I saw the latest Star Wars movie at the end of last year. I'm of that generation; just at the right age for my childhood to have been shaped by the first appearance of Luke, Leia et al.
I enjoyed the movie, and was thinking about what it could tell us about storytelling and the endurance of strong brands, but then I did some maths and saw something else.
Star Wars was released in 1977. The Last Jedi came out in 2017. That’s 40 years. Subtract 40 years from the original release date and you realise that the gap between us and the original Star Wars is bigger than that between it and the outbreak of the Second World War.
In 1937, TV was one year old and available only in London, a computer was a woman who worked in an office making calculations, the biggest advertising medium was classified listings in daily newspapers and your telephone was a luxury product fixed to the wall of your house, rented from the Post Office. A totally different world.
In comparison, the difference between The Last Jedi and A New Hope is superficial and hard to discern. The visual effects are a little slicker, the script a little more knowing, but the world and the storytelling are the same. My 11-year-old likes both films equally.
This is worth us all remembering when people make extravagant claims about how much the world (and our world of marketing) has changed. I was at a conference last year and someone who works for one of the social-media giants said (and I paraphrase): "Young people’s brains are now capable of processing much more information than ours used to."
I glanced around as everyone else wrote it down in their notebooks. Yes, otherwise intelligent marketing people do swallow this stuff without bursting into laughter.
Here’s a quick primer – evolution works through a process of natural selection, whereby those who possess advantages survive better and produce more offspring, thus amplifying these characteristics in the population.
Even if you believe that an ability to scroll through Instagram posts at high speed while playing Call of Duty might enable you to produce more offspring than others who read articles in the paper edition of The Economist one by one, we simply haven’t had enough time for this to manifest in reproductive cycles. It’s going to be a few hundred years before this happens. But (spoiler alert) it won’t.
Here’s the hard fact that nobody wants to talk about: nothing important has changed.
Some superficial things have changed.
The problem we have in marketing is that we confuse form with content. The things we produce are, of course, different from the way they were. But the things were never really meant to be the thing.
The TV ad is not the idea, or the strategy, or the marketing, but we often acted as though it was. When the form is threatened, we think the sky is falling in.
We’re not the only ones, of course. The music industry has been here. CD as physical product, and album as form, have been killed by streaming (don’t get me started on the vinyl resurgence – four million vinyl records were sold in the UK last year, 68 billion songs were streamed; vinyl is irrelevant). Cue the music industry claiming that it was dying – confusing form and content.
Music is bigger, more popular and more lucrative than ever. Ed Sheeran has more in common with The Beatles than they did with Bing Crosby. Nothing important changed in recent years; some superficial things changed. The track became more popular than the album. People didn’t buy them in shops any more. Tweak your distribution strategy, make songs people love and you’re fine.
Nothing important in marketing has changed. Unless your skill set is superficial and executional. In which case, you’re having a terrible time.
Ironically, the guide for dealing with this is one of the avatars of the new economy, Jeff Bezos, whose marketing maxim is design for the things that don’t change. Design for the long term. Design for human nature. The skill we all need for the future is the ability to use ideas to create genuine connections with people, with products and services they value.
And the wisdom to work out when people are talking nonsense about how fast things are changing, to serve their own agenda.
Craig Mawdsley is the joint chief strategy officer of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO