Today’s Sci-Fi Writers are Tomorrow’s Don Drapers

This piece originally appeared on Digiday.


William Gibson.

If I were hiring at an advertising agency, in addition to looking at VCU Brandcenter or Miami Ad School I’d be looking for graduates of the MFA programs at universities like Iowa, Michigan and Texas; they are turning out the next generation of great writers.

Having written content for a variety of platforms and channels, award-winning science-fiction author and noted scientific consultant David Brin understands the challenges facing advertising-industry pros. He suggests that “in times of very rapid change, a good source of ideas can be the literary genre that’s all about change and its effects on human behavior.”

I’ve read more than my fair share of books on marketing, advertising, branding and the like. But sometimes I read fiction to escape from the demands of the job. Science fiction, in particular, is an area of the bookstore (or section of Amazon) that I frequent more than others. What sparked this idea comes from some of the science-fiction books I’ve read recently.

The “Bigend” trilogy by William Gibson, for example, features a woman who is a marketing consultant, or possibly even a planner, as the heroine. “IQ84″ by Haruki Murakami follows a math teacher and part-time novelist embroiled in a mystery surrounding a fantasy novel and its author. “REAMDE” by Neil Stephenson centers around a cast of characters that have created, work for or play a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), similar to World of Warcraft. Not a space alien, laser beam or rocket ship in sight. These are three of the biggest names in science fiction, and their worlds are contemporary, their characters just a shade or two removed from what we in the marketing industry do every day. But perhaps more importantly, what the writers themselves do is becoming closer and closer to what we have to do every day.

The role of the brand steward has always been to tell stories — to make the customer believe a lie, as Seth Godin famously wrote in his “All Marketers are Liars.” But the method of the storytelling has changed, and it more closely resembles the intricate plots and complex narratives so masterfully crafted by the likes of Brin, Gibson, Murakami and Stephenson.

With the explosion of platforms, channels and technologies available to marketers now, a new skill set is required. Simply having

On Mad Men, it was account exec Ken Cosgrove who wrote Science Fiction. But in real life, sci-fi writers would make great creatives like Don Draper.

a presence on five different social networks, three blogs and two websites to go along with an advertising campaign takes into account neither the sophistication of consumers nor their hunger for a cohesive story. Steven Johnson, in “Everything Good is Bad for You,” explains how storytelling on shows such as “Lost” or “The Sopranos” has risen to meet the needs of consumers who have come to expect, and demand, these densely packed narratives filled with a host of characters and interwoven subplots.

So why, if video games like Bioshock, movies like “Inception” and books like “House of Leaves” are so popular, do we not demand the same type of sophistication from our marketing efforts? Why do we, as an industry, not strive for the same level of complexity and depth in creating a story with which consumers want to engage?

Yes, in some cases we do see transmedia storytelling efforts, usually in the service of big films (and often these are science-fiction or comic-book movies), but why can’t a car company or a mobile carrier have a deep narrative structure running through all of its consumer touchpoints? The answer surely isn’t that consumers don’t want this. The answer, more likely, is simply that people in the advertising industry haven’t been formally trained in creating these sort of plot structures. But professional writers have.

If this notion seems a bit far fetched to you — science-fiction writers employed in the service of a brand — here’s who didn’t think it was crazy: Intel. In trying to better understand how its products might be used by, and benefit, consumers in the future, it created the Tomorrow Project, enlisting the help of scientists, and science-fiction writers, to come up with plausible scenarios for the future.

As elements such as video content and social media interaction continue to play a larger role in consumer-facing efforts by brands, the opportunities for people who can create characters and plots, who understand pacing and dramatic tension, will grow and there will be a talent war for these people among agencies. Now is the time to start finding these future advertising stars.

Is the time right for a new distribution model for top quality broadcast content?

AMC needs Mad Men more than Mad Men needs AMC

The velocity and degree of change in the media sector the last 15 years is almost beyond comprehension. From print publications to video distribution, music sales to book delivery systems, just about every medium and media has seen upheaval.  Of course the catalyst for all this has been the Digital Revolution. Now we see Digital Rev 2.0 taking shape as mobile – from phones to tablets – and social reshape the landscape further.

Jim Louderback, the CEO of Revision3 Internet Television, recently wrote in Ad Age about how the Digital Revolution – the scourge of traditional media – may actually be the salvation for dying cable channels in a piece called, Zombie Cable Channels Poised for Second Life Online. Louderback, a longtime veteran of media content plays, sees a future where niche cable channels jump to online as a distribution channel.

I think Jim is on the right track here. But maybe rather than full networks shifting online, the model of the future for video content will be closer to what we are seeing with music. Is the time right for someone to do with video content what Radiohead, Trent Reznor and other music acts are doing – self-distribution. This model, on a small scale, is already starting to happen, and with top talent involved, like the Joss Whedon – Neill Patrick Harris vehicle, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

The concept of the “Network,” whether the broadcast stalwarts like NBC, CBS and ABC or more recent upstart cable operations like Fx or Starz, is really an outmoded one.  People today have no allegiance to particular channels, they just watch content, and often when they want and now on the platform they want. So, why does a guy like Matthew Weiner, the man behind Mad Men, need AMC?  Why couldn’t he simply distribute his property via iTunes, for say $2.99 an episode? The other revenue streams – product placement, Season DVDs, books, licensed merchandise, integrated marketing tie-ins and yes, even commercials, all could still be in place. And all those options would be critical as putting on a production the quality of Mad Men or Lost is a costly one indeed. I’ll be honest, I haven’t done the math so maybe the business model doesn’t hold up right now. But I find it hard to envision a future in which this doesn’t happen.

And the big winner in all this could be Apple. Once you get off the TV and look at other distribution models, Apple is in a pretty good position. Though Google or Amazon could easily get in the game as well. A consumer buys a season pass for a show for $30 and downloads to the device of their choice (set top, iPad, Android mobile device…) as new episodes become available.

Joss Whedon - Distribution Revolutionary with Dr. Horrible.

Then perhaps a new type of network comes to life. Perhaps a brand – Nike or Coca-Cola or Starbucks – starts to aggregate these independent shows around themes that are relevant to the brand and the people who are fans of the brand. These brands would help promote these shows or perhaps subsidize and host the shows on their online or mobile hubs, allowing people to download the shows for free.

Let’s call this “The Nextwork.” A model where independent production companies produce content for channels (mobile, laptop, set-top) sponsored by brands. NBC, CBS, USA, TNT? Time to meet your friends print newspapers and music CDs in the House for Obsolete Media Empires.

Television’s Disappearing Middle

There's still a place for quality on TV

There's still a place for quality on TV

This weekend Grant McCracken wrote about television and the changing nature of programming on basic cable and network television. He notes how once “highbrow” networks like Bravo, A&E and TLC now traffic in ‘trainwreck’ shows like The Real Housewives of… and John and Kate Plus 8. Grant references a terrific article from TVbythenumbers which you can read here. While it’s certain that reality programming has gripped television (it’s cheap and it draws ratings) I think I see some other things at play here as well.

We often he talk of the disappearing middle class in America. At seemingly the same time, we have a disappearing of the middle on television. Not a socio-economic middle, but a creative middle. It seems like television is starting to divide into two options: Insultingly stupid and/or cheap on one side, high quality, even challenging, fare on the other.

My viewing habits have changed significantly in the last 15 years, but it seems to me the well done, yet broad appeal shows are not as plentiful as they used to be. Sitcoms like Wings or News Radio. Dramas like Northern Exposure or thirtysomething. These weren’t groundbreaking shows, but they were smart enough, yet appealed to a fairly wide audience.

Also seeming to disappear are the smart sitcoms that appealed to the masses – Frazier, Seinfeld; or the lowbrow shows that were still smart like Home Improvement, Everybody Loves Raymond or even Roseanne. The only thing close to this (and I’m guessing because I’ve never watched it) is Two and a half men. Most of the network shows in the Top 20 now seem to be game shows, reality shows or reality-game shows.

But wait a second, it’s not all bad, for at the same time, we’re seeing some of the best original programming the small screen has ever seen. In the last 10 years, we’ve been treated to The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, The Shield, Sex and the City  and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Yes, those are all cable (and mosty premium cable), but I’m not making a distinction on that note – it’s all television.

It seems we’re being given a choice: Traditional comedy and drama formats of an exceptionally high level, or “check your brain at the door” reality and game shows. Now, certainly there are some mediocre dramas and comedies just as some of the reality and game shows are well produced and quite fun, but it’s the shows at the far ends of the spectrum that are drawing the attention (awards and/or ratings).

Opiate for the masses

Opiate for the masses

It will be interesting to see how if sites like Hulu, Funnyordie or even YouTube start to generate original content that can jump to the big screen, and if so, which direction it will go in.

The Lesson? It's Obvious.

Last week a friend of mine, Matt McQueen from Omnigage (they do experiential marketing, check ’em out), sent me an email about something called Obvious Adams. To be honest, I had know idea what he was talking about. Turns out Obvious Adams is a book, written in 1916, by Robert R. Updegraff.  It’s the story of an advertising man with an uncanny knack of seeing the… obvious. The book, which you could read over a long lunch, isn’t particularly remarkable.

What I did find interesting was that it was written almost 100 years ago and that despite being about a subject I care about and am familiar with, I had never heard of it, or its author. I was also intrigued by the way I received book. Not a hard copy, or even a link to a slick website. Matt send me a pdf attachment. Here it is.

I think this has a chance to spread, and I think the timing is right for it to do so. The premise – keep things simple – seems right for 2009.  Let’s see if this becomes an ideavirus.

Mad Men – Consumer Participation Continues To Fill The Void

All Your Don Draper Are Belong To Us

All Your Don Draper Are Belong To Us

By now you’ve read Bud Melman’s memo and seen the first two episodes of Digital Mad Men, the very clever appropriation by Allen Adamson of Landor. As we reach the end of the year, this whole thing really brings home some of the things I’ve focused on this year and some of the trends I think will really take prominence in 2009.

It all starts with great content. Mad Men is a terrific show, which was confirmed by its Emmy win this year. Strong content leads to what I call a Deeply Immersive Narrative Universe. Consumers loved the content so much they weren’t satisfied to simply watch, they wanted to participate. From that we got Mad Men on Twitter.

Here’s Allen on the subject:

Be it active or passive, voluntary consumer participation is a cool branding tool

Even the savviest marketer will tell you that you can’t deem a brand-building tactic cool unless a consumer deems it cool, no matter how great an arbiter of cool you think you are. In fact, the savviest marketers will tell you that the most successful brand-building tactics are, more often than not, the handiwork of consumers, given the control they’ve been ceded as a result of the digital evolution. They’ll also tell you that the best advocacy-generating cool is interactive, like the recent ad-hoc Twitter initiative for AMC’s Mad Men, where thousands upon thousands of devotees of the show set up accounts to follow the lives of the characters. This user-generated socialization of content has taken on a life of its own and AMC, while initially a bit nervous at its loss of control over how the characters “tweet” each other, has come to the conclusion that this voluntary consumer engagement adds an incredible meta-level of depth to the program and its inhabitants, not to mention gives the network PR that money just can’t buy.

Getting a consumer to deem a passive online experience cool enough to pass along is also a vote of confidence that money can’t buy. For example, my current YouTube spoof, Digital Mad Men,

If you can get an initiative to catch on with consumers, cool. Be it active or passive, voluntary consumer participation is a great brand-building tool. Getting consumers engaged, especially through social media, can help bring a brand to life and build a deeper relationship with its customers. uses the show as a point of reference, an entertainment vehicle, to illustrate how digital is changing the “tools and conversation” but not the office dynamics of agency life. It also points out that in order to get more than a few thousand eyeballs you need to have content that goes beyond the category of clever to industry insiders.

Here’s Episode Three of Allen’s Digital Mad Men series…

Joe Pulizzi of Junta42 is one of the foremost advocates of content marketing. He points out that even in these tough economic times, brands are still looking to spend in this area.

Now is not the time to be pulling back on marketing, it’s just time to think differently about how you create excitement about your brand. Creating dynamic content, telling compelling stories and producing branded media is a way to speak to consumers in a way that engages.