Deja Vu

I found myself in the boardroom of an advertising agency yesterday, talking to someone I’d never met but had had a conference call with three years ago.  She knew a little about me, having checked my name on LinkedIn and talking to colleagues we share. To cut a long story short, she’d commissioned my client to conduct some fairly fancy engagement and recall research, using eye-tracking technology, knowing that she needed something for the industry to love, so that they might love her company, and it might love her. I had designed and helped conduct this research for my client, who loved me because I’d fed the food chain.  In the event, she’d missed the meetings and the project, as she gave birth prematurely, in Portugal on holiday, and apparently remained there for two months, learning the sign language of Portuguese paediatricians who spoke no English, but that must be another saga.

So yesterday, after a 5.30am start, and ensconced in the overheated front parlour of a re-purposed Georgian villa in Ballsbridge, I found myself describing research techniques I was introduced to in the late 1970s, and which she had only heard about, or perhaps read about. Nothing new in the Hague… But in the process of describing the benefits of multi-variate analysis as a tool for segmenting her audience and identifying personality types more susceptible to her medium, I realised that there’s good ideas and bad ideas, practical solutions and impractical ones, but that the old and new merge when it comes to re-invention. Her experience, which sits exclusively in the digital era, and opens its doors on the vistas of personalised advertising, needs this old process to identify her audience’s touch points. So much for the jargon of Ballsbridge. So much for overheated boardrooms and ethnography.

Waking again this morning at 5am, which is getting to be an unpleasant deja vu experience of its own, I drifted into a fantasy, which beats dreaming because it’s a self-driven rollercoaster, as opposed to that free fall of real dreams that are only half there when you regain the day. In this half-dream, I travelled back to 1978 or 9, to the boardroom of Mass Observation, a famous research agency in West London where I trained.  It had opened its doors in 1937 with a  survey of working people and their wardrobes (one pair of shoes, two pairs of trousers and in many cases, no underpants).  The MD was eminent and respected and subsequently headed up the BBC’s research unit for many years.  So this place was where I had my first job and was trained by people who’d probably started their careers in the 1950s, when Mad Men was in full flow, and where they still used punch cards to analyse paper surveys completed on the street or in peoples’ homes, and with a team of three data processing staff, churned out continuous print-out paper analysis from a mainframe. They used a knitting needle to read the punch cards by pushing it through a specific punch hole and lifting all the cards with that hole in, to create a ‘hole count’ indicating key percentages of responses, which dictated the top line findings of the research.  It’s all so much frozen history now.

So in the fantasy I had a meeting with the Managing Director and some of the boffins and I was outlining the technological advances between then and now, trying in my way to explain what a byte is, and what it means to have a laptop and terabytes and digital video and social media and big data. I realised that in that year, Apple was launching the Lisa and Bill Gates was pushing his new DOS software, and ticker tape with braille-like messages still came out of telex machines and went into readers for printing.  The fantasy involved my arrogance and their wonder, as though I had something important to impart which would change their way of thinking.  Instead of sending interviewers out on the street and paying so much, they could recruit through this new thing called the internet, and interview by sending digitised questions to people selected from large databases according to their proclivities and demography.  They could bring in results in real time, and the costs would drop by ten-fold. Their clients would know the answers to their problems today instead of in six weeks time, and they would have so much more information than they had been used to. Not to mention buying shares in Microsoft before the price exploded…

But then it all began to turn in on itself.  This guy I’d worked for all those years ago understood little of what I’d described to him about 2016 and our new world, but he understood that the increased speed and reduced cost of our new methods wouldn’t benefit him or his business because it would become the norm, it would be commoditised. In fact, I had to agree that the value of information had been destroyed by its accessibility, and you could have as much as you could eat for nothing by downloading it. He understood that his clients would still want to know the answers to their intractable questions which have not changed, and that the process would not improve the outcome.  The techniques he had taught me then were as valid now, even though there might be easier ways of processing them, and when all is said and done, the value is in the insights, not the method.  The only thing that mattered, in that meeting, and in Ballsbridge too, was that all the time which has passed, all the numbers and words which have flowed under the bridge in the river of research to the ocean of data came down to experience. He, at sixty, sat opposite me, at sixty, although he’d last seen me at twenty, and he knew what I knew, understood the dynamics of the advertising market, the factors affecting engagement and recall. After a day of spilling the beans about life in 2016, I left empty, and so did he.

Disengagement

Having just come from a meeting of the Kinsale Chamber of Tourism committee, I am struck by the level of disengagement by members (and now ex-members) of an organisation which has been a ‘backbone support’ for local tourism businesses for a long time.  Now, like all voluntary organisations, it has had its ups and downs, been more and less effective over the years. Being part of the current management group, I might argue that it is doing more now (and more cost-effectively) than it has in the 14 years I’ve been a member to support the membership’s marketing needs.  That would be arguable on the grounds, mainly, of relatively recent developments in online marketing.  I could also argue, as a small business, that such organisations, which are very low on cost, and generate their impetus through network (shared) marketing effort, are the only economic route to targeting consumers for us.  It’s a fallacy that the internet is a cheap way to reach the consumer, and it’s increasingly a fallacy that you can talk about something on social media and you will reach the people you want to reach, without cost.

I think I’m getting more bang for my buck (hate that expression, but hell, we are in the age of the American sound-bite), from my membership of this organisation than ever before. So my question is: “why are the local businesses disengaging with it so much now?  And on a broader front, why does it feel like people are disengaging with messages, both commercial and political (small p) a lot more now than, say 3-5 years ago?”

On the local issue, we might be disengaging because tourism is up and bookings are full and if we could turn off the resource provided by the Chamber until times are hard again, we would.  In the era of boosting posts on Facebook within minutes, of switching utility providers at the press of a button, perhaps we can no longer accept the continuity such organisations need in order to survive. We might think:’I can cancel my membership now and take it up again when I need it more’.

We might be disengaging because the mission of the organisation, or its focus, or the positioning it has adopted are no longer appropriate to our needs. In the case of Kinsale Chamber of Tourism, it’s true that selling the town to tourists as The Gourmet Capital of Ireland is no longer appropriate or true, and that may not have been replaced with a strong enough alternative.  I think, though, that in this case, the focus is still strong, the mission is more defined than it ever was in the past, and the positioning isn’t misguided. The Chamber IS doing its job.

We hear that politicians around the world are failing to engage with the people, and are increasingly seen as being at odds with the needs of their electorate. So many established institutions are seen as edifices which alienate more people than they engage. And yet, individual politicians and leaders of institutions often show themselves to be passionately engaged, rather than cynically disinterested, in the causes they take on.

I’m not convinced that this disengagement, not to say malaise, is caused by a failure in the organisations set up to represent people (or in the local case, small local businesses).  I think the change is in people’s inclination, or even their ability, to engage in anything, and that may be driven by the shift in communication from face to face, phone and snail mail to electronic. Electronic communication (such as this one-directional blog posting process) is isolating, and while isolation should be unpopular, it is in fact addictive.  It’s all about control, something which two-way interpersonal communication lacks.  Online forums, where several people do interact in real time, are very popular, but the anonymity they provide may be a clue to their success.

So few people attend networking events because the disinclination to engage is self-fulfilling.  You get too many emails, and read too much irrelevant pulp on your social media services and you stop wanting to go where you expect to be offered something you expect to be irrelevant.  You’ve been target-marketed so effectively through the use of profiling and Big Data that you no longer feel free to pick and choose your stimuli, and you begin to want an ever more personalised, self-driven information experience that makes you feel in control of what you’re being served.

So what’s the prognosis? Where does the trend line point?  We will increasingly opt for ad blockers, search-and-sort software which reduces irrelevant content. We already use Google to choose, and we only wade through one or two pages of results.  We will choose to use digital assistants to select for us more and more – you know the “people who bought this also like that” approach to choice.  We will believe we are being selective, but we will be in an information straight-jacket, controlled but providers, and not in control of the content we are offered.  We will lose the chance encounter, the lateral thought, the 1+1=3 moment.  We will become unsociable drudges. We will fail to support social and community infrastructures which build networks, in favour of centralisation.  This will increasingly support our feelings of alienation from the organisations which we have built. We won’t know whether we’re hearing an individual’s views, or whether they’re just being labelled as such.  We’ll be sucked into the Turing Test without choosing to participate.

Dislocation

At about 4am, the net curtains began to flash blue and red as a silent ambulance or police car passed slowly on the main road. The room was cold, though not that damp, frosted breath cold which pools on the windowsill and pastes the panes of glass. That’ll be it now. No more sleep. The alien hum of traffic takes its hostage.

Last night was typical in the capital, from Oxford Circus to Bank on the Central Line, platform 2, 5.33, via St Pauls and Tottenham Court Road, sandwiched between free tabloid headlines about Trump and X-Factor contestants and the shaming of foreigners in this alien nation, and through the subterranean river of people to Monument.  The tubes were packed, like tubes of smarties, multi-coloured, single flavoured. The people leaving each platform through narrow exits,like sand particles in an hour glass, compressed and squirted onto the escalators to spill onto the street, commuting. And then it was that familiar sea of determined automatons on the pavements, threading their numbed bodies against one another while seemingly talking to themselves, but actually on their phones.  The bar where we met was large and loud and bedecked in industrial cabling and ducts and giant enameled lights on metres of flex, low lighting the rows of small tables over which hunched shouting friends and texting couples fed. There was overpriced craft beer from multinational chemical plants and organic burgers on slate plates with slivers of ghurkin and miniature buckets of  fries with chili sauce and fancy names and waiters with i-pads and hand-held card readers at the tables, service included. Then glowing office blocks and dark Wren churches squeezed between dual carriageways and plate glass facades, and the chill air and rush of cars and street lights, headlights, warning lights, lights across the river, roof lights for planes, on masts and transmitters, and offices in the clouds. The opulent Shard, rising out of the river of people, surrounded by station and barriers and polished marble and back-lit directions with ever changing instructions which timed our decisions to the minute, momentarily trusted, and muffled tannoy disillusionment: “we apologise for any inconvenience…” Orpington via Grove Park 20.37, platform 7 or was that the front four coaches only? Did I swipe my card or will I be automatically charged for not doing so and anyway, is there enough credit on the Oyster? It’s an aphrodisiac you know.

All that after three hours of overblown bluster and unsaid truths, unspoken threats, undeniable lies about the why’s and wherefore’s of capital investment and loss, about the achievement of a dream or the memory of one. The obligations to declare impending doom as insolvency or to blow smoke on a mirror and persuade people who are self-satisfied but still hungry that the dream is still happening, only just beginning, that it isn’t a nightmare, that they won’t wake to the blue and red flashing lights at 4am, and realise that the dream was just that and it isn’t going to be the next big thing.

I can feel the tug of silence, at the bend in the river and the touch of wind. I know the clock hand is still moving steadily. There are autumn wisps from chimneys, rippling waves on the beach, and unhurried daylight.  It’s another reality, waiting.