‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf’

7 Oct

CrowdsurfingBook review: Crowd Surfing: Surviving and thriving in the age of consumer empowerment, by Martin Thomas and David Brain, A&C Black, 2008

What are consultants for? Whether they’re PR, marketing or management consultants, their role is well described in Tony Benn’s parable about prophets and kings, as retold by Charles Handy in The Empty Raincoat:

"What prophets can do is to tell the truth as they see it. They can point to the emperor’s lack of clothes, that things are not what people like to think they are. They can warn of dangers ahead if the course is not changed… Most of all, they can offer a way of thinking about things, a way to clarify the dilemmas and concentrate the mind."

Consultants, in other words, help clients cope with a disorganised, complex and chaotic world (paradox is the word used by Handy). Crowd Surfing is the metaphor employed by two UK consultants, Martin Thomas and David Brain, to describe the new world of consumer empowerment.

This is a familiar narrative with some brilliant insights. They talk of the complexity of message control in a post-advertising age, and in doing so present Naomi Klein’s No Logo from 2000 as a dated analysis of a historical phenomenon – the high water mark of corporate control of brands:

"This manifesto of the anti-corporate movement [No Logo] depicted a world in which consumers were under the thrall of global brand owners. Consumer freedoms were under attack; global brands were too powerful; too controlling. She talked about how ‘in ways both insidious and overt, this corporate obsession with brand identity is waging a war on public and individual space; on public institutions such as schools, on youthful identities, on the concept of nationality and on the possibilities for unmarketed space’."

‘It is an image of the world that, in hindsight, seems almost charming in its naivety,’ the authors add.

Crowd Surfing builds on key texts such as The Wisdom of Crowds, Wikinomics and Naked Conversations, and fits alonside two other recent books on consumers, corporates and social media – Groundswell and Here Comes Everybody.

Where it differs from all these is in asking questions about the type of leader best suited to this changing world. The authors quote historian Niall Ferguson describing good leaders as ‘the ones that realise (a) I’m fallible, and (b) the world is chaotic. Insecurity is … an important part of being a good leader. You have to be aware of your vulnerability.’

They quote WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell echoing this: ‘In an increasingly networked world, the 21st century is not for tidy minds. I think – certainly in our business – trying to simplify complexity actually ends up in destroying value.’

‘Leaders such as Sorrell appear to be the ones most likely to thrive in this new world’, according to the authors, because ‘they are comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, possibly even chaos.’

Here’s another paradox: in a fragmented world where people are increasingly ‘meeting’ via screen and keyboard, how do you expain the popularity of live events? For the authors, ‘the crowd is, in effect, our new family, and sporting events, political rallies and rock concerts provide the platforms for the crowd to congregate and the sense of community that we all need.’

Who will succeed in this chaotic world: ‘interesting’ companies and brands. ‘Interesting businesses such as Unilever, Innocent, IKEA, 42 Below and JetBlue keep the crowd engaged and involved by always being interesting… They benefit from a virtuous circle in which the more interesting they become, the more likely they are to attract interesting people with interesting ideas, to recruit the most interesting employees, to be written about in the most interesting media and talked about on the most interesting blogs. They save millions of pounds on advertising because they can rely on positive word of mouth to maintain their profile. Now that’s interesting.’

So much for leaders and businesses; but what of consultants and their consultancies? The book addresses the implications for marketing services agencies. ‘To marketing heads and senior advertising professionals, PR has been accused of being unsophisticated, lacking strategic and empirical rigour. It feels ‘fluffy’… This is changing. Smart advertising and media agency heads are putting aside their prejudices and applying many of the practices and principles of PR to the way they plan their campaigns.’

This small book successfully describes a big topic: how to cope with chaos. It’s an excellent and intelligent commentary on what’s changing and where we’re going. I’m a picky proofreader but only spotted one small error: the suggestion that Robert Scoble (famous blogger and co-author of Naked Conversations) is a Microsoft employee, when ‘was’ would have been more accurate.

It successfully fuses the corporate and technological perspectives (presumably supplied by David Brain) with the consumer and brand marketing perspective (Martin Thomas’s speciality).

It even addresses the biggest paradox of all. How come Apple is so successful when it breaks all the rules? ‘Apple is an enigma – a business with a rebellious, freewheeling persona, run by a brilliant control freak… We decided in the end that Apple was the exception that proved the rule.’

Perhaps rules are too rigid and inflexible a prescription for coping with chaos. I’d say this is more of a guidebook than a rule book, and it’s a recommended read. To answer my question about the role of consultants, we need them to show us the way.

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