Old Think

Commenting on Chinese concerns over the ascent of Kim Jong-Il in North Korea, my Bowdoin colleague Christopher Hill (former US Ambassador to Iraq, Poland and South Korea and chief US negotiator with North Korea 2005-2009) wrote, “But perhaps the greatest difficulty worrying the Chinese stems from an underappreciated but familiar theme in international relations: “old think” – the inability to comprehend, much less address, new realities.”

 “Old think” isn’t confined to international relations.  It’s practically everywhere.  In the world of marketing—from the products that get manufactured, to understanding customers and how to reach them, to the relationships between clients and agencies—“old think” dominates every aspect of the business.

 Imagine for a moment if an entire industry could be re-thought based on new realities unencumbered from old ways of thinking.  What would General Motors look like? Would we have a multi-divisional corporation manufacturing a variety of totally undifferentiated car brands and models?  Would we have a Buick?

 Walk into any grocery store and ask yourself does the world need seventy-five different breakfast cereals?  Does the entire market reflect the realities of how we shop and what we eat?  Even Whole Foods doesn’t escape the “old think” grocery store paradigm.

 Or take the sticky world of politics: would we have a polarized two party system if all the new realities we face in the world were actually part of the government’s mission?

 John Lennon said it best:

 Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

You, you may say 
I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

 Bringing this down to the prosaic world of marketing, too many businesses continue to operate as though it were 1956.  They think if their brand exists, people will want it.  That if they shout about their brand, people will listen.  That if they advertise, people will go out and buy. 

 How many young people do you know who actually want more stuff in their lives?  I know my sons don’t.  They live by the rule that for every new thing in, there’s an old thing out.  Less is more.  And when they do make a purchase, it’s decided outside the world of advertising.  They go to online forum discussions, review sites, blogs and their friends’ experiences and advice.  In fact, they are suspicious of all claims made by a manufacturer and always search for third-party validation before considering a purchase.  These are boys in college or grad school so admittedly they have an informed view of the world, though I don’t think their experience is unusual among kids their age (and younger.)

Having no TV, I am likely the last ad man on earth never to have seen an episode of Mad Men.  My son Adam is staying with me over his college winter break and we’re watching season one on Netflix.  Last night we watched #8, in which Don Draper is accused by his girlfriend’s pot smoking hippie friends for creating the wants in society for products no one needs.  Don’s response is essentially “get over it.”  “There’s no big lie.  There is no system.  The universe is indifferent.” This is the world we live in; there’s nothing else.

 I’m no utopian and truly can’t imagine living in a world untouched by materialism.  I can imagine such a world’s existence, but not living in it.  The inextricably linked businesses of manufacturing and advertising—together with a legal system that supports and protects the entire selling and buying enterprise—bear the collective responsibility for perpetuating “old think” across the board.  Our efforts to think differently (thank you Apple) are merely inroads into the much larger landscape.  Yet we need to go there in all of our affairs.

 In the early ‘90’s, Karen Stabiner wrote Inventing Desire: Inside Chiat/Day.  Together with Randall Rothenberg’s Where the Suckers Moon, it’s one of the best books ever written on the ad industry—and a vastly truer portrayal than in Mad Men, which is about characters, not an industry, anyway.  As its title explicitly states, that’s what marketing and advertising is all about: creating desire for things.  Sometimes we can rationalize away the dirty undertone by saying it’s creating a desire for things we need: a software solution for greater productivity; a better way to get grass stains out of a pair of khaki’s; a hybrid car.  Or that television advertising remains the best way to communicate to a mass audience.  Or that a mass audience still exists at all.

 As in international relations, it’s really hard to move beyond “old think.”

 In another post, I’m going to write about the relationship between advertising agencies and their clients—truly relationships built and stuck in “old think” thinking.



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