A view from Kate Magee

Less is more in age of information overload

Sometimes brands should resist the urge to satisfy the modern consumer's voracious appetite for content and frankly leave them the hell alone.

Congratulations, then, to 18 Feet & Rising, the first UK ad agency to be certified as a B Corporation.

What’s noteworthy is the shop and its shareholders  have agreed to put positive social impact on an equal footing with pursuit of profit. It is not the only agency aiming to "do good", but it is rare for one to be prepared to sacrifice money for principles.

On page 19, the agency’s chief executive, Jonathan Trimble, explains how he is trying to resolve the inherent tension between being both a good corporate citizen and a tool of a capitalist society that relies on consumers buying more. He believes the answer is "less, better advertising". I agree.

The excess of the information age has been well-documented. Our drive to have more of everything, more quickly, is not sustainable.

The digital revolution has created many positives, but its obsession with "optimising" our lives and making us more efficient, more machine-like, is sometimes at odds with what it means to be human.

Those born after 1985 will not know an internet-free world. The Pool’s Sam Baker said at last week’s One Question event that one of her younger staff didn’t understand the concept of The Girl on the Train (where the protagonist witnesses a shocking event inside a house she passes on her commute). "Why," they asked, "would you look out the train window?"

Another speaker, author Michael Harris, explained that what we miss as a result of constant distractions is the empty space between things. The loss of daydreaming, purposeless exploring and serendipitous discoveries matters because this space is where we develop a rich interior life. He argues that our evolutionary survival skill – scanning for threats – is being co-opted by technology that trades on our attention. This is also bad for our well-being, as our overloaded brains prioritise potential threats over good news, causing negative mindsets.

Brands need to recognise that they often add to the problem. The industry is obsessed with capturing more data about individuals and finding more ways to get their marketing messages in front of them.

The prevailing belief seems to be that intrusion isn’t the issue – the lack of relevancy is. That’s a cop-out: brands shouldn’t be in every space. 

Does someone agreeing to an e-receipt mean they should be bombarded with daily emails? Is it right that Admiral was close to basing customers’ insurance premiums on their Facebook posts ("!" is bad, lists are good)? What about the cheery email a major high-street retailer sent to my friend – a sleep-deprived new mother – telling her she should have lost the baby weight by now? "Am I a complete failure?" she asked.

In the face of new technologies such as MIT’s "EQ-Radio", which can accurately detect emotions using wireless signals, the industry needs to practise restraint, lest we sleepwalk into an Orwellian world.

Not all brands and agencies will be able to meet the strict B Corp criteria. But they all have a choice about whether they are part of the problem or the solution.

Less but better advertising. Surely that’s something we can all get behind.  

Kate Magee is associate editor of Campaign. 

kate.magee@haymarket.com 
@katemagee