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Apr 26, 2011 | Comments

Some of my favorite ideas, from work or my head, have a certain DNA.

The exciting ones, where I think, “YES, do shit like that!” are inspired by a small class of startups, niche websites, communities, and dark corners of the Internet. Rarely do I find corporate marketing as interesting or worth referencing.

An idea inspired by Mint vs. a Burger King campaign has a lot to do with purpose. In the former, the idea is the business. It’s so good that it makes money. In the latter, it just needs to lure visitors in the same way Costco serves samples.

It’s why case studies are now Tumblr and Foursquare rather than Crispin + Porter. It’s why Ed Cotton points out that marketers are in awe of startups like Airbnb. “The makers” as he calls them, with the “perseverance and humility” that a team of corporate digital marketers can’t even attempt to grasp.


Gareth Kay’s proverbial “ideas that do” begins to explain the dichotomy, that we should not be communicating products but make products that communicate.

Made by Many has some great thinking about how to create ideas that are more like startup products and less like marketing campaigns. It’s nearly word-for-word out of the lean startup playbook, borrowing many of the methodologies and transplanting them to client work.

Part of this is a big change in research philosophy. Instead of using “10% of our customers use mobile apps,” insights shift to questions like, “would you use this thing that we’ve create for you?”

I can only imagine internet-based clients having the capacity to support this vision for ideas, that we’ll fund something not to sell more widgets but to build a better widget. It also takes a leap of faith by the client that better product experiences will have a higher ROI than a snappy marketing idea.


Getting back to the DNA of my favorite ideas, the other commonality is, as succinctly summarized by Paul Graham, “make things people want.” It’s a subtle, but significant change in perspective. The litmus test is not, “is this idea cool” or “would I play with it/send to a friend,” but “How would you feel if you could no longer use [idea]?” If 40% respond “very disappointed,” it’s a winner.

New ideas aren’t just gravy but the actual potatoes. They solve a real customer problem.


“People don’t want things, but experiences.”

I can’t attribute this quote, but it’s ingrained into my mind. The user experience should always be the focus. Build a kick-ass experience and your users will forgive the other stuff (e.g., a clunky aesthetic).

In short, people don’t want a better banana, but a better banana experience. It’s the reason why almost every Internet business can (and should) be called a service experience.


The problem is that there are so few instances of companies fulfilling on this grand vision for experience-based ideas. A couple include Nike+ and Fiat Eco-drive, both darlings of this philosophy.

What’s common for both of these ideas is that they could pass the startup litmus test. While I loved Old Spice guy, I can’t imagine 40% of Old Spice customers (or prospects) lamenting his disappearance from history.

And what companies would have an appetite to pass this test? There’s a reason why Nike+ appears in every deck declaring an end to bad marketing ideas. Nothing has trumped it in the last three years.

It’s really easy to execute a marketing idea. All you need is money. And it’s so short-term that there’s no time to test and iterate. Building an experience that rivals startups (as Nike+ has arguably done) and solves customer problems is fucking hard. Made by Many’s attempt to use lean startup tactics with clients is way more work than just following a typical waterfall approach.

It gets back to my earlier point of marketers in awe of startups like Airbnb. While it’s fun to think about their teamwork and creativity, their story also includes a ton of failing and uncertainty. I can’t imagine recommending an idea that begins with, “right now it sucks and we expect it to fail, but eventually it will get better.”

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