Thomas Friedman plugs “Great Inflection,” but it’s more Internet fantasyland

Thomas Friedman

Thomas Friedman

Yesterday morning, I read the Sunday paper to take a break from work on a three and one-half month video project. I was beginning to relax when I found an article, The Do it Yourself Economy, by Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist and Oracle General of the United States. In it, Friedman explains how how his childhood friend’s marketing business has been able to become “radically more productive” during the “Great Recession” despite severe downsizing by using “low-cost, high powered innovation technologies . . . plus cheap connectivity” to deliver superior results.

Friedman’s nationwide audience was treated to a too-good-to-be-true story (the usual stuff of B2B blog posts, e-zine articles and white papers) claiming that free Internet tools can enhance any company’s marketing the same way the $9.99 massage belt can eliminate a middle-age paunch without diet or exercise. The accuracy of the analogy sums up the value of Friedman’s theory.

Friedman calls this do-it-yourself economy the “Great Inflection.” I have no idea what that means, but I have been in marketing since before Gore invented the Internet and currently use all tools he describes as marvelous. They do not change the apples-to-apples skill requirements and costs of producing excellent sales and marketing. His claim that the “client got a better product for less money” because of free Internet tools is ridiculous.

If Friedman’s goal was to tell his general readership how technology has changed the way marketing is done, he only touched the surface. Besides, the general public doesn’t care about that. If his goal was to plug his “childhood friend Ken Greer’s” “radically downsized” marketing agency, he did a great job of that. But, the cheaper-yet-better theory has no legs and he’s been hoodwinked if Greer convinced him that free Internet tools are enabling struggling agencies and businesses to create cutting-edge marketing.

Greer claims, and Friedman echoes, that for a budget “about 20% of what we would normally charge,” a client received a better promotional video because:

  • The script was developed and approved using a box.net collaborative tool. Well, if an online tool enabled Greer and his clients to create a superior script by committee, his copywriter should have been downsized long before the “Great Recession.”  Come on Tom. You are a writer.
  • They had no budget for a live video shoot or stock photography, so they pulled all of the images from istockphoto.com. I have done that often and it is a viable option, but don’t believe for a minute that royalty-free images deliver “better quality.” Greer also tells Friedman that these cheap tools allowed him to focus on “his value add: imagination.”  While I support the notion that hunger can benefit creativity, spending many tedious hours groping through istockphoto and similar sites for cheap pictures does not feed the imagination.
  • I agree completely with Greer on the benefits of online voice over services. No one should ever have to waste time in a recording studio. Greer used voices.com, where interested talent bid for the job. I like VoiceTalentNow.com, which has flat rate fees. But, voice over costs are never a huge percentage of production budgets.

My purpose is not to bash Friedman, even though I’ll always wonder how deeply he examines his other sources.  My concern is the Internet economy’s “Great Lie” claiming technology allows people lacking skill and talent to be competitive in business. The ways that professionals do things have been changing, and that has included certain efficiencies, but the rules of life have not. You get what you pay for.

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  • http://blogclump.blogspot.com Matt Baehr @CardCat

    I just saw this over on Seth Godin’s blog. I think it is in a similar vein to this discussion.

  • http://blogclump.blogspot.com Matt Baehr @CardCat

    John –

    Thanks for pointing me to your commentary. I think the crux of your argument is really here:

    My concern is the Internet economy’s “Great Lie” claiming technology allows people lacking skill and talent to be competitive in business. The ways that professionals do things have been changing, and that has included certain efficiencies, but the rules of life have not. You get what you pay for.

    I agree with most of that. The truly skilled have gotten better because of the new technologies. And there are those that have no skill that now churn out trash because they have the ability to with new toys at their fingertips.

    But at the same time, this opens up new opportunities. Those with skills can train the non-skilled in these new technologies. And many times when the unskilled person tries out the new toy, they realize they need the professional to help them take it to the next level.

    The main question that every person needs to ask is, how good is good enough? Every person/company has to decide that for themselves. For some, the cheap web technologies will allow them to create something they never would have had. For others, they realize their limitations and look for a pro. My guess is that the video production industry is doing better as a whole now, simply because a greater population has had the ability to tinker using the new tools out there.

    And the last thing to remember is that all professionals had to start as novices at some point. These tools just allow for a wider audience of novices to play and hone their skills if they decide they want to become pros.

    • http://www.media-proinc.com John Ribbler

      Matt,

      Thanks for adding to the discussion. I do not question the value of new technology for enabling people to acquire and master the types of skills that traditionally would have required costly formal education.

      The biggest danger in the empty evangelizing by Friedman and others is convincing clients of marketing professionals that they can get better quality work today for $20 than what they purchased for $100 five years ago.

      John R.

      • Ariel

        Let me first say, i’m not necessarily fan of Friedman, but I definitely enjoyed the article. Regarding your response, a couple of things. First,

        I’d respectfully ask that you support that claim having been made by someone of note regarding the “Internet economy.”

        I think people expect better value for their $100 today because real costs have decreased. Innovation in technology (production) and the Internet (distribution) have commoditized certain aspects of sales and marketing.

        As an example, you are able to get your ideas out to anyone in the country/world via what I suspect to be a WordPress blog ($0). You’re hosting at Media Temple ($20/month). You reached out to me on Twitter ($0). If we needed to meet, we provably would not fly; we’d likely do video chats or use GoToMeeting ($49/month). For almost nothing, you are able to reach people all over the world with your message. 5/10 years ago this was not as easy or cost effective. Reaching a national or international audience was more expensive. Why should a customer not expect better value for their dollar in return?

        As for getting what you pay for, we should all be so lucky. There’s been plenty of times i’ve paid a hefty price only to be disappointed. I’d argue, paying a higher price is not necessarily an indicator of value. Technology and the Internet have enabled more people to participate and, hopefully, collaborate. To use another axiom, the cream always rises. I believe the Internet allows for more froth. I think froth is a good thing.

        Thank you for sharing.

      • http://blogclump.blogspot.com Matt Baehr @CardCat

        John –

        They can, but it just comes from India :)

        Matt

      • http://www.media-proinc.com John Ribbler

        Ariel,

        Thanks for joining the conversation.

        I don’t mind that you question my authority. After all, I’m just a guy with a blog (actually I pay less that $20 a month for my hosting), but it’s pretty certain that I have done more Internet marketing than Friedman, whose employer is nearly broke in large part due to related factors.

        I agree with most of the points you made, but you did not address the basic premise that proves Friedman’s ignorance and undermines the value of his friend’s case study. Friedman writes that “for about “20 percent of what we normally would charge” “the customer got a better product.” No, he did not place those two statements side by side, but that’s what he said and that’s what he meant the reader to conclude.

        Yes, many services that used to be provided by skilled workers are now commodities. I just significantly reduced the cost of a video project by collaborating on the editing long distance over the Internet.

        But whether you are a lawyer, a plumber or a marketing agency, 60% – 80% of the value you deliver and charge for should be your skill. If free Internet tools allow you to do better work at “20% of what we normally charge” no credible writer should use you as a case study to define a new reality. Unless, of course, your are his childhood friend and you can help him produce some flimsy theory.

  • Michael Gury

    I shall not bash Mr. Friedman either, other than to say that his thoughts and opinions have expressed more fashion than substance. In his book about the flat world, in spite of traipsing all over the place on the dime of what I guess must have been from the New York Times, one walks away with more of a sense of flat ginger ale. So what, we’ve got technology all over the place. Mr. Friedman, in spite of his Self, is no marketing expert, with one exception: for himself.

    There are plenty of collaborative things going on via technology from remote locations to render examples of remote voice-overs rather old hat.

    But John, I think you made a most important point: the proliferation of all this cheap and convenient technology has enabled totally incompetent marketers, art directors, etc., to suddenly crawl out, become empowered, and deliver complete noise. Yes, kids are now employed to do this stuff. I guarantee that any 20% of savings in marketing costs has been completely subsumed within the backwash of other cheap noise. But where is the measurement?

    Not to date myself too much but when “desktop publishing” emerged, anyone with a computer was an art director and began to produce the most ghastly materials, and then publish them. It didn’t help the brands, it confused customers, and it was a demolition derby. I see the same thing here. I hardly see Mr. Friedman’s revelation that one might save money using some gerbil marketing techniques during the “Great Recession” as anything profound. Trust me, Mr. Friedman’s publisher, personal promotion and PR people aren’t sitting around thinking about how they can do Tom on the cheap.