I once saw a guy present at a conference who worked for Sony Music. He was Canadian, had cool hair, he swore, wore his shirt buttoned right to the top, and generally looked like the kind of guy who, when his Sony-backed band hadn’t made it, had simply crossed the floor and effortlessly become the sort of exec you’d hope actually worked at record companies.

He talked a lot a sense about the plight of the music industry. He also happened to be the Vice President of Marketing Services. Not sure why those two facts in such close proximity still sound surprising, but they do…

His name was Fred Bolza. And, while he was in a band in his youth, he actually arrived at Sony via a career at CapGemini, the business consulting group. I’ve come across documents from CapGemini before, during my work on various governemt accounts. And I can vouch that this line of work is a long way indeed from swearing and doing your top buttons up.

It appeared that after having come in to Sony to help sort out an ailing company in a day-after-tomorrow industry, he’d had such a great impact on the way they worked that he’d stayed. And here he was, playing the role of the ‘internal creative agency’. They did their own work, but carved out a niche for themselves as somehow in, but not of, the client.

The agency’s work stood out from what had been done previously, for both its innovation and its effectiveness.

So, to recap: cool guy, loves music, objective point of view about the industry, talked sense, and headed up marketing; given license to try out new stuff.

[I know what you’re thinking. I haven’t made him up, I promise. Google him.]

Fred had four golden rules, and I think they read like a manifesto of common sense for anyone who works in marketing and communications.

Rule #1 – Make things people like

Pretty revolutionary, this. Seriously. Brands just don’t do this very often. They tell themselves that’s what they’re doing, but they’re not really.

And Fred wasn’t talking about product, necessarily. More the layer of communications that exists between the product and its user. Most organisations still default to advertising to create this layer, and it frequently falls short, I think, of Fred’s first golden rule.

But actually using consumer interest as your startpoint, and not merely as the purpose of persuasion, is more interesting. It takes a certain kind of organisation to take this step, which in fairness is quite a leap of faith. Making content that adds value to the consumer experience also by extension adds value to the brand. But this feels too indirect for many organisations to understand, let alone measure.

But is advertising really any more attributable?

It turned out Fred’s team had made this

And this

So he does know what he’s talking about. And technology means this is increasingly possible on a bigger scale.

Which leads me to….

Rule #2 – Earn media, don’t pay for it

A lot of people will be forced to try this one over the next year or so.

There’s a maxim that says if you have to advertise you’ve failed. I’ve talked to clients before about having to ‘resort’ to advertising – to get across the idea that we really should be trying harder. And in this day and age, there really is no excuse.

Effective use of Digital media is, quite simply, a matter of harnessing Earned potential. The internet’s connectivity and the capacity of technology to make everything – anything – shareable, really ought to kill once and for all the notion of display media.

But the other angle here, specifically for music, was around partnerships. And whether you’re O2 and teaching organisations, or Microsoft and Nokia, then this is increasingly going to form part of what brands do.

Rule #3 – Ask for forgiveness, not permission

I can wholeheartedly agree with this. Too often I’ve seen organisations, whether intentionally or not, erode the autonomy of talented individuals, to the extent that only the solicited approval of a handful of individuals has the power to make things to happen. People with insight and expertise regarding what their customers might want, and the best ways to give it to them, seem to lose their sense of of entitlement to act on their instinct. Until the instinct becomes to defer to someone else’s decision.

On the other, it remains all too easy for indivduals to resist change. People at least feel empowered to assert their support for ‘the way we’ve always done it’, as if that trumps all argument. Resistance isn’t so much futile as it is debilitating.

I can’t believe that these two systemic impulses aren’t linked somehow.

Rule #4 – Your true audience is outside your own industry

I really liked this. Even in marketing, where we’re supposed to be obsessed about people, we still get trapped paying way too much attention to the industry echo chamber.

The critical point from Fred was his ambition to collapse the distance between insight and execution. That idea has stayed with me more than anything else I heard at that conference, and the ramifications the principle could have are massive. Followed properly, it helps you defy category convention to follow your own path. And Sony’s commitment to it, no doubt fuelled by having no other options left, is admirable nevertheless.

The insight they finally reached about their audience, was that all value had been eroded from the product they sold. It’s ubiquity and accessibility rendered their business model worthless, but people still hankered after interesting things that could be built around their artists (hence the Kasabian and Editors examples shown above). As a record company, they’ve realised the nature of  their relationship with their artists had to change, if they were to be able to provide that extra experiential layer that would make people more likely to buy the artists’ music.

They actually started drawing up new contracts with artists, so that each party would be free to get more involved in some of these initiatives.  Of course the groups would agree, as it’s in their own interests. But still, it’s very hard to find whole organisations that allow marketing insight to resonate that deeply, and with such effect, into the heart of their business.

There’s very little to disagree with here, I think. The fact that Fred engineered (or was allowed to engineer) the opportunity to do all this makes it more than just theory. The real challenge is for other industries or organisations to imagine themselves staring down the barrel of a gun, the way that Sony and the music industry were/are. This is perhaps difficult when the consumer revolution isn’t quite so obvious or tangible as it was with filesharing.

Easier said than done, I know. But we do a lot of saying, and not enough doing.