Strategy Was His Strength, Not Disaster

Thanks to the donation of The Grateful Dead Archive to University of California at Santa Cruz academics of all stripes, from ethno­musicologists to philosophers, sociologists to historians will begin heading to the hillside campus to pour through decades of arcane documents and other artifacts.

According to The Atlantic, the biggest beneficiaries may prove to be business scholars and management theorists, who are discovering that the Dead were visionary geniuses in the way they created “customer value,” promoted social networking, and did strategic business planning.

“The Dead were masters of creating and delivering superior customer value,” Barry Barnes, a business professor at the H. Wayne Huizenga School of Business and Entrepreneurship at Nova Southeastern University, in Florida, told me.
Treating customers well may sound like common sense. But it represented a break from the top-down ethos of many organizations in the 1960s and ’70s. Only in the 1980s, faced with competition from Japan, did American CEOs and management theorists widely adopt a customer-first orientation.

Much of the talk about “Internet business models” presupposes that they are blindingly new and different. But the connection between the Internet and the Dead’s business model was made 15 years ago by the band’s lyricist, John Perry Barlow, who became an Internet guru. Writing in Wired in 1994, Barlow posited that in the information economy, “the best way to raise demand for your product is to give it away.” As Barlow explained to me: “What people today are beginning to realize is what became obvious to us back then–the important correlation is the one between familiarity and value, not scarcity and value. Adam Smith taught that the scarcer you make something, the more valuable it becomes. In the physical world, that works beautifully. But we couldn’t regulate [taping at] our shows, and you can’t online. The Internet doesn’t behave that way.

Joshua Green, the article’s author concludes that “it can be only a matter of time until Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead or some similar title is flying off the shelves of airport bookstores everywhere.” Too true. In fact, just 13 months ago I proposed to write something of the sort. Please take a look at my post, “Grateful To Be In Business” for more on the concept.

Aside from fostering intense bonds with their audience, what else might a business scholar, or in our case, a person working in marketing communications learn from Grateful Dead? I’ll select just two things for this session: improvisation and consensus.
Working from the jazz tradition, the band flew without a net, sometimes soaring to new heights, other times flailing to an unkind landing. But the relentless pursuit of something new and special is what allowed them to be great (along with talent and an intense work ethic).

Organizationally, the band made decisions, or tried to, by consensus. Imagine doing that in today’s typical agency structure. Not many people, inside or outside advertising, believe in flattened hierarchies, especially their own. Here’s how to make it work: make sure everyone in the company is rock solid.

There’s much more to tell. “While the storyteller speaks a door within the fire creaks.”

GD ON ADPULP: Grateful To Be In Business | One Man Gathers What Another Man Spills | Steal Your Face Right Off Your Head | Today In Twitterverse: Barlow Unloads | California, Prophet On A Burning Shore



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.