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. 

The Collapse of Culture: Welcome to the Singularity.

We often talk about how “high” and “low” culture, once two distinct things, have increasingly become intertwined. Wether it’s a pop star singing with a full symphony orchestra, or a fashion house doing a collaboration with a sneaker company, high and low have been coming together with a greater frequency over the last 25 years, and certainly since the start of the 21st century.

But what I think is also interesting, and maybe more recently has been gathering momentum, is another type of collapsing, this time from what I would call Back to Front.

There was a time when professional and consumers were two distinct entities. Sure, a doctor, advertising exec or lawyer was also a consumer, but those were two discreet parts of her identity.  But those distinctions seem to be breaking down quite a bit. Let me give you some examples:

I don’t recall my father needing “clinical strength” antiperspirant. But it’s not just the tools of the profession, it’s the professions themselves.  Think you could be a good General Manager of a sports team? Fifty years ago that meant arguing over a few drinks in a bar over who the local team should trade for in the off-season. Now, after pouring over reams of data, you build your own fantasy team. Think you could be a Hollywood mogul? Great, play the Hollywood Stock Exchange game.  Want to be a network programmer? Great, go dive into TV By the Numbers and give it a shot.

Walking around Manhattan the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of posters like these:


There is another one, I can’t remember the cable network right now, but the copy even jokes that you should watch the network, even if you don’t know what an upfront is. Yes, it is that time of year, and these ads will be gone in a few weeks, but the fact that these are no  longer confined to the pages of Variety and Hollywood Reporter is interesting.

Another example? Sephora has partnered with Pantone to create a new cosmetics line. How many people even knew what Pantone was a few years ago, other than people in design, house painting or publishing?

When everyone has the means of production, we’re now all looking for, expecting really, access to the tools of the trade. When you have this sort of back to front collapsing, combined with the collapsing of the high and the low, you get another aspect of the Cultural Singularity. Here now is a different kind of divide. Some people thrive in this new environment, where the rules have been effectively thrown out the window and the barriers have been removed. Others are completely overwhelmed, paralyzed by the seeming confusion brought about by this collapsing. “If everyone can do my job, or have access to my tools, then what, or who, am I?”

How does a Film/TV critic at The New York Times grapple with this: Style in The Wire is a 36-minute film that breaks down the brilliant HBO show to breathtaking levels of detail and erudition. Or how about this 20-minute masterpiece called In The Cut: The Dark Knight, a critical look at director Christopher Nolan’s choices during one critical scene in the film. When amateurs can produce criticism of this level, what do I need the professional critic for? For that matter, what do I need The New York Times for? And that’s why you see institutions clinging to tradition. They can’t handle the Cultural Singularity.  Can you?

The Huey Lewis Effect

Beware the Huey Lewis Effect

For brands, knowing when to hop off, and on, the cultural merry-go-round can be tricky. Knowing what clothes, food, music, toys or books people are still interested in, or will be interested in next year, is a difficult bit of business. The trick is to align your brand or product with the cultural zeitgeist at just the right time. I call this the Huey Lewis Effect.

Huey Lewis and the News were an extremely popular music act for a very specific period of time. From 1983 to 1986 you couldn’t turn on a Top 40 radio station or watch MTV and not see these guys. Huey and the boys were the right band at the right time. They came right before the Cultural Singularity Paradox exploded everything. 1983-1986 was a period of time when there was still musical distinctions. Hip Hop was for an ‘urban’ audience. New wave was for weirdos who wished they were English. Hair bands were still an L.A. thing. But the massive middle needed something to listen to. Something they could do the White Man’s Overbite to, maybe even belt it out in the car or reasonably hope to sing at the office karaoke night.

Huey Lewis and the News had put out two albums before 1983 and nobody cared. They put out five more after 1986 and people didn’t care too much about those either. Huey Lewis and the News had a formula for the most part, and they stuck to it. It was a great sound in 1985. In 1981 or 1991? Not so much. Think of Huey Lewis and the News and culture as being to lines that intersected once, never to meet again. Now compare that to, say, Madonna. Her line has intersected with culture about 10 times over the course of her career.

The question it would seem for brands is how can they be more like Madonna and less like Huey Lewis and the News? But in reality the question is “How can we be Huey Lewis in 1985, Hootie and the Blowfish in 1995 and The Dave Matthews Band in 2005?” It’s easy to get distracted by the Lady Gagas and Nicki Minajs out there. But if your brand appeals to the massive middle, you’ve got to ride out the peaks and valleys of boy bands, heavy metal and grunge and keep your eye out for the next Billy Joel (the Huey Lewis of 1975).

Trends may come and go, but the underlying truth will always be there. The clothes, music, movies or sports are just the current manifestation.