RIA Novosti archive, image #714106 / Igor Vinogradov / CC-BY-SA 3.0

I grew up with four TV stations. As kids, we all watched the same cartoons in the afternoon. When we got older, we stayed up later, impatiently waiting for the next episode of our favourite series. We didn’t have MP3 players. We swapped tapes. No streaming services, so we went to the cinema. Together.

That’s gone.

Virtually the entire global history of film, television, and music awaits us at home, in the office, on the bus, or walking down the street. All you can eat. All the time. Everywhere. It’s great, sure, but the upshot is that people’s cultural experiences are more out of sync than at any time since the dawn of mass communications.

But in case you’re wondering, this is not about nostalgia. This is about the evolving challenge of creating messages in a world with a diminishing foundation of shared experience. If cultural capital in the 21st century is giving way to virality, where does that leave advertisers?

It’s not that shared experiences no longer exist. Memes, fads, and blockbusters happen all the time. In some ways, they are bigger and more global than ever. But they blaze by and quickly burn out like meteorites across a desert sky[1]. We share the medium of experience more than ever, but its products are more ephemeral and unpredictable.

One could argue that trying to hinge any comms more substantial than a tweet on a viral topic is a fool’s errand – the time between final draft and final approval is long enough to make the hottest meme so-last-Tuesday. Which is not to say that companies should avoid the viral world, but we must always be aware of the means of engagement. No one wants to be the in-denial parent trying to talk “cool” (or “sic” or “phat” or “epic” – you get it!) with their kids’ friends.

In many ways, this is the key challenge that advertisers – and all creative workers – have always faced: how to connect without cliché. In the B2B world, the extra layer on that challenge has always been how not to get mired in industry literalism and product references. It’s just that now, the challenge seems exponentially and urgently more elusive.

So what’s the solution. Well, there will never be a magic bullet. But a vital starting point is to stay curious and keep a young mind. Playfulness of thought (unrelated to age of brain) helps creative teams stay in touch with cultural directions rather than fixated on cultural products. Skate to where the puck is going to be[2], yada yada[3]… But that’s easier said than done when “retro” means stuff from last month.

In practical terms, perhaps we need a different type of campaign, with a stronger focus on concept and tone and a more agile[4] idea of the specific outputs, adjusted and adapted throughout the campaign’s run. Within the frame, explore, dream, surprise. And insist on originality.

Sometimes, when the stars align, you’ll manufacture your own virality. Then sit back and watch while others copy it.

Important footnotes[5]

[1] All writers’ block experienced in the drafting of this blog was relieved by a fidget spinner. For those reading the post more than three months after its original publication, a fidget spinner is like a yo-yo without a string. “What’s a yo-yo?” you ask. Well…

[2] This is the lazy use of a cliché.

[3] This is cheap use of a pre-Internet meme to help me get away with lazily using a cliché.

[4] I’ve done it again (see footnote 2).

[5] Always read the footnotes.


// Gerard Ross, copywriter