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."

I’ve written in more detail about the challenges European companies are having with building a narrative. And this type of storytelling is something that constantly has to evolve to match changes in audience information needs. There’s a lot of work to do.

Sobel: Your areas of expertise include “understanding where social media is going” and how can you integrate social media into a clever media strategy. Honestly, does anyone really know where social media is going?

Marks: There’s no magic formula. But you have to be in it to understand the conversations going on. I’ve learned to put the audience at the heart of everything I do. Unlike broadcast radio, everything is measurable online.

I often work with clients on a social media “exit strategy.” Having spent serious money getting so many followers, why do some many companies slam the door in the followers’ face when the campaign is over? You don’t have to run things forever, but you do need to build a path to handover when you decide to move on to something else.

Social media will become just “media” if it hasn’t already. The mistake people make is to assume that what works in the US will transplant across the Atlantic. You can certainly adapt ideas seen elsewhere. But in the end the homegrown ideas are often the best. I tend to be wary of anyone who claims to know where everything is going. But I have gone down some successful paths recently.

Sobel: You believe routine is the enemy of change. So you switched from "ideas worth spreading" to "empowering ideas worth doing." Tell us more about your thoughts on disruption. 

Marks: Organizations like TED, but especially TEDx, are at a crossroads.

Yes, they have captured some brilliant ideas and performances. But it is extremely difficult to follow-up on an issue raised by TED speaker and many of the TED prizes have not generated the genius companies we were led to expect. However, I have bumped into brilliant small companies like Mint Solutions, and I’m helping them take their ideas further by building different stories with them.

Sobel: You are now associated with “The Futures Agency,” an organization that helps brands, companies, organizations, governments and individuals to better understand and then act upon the challenges and opportunities in the next three to five years. Can you explain a bit more about that and your involvement? 

Marks: I have great respect for futurist Gerd Leonhard and the huge amount of work he has done to identify the challenges and opportunities for the next three to five years. Gerd and I have worked together on a number of projects over the last couple of years. That’s something I’m hoping to intensify as there are areas where our work collides. In the meantime, sign up for the Futures Agency feeds and follow the developments. There is a mine of useful information there.

Sobel: Like many of your clients, our readers are interested in what they need to be thinking about regarding the future of their organizations. Can you offer any suggestions, particularly the notion of powerful storytelling?  

Marks: In some countries, storytelling is seen as negative. Storytelling means you’re making it up. And they confuse a powerful narrative with PR spin. Likewise, building a company story is seen as an expense – “How much will a video a cost?“ I haven’t seen any of those type of companies grow,only contract. If you think about building a core story framework as an investment, then you’ll findthat once others understand the story, the rest becomes so much easier.

Building that core story is not easy. Too many companies tell me what they are doing. Instead, they should be showing me why I should care. I think there are some emerging heroes in this. One is Steve Blank, who has put a whole range of resources at the disposal of those willing to invest a little bit of time. I like the fact that Steve is constantly evolving his thoughts and stories around The Lean Startup approach. I’m adapting some of the lessons learned with startups to the media world. It’s tough, because those in the shouting business take time to understand the sharing economy.

The other is John Hagel III, who has helped me formulate better and clearer questions in my search for disruptive ideas and solutions. Finally, let me flag that I’m always interested in collaborating with others. My days in international broadcasting taught me a lot about other cultures and the art of being a good listener.

Cover image by Tappasan Phurisamrit /