How to Design the Internet Experience Without Becoming the Advertisers' Bitch

Rembrandt painted The Night Watch between 1640 and 1642. It was commissioned by 16 members of a civic militia guard company who paid 100 guilders each.

But while the Rembrandt is famous, the same guard company commissioned seven other artists to paint their portraits around the same period. This made the artist nothing more than a commodity.

And it makes Rembrandt's work one of the most famous early examples of sponsored content.

night watch

This was on my mind last week as I attended a conference on media convergence organized by The Economist. Executives, marketers, and designers discussed subjects including social media, 2.0, and well, the sponsorship of content. Here are some highlights.

Craig Newmark, chairman of Craigslist, said, "Trust is the new black." Not surprisingly, personalization is his take on 2.0. He also said Leonard Cohen is his rabbi.

Bonita Coleman Stewart of Google sort of said the same thing—everything's going local. For marketers it's about quantitative measurement, assured return on investment. "Marketing," she said, "is the new finance."

Sony Pictures boss Michael Lynton, a man much at ease with himself, pointed out that the movie business used encryption early to minimize piracy. Sony Music Entertainment's Thomas Hesse, on the other hand, a man haunted by piracy, had the air of someone pushing water uphill with a fork. He seemed a lot more skeptical about peer-to-peer communication.

What does this have to do with Rembrandt?

Well, at question time I asked Twitter chairman Jack Dorsey this question: "How are you planning to monetize Twitter? How will you avoid the Media 1.0 model of content sponsored by companies?" Or words to that effect.

Twitter needs income, it has no revenue—just like Amazon and Google before it. But if you're going to be 2.0, then you can't be the advertisers' bitch. Everyone's so very tired of the uninvited guest, the corporation.

His answer was pretty practiced. Simply put (although he's measured and articulate), Twitter is waiting it out—like Google did before settling on Adwords. Watching the marketers, watching the technologies develop.

Not the raging passion against 1.0 that I was hoping for, but room for hope. Ironically while we sat there in New York, Google was announcing Social Search, a new product, in San Francisco. Twitter competitor? Hybrid? Got any Advil?

Speaking of hybrid, at the same conference, 10 newish products were showcased. For me two broke the surface, both a well-designed balance of real world and virtual world.


First Poken, an anime-style token you can hold between two fingers. Touch yours to someone else's, and you exchange digital DNA—whatever you've uploaded. It's eye contact and remote networking in one.


The other is the Ovei, a "digital media experience capsule" by British designer Lee McCormack. It's everything from a Formula 1 racecar simulator to a zen getaway for you or me.

Nearly all the design ideas were life-enhancing and worthy. But they, like Rembrandt waiting for his next commission, like Twitter, face the same dilemma: how to "monetize" with integrity.

The age-old creative problem.

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Graham Button is a writer from London who worked in advertising for more than twenty years. He took the scenic route to Genesis, passing through agencies in Hong Kong, Toronto, and finally New York, where he was a creative director and executive vice president at Grey Worldwide. He has created advertising in most media for every kind of brand and all sorts of companies, including Diageo, Kaiser Permanente, Molson Breweries, GM, and South China Morning Post Newspapers. Beaver Creek, one of the Vail Resorts brands, chose to follow him to Genesis from Grey. Work he originated as a copywriter or championed as a creative director has been recognized in awards shows in Los Angeles, Toronto, New York, London, Cannes, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Sydney and has been featured on America's Funniest Videos and Larry King Live.

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  • David Berg

    "Twitter needs income, it has no revenue--just like Amazon and Google before it."

    This comparison is completely bogus. Amazon's business model has always included income - from day one they were SELLING books (not giving them away for free). Google's business model and search rsesults have pretty much always included ads and paid search results.

    Twitter by contrast was limited from day one by their medium - small text messages on cell phones simply doesn't leave much if any space for ads, and the value of a single message is too small to extract any payment.

    Fortunately for Twitter they do have two opportunities for revenue. First is that there is substantial value in data compiled from very large numbers of messages. Companies are very interested in good information on what people think about them and their products. Twitter can extract that information from their streams, furnish it in real time, and help companies respond in real time. Companies are very willing to pay for that.

    Second is that the medium is changing. People now twitter on smart phones and even PCs. These have plenty of room for non-intrusive ads, without negatively impacting the core customer experience.

  • Greg Steggerda

    News flash: Free isn't. Someone pays, either with money, attention, retweets, products. How they pay will always influence what you get, and if it's not money then the user has a much harder time knowing where the hook is. Revenue isn't evil, it enables more development. Hating on the corporate sponsors is like a teenager hating mom because she still provides the gas money. You don't want the ad, chip in some money yourself.

  • Yannig Roth

    Here's an interesting graph about... about... about what? About MySpace, facebook and twitter, for sure. And about their "revenue sources". Anyway, just take a look, I found it very interesting, and this post immediately made me think about it :

  • Blain Rempel

    "Twitter needs income, it has no revenue--just like Amazon and Google before it. But if you're going to be 2.0, then you can't be the advertisers' bitch. Everyone's so very tired of the uninvited guest, the corporation."

    See, here's the problem; a company without revenue is either dead or it's a hobby. Yet "nobody" wants the "corporation" involved but there aren't a lot of Twitter users scrambling to pay for services. So where does the revenue come from, because it needs to come from somewhere... ideals are great, until they conflict with reality...