We’re out of control and we need to learn to love it.
By John Lowery, Head of Planning, Grey London1
Some observations and thoughts on the new paradigm that is ripping
marketing and advertising to shreds.
I’ve been in the business of advertising for a little over twenty years now and during
that time the clamour for change has been ever-present. The truth is however, that by
and large things have carried on as normal. Brief comes in, commercial goes out, and
sales, hopefully, go up. But now it seems that at last, our world really is changing. It’s
changing in a profound way, an exciting way and, actually if I’m honest, a really,
really scary way.
Branding has been, since its very beginnings, an attempt by companies to control the
world around them. We’ve used it to control pricing, margins, distribution and the
competition. Most of all however, branding has been used to try to control what
people think about the products and services we offer them.
Even to this day, much of the advertising that gets produced addresses people in a
didactic fashion, attempting to dictate their opinions and attitudes toward our
products and services. Advertising is still frequently treated as if it were little more
than propaganda – tell people what we want them to think about our brands and
they’ll think it.
But brands aren’t actually tangible. Brands are, and always have been, only a loose
collection of impressions and associations in people’s minds. We don’t own brands,
people do. As marketing and advertising practitioners, we are at most their temporary
custodians. So although we might be able to nudge and chivvy the impressions that
people have of brands, we don’t control them, nor have we ever done so.
You will be familiar I’m sure, with the fact that, in the minds of the British public,
Fairy Liquid is inextricably associated with a children’s programme called Blue Peter.
A Fairy Liquid bottle was the essential foundation of every child’s construction project.
Fairy took on this resonance in our cultural milieu in the 60’s and 70’s, long before
product placement became a commonplace part of the marketing armoury. Procter
and Gamble and Grey didn’t attach these associations to Fairy, it was out of their
Interestingly in 1997, Grey made a commercial which showed a small boy frustrated
by the lack of a washing up liquid bottle to complete his model rocket. Because his
mother’s Fairy lasted so long he had to wait. And wait. Unlike his friend up the road,
whose mother plainly used (nudge, nudge) an inferior brand. I think there are a
number of ways of interpreting this commercial. In one sense you might see it as an
attempt to repatriate the brand, to take control of those values that Valerie Singleton,
John Noakes, Leslie Judd and the other Blue Peter presenters have attached to it. An
1This essay borrows heavily from a number of people, but special thanks are due to Martin Runacles of Ultegra
alternative and a more enlightened interpretation is that it forms a part of a
rudimentary conversation that Fairy is having with the people who buy and use the
product. The ad acknowledges those unforeseen out-of-control brand associations,
albeit 20 years after they began to be attached to it and gently reminds people of the
reason for Fairy’s existence. It builds on the ‘point’ made by the consumer, just like the
parties involved in a conversation build upon one another.
I’ll return to conversations in a minute, but in the meanwhile I want to take a look at
the way the world has changed since 1997, because since then the tsunami that Nicolas
Negroponte forecast in ‘Being Digital’ has broken over our shores.
Since 1997 pretty much everything has been digitised bar the food that we eat. As if
proof were needed we’ve just witnessed the first ever single reaching number one on
the back of download sales alone.
Since 1997 the phenomenon that is ad avoidance has been given massive new impetus
by the arrival of cheap hard drives and a fast forward button that moves at times 32.
And while I have some sympathy with the research recently reported in Admap (Jan.
2006) that revealed that commercials watched at this speed can still trigger positive
emotions, if people have seen the ads before at normal speed, surely that can’t be the
future for our business.
Since 1997 the internet’s gone mainstream. Broadband penetration in the UK has now
reached more than 30% of households. And I’m sure you’ve read that the amount of
time people in the UK spend on the internet has now overtaken the time they spend
And since 1997 we’ve seen the mass adoption of social software which is
democratising the internet’s content. Technorati estimates that there are now 33million
blogs in cyberspace, a number that’s being added to at a rate of 75,000 a day. (Visit the
site and you can almost see the total clicking over.)
If we ever had a sense of control before, we certainly shouldn’t now. Control now rests
very squarely in the hands of the consumer. They have control over what they watch,
when they watch it and increasingly where they watch it. Perhaps more significant
still is the powerful new voice that the consumer has been given. Where once upon a
time the only tricky consumers a company came upon were those rather sad
subscribers to Which magazine or that a tiny number of Naomi Klein-reading, Green-
voting, sandal-wearing activists, things have changed beyond all recognition. Many of
these newly empowered consumers have taken to their keyboards to express their
opinions about our products and services.
Maybe you’ve followed what recently happened to the reputation of Kryptonite Bike
Locks. If not, type ‘Kryptonite Bike Locks’ into Google. Top of the results comes the
company’s website trumpeting, in no uncertain terms, that ‘Kryptonite bicycle locks
are the standard and popular choice for the best in bicycle security’. Unfortunately for
Kryptonite, nestling uncomfortably beneath the manufacturer’s website are 670,000
other sites, blogs and forums offering up an alternative point of view. Apparently
these locks do offer security, but not if the thief is armed with that safe-cracker’s
favourite – a Bic biro. No, you don’t need bolt-cutters, a sledgehammer or dynamite; a
Bic biro can open the lock in a matter of seconds. There are even videos on the net
showing you how to do it. Incredibly the Q&A section of Kryptonite’s website makes
no acknowledgement of this failing; whether they’ve done anything about it, if the
failing applies to all their locks or just some of them, what you should do if you’ve just
blown £50 on one of these ‘high security systems’. Nothing.
People are out there trying to have a conversation with Kryptonite and they’ve got
their hands over their ears and are humming the theme tune from The Archers. I’m
not sure that’s a sustainable position.
Kryptonite isn’t alone in ignoring the conversations going on around it. Sony has
recently been hammered by the discovery of the Rootkit software that helpfully
installs itself on your PC when you try to rip one of their CD’s and then opens up
security holes in your machine. Sony’s first response, like Kryptonite, was denial. Once
again hands over ears humming. Their later attempts to control the discovery were
risible. Only belatedly has an apology been forthcoming, but the damage has been
done. Type Sony and Rootkit into Google and you’ll get nearly 4million results back.
Sony eventually settled the case out of court but at what cost to their reputation.
Even the supposedly good guys have taken a pasting.
Type ‘iPod’s dirty secret’ into Google and you’ll discover why Apple ended up having
to invest in extending the iPod’s battery life. Type in ‘iPod nano screen crack’ and
Google returns a quarter of a million results, some of which detail the class action law
suits that were filed against Apple. Not great for a brand that’s trying to nurture its
reputation as a consumer champion.
Stepping back, there would appear to be a number of lessons to be learned from these
examples of consumer activism. The first is that the days when companies could get
away with what is frankly crooked behaviour are over. Unlike journalists who might
be bought with a boozy lunch, bloggers are less inclined to play ball. What’s more,
with 33million of them out there, the T&E budget could quite quickly get out of hand.
A recent experiment showed that, thanks to networking, Stanley Milgram’s six degrees
of separation has now dropped to 4.6 and this despite the population increase that has
taken place in the interim. Although I’m not sure what that 0.6 of person at the end of
the chain looks like, for sure she’s not going to be buying a Kryptonite lock.
So if our Augean stables aren’t as pristine as they might be, we’d better have a crisis
management strategy in place, because exposure and the ensuing chaos are only a
matter of time away.
Another, perhaps more pertinent lesson, is that the notion of the passive, slothful,
consumer that we held dear during the heydays of one-way broadcast media is a false
one. In his keynote speech to the Marketing Society last week, Professor John
Naughton pointed out that…
“People have always been thoughtful and articulate and well-informed but up to
now relatively few of them have made it past the gatekeepers who controlled
access to the publication media.
“Blogging software and the Internet gave them the platform they needed and boy
have they grasped the opportunity.” 2
This ‘people’s publishing movement’ might not be so significant if it were not for the
fact that we are increasingly taking our cues not from institutions and corporations but
from our fellow men and women, those people who are doing the publishing. We’ve
all seen the data that reveals the erosion of trust in big business. In the post-Enron,
post-Worldcom world, the spirit of deference is on its last legs. Arm yourself with
some social software, garner a decent online reputation and an individual can shape
the decisions of thousands, maybe millions. You can turn them against capitalism, turn
them against business, turn them against brands. Hell, if you want to, you can bring
the entire damned system down.
Well maybe, but you might also want to use your new found consumer power in a
In December 2004, Wired News reported the tale of school teacher George Masters and
his home made ad for the iPod.3 When I stumbled upon a link to it I thought ‘hey this
is cool’. For about 3 seconds. Then this went through my head…
O h . M y . G o d . I ’ v e . J u s t . L o s t . M y . J o b .
It’s happened to me, not some poor guy in a warehouse on the outskirts of Staines. I
have been dis-intermediated. And actually you probably have too, if you work in
marketing, research, production, media sales, media buying, media planning or any of
the other associated industries.
Apple had nothing to do with the ad, nor did their agency. One day Mr Masters just
decided to make it. In his kitchen. And since 2004 it’s been seen by millions. When
interviewed by Wired he said… "It's off-brand but that's the point. That's the fun of
being one guy. You're not limited by a style guide or a creative director. You can
branch out and think different."
Can you hear that noise? It's the sound of a thousand brand pyramids/triangles/
keyholes/temples/whatevers being ripped up and thrown in the bin.
(By the way, how sweet of him to turn Apple’s advertising line back on them. If they
just for a second thought they might send the lawyers after him, he made sure that
would be just a shade embarrassing.)
Since I found the iPod ad I’ve found ads for Sony, Nike and Pringles. All home made,
sometimes in a matter of hours. All swirling around in the cyberspace for anyone with
an internet connection to find.
2 See ‘The age of the permanent net revolution’ (The Observer, March 5th 2006) for more of his speech and also for
the origins of several of my examples above.
This is like 1976 all over again. Only this time it’s Punk advertising, not rock, that’s
overthrowing the establishment.
Sometimes these positive brand interventions take more bizarre forms than home-
made commercials. Three or four years ago the Pringles brand personality received a
unexpected fillip when it was discovered that the cans could be used to help you hack
into an unencrypted wireless network. Take a quick surf and you’ll find detailed
instructions, photographs, diagrams, the whole shebang.
I’m not sure whether ‘subversive’ and ‘edgy’ are values that appear on the Pringles
brand triangle, but they sure are in the heads of a lot of its consumers.
When I asked a member of our IT department about this he said “Oh yeah, it’s great
that you don’t need to wash the tin”. Eh? “Yeah. If there was grease in there it would
degrade the signal.” Ahh, of course. There I was thinking that the benefit of grease-
free chips was ‘an easier eat’, but no, the consumer’s in control and he’s decided it
allows him better to pry into your banking details.4
Some companies have observed what’s going on in this new media environment and
have blundered in attempting to apply the old controlling paradigm. Unsurprisingly
exposure is just a click or two away. Check out the sorry tale of Reckitt’s creation of a
faux blog for Barry Scott (the hectoring TV spokesman for Cillit Bang)5 and you’ll see
the perils of getting it wrong. Tom Coates, a blogger who works for Yahoo, described
Reckitt’s efforts as “revolting, corrupt, cynical, disgusting, sick and dishonourable”6.
Probably not the reaction they’d hoped for.
Other companies however, are learning to live with, or even love, their lack of control.
Notable in this respect is Microsoft; a company (previously) known for its
authoritarian outlook, which has allowed employee Robert Scoble, along with
thousands of others, to create blogs that let you take a peek inside the organisation. If
you want to know how Vista is or isn’t coming along, there’s probably no better source
than Scoble’s blog7. In a recent article he said:
“In order for the blog to be effective, the blogger has to have some freedom. A
blogger can't lose credibility with readers. If they sense that you're phony, they're
gonna leave. At the same time, you want to get the right message out.
“An effective blog is one that shares information and listens. If people come to
realize that your blog comes from a real person who has something valuable to
say, then you’ll get your product message out. But, you also have to be credible.
That means linking to other people's opinions, even if they're negative about your
company and products. When customers realize that you're listening, the
shrillness in their tone goes down.”
4 By the way, I’m not suggesting for a moment that members of our IT department hacking into your wireless
That’s an interesting thing about blogs of this kind, although they’re ostensibly a kind
of diary online, the listening part is as important as the talking part. It’s marketing as
intimate conversation rather than as broadcast didacticism. As a recent leader in the
Guardian (a newspaper that is itself big on blogging) noted, “Suddenly the global
village has its own continuous conversation.” The Cluetrain Manifesto’s predictions
are coming to pass. The conversations of the original markets are returning. The
conversation between Fairy and its users needn’t now have 20 year gaps between each
party’s contribution, they can be as fast as your typing skills allow.
Cadbury Schweppes have recently launched a blog for their graduate recruits, which
can only be a good thing, but maybe the conversation needs to penetrate the whole of
the business. Perhaps CEO, Todd Stitzer should start his own blog.
AOL is, of course, a company that has embraced the conversation as a marketing tool
and nowhere is that better exemplified than on the /discuss website. As well as
hosting the twenty essays that precede this one, the /discuss website has encouraged
consumer comment and, to date, more than 3,000 postings have been made.
Another company that’s utilised the blogging phenomenon to its benefit is the South
African wine brand Stormhoek. Last May, six months after it launched, the owner
Nick Dymoke-Marr despatched a bottle of his mid-price Sauvignon Blanc to 150 UK
bloggers and sat back to watch what happened. Less than a year later Stormhoek
accounted 1 in 5 of all the South African white sold at more than £5/bottle in the UK.
Apparently retailers began stocking the brand in response to requests from customers
who’d read about it on blogs.
Interviewed in the Daily Telegraph, Dymoke-Marr made a number of points about the
experience, including these:
“The great thing is that if someone complains on their blog we can see it, reply
and do something about it. How often do companies get such an open dialogue
with their customers?”
“I don't know where the dialogue will go next. The thing is that you can't control
the message. You just wind it up and let it go.”
It would seem that Stormhoek is out of control, and loving it.
I know it’s terrible cliché, but at this point I am going to have to mention them - Artic
Monkeys. Out of control and loving it.
More recently, Sandi Thorn. Out of control and loving it.
Linux, Ohmynews and Wikipedia. All of them out of control and loving it.
It’s tiny example, but have you seen the Camper shoe shop wall? There’s a blank wall
in their shops on which you can write whatever you want, even if it’s critical. It seems
you can be out of control in old-media too.
If you’ve got more examples to contribute then the comment button is beckoning. But
before you start work I feel it’s incumbent upon me to try to work out where this
leaves us? What are the over-arching lessons from all this stuff? What might we take
on board so as to avoid waking up one morning and finding we have in fact been dis-
The first thing to say is… I certainly don’t have the answer to coping with the new out-
of-control-marketing paradigm. (I’m not sure anyone does, although I’d be delighted
for you to prove me wrong.) So here are a few themes and suggestions that have
occurred to me.
The first suggestion is obvious. Having a good product helps and having a brilliant
product helps more. It helps also not to have any ‘dirty secrets’. As journalist Ben
Hammersley, pointed (shouted) out repeatedly at the recent Guardian Media Futures
Conference… “Google will find you out”.
Next thought… even if we’re squeaky clean it’s probably a good idea to accept that not
everyone will like what we make. The difference is they now have the means to let us
know. So, assuming your psychology is robust enough, it’s probably worth trying to
find out what people are saying about your products and services. Get online. Surf
and search. Start with Google. Visit epinions.com. Sift through the forums and blogs
sites. Find out what’s being said. In effect the internet’s becoming a magnificent free
research database so we might as well make use of it. Who knows, we could learn how
to win our detractors over.
Part of the process of winning over detractors, and of course strengthening
relationships with supporters, will be to talk to them. If, as it seems, conversations are
going to replace didacticism as the means by which companies communicate with
their customers, then we ought to start some conversations; ideally conversations that
take place with the totality of a company’s hierarchy. So if you haven’t, start your own
blog and get in touch with the world outside.
On reflection, perhaps we should now stop considering the ‘world outside’ our
companies as being the ‘outside’. The boundaries are blurring between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Forward thinking companies are, what David Muir of The Channel calls, ‘permeable
companies’. Perhaps we should be inviting the consumer in; thinking about going
‘open source’. Maybe it would help to hand over the means of marketing production…
give anyone and everyone the wherewithal to become a George Masters… let people
build on our own work… let them play with our work… host their efforts, whether
they’re critical or supportive. Then we really would be out of control and loving it.
Before we do that however, there is probably one more thing we’d better have if we
want to hang on to our jobs, and that’s an idea. In this new world the significance of an
idea won’t decline, far from it, it’ll become more important. Ideas will help us navigate.
Ideas are what people will gather around. Ideas are the things that will start the
That said; it’s your turn. What do you think?