I’ve been spending some time looking at old things that are a bit like new things.

Flip books, from the Victorian Era, are a bit like little YouTube videos.  You pick up the book, flip the pages and you see an animation.

Here’s a mediaeval cherub playing air guitar that I spotted in a museum in Amsterdam.

Here’s an ancient Greek noblewoman watching Season 3, Episode 4 of the Walking Dead on her laptop.

In Belgium, a project called the Mundaneum in the early years of the 20th century, attempted to capture and organise all of human knowledge on index cards.  The idea was to have it at the heart of a World City.  It was a precursor to the World Wide Web.

The name Mundaneum struck me.  Of course, the derivation is the word for World, but when I saw it, I immediately thought of mundane, a synonym for boring.  It occurred to me that the Mundaneum might have been doubly prophetic.

Connection to the Internet has damaged our attention spans.  Access to everything from everywhere has siphoned our concentration into thousands of tiny receptacles.

According to my polling, 71% of us believe that our attention spans are shorter than they were 5 years ago.

We are less likely to click on links.  Nearly half of us are less likely to click than we were a year ago.  Clicking a link isn’t a big ask, but if the ask isn’t good enough, we move on.

There are too many calls on our time.  Where once we might have had a couple of choices we have hundreds.  The act of choosing itself robs us of time.  Think about that and recall an evening when you might have spent more time trying to work out to watch than actually watching something.  Do you remember looking at the clock and thinking, “ah, it’s too late to watch anything now, I’m off to bed”?

In the seventies, eighties and nineties, RSI was an office injury waiting to happen.  Today, dithering (a sort of RSI of the brain) is, in my view, a new and growing risk.  Dithering is potentially as injurious to our productivity as RSI was, and possibly more so.

One consequence is that we’re ready to accept summaries as being as valid as the things themselves.  We read the review section of the newspaper as a sort of weekly Brodie’s Notes.  We listen to review programmes and feel that perhaps we don’t need to see the thing itself.  We watch trailers for movies and feel like we’ve seen the whole thing.  We read complexity poorly condensed into 140 characters and feel that we’re sufficiently well-informed.  We scout around, swipe, click for the next fragment.  We live our lives fast and shallow.

If you’re in business, that decline in previously predictable concentration amongst your customers means that every marketing and PR intervention that you make needs to work even harder to fight for its place.  It really needs to register.  It needs to be especially interesting and have a subtext that says “hang on a minute, give this idea some proper attention, it deserves your time.”

Sentences are now required to defy the laws of physics.  Measure the inner dimension of the sentence and it needs to be larger than the external dimension.  That isn’t easy.  The old words – sale, offer, discount, surprise – are all pretty much worthless.  We need to resort to new techniques to hold the attention of our customers.

Today, the expression of a strategy now needs to be a string of small, fascinating stories that knit together in an almost invisible narrative.  Stories that make your messages stick in the mind and compel your audience to share them because they are so clever – and because, vicariously, they feel clever in doing so.

Anything can be made interesting if you try hard enough.  Exhibit A:  If you put 1 million tonnes of pressure on a lump of coal you make a diamond.

That’s what communicators need to do more than ever before.  Put their stories under intense pressure to create something that sparkles.

It’s quite a skill.

Here are my five rules of contemporary marketing:


  1. Have an angle.
  2. Don’t fear alienating some customers.
  3. Spend money on witty ideas.
  4. Compress your story into diamonds. 
  5. Read Pavlov.

The reason that the Mundaneum didn’t work is that it was before its time.  We weren’t all connected.  We weren’t all sharing.  We are now – and your customers, all of us in fact – are linked in an experiment on social media with a reward structure that encourages us to be interesting and first.  The means of delivery are all organised.  Your audience’s need is to be entertained.

Feed this need with fascinating stories and it gives you a massive marketing advantage.  That’s where we can help.