The 21st century economy, it seems, has a strange sense of irony. The former dot-com miscreants are now the darlings of Wall Street, while the corporate establishment has weathered everything from accounting scandals to bankruptcy.

The Changing of the Guard?

The Economist recently reported that Google "is now equal to the combined worth of Walt Disney, News Corp., and Viacom," while "shares of 'old' media firms such as News Corp., Comcast and other giants of television, film, radio and print, have fallen 25% behind the S&P 500 in the past two years."

And it's not just media. Delta, Northwest, United, and US Air all struggled through bankruptcy filings in 2005, while low-cost player Southwest Airlines posted a fourth quarter profit of 54%. Ford and GM continue to struggle through high fuel costs, business and product issues, while Toyota and Hyundai continue to gain market share. In the US, Federated closed Filene's while the flagship brand of Spanish fashion group Inditex is planning to bring Zara to the American retail market and Japanese fashion brand Uniqlo's has said its push into the US is part of its plan to achieve annual sales of about $9 billion by 2010.

In the advertising and marketing world, newer, lesser-established, smaller agencies like Strawberry Frog, Mother, Mcgerry Bowen, Taxi, and Modernista continue to win more business and grow, while most large, established agency holding companies (the exception is Omnicom) struggle to maintain profit margins and accounts.

What could possibly be the cause of so many beleaguered established players and fortunate newer ones?

From a Culture of Unity to One of Plurality

Audiences are smaller, more fractionalized, more difficult to define and easily distracted with many choices. As marketing and media professionals, we are versed with the shift of consumer culture from a passive audience of unity to an interactive audience of plurality. Technology, new mediums, the Internet and choice proliferation has splintered the unifying principle of Americanism into many, fragmented subcultures organized by interests, ideology, preferences and tastes. A twist on the Latin phrase "E Pluribus Unum" to "E Una Pluribu," (from "from many come one" to "from one come many") would adequately describe today's society. We have become a Culture of Plurality.

In a culture of plurality, groups transcend demographics and gather around meaning. This means a 20 year old in St. Louis has more in common with a 50-year-old college professor in the UK than his next-door neighbor. In fact, if the 20-year-old has an iPod, he would have a great deal in common with Professor Michael Bull, a lecturer in media and culture at the University of Sussex. Bull is often referred to as Professor iPod because of his research into the cultural phenomenon of the device and has noted that all types—doctors, lawyers, students, mothers, musicians, celebrities of all walks and all ages—have gathered around the lifestyle dubbed the iPod generation.

Yet, we have not embraced the full significance of millions of consumers armed with affordable technology to plug them into any conceivable piece of information attainable on the Internet. This quantum leap in technology and information control is having a profound effect on society at large. Just as the railroad system at the turn of the 20th century cut transcontinental travel time from six months to six weeks, the jet plane from six weeks to six hours, and the fax machine from six hours to six minutes, the Internet has cut it from six minutes to six seconds. Technology, whether we disdain it or love it, is accelerating the pace at which we live. Consider:

  • We now absorb the same amount of information in one year that took 100 years to absorb in the 17th century.

  • In the next five years, we will double the amount of information generated by all humans throughout history.

Accelerated Culture

The result is Accelerated Culture: the impact of having to simultaneously operate within the "Fastspace" of our networked culture and the "Slowspace" of our physical culture. We quickly get caught up in the tension of the rate at which information is produced and our limited capacity to absorb it. Psychologically, we have difficulty distinguishing between the two. Which is certainly the case of Paris Hilton and John Siegenthaler.

You are probably asking yourself, "What could Paris Hilton and John Siegenthaler possibly have in common?" They were both victims of accelerated culture.

Paris Hilton's cell phone was hacked and her contacts and information were posted to Digg and linked to Yahoo and Google by keyword search. Within hours, Paris's personal information was available to millions before she knew it has happened. Eventually, the hacker was prosecuted.

John Siegenthaler, assistant Attorney General to Robert Kennedy in the 1960s, was recently victim of a false posting on Wikipedia that suggested Siegenthaler was at one time a suspect in RFK's assassination. The posting was on Wikipedia for 138 days before it was corrected. Potentially, millions read it.

Wikipedia itself is experiencing the tension of accelerated culture. The Wikipedia Foundation temporarily banned Congressional IP addresses to put a stop to a "flame" war between congressional staffers, who have changed thousands of Wiki posts. Wikipedia cannot keep up with the amount of posts and information. It has to resort to censorship, which is ironic for an entity that bills itself the users' encyclopedia.

By the time Paris Hilton, John Siegenthaler, or the Wikipedia Foundation realized what had happened, let alone could act, the damage was done. The information was moving and evolving faster then they could comprehend. It's slowspace versus fastspace. It's the effect of accelerated culture.

Accelerated culture isn't just a Web thing and isn't limited to public figures. We deal with it in all aspects of life, particularly media. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the news media was quick to report unconfirmed looting and rapes in New Orleans and the Superdome. The authorities have acknowledged these reports delayed their entering parts of the city. Now we know the reports were grossly exaggerated and prematurely shaped opinions. More recently, the media misreported that 12 of 13 coal miners survived the accident near Sago, West Virginia. The ferocity to report any information led to the wrong information spreading and printed in national newspapers before the truth that only one miner survived was known. It's another example, an offline example, of accelerated culture in which we were all victims.

Many sectors beyond media cope with accelerated culture. For example, the intellectual property courts have a permanent fast-track division to accommodate litigation in the high-tech sector. Fast-tracking was traditionally used sparingly. Yet, in an accelerated culture, the courts have to adjust for the pace of innovation and business. The securities industry is very aware of this issue. A mere mention or rumor can send stock markets soaring or spiraling. Recently, a rumor that a Japanese Internet company cooked its books forced the Nikkei to close early trading by 20 minutes. The Nikkei could not keep up with the volume of trading caused by a frenzy of nervous investor dumping shares. The effect was felt worldwide the following trading day, when retail and institutional investors began dumping stock on all exchanges.

The fashion world is another example. The shear number of fashion magazines in publication, the growth of shopping online, reality fashion and make-over television, and our celebrity-obsessed society are fueling tremendous demand for the latest trends in fashion. Labels suffer when they are slow to market. For example, GAP recently experienced its 13th consecutive same-store sales decline in the last 14 months. Part of GAP's woes is the result of the time it takes to bring designs to retail. H&M and Zara, on the other hand, have made a business of mass producing and retailing the latest, hottest fashions weeks after they hit the runways in Paris, Milan, and New York. The GAP is entangled in the fastspace fervor, while H&M and Zara have capitalized on it.

But in no area is the effect of accelerated culture more evident than email and wireless. The average Fortune 1000 company employee receives 138 daily emails. Blackberrys, cell phones, and pagers have turned white-collar execs into raving email addicts. Some executives admit sneaking away during family vacations to use their Blackberrys because they cannot stand being out of touch. All of these are examples of the tension and dissonance when information moves faster than our capacity to keep up.

The Marketing Conundrum

The implication for marketing is clear. Traditional marketing cannot keep up with accelerated culture because marketing has always followed culture. Advertising and marketing have been labeled "the mirror makers," as their goal is to reflect the audience. To that end, the traditional marketing approach researches consumer trends, conducts surveys and focus groups to uncover an insight about the target. It then exploits the insight, creates a strategy, and executes the strategy into creative work. All the troubled brands mentioned earlier follow this approach, or some form of it.

Given accelerated culture, how can we expect the hierarchy of the effects/awareness, interest, desire, trial marketing model, developed after WWII for a three-network mass broadcast system, to still be relevant? Given the typical 18-20-week strategy-to-creative schedule, how can traditional marketing keep pace with accelerated culture?

The answer is that it cannot. In a world where the wrong perception stays posted on Wikipedia for 138 days, where the rush for information results in the wrong information, where rumors close international stock exchanges, marketing as we have practiced it cannot make an impact in enough time.

In the future, marketing can no longer follow culture. It must lead culture.

Some marketers have arguably been doing this. In the US, Target has created a style cult around discount shopping by reassuring consumers that style can be had affordably. Starbucks created coffee house culture in America. Red Bull is the embodiment of club culture worldwide and invented the energy drink category. In the UK, Orange transformed the wireless culture to distinct groups of friends and relatives.

Though all of these brands are the exception, they are reaping rewards in the marketplace because they are leading culture. Like Zara and H&M, which are using a business approach to capitalize on fastspace, so too are these brands.

Marketing in the Future

If marketing is to lead culture, marketers must create brands that stand for more than product attributes or heritage in the category. Brands better distinguish themselves with a point of view rather than with a point of difference. Often, it is the intangible that makes any difference at all. Tennis shoes are tennis shoes. And coffee is coffee. But certainly Nike and British Knights are as different from one another as Starbucks and Duncan Donuts are. What distinguishes them is their point of view and how that feels to the consumer.

Ultimately, that is every marketers goal: to make consumers feel something about your brand that they do not feel about any other brand. It begins with a strategic process that is more flexible. The traditional strategic approach of starting with a consumer insight about the brand may or may not work. Insights in fastsapce may or may not be relevant at the time work is finally produced. Another approach could be to start with a core truth about the brand, a DNA imprint of the brand (whether consumers recognize or articulate it or not) and build a vision or point of view from there. People are drawn to a point of view, just as they are drawn to a religion or a cult. Brands with strong beliefs and vision are as magnetic as leaders with strong beliefs and vision. JFK is most remembered for his idealism and efforts for creating a "Pax Americana," Roosevelt for his fortitude and courage, Churchill for his bravery, the American founding fathers for their vision of liberty. The romanticized notion of our leaders is exactly the type of magnetism our brands need to lead culture.

Agencies and marketers must develop and implement ideas for fastspace. Which means the jettisoning of slowspace practices. Agencies should no longer aim to create a brand campaign that is to run for 10 years with a minimal staff of underpaid account executives. Those practices don't solve business problems. They add to them. Agencies must provide the resources necessary to quickly, nimbly generate ideas that lead accelerated culture. Over the last few years, the industry has seen a resurgence of smaller, independent agencies that do just this.

Part of jettisoning slowspace ideas is throwing out established testing conventions. In an accelerated culture there is no time for copy testing. By the time you test and refine your idea, the dynamics may well have changed. Additionally, established copy testing conventions will no longer work because the system and conditions they were developed for no longer work. The three network broadcast system has been replaced with hundreds of cable and satellite networks, VOD, HD, DVR (and soon) home-based servers. The hierarchy of effects advertising model (awareness, interest, desire, trial) cannot yield the same returns with this system. Comparing new commercials to normative data from previous years is a red herring. In such a cluttered environment, with increasing ad rates and decreasing ad budgets, awareness is difficult to achieve for both established and new brands. How, then, can we assume interest, desire, and trial will follow? Rationally, it cannot. Perhaps the reason that brand buzz and product placements have become so popular is because they help brands achieve awareness and interest. The question we should ask ourselves is how do we test buzz building ideas and product placement? It's a tough question. One answer could be in-market testing. But the answer is likely not established copy testing techniques.

Perhaps a better approach is the interactive model that measures and improves in real-time, with real data. The cost efficiency of online advertising has made this possible. Since it is unlikely that print and broadcast media outlets will decrease their rates dramatically, the marketing world should develop marketing incubators—efficient, affordable ways to test the waters with real data and real consumers, not unreliable focus groups or unrealistic predictive quantitative copy test models.

Whether we label it accelerated culture or fastspace and slowspace, there is little doubt that the irony of business in the 21st century is a direct result of our lack of willingness or ability to accept just how much things have changed. Make no mistake. This is not intended to be a doomsday article for advertising and branding. Marketing will change. Branding will evolve. And agencies will alter their practices to be relevant. The only question is, how long will it take?

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Jay Pattisall is a brand strategist at Modernista! in Boston. He has also worked as a planner or strategist for Strawberry Frog, The Richards Group and McCann Erickson. You can email Jay at