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.

And God created…a Remix by Dan Weingrod

I tried hard not to watch the Superbowl this year. The teams weren’t that interesting and the ads felt even less compelling, especially the uninspiring “previews”. Besides, I knew I’d be able to catch up on them afterwards in the numerous review pages. But the blackout conspired against me which meant that when the enforced episode of “Downton” ended, there was the fourth quarter waiting for me. And, as it turned out, what was by far the best ad of the entire game, Dodge Ram’s “So God Created A Farmer” ad.

The strength of the ad was in the way it broke through the clutter and sameness of the typical Superbowl ad. No safe frat jokes, schmaltzy humor or CGI overkill. Simply by using  a spoken word soundtrack and striking photography it teased the viewer into following a story and the soft sell, slow reveal of its sponsor.



By the next day, it was revealed that the ad, that was already generating a great deal of positive buzz, was pretty much lifted from this YouTube video created by had given Dodge full approval and support, as you will likely see in their video. But this certainly brought up all sorts of questions about the creativity and originality. For years marketers have begged, borrowed and outright stolen cultural artifacts and pop themes from their creators in the name of creativity and staying ahead of the curve. This case is really not all that different with the exception of the tone and level of production.The monologue in the video includes a mild joke about the male farmer enduring “visiting ladies”, (and the audience laughter in the background). The photos are a mixed bag, they include women, but are in and out of focus, include women, but some appear to be from Canada. And many include farm equipment and vehicles, but none made by Dodge or their partners Case Tractors. The Dodge video airbrushes many of these faults by editing out the joke, using striking, high quality photography and subtly inserting their own vehicles in the images.

Brands have been steadily increasing their role in curating and creating social content. What’s interesting about this case is that the flow has gone in a different direction. Instead of brands creating content and allowing it to be socialized, in this case the brand has taken social content and branded it. I think this is an interesting flow and one that we’ll likely see more of considering the critical success of the ad. (Though I really doubt it will sell more trucks).

In this flow from social to branded content what does seem to get lost is the freshness, originality and vibrancy of the original, amateur, content. What Dodge did with their production and especially with their photography was to create a highly iconic and nostalgic view of the farmer. And while this is often what advertising is supposed to do, there is a danger here. Nostalgia reminds us of times that never were and at often can make us comfortable with our prejudices. This was brought out strongly when many pointed out that over 50% of farmers and farm workers in America are Hispanic. It’s clearly not part of the vision of the farmer that Dodge wanted to put up, and an issue that I don’t think comes to mind in the video with all of its amateur naivete. But we're now in a new world of remixing, where anyone can create and define their own iconography and nostalgia. So when the Brave New Foundation, posted their own remix, below, they again reversed the content flow, and helped complete a more accurate picture.


by Dan Weingrod

One of the best reviews of the success of the Old Spice campaign came in Simon Mainwaring’s blog about the top 10 reasons for the campaign's success. It's worth it to check out his list and appreciate the great confluence of talent, thinking, creativity, (and let’s not forget Isaiah Mustafa), that made this such a singular event for marketers and a successful event for the brand. One thing, however, that seems to have been missed in many comments is the fact that a key ingredient for the success was in the first two words of the first ad, before you even have a chance to register the environment, situation or even the product, "Hello Ladies..." declares that this message is directed at women. This was no accident, W&K's research told them, as shown in their own case study video, that women were the primary purchasers or at least influencers for men's body wash. So like any smart marketer they addressed the message to that audience and in a brilliantly creative way.

It should be no surprise at this point that just about any product that hopes to succeed online needs to address the role or the voice of women. Comscore recently released a study that confirmed that women pretty much shape the Web and especially the social web. What was impressive about the decision to address women so directly was the fact that Old Spice’s history has been all about men. Look at the sample below:

Or read Bud Caddell’s great post about how repetition led to the creative breakthrough of Old Spice, and you see that throughout its history Old Spice advertising addressed men directly with women serving as props and cheerleaders. In fact the tradition was that men defined masculinity in their own terms with women their to support this definition. Old Spice’s and W&K’s ability to turn this around and headline an, albeit tongue-in-cheek, female definition of manliness made a crucial difference in the success of this campaign from literally the second it launched.

Old Spice Lesson #2: My Precious by Dan Weingrod

John Winsor recently wrote a smart and provocative piece in Business Week regarding the Future of Advertising. In the article he decried how the relationship of trust between client and agency has been broken and cited client stories of "being charged $10,000 per second of video editing for clips to go on YouTube". In an amazing coincidence the first Old Spice response video was uploaded on July 12th, the publication date of Winsor's article. That first video posting was followed by 181 additional videos made over a period of two days in a call and response with social media channels, public figures and unknown tweeters.

Thinking about Winsor's article it struck me that what the Old Spice YouTube campaign has managed to do, aside from entertaining and influencing and selling more product, is to help start stamping out the kind of preciousness that we have always tended to grant video. This preciousness runs the gamut from the "$10,000 editing fees" to using standard production budgets for online video, insisting on "broadcast quality" when HD is now available on iPhones and other restraints left over from the world of broadcast television. The kind of production and budgeting assumptions that agencies have been used to will no longer work in the new world of adaptive marketing and social media. Video is now a viable social media channel and must be priced and produced with the kind of currency and flexibility that social media demands. This means lowering our "standards", simplifying production and, yes, even lowering fees to make them consistent with the nature of the medium and to allow for mistakes and regular response.

The Old Spice team was blessed with a number of excellent advantages including, I admit, a great, high quality, expensive broadcast video ad that set up the YouTube campaign. But with their willingness to lower the preciousness of the video approach in order to make it consistent with the nature of social media they brought one great thing back to the forefront: the power of great creative ideas. And that's one thing we shouldn't have to lower our standards for.

Dancing with Social by Dan Weingrod

A YouTube video of Israeli soldiers dancing isn’t just notable for its humor, it’s also a case study in how organizations can deal with social media.

I’ve been on vacation in Israel for the past two weeks. But even on vacation I’ve discovered that while you can try to run from social media it seems that you just can’t hide. The day after we landed I heard about this video that was spreading rapidly on YouTube featuring Israeli soldiers in full uniform dancing in the streets of Hebron in the occupied West Bank:

Israel is a small country and everyone seems to know everyone else, so within a couple of days I got the back story from a relative who knew one of the commanders of the soldiers who made the video. Turns out that they were within a couple of weeks of ending their tour and wanted to celebrate their impending release in a different way. Added to this was the fact that their mission, guarding a very small number of overly zealous Jewish settlers who had taken root within a major Palestinian city, was very much anathema to their own and many Israelis’ feelings about their role in the Army. So during an early morning patrol along one of Hebron’s most conflicted streets they created their own video memento to 3 years of service. It was meant to be shared just within the group, but after the video was shot and the music edited in did one of the soldiers decide to post it on YouTube as a lark. Within an hour or two he got cold feet and pulled it, but by then it was too late. At least one person had managed to copy it and it was off to the viral races.

Aside from the video's surreal humor, two social media truths stand out for me. The first is that amateurs may do a better job of breaking down communications walls than professionals. Clay Shirky asserts that we are entering a world where more and more media is produced by amateurs for amateurs. Within the context of Middle East conflict  amateur communications could lead to much more interesting dialogue than the professional communications between these warring sides. The video has generated a massive amount of comments and while most have been typical of the conflict, there have been many that were more open and accepting of the fact that maybe these soldiers were making the only kind of statement they could make about the ridiculousness of their situation. This was borne out during a regular weekly demonstration in Hebron on the Saturday following the video launch where, according to PPN, Palestinians jokingly challenged Israeli soldiers to dance again, and when they didn’t they did their own reply dance, to Lady Gaga's "Pokerface", to the amusement of the crowd including the assembled soldiers. (Now if only we could turn wars into episodes of "So You Think You Can Dance").

The second truth was demonstrated in the way the Israeli military dealt with the soldiers. While there had been previous episodes of similar videos released on YouTube, these had been shot on bases, not in an open conflict zone. So when the video went viral, the commander of the unit was concerned that they would receive a severe punishment and perhaps jail time on the cusp of their departure from the Army. Instead the Army response was surprisingly intelligent. Recognizing that the social genie was out of the bottle, that it was  being well received, (and was perhaps altering perceptions after the Turkish ferry fiasco), they decided to “punish” the soldiers. They made them shoot a video recounting what they had done and what a bad thing it would be if other soldiers did the same thing. This approach, of accepting the potential of the community's role in the communications process is rare in corporations let alone the military and shows good common sense. And for a Brand as complex and controversial as Israel it may be a starting point for more positive perceptions and dialogue.