Turn The Arc Lights On The Audience: A Modern Marketing Lesson from The Who

‘Music is not a prayer to god. It’s a prayer to the audience. It’s about you. It’s about you. I don’t write songs about me. I write songs about you. That’s why I’m successful.‘

Pete Townshend, Lambert and Stamp

Lambert and Stamp is a splendid documentary about Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, the managers of The Who that mentored the band from West London mods to global rock superstars.

The Who were a thrilling, combustible, mercurial stage act. They were cheeky, angry, dapper and aggressive. They were ‘meaty, beaty, big and bouncy.’ They were ‘maximum R&B.’ But, more than this, they were a band that gave expression to post-war British teenagers; to the disaffected working class; to stylish urban kids that wanted to get on. The Who spoke for their generation.

‘People try to put us d-down,
Just because we get around.

Things they do look awful c-c-cold.
I hope I die before I get old.
This is my generation,
This is my generation, baby.’

Pete Townshend/The Who, My Generation

In the documentary Chris Stamp relates how, during the band’s American tours, huge arc lights were stationed at the back of the stage. At the finale of each gig they would shine the arc lights’ powerful beams through the group so that the audience were illuminated. The crowd invariably stood up as one and became part of the experience.

This instinct to shine a light on the audience, on their tastes and style, their passions and pain, seems to have been right at the heart of The Who’s success.

Pete Townshend, The Who’s guitarist and lead songwriter, cuts a thoughtful and engaging presence in the film. He repeatedly returns to his conviction that The Who put their fans at the centre of their creative process.

‘Everyone thinks that it’s you that influenced [the audience], not the other way round… You become a mirror to the audience. [Lambert and Stamp] started to develop it as a way of harnessing the energy of the audience, which was to empower them; to make them realise how important they actually were.’

Pete Townshend, Lambert and Stamp

I found Townshend’s argument compelling, not least because I come from a communication tradition that was uncomfortable with the thought of ‘holding a mirror up to consumers.’ We regarded our core task as persuasion and so we always put the brand and its point of view first. We sought to craft ‘emotional selling propositions’ that won consumers’ hearts, in the expectation that their minds (and wallets) would follow.

But Townshend argues that marketing should go further than this. As he succinctly puts it: ‘You don’t market to them; you market them.’

‘When you do marketing you’re always trying to find some way to get round the fact that the audience are a problem; the consumer is a problem. Well, the way that you stop the consumer being a problem is that you don’t give them what they want; you allow them to be. You affirm who they are. You don’t try to change them.’

Pete Townshend, Lambert and Stamp

I’m increasingly of the view that Townshend is right; that in the modern age of consumer empowerment, audiences don’t want to be targeted, tracked and interrupted; they want to be represented, supported and encouraged; they want their views articulated, their hopes expressed, their fears addressed. Audiences want advocacy, not advertising.

We should think of a brand as a community, a neighbourhood, a union; a collective that needs representation. A brand should be a club worth joining, a membership worth paying for.

Of course most marketers know that marketing is all about putting the consumer first. But whilst this is readily articulated, I’m not sure it is fully lived, certainly not in the way Townshend suggests.

We may understand our audiences, but do we truly empathise with them? Do we start every conversation with their tastes and preferences, hopes and aspirations? Do we really see our role as advocacy?

The evidence of rate fixing and rip-off pricing, dodgy diesels and data leaking, mis-selling and horsemeat suggests otherwise. If brands are to re-earn eroded trust they must fundamentally remodel their relationships with consumers: from marketing at them to marketing for them. In short, we need to turn the arc lights on the audience. Because this is a generation that won’t get fooled again.

 ‘I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution,
Take a bow for the new revolution,
Smile and grin at the change all around,
Pick up my guitar and play,
Just like yesterday.
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again.’

Pete Townshend/The Who, Won’t Get Fooled Again

No. 61