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OPINION5 February 2019

The value of looking back

Opinion UK

The Archive of Market and Social Research (AMSR) recently hosted an evening at the IPA for supporters and donors where Rory Sutherland spoke. Paul Edwards reports his speech.

Graduates into the business today have no personal memories of 9/11.  Marketing and advertising are industries filled with young people and there is a tendency to upweight the importance of ‘change’ against those things that are ‘unchanging’. 

Events in the past five years have a disproportionate weight in the memory and seem far more important than things that happened in the years before. Without the benefit of a long view it is difficult to distinguish the signal from the noise. With a long run of data, you can genuinely see what is a repeating pattern and what is changing.

Chronological context is essential for understanding people and understanding the world. Take the ‘me-too’ movement. From the perspective of a 55-year-old it feels like the world has made great progress in the direction of equality.  From the perspective of a 25-year-old it is hard to believe these things are still happening. 

In drama we are used to seeing Cleopatra in front of the pyramids.  What we forget is that Cleopatra is closer in time to us than she was to the building of the pyramids.

Everything happens in its own time. In the early days of household electricity, it was necessary to persuade householders to sign up to the modern way of powering the home and to abandon the gas mantle and the stove. 

The purveyors of electricity used the example of the electric kettle to demonstrate the benefits of electricity in the home: ‘just think you will be able to take the kettle from room to room to refill your teapot, you will be able to take the kettle to bed so you can have a hot drink in the morning’. 

In reality, of course, the electric kettle had no advantage over the kettle on the stove until the kettle that switched itself off came along. It all made great sense when the plans were written but it never happened like that. 

To this day we are used to technology evangelists imagining very different uses to what real people end up adopting.

The younger we are, the more we see what is around us now; the older we are, the more we see that some things are genuinely new and that others are echoes of what has happened before. Although recent events are the most exciting, they can often turn out to be rather trivial. History gives us the perspective to see change for what it really is.

The advantage of historical perspective and more specifically the advantage of the Archive of Market and Social Research is that it gives access to the chronological context. 

The history of consumer behaviour is one of the keys to understanding human psychology rather like the Galapagos islands are one of the keys to unlocking some of the mysteries of the natural world. Revealed behaviour can often tell us more about motivations and what people will actually do in the future, than asking those people to speculate about what they might do in the future.

Understanding what has happened in the past has explanatory potential for the future by virtue of the chronological context it affords us. Market and social research is a vital resource giving us a window on the past and helping to distinguish between the signal and the noise in current events. 

The youthfulness of our industry often leads us to condemn the voices of the past, such as David Ogilvy, as dinosaurs. But the emergence of one or two new media channels, as exciting as they are, do not change the basic rules of human persuasion.

Some things change and others don’t. An archive such as this can provide the chronological context that is so often lacking thereby helping us to understand the marketing world. Patterns of consumer adoption from the past can illuminate the challenges of introducing new goods and services today. Access to history is a resource of immense value to our whole industry.

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