to start somewhere. And yes, inevitably you are going to speak from what you know. But the very point of ethnography and the thing it does so well is to discover things you don’t think and hadn’t ever thought to think. It’s always a chance, more vividly, to get out of our heads into that of the respondent. Or to put this another way, I was insufficiently curious in this interview.

 

 

Secrets of digital celebrity: how to get famous the easy way

When Guy Kawasaki was asked how to get internet famous, he had discouraging news. There is no easy answer, he seemed to say.  You have to follow thousands of people. You have to reply to all your email and Twitter traffic.  Yes, he said, I’m “internet famous” but it took me 25 years to get here.

But some people came up easily. The 1990s was the internet’s Cambrian era, so there was an immense amount of noise and commotion. Now that everyone was in the game, it was hard for anyone to rise. But a few did. And some of those few did not appear to be working hard at all.  They were not scrupulous about their twitter traffic and email.  They got digital celebrity the easy way.

So what’s the easy way?  Let’s take three case studies. There are several more. But these are three that impressed me most. 

As the TV show Mad Men as a center piece, Bud began to tweet in the voice of Bud Melman (pictured) as if from the mailroom of Sterling Cooper.  He gave us an insider’s view of the agency.  The Melman character went from a slender proposition to deep plausibility in the 5 seconds it took us to figure out what the proposition was.  Bud (both of them) had insinuated himself into the storyline. He made himself necessary reading for fans of the show. This was fan fic that actually commandeered the original. It was transmedia that was in some ways more interesting and imaginative than the show.  (AMC thought so. They came at Caddell with lawyers blazing.)  Most of all, Bud showed what digital technology could do.  What, in effect, it was for.  For the price of a Twitter account (then as now $0), he was famous.

With “Bud,” Bud found had found a way to hack old media with new media. The message was clear.  Old media might continue to control a big piece of contemporary culture and it would always have more money, more institutional heft, and perhaps more eyeballs, but with tiny investments some people could help themselves to some of the proceeds. It felt like something out of Prohibition, when small bandits managed to liberate one truck from the 100 trucks big bandits were sending from Canada to NYC.  

Talk about ROI.  Bud won fame for the price of a good idea and a really cheap delivery device.  

Jonah Peretti won fame a different way.  He asked Nike to customize his shoes with the word “sweatshop.” Nike refused.  An exchange of emails ensued in which Nike insisted that “sweatshop” was slang and therefore forbidden.  Peretti replied it was standard English. And then he published the emails. And won himself a piece of immortality.  This is one of the characteristics of this fame, that it uses resources that don’t look like resources at all. An exchange of emails as the path to stardom. This was new.  And cheap.  And forget answering all your email.  Just publish the interesting ones.  

This begins with an act of brilliance. Peretti saw that he could use Nike’s customization for his own purposes, against Nike, and as a way to draw attention to a big issue and indeed a guilty secret that lay at the heart of the Nike proposition. It’s an opportunity right there in front of everyone. Most of us are incapable of anything more imaginative that “Grant’s sneakers” or “Left” and “Right.”  Peretti saw a way to hack the customization that Nike felt made them just so very you know current, “with it,” and “on the ball.” The conceit exposed them. Peretti made them pay.

Kevin Slavin won his stardom with a gaming idea. I never saw any of the games that came out of his company Area/Code. It was enough to hear him talk about his proposition at a PSFK conference. He talked about kids running through the streets of NYC pursued by monsters that were imaginary in one sense but entirely real in another. He called these “invisible characters moving through real-world spaces.”  

There is something so clever about these cases you instantaneously go, “Oh.”  Your heart and your head is glad.  Previous generations found fame in other ways, writing books, starting companies, distinguishing themselves in some arena or other.  (Think of Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog.) But all of these were effortful compared to what is happening here. What brought them Caddell, Peretti and Slavin fame was virtually all concept, not much more than a really brilliant idea stretched over a balsa wood frame. It was, and is, path to stardom because this was all it took to demonstrate that you were someone who grasped “it” (the intangible kinds of value and engagement now possible in the digital space) while the rest of us were struggling to get our blogging software to work.

Anthropologist like this sort of thing for the same reason that linguistic like puns.  We can see the cultural (linguistic) mechanics at work. But I think it’s clear that virtually everyone saw these events, these hacks, as clever as anything and they rewarded the creators with admiration that rose to the level of stardom. And remember how hard this was in the 1990s.  Now that everyone was more active and visible, it was hard to see anyone. We want to avoid a post hoc “oh, but that was obvious.”  There was nothing obvious about climbing out of the blizzard of invention going on in that cultural moment. Or this one.

Some will say, “Oh, but this really isn’t celebrity of anything like the kind we care about.  I mean these guys are not film star famous.” True enough.  I would argue this is a higher grade of celebrity.  If you want to be film star famous, you have to trade away your privacy. You will be followed around by the paparazzi.  People will make their living inventing falsehoods about you. This celebrity is costless.  Highly profitable but almost entirely costless. 

We can think of these as “ingenuity bombs” in the manner of a seed bomb.  You take a really great idea.  Coat it in just enough materials to get it started.  And then hurl it into the world.  And stand clear.  Actually, stand close.  You are about to be covered in glory.  

For more on this idea see my book Culturematic.

post script: apologies for the precious version of this post. I am working from Mexico City and my internet resources are constrained.

Culturematic II: the nuts and bolts

(please read yesterday’s post before reading this one)

The point of the Culturematic is that it can “think” things we cannot.  

Barry Bonds and David Brooks, these two people are worlds away.  I would submit that there are virtually no naturally occurring circumstances in which their names would appear together.  

More to the point, they are disparate elements in a very diverse culture, so that even if we were to find these names sitting together, we would dismiss this as noise.  Actively making a conjunction between them?  Unthinkable.  No, really, I mean this literally: unthinkable.  

What I needed then was a simple program that would make random combinations.  I can’t program.  I don’t even know the basics of HTML.  (Sad, really, but there you are.)

So I was going to have to find one on line.  It took all of Saturday and most of Sunday, hunting first for the right search terms and then for the code.

Eventually I found The Virtual Professor.  This is a wonderful invention of someone at the University of Chicago Writing Program.  The VP creates spectacularly inflated pieces of academic rhetoric.  The author claims his/her intent is not rhetorical.  Hmm.

I lifted the code from TVP and I downloaded a trial version of Adobe Dreamweaver.   So now I was working with code I did not understand on a program I did not know.  

First, I replaced TVP noun list with the following

Noun = new Array();
Noun[0] = “Mel Gibson”;
Noun[1] = “Hulk Hogan”;
Noun[2] = “Bono”;
Noun[3] = “Barry Bonds”;
Noun[4] = “David Letterman”;
Noun[5] = “Hillary Clinton”;
Noun[6] = “Martha Stewart”;
Noun[7] = “Tyra Banks”;
Noun[8] = “Janice Jackson”;
Noun[9] = “David Brooks”;
Noun[10] = “Jon Stewart”;
Noun[11] = “Tom Ford”;
Noun[12] = “Oprah Winfrey”;
Noun[13] = “Arianna Huffington”;
Noun[14] = “Mos Def”;
Noun[15] = “LL Cool J”;
Noun[16] = “Mark Harmon”;
Noun[17] = “Bryan Singer”;
Noun[18] = “Judd Apatow”;
Noun[19] = “Jennifer Lopez”;
Noun[20] = “Jon Stewart”;
Noun[21] = “Malcolm Gladwell”;
Noun[22] = “Sean Combs”;
Noun[23] = “Christopher Hitchens”;
Noun[24] = “Graydon Carter”;
Noun[25] = “Kathy Griffin”;
Noun[26] = “Barbara Walters”;
Noun[28] = “Henry Kissenger”;
Noun[27] = “Skip Bayles”;
Noun[29] = “Joss Whedon”;
Noun[30] = “Johnny Depp”;
Noun[31] = “Francis Ford Coppola”;
Noun[32] = “Tom Cruise”;
Noun[33] = “Lorne Michaels”;
Noun[34] = “Diane Swayer”;
Noun[35] = “Katy Perry”;
Noun[36] = “Quinton Tarrantino”;
Noun[37] = “Madonna”;
Noun[38] = “JJ Abrams”;
Noun[39] = “Tina Fey”;
Noun[40] = “Charlie Sheen”;
Noun[41] = “Stephen Hawking”;
Noun[42] = “Natalie Portman”;
Noun[43] = “Hugh Laurie”;
Noun[44] = “Clay Shirky”;
Noun[45] = “Tiger Woods”;
Noun[46] = “Jay-Z”;
Noun[47] = “LeBron James”;
Noun[48] = “Jennifer Aniston”;
Noun[49] = “Howard Stern”;
Noun[50] = “Glenn Beck”;
Noun[51] = “Ryan Seacrest”;
Noun[52] = “Kenny Chesney”;
Noun[53] = “Robert Pattison”;
Noun[54] = “Cameron Dias”;
Noun[55] = “Stephanie Meyer”;
Noun[56] = “Stephen King”;
Noun[57] = “Sarah Jessica Parker”;
Noun[58] = “Lil Wayne”;
Noun[59] = “Julia Roberts”;
Noun[60] = “Brad Pitt”;
Noun[61] = “Richard Branson”;
Noun[62] = “Bill Clinton”;
Noun[63] = “Lady Gaga”;
Noun[64] = “Sandra Bullock”;
Noun[65] = “Simon Cowell”;
Noun[66] = “Pink”;
Noun[67] = “Dr. Phil”;
Noun[68] = “Beyonce”;
Noun[69] = “Taylor Swift”

Not a perfect list.  I was watching the English version of Being Human on Apple TV (my birthday gift) and who knows what effect this had.  Two days later, its clear to me that this list ought to have cast the net more widely than it does.  More sports heroes, politicians, journalists, captains of industry and so on.  I mean “Rupert Murdock,” how could I miss him?

I contemplated the idea that I should combine two names and a pretext.  So I added some pretexts or “modifiers.”  As with any Culturematic, I wasn’t really sure what it was I was trying to do.  As with any Culturematic, the idea seemed to be to “try it and see.”  As I noted in yesterday’s post, one of the output here was:

Lady Gaga and Glenn Beck struggle to establish a parent-child dynamic.

And I liked this a lot.  I could engage in the wildest thought possible and it would take me years and years to think of something so successfully strange.  (The simpler option would be to take one name, not two, from my noun list.  I didn’t test this.)

But was this combo when that was useful for any useful purpose?  That will take some conjuring.  I think it tells us at least that the postmodernists are wrong when they insist things have been draining of meaning.  If this were true, this output would be less strange, less distant, less hard to put out.  

Here is my list of pretexts.  They are a bit daft.  Again remember I was watching Being Human.  (They sound now like vaguely like David Letterman “top ten” lists.  But you have to try.)

Modifier = new Array();
Modifier[0] = “trying to persuade Les Moonves to back their new show”;
Modifier[1] = “trying to set up a Fair Trade Network in South America”;
Modifier[2] = “consider swapping identities”;
Modifier[3] = “have agreed to sing the National anthem at next year’s Superbowl”;
Modifier[4] = “are thinking about buying an African nation, a small one”;
Modifier[5] = “are starting up a hip little art gallery in the NYC meat packing district”;
Modifier[6] = “are breaking into a Hershey’s factor under cover of darkness”;
Modifier[7] = “eating together in a Paris cafe”;
Modifier[8] = “fighting for a place in line outside an Apple store”;
Modifier[10] = “sharing a Glee episode”;
Modifier[11] = “going to a Harley rally”;
Modifier[12] = “join forces to fight the power”;
Modifier[14] = “ask Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to fund their Tikibar”;
Modifier[15] = “working hard on their syncopated swimming routine”;
Modifier[16] = “take to a lighthouse in Newfoundland”;
Modifier[17] = “driving an Airstream to SxSW”
Modifier[18] = “struggle to establish a parent-child dynamic”;
Modifier[20] = “fighting the tyranny of big budgets”;
Modifier[21] = “consider swapping identities”;
Modifier[23] = “are thinking about giving up tenure”;
Modifier[24] = “consider swamping identities”;
Modifier[25] = “come up with a new peace plan for the Middle East”;
Modifier[26] = “wondering why all men can’t be brothers”;
Modifier[27] = “looking for a future on reality TV”;
Modifier[28] = “surfing the conceptual drift”;
Modifier[29] = “hoping for a show of their own on ESPN”;
Modifier[30] = “in a Paris cafe”;
Modifier[31] = “working the tension between nature and history”;
Modifier[32] = “looking for their own show on USANetwork”;
Modifier[33] = “deciding who has the upper hand”;
Modifier[34] = “think we’ve been a little hard on Tiger Woods”;
Modifier[35] = “wondering how we invented pop culture”;
Modifier[36] = “have had it up to here with ‘high’ culture”;
Modifier[37] = “riding the new train to Tibet, under protest”;
Modifier[38] = “can’t decide: Antigue Roadshow or Pawn Stars”;
Modifier[39] = “putting the industry in the culture industry”;
Modifier[40] = “are thinking of going all artisanal all the time”;
Modifier[41] = “, working on new concepts of civil society”;
Modifier[42] = “thinking someone should send Charlie Sheen a fruit basket”;
Modifier[43] = “committing to post-Hegelian criticism one day at a time”;
Modifier[44] = “trying to decide which one is the Other”;
Modifier[45] = “winning, duh!”;
Modifier[46] = “mining indeterminacy”;
Modifier[47] = “think there is really something rum about the academic world”;
Modifier[48] = “in a Paris cafe”;
Modifier[49] = “sky diving together”;
Modifier[50] = “Venture capital in the intellectual world”;
Modifier[51] = “are wondering, ‘that’s what you’re going with?'”;
Modifier[52] = “think it’s perfectly ok to answer a question with a question”;
Modifier[53] = “think it’s not too late for you to become an anthropologist”;
Modifier[54] = “are building their own Culturematic laboratory”;
Modifier[55] = “wonder if Austin is still as great as it used to be”;
Modifier[56] = “Outward bound”;
Modifier[57] = “believe in disinterested observation”;
Modifier[58] = “an anthropocentric experiment”;
Modifier[59] = “rocking the Dewey Decimal System”;
Modifier[60] = “want two of the roles in Being Human”;
Modifier[61] = “sharpen their chops as master story tellers”;
Modifier[62] = “are they commodified objects? Oh, come on!”;
Modifier[63] = “embrace corporeality?”
Modifier[64] = “looking for triumph in all the wrong places”
Modifier[65] = “famous, but still looking for their mooring”
Modifier[66] = “are not sure in all comes down to factual knowledge, after all”;
Modifier[67] = “still believe in the Red Sox”;
Modifier[68] = “thinking of staring a trailer court in the public sphere”;
Modifier[69] = “went off Starbucks well before you”;
Modifier[70] = “looking for hidden messages and the secret code”;
Modifier[71] = “opening their own digital agency”;
Modifier[72] = “searching for autonomous selfhood”;
Modifier[73] = “have heard some stuff about Area 51”;
Modifier[74] = “still waiting for the Wikipedia page”;
Modifier[75] = “fighting the effects of rank prejudice”;
Modifier[76] = “think LeBron should have stayed in Cleveland”;
Modifier[77] = “thinking about switching homes and lives”;
Modifier[78] = “switched at birth!”;
Modifier[79] = “struggle to remain civil”;
Modifier[80] = “well concealed Amtrak enthusiasts”;
Modifier[81] = “treats celebrity as a contagion”;
Modifier[82] = “exploring materiality in a digtal age”;
Modifier[83] = “learning the rules of a celebrity economy”;
Modifier[84] = “searching for a narrative sequence that does not require a car chase”;
Modifier[85] = “unsafe at any speed”;
Modifier[86] = “boldly embracing romantic inwardness”;
Modifier[87] = “two words; road trip now”;
Modifier[89] = “are not binary opposites”;
Modifier[90] = “still hoping for a chance in Triple A baseball”;
Modifier[91] = “taunting the abyss”;
Modifier[92] = “think Brazil is where the future happens”;
Modifier[93] = “wish that Gen Xers would just get over it”;
Modifier[94] = “really sick and tired of enlightenment rationalism”;
Modifier[95] = “speaking the unspoken”;
Modifier[96] = “mainstreaming marginal worlds”;
Modifier[97] = “knowing the unknowable”;
Modifier[98] = “assault the market place”;
Modifier[99] = “hoping for a spot on TMZ”;
Modifier[100] = “putting celebrity gossip behind them”;

So now the hard part.  How to change the Virtual Professor Code in order to make this Culturematic.  It’s really just horrible to admit to this.  I just kept making changes in the code with the hope of producing the output I was looking for.  The Javanese have a metaphor for stupidity: a water buffalo listening to a symphony.  Consider me so.  Here’s what I “did” to the code.

function Pootwattle(){
EraseAll(document.getElementById(“Voila”));

subject = pickAny(Noun);
object = pickAnother(Noun, subject);

bookref = pickAny(BookRef);
reviewverb = pickAny(ReviewVerb);

//The sentences are constructed here:

var PootSays = “” + subject + ” ” +
verb + ” ” + object + ” ” + objmodifier + “”;

var SmedSays = “” + objmodifier + ” ” + “”;

There must be several people out there who can do better than this.  Please do better than this!

Acknowledgements

I owe thanks to three inspirations for this exercise.  

First, to Bud Caddell for showing me that the spirit, indeed, the genius, of the Victorian inventor in contemporary guise.  

Second, to David Bausola, aka “zero influencer,” for his brilliant work creating, to use the fancy linguistics lingo, “syntagmatic chains out of paradigmatic classes.”

Third, to the Writing Program at the University of Chicago.  Please would you let me know the name of the author of this program. 

Cracking the Pomplamoose – Hyundai case

We all watched heroic amounts of TV over the holidays.

All of us saw the Hyundai ad that features Pomplamoose, the American music indie duo.

The Hyundai-Pomplamoose campaign looped the loop. It went from odd to charming to familiar to contemptible to irritating in about 3 weeks.

We can guess what happened.  Hyundai discovered they had a hit on their hands.  The campaign was doing good things for the brand and more to the point it was moving cars.  So they sold the heck out of it.

Poor Pomplamoose!  In a daring strategy for which I applaud them, they took this campaign as an opportunity to play pilot fish, to travel with the Hyundai shark for a short while in the hopes of sharing small bits of its dinner.  And they got consumed in the process.

Now, some people will say, "Look, no band should do a deal with the devil.  Pomplamoose got what they asked for."

Maybe.  Certain kinds of indie "cred" do depend precisely on keeping one’s distance form a project of this kind.  But for everyone who isn’t a culture-never-commerce separatist, the Hyundai-Pomplamoose case is an opportunity for illumination.  I mean, Honda used "Holiday" as their sound track for the holidays, and I bet it was great for Vampire Weekend’s iTunes sales.  Refusing all truck or barter because it sometimes goes wrong is shortsighted.

The question: what’s the best way for a small cultural enterprise like a comic, a playwright, or, in this case, a band, to maximize this opportunity and minimize this risk.

First things first.

1) Did this campaign loop the loop?  (For all I know everyone hated it from beginning.  Or, everyone loved it from the beginning and they still love it.)  What we need is data.  I am no master of the methodology but I bet someone could run the numbers for the twitter and blogging world and tell us what the "shape" of adoption was.  Did it loop the loop?  What was the loop?  How fast did this happen?  Where is sentiment now?

2) Why did this campaign loop the loop?  Is it the fact that Pomplamoose created the campaign?  I guess "creative control" was one of the reasons Pomplamoose was interested in making it.  And I guess that the handmade aspect of the spots was what interested Hyundai. Now they had "artisanal advertising."  How very fashionable, how very effective.

3)  Hey, presto, the bargain worked.  Both parties were happy.  And the campaign in the early days tumbled obliging down the Kauffman continuum, from weird, to odd, to charming. Job well done.  Culture and commerce had found a way to work together.  Let’s all join arms and sing the hymn to "win-win."

4)  Then things went wrong, badly wrong.  By sometime in the second week I was hearing people (and by "people," I mean, my wife, Pam) say, "Oh, god, not them again."

I think the problem has to be repetition.  We were obliged to watch the campaign so many times, charming turned coy.  Coy got irritating.  The campaign was pushed down the Kauffman continuum and became unendurable.

5)  One take-away: Pomplamoose should have restricted how many times the ads could be played.  And now they question, assuming this is possible, what number?  Half the number of times the campaign did play?  (Would Hyundai still have been interested?)  A quarter?

6)  But this is not just a Pomplamoose problem.  When people started to react against the campaign, they were now repudiating Hyundai as well.   It was actually in the Hyundai interest to restrict circulation.  What was Hyundai’s magic number?

7) Not all ads are created equal.  Not all "content" is the same.  I think part of the problem here comes from the fact that this was an artisanal campaign and these are delicate things. They take much of their power from whimsy.  And whimsy is perishable.  It’s natural enemy is repetition.  There are several "magic numbers."

8) The cultural, creative take away: when the campaign uses meanings of this kind, care must be taken.  What makes a "hand-made" ad powerful is the very thing that makes it vulnerable.

I can hear a couple of protests:

9) I can hear people insist I’ve found a new way to state the obvious.  They will say "repetition killed this ad.  Because, duh, repetition kills every ad."  In point of fact, there are ads I love despite the fact that I have seen them hundreds of times. So there is no simple rule of thumb.  Hyundai, with or without Pomplamoose, could have made a campaign that would have stood up to this constant repetition.

10)  From the brand manager, I hear another protest altogether, one that says, "look, I took a big risk running this campaign.  The huge response was my reward.  I hit a gusher. My job was to work the gusher."  To which the answer is, "you are not actually engaged in oil discovery here.  You are drawing on and giving to a culture.  It will give you opportunities and snatch them away the moment you overplay your hand."  The Cluetrain manifesto chaps like to say that marketing is a conversation but they are wrong.  Marketing is more difficult and less durable than a conversation. It is much more like a performance on any big city stage (Carnegie or Apollo). The audience is filled with people who are very good at listening.  Some of them are very good at producing.  Hyundai Xmas performance was a little like someone producing one successful performance of Mozart or Michael, and then to everyone’s astonishment playing it over and over and over again.

11)  Repetition is one way we master culture.  It is what moves new things down the Kauffman continuum from the "too new" to the "just right."  (See my book Flock and Flow for more on the continuum.)  It is also the way, we taken novelty and stuff it into the air extracting, shrink wrapping compactor to which we consign almost everything we love.  And this is why advertising and other kinds of marketing are NOT like a performance.  Repetition is not only OK, it’s obligatory.  But we must use it in a most precisely measured way. Because once something is done, it’s entirely done.  Happily, artifacts can be managed on the continuum and they can refreshed.  We can slow the trip to the compactor.

12)  Last thoughts.  I admire the courage exercised by Hyundai and Pomplamoose in giving this campaign go.  I think it’s up to the rest of us to figure out what went wrong and why.

13)  The bigger picture, it seems to me, is this.  We have a world of advertising that is desperate for innovation and creative partnerships.  Some of the meanings that brands need cannot be produced by the conventional agency.  We have a world of cultural producers, millions of people at this point, who are very good at producing meanings, and they would be glad of the exposure and the revenue that partnership makes possible.

14)  It’s up to the likes us, people who loiter at this intersection and others like it, to figure out how to smooth the connection and build the relationship.  And by "people" in this case I mean, yes, Pam, but also Robert Barocci and Todd Powers at the Advertising Research Foundation, Geoffrey Precourt at WARC, Sam Ford at Peppercom, Ben Malbon at Google Creative Labs, Bud Caddell at Victors and Spoils.  That’s just to name a few.

15) The immediate question, to put it in the language of a Harvard Business School case study, is this:

You are Pomplamoose or Hyundai.  What would you do?

16) The larger question:

How do we solve questions of this kind?

17) The still larger question:

How do we put culture and commerce at one another’s disposal?

References

Levine, Rick, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger, Jake McKee. 2009. The Cluetrain Manifesto: 10th Anniversary Edition. Anniversary Edition. Basic Books.

McCracken, Grant. 2006. Flock and Flow: Predicting and Managing Change in a Dynamic Marketplace. Indiana University Press.

Does Buzz Need Batteries? (thoughts on viral marketing)

Brandweek yesterday:

More brands will compensate bloggers and social media users in an attempt to generate chatter about their products, a new study found.

PQ Media said such "sponsored conversations" — which compensate social media users for discussing brands’ products — grew to $46 million in 2009, a 14 percent increase from a year earlier. Even so, that figure represented a tiny chunk (2.7 percent) of the word-of-mouth marketing category, according to PQ.

The firm now forecasts what it terms "social media sponsorship spending" to rise 26 percent this year to $56.8 million.

What should we make of this? 

One interpretation: that buzz marketing does not go unless pushed, that buzz needs batteries. 

And this is a problem for a couple of reasons. 

1) Paid buzz bloggers would become advertisers by another name.  (In what sense is “sponsored conversation” a conversation?)

2) The credibility and authenticity of blogger enthusiasm would be open to challenge.

3) The viral model may not actually work. 

Ten years ago, Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger published The Cluetrain Manifesto.  Marketing would never be the same.  “Marketing as conversation” wasn’t a perfect metaphor, but it was a liberating one.  It helped corporations see that idea was not to shout at consumers but to converse with them.

As Manifesto was making friends and influencing people, another idea began to exert itself.  Buzz marketing, let’s call it, was suddenly everywhere.  The idea now was to “go viral.” 

Some marketers returned immediately to form.  “Virality.  Perfect!” they said, “We’ll get consumers buzzing about us!”  No sooner had marketers glimpsed the possibility that marketing was a conversation than some decided to make the conversation about them. 

It was that old joke all over again: “well, that’s enough about me, what do you think about me?” 

The truth is simple.  Consumers don’t necessarily care about brands.  They care still less about marketers.  They care about what they care about, and it is up to us to find out what that is.  It’s up to us to join the conversation.  There is little chance that we can start this conversation, especially if all we want to do is to talk about ourselves. 

The year 2012 will be the 100th anniversary of the phrase “consumer is king” as invented by Charles Coolidge Parlin.  The metaphor has plausibility problems of its own, but it proved influential and it remains active.  It was marketing’s way of remembering “it’s not about us, it’s about them.”  This is another way of saying that we have been thinking about this problem lesson for around 100 years.  When does the penny drop?

Clarification: This is not an attack on viral marketing.  This is an attack on viral marketing that insists on making the brand the stuff of the buzz.  We have plenty of evidence that the corporation and marketer can create content that consumers are keen to consume and communicate.  This viral marketing is a contribution to marketing only because it is first of all a contribution to culture.  The Ford Fiesta campaign is I believe a good case in point of this kind of viral marketing (see my remarks below).

References

Levine, Rick, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger The Cluetrain Manifesto: 10th Anniversary Edition.  New York: Basic Books. here.

McCracken, Grant.  2010.  How Ford Got Social Marketing Right.  Harvard Business Review Blog Conversation.  January 7. here.

Morrissey, Brian.  2010.  Paid Brand Conversations to Rise.  Brandweek.  Subscription fees may apply. May 11.  here.

For more on Parlin, see his entry in the Advertising Hall of Fame here.

Bud Caddell interview

This is a transcript of an interview of Bud Caddell by Grant McCracken in New York City on December 22, 2009. This transcript has been lightly edited.

Grant McCracken:  One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four, good. I think we’re good. So, so, just to give you the set up here.

Bud Caddell:  Right.

Grant:  I guess I have two broad questions, and the first is, how you, through Undercurrent, bring culture to the corporation. And the other question is more to do with how you interact with, work with, engage with culture, for your own purposes or for any purposes.

Bud:  Right. Well when I think of when I started at Undercurrent and the work I’ve done in the past, the Internet, I mean the Internet is definitely where I come from, mostly in my point of view and my understanding of things.

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  The Internet still seems like this very foreign, strange, unknowable thing to most of the C-suite. In the very early days, it was enough to simply walk in and pretend to be an astronaut reporting on some alien world. To say, this is actually what "the kids" are watching, this is what’s spreading online, this is how to think about playing these spaces, and so on. But now, I think there’s an assumption that people have that they ‘get it.’ And unfortunately, they don’t.

I think the toughest bit for people to understand is the micro-targeting of groups that you have to do when you talk about culture these days, and especially how they’re networked digitally. You know, I think most brands will say, "We want to talk to music fans. Let’s design a program to get us to speak to music fans."

No one wants to self-identify themselves as a music fan anymore. It’s more like, "Are you into nerd core hip hop in Brooklyn right now?" I can talk to that group and kind of understand the social currency that’s being exchanged between that group. But I can’t tell you how to speak to music fans as a mass group because no one in the world, you know if you have a room full of real people, "Are you a music fan?" Everyone would kind of look at you like you’re an alien. And so being able to show people…

Grant:  Right. You could almost do this negatively. The people who say, "absolutely not," are almost certainly music fans.

Bud:  Right, right, right.

Grant:  Because they just refuse the idea.

Bud:  Absolutely. And how one music, how the nerd core hip hop guy in Brooklyn relates to his friends and his peers is incredibly specific to that group. And trying to design a program that reaches mass first, isn’t going to spread at all. It’s not remarkable, there’s nothing about it that’s going to appeal to anyone at a level that they’re used to now identifying to. So instead, you should go and identify these groups and suss out how you can work together with these different groups to create something that’s spreadable. And as people who see the world how I see the world; you have to collect success stories and share them every chance you get. Ford and its Fiesta Movement is an example I talk about a great deal.

Grant:  Which movement?

Bud:  The Fiesta Movement for Ford. The Fiesta team, of which we played a part, created a program and an idea that was totally dependent on micro-targeting. The idea was: let’s go find twenty-something YouTube storytellers who’ve learned how to earn a fan community of their own. Who can craft a true narrative inside video, and let’s go talk to them. And let’s put them inside situations that they don’t get to normally experience/document. Let’s add value back to their life. They’re always looking, they’re always hungry, they’re always looking for more content to create.

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  They don’t get experiences like go fly on a biplane, go wrestle an alligator, go do these ridiculous things that the team asked them to do for the program.

Bud:  I should also say that fortunately, the Fiesta is a great vehicle, and could be the right vehicle for Ford at this present moment. And with the right vehicle and the right program, the Fiesta team saw 60,000 hand-raisers after the end of seven month program, 97 percent hadn’t ever owned a Ford before, and they sold 10,000 units in six days. Pre-sold online. Altogether, it’s an incredibly novel way to market and sell a vehicle; and so far, a truly successful way.

Grant:  Holy Toledo.

Bud:  And at this point there’s been no mass media or traditional media behind it. The team didn’t buy a standard placement on any site, it was just this distributed idea of "let’s go play in the networks that people are already spending their time in."

Grant:  Boy, that’s brilliant.

Bud:  And you know, that, taking that example around to people explaining how the team strove to talk to people in the way they want to be talked to, and targeted people down a very specific level in order to get success – that’s how you start to change people’s mind about how culture works, at least online. That’s the recipe for creating things that spread inside and across cultures.

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  And if you can’t see that kind of spread happening then what you’re doing isn’t successful, and second, it’s a bad spend of money if we’re talking about digital.

Grant:  Right. Right.

Bud:  If you’re not focusing on things that will amplify–or multiply, as you put it–you’re not spending your money wisely. How I dig into cultures is, I look for the outliers, the strangest possible things and I watch how they spread. It’s too difficult to study a homogenized group, for me at least. It’s the strange things, the uncomfortable things, that provide real insight. Like astro-physics, it’s the anomalies that really confound or prove our theories. And of course, I also experiment. I try and do the most ridiculous things I possibly can and see what, if anything, people will pick up on. For example, I dressed as a fictional character from Mad Men at Interesting New York and gave that presentation and I was incredibly uncomfortable. And I guess it’s about putting yourself in really uncomfortable situations. I also painted Keyboard Cat. I had this idea that I was going to start painting popular YouTube videos.

I was going to start with Keyboard Cat because I caught it at the exact, perfect climax of it’s popularity. It just appeared on the Colbert Report. So I painted it within a week and I put it on eBay and astonishingly it sold for a thousand dollars.

[laughter]

Bud:  Just ridiculous, I mean and it was really uncomfortable to go drop off that painting because I thought I’d been Punked. I thought I was going to show up and it was going to be a big laugh. But no, someone really found that valuable to them. And they send me photos of it. I’m not sure of any other way to understand culture without mucking about in it.

Grant:  Right. Nice. So in the first case, you’re looking for–it’s as if–it’s as if you believe that there is, somewhere in the world, a tiny perfect culture. In the case of Fiesta, right, there’s a tiny group of people, deeply committed fans, who can be relied upon to express that commitment through something that’s then distributable. And then that’s the–so the trick is to get down to, to find them wherever they are in the world. And that’s like sorting, sorting, sorting till you get right down to "this is the group." And then taking that message and working it’s way up from their particular enthusiasm to a larger group. Is that right?

Bud:  Right, and I think that–I often say, "kill the influencers" or kill that idea that there’s the same group of people that can help you spread anything. If you can just talk to this one guy over and over, and over, and over again, for anything you’re doing, you’ll see success. Bah. It’s really about finding a group of people who, when you can provide the right kind of value to them, your objectives or your purpose aligns. These people really needed more content to grow their fanship. And that was something the Fiesta team could provide.

And you know it was also about "and then multiply this by a hundred." The team found a hundred of these people, gave them cars for six months with free gas and free insurance. And really just let them go, they didn’t have rules on how they had to talk about the car.

And Ford actually asked them not to use the Ford logo in any of the videos because they didn’t want commercials – they wanted stories that were told by these people. The team just gave them opportunities to do ridiculous/amazing/funny/important things. And then the bulk of the team’s work was to ask and offer good ideas for YouTube videos, aka missions. Each agent had to complete one mission per month, that was their sole requirement, so it was up to the team to either probe the agents for ideas or bake up compelling ideas for content.

The missions involved everything from volunteer for meals on wheels to take a box of kittens and see if they’ll play soccer.

 

Grant:  Yeah.

Bud:  Yeah. And through that, there’s actually a great video floating around from one of our agents where another YouTube vlogger brought up the question of YouTube creators being paid or sponsored. And our agent created this amazing video response detailing the program more coherently than I ever could and the team never asked her to say a thing. She just said, basically, "They’ve just come to me and said, ‘How can we make what you’re doing better? And how can we give you more things to video?’" We had no idea that she was going to do that. That she had actually created–but it was a perfect, like–she captured perfectly what we were trying to do.

Grant:  Right. Hm. And Ford was happy?

Bud:  Ford–

Grant:  They must have been thrilled.

Bud:  Yeah, they’re ecstatic.

Grant:  Was there an intermediate period where they thought, "What is this? We’re losing confidence?" I mean, before the sales numbers came in.

Bud:  Right. You know, I have to say Ford was pretty bold. I think, especially the team we had the pleasure of working with, had earned a good deal of trust all around before the program was ever conceived or conducted.

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  And also this wasn’t–the campaign started off right at the high point of the crisis for the auto bailouts.

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  And we hadn’t yet even gotten the announcement that Ford was the only brand not asking for money. This was still when, you know, "Are they going to survive? What are they going to do?" And I have to say, it was incredibly bold of them to say, "This is what we’re going to do." But it was also, in terms of what they normally spend advertising cars; it was a tiny, tiny fraction of that. Because we weren’t doing any TV. No print. No traditional media in any way. The cost was the cost of bringing the cars over from Germany.

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  And then the associated cost of just–the cost of maintaining the vehicles for six months.

Grant:  Totally.

Grant:  It feels to me like the perfect opposite of your approach, is the one that I heard about when I–the first work I ever did as an anthropologist doing commercial work was for Methuen Esty. And I was working on the Jeep account. And they were telling me.  People would talk about the culture of Detroit. And they would talk about this guy who was called–and they had some name for him, like "60 minute Henry" or something.

Bud:  [laughs]

Grant:  He would only shoot at dawn during the magic hour. And he would only shoot when the light was perfect.

Bud:  Right.

Grant:  Your ad could take, like a month and a half to shoot.

Bud:  [laughs]

Grant:  Fantastically expensive! But in those days, that was still OK.

Bud:  Right.

Grant:  You’re talking about something vastly less expensive. 

Bud:  Frankly, I can’t say, because I don’t know. I can say that for most campaigns or executions, it was tiny. And part of that was simply because it was kept small. A small team. At any other brand, there are dozens of agencies sitting at the same supper table wanting a meal from every single project. A real trouble for most brands these days seems to be the number of mouths they have to feed.

Grant:  Yeah, totally.

Bud:  And then the management of those agencies is the most, you know, consumptive of time and energy, really. It’s amazing to me the burden the modern brand manager faces.

Grant:  Right. Yeah.

Bud:  Just to orchestrate all these different moving parts together is difficult. And then at the same time, that time spent isn’t going directly to make the product better or make the advertising better or more effective.

Grant:  Right. Exactly.

Bud:  At the end of the day, it’s hard to say what exactly all that effort has bought you. This isn’t exactly the most hospitable environment for a good idea.

Grant:  Yeah. It’s like the great whale called Ford has all of these barnacles kind of attached to it. And they have to feed. They have to sustain themselves. They’re like pilot fish following a shark or something. Yeah. Totally.

Bud:  [laughs] Well, most brands are like that. My experience with Ford was, happily, the exact opposite. But I suppose that anyone who has money right now, especially with what the economy is, answers a lot of phone calls. I suppose it’s the nature of our industry now – the splintering. It forces brands that outsource this work to juggle a myriad of teams and organizations to see anything through.

Grant:  Yeah. And it will privilege the existence of people inside each of their organizations who are not necessarily the most creative, or the most interesting. And so that even after the agency detaches from this client, it will be different.

Bud:  Right.

Grant:  It will be less indie. That’s interesting. So, you–just to talk for a moment about Undercurrent. You were saying that the two founders have different approaches to culture?

Bud:  Right. Well, I can’t give away too much of what makes us special, but we have, Josh Spear, who comes from an entrepreneurial/blogging background, he’s been blogging at Josh Spear for a quite a while now – one of the first people to actually make a real go of it. And he uses his site to highlight the newest and most interesting things he’s seeing.

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  He’s definitely not what you’d call a trend hunter, that he goes out and makes these documents that say, "Orange and red and violet are going to be the big colors next year." But he’s kind of, he was tasked from a very early stage of identifying these small groups doing really interesting things, and kind of staying ahead of that. And then Aaron Dignan, who comes from branding, and I’d also say from kind of a Behavioral Psychology background–really starts to think about motivations of people, and how they work together in a more collective/collaborative way. And so together, that’s an incredibly powerful kind of duo, I think.

And that’s, I mean, if I can say, I think that’s what has made us successful today. Is those two viewpoints coming together. And then we have, the third partner who’s incredibly talented in actually building, running an agency and understanding how the agency world works.

Grant:  Right. Is he Canadian?

Bud:  No, he’s not Canadian. [laughter]

Grant:  Often it’s a Canadian. And so, your role in Undercurrent?

Bud:  My role, I’m a Strategist at Undercurrent. So it’s the day-to-day strategy work of identifying a brand’s objectives, identifying the places they want to play. And crafting a strategy, either for something that’s as quick as the next two weeks for a project. What a project would look like over the next six months? To what should this giant global brand look like in 2014?

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  And kind of taking the long view for them that way.

Grant:  Right. Right.

Bud:  And everything in between.

Grant:  Yeah. And how do you do that? I mean, that’s a ridiculous question…

Bud:  Right, right.

Grant:  …so I’ll leave it to you. But how do you do that?

Bud:  For me, it’s about trying to understand the small, small subcultures themselves, and actually digging in… research… surveys… focus groups… or just peering in and asking critical questions. I also think it’s both easy and critical to create digital experiments that can collect data for us about what people are doing/saying/sharing and how they interact with new stimuli. I very much focus on the data we all tend to cast off during our normal every day digital behaviors.

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  So if it’s…

Grant:  I love that notion of people "throwing off data."

Bud:  Right! And there’s just so much intelligence that brands could be capturing out there. Based on that data. And everyone’s really just sticking to these things print out as pretty trend lines over time. Real data, valuable data, is usually a bit messier than that. At least at the start.

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  So a brand manager or marketer might say, "let’s just look at sentiment." Sentiment can only offer so much. Because it doesn’t say the influence of that person speaking. It doesn’t really say how that conversation is affecting people in a connected network. It’s just a percentage that you can track over time. But we can look at what people are talking about…your brand, and the words that they associate with them. And also, who are these groups? You know, that are actually speaking about it? Is it a tightly-wound group? Is it a large but not very connected group that’s talking about it? And what does that mean for anything you want to do there? What can you learn about these barely connected groups before you try to influence them?

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  And then I look at the brand. I suppose that’s a bit backwards from how it’s done traditionally. But people come first, corny, but true. Understanding how and why people behave the way they do is the first step to understanding what they can do on your behalf. But it means starting with the mess. Starting with the tiny interactions and seeing where they lead.

Grant:  Yeah. The "macroscope."

Bud:  Right, right. Yeah.

Grant:  Is that your term?

Bud:  No, it’s actually a term I’ve borrowed. I can’t remember the originator but it’s a great one. It’s like watching these tiny interactions kind of funnel back into a larger system.

Grant:  Right. Oh, there’s something I wanted to ask here. And then somebody started vacuuming.

Bud:  [laughs]

Grant:  Oh! You said that the people at Undercurrent, Undercurrent sort of sees you as somebody–you said you can "do stuff quick." And then you have sort of disposable time. And it sounds like the–Undercurrent’s quite happy to have you use that in risky ways. Which is to say you try stuff, it doesn’t work, well, that’s OK.

Bud:  Right.

Grant:  Can you take us through that?

Bud: I can say that I work for and with people that trust me to use a small percentage of my time to experiment. I think Undercurrent understands the importance of intellectual curiosity – we work in an industry where it’s almost enough to simply sound right – these are the so-called experts. But it’s not enough to simply sound right – you need to be right – especially when someone is paying for your thinking. So I’m allowed time to experiment and to do ridiculous things. like, pretend to be a fictional character from a TV show on Twitter. And I’m also allowed to read an inordinate amount of information everyday that makes me smarter, and makes me better at what I do.

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  And once you have, say, 20 people inside your walls that have that time, it’s only multiplicative. It only makes you smarter on a much larger scale. when everyone can kind of share with one another the really interesting things they’re finding, the conclusions that they’re drawing, and can question each other. And that time to draw those conclusions together, to hash things out, that’s sacred time for any organization.

Grant:  Right. The Mad Men Experiment. Could you just, for the record…

Bud:  Sure.

Grant:  …take us through what you were thinking and how you got involved in that? And the question I’m especially interested in was, was that for you? Or was that for Undercurrent? Or, does that difference really not make any difference?

Bud:  Right, right. it’s definitely still kind of a blurred line. You know, what these activities are for, and who they’re for. But when I started The Mad Men Experiment, it was–at first it was just, I saw a couple characters on Twitter and I thought that was amazing. I thought, "I love the TV show, I love Twitter," and I loved how advertising people loved the show and loved Twitter. It was the perfect environment for the right kind of exercise.

So I decided to create a fake character that could "insert himself" into the scenes that he’d be able to comment on. Kind of like a "Puck." Someone who can sit off-scene a bit and make judgments, or commentary.

And really, from there, after all the accounts were shut down, and Twitter took them down, and people were outraged, you know. It really affected me from just my point of view of how culture happens, and how narrative exists for a fan, and how people should be able to play with it.

I grew up watching Sci-Fi. My memories of being a kid and watching TV with my dad was, we watched "Star Trek: Next Generation" every day. When he got home, my father is a contractor–so when he’d get home he was exhausted. And we didn’t have a lot of conversations. We just watched Star Trek.

Grant:  [laughs]

Bud:  And, you know, the idea of the Holo-deck, even into "Star Trek," I think is fascinating. There are characters on a TV show creating their own narratives inside the TV show.

Grant:  Yeah.

Bud:  So they played with narrative in really interesting ways. And that’s how I saw things. And growing up–when I was a kid, too, I made my own comics and things like that. This idea of when I take characters and do really interesting things with them, that’s an expression of my fandom. That’s an expression of my passion for the show.

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  And to attack that as a content creator seems just incredibly dumb. There’s no other word for it. And so when I saw that, I built the website WeAreSterlingCooper.com to be a manifesto and a catalog of different articles that people were writing about what was happening. It captured all of the characters’ Tweets, and it was there to stand for something. I think sometimes we need a crystallized message of exactly what’s happening inside these micro-communities to reverberate more loudly. That was the right moment for that, I think. : I mean it obviously kind of worked out that way.

Grant:  Yeah. How did it shape, form what–I take it–it never worked back to the show itself?

Bud:  Right, right, right.

Grant:  You’d hoped it would, right?

Bud:  Yeah.

Grant:  Just tell us, in a perfect world, what your hope was that the show might actually embrace…

Bud:  Right. I was hoping that the creators of the show would see the very specific behaviors that were going on. And the behaviors that were going on were people were asking the characters hint-questions right before the show would air every Sunday. They’d want to look for a hint. Because at first, everyone thought these characters were actually created by the show. And so they were actually expecting to get kind of teased before the show started. And then there were lots of conversations going on between commercial breaks about, "Oh my God, did you see this?" and they expected the characters to reply back to them.

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  And then off-season, I was really hoping that that would be a time that they could play around with narratives. Bring in, you know, third-party characters that no one’s even heard of before. Kind of like play like a little offstage action going on, there.

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  And that’s just what I was hoping is that they would come to some of these people that have proven themselves over weeks and weeks of time, writing really amazing content. Working together in really collaborative ways. And tease, even if the brand just teased out a little bit of information that Sunday before the show had aired.

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  And then it would look like one of the Tweets were really prescient about something that would happen. And that would create a huge spark of interest. Especially on Twitter. Because Twitter is such a medium for media fandom. Like that’s what’s happening on Twitter right now. It’s full of people expressing their opinions about shows they’re currently tuning into, and things that happened last night.

And it’s a perfect environment for that kind of thing to happen. And it’s just Tweets. It’s such a small investment of time and creative energy to be able to send a few characters’ waves, and just see what happens.

Grant:  Yeah, yeah. and it’s like that "Share it Now" you were talking about in your Slideshare deck. It allows, Twitter does–I don’t know what the number is–hundreds or thousands of people. And because it means that everybody can only communicate in these tiny bursts, then many more–there’s an absolute relationship to how tiny the message is to how many people can actually participate, I think.

Bud:  Right, right. It’s also interesting because what it takes to actually become a trending topic on Twitter is interesting. It really doesn’t take much. It takes only about a thousand Tweets per hour. Last time I measured it.

Bud:  Right.

Grant:  And so, a very small conversation between–a very small but passionate group of people can actually push things into trending topics. And then that–trending topics bring so much attention to things. So it’s a great place for brands to play with. Especially media brands.

Bud:  Yeah, totally.

Bud:  Like, they should play in that space as often as they possibly can, throw out as much content to these creators as they can to hope–to spike those trending topics.

Grant:  Right, right. And so, "Mad Men" had a celebrity effect. I mean, that’s one of the reasons I know about you.

Bud:  [laughs]

Grant:  Is that…

Bud:  Right.

Grant:  "Here was this guy who…." Right? And that would just point around. And it was like, it was galvanizing. It was like, really? You know. It was really this magnificent act of poaching. Taking something that was in the mainstream, and making it–giving it this transmedia presence and stuff. So it was really–people were agog at the sheer imagination and the daring, and the–I perhaps shouldn’t have said that. ‘Cause the next question is, how did it change your public persona?

Bud:  Right, well…

Grant:  And your private one for that matter?

Bud:  Well, I mean, I can also say that at the time I was trying to publish the report, I received quite a few anonymous emails that had threatened me…

Grant:  Really?

Bud:  …about ever working in advertising again.

Grant:  Really?!

Bud:  Right. [laughs]

Grant:  From who? [overlapping] Who would write something like that?

Bud:  Well, I mean, the interesting thing is, when I published the report, actually, the head of rather well known agency called my boss. And just asked, "Have you read this thing? Have you seen what he said?" It was really insane, because I had tried to actually get him on the phone before I published it to ask him a few questions to include in the report.

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  And I very much, you know. I never intended for it to make anyone a villain. It was just a really complex story that I could tell. And, everyone’s point of view, there’s definitely a lot of validation for it. But he would never speak to me. But the first call he made, when it came out, was to my boss who just said, "It’s great, isn’t it?"

Grant:  [laughs]

Bud:  And then he hung up the phone. I thought that was a shame and so, at first, it was like what am I actually doing here? I am so ignorant of how the advertising industry itself works. It’s a bit like that. But also, people kind of came out of the woodworks. People who have been creating and supporting fan-fiction for a long time expressed interest in what I was doing, and they’ve since  shown me incredible support in many things I’ve done.

I think too, it’s just about I found the right time, and I had the right point of view for that right moment. I think for anything I’ve done that has actually gotten popular that’s really it. I had the right point of view at the exact right time, and found enough people around me that were willing to help me push that.

end of part 1

Grant:  You’re making it sound as if you just happened…this is just a piece of good fortune, but if you do it often enough it’s not good fortune it’s you consulting what?

Bud:  It’s about conducting a thousand tiny experiments every year.

Grant:  Oh, and some of them work and some of them don’t.

Bud:  Some of them work and some of them don’t. And it’s about constantly reading and constantly staying on top of different conversations and taking the temperature of many, many different people. And asking them their opinions on wide-ranging things. So as I wrote my report, I asked many of Henry Jenkins’ researchers questions about the topic. And I sought out everything written about fan-fiction, transmedia, and content creation I could and some I used and some I discarded. 

It seemed like what was going on with conversations around transmedia really made sense with what was happening inside fandom and the consortium kids at MIT knew this and were already blurring the line.

And there seemed to be these merging subcultures, all going towards the same place. And I tried.‑‑and what I wrote was trying to pull these together and say, "We’re all going to the same place here."

Grant:  Right, and that’s an academic place, or do you mean a cultural place?

Bud:  Right. More of a cultural place.

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  Fueled by those small academic groups. They were the ones asking really interesting, tough questions. I mean a lot of times it’s frustrating because they are such unanswerable questions. But they are really puzzling moments. I think if you put enough of them together and experiment with them, really interesting things could happen.

Grant:  Yeah. So you do experiments that draws other people in, or drives them out, but whatever happens that is all grist for the mill. That’s all kind of data you can use to take the temperature of the moment.

Bud:  And I can use that later for anything else I’m doing, because I’m testing a few of my hypotheses. Another example is a site I built that allowed anonymous strangers to exchange secrets via email, At Your Secret Service. I had watched these overlapping groups of friends go from visiting PostSecret every week to posting a personal on Nerve.com. And for some reason, those two behaviors together interested me. Maybe it’s because my best dates have always involved spilling way too many secrets to a total stranger…

But I thought, how can I build something that start that interaction? And what happens from there? Like if I just get two balls going down the same hill together, how do they collide? And a lot of things I wondered with that was just about peoples feelings about anonymity online, and the security of personal information. It’s like a big thing to play with, before I go and talk to a major brand who might want to put money against a kernel of an idea. It’s good that I have experimented with it before, and I understand people’s reaction to it.

Grant:  So sometimes it’s instrumental but sometimes it is just a brute curiosity.

Bud:  Right.

Grant:  What will happen if…?

Bud:  So painting YouTube videos was just extreme curiosity. Because it’s also one of my hobbies that I enjoy, painting, because it’s a hobby that I have that I don’t obsess over. I can just be completely awful at it and it’s important to have a few of those. Because everything else I do I trying to be better than myself at. But that was one I could just be like, "it’s time I can unwind and not obsess over this." But now it’s become that, simply because of the success of that painting. But that was really just me saying I don’t think there is a lot of difference between our shared experiences watching the same videos on YouTube as it was painting animals on the cave walls.

I know that sounds kind of ridiculous but a shared experience that we had with one another and things that we talk about. So I was thinking, "What if I painted those? And could I sell them online?" Just enough to recoup the canvass and the paint. And it ended up being‑‑selling for $1000 and the canvass and the paint cost me $50. It is just amazing the way that just happened to work.

Grant:  So this is kind of your world as a laboratory and you try different things. It sounds like you welcome inspirations, you welcome new ideas when they’re inspirations and you are not doing a careful serving process where you say, "Yes, this is a good idea because it will accomplish this goal, or give me this kind of data, or speak to this clients need." Something comes in over the transit, just, well‑‑you tell me. It doesn’t seem like you are doing a careful auditioning of these ideas. Many ideas come over and how do you recognize the ones you want to follow up on?

Bud:  It’s a bit of questioning labor and how labor intensive these things are. How quickly can I execute a very, very small nugget of my curiosity? Just to see what it will turn into. Can I build it from there, and that’s exactly what I tell my clients to do as well. Find that speck of dust that could turn into a pearl and just see what happens, meaning measure the hell out of it. Instead of aligning every bit of resource that you have in your agency and your brand to execute a single idea; Do a thousand tiny small experiments, and the ones that actually start to catch on fire, start putting wood on them and see where that goes.

Grant:  So you want them doing a thousands things?

Bud:  I do. And it could align and it should align with their overall strategy. So if it’s a Pepsi, it’s the idea of multiplicity. The idea that they can create these diverging messages and diffuse them out to the world. They should be doing an enormous amount of things at once. And trying to create meanings inside different communities. Because that really fits their brand. They’re not continuity, like Coke would be. They have the freedom to express themselves like an artist.

Grant:  Totally. Totally. But however many ideas you have, not all of them‑‑and even after you’ve said, "Can I execute this quickly?" You still have more ideas than you can execute.

Bud:  Absolutely.

Grant:  How do you sort?

Bud:  I sort by keeping a really engaging group of people around me that I can bounce ideas off of. That’s step one. Ideas tend to vomit out of my mouth, too. I don’t hold them or keep them precious. I don’t keep anything to myself. I talk to anyone I possibly can that’s around me and say, "I have this idea." Or "Do you think this is interesting, too? Maybe we can do this?" And their reaction to it, I gauge if they find it interesting. If this incredibly bright, diverse, and interesting group around me finds this interesting, there might be something to it afterall. And then I think about things like, "How quickly can I execute? Can I execute it by myself? How many more people do I need to involve in this to make it happen?"

And sometimes an idea requires an army. I’ve tried to launch a website plannerreads.com, that grabs all the aggregated shared items from all the planners that I could possibly find on the Internet. And just accumulate them and say, "these are the most shared topics right now. These are the articles everyone is reading."

That was just something where I needed to get an army of people together to make that happen. But that benefits all of us, because now there is a resource out there where you can go and find this all. And see, here we are, and this is what were interested in.

Grant:  And where is that?

Bud:  It’s plannerreads.com. It’s constantly broken, and I’m constantly trying to change things. And I’m not exactly sure what it will evolve into but there it is. Step One. I also come into ideas because I notice behaviors that are shared among likeminded people. There’s just so many of us inside Google Reader and there are so many of us who express ourselves by sharing things, sharing different advertising topics that we’re currently reading. So what can I do with that behavior? And what can I do with that data?

Grant:  I love that idea of people just streaming with data. I know when I was reading your Slideshare deck about now. I like the idea of people sort of streaming through a "now." And then I like the idea of, I don’t know quite‑‑the visual is something like, you know what I mean? Like if you do the visual that shows‑‑that shows, I don’t know. Anyhow, sorry. I just like that idea of everyone giving off data.

Bud:  It’s like a comet’s tail, right? And it’s just there waiting to be looked at and tracked and understood. And also what we’re really missing is how does that data change over time? And what can we learn there?

Grant:  Yeah.

Bud:  What are my behaviors now that I didn’t have six months ago? 

Grant:  Yeah.

Bud:  How are my behaviors changing? And we could track most of that. It’s sitting out there. Dormant. But at the same time, brands are fine spending millions of dollars for research with focus groups of a hundred people. I’m making it sound too easy – it’s a monumental challenge, collecting that data, and extracting insights from it. But it’s there. The opportunity. The oil’s there, we just have to drill for it.

Grant:  Yeah. Yeah. And I’m interested in how guilty I am of a kind of amnesia where my ideas are changing and I’m not fully aware that they’re changing. So it’s only when I stumble upon an old email that I think, "Man!"

Bud:  [laughs] Right.

Grant:  "I don’t think that!" But obviously I once did and I somehow quietly concealed the transition from the old idea to the new idea. So it’s useful‑‑I like the idea of something imprinting function. It’s like stamping, you know? So you have that stream that’s passing through you. And if, just to get an imprint at some interval. It would be interesting just for individuals.

Bud:  And making guesses. I like to make guesses and just write them down. Where do I think…? A lot of people seem to be using Foursquare. When do I think Foursquare will hit 300,000 users? And I’ll write that down, and come back to it later.

Grant:  Huh!

Bud:  You know? And just try to make guesses about how these new things that are popping up on the Web, what will exactly happen with them. Or, like, where Lady Gaga will be a year from now? It will be interesting. Interesting question. How many actual records will she sell of her next album? If Apple releases the fabled Tablet, will the stock go up or down? Stack up your assumptions, make a guess, write it down, and figure out where you went right or wrong.

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  And record as many of those as possible I think. Because if you don’t know your hit or miss rate, it’s really easy to buy into this idea that you understand what’s going on. Because that’s the dark side of digital, is that you can surround yourselves with only people who are likeminded. So you could constantly have this feedback saying, "Yes, we’re all correct, at all times."

Grant:  Right, yeah, yeah, no. exactly. And then there’s that terrible kind of selfcongratulation that people have, ’cause they’re all in the know.

Bud:  Right. Yeah.

Grant:  But you’re not very different from somebody who doesn’t have a clue. They have a little noisemaking contest in this room, every‑‑just about this time. So…just making a racket. Yeah, very good.

Bud:  I think it comes, my idea of experimentation just comes from being a coder. Growing up, playing with code. But I was never really trained in how to program. But the idea of, "I think I can make this because I see something over here, and I see something over there. And I think I can do something with that."

Grant:  Yes.

Bud:  And teaching kids that, I think, is really important. Teaching them to experiment with possibilities, not just code and code structure. But just, can you make that happen? What’s the possibility of that?

Grant:  Yeah. Yeah. Listen, we’re going to get driven out of here. How are you doing time wise? It’s 3:00.

Bud:  I’m fine. I’m actually off today.

Grant:  Are you? Then I’m just going to pause this. Just start this. So we were just talking about the‑‑this place where this is, maybe….shoot. It’s not very stable is the trouble. Something, put it all‑‑that sugar dish was perfect as a stabilizer. But if we just leave it here that maybe will do. 1, 2, 3, 4. 1, 2, 3, 4. 1, 2, 3, 4. 1, 2, 3, 4. If you could just say a couple of things?

Bud:  I’m just talking now. 1, 2, 3, 4. 1, 2, 3, 4.

Grant:  That’s pretty good but it’s not tremendous. Keep talking if you would?

Bud:  My name is Bud Caddell I am [laughs] testing the microphone on your recording device now. [microphone noises]

Maybe, I might have something in my bag you can prop it up with.

Grant:  Oh, that’s a good idea.

Bud:  Or maybe my bag itself. I’ve got two books, that might work.

Grant:  Totally. [laughter] Great.

Bud:  Maybe in between them?

Grant:  Sure. Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to work. But maybe if that just gets us closer to it.

Bud:  Sure.

Grant:  Can we just go to the washroom?

Bud:  Yeah, yeah.

Grant:  Yeah, so I’ll be right back. [long pause, background noises and distant talking until 48:07]

Grant:  Ah, so where were we? This is an amazingly uncomfortable couch, isn’t it?

Bud:  It is.

Grant:  It’s like…

Bud:  This middle cushion.

Grant:  Yeah.

Bud:  I like the elephant head on the wall, though.

Grant:  Isn’t this amazing? It’s like younger gentlemen, killing everything that moved.

Bud:  Right, it’s safari in the library, you know. [laughter] I like it.

Grant:  God. It really is, there’s a wonderful museum in Montreal on like the campus of McGill that like it is itself a museum piece.

Bud:  Mmhmm.

Grant:  it captures that Victorian enthusiasm for cataloging and stuff and there’s a way in which this is kind of an archaeological remainder.

Bud:  It is.

Grant:  So you cast the net wide, in terms of listening, you were saying, to 400 blogs, reading 400 blogs.

Bud:  Right. Right.

Grant:  And how do you choose those 400?

Bud:  I try to choose them based on some kind of diversity. I don’t want to read too many social media blogs, I don’t want to read too many advertising blogs, I try to make sure that they are written from different points of views, written by and for completely different audiences, I subscribe to five or ten, you know, just imagesharing sites.

Grant:  Mm.

Bud:  Where people can kind of post what they found across the Internet and I watch what is trending there, that to me is just as interesting as what’s going on right now.

Grant:  Sorry, what was that, where do you see the, where are you most interested in seeing stuff trending?

Bud:  In imagesharing sites?

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  So those are sites where people have an account where they can grab images from across the web and say, "this is what I’m sharing right now."

Grant:  Yep.

Bud:  And you’ll see, you know Britney Murphy, the actress who just died?

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  And before I read that on the New York Times or anywhere else, her photos just took over all these photo sites. Like people were just cataloging like every movie she’s ever been in, every shot that they could find about her, across the Internet, and I saw this slew of them, so I knew something must have happened.

Grant:  Right, right.

Bud:  You’ll see Johnny Depp trend on certain days and you’ll wonder why or what new story about him has caused that to happen. It’s just a really interesting way of looking at a different kind of output. And, and, wondering why those kind of interactions are taking place. And I try to grab from as many different sources as possible and I’ll always to keep it if it interests me, you know, in any way, even if it’s just purely curiosity’s sake, it’ll stay on my reader for awhile, and I’ll kind of demo it and if it doesn’t really fit or if I’m not getting as much value from it, I’ll kick it out.

And I’ve tried to, you know, I’ve tried to weed that reader down to maybe 200300 blogs. My ability to make it through my Reader is dependent on the work that has to get done in my email box, though, of course.

Grant:  Mmhmm. Mmhmm.

Bud:  And I go through my reader at such a fast clip.

Grant:  You must.

Bud:  I do.

Grant:  And you must, I sort of, I guess it’s just me, but I sort of have to sit and then think, look at something and then read it and then sort of think about it, so I’m really slow but it sounds like you just sort of blast through.

Bud:  I burn through it and I look for things that stand out to me based on topic, based on what I’m seeing and I’ll save those posts to go deeper on later.

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  But I go through it so fast, I want a foot pedal for my computer. One that so I can just keep tapping my foot to go to the next item while I’m eating or writing or anything else.

Grant:  Right. And are you good at framing? I mean, I’m kind of good at, I mean, you know, I see what I see, but it takes me a lot longer to go, well, what is this? You see a glint of something in a blog post and you think, oh this is just another point of view. Assembling that point of view, it’s like, you know dealing with an old fashioned Hollywood camera, like a team of men kind of have to like move it to get the new view perspective, but it feels like you’re pretty nimble in that regard.

Bud:  I think it just comes from empathy. I try to assimilate or try to understand people’s point of views quickly when I encounter them.

Grant:  Mmhmm. Mmhmm.

Bud:  And I try to dissect how they see their world. And it helps that I’m just a really good sponge. If you put me near someone, and near someone who has talent or ability or interests that I have no idea about…

Grant:  Mmhmm.

Bud:  I really try to glom onto it and figure out how it works.

Grant:  What is that? Where’s that from, you figure, in your case?

Bud:  Well, it’s funny because you know, like I said, my father is a contractor.

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  And he has this amazing ability to take apart any machine and put it back together and watching him do that as a kid was amazing and unfortunately, I got none of that ability myself. You know, my brother and my sister can take apart anything and put it back together, my sister took apart an Apple IIE when we got it as kids and put it back together and she was six.

Grant:  Whoa. Whoa.

Bud:  And so my, I have that ability to kind of disassemble things and reassemble them, but for ideas or point of views – I think that’s the manifestation of my father’s gift.  And so when I meet people, that’s what I really do, I try to "suss out" their motivations, their filters, in order to see the world they see.

And literally I’ve collected so many different kinds of people over the years – it’s an amazing tool to use to see things from different perspectives; like trying on new eyes, how would Aaron see this? How would Jamie see this?

Grant:  Nice. Nice.

Bud:  And how can I understand all of it in the context of what I’ve seen before.

Grant:  Yep. So you have, you have a set of pattern recognitions, depending on people you’ve worked with, whose characteristic pattern recognition you now sort of decoded and internalized.

Bud:  Right.

Grant:  And, that you need Aaron’s pattern recognition, that just happens, I’m assuming, just when you’re engaging with a problem that’ll just swim in.

Bud:  Right, right.

Grant:  It’s not because you, you’re not in fact canvassing possibilities, that stuff’s purely intuitive, unconscious.

Bud:  I feel like it, right. Like when I’m reading something or when I’m seeing a new headline, you know I really do, it bounces in my head almost in his voice.

Grant:  Mmhmm.

Bud:  He’s in my head dissecting it for himself.

Grant:  Nice, nice. And so a lot’s coming in and it sounds like you’re not always having to reach an opinion about what it is you see. That’s you read some stuff without reaching a conclusion and it, it has a kind of latency, is that the term people are using now? It exists in your preconscious mind and you’ll call upon it later, if and when it’s useful.

Bud:  Yeah, I definitely try to reserve my point of view for things until I, because when I’m at this, my behavior when I’m going through my reader is such a fastpaced behavior, that I don’t want to subject things that I’m seeing to a direct point of view at that kind of speed. Especially because, you know, I’m dealing with very subjective topics when it comes to culture itself.

Grant:  Mm. Mm. So you’re moving back and forth from the microscopic to the macroscopic?

Bud:  Right, right. And it’s‑‑it really is a frenzy of attention splitting and then a very, very, deep dive on it later. I’d love it if I could say it’s a very conscious switch on my part but it really is just part of my process at this point. It happens when it happens usually when something repeats something a friend has said, or a colleague questioned, or I’ve seen from the past.

Grant:  Mmhmm. So you’re casting the net wide, you’re taking lots in, oh are you using any particular software to keep track of, to tag things and sort them and keep them?

Bud:  I use Google Reader to burn through a standard set of sources, the 300+ blogs. I use Delicious to catalog things that I’m actually going through and find some value in bookmarking for later consumption. I use Twitter to bounce through what my social graph is sharing at the time and to also throw out nuggets of ideas myself. See that’s another thing, I test my point of view of things, by sharing the link and attaching only a sliver of my point of view, where I’m kind of headed with it, and I send that out to, you know those 3,000 people that follow me on Twitter and they echo back to me such a splintering of their opinions and their takes on things.

Grant:  Right. And is that truly a splintering or do you end up seeing that there are three different points of view, or there are three points of view but only one of them interests you and you discard the other two, or… How do you organize the public’s reactions?

Bud:  I think I… Right. I think I see extremes. I think that’s how people want to express themselves there. And that’s the trap we find ourselves falling into, I suppose. You know I’ll get back three extreme points of view based on what I just shared, and I can weigh those against each other and say, "Where in the middle of this does this actually lay, or is it one of these extremes?"

Grant:  Yeah. And are you keen to find that middle position?

Bud:  Personally, I like to view things first through as much of a black and white lens as I can to try to, you know… And see what falls into those accepted filters already. First and foremost, is this one of those rare occasions when something is black and white? But when it doesn’t fit that box, or it confuses me and I’m perplexed or puzzled, that means there’s obviously more nuance to it. And that’s when things‑‑alarm bells go off in my head and that’s when I know to dive deep into things.

Grant:  Nice. I don’t know if‑‑but in the book, I talk a bit about working with my advisor at Chicago called Salens, who stops and finds something in my paper, and that was a good paper, but because he’s got something that he can’t make work. And that’s when you see him stop and really begin to think about, "Is this something new in the world for which I need new categories?" Or, you know, "There’s something imperfect about my categories and how might I change them? And having changed them, what happens to the thing I think I have here?" Is that kind of what we’re talking about here?

Bud:  I think, absolutely, that’s exactly what it is. And that’s when you’ll see me‑‑I think my coworkers will laugh about it, but that’s when you’ll see me just stare blankly at my computer and get up and go to an empty whiteboard and I’ll start drawing or diagramming things. That’s the moment when something does not compute with a very finite set of rules I’ve given myself to use as filters and that means things can actually begin to get interesting.

Grant:  Right, nice. So lots coming in with…in moments of examination and reflection, and then lots goes out in the hundreds, thousands of experiments a year.

Bud:  Something, you know.

Grant:  Whatever it is.

Bud:  Something like that.

Grant:  Yeah. But that’s you kind of almost taunting the world. I mean, I have this image, kind of, of a child with a stick. [laughs] Forgive me now, I’m not diminishing you.

Bud:  [laughs] No, no, no.

Grant:  Yeah, but it’s almost like, "If I provoke the world, what will it do?"

Bud:  Right.

Grant:  Which is… Is it kind of like that?

Bud:  Yeah, and I think that’s the route I take with blogging, too.  I’ll throw out a point of view or specific topic with a really sharp point of view that I know isn’t really wellformed or isn’t, you know. I know that it’s going to cause people to say something, and that’s the interesting part for me; being able to have people to respond to the things I write and say…And then also they bring me, not only different points of views but different research that I haven’t read yet, different work on the topic. Like today when I said, "Is social media plateauing?" I said that to cause a reaction.

Grant:  Right, and you got one from me.

Bud:  Right, and I got… I checked my phone just now and I got someone who is arguing your same point of view, that it’s something that’s more known. But I know that when I say that, I’m going to call out two camps, and each camp is going to have their point of view. And it’s impossible for me to understand what they’ll bring to the table beforehand, but that reaction to it I find so interesting. I’ve actually talked to some successful bloggers and they tell me that they craft a blog post and then they take out the last two paragraphs. You know, they take out that resolution.

Grant:  Brilliant.

Bud:  They keep it in conflict, they keep people wanting to come back to it.

Grant:  Right, that’s brilliant. And I always feel obliged to end with a punch line.

Bud:  [laughs] Right.

Grant:  And I like that idea of withholding the punch line. That’s really good. What should I ask you here? So it’s kind of like a distributed thinking. When you provoke the world with an experiment or with a blog post that is unfinished or deliberately, maybe, antagonistic, it forces the‑‑the world will, so engaged, reply, and that becomes part of the thinking you have at your disposal. So you kind of engage the world to help you think a bit?

Bud:  Yeah absolutely, and I can do that in a lot of different ways.

Grant:  Right, ’cause the traditional… you know the French, Classical model, it’s thesis, antithesis, synthesis, or something, and you’re kind of letting somebody do the antithesis and then you do the synthesis. But it’s kind of like it’s a distributed… Do you think…? Is that a… I find it a useful way of thinking, but I’m not sure you do.

Bud:  Right. I also have a personal fear of following my own arguments too far down the rabbit hole. In college, if a professor asked for a ten page essay, I’d turn in 25 pages. And somewhere on that journey, I’d draw bizarre conclusion, bizarre even to me, and all too often, lose the plot. I didn’t need the starter’s pistol, I needed the bit of tape you break at the end of the race to say, "stop."

Grant:  Right.

Bud:  It’s protecting myself from my own obsessive thinking.

Grant:  Right. You’re the opposite of the guy I heard speak last night who was apparently kind of the worldranking expert on Broadband and, you know, public access to, you know, digital access. And he wouldn’t let people have the conversation they wanted to have. And people would ask him questions and the most obvious question was, well, "What’s…Where are you going with all of this?" You know, he kept sort of setting up these observations, and you think, "Great. The punch line must be coming."

Bud:  [laughs] Right.

Grant:  And it wouldn’t come. And so he was kind of stage managing…he was wrangling the conversation in the most annoying, least productive way. And it’s like you’re reaching out happily, provoking…What’s…? Yeah. I mean some people would say reading 200 or 400 posts a day, that’s a recipe for, you know, total intellectual chaos. But that doesn’t actually trouble you. It’s when you begin to assemble ideas and work them out and write them out, that’s when you… That’s the moment where… What? You sort of climb aboard this topic and take it where…go wherever it takes you. And even if that’s not a coherent, logical stream of exposition. Sorry, I’m just sort of babbling to myself.

Bud:  Yeah. I’m definitely… It’s certainly, at times, reading this much can be disruptive to just trying to get something done, or trying to focus on a specific topic. But I think it’s really important sometimes. I have the great fortune to be paid to think, and so I should put myself in situations where I’m mentally uncomfortable. Where I am, you know, almost suffering information overload because that’s the time for me to make decisions.

When I have that much information coming at me, that’s when I can make a decision to limit, and that’s when I can make a decision to focus, and what to focus on – having to make that decision in my process is really important to me.

Ultimately, me saying the same things that I know, with a lack of information from the outside world, is boring. It’s boring to me, and I feel that it would be boring for other people.

Grant:  And if what…If what your firm does is think for companies, for other firms, and if the world is maximally confusing, and various, and emergent, and hard to read, then you’re sort of precisely the embodiment of what Undercurrent is supposed to do. And to that extent, precisely what it is the corporation needs, to the extent they understand what they’re signing on for when they engage you. That’s the headlight on the locomotive, isn’t it? Somebody is kind of thinking, "What do I see before me? And can I think it? And if I can’t think it, what would I need to think instead?"

That’s a very‑‑Geez‑‑the corporation lived a pretty simple world, and it had a handbook, and it wasn’t that complicated. Then you develop rules, you "reroutinzed’ the world, and now it’s just off. So unless you’ve got somebody doing what you do…

Bud:  And taking it back to what a brand manager, these days, is responsible for is overwhelming. They’re responsible for all ends of production, all ends of actual delivery of product. They’re responsible for the advertising, for the marketing, for reporting. There’s just so much they’re trying to juggle at the same time, I think it’s too much. I think they’re overburdened with that. And then adding on information intake with that is frightening to them. Now they have to go read blogs plus they have to manage the normal day-to-day? It’s overlooked when we talk about what brand managers should be or shouldn’t be. Just all the other responsibilities that they’re forced, right now, to tackle.

Grant:  So every brand manger should be thrilled to have you or somebody like you in there on their behalf. But most brand managers, because they are creatures of some vanity, as we all are, like to think that they do the heavy lifting. That if something is going to be taken away from them, it should be the lower order intellectual activities, to free them up for the deep thinking. And in point of fact, how do you finesse that?

Bud:  We were fortunate for a while that we came from the Internet. And the Internet is such a novel, strange, quirky place.

Grant:  You knew they didn’t know.

Bud:  Right. It was a known unknown. We could almost come in like Jack Hanna on latenight TV, and show you an ocelot. Like this is what a kid looks like on the Internet. And as that becomes more known, I think we’ll be more challenged to provide added value with our role which is spectacular, really. So I think it’s up to us to move higher up the food chain, honestly, and to come in at the CMO or CEO level, and to say "This is what’s needed for a real change across the organization."

And it’s up to us to show how an organization can benefit from digital technologies. Not just, "Let me tell you how small groups work on the Internet." But how can technology empower the small groups that already exist inside your giant brand that employs tens if not hundreds of thousands of people? And how do we use those people already using digital technologies in a really interesting, beneficial way? Take the idea behind PlannerReads, capitalizing on the shared behaviors of a group, and apply it inside your organization.

Grant:  Yes.

Bud:  So all of us must grow our own skill set, I think, to survive. Make ourselves more uncomfortable.

Grant:  It’s nice. It’s a conspiracy of smart people, finally. And it’s people smart enough to know the real order of difficulty we’re looking at as we try to solve problems and the kinds of intellectual activities you’ve just described. To know that those are necessary, to know that there have to be moments when you don’t know and you put yourself in a state of real discomfort. What’s the famous line from George Bernard Shaw, "Most people would rather die than think. Most do."

Bud:  Right.

Grant:  Right? We get comfortable with our categories, we use them over and over again, and it’s that climbing out of that, it’s like getting out of a capsule without a suit on. Right? It’s not pleasant not to think in the ideas that make thinking easy. It’s quite horrible in a way. Unless you’re pushed into it in a moment of inspiration. Just suddenly you have an idea, and you went through all the pain of transition, somehow it happened to somebody else, you don’t know, but you just got the idea for nothing.

Bud:  Right.

Grant:  You didn’t have to spend anytime in the world doing this. That’s all right, I’m just babbling.

Bud:  For me, pain is often‑‑and pain and being uncomfortable are the best catalysts for thinking. Brands are too untouchable. Brands have amassed too much power for themselves. So they never really have to be uncomfortable unless they want to make themselves feel uncomfortable.

Grant:  And in a weird way, maybe the CCO becomes the detonation box that you have inside the C suite. You have the person who is prepared to make themselves exquisitely uncomfortable so that other members of the C suite don’t have to, "That’s what we pay you for, to spare us that discomfort." [laughter].

Bud:  The whipping boy of the organization.

Grant:  Yes, totally. I still like the William James’ notion about the "routinization" of religious experience, and he says, you know by the medieval period, "If Christ himself had wandered up the steps of the Catholic Church in Rome, they would have said ‘There, there, thank you very much. Go, keep moving, we’ve got this under control. We know what religion is, we know what divine inspiration is, we know who God, all of this stuff is mapped, thank you. We don’t want you.’" The corporation gets exactly there. It’s just this weird tension. It’s a kind of creative destruction thing going on constantly. You have to be absolutely certain about certain things to make your way on the world. Then you have to destroy that certainty to get to what’s, sorry, I’m blabbing.

Bud:  It’s at the intersection to me. Like understanding how process works, how your products are made, understanding how people work inside an organization, those are the known knowns. Those are the things, as a brand, that you should have a clear point of view on. But where you interact with regular human beings, that’s the really interesting part ––  if you can forget for a moment that you know how that’s supposed to occur, that’s when the real curiosity and the real insight can happen. But perhaps unfortunately, brands have agencies to sit at those points of intersection. And so the agencies may get smarter at times about intersecting with real people, but the brand itself has very little insight into that. They have retail agencies, they have digital agencies, they have traditional agencies that create and learn about these interactions.

That’s why I also think the future of the agency model is one that becomes a data hub or an insight engine for the brand, and they need to be able to come back to them with those insights in a really packaged and interesting way.

Grant:  Yes, come back to the corporation?

Bud:  Come back to the corporation and say, you know especially the AOR model, "We’ve been your agency of record now for two years. Where’s the data? Where’s the insights that you’ve gleaned from this data that say like, how you’re consumer is changing, or how your involvement with them has changed over time."

Grant:  Yes.

Bud:  And that just is missing.

Grant:  Yes. Well I think I’m running out of questions, and it’s my fault. There are a million things to ask, but maybe we should call it a day. If I may, I’ll look through what I have, and see what else I need to ask you, if I could follow up.

Bud:  Sure.

Grant:  But this has been great.

Bud:  Yes, thank you so much.

Grant:  No, hey, my pleasure. Thanks a million.

Transcription by CastingWords

 

 

Social Media: once wild, now tame

Bud Caddell asks “Are we seeing a permanent stagnation for social media?”  He uses Google Insights to show that several terms are now beginning to plateau.  Nice spot.

And this may be.  Perhaps stagnation is upon us.

I tell you what I was thinking at the Futures of Entertainment at MIT this year.  “This has gone from a wild problem to a domesticated problem.”  By which I believe I meant that social media used to be extremely hard to think.  What it was, how it work, what difference it would make to communication, sociality, and culture?  Who knew?

Wild problems are problems that we “can’t quite get a handle on.”  What’s the vocabulary?  What are the terms?  Does anyone agree on the meanings of the terms.  We spend a lot of time saying things like “tell me that last part again.”  We spend a lot of time using Google to search for intelligent thoughts and comments.

But eventually this is terra cognito.  We get it in large and in small.  This is not to say that we don’t have lots of developments to look forward to.  But the basic shape of the phenomenon is clear.  And this means we start to slow in our Google search activity.  It also means that MIT discussion is vastly more productive, but it is a little less “all over the place.”

Bud’s right.  This is a kind of stagnation.  But I would prefer to think of it as domestication.  We have made this topic more fit for human habitation.  But of course it will go feral from time to time.  And we will have to look to the likes of Bud and other courageous players to make it sensible again.  But this idea has come out of the cold.

References

Caddell, Bud.  2009.  Behold the plateau of social media.  What Consumes Me. Dec. 22.  here.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Bud for the image (now lost, see note below).

Thanks to Ana Domb for helping me design and execute the website, now in something like it’s final form.  This also marks my liberation from TypePad, my move to WordPress.  What a pleasure it is to live in a more sensible, reliable world.

Note: this post was lost about a year ago thanks to the unashamed incompetence of Network Solutions.  It was retrieved from the web yesterday and I am reposting it today December 24, 2010.  

The Fiesta movement by Ford, Undercurrent and Bud Caddell

I posted a piece on the Ford Fiesta Movement today on the Harvard Business Review blog. You will find it here.

Thanks again to Bud Caddell for the interview in December.

I am on the look out for more exemplars, people who now serve as Chief Culture Officers but are not (yet) identified as such. Please identify yourselves.

This post was lost thanks to the Network Solutions debacle last year.  I am reposting it today, December 24, 2010.