Bonfyres of vanities: the pitfalls of a cultural Fyre-Sale

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The great thing about the Fyre festival documentary (Netflix version) is that it works on so many levels. I think it’s a must-watch for anyone in the creative industry, media and the entrepreneur/VC space. Spheres of influence where realities are constructed and promoted, often with little regard to consequence. Let it be our cautionary tale.

Liar, liar pants on Fyre!

On a surface level, there’s the story of the epic disaster itself — a fractal-shaped clusterfuck of clusterfucks.

Early on, as a viewer, even if you had no awareness of the news story at the time, you think you know what’s coming because you know the premise. Well, guess again because it gets more and more extreme and peculiar –twist upon twist. It’s one of the things that make it such a weirdly enjoyable film to watch. I don’t want to drop any spoilers, but two moments that left me picking up my jaw off the floor were around the toxic ethos of ‘taking one for the team’ and the inevitable ‘force majeure’. More on those later.

A sample of perspectives:

· A reflection of this moment in culture where people constantly consume, construct and manufacture fictitious narratives and representation of their lives. How lost we can get in that loop and the terrible harm it can cause.

· Just how much damage privilege and entitlement can do when they are left unchecked. There are multiple types of privilege at work in Fyre. A true intersectional extravaganza. White, male, western, celebrity… To mention a few. On that level, it’s also an indictment of some aspects of the Silicon Valley VC culture and its social moneysphere.

· The huge accountability problem of influencer marketing. Marketing people often talk about word of mouth and advocacy as the most powerful forms of marketing. The fact they are easier to manipulate and spiral out of control than ever is a huge issue that we should be aware of.

Cultural dumpster fyres

But naturally what I want to talk about is what relates to my own discipline — strategy.

Management guru Peter Drucker is famously quoted saying that “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast.” While the multi-layered toxicity of some of the organisations involved in Fyre is astounding (and meta-ironically that includes a co-producer of the film itself), there’s so little strategic foresight for it to eat that I wonder how Culture didn’t starve at the get-go, saving everyone this disaster.

As someone who can’t help but think strategically about everything (don’t ever watch me order anything, and I mean anything online), I sat there constantly saying out loud ‘Wait, what? But how did that even…?’. It points to a frequent organisational trope I’ve lived through too many times.

Toxic-management cultures, many led by narcissistic psychopaths at the top (Fyre included, and my word the machismo of it all!), frequently ignore the absence of strategy and instead gorge on an empty calorie diet of tactics and knee-jerk short-term solutions, masked by a heavy dressing of fluff and politics.

To switch metaphors — those create a tremendous amount of noise and keep everybody busy rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic and discussing the increasingly uncomfortable band’s line-up while the inevitable gradually unfolds.

Sadly, it’s rarely the leaders who pay the price. Junior team members often suffer more. Facing that pain in Fyre, the schadenfreude leaves a bitter taste towards the end of the film when seeing some of the repercussions that the islanders have had to deal with.

In that sense, Fyre is a cautionary tale for what the lack of strategic integrity can cause when paired with total lack of accountability. Simple principles that are so often ignored: You must have a strategy. You have to match your promises with careful planning and back office infrastructure — or you simply won’t be able to keep. And NO — objectives and aspirations should never be mistaken for strategy.

Only yesterday, while conducting research for a client, I came across a multi-billion European brand that publicly framed an unrealistic aspiration as ‘our strategy’. And they are the kind of organisation that makes its money leading others and is supposed to keep them accountable…

I wrote in the past that if you only ever focus on what your clients (external or internal) want rather than on what they need, you can’t call yourself a consultant. It is a sign of the times that entrepreneurial optimism has turned into a tyrannical dogma where if you try to speak out, you’re labelled as a naysayer, a spoil-sport and definitely not a team player.

To those of you fighting the good fight for integrity and accountability — I feel your pain. Keep up at it if you can. If you can’t — short term costs of losing projects or even positions are usually better than the long-term price that following a toxic corporate line would have you pay.

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