Looking to the Future
Will Kreth: An Idea Guy and Marketing PioneerDot-com ventures are folding, an air of complacency is settling over the world of e-commerce, and Will Kreth has the exhilarating feeling that it's 1991 all over again. Back then, right before Kreth helped launch Wired magazine in San Francisco, disillusionment with the old corporate regime was spawning a new online culture that would radically change communications and commerce. Nearly 10 years later, Kreth says, many in the New Economy are suffering from the same old corporate burnout. Online business culture is ripe for reinvention, Kreth believes -- and he wouldn't mind making some money in the process.
Now 37, Kreth has made a career trying to outflank the media megaliths standing between We the People and the news, music, and information that is rightfully ours. He left his position as Wired's marketing director in 1993 to help found HotWired, one of the first online publications to host chat sessions with guest celebrities. Later, Kreth moved on to Prodigy in New York City, where he helped shape the company's "value-added" Internet service, which included extras like games, streaming video and audio, and online calendars. In 1996, Kreth signed on with Time Warner Cable to launch the company's first venture into high-speed Internet service -- the now-ubiquitous Road Runner -- in Portland, Maine.
Meanwhile, Kreth the freelance writer has mocked traditional marketing strategies that hawk the New New Thing without bothering to learn anything about the people they're trying to sell to. "People are tired of being assaulted by images and psychic noise, because a lot of what's being sold has no underlying soul or value -- it's all pretty much artifice and hype and bullshit," Kreth says. In the future, he says, shrewd companies will stop treating people like anonymous consumers and learn to deal with them as individuals, adjusting for their tastes and preferences.
Kreth never finished college but got turned on by the Eighties 'zine scene in San Francisco and soon fell in with the esoteric community of free-spirited intellectuals who formed the Well, an early online discussion group. As one might expect, Kreth has cultivated a taste for edgy literature and film and despises formula, bombast, and silicone. Perhaps his personal repugnance for America's consumer culture leads him to overestimate the number of everyday Joes who want to be more engaged with their favorite recording conglomerate and overly optimistic that "the star system [i.e., the making of Britney Spears and 'N Sync] is being shaken at its very foundation."
On the other hand, Kreth has been willing to put his money where his mouth is. Last January, after a brief stint at Austin-based Internet company Agillion, Kreth attempted a start-up that would create a more personalized connection between media companies and their customers. The venture, called Lifeset.com, would have expanded on a service already used by bookseller Amazon.com that compiles customers' preferences and sends them e-mail notices of products that might interest them.
Considering that more than 80% of the CD-buying public doesn't even know when a release by their favorite artist comes out, Kreth says, there's definitely room for the concept to grow. Companies like Sony or CitySearch could "manage a person's media experience" by keeping a customer continually informed of CD releases, concerts, and booksignings, both at home and in cities they visit, says Kreth. In pitching Lifeset.com, Kreth was proposing to do the customer research legwork he says media companies have neglected.
"Data miners [for retail stores] really do know a lot about preference and brand loyalty and why people buy certain things over another," says Kreth, "but the entertainment and media industry don't know that. They don't have the demographics and the psychographics and the composite profiles of who their customers are. This year's blockbuster movie will spawn 10 action movies that are just like it next year. But that doesn't mean they really understand why people actually went to it ... because they were never involved in the conversation." The potential rewards for such a venture are rich, Kreth predicts, but the stumbling blocks are also huge, given people's skittishness about giving companies personal information.
Unfortunately, Kreth found, his potential financial backers weren't interested in a customer relationship company like Lifeset.com, and didn't come through with seed money. Now Kreth is hanging in professional limbo, trying to decide whether to continue job hunting in Austin or take his start-up project to New York. An idea guy and marketing pioneer throughout his career, Kreth finds it difficult to find positions offering the kind of forward-thinking atmosphere he thrives in.
"The sad thing is that marketing and sales are thought of as being like Neanderthal enterprises ... when in fact it requires a lot of brainpower, statistical analysis, and intuition. ... There are very few really good, savvy individuals who work in marketing on a level where they can effect change for a company to make things better."
Will Kreth is a panelist on "Privacy in the Age of Ubiquitous Access," Mon., March 12, 11am and the moderator for "Personalization," Mon., March 12, 3:30pm.