Help Wanted: Industry Needs a Few Good Generalists

Why Marketers Need to See the Whole Media Ecosystem -- and Craft a Narrative for It

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Steve Rubel
Steve Rubel
It's uncommon these days -- and downright refreshing -- to meet an executive who can maintain a horizon above the noise and stay focused on the big picture. This is particularly true in marketing circles where such individuals are as rare as Charlie Sheen is ubiquitous.

However, I am increasingly inclined to believe that such men and women, true "systems thinkers," are best poised to stand out and succeed in the digital age. This bucks the trend toward specialization and especially flies in the face of those who are professed social-media "gurus."

Systems Thinking isn't new. It's a tried and true process of seeing the entire ecosystem and how all of its different parts impact each other. It allows us to see how if a butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world, it can cause a storm in another. This all starts with seeing things through the lens of the end customer, rather than through the view of the business. Some of the most successful businesses of the digital age were built around ecosystems.

Let's consider three: Disney, Apple and Facebook.

Disney's 'High School Musical' powered across media.
Disney's 'High School Musical' powered across media.

The Walt Disney Co. in many ways is the archetype for applied Systems Thinking in business. The company builds powerful franchises that often start in one medium and then power content across many of the others. This is how Disney rolls. They take a platform like "High School Musical" and have it span from TV to film to theme parks and consumer products. And they do it again and again.

Apple, too, has built a remarkable business by focusing on the brand and controlling the entire experience end-to-end. This includes the packaging, advertising, product design and even retail. This alienates some who value transparency and openness, notably developers. And it runs counter to open source and open communications. Yet, arguably, it's a successful walled garden. The iPod would have never had been successful if there weren't an iTunes underneath it.

Facebook is a similar breed. It also controls the entire experience. Unlike Twitter, which built its ecosystem with a liberal API and now is trying to recapture and monetize some of these lost eyeballs, Facebook built an elegant walled garden that became a powerful ecosystem that everyone wanted to plug into.

The takeaway here is that in a world where content is being increasingly consumed, created and co-created in digital platforms (and where space is infinite and time is finite), marketers need to see the media ecosystem as a whole. This involves carefully crafting a narrative and having it propagate and reverberate across four interconnected spheres -- what some are calling transmedia storytelling. This media cloverleaf includes:

TRADITIONAL MEDIA: The old guard, like The New York Times, as well as digital arms of the TV networks.

TRADIGITAL MEDIA: Net-bred upstarts that are challenging the status quo, such as The Wrap, GigaOm and Politico.

CORPORATE/OWNED MEDIA: Every company can and should be a media company on both their domain sites and on platforms such as YouTube.

SOCIAL MEDIA: Twitter, Facebook and many more, all of which serve as connective tissue. Sometimes the way we will come at it will involve paid advertising. More often, however, it will involve earned media -- and stories that morph and are dynamically recast once consumers create their own media.

Unfortunately, very few agencies are set up to think or operate this way because of an assembly-line, industrial-age thinking that remains a legacy today. The same can be said for many marketing departments. We will still need specialists who are deeper than others in one clover or another. However, everyone will need to see the big picture and understand how all of the pieces of the narrative fit together in the end consumer's mind as a total experience -- and then execute accordingly.

Consider this a call to action.

Steve Rubel is senior VP-director of insights at Edelman Digital.
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