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AdTech Reboot

Trust Web Times Interview Series: Brad Berens; Big Digital Idea Consulting

Marc Goldberg

Marc Goldberg

Author at The Trust Web Times
Marc Goldberg

Marc Goldberg

Author at The Trust Web Times

Marc Goldberg
 is a contributor for the Trust Web Times. Marc is also the Principal at Stages Collective. Stages Collective helps companies at different life stages in a variety of ways. Business Development, go-to market strategies, Landscape analysis and as an additional recruiting resource.

Brad Berens is the principal of Big Digital Idea Consulting.

If you are looking to get smarter, subscribe to his newsletter here. If you want to be entertained, Brad and I had fun with this, hope you enjoy it. We exchanged emails for this interview and it has been slightly condensed and edited.

Marc Goldberg : Tell us about your journey.

Brad Berens: “Journey” is such a peculiar word for how my life has gone… it makes it sound like there was a plan rather than a set of improvisations in the face of surprise after surprise. Actually, there was a plan… it just didn’t survive first contact with the enemy. “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” as John Lennon sang. 

I’m a digital transformation guy, but that’s not what I set out to be.

My plan was to write books about Shakespeare as an academic and to teach young people about Shakespeare. At any given point in life, you’re a who (you want to be with a person), a where (you want to be in a place), or a what (you want to do a certain thing). I was a “what” back then: I didn’t have a preference about geography, and I was single. I spent a lot of years in graduate school (Berkeley) getting a Ph.D. in English with a focus on what audiences do with the stories they consume onstage and on the page. 

MG: That is a plan! As Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

BB: I got punched in the mouth three times, which caused my first career pivot. 

First, there was a 90% unemployment rate in my chosen field (whoops). The supply of PhDs so outmassed the demand that it has resulted in the situation we’re in today where tenured positions are dying and many people with my kind of training have no job security and no living wage. 

Second, the internet was changing everything. I was fascinated by computers and the internet. In the early days, I hand-coded HTML websites for my students where they could find course materials and interactive links to more information on the university site and in the digital world beyond. I also created a digital “Beginner’s Guide to Shakespearean Stage History” that people used as a textbook in Shakespeare classes all over the world. Those were my first experiences with digital transformation—taking things that had been trapped on pieces of paper and releasing them to instant, infinite distribution. I was hooked. 

Third, I fell madly in love with my wife, Kathi, who is still an English professor, and who really, really loves Oregon. That’s where we live.

MG: The course of true love never did run smooth (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). So love changed the course, where to next?

BB: After grad school, we moved to Los Angeles (where I’m from). I spent a couple years working as an analyst in Hollywood (places like DreamWorks, CAA, New Regency, Scott Free), then I caught the startup bug and worked for a few companies now long dead.

As the dotpocalypse of 2000 happened, the combo-platter of my digital skills and editorial skills brought me to EarthLink, the old ISP. I was the digital editor of the website, and took eLink, the weekly newsletter, from plain-text into HTML, which was a big deal back then. I then got recruited to iMedia. I was the Editor in Chief of iMedia Connection, a now sadly defunct daily media property that was one of the first that covered the digital transformation of media. This was way before The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal each had a dozen reporters covering this space.

From there, interesting things happened. iMedia was primarily an events company. It turns out that I have a head for events, so I wound up the head of event programming as well as the Editor in Chief. Pretty quickly, I became the head of programming for a 54 shows-per-year cycle for iMedia, ad:tech, the Digital Collective, the CMO Collective, and more… all over the world.

After a decade in events, I needed a new challenge and founded two companies: Big Digital Idea Consulting and a startup called Kidpooling. Kidpooling helped parents get their kids from school to activities and then home again. We were making progress, learning a ton about customer motivation (moms and dads pose entirely different communication challenges), but then another pivot happened. My wife Kathi got a Fulbright, which is a very big deal. We moved to Norway for a year. Kidpooling went into cryogenic freeze. By the time we were back in Oregon, Uber and Lyft had started to transform the transportation space, so Kidpooling is still in the freezer. I still think it’s a great idea.

MG: So what does Big Digital Idea Consulting do?

BB: We help organizations figure out how to be digital disruptors rather than be the victims of digital disruption. We do this through deep listening, bespoke research, and convening groups of intelligent people. We untangle jumbled thinking, reframe stories in the context of all the rapidly-emerging trends out there, and connect people with the folks they need to know. 

I know that all sounds vague, but we do different things with different companies. For three recent examples: a cryptocurrency SaaS platform asked us to help think through a bizdev expansion effort into a new country; a media agency asked us to interview all its division heads to figure out whether their different products added up to something bigger than the sum of its parts, and a research company asked us to do a feasibility study on a industry initiative. 

MG: I will be honest Brad, I normally have a plan when I interview folks but I don’t know where to start with you, I want to know so much! Can we start with the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg? What is your relationship there?

BB: I’m part of the leadership team and carry the titles “Strategic Advisor” and “Senior Research Fellow.” Formerly, I was the Chief Strategy Officer. 

We’re futurists! The Center does longitudinal social science into how digital technologies have changed everyday life, and we look towards where things are going. 

We’ve been surveying the same 2,000 families in the U.S. for more than 20 years—nobody else has data like this—and we run the World Internet Project that does parallel research with shared questions in over 30 more countries. It’s a huge data set that tracks what has changed and what is going to change.

My association with the Center starts with my friendship with Jeffrey Cole, the founder. Jeff is a serial keynoter, and he kindly spoke at several of my shows. A lot of intense and fascinating conversations about the digital revolution led to me joining the Center’s strategy and board meetings because I came with a different point of view (this is the story of my life). Eventually, I became a Research Fellow. 

When the Center started doing deep dives into individual industry sectors, I led that effort. We did a Future of Transportation project (which I found particularly fascinating after my Kidpooling adventures), a Future of Money and Banking project, and a Future of Health project. The insights that come out of this work are fascinating.

MG: For example? 

BB: Amazon is the most trusted company in the U.S. People may not trust that company is doing the right thing around data or competition, but Americans trust Amazon completely to sell them what they want quickly and at a fair price–whether online or in a store.

How do I know this? Because when we asked people in different surveys what non-banking company they’d trust with their money and what non-health company they’d trust with their medical care, Amazon came out on top both times. If people will trust a company with their food, their money, and their health care, then they trust that company.

MG: What are you working on research wise? 

BB: Right now, I’m working on a new project around the power of live experiences versus on-demand experiences. Over the last handful of years, we’ve seen a crazy fast expansion in live media: from endless Zoom calls to “watch parties” where people in different locations watch a movie (on Netflix or Hulu or whatever) at the same time, from eSports on Twitch to new streamers like Amazon and YouTube grabbing sports rights from the leagues, and a ton of livestream commerce from Instagram and shoppable video to what Firework is doing. There’s also the explosion of live audio on Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces, and more. 

I’m raising money from sponsors (who get special privileges) right now, so if you’re interested please contact me!

MG: You are in high demand; you sit on several boards. What are the boards and how are you helping them?

BB: In all cases I help with big picture strategy, bizdev, and connections: the deep listening, reframing, and networking stuff that clients pay me to do at Big Digital Idea. My current boards include… 

  • Ad Fontes Media, which rates the news for accuracy and bias. 
  • Ascendant Network, which is a community of marketers and retailers. 
  • Glasswing Ventures, which is a VC firm specializing in AI. 
  • Purpose Worldwide, which is a brand strat and PR firm.

All of these firms are female founded, which is important to me. I’ve also been an active mentor at PIE, the Portland Incubator Experiment, which has launched dozens of companies here in Oregon and beyond. 

MG: Tell me more about Ad Fontes Media: what’s that about, and how did it happen?

BB: Ad Fontes rates news properties to see how accurate they are and whether or not they are left/right biased. You can see how it works on their famous Media Bias Chart: the farther down a property is, the less accurate. The farther to either side, the more biased. So, the most accurate and objective stuff is all top center. They have a robust methodology where three human analysts—one centrist, one conservative, and one progressive—review the same media and then take an average score. 

Why this is important in the ad biz is obvious because of Brand Safety and Suitability concerns, but that’s just brands covering their tushies. There’s a bigger picture here too, which is about little things like the future of democracy. Brands and Media Agencies should not help the spread of misinformation and disinformation by supporting it with ad dollars. My friend Dan Granger of Oxford Road talks about a “media supply chain,” which is a great metaphor. In the same way that companies don’t want their physical supply chains to include, for example, child labor in sweatshops, advertisers should think hard about their media supply chains.

How’d it happen? I stumbled across the Media Bias Chart and wanted to include it in a column I was writing for the Center (this was before I launched “The Weekly Dispatch”), so I reached out to Vanessa Otero, the creator of the chart. She kindly sent me a JPEG. We became friends and started talking a lot about how to turn the chart into a business. She then invited me to join the board, which at the time had more academics than business people in it. (I’m both.) I helped to recruit more business people. I’ve also invested, so I have skin in the game!

MG: Surely after the Cambridge Analytica fiasco we’ve solved this problem already?

BB: Not even close. We are racing blindfolded towards a massive crisis around privacy, misinformation, and how people discover and watch all sorts of media. 

Brands, media agencies, platforms, publishers, and ad tech companies are all burying their heads in the sand. 

They could embrace preventative change, but there are three big institutional problems that stop change from happening: 1) brands say their agencies are responsible for ad placements, but then the agencies say they just do what the brands tell them to do… so both parties hide behind the other. 2) Algorithms at Google and Facebook and the rest are black boxes, which also allows buyers to hide. 3) Section 230 absolves web businesses from accountability for what people say on their platforms. That’s not the news directly, but it allows misinformation and disinformation to spread wildly. The idea that something has to change around 230 now has bipartisan support, but the two sides come at it from wildly different places, so this is going to be murky and messy for a long time. 

Ad Fontes can say with confidence, “this thing is accurate, that thing isn’t; this thing isn’t biased, those things are.” It’s a good start.

MG: So rumor has it you are writing a book. Any truth to this rumor and is the book about me?

BB: Somebody told you about my sequel to “The Joy of Sex” that’s called “The Goldberg Exhalations”? 

But seriously folks… yeah, I’m writing a book called The Shakespeare Strategy


BB: Y’know how sodium and chloride are two poisons that combine to make salt, the most basic spice? A lot of people think that the two most boring things in the universe are Shakespeare and business books, but they combine to make something spicy and interesting.

The short version is that William Shakespeare was as big a business genius as he was a creative genius, and if we look at his innovative business practices it tells us a lot about what makes a 400+ year brand success story. Plus it explains a lot about the success of firms like Amazon, Apple, and Disney today. 

I’ve been thinking about this stuff for decades, but the seed of the current project got planted in a TEDx talk I gave back in 2014 that has been seen so many thousands of times that you can’t attribute all of them to my Mom.

MG: So not about me, darn. You are a very good writer so I expect big things. Your newsletter covers a lot of topics. What has been one of your more fun topics to cover and why should people sign up?

BB: I launched The Weekly Dispatch earlier this year because I need feedback on things sooner than when a book eventually hits an airport Hudson News near you. People are digging it: I have readers from all over the world! 

Did I mention that it’s free?

I share a combo platter of super-timely hot takes and evergreen think pieces. Some of the most fun I’ve had on the hot take side has been around Elon Musk and Twitter. I was the first to say, “he doesn’t want to own Twitter, and here’s why.” People have engaged with that series with rolled-up sleeves. On the evergreen side, I’ve been working out an idea about what I call “experience stacks” over several issues. Experience Stacks are the flip side of an organization’s Tech Stack: companies weave different technologies together to create their offering. Likewise, customers and audiences improvisationally weave together a bunch of different contexts to frame and deepen their own experiences. This happens in real time, and we can do a much better job of thinking through what people do with their experiences than we typically do. If this sounds familiar, it connects with both the Shakespeare book and the Power of Live research I mentioned earlier.

And, y’know, the Weekly Dispatch is free. 

MG: Nothing is free, Brad. You’re a futurist, so make a prediction… Tell us what will happen.

BB: What’s going to happen is easy: the tricky part is when it will happen. For example, I’ve already predicted that there will be a massive “Mediapocalypse” consolidation in 2025 after the next Olympics and Presidential cycle. Walmart will buy Paramount, Apple will buy Disney… that sort of thing. That’s a “when” I’m comfy with.

A lot of time the biggest thing to watch isn’t the thing you think you should watch. How trends combine and collide are usually more important than individual trends by themselves. I’m watching battery technology right now because until we figure out how to make batteries better, that’s going to impede the growth of Electric Vehicles, wearables, and especially Heads Up Display (HUD: VR and AR). The company that figures out how I can wear smart glasses for 12+ hours without having to recharge is the company that’s going to win in the evolutionary cycle of how people interact with information. I think that’s going to be Apple because they have the right combination of hardware and UX experience. 

The cluster of colliding trends here are HUD, AR, 5G, digital assistants, wireless earbuds, and smartwatches. Instead of toggling back and forth between our smartphones and the world around us, we’ll look at a fusion. Instead of typing onto pieces of glass, we’ll have verbal input and both auditory and visual output. The smartphone will go away as the primary computing device in favor of a Personal Area Network (PAN). This is going to change everything: communications, productivity, storytelling of all kinds, shopping, driving. But it’s dead in the water without better batteries. Nobody wants to unplug a half dozen devices to charge three times per day.

So for that one, the when is farther out, a lot farther out. I’m confident that we’ll have long-charge smart glasses after 2027, but they’ll be expensive and it will take two or three years to come down in price. Smartglasses won’t hit 50% penetration of the U.S. population for another year or two after that. So… doing the math that means that the HUD revolution will accelerate in 2030. That sounds like a long time, but eight years ago was 2014, and that feels like yesterday. 

MG: Can you connect this with Big Digital Idea because I’m still not sure I get what you do as a consultant.

BB: Oh dear.

MG: So let me come at this another way. What’s a great question or two that you ask your clients? How do you get them to clarity?

BB: Oh! I love that. Two come to mind: one is mine and one is from Clay Christensen.

The vintage Brad Berens question is WITDO, which stands for “What is the Dream Outcome?” of a conversation, project, initiative, etc. The key letter in WITDO is D for dream. If you just ask “what is a desired outcome” or something similar, then you get short-range, tactical “you want fries with that?” thinking. It’s like the Abraham Maslow thing where if you only have a hammer everything looks like a nail. I work hard to get my clients out of the hammer business. 

The Clay Christensen question comes from his last big business book, Competing Against Luck, where he talks about “jobs theory.” The question there is, “what job is the customer hiring this product to do?” Asking that question can help organizations think broadly, strategically, with innovation in mind because your profit in 2025 from now will come from a different source than your profit in 2019. 

MG: That’s the future: what about the present? What’s something that the ad industry just gets wrong?

BB: I touched on this before with my Mediapocalypse 2025 prediction, but let’s dig in. There’s a consensual hallucination in the ad biz that F.A.S.T. (Free, Ad-supported, Streaming Television) is going to save the entertainment business from a decade of crazy over-investment. Netflix abandoned years of ad-denial in the face of one quarter of audience decline and is launching a cheaper, ad-supported tier. 

Warner Bros Discovery wants to fuse HBO Max with the Discovery streaming service and put ads in there. The problem with WBD’s plan is that Discovery content is generally cheap reality TV and HBO is generally premium… that’s like putting a Dollar Tree inside a Nieman Marcus. 

It’s all nonsense. There aren’t enough eyeballs or advertising dollars to keep this going. 

Even if there were, we have a bigger problem: lots of young people simply aren’t watching the kind of streaming content that studios make. They’re watching e-sports. They’re watching short form on Tik Tok. My friend Jeffrey Cole, the founder of the Center, used to quip that every time an ink-and-pulp newspaper reader dies, that person is not replaced. The same thing is happening with television. The pandemic was a head fake: young people watched because they couldn’t go outside, but lockdown is over.
We saw this cycle in the over investment and collapse of fiber in the earliest days of the internet. Now it’s all streaming services. 

The unanswerable but compelling question is what comes after the collapse? Who is going to swoop in, pick up the pieces, and build something exciting and new? Once again, I think Apple is in position to be a big winner here because it has the phones, the watches, the glasses, and a small but mighty Hollywood studio in AppleTV+. That combines the new tools and the new tales.

MG: So you are a Portland guy. Can you get me some fresh new Nikes? 

BB: Getting an invitation to either the Nike or adidas employee stores is a little easier than winning the lottery, but only a little. Other than that, you have the same inventory in NYC. All the sneaker companies are going DTC anyway. (That means no.)

MG: Well I don’t want Adidas anymore. Where would you take me to dinner (you are paying) when I come out (to get my Nikes from you)?

BB: Now that I can answer! Portland is a fantastic food town. What we’d actually do is an Uber-powered/Food Cart/Beer Crawl because there are too many great food cars and too many great brewpubs to visit only one of each. For the last several years, I’ve been obsessed with sour beer, and there are some fantastic breweries doing amazing things with sours: Great Notion is little known outside Portland, but it’s great. Cascade, according to The New York Times, makes the best sours in the country. There are a half dozen more. 

I’m still mourning the loss of a Transylvanian Food Cart that closed a few years ago. 

MG: Where are you taking me when you come to NY?

BB: Dude, you have the home court advantage!

MG: Yes, but you don’t want to go to Dos Toros.

BB: If I have to pick, then it will probably involve bagels since Portland’s bagel mojo isn’t where it could be, although I have finally found a decent bagel source in Spielman’s. In NYC, I’m partial to Russ & Daughters.

MG: What are you binge watching now?

BB: It’s a little embarrassing, but I’m taking another pass at Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: the 2006 Aaron Sorkin drama that lasted a season. I got it from my local library, and I’m about halfway through. The first half dozen episodes hold up, but then it starts to go off the rails. 

MG: Yes, it is embarrassing.

BB:If I could, then I’d binge Reboot on Hulu, but they only release one episode per week. 

I still feel like a failure for never having gotten into Game of Thrones, but every time I tried the first thing I’d see was some guy getting emasculated or people hurling poop at a naked woman. That didn’t feel like entertainment to me!

My wife Kathi and I got to Killing Eve late and tore through it: it was fantastic until the last five minutes, which were a betrayal.

Guilty pleasure? The new Quantum Leap.

Another guilty pleasure? Star Trek: Lower Decks. I’m a sucker for anything Trek related. As far as I’m concerned, Paramount+ should just be called Star Trek All Access. Boy was Star Trek: Strange New Worlds fantastic!

MG: Nerd.

BB: Final plug: I talk about entertainment and what’s good a lot in The Weekly Dispatch. Did I mention that it’s free?

Thanks for having me, Marc. I appreciate you.

MG: And I you.