Feature

Why it's time for the Long Now

Agencies and clients can become short-sighted when staring into the face of recession. It is essential, however, that they keep an eye on the future.

And so the last year of the first decade of the 21st century is upon us. Yet it feels like only yesterday that the Dome and that pesky millennium bug dominated our thoughts (and how come no-one ever complains that half their IT budget is wasted, the trouble is they don't know which half?). Here in adland '09, some of The Big Questions have been momentarily shelved while we wrestle with more urgent commercial matters. Other industries have it worse - take your pick from banking, property, automotive. But the fact is that our business cycle gyrates around the overall pattern of economic activity, and understandably if regrettably so. When clients sneeze, adland catches a cold.

In these more straitened times, we could be forgiven for retrenching, battening down the hatches, sticking to the knitting. It's a path that tempts us, that speaks to our lazy impulse to be shaped by rather than to shape events. Except, of course, that it's the very behaviour we deride in others, the knee-jerk course we try to persuade or cajole them away from. Except also, of course, that tin-hatted defeatism is self-fulfilling: a sure-fire way of rendering our agencies and industry less relevant, less competitive and less front-foot when recession eventually dissipates, as it must. The road less trodden is the one to take, because the task both for individual businesses and the industry collective is to emerge from the dip fitter, not just leaner.

But the story so far is this. 2008 was a festival of denial and wishful thinking; the word recession itself unspoken. Looking back, it seems that much thinking, and not just most budgets, were frozen. Brands that moved on to a new footing, that understood the tectonic plates were shifting, were in a minority. The grocers were among the quickest, their businesses blessed by real-time information from the consumer frontline. Christmas witnessed a mad dash from retailers on to the credit-crunch dancefloor. But it seems to be only recently, catalysed perhaps by a new financial or calendar year, or perhaps by competitive incursion, that the majority have followed suit. They are not too late: the jigsaw is still up in the air as people work out their own personal and domestic versions of Obama's "new era of responsibility". But success will belong disproportionately to the swift.

Here on the supply side, vanity projects have been snuffed out, priorities realigned and new, tougher questions asked not just of fees, but of existing and prospective creative collateral. The fast-receding tide reveals plenty of naked bathers. "Will it work?" and "how?" have seized back their rightful place centre stage. Production money has become "non-working capital"; reactions to Aviva's rebranding exercise relate largely to how much the ad cost. (PS. To Ringo. Yes, you would still have been pretty famous as Richard Starkey. You were the drummer in The Beatles!) Gruesome euphemism abounds: people have become headcount, stripped of their boom billing as talent.

While agencies and clients alike have been wrestling with the task of re-setting objectives and strategies for their businesses and brands, they have also - more subtly and some-times unconsciously - been making judgments as to the right horizons to stare at: short, medium or long.

Agencies, as we know, tend to prescribe long-term medicine for their clients, since they know that most advertising (and I use the term in its broadest sense) tends not to pay back over the very short term but instead returns on investment by building stronger brands, which are valuable and covetable as a flow of future revenues. That many agencies prescribe this medicine while dosing themselves on more short-term remedies, in thrall to their own quarterly obligations, has not escaped our clients' notice.

Our clients, meanwhile, are perennially torn between the long and the short view, and right now the shrill demands of "now" are the new boardroom black. "Without the short term, there is no long term," my very first client opined during my first recession. (The agency had been arguing the case against transferring production of a certain Pennsylvanian beer brand - "only ever brewed in Old Latrobe", in glass-lined tanks, to be precise - to, er, Sunderland. Margin-enhancing for sure ... in the short term.) Impossible as it was to refute his statement of principle, the reverse or near-reverse is also true. Without a clear sense of the long term, a vision of what your brand can be (a "true North", if you like), marketing actions will tend to commoditised pragmatism: undifferentiated fire sales and brand-depleting promotions that mortgage your future.

More generally, a brand is, by its nature, a long-term, strategic asset (and often a company's single-most valuable one, as countless studies and deals underscore). Strong ones earn preference and loyalty. They secure distribution, command a premium, win margin. More prosaically, but no less importantly, they underpin the security and predictability of a business. So short-term actions that damage long-term brand health are not smart business decisions, however much their sponsors cite "market conditions". Recessions can turn brands into commodities in the twinkle of an eye.

Chief executives and marketing directors on their much-publicised 18-month tour of duty face a decision, then. The best consider their legacy - the health of the brand they bequeath to future generations - because they understand intuitively or otherwise that brands outlive their tenure and that their actions echo down the ages. Try rescuing a brand that has long been price-promoted or gone unnourished by communication and you will see quite how long the odds are against success. True brand-builders understand that to fix a roof at the expense of your foundations is the height of folly.

But this is not a charter for mindless long-termism, for fiddling while Rome burns. Experience teaches us (well, me) that strategies premised only on abstract future success frequently founder on short-term rocks. (The ice-hockey legend Wayne Gretzky famously attributed his success to skating where the puck was going, rather than where it was, but it was OK for him: he didn't have to report to the City mid-skate.) It's a cry, rather, for tactics that support rather than fight against long-term strategy and, most simply, for setting one's horizons appropriately.

Too sharp a distinction between short and long term is ultimately unhelpful; to set them up in opposition is bogus. We will give best advice to clients, and they to their stakeholders, if we understand that short and long sit on the same continuum, with feedback loops between them: short impacts on long and vice versa. The lens required has probably been best described as "The Long Now", a term first minted far beyond our industry by Brian Eno.

On arrival in New York from Europe, Eno had been so struck by their ferocious sense of the here and now that he coined the phrases "The Big Here" and "The Long Now" to describe and lobby for a broader world-view. "Now," he wrote, "is never just a moment. The Long Now is the recognition that the precise moment you're in grows out of the past and is a seed for the future. It highlights the irony that at a time when humankind is at a peak of its technical powers, most of our social systems seem geared to increasingly short nows." The Long Now clock in the Science Museum brings his sentiment to life.

Reluctant as I am to reduce such grand theory to the service of our industry, I believe that a sense not just of now, but of The Long Now, a seed-sowing and not just harvesting mentality, is a pretty good description of the marketing mindset required. In recession, that is, and beyond.

Tempting as it is just to get out there and "compete", any brand's plans for the near term should be tempered by at least some sense of its longer-term fortunes and destination. Marketers and their agencies must always keep at least one eye on the future. Even in the eye of the storm, our brains must stay trained, if not quite on "business as usual", then at least on our ongoing endeavour: to make our clients' brands as competitive and profitable as they can be over the short, medium and long term. A Long Now perspective respects the needs of the moment without surrendering to them.

Look around you and make your own judgments as to who is best navigating these changing times. For me, the John Lewis clearance has been executed with its customary discretion, leaving the brand's ongoing promise and dignity intact; while Debenhams, by contrast, will find it hard to recover premium brand turf. Holler "Everything Must Go!" and you fill today's tills at the expense of tomorrow's. Domino's has moved smartly to occupy the new "eat out" territory (that is, eat in); Aldi is encouraging us not to change our lifestyle, but our supermarket. Both are sowing the seeds of future success, not just reaping the credit crunch's meagre harvest.

A Long Now mentality keeps us focused on the important and not just the urgent. It's crucial enough that we do this in times of media stasis. But at the end of a decade in which the web has marched from the margins to the centre of our economy and society, it is mission-critical. The current generation of advertisers is witness to the biggest rupture to our media landscape imaginable, and few would argue that our industry has yet established a new orthodoxy or consensus in terms of the way that brands can now be built, budgets now assigned or content now distributed. Instead, we hear the grinding change of gears, the squeals of delight from the winners matched by the bleats of injustice from the losers.

Credit crunch or no credit crunch, we're obliged to keep figuring this stuff out: transforming our agencies and our ideas not just to keep pace with change but ideally to be ahead of it on our clients' behalf. For media agencies, this demands dramatically new connections thinking. For creative agencies, dramatically new content thinking. More profoundly, and for us all, it demands that the walls erected between media and creative in the last decade of the 20th century, and between "digital" and advertising in the first decade of the 21st century, be torn down. It would be tragic if that industry reconstruc-tion project took a back seat to short-term pragmatism. If The Long Now got outshouted by now. That really would be fiddling while Rome burns.

- Laurence Green is the chairman of Fallon London.

THE LONG NOW FOUNDATION

The Long Now Foundation (www.longnow.org) bases its core approach on the belief that "civilisation is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span". Blame the acceleration of technology, the short-termism of market-driven economics and politics, or our stretched, multitasking lifestyles. Whatever the causes, the foundation believes a balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed, "some mechanism or myth which encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where 'long-term' is measured at least in centuries".

The foundation, whose co-founder Brian Eno coined the name, was established in 01996 and uses five-digit dates, adding the extra zero to solve the deca-millennium bug, which will come into effect in about 8,000 years. It aims to become a counterpoint to "today's 'faster/cheaper' mindset" and promote "'slower/better' thinking". The foundation is developing a clock that will measure time in a 10,000-year span and has bought a mountainside in Nevada, which could eventually be the home of this "deep time" clock.

It has also established a Library, a library "of the deep future, for the deep future". The idea is to explore whatever may be helpful for thinking, understanding and acting responsibly over long periods of time.

It has a set of guiding principles, "guidelines for a long-lived, long-valuable institution". They are: serve the long view (and the long viewer); foster responsibility; reward patience; mind mythic depth; ally with competition; take no sides; leverage longevity.

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