Someone gave me a copy of an interview with Jerry Della Femina recently. I’d never heard of him before but he is apparently the inspiration behind the TV series Mad Men, which ironically I’ve never watched. His is an interesting tale, from relatively humble immigrant beginnings to owning one of the most successful agencies in New York, the archetypal American Dream.
I read this piece shortly after the ‘Touchpoints’ project (blogged about last week) was published by the IPA and as I finally finished reading ‘The Black Swan’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
Touchpoints is a tremendous piece of research; it’s in-depth and scientific and will undoubtedly act as the base knowledge for a large number of campaigns in the coming months. The Black Swan was one of those books I picked up by accident, something caught my eye, maybe the sleeve note from Chris Anderson I’m not sure, but I bought it and started reading it; 2 months ago. Now it isn’t a big book and normally I’d be finished reading it within a fortnight, sooner bearing in mind I’ve been on holiday, twice, since I bought it. But the truth is I really struggled with it, it wasn’t that it isn’t interesting, the premise is, it is just that it is full of terms I barely understood, quotes from people I’ve never heard of and is written in a style that I found impenetrable at times. I think this is a criticism of my education more than the authors though.
His point, if I understood it correctly, was beware of predictions as some events simply can’t be predicted. Basically just because a product or industry has enjoyed a set percentage growth (or decline) for the last 50 years it is wrong to assume it will continue this next year. That we are conditioned to not consider the unexpected and so when it inevitably happens we are not prepared for it. His major gripe is with ‘experts’ (Nobel prize winners in particular), he contests that many ‘experts’ aren’t, but as their predictions are taken very seriously this has a direct and indirect influence on our lives; and not in a positive way. So in short run your business in a way that allows you to capitalise on the unexpected rather than being destroyed by it. A fair point if considerably easier said than done.
I can’t help but wonder if the current ‘downturn’ we are all experiencing isn’t one of the ‘unexpected happenings’ the author was referring too, and that the opportunity afforded us currently, where new media is growing at an incredible rate, where traditional media is fighting for its life and where consumers are cautious and advertisers even more so isn’t actually the biggest opportunity of our lifetime. Maybe we are too conditioned to see this, perhaps our education has meant we look at the numbers and worry but no longer see the possibilities.
There is a lovely quote in the Della Femina piece which has stuck with me; he’s asked what made him a natural in the advertising business and he replies €œa lack of education€. Brilliant! His point being that he understood the consumer, his ‘training’ was spent working in department stores, he learned what sells and how customers behave. These days I don’t imagine many agencies overlook university educated marketing graduates for those who work in Primark despite the latter being a hugely successful retailer.
As I think Mr Taleb suggests, knowledge is only useful if you know what to do with it.