Ex Machina’s Script for Our Future

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One of the more interesting movies I’ve watched in the past year has been Ex Machina. Unlike the abysmally disappointing Transcendence (how can you screw up Kurzweil – for God’s sake), Ex Machina is a tightly directed, frighteningly claustrophobic sci-fi thriller that peels back the moral layers of artificial intelligence one by one.

If you haven’t seen it, do so. But until you do, here’s the basic set up. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer at a huge Internet search company called Blue Book (think Google). He wins a contest where the prize is a week spent with the CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) at his private retreat. Bateman’s character is best described as Larry Page meets Steve Jobs meets Larry Ellison meets Charlie Sheen – brilliant as hell but one messed up dude. It soon becomes apparent that the contest is a ruse and Smith is there to play the human in an elaborate Turing Test to determine if the robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) is capable of consciousness.

About half way through the movie, Bateman confesses to Smith the source of Ava’s intelligence “software.” It came from Blue Book’s own search data:

‘It was the weird thing about search engines. They were like striking oil in a world that hadn’t invented internal combustion. They gave too much raw material. No one knew what to do with it. My competitors were fixated on sucking it up, and trying to monetize via shopping and social media. They thought engines were a map of what people were thinking. But actually, they were a map of how people were thinking. Impulse, response. Fluid, imperfect. Patterned, chaotic.”

As a search behaviour guy – that sounded like more fact than fiction. I’ve always thought search data could reveal much about how we think. That’s why John Motavalli’s recent column, Google Looks Into Your Brain And Figures You Out, caught my eye. Here, it seemed, fiction was indeed becoming fact. And that fact is, when we use one source for a significant chunk of our online lives, we give that source the ability to capture a representative view of our related thinking. Google and our searching behaviors or Facebook and our social behaviors both come immediately to mind.

Motavalli’s reference to Dan Ariely’s post about micro-moments is just one example of how Google can peak under the hood of our noggins and start to suss out what’s happening in there. What makes this either interesting or scary as hell, depending on your philosophic bent, is that Ariely’s area of study is not our logical, carefully processed thoughts but our subconscious, irrational behaviors. And when we’re talking artificial intelligence, it’s that murky underbelly of cognition that is the toughest nut to crack.

I think Ex Machina’s writer/director Alex Garland may have tapped something fundamental in the little bit of dialogue quoted above. If the data we willingly give up in return for online functionality provides a blue print for understanding human thought, that’s a big deal. A very big deal. Ariely’s blog post talks about how a better understanding of micro-moments can lead to better ad targeting. To me, that’s kind of like using your new Maserati to drive across the street and visit your neighbor – it seems a total waste of horsepower. I’m sure there are higher things we can aspire to than figuring out a better way to deliver a hotels.com ad. Both Google and Facebook are full of really smart people. I’m pretty sure someone there is capable of connecting the dots between true artificial intelligence and their own brand of world domination.

At the very least, they could probably whip up a really sexy robot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Marketers Love Malcolm Gladwell … and Why They Shouldn’t

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Marketers love Malcolm Gladwell. They love his pithy, reductionist approach to popular science – his tendency to sacrifice verity for the sake of a good “Just-so” story. And in doing this, what is Malcolm Gladwell but a marketer at heart? No wonder our industry is ga-ga over him. We love anyone who can oversimplify complexity down to the point where it can be appropriated as yet another marketing “angle”.

Take the entire influencer advertising business, for instance. Earlier this year, I saw an article saying more and more brands are expanding their influencer marketing programs. We are desperately searching for that holy nexus where social media and those super-connected “mavens” meet. While the idea of influencer marketing has been around for a while, it really gained steam with the release of Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” And that head of steam seems to have been building since the release of the book in 2000.

As others have pointed out, Gladwell has made a habit of taking one narrow perspective that promises to “play well” with the masses, supporting it with just enough science to make it seem plausible and then enshrining it as a “Law.”

Take “The Law of the Few”, for instance, from The Tipping Point: “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” You could literally hear the millions of ears attached to marketing heads “perk up” when they heard this. “All we have to do,” the reasoning went, “is reach these people, plant a favorable opinion of our product and give them the tools to spread the word. Then we just sit back and wait for the inevitable epidemic to sweep us to new heights of profitability.”

Certainly commercial viral cascades do happen. They happen all the time. And, in hindsight, if you look long and hard enough, you’ll probably find what appears to be a “maven” near ground-zero. From this perspective, Gladwell’s “Law of the Few” seems to hold water. But that’s exactly the type of seductive reasoning that makes “Just So” stories so misleading. You mistakenly believe that because it happened once, you can predict when it’s going to happen again. Gladwell’s indiscriminate use of the term “Law” contributes to this common deceit. A law is something that is universally applicable and constant. When a law governs something, it plays out the same way, every time. And this is certainly not the case in social epidemics.

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Duncan Watts

If Malcolm Gladwell’s books have become marketing and pop-culture bibles, the same, sadly, cannot be said for Duncan Watts’ books. I’m guessing almost everyone reading this column has heard of Malcolm Gladwell. I further guess that almost none of you have heard of Duncan Watts. And that’s a shame. But it’s completely understandable.

Duncan Watts describes his work as determining the “role that network structure plays in determining or constraining system behavior, focusing on a few broad problem areas in social science such as information contagion, financial risk management, and organizational design.”

You started nodding off halfway through that sentence, didn’t you?

As Watts shows in his books, “Firms spent great effort trying to find “connectors” and “mavens” and to buy the influence of the biggest influencers, even though there was never causal evidence that this would work.” But the work required to get to this point is not trivial. While he certainly aims at a broad audience, Watts does not read like Gladwell. His answers are not self-evident. There is no pithy “bon mot” that causes our neural tumblers to satisfyingly click into place. Watts’ explanations are complex, counter-intuitive, occasionally ambiguous and often non-conclusive – just like the world around us. As he explains his book “Everything is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer”, it’s easy to look backwards to find causality. But it’s not always right.

Marketers love simplicity. We love laws. We love predictability. That’s why we love Gladwell. But in following this path of least resistance, we’re straying further and further from the real world.

Is Amazon Creating a Personalized Store?

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There was a brief Amazon-related flurry of speculation last week. Apparently, according to a podcast posted by Wharton, Amazon is planning on opening 300 to 400 bricks and mortar stores.

That’s right. Stores – actual buildings – with stuff in them.

What’s more, this has been “on the books” at Amazon for a while. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was asked by Charlie Rose in 2012 if they would every open physical stores. Bezos replied, ““We would love to, but only if we can have a truly differentiated idea,” he said. “We want to do something that is uniquely Amazon. We haven’t found it yet, but if we can find that idea … we would love to open physical stores.”

With that background, the speculation makes sense. If Amazon is pulling the trigger, they must have “found the idea.” So what might that idea be?

Amazon does have a test store in their own backyard of Seattle. What they have chosen to do there, in a footprint about the tenth of the size of the former Barnes and Noble store that was there, is present a “highly curated” store that caters to “local interests.”

Most of the speculation about the new Amazon experiment in “back-to-the-future” retail centers around potential new supply chain management technology or payment methods. But there was one quote from Amanda Nicholson, professor of retail practice at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management, that caught my attention; “she said that space represents ‘a test’ to see if Amazon can create ‘a new kind of experience’ using data analytics about customers’ preferences.”

This becomes interesting if we spend some time thinking about the purchase journey we typically take. What Amazon had done online brilliantly is remove friction from two steps in that journey: filtering options and conducting the actual transaction. For certain kinds of purchases, this is all we need. If we’re buying a product that doesn’t rely on tactile feedback, like a digital file or a book, Amazon has connected all the dots required to take us from awareness to purchase.

But that certainly doesn’t represent all potential purchases. That could be the reason that online purchases only represent 9% of all retail. There are many products that require an “experience” between the filtering of options available to us and the actual purchase. These things still require the human “touch” – literally. Up to now, Amazon has remained emotionally distant from these types of purchases. But perhaps a new type of retail location could change that.

Let me give you an example. If you’re a cyclist (like me) you probably have a favorite bike shop. Bike stores are not simply retail outlets. They are temples of bike worship. Bike shops are usually an independent business run by people who love to talk about their favorite rides, the latest bikes or pretty much anything to do with cycling. Going to a bike store is an experience.

But Trek, one of the largest bike manufacturers in the world, also recognized the efficiency of the online model. In 2015, they announced the introduction of Trek Connect, their attempt to find a happy middle ground between practical efficiency and emotional experience. Through Trek Connect, you can configure and order your bike online, but pick it up and have it serviced at your local bike shop.

However, what Amazon may be proposing is not simply about the tactile requirements of certain types of purchases. What if Amazon could create a personalized real world shopping experience?

Right now, there is a gap between our online research and filtering activity and our real world experiential activity. Typically, we shortlist our candidates, gather required information, often in the form of a page printed off from a website, and head down to the nearest retail location. There, the hand off typically leaves a lot to be desired. We have to navigate a store layout that was certainly not designed with our immediate needs in mind. We have to explain what we want to a floor clerk who seems to have at least a thousand other things they’d rather be doing. And we are not guaranteed that what we’re looking for will even be in stock.

But what if Amazon could make the transition seamless? What if they could pick up all the signals from our online activity and create a physical “experiential bubble” for us when we visited the nearest Amazon retail outlet?

Let me go back to my bike purchasing analogy in way of an example. Let’s say I need a new bike because I’m taking up triathlons. Amazon knows this because my online activity has flagged me as an aspiring triathlete. They know where I live and they have a rich data set on my other interests, which includes my favored travel destinations. Amazon could take this data and, under the pretext of my picking up my bike, create a personalized in store experience for me, including a rich selection of potential add-on sales. With Amazon’s inventory and fulfillment prowess, it would be possible to merchandise a store especially for me.

I have no idea if this is what Amazon has “in store” for the future, but the possibility is tantalizing.

It may even make me like shopping.

 

 

 

A New Way to Determine Corporate Value

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Last week, I talked about the trend of “hyper” expectations and corporate valuations. Peter Fader, a marketing professor at the Wharton School, commented, “This is why we need to replace the guesswork of tech valuation with the more rigorous, valid, and operational notion of “customer-based corporate valuation.”

I had a chance to look at Professor Fader’s paper. Essentially, he proposes a new model for the valuation of subscription-based businesses based on a calculation of customer lifetime value that uses publicly available information. While interesting in it’s own right, there is a fundamental shift of thinking here that I believe should be explored further.

There are a few standard equations that are used to calculate the value of a firm. If the firm is public, essentially its value is determined by its share price. And that share price is determined by activity in the market – the activity of shareholders. And that activity is dependent on analysts who pass judgment on companies based on projected return to shareholders. At every turn, our entire system of business finance is very heavily weighted towards ownership, which makes sense in a market-based economy. Buyers and sellers determine value.

But what Fader et al are proposing brings another essential stakeholder into the equation – the customer. It’s amazing to me that all the valuation equations we use to determine the value of a corporation don’t involve any direct measure of that corporation’s customer. Sure, we include things like profit, revenue, free cash flow and none of these things would exist without customers, but we never actually attempt to determine the value of a customer. Fader starts the process with the estimation of that value. That simple paradigmatic shift yields a very different view of the world.

For example, if we are to determine the value of a company through the lifetime value of its customers; we have to look at that company in a much different way than the typical financial analyst. We have to look at things like customer loyalty, brand affinity and the likelihood that a company will gain new market share through the disruption of markets. Last week, I used Amazon as an example. Here is a company that has been tremendously disruptive. It has essentially created a new marketplace and, in the process, upended retail as we know it. One would expect this to be taken into account when trying to determine the value of Amazon.

The problem is that things like customer loyalty and brand affinity are emotions. Emotions are not things that are easily quantified. It’s much easier to measure things like quarterly earnings and discounted free cash flow. Most of these things depend on using the past to predict the future. They also rely on the firm’s ability to prognosticate. Typically, all the heavy lifting of factoring in the fuzziness of things like future customer value is left to the company. If a company misses its projections, it is penalized by the analysts, resulting in a decrease of share price.

Ultimately, the gap between how we have historically determined the value of companies and how we might in the future comes down to a matter of our ability to determine what may come to pass. We strive for perfect predictability. We want to place our bets based on solid information and analysis. But, in a disruptive marketplace, this desire for predictability may ultimately sink us. Customers will always determine the value of a company and in a marketplace where transactional and switching costs are both plunging, those customers have the ability to switch buying behaviors instantly. The old saying, “No one ever got fired for buying IBM” has not been true for at least three decades.

Like it or not, if we want to get a true picture of the value of a company, we’re going to have to use some guesswork. And, most importantly, we’re going to have to make sure we include customers in whatever equation we’re using.

 

Google’s New Brand Launch – Function Driving Form

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What would happen if you created an advertising agency run by engineers?

You’d have Google. That’s what.

Last week, I was on the road. I went to Google something on my smartphone, and noticed the logo had changed. I thought at first it was a Doodle commemorating some famous typeface designer, so I didn’t spend too much time digging into it. But on the next day, when the new Google word mark was still there, I decided to see if this was deliberate and permanent. Sure enough, Google had quietly swapped out their brand identity. And they did it in classic Google style.

I wasn’t a fan – at first. But I was looking at it from a purely aesthetic perspective. I prefer classic serif faces. I love the elegance of the curvatures and strokes. Sans serif faces always seem to me to be trying too hard to be accessible. They’re like the puppies of the design world, constantly licking your face. Serif faces are like cats – stretching luxuriously and challenging you to love them on their terms.

But the more I thought – and read – about the branding change, the more I realized that the move was driven by function over form. Google was creating a visual and iconic language with the change. It was driven by the realities of maintaining an identity across a fragmentation of platforms and contexts. One can almost imagine the requirements document that had been put forth to the design team by the various Google engineers that decide these things – a logo that minimizes visual friction and cognitive load – scales well on all screens from nano to peta configurations (and eventually yocto to yotta)– acts as a visual wayfinder no matter where you are in the Google universe – and looks just a little whimsical (the last of these being a concession to the fine arts intern that was getting lattes and Red Bull for the group).

In the last month, Google has announced a massive amount of corporate change. Any other company would have taken the opportunity to mount a publicity event roughly the size of the Summer Olympics. But Google just quietly slipped these things into their weekly to do list. The logo dropped on a Tuesday. A Tuesday! Who the hell rebrands themselves on a Tuesday? There was no corporate push from Google other than a fairly muted blog post, but in researching this column, I found commentary on the change on pretty much every major media. And they weren’t just reporting the change. They were debating it, commenting on it, engaging in it. People gave a damn, either for or against.

That’s when I realized the significance of Google’s move. Because function was driving form – because engineers were dictating to designers – the branding had to be closer to its market. The rebranding was being done to make our lives easier. It wasn’t there to launch some misguided agency driven interpretation of an envisioned future, or slide Google into some strategic position in the marketplace. It was done because if wasn’t done, Google couldn’t do all the rest of the stuff it had to do. Google didn’t tell us what we should think of the move. They just did it and let us decide.

If function determines branding, then it’s living in the right place – the intersection between the market and the marketer. I’ve previously chastised Google for their lack of design thinking, but in this case, maybe they got it right. And maybe there’s a lesson there we all need to learn about the new rules of branding.

Why Disruptive Change is Disruptive

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There were a lot of responses to my last column, looking at why agencies and clients have hit the point of irreconcilable differences. Many of those responses were in agreement. In fact, none were in outright disagreement. This surprised me. A lot of Online Spin readers are people who work for very big agencies. I can only conclude that you elected to show your dissention through your silence.

But there were many that fell in the “Yeah-but” category:

Tiffany Lyman Otten wrote,

“This, like anything, is a sign simply that agencies must evolve – again.

Jill Montaigne adds,

“Yet, our own ongoing advertiser conversations confirm that rather than walking away from their traditional agency relationships, clients desperately need and want their agencies to evolve.”

David Vawter chimes in,

“As long as there is something to sell, people will be needed to create and produce the ideas that sell it.”

Agreed. But…

All of the above comments pointed to a new trend in the marketing ecosystem – that of a network of specialists, often in the form of micro-agencies, that appear to be finding niches to hang on to in the tidal wave of change that is sweeping over our industry.

I used to head one of these agencies. Our area of specialty was in user behavior with search interfaces. We did well in this niche. So well, in fact, that we were eventually acquired by a bigger agency. Bigger agencies are always vertically integrated. As such, they offer clients the one-stop shop model. They move to that model because that is the model they know. It is the model they are programmed to create. It is an organizational form that is dictated by their P&L targets. There is no operational wiggle-room here. They simply can’t become anything else.

Tiffany, Jill and several others all used the word evolve, like it is a magical formula for survival. But evolution is like a tree. Once your branch has been determined, you have to evolve outward from that branch. You can’t suddenly leap to another branch. If you’re a chimpanzee, you can’t suddenly decide one day to evolve into a budgie. You can evolve into a new type of chimpanzee, but you’re still a chimpanzee.

What does happen in evolution, however, is that the environment changes so drastically that the tree is dramatically pruned. Some branches are lopped off, so that new branches can sprout. This is called punctuated equilibrium, and, as I’ve said before, this is what I believe we’re going through right now in marketing. Yes, as David rightly notes, “As long as there is something to sell, people will be needed to create and produce the ideas that sell it.” It’s just that the form that takes may be dramatically different that what we currently know. It could be – correction – will be a marketing ecosystem that will be dominated by new species of marketers.

We tend to equate evolution with change – but evolution is a very specific kind of change. It’s change in response to environmental pressures. And while individual species can evolve, so can entire ecosystems. In that bigger picture, some species will emerge and thrive and others will disappear. What is happening to agencies now is just a ripple effect from a much bigger environmental change – analogous to a planet size asteroid slamming into the business and marketing ecosystem that evolved over the past two centuries.

Big agencies are the result of corporate evolution in the previous ecosystem. We are quick to take them to task for being slow, or dumb, or oblivious to client needs. And perhaps, in the new ecosystem, those things are true. But those are the characteristics of the species. No agency intends to be dumb or unresponsive. It’s just an evolutionary mismatch caused by massive disruption in the environment.

These things happen. It’s actually a good thing. Joseph Schumpeter called it Creative Destruction. But, as the name implies, it’s a zero sum game. For something to be created, something has to be destroyed.

Why Agencies and Clients are Calling It Quits

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“Love on the Rocks – ain’t no surprise.”

Neil Diamond

In yesterday’s Online Spin, Maarten Albarda signaled the imminent break up of agencies and clients. Communication is close to zero. Fingers are being pointed. The whisper campaign has turned into outright hostility.

When relationships end, it can be because one of the parties is just not trying. But that isn’t the case here. I believe agencies are truly trying to patch things up. They are trying to understand their one-time life partner. They are desperately gobbling up niche shops and investing in technology in order to respark the flame. And the same is true, I believe, on the client side. They want to feel loved again by their agency of record.

I think what’s happening here is more akin to a break up that happens because circumstances have changed and the respective parties haven’t been able to keep up. This is more like high school sweethearts looking at each other 20 years hence and realizing that what once bonded them is long gone. And, if that’s true, it might be helpful to look back and see what happened.

The problem here is that the agency is a child of a marketplace that is rapidly disappearing. It is the result of the creation of the “Visible Hand” market. In his book of the same name, Alfred Chandler went to great lengths (over 600 pages) to chronicle the rise of the modern organization. The modern concept of an advertising agency was a by-product of that. Vertically integrated organizations came about to overcome some inherent inefficiencies in the market – notably the problem of geography and the lack of a functional marketplace network that came with rapid expansions in production and transportation capabilities. Essentially, markets grew too rapidly for Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” to be able to effectively balance through market dynamics. Organizations grew to mammoth size in order to provide internal efficiencies that allowed for greater profitability. You had to be big to be competitive. Agents of all types filled the gaps that were inevitable in a rapidly expanding market place. Essentially an agent bridged the gap between two or more separate nodes in a market network. They were the business equivalent of Mark Granovetter’s “weak tie.”

Through the 20th century advertising agents evolved into creative houses – which is where they hit their golden period. But why was this creativity needed? Essentially, agencies evolved when advances in production and distribution technologies weren’t enough to expand markets anymore. Suddenly, companies needed agencies to create demand in existing and identified markets through the sparking desire. This was the final hurray of the “visible hand” marketplace.

But the explosion of networking technologies and the reduction of transactional friction is turning the “visible hand” market back into the “invisible hand” market of Adam Smith – driven by the natural laws of marketplaces. The networks of the marketplace are becoming more connected than ever.

This is a highly dynamic, cyclical market. Straight line strategic planning doesn’t work here. And straight line strategic planning is a fundamental requirement of an agency relationship. That level of stasis is needed to overcome the inherent gaps in a third party relationship. Even under the best of circumstances, an arm’s length relationship can’t effectively “make sense” of the market environment and react quickly enough to maneuver in this marketplace. And, as Albarda points out, the client-agency relationship is far from healthy.

The ironic part is all of this is that what was once an agency’s strength – its position as a bridge between existing networks, has turned into its greatest vulnerability. Technology has essential removed the gaps in the market itself, allowing clients to become more effectively linked to natural networks of customers through emerging channels that are also increasingly mediated by technology. Middlemen are no longer needed. Those gaps have disappeared. But the gap that has always been there, between the agent and the client, not only still exists, but is widening with the breakdown of the relationship. Agencies are like bridges without a river to span.

If you read the common complaints from both sides in the presentations Albarda references , they all come from the ever-widening schism that has come from a drastic change in the market itself. Simply put, the market has evolved to the point where agency relationships are no longer tenable. We on the agency side keep saying we need to reinvent ourselves, but that’s like saying that a dog has to reinvent itself to become a fish – it’s just not in our DNA.