The increasingly free flow of information and ideas across all manner of borders-geographic, industry, enterprise, even emotional-may be the signal transform-ational driver of our era. Technological innovations that once gave a company competitive advantage for at least a few years now become ubiquitous almost overnight. Any consumer or business customer can find competitive pricing information for the most specialized of products at the press of a button. News and opinion travel at light speed, influencing and even creating momentary markets, bubbles and bursts.
"Transparency is being done to the firm, whether it likes it or not," wrote business strategists Don Tapscott and David Ticoll in their important but under-recognized book "The Naked Corporation: How the Age of Transparency Will Revolutionize Business." "No firm can safely protect any secret, particularly any that angers stakeholders. Increasingly, corporations are naked."
The transparency phenomenon underlies what New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman calls "Globalization 3.0" in his current best-seller, "The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century."
Thanks to the over-building of fiber-optic lines around the world during the dot-com craze in the late `90s and early `00s, broadband now levels all kinds of playing fields. Operators in Mumbai are taking customer service calls once answered in Omaha; Chinese factories, once relegated to manufacturing to specs mailed from overseas, are now collaborating in real-time with designers 10 time zones away.
I keep a "transparency file" on one of my several hard drives, and it's growing quite long. Digital video recorders went from hobbyist device to off-the-shelf capability before TiVo could even establish its business. More than 60% of new-vehicle buyers use the Internet during the shopping process, according to J. D. Power & Associates, half say their Web discoveries influenced model or price decisions, or both. MP3s, a "what's that?" phenomenon in 1999, are now the controlling force in the music business, with listener-developed playlists now having the hit-making influence once reserved for record-company A&R men.
Transparency can even lay low the newly mighty. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that eBay, considered "the dot-com survivor that could do no wrong," has seen its growth and customer acquisition and retention slow as online marketing and selling become ever easier to prosecute.
Against this transparent backdrop, you'd think a clear-headed marketing executive would try to move quite rapidly into the post-advertising era. Yet, astonishingly, a sizeable percentage of marketers and marketing-services leaders seem mired in the advertising mind-set.
The Cannes Lions Festival still celebrates ads-a position, one suspects, roughly equivalent to the Cannes Film Festival honoring silents. The One Show held two concurrent programs this year-one for conventional ads, another for online. (One wonders who in this mix felt like a second-class citizen.) Even my beloved Ad Age falls prey: How frequently does "Garfield's AdReview" review anything other than a TV commercial?
In a transparent world, the power of an "ad campaign" to change minds is strictly limited, and getting more so every day. It's way past time for the marketing services industry's leaders to get naked and outsource this outmoded way of doing business.
Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton