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Let Us Not Talk Falsely Now: Thought Leadership in a Recession

July 21, 2009

Something has changed in the past months:  I don’t suffer gurus lightly.  Catch phrases catch in my throat.

Pronouncements such as “Advertising is a failure” and “Information wants to be free” get me agitated. And when I get agitated, I know it’s time to ask myself: what’s really going on.

After all:

Free is neither new nor radical. Any 50s housewife who sampled the latest TV dinner at the Supermarket before going home to watch the Texaco Star Theater could have told you that.   I am writing this essay for free.

After all:

Fallon was calling out the big advertisers for their failed imaginations and inflated budgets in 1981. Twenty years before that,  Bernbach insisted  that good advertising made bad products fail faster.

Some business authors have always nonchalantly tossed around ideas.  In the 90s, every business was expected to emulate Starbucks and provide a semi-theatrical premium-priced retail experience.  If you whined “but we make widgets and compete on price,” you were soundly thwacked.

And yet I’m still mad.

Here is why:  We are in a recession. I have never had so many friends out of work.

So when a blogger insists that the New York Times decision to charge for online content is a “devolution,” I think: how is a country which thinks journalists shouldn’t be able to pay their mortgages more evolved?  Who pays the rent on that African bureau?

When Jeff Jarvis announces that “advertising is a failure,” I think of friends waking at four in the morning hoping there won’t be more layoffs.

I don’t want happy talk. If anything, it’s even more important to say what is broken.

In other times, I would regard many of our current memes as sloppy but suggestive.  Advertising is failure?  Yes, a world in which sought messages compete with bought messages is an improvement. Yes, advertising has been nudged to the awareness end of the marketing spectrum as forums and sites occupy the consideration space. That’s a far cry from failure, though.

I am less patient these days. Now, speaker-fee-inflating, book-promoting, blog-ready aphorisms just feel reckless.

Notes: I cannot for the life of me locate the blog post which referred to the New York Times decision to charge for online content  as a devolution.  I hope I imagined it, although hallucinating blog posts would be a new low.  And tip of the hat to @jmctigue who suggested in a tweet that the responsibility of thought leaders at the present time might be an interesting topic.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2009 3:36 pm

    What do you think put journalists out of work? Here’s my answer, not an aphorism: journalistic enterprises that refused to face the harsh truth of a new economy and who thought protectionism was a strategy for the future. Disagree with the messenger, fine. But just saying you don’t like the change doesn’t forestall it. Quite the contrary, it accelerates it and others – who are trying to figure out the change – beat the incumbents to the punch.

  2. Kevin Fenton permalink*
    July 21, 2009 6:00 pm

    If I implied that you’ve caused our current situation, I’ve spoken too broadly in attacking overly broad statements and put a moral burden on you that is undeserved, especially given the thought you’ve given these issues: “But we also stipulate that none of that – not foundations, not the goodwill work of bloggers and neighbors – will support the level of reporting and journalism a community needs. And we believe that the market will support journalism – even the growth of journalism – commercially. We are working on models to examine how both the revenue and efficiency of enterprises in the ecosystem – news organizations to bloggers – can be optimized (we’ll be putting out models as we get closer to our first August deadline).” Source:

    I do think the insistence from other quarters on free news as an entitlement is dressed up philistinism and I do think the idea that advertising is failure is too broad as a description of the current state of affairs. In a different economy, I would have been more interested in the insight at the core of that statement.

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