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November 26, 2020

How to keep up in our accelerating world

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Recently, I was asked by a brand guru what archetype most closely resembled our business. Rejecting the opportunity for us to be a sage, a jester, a magician or even an innocent, my choice was Pathfinder, helping our clients navigate through a complex and accelerating world. A central part of that process of navigation is about anticipating change. This then is an attempt at future gazing, which should start with an inevitable disclaimer; my predictions have often or usually been wrong in the past, so should be taken as an exceptionally unreliable guide to the future. What they will offer, however, is an attempt to look at some of the ways in which the tectonic plates of the world in which we and our clients operate are shifting, with unpredictable but reliably dramatic consequences for both them and our business.

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To start, how is the external world changing?  First, automation and the obsolescence of the middle class. Over the last few years working class jobs have been automated away, leading to deep cultural and political scars in many countries across the world. Now this existential threat has been extended to middle class jobs, as the rise of AI will likely automate many traditionally professional jobs in the next decade. This places a great emphasis on the significance of creativity if humans are to maintain their differential in the age of machine learning.  Second, the future of work. The end of the office has been predicted for decades, but as I sit writing this in a nearly empty office, I think in some businesses a fundamental shift has taken place. It’s not the death of the office, but the reasons behind going to the office will change. People will visit these communal spaces to have human interactions as opposed to getting on with focussed work, which in many cases can easily be done from home. The places we work together will therefore evolve, with less desks and more sofas. These and other changes are all taking place at an ever faster pace, a reminder that we live in an accelerating world. The agricultural revolution took hundreds of years to change the way we produced food, the industrial revolution took decades to change the way goods were manufactured, and now the computational power of computers has been doubling every one and a half years. This has led to the rise of extraordinarily successful platform businesses, but they are vulnerable to technological change and shifts in consumer behaviour patterns in a way that their predecessors could never have imagined. Alongside these changes driven by technology, there is another tectonic shift, just as significant, in the way that humans behave; the death of trust. Until recently, institutions and individuals in positions of power were trusted to do more or less the right thing and their views were respected and acted upon by the mass of populations. Today we live in a post deference world, fairly or unfairly institutions from government, to monarchies, the media, the police and others have been challenged, scrutinised and undermined.  We now trust crowdsourcing and collective instincts – whether on Facebook or Tripadviser  – and where we do place trust in individuals, they are more likely to be independent influencers who reach out to us on social media than the carefully selected representatives of political parties and multinational companies. Taken together, these and many other changes mean we now live in a new world and must learn to behave in new ways.

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Which leads to the next question, which is how will communications change to cope with this accelerating world? First, it will need to come to terms with the dying of the economic model that has sustained our media, leading to polarisation and fragmentation. In the print media, not only are audiences deserting physical newspapers, a trend accelerated by Covid, but the classified and display advertising that paid for papers has not followed audiences online to the extent that would allow print journalism in its current form to be sustained. This has led to a substantial shift in the way newspapers work as they have less money to fund their newsdesk, and focus on a limited number of specialist journalists. There has also been a global polarisation of the media, which in Britain has already shaped our printed press but is now impacting broadcast media. In the UK, two new TV stations are being mooted; GBTV and a new station being backed by Rupert Murdoch, both looking to tap into the right-wing agenda, feeding off but also encouraging further polarisation in society and politics. At the same time there has been a fragmentation of television viewing, as Netflix and Disney use their financial muscle to overtake traditional broadcasters, and in Britain, the licence fee that funds the BBC cannot survive the decline of its audience. This is profoundly shifting the relationship between communications businesses and the media, from a previously parasitic connection to potentially more of a symbiotic partnership. Driving in part this decline of traditional media, is the rise of the platforms. The way in which people follow the news is completely different; in the UK according to the media regulator half of adults obtain their news from social media platforms. This creates a danger for us as individuals, in that we risk only hearing news selected from within our own echo chamber. It also poses difficult questions about the role of the platforms themselves; this US election has seen unprecedented interventions from social media giants calling out ‘fake news’, but they were setting themselves up as the arbiters of what constituted fake. The next stage is government interventions in the platforms but also in the algorithms that underpin them. This again creates new challenges; if the Facebook algorithm is opened up, it will become easier to manipulate content to optimise its likelihood of appearing in feeds. Or would we rather politicians intervened directly in what we see on social media? Either way, the implications for communications businesses are profound, and digital communication has the potential to drive virtually every agenda in the coming decades. But the meaning of digital is also likely to change, it’s likely that over the next decade we will say goodbye to conventional websites as we currently understand them. They will become a home for content, that is then sent out to talk to people on relevant platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn. The websites that survive won’t be static pages but dynamic communications environments powered by AI fed chatbots. Any communication business that doesn’t understand that these changes are coming will be letting down its clients.

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Finally, the reason that commercial companies exist, and answer to the question of why we go to work every day, is changing. In my lifetime, we learnt to worship Milton Friedman and his belief that all companies need to do is to drive profits for their owners, and the market guided by Adam Smith’s invisible hand will do the rest. No one in the post-Covid, post financial crash world believes that anymore. It will soon be hard for firms to operate in societies without demonstrating their purpose beyond profit. This creates a challenge for many firms to demonstrate the societal value that they are creating within the countries where they do business. The days of CSR are over, and the era of embedding purpose into your core business proposition has arrived. Second, it’s clear that the Covid-19 crisis is making our world even less equal.  Both the rewards and the pain of the pandemic, have been distributed unequally, and its almost certain that recovery from it will happen far faster in some countries and some income brackets than others. Business and institutions are going to have to react to this in ways that we have not yet anticipated. Finally, we live in a dynamically diverse world, and the audiences that our clients need to speak to are less homogenous by the day. But communications businesses are not themselves yet sufficiently diverse, and our industry is still finding its way in developing responses to this challenge. All of which leads me to the conclusion that as we provide that vital pathfinder service for our clients, we must encourage them to be a force for good, and in doing so will emerge ourselves as a positive force in the world.

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