“Do or Die”: tough medicine for the CMO

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Marketers need to shift their focus from saying things about their brands to creating great products and experiences that will make people love their brands.

That’s what Clark Kokich believes. Clark, chairman of Razorfish, is the author of Do or Die, a new book that challenges marketers to rethink the way they build relationships with consumers. Recently he discussed with me the ethos of Do or Die, including how his simple premise — that marketers should stop saying things and start doing things — has a far-reaching impacts on the way marketers do their jobs, ranging from how they generate ideas to how they collaborate with agencies and their peers in Information Technology and Creative.

Do or Die, available exclusively on the iPad, argues that marketers just don’t have the ear of the consumer like they used to — not at a time when consumers have tools like Yelp to tell each other what they think about a brand. The book cites a Nielsen Company study that asked 25,000 Internet users from 50 countries, “Which sources of advertising do you trust most?” Nine out of 10 respondents said that they rely on friends and colleagues, and the next most popular source was consumer opinions posted online.

As Clark sees it, the problem is that too many marketers and their agency partners remain mired in an old model of sharing “one-way monologues” touting the benefits of a brand.

“Saying is great when people are listening,” he writes. “Saying is fantastic when people believe what you’re saying. But saying is a dud when consumers aren’t paying as much attention to traditional media and don’t find a one-way litany of sales points all that convincing.”

The solution: borrow a page from companies like Nike and Virgin America, which are finding imaginative ways to create immersive experiences for people to interact with their brands. For instance, while many of Virgin America’s rivals pour their marketing dollars into one-way advertising, Virgin famously builds its brand by transforming the laborious process of air travel into a fun experience.

As Clark writes, “From the cool magenta cabin lights that put you in the mood to go clubbing to the back-seat LCD display where you can order food, watch live TV, build your own music playlist, and chat with fellow passengers, flying on Virgin America truly is more fun — and noticeably hipper, too.” And Virgin uses Twitter as a customer service channel, not simply a channel for broadcasting information. Virgin monitors Twitter for any signs of passenger dissatisfaction and addresses issues rapidly.

And when Clark says “do or die,” he means it. Companies that don’t focusing on doing may end up like Blockbuster Video: failing. He calls out Blockbuster for continuing to pour money into advertisements that promoted the very business model that contributed to its present-day status as a bankrupt company. “What if, instead of spending their money on advertising, they had marshaled their resources to perfect the delivery of movies through the mail and then over the Internet, as Netflix did?” he asks. “What if, instead of mounting a pathetic last-ditch effort to communicate with us about their more liberal late-fee policies, they had put their money on creating the technology that would allow so many drop-off locations you’d never return a DVD late as Redbox did?”

Most of the examples Clark cites take advantage of the power of digital to help brands create innovative experiences. The book contains a special section with in-depth case studies such as Nike’s Write the Future campaign, in which Nike encouraged consumers to act as coaches for World Cup athletes by writing their own inspirational messages on Facebook — and also used slick YouTube videos to  encourage participation (more about that story here).

And, indeed, digital is a catalyst for change in Clark’s own life. Do or Die draws upon Clark’s own experiences at Razorfish, an agency that has evolved amid the convulsive and exciting digital era (and a place I called home for many years before joining agency iCrossing in 2011). In fact, even as he wrote Do or Die, he was adapting to digital: originally he envisioned marketing the book through a traditional book-and-mortar publisher. But he did an about face when Apple announced the roll-out of the iPad. He decided to develop a book that would take advantage of the interactive nature of the iPad, embedded with rich content such as video interviews with subject matter experts. (His decision was made easier by a frustrating struggle with a brick-and-mortar publisher to agree on an approach for his book, which he describes in a section entitled “The Story Behind the Story.”)

However, as Clark will freely tell you, he did not write Do or Die to tout the brilliance of interactive agencies or to show off his knowledge of digital. As shown in the following interview, he challenges agencies to learn how to do or die. And if you read the book, make sure you read “The Story Behind the Story” to get more insight into his own personal journey through digital, including an unvarnished look at how he has grown by trying, failing sometimes, and learning.

I encourage you to read Do or Die (here’s a dose of Do or Die on Fast Company; and you can check out the book’s Facebook page here) and learn as Clark has. Start doing. And follow Clark on Twitter — he’s easily one of the most approachable and down-to-earth executives in our industry. Tell him what you think — and be prepared for an answer.

How would you define the key message of Do or Die in one sentence?

CMOs need to change their focus from marketing communications to product development.

In a world where marketers focus on doing things, not saying things, what’s the role of the masterful message crafter? It’s also hard to imagine Nike without its famous “Let’s Do It” credo, too — a simple yet powerful message that sticks in our heads.

I certainly don’t want to give the impression imaginative storytelling isn’t useful anymore.  It’s critically important, but it’s not enough. Nike had the advantage of great products to go with its great advertising.  In the past, those products were handed to the marketing team, then they crafted the story. Now the marketing team is at the center of defining, changing, and creating the story.  I know people get tired of hearing “digital has changed everything,” but in this case it’s true.

Was there a particular “a-ha” moment that inspired you to write this book, or does Do or Die reflect more of an evolution in your thinking?

It built up over time, primarily because I was frustrated by the “don’t change” inertia in our industry. Everyone is complaining that marketing is broken, but nobody is fixing it.  I finally decided it was time to lay out a step-by-step plan for how to get there.  I know not everyone will agree with my ideas, but at the very least I hope they will cause people to stop, think, debate, and eventually to act.

What are some brands that really embrace the ethos of Do or Die, and why?

There are two cases in the book which truly demonstrate the Do or Die ethos.

The first is Vail Resorts.  If you want a perfect prescription for how to move forward, you’ll read this story.  Instead of running around doing cool new mobile and social campaigns, Vail CEO Robert Katz forced his entire management team, along with his agencies and vendors, to sit down and define how they could improve their product through digital transformation.  Again, they weren’t just telling a story through digital, they were changing their story through digital.

The second one is the Nike “Write the Future” campaign.  Nike did a fantastic job of getting their agencies to work together.  They started with a big idea, then drove it down into all of their channels.  They absolutely didn’t tolerate any in-fighting or parochialism.  It’s a model for how a big company can innovate in a complex organizational environment.

I thought Do or Die was something of a paradox. The book shows how a marketer can use digital to create a great customer experience so much faster and easier than old bureaucratic approaches to launching a new idea. But the process of getting a marketer to change her mindset from creator of messages to experiences seems difficult. A fair assessment?

Totally fair.  It’s really the most frustrating thing about being in marketing right now.  There are literally thousands of talented people in marketing who could be helping brands reinvent themselves, but our industry (clients and agencies) is so calcified we just can’t change our organizations fast enough to keep up with the opportunities.  The brands that figure this out first will gain a huge competitive advantage.

What kinds of skills does a CMO need to have in order to shift her focus away from shaping image and toward shaping the actual development of products and customer experiences?

Today, a truly successful CMO needs to be a powerful agent for organizational change.  A 50-year-old organizational structure won’t deliver in today’s environment.  Big companies resist big change, so the CMO basically needs to become a big irritant.

Do or Die challenges marketers to become more savvy about technology — the process of how websites, apps, and mainframe programs are developed, for instance. If you had to name one or two technologies a marketer really needs to understand in 2012, what would they be?

Everyone in marketing needs to understand the impact of agile development and cloud technology.  It’s never been so fast, easy, and affordable to quickly prototype and test ideas.  In a world where everything you’re doing is new and untried, you need to be fast and flexible.  Agile and cloud technologies make that possible.

In a few places in the book you refer to real-time marketing, as does Shiv Singh. How do you define real-time marketing? Why is it such a hot topic right now?

I’ve read half a dozen definitions of real-time marketing.  At the heart, it’s recognizing our culture is generating ideas and themes at a faster and faster rate, and we better organize in a way where we can respond almost instantly to those themes.

Some pundits have declared the big idea dead. You’ve said the big idea is alive and well, but it’s different. How so?

I actually used to say that myself, and it turns out I was dead wrong.  We still need big ideas, but they look different than they used to.  Big ideas used to be advertising ideas, now they look more like product ideas.  For considered-purchase products and services, the digital experience is as important to customer satisfaction as the actual physical experience.  That’s where the next big ideas will come from.

Do or Die discusses the value of generating big ideas through collaboration between marketing and other core disciplines like information technology and creative. What should a CMO expect of a technologist when they sit down at the table together and collaborate on big ideas?

Usually technologists are brought in too late in the game, and then forced to be the naysayers who explain why things can’t be done, because maybe they can’t. CMOs should bring their technologists into planning and brainstorming right from the start, and expect them to use their deep understanding of what is possible to help generate game-changing ideas.

It was refreshing to see you dispel the notion that only “creatives” such as art director can be creative. I can just picture a CMO reading Do or Die and thinking, “Well, I can manage a team and execute a great marketing program, but I am just not a right-brain thinker.” What would you say to that CMO?

There’s a big difference between creativity and innovation.  True inspirational creativity is usually a lonely individual pursuit, but innovation is a team sport.  If you read the new Walter Isaacson biography about Steve Jobs, you’ll see his real brilliance was in pulling together smart, committed people and forcing them to think in new ways.  Some of Apple’s best ideas were his, but many weren’t.  One of the themes mentioned by many of the brands we interviewed for Do or Die was the statement that “we can’t really remember who actually came up with that idea.”  That’s when you know a team is working.

By the way, how you develop creativity personally?

The best way is to try to stay up on everything that’s happening in the culture.  Read, listen, debate, and think about what’s happening in our world.  And above all don’t bitch about change. Hanging on to the past will kill your ability to think creatively.

Do or Die encourages marketers to test, learn, and have the bravery to make mistakes — to “launch now, perfect later.” Do you have any advice for Reed Hastings as Netflix endures a challenging transition?

Reed’s predicament doesn’t seem any worse than Steve Job’s was when he was fired from Apple.  So Reed, do what Steve did.  Focus on creating services of lasting value that thrill your customers.  If you do that, everything will be fine.  If you don’t, you’re in trouble.

Is a “launch now, perfect later” possible for big companies?

Yes, but only if senior management supports it. The CMO needs to provide air cover for the team.

It looks like the traditional brick-and-mortar publishing industry is having a do-or-die moment. You published your book on the iPad, and Amazon is giving authors an avenue to self-publish. What do book publishers need to do to turn things around?

Publishers need to do the same thing as every brand.  They need to stop fighting change and start embracing change.  Instead of asking the question, “How can we make money in this new environment?” they should be asking, “How can we use all of this new technology to thrill readers?”

Right now Do or Die is available exclusively on the iPad, and I do think the book takes advantage of the iPad to give readers an interactive experience, such as the ability to unlock video interviews. Do you worry that you’re shutting out people who could benefit from Do or Die by publishing your book on the iPad exclusively?

I really don’t worry about that.  If you’re in marketing and don’t own an iPad, something is wrong.  How can you be in this business and not surround yourself with all the latest technology?  It doesn’t make any sense.

Do or Die challenges marketers to ask themselves, “What frustrates people about our category, and what can we fix?” Let’s take a look at our own category, the digital agency world. What do you think frustrates people about our category? What can we fix?

We spend far too much time building one-off solutions.  There have been hundreds of great creative ideas come out of digital agencies, but very few that add up to something which truly transforms the relationship between a brand and its customers.  It’s not all our fault, but we’re definitely part of the problem.

You’ve lived through some tremendous change in the past 10 years. What’s been the biggest change you’ve experienced?

In my mind, all of this change is being driven by the rise of social and mobile.  Back in 1999 we liked to say everything had changed, but it really hadn’t.  We were still doing advertising, albeit in a new and truly different medium.  But social and mobile changed all of that.  Now advertising alone simply isn’t enough.  Those two technologies created an entirely new platform for engaging with customers.  Now we need to reinvent the entire marketing discipline.

What would David Ogilvy say today if he were interviewed for Do or Die?

“On many occasions I’ve been asked to advertise mediocre products.  I never enjoyed it, and I applaud anyone who is suggesting clients might want to improve their products before they attempt to improve their advertising.”

What should a CMO do next to embrace the ethos of do or die?

First, take it easy over the holidays.  Then on January 1st, pull together the widest possible team.  From the client, include people from marketing, IT, product development, finance, stores, and customer service.  Include all of your agencies – traditional, digital, social, mobile.  Ask them this question: “What do customers hate about our category, and how can we use digital to fix it?” Force them all to help define the problem and generate ideas. Threaten to fire anyone who acts like a prima donna or seems more worried about their own empire as opposed to the success of the group.  When you decide on a direction, sell it to your CEO and get it funded.  Once the program is launched, act quickly by testing, learning, and refining everything you’re doing.  Don’t relax until your customers are telling each other what a great company you are.

3 thoughts on ““Do or Die”: tough medicine for the CMO

  1. You are the NPR of blogging. In depth coverage from many angles. Requires a lot of research and preparation. A gift you have.

    I agree with much of this. But it\’s going to be a long road ahead to see change. Too much traditional inertia. To illustrate my point, Netflix and Bank of America found out the hard way at mid year. And despite those highly publicized examples, Verizon took an action as if those events had never taken place.


  2. Excellent post and great interview. I\’ll definitely check out \”Do or Die\” 🙂

    Another salient example (IMO) is Domino\’s Pizza. They\’ve embraced the fact that their pizza kind of sucked, and re-did their recipe and launched a broad marketing campaign that was truthful (our pizza wasn\’t that great, nor was our service, so we\’re changing) and promoted the fact they\’ve re-invented themselves. While I\’m still not in love with their pizza, I think it\’s a great example of how marketing & product development can come together in a beautiful way…and when they do, it works.

  3. Steve — Agree it\’s a long, hard road. At times I don\’t even feel like we\’re even at the starting gate. At the same time, it\’s inevitable. As more companies gain marketshare be using digital to transform their product experience, it will wake folks up. I be the folks at Adidas are taking a long hard look at what Nike managed to pull off during the World Cup.

    Nick — Domino\’s is a great example. We tried to get them to participate but were unable to make the right connection. Maybe we\’ll include them in a future upgrade of Do or Die.

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