20 days for 20 years

I’ve been thinking about what 2009 holds in store. 

At this point, I should of course wheel out all of the great reasons one should not make predictions (especially about the future). Or perhaps I should recall the fictional Magrethea in HitchHikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, a planet which decided to hibernate through Galactic recession – oddly tempting at the moment.

Slartibartfast of Magrethea

What I actually find myself doing is focussing all of my attention on one particular day in 2009, and one that is not that far away: January 20th. Of course, that’s the day that Barack Obama will officially be sworn in as America’s 44th President. 

Barack Obama

Whilst we’d all talked about the way the mass intelligentsia here and in the states had taken to digital media, it scarcely seemed possible that anyone could truly harness these new approaches as a presidential candidate. But Obama did precisely that, collecting hearts, minds and dollars.

It seemed even less likely that Obama would continue post election with either the consensual style he adopted in the campaign, or the digital media he’s used to do it. But still he is sticking resolutely to path which looks likely to remould politics and attitudes to politicians, as much as it looks to bring about the change to the American way of life which was such a centrepiece of the campaign.

And so to inauguration. For the first time in many years, Obama has forgone the massive donations of corporate lobbies and is working to finance the inauguration with the $5 checks of his base which were such a large part – symbolically and financially – of the campaign. We can expect the speech itself to be an even more marked departure. 

The theme is given as ‘a new birth of freedom’, and it is being positioned as a suitable celebration of both the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth and the 22nd Martin Luther King day.

I believe that Obama will not propose, however, any form of back slapping or self-congratulation for his nomination and election. I believe instead he will look to start a more radical redefinition of personal freedom from the perspective of responsibility, and of what it means to be an American. It will be ‘ask not what your country can do for you’ but for a different generation, and I believe with an even greater onus on practical participation.

It’s an interesting idea in a western democracy where we have come to be believe that politicians will gain favour by cutting taxing and increasing entitlements, the right course of action today is to encourage greater participation and contribution from the population, both in shaping the political movement, and in building and supporting communities.

Obama’s success in four year’s time will be contingent upon delivering a real vision of the American dream in action where the US of today performs the miracle of economic and social rebirth, not through handouts and state intervention, but through drive and determination. As Napolean said, the role of the leader is to “define reality and provide hope’.

The new first family change the perception of the US internally and externally just by the symbolic importance of their race. And, the freedom which is being reborn cannot, I believe, be a freedom to shop, a freedom to entitlements, rather I believe the emphasis will be on re-invigorating the spirit of hard work and determination which underwrote the freedom, and hope, of the founding fathers.

And, what better time for this message to be spread in America. As many of the new certainties of the Regan era flounder – the stock market won’t make us all rich (at least not all of the time), America hasn’t solved world peace (especially under hapless and incompetent Bush), jobs cannot be protected by governments from foreign trade.

George Bush

If Obama can achieve this, the amazing success of the campaigns will pale into insignificance.

And where does this leave democracy? If Obama succeeds in reshaping the imperial presidency, around a new need for leadership (post the Bush vacuum, the incompetence and corruption of politicians) around consensus through straight-talk, around a liberal and academic view of the world; then we will see yet another complete upheaval in the concepts of media and a political domino effect around the globe.

Traditionally politics hangs on the coat tails of the latest corporate successes. Here political America will vastly have outdone corporate American in understanding the potential of the new medium. Of course, the Obama campaign used vast amounts of traditional media. It’s not so much the vehicle of promotion that shifted but the vehicle of engagement.

I think he will do it, and it will radically change the way we think of politics, democracy and America for the next eight years. 

Oh, and Apple will release a slightly lighter 17″ laptop, Microsoft will eventually get a good operating system out, having taken several years of not-very-subtle hinting  to heart, and Google will port Android to PCs and make an even bigger killing.

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Enquiring minds

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The recent release of Stephen King’s collected writings is brilliant and – this is lost on no-one – extremely prescient.

Many of the issues that face current communicators appear to have been tackled, in outline at least, by King 30 or more years ago. We may only be able to guess what his detailed thoughts would be on the issues which face marketers (advertisers in King’s terminology) today. Although, we can bet that they’d be clear, insightful and closely argued.

In the collection, each of King’s original papers is introduced by a modern day advertising thinker. In the most part, these introductions are excellent, refining and highlighting the best of the original pieces and explaining them in today’s terms; picking out nuance and explaining terms which may since have changed usage or meaning. Rory Sutherland’s introduction to ‘Advertising: Art or Science’ is particularly funny (including the observation that ‘[…] All creative people must submit their thinking for appraisal by more rational people […] but […] this does not apply the other way around’, and Jeremy Bullmore’s introduction to the entire book is – as usual –  captivating and insightful.

Somewhat ironically, however, it is two of King’s successors at JWT who provide the only unsatisfactory introductions. In critiquing ‘The Advertising Idea’, Rosemarie Ryan and Ty Montague (President and Creative Director of JWT New York), completely misappropriate the concept of stimulus and response to mean… interactive media and then tread a somewhat clumsy course back to the primacy of the ‘The Big Idea’. Talking about the same piece Tom Doctoroff (JWT’s North East Asia Director) does an even more cack-handed job of assuming what it is he’s trying to prove. Ending up once again with the concept that Big Ideas (or Engagement Ideas) must rule the day.

Doctroff writes:

[…] ‘Those of us who master the art of idea management will thrive. That’s why JWT Asia, we have introduced “Engagement Planning”, a conceptual framwork that builds on Stephen King’s traditional thinking while bringing it into alignment with the new reality of blogs and podcasts.’ … ‘Importantly, unless engagement ideas are properly articulated, we cannot extend them across relevant media, both traditional (television, radio, print, promotion, direct) and new (websites, micro-sites, blogs, mobiles etc). […] Engagement ideas also tame the potential of viral marketing by enabling marketers to mould the brand experience on their own terms’.

What nonsense. As Martin Sorrell once said: ‘If you’re hammer, everything starts to look a bit like a nail’. And so for big creative advertising agencies, ‘big ideas’ become the solution, no matter what the problem was. But in the quote above, surely this is precisely why ad agencies have sucked so badly at communicating in non-advertising ways. Meanwhile talented individuals like Hugh Macleod out-strategise major agencies by actually thinking about how to market to networks rather than treating these new forms of communication as just more bought media. I think we can safely assume King would have looked at blogs, youtube, whatever; would have tried to understand how they work and how they can be used commercially to influence consumer perception of brand (across the who sphere of those perceptions), rather than just extend ‘traditional’ thinking where it wasn’t wanted.

Doctoroff attempts to explain how they put this into practice, ‘To underline the need for the consumer’s involvement, we have relabelled the “advertising idea” an “engagement idea,” a concept that is “bigger” than any single execution but still “creative”.’ (his speech marks).

Amongst these ‘bigger’ ideas Doctoroff includes a line for Siemens mobile phones: ‘Intelligent phone for intelligent people’, and for sports shoes in China, ‘Forge yourself’ (are those even ideas?). An attempt, if I’ve ever seen one, to systematise the solution to any advertising problem, and once which leverages only ad agencies’ best asset: creative thinking.

Of course, this is not what Stephen King wrote at all. He talks about the role of ideas in amplifying the intensity of consumer response as part of a carefully planned advertising campaign. The first part of that process is identifying what the problem to be solved is.

King himself says: “The call for original advertising ideas is not just because we want to give creative people full and interesting lives. There are two sound commercial reasons for it… Intense response and Sophisticated consumers.”

‘Intense response’ means ‘involving the consumer’ (i.e. activating the consumers brain, not just pouring ideas into it). ‘Sophisticated consumers’ is talking about about the other media the audience is exposed to and their level of sophistication in deconstructing advertising and brands.

King is always analytical – not jumping from one example to the next but asking step by step – how does this advertising work, how can it be used commercially?

Even in the 70s and 80s, King looks not-at-all for a single one-size-fits all solution to advertisers’ problems, instead encouraging planners (the job function he invented) to be the guardians of effectiveness by any means, able to mine all available data, construct their own experiments and research, and set detail measurable targets for any work that is carried out.

Instead, if we listen to the wrong end of the advertising market, its all about these mystical big ideas and all we need to do (however hard it is) is come up with one. Surely this is exactly the sort of thinking that King would have hated.

And it’s exactly the sort of simple way of thinking which I think Russell Davies identifies here. It was always about communication before, so it’s still all about communication. And that’s how we end up with all these microsites – for example – that are ‘only seen in boardrooms and award ceremonies’.

That’s why we need ‘enquiring minds’ (alongside commercial minds and creative minds of the traditional advertising partnership). There is no cookie-cutter solution to communications problems, as much as agency managers, new business people, or creative directors would like their to be, whether inside the world of advertising or not.

(As a taster I’ve posted some of the best quotes here).

No room for manoeuvre

Chinese Room - illustration 

I’m as big a fan of Ray Kurzweil as the next man but this post by Northern Planner– fast turning into a favourite (and extremely prolific) blogger – reminded me of something I meant to do a post about ages ago.

Kurzweil and other futurologists often talk about how long it will be before computers become “conscious”. You can see how the thinking goes: computers used to be a bit shit, then they became good enough to do sums, then the internet. Soon, computers will be able to perform more calculations than our own brains and then soon after, they’ll have more computing power than the whole bunch of us.

This is basically Moore’s law – the power of computers (or, more to the point, their power:cost ratio) will double every 12-18 months. And the rule continues to hold. Mathematically the effect is that useful computing power grows like 2n where ‘n’ is the number of 12-18 month periods. It’s dizzying growth that will keep us in awe of the power of the machines. But it will never amount to consciousness – just like no amount of cheesecake will ever build an elephant – they’re different sorts of things.

Considering it’s our finest feature, human’s are not well disposed to feel protective of our consciousness, and people find it very hard not to think of consciousness as some higher order of information processing.

But it’s not.

Luckily there is an absolutely fabulous analogy to help us understand. This comes from John Searle’s Chinese Room Argument

Searle asks us to imagine a Chinese man wandering through the wilderness who comes across a large room. This completely sealed box has 2 slots on the outside, as well as a pad and a pen. A sign pointing at the top slot invites passers-by to submit questions in writing  in Cantonese into the top slot. Our wandering man does this, asking the room as series of questions: directions, common facts, popular culture questions. Each time an appropriate or correct answer pops out of the bottom slot.

What do we conclude? That the room understands the questions? That there is someone inside who understands?

Now let me tell you what’s actually going on inside the room. As questions come in, a young YTS trainee from Hull (who only speaks English) takes them and checks them against a series of books. All the slips of paper contain strange incomprehensible symols (Catonese symbols). When he finds an exact match, it includes a long number, he then takes this number over to the other side of his room and looks it up in a different set of books. Here he finds the number links to a different set of symbols. He traces these onto a new piece of paper and pushes them back through the slot.

Will our YTS trainee ever learn Cantonese? How could he, all he gets is syntax, he would never get a foot hold onto even the first rung of semantics.

This is what modern computers do. And better, faster processor is a better faster YTS trainee.

(illustration stolen from here)