One of my few rules for the weekend is to spend a bit of time dawdling (a great word, mid 17th century, ‘moving slowly and idly ’). One of the interesting things about aimlessness, in my experience, is that after a bit of time an aim emerges.
On Sunday morning I found myself idly looking at covers from Life Magazine. They go way back and provide a really useful glimpse into the way the Western world perceived major events (through the filter of American morays). They’re like Instagram images from our past. Gandhi, Churchill, Kennedy, the Moon landings – so many iconic moments.
As I continued flicking through the covers, I got to more recent events and a cover from 2005 struck me. It had that famous Doisneau image of the sailor kissing his girlfriend at the end of World War II – and in the foreground a phone capturing the image. The headline read: ‘The Cameraphone revolution: how this little gadget will change your life.” The shocking thing was the date of the issue: 2005. Ten years ago.
Where this led me was to thinking about the nature of prediction and how the timescales have truncated as change has accelerated. I have a book at home called The Book of Predictions, published in 1981.
It assembles a whole host of educated and wild guesses about the future from the perspective of 1981. Most people assumed that we would be colonising the moon by now, that cancer would have been cured, that life expectancy would be 200 years, etc. For the most part, the horizon was 50 years. And now I look at Life’s cover and think, yes, and the Cameraphone (a slightly antiquated way of describing it) has changed everything, including journalism and my own trade, PR.
Then I started to think a bit more about what I do and how it morphs all the time as the way that we share information and are formed by opinions changes. I give a lecture every year to MBA students at St Andrew’s University. The next one is in a couple of weeks. Every year in the lead up I think, ‘oh it’s fine. I’ll just say what I said last year’. Except when I check what I said in the lead up it seems so out of date.
The world today changes so startlingly quickly.
Then I started to think about what I do is called (PR, public relations) and whether it makes sense any more and whether there is better collective name for what marketing, advertising and PR are becoming, given the pace of change. Our predictive horizons have shortened.
My mind drifted again (I don’t know why) to other fast-paced industries like technology and the venture capital money that fuels the change. Men and women with an eye for the next big thing writing cheques on an educated hunch that their $100,000 might turn into $10,000,000 if an idea or an innovation takes hold.
I was struck by how similar the dynamic in PR and marketing and advertising is becoming and how the old ‘certainties’ of one to many communication, a limited number of outlets, no social media, ACORN analysis and all the rest of it have been completely swept away and replaced with a digital savannah on which everyone is hunting for the next big idea.
And then I thought ‘venture services’ would be a good name. We work in an environment that changes all the time – and what works today won’t necessarily work tomorrow. What works this hour might not work an hour from now or it might work better. Everything requires an immediacy. We deal on time horizons driven by the attention spans of journalists and consumers. The venture is in backing the primacy of the idea. It’s worth considering whether you are better off spending your marketing budget on an agency that employs 140 “characters” (“you don’t have to be wacky to work here, but it helps”, etc) or whether you are better placed spending your money with a smaller agency that can deploy 140 characters expertly. The VC would be focused on shifting the risk equation from X+Y=maybe to X+Y=probably.
Our work is adventurous and fast-paced and when it works it works spectacularly well (there’s nothing like the sound or the sight of an incredulous client – “you did WHAT?” – to make my day). So, I guess what I’m saying – or asking – is whether you have ‘venture services’ as an element in your marketing budget? It’s an investment – and an experiment – but the rewards when they come through are truly exceptional.