Beautiful Digital Questions.

Beautiful Digital QuestionsThe book that has me completely captivated right now is Warren Berger’s “A More Beautiful Question,” which has rapidly become a sacred text to design thinkers and others desperately seeking context in today’s world.  For those of us who live in this hall-of-mirrors digital marketing world, I’d call it required reading.

The book’s central premise is that in the age of Google and instant information, we are virtually drowning in answers and facts.  Rather than clarify our lives, answers ultimately confuse, misdirect, distract and muddle.  Breakthroughs of insight and creativity (of which we are woefully short) only come through better questions – ‘more beautiful questions.’

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Facing a huge pile of late fees at Blockbuster, a frustrated Reed Hastings asked “What if there was no such thing as late fees?”  The last Blockbuster closed down earlier this year, and Reed’s resulting company – Netflix – seems to be doing OK.  Amateur painter and professional typist Bette Nesmith Graham asked “What if I could paint over my mistakes while typing, the way I do when painting?”  Her paint and water formula, initially popular with the other secretaries, became Liquid Paper and ultimately sold for $50 million.  There are a raft of other great stories and insights into how beautiful questions come into being and turn into real innovations.  And it all made me wonder:  what are the questions that could create breakthroughs in our business?  Here are a few that I came up with over coffee.   If you’re so moved, add yours to the list via the comments box.

  • What if we eliminated the word advertising from business and revenue models?  How would that change the way we think about creating value and connection between businesses and consumers?
  • What if we each person in your company was forced (and paid) to spend a day each week studying something completely unrelated to digital marketing and technology?  What kinds of new connections and thinking might become real?
  • What might happen if sales teams shifted their focus to value creation and experience engineering?  What if every sales meeting focused on what we did for marketer instead of what we got from the marketer?
  • What if we abandoned architectural and industrial language – exchanges, marketplaces, servers, platforms – and rooted all our metaphors in the language of nature — gardens, forests, ecosystems?  How might that change the way we act and the values we bring to the business?
  • What if there were no such things as initial public offerings and mergers and acquisitions?  What if everyone who launched a business knew they would have to live with and tend it until it either succeeded or died?  How might that change the way we lead and create?

These are just what I came up with this morning.  I’ll warn you now:  this questioning thing gets pretty addictive.  I’d love to hear some of yours.

Our Age Problem.

Our Age ProblemContinuing to act as the Wikileaks of the online advertising world (channeling the anonymous insider voices of agencies, sellers, tech folks and more) Digiday asked yesterday if agencies have a “27-year-old client problem?”   This of course is an extension of the seller-side rant about the “23-year-old media planner” who lacks common sense, a moral compass, good manners or a sense of shame about how much graft she rakes in.    The thread that binds these narratives could be described as “these damned kids are ruining things!”  Is our industry being brought down by feral packs of ill-tempered young execs?  Do we, in fact, have an age problem?

Yes and no.  Yes, there’s probably an age problem.  But no, it’s not the one that gets the headlines.

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Last week I had the chance to watch some of the new episodes of Arrested Development released on Netflix.  Like many hard core fans of the series, I anticipated the return of the Bluth family with something bordering on ecstasy.  I remembered an almost perfect comedy;  a double-helix of intricately intertwined gags, themes and characters that got even better and more interesting with repeat viewing.  But then I watched the new shows.  “What the hell did they do?”  I whined.  “Why couldn’t they leave well enough alone and give me what I expected.”   Like so many who look back on “the Golden Age” of anything, I was idealizing the past and damning the present.  Truth is, the world has changed almost completely in the seven years since AD went off the air.  Distribution channels are different, binge-viewing and full season immediate release are both new.   And let’s not forget that, in spite of its brilliance, the original was cancelled after just three seasons.

Maybe it’s the same for those of us who are 15 or 20 years into our careers in web advertising and marketing.  Perhaps we idealize the past.  Maybe “the Golden Age” of the business just looks better through the soft-focus of our memories.   But it was all smaller, slower, less well-funded than it is today.  Of course it can’t be the same.  Nor should it.

Now, back to those kids.  Our age problem is not about youth;  the energy and core-familiarity with technology, social tools and mobility that young executives bring to the table is priceless.  No, our age problem might just sit with those of us in our late 40s and 50s who continue trying to retrofit today with the yesterday we remember liking a lot better.   Maybe the kid we should really worry about is the one that’s inside each of us, waiting to get out and embrace today’s media world as it really is.