Mark Adams is the Chairman of the Digital Leadership Council and the SVP, Head of Innovation at Vice Media Group. He shares his view of the marketing landscape and the need to focus on identifying, acknowledging and supporting networks of people, rather than the traditional demographic approach. Mark highlights the way content attracts and aligns these networks and shares the way that an investigative journalistic approach to insights provides exciting results.
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Welcome to Managing Marketing, a weekly podcast where we discuss the issues and opportunities facing marketing, media and advertising with industry thought leaders and practitioners.
Today I’m sitting down with Mark Adams, who is the chairman of the Digital Leadership Council, and who happens to be in Melbourne today. Welcome, Mark.
Thank you so much, it’s such a pleasure.
We actually met in, of all places, Oslo, about 6 years ago when we were much younger and probably brighter eyed because we’re probably feeling a bit under the weather.
Yes, that was a lot of fun. We were in a little hotel lobby bar and you were doing your thing and I was doing mine and we started chatting a little bit and I think probably 5 hours later we decided it was time to go to bed.
And 6 years ago you were talking a lot about social media and the role and impact social media was going to have. It was an audience of Scandinavian or Nordic marketers that we were talking to. I remember, even at the time, you were at the leading edge of where marketers were in relation to social media.
How do you find it being the early adopter/ thought leader? What’s it like for you existing there?
I think, honestly, I was accidentally there; I just followed my passion. I’m from a tiny little place outside of London called Chelmsford in Essex. You can go to the Aboriginal outback and they’ll be like, ‘an Essex boy’.
The thing about Essex is every single young male in Essex wants to be a DJ—that’s what we all aspire to.
To be the DJ at the nightclub at the South End
Exactly, and if you were to have a heart attack in Essex and someone asks are there any doctors? No, sorry, I’m a DJ. I went to university, I wanted to be a human rights lawyer—I had some convictions around that but I was a bit bored with going to the same student nights again and again. Where was that music tribe that was into the music I was into? And I couldn’t find them.
I went to a fairly notorious club in London called Fabric, which is world famous for being severely musically-minded and I asked if they would be tempted to do an event for students so that I can gather together the tribe of people that love music. It’s a deep drive in all of us to find our tribe.
And they said we’ll do this but you have to book talent; you can’t just have you and your friends from Essex DJ-ing. So they gave us this list and it was a who’s who of electronic music talent and we started trying to book them and we realised there’s not a hope in hell of booking the Chemical Brothers or Daft Punk or the Prodigy. So we realised we had to offer something other than money so we decided to start auditing their digital, looking across their digital channels.
Their digital presence?
L2 and Scott Galloway did this later with brands but we were doing it for celebrities, talent and entertainment figures. We were basically saying ‘you’re 3rd in your category because you don’t have a YouTube presence or do this or this’. We’d give them an audit and say we can sort this out but in return you will play this show for free.
Fantastic. It was an exchange of abilities, of talent. You were using your talent of understanding the social media network and understanding and in exchange they were putting on a show for you. Going back a step it’s interesting how powerful music is at creating tribes.
There’s a certain point in peoples’ lives where they stop listening to new music; it becomes the music of your teenage and young adult years and so you become stuck in the 80s, 90s. This is why radio formats have been based around a period because that becomes the music of your generation. Your group of peers will all be bonded by certain music.
Except that’s changing because music is fragmenting beyond mainstream music and there’s all these genres and sub-genres that are existing all the time and emerging all the time, that are creating tribes within generations.
Absolutely. Even in the music that was my first love—electronic music, even in that genre. In Sydney this weekend, there were two different festivals representing very different ends of that spectrum.
So, you had the Ultra festival, which represents what the Americans call EDM (Electronic Dance Music)—much more pop based; it could even be radio play. And then the other where I ended up at being a bit more of a cult side of the tribe, which was much more techno, like Berlin or Detroit.
Bringing it to brands; the biggest original sin that you can make in communication, whether you’re a human being or a brand, is to mistake or fail to see those distinctions in the spectrum.
So I want to apply it to a different category than brand and that’s news and information. It wasn’t that long ago that to be a news broadcaster or publisher you needed huge amounts of money, and, in most countries, the largesse of government to be given a licence to be a broadcaster or publisher. And you became the voice of the news.
You controlled information because you were given this right to be able to participate in the democratic process—because media is seen as the 4th pillar that holds everyone else accountable. But that’s also changed because the internet; social media and the like, has made it a low cost of entry for almost anyone to start contributing to the news commentary of the day.
How has that impacted the world?
There’s a heady mix when you’re a human rights lawyer who is fascinated by digital and the power of networks. To your first question; how do you keep up and stay on the edge of things, I would say I don’t.
You’re surfing the edge of a tsunami and at any moment it’s going to collapse on top of you.
Absolutely. I think about all the trends I could have jumped on and anyone who invested in crypto in the last few years will know what I’m talking about; there’s a tragic hero’s journey to put all your eggs in a basket.
And we see this all the time. I’ve been a chief digital officer or innovations officer for 17 years now and every single year has been the year of some new trick, fad, gimmick or trend. And one of the things I’m always harking back to my team at Vice where I work day in and day out is ‘don’t be obsessed by trends. Don’t follow trends; don’t get too excited by them because they will let you down, they will break your heart’.
I saw an article this morning talking about ‘2020; the year of VR’; I remember 2002 being the year of VR. There are a lot of tombstones out there, the Segway, the minidisk, all these formats.
In advertising they talk about the year of mobile advertising. And every year it was going to be the year of mobile advertising. I think augmented reality has got a better chance but we’re getting off the issue. But I’m talking about the fact of you growing up down in Essex in a time when newspapers and London newspapers were notorious and there was the Sun, News of the World, the Independent and the Times and they’d all etched out a political/ demographic position in society with their readership.
And they’re still around; some of them are still printing ink on paper but most of them are deriving their revenue from online subscriptions and advertising and this is my interest in news because such a large amount of news reporting is actually supported by advertising.
Except now there are news or information providers who are not going on demographics like political positioning or wealth but on things like age, interests, geography. All sorts of things can appeal to people; it’s fragmenting it but it’s also deepening the engagement.
Yes and I think that is the elemental battle; do you want to go shallow and broad, i.e. demographics or do you want to go deep and what would appear at first to be niche (my argument is it isn’t actually niche)? The biggest realisation in my time in digital is that the internet is an interconnected series of networks.
That’s all it is. It’s what we’ve always done but now it’s an accelerant; the internet has put it to the power of a billion. Identifying those networks is our first and foremost job at Vice. People come and talk about culture but we don’t think that’s a useful term because demographics—we’re not against demographics but we think it’s the beginning of a journey.
And when someone gives us a demographic the first thing we do is dig in to try and find the networks. When we launched Vice news we asked what if we applied that same methodology to news?
What if we stopped targeting people according to political bias and age and started to ask, ‘what are the stories that are starting to emerge in that network over there that aren’t being told?’
Originally, and no one knows this, but Vice was called Voice. That was the original business. There was another company called Voice and they sued Vice so we had to drop the o. But the idea was to give a voice to the networks that never get to speak.
That’s almost like an unfortunate consequence led to a great benefit because you would have to say that voice is almost prosaic in describing but vice gives it an edge. It gives it the ability to go beyond it’s just the voice of the networks to there’s a vice that you can now indulge in. There’s a vice that may not be acceptable to your parents or other people in society but for you is absolutely legitimate.
I love brands, and Vice is a brand, that deepen this engagement by not just reflecting or playing back to people what they’re thinking or feeling but also give them permission to think and feel it. It’s not about being a mirror; it’s actually validating what many people are thinking that allows them and gives them the confidence to then speak up about it and feel they have a legitimate right to be angry, upset, or happy about particular issues.
You nailed it. I gave a talk in Romania a few months back and after I came off the stage lots of young people asked to have a photo with me and I said, ‘trust me, I’m not someone worth having a photo with’. And they said, ‘no, you work at Vice and we want a photo with you’.
So, I asked them, ‘why do you want this, why do you like Vice so much?’ They said, ‘we’re young students at the university here and we’re LGBT+ and we wanted you to know that no one has ever made a documentary about what it’s like to be young and gay in Romania.’
That is what we call ‘leading tribes’. We think the first step is identifying networks, figure out the ones where we have the authenticity in our equity; the deep truth in our brand allows us to connect with the deep truth in that network and then strategically activate them with leadership.
This is such an inspiring and powerful perception of what often gets reduced in marketing these days to ‘oh, we’re targeting millennials’. Do you understand what that even means? Aren’t millennials in their 30s? Some of them are doing the traditional thing of getting married and having jobs and then there are others who are travelling and exploring the world.
It’s like talking about baby boomers. Sure there are lots of them. I was born in 1961 so I’m the tail end of the boomers. Compared to someone who was born in 1950 we’re as different as chalk and cheese. Hello boomer.
By the way, some of the boomers I’ve met are more millennial than some of my friends; it’s a mindset. You and I have known each for a long time now; you’re more of a millennial than half my mates. A lot of the best marketing people have a younger mindset than some of the younger people who work in my team.
I used to start presentations with a picture that sums it up perfectly. On the one hand you’ve got Prince Charles and on the other side you’ve got Ozzy Osborne; both 67 years old, both love dogs, both have an income of this, both live in the same city so good luck making something based on this targeting.
Vice is not small business—it’s a $4 billion business and in markets like Australia we’re just getting a hold, so we must be doing something. I think our investors believe we’ve stepped in something that’s the art and science of activating these networks and if you think about it, the internet, the connection economy rewards the network analysis and thinking.
And then what is the strategy for activating and recruiting those networks because it’s all for nothing if you can’t recruit; at the end of the day it’s all about market share. We want to grow and we want the partners and brands that work with us to grow so we want to be in the market all the time.
And we want to be targeting this unbelievably huge long tail of potential networks that you can potentially get market share from. I always use the analogy of oranges. If I want orange juice I don’t so much mind how many oranges I have to squeeze to get the orange juice as long as each one gives me a bit of what I need.
Basically we see each tribe or network as a potential squeeze to give us more market share.
So rather than doing this demography of millennials (you call them tribes or networks) you’re actually looking for groups of individuals but not on where they live or how much money they earn but on the things that interest them, that engage them. And anyone that looks at the entertainment economy knows it has always worked that way.
By producing the content that people connect with, whether it’s entertainment, educational, the deeper they’re connected to that the more of their mind space you’ve got. One of the frustrations with research is that so much of it is me asking you how you feel about different things where as I see this as more visceral, because you’re actually exploring a network, seeing what it is rather than asking them.
Then you’re almost taking a scientific approach because you’re then testing it; producing the content that seems to be the stuff they’re talking about and seeing how they engage with that.
And that’s about marketing with them not at them. That’s essentially the Vice model. We see ourselves as an entertainment company. Virtue, our creative agency has been winning a lot of pitches, Ikea in all the main markets in Europe—it’s an amazing thing to have the Ikea global agency record.
I think the way we won it is by saying ‘guys, you don’t need partners that can connect you with the classic way of thinking; you need to transform to become an entertainment-based company.’ Not every company needs to but we try and map that discipline of how brands grow fly-wheel style thinking and build on that with a company that is digitally transformed such as Vice.
We’re way ahead. We’ve led the pack in terms of digital transformation of media and brand and then add on the fact we’re an entertainment company that’s making stuff for Netflix, Light Studios, for cinema with Pulse Films. We have more Emmys for news than anyone else in news so we’re making stuff people pay to see. And that’s what brands need as partners now.
But it’s been really fun. I keep saying I’m going to leave every year and every year I stay.
You touched on Vice being a digitally-transformed company—is it digitally transformed or was it born out of the digital era. Private Eye, for instance, appeared in the 60s and it was a publication but it could never expand to being a global entity because the internet didn’t exist.
In some ways has digital and the democratisation of information actually created the opportunity for Vice just as it’s created the opportunity for Breitbart.
Yeah, I think that’s a very insightful way of looking at it. In the beginning we thought it was our job to be the guardians of the chasm we called it. It’s that classic innovation curve of innovation, early adopters, then that Graham Moore chasm. VR is a good example of one of those things that take the run up and then fall into the chasm and never make it to the main stream.
Then you have the early majority, late majority laggards; my dear dad who just discovered Banksy last week and if we’re the guardians of that chasm that’s how we win. Because as things come from the left field i.e. the innovation—craft beer, veganism etc, they might start small but we’re measuring the velocity growth rate of those tribes, those networks.
It’s like the film Alien, it might be small at the beginning of the film but it’s tearing your market share apart at the end. We made the craft beer issue of Vice in 1997 and tried to get Heineken involved and they didn’t want to get involved. We made the veganism issue in 2001 and tried to get Nestlé involved and they didn’t want to get involved.
Now all of those companies are trying to M&A their way out of those problems and that 11 miles out to sea we were saying there’s a tsunami coming. And when Disney invested in us they taught us the ultimate art: storytelling. They taught us how to get beyond a network, how to stop marketing with and start telling a story that’s broad so that everyone’s interested.
It could be a story about something niche like electronic music but you make it universal and that’s by storytelling. No one in Hollywood ever says what’s the addressable audience of prisoners who are going to watch The Shawshank Redemption. No one worries about that because the Shawshank redemption is about prison but it’s a great story.
I’m not a professional boxer but I’ve seen Rocky. So we learnt to not just document things because in the beginning it was very much for the tribe and it was documented. Then we learn how to storytell and explain to the rest of the world why that tribe does what it does.
But isn’t good journalism storytelling anyway or is this a different type of storytelling? When you read a piece of journalistic writing it gives you the story. My friend Shawn Callahan would say storytelling is a human trait because it’s part of sense-making. The way we make sense of the world has traditionally been storytelling. The way we pass on knowledge and information has traditionally been storytelling.
It’s actually quite a modern thing for storytelling to be purely for entertainment. Most stories were built around passing on some intrinsic truth, knowledge or understanding of the world. Fairytales were moral tales. I often laugh; agencies will talk about storytelling and try and then reduce it to a 30 second ad that sells.
If you go to the core of storytelling it’s sense–making. Journalism is about sense-making. The best journalists have this desire to unearth the truth, a version of the truth through storytelling.
Absolutely. The one thing that has always linked everything we do at Vice and everything I’ve done in my career is being a truffle-pig for the insights that make the hairs stand up on your arm. What’s the test for an insight? Every single person around the table has got the hairs on their arms standing up; that’s when you go wow.
Isn’t that fantastic because I wonder how many marketers have had a research report or strategy document presented that made the hairs on their arms stand up or the backs of their necks prickle with excitement. I don’t think it happens because too often the process is reducing it down to something that’s acceptable whereas real insights are often the things that challenge or excite you or get an emotional response.
Before this I had the pleasure of being the chief digital officer of one of the biggest talent organisations in the world: William Morris Endeavour. So my life was like go and explain the internet to Bjork in 2005 or go and explain the internet to Charlize Theron. It was great fun but one of my clients was Christopher Nolan, the director, who was an absolute pleasure to work with. And he’s just a genius.
And I was in the room when the pitch happened for Warner Brothers for Interstellar and the pitch was the big three—space, which is environment but it’s not as powerful as the next one up: time. Time is more powerful than space because it exists even at the outer regions of the galaxy where there is no space anymore. We can see that red shift there which proves that time is still happening—I’m probably getting this wrong.
Then there’s one that’s even more powerful than that and we know this because it not only bends space but it also bends time and that’s gravity. So in terms of those big three you’ve got space, time then gravity. But I want to tell the story of the 4th dimension of the universe.
We’re aware of it ambiently and if we’re aware of what we’re doing as a society we’ve always had it right in front of our face but we’ve never identified it as the 4th dimension. And that is love. Because you love people who are not in the same space, time, and in the film he goes into the middle of the black hole where he can move across time, space and all he wants is a connection with his daughter.
There’s an example of hairs on your arms sticking straight up. Then it was a formality to say Matthew McConaughey and Hans Zimmer is going to do the score. And that’s the way we think at Vice whether it’s working for the brand or ourselves. It’s actually a formality who is going to direct things; you’re finessing it but the power is in that insight.
And that’s beautiful. I am truly moved by that because I’m a student of science and have an understanding of space time continuums, the impact of gravity on distorting the space time continuum but you sharing that story moved me because love exists in my life but it’s never been part of science.
Science for me is a very logical process, making sense of the world whereas love seems like something that can’t be made sense of because it’s irrational. I’ve actually seen that film and not made that connection.
The very beginning of the film you see the camera pans from left to right across a bookshelf and on the bookshelf you see dust falling (representing gravity) but you also see every book about love.
And so you see the great novels and not just books about romantic love but books about people who sacrifice for any type of love; friendship, family love. And that’s in front of us all the time.
I wonder if there’s a brand out there asking itself why don’t we get these sorts of insights in our strategy documents? That is incredibly powerful isn’t it?
Yeah, it is and the killer move for us; when we launched Virtue our creative agency – the world does not need another creative agency – but we thought coming from an entertainment business that makes stuff for the cinema—we made three of the top things on Netflix in Europe Last year.
We made the Fire Festival documentary—it’s unbelievable so we thought maybe the world does need that creative agency but the killer move was when we realised that investigative journalists at Vice News could go and get insights for brand boardrooms.
That was the moment when everything changed. That was the game changer and I have seen literally CMOs open their mouths wide—‘this is the strongest insight we’ve ever seen’.
I’m sitting here thinking it would be very difficult for any other major media network to do this because their base is broad and it’s often driven by things like ‘we’ve got our celebrity section, our business section and our sports section’. They are not actually basing those on a network or tribes—they are basing it on content. They’re very much content focused and producing content that will fit into certain slots, right?
Absolutely. Our biggest insight (and this is very controversial) we say, in Vice, the war of content is not the war. That was 5 years ago. It’s now a war of context. I’m brought back to Patti Smith. Vice always gets called cool and edgy and what they mean by that is niche.
But they don’t understand the internet rewards that type of thinking. We’re in the connection economy. We’re not in David Ogilvy’s era and I love him but that era is over and we’re now in the connection economy and that rewards deep engagement with networks.
By the way market share from a network like Lululemon—we (Vice) became their agency of record and one of the networks we went after was hip-hop and if you win 0.2% of the global hip-hop network that’s market share that will change your stock price on Wall Street. That’s not niche.
But that’s what people are not seeing. I hear this conversation all the time. Marketers are trapped in some ways by the board and the C-Suite who want the big wins but they don’t understand that big wins come from actually connecting in a deep way into these networks because of the scalability now.
In some ways I love the fact that the internet has made us a global village but I worry that it is also commoditising individual cultures and languages; that we’re becoming amorphous in our abilities.
You mentioned culture before. From my point of view culture is one of those words that gets thrown around like community, collaboration. These words have been used to the point they become almost bastardised and meaningless. But put another word to that; popular culture is a really powerful thing because it becomes, both at the time and historically, a shared experience that we can all connect to and refer to.
But popular culture; people often don’t realise that it’s created at the edge by people creating things that suddenly get traction and move across the chasm and become mass.
Yes, absolutely. We’ve never talked about this before but this is the way we think. I say to brands all the time, ‘you cannot give birth to an adult’. You can’t come up with an idea that doesn’t exist in culture and buy the middle of the innovation curve, the majority bit where all the market share is and buy an efficiency PM with reach and frequency and distinct memory structures and put it in culture. It doesn’t work.
It’s never worked in the history of the world and it will not work. You’d be better off trying to walk on the ceiling. But what you can do is identify the movements, tribes and networks that are moving from the left of the spectrum to the middle. And that’s why we’ve always said that we’re the gate keepers of the chasm.
And you can work with partners, and it’s not necessarily us, but who can understand and have the intelligence to see how you can equitably, authentically help that community move across.
Ideas are embryonic, then they’re born, then they’re nurtured to become teenagers and then they move into adulthood. There’s also another saying, ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ but I think we live increasingly in a world where by the time you’ve identified it’s a bandwagon it’s too late to jump on.
Like my dad realising that Banksy is going to be big.
You might get home and he’s bought you one—probably the one that went through the shredder. ‘Here you are son, here’s a box of shredded painting’.
The irony is that what used to be safe is dangerous now. And the most dangerous thing you can do is build a set of partners or a general consensus that ideas have to have a certain amount of mass before they’re worth investing in. If there was a Bloomberg terminal for investing in stocks and shares I would say that 101 economics would be buy cheap and sell high so I would want to buy an idea when its velocity growth rate showed me it was going to be huge in 18 months but right now I could contribute massively to it.
But this is the whole thing about best practice. Best practice is not best practice; best practice is what everyone is doing. The first thing people ask when you talk about best practice is ‘well who else is doing it?’ It’s not about looking at velocity, it’s you want the proven track record because we’re risk averse. As human beings we are risk averse so we’re not going to back something early because it might fail.
But big corporations are happy to set up heads of innovation and innovation hubs but they don’t want them to take any risks. In fact, innovation is not about setting it up within the organisation; innovation can often be having a mindset to look for where it is occurring anywhere within the organisation or external and start nurturing the things that have got momentum.
It’s like de Bono talks about Eastern thinking and Western thinking. Western thinking is you create an idea and it’s like a rock you put on the table and then everyone else gets their rock and they bang it to see if they can break it because if they can break it it’s not a good idea.
Whereas Eastern thinking is like drops of water and everyone adds their drops of water so it goes from a pool of water to a lake, to a river, to an ocean by adding to the idea and making it stronger and more powerful. A lot of organisations because of risk are trapped in a Western mentality about how to test ideas.
If I can break it, it can’t possibly be a good idea rather than taking an Eastern approach which is to nurture, add to and make it stronger.
I love that. When I talk about the idea of marketing with people that’s what I’m saying, ‘no creative director (and I’ve tried to be one), even the best, is going to come up with ideas that are better than what the tribe themselves are doing’.
That tribe is a living embryonic organism. The 7 things that identify a living organism; movement, respiration, sensitivity, excretion, reproduction, growth; we can tell whether a tribe is a real tribe because it lives by those 7 biological principles.
It will excrete members who don’t adhere to its rules and ideas. It has respiration, i.e. content travels around it. The biggest difference in the history of our lifetime, and I beg any marketer to take this one thing, is networks create network effects. And businesses that are romping through the market share of incumbents are doing so because they are creating better and more powerful network effects than the companies they’re disrupting.
And if you’re not identifying networks—I don’t care if you’ve got digital or innovation in your title, if you don’t think about networks every day, in my view, you’re not digital.
You’re missing the boat.
Mark Adams, this has been an absolute pleasure. I love catching up with you. We could talk for hours but unfortunately, we’ve run out of time. I do have one question for you. I’m sure anyone listening to this wants me to ask this question. And that is, what’s the next big thing, Mark?
Ideal for marketers, advertisers, media and commercial communications professionals, Managing Marketing is a podcast hosted by Darren Woolley and special guests. Find all the episodes here