Our new GreenBook Directory site is live!
Your #1 strategic guide to consumer insights.
Qualtrics X4 The Experience Mgmt Summit
Brand & Retailer tickets for all IIeX events now start at just $99! Get or give one today!

re:Think Sneak Peek: An Interview With J. Walker Smith

Today, we have an interview with the first Keynoter of the conference: J. Walker Smith, Executive Chairman at The Futures Company. I have followed Walker and The Futures Company for many years and was thrilled to finally have a chance to engage with him directly.



The annual ARF re:Think conference is just a little over a week away, and as usual it is a must attend event for anyone involved in marketing insights. Not only is it arguably the largest event of the year, but it also draws the leaders, change agents, and visionaries in our industry.

We’re going to be doing something different this year: GreenBook is the Premiere Media Partner for re:Think and we’ll be sending a team of “Blogging All Stars” to give end-to-end coverage of the event. I’ll be joined by Bob Lederer, Tom Ewing, Jason Anderson, Robert Moran, Jonathan Ewert and Richard Evensen to lend our unique and varied perspectives to cover all aspects of the conference and share our thoughts with you. re:Think is so big and there is so much on the agenda that I think we’ll have plenty of interesting content to share with you all.

To kick that off today we have an interview with the first Keynoter of the conference: J. Walker Smith, Executive Chairman at The Futures Company. I have followed Walker and The Futures Company for many years and was thrilled to finally have a chance to engage with him directly. His  talk sounds like a fascinating kick-off to the conference:

From the Global Enraged to the Kinship Economy
The surest sign of great change ahead is the seething temper of the Global Enraged, which is spurring consumers everywhere to remake business and politics. The shared aspiration of looking up has given way to a bifurcated world chastened by so many who are now looking down. As a consequence, marketing has been leapfrogged by an emerging Kinship Economy of social currency in which brands create value not by bringing products to market but by bringing people together with one another. Learn about the social currency of brand value in a looking up/looking down world.

We dig a bit deeper into that topic in this interview, so consider this an exclusive “sneak peek”.

Enjoy the interview with Walker and look forward to lots of great content over the next few weeks related to re:Think.


LFM: Thanks for taking the time to chat Walker. You are delivering the opening Keynote at ARF re:Think 2013 on “From the Global Enraged to the Kinship Economy”; can you tell us a bit more about your theme and how social currency is changing the rules of brand engagement?

WS:  The economic and political upheavals of the past six years have opened a breach between people and institutions – consumers and brands, in particular.  Feelings of betrayal and frustration have caused people to rethink what they want and where they look for guidance.  Consumers no longer aspire to relationships with brands; instead, they crave relationships with other people.  This puts social currency at the heart of every exchange in the marketplace, which means a business model built on personal relationships not brand interactions.  Add in the arc of technology, and the future is one best understood in terms of kinship, a metaphor of interpersonal ties.

LFM: This seems to fly in the face of the “single source” 1-to-1 relationship of marketing being espoused by many and enabled by many emerging companies in the marketing intelligence space. How can we merge the ides of individual relationships between consumers and brands with the influence networks you are describing. Aren’t they complementary rather than mutually exclusive?

WS: Certainly, I am not suggesting that the relationships brands have with consumers are unimportant.  Brands must keep building those.  But that said, brands face a tough reality these days.  Consumers are more demanding, less forgiving and less engaged.  Traditional CRM cannot fully maximize value in this environment.  I liken 1-to-1 to a 20-year car – it will still get you around town but it doesn’t offer the kind of value consumers want today.  Ultimately, it’s about where value is located in the marketplace, and the most valuable currency today is the social currency of kinship.

LFM: Obviously social networks and influence metrics like Klout play a part in this model; are there other players and technologies involved in supporting the development of the social currency economy?

WS: Our metrics fall short, unfortunately.  We are still measuring the ability of social media to strengthen traditional brand relationships not the ability of brands to enhance the relationships people have with one another.  Marketers misunderstand social media.  Old media came of age as content delivery systems sponsored by advertisers.  Social media have come of age as interpersonal relationship platforms powered by people sharing with other people.  You can’t mix these models.  They can operate side by side, and, indeed, they do.  But one cannot be used to formulate strategy for the other.

LFM: What are the implications for the insights functions (both client and supplier-sides) as part of this shift?

WS:  The key idea is to study networks not individuals, to target conversations not consumers.  The traditional study of marketing effects and consumer preferences treats individual consumers as the unit of analysis.  This abstraction of people from the interpersonal networks they inhabit and look to for guidance no longer makes sense in the context of kinship and social currency as the medium of exchange going forward.  

LFM: Looking ahead three years, how do you think the marketing insights landscape will have changed as a  result of this shift, especially in the nature of suppliers who are working to help clients answer critical business issues?

WS:  Yes, I think insights will have to embrace a new concept of choice, with implications for models of decision-making, media usage and brand consideration.  The importance of social context is newly evident and increasingly understood, reflecting the rise of a kinship economy in which context and social currency matter most.

LFM: If much of the data that supports this model of insights is coming from  the social enabling technologies themselves, what role does the insight supplier fill?

WS: The broader issue of insights in an age of Big Data is a topic unto itself.  But for kinship, what’s needed is a deeper understanding of how to mint and manage social currency.  That’s plenty for insights to do for now! 

LFM: Since you are keynoting at the ARF to an audience that is arguably largely focused on traditional media and insight models what is the one key takeaway that you hope folks get from your talk?

WS: Well, in truth, I’ll be addressing an audience focused on the traditional and enduring job of marketing, which is the business purpose once articulated by the late Harvard marketing guru Ted Levitt as identifying the problems people have and then solving them.  This has always inspired me.  It reminds us that commercial enterprise also fulfills a higher purpose.  So I hope people take away the idea that today’s problems are different, so let’s bring new solutions to people’s lives.  I think that requires a fresh understanding that bridges us over from the Global Enraged to the Kinship Economy.

LFM: OK, last question and we’ll make this a fun one since I suspect you’ll be getting lots of invites to socialize while at re:Think: what’s your favorite drink, meal, and dessert?

WS: Anything on the Mediterranean Diet works for me … especially red wine!   ;-D

LFM: Alright then, I’ll keep that in mind when I see you in NYC! Thanks for the time Walker, this has been great.

WS: Thank you Lenny; see you soon at re:Think.

Please share...

2 responses to “re:Think Sneak Peek: An Interview With J. Walker Smith

  1. As much as I’ve always liked Walker and his work, I think we’re getting smoke blown up our collective (well, you know where). I’m hoping there’s some substance to this, because the claims he makes, in the absence of any data, are pretty ridiculous. Just take the first statement he makes (from the usual Lenny Murphy softball, which now will come back to bite me one day):

    Have consumers ever aspired to relationships with brands? Do we feel betrayed and frustrated by the manufacturer of our toilet bowl cleaners? What social currency am I using when I buy toilet paper (there’s a theme here), because Publix wanted cash for my Charmin this morning. Do we crave interpersonal relationships more now than before?

    These are empirical questions (ok, except for the tp) that are based on Walker’s unintuitive statements. I’m hoping he doesn’t want us to take him at his word that we’re pissed off at P&G and we’re not going to take it any more and they can take their 1-1 relationship with all human beings and put it where the Charmin goes. I’m hoping there’s data behind all these claims that form the conceptual basis for his argument.

  2. “We are still measuring the ability of social media to strengthen traditional brand relationships not the ability of brands to enhance the relationships people have with one another”. This is the crux of the discussion and not really a new argument. It has been well researched and proven that many brand choices have always been about people following others and not some complex and well processed solus decision making. So in some ways nothing really new here, just that there are new information flows from social media that are enhancing the socialized decision making process even more than in the past. What is new is that given this recognition just what role does market research play and what metrics are going to be critical? Basically this is saying that one on one data collection is going to be misleading and techniques of data analysis (I hate the term big data!) and real time observation are going to be more critical. Asking a question one on one is no longer the key to insights. Where does that leave quantitative research? In fact the so called “Globally Enraged” are even turning off their geo-locators and blocking unsolicited attempts at survey participation. Basically they are getting annoyed at the intrusions in their social media lives. Whither the promises of a brave new world from quant based SoLoMo?

Leave a Reply to Chris Robinson Cancel reply