I was recently lucky enough to watch Nick Law of R/GA deliver a talk entitled, 'Innovation is not a big idea' at the Mirren Conference in New York.
I loved the talk. Nick Law is a magnetic speaker. I was mesmerized by his shiny venn diagram, temporarily losing all control of my critical faculties and believing every word for around 12 hours. Only afterwards did doubt steal in - about which more later...
The most exciting part for me, and the theme implicit in the title, is the epic shift in the nature of creativity away from being about the individual auteur/priest/magician handing off the brilliant 'big idea' to some technicians to execute, and towards a new model of creativity in groups. The latter is a mandatory requirement if you want to achieve anything of real value in a world that's been eaten by software - but it's an almost impossible challenge for the factories of 'big advertising', who are still clinging to 'the big idea' handed down by the magic-man.
Referring to to Marc Andreesen's August 2011 essay in the Wall Street Journal, "Why software is eating the world"
, Mr Law took us on a whirlwind history of marketing media - from newspaper classified ads 150 years ago, through TV to the present day of playful utility - showing us how software just ate every last bit of it.
He highlighted different approaches to 'the big idea':
In Madison Avenue you sell ideas, but in Silicon Valley you sell the idea executed.
And then, for good measure, he took a pop at storytelling (which I endorse, for what that's worth):
The most fatuous statement you hear from advertising people all the time that it's still all about story-telling... Go and tell that to Mark Zuckerberg!
Having severed both comfort blankets and thumbs, Nick laid out a new model for media in the post-software-just-ate-your-world age.
The new Yin and Yang
The amazingly simple venn diagram below is so amazing that I re-drew it, including the builds because they are part of the drama. Armed with the right venn diagrams I think it may be possible to make anyone believe anything - even if the effect is temporary.
I've added some bits to the end for good measure, just for fun.
Diagram from my notes during Nick Law's talk at Mirren Live
Here are the salient points, all the quotes are more or less what Nick said:
The media we have used to sell stuff to people have traditionally been 'STORYTELLING'
The interwebz provides the audience - and us - with a SYSTEM within which they can tell their own stories
We start with the age of INFORMATION - like the kind of classified ads you used to get in newspapers 150 years ago...
Then we had to use ENTERTAINMENT to get people's attention... "This area is full of high-fiving wankers wearing back-to-front baseball caps who want to work in Hollywood"
The DEMONSTRATE circle represents 'storytelling as demonstration'... "Apple were the first company who really understood this... as soon as Steve Jobs held that iPad up at the press conference, you didn't need to advertise it: the interface itself was a demonstration of genius"
Over on the other side, you've got ENABLEMENT. This seems to be R/GA's new way of saying UTILITY, explained as, "All the apps you use, the transactional websites, and wearable devices"
And then in the middle, it's the new age of PLAY and of PARTICIPATION... "Participation is the only measure of whether people give a shit any more"
There's something beguiling about the simplicity of the diagram, and I agree with a lot of it, but as the dust settled in my mind a few personal doubts formed.
From a Made by Many perspective, this is still too marketing-centric a vision. Marc Andreesen's essay is about software eating *everything*, not just marketing. It's well worth reading the original essay, it's conspicuous that very few aspects of modern life don't get eaten: no-one is spared.
My own theory is that we are in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swathes of the economy
Six decades into the computer revolution, four decades since the invention of the microprocessor, and two decades into the rise of the modern Internet, all of the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be widely delivered at global scale.
To be fair, Nick was speaking at a marketing conference to an audience of marketing people. Nevertheless, the things we are interested in fixing here at Made by Many are bigger than than marketing. We want to solve problems and uncover new opportunities - it's just that some of them will be marketing related or achieve some of the same goals as marketing traditionally has in the past.
The most important thing that's going to happen is the arrival of another 5 billion people onto the Internet, and as they join us the changes in their governments, the way entertainment works and the way education works [for example] are going to be very profound
That level of change is hard to comprehend. It's at an entirely different magnitude to a simple shift in media consumption. We may be talking about the end of the nation state, re-inventing the nature of work, redesigning politics and sexuality (to name a few potential outcomes) - not just a new model for advertising and marketing. It's not just a new channel, or getting some new capabilities - it's about a new world that works profoundly differently. When the block of pure software is slipped underneath the whole world, all the iron filings line up in a completely different pattern, through the entire stack.
In this context, whilst the marketing value of Nike+ is undoubtedly impressive, the exciting thing it gives people is the the power to understand how their bodies work in real time, and to access super-powers that change their lives. (I have to admit that the FuelBand did not have this effect on me, but I remain excited about the potential...).
In some ways, the most exciting part of Nick's talk was actually where he talked about R/GA's adoption of a functional integration model to drive growth for clients: putting the customer at the centre of an network effect of value provided by a connected product and service ecosystem.He contrasted this with corporate growth strategies that are exhausted and commodified by more and more horizontal integration. This reminded me of our discussions (at Made by Many) about 'landfill marketing' and 'waste reduction'. You can find out more about this in an article by R/GA's Barry Wacksman on the Wharton website.
The other thing I was left wanting is a sense of purpose, and I think this is what happens if the only purpose is to sell more shit to people. I'm not sure what the purpose of a purely marketing/media centric view of things can be - obviously it's important, but it won't be sustainable unless the value exchange is real. With a customer-centric view, the point is to try and make life work better for customers, holistically. Designing things they they actually want, to meet their needs (including the un-met needs they may not realise they even have) provides a mission that helps brands and people.
Gareth Kay was also talking at the Mirren event and he did mention purpose - but that'll be my next blog post.
This isn't even my final form...
Tantalisingly, Nick took a question from the floor about where R/GA are in their nine-year cycle of Dr Who-like regeneration. He responded that they are almost finished with the latest re-invention, which they've accomplished at the top of the curve rather than on the way down. It may be propaganda, but I'm not sure how many companies could even claim to be in this position.