Q&A: Ryan Holiday on manipulating the media

The American Apparel marketer and author of Trust me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator sat down with strategy to talk about getting your brand noticed in the new media landscape.
Ryan Holiday (c) Taghrid Chaabant

In Ryan Holiday’s book Trust Me, I’m Lying, the self-professed “media manipulator” and marketer behind American Apparel’s controversial campaigns, argues that thanks to the blogosphere, the media world has been turned on its head. It’s now a seller’s (or storyteller’s) market, with countless blogs thirsty for a steady stream of content that will result in more click-throughs and page views. And the larger outlets are feeding from the smaller ones, he says, meaning that if you want to be covered by the major newspapers and TV stations, you just need to know how to “feed the monster.”

How is this changing the way marketers deliver brand messages? Strategy sat down with New Orleans-based Holiday ahead of his talk at the Digital Media Summit in Toronto to find out.

What is the main message of your book?

There’s this idea about marketing and the internet – “Oh, just do awesome stuff and that’s enough.” Or “just make a video and it will go viral.” And in my experience that’s not true. So I wanted to show these underlying economics of the news, media, social media, how they work and how that defines the messaging that we need to create.

The media used to be a buyer’s market – you had to find out what the New York Times was interested in, pitch them, and they can only run so many stories. Well what about a world where blogs want to publish essentially an unlimited amount of stories every day and your stories have to break through that noise? The book is about my experiences with those messages.

I think we’ve all internalized this mindset of media scarcity – the media only has so much that they can publish and so it’s really hard to get press. I don’t think that’s true. There’s an infinite amount of media outlets out there, most of which can publish an infinite amount of things, so if you’re doing something that’s compelling, that’s interesting and you’re approaching them with it, you’re going to find that they’re much more receptive than the media has ever been before. That’s a really good thing.

However, this machine has both a good side and a bad side. They want anything, so your competitors can spin stories about you, rumors can be started, false impressions can be given. Your customers are an equal part of this – a disgruntled customer can go out with a post that can be spread everywhere. So if you’re not filling this void, or feeding this monster, so to speak, someone else will. Or [your competitors will] be doing it themselves and you’ll be drowned out. So I think people have to get a lot more aggressive and a lot more active and be willing to put themselves out there. Cause if you’re boring, you don’t even have a chance.

Once upon a time it was “don’t believe everything you read on the internet, just trust the ‘legitimate’ news sources,” is that completely out the window?

We don’t really “read” things on the internet anymore. We don’t pull up the Huffington Post and say “what did they publish today? I’m going to read it.” We get our news from Twitter, Facebook feeds, from email, we get the news that’s being passed around.

And it turns out there’s only a certain kind of article that [gets passed around] – it’s the inflammatory type, the controversial type, the type that makes us laugh, the type that provokes some sort of extreme reaction, so truth is sort of irrelevant in that discussion. It’s “is this worth posting on Facebook and will I get more Facebook ‘likes’?” That matters more than if it’s true or important or not, or any of these other factors that an old media reporter would consider before deciding to submit it to an editor.

You talk about eliciting a strong emotion. Some brands might be adverse to risk and there’s risk involved in sending out a strong message. Do they have no choice but to embrace the risk?

I think that’s part of it…When I say controversial or extreme, you have to break through the noise barrier by being interesting and firm and provocative in some way and there’s many ways to do that.

A nip slip photo is equally as provocative as a super cute kitty, it’s the idea that when I see it, I have to show it to other people. And businesses are so self-indulgent they only see their own perspective – they produce these messages that no one would get excited about and they wonder why people don’t spread it and why they have only 20 Facebook “likes.”

I think you have to be not afraid to take risks. Sometimes you’re going to piss people off or you’re going to do something that you think is really fascinating that doesn’t go anywhere, but you have to be willing to try. And I would really look at, what are the other things that people are talking about that seem to get people excited, and how can you connect your brand to that thing, rather than talking solely from your own perspective and only about yourself?

When you were working with American Apparel, you built a brand with a very limited budget and little mass advertising. There are other brands that automatically go big. Are you looking at them thinking they’re fools?

It’s interesting that you bring up American Apparel because, to go back to your other question, American Apparel is a controversial brand – its advertisements are controversial, but also its existence is controversial. We’re going to make our clothes in the U.S. and pay our workers a fair wage – that’s a controversial stance. You’d think that’s a business decision but it’s also a marketing decision. So I think brands think, “This is who we are, this is what we’re doing. Now how do we market it?” Instead of thinking, “How can we do interesting things that are going to make marketing a lot easier.”

In terms of being these big brands, if you have a billion dollar marketing budget, more power to you, go ahead and spend it. But the reality is most of us are not in that position. American Apparel’s budget is in the low 10s of millions, but our competitors spend significantly more. Our budgets are going towards paying these workers. So we had to think about how we can leverage the little we had and get a lot out of it, and we [started thinking] – how can this ad become content? We have this billboard, how can we do something that makes people talk? Not everyone’s going to like it, but they’re all going to talk about it, and when was the last time you really talked about an advertisement? And to go to my point earlier, so many people think, “We’re doing this flyer, I have to communicate all this information. I have to tell them about all this awesome stuff I’m doing.” But they’re not thinking about, “how can I make this an artistic expression that provokes people to share?” And that’s really what the internet is all about.

With so much information out there, sometimes a message gets out about your brand that you don’t intend. What are your tips for handling negative press?

I think you have to accept a media reality where you don’t control what gets said about you. And I think you protect yourself by saying, “we want people talking about us, clearly it’s better than not talking about us.”

I think you have to have a quick response team. You have to be willing to ignore what your lawyers say, perhaps what your board of advisors say, and be willing to just speak honestly and openly and quickly and get out in front of something rather than try to craft some perfect response. People are so obsessed with getting it right that they selfishly assume that people are a lot more interested in this than they actually are.

If someone threw up a [negative] blog post about you, [and] you don’t respond right away, that’s the impression that’s going to stick in everyone’s mind. It’s not like, yesterday the Washington Post ran this article about you and today they’re going to run the same article with equal billing in the same spot. That’s not how it’s going to work, we’ve moved on to the next thing.

However, the good thing about that is that any one point or [piece of] controversy does not matter a whole bunch because the system is moving so fast. So if someone says something negative about you and you don’t have a chance to respond, what are you doing to replace that point of view? This system is constantly regenerating itself, and people are always looking for the new thing, what’s your new thing? How can you tell a story that’s more interesting than the existing story?