This is the piece I wrote for the 18th Edition of Kleppner's. (Kleppner's is probably the most respected college-level advertising textbook out there.) Thanks to Ron Lane who asked me to write something for him, and for letting me post it here. He asked me to write about creativity, technology, advertising -- and to give some perspective on what I think today's college Ad Majors ought to be learning. Here's what I thought when I wrote it last year. Funny thing -- I think the same thing now.
Are You Keeping Up?
By: Ernie Mosteller
It's the Spring of 2009 as I'm writing this piece about creativity, technology, communications, and advertising. The reason I note the rough date is to be able to offer a frame of reference for future readers. Not because I'm suffering from an over-inflated ego. I don't think my words here will live on for generations, or anything. In fact, quite the contrary. Because this piece is being written for a book (the physically printed and bound kind) I know that whatever I write about creativity, technology, communications, and advertising will be outdated before the thing even comes off the press.
I'm going to talk about what was. Not in a, "Walking to school uphill in the snow," kind of way. But in a, "History repeats itself," kind of way. What was, in order to explain what might be. The world of communications changes exceedingly fast now, and will continue to accelerate its rate of change, matching that of the technology driving it. We are in a revolution -- and like all great shifts in the course of history, we can draw some parallels, and learn, from previous events. If we're smart, we'll do just that.
As revolutions go (scientific, industrial, information, etc,) we are, relatively speaking, in the infancy of the digital revolution. But even at this early stage, the impact has been great. Mass communications techniques have already evolved to resemble something more akin to the interpersonal communications we learned not only in class, but by simply participating in society. As digital delivery systems continue to narrow the audience, the more personal our messaging and tactics will become. And, like I said, we're just at the beginning.
Advertising has never been an exercise in permanence. If you're a great artist, you might paint a chapel ceiling that could last a thousand years or more. If you're a great art director, the spot you just launched has to be renewed after thirteen weeks. And now, even that is a somewhat out-dated, and lengthy, measure of time. For fifty years or so, the basic vehicles of advertising didn't change. Then came the web. Since then, the way people communicate, and the way we advertise to them, have done nothing but change.
When television first became ubiquitous, its content was built upon lessons producers had learned from other media. News from a single announcer was adapted from radio, and Vaudeville acts from the stage became the TV variety show. But as television -- both from a production standpoint, and from a viewer's view -- grew in sophistication, so did the content. It took about a decade for programming to evolve into something that was truly of the medium. With the web, that transition has happened much faster. And it continues to evolve at a startlingly rapid pace.
Social media's impact on the way brands interact with customers and prospects is only beginning to be felt, as I write this. It has already impacted the way brands present themselves on the web. Brand presence on the web has begun to move from a television-derived, entertainment-led structure designed to capture and keep users, to one that is more fluid, transparent, conversational, and personal. More of the medium. The web, already the most personalized experience of any media, is becoming more so.
People use the web to connect with other people. And other people is who they trust for information on just about everything -- including, and especially, the things they buy. In the middle of the 20th Century, Bill Bernbach said, "Word of mouth is the best medium of all." If Bill could see the way the average student communicates today, he'd be overwhelmed by the possibilities. As the web becomes more social, brands will realize that what they're dealing with is, essentially, a great big word of mouth machine, connected to an instant-gratification button. Participating effectively within that machine presents a challenge to the next crop of communicators, and to the schools educating them.
There was a time when students went to college not to learn a body of facts, but in fact, to learn how to learn. A classical education in the form of a broad Liberal Arts degree was once the symbol of a refined and knowledgeable member of society. But somewhere along the way, a degree from a university became a certificate of specialized training in current tactics for any given field. Which is great, if the tactics don't change.
But in communications, the changes that are taking place are so many and so rapid there's no way any established cirriculum could ever keep up. Truth is, the participants in the industry can barely keep up.
When I was in college, I learned how to use a lucy to hand-trace headline type. I also learned to make proofreader's marks on copy that came out of a typewriter. Clearly, there is no need -- at all -- anymore, for those particular tactical skills. It took a few years after graduation for that need to go away. But in today's environment of rapid change, similarly tactical skills, especially in the digital space, meet the same death in much shorter amounts of time. Who needs to know how to build a site in frames? Has anyone reading this even seen a site done in frames? Understanding the tools is important, but the tools change.
There is, however, a constant. Communicating effectively, regardless of medium, requires a basic understanding of human interaction. How do people communicate with each other? What emotional triggers motivate them? How do they react individually, and as collections of individuals, to different types of messages? Answer these questions and you have the basis for an effective message. It won't matter which tool you use to deliver it.
Students of advertising would be well served to once again focus on learning how to learn. If you want to survive in an environment of rapid tactical change, you, too, must be prepared to change -- your tactics, your knowledge base, and your skills -- on a regular basis. If I went back to school today to augment my knowledge of advertising, I'd study psychology and sociology. They speak to the essence of human interaction, which is the only constant, and is only going to increase in importance as communications become less "mass" and more personal. To keep up with tactics, I send myself to school every day -- by constantly seeking out new developments in the digital space. Because there's no catching up -- there's only keeping up. Learn to learn. Learn to keep up.