The Future Is Not What It Used To Be – By @philgull
By Philip Gull
The Future Is Not What It Used To Be
Last week was podcast week. This meant stopping off at agencies for an hour or so to learn advertising truths, general and specific.
JWT is full of people, full of ability, kindness and humility.
The excitement and sense of purpose at Uncommon is palatable.
Two agencies (and a PR firm) are a very small cross-section of an entire industry. But there were still a couple of noticeable trends and patterns of thinking that came out.
Ideas like a wander, and are rarely found deskbound – but your desk is great as a sharpie-powered thresher. The phrase “side-hustle” is met with a universal wince and sigh.
But for me, the most striking and consistent comments were about the future.
People don’t really believe in it. They don’t hold much in store for adland’s future. Or The Big Picture, Our Society’s future.
I assumed student doubt would evaporate in the firebrand atmosphere of agencies and we’d be recast as confident creatives. But worry expands to fill new spaces.
If the three P’s of marketing are Price, Place and Promotion, the advertising concepts that seem to underscore them at the moment are the Product, the Past and the Present. And their assorted combinations:
There are ‘timeless’ products that fuse past and present.
There are ‘retro’ products that bring the ‘uncorrupted’ past directly into your personal present (and presence).
There are ‘capture’ products that allow you to record, catalogue and document every moment of your present to build your own personal, digital museum, a mausoleum to no-one.
And of course, there are products that help you ‘be present’, ‘live in the now’, ‘stay in the moment’ and a hundred other repackaged carpe diem platitudes.
But no-one’s selling the future to us.
And no-one’s selling the future to the people that sell us things.
My generation (my generation, n.: anyone for who a mortgage is as distant a prospect financially as Mordor is geographically) haven’t been given much to be hopeful about.
And yet: I don’t think this makes us different.
What makes us different is the actual lack of hope.
The ‘first generation worse off than their parents’ – a phrase touted in every major newspaper – comes from people without a firm grasp on history. Unfortunate, given that they’ve lived through a sizeable chunk of it.
If you were an 1895 baby, celebrating your 21st and last at Gommecourt or Somme, you’d be a bit miffed at your mum growing up in peaceful, peaceable mid-Victorian England.
If you were a 1345 baby, the odds of you making it through the Black Death to 1350 were one in five. Your dad, meanwhile, had lived a full medieval life and died of natural causes at the ripe old age of 23, leaving behind seven children and committing his blessyd bodye to eternall heven.
And yet: there was still more belief then than there is now.
Mind you, they had good luck back then. One of the one in five 1345 babies was the man Himself, Geoffrey Chaucer. Blessed Jeff. Our greatest comic, the poet who typifies pure optimism more than any other Englishman, Englishwoman or Englishchild, lived his entire life in the aftermath of unimaginable horror.
And in the future, he believed.
Now, if you were Geoffrey Chaucer, it was probably quite a good time finding out you had Geoffrey Chaucer’s brain for the next sixty years. But all his tales, and those of his contemporaries, are filled with optimistic characters, confident of the time to come, and above all, hopeful.
Imagine burying your entire family in mass graves, five bubonic bodies deep, and staying hopeful.
A couple of people I’ve spoken to see young people’s doubts as millennial cynicism, or a by-product of job insecurity. But I think prophesising adland’s slow decline is a symptom of a wider mindset. When the strapline for Impostor Syndrome goes up here in the studio – I don’t know what I’m doing here – sometimes you can hear the ‘here’ expanding beyond SCA to mean now, on earth, on a wet Thursday in November, 2018 – what am I doing here?
Belief in the future is vital. I’ve got a lot of friends in their mid-twenties who have sort of, kind of, a little bit, given up. And I don’t blame them, because: what are we all working towards? If advertising is a descending zeppelin, deflated and wheezing from a thousand cuts, if the 21st century is a long, languorous march to nowhere in particular, why wouldn’t you stay in bed all day and reuse your shreddies-encrusted bowl from yesterday’s dinner? At least you’re being honest with yourself.
Advertising needs aspiration to function. But more than this: holding the belief that there’s a better, achievable future out there, that the universe tends towards improvement – even if probability says something different – is so important to our well-being.
We need to start branding the future better. It’ll produce better ads. But more importantly, if we believe in the future – of advertising, of society, of our own personal lives – we’ll build far better futures than we otherwise ever could.
The Future is just an intimidatingly big brief.