Focus On Human Behavior, Not Media & Tech Trends

 UPDATE: This post has been nominated as a Post of the Month over at Neil Perkin’s Only Dead Fish blog. If you liked this post please consider giving it a vote. The other nominees are really excellent, I recommend giving them a read as well.


As Creative Culturalist at Y&R New York, I’m often asked about trends in media and technology. It’s an easy question to ask, and relatively speaking, an easy one to answer.  Some quick curation via a Google search will reveal that the consensus tends to gravitate around things like Big Data, the Internet of Things, 3-D printing and wearable tech. Of course these really aren’t predictions anymore, as all these technologies are available now.

Risky Business: Predictions

I tend to be weary of predictions or forecasting for a number of reasons, primarily because we humans aren’t very good at it. In 2006, one year before the launch of Twitter, was anyone touting the emergence of social networks? Before the first iPad hit stores in 2010, were people claiming tablet computers would be huge commercial successes?  We must also consider that not only do successful predictions only come to fruition occasionally, but what we often claim will be the next big thing rarely is. Why are we so bad at making predictions? As psephologist and author of The Signal and the Noise Nate Silver deftly points out, the problem is often the mindset of the people who make them (watch a terrific video with Silver here).

Experts in a particular subject aren’t always the best at seeing the bigger picture and often miss key factors.  Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, brought the notion of deep knowledge in a specific field versus the more beneficial general knowledge across a variety of subjects to the public’s attention; and more recently Dan Gardner’s book Future Babble expanded on this idea, applying it to our modern age and deftly illustrating that the prediction emperors rarely have any clothes. From sports to politics to finance, and especially pop culture, the so-called experts have a success rate no better (and often worse) than flipping a coin.

Besides, asking “what is the next big trend in media and technology?” is probably asking the wrong question of the advertising industry. Rather than focus on that, I believe it’s more important to ask:

How does the advertising industry react to the media/technological advances and cultural shifts that will shape consumer behavior?

By analyzing the meta-trends of media and technology we can examine the likely trends in human behavior that are a result of recent trends in media and technology, and how emerging human behavior is likely to shape future trends in media and technology.


The connection between human behavior and media & tech trends

The connection between human behavior and media & tech trends

Here’s where having an understanding and familiarity with everyone from Marshall McLuhan to cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken to speculative fiction author William Gibson (whose latest trilogy featured a what was in essence a planner as the main heroine) – is of vital importance to people in the advertising industry. Trying to guess at technology trends without understanding culture and human behavior is a bit like complaining about the crispness of the sheets in your stateroom on the Titanic. You’re focused on the wrong thing.

Failing To Plan is Planning to Fail

From this perspective, more useful perhaps than predicting trends is the science (art?) of Scenario Planning. Rather than guess what is going to happen and stop there, let’s think about what our response, as marketers, would be to certain future situations.  If we posit that 10 years from now the Internet of Things will disintermediate many aspects of advertising, what will our response be? What will happen three, five and seven years from now to lead us to that 10-year prediction, and what steps can we take in the intervening years to prepare, or perhaps make a strategic pivot, for the proposed disintermediation? Alternatively what if the Internet of Things opens vast new opportunities for advertisers and their agencies? What will we do between now and then to position ourselves to take advantage? Understanding human behavior can help us think about how potential consumers will gravitate towards, or away from, these possibilities.

It’s this sort of rigor that author Nassim Nicholas Taleb encourages in his book Antifragile. The key is not in accurately predicting the future, an impossible task, but rather in being agile enough to seize an opportunity and resilient enough to rebound from setbacks. This is exactly the position the advertising industry finds itself in right now. The only thing we can know for certain is that existing boundaries are being demolished. If Brand X needs a 30-second TV spot, who is capable of creating it?:

  1. Consumers
  2. Advertising Agency
  3. Media Agency
  4. Production House
  5. The Brand itself

If you answered, F: all of the above, you’re right. And so ad agencies need to adapt. But that’s easier said than done. Last year on FastCo.Create I wrote about the need for agencies to have ‘makeable ideas’ before they can make things. I’m excited to see, seven months later, that people at my agency are making that evolutionary shift, as evidenced by the 90 Days of Making project, which I covered recently for PSFK.

“The Internet is a chameleon.”

Frank Rose’s The Art of Immersion dives into the dramatic changes we’ve seen in storytelling, driven by the Internet. He states:

It is the first medium that can act like all media – it can be text, or audio, or video, or all of the above. It is nonlinear, thanks to the World Wide Web and the revolutionary convention of hyperlinking. It is inherently participatory – not just interactive, in the sense that it responds to your commands, but an instigator constantly encouraging you to comment, to contribute, to join in. And it is immersive – meaning that you can use it to drill down as deeply as you like about anything you care to.

The evidence is clear from Hollywood to Silicon Valley, and everywhere video games are made. Now Madison avenue must find their own solutions to what media theorist Douglass Rushkoff calls Narrative Collapse in his recent book, Present Shock.

It’s as if the linear narrative structure had been so misused and abused by television’s incompetent or manipulative storytellers that it simply stopped working, particularly on younger people who were raised in the more interactive media environment and equipped with defensive technologies.

As storytellers, this to me is the fundamental question of our times that we must grapple with as marketers. How do we tell stories that resonate with people in this environment? In just two short years we’ve gone from the long-form branded content stories of The Man Who Walked Around The World, a brilliant 6:27 single-take film, and Chipotle’s animated insta-classic Back to the Start (2:21), and replaced them with meme-defining images during the Super Bowl and seven second Vine videos. Yes, it seems this evolution has been driven by both technology and consumer behavior, but is this really best for the industry? By feeding people what they seemingly want, are we limiting the potential and power of what we do best?

Cultural Singularity Paradox

Ultimately the speed with which we are asked to do things – develop insights, create ads – prevents us from stepping back and analyzing much of what we do, before or after the fact.  Modern culture has warped our relationship with time, as Rushkoff explains in the chapter entitled “Overwinding – The Short Forever” in Present Shock:

When everything is rendered instantly accessible via Google and iTunes, the entirety of culture becomes a single layer deep. The journey disappears, and all knowledge is brought into the present tense. In the short forever, there is no time to prepare and anticipate…  It is also unavailable to the cultural creators. No sooner is a new culture born than it is discovered by trend-setting Vice magazine; covered by the New York Times Style section; broadcast on MTV; and given a book, record or movie deal.

And so we in the marketing communications industry are stuck in this temporal quicksand, unable to step beyond the now. As a result we lament the loss of those things that could truly advance the industry, if only we had the time. The Cognitive Surplus that Internet guru Clay Shirky writes about seems a fantasy to those of us in advertising, as we struggle to deal with what I call the Cultural Singularity. The Internet, and certainly social media, has sped up the rate of adoption, lowered barriers to entry and provided access to the mainstream for formerly niche groups to the degree that, despite all the tools at our disposal, we can’t possibly keep up. Yes, we have access to vast amounts of knowledge, and yet we are more uncertain than ever – the Cultural Singularity Paradox.  And so we look to attend Cannes or TED or SxSW for an opportunity to hear our colleagues and compatriots share their thoughts, only to rush back to the office, never allowing for metacognition – thinking about thinking – to take us to new places.

But the challenges keep mounting, and while many are in the Shirky camp — including Being Digital author and MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte and journalist and TV critic Jeff Jarvis (author of Public Parts) — seeing technology, and its effects on people as a boon; others, such as Evgeny Morozov see dangers in Technological Solutionism. His book, To Save Everything Click Here, paints a darker picture of where technology may take us. Similarly, the problems Edward Tenner wrote about nearly two decades ago in Why Things Bite Back – Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences haven’t been alleviated, if anything they’ve been exacerbated. And so as marketers, how do we deal with this? Are we making people feel more anxious? Are we truly serving their needs?

Books such as the aforementioned Future Babble and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan address the challenges of predictions and our inability to see highly improbable events before they happen. I believe focusing on just such challenges, understanding our biases and learning to be adaptable to changes, as Taleb writes in Antifragile, are key factors in the success of agencies in the future. If our world is one of constant shift and change, characterized by words such as disruption and complexity, then gatherings such as WPP’s Stream unconference are the ideal place to hold such lively discussions. 

  • tkennon

    Great piece Rick. Altho I think I remain in the positivist camp, for now, I don’t have much faith that the current main actors e.g. agencies, academics, media platforms, technologists will get us insightfully unstuck.

    I do, however, note pockets of thinking and doing where planners / analysts – marketeers! – are managing to analyze our way to the head of the trend curves by leveraging, as you suggest, deep and well-modeled intell from the massive wealth of human behavioral data being created and mined, every second.

    From a blurb I penned for an NYU digital course promotion …

    “When people say “Big Data is the future of marketing” what they’re really talking about is the Herculean challenge – and Midas opportunity – of collecting, harnessing and leveraging the massive amounts of human behavior being generated every second across the vast ecosystem of the increasingly social digital web. Tweets, Google searches, emails, Facebook posts, Tumblr and Instagram pix, YouTube comments — a trillion Likes and Loves a day. Figure that out and you’re ready to go to the head of the class of emerging brand CMOs.”

    Keep up the great thinking, Rick.


  • Rick Liebling

    Thanks for leaving a comment Thom. I love “Herculean challenge – and Midas opportunity,” nice mythological turn-of-phrase. I also think you make a great point, neve forget that the data is connected to humans.

  • johnchavens

    Great piece, Rick. Appreciate all the research/great links. A lot of the work I’m doing now focuses on the idea of reflection, or regard. Instead of an analysis geared towards identifying a trend or creating a product, it’s a lot more basic. It involves taking the risk of pushing away technology and sort of living with an idea for a while. Germination sometimes can’t be rushed.

    Ironically, I’m also embracing mobile phone and other sensor technology as a tool to collect data to use as part of this germination process. Meaning, passive data collection means we can utilize technology to identity trends or meaning in our lives (or the lives of others) without having to look at our blasted screens so often. We can choose when to aggregate and analyze data for insights in ways that allow us to simply breathe more often.

    Hope that’s helpful and thanks again for the piece.

  • Rick Liebling

    Love the idea of reflection and germination. I think it’s important when doing the work, but also taking the time to think about how we are thinking. When you stop to think about that, and adjust your way of thinking/working, then you can have some breakthroughs.

    Thanks John!

  • Tim F. Andresen

    This is a very fascinating subject – and I too agree that this is a well-researched and -written piece!

    I will add some random comments and hope to draw some sort of conclusion when I’m done rambling.

    I agree that we as an industry are too focused on the next big thing in tech. Obviously we as an industry (and especially planners, culturalists, inventionists etc) find it interesting and relevant to predict. Both to create work – ads, products, content etc. – that will make our clients seem innovative and probably also to win awards so we can generate fame and new business.

    Do consumers care? Do they want Vine videos and 3D printed VW cars? Or do they want stories, emotions and entertainment? Those may come in the shape of the previous examples – but they may also come as a 30 sec spot. I hardly ever see ‘real’ people share any other advertising than print ads and some sort of video (30 sec or online videos like Carlsberg Bikers). And I realize that sharing isn’t everything – people participating in AirBnBs Vine contest is just as good. And I may be digressing but I really do find that we as an industry obsess with being one step ahead of everyone else, which leads to us trying to make ‘new’ rather than ‘relevant’.

    And I guess this is where I find you’re right. Tech is irrelevant when it comes to advertising. Sure we can do great things – but they are only great if the resonate with a larger trend in culture or human behaviour. Do we love Coke because they did those crazy machines or do we love them because their message of happiness – their core story – is what we need in a world that is too fast and where we rarely have time to get in touch with our emotions? Gerzema and D’Antonio’s Spend Shift is a good example. Using BAV data they were able to show that consumers didn’t stop overspending because of the financial crisis – they stopped because they were sick of consuming (and they stopped prior to 2008). If we can spot this change then we can advice our clients on how to make products, services, and advertising that speak to this – using whatever tool is relevant. Because this story is relevant on all platforms and across all media channels. We cannot just try to make the consumers like what we sell by using fancy new tech (or 30 sec spots for that matter). ‘The worlds first…’ is only a line that will win you awards, not something that consumers will fall in love with.

    I guess this makes the point that what the industry need is research. And more research. It can be done by agencies, clients or consulting groups. But it has to be done to benefit both company and consumer. And it has to be done from a cultural and sociological point of view as well to ensure that we’re not just focusing on here and now, but rather on shifts in human behaviour that will impact the various markets for several years.

    And a final plea, as I already stated in the Y&R Think Say Do book (, please don’t use data and research to kill ideas just because they don’t fit together. We are still irrational and emotional beings. Sometimes we just want a good story.

    (Man, that was a looooong comment)

  • Gunther Sonnenfeld

    This is the money triplet: “(re: Cultural Singularity) And so as marketers, how do we deal with this? Are we making people feel more anxious? Are we truly serving their needs?”

    In a world that is increasingly more polarized, rudderless in its evaluation of of operating context and socio-economically stratified, I’ve long maintained that human needs are the real markets, utilities are the solutions and values are the competitive sets. If you don’t think much of these precepts, take a trip to Detroit, Camden, Topeka or any number of U.S. cities — they have neighborhoods that resemble a third world country.

    So the short answer is no, we’re not serving people’s needs. The talk about media theory, pervasive gaming and emerging tech is nice, but it fails to understand its core fundamental purpose, which is to reflect meaningful interactions between people… on the ground. Marketing, in particular, should be focused on building and sustaining markets (as GE CMO Beth Comstock suggests), not manipulating behavior through a variety of messages and media. The majority of corporate brands don’t walk their talk because they are still tied to the old economic model of artificial scarcity and an endless supply of natural resources, which of course, is not the reality we live or see when we venture outside of our cubicles or fancy boardrooms. It doesn’t matter that Coke can run numerous iterations of its ‘Open Happiness’ campaign — print, kiosk, interactive, social, what have you — when it directly contributes to water supply issues (fact) and obesity on a grand scale (fact). Is this a media and technology problem? Hardly!

    Here’s the bright side. The Cultural Singularity Paradox is shifting by default — cultural needs (market conditions) are now, more than ever, synonymous with the bottom line. Most companies still don’t get this, but the few that do are seeing their profits soar, or, seeing a whole new range of opportunities come their way, including the idea that marketing/advertising can actually become a profit center, not a cost center in which 50% or more of the media spend finds its way into a black hole (Unilever’s 100% sustainability model for operations is a great example). Whether we use storytelling, media or various forms of technology, we don’t need to sell, we need to connect, to think in context and enable people to take critical action — social, political, educational, environmental. We’ve got to think beyond campaigns. Planning should involve far more adapting. In searching for alternative solutions, it is a personal and collective responsibility to move past the status quo. Otherwise, the media we create, the campaigns we run and the data we collect are for naught. The bottom line depends on being bold, experimenting and learning by doing.

  • Sam Ford

    You raise some great questions here, Rick, and ones that resonate particularly deeply with me. I come from a background at MIT where too many people talk about tech as if it drives culture, whereas–as you deftly point out–it is not the technology that drives culture, but rather the complex way that new and evolving technologies respond to and are responded to by the culture of the audiences who use them. After all, who owns a platform: the company that houses the content, or the people who provide the participation that makes that platform in any way culturally relevant? Copyright legality and terms of service may say one thing: but, when it comes to the questions that actually make these spaces relevant, of course it’s the audience….

    And that’s why strategies built around platforms and technologies–knowing what is “hot” now and predicting what “will be” hot…and then attempting to build strategies around those technological trends…leads to quite a lot of failed strategy. Because those strategies operate in a way that is about ease of the content producer to understand rather than at the service of the audience. What we are especially bad at throughout the marketing disciplines, I think, is trying to make the world bend to what it is we do, rather than bend what we do to the cultures we are trying to reach. And I think that’s because all marketing disciplines have been defined as the professions of persuasion…and that persuasion is presumed to be about trying to make external audiences do things for the company.

    In response, I think a lot of capital–financial, human, infrastructural–are focused on bending culture to our models, rather than really acting in services of those with whom we are trying to communicate. In short, we talk about tech trends because those are easily intelligible and because they still sound like something we can control and master. Real people, communities, and worlds–and producing content and strategies at the service of the audience as much or more than at the service of the company–is a lot harder to define…so we just go back to doing what we know.

    Ironically, our ways of doing marketing were forged in an age of scarcity of communication…and, despite being in an age of abundantly more opportunity to relate to the public, we are trying to turn that potential back into the sort of data that fit into our old models.

  • Edwin Dearborn

    Research is the backbone of success, and those brands that mail this process gain so much more out of their marketing. A great insight into human behavior for myself, has been the book, “Self Analysis”.

  • aaronstrout

    @rickliebling:disqus thoughtful post. And for sure, you win the “best futurist/prognosticator” citations award (makes me realize I need to do more business book reading).

    Two simple things that I find are helpful in predicting the future — not that I’m good at it but I’ve been more right than wrong — is a) listening intently to clients and b) reading/listening to smart people like yourself. The synthesizing of those two inputs combined with bouncing them around with smart colleagues/friends helps get to the best answer.

    Thank you again for sharing. I can tell you put a lot of thought into this post.

  • Kristian Kruse

    +1 on that. For me it’s about really listening to the consumers/clients. We need to look at the “how” we’re thinking to make sure it’s aligning to the consumers we’re asking. The problem with being an “expert” becomes that it can be difficult to see the forest for all the trees—and I think we see that all too often in the agency world.
    Thanks Rick for a great post.

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  • Stephen Monday

    Some great food for thought concerning how marketers may adapt to the ever changing, social driven Web to best make use of their marketing budgets. When launching new campaigns directed at consumers it is still going to come down to the benefit the product/service will deliver to the one who actually dip into their pockets and buy.
    When someone really likes a brand/product but then objects to the “new” way it is being marketed…does it cause them to actually stop using the product or service? The short answer is no. They may post a Facebook “notice of displeasure” type of article, or complain to their friends, moan about it and so on, but behind closed doors if said product delivers to them the benefit they need more so than their competitors – they will continue to buy.
    Having said thus, we say and then we do. When what we say does not line up with what we do, who is the loser? Or is their one? You decide; after all it is your choice.
    Great content (The info-graphic is cool) Keep up the good work.