Fourteen years of Digital Transformation

My first recollection of what was to become Digital Transformation is somewhat hazy, but I remember a couple of events which have a timestamp.

In 2005, Tim O’Reilly wrote “What the hell is web 2.0“, an article of still unsurpassed clarity; if you haven’t read it, yet, stop and go read it.

Now, I’ll wait.

I liked it so much I started writing a series of blog posts, the first of which starts with a this comment:

the “Web2.0” moniker is something we have been developing a lot of experience over the last couple of years

allowing me to date my professional interest in the thing that today we all call Digital Transformation circa 2003, hence this post’ title.

I also remember our first large client(*), a multinational company in whose Italian sub we managed to find someone crazy enough to risk the budget he had for a project on an approach completely unproven. The project turned out to be extremely successful, won a whole truckload of awards and kept growing and growing. At some point, however, the need of the Client for our support diminished as, essentially, they had learned everything there was to learn and continued on their own.

Such is the life of Agencies.

This event notwithstanding, the relationship was and remained good, and we did many other projects together, albeit none ever was as ground-breaking as the one in 2003. Nine years later I left the Agency world and wrote two books (this and this) which are deeply rooted in these learnings: I assumed that, by then, my knowledge was not (only) mine anymore, since nowadays Digital Transformation consultants are more abundant than bartenders.

Fast forward to 2017, when I get a call from that same client, but from another country. The person who calls me is someone I had never met before, had never heard of the project we did in Italy; in fact he does not even know me, except for the fact he attended (and liked, obviously) a workshop I gave in Riga, Latvia and when his boss asked if he knew someone who could run a Digital Transformation Masterclass, he thought of me.

In preparing this session, we demanded the audience (a dozen people who are responsible for marketing and communications for that company in a certain region) what were the issues they were trying to address.

To my huge surprise, these were EXACTLY those they had in 2003: it’s like knowledge had not spread around at all; despite the roaring success of that first project, our approach never turned into a true best practice and was never widely adopted.

Questions included:

  • why should we be doing this?
  • who should we talk to?
  • what should we be talking about?
  • how do we establish meaningful though leadership?
  • how do we keep it alive?
  • how do we connect it to our Brand?
  • what if we’re not selling a product?
  • how do I engage the rest of the organization?
  • how do I know if I’m being successful?
  • what should I measure?

So while I am flattered that after all these years the same client in another country is asking for my help, even if just for some training, at the same time I am bothered because – despite my approach being correct – I failed to really make an impact even on a Client which fully experienced its success.

Perhaps I was too ahead of my time, perhaps my books are not engaging enough (the forced readers in my family tell me, no, they aren’t), perhaps the methodology is awaiting some complementary element which will make it truly understandable and, therefore, useful.

Being right is not even the beginning of the solution.

(*) sadly, the client won’t be mentioned. Unlike other cases, I am not cleared to do so, and it will remain unnamed.

Case studies from History (2)

After the teaser of a few weeks ago, please find below the full text of my remarks at the 3rd Arab PR Conference held in Cairo on December 19 and 20.

Conferences in the Arab world are not the pinnacle of presentation skills: thanks to their difficult relationship with images, most presentations are a dull sequence of text in Arabic (which I don’t speak or read). So mine was exactly the opposite, and contained nothing but images, some of which are interspersed in this text.


MESSAGES (Italy, 1970s – the Years of Lead)

f12-marcus-porcius-catoIn the 70’s the Italian economy was ravaged by rampant inflation, slow growth, corruption – the usual set of deadweights that unfortunately bogged down my country since the end of Second World War. Actually, when you read essays on Ancient Rome, you realize that Marcus Porcius Cato was complaining exactly about these same evils in 200BC so it’s a tradition that goes back a long way…

MANIFESTAZIONE DI LAVORATORI OPERAI DELLA PIRELLI ANNO 1969As usual, the poorer segment of the population was bearing the brunt of this situation and social strife was everywhere: hardly a day went by without a protest march or a strike and the mildly conservative governments that rapidly came and went were unable to cope with diverging extremes both on the left and on the right.

f14-cds-piazza-fontanaIn 1969 a bomb exploded in a bank in Piazza Fontana in central Milano, killing 17: it was the start of an escalation of violence that lasted about ten years, collectively known as “Years of Lead”. Terrorist groups formed in both extremes, the best known perhaps being right wing Ordine Nuovo (“New Order”) and the leftist Brigate Rosse (“Red Brigades”).

While the neo-fascists always operated under guidance or inspiration from Secret Services (both Italian and American), the Red Brigades prospered like piranhas in the fish tank of a dispossessed working class.

Exactly like piranhas in a feeding frenzy, inebriated by their newly found enormous visibility, they escalated their military actions from symbolic non-lethal woundings of key figures of the establishment (journalists, industrialists, politicians) to deadly attacks which culminated in 1978 in the cold-blooded murder of Aldo Moro, then President of the Christian Democratic Party, together with the five men of his security detail.

Despite the violence, the rhetoric of what was then the largest Communist Party outside of the Soviet Union, and especially that of the hardline Union of Metalworkers CGIL, was to characterize the Red Brigades as “comrades who went too far”.

f24-1979-guido-rossaIn 1978, however, Guido Rossa, a CGIL Union Representative working at the largest Italian steel mill, Italsider, reported to the Police one of his co-workers for distributing Red Brigades leaflets at his workplace. It was an act of isolated bravery: two other Union Reps, despite having witnessed the same event, refused to testify for fear of reprisals.

These fears proved not without foundation, as a few months later Guido Rossa was murdered by the Red Brigades, the first homicide against a member of the working class.

The Red Brigades attempted to portray Rossa as a spy, but both the Communist party and CGIL subtly altered their stance, starting to call the Red Brigades “Enemies of the People”.

The phenomenon had peaked and without popular support the Red Brigades frayed in a myriad of bickering small units, militants started to defect and soon all terrorists were apprehended and sentenced long prison terms.


The fish tank had been emptied killing the fearsome piranhas.

Forty years later, we know a great deal of what happened during that dark decade but back then? Propaganda fed us all kinds of credible stories, mixing bits of truth with loads of lies and confusing everybody.

The switch that made possible that a divided and confused country would come out from a season of blood and hate was the shift in Communications which did away with the subtle differences, justification and historical rationales and painted the world in much simpler colors, pigeonholing terrorists in their right box: enemies of the people.

f30-isis-flagIf I bring up this image, what do you think? Most of you will think Islamic State, right?

Well, I think we are making a significant semantic and communications mistake every time we call “Islamic” something that has no relation to Islam, and “State” f31-ku-klux-klansomething that is definitely not a State. The use of the adjective shoud be sanctioned in the same way we ridicule the Ku-Klux-Klan’ abuse of Christian symbols.

The use of the noun should also be sanctioned, because a “State” is such only if other States recognize it.

It is quite clear that the real target (and the worst enemy) of terrorists are the many peaceful, integrated, hard-working people that happen to be of Muslim religion. They are the living demonstration that people CAN and WILL live peacefully together, improving unjust western societies and making them a better, more tolerant place with every generation. But they are also the living chain of transmission that will eventually import what is good from western societies to the betterment of their home countries.

It is high time that this majority, their leadership and their clergy empty the fish tank by denouncing terrorists for what they are, i.e. enemies of Islam and of the Muslim people, addressing them with the only word that is appropriate.


But as I said, there are two components to every great Communications projects, because alongside a clear message strategy, we need a reputable spokesperson.

REPUTATION (Europe, 1377: the Great Schism)

Christianity lived through a profound schism (called the Great Western Schism) for most of the XIV century: initiated with the transfer of the Pope from Rome to Avignon in 1307,

the Schism itself appeared with the return of the Papal Siege to Rome decided by Pope Gregory XI in 1377: upon his death, the french faction and the roman faction both elected a Pope, and Europe found itself divided in “french obedience” (France, Spain, southern Italy, Scotland) and “roman obedience” (Eastern and Northern Europe, northern Italy, England, Ireland) with the German Empire and Portugal flip-flopping between the two depending on political convenience.


Such divisions on matters of faith masked – as it’s often the case – unresolved political issues existing between the various Empires and Kingdoms, starting with the Church, itself a secular potentate at the time. Therefore a seemingly innocuous religious dispute became the “reason” for much bloodshed.

In 1409, an attempt to resolve the problem made it worse by adding a third Pope to the existing two.

If41-concilio-di-costanzat took until 1417, when the Ecumenical Council of Konstanz, having sorted out in three years of discussion the doctrinal differences, deposed all three Popes and elected a new one, Martin V.

The Ecumenical Council was not a “new” instrument: in the history of the Church it had been called sixteen other times (but only five since) to address doctrinal issues such as heresies. The 1414 one was the first time it was used to decide which Pope was the legit one, a thorny issue which called into discussion the supremacy of the Pope which was sanctioned in 1870 when it was upheld formally stating that the Pope was indeed infallible when speaking “ex cathedra on matters of faith”.


This brief history lesson teaches us two things therefore:

  • it’s a matter of words, which we call


Changing the way you call someone that has gone the wrong way will have an impact on the perception of the masses. If Italian Unions had not started to call the Red Brigades “Enemies of the People” probably the Years of Lead would have stretched much further in time.

  • it’s a matter of authority which we call 


The Western Schism could not have been composed without stretching the mandate of the Ecumenical Council, something that was only possible because all parties recognized the explosive potential of the Schism to precipitate Europe into another endless war.

f45-quranThis is probably what is needed by Islam today: an extraordinary measure to sanction that the perversion of the words of the Quran to justify terrorism is an unacceptable heresy, and preachers of such hate doctrine should be publicly thrown out of Islam,

…into a furnace of fire:

there shall be wailing

and gnashing of teeth

(Matthew, 13:42)

Case studies from History (1)

I am looking forward to a very intense fall traveling schedule which will take me to Mumbai, Istanbul and Cairo in the space of a few weeks.

I will start with the last one, because I will be covering a whole new topic which I never discussed before in a public occasion, and that is

Propaganda vs. True Public Engagement

How is Propaganda different from True Public Engagement?

Is one leading to the other, or are the two opposed? And, has this changed with the advent of Digital, which removed all barriers to access making each individual a potential, if temporary, news channel?

More importantly, perhaps, did the transition to Digital usher an era of more authentic Communications, where people talk to people directly and information is free to travel across the world?

My impression is that after a very short period of under-evaluation, Propaganda has learned its digital ropes quite well, if nothing else because Propaganda has money and it can afford the best consultants.

One of the largest contracts I led was the Digital campaign for the 2009 European Elections: the Party that was our client won, even though with age I stopped claiming merit for that victory. Barack Obama is widely credited to have won especially the 2008 election thanks to masterful use of Social Media; across Europe, new euro-skeptic parties thrive on digital-only communications.

The Goebbels of our time have demonstrated they are as good at manipulating public opinion as they were in the ‘40s because Digital and Social Media are a channel like any other: they are not un-stoppable, they can be (and are) monitored. If anything, for this purpose they are better suited than most channels, because all that goes through them is already in machine-digestible form: as a matter of fact, some of the most advanced Artificial Intelligence applications are classified and used in military grade surveillance.

Moreover, both sides of any dispute have become so good at storytelling that very often it is quite difficult to figure out who are the Good Guys. I presume we can all think of contemporary geo-political scenarios that fit this description.

When I look at the world we all live in, alongside glorious examples of citizen journalism I see evidence of digital tools being very effectively used to recruit and indoctrinate distraught youngsters to become terrorist chrysalises, ready to blossom into the next Breivik or Abdeslam.

So I started looking at the past, where I found two stories that I believe are of relevance, as they show how in the past crises not dissimilar from the ones facing us right now have been addressed using two of the fundamentals of Communications: Messages and Reputation.

You can call these Case Studies from History.

[more to follow…]

On the road

You may remember I announced a few days ago the first Digital Transformation Workshop.

Emboldened by what preliminary looks like a successful event (fingers crossed), I have spoken about this to a few friends scattered around the globe and it looks like now this thing may have ballooned into a tour hitting as many as 24 countries in Europe (and elsewhere).

stage truck

Of course not everybody has yet gotten back to me with firm dates, and the holiday period means it may take a while to sort everything out, but it’s just amazing how warmly this has been received. It will be lots of work, but also a whole lot of fun.

Arab PR Conference

Very honored to participate in my capacity as Co-Chairman of the World Communication Forum as a Keynote Speaker at the Second Arab PR Conference organized in Vienna on november 3rd.

I am honored to be in such a distinguished company, but also a great opportunity to developfor Friends, not for Brands links with another very interesting part of the world; wisely, the organizers asked me stick to my guns: my topic will be the Digital Transformation Governance and will be one of the first public appearances of my second book “For friends, not for Brands!” (soon to appear in an e-bookstore close to you! – sorry, couldn’t resist the plug :-D)

As I said many times, I have always marveled at how close the level of professionalism of colleagues coming from remote parts of the world is when compared to western Europe, demolishing the bias of a wide gap between different geographical areas: definitely, Digital is a great chasm-filler!


Reimagine Marketing

Had the privilege of moderating the 2014 Microsoft CMO Summit: the proof is in the pudding, and you should really ask the audience whether they liked it or not, but judging by the intensity of engagement and discussion during the event, the evaluation from the stage is a strong “Yes”.

We decided to skate on thin ice, do away with PowerPoints and I.T.-speak and focus instead on telling a story, but building it along the way with the collaboration of the audience.

In the [slightly abridged] words of MS Italy GM Carlo Purassanta, “You better digitally disrupt your business, before someone else does it for you”.

I took the audience through the route of a Customer Journey, following an imaginary Consumer as she draws closer to a Brand, includes it in her consideration set, purchases the product and finally becomes its Ambassador, focusing mainly on the measurement side of things, traditionally a weak point for CMOs, not helped by their CIOs who vomit on them reams of data that carry little or no information.

Our message was that, once you understand the underlying mechanics, the governance of such projects is really not that difficult along the lines of my sensemaking tenet;  did we drive the message home? Perhaps, only time can tell.

For me it was certainly a project that perfectly fitted my mission of “Only consulting on fun stuff with great people!”

Finally, legit!

A while back I had reported being drafted to keynote at the Microsoft Symposium and – with some delay which is entirely my fault – I have realized they put up this nice video.

[EDIT apr. 2nd: the link has now been replaced with another version of the video where the 20″ of movie excerpt at the beginning of my presentation have been edited out, otherwise the MPAA would have confirmed the hit contract on me. If I sound sarcastic, it’s because you are a sick person]

For once, a presentation in Italian !


Davos 5 wrap up

I just returned from the 5th edition of the World Communication Forum held in Davos. Several innovations in this year’ edition really catched my attention:

  1. we ran a business game designed by Lena: in about an hour “consultant” players organized themselves in “agencies” and sold their services to “client” players. It is amazing how in such a short period of time, with no preparation and uneven understanding of the rules the simulation did take off, people started literally behaving like in real life. The group I was in created a relatively big agency, we aggressively pursued new business and eventually we bought out a smaller agency. After a while, it was clear we were the largest and most aggressive player in the market and the other smaller agencies reacted forming an association and extolling the virtues of niche, specialized players. Fun and exciting, really got people off their butts and participating, with no exception.
  2. The organizers were kind enough to allow me to design the panel I chaired (“Do you e-xist?“) in every detail: other than a 10′ intro, we dispensed with all presentations and instead focused on the discussion. Dicran, Virginie, Eric and Lars fielded question after question, agreed and disagreed and – as it was predictable – we reached the end of our hour with still a lot to discuss.
  3. I participated in a “closed doors discussion” where a sponsoring client grouped a half dozen consultants, explained what their problem was and received some off-the-cuff advice. Together with me were Iekje from Holland, Stuart and Michael from the UK and Christian from Switzerland / China / UK. Without over self-praise, I think we went remarkably far in these two hours, and the client received a number of very good ideas.

Then the usual perks of WCF: international attendance like no other event I have ever been to, lively audience, lots of networking during the breaks and meals, beautiful all-around scenery. I even had the extra perk of presenting the Award Ceremony with Katie, I may well say I really feel accomplished!

I think these interaction elements worked really well, so maybe next year the organizers could put more of them; also perhaps I would move the business game to the second day and – as a final suggestion – maybe we could experiment with the 99 second presentation format, as defined by Scott Berkun.