02/29/2008 11:44 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Release 0.9 : Report from TED: Sponsors vs. Advertisers, or "Pay Attention, Please!"

I leave it to others to report from TED: The people are wonderful, the talks are extraordinary, and the food and arrangements are generous. (And I don't think I've heard the words Web 2.0 once on the main stage...)

Here I'd like to focus instead on the business model of TED itself. I went to the sponsors' breakfast yesterday morning (mostly because it was the only one left; people faster on their feet could have heard about or a host of other more elevated topics). Certainly it wasn't the kind of soaring, insightful talk you hear on the main stage of TED itself, but it was intriguing as a model of precisely what I was talking about last week in "Don't cry for me, MicroHoogle." More on that in a moment.

The TED pitch - ably delivered by Tom Rielly - is that you (a giant oil or car company, a soft-drink maker) can best attract a modern following not by interrupting people with ads all the time, but by reaching opinion leaders and by participating in and sponsoring their activities. Talk to them in a place where you are trusted such as Monterey-taken-over-by-TED. Sponsor meaningful, thought-provoking activities; you don't need to show a commercial onstage (other than a brief mention by TED curator Chris Anderson). It's enough to be associated with compelling talks by big thinkers, to send your head of marketing to show up at a breakfast where their table mates may include the likes of Jeff Bezos, Carl Bernstein, Robin Williams. (Well, I'm not sure these people make it up for breakfast, but you get the idea!)

Sitting at the TED breakfast, much to my surprise, I thought how nice it would be to get WPP Group, by far the richest company over which I have any influence, to sponsor TED Global in India next year. How better to get out the word that WPP is uniquely (for a communications/marketing conglomerate) conscious of and active in the emerging markets that will lead the world in the coming century? How better to persuade the right people that we are clueful? How better to understand how to serve other people interested in those markets.

Attention please!

So, that's very well, but what does it have to do with selling soft drinks? Well, it comes back to that old notion of the unique selling proposition. You used to get a brand premium or visibility by advertising; the ads drew people's attention to the products (and at least indirectly proved that the company was legitimate enough to afford to advertise and that millions of other people were happily using the same product). You could talk about your secret ingredients or your features.

Now you need to talk about your manufacturing process and the people who work in your factories; you need to talk about your company's and your products' place in the world.

In today's world, it's much harder to get attention; people's messages are getting drowned out. You have to go to where they are receptive - at TED, or (imagine!) online within a social network. And then when you get there you should not interrupt their conversation; you should listen to them, treat them as unique individuals. People love being listened to! Just try it! (You may actually learn something about them and be able to offer them something that appeals to them as individuals.)

Oddly, the reception for my piece in the Wall Street Journal (a version of my HuffPo post) was an illustration of all this: Most of the people who wrote to me failed to listen to what I was saying . (And of course, I failed to get my message across! I'm trying again here.)

I got loads of messages from marketers, advertisers and would-be behavioral targeters, most of whom missed the point. They saw the words "behavioral targeting" up-top, along with the Journal title "The coming ad revolution," and stopped listening. They wrote to me about clever new technology designed to track people rather than listen to them. They talked about cluttering up social space with banner ads... I don't think they read to the end where I talked about listening to individuals rather than tracking people in order to put them into segment buckets.

In short, they totally missed the point - just like the clueless guy in the Microsoft breakup video reacts to his departing girlfriend with "I know what you want! You want coupons!"

More soon on how Coca-Cola and 23andMe used TED effectively