We can only get through this together

I look forward to 2023 trends presentations crossing my desk with the same enthusiasm that I greet Tory canvassers on my doorstep, for I adore the sheer display of wishful thinking.

The idea that 2023 offers any clarity or certainty is fanciful in the extreme.

Prediction has always been a fool’s errand, no more so than today. We walk into the year ahead like ships sailing into fog, with no idea of the nature or severity of the perils ahead.

Of course, we have all experienced downturns before. But who of us knows how to deal with an economy enduring rampant inflation, stagnant growth and failing public services, obscene in-equality and universal industrial unrest?

Together, these create unpredictable forces against which we are woefully ill equipped.

Even with my great age, the truth is when the last bout of inflationary distress stalked the land I was just starting out. And you’d need to be in your 80s to remember when the UK was last cast as ‘the sick man of Europe’.

The year ahead is a foreign country to us all.

We can see that in the caution around marketing investment in the year to come. Businesses simply can’t tell how their fortunes are going to unfold. Those that I talk to simultaneously suggest that it may be an existential disaster, a year of stagnation or one that sees a clear upturn in prosperity. In other words, who the fuck knows?

Against this backdrop I want to suggest a new approach to our actions as brands, businesses and people in the year ahead. One of open-hearted and open-handed generosity.

This is not natural for me. My default position when the going gets tough, is to get tougher. That when the pie shrinks the job of the marketer is to get out there and take more pie. To me it is self-evident that for my brands to win their competitors have to fail – it’s nothing personal – it’s just business.

But I’m not sure that this is entirely right. Because this time round we face a failing nation not just a failing economy.

A nation, or rather a group of four nations, getting poorer by the day. Indeed, based on existing trends we will soon be no better off than people in Poland or the Czech Republic and we didn’t have to endure 40 years in the Eastern Bloc.

This is a nation that is barely working – literally and metaphorically.

One in which our people are seeing their real incomes gnawed away by poverty pay, zero hours contracts and inflation. One where over a million people are involved in industrial action. One in which we have normalised ‘warm banks’ where people’s kids can spend a few hours a week playing somewhere cozy. And one where our public services, once the envy of the world, are kept going by sheer force of will from a dedicated workforce.

This is a moral catastrophe that damns us all. But it’s also catastrophe for the market.

Because, if there is one thing that marketers know, it’s that a thriving market needs lots of people to have some money to spend rather than a few people to with all the money. Income inequality is not simply a social issue for marketers.

But on top of this, we need to understand that we are all each other’s customers. One business’ employees are the customers of another’s, whose people donate to the charitable cause of yet another’s, whose beneficiaries are able to use the services of yet more. In a very real sense, we all depend upon one another.

Our nation, its society, its culture and its economy, is a system. And disaster awaits those that forget this. Because true stakeholder capitalism recognises the implications of every business decision on all those affected by it – intended and unintended.

For the first time in living memory, the only answers to this crisis that are worth pursuing are collective, collegiate and collaborative. And this demands a new era of openness.

We are rightly a fiercely competitive industry, obsessed with the quality of the product each of us makes. But for any of us to survive we must support each other. Celebrate collective endeavour, learn from our best to the benefit of all, inspire each other and above all work as agencies, clients and the creative industries in partnership with each other.

Here is how we might start.

We must understand the unintended consequences of our business decisions. Cutting budgets, cutting activity, cutting people – each one of these decisions has a cascade of impacts few of which we can know when the decision is made. This doesn’t mean that we should avoid taking those decisions, especially if the motivation is the survival of the business not a couple of points of margin or some marginal savings. What it does mean is making those decisions with a clear understanding of their unintended consequences and how these might play out.

We must resist the instinct to pull the shutters down on ‘extra-curricular’ activities and instead dig deep, maintaining and advancing our commitments to the world outside our businesses. Most especially, in supporting the opportunities and aspirations of the young. That is why at Saatchi & Saatchi we have opened our Upriser schools programme to any creative company in the UK to pick up and use as their own and for free.

We must feed the hand that feeds us. Even in difficult times we have huge buying power as an industry. The more these resources reach people that really need them rather than the same old A-listers the better. We make work by shopping for culture at its margins and taking that into the mainstream – let’s make sure the cash we spend ends up with the up and coming. That’s why we are expanding the Saatchi New Creators Showcase across the UK and from film into music, giving a platform to those that need our resources to find the commercial support they desperately need.

And we must be generous with what we have. Many people have little, but for those of us as individuals and businesses that have a little more, we are obliged to be generous with anything that we have in abundance – for some of us it might be money but for others it will be time, expertise, skills, energy or even space. Now is the time for radical generosity not for pulling up the drawbridge.

So, as we face into the new year let’s make our mantra next year to stick together. As partners, as a marketing community, as a creative industry, and as citizens of one nation and one society. That offers a lot more realistic hope than any number of trends presentations

For as John Lennon once wrote “I am he, as you are he, as we are all together”.

Image courtesy of the BBC

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