The Prospector's Path
by debra scherer
When I launched the Culture Crush last year, it was a coming together of ideas that were developed throughout my career. Having worked in publishing and fashion for many years, I had seen influential industries shift a few times, but always find their way around due to their ability to embody the next wave. This is how great media, great product and great stories are made. That is, until now. Now the next wave is a killer. Now is, in many ways, a terrible time to launch something new.
I spent the first half of the year describing the landscape and setting my intentions for a new way forward, and the second half of the year taking what we started to learn about the world, and about ourselves, and trying to form a solid set of ideas to help steer the ship. I always say we are the prospectors, meaning we look away from trends to find stories. This might sound counterintuitive to most, because instead of defining a target audience, or particular demographic, we follow our cultural instincts, and search out ideas that begin personal and end up being universal. That's right, our mission statement doesn't include a description of the audience before the fact, making it tough to get either investors or advertisers and I don’t recommend this route to others, as it has the highest level of risk and a very unpopular storyline. At least at first. So here are the insights that have become the foundation of the Culture Crush and I hope this outsiders viewpoint has value to some.
The first question one might ask is, why embark on a media project that has no target audience? Well, while we started off declaring that we had no demographic, that wasn't exactly true. That statement quickly morphed into, we have no existing demographic, a better description of where we were operating. As existing demographics, which were mapped out by the advertising industry itself, started to shift, it felt like new media was more focused on them than ever, due to the usual trend chasing and the obsession with this word Millennials. The whole, “let's figure out what they want and then give it to them” plan seems surely the path to mediocrity when you are striving to have an original voice and a strong point of view. And those two things are more important than ever. Between the socialization/democratization of media and the available everywhere at anytime conundrum, a unique and strong point of view is really all you have. Otherwise you risk being just another headline flying by on someone's feed.
At the Culture Crush, our approach to growth is focused on very slowly growing influence, rather than chasing that high of pure audience numbers. It's what I call What Everybody Else Is Doing Mountain, where the goal is to create viral content, gather influencers, chase celebrities, and build value for your investors or advertising partners. So where does that leave your audience? It leaves them as nothing more than the statistics they represent, like the number of hamburgers served on the McDonalds sign. We have picked a different path, the prospectors path, closer to the base of the mountain. It might never rise as high, but we go deep, get inside, and create real value for our core audience, in our own way. And that audience is an interesting one, because it crosses cultural boundaries and generations in a way that traditional demographics don’t describe. Yet. It has been interesting to see some of those perched way up there on the top of the mountain looking down at us, checking to see what we have found, wondering how it has value, no matter which industry they happen to be in.
The truth is, it's all one industry now. Whether you are in fashion, art, tech, business; thanks to the great digitization, we all work for the entertainment industry, like it or not. We have been asking the big questions and fighting against sameness, which has in a way, started to halt the development of culture itself. The moment when something from the counterculture moves into the realm of being part of the culture, that adds value to the world. But whatever happened to the counterculture? Where are the movements against? If everyone is trying to serve that predetermined audience, commoditizing trends and recycling sameness, who is left to make those uncomfortable moments and seemingly unpopular moves?
All of these fancy new digital tools and the speed of which things can spread has lead to easy answers when it comes to how things look in the world. It's as if the goal has become to create a perfectly lit can of disinfectant instead of something that feels and smells and tastes and sounds. When every website, every magazine decides to use the same template, how is that beautiful? And how do you fit stories and ideas that are a little off, a little unexpected, into those predetermined templates that all look the same? They might do a great job with “scale” and flow, but where does that leave the audience? Maybe asleep? But certainly with their fingers on the button to click to buy.
This brings us to the new dogs/old tricks portion of the presentation. OK, let's talk about native advertising, a great example of the fact that no matter what year it is, it seems that think piece writers are discovering solves for industry problems (caused by shifts) that are nothing more than a clever renaming of a traditional solution. The art of native advertising, otherwise known as taking your editorial gifts and using them to disguise advertising so that it can more naturally live among the rest of the stories, like a kind of camouflage, is what we had traditionally done as Vogue editors my entire career there. We also were very, very good at it, and very, very good at hiding it. So much so, ironically, that those traditional media companies were the first to stumble when in fact they had the most talented practitioners on staff all along. New media came along and gave it a new name, differentiating the work out from the flow, only because they had to. They weren’t as good at it and certainly not as good at hiding it at all.
Another good example of an old trick is this catchphrase that you hear applied to the struggling retail industry, this idea that retail now has to become experiential. And of course, that's because they believe Millennial behavior is new and they are trying to fill in the blanks as to what they want. Yet, this has always been the case. Looking back to the great stories of retail, you will find, from the first Gap stores in the late ’60’s to the invention of Saturday's Generation at Bloomingdale’s in the mid ’70’s, great retailers always had stories, always had been experiential, and not coincidentally, always had very strong ties to culture. What might have been lost to some, is that for some time, malls had picked up most of the experiential slack, and the retailers have been left dumbfounded by the fact that we each have our own personal Mall of America in our smartphones now, so that experience has been lost to the click to buy culture.
For the retail industry especially, this combination of media sameness and halting of culture has transformed the fashion business into nothing more than the shopping business. It's bad for fashion, it's bad for magazines, and it's impossible for designers and the few original creators that used to thrive in that world. It's funny that everyone cheered when they finally gave up on Fashion's Night Out, a celebration of shopping that eventually brought out only wannabes and those looking for giveaways and freebees, when in a way, fashion has mostly become one continuous Fashion's Night Out. It's not a coincidence that we have the tee shirt business taking over both fashion and music as the one moneymaker everybody can count on. It's all about the merch, man.
So is technology to blame for everything? One thing is for sure, tech is in some way a part of everything. The problem is that while it has infected every industry, its dark side has also infected every industry. We have all heard the term tech bubble, but the bubble isn't financial, it's cultural. So many aspects of tech, its childish aesthetics, its racism, sexism and belief in its ability to make beauty or connect everybody so that the world is a delightful and wonderful place, have had disastrous societal and cultural results. Their ability to replicate has drowned out and coopted so many sublime concepts that we all took for granted. We have said goodbye to simple yet profound things, like the concept of Friend, Like, Fashion, Fake, and in this moment, even the word News. In fact, I believe journalists need to admit defeat on that one and abandon that word, because now, it too, has no meaning. The good news is that if we are now ensconced in the tech culture bubble, that also gives us the ability to burst it for them. (or for us!!)
So after our long year of prospecting, we discovered so many simple truths about people, about life, about culture. There are tribes and communities forming all around us, all searching for something real to hang onto. They might not be the masses, but they are the ones who have that counterculture impulse, that ability to create something free, something clunky, something smeared, something new, something true. They defy demographics and might not show up on page one of your Google search. They don’t pick an audience, the audience picks them. I think what we do at the Culture Crush is connect these concepts, these groups, and figure out what's universal, what moves us about them.
So where does that leave us in our own development? Well, it doesn't feel like advertising is in our future, as one by one we see the success stories all involve subscription services. Ok, let's talk about Medium, as it encompasses everything discussed so far. Born inside the tech culture bubble, it's conceit was that it made everyone’s stuff look beautiful (1), while giving individuals a chance to exploit the social aspects of the great digitization (2) (and if you were lucky your blog post might wind up right next to a post by Bono), and for publishers, an easy exploitation of all of the above in order to put less resources into the creating of the cake and focusing only on the filling, letting Medium take care of the rest. (3) Yet outside the culture bubble, what we saw was, sameness that easily spread even outside of Medium’s walls, leading to visual mediocrity,(-1) social aspects that worked only for those in the social graph of Medium’s founders,(-2) and for publishers, a loss of unique voice and strong point of view, all while picking at crumbs of the advertising cake being eaten by Facebook and Google.(-3) That's right, while ad dollars were parachuting down to the big platforms, it seems like the best stuff was all headed to Subscription Based On Demand Island.
As we continue to publish our stories on paper, on podcasts, in videos and everywhere else we can, we too will be looking for ways to keep going, but not at the expense of our values. We will continue our fight for being in the world, for pulling stories out of the world that give to our culture, that create, that don’t chase. We will keep watching these shifts and be nimble enough to find our way in the landscape, to try in our own way to embody that next wave. One thing for sure is that disruption is not the goal. The best answers have been with us all along.