This is water - a talk about companies and digital disruption

On December 13th 2010 I gave a talk at the Digital Marketing Conference at Portland State University. I was invited to discuss the music business and its struggles with digital marketing and digital distribution but I widened the discussion to include newspapers and the advertising and marketing industries; the music industry is not alone when it comes to dealing with the permanent disruption that the Internet brought to society and culture.

I also have to say, I can't help but add how thrilled I was that I got through an hour of talking without mentioning, nor being asked about, social media. Small mercies..

As part of my preparation for the presentation I read David Foster Wallace’s book ‘This Is Water’ for the umpteenth time and something clicked for me. The book is a short essay that Wallace read at a commencement speech in 2005 and early on it includes this:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”

And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

This pithy little parable relates to digital marketing in my mind, because those of us who work in advertising, branding or marketing have been fooled into thinking that digital was something we had to learn. We were very wrong. We don’t need to learn a new way of marketing in digital; we do need a new way of seeing the market.

I focused on this because, as Wallace wrote, the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.

In our industry, I believe we are still going through a "fish in water" period.

When I compared the three industries I mentioned above, I found some parallels in the way they went about their business in a pre-digital world or rather, pre-Internet.

It was not surprising that they all had similar needs in the past, particularly in the way they got their products into people’s hands. At the risk of over-simplifying things, it looks a bit like this:

Music - Recording - Presentation - Distribution

Newspapers - Journalism - Presentation - Distribution

Advertising/Marketing - Creative - Presentation - Media Buy/Distribution TV/Print etc

Each of these industries, however their products started out, required some kind of presentation followed by physical distribution. The Internet broke that model. It permanently changed the relationship between the brand and its customer. A new way of seeing the market was required.

In digital, presentation and distribution is a completely different fish. Here's what happened back in the late nineties:

  • Music -  Napster, using P2P solved the distribution of music for the end-user, and soon thereafter Apple solved the organization of those MP3 files with iTunes 
  • Print media - Apparently couldn't get beyond the idea of pay-walls and still don't seem to 'get' the Web
  • Advertising - In many cases agencies failed to grasp that they had to see the market differently

So how have these industries adapted to the Internet's disruption?

  • The music industry fought tooth and nail, carpet bombing its rivals and its customers with lawsuits. They failed to contain their products or their business
  • Newspapers and other print media still struggle with how people want to get their news while print circulation continues to decline
  • Advertising companies are at each others throats, egged on by lazy journalism and editorial, worrying about digital vs traditional or what constitutes a "new agency.."

It's all rather sad really, but perhaps inevitable. Especially in advertising and marketing. As my friend Justin Spohn notes on his blog:

Here's a link to the article mentioned above.

These industries are all still in the water. And isn’t it funny to look back and think about all the new technologies, the new start-ups, that were going to “save” the music industry? I'm not sure that anyone asked just what needed saving? Which parts exactly? The print media's adventures on the iPad platform merely show that they don't understand the platform - see the Vanity Fair and Richard Branson's Project Magazine apps. (The Project Magazine app comes with instructions on how to use it! Game over.)

Music, print media and advertising companies still have a curse of knowledge problem. Think about this:

  • Kodak executives never considered that digital photography would trump film so they couldn’t imagine the new market that Flickr created.
  • The TV Networks top brass thought we’d never watch video online so they could never imagine YouTube or Hulu
  • Newspaper and other print media companies couldn’t imagine a day when we wouldn’t buy a print version of the news, so they couldn’t ever imagine Twitter. Today most of them are failing massively on the iPad platform. 
  • Blockbuster couldn't see a new market so they were crushed by Netflix when it came to streaming movies

The new companies that I mention above found a new way to see the market.Their founders understood how digital had changed society and they weren’t handcuffed by old methods. Nor were they stuck with the curse of knowledge.

None of this means that digital is easy. Let’s look at that Arcade Fire online “experience” - you can call it a video if you’d like, but it’s actually not. The Wilderness Downtown is "An interactive film by Chris Milk." And to get that film and the experience to work in HTML5 on Google’s Chrome browser, took many brains and the technology dept at Google Labs along with a cast of many other specialists so that you could stitch your neighborhood into that “video”. 

It's a good example of how easy something might look to the layperson viewing it online, yet digital can be hard and complex and building things in digital requires specialists.

Iain Tait, Wieden + Kennedy's Global Interactive Executive Creative Director has a great POV on this.

And here I want to mention the fulfilling of human needs. An idea... human need, plus technology, could create a new market.. just a thought really. Let me know what you think.

If we look at anthropology and understand that technology simply shortens the distance between us, then it's not a huge leap to the understanding that learning how to market in digital is wrongheaded. We might ask ourselves, before embarking on a digital marketing effort - what is the human need? What problem does our digital application/software/experience actually solve? And this is something that bothers me about iPhone or iPad apps that begs a question too - do I have to learn how to use it? If so, for me, that's a deal breaker..

Take a technological device that's been around a long time: the camera. It fulfills the human need for remembering events and good times by capturing them on film and letting people share these captured emotional moments with others. The camera fulfills our need for nostalgia, memory and sharing. As cameras became digital they obviously included different capabilities, many include the ability to shoot video, yet they retained their familiarity. If there was a learning curve it was simple and the designers and manufacturers never did away with the human need, arguably they enhanced it.

Before you design and build an iPad app you may want to consider how industrial designers brought new thinking to the camera, for a new market.

There's a common misconception that digital can be used to solve all problems. Somehow it's the answer to everything.

If you think that way you'll be let down - digital doesn’t solve problems if there are no problems to be solved.

So don’t make things harder - have fun!

Credit where credit is due to David Ewald and Justin Spohn