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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.

poken

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.

Ovei

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.

Read more of Graham Button's Like It or Not blog
Browse blogs by other Expert Designers

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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