John Durham

Flopping Into the Future.

Flopping Into the FutureIn looking through my business and creative library for ideas for this fall’s Upstream Seller Forum Leadership event, I came across The Imagination Challenge by Alexander Manu, which my good friend John Durham gave me a decade ago.  I immediately recalled one of the great stories of innovation contained in the book.

For a couple of millennia, the high jump had been pretty much executed the same way.  The jumper would approach the bar straight on and then execute a straddle jump, in which the lead leg and arm are thrown over the bar and the back leg and arm follow.  The jump would end with the athlete landing in a shallow sand pit. If you saw film of such a jump today it would look archaic – much like the underhand free-throw or the straight on placekick.

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In the early 60s, foam rubber was developed and, in a nod to athlete safety, sand pits were replaced by foam landing pads in the pit.  To most jumpers, this meant fewer sprained ankles and broken wrists.  But one jumper – Dick Fosbury – took a deeper look at this innovation: he asked, “What is now possible?”  Fosbury realized that the new landing surface would also prevent broken necks, allowing for an entirely different approach to the bar.  Inventing what was then called “the Fosbury Flop” – and what’s now simply “the high jump” – he ran to the bar, turned his back on it, cleared it backward, kicked his trailing legs up, landed on his back and neck in the foam pit – and blew apart two thousand years of a sport’s conventional wisdom.

What relevance does this story have in our world?  More than you might imagine.  We are constantly confronted by massive innovation:  real-time, data enabled marketing…programmatic audience buying….cheap and plentiful broadband access…social and sharing technologies.  These are the foam rubber of our age.  A great many of us take these innovations in stride, going about the business of what we already know and do.  Some wring their hands or curse the fates for bringing so much unwelcome change.  Other might make some subtle changes or adjustments to the new reality, all with the goal of protecting their own status quo.

Rare, though, is the modern day Fosbury, who looks at the newly disrupted landscape and asks, “What is now possible that wasn’t before?”  Innovation and disruption are not the sole province of the Jobs, Gates, Pages and Brins of the world though.  We can all stand a little reinvention…and we’re all capable of it.  Take the leap.

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Over the years I’ve used this space to offer reviews and amplification of books that I think are important to the digital advertising and marketing community.  Some are directly about sales theory (“The Challenger Sale”); others about how we think and create (“A Whole New Mind”); and still others are issue driven (“The Daily You”). Today I’m reviewing a internet book that’s about history.  Sort of.

Cory Treffiletti is well-known to many of us in this industry.  He’s been a leading agency-side executive (i-Traffic, Freestyle Interactive, Carat) and entrepreneurial thinker (IUMA, Catalyst S+F, Blue Kai) since the mid-90s.  Now he’s taken on what can only be described as a massive labor-of-love in compiling “Internet Ad Pioneers: The Stories of the Unsung People Behind the Birth and Growth of the Internet Ad Industry.” The structure is simple:  Cory queued up interviews with 31 people (buyers, sellers, entrepreneurs, researchers and others) who were all deeply engaged around the origins of digital advertising and marketing.  The book is a straightforward presentation of those interviews.

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Yes, I was initially quite interested in the book because I’m one of those interviewed (Chapter 7) and because I count over two dozen of those featured among my friends, colleagues and collaborators in the business.  But if it were just a self-congratulatory walk down memory lane, “Pioneers” would sell about 31 copies.  The more I read the interviews – the individual stories and recollections – the more I realized this is an important book that should be on the bookshelf of everyone engaged in our business.  For two reasons:

Just When You Think You Know the Story… As I read through the chapters focused on even very close friends, it dawned on me how little attention I’d paid over the years; how many details and themes I never knew, and would never have known had I not stopped to read.  We are all so caught up in the next 15 minutes that we don’t really listen to one another.  I was struck by Maggie Boyer-Finch’s anecdote about a young agency executive who was going on about how great his agency was – all the while unaware that Maggie had helped found that same agency.

Everything Old is New Again. Many of the stories are deeply personal and the themes are evergreen.  Many revolve around times of hubris and unrestrained growth, followed by the inevitable day of reckoning.  There’s very candid conversation around the decisions that were made, and gut wrenching stories about downsizing and survival during “internet winter.”  There are also very practical discussions about evaluating talent, building teams, navigating deals and holding onto core values during chaotic, asymmetrical times.  “Internet Ad Pioneers” may tell stories from the mid-90s, but they can be overlaid neatly over our current discussions about social, mobile, local, video and whatever comes next.

At its best, the book is driven forward by Cory as an active interviewer:  he knows his stuff and raises just enough pointed observations and connections to keep things moving.  (You recognize this quality most when it’s not there:  the Chapter 8 “interview” with Media Post editor Joe Mandese reads like the John Galt monologue from “Atlas Shrugged.”  I would like to have heard more of Cory’s voice in that one.) No book is perfect:  the “closing comments” at the end of each chapter – while generous and respectful – can sound a bit repetitive and overly solicitous of the subjects.  And there were a few spots where some bracketed editorial comments would have better identified and contextualized the stories.

But these are minor points.  Buy this book and read a couple of chapters each day.  Do it not to celebrate the past, but to help yourself and your company navigate the immediate future.