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What does media and commerce look like when it's all around us?
Welcome to People vs Algorithms #33.
I look for patterns in media, business and culture. My POV is informed by 30 years of leadership in media and advertising businesses, most recently as global President of Hearst Magazines, one of the largest publishers in the world.
I had dinner a couple of nights ago with a Founder / CEO of a fast growing media platform company, one with a nose-bleed valuation, +100% yoy growth and a world domination vibe. Who was it and what is a media platform company? Well, they help publishers connect more deeply with audiences and hopefully make more money. Let’s leave it at that. The point is this, amid pretty catastrophic economic news across all of the things I am interested in — media, commerce, crypto — it’s refreshing to hang out with a hyper-optimistic reality bender. He is this type. It’s a superpower if you can avoid getting consumed by the delusional bullshit counterforce which can often lead to poor decision making, among other things.
It struck me that this particular CEO was a very good visualizer. He sees the broad outline of the digital media business, one challenged by a hit and run distribution model, platform dependency, low levels of engagement and first party data, a confusing and claustrophobic array of ad monetization solutions. He is pretty confident that his community-enhancing products can make things better for everyone and in the process build a multi-billion dollar business. To him, everything else, like a tough economy, privacy legislation, valuation pressure, is just noise or opportunity. He is that kind of visualizer.
Inspired, I left dinner trying to visualize what media looks like now and what it will look like in the future. How do non-media people see different media types? How will they describe it in the future? It used to be easy when media looked like its distribution model. TV looked like a TV.
I too am a visual person. It’s how I like to understand systems and the connections between things. As an aside, I also have a habit of visualizing what humans were like in high school because there’s something archetypal about you in highschool. I also find it useful to visualize people as bugs in Pixar movies.
Anyhow, the world is pretty nuts and visualizing is a good way to try to make sense of things during a period of great change and uncertainty.
To be sure, a harsh reality check is being felt across the market. Buzzfeed is trading under $2, giving it a market cap of less than what both Complex and HuffPo (both now owned by Buzzfeed) individually traded for over 5 years ago. The market sucks and there’s lots of exogenous negativity, but clearly this is a bad comp for all digital media. Netflix and the rest of the streamers are coming to terms with a competitive world where distribution power equals content investment and TikTok addiction competes with expensive Game of Thrones prequels.
The shine has come off the DTC ecommerce category, struggling with deteriorating acquisition economics and supply change pressure. Casper was taken private at a fraction of its peak value. Hims, Allbirds, Peloton, Stitchfix, Warby, Wayfair have all seen massive valuation corrections. Let’s not even talk about crypto companies.
All of the bad news made me wonder how do we visualize media next? How does it differ from how we saw it before?
Take TV. What does it look like? The question took me back to childhood. I am 12 years old sitting in front of a wood veneer box in our family room. It’s a RCA, a reputable TV brand at the time. Navigation is a dial with 12 channels. I am watching shows about the future. One is called the Jetsons. The other, the Six Million Dollar Man (we should have called it the $7.2 Million Dollar Man given US / Canadian exchange rates). One particular gag from the Jetsons sticks in my mind. George Jetson returns from work and settles into his retro-futuristic Eames recliner. Rosey the robot scoots over to put on his slippers. His wife Judy asks him about his day at work, to which he replies something like, “I am so unbelievably exhausted. I was pushing buttons all day.” Ha ha… pushing buttons all day… like that is so easy, George. The future is the best. I can’t wait for it.
About five years later, we did start pushing buttons to control the TV. Asked to visualize the medium now, I see a cable programming guide, a bunch of light and dark blue boxes. My frame has shifted from the physical thing to the software inside of the thing.
If I ask you today, do you visualize a black rectangle on the wall? The Netflix interface? Maybe a bunch of square app and show icons on your phone, iPad or smart TV? Visualization takes the shape of the distribution channel. As this becomes disconnected from the form factor of a delivery device, as it is today, it starts to look like the new access point, the software that takes us to the things we watch.
I asked a couple of people how they visualize media. One person replied “A scrolling haystack of info from which I pause to pull needles punctuated by video and other cool visual bits and bobs.” Another said “A Twitter feed, just a long list of shit” When I asked specifically about TV, I got “Thumbnails for each platform organized on a surface,” and “An Apple TV desktop.”
The device has disappeared, replaced by an icon that opens a world of programming wherever you are. Access has been virtualized and disaggregated. Companies like Apple want to preserve the connection to a device — there’s intense economic power in connecting the hardware and software access point. Apple has patiently invested in Apple TV as a content navigational interface for this reason. Bundling it with an array of service (music, storage, news) and adding proprietary programming tightens the connection across the value chain.
Changes in radio mimic TV. How do you visualize radio? Do you see the device, the dail, the interface in your car? Or do you see a square show card in an iTunes or Spotify interface.
The challenge with print, more magazines than newspapers, is it's really hard to visualize what they look like now. It’s hard to think “newspaper” and not visualize a broadsheet, though my mental model is shifting to the branded news app. News is easier than other types of content, I think, because there’s a structure to the format. Despite changes in delivery method, it still looks like a masthead, a feed of the latest happenings, a geography, a columnist, a news photo, a typeface and a familiar content density. Newspapers are just news in a digital realm. The concept makes the shift from physical to digital easier to visualize.
Magazines are more difficult — it’s been a struggle to clearly define the media type through the digital transition. Last week, Condé Nast was criticized in a UK media publication for recategorizing itself from “magazine” to “content company”, in recognition of a broad refactoring of its distribution reality. This seems petty.
The virtue of a magazine as a format is its detachment from the pressures of the present. It's not news. It’s not a book. It sits between. The challenge is, it’s largely discretionary media and this makes an urgent and persistent consumer connection more difficult.
Forced to maintain relevance in a minute by minute digital environment, magazines became more news-like, blurring the lines between once distinct media types. Survival meant piggybacking others' distribution to meet the audience where they were spending time. Magazines have been the most aggressive at pushing the product to social platforms and aggregators like MSN and Yahoo and Flipboard. And their content strategy has been fundamentally reshaped by Google’s Q&A machine, now the primary traffic lifeline to only real owned distribution point, the .com.
To survive, magazines have had to take Bruce Lee’s advice and become “like water.” Living everywhere meant endless format innovation, short and long, video, audio, commerce and experiential. The appeal of magazine reporting has not diminished, but the challenge of being “like water” is it’s hard for people to understand. Both consumers and the media buying community struggled to visualize how a magazine brand would evolve from a “sit back” print thing to a vital digital thing. The transition took more than a two decades to play out inside of these companies (and it continues) as the reality of a new distribution model challenged every dimension of the business.
Today's magazine brand manifests as a mark of trust on top of mixed content formats and a distributed model. Advertising must travel as content inside of its feeds. The market largely understands this new reality. A shared mental model built on a clear understanding of the distribution model is a valuable thing indeed.
Technology changes are forcing the same visualization complexity on retail. Asked to visualize a store, I see a department store. Clearly this is outdated. One might visualize specialty retail or big box stores. For a few I polled, retail is now visualized as Amazon, rows of products in a digital interface versus racks of stuff in a physical setting. Even more conceptual, but reflective of a modern reality nonetheless, shopping starts to look like Amazon Prime — shopping as a service — a steady flow of boxes delivered to home by friendly associates in electric vans, soon to be replaced by drones and robots.
Next retail is a space where the physical and virtual collide. Visualize the intersection in the new Amazon Style store in LA (video below). Flip through racks displaying complete outfits, assembled by influencers, much like you would posts in an Instagram feed. Like what you see? Scan the item with your phone and the items magically appear inside one of dozens of fitting rooms in the back of the store. Want to buy? Push a button and your card is charged. Have it bagged at the exit and you are done. It’s a little like what Apple Store has become, where associates summon goods from inventory runners and checkout has disappeared into the hands of roaming tech powered sales associates. All to say, this is basically ecommerce in a physical space. Much like how HomeDepot wants you to shop with your phone in your hand. It looks very different from what we had before.
In the not too distant future, the notion of retail will fracture to multiple endpoints as media has. Buying things will become a part of the fabric of every interface, content in particular. The notion of a shopping cart will persist as a concept when shopping is a discrete and focused activity inside of a catalog experience. In many use cases, the transaction will travel to points of inspiration.
Revisualize your car
There’s a Buick car ad in rotation right now in which a family argue about whether the car is, in fact, a “Buick” or an “Alexa.” The creative brief clearly sought to push the benefits of familiar Alexa powered software as a differentiating feature of the car. The result serves to highlight the existential trouble ahead as the software part of the driving experience usurps the mechanical part. Apple is pushing CarPlay hard to become the official operating system of your automobile. A car becomes software with wheels or better, an iPhone that drives you and the kids to the soccer game. For the life of me I can’t see why this is mental image Buick would want to invest in. A laptop without software is a paperweight. A car can still drive you to the store. But increasingly the personal utility of the operating system will trump the utility of transportation. Our mental models will shift accordingly.
From device to air
It would have been much easier to visualize if a magazine or TV station was simply replaced by a website. Sadly this is not the case. While essential categories and scaled players in news and sport find better opportunities to create new habits around a website or app, most are forced to depend on parasitic relationships with search, social and operating platforms. Mediums overlap. Podcasts are video talk shows. TV shows have podcasts. Magazines do news. Newspapers make docs. We have become increasingly comfortable with the idea that media manifests across multiple distribution points underneath the umbrella of a trusted media brand or individual creator as brand. We find it difficult to see a medium, or brand, as a holistic media experience in the future.
Inevitably the smallest relevant unit — a show, a franchise or author — becomes a more important navigation cue than the umbrella brand of the previous era. Our visualization of media is disaggregated.
Media visualization used to take the shape of physical distribution — a box as TV, a radio, a printed newspaper or magazine. As our interface to media digitized, increasingly we visualized the discovery interface, the programming guide, a Netflix discovery screen, a Podcasting interface or social stream. Next media looks like a matrix of choices, defined by small squares which we select to meet very specific personal use cases and navigation is shaped by the digital and physical communities that surround us.
Our phones replace wallets, keys and programming guides. In cars, home and offices, screens are just dumb servants, waiting to receive instruction from our phone via the cloud.
As I have said many times, nobody underwrites a web based media business anymore. That is not to say a web position is not valuable. Witness all the capital chasing sites with good brands with sites, primarily because of built in search position. Synergies can be found by grouping them together, optimizing cost structure and best practices. This is a short term distribution arbitrage. Long term you have to stand out in the matrix. Inside the matrix it’s a brand supported by an addictive connection between a creator and community that wins.
In times of great change, it's comforting to visualize what the future looks like. That view is increasingly personal. We understand it intuitively but it’s hard to put you finger on exactly what it looks like. The reason, as far as I can tell, is because it is now all around us. Media is no longer a device, a format or navigation point. It’s air. It’s water. It’s all of us.
Have a great weekend…/ Troy
Nine items of note:
1. Ninja-level performance marketers win the DTC game. Nectar is a standout example. Here’s what you see when you land on a product page from search. Cross reference all of the details with your list of direct marketing best practices.
2. Try the shoes before you buy. Amazon mobile AR lets you try shoes on from the comfort of your phone. / Retail Dive
3. GaryVee is is bigger than you thought. “A trip to the GaryVee convention, where everyone is part of crypto’s 1 percent.” / The Verge
But mostly Vaynerchuk — who goes by GaryVee online — vies for your attention through an unyielding stream of in-your-face, motivational content that promises the secrets to a better life. Vaynerchuk peddles a particular kind of rise-and-grind, how-to-win-at-life positivity that has become so ubiquitous online that it feels part of the very fabric of social media influencing. Falling somewhere between a Tony Robbins-esque self-help coach and a brash company executive, Vaynerchuk’s persona is like an inspirational poster you might find on a wall of an elementary school, but with profanities: “FUCK IT, JUST BE YOU.”
4. Does this computer understand its silicon soul? The story of a Google computer scientist who was suspended for claiming the chatbot was sentient and releasing details on Medium was everywhere this week. AI is maturing quickly and the ethical, social and commercial implications will be massive: ”The Google engineer who thinks the company’s AI has come to life” / WaPo
Sentient robots have inspired decades of dystopian science fiction. Now, real life has started to take on a fantastical tinge with GPT-3, a text generator that can spit out a movie script, and DALL-E 2, an image generator that can conjure up visuals based on any combination of words — both from the research lab OpenAI. Emboldened, technologists from well-funded research labs focused on building AI that surpasses human intelligence have teased the idea that consciousness is around the corner.
Related, another guy trains AI on 4Chan crap and turns it into a hate speech machine. / Vice
5. Buy Side is well executed. The WSJ brand provides credibility to product recommendations. It will be a well read addition to their feeds, apps and emails. Fighting to win at search against dozens of competitors will be more difficult.
6. Camping for Jesus and the American way. “They Love Jesus, Bon Iver, and Incels. Inside America’s New Ultranationalist Youth Movement.” / Vice
7. Want to understand the internet. Start with fan culture. “How Deadheads and Directioners Made the Internet What It Is Today” / Pitchfork
I’m looking for the shrine to Harry Styles’s vomit. I know it was on Tumblr—I remember seeing it there. In the fall of 2014, at the beginning of my last year of college, I also remember a GIF set of Harry Styles, answering an interview question about the shrine to his own vomit, nodding diplomatically and saying, first in one frame, “It’s interesting. For sure,” and in a second, “A little niche, maybe.”
Blackwell’s first exposure to the Jamaica that lay outside his cosseted life came from a near-death experience at age 21. He and some friends set sail on a small boat that ran out of fuel in a dangerously remote part of the island. Desperately in need of hydration, he set out on foot only to eventually meet a Rastafarian. “I’d never come across one before,” he said. “At the time Rastafarians were considered to be a very dangerous group of people. I was scared. But he brought me water. And I thought ‘here’s this guy who represents what everybody says are terrible people and he’s saving me.’ It changed my life.”
9. StereoGum is reviewing every number hit from 1958 to the present. 1977 was a nice year.