Eleven years ago, I got a lesson in perspective.
I was living in Battery Park in lower Manhattan. I was on the street, just two blocks away, and saw some horrible things you don’t need in your head. Afterwards, it was almost three months before we could get back to our apartment.
I lost neighbors. I lost my neighborhood. And I lost my delusional sense of having control over my life.
Like a lot Americans, particularly those who were in the immediate vicinity, I had to deal with some level of post-traumatic stress disorder. But a few months later, something interesting happened. America went off on a revenge-fueled jingoistic rant, and I had found some perspective.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a horrific day. And we should do everything in our power to prevent anything like it from happening again.
But, 3000 Americans also died of heart disease that day - just like every day. 3000 Americans died in automobile accidents that month - just like every month. The attacks that day, though tragic, weren’t an “existential-level” event. America will go on. The human race will go on.
We have to recognize that we’re living in the least violent time in the history of humanity. And to treasure the opportunities that gives us every single day.
It helped me.
*Photo above was the view from my apartment
None of us know where the world is going. Take the disruptions going on in the entertainment and advertising business, then layer on the constant changing digital landscape and your best bet is to find something you believe in and ride it out. I always say I walk in every morning with no idea what I’m doing, but I consistently seem to be able to figure out today by around 2:30. The only way to move forward is with open arms into the chaos and embrace the change coming at us
That’s what’s wrong with the advertising business now. All energy is focused on revenue and business-model preservation. But what they’re trying to preserve is a diminishing-return commodity. We’ve crushed margins. Commited to unrealistic timelines. Etc. Which, as a creative, is quite painful. I’m judged on “good work” which by definition means something which connects viscerally in a “human” way. But in most cases, that’s in direct opposition to the business model of the industry I’m in. (A very scary realization.)
The only constant in all of this is our collective human-ness. All the shit around us changes, but 50,000 years of evolution has us pretty hardwired.
The music business has been completely upended. Except for a handful of artists, record sales are a dramatically diminishing form of revenue. But it’s a lot more than changes in distribution. Digital has taken all the self-identification out of the equation for consumers. $.99 for a track, it’s so cheap to “try on” anything. Who commits and buys the entire album anymore? When I was a kid, saying you owned London Calling was enough to differentiate you. You had to beg your parents for two weeks to get that relatively expensive piece of vinyl - which you’d display proudly in your room. But now, the tribal badge value of owning music is gone.
But that’s what makes the concert business interesting. Ticket prices are at an all-time high. The disposability of the track has made the live event so much more important. Not just for artist revenue, but for the fans. It’s their only real way to commit/connect/share. The live show is all we have left (well, there’s the ringtone, the t-shirts, etc). Watch the film PressPausePlay for a more in-depth dissection. As we’ve become more isolated with our iPods on the train, locked in our cars in the ‘burbs, staring at computer screens all day, that collective/shared experience has become the thing that defines us.
We’ve dehumanized/commoditized so many things, we’re all subconsciously looking for those DNA-based “identify and celebrate with my tribe” types of experiences.
We’re seeing this with movies. Sure, I have a billion of them on my miscellaneous connected devices and they’re disposable. BUT, opening weekend for The Avengers who has my favorite stars in it, I check into the movie on Foursquare, share my thoughts and opinions on Twitter and Facebook. It’s yet another shared commitment event. Same with television. I can say I’m a fan of Glee, but if I’m tweeting #glee during the telecast, participating in polls on Facebook, etc., that’s showing my commitment, my fan-ness, and some sort of shared experience.
Brands have to follow the same path, particularly in the digital space. There are 999 channels and more inventory on the web than anyone can possibly sell. The old models of awareness, breaking through, etc. simply don’t apply anymore. We have to get people to identify and show their “fan loyalty” in the same way the music business does. Participating in the collective “events.” You can’t just “Like” Nike. You have to commit to wear them and buy the t-shirt. Participate in Nike+. Share your passion via social.
Selling the product is one thing, getting consumers to care and commit as fans and join the experience is quite another. But the ad business (clients and agencies) are still focusing on trying to sell singles and albums.
“I once read about five monkeys that were placed in a room with a banana at the top of a set of stairs. As one monkey attempted to climb the stairs, all of the monkeys were sprayed with jets of cold water. A second monkey made an attempt and again the monkeys were sprayed. No more monkeys attempted to climb the stairs. One of the monkeys was then removed from the room and replaced with a new monkey. New monkey saw the banana and started to climb the stairs but to its surprise, it was attacked by the other monkeys. Another of the original monkeys was replaced and the newcomer was also attacked when he attempted to climb the stairs. The previous newcomer took part in the punishment with enthusiasm. Replacing a third original monkey with a new one, it headed for the stairs and was attacked as well. Half of the monkeys that attacked him had no idea why. After replacing the fourth and fifth original monkeys, none had ever been sprayed with cold water but all stayed the fuck away from the stairs. Being here longer than me doesn’t automatically make your adherence to a rule, or the rule itself, right. It makes you the fifth replacement monkey. The one with the weird red arse and the first to point and screech when anyone approaches the stairs. I would be the sixth monkey, at home in bed trying to come up with a viable excuse not to spend another fruitless day locked in a room with five neurotic monkeys.” - David Thorn
Best. Email. Ever. Just received this via anonymous email server in Amsterdam (those still exist?) so I have no idea where it came from. But some geek somewhere turned a running joke I’ve had into a football-pool-style chart about my future. Whoever you are, this is awesome. Its going in my door tomorrow. And really? Euvetica? Interesting type choice.
There’s a deep-seeded angst amongst creatives. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling it too. A sense of sensing something. Something seemingly insurmountable.
Over last few years, I’ve watched countless colleagues leave the business. They go to a startup, take client-side jobs, and go to Apple, Google or Facebook. Some just say, “fuck it.” Based on the proliferation of articles in my Twitter circle, there seems to be a pretty universal theme - advertising’s not worth it anymore. Bernbach’s resignation letter shows up every couple weeks. Linds Redding’s bit in the SF Egoist was a big one. The article itself was insightful and damning. Then, the byline at the end…devastating. I lost an entire afternoon asking, “what the hell am I doing?”
George Parker blames the holding companies, which is part of it. Many more blame the always-on speed of digital. The quarterly desire for financial efficiency combined with instant measurement leave little room for considered thought. It doesn’t help that CMOs are job-hopping every couple years - the new one always wants to blow things up. But like everything creatives do, and everything that resonates with consumers, there’s something deeper going on in our subconscious. And those subconscious thoughts are what matter.
It’s pretty much proven most people don’t think much about brands. Our beloved “differentiation” doesn’t register with consumers at all. Consumer decisions aren’t based on the rational stuff we put in ads. Sure, a crazy Black Friday door-buster might get attention, but it won’t do anything for your brand. The purchase decisions are subconscious, particularly on commodity products - and let’s face it, what hasn’t been commoditized? How often do you think about glass cleaner? You don’t. But somehow, when you go to the store, something deep in your brain kicks in and you pick the one you irrationally think is better. A few seconds every few months is about all the thought you’ll ever give to glass cleaner. But there’s something there.
That thing in the back of your mind, yeah, that’s the brand. Good brands decide what they are and demonstrate it consistently for years. It’s not how it’s “new and improved.” It’s not about the great new package. It’s not about any of that stuff. It’s a vague notion of what a brand stands for which has been developing for years in your subconscious. You’ve never actually thought about it.
Where does that work come from? It also comes from a subconscious place. Great ads, the ones people talk about, are never rational. (If you can name one great ad that did well in testing, I’m happy to learn.) They tap into something deep in our collective human-ness.
Einstein once said, “Creativity comes from waste.” And there’s something to that. It’s a deeply inefficient process - because it has to be. You take a bunch of rational input, then after banging on it for a while, going down lots of dead ends, you stop thinking about it for a bit, something snaps in your subconscious, and there it is. You connect your brands purpose with scene you saw in a movie. A product innovation reminds you of a turn of phrase from your grandmother. Some irrational ethereal connection. (I could go on for days, but a considerably better written version is Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works.) But there’s the rub, we’ve pushed efficiency to the point where there’s no time for input.
There’s that old joke, “If you can’t come in on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday.” We’ve never worked a 40 hour week. But we used to have more control over our time. If you were stuck, you’d go to a movie in the middle of the day. Or go for a long walk. Or, we could put it aside for a day or two and work on something else to clear our heads. Those days are long gone. We sit in 8 hours of meetings a day. Then, somehow, have to make stuff after hours all in the name of productivity. But the belief that working more hours leads to more productivity has been repeatedly proven false. We’ve squeezed efficiency on creative development to the point where there’s simply no way to sustainably come up with ideas. No time for input. No time to push it off to the subconscious. No time to step back and look at it.
Put that all together and you start getting at that thing bugging us. The immediacy of digital kills time to dig into those subconscious thoughts that’ll resonate with consumers. The margin pressures of public companies create additional pressures so we never have time to really get at it. We end up regurgitating the rational bullet-pointed list in the brief. And once you finally spend a year or two cranking stuff out, and starting feeling comfortable with the brand voice on a subconscious level, a new CMO comes in (or the account goes into review) and it starts all over again.
A sense of sensing…
That simple Zima banner ad on Hotwired.com so long ago, oh, the mess you left behind.
The first banners were little more than that - just a static image on a web page. Then, the animated GIF came along. First, we did the “Burma Shave” thing of three or four frames of copy, quickly learning best practices of keeping the logo and CTA on every frame to maintain our 10% click-thru rates (and no, that’s not a typo, it used to happen all the time).
Then the magic of Flash came along. Problem is, we didn’t adapt much. The IAB had standardized things and Flash banners became little more than slicker animated GIFs. Sure, they could expand, hold video, etc. But for the most part, they were still little animated GIF stories executed better.
Now, you’re lucky if you get .02% click thru. We’ve trained consumers that clicking on them often take you to a place you’d rather not be. It’s even worse for mobile banners ‘cos you tend to leave the app you’re in to launch god-only-knows-what. So, we simply avoid them.
The simultaneous arrival of tablets and HTML5 changes everything. Flash doesn’t work on the iPad, and HTML5 can make anything (including a 300x250 space) an experience better than most full-blown sites. We’ve seen the cool scrolly stuff, the parallax stuff, etc. But, we’ve trained consumers to not interact for the reasons mentioned above. And that’s going to be our challenge.
We can now do so much more than before. We can create rich experiences. We’re effectively back in the experiential micro-site business again - the micro-micro-site. But undoing all our past sins will take a while.
If you’ve followed the miscellaneous crap I write about, you’ll know I’m fascinated with how technology interfaces with the evolutionary motivations baked into our DNA. And this is no different.
One of the earliest observations I had as a kid was the natural tendency we have to see faces in randomness. We see faces in clouds. In the patterns in carpet. In acoustical tile ceilings. It’s part of being human. Because virtually everything that could be a predator has two eyes, a nose and a mouth (there’s a Star Trek Next Generation episode that explains that one). The ability to see the lion’s face in the jungle was an evolutionary advantage passed on to all of us. If you’re ancestors didn’t have this basic skill, you wouldn’t be here. Survival traits passed down. Simple.
And that’s the way it was for the first 45,000 of the 50,000 years of humanity.
But, then civilization of the last few thousand years began to mess this up. The domestication of animals and development of agriculture gave us something to protect from others. We built villages, formed tribes, and eventually kingdoms and countries to protect/defend what we had. Our perception skills had to be honed to recognize people who were different from us, not part of our tribe. Skin color, facial features, and eventually flags became what defined friend or foe.This unleashed one of the most powerful forces (good and bad) in human history, cooperation for the tribe. Monuments have been built, wars fought, etc.
But, now it’s down to what brand of shoes you wear. For us to rally around something for the benefit of humanity, we have to broaden our sense of tribe back to the “human vs predator” level. And despite the hard-wiring, there is no evolutionary advantage anymore to identify simply as “human”. One of the biggest drivers of modern consumer culture is based on division. “Segmentation” of the modern marketing culture has sliced and diced us to ridiculous proportions. Our us vs them DNA is no longer about humans vs predators, but the silliness of jocks vs geeks, red vs blue, christian vs islam, goths vs metal-heads.
However, a new “threat” has appeared and its cognitive abilities are way beyond ours. The new “machine-readable world” is changing things. Computers are reading all the text on the internet and analyzing. They can understand human speech. With IBM’s stunt on Jeopardy, it’s apparent they can interpret some pretty nuanced stuff. And, they can see, recognize people, cars, microbes, etc. They understand our world, but we (the vast majority anyway) don’t understand theirs.
We’ve seen how people react to advanced Japanese robots and the freak out over the all-knowing world of big data. Will the uncanny valley take us to a new level of perception? Will we begin to notice the constantly observing world around us, yet most of us don’t understand? If so, will we see it as an evolutionary threat?
I’m not afraid of technology, I’m what’s considered the “digital elite”. BUT, knowing what I know about big data, location, databases, etc., I’m probably more consciously aware of what’s going on around me. And it does make me uneasy. Will everyone else begin to sense it? If so, could that shared unease be the thing which allows us to see all of humanity as part of one tribe again?
When desktop publishing arrived on every PC, there was talk of the death of graphic design. The templates came pre-loaded on your machine so “anyone can do it.” Yet, 20 years later, graphic designers are more in-demand than ever before. Today, rumblings are beginning about how Big Data is going to reduce the importance of creative people.
Unless you’ve been in a cave, you’ve been hearing about the impact of Big Data. How it’s going to drive efficiency, personalization, etc. There have been numerous articles, including this one from Steve Lohr at the NYTimes. There are quotes like, “decisions will increasingly be based on data and analysis rather than on experience and intuition.” And corporations are eating it up. They see efficiencies in their media buys. Massive levels of personalization in their CRM programs. And there seems to be a misguided belief that all of this will somehow automate itself someday.
Some commentators have started to look at the darker side. Joseph Turow’s written a book about the lack of transparency of Big data, there’s a great excerpt from his Atlantic article here. Turow is looking at how consumers have no idea this is being done to them, how they have no control over it, etc. But the much more dangerous issue is the impending data discrimination that’s already begun. Content providers are , “performing a highly controversial form of social profiling and discrimination by customizing our media content on the basis of marketing reputations we don’t even know we have.” For example, the Google results I get are different than yours, even though we may have typed the same thing into the search box. As a friend of mine stated, “the web is a lot smaller to me now.”
And that is my biggest worry. As optimization progresses with content farms cranking out articles and videos targeted specifically to you, and “news” sites “optimize” which articles you see, we’re doing more than eliminating the serendipity of discovering something you didn’t know you were interested in, we’re effectively destroying everything that could be counted as a shared culture.
The fragmentation of media which started with cable and is now dramatically accelerating with big data optimization, is dividing us even more. The most obvious example is the red-state / blue-state divide in the US. I’m never forced to confront an opinion that I don’t agree with. I can limit my television to only networks and shows that reinforce my beliefs. I choose which sites to visit to get my “news”, and even on those sites, they’re customizing content to only show me things I believe. But politics is only the beginning. Virtually everything that could remotely be defined as “culture” is being sliced and diced so that you’re never challenged with anything new or unknown.
When homogeny of mass culture set in, we could always rely on the power of the internet to put something new, interesting and/or challenging in front of us. But we’re rushing headfirst to use the technology of the internet to effectively undermine its inherent promise. The genie is out of the bottle. It can’t be put back. However, I do believe there is hope.
In the midst of all this technology and optimization, there has also been dramatic rise in interest in behavioral economics. Mass awareness began with Freakonomics, which I worried was a one-off. But in virtually every airport, you can now find a copy of “Thinking Fast and Slow.” I apologize for the shorthand, but we’ve finally begun to realize that the vast majority of purchasing decisions are wildly irrational, and often emotional in nature. At the end of the day, human beings are wonderfully flawed. We can throw all the logical reasons in the world at them about why our product is best, but they’ll still make decisions based on some sort of short-cut emotional response.
There is going to be a HUGE amount of pressure to simply fill in the matrix of big data customization. And the easiest thing for a creative is to simply do what’s asked of us. So, there is the trick. Despite all the logical marketing machines we build for media efficiency, creatives still have to tap into the wildly wonderfully irrational things that make us human beings. We have so much more power in that which connects us vs. all the ways big data wants to divide us. The creatives (and agencies) that figure out how to leverage the shared humanity on top of the big data efficiency will rule the day.
A couple people asked me why the Chrysler “Halftime in America” was my favorite SB spot. Well, here goes…
The median household income in America is still under $50k. AND, the average car on the road is now over 10 years old. If you’re in that household, you’ve also experience this economy first-hand. Either you, or someone in your close circle, has been unemployed for an extended amount of time. Your car’s paid for, and you may even have a few grand put away for a down payment. BUT, what do you do?
You can trade in that paid-off car and some cash and get a 4-year-old Camry or Accord. OR, you can buy a new Jeep/Chrysler/Dodge with a five year commitment. Are you that sure of your job?
The only way in hell you’re gonna buy that new car is if you believe that America (and American cars, by default) is poised for a comeback. ‘Cos if you don’t in your heart of hearts believe “Fuck yeah, America”, you’re gonna go for the used Camry.
And after that spot, I think we all said (even if it was in the back of your mind), “Fuck yeah, America.”