I find commercials fascinating. They are so exquisitely vulgar and so delightfully tasteless that they must be irresistible to everyone save the few who aren't enchanted by discussions of nasal passages and digestive tracts.
Alfred Hitchcock

To me style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body -- both go together, they can't be separated.
Jean-Luc Godard

Entropy Gradient Reversals

Trying to Contain Ourselves

Right off the bat, we guess we need to make it clear: this is not a joke, not some devious dissimulation we cooked up. It's exactly what it purports to be, straight up. Which is to say that Chris Worth, unlike some of the characters who populate EGR, is an actual bona fide genuine real person. We met him online just two days ago after mentioning something about new subscribers from Ogilvy & Mather. To this he replied:
Just thought I'd let you know the EGR Ogilvy & Mather vector traces back to me. Several months ago I wrote an essay (www.chrisworth.com/creativework/click.pdf) and emailed it to a friend or two; in four days it got forwarded to over 400 Ogilvyites including my boss, his boss, his boss and her boss -- leading to three job offers, one of which I've taken (in Paris) at twice the money. Vive l'Internet!

But what does this have to do with RageBoy? Well... nothing. Except that the next essay, still in draft, was in the same spirit as your 7 sins article. And since by that time I was quote-unquote famous, my references to you reached the same rarefied strata of the ad business as the first essay did. You may not know people like Neil French and Martin Sorrell, but they know you.

I hope you're pleased. Actually, I hope you're so pleased you'll forgive the obvious plagiarism in that second essay when the final version comes out.

A day later, after thanking Chris for spamming our URL around in high places, but explaining that we'd had subscribers from Ogilvy for quite some time, we got a chance to read this "second essay" -- about that elusive animal called content. We liked it so much we asked permission to publish it here on EGR. In fact, we got so excited about it... well, we could hardly contain ourselves. And not just because he repeatedly uses RageBoy as an example. Though admittedly, that assisted our enthusiasm.

The piece is presented in its entirety below. We also asked Chris for some biographical background and here's what he sent this morning:

I'm an advertising writer and inhouse webhead at Ogilvy & Mather, one of the world's largest advertising agencies. I've spent most of my working life in Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Singapore, and will shortly move to Paris (the thought of which scares me shitless) to do some serious creative destruction at Ogilvy Interactive. I'm a protege of advertising legend Neil French (in fact I spent most of last week with him and several bikini-clad girls in a Bangkok bar) and an admirer of technotheorist George Gilder. My ambition is to suck the best bits out of these two people and become the most radically creative brand expert on the web.

By the way, I now believe that you and the JOHO guy are actually the same person. But I won't tell.

We're not sure whether the sucking remark applies to the brains of Messrs. French and Gilder or to the unsuspected brand-savvy of of the two babes from the Bangkok bar, but we'll let that go. Also, with respect to the identity (or not) of RageBoy® and David Weinberger of JOHO -- The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization -- we're not telling.

But on to the screed. Of course we don't agree with every word of it. As you must know by now, EGR finds agreement generally disagreeable. The Tide and Calvin Klein scenarios certainly strain our willingness to suspend disbelief -- and we wish Ally McBeal would just fucking go away. Nontheless we think this is a hugely important manifesto. We hope you'll agree. More important, we know that if you don't, we'll get an earful of why. And the point of the piece is that it's ultimatley what you think that matters.

Darling, I'm Not Content!

Why content will kill the ad campaign -- and how ad agencies can adapt

By Chris Worth

[This essay is literary freeware: you can send it to anyone, as long as you quote the source.]

The year was 1970. At a party somewhere north of Los Angeles, a radical young director called Dennis Hopper fixed his dilated pupils on old-school Hollywoodian George Cukor and muttered, "You're finished. We're going to bury you. We're gonna take over." And over the next five years, they did.

Fat on formulas and stale plots, the big studios had stopped taking risks and sunk into mulchy lowest-common-denominator blandness, while edgy films like M*A*S*H, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Easy Rider spread across America. Yet Hopper hadn't "succeeded" according to Cukor: Easy Rider had little marketing budget and some camera-work the big studios would've edited out in a flash. So what was feeding Hopper's confidence?

One word: content.

Easy Rider was content. It was something with real substance created by a few talented people because they wanted to. No formula and lots of risk. People saw Easy Rider not because they'd read the reviews, but because a friend told them about it. Its content got bums on seats by word of mouth. And Hopper knew compelling content can outride big budgets.

The same thing is about to happen with advertising. A million niche brands will grip -- have already gripped -- the grassroots with compelling content, while the Proctor & Gambles blast yet more advertising to ABC1s and wonder why they're not listening. Content will bury mass-market advertising the same way Hopper buried Cukor.

And unless ad agencies look up, they'll be six feet under too. (A regional president of a major ad agency recently described many agency bosses as 'contemplative, complacent, fat crypto-Buddhas.')

Because, as couch potatoes move onto the web, they're fragmenting into a million hobby tribes. Most belong to more than one and mix n' match them every month. No clever wordsmithing or art directional pizazz will get them interested; you've got to give them something with substance. The advertising campaign as a distinct media entity is therefore dead.

Let's sum up how content differs from advertising...

Advertising is about knowing your customer. Content is about knowing yourself.

Advertising tells you how to buy tickets on the web. Content is a travel agent putting her travel diary on the web. Advertising tells you the benefits your family will get when you die. Content is a broker's story about rowing to someone's house to assess water damage. Advertising is a house campaign for an ad agency. Content is an art director showing you his etchings. Content tells me who you are. And if I like you, I'll buy from you. But if you ever shove your logo in my face, I'll walk away.

Of course, after reading the travel diary you still need to know how to buy tickets. After seeing the broker's subaqua photos you still need to order the policy. But when those tickets and policies are available from a million places, how do you differentiate your offering? By wrapping your slivers of advertising in tasty rolls of compelling content. By being an interesting place to hang out.

Consultant Christopher Locke (www.rageboy.com/ewc/people.html) uses the term "gonzo marketing." Gonzo marketing is to traditional marketing what Hunter Thompson is to journalism. Gonzo marketing is about not worrying what your customers think. It's about being yourself and standing for something. So to create compelling content you've got to go gonzo. Know who you are and create for yourself. In a webbed world, people who like you will find you.

(Hell, compelling content gets people gunning for you! Ten thousand people with a stake in your success. Versus advertising: a gluey mass of people you've merely persuaded to buy something. There's no contest: content outguns advertising.)

As "RageBoy," Locke sends weekly email rants to several thousand web adepts, sometimes a single anecdote that amused him, sometimes a short story he wrote, sometimes a carefully-constructed essay like the 7 Deadly Sins of Web Marketing (www.rageboy.com/scream3.html). He's funny, erratic and often crude. But he entertains. And as long as he entertains, he's welcome in my emailbox.

The Absolut Vodka site (www.absolutvodka.com) gets it right: it's all content. On the site you'll find content as diverse as a book on evolutionary design, web sculptures around the absolut theme, and a mix-your-own DJ-ing application. No booze. Yet the enigmatic Absolut brand is there on every page, reflected in the content.

And ad agencies? At Kirschenbaum Bond & Partners's website, there's a pageful of private email exchanges between employees culled from the agency's server. Employees make jokes, mock bosses... content never created for the mass market. Yet after reading some of this office banter, you've got a pretty good idea of KB&P's culture. Far more than you'd get from a house ad.

It works in the paperbound world too. Tom Clancy put the first two chapters of his last book on the web; this content compelled punters to buy the book. Consultants Chunka Mui and Larry Downes put the entire text of "Unleashing the Killer App" on their site; I read it all and ended up buying four copies for colleagues.

Software companies rarely advertise; rather, they give away their wares over the web. Once a critical mass of people are actively using this content, they can start charging for it. Content drives software industry sales.

On the web, your brand is your content. Advertising campaigns are media entities inherently without content; ergo, they're dead. To succeed on the web, create content, not ads.

Yet any creative knows what it's like to write an ad from a contentless brief. To create something, you've got to reach inside yourself -- but to succeed you've got to have something there to pull out. On the web, it'll be instantly obvious if you're bluffing. ("We're just soooo excited about our kewl new offering!")

So what do you need to create content on the web instead of campaigns? Three things.

Okay. So now you know how web content works. But how can you foster a culture of content in your ad agencies? Intimate knowledge of Pantones and Jack Lacy's Six Points won't help you create content. Content comes from the gut, from fascination and familiarity and desire to tell a story. These traits are missing in most agencies, yet they're common in other creative companies like software startups. Why?

Large ad agencies are bureaucracies; software startups are "adhocracies." In an adhocracy, everyone does what needs to be done, every day. There are no job descriptions and no mandatory duties. (Venture capitalist Ann Winblad recounts a friend's story: "I think the company that's just moved in next door is a software company -- because nobody ever seems to do anything over there.") Yet software startups are fertile fields for content creation.

It's because software startups have flat structures and vast numbers of interconnections between people. These interconnections -- project teams, object-model experts, shared C++ experience -- are dynamic, changing all the time, but the overall interconnectedness of the startup is constant. By contrast, "integration" in most ad agencies means hardened silos of account service, media, and creative, bound together by business plans written forty years ago. And tighter integration of your experts -- (definition of expert: someone who knows virtually everything about virtually nothing) -- won't work either. It's too static, too brittle. But a discussion of outdated ad agency practices would get us hopelessly sidetracked here. (Oh, all right then. www.chrisworth.com/creativework/click.pdf)

So don't build bonds of steel between a few departments; rather, foster more and looser links between people. Make creativity something anyone can do and give them time to do it. (At San Francisco design house Construct, it's compulsory to spend ten hours a week on your own creative projects; the free time energizes staff to do the paid work.) Hire a poet for a month. Learn Hokkien. Ask a traffic girl out for dinner. Learn to deal with the pain of refusal. Cultivate illegal drugs in the mailroom. Start your own newsletter. Foster email culture.

(One Singapore ad agency recently circulated a mail stating how email was for "business purposes only." A business purpose in the new economy is anything that helps your business -- and the friendships and sense of community fostered by jokes lists and Phwoar!-look-at-this JPEGs certainly fall into this category. Email costs nothing, but can give so much. Accordingly, limiting email to job reqs, briefs and contact reports is idiotic. Let your people use email for anything they want.)

Most importantly, good content, like good literature, ideally comes from just one person. When you're creating something on your own, you've got an incentive to work hard, since you can't rely on anyone else. So make sure everyone has a sizable stake in the work they do. Even mighty Microsoft sensibly keeps its product teams small; Word was ultimately created by around eight people. Creating content is an act of enjoyment. To build a culture of enjoyment, give your people space to play in. Then sack anyone who isn't enjoying himself.

You may protest you can't afford this. Actually, given what's on the way, you can't afford not to.

So to foster a culture of content, turn your agency into a hive instead of a hierarchy. Let a hundred flowers blossom. And let most of them wither, too. Sturgeon's Law states that ninety percent of everything is crap. Nowhere is that truer than with creating content. But as any venture capitalist knows, funding nine software startups increases the chance number ten will gush forth a hundred million IPO dollars.

The content you create may even appeal to no one at first, then suddenly to thousands: it's created a hobby tribe that wasn't there before, just as Tarantino's mention of Met-Rx in a movie turned an obscure health food into a cult. Throw your content out there and let the web do what it wants with it. It might end up starting a tribe. (As an aside, market research as a discipline is in serious trouble here.)

This stuff that holds tribes together is the new brand equity. And to survive, agencies had better get good at creating it.

So advertising campaigns as distinct media entities are dead. But is there any place left for ads?

Perhaps -- if they're part of the content. But not up-front. The paradigm has shifted; consumers will judge you on your content, not your ads. You may say how great you are, but if there's no evidence of it on your site, why the hell should anyone believe you?

One possibility for inserting ads into your content comes, once again, from knowing the technology. Ipix (www.ipix.com) lets users view a wraparound photo as a seamless 3D space. (Imagine being inside a soap bubble with photos of the outside world pasted all over the inner surface.) Natural objects mapped into the scene can contain hyperlinks. Perhaps clicking on a car in the photo leads to a two-minute infomercial about the car brand. This is acceptable to consumers, because you're advertising to them with their permission.

This idea's already been explored in advertising: a famous Diesel campaign had nothing to do with jeans, the branding coming from old Diesel ads playing in shop-window TVs in the background as the commercial told its story. This most postmodern of campaigns is perhaps the way forward. It works because the ad is behaving like content: it's not intrusive, but it's there if you want it. American TV shows sometimes pull the stunt of having characters visit from another show. Ally McBeal took this a stage further, with the storyline split across two series; to get the full story you had to watch both shows. Co-branding ideas like this have huge potential in the open, standards-based environment of the web.

But the future of your ad agencies is branded content, not ads. You'll still create ads, but they'll be a few strategic messages woven into the content you create, not the main show. And the market for content will be huge. Many large companies don't "get" content. Online news services quaked two years ago when dozens of journalists were lured to The Microsoft Network by high salaries; today, most have gone, frustrated by the control over content Microsoft demanded.

So now's the time to start turning your agency into a content hotshop. Your biggest mistake will be thinking you can't do it because you're in the ad business. Wrong.

You are in the communication business.

And the tools of communication tomorrow will be content, not ads.

So be ruthless. Flatten your agency structure. Give control to teenagers. Create skunkworks in your agencies, give them a budget, and let them make magic. Give the suits markers and pads and let the creatives write media plans. Hire evangelists, the way software companies do, not to sell your product but to sell your vision and get people onboard your dreams. Make your agency a mind-blowing hotbed of near-chaos. Out of this firestorm of ideas will come solid content.

And on that note, back to Dennis Hopper. He was both right and wrong. For years the big studios were comatose, putting out flop after flop without knowing what to do about it. Now they've adapted. They've become flatter, skunkworks-type operations, putting together teams of a thousand people who'll work shoulder-to-shoulder for a few months then say goodbye when the movie's in the can.

Today, the blockbuster is back: Titanic grosses a billion dollars and the new Star Wars Trilogy will probably do even better. But the films showing the highest margins -- profits as a percentage of what the film cost to make -- are independent films with sub-$3m budgets. Cukor was thesis; Hopper was antithesis; today we have a synthesis, with The Full Monty and Boogie Nights showing next to Titanic and Men In Black.

But through an Internet lens, most ad agencies today look a lot more like Cukor than Hopper. So Don't Blow It, Man -- it's Saturday afternoon and the sun is shining. Harley revved and ready?

Hit the road.

* * *
Chris Worth <chris@chrisworth.com> is an advertising writer and wannabe web theorist whose last essay, "Click, click, you're dead", won him a new job in Paris with the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather. That essay and other personal views are at:


He wants to be George Gilder when he grows up.

* * *

You say you want a revolution
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we're all doing what we can.

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