menu

In Defense Of Free

In Defense Of Free
Advertising

In this opinion piece, PSFK founder Piers Fawkes defends the idea of free and explains how it is making his business thrive. He says that critics are railing against three key issues - free as a progressive business concept; that free means we have to change what we do for work; and that many people don't live 'free' yet.

Piers Fawkes, PSFK
  • 4 august 2009


I would argue that Anderson’s book documents a system of trade that is just as complicated as the situation where we give real value to the notes in our pockets or the numbers on a screen. If we’re prepared to concede that a piece of green paper is the equal value as a small hamburger then we should be able to accept that free is a business model, or models, too.

At PSFK we do a lot for free to do a little for a lot. The monies made from the little stuff we do offsets the costs of the (free) lot. As most of you know, we publish a daily news site for free – a publication that might have been sold for a price on magazine shelves a few years back. We did try a paid-subscription spin-off called IF! for specialist content once but then we realized that the model didn’t work. The people who wrote for us weren’t motivated: beyond getting paid they wanted to get read and recognized by the many who read our free website; and the people who wanted us to write about them didn’t want their news to be read by 500 people – they wanted their news to be read by the thousands who read PSFK each day.

PSFK.com doesn’t make PSFK, the business, much money directly. Sure, we do get the occasional ad buy but it’s a small fraction of our revenues and maybe it will always be that way: Of course, I do dream that one day a light bulb will go off in media buyers heads and they will realize that we’re such a good way to ‘talk’ to an audience of influencers and they will all phone us for our deck and rate card, but in the cold light of day I’m pretty sure this won’t actually happen.

In fact, I have a hunch that advertising will never support a huge percentage of online publishing because marketing is trying to get out of the advertising business. If you look at what’s going on in ‘Madison Avenue’ you will notice this clearly. Why are ad agencies so enamored with social media marketing right now? Because you can do it for free. Advertising on niche or even large websites may always going to be a minor line on a campaign plan but ad agencies are just going to find more and more ways to do the marketing for their clients for free… until their clients realize they can do it for free themselves.

Instead of making money from charging ad agency people to subscribe to the PSFK site or making money by charging ad people for placing messages on the site, we already generate revenues through providing other ‘premium’ services to agencies and clients – from ticket sales to events to tailored introductions to experts to custom research and analysis from the PSFK team of contributors.

Sidepoint

Commentators have been arguing for a few years now that we will see a shift of marketing budgets from offline to online, that the massive spending on TV and billboards will be transplanted into the digital medium where messages can be micro-targeted in a hyper-dynamic, real-time manner. I agree that digital media will drive a dramatic drop in offline spending but I don’t know if I agree that the money will flip online.

Through the internet you can do so much ‘marketing’ for so little and even more for free. Why would a client need to shift budgets from offline to on? Why not keep the cash for something more interesting instead?

This has serious implications. As the number of free ways to market a product and service increases, we could speculate that the amount of advertising spent online today is at its all time peak and even that will gradually decline.

So… if the value of ad traditional dollars spent plummets and online dwindles that could only mean that the advertising industry will therefore suffer a rather large shrinkage. Because of free, brands won’t need as much of the services provided from ad agencies and their production companies. Will we consider advertising as a peculiarity to help businesses shout in many widespread places at the same time until the internet came along and helped businesses talk to many people as individuals at the same time?

And just to take this a little further… if brands won’t be spending as much on advertising because of free – what is going to happen to the publishing industry that relies on it? Most of the traditional newspapers and magazines that have responded to declining ad revenues offline by moving their publishing focus online aren’t going to see the uplift of online ad revenue they need to support the current size of their businesses. I know it’s not nice news to hear but I argue again that the ad spend flip from offline to online is not going to happen. Both the ad and publishing industries are going to have to quickly evolve their business models to find new ways to make revenue.

Free to do what we want to do, not what we intended to do

Another reason why we don’t like free is that it threatens our personal situation and it means we have to do something about it. Our jobs have to change and will change. The thing is that we’ll resist change: Many of us have spent a lot of time dedicated to crafting careers, or at least getting to a position of safety, and we don’t like the idea that what we (think we) want to do might not be what’s on offer in a year or so’s time.

At PSFK we have to engage a hybrid workforce to respond to free. We need to find an internal team who can work in the publishing, events and consultancy sides of the business and we have a network of contributors who support all sides of the business too. Employees need to be able to create free and premium PSFK services. We can’t work with people who just want to be writers because they need to be able to work in revenue generating areas like planning an event and presenting before a client too; and we can’t work with people who just want to be consultants because they need to write on PSFK.com to keep our voice out there. Having this flexibility allows us to twist and turn to react to the type of opportunities that become available over time (advertising deal, events sponsorship, consultancy gig) and to make our own fortune when no opportunity presents itself.

Yes, I imagine that it’s difficult to accept a world there are no job titles and it doesn’t fit in with a traditional style of business but I do believe that many companies will need to employ staff that can adapt to different tasks to react to a volatile world rather than differently skilled workers who produce the same task.

Living In The Free World

The third reason I think Anderson’s book gets criticism is that many, many people don’t live in a free world. Yet. They live in a world of transaction which we’re taught to agree with. At PSFK we wouldn’t exist if we didn’t live ‘free’. In terms of our consultancy business we compete at a speed and price that many established companies just can’t compete with.

If you asked me today, tomorrow I could tell you about what’s happening in anywhere on any subject. By tomorrow, I can interview five opinion-leaders in Moscow who understand change in your target market, I can get photographs of your competitors marketing in every emerging market from Portugal to Peru, I can tell you the latest trends on the web to help you talk to your diverse group of customers.

I can do all this because of the near zero costs of many of the tools we utilize in our business. Practically, we use free office software from Google to share information between ourselves and our clients, we use Skype to video interview tastemakers anywhere from Japan to Moscow for free, we have a network of over 200 experts and thinker around the world which we created for free and can tap into for free, we use ‘freemium’ file-sharing services to help transfer to New York the video shot on the street on the same day on the other side of the globe, we use private groups on the free Flickr to get dozens of international scouts to send us photos on a specific subject, and we publish everything using free blogging software on near-free hosting services. Many research and innovation organizations appear not to have moved fast enough to take advantage of these free services and that gives PSFK a competitive advantage. Those organizations often live in an IT department led world that waits for costly enterprise solutions – but PSFK lives in a world of free enterprising solutions.

The internet allows us to do much of our work for free. It is a free window to the world that many traditional market research companies still consider as ‘secondary research’ – or something that the interns can look at. But the reality is that the internet is a window from which you can watch the world go by, speak to people on the other side and even pass stuff through it. It’s the most amazing trends and market research tool available and most of it is free and still there’s a large industry built on flying on planes to talk to interviewees face to face and charging for information. I believe that the multi-billion dollar research market is be due for shrinkage pretty soon too. I’m hoping that PSFK’s early start in the world of free helps it ride the change in the industry and moves our company from small player in a large sector to a large player in a smaller one.

Final Note

The thing with free is that many of us don’t want it to happen because it’s going to cause change we weren’t planning for and work we don’t want to do. Many complained about the internet and it came and took over our world; they mocked blogging but it came and took over the world; and today we complain about free – not realizing that it’s already here.

Free by Chris Anderson on Amazon

Related PSFK Articles

Articles Tagged Free On PSFK
Chris Anderson Reponds To Malcolm Gladwell On Charlie Rose
Chris Anderson Talks to PSFK About Open Source Technology
Interview With Chris Anderson, Longtailier
Chris Anderson On Free

Advertising
Trending

How Indiegogo Is Becoming An Adult Product Destination

Retail
Home september 23, 2016

Watch This Fire Pit Dance Along To Your Favorite Song

Music City Fire is a system that is designed to flicker in time to ambient music

Automotive september 23, 2016

Slick GPS Navigator Gives Directions To Moped Riders

This small, round device attaches to a sideview mirror to display maps for safer traveling

Trending

Get PSFK's Related Report: Future of Automotive

See All
Home september 23, 2016

A Clock That Beautifully Manages Your Information Overload

The wall-mounted timekeeper is made to help people maintain focus and stay up to date with their appointments

Arts & Culture september 23, 2016

Performance Piece Blends Dancers Into Folds Of Light

The work provides commentary on the increasing connection between programmed and analog dimensions

Related Expert

Evan Korn

City Gov + Experiential Events

Design & Architecture september 23, 2016

Design Firm Adapts Childhood Homes For Unemployed Young Adults

The studio has unveiled three prototypes of transformed living spaces for people forced to move back in with their families

Health september 23, 2016

These Chocolate Squares Claim To Reverse The Aging Process

A group of researchers from Cambridge University have developed a candy bar that promises to give you a youthful glow

Cities september 23, 2016

Food-Producing Architecture Competition Seeks To Better Feed Cities

A design challenge in Copenhagen highlights the need and beauty of urban farming

PSFK LABS REPORT

Future Of Automotive
Scenarios Driving The Digital Transformation Of An Industry
NEW

PSFK Op-Ed september 21, 2016

Creative Agency Founder: Using VR As A Race Relationship Tool

Maurice Bernstein, CEO and Founder of Giant Step, explores the value in transforming headsets from high-tech entertainment tools into empathy machines

PSFK Labs september 22, 2016

The Future Of Work: Why Innovation Is Every Employee’s Job

PSFK Labs sits down with management at Johnson & Johnson to learn how the company comes up with their next ‘big idea’

Health september 23, 2016

Wearable Monitors Sun Exposure To Prevent Sunburn

The clip monitors UV rays to make sure you're not receiving too much sunlight

Op-Ed september 23, 2016

Productivity Expert: The Magic Of The Five-Hour Workday

Stephan Aarstol, Founder of Tower Paddle Boards, explains why the modern notion of office hours needs to evolve

Culture september 23, 2016

This Exhibition’s Crowning Jewel Is An 18k Gold-Plated Toilet

The piece, titled 'America,' is meant to raise questions about the country's wealth inequality

Culture september 23, 2016

Match Up With Dates On Tinder Based On Your Music Preferences

A new partnership with Spotify lets people pair up based on shared tastes in artists

Entertainment september 23, 2016

Capture, Cut Up, And Configure Your World In 360 Degrees

To meet a booming 360 and VR video-capturing industry, a multimedia software company bolstered its media editing suite for 360-video creation

PSFK LABS REPORT

Future Of Work
Cultivating The Next Generation Of Leaders
NEW

Advertising september 23, 2016

These Trucks Drove Around In Circles For 24 Hours To Keep Time

The giant ticking clock was created by 14 Scania vehicles in a deserted airfield

Advertising september 23, 2016

Buy Movie Tickets Directly From Your Facebook Profile

The new feature is part of a campaign from Fandango to further imbed social media into the ticket vendor's digital presence

Asia september 23, 2016

Co-Working Space Brings The Calming Atmosphere Of Nature Indoors

An architectural firm in China has designed a new type of shared office that prioritizes the natural environment

No search results found.