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Marketing, Millennials, and Disruptive Consumers: A Conversation with Viacom's Ross Martin

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As Executive Vice President of Viacom Media Networks and leader of Scratch, a "creative SWAT team," Ross Martin operates at the nuanced nexus of marketing, branding, advertising and youth culture.

The New York Times describes Martin as the "kind of figure who wouldn't attract a second glance on the streets of Brooklyn," thereby yoking hipster swagger to the disruptive side of Madison Avenue. Martin's Scratch advocates brand expression through the leveraging of a generational ethic MTV and Viacom have both shaped -- and been shaped by.

The series of cultural signifiers co-evolved by audience and corporation have come to full purchasing age in the current moment. Martin, until recently a world champion for most ear wiggles in 30 seconds, will visit Lake Forest College in a few weeks; his ear wiggling defeat, and his impending visit, give me the opportunity think about the mesmerism of that skill -- but also about the intersections between commerce, art, and marketing to the Millennial generation.

Davis: Scratch seems part advertising firm, part "disruptive" consultant group? It is both, right? Why is it a "SWAT team"?

Ross: Scratch is a handpicked group that we launched inside MTV in 2010 and now functions across the entire Viacom media portfolio....Our work is informed and inspired by the disruptions Viacom's audiences are causing in certain industries, and the opportunities those create for our brand partners to adapt, transform and win.

Davis: The New York Times piece about Scratch and GM suggested that some of your team's proposed innovations would be too much for the GM culture, despite its vaunted openness. How often is this the scenario: a "stodgy" brand looks to modernize for Millennials = let's not go too crazy with change? Can you appreciate the innate conservatism that powers big business?

Ross: [In] each of the last three years, GM has more patents than both Apple and Nike... General Motors is a powerful example of a massive organization that's filled with breathtaking innovation even unto its innermost parts. They're also a great example of a partner that's channeling the capabilities of Viacom in exciting ways.

I'm not sure I'd agree with your assumption that "innate conservatism powers big business." Rather, I'd argue that the speed of 21st century culture and commerce teaches us that change is the only constant, no matter how big your business. Our partners understand change and the rapid evolution of their consumers' demands and expectations. Companies have to keep up and innovate to remain relevant.

Davis: I agree that change is the constant, and perhaps "innate conservatism" is too strong a term. Yet, Scratch must run against institutional ways of operating that brush against Scratch recommendations, yes? Or, is there a vetting of partners by Scratch before the first date: we work with those companies that by their prior deeds fit within the innovation model we can offer?

Ross: Viacom is careful and deliberate in how we use Scratch....Scratch is most effective when it works with clients who are embracing change, at whatever scale, who see the opportunities for growth and the challenges that stand in their way. We jump in when our partners are ready to try and win.

Davis: We are about the same age, and we both focus on Millennials. I teach them, you service them through brand expression. That's not meant to sound judgmental, but what do you think motivates that generation that makes them, well, a particular "generation"? Please over-generalize.

Ross: Scratch doesn't focus on Millennials exclusively, but we they are a very important part of our business because of their massive impact. Globally, Millennials represent almost one third of humanity. They are the largest generational cohort in American history. They're the most collaborative, technologically sophisticated, and entrepreneurial generation we have ever known. They're transforming everything in their path -- from industries to institutions to entire governments.

We raised this generation to believe its potential is unlimited, that they're special, unique, poised to remake the world in their image. And yet, it's a generation facing the greatest debt and underemployment of all time, a generation that hasn't reached its potential yet, that hasn't achieved what they've set out to do as fast as they thought they would. They don't blame their parents, their bosses or anyone else for that -- in fact, four out of five blame themselves. What motivates this generation is they're not fighting the power, as Stephen Friedman, MTV's President says: "The are the power."

Davis: Is there something different about Millennials in relation to their parents, as opposed to, say, members of the 1960s youth culture generation and their parents? What happens when Millennials start running the show? Gradual selling-out and increased conservatism?

Ross: The job of growing up hasn't changed, but the forces acting upon young people today are radically different than they were for Generation X and the Boomers. Millennials have redefined their relationship to their parents and their children. MTV and Nickelodeon have each done great work in this area to advance our understanding of changes in family dynamics....MTV's research [in the 2010 MTV Millennial Edge Study] teaches us that parenting styles have changed: "Peerents" are placing kids at the center and revolving around them. 58 percent of Millennials say: "My parents are like a best friend to me." And three quarters of Millennials believe their parents are more interested in supporting than punishing them. Authoritarians have been replaced by parents who now act more like coaches and friends.

Davis: Ok, so when someone expresses through a brand, can this ever be about something beyond commerce? Is self-expression through products ever actually self-expression? Would such expression even be desirable?

Ross: As consumers, we express ourselves in so many ways -- from what we purchase to how we use it, what we own versus what we share, where and when and how we purchase, what we keep to ourselves versus the brands for whom we evangelize -- even where we choose to work. It is never just about commerce, and 21st century consumers know that. We also know more about the companies we buy from than ever before -- and for Millennials, transparency is expected, it's required, you don't get bonus points for that.

Davis: This idea of expression would be Don Draper's perspective too, and more than a century of pervasive advertisement culture has been exceptionally effective in connecting various idealized qualities to the physical object. We do know, as you say, that products express more than their mere "objectness," but my question is this: can products mean something, about us, or is that just clever marketing? Related to this is "transparency". Consumers seem to have high tolerances for a lack of transparency: consider NSA information requests, or Facebook's regular privacy policy missteps. Is it possible we've surrendered older notions of transparency and identity independence because of the pervasiveness of certain brand cultures?

Ross: We're talking about at least two separate things here. First, I agree with you, products certainly create expressions beyond commerce, and we have so many examples we could highlight -- from Warby Parker to Kickstarter. That rhymed. Examples of products and brands that by their very nature -- and in nearly every aspect of their being -- become a cause, a movement, a catalyst for cultural evolution. Did any of us think a bar of soap would propel existential questions about beauty and self-image and at such scale? Well, someone must have.

You're also asking about privacy, which brings up a separate set of issues entirely, including how we collect and use many types of data. I'm learning a lot from the work of Doc Searles at Harvard's Berkman Center. Doc's work explores the nature of our relationships with the businesses and governments seeking information about us. I'm fascinated by the idea of "personal cloud," in which we each control information about ourselves and decide how to manage, share and distribute that information. We've only just begun to think about redefining the civil rights of privacy and transparency in a data-rich, connected world. The lines are not yet drawn, which is why much of the recent commentary is so vitriolic.

Davis: If you could take Scratch into any industry or company heretofore untouched by the SWAT team, where would you go?

Ross: We've just completed a study on what we call the "Millennial Disruption Index," which we'll be sharing more about later this year. It's a means of measuring brand love across industries, a way to understand which industries are facing the greatest disruption and transformation at the hands of Millennials. At Scratch, we're already hard at work in the auto and beverage industries. Financial Services is next...

Davis: Your bio indicates past experience teaching poetry, and a 2001 book from Zoo Press. Are you secretly a creative writer, still, and how does that world -- traditionally adversarial to marketing -- fit in with what you do now?

Ross: Whoa! I don't think the literary and marketing worlds are adversarial. You do? James Dickey was a hugely successful marketing executive, and he's one of many great writers who've worked at creative agencies. Where do you think the best advertising campaigns come from? Poets! To paraphrase Wallace Stevens, who was himself a corporate executive, business "is a kind of poetry."

As for my own writing, I think T.S. Eliot was right to suggest we all have a separate career outside of our poetry -- that way, he argued, we wouldn't have time to write unnecessary poems... I think about form, cadence, how to bring ideas to life in new ways that are much different than my colleagues who've been in television and film their entire careers.

Davis: It's not that I think marketing and literature are actually at odds, really, but that the stated goals of literature are often at odds with the stated goals of marketing. The first is Holden Caulfield; the second is Betty Crocker. Eliot did pen some unnecessary poems, of course, but your point is well taken. Insularity as hedge for creativity is perhaps a remnant of the Romantic era, where reclusive writers might wilt in the face of Twitter. Is the creative work of a writer and the creative work of a marketer the same for you, or should it be?

Ross: The creative work of the writer and the marketer are very much the same for me, yes. We're all struggling to create an experience you can feel. An experience so striking -- in whatever form -- you need to share it, you can't keep it to yourself. The marketer must ask the same question T.S. Eliot asked: "Do I dare disturb the universe?" That's our only hope...if we seek to do something meaningful while we're here.


Ross Martin will deliver the annual Lake Forest College Oppenheimer Family foundation lecture, "Blame the Millennials: How a New Species is Changing Everything for Good," on October 2.