Meatball Mondae (#2)

Talking ’bout a revolution…

Everyone studies the industrial revolution in school but most of us don’t really understand it. The basic idea, it seems, is that Henry Ford, Eli Whitney and some guy with rifles invented the assembly line and the whole world changed in about a week.

Actually, we’ve had several industrial revolutions over the last 250 years. While the assembly line, the invention of the corporation and improvements in transport appear to be the obvious causes, it’s easy to forget that in just a few generations we saw changes in every element of what it meant to be in business. Standardized quality control, innovative product design for utilitarian products, employees (!), branding, investment, advertising, insurance, product development… the list is miles long.

Why care?

Because just sixty years ago, there was another revolution. This one was caused by the triumph of mass marketing. General Foods, General Motors and the rest of the consumer-focused Fortune 500 are organized around a single idea: that efficient factories making average stuff for average people could triumph.

GM had a great run. So did tons of other companies. They figured out how to make stuff in large quantities. Run big factories. Hire and manage large numbers of people. The age of advertising ushered in a revolution that had more impact on organizations (and the planet) than any that came before it.

The Meatball Sundae is an idea that’s possibly even bigger than that one. When mass marketing dies, the future of the companies that embrace this approach dies too. We’re living through a wholesale change, but all most of us can do is worry about the color of the links on our blogs.

The Meatball Sundae has a subtle but subversive lesson: change the media, and the organizations change too. Kiva instead of the American Heart Association, Amazon instead of the local bookstore, MoveOn instead of the DNC.

We’re spending a ton of time arguing about tactics, social networks and adwords. Behind the scenes, an even bigger revolution is brewing. It’s the one where entire organizations change in response to the lever of the change in marketing. Henry Ford could have said, "we’re all manufacturers" and been right. Today, we can say, "we’re all marketers," and we will be just as right.

Every time the deck is reshuffled, the early players profit. You and I don’t have the chance to build a mass media company ever again. But every organization has the chance to reinvent and grow in the face of the huge opportunity today’s shift brings.

This sounds hard. It’s not. Once you understand the key forces at work (I figure there are about 14 of them) it’s actually easier to go with the flow than it is to fight it.

This is way too conceptual for a blog post or even a useful book, so I guess I’ll ask the question this way: If you were alive in 1947 and knew what you know now about the last sixty years of mass marketing, what would you have done? What would you have built? Was it just about making better TV commercials?

[This post continues from the first in the series. Each week, I’ll try to point to other blogs that riff on these thoughts. Last week’s: here and here and here.]