The Message at Collision 2019

In an on-stage Q&A with Recode founder Kara Swisher, Twitter co-founder Ev Williams talked about his publishing platform Medium and the challenges of building a modern media enterprise. After being launched as an entirely open platform for self-publishers, Medium added a subscription layer a couple of years ago. Why do that?

“Its very clear to me that pure advertising isn’t working, pure advertising for publishing, for quality information,” he said, of ad-supported publishing models. “Our goal is to build the best content subscription product there is.”

Swisher asked Williams what the modern media company looks like to him. “The idea of being open to some degree is important,” he said. Capturing the best parts of the internet and social media gives people a chance to be heard. “But it is not just machine learning and algorithms and people fighting it out for attention.”

“So, not Twitter,” Swisher responded.

Although legacy ad-supported enterprises continue to struggle, Williams said he was “very optimistic” about media’s future. People are concerned about the sheer volume of bad content being shared as news and information, but not long ago people were similarly worried that reality television was going to be the future of TV content, he said. But while reality still thrives, there is abundance of massively popular, high-quality TV content.

Similarly, great written word and publisher content can emerge, he said. The challenge right now, he said, is there is too much focus is on finding the cheapest ways to generate maximum attention. “The reason it sucks is because of advertising, full stop,” he said. “Change the business model and you can change the content.”

Linda Boff, CMO at GE and Jamie Moldafsky, CMO at Wells Fargo took the stage together for a discussion about building brands in the modern economy. Moldafsky began by indirectly addressing some of the challenges Wells Fargo has faced in the last couple of years.

“The biggest thing is we have been on a journey of rebuilding our reputation,” she said. Later in the conversation she said that one of the changes to marketing in recent years is the added responsibility of “speaking the truth” at their organization. “Marketers used to have a reputation for ‘the spin.’ Now many marketers carry the mantle of the genuine truth,” she said.

The CMOs were asked about how they were reaching their customers through new channels. One of the key brand messages for Wells Fargo is about the consumer being in control, said Moldafsky. “So we allow people during the NBA playoffs to control their viewing experience.”

She was referring to a partnership with Bleacher Report that lets customers “vote for which camera they like, which players they want to cover and then it is ‘brought to you by Wells Fargo.’”

Boff talked about GE’s move into 3D printing. “We don’t enter many new spaces,” she said. But when they do, it’s important to find an inventive way to tell that story, she said. GE’s solution was to partner with designer Zac Posen for the Met Gala. “Zac literally dressed five of the women on the red carpet using 3D material using our process.”

In a session dedicated to brand purpose, Frank Cooper, CMO of investment firm BlackRock, said purpose should be why any business exits. “The ultimate goal is never profits. That is an outcome,” he said. “It is how you serve human needs.”

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink has been very clear in the past couple of years about the need for corporations to take on more responsibility to think about how they can solve some of the worlds problems and not just generate maximum returns for shareholders.

“Fifty years of Milton Friedman doctrine said the sole purpose of the corporation was to serve shareholders,” said Cooper. “We are now moving beyond that and it is a benefit to the world,” he said. Corporate leaders are starting to think more about employees and other stakeholders.

“Big companies have weaponized purpose, they have exploited it from a marketing point of view, to try to tap into people’s soft spots,” said Alain Sylvain, CEO of the brand consultancy Sylvain Lab.

After mentioning Pepsi and Gillette by name, he was asked what was wrong with the Gillette campaign. “I think the fact it was a campaign was what was wrong with the campaign,” he said. Brand purpose is about more than campaigns, it has to be embedded in a company and shape how the company behaves. “It goes beyond marketing to something more operational,” he said.


David Brown