Thursday, July 22, 2010

Gather the horses.


It’s the name of a song by a musician called Charlie Mars. It’s about battles that must be won. I was turned on to the singer by Lance Armstrong, who mentioned him on Twitter a few months ago. Lance Armstrong doesn’t know me from a lamppost, but I follow him anyway. A sometime cyclist myself, I was stirred by the heroic image of Armstrong suiting up to race, set to Charlie Mars singing “there’s fighting here to be done.” It’s on my iPod. Because you never know.

In ten weeks, I will walk out of the firm I co-founded 14 years ago for the last time as its CEO. I’ll remain a shareholder, for the moment at least. And there are clients with whom my relationship is something more than remunerative, and for whom I hope I can still be a useful advisor. But make no mistake, I am gathering the horses. There are times in your life when comfortable is the most uncomfortable thing you can possibly be. If you think that brands are important work, then right here, right now is one of them.

When we founded the firm in 1996, I was deeply convinced that the advertising agency was badly in need of reinvention. You could see media proliferating. You could see the internet coming. You could see the fractured narratives that brands were turning into. And you could see how advertising agencies were both the best qualified to guide them, and the least interested in doing so. It seemed like a vein of gold. Important work, valuable work, which nobody was stepping up to do with any real conviction. We made some progress, and so did a few others like us. But there is a very long way to go. It seems as though, as an industry, advertising only gathered up the courage to look into the abyss in the last couple of years. I think, now, it will figure things out. So will its clients. And I’m not sure there’s much I can do to help. In any case, an even bigger battle looms.

I think brands are important work. For all the criticism that’s been heaped on the way companies sell things, it remains indisputable that a world with brands is a world in which the consumer is in control. Brands mean choice, and choice means power to the people. And brands, however tenuously, make corporations accountable. Without this little feature of capitalism, ordinary citizens lose their ability to influence the system. In an era in which everything seems to be up for grabs and everybody – from environmentalists to web marketers – seems to have a point of view on how marketing should be reborn, this has become very interesting to me. This is the battle I’m itching to join. However we reimagine the way business gets done in the future, we need to make sure it has a conscience. In the right hands, a brand can be that.

My upcoming book, Consumer Republic, is kind of a manifesto for this, though it nails its theses to the consumer’s door rather than the corporation’s. I hope it starts a lot of conversations. I hope a lot of people want to hear me talk about it, and then argue with me. I want to invest more time, too, in training and teaching people about this ‘ethical’ way of thinking about branding, and how to do it. And I truly want to get my hands dirty again, consulting to people who want to build that kind of brand. However I end up filling my days and putting food on my table, though, the battle that must be won now isn’t about a formula for marketing anymore. It’s about a purpose.

Wish me luck.