Once upon a time a long time ago and late at night in a PR agency in London, a team was panicking because they had no big idea for a very imminent pitch.
Heavy breathing American bosses had said ‘a lot was riding on this’ and that ‘they trusted us’. Nothing in global agency life is more chilling than a pre-pitch vote of confidence from your headquarters C-suite.
The client was Microsoft and the product was their SPV phone which was being launched globally in London with the telco Orange.
It was 2002, six years before the iPhone when texting still felt new and cool and most phones looked like little bricks with buttons and most people used them to make phone calls.
The big brands were Nokia, Motorola and Erikson.
‘But Microsoft’, said the brief, ‘was about to disrupt the market’, which was a tired marketing cliche even then.
The difference, the brief went on in that way that briefs do, was that this phone would be ‘powered by windows’ which meant that it carried the first mobile versions of Outlook and Internet Explorer which, to be fair, did feel like a big step.
For the first time, we would be able to do serious business on the move, because serious business was emails and browsing the world wide web not childish texts. This was a ‘serious work tool for serious work people’ and so, obviously, in need of a ‘serious thought leadership platform’ that would help to distinguish it from the toys and flimsy offerings of the competitors.
So we pitched and won the business on an eleventh-hour idea that this phone heralded the ‘third age of the office’.
The first age of the office, we said, was the physical office, introduced at the time of the industrial revolution. The ‘second age’ was the age of the home office, which began in the 1980s with the roll-out of ISDN lines and the Fax machine and ‘third age’ was the mobile office or the office in your pocket, thanks to the SPV.
Making a product a symbol or harbinger of a new era is always a good PR gag. It lends significance and provides an idea that journalists and commentators can agree or argue with, but are much more likely to engage and cover. It positions the product’s launch as a defining moment before which everything was old fashioned whilst afterwards everything will be exciting and empowering.
Over the years, and mostly at similar times of late-night desperation, we re-visited the ‘third age’ idea. The third age of banking, insurance, payment systems, printing and TV spring to mind. Colleagues from at least two agencies will remember more I am sure.
We did it because we knew that we needed narrative. A story. And stories have heroes and jeopardy and events. Things happen. To people. For reasons. After which something has changed.
So for a product launch to be a story, and almost none are intrinsically, we had to give it significance. It’s the oldest tactic in the book, but it still works because a basic human trait is to try to understand the world around us through stories.
You know, caves, campfires, our oral storytelling traditions and all that stuff.
But this means that we tend to over endow events or happenings or dates with significance they don’t always merit. We like to have a single and preferably a dramatic occurrence to be the sole cause of much bigger change.
The 300 Spartans at Thermopylae held back the Persian hordes and Western civilisation and democracy was saved and then flourished.
Those ‘few’ Spitfire pilots in the Battle of Britain; Paul Revere in the War of American Independence (insert your favourite example).
And even if we know these stories to be an exaggeration we allow them to become a symbol or a shorthand, because it saves time and because, well, they are great stories and we are wired that way.
Conversely, incremental change is by its nature boring. It is many small things that individually don’t amount to much but together very much do. The slowly rising tide rather than those noisy sets of dramatic waves.
It would be tough to make great art or even a vaguely decent story out of incremental change. Perhaps someone has, though I ‘m not sure I’d want to read it.
I bring this up now because COVID-19 and the lockdowns have understandably become the event through which we now view and interpret everything.
The economy, the work from home (WFH) movement, our relationship with governments, the competence of CEOs, Prime Ministers and Presidents, pretty much every news story or feature begins or ends with COVID-19 and the lockdowns.
Which is understandable given this rare global shared experience, the biggest single change in human behaviour since the second world war according to some. It has to mean something and of course, it does, but has COVID-19 changed everything and is everything that is changing due to COVID-19?
I would suggest not. And whilst the scale of what the world has been through excuses much lazy attribution, we should beware and look for smokescreens or where the narrative is disguising the underlying and often boring and incremental change that is the real event.
Many dying businesses, underperforming managers and declining sectors will point to COVID-19 as a convenient narrative for what were often long-term, slow-motion and inevitable failures. They are building and sometimes believing themselves a narrative that excuses blame. Which is understandable and very human but a danger for those trying to glean lessons and see a way forward.
For example, COVID-19 and the lockdowns gave millions their first experience of working from home and will have hastened more flexible working arrangements as a long term feature of the working environment. But every firm I know has been heading in this direction for years and will continue to do so for many more. Diversity legislation, the fierce competition for talent, globalisation and technology advances over the last decade and more has done at least as much as COVID-19 for flexible working, but that’s a bit dull and takes more words.
Microsofts’ SPV was a small step towards the era of mobile working as were the later and much more successful Blackberrys and iPhones. 3G, 4G and 5G and cheaper data and omnipresent wifi all played their part too, but none of them on their own heralded the change. The same is true of COVID-19 and the lockdowns and COVID-19 and many things. Beware the mask of narrative.