Why I’m leaving AR&D

AR&D logoMy contract to continue with AR&D isn’t being renewed, and I’ll be unemployed come January 1st. I’m retiring, and the decision is a mutual one for two reasons. One, my body just can’t do what it used to be able to do, which is what happens to most people when we hit a certain age, regardless of how well we take care of ourselves. Two, and this is by far the bigger reason, our clients simply aren’t buying what I’m selling. There are plenty of better qualified people out there to teach media companies how to get the most out of their brands in the network (Alisa Cromer is the best, but there are many others). Anything suggestive of the idea that the Web is a sustaining innovation are functioning in what I call “Media 1.0,” the sandbox of media brand extension.

For the last 14 years, my heart and mind have been elsewhere: creating concepts that will allow local media companies to move beyond that which their brands can sustain. I think we should be using those brands to move beyond the world of advertising, which is what I call Media 2.0. Here, the innovation of the Web is disruptive, not sustaining.  However, this been a really hard sell for the local broadcast industry. 2012, for example, will finish as a record profit year for broadcasters, who see no compelling reason to invest some of that money in the future. Broadcasters made so much money this year that it would overwhelm even a very rich man’s wallet. Millions upon millions upon millions of pure profit. Everybody knows that next year will be brutal, but they press on, because 2014’s election beckons like a reliable point of light on the horizon. The thinking goes that no matter what happens in 2013, all will be well in 2014, because that’s the way it has always been.

Election money is broadcasting’s classifieds, revenue that feels like you can count on it no matter what else happens. I mean, where else could candidates go to actually move the needle when it comes to controlling the political message? Right? TVB boss Steve Lanzano just published a piece declaring that “As Election Day nears, waving off TV would be a strategic mistake of epic proportions.” After election money comes automotive, the “steady-eddie” of broadcast revenue, the number one reliable revenue source for local broadcasters. Where else would auto dealers go to actually sell cars, no matter how the economy is doing? Right? And so it goes.

My dear friend and employer, Jerry Gumbert, has been a real trooper over the past six years, supporting me and my views completely. He’s even allowed me to verbally beat the crap out of the very industry that pays our salaries, and this has taken a level of courage and leadership that few executives even recognize, much less possess. I’m proud of my contributions to the vision that drives the company, and I’m proud of Jerry. The truth is, though, AR&D will do just fine without me.

Alice and the White RabbitThrough my research and writing many years ago, I came to the conclusion that following three broad trends was a lot more fruitful for predicting the future than chasing every “sure thing” rabbit that came along. If a new innovation advanced one of these trends, it was a lot more meaningful to me, perhaps because it helped keep me focused in a time of unrelenting change. Among the chaotic waves of turbulance that surround me in an advancing storm, I’ve learned to zone in on the horizon instead of the waves.

Here are the three big themes of which I speak:

  • The unbundling of content from infrastructures: In 2004, then FCC Chairman (and currently chief lobbyist for the cable industry) Michael Powell told students that “application separation” was “the most important paradigm shift in the history of communications” and that it would “change things forever.” It has already disrupted major industries like music, print media (esp magazines) and video, and it’s just a baby in terms of its growth and development. This means that any industry that makes its money off an infrastructure that surrounds content that people wish to consume has to face this disruptor sooner or later. It’s why, for example, I favor mobile apps done in HTML5 over those that are closed. Discovery is the key to content distribution downstream, and companies close the door at their own peril. A closed app can be the same thing as a paywall in terms of how it keeps content “inside.”
  • Real time flows and streams of knowledge and information: I interviewed Kevin Kelly a couple of years ago about the seminal “We Are The Web” piece that he wrote for Wired Magazine in 2004. I asked if he’d write anything different these many years later, and his response was that he’d include the shift to real time flows and streams of information. People who walk through their daily lives are apt to miss this subtle but sure shift in the way knowledge and information are being distributed. This seems a managable trend until trend number one is added to the mix, because technology wants and needs that which is detached from infrastructure in order to move this to the next level. For media companies, this speaks to a product unrelated to legacy distribution methods, yet most companies — even those who “get” real time — are reluctant to even flirt with unbundled concepts.
  • The Second Gutenberg moment: This theme is by far the biggest and most disruptive to any hierarchically-based institution, including the media. It’s what Jay Rosen has termed “The Great Horizontal” and J.D. Lasica called “The Personal Media Revolution.” I like the reference to Gutenberg, because history can “see” the scope and breadth of how the printing press changed the culture of Western Europe and led to, among other things, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. We don’t have a clue about this Second Gutenberg moment, but the changes will be just as impactful. The power of knowledge at the fingertips of the masses and the power to disseminate knowledge to the masses have only begun to touch us. Those who stand as “special” in the old world — and I consider those with broadcast towers to be among them — simply aren’t as special anymore (or perhaps it’s better to say they “won’t be special”). It is within this theme that I find it difficult to support practices that serve only to advance this “specialness.”

If you’re unable to find sustainability within those three trends, then your future — regardless of your business proposition, media or otherwise — is suspect, and that’s the truth.

I don’t make portability its own theme, because mobile isn’t so much something new and separate as it is where the whole network is going. Computing, in other words, is going portable, and it can be dangerous to think that “mobile” is its own category. For a similar reason, I don’t view “second screen” or “social TV” as their own themes, because these are simply natural extensions of computing and fall more into what I would see as Media 1.0, or brand extension tactical applications.

I’ve worked very hard to stay on top of things on behalf of clients and beyond, but it has become a full-time job without a demand, so my departure from AR&D is both inevitable and understandable. I’m a little unclear as to exactly what I’m going to do downstream, but writers write, so I’m assuming I’ll continue writing. The Pomo Blog will live on.

The Web — and these three broad trends — are going to accelerate their disruptive nature, and sooner or later, television stations are going to have to respond.

But I’m reminded of the old admonition to not “confuse a clear view with a short distance.” Market timing is everything…

…and so it goes.