you-me-and-medicis

Ever notice that people always thank “the Academy” when they win an Oscar?

I happen to know someone who is a member of the Academy — my brother Nathan. He created the technology for characters like Shrek, Dragon, Donkey, Kung Fu Panda, and many others at Dreamworks. A thoughtful observer of culture, art, and technology, he recently wrote something to me that got me thinking:

“The pace at which our culture is absorbing and building on new technology for artistic and cultural expression makes the Renaissance look like a knitting circle. And advertising is inseparable from that today, just as the great masters of the arts of the past depended on their benefactors.”

He’s right. We live in a time of dizzying change in journalism, art, and cultural expression, and of dizzying change in the advertising technologies that support and enable our means of expression.

The two are deeply related.

With suitable thanks to the Academy (or in this case one member of the Academy), let’s take a look at how this all works, how it’s changing, and how each of us personally can impact what gets conceived, written, seen, and discussed. For as it turns out, consumers and advertisers hold the keys to the new renaissance in content, journalism, and engagement.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

Commerce and content have always been intertwined. Great journalism, great content, and great vigorous messy debate — the foundational elements of democracy — cannot exist at scale without a business model that supports them. Over the centuries, that business model has been some combination of patronage and commerce.

In the middle ages, a banking family called the Medicis helped to make artists like Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci solvent while promoting the ideals that would speed humanity out of the Dark Ages. But they did something more. They helped to stir the science, technology, and tools of modern inquiry that gave their wards a forward-looking mandate.

Today, there are calls for a new generation of Medicis to rescue our journalistic enterprises from the economics of digital disruption.

An interesting opinion piece ran recently in the New York Times, arguing for a plan where Facebook and Google contribute more of their fortunes to the creators of content that they have so well learned to monetize. The author, Steve Waldman, makes a compelling case, looking at the success of the technology industry in extracting value from content consumption, and at the paltry contributions to media from philanthropies.

It also strikes me that this call to action is similar to one answered a while back by Jack Shafer when industry leaders like Pierre Omidyar (founder of eBay), Bill Keller (former executive editor of The New York Times), and Jeff Bezos (founder and CEO of Amazon) launched projects or made investments designed in part or in whole to protect and strengthen the media.

Yet the creation of media, art, and content which lifts us up and drives the development of our culture cannot be left to a few philanthropic billionaires. There may be an even more compelling and modern way to think about patronage in the digital age: the potential to reimagine the media by more effectively engaging the long tail of patronage — i.e., you and me, and not just the Medicis — to support and protect the kind of media we love and need.

One tool we have at our disposal is the humble subscription. The power of the subscription — the long tail of patronage — has already proved itself as a vast and powerful weapon in the hands of all of us.

A great case study, of course, is The New York Times, which recently reached a record-breaking three million subscriptions. In a recent conversation with a New York Times executive, I learned that the majority of revenue now comes from subscriptions for the first time in a very, very long time. The subscriber relationship is a powerful one as it helps shape the development of the content of interest to a particular audience and the experience that comes with “ownership.”

The return to this dynamic between publisher and subscriber (patron) follows the model that tech strategist Ben Thompson recently postulated, which advises media companies to think of their operations as carefully curated content for their communities. Publications like the New York Times can do this because they are fixing “the incentive problem.” With the right content, for the right community, people are willing to pay.

But the New York Times is not the only publication fixing that problem. The Street reports that The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and the Boston Globe — the paper of record in my hometown — have all seen a sharp spike in subscriptions since the President was elected. Even publications that historically have managed with smaller subscriber bases are getting in on the act. Foreign Policy — the cerebral quarterly that now features a more lively, daily digital component — recently launched an email campaign with this Trump-themed gambit: “Yes, it’s all as crazy as it seems. Nobody has seen anything like it, and nobody knows what’s going to happen next. So now, more than ever, it is important to stay informed and pay attention.”

Vice — which produces some of the most hard-hitting “how the heck did they get there” journalism around — is just one example of a company successfully curating content for its audience.

Netflix is another one. Netflix grew from a DVD mail-in service to a powerful force in content creation and a studio developing some of the most cutting edge content in the market today.

The new merchants

This brings us to commerce.

After all, modern media has grown and prospered not simply through subscribers, but through commerce — through the power of consumer engagement to attract advertisers.

Ben Thompson wrote one of the best pieces ever written on the power of great content aggregated by publishers to attract great audiences and therefore great advertisers. He describes in clear compelling terms the impact of digital disruption on journalism and content producers, and the disintermediation of publisher and reader.

There was a time when a great publication could thrive on the strength of their audience and their ability to sell that audience at scale to advertisers. But that world has been fragmented by digital technologies. Advertisers increasingly use digital technology to reach right through a publication in order to target their individual readers. And they are learning that they reach those individuals at scale wherever they happen to be across the vast reaches of the open web, mobile phone applications, social networks, social games, and social messaging applications.

Gone are the days when a marketer wants to pay more to reach the same person with the same content with the same engagement in different channels, paying vastly more simply for the brand name of the publication, or the type of inventory they are accessing. Marketers now target and reach individuals, not simply publication audiences.

In plain language, advertisers can now reach right through publications to target individual consumers. This one change has profound implications for publications, and profound implications for the kind of journalism we are going to get. We have entered a new era of journalism where engagement creates content, in ways far more direct and far faster than ever before.

This is digital disruption at its most profound.

If the right people (defined by the ones an advertiser wants to reach) read something, the publisher gets directly rewarded with funding for that type of content. If nobody engages, that type of content withers.

Never has the pace of change in enabling technologies been higher. From video storytelling, to social engineering, to AI-based content generation to personality-based political targeting, we live in a world where the medium is once again becoming the message. Only this time, both the medium and the message are quite directly what we engage with.

We are at the cusp of a new golden age in journalism. But this is not your father’s journalism.

The Renaissance looks like a knitting circle

So what do we say to our friend in the Academy?

We tell him that software has provided a perfect conduit for digital engagement and one-to-one conversation between individuals and the brands that serve them. And that conduit — like never before — allows advertisers to excel at storytelling, engagement, and conversation.

That conduit is video storytelling, and video-based advertising, targeted at those who are most likely to engage in the moment with a brand’s story. And infused with two-way capabilities to allow brands and consumers to interact in unit in real time.

We tell him that art, journalism, and commerce have all become inextricably intertwined.

We show him that a new kind of journalism is emerging (fitfully and painfully) based on the new kind of funding model (interactive video advertising) which now exists for journalism — and we look at the mind-boggling journalism and art being produced by the sources which truly understand video engagement and two-way storytelling — Vice, Netflix Studios, Amazon Video, and others.

We tell him that this flowering of new media is completely in its infancy, and that engagement and interaction with both publication and brand stories will shape it more strongly than any other force — more strongly than the billionaires, more strongly than the philanthropists, more strongly than the editors.

We tell him that the content and the advertising he engages with curates the content and the advertising unleashed on the world. We tell him to enter the conversation.

So what kind of media will we build together?

For years, nutritionists have warned us that “you are what you eat.” As the business model becomes firmly entrenched in the new direct economics between what we read and what advertisers will pay for content creation, we are firmly in the era of “we are what we read.” A virtuous cycle exists between what you choose to read and consume and what our journalists and publications will produce more of, and what advertisers will crave. Like no time before, we are in an era of “What you read is what you get.”

We have found the new Medicis and they are us.