How to Be an Anarchist

Or: Why You Have Millions of Che Guevaras Running Through Your Halls

By Published on .

They're lighting the town square ablaze, running amok through the embassies, yanking down statues and looting the stores.
Sally Hogshead
Sally Hogshead

Who? Your consumers. And if you're smart, you'll grab a torch and join them.

Anarchy is the breakdown of formal, traditional structure toward an egalitarian system. Think of the power shift from established forms of information to consumer-directed content. From encyclopedias to Wikipedia. From publishing to blogs. From movie theaters to iPod screens. From retail locations to pop-up stores. And in case you hadn't noticed, from traditional paid media to all those new forms of digital media spawning like bunnies.

And if you think you're avoiding those Molotov cocktails, duck again. Sometimes even the full array of Web 2.0 weaponry can't protect you. When Fortune 500 media plans look like they've been through a Cuisinart, when agencies don't know how to use the new forms of mobile media let alone how reach consumers with them, when Nike transfers its shoe account to Crispin Porter, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Anarchyland.

Anarchy isn't a new concept. The Declaration of Independence once was considered a document of anarchy. A couple hundred years later, in "The World is Flat," Thomas Friedman described the internet's role in rebellion: "Consumers were getting a taste of power, and once they tasted it, things went from companies being in control of consumers' behavior to consumers being in control of companies' behavior." However, many companies don't much like consumers having the control over their brands. They still think of a brand as something the company says about itself, rather than what consumers say about it. But trying to impose a brand upon consumers works about as well as fighting barbarians at the gate with an invitation to high tea.

An example. Companies are coming to terms with the need to be "transparent" with consumers, realizing that poor service, shoddy products, and old-economy weaknesses can't be shellacked with a fresh coat of PR. But instead of genuinely fixing problems and being transparent about it, they're trying to "do" transparency, managing their image via corporate blogs and videos. Transparency is not a strategy. Strategies are voluntary and optional, and transparency is neither. Like it or not, consumers will pay attention to that man behind the curtain.

In 1993, I heard Neil French's then-unthinkable assertion that an ad did not require a headline or tagline or body copy or visual or -- hold on to your seats, folks -- a logo. Whoa. No logo? In a post-David Ogilvy world, that was considered revolutionary. But for today's clients, logos and ad agencies are both entirely optional.

On the bright side, marketers have it good compared to movie studios, record labels and those poor TV networks. As The Wall Street Journal declared, "American Idol has single-handedly changed the television's revenue model and viewership habits." While TV content has always been formally scripted and controlled by networks, once again, control moves over to consumers. Oh and by the way, have you heard of this thing called TiVo?

Don't get me wrong; I don't want to glorify the old days. Today we can be creative in the truest sense, inventing not just new scenarios for TV campaigns but entirely new ways of thinking and communicating. That's cool. Everything is fair game. Nothing is off limits. Anarchy allows brands to play and experiment as never before.

You can't manage anarchy, but you can use it to your advantage. Better yet, become an anarchist yourself. The point isn't to merely survive the craziness, but flourish within it. Incidentally, how do you look in a beret?

Anarchy loves the underdog. The smaller the budget, or the lower your awareness, or the newer your brand, or the more apathetic your consumers, the more anarchic your concepts can be. Must be. Being an underdog is a mind-set rather than a balance sheet, as proven by Google and Apple.

In anarchic economy, ideas are more valuable than execution. If you're only making money on production and media buys, as most agencies do -- ah, how do I say this delicately? -- you're screwed. Say you create a YouTube video that costs $1,000 in production and $0 in media, yet is viewed by over 1,000,000 consumers. How do you bill for that? Fundamentally changing the types of ideas we create requires us to invent a new compensation structure that rewards the power of the idea.

Create ideas that unite hearts and minds. Brilliant advertising from Dove and Skittles don't rely on newfangled media to get noticed. Alternatively, for some of the best ideas going, the media is the idea. Think of Calvin Klein's living Times Square billboard, JWT's "Lovebites" series for Sunsilk, and Mini's new Hammer & Coop campaign.

Demolish your ivory tower. Award shows struggle to create new categories that reflect current forms of media (does anyone really do black-and-white magazine small space anymore?). In the same way, we all need to find ways of looking beyond our own categories, departments and industries to borrow/steal best practices. Advertising agencies does this very, very poorly. But that's another column for another day.

On your way out, don't forget to take a brick from the wall as it comes crumbling down. Not for posterity. For selling one day on eBay.

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Sally Hogshead is a speaker, author, and consultant on radical innovation. Read more on the Hog Blog.
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