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.
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?:
- Advertising Agency
- Media Agency
- Production House
- 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.