July 06, 2009

Conversation With A Web Maniac

This past weekend I had a web conversation with a guy named Felix Velarde who runs a company called Underwired in the UK. The conversation was conducted via comments on a blog post of mine from April entitled "The Thing That Will Change Everything."

Dave Trott, one of the UK's most respected admen, sent Felix over to TAC to read the post knowing Felix would disapprove. Here's the conversation between Felix and me. It's way, way too long and may be the dullest thing I've ever posted, but if I edited his stuff he'd rightly accuse me of being unfair. I've done a tiny bit of editing just for clarity.

Honestly, I don't know if you'll find this interesting or not.


TAC ... I'm sure you've got a trillion years of understanding consumer behaviour, and I'm sure you're right about how venal, faddish and self-important the marketers you work with are.

But here's the thing. The internet did change everything, utterly and without mercy. We have a globally distributed notion of justice. We have a globally distributed set of cultural norms. We (finally) have a near-universal language. We have a US President accepted as a good replacement for the universally reviled previous global leader who everyone in the world knows intimately, and who has been elected based on a third of the world's cultural norms. We have a world of consumers who elect and buy, taken over from a locale of consumers you used to sell to.

Consumer behaviour may not have changed. But expectation, motivation, influence and conversion to buy have changed forever. The consumer, finally, is king. And TV, though still a powerful medium, hasn't caught up despite 12 years of interactive TV. The day TV advertising can be segmented not by programme but by the individual consumer's implicit or explicit at-that-moment requirements will be the day TV gets back on its feet. And yes, when we started an interactive TV agency for Lowe in 1998 it was arguably way too early. The fact it produced interactive TV ads for Tesco and Unilver, two of the most far-sighted marketers, doesn't take away from the fact that it couldn't make money - but it was necessary to help get the ball that may one day save the TV advertising industry's arse rolling.

My own view about what people might remember is that it takes two types of people for progress to happen - the innovators and visionaries who come at things too early but set up the parameters of the experiment, and the reactionaries that temper the enthusiasm but enforce rigour. I'm quite happy to be in one of the groups, and I'm glad of the existence of the other, because your maturity means I can borrow, say, the discipline of data planning and prove that what we do works better for the new world's consumers than what you used to do when it was the only way.

Glad this social media thing is here though, because previously the only way we could have an argument was down the pub or in the letters pages, so thanks Twitterverse and blogosphere, at least you've revolutionised how fast one man can flourish his own reactionary views, another can highlight them, a third can get it all wrong before correcting his mistake, and how fast presumably this will turn into pixels in the wind. Personally I'd much prefer to do this over a pint than in public, but hey, you know that when even the Iranians are using Twitter to complain about injustice, the world's all gone and changed while you were busy watching television ;)


To be honest, I would normally ignore your "visionary" comments as just the usual ravings of an online maniac.

But since Dave Trott sent you over here, and I admire Dave greatly, I'm going to take what you have to say seriously.

Extraordinary claims ("the internet did change everything, utterly") require extraordinary proof. You are very good at making the extraordinary claims, but a little weak on the evidence. Ten pounds of assertions do not equal one ounce of validation.

Let's take it point by point. First, we do not have a "globally distributed" notion of ANYTHING. The internet notwithstanding, there is just as much diversity of opinion about justice, and cultural norms and everything else political and cultural as there has ever been. Maybe you and your pals who read each others' blogs and tweets have reached a consensus, but the world is just as messy and full of conflict and discord as it has ever been. I would like to suggest that you try reading one of those old-fashioned things we "reactionaries" call newspapers.

In the next paragraph you got one thing right: consumer behavior has not changed. Everything else in that paragraph is wrong. All that baloney about "expectation, motivation...", do you just make that shit up? Do your clients believe it? Here are some facts: 1)People now watch more tv than ever before. 2)Every test ever done on interactive tv has been a failure.

You are obviously an intelligent person. When you make assertions like "the internet did change everything" there are only two possibilities: either you mean what you say, or you are playing with words. If you are just playing with words, it's not worth commenting on. If you mean what you say, it is very disturbing.

There is a lot to life beyond the computer screen. There is food and music and art and friendship and talking and laughing and flowers and sports and, as you say, an argument down at the pub. To say that the internet changed everything is simply an alarming assertion for an intelligent person to make. You are spending way too much time in front of a computer screen.

PS: Just because I'm right, doesn't make me a "reactionary." Just because you're wrong, doesn't make you a "visionary."


@Dave, you were right - he's both intelligent and acerbic. But he's also a little pompous no? (Note: I'm not clear why Felix addresses this to Dave Trott and then later to me. -TAC)

So this is me. I probably have just as much of a non-screen life as he does. I fly gliders, ride horses, have friends all over the world, throw parties, eat at nice restaurants, drive sports cars, same stuff as he. I have a reasonable online life as well, though very little outside of work hours. I keep in touch with the 200 or so people of every social, religious and political hue that I cherish in my personal life, and the 200 or so I value in my professional life, using my social media. But I'm no geek, I went to a school with no computers - unlike the current generation in the West and the new generation in the East that relies on bandwidth like air.

I was lucky to have been involved in starting one of the world's first web agencies, one of the first SEO agencies, the first iTV agency, and one of the leading eCRM agencies. I'm still learning all the time because our world is constantly changing, and still very often wrong (there, an easy one for you to quote me on later).

But the world has indeed changed. You've commented yourself on Tehran's new Twittering classes. That's a fine example of real-time, unfiltered interactive news, something that could not have happened before the net. In fact, where there remains no bandwidth TV still rules; but those are the same places where they launch missiles to mock independence day or misguided foreigners swim to meet housebound leaders. Iran's real-time-shared protestations are not iconic like Tianenmen Square, but then what's an icon but a fixation on the object and not the consumer of it. The new world has changed. This world is one where what a brand is is defined by what it lets its consumers say about it - not what it tells its consumers to think about it. And if you can't tell the difference between the two, then that's symptomatic of why the advertising industry has had its day in the sun.

You come from a world where the marketer defined the brand, and substantiated it with product. The world we now live in is one in which consumers commune, and brands that listen are defined by their listening, and their products get defined by what its consumers say - or show - they want un-prompted. This is how Unilever and Dell and P&G now work. On their rapid way out, thank goodness, are the days of the guided focus group, where ad folk with middling geography degrees divine market desires from "representative" samples of ten.

Advertising was first undermined by Direct Marketing, when the three letter lie in econometrics was exposed, and finally replaced with statistical certainty and relevance, something that TV panders but does not provide. Interactive TV was born of advertising people desperate to cling onto a world they could no longer control - of course it hasn't worked, except in hotels - where it's interactive but ad-free - and in the UK, where it forms the backbone to Domino Pizza's revenue stream and where finally the BBC has learned to serve multiple options to millions of viewers in news, Glastonbury (where your Boss played last weekend) and travel sales. Perhaps after all there too you're wrong.

Customers in their collective can make the decisions now, because brands that understand the way the world has changed listen to them, build their new products around them, and acquire brand equity by association. The brand onion is now more of a soup, a broth at best. 150 years ago you too changed the world. But today we know exactly which fifty percent does what, why, how and when.

TV may indeed be watched by more people, but there are also more cars, more polluters, more superpowers - and yet they are the last call of a newly redundant paradigm. TV is trusted by just 38% of viewers, compared with 77% who trust emails from friends. Read Don Tapscutt, who told you fifteen years ago at the same time as all those people - including me - started experimenting with how to make it so, that the world was irrevocably changing. You enjoy a platform that's not confined to a printed, out of date before it's proofed, ad rag. Your assertions and (witty, deeply acerbic) web logs reach, stimulate, annoy and amuse people you'll never meet (though as I said before, love to do this over a pint one day). Tens if not hundreds of millions of people now have a voice that can genuinely be heard. You too have been changed by the internet.

Enjoy your advertising. Enjoy the banners and viral films your world insisted on but which our new world thinks at best ephemerally amusing, at worst intrusive. Party hard while it lasts, because marketing changed while you were being funny. Enjoy the holiday weekend, perhaps upload something to Flickr.


As usual, when confronted with a logical argument, a web maniac goes off into the stratosphere with every possible spurious irrelevancy.

I thought our conversation was about your assertion that the internet changed "everything, utterly." I understand why you would want to change the subject rather than defend such a preposterous position, but at least pretend to stay on subject.

Your argument is not an argument -- it is merely another grab bag of unsubstantiated assertions, just like your first comment. There is only one fact in your comment: TV is trusted by 38% of viewers. What you neglect to say, however, is that the LEAST trusted of all major media is your precious internet.

I'm afraid your latest comment is quite typical of a new class of people who... "fly gliders, ride horses, have friends all over the world, throw parties, eat at nice restaurants, drive sports cars" and have no fucking idea how real people in the real world have to wash floors, change diapers, struggle to make payments on their refrigerators and don't spend all day having fucking conversations about fucking brands with their fucking "followers" on fucking Twitter.

And one more thing. I may have a float in the pomposity parade but, dude, you're the grand marshall.


Very funny, I laughed out loud.

I grew up with my share of challenges, and my first job was as a washer-upper, but I've clearly matured into a passionate, pompous man - I should be in advertising. Oh, that's your gig remember?

The internet isn't a single medium, like TV, it's a venue. 60% of people trust online peer recommendation - but unlike Oprah's book reviews this is actually peer to peer. That's the change. TV offers no peer communication, unless you'd like to cite Big Brother or Jerry Springer.

You and I may be gaudy cheerleaders in the grand pomposity parade (nice pompoms brother), but we're just at different ends of a spectrum that's both necessary and interesting. I happen to think one-way shouting is old, tired and in need of merciful release, and you may think the internet and its attendant democratisation of thought is just so much white noise (like, probably, this little debate), but there's no escaping the fact that it even changed you.

The existence of the net means that valid or invalid opinions can be aired and repeated, no matter if they come from a disenfranchised untouchable or a total ignoramus or a prince or an advertising guru. It means people can find common ground with others in a way never before possible. It means that no longer is that common ground office politics or the television soap or political propaganda everyone saw last night - it means the common ground is whatever anyone wants it to be. Opinion can be aired and can mobilise itself on a vast scale, evolving the views of hundreds of millions. TV only did that in 1963 or 1969 (and, to be fair, when Neighbours went global). You talk scathingly of my lack of appreciation for the man on the Clapham omnibus. To go back to the very beginning, bollocks man.

The internet is truly democratic in its reach; the UK has even recently asserted bandwidth for all as a right. This kind of universal access to global conversation is as revolutionary as universal suffrage, for the same reasons: it gives everyone a voice. Television, on the other hand, gives everyone entertainment. My esteemed sparring partner, the two are not equivalent, there is no competition between the two. One is new, one is old. If you had to get rid of one, even you know you'd choose to consign television to history.


Somehow you have turned this conversation into a debate over tv versus the internet. I am not an ideologue for tv. I've made no claims for tv. You're arguing with yourself.

I don't give a shit about tv. I am just interested in facts.

When you claim that the internet has changed "everything, utterly" you have a responsibility to your readers (and to yourself) to be clear about how this is so. Just re-hashing assertions is the argument of a 10-year-old.

Here's the deal, Felix.

You seem like a nice, intelligent fellow whose brain has been addled by paying far too much attention to trendy nonsense.

You need to reconcile all the bullshit you read on line with the facts on the ground.

I want you to spend one hour in front of your local supermarket today and ask shoppers the following question:

"Before you came here today, did you consult the internet or have an online conversation with a friend about any of the brands you bought?"

Then maybe you can get your head out of your ass and see how the real world works.



Yes dear. If you ask them while standing outside Tesco, they'll say no. But a million of them in the UK will be buying the stuff Tesco offered them as a special via email the day before, based on what their Clubcard recorded in their basket the previous week.

If you stand outside Boots they'll also say no, but they'll nonetheless have some Dove products in their basket because listening to the net built that brand.

You're being disingenuous, Bob. We're talking about marketing. The net changed marketing, because it's now about listening not asking, serving not telling.

And if you stand outside Amazon, or Dell, you'll fall off.

Felix Velarde


So now spam email is your glorious "revolutionary global conversation." It's just fucking electronic coupons.

You gotta be fucking kidding.

Anyway, I'm tired of this so I'm going to give you the last word, go ahead...



Yep, sorry mate, world changed while you were in broadcast mode.

Seriously and now that's all over, you might like 'Groundswell', pretty robust thinking from Forrester Research, though you might take issue with some of their rather unrefined segmentation.

It's midday and I'm reading the comments, and I have two observations.

First, it's startling to me the lack of reading comprehension on the part of some people. They seem to think that if I question the absurd claim that "everything has changed" that I believe nothing has changed. This is crazy. Of course things have changed. Things always change. But the assertion that "everything has changed" is just the drivel of ideologues who have no sense of perspective.

Second, I'm really tired of hearing that everyone who disagrees with these people is a "dinosaur" or "out of touch." If you can't argue the subject on its merits, take it somewhere else.

No comments: