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The Long View - Extinction Rebellion 2019 and The Battle for Seattle 1999

Last week I found myself considering how little we think about the past.

I was watching the Extinction Rebellion at Oxford Circus and, probably like most of you, thought it was a masterful piece of event management. As they tell it, ‘we are facing an unprecedented global climate emergency. The government has failed to protect us. To survive, it’s going to take everything we’ve got.’

Yet, despite the seriousness of the message, the protest was carried off peaceably and with good humour. For me, this seemingly contradictory approach to something so potentially violent made the protest even more powerful and effective. No-one was hurt, apart from the establishment snowflakes moaning about their trains being late. (See video Extinction Rebellion below)

Watching those protesters in Oxford Circus reminded me of a different protest I’d covered over 20 years ago. This earlier demonstration took place in Seattle in 1999 and, while it had similar goals to Extinction Rebellion, the outcome turned out very different, ending in tear gas, rubber bullets and baton charges.

I was left wondering whether, instead of smashing that rally we had instead listened, would we be where we are now? 20 years later and the Extinction Rebellion is drawing attention to the same crisis, only this time, it’s probably too late to do anything about it. (See Informer’s WTO demo video below)

We tried to warn you

20 years ago I was running a research and branding agency called Informer. We had offices in London and New York and were the first outfit to travel the world talking to young people about what was important to them. Ad agencies and brands needing to understand people under 30 subscribed to our interactive CD-ROM reports. It was a fun job.

So when we heard there was a demonstration being organised in Seattle aimed at disrupting the World Trade Organisation Summit, we sent one of the team (the inestimable Tony Writer) to cover it.

In 1999 the internet was still in its infancy so there was nothing like YouTube or WhatsApp to spread the word so, in the absence of social media, Informer provided the insights to the marketing community. We were genuine pioneers using digital technology to bring ‘Real people into boardroom’ as we liked to say at the time. And what we brought into the boardrooms from Seattle, London and many other cities over that period was a sense that capitalism and ‘The Man’, if left unchecked, would destroy the planet.

Of course, in 1999, Climate Change was just a sketchy theory put about by left-wing scaremongers, all too easily dismissed by those with a vested interest in fossil fuels. 20 years later and we now know the Seattle protesters were right about some of the less savoury aspects of the WTO and we ought to have paid more attention.

Those people Tony Writer interviewed on the streets of Seattle will now be in their 40’s and 50’s. Some of them may even have grandchildren. So it’s poignant to think their idealistic efforts which, at the time seemed so strident and definitive, but were so quickly dismissed as simplistic and naive, in the end, had little effect.

The Seattle demonstrators failed, but I’m grateful to them for their efforts. If ever there was an example of “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it” then this is it. 20 years later and we’re doing it all again, but this time it’s probably too little too late. In another 20 years we’ll all be appreciating just how f*cked we truly are.

It’s a bubble. A sort of ‘Future’ bubble.

I’m guessing some of you youngster out there will consider 1999 as good material for a History Channel special, featuring fuzzy non-HD video of people with ridiculous hair cuts. Whenever I try to explain the 20th Century to a ‘Millennial’ I sound like a fusty historian describing the ruins of Pompeii — “In many ways they were surprisingly modern, telling dirty jokes just like we do today”. After all, 1999 actually and literally occurred in a different century when the world was still ‘analog’, Zuckerberg was still in short pants and no-one, as yet, was staggered around like a zombie staring at their iPhone. It all seems so long ago, so innocent and a place we'd barely recognise today.

If you take Linkedin is a barometer of modern business thinking then you’d be forgiven for thinking history began around 2010 when the world of marketing jumped on the digital bandwagon. Modern marketing is now all about the future and taking advantage of the next big thing, which usually turns out to be some half-baked app that doesn’t work. If you can’t tell your client how the next bit of technology is going to impact their business then, frankly, you don’t have much to say. Certainly, when ‘being ahead of the curve’ is the new ‘standing still’, then understanding the past is irrelevant and redundant and, worse still, it probably means you’re out of touch.

Even I occasionally feel the icy grip of FOMO around my neck, usually triggered when I’m reading something about AI or Blockchain. But then I’ll tend to calm myself down by saying, hang on, haven’t I seen this bullshit before?

We need to learn ‘to learn’ from the past

The reality is that, at their core, people don’t change. It doesn’t matter how much new technology we have, if you want to understand the modern human condition then you can do no better than read Shakespeare. He was exploring the same stuff we obsess about today 500 years ago. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The more we think we have the answers to the future the more we’re likely to repeat the past.

In a different blog I’m writing at the moment I try to explain the benefits of introspection when developing a marketing strategy. To do this, I sometimes find it useful to reread the diary I’ve been writing for the past 40 years. This is generally toe-curling stuff, filled with shameful or downright stupid episodes yet also containing brief moments of redemption and insight. There’s certainly no denying I have been (and no doubt still am) an idiot of epic proportions, but I’m also just a human with feet of clay and so, my diary reminds me, is everybody else.

And that’s the point and worth reminding ourselves of as often as we can. Life is never perfect and things are rarely simple or straight forward. Most of the problems of modern marketing can be traced back to this fundamental fantasy. Marketers too often suggest your life will be complete if you only buy our brand. Too often marketers forget (or never learned) what the real world, outside of the marketing bubble, is like.

Getting back to the real world

Too much of marketing output is based on spreadsheets and not enough of it is spent understanding the audience. Almost none of it is half as clever as it thinks it is. To redress growing consumer skepticism, we need more humility about ourselves as marketers, more empathy towards the people we want to engage with and more experience of the real world outside the agency environment.

Like a lot of my marketing contemporaries I’ve done some amazing things, working in amazing places and travelled the world talking to amazing people. These people have invited me into their homes where I’ve listened to their stories and, ultimately, I’ve tried to understand their point of view. Equally, I’ve sat through business meetings at the highest levels of corporate America, sometimes excited by the discussion, but often amused or frustrated by the shambolic nature of what lurks just beneath the surface.

That’s a lot of experience to draw on and all of it happened in my past.

Those videos of the Seattle in 1999 reminded me that all of us in marketing need to take a longer view, spend more time in the real world, and draw on our own first-hand experiences. The people we want to reach may be ‘digital natives’ but they are not yet digital beings and we mustn’t allow ourselves to think of them as a series of zeros and ones. They live in an analog world and so do we, whether we recognise it or not.

Kierkegaard said life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards. Maybe the best way to move forwards is by remembering the past and embracing what we really are. And while we’re at it, let’s learn from those kids in Seattle trying to tell us something that was important 20 years ago and is even more important now.

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