The Kuhn Connection

(Or what a scientist from 1962 can teach us about ad tech in today.)

In a moment of frustration after meeting some potential tech partners who seemed not to sense that going forward, ad tech will be about the “how” – not the disruptive “wow,” I wrote a post in Ad Age explaining the importance of operational structure in ad tech: “Here’s the only marketing trend you need to know for 2016”.

While my arguments were lost on the tech folks, the article struck a nerve with Ad Age audiences because it expressed a deeply felt marketer frustration that tech is just too damn dominant in the ecosystem, making a marketer’s job just too hard.

I go on to suggest ad tech is overdue for a “paradigm shift” itself that can disrupt the colossal mess of complexity, fraud and technological black boxes that is now ad tech.  My conclusion is that in 2016, “…marketers will replace the “awe” of algorithmic magic with awe-inspiring new questions about how (not if) we balance ad tech with the art of marketing.”

The groundswell of community support for the post was overwhelming. Amid the inbound, there were tons of questions curious about Thomas Kuhn and secondly, which solutions will realize the promise of integrated user experience out of the current ad tech operational chaos.

Therefore, to answer these questions, let’s take a 50 year trek through the historic evolution of paradigm shifting and the disruptive innovation myth so we can see just how ad tech is about to get disrupted itself (and by whom).

Thomas Kuhn – the Father of Paradigm Shifts.     

Thomas Samuel Kuhn was a noted American physicist, historian, Harvard professor and philosopher of science, who published a highly respected book in 1962 entitled: “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”

The oxymoronic title of the book alone alludes to its quirky nature but does nothing to hint at the profound impact the book was to have in its day and for the next 5 decades.

When Kuhn was working, the 1960’s were tumultuous and exciting times with many major scientific advances being made in rapid succession. Kuhn undertakes, with profound scholastic discipline, to lay the groundwork for how the scientific community can standardize revolutions; using the well-known term “paradigm shifts;” so they are responsibly vetted before being unleashed on the public. Kuhn didn’t invent the term paradigm shift, but he gave it a specific meaning so it could become the foundation upon which scientific progress can rest upon with confidence.

Kuhn was deeply concerned with ensuring that scientific advancement is based on solid evidence and not wild conjecture or speculation. His emphasis on structure (as in the title) reflects Kuhn’s deep ambivalence about the concept of paradigm shifts. Paradigm shifts for Kuhn were extraordinary events that can only occur when there is an increasing number of paradigm-busting anomalies that challenge known paradigms.  He fully appreciated their fundamental place in scientific advances; “[A paradigm shift] represents a shift in the problems available for solutions … transforming the imagination to change the very nature of how the work is done.”

But he advised caution because: “Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change.” This was the scientific version of; “Ah – all these young whipper snappers with their crazy new ideas.” Kuhn was the ancient age of 40 when his book came out.

Kuhn’s Legacy  

Kuhn understood that science was just smart enough to be truly dangerous. He articulated the process for advancement that spoke to generations of scientists because it delivered the needed framework for establishing responsible scientific advancement given the haphazard and dangerous nature of paradigm shifting. His established hallmarks for managing a paradigm shift are:

  • Default position is trust in the current paradigm the scientific community has accepted (“normal science”) even in the face the unexplained anomalies
  • If the number of anomalies continue to increase especially as a result of new data, then the scientific community must reach new agreements about how to measure the characteristic of the anomalies. Note – there is no paradigm jumping going on yet – but a simply a community consensus on how to accurately measure the results observed.
  • Vetting of scientific results must include peer reviews and repeatable results from independent experiments
  • Once community verified, the new paradigm is accepted by the community and thus becomes the “new” normal science
  • “rinse and repeat” …

These principles are widely and rightly credited with the creation of well-established methods and processes for managing paradigm shifts. Kuhn puts tremendous responsibility on the shoulders of the scientific community; “As in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice—there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community… This issue of paradigm choice can never be unequivocally settled by logic and experiment alone.”

All this structure allowed the 1970s, the direct heirs to Kuhn’s ideas,  to be considered the Scientific Golden Age. More than that, Kuhn’s principles gave us nothing less than our very high standard of living because scientific breakthroughs could safely developed and adopted.

Clay Christensen – the Father of Disruption Innovation  

Kuhn may have deeply impacted everyday life but he remained obscure to most folks until Clay Christensen who, in 1997, published the run-away best seller business book called:  ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail.” It was a roadmap for how businesses take “paradigm shifts” (from Kuhn) and create a competitive advantage through “disruptive innovation.” Failure to ride the disruptive innovation wave, the book cautioned, was likely to put a company on the path to destruction. Disrupt or be disrupted became, arguably, the first mega business meme.

At its core, Christensen’s idea rests on Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shift but it was recast in a decidedly sleeker package:

  • Identify those paradigm shifts likely to change industries
  • Create the disruptive innovation to capitalize on the paradigm shift
  • Automate everything so you can produce a product at a lower price with lower but acceptable quality
  • “Rinse and repeat” so as to maintain competitive advantage

Christensen astutely provided stress relief to business leaders who were reeling in the chaos of the 1990’s digital revolution with his “silver bullet” answers to complex problems. The 1990’s were a “Reality be damned as long as it’s disruptive enough” kind of decade.

An important side note is to recognize that in the 1990’s, many future VCs were cutting their teeth at organizations where the Disruption Myth was a widespread, accepted business strategy. As we will see, this plays an important part of our story.

What’s different between Kuhn and Christensen?  

The decades when Kuhn and Christensen were influential had many similarities. Generally speaking, both decades saw major technological advances; the 1960’s focused on industrial scientific advancements and the 1990’s digital revolution kicked off on August 6, 1991 when: “Berners-Lee posted a short summary of the World Wide Web project on the alt.hypertext newsgroup, inviting collaborators.” (Wikipedia). Just a few years later, Amazon and Google launched and the digital revolution attracted investments to anything “dot com.”

Whereas the decades themselves strongly paralleled one another, each man’s response was quite different. For Kuhn, a clearly paid out process for integrating new ideas into scientific knowledge was critical. By contrast, Christensen’s model was more concerned with the “big” concept around the importance of disruptive ideas, leaving big operational (yes – structural) gaps in his theories.

  • How was one to define a paradigm shift?
  • How do these disruptive innovations get incorporated into existing business models?
  • What were standards for measurement?
  • Could technology be duplicated so that it was transparently verifiable?

These and many other questions remained unresolved in Christiansen’s theory because he offers no framework for the industry’s development and evolution for disruptive innovation.

In practical terms, this meant and still means a lot of bumbling around in pursuit of the disruptive idea. Christensen’s meme did what every good meme does – go viral and in the process become a “truth” upon which almost all technological disruption since must rest.

Reality be damned.

In Disruption We [shouldn’t] Trust

Kuhn’s legacy is our trustworthy system to integrate new scientific ideas into our body of knowledge which has helped commercialize many new technologies; improving our standard of living decade after decade.

By contrast, while Christensen’s book itself was financially successful, it seems his theories were not. Probably because of its popularity, it took nearly 17 years for anyone to actually pick apart the math behind the Christensen’s work. Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard University and chair of Harvard’s History and Literature, analyzed the data behind his theories and scathingly observed in her 2014 New Yorker article, The Disruption Machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong:   “Disruptive innovation is a competitive strategy for an age seized by terror …founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation based on shaky evidence.” She continues; “Most big ideas have loud critics. Not disruption. Disruptive innovation …has been subject to little serious criticism,”

Lepore’s goes on to challenge the underlying assumptions about the disruption myth and wryly notes that the investment fund established by Christensen using his principles was a total failure and shut down.

While Christensen spoke to the angst many business leaders felt, he left out any process for vetting the new technologies that were flooding the market. We can’t chalk it up to coincidence that the “dot com” bust happened just three years after Christensen’s book was published, washing away many disruptive Internet ventures. In other words, our faith in disruptive innovation to build sustainable business is as real as a unicorn in the forest.

Christensen’s Legacy Haunts Ad Tech Today

To this day, ad tech continues to live in the shadow of the Disruption Myth, trapped there by an investment community that believes unblinkingly in the ideology of disruptive innovation, largely I think because of their early exposure to Christensen’s model. This devotion shapes what and who VCs invest in, with blinders on as to the effect the tech has on marketers (agency and advertisers). This Ad Age post I did called, “Why Excluding Marketers from the Ad-Tech Boom Is a Failed Strategy” (April 30, 2015) laments the flood of “cool” ad tech that is increasingly detached from the real world of marketing. “My anger swelled at the scope of the marketing efficiency devastation. And my frustration knows no bounds at the abundance of tech “products” with an appalling lack of “productive” solutions. Mostly though, we lack systems where everyone has a chance to benefit — investors, ventures, advertisers, agencies and of course “Judy Consumer.”

The vestiges of the Disruption Myth that continue to haunt ad tech today are:

  • VCs who continue to fund ventures based on their disruptive algorithm or automation platform without considering how the technology lives within the marketing ecosystem
  • CEOs with little or no direct experience in the industry who create disruption without necessarily creating value for marketers
  • The community of marketers that has largely been marginalized leaving the disruptions to be shaped in the VC/ tech echo chamber
  • Measurement standards that are “best we can do” – not the best that can be done
  • Lack of transparency fed by the “black boxing” of disruptive tech

On a human level, Christensen’s legacy means that if you work in marketing today, you are in peculiar type of hell. You appreciate the potential of digital marketing to build businesses yet you’re frustrated at the chaos and corruption of ad tech that is built on pillars of impressions sand funded by disruption-obsessed VC money.

Marketers are reeling from trust issues; between agency and advertiser and between brands and digital audiences. They are reeling from attribution issues and most challenging of all – they are overwhelmed in understanding how measure the artistry of marketing into the ecosystem as an equal partner to the technology. This is why the word “bust” is not far from the lips of any investor in ad tech in a “history repeating itself” déjà vu moment evocative of 2000. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Slaying the Disruptive Innovation Myth.

Till 2014 or so, marketers were all too happy to take a hands-off approach, leaving the geeks to work it out amongst themselves. Marketing trade organizations belatedly scurried to catch up, by that time, the VC disruption die had been cast and tech disruption obliterated any investment in marketing artistry or operational excellence.  Marketers had very much lost control of their own industry.

Reality be damned ads long as it was disruptive enough.

By 2015, though the “disruption” cracks were becoming gaping holes as marketers struggled even more in the fragmented ad tech landscape. An Entrepreneur article I did exposed the high cost of ad tech to people: “Disrupting the Disruption Myth” (August 2014) My aim was to crack open VCs narrow definition of what a disruptive venture can be, using Xiaomi’s (pronounced SHOW-me) phenomenal growth as a prototype of a wildly successful venture without any disruptive tech in sight.

Back in 2014, I may have been just one voice, but by 2015, there was a growing chorus of marketing voices demanding ad tech disruption be about human disruptive technology.

Looking for Disruption in all the Right Places.

If Kuhn had been writing in the 1990’s instead of Christensen, I suspect the ad tech landscape we have today would have been far different. There would have been “community” due diligence around how a disruption is an improvement over existing approaches.  There would have been peer review to establish standards to describe these approaches. And most certainly there is would have been vetting process ensuring that potentially deeply invasive technology is used responsibly and to serve people well.

But as it was, the technologists and the “disruption myth” devotees at investment firms, have been in charge for the last five years with pretty much a free hand to “disrupt” at will. Now that many ventures are struggling – even the high flying ones, many VCs and technologists are scratching their head wondering what went wrong.

Any marketer can tell you. The only thing that ad tech really disrupted is the human element of marketing; so crucial in the creation of meaningful connections between brands and audiences.

That’s why going forward, there will be a new paradigm in marketing where the “how” is more valued by investors than the disruptive “wow.” The ventures emerging will create innovation specifically geared to balancing the art and science of marketing within a structured model of transparency, vetting and measurements. From 2016 and on, the community of marketers will be far more active in creating and assessing the disruptive value of new tech as disruption will mean innovation that drives genuine progress.

Ad Tech Disruption in the Future

By now, we can appreciate how the structured approach to “paradigm shift” that Kuhn imagined, was morphed by Christensen into a non-structured disruptive myth ideology that for ad tech, means a lot of chaos and operational dysfunction.

In 2016, the disruption dust cloud will lift, allowing clear heads to pivot; abandoning their reliance on tech-based disruptions in favor of ventures that focus on operational ad tech as their innovation.

Strategically, these ventures will share some common characteristics that are Kuhn inspired, distinguishing them from their Christensen-imbued predecessors:

  • The distinct lack of disruptive “wow” or black boxes in favor of an operational analytical “how.”
  • Abandoning the near sacred MVP (minimum viable product) model of most ad tech startups in favor of a new MVP = Maximum Valuable Product. Consumers are very sensitive to subtle changes that can occur in frequent platform iteration causing changes to expected campaign ROI.
  • New “outcome-based” SaaS models as marketers begin to drive better contextual experiences through new contextual tech AND processes.
  • Engineering obsession around a highly satisfying and frictionless user experience without ad tech compromise.
  • The financials of these ventures will be realistically investable but also sustainable by the industry. Plainly put, today’s current VC expectation that ventures achieve 60%+ margins is unrealistic causing much of the click fraud that is weighing down the industry.
  • Their leaders will likely be experienced marketers rather than 20 something tech geeks. Marketing is as much about processes as it is automation. It takes real world experience to create that merged vision of art and science.

And the winners are…

Taken together, we will see a blossoming of ad tech over the next five years in various industries and functions making these ventures interesting (and dare I say disruptive):

1) Healthcare as an industry is going through a “retailization” transformation that is largely about creating user responsive systems and services. This is, for the healthcare industry, a paradigm shift as the industry moves from “fee for services” model to an outcome based model.

A host of disruptive marketing technologies will burst onto the market from innovations around wearable tech to tackling the mountains of medical/ provider data. Healthgrade (http://www.healthgrades.com/) is an example of a company working on wrestling all this data into a user friendly format. Today, they help about 1 million people a day make sense of the vast amounts of doctor and hospital data (like reviews) available all customized to meet the needs of that individual. They plan to expand to power better ways for consumers to manage medical expenses through aggregating medical information, offering product information and making it transparent for the patient to decide while managing users’ online security.  Ultimately this, like other ventures in this space, rely on an excellent user experience.

2) Direct marketers are likely to be winners in the new ad tech disruptive game because they are making the leap to deliver personalized experiences where tech supports the very human side of customer acquisition and retention.

Going forward, direct marketers will expand their email/ database capabilities into new marketing cloud offerings like Bombora (http://bombora.com/products ) who; “Aggregate. Organize. Activate.” data to make it incredibly useful for B2B marketers across business applications.  Cue Connect (http://www.cueconnect.com) is also interesting because it takes a “direct” product level approach to helping retailers stay connected with customers and create excellent user experiences. Their online platform gives retailers new insights and tools to provide a better, integrated on/offline shopping experience for their customers using products level (not the more typical user level) insights based on their behaviors (i.e. – share or saving as a favorite).  This product centered approach reflects a sensitive understanding of “how” real people shop for stuff – the “wow” is there but it’s not the point.

3) Content marketing is on ascend almost in direct inverse proportion to the degradation of CTRs on many forms of display advertising.

Today though, this category of ad tech is a messy, fragmented, incomprehensible landscape of content creation, social publishing, sentiment tracking and on. Each venture, eager to be disruptively investable, went deep into a functional silo leaving the marketer with a dizzying myriad of options that don’t play together too well. Native, just one form of content marketing, is an example with its dizzying array of networks and “platforms.”

Disruption here will revolve around ability to deliver true relevant brand messages through contextual advertising technology that will be well-defined; merging human creative process with programmatic RTB technologies. Our venture is an example in this space as we link data related to content and RTB programmatic advertising. Another example is Kargo, a great mobile venture that excels at amazing, rich and personalized video experiences.

4)  The massive business called TV will be (finally) disrupted with the arrival of VR (virtual reality) in 2016 and Apple TV which will drive the final nail in the old world TV distribution model. The paradigm shift here will be the reverse of control from broadcasters and content providers to individuals where video streaming, gaming, shopping are all delivered seamlessly across devices.  It is likely that TV disruption will come from the mega networks (ie Facebook) as any large tech company (ie Samsung).

The way forward depends on the human element.

Current marketing chaos is rooted in an excruciatingly unsustainable model imposed on marketers by VCs who limit their vision to disruption described with words like scale, algorithm and SaaS anything.

But now the alarm bell is ringing in everyone’s ears because more money is spent on more tech, yet marketers are getting less done and investors are getting less returns.

We can do better and Kuhn showed us the way.  In 2015, marketers have experienced a paradigm shift of their own in the form of community unity propelling marketers to take back control from the technologists. Redemption will come from discarding the unproductive Disruptive Innovation mythology from our thinking (it may take VCs longer to let of this cherished tenant) and replacing it with a disciplined process as Kuhn imagined but coupled with a new sensitivity around the need for practical solutions that allow marketers to create new user experiences.

2016 will see the triumph of marketing brains and art over pure disruptive tech brawn. I’d like to think would Kuhn be proud.

The essence of business complexity expressed in pictures

This is the MOST accurate, intelligent, comprehensive explanation of why big companies manage to mess up great ideas time and time again. Pure genius.

The Surprised Entrepreneur – Why Me?

These posts about my journey with this new venture are often characterized as a surprise. In fact, it’s a surprise on so many levels that the unlikeliness of this enterprise is, in itself, a pretty big surprise.

So in this sea of surprises – the biggest surprise rests in the unlikeliness of me as the one to coalesce this vision; only useful to ponder so that we know what makes us different from many other marketing tech companies out there today.

Clearly I am an outlier given my age, gender, training and temperament causing even the casual observer to wonder: “Why me?”

On the surface, one could point to my diversity of experience spanning B2B and B2C marketing. I’ve been fortunate to have worked in a diversity of industries spanning advertising (NWAyer), technology (Bell Labs, CloudLinux), software (CA, Comodo) and telecommunications (AT&T, Lucent, and Paltalk). The combination means I have a quirky understanding of how to look at a marketing situation from the brand point of view as well as the end-user perspective at the same time.

O.K. – That begins to answer the question but doesn’t wholly get at it since many of my colleagues are tech savvy too. While they express curiosity about the new marketing technology, they aren’t going off and creating new businesses.  Instead, most of my friends leading marketing agencies or marketing departments (like I was) are banging their heads against the marketing brick wall trying to figure out how to incorporate the “new” technologies into the “old” system profitably. In the chaos of “creative destruction” (a term coined by economist Joseph Schumpeter), my peers can’t see the marketing forest for the financial trees.

So again I ask; Why me?

In digging deeper, I then realize that my experience with communications networks gave me a unique understanding about social networks. Both types of networks serve a similar purpose – the efficient transport of a call or a marketing message from the network edge (the initiation point) through the switching stations along its way to its ultimate destination.

Side by Side Comparison: Telecom vs Social Media Network

It also became clear to me that as social networks evolved into a powerful marketing network – it urgently needed system architects. But I saw no hint of any serious understanding of the issue or how to address it – not at the agencies or the social network companies or even the armies of consultants who offer insights but few tactical road maps.

When at first I noted this architecture gap back in 2010, I wondered out loud in Ad Age about the impracticality of integrating new technologies into existing marketing systems in posts like “Five Trends That Marked TechCrunch Disrupt Conference 2010.”  Then, my wonderment continued unabated at the lack of system attention when I wrote: “Has Facebook jumped the Shark”. Actually, I was writing mostly in the hopes of uncovering the technology companies that were focused on solving this system gap. I knew someone had to it…

But all I heard was deafening silence. I seemed rather alone in recognizing the utter futility of trying to retro-fit the older marketing system with the newer technologies. The sheer tonnage of all these new marketing “platforms;” so defined because they incorporated some combination of the mighty  local, social, mobile triad; were built by technologists (usually under 30) and not marketers. This meant they were long on cool but pathetically short on practicality. Yet as slim as many of these businesses seemed, they were getting valuations disproportionate to their real world usefulness (think Groupon), further highlighting the underlying weakening of the business of marketing.  It was an ominous echo from a decade ago.

This explains “Why me.” It takes depth of experience to see beyond the buzz to the potent marketing model evolving. I wanted a role in that evolution largely because it seemed few of us with any real world marketing experience were doing the heavy lifting of operationalizing the brilliance of all this new technology.

The journey to understand “Why me” is useful in that it defines the business we are in – creating the system upon which the rich marketing innovation engine can flourish.  It’s a surprise that it is me – but perhaps, this is the sweetest surprise of all.

Judy Shapiro

Congratulations CES for becoming the hottest, consumer advertising buy on the planet

(Author’s Note: Originally written Jan 5, 2010 – but even more true today.)

CES has descended upon the psyche of the tech world so that it dominates most reports and tweets and attention.

We all wait with bated breath for the declared best new product, most innovative game, most outrageous consumer electronic gadget. We are, in effect, like kids with our noses up against the window pane of the biggest toy store in the world.

I should say that the hyper cool nature of CES is a fairly recent phenomenon. Back when I worked at AT&T, CES was an annual ritual that, frankly, rather inconveniently put a crimp on holiday festivities since many of us had to go the Las Vegas a week before to setup. There went New Year’s plans *sigh*. Sure it was fun to see what ingenious gadget was coming into the market, but make no mistake about it; CES was a serious B2B trade show where manufacturers worked hard to woo retailers into carrying their stuff. While there was some consumer coverage, mostly it was confined to the B2B press.

Then, somewhere in the last 4 years, I think driven by the gaming industry, Google, Apple and social media, it took on the glamour of the Oscars for tech set. If a product was even mentioned in a “from CES” report, that was cause for celebration (“I am so honored even to be nominated” kind of thing). CES went from being a B2B event to the event that plays itself out directly to consumers. That shift, in effect, caused CES to become the biggest consumer trade event of all time – even if every consumer is attending by proxy via social media.

But there’s more to it than that because at the current level of consumer exposure to the show, CES has transcended the trade show segment and was elevated to become a premier consumer media buy, kinda like SuperBowl. Think about with me. A media buy in SuperBowl was a strategy companies used to catapult themselves – think GoDaddy. This media buy cost a few million bucks, but if played right – you were made. I think CES has taken on that same level of media potential if you account for all the primary, secondary and tertiary coverage that live streaming and social media provide. And instead of a few thirty second spots, you get three days to strut your stuff. Make no mistake about – doing CES right is a multi-million affair. But the pay-off could be huge. In fact, it would not shock me if I learned that CES exceeded SuperBowl in the number of impressions delivered.

That’s awe inspiring. Never before has a trade show had that kind of reach and coverage. It seems cosmically fitting that new technology, e.g. social media, would elevate the very essence of CES itself.

Welcome to the year of living intelligently with technology.

Judy Shapiro

 


The surprised entrepreneur. A diary of a new tech venture.

“But isn’t that everyone’s goal” exclaimed a business friend who learned I had started a company. My friend, a clever software developer, expressed the reality for most of his kind – smart, talented and ambitious to have their own company.

It was never a goal for me actually. I had the best marketing career working at an amazing mix of large and small technology companies. I was fortunate to have learned from the best about digital and social media at an intimate, practical and hands-on level beyond the experience of most of my peers. But starting my own company had not been a high priority for me – at least not until about 12 months ago.

You see, I was working at a profitable social networking company and I wanted to create a marketing program to gain more subscribers. I had a very healthy digital budget ($ millions) and so I did a few agency RFPs. I struggled to assign the projects because the agencies pitching were often very narrowly focused. Sure, many of them had a cool technology or creative concept – but in isolation it had very little value. I found I needed to put together a few of these new technologies to create programs that seemed worthwhile.

But becoming a “system integrator” was not really practical so in the end, I usually did not award the business to any agency. While I nursed my frustration publically in AdAge.com, one day in September 2009 I simply snapped. I had enough after a particularly tedious 2 hour presentation with a large digital agency who, towards the end, insisted that social media could not be branded. That was it. I was done. I kept thinking to myself; “I can do better than these agencies” and I left my employer at the end of 2009.

This was the seminal moment where I made the leap to business creator. I knew the agency business well since I spent 11 years at an agency before going client-side. I knew many of my friends at companies could not find agencies that “got it” either.  Consistently they told me their agencies seemed stuck in a model that was becoming less effective and they (brands) were the poorer for it. There seemed to be a place for the type of agency I could imagine and I was determined to create it.

But how to begin? I began by I listening carefully to what my marketing peers were telling me; “My agency does not get it”, “I know I should be doing more in social media but I have no idea what.”; “We don’t do Twitter because we don’t see the value”.  In hearing the litany of complaints, I quickly realized that agencies were “stuck” because they were furiously trying to adapt their “one to many” business model of the last 30 years to the emerging “many to many” marketing world of the next 30 years. I could see that was not going to work. I could see that the agency model I had known for 25+ years was giving way… I was on my own.

I took a deep breath as I became amazed that this was my chance to start creating an agency fresh – with no assumptions or sacred cows. This was my chance to do a “green field” build as one might see in the tech space. This was to be an agency built entirely from the perspective of a “many to many” marketing model.

With clarity of purpose, therefore, I set about to the task of creating this “many to many” marketing agency. And in doing so – it seemed I had rethink everything.

My first 60 days (March and April 2010):

I was interested in offering a new type of marketing platform using this new technology so brands could efficiently execute social media and direct response within a sustainable engine. But it became very clear very fast that I had to build this type of engine for myself since all the attention was on individual technologies that VCs were pouring their money into. No one, it seemed, worried about how any of this technology was supposed to operate together at a practical level within a marketing system.

This realization meant, like it or not, I had taken (hesitatingly) my first steps to becoming a technology company. Once I took that first tentative step, I sensed there was no going back and the “Failure is not an option” mantra of a previous boss, Comodo CEO, Melih Abdulhayoglu rang in my ears. My friend, the brilliant writer Gay Walley encouraged me onward. As daunting as it felt, I knew I had to create the right technological platform that could execute the type of marketing campaigns I had seen work in my real world experiences. The agency in the “many to many” world is as much, maybe even more, about robust technology as it is about the creative (again many thanks to Melih for teaching me this vital lesson). There’s just no getting around that point.

The next 60 days (May & June 2010):

Using my training in direct response, I created the engine to functionally curate users (not content) within a “community of interest” paradigm. I designed a three part marketing platform that uses promotional video, live internet programming and custom content within a highly architected “hub” to curate users. I had worked with video innovators like David Hoffman and Stephanie Piche, who were doing amazing things using video to drive audience engagement. I asked them to join me and they did.

Next, I had to create my own custom content network so I could get messaging out there efficiently thus driving traffic to the hub. I realized ads were not designed to engage in a “many to many” architecture but content had become the “new advertising platform”. While the logic of creating a custom content network was sound, the task seemed beyond daunting. Then, right on cue came two wonderful people, Donnetta Campbell and Joy DiBenedetto (CEO of HUMNews), who had deep roots in the content/ media world. Soon they had organized all their media assets and outlets into a content network we could use to push our messages through. I asked them to come play with us too.

Then there’s the “hub” (note to self – need new name for this part ASAP!!!). It’s a different type of web experience that is a mashup of live communications, content, community, video and commerce designed on the “community of interest” concept. My previous experience in monetizing communities gave me a blueprint for which techniques, overlooked by many, I needed to include to drive results. The secret sauce to the hub was to build it as a real time community with a lot of real time connectivity and video engagement baked in (emphasis on “real time”).

All the pieces were coming together … but there some real technological challenges to deal with. The platform was clear in my mind – but it was in no condition to be useful to brands – at least not yet.

And the 60 days of summer (July and August 2010):

To make this vision a reality, I needed to round out my dream team. I found out about a cool company doing real-world work in measuring social media which we needed to match this system. The CEO, Dag Holmboe, whose background in engineering was invited to join and came on board too.  I managed to snag an ex technology leader from NBC, Louis Libin; a CBS network pro, Lester Spellman and Jerry Cahn, an IR pro with PhD in psychology (always useful). As the dream team came together, I laughed to myself when I realized the days where a creative guy, a copywriter and a biz dev guy can just; “put up an agency shingle” are long gone.

I spent hours and hours seeing what the leading tech companies were doing. I was writing for Ad Age DigitalNext as a way to learn about how marketing technologies were evolving in this “many to many” world. I wrote about the all the amazing technologies at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in Ad Age (and yes I did lament the lack of women at the decidedly he-geek con-fest). And every time I got stuck on how to do something – I wrote about it and asked for advice. I got plenty.

Then, I began to outline my business plan. The task was made easier by the fact that I had other tech friends who were generous in guiding my progress. My thanks to Igor Seletskiy, CEO of a new company called Cloud Linux who was an invaluable technology sounding board. With his patient coaching, I had crystallized in my mind the outline of a product roadmap largely so I could understand exactly how any agency could financially thrive in this “low billing, social media, many to many” world. As I started creating the revenue model, all I knew for sure was that the old agency revenue models were falling apart.

After more thinking and talking, the product roadmap came into view. Importantly, it does not solely rely on “client” fees. In this roadmap, our agency offers real products (not just services) that can be used by a variety of companies – large and small. It also includes healthy, alternative revenue streams from a wide variety of sources. I lay my “product roadmap cards” on the table even though some of you may gasp at my seeming lack of concern about competitors because TBH — I am far more worried that too few agencies are even thinking along these lines. The agency business needs outliers – agencies who are willing to go where few agencies have gone before…

Here we go (and if this inspires others out there to do something similar – have at it :)

  • Near-term product/ service roadmap (through 2010):
  • Goal – Create integrated marketing platform for social media/ direct response campaigns.
  • Revenue model:   1) Service fees from brands to create content assets for marketing programs    2) Licensing/ Media fees from Brands to run program through the Interactive Engine. IE can be sold as a whole program or in 2 modular “mini campaigns”;3) Partner revenue from affiliate partner technologies that are being integrated into the platform
  • Development status: This is a three part “platform” – 1) Custom Content Network, 2) Specialized Promotional program and 3) Hub web experience. Items 1 and 2 are live. Prototype hub under construction.
  • Sales readiness: Key elements of the Interactive Engine platform are live today (yes – I know – I need to update the damn website :(
  • Funding needed: None – this is self funded through sales
  • Mid-term product/ service roadmap (through 2011):
  • Goal – Create self-serve platform of integrated social media technology campaigns so companies (small/ medium businesses) can launch integrated programs without the need for a serviced based agency. (This concept is following the “control panel” model used today by web hosts to provision lots of services to their customers.)
  • Revenue model = 1) Service fees from brands to content create assets for marketing programs 2) Product fees: a) Brand use of IE with existing client content assets; b)License fees paid by SMB for “self serve” campaigns executed 3) Partner revenue: Expand affiliate fees from partner technologies since many more options can be integrated into offering.
  • Development status: Lead developer identified and overall architecture being mapped.
  • Sales readiness: 9 months to working prototype/ 14 months to sale-able solutions
  • Funding round = $2MM
  • Long-term product/ service roadmap (starting Q3 2011 through 2012)
  • Goal – Create the first “trust agency” for “Judy Consumer” so she can pull trusted information, software/ services and advertising for herself.  At this stage, we reverse the revenue model. Instead of brands paying to get to “Judy and Joe Consumer”, consumers hire “trust agencies” to curate their digitally connected experiences (see my article in Ad Age about “The Six Screens” – Aug 23, 2010).
  • Revenue model = 1) Service fees: – a) from brands to create assets for marketing programs; b) direct subscriptions from consumers 2) Product fees: a)use of IE with existing client content assets; b)License fees paid by SMB for campaigns executed 3) Partner revenue: a) affiliate fees from partner technologies; b) As a perfect “opt-in” ad platform, charge brands premium ad CPM rates; c) content producers via affiliate revenue (they pay us for new subscribers)
  • Development status:  not initiated
  • Sales readiness: 18 months to prototype/ 24 months to launch
  • Funding needed: $1.8MM

Which brings us pretty much up-to-date.

When I step back, I can see our progress after six months:

  • We created the tech platform, called Interaction Engine (IE), that integrates direct response techniques within a social media ROI program.  Today, companies are using elements of the engine effectively.
  • We have coalesced into a solid team of 8 people who all had “hands on” experience in this “many to many” paradigm. Rare folks indeed because they had (often painfully) walked the walk.
  • We are in serious discussions with 2 media agencies, 2 F100 companies and had “tentatively” closed one new direct response account (I say tentatively because as if this date – no contract has been signed yet).

These days are spent getting everyone on the team coordinated, getting some basics housekeeping done (e.g. web site is totally out of date!), pushing forward in the sale process and writing the biz plan. It is very intimating but amazingly exciting.

I will end this and each future entry in this digital blog (expect a once a week post), with my “What keeps me up at night” list. I expect this list to change over time.

  • While we are doing well at getting meetings, the close process is slow because prospects want to see a fully working engine in action. The classic chicken/ egg problem. We have some great clients who have used parts of the engine – but none is currently using all of IE in a singular campaign. Pressing ahead.
  • I don’t wan to be the Edsel of my industry – too far ahead of my time. My team keeps coaching me to keep my presentations simple and they are correct. The trouble is that this platform is simple in concept but not in execution to understand.  So the presentations swing wildly between being too complicated or too simplistic. *Sigh*. My biz dev head and CTO are on the case though. I hope they can come up with a solution – I have hit a wall.
  • I now have 7 senior, wonderful people who have joined this venture – this is in addition to the 8 or so junior workers that are also part of the company. Keeping them all motivated and engaged as we build our sales pipe will be hard especially since many of us are virtual. I have no good model in my head for this yet.
  • Knowing the difference between networking and over networking. There are many people who want to connect with me now especially since I also write for HuffingtonPost in addition to Ad Age. I have to make choices about which contacts I can commit to. I find this very very frustrating and difficult since I never know which contact can lead to the break we need. URGGHH! Anyone with advice on this point?
  • Figuring out what’s the best use of my time as I try to lead both the sales process and the business plan development process. Most people in the company have a role here, but it still requires lots of “hands on” management from me since too much in still in my head and not on paper. I wish I were 3 people (would I get 3 salaries – hmm).

Now, finally my milestones for the next 60 days (not necessarily in this order):

  • 3 page executive summary of engageSimply with financial outlook
  • 1 signed client using the entire new Interaction Engine platform
  • Initiate discussions with at least 2 possible funding partners
  • Get website up to date
  • Expand sales funnel to having 20 active leads in pipe
  • to write in this diary a minimum of once a week or 8 entries (hey – I need some wiggle room J)

So much of this journey is a surprise. I am surprised that as a woman, I am starting a tech business. I am surprised that I am woman of a “certain age” starting a new company. I am surprised at the generosity of people who have agreed to throw their hat into the ring with me – they are a very faithful and brave group of people.  I am surprised at the graciousness of our partners who give of their time and contacts unreservedly.

But mostly I am surprised at how utterly confident I am that one way or another this is going to work. My confidence (perhaps even overconfidence) is the biggest surprise of all because with my long experience with tech venturing, I know my chances of success are not, rationally speaking, in my favor.

I remain undeterred. I remain unabashedly optimistic which is why I decided to document my journey in this blog. When I first started this blog (about 3 years ago), I did it because I sensed that fighting the marketing wars happening “in the trenches”. That remains truer today as I start this new venture. So as the Jewish New Year begins later this week (Year 5771), it seems particularly propitious to begin this digital diary. I may be “in the trenches” in starting this business but my view is firmly focused on how we reach the stars.

Judy Shapiro, CEO/ Founder, engageSimply

P.S. – Have advice, an idea or wanna do business with us. Just drop us a line. We’re ready.

Crystal ball was not needed to predict Google Wave would fail

Forgive a momentary “I told you so” outburst because back in October 2009 as the tech world was dazzled by the Google Wave launch, I somewhat singularly wondered publically about whether it would succeed in a piece in Ad Age entitled:  “Google Wave should beware of the Communications and Collaboration Pitch”

It was an unpopular position to take at the time; after all, Google “Anything” was considered magic.  And after less than a year, being right like this is no fun actually because behind the failure are real people who invested a lot of heart and soul. It is a bitter pill to swallow.

History is a great teacher and in the Ad Age piece, I provide a history lesson on how “communication and collaboration” failed commercially utterly in the 1990s:

“Looking back at it now, I realize what we failed to do last time around is to symbiotically couple this whiz-bang technology with fulfilling a fundamental dimension of our humanity. Technology by itself is sterile and a communication and collaboration play was pretty sterile sounding.”

I also generously give them the secret of how to get it right given what we learned in our previous failed attempts to market unified collaboration platforms:

“This time round, though, Google Wave really has a chance to get it right if it forges a tight symbiotic link between this technology and a core element of our humanity.”

Finally, I gave them what I believed to be the secret to success with Google Wave. Clearly they ignored my sage advice (even if I do say so myself):

“It all comes down to understanding that Google Wave should be about the creation and management of our trusted communities. And if it can take those bonds and marry them with real-time, unified communications, the product has the makings of a technology milestone. But without the human dimension of community, “communications and collaboration” are just technologies. And technologies alone will not “connect” with Judy Consumer. At least it never has before.”

Never to put too subtle a point on it, I expanded my arguments and provided even more detail in a post here entitled; “What might Twitter and Facebook teach Google Wave about market success.” I fully explain why Google Wave has the potential to be a paradigm shift:

“Now I think Google Wave has the potential to be a technological milestone because it merges unified collaboration and communications (not new) within the fertile soil of a trusted community (this is new). “Pull” models coming online now enable this combination of dynamics to “gel” into a platform that can be vibrant and paradigm shifting. …”

I ended this piece in October 2009 hopeful; “I suspect that if anyone will know how to use this treasure it will be Google. I am rooting for them.”

So much for a happy ending :( .

Judy Shapiro

A stranger in a strange land.

I am humbly borrowing that title from Robert A. Heinlein, one of my fav scifi authors of all time, but it captured my state of mind one afternoon as I was “working Facebook”.

You see, FB is not my social network of choice. I’m a hard core LinkedIn girl. LI is clear – business networking for business folks. Got it.

FB on the other hand is a weird mix of personal and business and trolls. Next to my niece’s picture of her (adorable) 3 year old is an important business announcement for a business luncheon that I wanted to attend. I click on what I think is a link for the luncheon information and I land on the home page of “someone” – not sure who and their niece’s pictures. At this point, I have no idea where I am.

I am a stranger in a strange land.

The strange land I speak of is where, unlike my real world, our social networks are morphing into a communications hub that has jumbled my life into a digital tangle of personal, business and many combinations in between.

I am a stranger in a stranger land.

In the real world, our social networks are well organized across “functional lines” – the parents in my kids school is one network, my business contacts is another or my relatives yet another etc etc. We keep these networks distinct unless during a crisis or some trigger event, e.g. your child is trying to get into a particular school, you create a temporary real time network of people from all your networks who can help you with this task. But once the need is gone, this “impromptu network” dissipates.

But in this strange new world, the networks intermix in a way that I find unproductive. In  this strange new world “on the fly” associations I create for a specific task become hardened in stone well beyond their usefulness.  

In the real world, my social networks are under my control – in this brave, new world – it seems – not so much.

I guess I find it strange. So does “Judy Consumer”.

Judy Shapiro

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