Sunday, 6 September 2009

Things are happening quicker....

(NB. This is part of some work that the IPA are doing on the impact of social media on the ad industry. When I say 'part', it's more like a big pile of ideas that would need sorting into some sort of order before they became part....)
The changes going on in the advertising industry are doing so faster than ever before. It is probably fair to say that they will also never be this slow again. This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone; Intel founder Gordon Moore observed in 1965 that since the invention of the integrated circuit 8 years previously the number of transistors that could be placed on a circuit board had doubled every 18 months, and predicted that this trend would continue unchecked. So far he has been proved right, and the increases in computing power that Moore's Law describes are the reason that we are coming to talk about technology and advertising interchangeably.

That isn't to say that people are changing. Without paraphrasing Clay Shirky or Mark Earls too far here, all the things we are evolutionarily disposed to do, and that we have cultural requirements for, are simply quicker, easier and further reaching than previously. This is not a different challenge to those faced by our 20th century predecessors:
Early radio ads were print ads read out. Early TV ads were radio ads in which you could see the face of the person reading. In each case the rise of a new medium provoked a step change in the advertising industry, but one that didn't happen immediately. So if we have survived and adapted in the past, is the challenge really as great as it appears?

Well, not unless you believe that the set of assumptions that underpins how we help brands communicate might also be a casualty of the power of Moore's Law. It is fun to speculate on how technology will improve, but most examples follow Bill Gates' suggestion that

“We overestimate the change that will happen in the next two years, and underestimate the change that will happen in the next ten”

Our ability as individuals to control access to our attention is likely to be amongst these. Since the internet was invented, it has slowly grown to a point where it has roughly the same number of computers connected as there are cells in the human brain, and about the same number of links as there are connections. The number of synapses, or connections, in our brains is taken as a proxy for intelligence – it is basically processing power. So in the 18 years since the public birth of the worldwide web in 1991, the internet has developed the intelligence of one person. Moore’s Law means that all the processors, and all the storage, and all the other capacity will each be doubling in power every 18 months. According to Kevin Kelly’s calculations, by 2040 the internet will have the brainpower of 4 billion people. According to Kelly, in the medium term future we will move from computers connected BY the internet, to one single computer that IS the internet. Our devices will simply be views into it, our networks always on.

Advertising tends to be seen as a necessary evil, as a transaction
in return for content, which means that the challenge that has historically faced those who work in advertising has been to disrupt, interrupt, gain attention. Increased demands on peoples’ attention has made this job more difficult in recent years, but it has still been fundamentally the same challenge. What will alter it dramatically is the shift from gaining our attention to gaining the attention of our digital gatekeepers, the devices that will increasingly filter our access to entertainment and information. If I trust my applications’ recommendations, why should I look myself? They know more about what I like than I could ever have time to. Technology simply amplifies and speeds up underlying human behaviour and interaction. Brands that are asking themselves why people would want to be friends with them should think about what the alternatives may become.

And going back to the earlier question, is the challenge really as small as it appears? If I knew the answer, I'd start the agency that solved the problem. What we do know is that it is time to test. We have been wedded to the big idea of the Big Idea for generations, but big ideas that are rigorously researched and pretested will struggle in a world of ever increasing change. Things are happening quicker, including irrelevance. The idea of lots of little ideas seems more suited to this quicker world. In the words of AG Lafley, the former CEO of P&G,

"..our company's success rate runs between 50 and 60 percent. About half of our new products succeed. That's as high as we want the success rate to be. If we try to make it any higher, we'll be tempted to err on the side of caution”

Lots of little ideas acknowledge that all we as an industry can do is to make things as mimetic as possible. It is down to the other 99.9% of the population as to whether they happen. In Sketching User Experience, Bill Buxton talks about an art college ceramics professor who comes in on the first day of class and divides the students into two sections. He tells one half of the class that their final grade will be based exclusively on the volume of their production; the more they make, the better their grade. The professor tells the other half of the class that they will be graded more traditionally, based solely on the quality of their best piece. At the end of the semester, the professor discovered that the students who were focused on making as many pots as possible also ended up creating the best pots, much better than the pots made by the students who spent all semester trying to create that one perfect pot.

So the real step change for agencies is about not trying to build that perfect pot – it’s about not worrying about the bad ones. Charles Darwin said “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” We know that species of animal can remain unchanged for millennia, and then suddenly evolve in a few generations as their environment changes. As the increasing speed of communications erodes the 19th and 20th century assumptions that our businesses are built upon, our role is to avoid erring on the side of caution.


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