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.

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