Paul Catmur: The Death of Stalin

The time between leaders is a dangerous one. In medieval times they’d gloss over it by having messengers shout ‘The King is dead! Long Live the King!’ Which roughly translates as: ‘Yes, the king may have snuffed it, but don’t even think about getting uppity because the new one has already moved into the castle and is busy sharpening his favourite axe.’

Unfortunately, not all successions go that smoothly. The excellent film The Death of Stalin follows the time between the great tyrant’s death and his eventual replacement by (spoiler alert) Nikita Khruschev. As in Game of Thrones the pretenders to the Soviet leadership were faced with the very real possibility that ‘you win or you die’.

There are parallels with the current situation in media where the traditional set is on its way out, but we don’t yet know exactly what will replace it (other than it will not be My Space, Four Square or Google+). During the halcyon years of TV advertising everyone agreed on the power of the medium and the debate was mainly about the execution: should
the ads be creatively brilliant or scientifically manipulative? Such was the power of TV that it didn’t really matter which style you went with because if you spent enough money, they both worked pretty damn well. TV built most of the brands that are around today.

Currently, marketing has camps who like shouting at each other across the internet: one that believes in a creative message using the mass reach of TV, and one that believes in digital ultra-targeting with seemingly minimal concern for the message itself. The truth is that they both work, but in different ways, and ideally in tandem. Incidentally, reports say that the strongest growing media in New Zealand last year were neither TV or digital, they were outdoor, radio and cinema (SMI NZ).

While the usefulness of most digital platforms is not what is claimed, the juggernauts of Facebook and Google rumble on. Google has built a monopoly based on amazing efficiency at what they do, while Facebook heads off potential pretenders to their social media crown by simply buying them. The problem with these monopolies is, of course, like all monopolies, that they are open to abuse. It’s all very well to have as a motto such ‘Do no evil’ but it conflicts rather strongly with the stock market’s own motto of ‘More money, now!’ Facebook’s share price supposedly collapsed following the Cambridge Analytica debacle, yet is still currently higher than it was a year ago.

While Google, in particular, is brilliant at satisfying demand, digital channels struggle with the ability to create that demand in the first place. That is, you can be served thousands of digital ads for my new Hot Snapper clothing range (functional wear for the mature fisherman) but you’re never going to buy it because the brand means nothing to you. Should you ever doubt the importance of brand in online purchases, go to Alibaba and try to buy, say, a TV. A quick search reveals 40,000 options. Faced with that choice I bet my granny that you’d end up with a brand that you’d seen advertised on TV.

The lofty dream of social media was that by staying in touch with
as many people as possible, we would spread harmony and goodwill. Instead it enabled those of niche beliefs to forge contact with like-
minded individuals and strengthen each other’s bitterness. Instead of homogenising us into one big happy family, it split us into polarised camps of mutual disdain.

We’ve already had our revolution in media, I believe there will be a creative revolution to match. At some stage, someone will work out how to engage consumers in a way that they actually want to be engaged with. Eventually things will calm down and we can find other things to argue about.

But not just yet.
We’re currently stuck in an awkward interregnum. We’re still waiting for Khruschev. 

  • Paul Catmur is the founder and CEO of BC&F Dentsu

This article was originally published in NZ Marketing.

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