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How ISIS & Russia Invented Modern Marketing

Illustration by Travis Daub via PBS

Management legend Peter Drucker taught a generation of leaders that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” His insight was about internal, organizational culture: the power of culture from the inside-out. In today’s media landscape, though, the real potential energy in modern marketing is to embrace the culture of the public: harnessing culture from the outside-in. The Internet now gives brands the ingredients to serve tasty cultural breakfasts at all times of the day if brands are simply willing to prepare the menu.

Our cultural landscape has been deeply impacted by a crisis in public trust: 83% of people say they would trust messages from their peers over information from a brand or institution. In turn, our culture is becoming more people-powered every day - social media platforms run on user-generated content are rapidly becoming the go-to source for information and entertainment alike, especially for the youth who are driving culture - 42% of Americans between 18 and 29 rely on social media when getting their news online. Companies like Audi and Genexa are already tapping into the power of this outside-in approach by embracing the nascent Fast Advertising movement. Fast Advertising captures cultural moments emerging online and rapidly spins them up into creative campaigns. This Fast Advertising content is 1400% more likely to be viewed and clicked and 300% more likely to be remembered compared to traditional campaigns measured through randomized control tests. The reason is clear: by joining the cultural discourse in the moment, brands effectively build loyalty and relevance, forming an emotional bond with the public that runs deeper than possible with mere advertising. Win enough moments and brands, and your product is not just a product anymore, it is a cultural touchstone.

Fast Advertising requires some basic adjustments to the marketing enterprise. Instead of taking months to research, design, and deploy campaigns, campaigns are birthed in hours and days in response to real people sharing real stories online. As a result, organizations not only compress timelines, but eliminate lines between marketing stakeholders. The Internet is encouraging every marketing discipline to behave more nimbly. And, since all culture is now Internet culture, these changes wash over everything.

While the concept of Fast Advertising is attractive to brands, especially CMOs who understand how cultural movements poise endless brand opportunities, there is a perception that the approach is unproven. The opposite is true. Fast Advertising has been tested over the previous eight years in the crucible of our nation’s most difficult front-line challenges such as defeating Donald Trump, convincing Americans to take the vaccine, and mitigating rise in extremism.

In 2013 my company Main Street One began an early iteration of Fast Advertising to stem ISIS’ recruitment online. Essentially, ISIS used social listening to continuously AB test messages through a multitude of trusted messengers emanating from a group of 40 creators. When they captured lightning, they created videos and posts that were amplified across the globe. ISIS can be said to have innovated Fast Advertising first, forcing antiterrorism organizations to adapt and respond. The ISIS playbook was so effective it was then scaled by Russia, and Main Street One worked to narratively protect western elections from digital interference. However disagreeable, like those of us fighting terror and disinformation, brands must learn from the tactics that Russia and ISIS capitalized on: building rapid response machines to exploit cultural opportunities.

At Main Street One, we built just such an apparatus to compete for brands and causes through Fast Advertising. With the support of Big Tech, as well as government funding, we helped to construct machine intelligence that identifies cultural opportunities and threats emerging early online. Not merely popular content - persuasive content. This war room then generated rapid response campaigns, which captured the language and emotion of the conversation to inform ongoing creative briefs. These briefs were translated into peer-to-peer content from individuals, who shared geographies, ethnicities, affinities, and identities with our targets. Trusted messages shared by trusted messengers.

Main Street One is deploying the same approach in promoting the COVID-19 vaccine in states such as Oregon, Maine, California, and New York, and nationally in partnership with social good organizations such as the Ad Council. Fast is key: online discourse changes so rapidly today that brands must fight for relevance daily.

Of course, the most recent examples of Fast Advertising arise from US politics. In the closing days of the special Senate run-off in Georgia that changed the entire political landscape in January 2021, Senator Raphael Warnock embraced Fast Advertising. Having AB tested organic memes, posts, and videos online, his campaign shot a series of TV and digital ads showing the candidate next to a puppy named Alvin (not his dog, by the way).

Instead of the standard campaign content created in a studio, beloved by the consultant class, based on traditional market research, Senator Warnock co-opted a moment of Internet culture that rippled through the state. On behalf of groups such as Stacey Abrams’ Faith Fight Action we deployed men and women to amplify these narratives - an authentic chorus of voices all telling stories in harmony that created a surround-sound effect, microtargeted to crucial voters for maximum impact. Of course, Warnock is not alone in embracing this tactic - great media minds such as David Eichenbaum have used Fast Advertising to help Democrats like Andy Beshear defy political odds and win in deep-red Kentucky.


Peter Drucker was right: culture does indeed eat strategy for breakfast, but now the cultural threat is coming from outside the house, as the internet can upend a campaign in minutes that took months to plan. The examples on the front lines of both antiterrorism and political organizing offer a clear template for companies wishing to navigate an online conversation that moves at warp speed, and now every brand faces a choice: harness public culture online, or run the risk of culture harnessing you.


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