Category: Insight

Escape from Fantasy

(In which I afflict the comfortable – and comfort the afflicted).

The value of ‘contrarian’ thinking would seem to be pretty obvious…

From vague philosophies to sure–fire trademarked processes and techniques, there’s no shortage of advice available to us.

But I want to suggest that the starting point for doing what others do not, can not, or dare not to is perhaps much simpler. And that the world already provides us with all the material and resources we need.


For all its undoubted advantages, thrills, and benefits, where most of you are located is not where most of your consumers are located:

And yet despite this geographic (and cultural divide) it would seem that marketers don’t have time these days to think about the people they ostensibly serve…

Meanwhile client organisations no longer willing to fund and enable agencies to conduct rigorous research of their own because it isn’t “objective”, far too many planners are no longer in constant, direct, unmediated contact and dialogue with people. 

So now, as Richard Huntingdon has bemoaned, we have a generation of planners who simply do not have the skills to facilitate group discussions – and if they are talking to real people in the real world it’s invariably of the ‘quick and dirty’ kind for pitches or to prove some creative wheeze the client isn’t buying.

The fact of the matter is that we are not like most people.

And relying solely on our self-styled intuition is not a solution.

Research from Ipsos Connect and Thinkbox surveyed 288 advertisers and 795 ‘normal’ people during July and August 201, and shows a significant disparity between advertisers’ assumptions of TV viewing habits and the real figures:

One has to wonder what else we get wrong if we get basic stuff like this wrong.

There is of course a role for intuition and gut in what we do – but creating things based entirely on our personal tastes, behaviours, experiences, assumptions, and preferences is what Bob Hoffman has characterised as “marketing by selfie-stick – narcissism disguised as strategy.”

Time and again we insist on viewing people through the lens of our brand, producing horribly distorted versions of reality.

Google for example – unable to see people other than through the lens of its own search capabilities –  seems to think that all people are “obsessed” about research all their purchases all of the time:

Meanwhile marketing briefs are filled with breathless fictions purporting to be accurate portrayals of our desired audience:

As an aside, one has to wonder why these people would ever need or want our brand. They’ve achieved the absolute zenith of self-actualisation. They’re superheroes, not mortals. What on earth can we offer or promise them that they would have need or desire of?

Certainly our unwillingness or inability to embrace the ordinariness of the people we rely on and need to engage speaks volumes about us.

And if we’re not inventing fantastical superheroes, we’re wielding the airbrush to create the “stock image consumer”:

Blander than bland.  Creatures so one-dimensional that if they turned sideways they’d actually disappear. Devoid of all conflict or anxiety, faces caught in rictus-like grins of vanilla-flavoured delight.  Safe. Inoffensive.  And utterly non-existent.

We are like the prisoners of Plato’s allegorical cave, chained-up, unable to turn our heads. You know the one. The one where a fire burns behind us and puppeteers are casting shadows of objects. Unable to see these puppets, we think the shadows we see on the wall are the real thing. But they aren’t. They are just shadows and approximations of the real thing. That’s us. We think that as customer-centric, customer-serving, customer-delighting marketers we are seeing people. We aren’t. We’re just seeing shadows of people. Distorted. And incomplete.

Or worse, we are conflating our own self-image with that of the customer.

Perhaps it’s because the very act of advertising is an act of confidence – or at least demands the appearance of it – that we’re not exactly oversupplied with humility.

Certainly our appetite for that which bolsters our belief that we are at the centre of things is undiminished.

This, despite the efforts of Byron Sharp et al to rid our world of such persistent, zombie-like ideas.

And the truth that learning about brands and making purchase decisions is for the most part really not that important to most people most of the time still melts some people’s minds.

Not seeing people and making it about us never ends well.

Microsoft’s inability to see beyond itself and its ambitions means that it provides solutions for those lovely men and women of ICE, enabling ICE to “process data on edge devices or utilize deep learning capabilities to accelerate facial recognition and identification.” All part of its mission presumably to “help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential”.

Google’s inability to see beyond itself and its ambitions means that it was contracted by the Pentagon to use its AI capabilities to analyse video and still imagery captured by drones, detect and identify “objects of interest” in as many as 38 categories and track individuals as they come and go from different locations. All part of its mission to “do no evil”.

Meanwhile Hushme’s inability to see beyond itself and its ambitions leads it to this:

For our part we can be so keen to make something and make it about us that it can render us utterly deaf to what’s happening around us.

Consider for example, our response to a dangerously divided society:

When we don’t see people all we can ever hope to do is create for audiences that do not exist.

For there is nothing like distance and disconnect to undermine respect, understanding, and empathy.

Exhibit #1:

You only have to attend a focus group to get a true measure of how some of us (too many of us) feel about our current or potential customer. For it is a truth universally unacknowledged that heaping scorn over respondents on focus groups is par for the course. Trust me, I’ve been sitting behind the mirror listening to respondents and with it the condescending, elitist sniping in the backroom for over a quarter of a century. 

Perhaps because respondents are being paid we feel it negates any need for us to have respect or gratitude for them.  And of course there’s invariably some melodramatic rolling of eyes at how much respondents are getting.

Exhibit #2:

It’s not very hard to come across marketers who disagree with David Ogilvy’s advice.

Indeed it is not unusual to come across marketers who suggest that their consumer is a moron. Or as we say in marketing circles “literal”. 

Over the years and decades I have been told:

Clearly swathes of our industry believe that other people are unimaginative, unsophisticated, and incapable of interpretation or decoding. And that we must therefore treat people as empty and passive vessels into whose tiny, simple and grateful minds our messages must be poured.

Unimaginative, unsophisticated, and incapable of interpretation or decoding.

Oh yeah?

So what does this painting represent?

Illiterate peasants and labours who had made the long pilgrimage to Rome and found themselves, at last, inside the city walls at the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo would have known. And Caravaggio knew that they would have known.  Which is why in 1600 he painted The Conversion of Saint Paul.

How dare we dismiss people as being ‘literal’.

Not convincing enough evidence of our careless indifference?

Exhibit #3:

Recall how David Campari went about commissioning some of the most celebrated poster artists in Italy for his campaigns: Leonetto Cappiello, Marcello Dudovich, Adolf Hohensteino, etc.:

And recall the works commissioned by Transport for London that were artworks in their own right:


Without wanting to suggest that there was some kind of Golden Age of advertising,  this was advertising that while relaying its message also wished to contribute to the environment. That intuitively understood the notion of value exchange.

We ripple dissolve to the year 2017.

Look at how advertising has given up having any regard for the fact that it exists within and rents out a piece of our public spaces.

Look how it has given up any idea of aesthetic contribution to our environment. At how it’s forgotten the basic notion of value exchange. At how it cares about nothing other than your awareness of it. And your money. At how it is content just to barge in uninvited and shit on our lives.

No wonder São Paulo chose to purge the poison from its already unhealthy urban environment.

One more example.

Exhibit #4:

The fashion industry doesn’t even try and disguise its contempt for people.

Particularly women whom it relentlessly represents as meat puppets – commodified bodies whose role is our gratification.

Or gang-raping.

Or murdering.

Scratch the surface of advertising’s efforts and you’ll too easily find indifference bordering on contempt.

We all know this depressing data:

Whether the ads got worse or the programmes got better – or both – is largely immaterial. The fact is that while we bang on about “creating culture” mass culture is better than us.

It’s more generous, more respectful, more intelligent, more rewarding, more challenging – than the vast bulk of what we as an industry put out.

But so much for afflicting the comfortable amongst us – it’s time to comfort the afflicted.

Operating outside the corporation’s centrifugal forces creative agencies (of all flavours) are uniquely placed to help client companies build bridges to reality.  And the planning/strategy discipline (should it choose to) is uniquely skilled to make that happen.

Opportunity awaits those who do.

So some bridges back to reality.

And we really do love naming and classifying and compartmentalising things. And people.

Labels are of course, seductive. In their pithy, bite-sized memorability they sound like useful summations of and shortcuts to knowledge. But in fact they conceal more than they reveal.

The physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was one of the great minds of humanity and talked about the difference between knowing the name of something and actually understanding it.

He points to this:

And says:

See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halzenfugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird. You only know something about people; what they call the bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way.”

Labels give the illusion that you mean something specific but in fact you don’t at all. 

This is what Montaigne was hinting at in his Essays when he wrote:

We take other men’s knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make them our own. We are just like a man who, needing fire, went to a neighbour’s house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any back home. What good does it do us to have our belly full of meat if it is not digested, if it is not transformed into us, if it does not nourish and support us?”

Like all jargon, labels are about projecting the illusion of expertise, signalling membership of technocratic elites, and avoiding doing the hard work of actually understanding the subject. They don’t care about truth or insight knowledge or understanding.

Worse, labels dehumanise. And in so doing they too easily undermine empathy. And tolerance and generosity. Which is precisely why merchants of division deploy them with such ruthless and cynical dexterity.

As those most close to the lives of ordinary people and the reality in which they live, we urgently need the help of planners to resist the tired labels, the simplistic classifications and clichéd observations and to make our language more human again.

For the most part we are as removed, sheltered, and alienated from ordinary life in the real world as those attending that annual gathering of 1%-ers we know as Davos.

Time spent in meetings amongst ourselves is not time spent amidst culture. 

We cannot simply subcontract that time to ‘vendors’ and tell them to come back from their exploring and tell us all about it and expect to be injected with an innate, intuitive understanding of the World Out There. We cannot kid ourselves. You do not understand the world. You just understand the words of the debrief presentation.

This is old advice. It is basic, good practice. But let’s not congratulate ourselves too heartily when we rediscover it – we should never have lost it.

We rightly focus on finding or creating the remarkable. But what of all that happens around and outside of those moments?

What of all the space not filled with the extraordinary? The everyday.  The habitual. The unthinking.  The familiar.  The unremarkable. The dull. The uncommented upon. The shabby and the average. The commonplace and the unarticulated. The stuff that reaches no closure. All that does not make it into newsfeeds and struggles to deserve a hashtag. All that is experienced but remains unexamined and unreflected upon. The small gestures and half-formed words. The commonplace. The unconscious rituals. The stuff that fails to surface in surveys and focus groups and search enquiries.

This is the stuff that’s invisible to marketers. It’s the stuff that lies beneath the surface of the more visible moments.

This in other words, is to marketing what dark matter is to the astrophysicist. It’s the stuff that eludes our powers of observation and detection. That does not interact with the electromagnetic force. That does not absorb, reflect or emit light. That cannot be seen. And yet for all that, actually makes up the majority (a full 95.1%) of the universe. And that makes possible the large-scale structures in the universe we can see.

So how do we see it? And, crucially, how do we feel not merely observe it?

But let’s not disappear down the rabbit hole of debating methodologies and tools.

That said…

Journalists, documentary makers, those embedded within communities we wish to understand, artists…. they all offer us new eyes, new perspectives, and new ways of experiencing the reality of our audiences.

For example:

In a world in which three million people around the world are moving to cities every week, Mohsin Hamid’s novel How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia puts us into the shoes of one amongst the millions making the exhilarating and terrifying migration from countryside to city – and with it from tradition to modernity:

If I had one piece of advice for marketing, it would be to dispense entirely with reading those breezily-written, evidence-selective, ego-nurturing books all of your peers are reading. There is more practical, applicable insight in Charles Dickens than there is in anything written by the likes of Gladwell, Godin, Rushkoff, et al.


For the more we see real people, real lives, the more we see humanity, the more we are prepared to listen to the stories people have to tell, the more we are prepared to open the windows of our corporate cloisters and let reality blow through, the more we see the muck and joy and pain and striving and dreaming and grafting and hoping and creating… the more we understand it, see it, embrace it and have empathy for it, the greater our chances of creating something of genuine value for them.

Howard Gossage argued that:

Until advertising really believes there is someone out there … we will never develop the personal responsibility towards our audience, and ourselves, that even a ninth-rate tap dancer has. The audience is our first responsibility, even before the client, for if we cannot involve then, what could will it do him?”

And make no mistake. The failure to see people clearly  – and the absence of a personal sense of responsibility towards them – is everywhere:

Dark matter: What lies between and marketing cannot see

As marketing professionals we rightly focus on moments of brand contact. Whether that’s moments of contact with the memory-trace leaving stuff we call ‘advertising’. Or the moments of need, want, desire, decision, purchase.

And since so much else competes for time and attention in these moments, we are rightly consumed with creating the extraordinary. Whether through the products  or communications we create, we set ourselves the goal of creating moments of delight, enchantment, discovery, entertainment, surprise, provocation. Extraordinary experiences, big and small. Extraordinary moments, big and small.

But reading Jon McGregor’s remarkable new novel Reservoir 13, has prompted me to pause and reflect. McGregor’s novel traces the lives of those living in a rural community somewhere in the English Midlands. In minute and exquisite detail it follows the ebb and flow of both human life and the natural world. It is a novel about daily living, like none other.

We rightly focus on finding or creating the remarkable. But what of all that happens around and outside of those moments? What of all the space not filled with the extraordinary? The everyday.  The habitual. The unthinking.  The familiar.  The unremarkable. The dull. The uncommented upon. The shabby and the average. The commonplace and the unarticulated. The stuff that reaches no closure. All that does not make it into newsfeeds and struggles to deserve a hashtag. All that is experienced but remains unexamined and unreflected upon. The small gestures and half-formed words. The commonplace. The unconscious rituals. The uncelebrated.  The undocumented. The un-photographed. The un-photogenic. The stuff that fails to surface in surveys and focus groups and search enquiries.

This is the stuff that Alan Swindells called the ‘taken for granted world’:

For any individual consumer the world is made up of a myriad of vague ideas, thoughts, images and feelings. They come together in a loose network of meanings which shape consumer behaviour. Some of it is organised and structured but most of it is disorganised and unstructured. Some of it is thought about, rationalised and is articulate while most of it is vague, inarticulable and taken for granted.”

This is the stuff that’s invisible to marketers. It’s the stuff that lies beneath the surface of the more visible moments.

This in other words, is to marketing what dark matter is to the astrophysicist. It’s the stuff that eludes our powers of observation and detection. That does not interact with the electromagnetic force. That does not absorb, reflect or emit light. That cannot be seen. And yet for all that, actually makes up the majority (a full 95.1%) of the universe. And that makes possible the large-scale structures in the universe we can see.

It may not be directly useful to the marketer. It may not lend itself to be packaged up neatly by the insight industry. It may not be a source of fascination for planning’s self-styled flâneurs. But the stuff that marketing cannot detect or observe is, it turns out, the very stuff and fabric of life and living.

Of course we are right as marketing professionals to focus on relevant moments of brand contact. Whether that’s moments of contact with the memory-trace leaving stuff we call ‘advertising’. Or the moments of need, want, desire, decision, purchase.  But if are blind to the 95.1% that constitutes the real fabric of life, how can we possibly have empathy and love for those for whom we create?

Ordinary things,” the novelist Marilynne Robinson once remarked, “have always seemed numinous to me.” If we cannot see that truth, then there is no marketing toolkit that can help us. No proprietary methodology can rescue us. We cannot research our way to empathy. Only art can help us. It is a truth that marketing in all its pragmatism, anti-intellectualism, impatience and hard-headedness must accommodate itself to. Or remain blind to the 95.1%.

Just because you think you’re a ‘native’ doesn’t mean you’re smarter


If there is one bias in our industry that it has yet to properly face up to, it is its systematic bias against age. According to the UK’s Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, the average age of an employee in the advertising industry is thirty-four. More than two fifths are said to be aged thirty or under. Less than six per cent are over fifty. One need not look far for evidence of bias and judgement. According to Keith Weed, the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer for the packaged goods giant Unilever:

We have three versions of people. On one side we have the digital natives who have been born and bred in a digital world. On the other side we have people like myself in my 50s who have children in their 20s and if I didn’t engage with them on digital platforms I wouldn’t have a relationship with my children. In the middle we have what I call the ‘lost generation’, people in their late 30s and early 40s who don’t yet have grown up children who are digital natives and weren’t digital natives themselves. These are the very people who are leading so many of our brands and businesses, and they’re bluffing too much about digital from what they read in the Financial Times or Marketing Week.

There it is. The ‘digital native’. A creaking unevidenced metaphor of dubious origins and toxic ethics. 

Now I doubt if anybody wielding the term ‘digital native’ has any idea of the origins of the term, let lone interest in whence it came. But it is worth reviewing briefly its origins. If only to recognise how spectacularly lacking in evidence it really was. It was  Marc Prensky, an educational consultant who published a paper in 2001 which argued that:

A really big discontinuity has taken place. One might even call it a “singularity” – an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back. This so-called “singularity” is the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century. Today’s students – K through college – represent the first generations to grow up with this new technology. They have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age. Today’s average college grads have spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games (not to mention 20,000 hours watching TV). Computer games, email, the Internet, cell phones and instant messaging are integral parts of their lives. It is now clear that as a result of this ubiquitous environment and the sheer volume of their interaction with it, today‟s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors. … What should we call these “new” students of today? Some refer to them as the N-[for Net]-gen or D-[for digital]-gen. But the most useful designation I have found for them is Digital Natives. Our students today are all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.”

Now the language we use matters. And it invariably betrays the mind and motives of those who utter them. The language of ‘natives’ versus ‘immigrants’ is no exception. Indeed it is freighted with conscious or unconscious bias, value judgement, and assumptions of power.

Look to the dictionary and we see that the term “native” refers to something innate, inherent, belonging. The term “immigrant” by contrast, describes someone who comes form somewhere else to live and settle in a place. So the ‘native’ belongs. And the ‘immigrant’ does not. One has rights and privilege – the other must negotiate and earn. One will always belong. The other will always be from somewhere else. As Prensky notes:

As Digital Immigrants learn – like all immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree, their “accent,” that is, their foot in the past. The “digital immigrant accent” can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program itself will teach us to use it. Today’s older folk were “socialized” differently from their kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language… Those of us who are Digital Immigrants can, and should, laugh at ourselves and our “accent.”

We’ve inhaled this odious and condescending nonsense uncritically. And the toxic and prejudicial nature of the metaphor goes further. For the language of ‘immigrant’ and ‘native’ is the language of place and space. As Bayne and Ross note, “the metaphor demands a territory, a nation-state or a landmass”. And here the metaphor becomes more unacceptably odious. Just as the world is becoming ever more digitised, as every day behaviours, transactions, connections, conversations, environments, and objects are becoming enabled through digital networks, just as the world is becoming more digital, and just as the digital world is becoming ubiquitous, the metaphor of the digital native insists that the immigrant does not belong in this world. He or she does not belong in the world into which they are born. To assume the position of grand arbiter, to assume the role of border control to the entire world and suggest that some people are natives and not at home in their own world, is to insist on their own permanent state of alienation. It is an inexcusable and repugnant social position to take, and should be rejected wholesale.

But let’s put – as Marketing- and Adland so easily do – the corrosive quality of value-laden language, and the niceties of ethics and civic values to one side. The notion of the ‘digital native’ is a glib generalisation, and as with all glib generalisations, it obscures the real truth. The entertainment and information diet of young people is not entirely digital in its delivery. Look to the UK and we see that live TV accounts for 43.5% of the total daily video-viewing time of 16-24 year olds. Facebook and YouTube combined account for just 16% of their video-viewing total daily. And when one zeros in on their digital diet, we see that not all so-called ‘natives’ behave equally.  Some are deeply engaged and active. Some are intermittently engaged and active. And the vast majority are fairly passive consumers, observers or lurkers. It’s what some have termed ‘participation inequality’. Yet the language of digital nativism ignores and bulldozes over the fact that behaviours in any marketplace are segmented.

The idea of digital nativism not only treats an entire generation as one homogeneous mass, but it assumes that all of it is possessed of familiarity and mastery. They have nothing to learn. They already know it. Now so-called ‘digital natives’ have plenty of practice at using certain forms of technology – say, using Snapchat or Instagram.  They may be versed in the rites, rituals, unwritten codes and rules that can come with these platforms. But that familiarity does not automatically confer upon them a mastery of technology in all its forms and all its applications. After all, I can hold a pen and write. But that does not mean that I am qualified and capable as a screenwriter, newspaper columnist, poet, author, speech writer, or novelist. It baffles the mind that more people have not called bullshit on the vacuous claims of digital nativism.

And what of the non-natives? The so-called immigrants? Mr Clift, the former marketing chief of Unilever, worried in an interview that “Most of our brands are managed by people who have had to learn [this stuff]” as if active learning was somehow inferior to inherited knowledge. Yet the fact of the matter is that familiarity can dull the mind as much as it can lend it advantage – and here I am reminded of the the essay by David Foster Wallace, ‘This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life’.  Beginning as commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, it was published in 2009, and it, Wallace provides us all with a cautionary tale:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Wallace’s point of course is a simple one – that being born into a reality, a system, can make us entirely blind to that system. Only by stepping outside a system, after all, can we truly apprehend it. And that is the risk every so-called ‘native’ must contend with. In sharp contrast, so-called ‘immigrants’ or newcomers by the very fact of their not being familiar with the system, can be far more curious, more thoroughly, deeply questioning, less likely to take things at face value, or subscribe to inherited, received wisdom.

We could, then – natives and immigrant alike – do worse than look to the British painter David Hockney for inspiration and example. After a decades-long career as an innovative painter, and at the age of seventy-four, Hockney started drawing on his iPhone and, eventually, the iPad. His recording of the shifting seasons became a project of almost a hundred iPad drawings, entitled The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire, 2011. In an interview he spoke of his willingness to experiment with technology:

I’m really only interested in technology that is about pictures. I’m interested in anything that makes a picture. I was always interested in photography because it makes a picture. And even fax machines, when I found out you could make a picture if you did them right. There’s no such thing as a bad printing machine. So long as it prints, it’s doing something. If you feed the right things into it, the right things will come out of it. I’ve always gone into anything technological. I’m convinced that technology and art go together – and always have, for centuries.

And this is the point. What matters is having the intellectual energy and disposition to be interested, to keep being interested, to keep pace with change, and to change and adapt in response to it.

There is another truth about being a non-‘native’.  We’ve seen more of everything. And we’ve seen a greater variety of everything. We’ve seen more brands, more opportunities to be seized, more problems to be solved, more briefs, more work, more pitches, more presentations, more ideas. We’ve had more client conversations, met more different kinds of clients, worked with a more kinds of businesses, sat in more meetings, endured more conference calls, grappled with more feedback, done more presentations, sat through more research, talked to more consumers. And with divining the regularities and patterns, the recurring challenges, the repeated mistakes, comes knowledge, and dare I say it, a form of wisdom. And yet as Jay Haines, founder of executive search firm Grace Blue puts it, “Singly, the most undervalued commodity in this business is experience. It’s overlooked in favour of the bright shiny object”. Phil Adams articulates well all that is lost or ignored, when we undervalue experience:

We have a deeper understanding of brands, what they are for, how they work, how they relate to corporate culture and, most importantly, how to make them charming, disarming and therefore tolerable interruptions to people’s lives. We have a deeper knowledge of what it takes to have branded ideas serve valuable commercial purpose. And this is far more difficult than understanding the nuts, bolts and nuances of a new digital platform… We will be quicker to spot a crap idea which is in danger of putting down roots. And we will be more ruthless with the necessary mercy-killing so that creative attention can be diverted to more productive matters. Conversely we will have a more educated nose for that little acorn idea whose potential would go unrecognised by less experienced eyes, including those of its authors. Young idea farmers have a lot to learn from their elders about the cultivation, nurture and stewardship of creativity.

One more thing. We should beware making broad claims about cognitive decline in later adult years. As Timothy A. Salthouse, professor of psychology and director of the Cognitive Aging Laboratory at the University of Virginia, has written:

Although there is no shortage of opinions about cognitive ageing, it sometimes seems that relatively few of the claims are based on well-established empirical evidence … assertions about cognitive ageing may be influenced as much by the authors’ preconceptions and attitudes as by systematic evaluations of empirical research.

Research conducted by the universities of Michigan, Rochester Medical Center and North Carolina has shown that in some important respects the brain actually improves with age. Research has shown for example, that empathy shows an inverse- U-shaped function across the adult life span, with middle-aged adults scoring higher than young adults and older adults.  According to Sarah Konrath, one of the co-authors of the study, late middle-age adults reported that they were more likely to react emotionally to the experiences of others – and they were also more likely to try to understand how things looked from the perspective of others. Professor Kathleen Taylor, of St. Mary’s College of California an expert on adult learning, argues that in contrast to middle-aged adults, younger people are more likely to connect with others from their own place of need.

Meanwhile, according to Dr. Gary Small, professor of psychiatry and director of the UCLA Center on Ageing, an ageing brain can better tease out patterns and see the big picture. Whereas younger people may have better short-term and get-to-the-point-quickly memory, older folks have had a greater variety of experiences and are better able to build a wider image out of a lot of different parts of memory. They can make more connections because they have more things that have happened to them. As Steve Jobs (who would have failed the ‘digital native’ vetting test) said when he spoke to Wired in the 1990s:

A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.

The idea of digital ‘natives’ is as unevidenced and as socially and ethically noxious as any other form of nativism. It’s being used as an easy passport by bullshit artists looking to hoodwink the gullible. And being valued by those who do not know how to respond to change. We should be valuing curiosity, empathy, insight, energy, and adaptability. Not when we celebrate our birthdays.


Financial Times, ‘Alert at ‘lost generation’ of marketeers‘, 4.6.10

Interview Magazine

CNN, ‘The aging brain: Why getting older just might be awesome’

Phil Adams, ‘No content marketing for old men

O’Brien Ed., Konrath S.H., Grühn D., & Hagen A.L., (2012). Empathic concern and perspective taking: linear and quadratic effects of age across the adult life span. The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, doi:10.1093/geronb/gbs055

Marc Prensky, ‘Digital natives, digital immigrants

Going beyond ourselves


Art is one of the prime ways we have of opening ourselves and going beyond ourselves. That’s what art is, it’s the product of the human being in the world and imagination, all coming together. The irrepressibility of the life in the works, regardless of the times, the histories, the life stories, it’s like being given the world, its darks and lights. At which point we can go about the darks and lights with our imagination energised.”

Ali Smith

Going beyond ourselves feels like the most urgent necessity for all those in the marketing community. And yet nothing is no guaranteed to shut out the world and close down minds as the institutional and intellectual paraphernalia with which we surround ourselves. Happily some of us are digging tunnels out into the daylight.

Switching off the autopilot


He was thinking, not only dancing.”

So wrote Suzanne Moore, writing of the continuous invention and reinvention that characterised the art of David Bowie.

Thinking, not only dancing.

The words have rattled around my head since I first read them.

Thinking, not only dancing.

​And it prompts the thought that we should ​beware the organisation ​(whether we work in it, or with it) ​that does not have an intellectual life.

Now given that the word ‘intellectual’ is feared so much by those who like to present themselves as doers, makers and generally amongst life’s practical and unpretentious go-getters, let me clarify.

​We should beware the organization that does not at every level ​exhibit and encourage a healthy degree of spirited debate.

​T​hat merely absorbs the current orthodoxy​.

​T​hat feeds upon the speculation and ‘best practice’ of others​.​

​T​hat cannot accommodate heresy​.

That indeed, believes heresy IS something which exists.

And that is too locked into ​the comfort of ​habit to question ​it.

Of course the bigger the organization, the greater the need for process, systems, and rules.

Which presents us with a rather delicious paradox.

There’s nothing like size and success to make an organization stupid.

And while this is a paradox, it is not excuse.

The balance must be found.

The voices must be heard (and insist they make themselves heard).

The safe spaces and forums created.

The future must be visited.

And the experiments run.

 For the organization that can not or will not, isn’t merely dancing.

 It’s dancing in the dark.



Suzanne Moore, ‘My David Bowie, alive for ever’, Guardian, 11.01.16