Who's "Playing" Whom?

Cannes special

As The Cannes Debate took center stage toward the end of the Cannes Lions Festival of International Creativity in June, I found myself watching a classical drama unfold. Established media, played by the CEO of Viacom (Philippe Dauman) versus new media, played by the CEO of Twitter (Dick Costolo), the plot between them set in motion by a third player – the brand custodial agencies, represented by the CEO of WPP (Sir Martin Sorrell). Fully immersed in character, the actors spoke their lines and played their roles perfectly, and even welcomed an unexpected turn at improv, fielding audience questions courtesy of Sir Martin’s Blackberry.

The drama opened, and Goliath rattled his weapons as Viacom unleashed a litany of statistics that pummeled Twitter’s corresponding market and performance values. This time, it seemed that Goliath would perform in battle as expected, securing smug, effortless victory. Yet, as the pitched battle continued, the next hit belonged to the underdog. WPP showed data suggesting a growing number of purchases (doubled in recent years) attributable to David, eating into Goliath’s still impressive figures. The admission prompted a belittling “not enough!” referencing the fact that those figures still proved Viacom’s might.

The drama intensified and Viacom flexed its muscles and claimed its territory.

We, “have the highest percentage of viewers”…a “leading integrated marketer”…for the tech-savvy young we can “amplify what we do”…and later…”we seek measurability and accountability”… because, “you have to know you are delivering the message to the viewers you want to reach.” What we do best is “content creation” and we are, “in the environment in which marketers are comfortable to work”.

The self-confidence continued to flow, padded by layers and layers of assurances that messages well-crafted, well-delivered and well-measured would reach their targets and deliver the desired effect…”because we are driven for profitable results.” The case sufficiently hammered home, a brief pause ensued, as if to intimidate all dissenting opinion.

Twitter offered its retort.

We, “are the best way to keep up with your world”…”when you want immediacy and “life-in-the-moment”… “we are the only platform that is real-time, public, widely-distributed and conversational”…and later continued, “we see that e-commerce is beautifully paired with the immediacy of Twitter for transactions that only make sense in-the-moment”…”we focus on getting content into the conversation and not on creating original content, which allows Twitter to be a platform even for running cities, not to facilitate real-time plebiscites, but to facilitate necessary conversations.”

The difference of perspective between the two actors was stark. Marketers creating and “pushing” content and messages through the vast empire of Viacom versus facilitated conversation and dialogue between brands and interested parties. The plot headed toward crescendo and the actors continued their debate, unaware they were being upstaged, as small players in a much larger drama.

The new stars of the meta-narrative will seem familiar – they are consumers and employees, and so they are us. And the ringing demand they make is to be known personally, and not as parts of a transaction, seeking purpose above profit and community to replace the isolation of individualism. All these demands hint at a rediscovery of the importance of that which makes us uniquely human – to be in relationship with others, and which is often expressed through the gift of conversation. Indeed, to relate is to be human.

And so this debate, which appeared to be about the merits of different platforms and their capability to woo consumers and pry open their wallets is actually about conversation. And in recent years, conversation has been shifting thanks to social media, with its capacity to assemble desire and reflect it as influence on unprecedented scale.

And so the real question facing brand stewards is not, “which media platform do I choose” – legacy or new – but rather, “whom do I serve?”

For the new owners of brands, those who grant them license for the identities that they represent, want meaning – not marketing. They seek community – not coercion. They want relationships – not research. Some businesses are taking note, and they are the relevant ones. They choose a purpose that is worth aspiring to, and live out its relevance to their people and the communities they serve.

And, in recognizance of the importance of relationship, perhaps the best approach for a company is not to be consumed with what platform will prove superior, but rather to ask itself, “in whose conversation might we be granted the great honour to be welcomed and found relevant?”

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For other posts in the Telosity series, click here.

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