Gonzo Marketing

Winning Through Worst Practices


By Christopher Locke

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Ladies and gentlemen, please return your tray tables to the fully upright and locked position, suspend your disbelief and put on your tinfoil pyramid hats. We are now entering — [cue lights, cue music] the Brand Dimension! Gonzo Marketing is a knuckle-whitening ride to the place where social criticism, biting satire, and serious commerce meet — and where the outdated ideals of mass marketing and broadcast media are being left in the dust. As master of ceremonies at the wake for traditional one-size-fits-all marketing, Locke has assembled a unique guest list, from Geoffrey Chaucer to Hunter S. Thompson, to guide us through the revolution that is rocking business today, as people connect on the Web to form powerful micromarkets. These networked communities, based on candor, trust, passion, and a general disdain for anything that smacks of corporate smugness, reflect much deeper trends in our culture, which Locke illuminates with his characteristic wit. Just as gonzo journalism arose in response to “objective” news standards that claimed to foster fairness but in practice discouraged writers from speaking their minds in their own voices, so too does gonzo marketing call for a similar response to assumptions about consumer behavior that no longer relate to how people actually live their lives. Gonzo Marketing is not yet-another nostrum for hoodwinking the unwary. It’s about market advocacy. It describes how “the artist formerly known as advertising” must do a 180. It’s about transforming the marketing message from “we want your money” to “we share your interests.” It’s about tapping into, listening to, and even forming alliances with emerging on-line markets, who probably know more about your company than you do. It’s a hip-hop cover of boring old best practices played backwards. The paradox is that companies that support and promote these communities can have everything they’ve always wanted: greater market share, customer loyalty, brand equity. Irreverent, penetrating, profoundly simple, and on-the-money, Gonzo Marketing is the raucous wake-up that no one interested in any aspect of twenty-first century business-from the trading floor right up to the boardroom-can afford to ignore.


The Cluetrain Manifesto
(with Rick Levine, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger)

your mind my sky
your eyes my fire

construction phase, has since moved on. But in ways too numerous to catalog, this is her book.
Many thanks to Eric Norlin of The Titanic Deck Chair Rearrangement Corporation (tdcrc.com) for his thoughtful feedback on early drafts, and for sending the Everclear and Eminem CDs. Eric is beyond a doubt the world's most capable CEO.
J.P. Rangaswami (of Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein) and Fritz Gutbrodt (of Swiss Re) both make brief appearances here. Too brief. They were fabulous hosts in London and Zurich, respectively, and I learned much from our conversations.
My sister, Elizabeth Locke, gave me more suggestions than I knew what to do with; for instance, about arcane matters like reciprocal ethnography. Liz, you're a trip, but you already knew that. Selene, my 11 year old daughter, also provided innumerable cool ideas. I believe her insight into the current state of marketing practice remains unparalleled.
Though Laurie Doctor appears on the dedication page, what is not apparent to anyone but myself is her dedication, for which no amount of gratitude will ever be sufficient.
Finally, I'd like to thank the thousands of (valued) EGR readers, who have not only endured my abstruse prolixity and unwarranted abuse, but who continue to grant me the invaluable permission to publicly discover what I mean to say.

Participating in the Scene
Only the insane take themselves quite seriously.
Now right off the bat that has to make you wonder, right? Because most books, especially business books, pretty much take it for granted that you believe that going in. Of course the book is serious. That's why you bought it. Either that, or you needed an over-the-counter alternative to your regular insomnia medication. Don't laugh. Recent studies show that seven out of ten business book buyers are really looking for semantic Sominex. And, as Harley Manning of Forrester Research points out in his insightful report—"The Snooze Factor: Sleepy Time in the Management Aisle"—these consumers find what they're looking for in 82% of all online book transactions.2
But seriously. In his seminal work, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, the Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga riffs on the perennial theme of wisdom, from the Latin sapientia. "A happier age than ours," he wrote, "once made bold to call our species by the name of Homo Sapiens." However, he wonders how appropriate this label remains today. "In the course of time we have come to realize that we are not so reasonable after all as the Eighteenth Century, with its worship of reason and its naive optimism, thought us." So someone came up with Homo Faber: Man the Maker. Better, Huizinga says, but still no cigar. Homo Ludens, he then proposes: Man the Player.3
While some will find the notion ludicrous, play is no less an important aspect of business than it is of life. This is probably because, contrary to widespread popular belief, commerce is a subset of life and not the other way around. Therefore, as Huizinga goes to great lengths to point out, play is serious business. Or something like that. I only read the foreword.
In 1962, the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote a book called The Savage Mind, in which he says "Language is a form of human reason and has its reasons which are unknown to man." Man, I don't even know why I quoted that, except that it sounds pretty cool.4 More to the point, he talks about a concept for which English has no equivalent: bricolage.5 In essence, bricolage is what tinkers do—collecting odd bits of stuff they think may be potentially useful, then using whatever bits seem to work in the context of some later repair job. Simple. And yet profound. Because the bits the bricoleur ends up using were not designed for the use they end up being put to. Figuring out which bits to collect and how to apply them to some task at hand requires a completely different kind of thinking than the procedural algorithmic thought processes business has become so dependent upon. While the Internet may have convinced some businesses to think "out of the box," most are still not even sure what box they're in, much less which way to turn for emergency egress. If some unprincipled individual were to yell "fire!" right about now, the entire edifice of global commerce might suddenly collapse.
Fire! Fire!
What the hell. Because, while few corporations seem to realize it, the entire edifice of global commerce is collapsing already—under its own top-heavy weight. And this is happening at the very moment business is crowing loudest about its own gross tonnage: the biggest media mergers, biggest advertising budgets, biggest aggregation of eyeballs. Yuck, what an image. In short, the messiest, massiest mass-marketing morass the world has ever seen. It's ironic.
In a wonderful Newsweek article titled "Will We Ever Get Over Irony?" David Gates writes about the postmodern inclination to rip (off) ideas from a broad range of historical contexts and recombine them in odd and often glaring ways. "Such juxtapositional ironies flourish in the 20th century's most characteristic artistic mode: call it collage, assemblage, bricolage, pastiche or (to be less Frenchified and more au courant) sampling."6 Aha! Now we're getting somewhere—though these equivalents make the overall effect no less odd. The glare produced is still a kind of cognitive dissonance. Things that don't fit together in expected ways can make your head hurt. However, under the right conditions, this pain can also produce insight. It can illuminate not only the box, but the EXIT sign as well.
I can see already that you're skeptical, gentle reader. This isn't sounding entirely level-headed, is it? Doesn't quite have that grimvisaged wrinkle-browed aura of unassailable fact. Hmmm, must be time for a quote from Harvard Business Review. "Pragmatic managers. . . know what resources are available and how to round up more on short notice," write a couple of bona fide Ph.D.s, doubtless recalling how they managed to scrape by on assistant professor salaries. "We call this aspect of pragmatism bricolage . . . Effective managers are bricoleurs . . . They play with possibilities. . . They tinker. . . ."7
Now you believe me? Well, good. Oh yeah and by the way, Levi-Strauss says bricolage is analogous to the mythical thinking typical of primitive peoples. Savages. You know, the kind of uncivilized barbarians you get in places like Harvard, Borneo, New Guinea and the World Wide Web.8 So, taking all the above into account (along with a grain of salt and two aspirins), think of this book as playful bricolage involving serious matters. As sampling. As a hip-hop cover of boring old best practices played backwards and burned into a bad-ass MP3 dance remix download. At times, the recombinant results may strike you as freakish, as frivolous. Feel free to sue me. However, you'll get far more satisfaction by thinking of yourself as I do: as a Raider of the Lost Arc. To sample once again the comedy stylings of Johan Huizinga. . .
The reader of these pages should not look for detailed documentation of every word. In treating of the general problems of culture one is constantly obliged to undertake predatory incursions into provinces not sufficiently explored by the raider himself. To fill in all the gaps in my knowledge beforehand was out of the question for me. I had to write now, or not at all. And I wanted to write.9
As Lou Gerstner, chairman and CEO of IBM once said, "Hey, I can dig it."10 The concept of gonzo marketing would never have come together at all if I'd had to rigorously research every damn thread we're about to touch on. Will some of these lead us into curious intellectual culs-de-sac? Yeah, probably. Are you likely to encounter grievous gaffes and disquieting half truths? Sure, but what else is new? By screwing up royally here, I hope to provide a new kind of model demonstrating to business that it not only can, but must move beyond its unhealthy fear of error and imprecision. Today, it is certainty that is not an option. Failure is almost guaranteed.
In addition to being a sort of indie-Indy, I also think of myself as An Amateur and a Dilettante. The caps are there to echo the title of the movie, An Officer and a Gentleman—though as you're already finding out, I'm neither. At its heart, gonzo is animated by an attitude of deeply principled anti-professionalism in the best sense. And there is a best sense. Historian and former Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin once wrote: "Democracy is government by amateurs. . . . The survival of our society depends on the vitality of the amateur spirit. . . . The representative of the people . . . must be wary of becoming a professional politician."11
Here, amateur clearly doesn't mean incompetent or unskilled. It doesn't mean unprofessional. But professional-ism is something altogether else. Over time, any functional specialization tends to forget its relationship to the larger social context it was created to work within and serve. Instead, it concentrates on developing an inner sanctum of specialists who talk among themselves in a private language inaccessible to outsiders. Almost without exception, such professionals despise amateurs. Or worse, accord them a patronizing form of faux eye-rolling patience.
Related to "amateur" is the even more pejorative term "dilettante" —someone who practices a craft or studies a field of knowledge in which he or she is not a "recognized professional." But the etymological roots of these words tell a different story. Amateurs do what they do for love (from the Latin amare), while dilettantes are not mere casual dabblers, but instead are inspired by delight (from the Italian dilettare by way of the Latin delectare). But delight and passion for the work are precisely the qualities professionals tend to lose first. The opposite of professionalism is what Zen master Shunryu Suzuki called "beginner's mind "—an ability to look at the world with fresh eyes and an open spirit.12
Boorstin's observation can be equally applied to the commercial sphere. In marketing, just as in government, professionalism tends to hew unimaginatively to its own timid orthodoxy. It does not provide leadership, enthusiasm or the kind of impassioned personal engagement that has come to be called gonzo. In stark contrast, business professionalism tends to be arid and passionless, narrowly focused, self-involved. However, this doesn't mean that everyone in business fits this damning characterization. Far from it. In my own experience, there are many more lively intellects at work in the workplace than the misbegotten "corporate communications" coming out of those places would lead one to believe. There's often more going on in today's corporation than today's corporation would care to admit. New life is growing between the cracks in the corporate edifice, and it's spreading like a weed.
In the past year or so, I've had the opportunity to test many of the ideas in this book before very live business audiences from Maui to Bangalore. At places like Peoplesoft, Gartner Group, Sun Microsystems, SAP, First Union Bank, the Direct Marketing Association, and Andersen Consulting—now, for their sins, renamed Accenture. To be fair, my Accenture-nee-Andersen audience was great. It was clear they'd been around the block. They'd seen it all. They laughed in all the right places. On the other hand, the Direct Marketing crowd was thoroughly unamused. Understandable. The rending of garments and gnashing of teeth would have been appropriate responses.
The day before I spoke at Swiss Re (the Re is for reinsurance, a hugely lucrative niche), my hosts opened an impressive muchomultimillion-dollar conference facility called Rüschlikon. The festivities included a Chinese dancer performing on a rooftop in the snow to piano music piped to her wireless headset and further accompanied by nocturnal animal cries taped in some Southeast Asian jungle. In addition, there was an extremely Zen-looking Japanese guy playing a 2000-year-old stone flute that appeared to be nearly as ancient as himself, and a terrorist-looking dude with his face weirdly painted in striking primary colors, who read long strings of numbers in German, timed to a strobe light. "Acht hundert neun und zwanzig, sieben hundert vier und dreizig. . ." Yeah, just another day of business as usual. The center's director, Fritz Gutbrodt, told me over a wonderfully animated dinner that he still teaches literature at the University of Zürich.
The investment banking firm of Dresdner, Kleinwort, Benson was a slightly different story. IT director J. P. Rangaswami runs offsite swat teams that take a real problem, break it down, come up with a solution, code it, and integrate the results into the corporate computing infrastructure—all within a week. In an industry where this sort of thing is usually measured in months, quarters or years, such results are astounding. Everyone on the team is expected to drink copious amounts of beer, liberally provided, between the impossibly long, often round-the-clock, hacking sessions. J. P. is working on a book about certain structural and management challenges facing large corporations. Working title: Fossil Fools. We had many deep exchanges about what's truly important in this industry at the moment. He turned me on to a Dire Straits bootleg. I convinced him to buy a pricey but totally kickass Roland guitar synth. "Damn you," he wrote later in email, "you are starting to cost me real money!"
The Dresdner gang isn't cheap, though. They gleefully fete me with sumptuous dinners in Mayfair, theater tickets, limousines. Would I care to take in The Tate? They put me up in the Docklands, an outrageous suite overlooking the Thames. I drop some laundry off with the valet and it comes back wrapped in rich brocade, my socks and underwear not only ironed—what were they thinking?—but also tied into little bundles with red ribbons that say "Four Seasons Hotel—Canary Wharf." It's totally over the top. I love it. But finally I have to get out, get real again. I give my talk on gonzo marketing, then ditch the chauffer. I take a train, then a bus. I get lost. London is better at eye level. . .

Waiting for History

"There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1. . . They called it the sound barrier."
"We're never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy . . . "
I round the corner in Covent Garden and hear what sounds like Coltrane wafting up the block. Bent into his horn as if in fervent prayer, a musician is laying down fat splashy bop notes in the rain, punctuating the oblivious crowds of pre-Christmas shoppers. His saxophone case is open for donations and I drop in a ten pound note. He's surprisingly good to be playing in the street. Seeing the denomination, he jumps up and presses a compact disc into my hand. I turn it over. Karlsax Online it says.
The rain forests of the world constitute a cauldron of biological ferment and co-evolutionary experimentation, a living ecosystem where few parts exist independent of the whole. Lianas and mahoganies, primates and insect colonies, jaguars and bromeliads, slow-moving sloths and dazzling butterflies, intermittent light and impenetrable darkness, the endless cycle of rain and evaporation, transpiration and erosion, all weave together to produce a tapestry of nearly unimaginable color and complexity. The human world is no less complex, and the Internet reflects a similarly rich interweaving, the customs and experience of myriad diverse societies and cultures. The net is a planet-spanning virtual ecosystem, a cognitive rain forest teeming with new concepts and connections, issues and inquiries, studies and speculations, proposals, predictions and unlimited potential.
Something's shaking, something's up. But we're none of us quite sure what it is, what it all adds up to. How long will we have to wait for the history books that explain this amazing period we're living through? Fifty years? A hundred? I don't know about you, but I don't have that long. As you may recall, we die. My dates are the same as Jackson Browne's. "In '65 I was 17," he sang in "Running on Empty." Plus: "gotta do what you can just to keep your love alive"—immediately thereafter warning of the dangers of confusing that with whatever you need to do to survive, to "make a living" as we say. And now you're wondering again: Jackson Browne? Hey, when you write these sorts of penetrating and insightful business books for busy executive types, you take your inspiration wherever you find it.
In the meantime, the time of our lives, all we have is intuition and stories to try to make sense of the world, to provide some sort of vision of where we're at and where we may be headed. But that's not so bad. As a species, it's all we've ever had.
Gonzo marketing is the shorthand I use for the work I do—work I fell into almost accidentally, rather than as a path I set out on knowing in advance where it would lead. At first, I looked for models, guidelines, some sort of framework that would make sense of the business world I suddenly found myself inhabiting. But what I found seemed oddly broken, or ill-conceived from the outset. Perhaps because I came to the computer industry from such a contrasting set of experiences—brain surgery (yes, really), railroad braking, goat husbandry, boat carpentry, pharmaceutical, uh. . . mergers and acquisitions—most of what I saw passing for best practice seemed naïve to the point of being ridiculous. Even from the inside, it felt demeaning.
At first I thought I'd get the hang of it with time. But I never did. Along the way, I've become less and less professional. To make a living, I had to find something I could do that actually worked. And to work for my company or client, first it had to work for me. Call it a character defect, but I'm no good at anything I can't put my heart into. So I explored. I followed my heart. And I began to discover that many of the things that worked were the diametric opposite of what was normal and expected in business. In fact, the more diametrically opposed, the more contrarian the approach, the more effective it tended to be. I began calling these directions, attitudes and informal rules-of-thumb "worst practices."
They aren't algorithms or recipes. They're not procedures. They're inclinations and actions that flow from a particular state of mind. And states of mind don't lend themselves very well to bullet points. However, they can sometimes be transmitted through stories. Stories don't deal in definitions and formulas. Instead, they convey impressions, colors, connotations. Their effect is cumulative. The whole encompasses more than the sum of the parts, suggesting new ways to look at problems. And sometimes, imaginative new approaches to solving them.
I once heard a talk on aircraft design in which the speaker explained the aerodynamic basis for a scene in a movie I saw as a kid. I can't recall the name of the film, but I've often used this scenario as an analogy for solving critical problems by going against "the rules" dictated by the sort of sanity and logic that would apply under normal conditions. In the movie, various test pilots attempt to fly an experimental plane capable of supersonic speed. As the plane approaches Mach 1, something strange happens to the controls. Instead of causing the plane to climb, pulling back on the stick puts it into a dive, with terminal consequences for both plane and pilot. Finally, our hero, Chuck Yeager, breaks the sound barrier and lives to tell about it by reversing the normal procedure. As the plane begins to bore in, he pushes forward on the stick instead of pulling it back. The story may be apocryphal, but the point is that the pilot never would have survived unless he did something that was—according to all available evidence up until that time—a little crazy.
This story was retold by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff, the 1979 book from which the movie was made four years later. Wolfe was fascinated by people who did the wrong thing at the right time—like Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters dropping way too much LSD in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. But that was later. In 1973, six years before The Right Stuff, Wolfe wrote another book called The New Journalism, in which he included Hunter S. Thompson's story "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved." Here Thompson answers a worried question from his illustrator, Ralph Steadman:
"Is it safe out there? Will we ever come back?"
"Sure," I said. "We'll just have to be careful not to step on anybody's stomach and start a fight." I shrugged. "Hell, this clubhouse scene right below us will be almost as bad as the infield. Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more money. By midafternoon they'll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomiting on each other between races. The whole place will be jammed with bodies, shoulder to shoulder. It's hard to move around. The aisles will be slick with vomit; people falling down and grabbing at your legs to keep from being stomped. Drunks pissing on themselves in the betting lines. Dropping handfuls of money and fighting to stoop over and pick it up."
He looked so nervous that I laughed. "I'm just kidding," I said. "Don't worry. At the first hint of trouble I'll start Macing everybody I can reach."13
And Dr. Thompson has been Macing everybody he could reach ever since. He's reached quite a few. Merriam-Webster defines gonzo as "idiosyncratically subjective but engagé." As dictionary definitions go, this one's delicious. A bit fruity perhaps, but a great nose and a nice finish. It also means "bizarre" the lexicographers add rather woodenly, ruining the whole effect.
Thompson created gonzo journalism, a genre in which high humor meets bad taste. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas burst onto the literary scene with tsunami force in 1971. It was shocking, electrifying. He was simultaneously writing for Rolling Stone magazine, and the rock-and-roll connection was no accident. There's a clue here the size of Everest that, to this day, remains invisible in plain sight. Around the same time, the Temptations were singing "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," the Rolling Stones were singing "I bet your mama was a tent show queen," and Thompson was writing: "Moments after we picked up the car, my attorney went into a drug coma and ran a red light on Main Street. . . "14 It makes the historian's task a real bitch when everything is connected and nothing is what is seems.
But gonzo is far more than the shock tactics it employs. "The writer must be a participant in the scene while he's writing it," Thompson said. Being a full participant in events, having a point of view, a deeply personal perspective: gonzo is about being engaged. It's not distanced, impartial or "objective"—it cares about outcomes. When Hunter Thompson wrote about Nixon, he wasn't just writing about one of two presidential candidates. He was writing about someone he hated—hated to the point of intimacy, so much that he almost loved the man. When Thompson got done with Nixon, Nixon wasn't an abstraction. He was as real as a hurricane hitting into the Keys. As concrete as a head-on train wreck.
Gonzo journalism represented a significant shift in news reporting, or at least the option of a new direction. It granted other writers the permission to be human, to stop pretending they were automatic cameras recording events about which they had no opinion, in which they had no personal stake. And it granted this permission even to writers who didn't sprinkle acid on their morning cornflakes.
While the so-called legitimate press (where does that come from?) has not exactly risen to the occasion in overwhelming numbers, plenty of net-heads have. In the next X years, billions of dollars worth of news, information, entertainment and what I like to call "The Artist Formerly Known As Advertising" are going to do a full 180. That is, a very large proportion of these media functions will no longer be delivered top-down, as in the broadcast model, but will be coming bottom-up from creative individuals on the Internet. X may be two years or five years or ten—the question is not if but when. These changes are inevitable for reasons the balance of this book will explore more deeply.
Business created mass markets through broadcast advertising, the same stentorian voice of command-and-control it used on workers, but in this case applied to the marketplace. "Shut up and do what you're told" is not that much different a proposition from "shut up and buy our product." The "shut up" part was built in to broadcast, as there was never any back-channel—never a way to ask questions. The 30-second jive-and-jingle TV spot was never an invitation to converse.
The Internet brings something different into the world. It has connected people person-to-person, and the people so connected are today talking among each other about things they truly value. People are telling stories. From the dawn of human society, people have been drawn together by storytellers who not only shared their interests but also had a special quality of speech—let's call it voice. True voice is not just the ability to speak, but the ability to speak effectively. The best measure of this effectiveness is whether a particular voice can attract and hold an audience. This is as true today as it was in Neolithic times.


On Sale
Jun 17, 2009
Page Count
256 pages
Basic Books

Christopher Locke

About the Author

Chris Locke is author of The Bombast Transcripts, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, and editor/publisher of the Webzine Entropy Gradient Reversals. He has worked for Fujitsu, Ricoh, the Japanese government’s “Fifth Generation” artificial-intelligence project, Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, CMP Publications, Mecklermedia, MCI, and IBM.

Named in a 2001 Financial Times Group survey as one of the “top 50 business thinkers in the world,” he has written for a wide variety of publications, including Forbes, the Industry Standard, Information Week, Harvard Business Review, and Release 1.0. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Learn more about this author