Accidental obsolescence

I texted a friend the other day to tell her I’d be arriving at her house by Über. She replied that she was looking forward to seeing me but didn’t agree with Über. She doesn’t like the way it’s doing proper London cabbies out of a job, people who have done three years of The Knowledge and based their entire income streams on the status quo that existed when they decided to drive a taxi.

It’s an interesting argument, but one that has been steamrollered many times by the march of ‘progress’ (define that word as you wish). Automated factories, nuclear power over coal, call centres in India, the cruel way in which those blokes who used to have to walk in front of cars with a red flag to stop them going too fast have been deemed surplus to requirements… The world moves on and, alas, some people get left behind.

But I could also counter the cabbie argument by saying that the only times I’ve been deliberately taken the long way round, it’s been in a black cab (it’s essentially impossible to do that in a credible way if you don’t know the city like the back of your hand). In addition, when I needed a cab at Heathrow last week and I only had a tenner on me, no black cab in quite a long line would accept a credit card. Then, after running around the terminal looking for cash point there was barely enough space to get the four of us plus luggage into the taxi. That strikes me (I don’t know why this realisation has taken me so long) as insane: London’s taxi fleet is less equipped to carry a family plus luggage than a Toyota Prius? WTF? Next, the fare was £7 before we’d even moved. £7. Seven fucking pounds. That’s over $10 to move an inch, part of which was a little extra fee for… drum roll please… taking the fucking luggage unsecured and squashed up around our knees. We took an Über in the opposite direction the following morning; the fare was £7 instead of £14 in the black cab.

So you can build in your own obsolescence by overcharging for a very poor service (let’s not get into the occasional racist chats I’ve had to endure). These cabbies don’t know they’re doing it, but they are digging their own graves (so are Über drivers, of course: the self driving cars that are obviously coming our way by 2020 will make many industries obsolete, including them).

Anyway, to take my mind off this experience I considered how it might relate to advertising.

I’ve written a few times about my theory that improved computing has actually made working in creative industries much harder because now everyone knows how easy it is to change a font or resize a logo. Hell, with a rudimentary knowledge of Word you can slap together a poster with a funky font and a Google image. So now the job looks easy (I’ll have to ignore arguments that say it’s easy to do it in a mediocre way. Unfortunately most clients can’t distinguish mediocre from excellent, or indeed poor, so they don’t care).

Then we made the whole process look easier and easier by sticking logos on the end of YouTube clips and cans of other people’s paint. Back in the day you just had to watch ads like this, pick your jaw up off the floor and throw money at whoever could think up an execute such genius:

When’s the last time an ad made you feel like that?

Of course there are very good ads around these days, but they look somewhat within our grasp in a way that the greats of the past did not.  And if they look somewhat within our grasp then they also look a little more like that to clients, and indeed to the public.

It may have been a necessary turn that happened after the first dotcom crash, where budgets and credibility began a gradual process of reduction. It may be the fault of a brain drain that has seen the best creative migrate towards creating TV shows or tech start ups. It may be another consequence of the rapacious march of global capitalism. It may be the way in which ad agencies now charge more for, and place greater emphasis on, the kind of 360-degree brand analysis/futurism conferences that planning departments take care of. It may have something to do with the vicious circle that all these factors create.

But whatever it is we can’t deny that we, as an industry, are like cabbies: we haven’t helped ourselves to justify the value in what we do, or rather what we did. That’s why salaries have fallen. That’s why production companies and TV stations are offering to do what we used to do. That’s why none of your friends or parents give a shit about that case study film you spent so long choosing just the right War On Drugs song to soundtrack. 99.99999% of the time, if it happened online, as far as the public is concerned, it didn’t happen. Sorry.

We don’t accept credit cards. We charge £7 before anyone even moves. We don’t have room for luggage.

And until someone creates a new model to send us off in a different direction, we’re just going to continue getting shafted by our own versions of Uber.

The ball is in all our courts.