a new rallying cry

WITH THIS ONE simple rhyme, you will be able to approach and solve any problem that gets thrown your way. Trying to rebrand a withering giant? Dada, data, alpha, beta. Trying to give real substance to a commodity brand? Dada, data, alpha, beta. Need to promote the opening of a new theme park? Dada, data, alpha, beta. But seriously, I’m serious. This is the answer you’ve been looking for. And it works because it is not a theory – it’s an approach. A way to actually get something done in this wild new world.

You see, advertising, as we’ve known it, is truly dead. The media and ad pundits have been gunning for the 30-second spot for the past 10 years, but that’s merely a trophy kill. The problem isn’t the 30-second spot; it’s the way we use those 30 seconds to tell a story. With a few rare exceptions, the advertising model hasn’t changed for 50 years. The industry is stuck. Meanwhile, the world has completely, utterly and irreversibly changed. In fact, some say that it’s not that the world has changed, but that the world is change. And we just have to get used to it. To that, we say, DAdA.

rallyingcry arts


In 1917, Marcel Duchamp took a discarded urinal, turned it on its side, called it “Fountain” and put it out for the world to see. He was forcing the art world to take another look. To reevaluate what they defined as “good” – to reconsider what was considered art.

We find this highly relevant today, as new platforms for communication bubble up every day and we humans instinctively want to lump them into preexisting models.

For example, when paid search on the internet first gained momentum, it was hailed as the “new” classified advertising of the future. But search and paid search have impacted people’s behavior online in a far more dramatic fashion. So we suggest you think Dada-like and open your mind to reevaluating everything.

Dada was arguably the first “mash-up” art form. The Dadaists made collages from existing printed matter – for example, by combining a bicycle wheel with a stool to create sculpture. Digital has enabled a cut-and-paste generation to reinvent finely tuned TV commercials in their own image, often to a greater effect than the commercial itself.

Dada was a revolution – born in Switzerland and aimed squarely at the staid bourgeois art scene, World War I and the world’s rules and rulers. The word “Dada” had many meanings in many languages at the time – everything from “hobbyhorse” to “get off my back.” Many art historians believe the word was chosen at random from a dictionary. To modernize, bastardize and colloquialize, we’ll translate Dada in today’s world to mean “whatever.” Self-aware but not self-conscious, Dada is one part impatience, one part emancipation and one part hopeful future vision. Dada allows for anything except what is expected and demands the same from its consumers. In the midst of the First World War and a restricted art culture, the Dadaists declared, “Dada m’dada dada m’dada dada mhm, dada dera dada.”1 Uh, yeah, whatever. Dada isn’t a style of art; it is a philosophy of life. It isn’t two dimensional or three dimensional or written or performed. It is all of these at once. It takes many forms and makes many points. But most important, it always has a point of view, even if it doesn’t.

Sound familiar? It should, because it is this way of thinking that is propelling certain people and projects to the forefront of our profession. The ability to completely reevaluate what advertising is and how it communicates. Here is an example: Six Flags needed to generate crowds and buzz for the opening of one of their amusement parks. The problem was, there was no new news. Luckily for this client, the creative director was a Dadaist. So instead of devising a clever direct mail campaign or a promotional website, he simply posted this message on craigslist:

Heard a rumor you can get 2 free tix to opening day
weekend at Great Adventure amusement park

In five hours, 45,000 tickets were gone. The whole project took 10 minutes and cost nothing. So, is this advertising? I don’t know. But it’s definitely Dada. And it worked. It worked because the creative director knew how to look at the assignment from a wildly different angle. And it forced a lot of very smart, well-seasoned advertising professionals to reevaluate the agency’s role in their business.

Now, this kind of thing is relatively frightening to us advertising professionals, because anyone could have posted that message. But perhaps this is the greatest effect of Dada on communication – total accessibility. Anyone who shares the philosophy – war is bad, the art scene is corporatized, advertising is dead – can be a Dadaist. Anyone can participate because making a point is as important as having one. And without the constraints put in place by the advertising elite, anything can be advertising. Formal training and supplies become unnecessary. The mash-up is born. For a former generation of artists and nonartists, Dada’s accessibility became the ultimate leap forward, setting the stage for less constrained art forms like Surrealism and Pop Art. While things may be a little confusing or even scary right now, we might actually have a lot to look forward to.


Don’t worry, data is a little more straightforward than Dada. In fact, we’ve been using data for a very long time. Data is information. And when we use it to measure things, we call it metrics. How are we doing? Is this campaign working? Do I pay my agency too much? With the advent of the internet, data has become that much more available and, as a result, that much more important in the grand scheme of things. Specifically, data is now enabling more and more real-time decision making in how we adjust and optimize both media and creative. Data is also changing the nature of storytelling.

But data is no longer simply a collection of demographics. What we’re learning through advances in data in the Web 2.0
world is that we can target consumers based on where they sit on the “social graph.”

Rather than looking broadly at age, geography and gender, we can speak to people based on their areas of interest and their friends’ interests, and more specifically, insert ourselves into their daily activities. In other words, we don’t just tell them our story, we engage them in their own story, as our brands become part of their lives.

Believe it or not, this doesn’t necessarily mean invading anyone’s privacy, although some brands will certainly err in this direction. But customers will quickly reject the abusing brands and their purveyors, as they do with any invasive marketing techniques. In fact, this more advanced targeting will ultimately allow brands to be less intrusive, appearing in people’s lives only at the most relevant moments. Data has always been a requirement. But knowing how to interpret and leverage data is now essential to the relevance of your brand.

In linear communications – books, TV and homeland security announcements – you are required to collect your data ahead of time and then lay it out in such a way that you engage people long enough to get your point across. Now, interactive communications allow for real-time data, which creates an incredibly dynamic, participatory experience. Not an easy story to create, mind you, but definitely an interesting one. This is another place where traditionally minded advertisers can get a little intimidated. Understandable, since it means relinquishing a bit of control, which freaks just about everyone out. But, like Dada, this has happened before.

rallyingcry dynamicdata

Until the mid-nineteenth century, painters and sculptors had a pretty firm lock on the job of depicting reality. Styles may have varied, but still, artists were engaged in expertly depicting the world around them in various levels of detail. And for some, this was a most profitable trade. Then, along came a new technology called photography. This new technology did an accurate job of depicting reality.

Sure, it was a form of witchcraft, an abomination of artistic technique, and should have been banned from existence. But unfortunately, the fact that now every family could have a portrait of themselves for a reasonable price meant that photography survived.

Painters were despondent. They declared, “Art is dead!” Faced with a complete and inevitable sea change in their craft (sound familiar?), painters were forced to make a decision (knowingly or not). On the one hand, they could stay the course and compete with a foe they could never defeat (commercially, at least). Or they could use the advent of photography as an opportunity to free themselves – to look at things differently, to reevaluate their craft.

The fact is – art was not dead. In fact, painterly art was released from the traditional formulae that had put a stranglehold on creativity. Artists were allowed to create entirely new forms of visual expression – Impressionism, Cubism and endless other schools of art were born.

So, is the 30-second spot really dead? Or do we simply need to rethink the way we use those 30 seconds to tell a story? Or should it be 120 seconds? Is the iPhone a phone or is it a movie camera? Is it a device for catching up with Mom or is it a medium for broadcasting your creativity to thousands of people in real time? The fact that digital media allow for a more efficient use of data to measure the success or failure of our communications doesn’t mean our craft is dead. It just means we need to reinvent it.

Data = information = metrics. All of this makes our work accountable. And ultimately, much more valuable. And it is because of data that these completely new forms of storytelling are evolving. With data being actively shared between consumers and brands, there is finally a true and open conversation taking place. The mastery of data allows “listening” to become a discipline of the marketing department. A brand that listens quickly becomes a trusted brand. And a trusted brand is a successful brand.


So now you’ve got Dada. And data. A new way to approach communication and a new way to interact with the people you’re communicating with.

Which brings us to Alpha. A no-brainer, really. Alpha is shorthand for “Alpha Dog” – the leader of the pack. As in, talk to your Alphas. The notion of differential marketing – 20 percent of your consumers equals 80 percent of your sales – has been around since the discovery of fire. These 20 percent are your loyalists – your Alpha Dogs – the first to buy and the most vociferous evangelists for your brand. Alphas are also the early adopters, eager to try new things, and they are relied upon by their friends for product advice and post-purchase validation. Alphas are the key infl uencers in any social network – the first to howl when the sirens go off.

rallyingcry alphadogs

Alphas were always important, but now they’ve become critical. In the digital world, Alphas are word-of-mouth machines. Sixty percent of American 13- to 26-year-olds publish online. And they’re not just updating their niche, neofuturism blogs; they’re publishing their opinions on Facebook, Flickr, MySpace and IMing. They are spreading the word about whatever and whomever they’re thinking about, whenever they think about them. For better or worse, this includes your brand. So you need to be more in touch with your Alphas than ever before. The line between your brand and your loyal consumers has all but disappeared. In today’s consumer landscape, Alphas essentially are your brand.

Despite its superficial resemblance to traditional advertising, the Dove video “Evolution” became a massively popular piece of viral communication. Why? For one, it had a completely unconventional beauty message, which tapped into a pervasive anticultural movement. In that way, it was Dada. But on many levels, its story differed from those that we normally tell within the confines of traditional advertising. It was not broadcast to millions – it was put into the hands of the Alphas, who had a distinct interest in passing on the message.

But the video, which won the Cannes double Grand Prix, was only the beginning for this piece of communication. In addition to the press coverage and the millions of people who forwarded the video to friends, hundreds of people put their own spin on the piece for all the web to see. Probably the best example of these mash-ups and parodies was “Slob Evolution” – a video chronicling the evolution of a handsome young Brit into a frighteningly non-handsome English slob. At the time this article was written, this spoof video had almost two million views on YouTube. This is a prime example of how Alphas have become a critical element in a brand’s evolution. When an Alpha encounters a piece of brand communication that he or she likes (or dislikes), they send on the message in one of two ways. They either forward it in its original form in order to make a statement about their own point of view, or they recreate it in their own image to put a new spin on the original message. This most important slice of your audience is a bunch of Dadaists.

When Chevy Tahoe ran a promotion giving consumers the tools to make their own commercials, a big deal was made about consumers who made fl agrantly anti-Tahoe spots, depicting them as gas-guzzling, earth-munching monsters. At the time (and still today), it was very popular to chant, “The customer is in control.” And so, Chevy got some bad press. But what didn’t make the news until much later was the fact that only a small percentage of the consumer-generated spots were negative. The overwhelming majority of participants were brand fanatics who crafted loving odes to the Tahoe and its roomy chassis, perfect for adventurous types. The Alphas spread their positive message to other people – real potential customers – who they knew would be open to it, and Chevy’s sales went up.

If you learn to use data to get to know your Alphas (and it’s easy because they’re the only ones who will talk to you), you can begin to communicate with them regularly. Provide them with the tools to engage and, together, you will evolve the brand. It is this collaboration that will shape your brand and create opportunities for growth. It’s inevitable. If the consumer feels responsible for the brand, they will ensure that it not only survives, but also succeeds.


Moore’s Law describes an important trend in the history of computer hardware: the number of transistors that can be inexpensively placed on an integrated circuit is increasing exponentially, doubling approximately every two years. The observation was first made by Intel cofounder Gordon E. Moore in a 1965 paper.2 The trend has continued for almost half a century and is not expected to stop for at least another decade, perhaps much longer. This is core to the fact that we are now living in a world of perpetual beta.

The rapid evolution of technology fundamentally changes the marketing landscape on an almost daily basis. Because of that, we must constantly test new platforms and new ideas before they go mainstream. Because they may not go mainstream. In fact, by the time you get most marketing ideas out into the marketplace nowadays, you’re too late. The moment has passed and you need to be on to the next thing. So primping and perfecting a new concept can be a dangerous waste of energy. Change happens so quickly that in order to be perceived as current and culturally relevant, you often have to put things out there before you’re sure that they’re even finished. This is the world of perpetual beta.

moores law

On the flip side, digital media have given consumers a greater voice. We need to embrace the idea of letting the real marketplace tell us if our ideas are good. And be confident enough to react proactively when they tell us they suck. Spending months in focus groups with artificial insights is criminal when we can have real customers to help us evolve our campaigns. Sure, there is risk in putting yourself out there for the entire world to judge. But the risk of not being out there is much greater. Since consumers are more involved in the creation and maintenance of brands now, they are also much more forgiving. Again, making a point can be as important as having one.

the new rallying cry

Today, a rapidly changing world is forcing us to reevaluate advertising and social behavior in the same way that the Dadaists forced the cultural elite to reevaluate art and the First World War. Save for a very few renegades, if you are over 25 and have risen to any level of seniority in this business, you are not currently a Dadaist. Truth is, for anyone who has “mastered the art of communication,” it’s pretty intimidating to try something new. And why should we, we reason? As true “masters,” we know the secret formula. We know how to win – for our clients, for our agencies and for our own careers. The problem is, the world has changed. Or rather, the world is change. And in a constantly changing environment, even formulae remain in beta stage. What we need is a new approach. What we need to do is to look at each new problem and say “whatever.”

It doesn’t have to be a TV spot. It doesn’t have to be digital. It doesn’t even have to be an ad, necessarily. This is not at all to say that technology is going to kill advertising. Quite the opposite – the kind of lateral thinking required to communicate in today’s blogospheric media landscape accentuates the art of advertising. Building brand loyalty is no longer a linear communication path (if it ever was), it’s an explosion of communications that reaches every nook and cranny of a three-dimensional world.

To think creatively in the digital age, we need to rethink our approach to communication, learning to incorporate the data that is constantly being shared between our customers and our brands. When we do, we open ourselves up to all sorts of new opportunities for communicating with our Alphas. And then we can begin to reevaluate the role that agencies play, and to think around the traditional formulae we’ve become so comfortable with. It doesn’t have to be that hard. After all, the Dadaists painted a mustache on the Mona Lisa and called it art. Come on, everyone, this is going to be fun. Say it with us, now:

Dada. Data. Alpha. Beta.

Date: April 19, 2009