The Value of Transgression

A few ways that Ross Martin has broken convention: while working for MTV, his team was the first to simulcast TV shows on the web and to go tapeless in 2004. Though he studied poetry in graduate school, on October 15th Martin became the EVP of Marketing Strategy and Engagement at Viacom.

October 27, 2014

Martin was presenting on his position as Executive Creative Director at Scratch, a “creative SWAT Team” within Viacom that formed when he and some colleagues decided to, again, break convention.  “We were interested in using the power of MTV to do things that hadn’t been done before.” He looked over the company in search of its greatest assets and alighted on people and their skills—HR, creative, communications. To the typical COO, these looked like cost centers that supported the company product. “I wondered aloud: what if we took those capabilities and opened them up to the outside?”

Scratch’s first client was GM. As a storied car manufacturer headquartered in Detroit, GM wanted to attract more millennial consumers and employees. Their proposal: Scratch should design a car for millennials. Martin’s counter-offer: Scratch would help make the whole company more millennial. “So we brought in our HR teams to transform their approach to recruitment,” said Martin. They dove not just into the hiring process, but into issues like how leadership listens to young people.

He went on to describe a number of other cases, from Scratch’s work with the Malala Fund to their “takeover” of one of Snapple’s least known brands, SunDrop, a southern drink with a small but committed consumer base. “We made a kind of quirky commercial for it,” Martin said. When they previewed the commercial with Walmart, the company agreed right there to stock the soda in every one of its U.S. stores. When the commercial aired, consumers began spoofing it with their own interpretations. “Three-hundred million views later, it’s one of the biggest social media successes we’ve ever had,, and it wasn’t even a show. That’s what happens when you apply the power of a media company in unconventional ways.”

As Scratch continued to add clients and work through some of business’ most pressing questions, they saw that they were building an inventory of consumer and management insights. “We were using the best of our company in new ways on the outside,” said Martin. “So then we started to bring what we were learning back into the building.”

Much of the work they were doing related to connecting with millennials, the largest consumer group that has ever existed. In describing some of what Scratch has learned, Martin was clear that the central need is to avoid oversimplifying millennial characteristics. He urged steady respect for the power of the consumer. “People will make what they want out of you,” he said. “You can resist, but it’ll kill you.” He also addressed the complexity of working in today’s media environment—like playing 40-dimensional chess, as he put it. “I understand now that I don’t control the platforms I work on,” he emphasized. “I may be a custodian, but our job is not to get in front of the audience. Our job is to get behind them.”

The challenge now is one of metrics: how does Viacom—does any company—put a value on virality? What does the vast and endless consumption of content actually mean?  How do we address the fact that our fans’ consumption of our content has outpaced the ways in which that consumption is measured? These are the questions that Martin is looking to answer as he steps into his new position.

In the end, Martin answered more questions than the hour could fit. His talk ran over the allotted time. Then again, just because someone tells you to stop at 12:45, that doesn’t mean you should.