The Soap Box and How it Beat the Loudhailer

    August 16, 2007

Advertising folks are always banging on about the perfect idea and the genius insight that creates a powerful campaign. One that will change people’s behaviour and drive sales and vast shareholder value.  But the world has changed. The tectonic plates that the marketing industry sits upon have shifted.   What adfolk don’t get is however great their ideas – no one cares anymore.  Let me explain why…

Advertising used to work because the industry had the biggest loudhailer and it could be used to make everyone listen, even if they didn’t really want to.  Which meant brands could be ‘built’ for people to ‘aspire’ to.  Which was all fine when no one really had anything and luxurious things were genuinely rare.  So people watched the ads because they had little choice and the odd one was funny and a few were inspiring.

However, in 1990 one man sowed some seeds which would eventually annihilate that top down, scarcity-driven world of communication.  When Tim Berners-Lee gave us the world wide web he offered everyone a little soap box to say their piece.  Then, in 1993, Marc Andreesson created the Mosaic browser and in doing so set up a million more little boxes on street corners around the globe.

In fact, many of these soap boxes were used by fringe-dwelling individuals with extreme world perspectives.  Which was great because big brands could dismiss them as nutters, buy up all the boxes, pile them high, get out their loudhailers and keep on bellowing.

Of course, the whole thing came piling down in a barrage of irrationally exhuberant madness, where publicly financed start-ups, selling cabbages and laser pens, created a bubble that among other things, lined the silk pockets of the Big Ad Networks.  And so the big story was thought to have ended, and big advertising was happy to revert to the big idea yelled from the big stage using big budgets.

However, that crazy, dangerous world of IPO lunacy was just a smokescreen. The reality was that people loved those little soapboxes and once all the big brands had cleared off, they polished them up again and kept on using them to share with the world the things they really wanted and what they really cared about.

Then a few bright sparks, like Ben and Mena Trott, started churning out slightly smarter boxes for the socially included, called blogs.  And others, like Craig Newmark, carried on building their online flea markets where people could share their lives.  Meanwhile, an army of technical volunteers, like Linus Torvalds and Robert McCool, tweaked and coded their way to create bigger platforms where people could meet in larger numbers.  And Google carried on connecting people while eBay allowed like-minded folks to start buying and selling among themselves.  As a result, the hustle, bustle and buzz increased, attracting more and more people into these exciting global bazaars.

Naturally over time, the bellowing brand ministers in their cathedrals found the congregations were dwindling.  Their only option appeared to be the crafting of finer and more aspiring sermons in the hope that ‘their’ flock would finally hear the crafted words and return to the wonderful institutions which were once at the heart of their lives and communities.

But of course, they didn’t and they’re not going to.  Those ministers of the brand are screaming their words into empty naves all around the world.  And it no longer matters how prosaic and compelling their performances, because people have found that there is greater truth and resonance in the views of their neighbours.  Not the people who live in their street of course.  They are the same curmudgeonly, narrow-minded old bunch they always were.  In the new broadband world, people are sharing their passions using the tools given to them by TBL, and have found new communities that gravitate around things they really care about – however trivial, however mundane.

And this is what ad folks don’t get.  People have lost interest in the brand values the ad industry has used to build its empires and raise its cathedrals.  And they’ve replaced them with a new set of values – their own.