Fast Company

All Clear.

A friend recently forwarded a link to “Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch,” Shawn Parr’s contribution to the Fast Company blog.  The title, of course, is a riff on Peter Drucker’s famous maxim that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  (But then Drucker was probably more of a morning person.)  As I consult and conduct workshops with hundreds of companies in the digital advertising and marketing world, the wisdom and urgency of this shared theme is inescapable.

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As the marketplace continues to morph and convulse at an astonishing pace, company leaders and sales managers are constantly adjusting their strategies, if not changing them outright.  But as wrenching and deep as these strategic shifts may appear at ground level, most end up having little or no lasting effect.  Like a house built on sand, they lack the solid foundation that a quality culture can provide.  Parr rightly points out that “culture” is misunderstood (considered intangible and fluffy) and mismanaged (relegated to Human Resources) in most companies and in most industries.  But I think it’s a particularly acute shortcoming in our world….and I think I know why.

Prisoners of Our Own Success. Many digital CEOs and sales leaders came into their own during times of prosperity.  It all came together for us “in the day,” so everybody just do what we’re doing and we’ll all be OK.

Rapid Ascent, Rapid Change. Ironically, we point to the pace of change and rapid buildout of our companies – the very reasons we so desperately need to establish cultures – as the reason we can’t afford the time to develop them.  Culture is something we’ll focus on once we’re established.

Perhaps some of this is inescapable:  given our backgrounds and the ever-changing landscape, maybe textbook culture development isn’t attainable.  (I don’t completely believe this, but I’ll go with it for now.)  But maybe it’s time to meet Peter Drucker halfway and focus on the one principle that will establish a beachhead of stable culture within most any company or team.


In “The One Thing You Need to Know,” Marcus Buckingham points out that great leaders may not always be right, but they are always clear.  And the thing they are most clear about is “Who Does Our Company Serve?” There’s only one right answer, but you’re likely to hear a half dozen if you informally poll your team members.  A clear statement like “We serve brands” will go a long way.  While you’re at it, here are a two more topics on which you should be aim to be especially clear:

What Business Are We In? The railroads famously got this wrong.  Had they said “logistics and transportation” instead of “running trains,” they’d be FedEx and Delta Airlines today.

How Do We Create Value? The operative word here is “create.”  The answer to this question is often masked by the mindless pursuit of product advancement.  Far more often, we create value through service innovation, insight generation and synthesis.   Good topic to spend some time on.

You may not be in a position to establish the culture of a Starbucks, Zappo’s or Home Depot, but you can convene your management team for a couple of hours around these three points of clarity.  If you don’t,  you may just continue throwing strategies at the problem without ever addressing its underlying cause.

The New Old Look of Power.

Tomorrow I’ll be at ad:tech in New York, where for the second time I’ll be leading a discussion about “The New Power Brokers: How Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon Are Changing the Game, and How Brands and Agencies Should Respond.” Since we started this discussion at ad:tech last April, the topic seems to have taken on even greater urgency and focus for those in the online marketing world  (Witness the coverage in last month’s Fast Company).   If anything, we should be paying even more attention than we are:  these four may be defining the business and consumer worlds we’ll all be living in very soon.

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There remain differences among these four companies, of course.  But thinking of Apple as a device maker, Amazon as a retailer, Google as a search company and Facebook as a social network is anachronistic to the point of delusion.  Today all four have blown away the intellectual and market borders that once defined them and are each aiming for hegemony and ubiquity in the life of the consumer and in the way we (in publishing and marketing) speak to them and sell to them.  And while Fast Company tried to sell magazines by offering predictions about why each of these players could “win,” I believe that “victory” is irrelevant:  the mere fact of their competition is enough to make us care.  Here are the scenarios that should stoke our curiosity:

The Web Itself Becomes Less Relevant: Apple, Amazon and Facebook are all in the process of creating walled gardens.  Your Apple or Amazon device connects you directly to iTunes or  Facebook sits on the web, but it is not of the web.  It’s an unsearchable, closed environment, notwithstanding the ubiquity of “like” buttons all over the web.  Google remains heavily engaged in the web, but with the purchase of Motorola it too will soon be a device maker.  With so much consumer time, money and attention siphoning into these four ecosystems in the next several years, will marketers and agencies start crafting five separate strategies:  one for the web and one for each of the big four ecosystems?

The Data War Becomes a Rout: So much of the talk (and investment) in our space has centered on consumer data.  We gather it, process it, apply it and sell it to one another.   But doing battle over data with these four is like fighting a gas war with OPEC.  In fact, most of us are actually contributing every day to the data war chests of Google (DoubleClick, AdSense, AdMeld, Gmail, etc.) and Facebook (Facebook Connect).  Not to mention the sheer volume of data-rich transactions that Apple and Amazon touch every minute of every day.

Credit Card 2.0: An interesting scenario painted in the Fast Company article is the specter of these companies becoming direct players in finance.  You already carry an iPhone or a Motorola/Droid which you use to check in at airports:  why can’t the same device be an instrument of payment?   If Amazon can close the loop even further and accept direct payment via your Kindle Fire (and even offer financing) why wouldn’t they?  Facebook already dabbles in “credits:” Not much of a leap to think that they too will want a piece of the consumer transaction.

This may sound like an apocalyptic vision, but it’s really more of a wake-up call.  If consumers end up trusting the big four with ever more of their time, attention and dollars, how should the rest of us respond?  Marketing, advertising and publishing all require well-populated environments.  And if your marketing, advertising or publishing strategy isn’t starting to focus on the big four, maybe it should?

Want to discuss this Drift with your team? Here are some topics:  “How can we begin to use Facebook  today as a driver of value for our customers?”  “As we establish our mobile strategy, are we taking into account the ambitions of the big four?”  “Is our overall strategy too dependent on the current economics and thinking of ‘web advertising?’”  And if you’re at ad:tech, stop in at our session, 2:45 to 3:45 Wednesday afternoon.

Beware the Ad-Industrial Complex.

I’ve been accused in the past of speaking and writing almost entirely in metaphor, and I’m afraid I’d have to plead guilty.  They’re  just so darned handy in making sense of things.  But let me warn that what follows may be the granddaddy of all  industry metaphors…with a little ancient history tossed in.

I heard on the Radio that Monday of this week was the 50th anniversary of President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell speech, the one in which he famously warned against the influence of the “Military Industrial Complex,” the collection of arms makers, former generals and politicians who would seek to perpetuate its own survival and growth.  Eisenhower — career military man and architect of the European victory — was no fan of perpetual military buildup.  In fact, he cut military budgets each year of his presidency.  The “Military Industrial Complex,” in Eisenhower’s view, had simply lost connection with its purpose and become self-directed.

Later that day I waded into Danielle Sacks Fast Company article on “The Future of Advertising.” The article is a tome by web standards, but it paints a rather stunning picture of yet another “Complex” that gotten dated, out of control, self-directed and ultimately devoted to feeding itself.  In the same way that the Military Industrial Complex sought always more spending, more planes, more submarines, the “Advertising Industrial Complex” perpetually seeks more spending — more advertising.

Last March in this blog I urged digital marketing people to “Stop Worshiping at the Altar of Advertising,” a message that takes on even more resonance in light of the Fast Company article.  That piece begins by describing a boot camp aimed at helping “traditional advertising execs” hone their skills and imaginations to compete on this new battlefield.  But the very nature of marketing has changed so drastically that those agencies, media providers and services rooted in the Ad-Industrial Complex may still be, unwittingly and perpetually, fighting the last war with new weapons.

The defenders of the advertising status quo continually call for more spending, more firepower, more large weapons systems.  Today’s overemphasis on “targeting” and “optimization” are our version of laser guided bombs.  But the truth is that no matter how hard we work to improve advertising, we are simply further refining that which we already have too much of.  Marketing today is a series of skirmishes being fought in alleys and jungles.  It’s up close, personal, hand-to-hand.  It calls for not just different weapons, but a fundamental shift in perspective.  And in some ways a return to fundamentals.

If I were starting a company today focused on helping marketers bring their products and ideas to consumers, I’d look far outside the Ad-Industrial Complex.  And given the shape of the business described in Fast Company, it appears many marketers see things the same way.