(Picture: Pixabay.com)
(Picture: Pixabay.com)
A view from Rory Sutherland

Time to look at digital media through 'hot' and 'cold' channels

YouTube, Spotify, podcasts or TikTok may be digital, but they are decidedly warmer than, say, search-engine optimisation.

I know some people remain sceptical about video conferencing.

“Oh, it's not the same as having a face-to-face meeting.” And, of course, it isn't. All the same, we are blessed with something called an imagination.

So when people say to me, “It's not the same”, I always reply, “Remind me not to go to the cinema with you. If you're going to sit through Jaws, simply saying ‘Yes, but it’s not the same as really being stuck in a small boat while being attacked by an enormous shark’, I’ll find a more imaginative companion next time.” 

However, comparing video conferencing with physical meetings is missing the point completely. Even if Zoom is 15% worse than a face-to-face meeting, it's still 1,000% richer than a series of emails. Quite simply, video calling may not wholly replicate face-to-face contact, but it at least restores a kind of right-brained humanity to personal interaction that most forms of digital communication have stripped out.

So, comparing video calling with physical meetings is to choose the wrong comparative frame. It would be much more valuable to compare Zoom meetings with emails, spreadsheets and so forth and ask whether it is helping to counterbalance the extreme tendency of early digital technologies, formed in an age of limited bandwidth, to make communication excessively factual, textual and left-hemisphere dominant.

To borrow the distinction made by Marshall McLuhan, Zoom is a “hot” form of human interaction, whereas email is a “cold” one. 

I think the same distinction also needs to be made in the field of media selection. Instead of comparing how much is spent in “digital” versus “traditional” channels – terms which are in any case more or less meaningless – it would be more valuable to discuss what the ratio of media spending is in “cold” versus “hot” communication. YouTube, Spotify, Podcasts or TikTok may be digital, but they are decidedly warmer than, say, search-engine optimisation.

You may well have enjoyed the recent BBC three-parter on the history of writing. I certainly did. But what's important to note is how extraordinarily recent writing is in historical terms. For all but a tiny minority of people it is only a few hundred years old; even for an educated elite, the practice dates back about 5,000 years: a blip in evolutionary time. By contrast, conversation is half a million years old. We need to teach our children to read – yet we don’t have to teach them to speak. The oldest human medium on the planet is the chinwag.

Using that same McLuhanesque distinction between “cold” and “hot” media, we can see that the shift to digital in the early days was often a shift from hot to cold. Often this was simply driven by the limited bandwidth available in the early days of digital technology – it isn’t entirely clear to me why emails are still written not spoken, since we can speak eight times faster than we can type, and the risk of misunderstanding is far less. But a reading of Orlando Woods’ Lemon: How the Advertising Brain Turned Sour suggests that it isn’t just interpersonal communication that has become too “cold”; the very content of advertising messages has also become too left-hemisphere dominant.

Hence, just as Zoom is an opportunity to warm up the increasingly left-brained modes of internal business communication, the explosion of podcasting and digital spoken media offers a new and exciting opportunity to warm up the ways we communicate externally. If we can wrest control from the hands of those tedious efficiency-mongers, who are coldly focused on left-hemisphere rationalisation of everything, audio now provides for a new and richer form of media.

So far, digital advertising may have been efficient and well targeted, but its content is generally cold, rationalistic and transactional. It may make you click, but does it make you smile? It’s like the quick crossword, not the cryptic. 

Let’s end this fatuous debate about how much of a client's media budget should be spent on digital media versus analogue media. What we need instead is a debate about the relative amount of media money that's spent on "cold" and "hot" forms of communication. Sometimes, in advertising, as in poetry, it is a case of “better a live sparrow than a stuffed eagle”.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK and spoke at IAB UK’s 2020 Podcast Upfronts last week.

(Picture: Pixabay.com)

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