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Cultural Sanctimony: Can the Digital World Overcome its Arrogance?

2009 August 30
by Greg Satell

People who grow up in insular cultures are often more certain than those with wider experience.  When I first arrived in Eastern Europe, I was eager to learn about the culture and was intrigued by the novelty of difference.  I was very happy to discover that I didn’t have to look far to find people who were eager to instruct me.  However, I soon realized that sometimes the locals were wildly off the mark when it came to analyzing their own culture because so few had experienced any other.

As a recent post by socialnomics’ Erik Qualman shows, many people in the Digital World seem to have the same problem as the people I met in the early post-communist world.

My Crash Course in Cultural Preferences

In the post-Soviet bloc in the ‘90s, one would only have to step off of the plane to notice that these countries lacked much of what is common in western markets.  My new friends would patiently explain to me that the differences weren’t due to a lack of development, but to cultural preference:  For instance:

Hypermarkets: In the early days of the reconstruction period, there were no decent places to shop.  My cultural guides explained to me that there wasn’t much potential for western style hypermarkets because people preferred their local store (which regularly offered such delicacies as rancid meat and dairy products well past the due date.)

Within a few years, big stores like Geant, Auchan and Carrefour appeared and were an immediate success.  The nasty old ladies in the stores, who seemingly had no one left to be rude to, took to yelling in the streets instead of at their customers (who were now conspicuously absent).

Take-out coffee: Once, when I was traveling in the United States with my girlfriend, we stopped at a Starbucks.  After buying the coffee, I started towards the door. She exclaimed “where are you going?” and gave me the look that she usually reserved for when I committed some domestic felony such as leaving the toilet seat up.  For her, a cultured person didn’t drink coffee while walking down the street.

Of course, in a few years, Starbucks imitators became common place in Eastern Europe.  Before long, no self-respecting yuppie would be seen walking down the street without carrying an expensive cup of coffee.

Eastern Europe has long since grown up and  become one of the most dynamic and sophisticated regions on the planet.  Unfortunately, it seems that the Digital World still has some integration to do with the rest of humanity.

Digital Cultural Chauvinism


In the Digital World, there are sacred myths pervasive through the culture similar to what I found after the Berlin Wall fell.  Moreover, these fictions are often self-reinforced within the Digital community.  Two of these are:

ROI: Digital Media people are certain that they are superior to traditional media people because they can deliver ROI metrics.  However, this is mostly a result of Digital positioning itself as a direct response medium.  As the popularity of Social Media is beginning to show, there are other considerations that defy measurement.

In actuality, marketers aren’t really all that concerned with ROI metrics by medium, but with their own ROI metrics (which they usually do not share with media).  For example, auto companies don’t expect to earn money in a launch year, but over the model life (usually 3-5 years).  Many campaigns aren’t even focused on sales. (See What Do Advertisers Want?)

In actuality, client’s use metrics for negotiation and arbitrage more than for media choice.

Old Media is Irrelevant: According to ZenithOptimedia, in 2008 “Old Media” made up 90% of total advertising spend worldwide.  That seems quite relevant to me.  Admittedly, Digital Media is gaining ground quickly and that number is predicted to drop to 85% by 2011, but for the foreseeable future ad budgets will be dominated by incumbents.

Moreover, online performance can be greatly enhanced by offline activity.  Any web site that has done a co-promotion with a TV station knows this.  Amazingly, when Digital marketing agencies see a spike in CTR’s, they immediately attribute it to some optimization they did and rarely look at offline activity.

As someone who has spent time on both sides, I am frequently frustrated by many Digital people’s dismissive attitude towards anything that existed before 1995.  Before one seeks to “break all the rules,” one should first consider the possibility that there are often good reasons for rules to get adopted in the first place.  Some of these reasons are still valid even in a wired world.

Erik Qualman –  Boeing is a Poster Child for Old Media


An excellent example is the recent post by Erik Qualman on his blog, socialnomics.  For those of you who don’t know Qualman, most likely you soon will.  He is an up and coming Social Media guru and his new book, “socialnomics,” is sure to be a hit.

Qualman, an MBA, is intelligent, charismatic, well spoken and seems to have excellent personal hygiene (always helpful in the corporate world).  His writing is insightful and informative and he has almost 20,000 followers on twitter.  He has a lot to say, says it well and has obviously found an audience (including me).

He recently took Boeing to task for a TV brand image campaign that he didn’t like.  He (probably accurately) pointed out that the campaign would do little to sell planes and dismissively declared that “old school marketing tactics just will not cut it anymore.”

He then proceeded to explain to the poor, misguided folks at Boeing how they should run their business.  He was even gracious enough to offer them advice for “Free.” (Presumably, after reading Chris Anderson’s new book.)

Are Digital Gurus Psychic as well as Smart?

Now, I personally have no idea whether the campaign was good or bad because I don’t know what the brief was.  I do, however, believe that Qualman’s premise that they were trying to sell planes is specious at best.  Maybe they were targeting investors, potential employees or even potential jury members; or maybe something else.  I have no idea what the campaign goals were so I have no basis to judge whether it was successful or not.

Qualman, however, believes that he knows what the goals were and just assumed that Boeing was acting foolishly and irresponsibly.  That’s unfortunate and all too common.

Digital people often posit that something which doesn’t make sense to them doesn’t make sense at all.  Rather than turn the observation into a learning experience for himself, Qualman seeks to preach to those “old marketing types” that their day has come and gone.  For, he seems to believe, there is nothing valuable that he doesn’t already know, no insight which he is not already privy to, no wisdom he does not already possess.

As I mentioned above, Qualman seems quite intelligent and is usually an extremely good spokesman for Social Media and Digital Media in general.  If he had any experience in general brand management or offline communications, he probably wouldn’t write such a half baked post.  Yet, he is and probably will always remain a Social Media expert and will continue to see everything else through the prism of that tribe.

I May Not be a Guru, but…

Since this is a digital blog, I guess I can also offer some free, unsolicited advice (because I’m such a nice guy):

With 10% market share, a good market strategy would be to focus on the other 90%.  Telling potential clients that they “don’t cut it,” is probably not a good way to go about that.  Erik Qualman says that marketers should be more like Dale Carnegie and less like David Ogilvy, and he’s right, but shouldn’t that go for Digital people as well?

With all the possibility that the new, Digital World presents and all the money that there is to be made, a more serious approach is required.  Digital people need to deny themselves the moral candy of arrogance, though sweet it may be.

– Greg

Full Disclosure:  I do plan to buy Qualman’s new book and actually read it as well.

42 Responses leave one →
  1. August 31, 2009


  2. August 31, 2009

    I can’t believe Chris Anderson would announce that the meaning of ‘Free’ in the 20th century was reduced to a marketing tool. He seems to have gotten so carried away with his assertion perhaps applicable in a particular context to some people born post 74 that he’s somehow overlooked a few quite pertinent events related to the notion of free and freedom.

    There’s a great vindication of your cultural sanctimony assertion Greg.

    See if any one else remembers these 20th century moments.

    Two world wars, the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, the end of the cold war, the destruction of the berlin wall, the cease of hostilities in Northern Ireland, the release of Nelson Mandella, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the riots in Tainanmen Square, the War in Georgia, Iraq – Iran war, The Russian and Chinese civil wars, The Spanish civil War, Afghanistan, Abyssinia, etc etc, etc, etc. Freedom Anyone?

    I’d say the word free is imblazoned in the history of the twentieth century for all time with regard to freedom from tyranny.

    I offer this reminder to Chris, (with our over indulgence in investigating and classifying the cost of everything we run the risk of missing the value and price of nothing) Lest we forget.

  3. Heather Traum permalink
    August 31, 2009

    May I sum this up in a few succinct words?

    Perspective is a beautiful thing.

    Well done, Greg. Very insightful.

  4. August 31, 2009


  5. September 1, 2009

    Ah, Greg.. you have made my heart sing. SO insightful… and so civilized! Kudos!

  6. September 1, 2009

    Wow! Thanks a lot!

    – Greg

  7. Stephen Rowe permalink
    September 1, 2009

    You bring up some very interesting points here. Since the advent of a second source in the media there has always been the “we are better and more relevant than them”, syndrome. Problem is, everyone is always trying to sell you on the “fact” that their medium is the best out there. That is because everyone is always trying to sell you their medium. Unfortunately there are very few with experience across multiple platforms (ie. print, broadcast, internet, etc,), and the few that are, are usually trying to sell you into whatever they are representing instead of helping you determine which would get you the best return.

  8. September 1, 2009

    CORRECTION: Oops in the final sentence in my earlier comments about Chris Anderson’s assertions of FREE.

    I offer this reminder to Chris, (with our over indulgence in investigating and classifying the cost of everything we lose sight of its value) Lest we forget.

  9. Girish Mahajan permalink
    September 1, 2009

    Great Post Greg!

    I have few of my own observations to make regarding a similar state of market in India. The market here is fairly nascent with a very small share of the entire advertising pie (Penetration ~ 7%, Adv Revenue ~ Less than 2%)
    In India as well too many digital experts and planners are plainly dismissive of traditional advertising. I strongly believe that Internet for brands and marketers is another medium in their media mix. By selling and evangelizing the medium in silo with complete disregard to other mediums in the marketing mix is doing great disservice to the medium itself. In doing so digital experts create a halo around digital medium which eventually intimidates the clients and make it more difficult to be sold. End of the day all of us (at least that’s my belief) are communication managers and it become imperative for us to understand the rules of communication and engagement first with an openness to accept what’s useful in the traditional media model and combine this with new age rules. Finally it’s been my observation that in a developing market it helps to sell Internet by creating a bridge between traditional and new age and gently hand holding the client into the new age medium

  10. September 1, 2009


    Good points. Thx.

    – Greg

  11. September 1, 2009

    Greg, I was pleased to see that I’m not the only one who tires of the arrogance of social media “gurus.” I sometimes find it hard to understand how such intelligent people can often say the dumbest things. We all do it though, I guess. I personally have been chastised for applying traditional marketing methods in my work, whether or not they work. Much of my business is politics, and the sometime Utopian doctrines of P.R. 2.0 just don’t apply in many cases when dealing in politics. My point is your point – every client/project has its goals, apply the best possible strategy to reach those goals and ignore whether or not it’s “new-media” cool.

  12. September 1, 2009


    Thanks for your comment!

    – Greg

  13. September 2, 2009

    Great post Greg. Social media is a great research tool for offline, as 95% of what is mentioned by consumers correspond to their offline world. Our business,, provides the research (derived from social networks) for traditional media planning and buying. This is another step in the direction of merging digital and offline, and leveraging the synergies across.

  14. September 2, 2009


    Thanks for your comment.

    Colligent is working in one of the most exciting fields in media. With all of the hand wringing about “metrics,” issues like coverage, GRP and frequency have lost their value in the digital world. Frequency can be controlled and and therefore coverage build is becoming a non -issue (my next post will be on this)

    I, personally, have great hopes for consumer targeting being the next big, sexy area. Once media agencies can stop spending most of their time massaging coverage curves, a lot of time, effort and talent can be devoted to more productive pursuits.

    I also have a pet theory that we won’t choose targets, but target methodology and that the targeting itself will be adaptive. I’m pretty sure that such algorithms are already in use in counter-terrorism, so it’s only a matter of time before commercial applications become economically feasible.

    – Greg

    Alas, that’s another

  15. September 2, 2009

    Excellent post. I’ve been integrating the digital into wider communications strategies since 1995, but I was in old school communications before then, and am becoming increasingly irritated with self-proclaimed social media gurus who are completely wet-behind-the-ears and are simply jumping on the latest bandwagon.

    The same arrogance brought us the dotcom crash, with 20 year olds asserting that millenia of commerce and trade were going to migrate online in 6 months. Come to think of it, a similar arrogance in the financial world probably brought us the current crisis.

  16. September 2, 2009


    Thank you for your comment.

    Some of the claims of the Social Media “experts” are a bit hard to swallow. Some of them practically claim to have experience dating back to the Kennedy Administration! To be fair, I don’t think Qualman fits into that category, he actually seems to have a lot to say that is worthwhile.

    I also remember the first dot-com boom and crash. I have a pet theory that it all could have been avoided if only Marc Andreessen had gone to Harvard like Bill Gates did (even if he did drop out). I was working on a trading desk in ’95 when Netscape went public and remember how furious everybody on Wall Street was that a young kid made so much money so fast…and a kid from a state school…not even main campus!

    Thanks again for visiting the site and commenting.

    – Greg

  17. September 4, 2009

    Hey Greg,
    Great insights. One of my pet peeves (among several) is the arrogance of the social media elite. There is a sense of ownership of the social media scene that many of the “pioneers” have . With the term thought leader always being tossed around within the circle of elites, it draws certain people in to be their unquestioning thought followers. A dangerous position either way, and I like to try to avoid either title to be my own thought leader while listening to others and digesting what is relevant or makes sense to me. You can check out a post I wrote addressing this topic if you like
    I’ll be stopping by again!

  18. September 4, 2009


    Thank you!

    I read your post, liked it and commented:-)

    – Greg

  19. September 6, 2009

    Hey Greg,

    I think you’re being far too fair to Erik. The advice in his post about Boeing is so ignorant from a communications stand point that it borders on idiotic. Not only did he not understand the intended audience Boing was after, but he dismissed every form of communication apart from his beloved Facebook and Twitter.

    For Boeing.


    How many large corporate CEOs do you suspect would buy an Boeing airplane because someone tweeted about it? Or even have a Twitter account? How many are on Facebook checking out Boeing’s wall? Or friending their other CEO buddies’ and posting pics of the “totally rad 737-700”.

    Come on. Erik Qualmann is an idiot. Just because has an MBA, wrote a book, and does speaking engagements doesn’t make him smart. He’s just another guy with an unqualified point of view that’s looking to have his 15 minutes (15 seconds in internet time) of fame.

    As I mentioned in the comments on Erik’s site, I’m not some anti-social media zealot. I believe in using any and all forms of social media as a tool in an overall, sound, communications strategy. But I think it’s time we started to expose these so-called “gurus” for what they are — self-proclaimed experts with little or no expertise in communications. Think about it, if I completely ignored the best way to communicate the largest part of my intended audience, in would I be be an expert? No, I would be an idiot.

    Now, before Erik fires back with “it’s not about communications, it’s about conversations” (or some other hackneyed social media PowerPoint presentation bullshit), need I remind him (and all others like him) that a conversation can only happen if you reach your audience in the first place.

    Obviously, Boeing knows this. That’s why they ran a commercial on Meet the Press. And why they have a Facebook page. And a Twitter account. They’re just not using them as the only means of communication with their audience.

    One last point, Erik points out that he doesn’t “currently have a traditional television feed” rather, “watches everything online” and is “not buying an airplane anytime soon”. Think about that. Because Erik watches Meet the Press online and HE wouldn’t buy an airplane, Boeing is the “Poster Child of Old School Marketing” — as if other people don’t watch Meet the Press! Online or offline! It’s just him! The only one that boeing MUST be talking to!

    I stand corrected. Erik is not an idiot.

    Erik Qualman is an arrogant idiot.

  20. September 6, 2009


    You make some good points, but here are some things that you should consider:

    1. He does have some worthwhile things to say about Social Media.

    2. For most of the past decade, the problem was that Digital Media people weren’t getting enough attention, rather than too much. Now that they are getting their day in the sun, you can’t blame them for trying to make the most of it.

    3.Why doesn’t Qualman know anything about brand management? As you mentioned, he has an MBA and he also worked for major brands. The fact that he knows so little outside of his specialty says a lot more about the state of business education and lack of integration in corporations than it actually says about Qualman.

    4. He really DOES seem to have excellent personal hygiene. After spending some years managing an internet company with a large programming team, I have come to appreciate the little things.

    Thanks for coming by and commenting. My post for tomorrow is about Social Networks specifically. Let me know what you think (but BE NICE).

    – Greg

  21. September 7, 2009


    That’s for the reply. But let me reply to your reply by running down the list:

    1. Saying things ‘about’ something and actually ‘knowing how to use’ something are two totally different things.

    2. I agree 100%. But if they are going to push their agenda (books, speaking engagements, consultancies) they should at least do it from an informed position. Selling social media as the only form of media is, as I said before, idiotic.

    3. I’ve met a lot of MBAs that know nothing about brand management. Not all, but a lot. And those that did had a healthy curiosity about the world outside their specialty.

    4. I also appreciate good grooming. Unfortunately, now that you’ve given Qualman props for not stinking, he’ll probably write a book about it and tell everybody else that they’re showering wrong.

    I look forward to your post tomorrow. And don’t worry, I’m always very nice to people that aren’t arrogant idiots.

  22. September 7, 2009


    I await the jury’s verdict….

    – Greg

  23. September 9, 2009

    Great post Greg. But it’s really not about the new, digital world at all (Have you read any of Al Ries’ rants of late?). It’s all about THE world — mindsets, which are reinforced by people’s need to protect their self-esteem/worth and self-interest, and are fueled by the rapid fragmentation of media.

  24. September 9, 2009


    I don’t read Al Ries, rants or otherwise. Although I think that it’s admirable that Ries and Trout have been able to build great personal brands, I think it would have been nice if they could have built a commercial brand or two along the way. I have an upcoming post on the damage that those two have done (it’s called Cargo Cult Marketers after Richard Feynman’s famous speech and should be posted in a month or so).

    I agree with you observation about the fragmentation of media. I think that the rise in “Reality TV” is another manifestation as well.

    Btw. I checked out your site. Very interesting! I hope we can talk more in the future.

    – Greg

  25. September 10, 2009

    I agree with your diagnosis of new media snobbery, but I am finding that the rubber really meets the road when a business looks into the mirror and admits that their marketing and sales processes aren’t really processes at all.

    New and old media alike are great at generating leads in some fashion. New media does a better job of metrics. But leads for the sake of leads alone means nothing within the context of business process – and for some reason, through all of the management changes to Lean, Continuous Improvement, et al in the 90s, it seems that marketing and sales got passed over.

    What’s the point of lots of leads if there’s no good process to doing something with them. Why engage in SEO to drive traffic to websites that have no call to action or value proposition to give a suspect and opportnity to opt-in as a prospect? Why have a website at all?

    Without an established, stable, measurable system in place to manage the entire marketing and sales process, from cradle to grave, all these isolated techniques for driving traffic, measuring conversions, etc… means nothing in the end.

    Aligning marketing and sales processes to the customer’s needs and wants is far more important at this critical period in our market, than being seen as hip or innovative because you’re Tweeting your company’s job openings.

  26. September 10, 2009


    Thanks Good points, but I think it’ll be a while before a true holistic tool set will be possible. It was tried in offline and the result was a series of crappy media mix tools and some even crappier multivariate models.

    Some reasonably accurate metrics and a little common sense can go a long way.

    – Greg

  27. September 10, 2009

    The tool sets already exist. A few of us rare guys who straddle the fence between engineering and marketing are borrowing concepts from Lean and Six Sigma, and radically improving sales processes by simply applying many of the same concepts.

  28. September 10, 2009


    It sounds exciting. Good for you! Can’t wait to see the results.

    – Greg

  29. September 19, 2009

    Excellent site, keep up the good work. I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks,

    A definite great read.. 🙂


  30. September 19, 2009


    Thanks a lot. That’s very nice of you to say.

    – Greg

  31. September 23, 2009


    It’s nice to know that there are those of us out there hoping that once you get paste the hype, a common sense, use the right tool for the right job approach is always better than trying to “make” one solution work vs something else. Social Networking is incredible, and it I think no one will argue that it is changing the way communication works in many forms. But to say it is simply the only way to communicate or send messages is sort of silly. Best of luck, and I’ll be following your blog now!

  32. September 23, 2009

    Thanks, Anthony.

    I agree 100%

    – Gerg

  33. September 23, 2009

    Greg, your perspective on this subject is right on. There is so much more to “Social Media” than marketing / advertising. The real value proposition will be realized once we expand our thinking. A good friend of mine, Mark Schaefer, published a blog a few days ago that really riled up some emotions on this whole topic. His perspective was more about the “Thought Leaders” in the industry and how they tend to suppress this kind of thinking. This is not an attempt to “Spam” your blog but your comments on this would be really valuable.
    Thanks again for communicating such clear thinking!

  34. September 23, 2009


    Thx. I never got the whole “thought leader” thing. It always made me visualize a bunch of fat guys in suits sitting indian style in an ashram:-))

    I really liked Mark’s post. I just posted something similar called “Consultants and Confused Apes” you can see it here:

    – Greg

  35. September 25, 2009

    There are times I read something and really wish I had written it. This is one of those occassions. Well done!

    The digerati has a fascination with hearing their own voice. One of the problems with intellectual discourse in the digital age is that the basic premise is “if I think it so, it must be”. It is disappointing that such a liberating technology should so quickly lead to the formation of yet another orthodoxy.

    Having said that, perhaps the legacy of the post business generation is to view the Internet as the enabling utility that it is, rather then the end itself. It is a toolset that certainly has resulted in the creation of many new marketplaces, but its greatest potential (still unrealized) lies is in making exisiting marketplaces (notably media) far more efficient and accessible.

    I suppose for the time being one can only be amused by those who prefer to work within the simplicity of silo’s instead of the fluid, elegant and inter-dependent reallity of a multi-media, multi-channel world.

  36. September 25, 2009


    Thank you for your kind words and your insights.

    – Greg

  37. FMJohnson permalink
    September 26, 2009

    Just a thought: is a symptom of this illness the unbearable arrogance of reporters and bloggers that cover the digital space who disdain press releases and story pitches? (Unless they come via Twitter, of course.) I doubt that a writer for an industrial pub or a financial Web site would write some of the ugly things I’ve seen coming from the digerati whenever a PR person does something as gauche as call them with a pitch or e-mail them a press release (personally, not as spam).

  38. September 26, 2009


    I’ve don’t think journalists in any medium are crazy about press releases. At least not the ones I’ve worked with.

    – Greg

  39. September 27, 2009

    Really nice posts. I will be checking back here regularly.

  40. September 27, 2009


    Glad to hear it. Good luck with your acting career!

    – Greg

  41. Jonathan Iafeliece permalink
    October 3, 2009

    Finally ! Thank you, Greg.

  42. October 3, 2009


    You’re welcome. Sorry it took so long:-))

    – Greg

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