Linear: the latest bullshit buzzword we need to stop saying already

Linear: the latest bullshit buzzword we need to stop saying already

It’s time for brands and companies to let go and embrace the free-fall says David Hovenden.

David Hovenden
Posted by David Hovenden

I love being a journalist. Over more than 20 years I’ve had the privilege of covering a bewildering array of rounds. The basic premise, however, has always been the same: find something interesting, learn about it, then write something about it.

Over the years I found myself in management positions and therefore grown an understanding of the business of journalism. But I’ve always held on to that primary role of having my interest piqued and then sharing what I discovered with an audience. For many years when I was caught up with managing too many magazines drowning in Excel spread sheets and honing my PowerPoint skills, writing an article was viewed upon as a personal indulgence and I rarely got to it.

These days, however, looking after one little old title, I have the time to write pretty much every day. And I don’t view it as an indulgence anymore, but an absolute necessity. Only from delving into the issues faced by marketing, media and advertising people first hand as a reporter does, do I even remotely feel prepared to manage a business that aims to serve these same people.

Perhaps this is the biggest change that’s occurred in the past 20 years. No longer can you rely on things staying the same so much so that you can simply busy yourself with spreadsheets and presentations to board members.

This change is of course reflective of the broader business environment. I just saw a car with the number plate DATA4U for Christ’s sake!

The thing that many organisations are struggling with at the moment is that you have to let go. The age of the control freak is over. Brands are dealing with this change in varying degrees. You’ve read as many things as me I’m sure about ‘linear’ broadcasting,  ‘linear’ advertising, ‘linear’ positioning of brands and ‘linear’ brand values and ‘linear’ etcetera and so on. It means one-way communication.

Has ‘linear’ suddenly become de rigueur because we became bored with saying ‘digital’ marketing? Or because the cool kids at Google started telling us to stop talking about digital marketing and to start talking about marketing in a digital world and we’re just quick learners?

The fact is we have leapt off a cliff and there’s no going back. Everybody has a breathtakingly amazing ability to access and share information. Linear is a neat way to describe everything that took place before we jumped, because we’re not sure if that’s really pre-digital or pre-social or pre-mobile.

Massive companies can now be brought to their knees by a social media misstep. My favourite example is this Twitter fail by the New York Police department’s attempt to use social media to show how friendly the cops in the Big Apple really are. The crowd had different take on it.

NYPD decided to ask people to tweet photos of their friendly local constabularly

NYPD decided to ask people to tweet photos of their friendly local constabulary

For a police department, police brutality isn’t great brand image, but it’s sort of appropriate and in the long run probably helps the police keep law and order. Fear is a powerful motivator after all. So it’s sort of a brand they deserve.

But what about other brands? I attended Lithium’s LiNC conference in San Francisco a month or so ago and its CEO Rob Tarkoff described the era we are currently in as the time of extreme customer expectations. I tend to think he’s right. We’ve become so conditioned for things to just work that when they don’t we want to know why. And we can share our disappointment straight away. It has to be quite terrifying for brand managers the world over.

Adobe recently opened its logo up to be pimped. Google changes its logo every day and any number of other companies are pretty loose with their styling, embracing the fact that they can no longer have a ‘linear’ positioning of their brand.

The brand you have, is the brand you earn. Act like a bucket full of arseholes and chances are someone will start a Facebook page about that very fact. Do something nice and you may well end up on one of the most powerful media platforms in the world: Buzzfeed. After all, as Jonah Peretti explained it last month in San Francisco to me, there’s no over estimating the size of the Bored at Work (BAW) and more recently Bored in Line (BIL) audiences.

Ironically, one of the companies most responsible for turning the world on its head is one the most protective of its brand and its positioning. Apple could be described as secretive at best and paranoid at worst when it comes to opening up its brand.

One of the good things about having been around the traps for more than 20 years is that I’ve seen Apple make this mistake before. In 1997, Bill Gates poured $150 million into Apple ostensibly to keep the company afloat. He said at the time he thought it was important for there to be more than just a Windows desktop offering. As a complete aside, the news sent Apple’s share price up $7 to $26.75 a share. Its share price broke $1000 per share, before the shares were split.

There are reams of copy written on why Apple nearly didn’t make it in the 90s and it makes for insightful reading. The basic problem, however, in a grossly over simplified sentence, was that the difference between a Mac and a PC became so negligible that it simply didn’t sell enough boxes. When you think about Android and now Chromecast, Apple is looking a little short on a cutting edge product. Bring on the iWatch says Tim Cook. October anyone?

Of course, Apple is the most valuable company in the world and employs an army of super smart people so chances are they will work it out. But Apple’s closed business model, it would argue model of market leadership, means that its competing on its own against the other giant success story of the past decade, Google, who has lined up with the likes of Samsung and Sony, Apple‘s old sparring partner Microsoft and a host of other players. They make a formidable team.

It’s an interesting contrast: companies that think they know best and those prepared to ask the market what they want and then build it for them. And involve them in every step of the way.

Henry Ford famously said: If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. But we live in a time where the world has far better access to information. Companies are also able to have much more meaningful relationships with individuals who know what they want.

I can’t wait to report on what the next decade has to bring.