Connecting with Bill Sobel

Jonathan Marks is a writer, broadcaster and researcher on a wide range of issues connected with the media.

And he has an interesting position: he "leads disruptive innovation" at Critical Distance, a creative guild of digital craftsmen and women based near Amsterdam, The Netherlands. In a more traditional sense, he is CEO.

But Marks just thinks differently. It's not quite clear what his objective was when he founded Critical Distance in 2003. But it doesn't really matter, because "last year, we rethought everything from the ground up. Why? Because routine is the enemy of change."

Today the company helps entrepreneurs "build, produce and keep really memorable stories."

"We inspire, guide and collaborate to build great companies. We specialize in digital strategy, cross-media productions, consultancy (at senior management level) and training the trainers," he explained.

Before founding the company, Marks was program director at Radio Netherlands. He led the development of online and mobile storytelling on projects in Latin America, South Asia and Africa.

A Contrarian Nature


Since starting his independent consultancy in 2003, Marks has worked on projects that examine emerging technology. His most recent study looked at how second screens are morphing into first screens and how scientific stories are being shared with audiences.

He has advised several event organizers including TEDx and the World Bank, as well as public broadcasting companies such as BBC, VRT, ARD and NPR. Marks believes more money should be invested in content creation and curation — and less on fragmented distribution. He shared more of his thoughts in this interview with CMSWire.

Sobel: You transitioned from hosting a program on Radio Netherlands Worldwide to working with young disruptive teams within organizations to help them shape their strategies and better understand current disruptive innovations, specifically in technology and media. Tell us more about your career and how you became a disruptor.

Marks: I believe that it is only disruptive companies that survive and grow. I realize, with hindsight, that being the underdog in international broadcasting (nine language departments as opposed to the BBC’s 36 in those days), Radio Netherlands could never build audiences by being a “miniBBC.” So we selected the audiences we were interested in and wrote down a list of what our colleagues were doing to serve those audiences.

Having identified what they were doing, we did exactly the opposite. They worked for other stations by providing programs. We worked with local stations to co-create content. The competition was keen to get credit for their brands. We designed our content so that it was “stolen” – and translated into several of the hundreds of languages in that part of Africa. We wanted to be a catalyst for a conversation, rather than a program supplier. Twenty years later, I see Netflix, BuzzFeed, Upworthy and Huffington Post taking a similar approach to disrupt the incumbents.

Sobel: You say “ Every company is becoming a media company but audiences only remember the message from great storytellers.” Building a powerful narrative is an essential strategy for any team that wants to change the world. Can you explain a bit more and give us some examples? 

Marks: I credit former Financial Times journalist Tom Foremski, who left a major newspaper to become a full-time journalist blogger, with coining the phrase “every company is a media company” in 2006. He also has excellent comments about the crazy amounts of money put in to writing press releases. I’m building on his original thoughts.

I’ve stopped registering as press at some conventions because I just don’t need an inbox full of company boasts and unverified spin. I also believe that some of the tech accelerators are going wrong, becoming nothing more than a 90-day pitch factory instead of offering one-on-one assistance to build a real company with a validated product or service. Rather than organize a demo day for investors, I’d focus on building alliances with customers. The investors will follow.

I regard organizations like Singularity University as turbo accelerators. I see how they are building more open narratives that share a company’s journey instead of the “town market” pitch of “we made this, please buy it."