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Idea: A Lesson for Marketers Found in Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys

Michael Lewis’ current bestseller, Flash Boys, invites us into the world of tech-driven, high-speed, high-frequency securities trading. Marketing executives will quickly recognize the types of people, patterns and “higher truths” they have encountered during the past couple of decades of tech-driven marketing in this story set on Wall Street.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Lewis makes a convincing argument that the guys who control the marketplaces (Lewis’ focus is the private stock exchanges known as “dark pools”) continuously look for ways to game the system (perhaps legally, but gaming, nonetheless). Each new wave of reform to eliminate past schemes sets off a mad dash to find ever subtler, cleverer ways to replace what has been banned.

And, since the traders don’t understand the technology, and the tech and numbers guys don’t fully understand the cultural and relationship-driven nuances of trading, there has to be an extraordinarily high level of trust and cooperation among groups of people who neither understand nor, quite often, respect one another.

Are you beginning to recognize the analogy to tech-driven marketing?

The recurring promise of the “new” is that it will deliver the outcomes we want in ways that are faster, easier to use and have the best return-on-investment. Yet too often, the new ideas and platforms turn out to be nothing more than attempts to recreate the “old.” Those who understand the business, don’t understand the technology while those who know the technology don’t comprehend the cultural, human or creative nuances that regularly trump even the most perfect algorithm.

The internet promises to connect customers and buyers with less “friction.” Yet, the internet has, too often, merely replaced the friction of old media like broadcast TV or national news weeklies with new types of friction found in the dark pools of algorithms and private networks created by new media like Facebook or Google.

Ironically, Flash Boys is, at its core, a hopeful book. It depicts good guys who recognize that markets serving buyers and sellers have the chance to win. Lewis spends much of the book telling the stories of those who are working to develop markets where the playing field is even and transactions are more transparent. Perhaps in other markets—like yours—sellers and buyers (organizations and members; causes and supporters; patients and healthcare providers) will find models of business and trade that align and deepen their mutually beneficial relationships. That’s infinitely preferable to depending on those whose only goals are to speed up the recreation of media and market models that place barriers between buyer and seller and are gamed to guarantee that, no matter what, the guys in the middle never lose.

(Photo: Thinkstock)

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