A Little Case Study in How Not to Think About the 21st Century
Have you ever had a hellbender of a night that was dizzying…delectable…unforgettable…over the top…until you crashed and burned the next day, moaning and wincing in pain? Right about now, marketing’s coming off a delirious, exhilarating high. It’s still savoring the the rush. But it’s 6AM, and as the sun rises…
(By the way, if you’re like “Umair, why are we talking about businessy stuff?,” I get it. I haven’t, in a while. It’s something I want to do more of here at the Issue…because it is an issue, and we need to change it.)
What do I mean? Hold on while I exit stealth mode and put back on my official Don Draper “guy that transformed marketing” hat for a second. The pandemic, curiously, was bad for a) people b) public health c) society d) democracy, but weirdly, it was good for marketing. Marketing budgets soared. Businesses, reeling from the shock of lockdown, poured money…threw fortunes…hurled giant pots of gold…at ad agencies. Please! Anything to save our market share! SOS. Save our souls. Or at least our share prices.
Meanwhile, people, or as we call them in the Dark Halls of Corporate Power, “consumers,” changed. Huddled together at home, as lockdowns finally lifted, they did what you’d expect, because you probably did it, too. They went on a bit of a spending spree. Actually, on a lot of a spending spree. We economist types call that “pent up consumer demand,” which just means: not being able to shop for a whole year or two, it turns out, kind of sucks.
Now. Put those two things together, and what do you already see? It isn’t the point—we’ll come to that—but it’s going to help get to it. Demand cratered, and then it created the illusion of a boom, as it snapped back. Meanwhile, marketing budgets had already grown, boardrooms desperate to sell…anyone…anything…so that the hedge fund psychos who wield Madoff’s Guillotine wouldn’t suddenly decapitate them. Got all that? Here we have an illusion: it looks like those huge marketing budgets caused the resurgence of demand.
And right now, that’s the foam on the wave marketing’s riding, blissfully unaware of…the fact…that it’s surfing at top speed right into a…Gigantic Brick Wall. The majority of marketing people, sorry, corporate execs in general, expect this teenage daydream to go on…the money to flow…budgets to rise…and keep rising. Aha sob. That’s my sad laugh. Are you kidding?
Let’s think about the next decade in the world. What do we know about it? A set of troubling facts, or maybe bone-chilling ones, if you think about them a little too hard. The global economy’s set to be stagnant, and there are no sources of long-run growth on the horizon. None, as in, this time really is different, because the old Industrial Age paradigm of buy-stuff-and-kill-the-planet is out of juice. That means stagnant incomes for people, by the way, which is going to put a profound damper on all that…resurgent demand. Meanwhile, inflation’s not going back to remotely “normal” levels, and prices are still historically astronomically high, this time, because more and more of it’s driven by climate change, ultra-high global debt levels, and risk cascading through systems.
You can already see how all this is beginning to play out. Did you see what just happened to the luxury industry? Put your fingers in your ears. Imagine a massive quake big enough that skyscrapers topple. It had an historic, earth-shaking crash.
One that it didn’t see coming. Instead, blissfully, it was asleep and dreaming pleasant, delicious dreams. In this case, that “the Chinese consumer” or “the rising middle classes” would go on fueling another decade or two of growth by buying cleverly (meaning very LOUDLY) branded sunglasses, iPhone cases, and other accoutrements of Having Arrived on the Ladder of Conspicuous Consumption.
There was just one problem with that Noble and Beautiful Dream, and it turned out to be…the global economy. Or reality, if you like. China, it turned out, wasn’t nearly prosperous enough in real terms to have a stable and rising middle class. Instead, it’s youth face mass unemployment, and they now take pride in describing themselves as “ruthless money saving fiends,” which even I have to admit, is a highly amazing job description and life goal, not least because it strikes kneel-and-grab-the-rosary-beads levels of holy terror into the souls of marketers everywhere. The luxury industry didn’t see the Gigantic Message Plastered All Over the Wall: things are not going well in this world of ours.
Think about that for a second. While it was trying to outrun the future…looking the other way… the very customers it staked its entire future on…betting they’d inevitably become Yet Another Generation of Even More Desperately Conspicuous Consumers…at whom it could dangle the slightly moldy cheese in the same old rusting mousetrap…those very people turned instead into…wait for it…“ruthless money saving fiends.” LOL. Go ahead and chuckle. My friend the ghost of Karl Marx snacked on that, said “delicious,” and then he stopped, mid-chew, puzzled, and asked me: “wait, why the hell didn’t their legions of advisors and agencies and consultants tell them things are not going well in this world of yours?”
What happens in a World Where Things are Not Going Well? A few things are pretty predictable—and they’re already happening, too. People are caught between the pincers of falling real incomes and rising prices. They might still be “consuming,” a word that strikes joy into the empty hearts of beancounters everywhere, but the truth is that this wave of consumption is on its last legs. More and more of it is propped up by debt, and sources of debt are tapped out. About half of Americans struggle to pay the bills, 70%-80% live paycheck to paycheck, and they’re the world’s rich. Everyone else? Squarely in the Jaws-sized…teeth…of a decade or more of stagflation, chaos, pessimism, and bewilderment.
So what’s the effect of that—stagnating levels of consumption—going to be? You see, the economy, too many don’t understand, is inescapable. You can’t negotiate with it, bicker with it, plead with it, or bargain with it. Like the idea of hell, it just is. Stagnating levels of consumption? Boardrooms are desperate…panicked…not to admit this is happening. Where do they end? Like the luxury industry. Crashing and burning when they should have known better. Ignorance is bliss, until you have to pay the bill for the VIP room at the afterparty.
This pattern is going to prevail. Boardooms are going to try to ignore the Demonic Elephant Standing Right Next to the Fireplace—the global economy is screwed, because the Old Paradigm doesn’t work anymore. It’s produced debt, stagnation, planetary ruin, and political catastrophe—not my opinion, sorry, just some empirical facts, which even places like the IMF and UN are now beginning to shout about, more than a little panicked. But boardrooms learn the hard way, which is to say, a rising stock price is more terrible than any of the Devil’s Temptations. Seduced by the fantasy that the party never has to end…they’ll try their best to ignore the fact it’s already over, some of just don’t know it yet.
Marketing, strategy, ideas, thinking, innovation—whatever you want to call that set of things—we have a role to play in the middle of this gory mess. We have a few options. We can play along with boardroom fantasies, and pretend that…the illusion…in this case, our illusion, which we discussed earlier, resurgent demand after the pandemic and budgets exploding…are going to somehow “solve” this problem. And for a while, maybe, they’ll even indulge us. But that’ll only make the reckoning, when it comes, all the more painful. Because they’ll ask us: why didn’t you warn us? Aren’t you the idiots who are supposed to know “consumers” and “the world” better than the insides of your own pockets?
So if we take that road, like it or not, we’ll end up damned by temptation itself. Make no mistake, that’s the easier road, because no difficult conversations, no challenging truths, no uncomfortable revelations need to had or said. And the truth is that those of who are in this game are good at that art of seduction, too. But in the end? We’re going to wake up upon a flaming sea, and everyone’s going to ask us: hey, why the hell are we on a rowboat out of hell, and what happened to the party? You said it was gonna last forever!! And after fourteen seconds of debate, we’re going to be the first ones they throw overboard.
The other option before us is to begin pointing out the rocky shores ahead of us. And discovering, together, how, perhaps, the needle is to be threaded between them. Through them. What are we here to do, in an age…like this? Economies out of juice, societies rupturing, a gigantic Death Star sized wave of pessimism rampaging through the world, shock and trauma pulsing in people from young to old? Are we just going to go on pretending that all this doesn’t exist…isn’t happening…la-la-la-no-no-no?
Because so far, that’s what we’re doing.
The Crisis We’re In is that we’re pretending that the World Isn’t in Crisis. That’s not some kind of clever, ironic slogan—though Banksy’s welcome to steal it, and so are you. It’s a slap, and we’re running out of face. Scholars have begun to say our world’s in a “polycrisis.” Before Gordon Brown wrote a book about it, I called it a “permacrisis.” Pick your buzzword du jour, doesn’t matter. We’re at a turning point in history—and I mean all of history. Economies broken, societies struggling, people afraid, worried, broke, bereft. And here we are, us marketing guys, Chief Whatever Officers, us Senior Executives With Very Impressive Titles But Usually in Awesome Jeans, us “innovators,” mostly…pretending.
You know what? We’re the ones in this this sphere, the world of corporations and boardrooms, leadership, and so forth, who are better than that. Supposed to be, anyways. Because if we pretend…then imagine how much easier it is for everyone else…the beancounters, the vultures, the nerds, the tech-bros….the ones who actually don’t care about anything so weirdly much they’d happily set fire to the Last Tiny Helpless Seed of Life on a Dying Planet if it meant they could hoard The Very Last Dollar. We’re the ones whose job it is to not just foretell the future, but respond to it with conscience, purpose, truth, grace, and wisdom. It’s our task—and it’s a difficult one—to be the grown-ups in the room, and think of the long-term, the reason, the essence, the point and the power.
We’re failing at that right now. Look around and tell me that we’re not. I think, having looked around, that we’re taking Option One, the First Road—Pretending that the Party At the End of the World Can Go On Forever, so, wheee, pass the champagne, and someone, call an influencer to film it all. The seduction. It’s what we do. But it’s never been all we do. Right now? The world needs more from us, my friends. Road Number One ends with us being thrown overboard, and quite rightly, too. On an ark, or a rowboat out of hell, who needs the guys that told you The Party Would Never End?
That’s the crisis marketing doesn’t know its in. It’s coming down off a delirious high, of being needed again. Valued, celebrated, and treasured, in ways it hasn’t been in a long time, if we’re honest. Wow, look at those Mad Men—they saved our bacon during the pandemic! We bow, smile, say aw shucks, it was nothing, and soak up the glory. Our illusion—by now, we believe in it, too. But after the high comes the reality check. This is going to be a brutal decade of shock, stagnation, woe, and struggle. And we haven’t been thinking, working, understanding, pioneering. What’s our job in that world, anyways? What are we there to do in it?
Try to shove more stuff at people they don’t want, or even if they do, can’t afford, while their hearts explode with panic attacks? Is it to hunt them down in every last corner of The Internet with Just! One! More! Ad! for the jacket you looked at three months ago, please god please just buy it this time? To try to “influence” them into buying Yet More Sunglasses so they don’t have to see that the world’s on fire? Hey, that worked out really well for the luxury industry, everybody, quick, go, sell stuff! Oh, wait.
If I gave you the last tiny helpless seed on a dying planet, would you burn it, plant it, or look the other way nervously, go away for six weeks, come back, and tell me, prepare to have your mind blown, big hand wave, that isn’t even soil, it’s Magic Mud, and we could sell it for even more than the fruit not to mention air of some useless thing called a “tree”? Guess which one we’re doing. And guess what’d happen if we took our own advice. And in that painfully Kantian way, isn’t the right answer obvious?
It’s time for marketing to enter the 21st century. It’s not here yet, despite the technology, buzzwords, “data.” Those are means. What are the ends? What’s the point? The reason? The great and noble and abiding truth at the heart of all…this? Why should people care about us—let alone boardrooms, who, approximately 1.76 years from now, are going to look at us not with the shining glow of The Rush, but the bitter glare of wait…why the hell are we in this leaky rowboat out of hell, and do you have any last words before we throw you overboard?
Tough questions. That’s where we’re going to have to begin. Those of us, that is, who are here, yes, at the party, but standing in the corner, and pointing out—dude, that’s not a strobe light. That’s lightning, and you’re standing in its shadow.
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