House of Data by Dan Weingrod

ViewofHouse I’ve had a lot of discussions with friends about Netflix recent release of “House of Cards”. There continues to be a lot of discussion well after the release date, and Rick Leibling published a very thorough post in which does an excellent job of summarizing a lot of the commentary while pointing out how Netflix is doubling down on its role as disruptor. What I’d like to consider in a bit more detail are three aspects of House of Cards that, while controversial, have led to its success and likelihood of its being a model for the future streaming entertainment.

1. Netflix is an Archive

Perhaps one of the biggest things that has bothered many commentators, and Netflix users, has been the decision to release the entire show all at once. A lot of this has been ascribed to the fact that Netflix used its Big Data muscle to learn that its audience went in for “binge” viewing of shows. Somehow I can’t imagine that this was some sort of new revelation for Netflix. This type of behavior has been going on for a long time, in fact well before they began streaming programs. In my case I was pretty much inhaling episodes of The Wire as soon as they became available on Netflix DVD. No, I couldn’t get an entire season at once, but if I could have I would, so my use case was to immediately binge on the six episodes available to me at that moment.

This binge use case reflects the fact that most of its users see Netflix as an archive. Until the arrival of original content Netflix pretty much functioned as an storehouse of video content that had been previously created and transmitted by others. Netflix’s role was to source a huge selection of this previously created content and make it available in new and innovative ways. In this role it was always possible for it to, upon acquiring a season of 30 Rock, make it available in stages or episodes. But that would never have worked for a pretty obvious reason: Why would anyone want to have limits on viewing content that had been previously released. The problem that many people have with the House of Cards release is that it is unreleased content and for that reason it has to be shown in the way that we have been used to seeing it, by rationing it and thereby creating a culture of suspense and desire.

Which is not to say that I’m opposed to that culture, but it reminds me of this quote from Paul Adams: “People applied the way they worked with existing media to the new media”.  While “House of Cards” is not “new” media its all you can eat distribution is  “new” distribution to which we are applying old rules. Netflix’s essential nature is basically of an archive, or a library. And like a library it offers pretty much unlimited access to the mix of content that it has available. Netflix has always understood this fundamental use case and so when they released House of Cards it wasn’t that they were rejecting the potential of serialization. Instead, they were making a pretty clear statement to existing users and new subscribers: This is how we distribute content, get used to it.

2. So, What is an episode?

With all you can eat distribution another question that comes up is the nature of episodes. If you release of 13 hours of content in one go, why not release it as a single 13 hour movie? This is actually a far more interesting idea to ponder than the perils of binge viewing. When you consider that there’s no sort of timed release, what reason is there any more to create content in handy one hour doses, and what are the new potentials for creativity and storytelling if writers and directors are freed from the bounds of an hourly format.

The idea of storytelling via episode reached its heyday with serializations in newspapers and journals. Dickens, Zola and many others churned out well known, and not so well known, works in chapters that appeared on a regularly scheduled basis. The use case for this type of serialization was all about the publisher and advertising. By getting readers to return to find out what happened to Oliver Twist publishers could build up and maintain readership that translated to growing ad revenue. This structure was readily adopted by radio and television networks and became the mainstay of the programming schedule that we’re all familiar with. But when you can now release an entire season at once, why shouldn’t you also be liberated from packaging it in an hourly capsule. If the story demands a full telling of in Episode 4, why not go an hour and 15 minutes, 93 minutes or even 45 minutes. When you consider that Mad Men was nearly scuttled by an argument about two minutes of episode time, imagine the creative freedom and potential you could get by allowing creators to define episode length in order to tell a better story.

This is the challenging, and exciting, question and one that will take lots of experimentation to figure out, and Netflix’s Big Data may be very useful here. Anecdotally it seems that the reason I and many of my friends watch streaming series on weekdays is because we don’t want to make the commitment to the full, ponderous and probably lengthy movie.  Whether it’s growing up with network TV or just simply a need to control time and limit deeper thinking from our weekday entertainment, the idea of specific capsules of time still seem to make sense. That being said, in today’s world of time shifting its no longer about what’s on at 9 pm. By managing viewer expectations and demonstrating the real value of giving an episode the time it deserves, storytellers could eventually be able to tell better stories and we will be end up being happier viewers.

3. Data and Creativity

Which brings me to the last point about the limits of what data can or cannot do. Much has been made about the fact that Netflix commissioned “House of Cards” based on seeing a positive data confluence around Kevin Spacey, David Fincher and the original BBC series. This has brought up the specter of bean counting software commissioning scripts based on algorithms that would deliver us a soulless version of “exactly” what we wanted. Sort of like the idea that Facebook will ultimately deliver the right content to us based on our “Likes”. While there’s always the possibility of this I think that the success of “House of Cards” proves that data, if handled correctly, can be a very good producer.

I’m a huge fan of the original BBC version, Kevin Spacey and David Fincher, but very much in that order. So when I heard Spacey utter the memorable, “You might think that…”, line from the original I felt the warm delight of nostalgia and expectation re-experience the old in a new setting. It was when I realized that I would only hear that line twice that I began to pay attention to the show itself and how its writers, directors and actors had been wrenched it out of the past and made it very much their own. The familiar players of the original have been updated and are much more deeply defined. Zoe Barnes is not the naïve, fawning reporter that Mattie Storin was in the original and Francis’ wife, a rarely seen, scary figure in the original, gets a far more complete and nuanced role in this version. Yes, there are a few things I miss from the original, there are a couple of episodes that feel flat, (did they need to fill in a whole hour?), and I have a real problem with parts of the Pete Russo story. But overall by taking complete ownership of the story they were able to retell it anew and in a way that kept me, and many others it seems, riveted. No matter if they watched it in one gulp or in hourly drips.

The role of data, as author and producer, should be like that of any great impresario. Find a great story, find the right people and then get out of the way and deliver it to the audience in the way they want it. This part doesn’t change.

Content is software by Dan Weingrod

Towards the end of Walter Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs, he quotes Bill Gates telling Jobs that, “I used to believe that the open, horizontal model would prevail, but you proved that the integrated vertical model could also be great”. The integrated model is, of course, the model of tight hardware and software integration that almost killed Apple, but ultimately has transformed it into not only the most influential, if not most popular, mobile hardware provider as well as suddenly becoming the top driver of business PC sales.

But there’s another player in the world of hardware software integration that has just as keen an understanding of how to make it work, and that’s Amazon.  Admittedly this hardware software integration is hard to see at first. Amazon’s hardware gets some pretty mehsome reviews, and on the software side as Walter Mossberg says: “like its predecessor, the new Fire buries Android, demoting it to mere plumbing”. (And yes, I know I’m ignoring the software achievement of AWS here, but I’ll get there in a moment).

To understand where Amazon is succeeding in integration you need to substitute the word “software” with the word “content”. Instead of classic hardware software integration Amazon’s real success has been with integrating content with a hardware and delivery ecosystem. Its something that they have positioned themselves to do much more effectively, and creatively, than any of the other walled garden ecosystems out there.

In a way, it’s a throwback to how the big consumer electronic companies like Sony moved to purchase movie studios in the 1980’s. For these consumer electronic players content WAS software. It’s what made their hardware work, gave it added value and provided an opportunity for vertical integration. That they never really succeeded at it is a testament to how hard it is to actually take the messy world of content and integrated it into specific hardware applications.

One would have thought that Apple would have been able to do a good job of this, especially considering Jobs’ successes at Pixar, but it seems that they also end up fumbling. While Apple initially made content integration work with the iTunes store, it’s hardly advanced the concept in any significant way since that time. ITunes remains a clunky piece of forced software and all attempts to “modernize” it, such as the late, unlamented Ping, just feel like someone trying to keep up with the latest trends. For me, the most egregious example of Apple’s lack of understanding of content was when Apple had to suddenly confront the issue of adult content with the launch of the iPad. Jobs’ rant about “freedom from porn” displayed a serious lack of understanding of how the messy parts of content, like freedom of speech, just don’t behave like software and will never conform to a strict code or elegant integration.

Amazon, on the other hand, has always had a better understanding of the role of content. Obviously, in part because it’s where they began and is ingrained in their DNA. And while they’ve had their own serious issues with adult content, overall they display a publisher’s understanding that when content becomes your software, it can’t be bound by rules that hardware might impose on it, especially when consumers are paying for it. So while it may get messy, this long experience why for Amazon, device and software integration may be a little less important than the content/software that they deliver.

What this has led to is some very creative approaches to looking at how content can better integrate with the new hardware/software ecosystems. For example, one of the most impressive announcements in the last week’s Kindle launch was the announcement of Kindle Serials, a whole new installment based publication platform, which extends the groundbreaking idea of Kindle Singles. In fact, Amazon has generally been in front in breaking new ground for long form writing and content. With this type of thinking, Amazon is really placing much of its creative and design strength around the area of content creation. By creating and integrating new content formats they are cementing the role and adoption of their so-so tablets and software.

Another part of this integration is what I’d call content logistics, and this is the part where AWS comes in. For Amazon, it’s always been clear that the device and its software are less important than the logistical backbone that gets the all-important content to the user. When I order an eBook on Amazon I can choose to send it to my Kindle, my iPad or read it on screen. The specific qualities of the device ecosystem we are using less important to Amazon than the infrastructure to get the content to the user. As Bezos said during the Kindle launch, “People don’t want gadgets any more; they want services, and the Kindle Fire is a service”. In other words, the service that integrates new forms of delivering content in new formats could be more valuable to users than the elegant integrated vertical model that they are receiving it on.





So: Are We Ruining Photography Now? by Dan Weingrod

Last September on a panel we were on together , resident media provocateur Ben Kunz pointed out that, “advertising has pretty much ruined the telephone”. With do-not-call lists and caller id the phone is rapidly becoming an intruder for privacy and an enemy of conversation.

I thought about this when I saw this article about Stipple, a platform that will allow photographers, publishers and brands to create product related tags on images. It’s really a brilliant idea. It flows directly out of the success the InStyle magazine “I want what she’s wearing” philosophy of celebrity merchandising, blended with the undeniable fact that uploading and tagging of photos has become probably the most popular activity on Facebook. Great media idea, but at what cost?

If you know me, you know that I’m a huge fan of Instagram, the social/mobile photo sharing app. It’s changed the way I’ve approached photography and I believe is part of shaping a whole new approach for imagery in the future, (more on this in a later post). But when I read about great ideas like Stipple I wonder if we’re off to ruin another media again.

What works for me about Instagram is the way it’s helped me form a community around the daily life of friends, acquaintances and pure strangers that I’ve met based on imagery alone. It’s about what they notice and what delights us on a very direct, almost instinctive basis. Sure, there’s all the usual social capital of making sure to like friends’ photos and hoping they’ll like yours, but at the heart of it it’s about bringing a new dimension of non-verbal information and a new presence into your friends’ life. If you happen to like the image of a building, food or even an item clothing you might comment, “cool hat, where’d you get it?”and you might even get a reply and recommendation, or maybe not.

So in steps Stipple with the unacknowledged, (but we know it’ll happen), potential of having everyone tag any photo with branded, ecommerce links and helping us all become a walking affiliate marketers. I can imagine photo decisions being overtaken by thoughts of product placement and gaining likes likes in the hopes of gaining cash along with potential social prestige. That will be followed by photo-spamming, do-not-send-photo lists and…we know where this all could go. Add to this the whole raft of in-image advertising networks coming our way and it’s hard to imagine shared environments like Instagram staying above the fray.

I know that this feels like railing against the inevitable. It’s just too hard for advertising to resist a new media channel ripe for monetization, (another word I’d dearly love to find a replacement for). One potential hope, if we’re lucky, is that the inevitable might become something like Twitter’s failed dickbar experience. In which case it will become part of an additional lesson from the aforementioned Ben Kunz’s. His second mistake of online advertising in his latest Digiday column: “Never try to disguise your message by blending it with editorial”. If community generated content such as Instagram can be seen as producing its own, semi-private “editorial content”, it may be possible that the inevitability of commercialization may not happen.

A deeper issue with platforms like Stipple is brought up in Rick Webb’s provocative On the Bubble post, where he points out that too many startups and developers make the assumption that their latest cool app or platform will be adopted by advertisers looking for a new channel. When I think potential for intrusion by Stipple and other like platfoms into the nice, quiet Instagram environment I wonder if maybe its time to stop this consistent forcing of new media channels for brands and maybe just develop new experiences that do a better job of entertaining, informing and enriching our lives.


It’s not about the click by Dan Weingrod

I heard about Comscore’s latest click study via a tweet from a friend as I was going into a client meeting. The headline read: “Study Shows 50% drop in number of US Internet users who click on Display Ads”. By pure coincidence part of the meeting was to be about online advertising and this could not have come at a better time.

For years my mantra has been “the best thing about online ads is that they are clickable…and the worst thing about online ads is that they are clickable”. Display clicks feel like a cross that all online marketers have had to bear since the beginning of the online advertising. For too many years I’ve sat in meetings and heard “We’ve spent this much dollars for so few clicks” from marketers used to the overwhelming reach and frequency numbers of offline mass media.

But times have changed and online display advertising’s role has to be looked at in a different light. So the Comscore headline felt like an addict’s first admission in a 12 step program. “Yes, I am addicted to clicks and yes I need to break the addiction”. Why? Because clicks don’t deliver the real results we are looking for and should no longer be seen as the primary metric for online display effectiveness.

The Comscore study, titled “Natural Born Clickers” nails something many of us have assumed for a long time. There is a small share of the internet audience that is doing the vast majority of the clicking. If this is the case, should online marketers be tearing out their hair and foreswearing online display? No, because as Comscore puts it:

“… marketers who attempt to optimize their advertising campaigns solely around the click are assigning no value to the 84 percent of Internet users who don’t click on an ad. That’s precisely the wrong thing to do, because other comScore research has shown that non-clicked ads can also have a significant impact. As a result, savvy marketers are moving to an evaluation of the impact that all ad impressions – whether clicked or not – have on consumer behavior, mirroring the manner in which traditional advertising has been measured for decades using reach and frequency metrics.”

The “other research” referred to are studies that have shown what we have seen anecdotally, that display ad generates relevant searches for brand and products, builds interest and measurable sales lift. All that without a click. We’re looking at this as an online marketing funnel where a coordinated, trackable mix of online display and SEM, leveraging behavioral and demographic targeting can deliver impressive growth in awareness, action and sales.

So when our meeting got around to the online advertising plan it was kind of liberating to bring up this information and use it to move the discussion away from the addiction to clicks and over to the more relevant role of online display, building brand, awareness and action.