(I wrote this originally for a now defunct ad magazine in 2009. We are *almost* out of this phase now. It seems that it only took 5 years.)
The year: 1923. The city, New York. The setting, a board room on Madison Avenue.
Over the past 20 years, a lot of shit has gone down. Seemingly from out of nowhere, this strange new device called the Telephone has burst into the American zeitgeist. Just ten years ago there were less than three million of the things in the United States, on something like 2,000 independent circuits. The circuits were unable to talk to each other, and the device’s utility was mainly confined to calls to the drug store and the neighbors. But the last decade wrought profound changes. In 1913 people cried monopoly and AT&T was made a government utility. In 1915 the technologies were invented to connect the independent circuits. These two events allowed this strange new technology called “long distance” to be invented, and over the past couple years it had become all the rage. Household penetration rates were pushing 40% and climbing fast.
And, in our board room on Madison Avenue, all hell is breaking loose.
“We can’t just answer this thing.”
“Dude.” (people did not say dude back then) the young turk planner (they did not planners back then) states his case: “These people are calling us whether we want them to or not. They have something to say. We need to listen. And preferably, we should say something back. There’s this whole new vibrant world of communications. And yeah, a bunch of it isn’t really about brands, but… Get this. People actually talk about our products on the thing as well. And sometimes… they just call us up to tell us something about our product. Something that before we’d have to pay hundreds of dollars to learn in one of those new-fangled focus groups.”
A well-coiffed, well-tailored Senior VP takes off his glasses in exasperation. “Yes, but think of the ramifications. We’d have to employ dozens — maybe eventually hundreds — of people, just to talk back. They’d all have to stay on message. They’d all have to be empowered to make offers and fix things. There’s just…” he starts to lose it at this point. “There’s just no way.”
“We’ve been yammering on to our clients about knowing our customers and the value of research for ages. This is what our clients pay us for. To know our customers. And here they are, just… just… telling us outright how they feel about our brand, and we’re not going to listen? We’re not going to talk back? We’re not going to ask them questions?”
“There’s just no way to control it. There’s no way. And have you even thought about the money? How are we going to make money off of this?”
“Our clients will save money on research by having this freely-available data at hand. They can take those freed up resources and spend them on other marketing services.” The young turk planner has found his groove again. They most definitely had groove in 1923. “And in any case, we could make money off of employing the people who answer these things. I should probably also point out that we’ll still need good quantitative research, this will never kill that off.”
The young turk planner goes in for the kill. “Look, I know it’s not pretty. It’s disruptive. It’s a pain. I know we’d probably rather keep making posters and ads in the papers — and don’t even get me started on that ridiculous radio thing. But we have to face it. Times are changing. Do we want to the kind of agency that keeps making newspaper ads forever —”
The Senior VP cuts him off. “And why not? What’s wrong with just making newspaper ads and posters? Business is great, we could keep doing this for a hundred years.”
“We could, we could,” the planner conceded. “But other agencies will move in and take this business. I heard those guys down the street at Ayer are starting a whole telephone department.
“Okay, okay, I might consider this. But I want a plan. I want a feasibility study. I want to know exactly how we’d integrate this… this… telephone into our marketing and our processes. How we could profit from it. Who’s gonna pick the damn thing up? How are we going to train that person? Whose budget is it going to come out of? How are we going to make any money off of this damn thing?”
“Well…” the young turk planner tentatively ventured… “I was thinking we’d start by picking it up when it rings and saying ‘hello.’”