What We Know

A few years back I was teaching an MBA class on technology marketing and used Digital Equipment Corporation as an example of a company that failed—spectacularly so—to foresee the rise of the personal computer. I talked about DEC’s decline and eventual, ironic, sale to Compaq Computer, which in turn due to its own market-forces squeeze was sold to Hewlett-Packard in tempestuous circumstances. I might as well have been describing events in the Age of Pericles.


 Had this been a course outside the students’ major I might not have been so surprised. (But, in this very same class, I happened to mention Elizabeth Taylor on the day she died. No one had ever heard of her.) This got me wondering about the need for context and the value of knowing things—things specific to our fields of interest, things happening in the world, things that happened in the past, things in general. How important is it to know things? To read? To look beyond our friends’ Facebook postings?

Writing in a recent New Yorker, John McPhee talks about our losing frames of reference, that our collective vocabulary and common points of reference have been disappearing at a faster rate than ever before. He quotes the Times columnist Frank Bruni, “If you…want to feel much, much older, teach a college course. I’m doing that now…and hardly a class goes by when I don’t make an allusion that prompts my students to stare at me as if I just dropped in from the Paleozoic era.” Bruni went on to ask, “Are common points of reference dwindling? Has the personal niche supplanted the public square?”

During this winter term I taught a class at Stanford I felicitously titled, “Does Advertising Still Matter?” My idea was to examine the classic principles practiced by the masters of mid-twentieth century advertising, people like David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach and Mary Wells, to see if they still held true in today’s digital and social landscape. The first two classes were history lessons, examinations of the revolutionary campaigns for Volkswagen, Avis, Braniff… along with Bernbach’s timeless aphorisms, such as “A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.” Only one student in the class recognized the VW “Think Small” ad.


By the end of the term, we bent the principles to embrace the new rules of customer centricity—after all, it was David Ogilvy who remarked, “The consumer isn’t a moron; she’s your wife.” But translating the creative impulse behind “We try harder” into ephemeral media like Snapchat or Vine was a challenge. I was heartened that during the time I was teaching the class, AdWeek published a piece by one of my long time mentors, Keith Reinhard, in which he wrote, “Creating a brand isn’t the same as creating a buzz.”

On a larger scale, I see the same lack of reference becoming institutionalized in the advertising profession as a whole. Big Data has driven demand for technologists, data analysts, programmatic media buyers, platform specialists and other technology founded roles. It’s become an exciting world of microsecond precision targeting and accountability. Yet, in my recruitment practice, I haven’t seen a single client brief that asks for someone skilled in deriving consumer insights based on human insights. If all we look at are aggregations of data, aren’t we missing those precious sparks of human serendipity that make an ad something more inspiring than just…an ad? Can an algorithm spark joy?

Increasingly, what our clients want are ultra-round pegs to fit into ultra-round holes. Outliers, for the most part, don’t have a chance. Square edges? Forget it. Where novelty and a broad frame of reference might benefit the long term potential for growth and differentiation, agencies today opt for the immediate shiny object, the one that most mirrors back the image already envisioned. There’s no room left for Bill Bernbach’s observation, “Advertising is not a science, it is persuasion, and persuasion is an art, it is intuition that leads to discovery, to inspiration, it is the artist who is capable of making the consumer feel desire.” At least this appears to be the situation at all of the big, institutionalized agencies, whether digital or traditional. Everyone is trying to out-data the others. New roles are being created, new jobs with new skill sets filled.

So, does advertising still matter? My class answered with a resounding Yes. It has to matter, for better or worse, because it’s ubiquitous and entrenched into every aspect of our lives, unavoidable and ceaseless. Once, advertising was much easier to ignore. Today, we experience advertising whether we know it or not. With every keystroke we create meaning for marketers to interpret and refine their messages back to us. All we can do is hope that someone along that split second journey has an urgent need to aspire to a higher purpose, to infuse their words and pictures with inspiration and joy.

In his New Yorker piece, McPhee wrote, “Frames of reference are like the constellations of lights, some of them blinking, on an airliner descending toward an airport at night. You see the lights. They imply a structure you can’t see. Inside that frame of reference—those descending lights—is a big airplane with its flaps down expecting a runway.”

When Chiat Day created their famous “Think Different” campaign for Apple, they relied on a huge cast of brilliantly blinking frames of reference to land meaning and inspiration safely on the ground. They made the assumption that viewers would know who Richard Feynman was, or Martha Graham, or Jackie Robinson. I imagine most didn’t, but Apple being Apple made it uncool not to know. This doesn’t happen often.


 For myself, I’m going to continue to know things, new things every day. Maybe this includes a six second video, or rereading Proust, or simply looking at the natural world with fresh eyes every day. I find joy in associations, in bits of trivia, in lost words or new-fangled emoticons. I can’t imagine living any other way.   (Sometimes my wife remarks, “People haven’t used that word since maybe… 1955.”) McPhee asked whether our use of words or examples unknown to today’s students would illuminate or irritate. I think these are the wrong poles. We are who we are based on what we know and how we express that knowledge. I don’t strive either to illuminate or irritate—but only to give context and a frame of reference to me. It makes me happy. Others can interpret as they choose.


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1 Comment

  1. Josh Sale

     /  March 31, 2015

    Thank you for sharing this Niland.

    I know this isn’t the thrust of your article, but we need to talk about DEC sometime. I think they were on the decline for a number of reasons that had nothing to do with PC’s.


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