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Horace Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford, writer, cousin of Lord Nelson, architectural patron, and creator of the word serendipity

Serendipity is not only a beautiful word it is a very beautiful thing.

One of the great delights of life, serendipity ploughs a furrow between co-incidence on the one hand and fate on the other while being part of neither.

But I’m rather afraid that it is progressively disappearing from our lives, collateral damage in the quest to deliver and receive ever more relevant entertainment and communications.


The word itself was first coined by Horace Walpole in 1754 and is derived from an old Persian fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip. In this fairy tale the three Princes are constantly making discoveries and coming across stuff they never set out to find.
And that’s what serendipity is all about, the effect of accidentally discovering something fortunate especially when looking for something else altogether.
One of the greatest moments of serendipity in human history was of course the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming who had failed to disinfect cultures of bacteria before popping off on his hols. On his return he found that the mould that had subsequently developed had killed off all the bacteria.
Now, few of us will have the pleasure of discovering a life saving solution to bacterial infection but we do enjoy the pleasure of serendipitous discovery all the time. It is when we get to do or experience something that we didn’t know we would enjoy. Maybe its a shop we discover hidden down a backstreet that we take because of roadworks on our usual route, or a fascinating article in a magazine left in a waiting room we thumb through out of sheer boredom, a website we come across while hyperlinking through cyberspace, or a sandwich bar you try because it is recommended by someone you meet in a lift carrying their lunch. You know that kind of thing.
In our world this kind of serendipity has been one of the very few upsides of our historically restricted choice of entertainment.
We discovered music we didn’t know we liked because there was so little choice of radio to listen to. We saw TV programmes that we didn’t know we liked because that was what we had available to watch at the time we were available to watch. Who knows we may even have bought something because of an ad in a programme we were watching by accident and that wasn’t ‘targeted’ at us.
More than that we were prepared to let things grown on us because whether listening to the radio or watching the TV, or enjoying any other form of entertainment it wasn’t like there was much of an alternative. Someone recently described this to me as the 15 minute rule – we used to say when forced to watch something we wouldn’t have normally bothered with “I’ll give it fifteen minutes and if its shit I’ll watch something else instead”. Not only did we get exposed to things that we didn’t know that we liked but we were also ‘forced’ to give new stuff a chance.
And this process of accidental but serendipitous discovery enriched our lives and in a small way allowed us to grow and change in unexpected and unpredictable ways.
But serendipity of this sort is disappearing precisely because of the technologies and targeting that we believe is making our lives easier and more fulfilling. This is particularly marked by the culture of ‘on demand’, whether the immediate gratification of our entertainment desires is served by PVR’s, i-players, listen again services, search engines, recommendation engines to and I guess even specialist TV channels and radio stations.
Heaven forbid that we might actually experience something these days that we didn’t already know that we liked!
I think that the key challenge in entertainment in the near future will not be the delivery of enough of a content long tail to make on demand services work for people (critical for the burgeoning on demand TV services), nor the navigation systems that will help unite people with the stuff they already know that they like. But tools that reintroduce serendipity into our entertainment lives, tools that help us discover the stuff we never knew we were interested in.
Incidentally, I believe it is increasingly the role that the generalist offerings of the BBC in the UK are beginning to play, not least TV channels like BBC4 which might easily be repositioned as the serendipity channel.
And there may be a parallel in targeting or rather the lack of it. Modern marketing believes that the more that you can relevantly target communications the better, for advertiser and audience alike. Now let’s leave aside the crass assumptions that most targeting is based on and that simply serve to increase irritation at the breathtaking arrogance and intrusiveness of so called personalised communication, and simply dwell on what we used to call wastage.
In advertising we have always had a sneaky suspicion that a bit of wastage was a good thing, just incase we had got our targeting wrong. Well might I suggest that we re-define this not as wastage but as the part of the budget left for serendipity. That’s the bit of money that brands should spend taking to people that neither the brand nor they themselves know are in the market for the product or service yet.
So whether your interest is in finding new customers or finding new music. Leave some time and technology to dedicate to the endangered delight of serendipity.

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