As the industry’s fall conference schedule continues, those in attendance all seem to agree on one new reality: The definition of competitive advantage has changed. What advertisers, brands, marketers and tech innovators don’t agree on is how that advantage is achieved.

Some industry experts have replaced their dogged defense of a pre-set strategy with a more flexible course.  Others have opted for a C-suite commitment to creating an agile social enterprise with an “always-on” listening and rapid response credo.  Still others have developed a more hybrid solution that exists somewhere between a mission statement that is more consumer-centric but one without ample C+ leadership, budget or organization-wide execution.  At the opposite extreme—which can lead to social intransigence— a C-suite paying “white knuckle” lip service to a loose customer listening strategy.

Thanks to social media, a new world order has taken charge.  Brand ownership—indeed!—has changed hands to the consumer, creating a new competitive landscape wherein digital Darwinian “dis-order” (or as Brian Solis might say “disruption”) has turned the top-down corporate structure on its head.  As a result, market share—even brand survival—depends now on organizational willingness to reverse engineer.

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Columbia University Professor Rita Gunther McGrath debunks the concept of “sustainable” competitive advantage, touted only a few years ago by Harvard Business Review. In her latest book The End of Competitive Advantage: How to Keep Your Strategy Moving as Fast as Your Business (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013), she writes the competitive advantage is transient and no longer “sustainable.”  

Sound a bit utopian? Unattainable, perhaps?  Well, to paraphrase Albert Einstein: 

If/when you expect change but resist changing your thinking, failure likely will follow.  And yet, the conundrum remains for many in the advertising and agency worlds, where the stakeholder food chain has become an impediment to evolution.  The good news is that we are finally sensing the winds of change from such media industry leaders as the Magna Consortium: “Old data metrics no longer work, but must be overlaid with digital intelligence.”   Media executives, too, such as Peter Olsen, executive vice president of national ad sales at History, A+E Networks, feel the need to understand data beyond legacy models.  In an apparent willingness to revisit and revamp antiquated demographic measurements, media channels today see the need to discover new data insights and align with programming.  

On the agency side the picture isn’t always that rosy.  Obsolete brand/agency stakeholder status quo obstacles can seem almost surreal at times.  I recently attended an Advertising Week panel titled “Women Make Media,” in which Havas Media VP/Group Account Director Melissa Romig described how agency gridlock sets in when stakeholders bump heads.  In this instance, the brand wanted to control the “script” of the expert blogger/influencer that, after an arduous vetting process, was selected to be the brand “voice.”  But at the 25th hour, the brand decided to change creative, requiring the agency essentially to start over.  

All of this begs a bigger question— and one being debated at every industry event:  

Brand authenticity and transparency (Vis a Vis brand advocates) or “incented” ambassadors?   

It defies the natural order of the new social world order when brands begin to mediate their agency requirements to wrap “authentic blogger” content around a brand campaign.  Brand content and voice is more paramount than ever in this new consumer-centric econosystem.  The old adage still rings true, no matter if it is owned, earned or paid: Content is king. 

At the Portada Hispanic Advertising, Media and Sports Conference held recently in New York City discussion revolved around the efforts of sports properties successfully able to connect with Hispanics in the social arena by identifying the “sweet spot” intersection of heritage and technology: Cultural Identity.  Language, once thought to be the key to successful Hispanic marketing, has been replaced with content authenticity; recognition that Hispanics are both Spanish and English dominant with a common cultural identity. 

For this spirited conference goer, Shelley Zallis, social innovator and Ipsos/OTX CEO, and Director Insight Services at Exponential Interactive Bryan Melmed, both keynote speakers at the recent AWX Data Congress,  hit the nail on the head:

“All current measurements are proxies for what we’re looking for – need to challenge assumption that data is a proxy for conversion.” 

Stressing that Big Data correlation is the key to new insight, Melmed underscored his point noting that a previous Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to a person who studied the purchasing behavior of used car lot buyers.  The study, by University of California, Berkeley, Professor of Economics George A. Akerlof, is titled “The Market for “Lemons,” considered a landmark analysis of markets with asymmetric information.  Demographics have been trumped by personal interests, which offer much more granular consumer detail by looking at disparate factors in the buyer transaction process, and by definition defy constrictive economic and research models.

True value is in more granular interests.  Social continues to rock our world.  And disruption is the new “sustainable.”