March 11, 2014

Episode Thirty Four: On Advertising; On Schmidt; Shorts

1.0 On Advertising

I have a shtick, a story, about how it is that I came to be involved in advertising. Usually it involves saying something like I never intended to end up in advertising (true), and that I don't actually like most advertising either (also true). Nevertheless, I do find myself in the weird situation of having ended up at what at least some people think is one of the best advertising agencies in the world, making advertising. 

When I first interviewed at Wieden+Kennedy (W+K), I didn't really know anything about them other than the fact that they'd just hired Iain Tait and that I was pretty sure that he was pretty awesome. So I did my homework: I read Where The Suckers Moon[1], I read pretty much all of their blog archives and any article I could get my hand on and generally stalked the hell out of them. 

And I found out that, out of all the advertising that's been made, W+K had been responsible for a not insignificant chunk of it. And there were even some pieces that were damn well beautiful, not least of which their campaign If You Let Me Play[2], for Nike's support of Title IX legislation in the US that leveled out the playing field for women in sports. 

So here's the thing: it's not that I hate advertising. Like most people, I hate bad advertising, and like most things, most advertising is bad. 

But, there are the occasional moments where I feel I get to do something good that has personal meaning to me, and if you'll forgive me, there's one particular piece of work I've been involved in recently that produces that warm fuzzy feeling inside. It's a piece of work for Facebook: that forever interesting, thorny client used by over a billion of people who have simultaneously strong and vague feelings about, that by design has never had a brand or any real *meaning* behind it, other than the one espoused by its technocratic leader to connect the world. So what does connecting the world actually mean to any of those over 1.2 billion? As part of the current campaign (such as it is a traditional advertising campaign in the first place), we produced a spot internally called "Sci-Fi"[3] for obvious reasons and externally called We Are Not Alone. 

And for me, it's about this, and it's as much about Facebook as it is about the internet an. d the promise that the 'net and communication brings. It's about cosplayers, who never really get that much love, but whom I *absolutely* love even though I'm shy and lacking in self-esteem and not happy enough about myself to proudly dress up and have fun. But I defy you to look at cosplayers and footage and photos of them and not see how much *fun* they're having, in essence, being themselves by pretending to be and dressing up as other people and things. The rest of the (western) world only really gets to do this at Halloween and even then in America it's the weird kind of Sexy Halloween, but there's an innocent fun to cosplaying. And it annoys me so, so much when I see others sneering down at it. So when we get the chance to do a piece about how the 'net and Facebook help people find each other and show the fun that they have doing that *and then* we see people jumping to cosplayers' defense in comments (one commenter on an AdAge article jumped down the parent's throat for saying Facebook were terrible for showing 'nerds and outcasts' in a brand spot, instead saying that the parent was part of the problem and should loosen up, that it was wonderful to see people celebrated in this manner) it feels *great*. 

Advertising might not be many good things, it might do a whole bunch of things badly or inefficiently, but sometimes it does things fantastically. And to have the chance and platform to openly celebrate a bunch of people who've historically been jeered at? That's fantastic. 


2.0 On Schmidt and the Californian Ideology

In the continuing series of "can these guys really be serious," Google's chairman Eric Schmidt took to the stage at SXSW a few days ago[1, 2] in what I can only assume to be a personal attempt to make sure that our outrage toward the Californian Ideology never dies down and stokes some sort of persistent fire which we can harness in some sort of sustainable energy (if only we could hook up Schmidt to a sound-and-fury harnessing apparatus). 

Anyway: Schmidt was unrelenting - the solution to the inequality the first world countries are currently experiencing is, obviously, more capitalism, less regulation and more education. The end goal of this? So that every man, woman and child may be the captain of their own startup, hustling and growth-hacking their way to better living conditions for all. We are all entrepreneurs, all disrupting, all tirelessly laboring. Schmidt perhaps loses a bit in quotation and being relayed second hand when he says that "fast-growth" startups are the answer because he obviously didn't get to expand on what he meant by Fast Growth - Uber, which provides a service to a large (but admittedly "wrong" end of the inequality spectrum) by employing drivers (of which I'd argue a lot of Uber's success comes from a company managing to externalize costs onto its employees *as well as* some smart technology and guileless business hustle), or a company like WhatsApp (fifty employees, nineteen billion dollar earn out, hundreds of millions of users - those undoubtedly at both the bottom *and* the top of the pyramid) for whom quality of life has been improved in some way through messaging).

Now, I have no disagreement with the idea that capitalism as a larger force *has* been a net positive in the world: more people have been brought out of poverty than ever before, and the living standard of a great many people has definitely been raised. But.

The flip side to this, of course, is that the blind worshipping of capitalism and its sister, consumption. There's a fascinating Medium article (much better than the version of the type of SXSW talk common a few years ago of the type "Here's some reckons about cognitive psychology I just read from a pop-sci book) that riffs off the book The Two Income Trap (which book puts forward the equally interesting theory that double income earning families are in a perverse way worse off because they end up fighting for the same resource, spending more because of that, at higher risk of losing income, and ultimately ending up with less disposable income. 

The model that *appears* to be espoused by Schmidt and his Californian Ideology colleagues is one of perpetual, economic-version-of-rational and ceaseless opportunity of productivity. Need some extra cash? Drive a Lyft or Uber at the weekend. Need to pay for the bottled water and charger cables in your Uber car? Maybe you can do some TaskRabbit errands in the morning before going to work. Driving to work? Perhaps you could drop off a package. 

Education itself needs more "disruption" but perhaps this new(er) generation of Californian Ideologue can see (a likely story) the limits of technology. Schmidt admits that perhaps only the jobs related to creativity and caring will be the ones safe from robots, but that's demonstrably not true based on the yearly drip of elderly care robots and social proxies that come out of Japan. And while the One Laptop Per Child project looks to be on its deathbed (thanks, inevitably, to Moore's law and the solving of a sort-of-real-problem with mobile phones and tablets), instead we get something like the Khan Academy which is the Californian Ideology brute-forcing and application of scalability to *one man's method of teaching*, spamming it (in some cases, pretty effectively) around the world. But that's Khan. And there's one thing that I won't forget which is the impact great teachers (and, to be fair, shitty teachers) have had on my life. But technology never solved *that* problem. 

In the end, Schmidt appears to be grasping for some sort of post-scarcity Star Trek utopia, but doesn't realize that the embarrassment of riches he's promulgating feels more District-9 and Elysium than it does Star Trek. Sure, there'll be a basic income and what feels like gruel fed out to everyone (California will, of course, have perfected its Soylent by then) and basic healthcare (administered by robots) by Schmidt's view still provides no space for a vision of a future outside of the Creators and the Servers.


3.0 Shorts
 - In reply to yesterday's note about the BBC, Rishi pointed me to this blog post ( about the BBC and iPlayer "celebrating the best of British Creativity", specifically new forms of storytelling, which after reading I warned Rishi about because it was precisely the thing about the BBC that got me angry and frustrated at it. Now, as friend pointed out, it's not like the world needs that many more reckons about the Beeb so let me just say this and leave the matter: removing the limitations of "fixed durations" and "transmission slots" isn't a new form of storytelling, especially when your audience is familiar with YouTube. It's fucking looking at the barn door, wide open, and saying that you've discovered a new method of connecting previously segmented areas to each other using some sort of portal. No it's not. Jesus Christ, BBC.

 - Little Printer is going to work ( which I'm sure will crystalize to a lot of people in a more understandable way why Berg Cloud is potentially a big deal: it's because it lowers the bar for people to create IoT services. Yes, kind of like in an If This Then That manner, but also they've done a lot of hard work in terms of rendering output (the server-backed Webkit instance is *smart*). 

 - This is a great explainer (and it's interesting - well, predictable, I suppose - that the NYT had done it rather than any of the companies hawking their wares) about what your activity tracker can and can't see and how it's (if you think about it) an EasyHard problem:

 - Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In launched what my time in the advertising industry has taught me to see as a Provocative campaign to ban the word bossy because little girls get called bossy and little boys get called leaders. Which, in broad strokes, I can agree with, apart from this:


And that's your Tuesday. As ever, I appreciate all of your notes and comments and the little sound they make when they enter my mailbox is completely indistinguishable from spam or any other email which just makes me irritated at email but seriously, I do like it when I get them.