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Pioneers of Digital: Book Review

Pioneers of Digital offers practical advice about social networking, digital media, advertising and marketing based on interviews with interesting figures such as Jaron Lanier, Danny Sullivan, Martha Lane Fox and even Stephen Fry
Written by Jack Schofield, Contributor
Pioneers of digital_book (200 x 301)

Pioneers of Digital takes a personality-driven approach to delivering on its subtitle: "Success Stories from Leaders in Advertising, Marketing, Search and Social Media." The two authors, Paul Springer and Mel Carson, interviewed 20 people from a wide range of digital disciplines. The result is a bit of a mixed bag containing both entertainment (personal anecdotes) and instruction (lessons from real businesses). It's not a continuous story, so you can just read the chapters you find interesting, and skip the ones you don't.

The book's authors are also a bit of a mixed bag, no disrespect intended. Professor Paul Springer is a senior academic from Buckinghamshire New University, while Mel Carson most-recently spent seven years as a practitioner, working for Microsoft Advertising as a digital marketing evangelist.

You will have heard of some of their interviewees, such as Jaron Lanier, Danny Sullivan, Martha Lane Fox and Stephen Fry. You might not have heard of others, but you will know their companies. Carolyn Everson, for example, represents Facebook while Alex Bogusky and Bob Cianfrone worked on Burger King's hugely successful Subservient Chicken campaign. Qi Lu worked for IBM and Yahoo before taking over Microsoft's Bing.

If you don't remember Kyle MacDonald's name, you probably heard about his project. Through a series of trades, listed in the book, he swapped one red paperclip for a house. Of course, he needed to generate plenty of publicity to do that, but on the web, good stories can go viral very quickly. (Someone missing the point wanted to just give him a house.)

Personally, I preferred the chapters where people get to tell more of their own stories, like Kyle MacDonald and Qi Lu. If you are reading to pick up tips, you may prefer the ones that offer more practical advice. Either way, each chapter ends with summary Sound Bites and references to further reading, so you can explore ideas further.

The book ends with two extra chapters -- Pioneering Places; Lessons from the Pioneers -- and a Jargon Buster.

Pioneering Places provides a brief account of three boom areas: China, India and the Middle East. While this is fine as it stands, I can't quite see how it fits into the structure of the book.

Lessons from the Pioneers, the final chapter, draws out and briefly summarises the business stuff, which reminds you that it could have been a wholly different book. If you buy a copy, you could well read this chapter first. The list at the end -- Ten steps to becoming a digital pioneer from the people who got there -- is excellent.

Thomas Gensemer
Thomas Gensemer, subject of the opening chapter, helped organise President Obama's web activities in the 2008 campaign. Photo credit: Pioneers of Digital

The trouble is, nobody can really tell you how to make it big, beyond being in the right place at the right time: "a recurring theme through the pioneer's stories," says the book. But even if you are, it's only with hindsight that you find out if you did the right thing. Stephen Fry didn't foresee that tweeting while stuck in a lift would make a big impact on Twitter, but it did.

The book does make the point that originality isn't all that important, in the sense of having ground-breaking ideas that no one has thought of before. The authors point out that Apple, for example, hasn't done original things, just made them original through the quality of its approach and execution.

As Gurbaksh Chahal (ClickAgents, BlueLithium) says in the book: "You can out-execute your competition by being agile, being more nimble. As soon as you've gotten traction, and have reached a stage of competitiveness, you can innovate and pivot your business." The general reader might blanche at the jargon words, but the target audience will take them in its stride, if it even notices.

This could have been a book of straightforward interviews that any tech-oriented consumer could enjoy, though it would probably have needed more famous names. It could have been a business book that explained how projects succeeded: examples from the book include iTunes, Dove, Subservient Chicken and so on. But it's a mixture of both. If you already know the field, this sometimes feels a little laboured, but on the whole, the spoonfuls of human sugar help the business medicine go down.


Pioneers of Digital: Success Stories from Leaders in Advertising, Marketing, Search and Social Media

By Paul Springer and Mel Carson

Kogan Page

224 pages

ISBN-10: 0749466049

£19.99 / $24.95

Black and white photos of Angel Chen, Gurbakash Chahal and Carolyn Everson
Portraits from the book, Pioneers of Digital: Angel Chen, Gurbakash Chahal and Carolyn Everson are three of the pioneers interviewed. Photo credit:Pioneers of Digital


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