“Thirty years ago the best fund manager was the one with the best intuition, says David Siegel, co-chairman of Two Sigma. Now those who take “a scientific approach,” using machines, data and AI, can have an edge.”
Thursday was my favorite day of the week growing up. That may seem like an odd call, but it’s the day that, roughly 50 weeks a year, Sports Illustrated arrived in the mail.
Back in the 1970s and 80s, the magazine fed my obsession with sports — whether it be Franco Harris, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Super Bowls against the Dallas Cowboys; fictional (and almost fictional) characters like pitchers Sidd Finch and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych; and as I’d later come to appreciate, the originality of writers like Dan Jenkins, whose style was a precursor to new journalism practiced by icons outside of sport like Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese.
Sports Illustrated was a factory for profitable ideas like Sportsman of the Year, Faces in the Crowd and the annual Swimsuit Issue. These concepts transcended the magazine into standalone platforms and spawned numerous copycats that make up sports media today.
I thought about the fading legacy and creative depth of magazines like Sports Illustrated while exploring Apple’s shiny new news bundle, Apple News+. With the decline of publishing dating back more than a decade, Apple News+ as a model for media engagement is especially consequential considering the 1.3 billion iOS devices that can now run it.
As reported in The New York Times — ironically joining The Washington Post as one of the few major publications who declined to join up — $9.95 a month gets us access to a digital newsstand carrying more than 300 publications. Selection ranges from high-end magazines like The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Vogue, to newspapers including The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal, to a deep catalog of branded and niche content like Airbnb Magazine and Salt Water Sportsman.
The Apple News+ user experience presents conventions like “publications,” “magazines” and “newspapers” as fading constructs given the content blend it presents from hundreds of sources. The experience leans on previous investment in its digital newsstand, Texture (where many titles were PDF replicas of print copies), combined with repackaged articles and curated summaries included in the first rev of Apple News.
As only Apple can do, its media buffet attracted over 200,000 subscribers in the first 48 hours. As a frequent user of Texture, I was quick to sign up and can say without question that it’s both awesome in inventory, and daunting on where to direct my attention. This is both a personal and professional context.
As a content consumer, gone are the days of deep, scheduled reading that leads to anticipation and appreciation for a content brand like Sports Illustrated. In its place, at least for me, is a venue better suited for breezing through story highlights, across an array of interests, from a multitude of sources.
In a professional context, gone too are the days of solely directing energy toward driving clients to known entities. In its place is a mandate to continually assess and work with the most engaging voices — irrespective of past categorization — by taking an analytical view at a moment in time.
Anyone Can Produce Content. Distribution is a Different Story.
While anyone with an internet connection can be a content producer, what’s not democratic is content dissemination and visibility for it. Apple News+ is the latest and perhaps most visible case of big tech platforms having means to orchestrate that.
The scale of distribution through Apple’s devices, combined with a model that elevates its own editorial curation with algorithmic publishing, gives reporters at venues like Vanity Fair ample reason to question if the company’s move represents a “party or wake.”
For some esteemed media brands my bet continues to be on the latter. Only the strongest, most technically savvy sources will survive.
This post was adapted from my newsletter on the fusion of machine intelligence, media and marketing.
Media is getting smarter. So should you.
Tech and media have always evolved together. From Gutenberg to Radio to Television, changes in technology wrought changes in media, always accompanied by massive shifts in behaviors and social conventions.
At the birth of the World Wide Web, that cycle of change went into overdrive, launching a Moore’s Law velocity that sees cycles of change growing shorter and shorter, and the impact ever more radical. Thirty years since the Web said Hello, World, we’re living through the most disruptive shift in tech and media yet.
Machine learning and artificial intelligence — still in their infancy — have become foundational capabilities within new media platforms, extending the scaffolding that supports our digital media ecosystem. Technology is no longer just a tool for communications directed by human intelligence. It has its own intelligence — one that at times augments human understanding, and at others confounds it. The implications — for businesses, for society, for communicators — couldn’t be greater.
Our own journey at Weber Shandwick has directly followed this technology trajectory — from building static websites, to creating social media profiles and business processes, to riding the brand publishing and social commerce wave. But this time is different. The stakes are higher — and so is the learning curve.
Consider the impact of how intelligence changes the game. Through the lens of fake news dissemination, it calls into question what we hear, read and watch. Through the lens of platforms, it creates opportunities to disrupt entire industries. Through the lens of automation, it changes the shape and viability of employment sectors.
Machine intelligence changes the dynamics of business practices that came before it, introducing a completely new set of communications issues we have to react to in the moment. If you don’t have a sense for how the systems work, it’s hard to get a sense of what we can be done about them, or with them.
Technology is no longer just a tool for communications directed by human intelligence. It has its own intelligence.
Consider a very small sampling of headlines over the past few days alone — do grounded airplanes have “too much computer?” Or can companies be prosecuted for sharing data? Or if there is a way to stop the spread of horrific images social media sites.
Understanding these technologies are now table stakes for communicators. That’s why we pulled together a research team to help our global employees become more fluent in these building blocks — including AI and machine learning, platforms, synthetic content, media forensics and immersive experiences.
The output of our research is Media Genius: a study guide on tech forces behind media change. It has a summary of trends, real-world examples and hundreds of hours of free classes and tutorials curated from Stanford University and National Taiwan University, Amazon, Google, and lots more.
Media Genius breaks down the current intersection of technology and communications into five key categories:
Implications of Artificial Intelligence
AI — specifically the subsets known as Machine Learning and Deep Learning — form the basis for change we see unfolding. Media and communications pros must be fluent in the terminology. From natural language processing to advanced automation and personalization, machine intelligence is changing how media works. What’s more, as AI takes on new tasks, it’s having a range of impacts across business and society. Some of these help us explore the meaning of being human, while others are automating our worst tendencies at scale.
Platforms and Power Dynamics
Platforms are far from new. But the speed, agility and use is highly variable (Did you know the favorite new social network among teens is, of all things, Google Docs?). Understanding platforms provides visibility into ebbs and flows of media gatekeeping (from publishers to platforms to influencers). They enable new paths to billion-dollar franchises (seen through the “Uberization of name category” and DTC players upending retail). And most perhaps most troubling, change political discourse and authoritarian practice.
Challenges (and Potential) of Synthetic Content
The tech and media communities are still coming to grips with the creation and spread of fake news, the emergence of deep fakes and our means to determine what’s real or not. But thanks to open source explorations from incubators like Betaworks, a deeper look into the world of synthetic content has creative potential as well. Framed as a fusion of CG and AI, intelligent avatars may transform how we present ourselves, how influence gets generated and how news content gets artificially generated.
Media Forensics and Issues Detection
Did you know that social listening has evolved into a much more sophisticated forensic ability? One that is capable of processing massive amounts of data reflecting human and bot-generated interaction — through visible and dark web — to determine what is spreading, its velocity and predictions for potential impact. This forensic listening capability, along with advances in fake content detection, may provide a technical counter measures to the proliferation of fake content and brand safety concerns.
Immersive and Micro Content Experiences
New technology creates almost unlimited potential to shape stories and experiences. From 1:1 experiences to AR platforms, the means to engage through media has never been more rich. This limitless potential is generating a true creative revolution through a huge array of intelligent platforms and content management systems. Even as creative opportunities are exploding, others have opined that emphasizing creation over personal connection is a trap. Regardless of your perspective, the content innovation genie is out of the bottle.
The categories above should make clear that as intelligence infiltrates all aspects of media, the changes we’re facing are rapid and widespread. By breaking down underlying forces at play and supporting them with relevant examples and classes, we felt the need to share resources for communicators to begin to understand these changes.
By no means do we look at what we’ve provided as comprehensive or the end of the discussion. Building new instincts, based on open collaboration, is the only way we see staying smart as intelligence accelerates into all avenues of our world. If you’ve come across great examples, papers, books or big misses in how we’re thinking, we’re all ears.
Agencies need to prioritize solving new problems over the easy sell
Rarely does a day go by without a jarring, technology-induced headline suggesting that too much change is happening way too fast. As Alvin Toffler predicted almost 50 years ago in Future Shock, a new, technology-altered reality and sense of disorientation is setting in.
As I write this, my newsfeed includes the following:
Tesla is said to be subpoenaed by S.E.C. over Elon Musk’s Tweet…a Denver Bronco fan starts a GoFundMe page to cut quarterback Paxton Lynch…selfie filters trigger cosmetic surgery epidemics known as ‘Snapchat dysmorphia.’…Alex Jones’s InfoWars ban continues the debate about free speech and social media…The World Economic Forum warns that AI may destabilize the financial system…a hacker posts Snapchat’s source code on Github…a new facial recognition technology will authenticate 300,000 people at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics…oh, and SpaceX is organizing an inaugural conference to plan landings on Mars.
The list could go on and on. And isn’t just stuff on the edges. These headlines signal deep changes in how society, warfare, markets and culture work.
Are agencies today truly tuned to a changing reality?
I view these changes as someone working inside a global agency paid to make sense of implications for clients. Based on my experience in the industry, common reactions to these types of headlines are:
- They’re not relevant or too far removed from planning and current campaigns.
- It’s someone else’s job to interpret or connect the dots on implications for the work.
- In aggregate, they portray a highly complex picture to be simplified to do anything actionable.
- They represent trends that will pass and can be ignored.
This is reality distortion laid bare. And in that reality lies a stark choice for people in our industry: Go through the motions and face extinction, or move with urgency to rethink what value in this context might look like. That may include technologically relevant ideas, creative solutions or protective measures that reflect deep structural change unfolding in front of us.
Solving for the necessary, new and unknown.
We know at Weber Shandwick that we’re not immune to this reality. Given our global reach and work with emerging technology and new business models, we spend a lot of time on the forefront of change. We also help organizations of all types uncover new paths to drive value and execute programs that deliver it.
Our belief is that a new, high-stakes era in marketing and engagement is unfolding— one that requires agencies of all kinds to “Solve for X” or else.
The “X” might be a more efficient solution to drive leads, sales or new businesses models.
It may be using new platforms or applications that connect people or advance important causes.
It might incorporate intelligence on how an unforeseen development or rogue interest group could damage reputation.
It might be a new planning or production method that blends computing power with creative insight.
And unquestionably, it will also force new ways of measuring the impact of marketing investments.
This set of solutions follows a somewhat predictable path. But to get there we’re dealing with a growing list of unprecedented considerations.
Like the fact that someone can build a billion dollar empire in 36 months off of snaps, stories and tweets. Or that soon we’ll need to manage reputations when anyone can Photoshop video and audio as easily as an image. Or need to decode how botnets and closet broadcasters communicating in coordination spike trending topics. Or be heard when news videos are produced algorithmically and distributed in as little 10 seconds or less.
The speed at which we need to digest unthinkables can be hard to process. It’s also core to the job.
It’s now part of the gig to understand new phenomena, make it a priority to discuss them, and develop new frameworks for what is valuable — and moral. Following fading conventions or using new technology without forethought of implications is not only inconsistent with reality, it’s fraught with risk.
Technology seers like Joi Ito from MIT Lab are evangelical on the pace at which we need to view the world through a different lens, to hardwire an ability to adapt, and see things we would otherwise ignore because they don’t fit our current conditions.
To that end, we’re taking steps to expand the ways we help clients and accelerate our mission to Solve for X.
This includes creating The X Practice — a move that fuses our global capabilities across data-driven intelligence, digital innovation, technology sector insights, and media R&D into a blended team model. The horizontal practice has already led to a range of new services developed on behalf of clients — encompassing new analytics platforms, digital commerce, lead gen models, and media forensics that guide media buying decisions, stakeholder engagement, and more.
But these advances might not take us far enough or as fast as needed with a move like this. As AI becomes more embedded in media and communications, we’re on the verge of a new era for agencies. As this happens, the criteria for assessing strategies and creative direction will change, along with the means to produce work and our talent mix needed to deliver it.
Broadly speaking, the urgency to take meaningful steps is ratcheting up quickly. Klaus Schwab, Chairman of the World Economic Forum, suggests the required levels of leadership and understanding of changes underway across all sectors are low when contrasted with the need to rethink our economic, social, and political systems.
There is tremendous opportunity and business risk for organizations around the world hanging in the balance.
We Solve for X, or else.
I spent this week in London doing something I love about this business — partnering with people who have both bold vision and the wherewithal to bring it to life.
The people in this case are the principals of Flipside, a pioneering mobile agency joining Weber Shandwick. The addition helps us address the pressing need to rethink marketing and communications as mobile remakes our world.
Analysts have touted “it’s the year of mobile” for years. And in many ways it’s indeed here. According to comScore data released this week, mobile overall is now the leading digital platform, with total activity on smartphones and tablets accounting for two-thirds of digital media time spent.
But there’s another lens in to confirm that we’ve arrived.
As the market matures and consolidates within platforms like Facebook, Google and Apple, business-at-large is still in its infancy using mobile as a transformational, creative tool.
So in that way a big gap exists between understanding the shift and going all-in to win here. We see two simple reasons for that:
- Speed — Taking small, incremental steps in context of dynamic, rapidly evolving platforms.
- Attachment — The impulse to emulate or extend what is already known, like treating mobile as a smaller version of desktop.
Look at media and advertising in this context. To a large extent, marketers consider mobile simply as another medium to drive awareness-building, advertising-minded tactics onto smaller screen.
If typical industry conversations are any indication, the new marketing agenda still centers around optimizing prepackaged content, media spending and programmatic placements.
Done right, it’s all unquestionably part of the new deal. But we can do better.
Leaders like Flipside use the smartphone’s functionality to create all-new, mobile-native experiences, utilities and media. The opportunity to build and extend real brand value here — versus exclusively communicate it — is huge.
We continue to strongly believe that every company must now be a media company, and more than ever, make mobile products central to communications and customer engagement strategies going forward.
Stewart Brand, the famed author of The Whole Earth Catalogue and respected ecologist, said once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.
It’s unquestionably clear what’s driving tech forward. Partners like Flipside will continue to help us and our clients use its force and creative potential to best advantage.
It’s distinct, immature, still misunderstood. But if you’re fully invested, there’s a powerful business case.
As media of all kind enters a new era, branded content has pushed its way to the front of marketing conversations. There’s an influx of investment — and, in parallel, increased scrutiny on its impact.
Having been in the center of these conversations with lots of clients, we have a working sense on what’s unfolding and why content — through the lens of sustained brand publishing — is an essential new marketing competency.
Here’s a host of honest takes on what matters in branded content:
1) It’s editorially-based (but not journalism).
Let’s be clear— brand content is commercial content. But when produced with consumer value in mind and honest intent it’s still unquestionably an avenue for engagement.
Every brand has a depth of expertise and point-of-view that complements independent publishers covering the same space, in deep niches no single media outlet could profitably cover. The best brands commit to share that expertise — and don’t call it journalism.
2) It’s honest.
Branded content is powerful when it offers something of value. It doesn’t trick, alarm or manipulate the user in any way. Branded content masquerading as independent coverage is misleading.
The most adept brands think deeply about what they can credibly and consistently publish to — and don’t resort to bad ideas like this.
3) It’s anti-broadcast.
Successful publishing aligns with people’s needs, interests, identities and content platforms of choice. The context is everything.
The most common barrier is about reuse of broadcast-minded content. It’s critical to understand the nuances of each and what people will find interesting and insightful.
4) It’s distributed.
Winning is not about blindly filling in boxes on web or social media pages with brand content. Build it and they will come does not apply here.
Audience development practices from publishers apply to brands too — often requiring a mix of SEO, PR, paid, and email to get visibility, engagement and recurring visits to the work.
5) It’s institutional.
Moving brand publishing to the center of marketing is a change management exercise. Without a refreshed operating system — factoring in culture, talent, performance measures and processes — long-term value is dead on arrival.
A recent Accenture content marketing report claims less than one in five leaders believe they manage content well. Leadership is required to work on the model as much as what comes from it.
6) It’s collaborative.
Programs can’t be be delivered through talents that sit solely inside one company or agency. Too much innovation is happening in too many camps to say any single entity will do.
Impact might be delivered by a new dynamic production entity, CMS, distribution partner — or something that defies any category slot. Leaders invest to bring the best capabilities together — from inside their halls and out.
7) It’s measurable.
How you choose to measure content impact must happen early in the conversation.
Put aside standard “content” KPIs (page views, visits, unique visitors) for a moment and take the time to assess potential business ROI — like media efficiency, lead gen avenues, brand lift, and engagement across the customer journey. A business focus, backed by measurement, is the only way to make the case for sustained brand publishing investment.
8) It’s distinct.
Done right, brand publishing borrows from editorial, creative, analytical, production, digital marketing and media disciplines. It’s a blend of these specialties that leads to something new.
Whether driving through a brand or PR function, avoid the idea that it’s “just an extension of what we’ve always done.” The orchestration requires new thinking and an appetite for experimentation.
9) It’s powerful.
Doug Holt recently questioned the value of brand content in his Harvard Business Review cover story. He suggests that brands can’t win by trying to hijack social media audiences. And he’s right. Brands can win when they put credibility and service value over stunts and novelty. When you give people insights and power through your content, you can see returns.
10) It’s essential.
Some believe brand publishing is already a passing fad or that branded content is nothing new. But the reality is we’re just beginning. In the face of ad blocking and the power shift from publishers to social platforms, effective brand content will only become more essential to win in the hearts and minds of people critical to your business.
Chris Perry is Chief Digital Officer of Weber Shandwick and global chair of Mediaco, Weber Shandwick’s brand publishing arm.