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06/25/2009 Change and Power


You know a book is good when you finish it and the ideas still resonate in your head for weeks after. I’m still digesting Ignore Everybody and one phrase has grabbed me. The more I think about it, the more I think it’s a great lens to view what’s happening in marketing today.

“Change [new ideas] alters the power balance in a relationship.”

When these ideas threaten the power balance, those in power will push back, hard.

Think about this in context of online marketing and the rise of social media. These new ideas threaten the comfortable and predictable marketing system of the last 50 years. There’s a lot of power invested in this.

The change is creating dialogue through digital channels to give more power and real influence to consumers (and even employees). The promise of this change is to stop doing something that’s working less well and start doing marketing that has a higher value and authenticity.

Who’s going to push back? Who’s power is under siege?

Marketing Departments – Marketing departments and the people who staff them will push back for two reasons. The first is that it’s quite comfortable and easy to pass off the brand stewardship and advertising execution to agencies. It means they don’t have to do that work. Social media and dialogue mean they’ll have to be more involved. Where are they going to find the time? The second is that they’ve fallen into standard operating procedure. In Graham Allison’s brilliant book “Essence of Decision” he describes how organizational procedures take on life of their own, despite the work of rational actors.

Agencies – Agencies will push back because this change threatens everything about them. Agencies have made great money on production markups and media commissions. They’ve convinced marketing departments that their crack teams can understand and craft brand essences better than anyone. The former is in a state of irreversible decline. The later becomes less and less relevant daily as customer experience and word of mouth show their true power. Many agencies are turning somersaults to reinvent themselves, some by hiring digital gurus and others by buying sharper, smaller shops. While they make cosmetic changes, the agency core, its raison d’etre rarely changes. The question is whether they can compete over the long haul against newer, more agile shops like The Advanced Guard, Undercurrent or the dream team at The Dachis Group.

Mainstream Media – When you start looking at all the alarming news about MySpace, Facebook, online perverts etc, you find that most of these are overblown reports and most of them start with the mainstream media. Cynical as I am, I can’t help feeling that this is one of the big pushbacks by one of those groups with the most to lose. If online were “dangerous” who would want to advertise there? It’s too bad because we need mainstream media and its content still has huge value everywhere. Media hasn’t figured out how to make digital as profitable as traditional and while some try to reinvent themselves, not enough do so.

If you’re moving into social media and digital, pay attention to who’s pushing you back. You’ll probably notice that they feel that they have something to lose and don’t want things to change for that reason.

If you’re in a marketing department or agency, take some time to reflect on this power shift and start strategizing about how this change can seem less threatening and perhaps even beneficial to the person pushing you back.

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