The new surf club

8 Feb 2009

If we take it as read that the internet has created a generation of empowered consumers, what are businesses to do with that information? That’s the question that David Brain and Martin Thomas pose in their book Crowd Surfing. They spoke to Ann O’Dea.

So iconic is Apple founder Steve Jobs that the normally privacy-conscious CEO was forced to issue statements earlier this month, initially reassuring shareholders about his health, and subsequently announcing his temporary leave from the company. Rumours of ill-health had seen share prices drop significantly at the global company. It’s one of the reasons that Apple does not feature as a case study in David Brain and Martin Thomas’s book Crowd Surfing, which the authors tell me is designed to look at the heroes of new media.

Wired had an article a year ago that said Apple is the company that does everything right by doing everything wrong,” Brain tells me when we meet at the Marketing Institute’s national conference. “Our contention is that, in this new world, there’s nothing you can learn from Apple, other than: have fantastic products; have a Messianic, cult-like leader; have a genius designer like Jonathan Ive; and own the whole network of what you sell – the hardware, the operating system, the applications.

“Because of that unique combination of factors, Apple doesn’t have to do anything. In the PR sense, they use Eighties PR techniques. They brief a select group of top, friendly journalists; they keep all of their products secret and then they reveal them; and they use traditional TV advertising. So they’re a brilliant company that makes great products – don’t get us wrong – but in terms of lessons, wanting to be ‘more like Apple’ just doesn’t work.”

So who does the book target and who does it feature? “It’s aimed at everybody in business,” says Brain. “The heroes in the book are not the crowd, despite the title. This is not a book about the crowd. It’s a book about the companies, about the people in the companies who have to deal with the crowd. So the heroes are companies like Microsoft. The heroes are people in the organisations that have stuck their head above the parapet and said ‘I am the company, come to me and I will have a relationship with you and deal with you in a proper, human, grown-up way’.”

Thomas adds that when they were looking for examples of ‘heroes’ rising to the challenges of the online world and new media, they were determined not to feature ‘perfection’.

“The problem with case studies is that they always want to feel linear and perfect, like everything’s wonderfully seamless, but they are completely false because reality never works like that,” he tells me. “If you dig down into the most fantastic case studies, you’ll find there were times when things went badly wrong.

“We were lucky we were able to talk to some very interesting companies who shared their struggles with us, and some of the problems and some of the mistakes they’ve made. So rather than presenting these perfect case studies of perfect crowd surfing, what we’ve tried to do is demonstrate that even the smartest marketeers out there – the Unilevers of this world, the McDonalds, the Procter & Gambles – had problems. They messed up.

By Ann O’Dea 

Pictured: the authors of Crowd Surfing, David Brain and Martin Thomas

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