I love movies. So much so, at any given Future Commerce Salon, I’ll often play the “top-five” game—you know the one; you rattle off your top-five most pretentious and snooty picks as an intellectual flex to your friends: “That’s so weird, Phillip, I’ve literally never heard you mention Citizen Kane prior to today in our twelve-plus years of friendship.” My top-five is a carefully-chosen quintet that encapsulates the essence of who I am.. Atop the list is Whiplash, the acclaimed 2014 indie drama by Damien Chazelle.
Chazelle is a genius, the youngest winner of an Academy Award for Best Director. His most recent movie—Babylon—was the first he directed to receive a “certified rotten” rating by the review site Rotten Tomatoes. I strongly disagree with this assessment of the movie for many reasons but one is very personal and relevant to our industry. Babylon plays through the perfect story of the rise and fall of silent films, which gives way to the technologically-driven “talkies” that followed; a striking allegory of our own ecosystem. There are lessons to be learned from this archetypal tale.
Today for Insiders, I’m going to review Babylon and tell you our story—the rise of the eCommerce ecosystem and the impact of its commodification.
“That’s so weird, Phillip, I’ve literally never heard you mention Citizen Kane in our twelve-plus years of friendship.”
Spectacle, Industry parties, and Debauchery
Babylon opens with its leading characters converging at an industry party. It’s the wildest party—maybe the wildest ever depicted on screen (yes, it is very NSFW). Music, dancing, alcohol, drugs, nudity, and “entertainment.” It is the definition of spectacle. This is where we find Manuel (Diego Calva), the leading man, who starts at the bottom of the food chain, running errands for and fixing problems for a movie executive. Manny instinctively understands his role, an innocent unfazed by the debauchery and partying. Whatever is going on around him has no bearing on his character; he’s focused on the tasks at hand. He also has a deep love of film. He’s enamored with the creation that is possible through the technology of film. He develops a reputation as a fixer.
When I entered the world of eCom it was just before the peak of the Open Source, on-prem platform era. The heights were limitless, and the cool-kids scene revolved around Magento. And anyone—literally anyone—could participate in the community and make a difference. Ragtag teams; people from diverse industries, with or without degrees; people from all over the world. The code was as open as those who participated. People weren’t terribly precious about their code, either. Anything and everything felt possible, and it genuinely felt like rising tides were lifting all boats. Competitors were friends more than enemies.
This world of infinite possibilities took place at the cusp of the eCom revolution, the mobile computing revolution, and the shift to the Cloud. And my team was out in front.
Like Babylon’s Manny, I started in project and operations roles, on the task of making sure things happened. Though naive and doe-eyed, I found myself solving bigger and bigger problems—putting together puzzle pieces that had never been put together. One of these puzzle pieces landed me on a visible stage: when I helped architect a three-way deal between eBay, 3M, and our dev agency to build Magento’s first native responsive theme, built with 3M’s eCom experience as the first store.
I also led the project to build the theme. At the risk of waxing poetic (and dating myself), that theme became the most adopted responsive eCommerce theme in the world. I was invited to Imagine, Magento’s international conference in Las Vegas, where the theme was unveiled through a video story of the theme creation and launch set to Alexandre Desplat’s soundtrack of Moonrise Kingdom.
IMAGINE. For you eCommerce veterans (old-timers?), this was the pinnacle of events. It was my first time in Vegas, and it felt wild. Magento knew precisely what it was doing. The nerds and the marketers, the experts and novices, the executives and the juniors, the salespeople and their prey, the young and the not-so-young, the religious and the irreligious came together. They sat in sessions of inspiration and tech, with visuals from talented creators such as designer and author John Couch, who went on to lead product design at Hulu. Even the most skeptical among us were dazzled into believers. Magento would put on parties (yes, literally titled Legendary), with music and Vegas-style entertainment.
People weren’t terribly precious about their code, either. Anything and everything felt possible; competitors were friends more than enemies.
These parties and conferences weren’t contained to a specific ecosystem. There were other platform-focused events and even tech-agnostic conferences such as Shoptalk. I’ve been to every single Shoptalk in Vegas. The first one was the wildest. Someone slipped me VIP passes for the main event—a private Wyclef Jean concert just for attendees. At the concert, these commerce-dork attendees were dancing on tables, taking their shirts off, and going nuts. Wyclef was feeling it enough to stage dive into the audience. The VIP pass I snagged turned out to be for Google’s private party section at the concert, where investment bankers, CMOs, and tech executives tapped their toes and nodded to the beat while ordering premium tequila served on platters with flaming sparklers by sexily-clad attendants.
This was the juxtaposition of the early industry. When eCom really took off, the tech-focused and developer types led the charge. Shoptalk was one of the first semblances of concentrated ZIRP-era money sticking its nose in to muck about. The clash of culture and money flow made for odd interactions, because a lot of the “community” had never encountered this type of treatment. In short, no one knew how to act.
Devs and technologists were mixing with marketers and salespeople. International brand leaders were buying services and technology from homeschooled small-town kids who grew up on Nintendo, Starcraft, and Runescape. It was protocol mayhem. The drinks were flowing, and behavior unpredictable.
Beyond the hallowed halls of a conference center were the parties (oh my, the parties).. The technology companies and agencies brought their wallets: gambling, drinks, helicopters, exotic cars—the whole of Vegas.
And then there were the drugs and strip clubs; certain companies had gained a reputation for a certain type of entertainment with their clients. Certain people developed rockstar-like reputations for their penchant for “nose candy”; the coke-sniffing product managers and strip-club-loving analysts such as ████████ and █████████ (redacted to protect the guilty).
There was that sales rep from ████████ who climbed on a craps table and publicly relieved himself. He was relieved of his job the next day.
The dark side of all this was very real. I found myself in awe of this brave new world of commerce, and simultaneously disgusted and concerned at this destructive path that some people chose to take to achieve greatness.
Learning at the end of an era
And so, I quickly learned how to thread the needle of this world; engaged, but thoughtfully avoiding the parts I found objectionable. I knew many whose innocence was lost in that time. I, too, had my share of social faux pas, though mine perhaps a little more innocent. I distinctly remember trying to discuss the emotional and spiritual impact of monochromatic paintings during a very loud afterparty.
But I got the hang of it. I threw parties and dinners. And our agency enjoyed the rite-of-passage that is being ejected from the Encore Suites (and placed on the permanent naughty list). Despite the craziness, the good parts came with the informal groups that came together and would sit in lobby bars until 4am, sharing stories, swapping advice, and dreaming about the future of commerce. It didn’t just ‘stay in Vegas’;—the same level of spectacle, insights, and community could be found from New York to Munich to LA to Chicago to Manchester to Boston. It was a truly global community.
The nerds and the marketers, the experts and novices, the executives and the juniors, the salespeople and their prey, the young and the not-so-young, the religious and the irreligious came together.
A Magento event is where I met Future Commerce co-founder, Phillip, in a backroom poker game between nerds who wanted to play but didn’t feel confident enough to win at the tables. I insulted his card-shuffling abilities. We were fast friends from there.
Later, Phillip emcee’d and keynoted the Imagine conference two years running (2018 and 2019), complete with flying around on stage on a wire. He held the honor even after the acquisition by Adobe.
If you’re reading this and you’re in the eCommerce industry, I’m sure you had some sort of similar experience, no matter which era, or which ecosystem, you came up through. Salesforce (talk about events, ahem), Shopify, BigCommerce, Shopware, Amazon—they’re all different shades of the world that is eCommerce. They all had their communities, conferences, and parties, and you probably feel some kind of affinity, thankfulness, and now perhaps what’s verging on nostalgia for whichever of these worlds you made your home.
The end is the beginning is the end
But this brings us to other characters in the story. In Babylon’s opening party, Manny meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a brash nobody who’s come to make her mark in the mayhem, and Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a bonafide A-list movie star who owns the industry. Nellie is a right-time, right-place talent. The menage-a-trois of her ambition, trauma, and talent quickly elevate her to stardom. At the same time, we find Jack sitting at the top already, having entered into the fray earlier in the game; he also carries a chip on his shoulder about the world he represents—a world of “low art” and low company. He wants to push the boundaries of the industry, the boundaries of the technology that makes movies possible:
“It’s the dinosaurs, kid. It’s the ones that reminisce about the old days when they can’t see there’s so much more to be done. We’ve got to innovate. We’ve got to inspire. We’ve got to dream beyond these pesky shells of flesh and bone… turn today into tomorrow.”
He sees “talkies” as the future of the industry, but in doing so, signs his demise. He has no talent for the coming technological revolution.
While Jack and Nellie have seemingly vastly different situations and approaches, there’s a kinship between them here, a parallel in their role. Their differences are inconsequential when faced with the changes in their industry. The skills they possess are not matched for the world of technology of sound in film. Jack even sees and welcomes change, but it doesn’t matter. His talents had provided him with a leading role in the old world that he is emotionally unable to relinquish.
Ostracization and ridicule stream down upon them both. Depressed and alone, they both come to unhappy ends. And through his loyalty to the people who inspired him, Manny finds himself out as well, as he tries to force new wine into old wineskins.
In our industry, the stars of a specific moment are often the ones most at risk of coming innovation. If you’re active on LinkedIn and X, you probably see a number of people who look like stars, elevated by the moment. A developer, a marketer, a founder, a community leader. Something about their blend of ambition, talent, and yes sometimes trauma, has thrust them into the limelight of the moment. It is rare for such a persona to survive a technological paradigm change. Their sunk costs—both intellectual and emotional—are so high that they’re pot-committed. Or perhaps they’re oblivious as to why what they did was successful.
Over the past five years, we’ve witnessed this process in action. Superstar developers were the first go. These devs were initially given the spotlight at these glitzy conferences, educating their respective communities and sharing knowledge about the build process. These developer heroes were invited to speak at events and controlled the direction of the eCommerce product.
But as the tech moved toward SaaS, devs became integrators or tool builders—at every level, from enterprise down to SMB. From every angle, they became commodified for brands and retailers. The knowledge space and expertise became more narrow, too. As infrastructure became commoditized in the cloud era, and further-so in the microservices era, the brain-drain saw the most talented devs leave eCom and go to adjacent industries. real builders became marketers. The DTC and growth marketers rose with a host of tools that the now-commodified developers supported. As their role has become more commodified, DTC and growth marketers have undergone a similar experience as the superstar devs—a de-prioritization of their significance in the ecosystem.
Perhaps now we’re in the golden age of influencer and “organic” social selling, with peak Mr. Beast and his lookalikes. It doesn’t matter though, the energy will shift as new channels emerge.
The brightest stars fade the fastest
Here’s the takeaway for all of this—when you see the stars of an industry lose their luster, you can be confident technology is changing underneath them. eCom became a commodity. Growth marketing is becoming a commodity.
The fallout can be devastating for those at the top. It’s a tough spot to be in, feeling like you owned a world and then realizing this world was temporary—especially if you invested your whole being into it. Some of you might feel left behind, depressed, or like your moment came and went and you don’t know how to get it back. I’ve got a little hope for you so hold on for a moment while we go darker first.
Only a few stars were able to transition from silent films to talkies. John Barrymore and Greta Garbo both did it. Greta’s voice was a natural fit for the culture of the time, and John had developed his voice through his stage and Shakespeare work.
Rare is the person who transcends an industry’s technological shift while remaining prominent in that ecosystem.
There are only a couple of ways to do it. You could get lucky. This requires ancillary talents (natural or developed) or quantum-like qualities that fit with the new world. John and Greta fall into this category. The other option: shift to a different part of the business. This might not mean visibility, but it could mean prominence and money. This is likely a more predictable financial option than leaving the industry and starting over doing something completely different.
But this is where Manny finds himself, forced to leave the industry (and quite literally flee from the creepiest Toby Maguire I could ever imagine) after pushing things to their bitter and unscrupulous end.
Some of you have the will and humility and talent and drive to squish yourselves into a new shape for a new world. You will not get to sit on your laurels. You will feel like you’re not getting the respect you deserve. You’ll feel like you’re starting over. It will be hard work.
Some of you shift into more comfortable yet different roles, background figures that use your influence to craft new experiences and new stars. Some of you will be better off finding a new life in a new industry. You’ll feel better about yourself.
This is not a bad thing.
At the end of Babylon, Manny returns to LA with his family. He’s nervous to be there, but he finds himself curious all the same. He ends up in a theater, watching a film about the evolution of the film industry. All the memories of his former life flood back, and he realizes he was a part of something that changed the course of history. The end of the film is just a cacophony of light, color, and sound that leaves you dazzled and dazed. The glory of it lands and sometimes it’s ok just to be happy you got to be a part of something great, something you can take pride in.
That’s my word of encouragement. If you’re in this industry and hitting a wall, don’t feel ashamed to look backwards and be overcome by what you accomplished.
But don’t look in the rearview like it’s the windshield.
The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flair of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future. —Marshall McLuhan
Zine’s annual Meta Trends Report for 2024 just landed. Report creator and contributing editor, Matt Klein’s analysis: everyone’s saying the same things— and have been for at least the past five years.
Stalling to complete this annual meta-analysis of the most reported cultural trends, I decided to go back in time and flip through some old 2018 reports. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much time-traveling. Those reports, now published over half a decade ago, read eerily similar to what’s being forecasted for 2024
Perhaps this was just some lingering bitterness after spending a year speaking on how trends have lost all meaning. To test my perception, I created a simple quiz: 2018 or 2024? “Can you tell when each of the following trends was published?”...
[Quiz-takers] felt what I did. Turns out you were better off guessing 50/50 than genuinely attempting to determine if a trend was published in 2018 or 2024.”
Our industry is trying to live our present with an eye on the past and trends reporting “requires” data—data from the past. This is no way to uncover the future.
Originality is lost because we can only look back to be taken seriously. Perhaps the best way to step into the future is to build it.