In 1859, Charles Darwin single-handedly had The Greatest Idea In the World Ever(TM) - the theory of natural selection, which instantly imposed from above, an entirely new way of thinking on everyone below.
Well, no he didn't actually. Ironically enough, what actually happened was much more evolutionary in nature. Darwin's ideas built on the work of many others before him, including, among others, his grandfather Erasmus Darwin, Linnaeus, Lamarck, Malthus and Mendel.
And far from instantly causing a paradigm shift in scientific thought, his Big Idea needed to beat other competing ideas in people's heads over time, and needed to be improved upon by several generations of other thinkers, in order to survive as the fittest idea in a fiercely fought struggle.
In this paper, I borrow the principles of evolution to set out a model for a new breed of communications idea - the idea of the "meme". I propose a new model for meme generation - totally involving consumers in idea evolution.
This new way of thinking would result in communications ideas that evolve and improve from the bottom-up, rather than resulting in fixed ideas that are imposed from the top-down. It would also, as we'll see, have profound implications for the structure and role of the agencies of the future.
We are in the business of using creativity to try to create big ideas that solve our clients' business problems. We tend to believe in the power of the individual creative genius and the primacy of originality in the creation of these ideas. And we try to impose these ideas on consumers from the top-down through a communications model based on interrupting consumers with one-way communications.
But the world is changing - from a place where we have total control over our ideas, over how they're delivered, received and interpreted - to a world where advances in technology mean consumers have total control over our ideas and can simply ignore anything imposed on them from above.
Unfortunately, most of the ideas we create are ill-adapted to this modern world. So we need to develop a better understanding of how ideas work in this environment in order to help us to create a new breed of ideas that are better adapted to it. Then and only then can we generate ideas that can be unleashed on the world and set free to create the impact that we need them to have.
IT'S TIME WE STOPPED TRYING TO CONTROL CONSUMERS FROM THE TOP DOWN
As marketers, we need to stop trying to control our consumers, and recognise that the most powerful results can only be achieved when we cede control of our ideas to them. We need to think harder about how to create ideas that have this potential, work out how best to facilitate engagement with them and make it easy for them to be passed on.
My agency was responsible for creating the Make Poverty History idea. This is a powerful idea that has had a huge impact on the world. It started life as an endline on some outdoor advertising, but its true power was only really unleashed once people took it on as their own and it entered the chaotic and unpredictable world outside of controlled, paid-for advertising - once it started appearing on people's wrists, in speeches by Nelson Mandela, and in print everywhere from newspaper headlines to church notice-boards.
The traditional advertising model of attempting to control what people think by interrupting them with one-way communications is looking extremely outdated. People's time and attention is an increasingly precious commodity - and one that they're getting more protective of. Our response to this has largely been to push ever more attention-grabbing mass communications on mass audiences.
Unfortunately, as Seth Godin has pointed out, in a world where attention is a precious commodity, "the cost to the consumer of wasting their time on irrelevant interruption advertising is too high".1 In this context, the fact that "to deal with the clutter and the diminished effectiveness of Interruption Marketing, we're interrupting them even more"2 is beginning to look rather absurd.
The facts of ad avoidance are well-established: "people are tiring of ads of all kinds"3, The Economist reports, citing as evidence a US study by Yankelvich that 65 per cent of respondents felt "constantly bombarded", that 59 per cent felt "ads have little relevance" to them, and that 70 per cent would be interested in products or services that would help them avoid marketing pitches.
So people are increasingly taking measures to avoid our top-down communications. Sometimes it's an active choice - such as when people channel- hop to avoid the ad breaks, filter out spam, or register to have direct mail stopped; sometimes it's more indirect, a useful added benefit that makes some new technology or medium seem more appealing - such as being able to zip through commercials on a personal video recorder or subscribe to ad-free channels.
THE END OF THE CONTROL MODEL MEANS WE NEED A NEW BREED OF COMMUNICATIONS IDEA
This new world is a difficult and quite scary place for most marketers who tend to only want to think about managed communications - the things they can control.
And control is exactly what brand management has traditionally been about. But when you admit that the stuff we can control, the paid-for advertising, pales into insignificance next to all the other factors (Mark Earls quotes a study that suggests word of mouth already accounts for 80 per cent of the influence on an individual's purchasing behaviour4), the "control model" begins to look rather inadequate.
Wendy Gordon writes that "the brand-centric control model is anachronistic ... yes, the brand is responsible for sending out cues, but ordinary people are responsible for creating meaning, choosing whether or not to engage with the brand".5
The great thing about embracing this is that it allows us to take advantage of a world of unpredictable and powerful forces beyond our control - where much more powerful forces such as word-of-mouth and other viral communications hold the key to success or failure. As communications professionals we need to stop thinking only about the messages we can control and think about the enormous rewards of creating ideas that we can't.
In this new world communications professionals have two simple roles: firstly to create powerful ideas that people will want to engage with; secondly to make it easy for people to access them and pass them on. Make Poverty History is a great example of marketers creating an idea people wanted to engage with and then setting the idea free to do its real work. We can't control consumers (if we ever could) - the best we can hope for is that they want to engage with our ideas, add to them and pass them on.
MEMES - THE NEW BREED OF COMMUNICATIONS IDEA
Communications ideas, are of course, not the only type of idea, and it would be good to be able to explore ideas more generally in order to help us in the business of creating this new breed of communications idea. Fortunately for us, a whole branch of science has recently evolved - memetics - which is devoted to studying ideas, what they are, how they are generated, how they evolve and how they are transmitted.
Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, to describe the cultural equivalent of the gene. He defined it as a "unit of cultural transmission" writing that "examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.
"Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool ... so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain."6
Anumber of other academics subsequently took up the challenge of turning what was just a hypothesis into a fully fledged branch of science. The philosopher Daniel Dennett defined memes as the "smallest units that replicate themselves with reliability and fecundity."7
Aaron Lynch defines them as "self-propagating ideas"8, the psychologist Susan Blackmore defines them as "instructions for carrying out behaviour, stored in brains (or other objects) and passed on by imitation"9 and provided the definition given in the new Oxford English Dictionary as "An element of culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, especially imitation."10
Central to an individual meme's success is its ability to self-replicate - and often this will be by manipulating its hosts' communication and imitation skills to make this happen. Blackmore believes that humans make great meme machines because we have evolved powers of imitation unparalleled in the natural world, writing that "unlike any other animals we readily imitate almost everything and anything and seem to take pleasure in doing so"11.
We love copying things we've seen and heard and we're hard-wired to do so. And, according to Blackmore, that's why memes are so successful: "We copy each other all the time and when we copy each other, something, however intangible, is passed on: that something is the meme."
Dawkins listed three very simple characteristics of any successful replicator, and these would apply to genes, memes or indeed any other thing with the ability to self-replicate.12
1. Fidelity - The more faithful the copy, the more will remain of the initial pattern.
2. Fecundity - The faster the rate of copying, the more the replicator will spread.
3. Longevity - The longer any instance of the replicating pattern survives the more copies can be made of it.
A great deal has been written about memes and memetics, but it essentially provides us with an intellectual framework to help us think about how human culture and ideas are passed on and evolve, using Darwin's Big Idea about natural selection as its basis. At its simplest, the principles of memetics are that "good" ideas get themselves replicated and survive in the long-term while "bad" ideas don't and die out.
GREAT ADVERTISING IDEAS ARE OFTEN BLESSED WITH GOOD MEMES
Here are just a few examples of the memetic qualities of some great memes from advertising and how their memes forced consumers to replicate them:
- Tango "slap" is centred on a brilliant memetic device: the slap. Paradoxically, its initial success at self-replicating quickly led to its extinction: because so many school children were impelled to copy the slap, it was banned.
- Honda "grrr" is an extremely powerful replicator: it is a supremely catchy tune that sticks in the mind and impels you to sing or hum it, thus passing on the advertising idea about the power of positive hate to make bad things better.
- Lynx "pulse" works brilliantly to force its own replication by encouraging people to copy the dance when they hear the music track.
- Nike's "just do it" meme forces its own replication by being such an appealing belief that it encourages people to replicate it by wearing sports clothes emblazoned with it (and latterly by its shorthand, the "swoosh") as well as living by it: running the Nike 10k is essentially "just doing it" - and is a highly visible re-enactment of the idea.
- Make Poverty History" is a meme so simple, memorable and repeatable and a belief so appealing, that politicians and celebrities were impelled to repeat it and to try to work for it to happen.
So what makes meme theory so attractive from the communications professional's point of view? Well, essentially it is a theory that, like our business, has ideas absolutely at its heart. And in a world where communications ideas are massively over-supplied, it makes a huge amount of sense to think of our ideas as competing against other ideas in our consumers' heads for long-term survival.
It also gives us a huge amount of insight into how we can create exactly the kind of ideas we are going to need more of in this new world order - "self-replicating ideas that move through time and space without further effort from the source".13 In short, taking the meme's eye view will help us better adapt our ideas for the future as well as future-proofing the ones we create.
POWERFUL MEMES ARE LIKE MRSA SUPER-BUGS COMPARED TO THE AVERAGE "VIRAL"
An awful lot has been written recently about buzz, word-of-mouth and viral communication. A word-of-mouth recommendation from a friend, a viral email, or reading a story about a guerrilla public relations stunt for a brand absolutely could be explained by memetics (these kinds of communication are all types of memes), but memes have so much more to offer than most of what is termed buzz or viral marketing today.
My beef with "buzz" and "virals" as concepts is not that I don't think they "work", but that I believe the way we're currently using them is inherently prone to burn-out: so far we've seen mainly short-term, flash-in-the-pan ideas from this new wing of the communications industry, whereas thinking more broadly about memes could allow us to engineer genuine brand ideas with the potential for long-term survival and which could work for the long-term benefit of our brands.
Here's a test: think of a great viral. Did it impact in any broad, long-term way on your view of that brand - its positioning, beliefs or values? The most common response to this question tends to be "subservient chicken" - which was a phenomenal success but was a highly tactical piece of communication designed to drive awareness of Burger King's chicken offer - not an attempt at long-term brand-building.
Interestingly, epidemiologists will tell you that most viruses tend towards decreasing virulence over a very short period: perhaps the way we're currently approaching viral marketing is simply too faddy and novelty-driven and therefore vulnerable to short cycles of boom and bust?
Richard Dawkins famously believes world religions to be the result of memes and religion is a subject to which memeticists repeatedly return. Individual religions tend to have a network of memes working in harmony to further their own existence, resulting in powerful beliefs capable of self-replicating over millennia.
Two examples from Christianity are the "heaven" meme that inspires Christians to do good works by telling them that if they do they'll live forever, which works in perfect unison with the "hell" meme that inspires them to try to save others from eternal damnation by spreading the word and therefore spreading the meme.
Atheory that can help explain the evolution and survival of ideas as big, and as seemingly permanent as these has got to be one that can help us create lasting ideas. Now I believe we've got pretty good at creating fun, novel, ideas and content that very quickly make their way around the internet virally but we haven't yet thought enough about how we can use the new environment to create communications ideas which work for our brands in the longer term and which have the power to create powerful long-term positionings.
Partly this is because there is an obsession with faster/cheaper of which every marketer's current flirtation with buzz is symptomatic. We need deep ideas - ideas that are longer/better - that can penetrate and be internalised. As Stephen Downes, a commentator on new media has written: "Mere transference is not sufficient - for an idea to take hold in another person it must be internalised".14
We need to think of ourselves as being an industry that can genuinely work at the level of culture rather than the level of fashion - we need to create ideas that can have a cultural legacy as lasting as those with which scientists, novelists, and artists have.
Our ads and ideas can genuinely be cultural artefacts. This is not a new idea - every time a Guinness ad is in development, the team involved is absolutely aware of the weight of history behind it. But I suspect this is a rare case, and is more about the weight of expectation rather than a desire to leave "good memes" for future generations of Guinness creatives to play with.
Unfortunately our obsession with buzz and virals is leading to us creating cultural ephemera in the form of catchy virals with no more longevity than a throwaway pop tune. We need to learn what we can from how virals work and draw lessons from them but we absolutely need to refocus on the longer term in order to create ideas with lasting impact.
So how are memes created?
So if we're in the business of creating new memes, what can we learn from memeticists about how they're created? The answers help shed light on the creative process, what "creativity" really is and, I believe, mean we need to re-assess our obsession with pure originality in the creation of communications ideas.
Kate Distin, the author of The Selfish Meme, believes that innovation in memes is due to recombination and mutation: "In recombination, existing memes are appropriately recombined in new situations creating new ways of thought and novel effects."15
Mutation is the other, far more random way that new memes can be generated. New ideas, then, are created by combining two or more old ones or by random mutations to existing memes.
Unfortunately, since memetic mutation is essentially random, when mutation occurs, the shrieks of "eureka!" are all too often quickly silenced - as in nature, random mutation can lead to pitiful creatures ill-adapted to their environment.
GREAT MEMES ARE EVOLUTIONS OF EXISTING MEMES
Applying theories of recombination and mutation to our business would lead you to back re-combination over mutation every time as the strategy most likely to result in effective and long-lasting creative ideas. Our industry prides itself in utter originality - but meme theory would suggest that creating ideas by combining pre-existing ideas leads to a far higher success rate, while an obsession with novelty and originality is both unrealistic and likely to result in a far higher number of mutations and therefore failures.
Distin illustrates this point with the example of adding salt to a chocolate brownie: a random mutation that in no way adds to the survival rate of the new recipe.16 An example of a highly successful recombination of existing ideas from advertising would be the Guinness Extra Cold campaign - taking well-loved Guinness ads such as "surfer" and building in the additional idea of coldness - creating successful "new" ideas out of an idea that had already been 'selected' by its audience, supporting Distin's assertion that "in order to be accepted an idea usually has to be compatible with those already in existence".17
This would seem a smart strategy, according to Aaron Lynch who writes: "Much as biological evolution keeps viruses infectious, so too does memetic evolution keep certain beliefs current and contagious." The Guinness Extra Cold campaign can therefore be seen as a clever evolutionary strategy, an evolution that improves on existing ideas and ultimately helps build the brand for the long-term, despite appearing to be, if one were to adopt a hyper-critical old-school view, a recycling of previous work.
I believe that if we as an industry continue to reward and, therefore, continue to create ideas that are generated only with an eye to success within an artificial environment - awards juries - rather than the environment for which they are supposedly created - our target audiences - then we will never be generating the most effective and long-lasting ideas.
The approach we need to take then is that we need to allow ourselves to actively embrace ideas that already exist in the culture and recombine them in novel ways to create new memes. Of course, many creatives admit to doing this already (although few are open about it) and the rest are wasting time and energy and, therefore, money on the potentially impossible task of trying to come up with 100 per cent original ideas.
WE NEED TO END THE MYTH OF THE CREATIVE GENIUS AND BEGIN TO ACCEPT IDEAS FROM ANYWHERE
Memetics suggests that the true creative genius is not necessary to the creation of great ideas. I believe we need to end the myth of the creative genius and learn to embrace other people's ideas with relish. It may be more noble to adopt Herman Melville's dictum that "it is better to succeed in originality than to fail in imitation" but it doesn't necessarily make sense from the point of view of meme theory.
The truth is that what we term creativity isn't really about creating 100 per cent new ideas, so much as having brains that are able to recombine existing ones into novel forms. The more ideas a "creative" has access to, the larger the meme pool, and the more likely it is that they will be able to generate powerful and long-lasting ideas for our brands. Nothing new here you may think - but the idea of extending the accessible meme pool available could lead us to an entirely different agency model - more of which later.
For the discipline of planning, given the current trend for reductionism, this would suggest there's a need for a counter revolution and a serious need for planners to create a quantity as well as a quality of ideas: evolutionary principles suggest variety to be a "good thing" that allows quicker evolution of a well-adapted solution.
Abandoning the concept of the creative genius would also mean we should accept ideas from anywhere - literally anywhere - and could potentially mean abandoning the idea of assigning the task of being "creative" to a small elite department in agencies altogether.
THE BEST IDEAS EMERGE FROM THE BOTTOM-UP
Powerful, long-lasting memes are not created - they evolve. The greater the variety in the meme pool to which we have access - the better the memes are that we will generate. So how can we use these ideas to generate more powerful communications memes? The answer lies in abandoning the control model - the top-down model - and embracing bottom-up thinking.
Scientists have devoted a lot of time thinking about where ideas come from - and once again science provides some new theories that are useful for us here. In the history of the development of ideas, two principle theories used to dominate: the "great man"theory and the "paradigm shift" theory. According to the great man theory, ideas were the result of a single man having a lone "eureka!" moment through sheer personal genius, creating an idea which instantly reverberates around the halls of academia and gradually trickles down to the rest of us mere mortals. According to the paradigm shift theory, first proposed by Thomas Kuhn his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a paradigm shift occurs when cultures, virtually over-night, transform their way of thinking from one thought system to another.
The great man theory looks suspiciously like the "creative genius" theory that memetics appears to discredit but that we in the communications industry still mostly appear to subscribe to. And the paradigm shift theory doesn't appear able to explain where exactly new ideas come from in the first place.19
Fortunately, the author Stephen Johnson, believes "emergent intelligence" is a better metaphor for the way idea revolutions take place, and that emergence, or change that occurs from the bottom-up, will increasingly hold sway in an increasingly complex, networked world.20
I believe that all the elements are in place for emergence to change everything about the way we work, particularly where we get our communications ideas from. And those in our industry who most fully exploit the principles of emergence are those who will be able to evolve the strongest memes of all in the future.
CULTURE IS INCREASINGLY EMERGING FROM THE BOTTOM-UP - AND IN THE FUTURE COMMUNICATIONS IDEAS WILL TOO
Emergence, according to Johnson, is the phenomenon which explains how complex systems - such as ant colonies, internet communities, and cities - appear to behave as single organisms despite having no central, "top-down" controlling force.
The analogy to which Johnson repeatedly returns is that of ant colonies, which, he says "display some of nature's most mesmerising de-centralised behaviour: intelligence and personality and learning that emerges from the bottom up".21 He then goes on to write about developments in artificial intelligence which started with early computer scientists trying to write software to "teach" computers how to think, and resulted in them recognising that evolution could create far more intelligent software if you create a huge pool of relatively stupid, but competing programs, which are programmed to replicate and mutate in order for them to evolve artificial intelligence from the bottom-up.
Johnson cites the computer game SimCity - a game where the player sets a few simple rules of selection and watches as their city emerges in front of their eyes - as a key piece of culture that exploits bottom-up principles. He sees these bottom-up systems emerging all around us - from the way internet stores, TV stations and PVRs recognise our cultural tastes to the way artists are beginning to create art.
Johnson would recognise bottom-up principles in the increasingly common idea of getting consumers to "co-create" our brands and ideas, and would certainly recognise them in the following excerpt from a recent Campaign article by Russell Davies: "It's obvious that in the modern world, ideas aren't really had by lone geniuses. They don't come from a clever planner in an ivory tower or a genius creative team in a black box. The modern brand world is too complex for that. Ideas are turning up through teamwork, conversation and iteration. And that team includes the client, agency people, other partners and all sorts of random people such as consumers."22
Naresh Ramchandani is a creative with a seriously good grasp of how technological developments are changing the way consumers interact with content. Writing in The Guardian, he points out the difference between the shift in consumer media behaviour from passive television consumption to active internet participation: "On the internet, I can seek out content, consume content, consume related content, add to content, rate content, subvert content or create content of my own. Think of it like this: television equals inactivity, but the internet equals interactivity."23
He sees a future where we allow consumers to edit and improve on our ideas through the use of interactive media, and envisages a world where, again, bottom-up principles appear to be at work: "What about a poster campaign that is reshot and reposted three times over three weeks, each time modified by the calls or e-mails from people who have seen it?"24
The beginnings of a bottom-up revolution are also already clearly evident for all to see in terms of the generation of entertainment content. Current TV is an online TV channel, 30 per cent of whose content is currently "viewer-created"; Google video and YouTube have also both recently emerged as seriously interesting developments in terms of video content. I believe that it is only a matter of time before it's the norm for brand communications to be developed in this way too.
WE LIVE IN THE AGE OF THE CREATIVE CONSUMER
John Kao has written that we live in the creative age, and the age of the creative consumer.25 Thanks to companies such as Apple taking the lead in bringing creative tools to the mainstream, people increasingly have the technology to allow an outlet for their natural creativity. Anyone who has the slightest urge to share their creativity with the world can now do so in an instant - whether through the written word, through music, video, photography, illustration, animation, whatever.
Consumers have long since shown the desire to use whatever technology they can to spontaneously generate their own versions of internet jokes, movies and virals - all effective memes - in the desire to make versions that are even better at replicating themselves than the originals. We all remember the endless variations of the Dancing Baby from Ally McBeal, the Dancing Hamsters, or the spoof "I Kiss You" websites that appeared within days of the originals spreading around the internet. This desire and ability to imitate and refresh ideas will be what we need to exploit in the creation of bottom-up ideas in the future.
The blogger Hugh McLeod, in his blog gapingvoid.com, recently suggested that brands will increasingly become involved in "meme endorsement" - marketing people scouring the net for appropriate memes like the above that they want to put their brand's name to. This may well happen but it does feel like a rather shallow attempt to pay lip-service to the idea of "co-creation": I believe the real future for brands lies in pure bottom-up brand ideas, which are created for the brand rather than just badged by it.
In fact "co-creation" is really just a kind of half-way house between the current top-down communications model and the new world of bottom-up brand communications creation. It may be a leap into the unknown, but it's not impossible to imagine a world in which brand communications are created by consumers and emerge from the bottom-up just as purely as content is now doing.
BUT WHY WOULD CONSUMERS HELP GENERATE IDEAS FOR A COMMERCIAL ENTERPRISE LIKE A BRAND?
Howard Rheingold, an authority on the social and cultural implications of technology, writes insightfully on what happens when people are hooked up to everyone else through peer-to-peer networks.
One effect is that they'll happily get involved in all sorts of peer-to-peer computing and networked experiments with no commercial incentive: three million people currently devote their computing power to SETI (the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence); 200,000 people have just signed up in the UK to help the BBC work out the effects of climate change; countless others globally are currently involved with similar networked research experiments - seemingly just for the thrill of being involved and participating in a cause.
At its simplest they get involved because it's a bit of a thrill, or it makes them feel connected, but essentially they do it because it's fun: "A great deal of peer-to-peer technology was created for fun - the same reason why the PC and the web first emerged from communities of amateur enthusiasts ... venture capitalists would never have paid attention to the web in the first place if a million people hadn't created web pages because it was a cool thing to do."26
And even at its most worthy, people get involved with these kinds of things because they want something to believe in. And to quote the blogger McLeod again, "the market for something to believe in is infinite".27
Rheingold also sheds light on the connection between hacking and a more creative act like making amendments to a piece of open-source software such as Linux: "It's the same old hacker intoxication of getting a buzz from giving tools away and then coming back to find that someone else has made the tool even more useful." 28
This feeling is what the anthropologist Robert Wright calls "non-zero-sumness", which he defines as "the unique human power and pleasure that comes from doing something that enriches everyone, a game where nobody has to lose for everyone to win".29 To me this sounds like a modern definition of an age old human urge: to create.
Viral TV ads are already being created by people outside a brand's inner circle - often admittedly they're being made as calling cards by aspiring creatives (such as the VW Polo "suicide bomber" film) - but this is only a few steps away from communications ideas being generated by "amateurs".
THE FUTURE: ANTHILLS OF CREATIVE CONSUMERS EVOLVING BRAND MEMES?
So the conditions seem to be set for brand owners to take advantage of consumers by co-opting them into the creation of their brand communications. Consumers increasingly have the means (via technology) to help us generate our brands' ideas. They have the motivations to start creating ideas. So all it will take is brand owners and agencies to begin to take advantage of the situation.
Given the right brand, one that consumers feel is a worthy enough cause, is cool enough, fun enough, or that they believe in enough, consumers won't take much persuading to get involved. Brands not in this position may have to kick-start the process by bribing consumers - but paying creative consumers small amounts to contribute communications ideas may be a small price to pay for the added benefits that generating ideas from a wider meme pool might bring.
The brand owners would literally play the part of "god" in the process - setting up the memetic algorithm and stepping back to let increasingly better adapted meme sevolve from the bottom-up. Essentially the brand leader's role in this would not be massively dissimilar to the role played by the player in SimCity or other strategy and simulation video games.
The principles of emergence suggest that it may be enough for the brand leader simply to set the stage by establishing a few simple evolutionary ground rules (in the form of a basic brand idea, or maybe some other memetic material for the meme pool such as historical communications ideas). Then, having recruited enough creative consumers to create enough variety in the meme pool, they will begin, like ants in one of Johnson's ant colonies, recombining, mutating and evolving brand memes from the bottom-up.
Who knows whether this wholesale adoption of bottom-up creativity will ever take the place of the current model by the mainstream - it's certainly hard to see some of the major corporations of today happily throwing themselves open to it. And who knows when. But only yesterday I received an e-mail inviting me to cut my own online edit of a TV ad for a new Chevrolet 4x4: the future can't be that far away.
SO WHAT WOULD THE AGENCY OF THE FUTURE'S ROLE BE IN ALL THIS?
Clearly in this kind of world, where brand ideas are being generated from the bottom-up by consumers who are part of the process, advertising agencies would have to play a different role from today: having given up the responsibility of generating communications ideas we would need to find other ways to make money from our clients. Below are some of the more obvious roles we could play, but as with today's massive proliferation of communications agencies, there are bound to be hundreds of different specialisms that emerge from the new environment.
- Brand god: Setting the basic rules for the brand that help guide the evolution of memes in the right direction for the brand owners' business objectives.
- Product design could become a key role: Great brands will still need to start with a great product (although in time emergence could occur here too).
- Meme production facility: For any brand memes that have been generated conceptually but which still need to be executed in-house.
- Meme therapy: Adapting memes that have been generated for one audience, but that have not been able to flow to another audience. This could be as a result of cultural barriers such as differences in language (analagous to when Hollywood remakes foreign- language films) or aesthetic ones (such as when Hollywood remakes an indie film for a mainstream audience).
Technological developments will mean that in the future, one-way, mass communications designed to interrupt consumers will cease to be effective. We will, therefore, need to evolve a new breed of communications idea with the ability to cope with this new environment - a type of idea that can travel far from its original source without additional help from the brand owner. And where better to look than to evolution for clues about how to evolve something new?
Memes provide us with the perfect model for this new breed of idea: not only do their powers of self-replication give them the ability to leap "from brain to brain"30, but their ability to re-combine and mutate could also give them the power to evolve and improve as they do so - consumers will build on them, adapt them, play with them and pass them around without any additional help. And if we are to look for alternatives to the top-down communications model, why not take the idea of "co-creation" of brands and brand ideas by consumers to the next level and get them to create and transmit ideas from the bottom-up? In this way, the future creation of brand memes could lie in the co-option of creative consumers as the generators of our brand ideas who will compete to evolve more and more effective memes which will spread from them and into the mainstream.
The best brand ideas will have to be effective memes. And the most effective, long-lasting and well-adapted memes will emerge from the bottom-up: the control model will be replaced with the bottom-up model.
1. Seth Godin, Permission Marketing.
2. Seth Godin, Permission Marketing.
3. The Economist, "The Future of Advertising".
4. Mark Earls, Advertising to the herd.
5. Wendy Gordon, Brand new Brand Thinking.
6. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1976.
7. Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, 1996.
8. Aaron Lynch, Thought Contagion, 1996.
9. Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine, 1999.
10. Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine,1999.
11. Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine, 1999.
12. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1976.
13. Betsy Gelb, Journal of Advertising Research, 1999.
14. Stephen Downes, Hacking Memes, 1999.
15. Kate Distin, The Selfish Meme, 2005.
16. Kate Distin, The Selfish Meme, 2005.
17. Kate Distin, The Selfish Meme, 2005.
18. Stephen Johnson, Emergence, 2001.
19. Stephen Johnson, Emergence, 2001.
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