For as long as there have been cities, they have been maligned as soulless vortexes that pollute and overwhelm, irresistibly dragging innocents towards them, sucking up their aspirations and hopes when they get there. The cities of the Old Testament — Babylon, Gomorrah — were places you desperately wanted to avoid rather than go visit. Dante even located his Inferno below the city of Jerusalem: one funnel-like, ever more degrading series of rings from which people never escaped, condemned to repeat their sins without hope of breaking the cycle. In the 20th century, the city became the place where runaways were lost, old people abandoned, and everybody in between stressed beyond endurance.
Yet now comes along a Harvard professor of economics, of all things, to radically upend this traditional view. In his new book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier, Edward Glaeser posits that cities are the true motors of human innovation. Far from oppressing creativity, cities increase it exponentially. They attract and bring together people of very different ethnicities, cultural backgrounds and talents, make it easier for them to interact, push them to compete and become even better, thus encouraging entrepreneurship and social and economic mobility. Unlike suburbs, which separate and alienate us from each other, cities raise us up rather than bring us down.
Of course, a big part of this human and cultural mash-up in American cities has come from the successive waves of immigration. These have enriched the everyday American experience, from what we eat (with culinary innovations such as cream cheese in sushi and, more recently, Korean tacos) to how we define what it is to be American. Yet the importance of marketing to different ethnicities — whether Hispanics, African Americans, Asians, Native Americans, gays, lesbians and transgendered — is usually argued for demographic reasons (“a significant and growing part of the population”) or moral ones (“it’s the right thing to do”). But if the U.S. has benefited as a multicultural society, can we say the same of multicultural marketing? Can we look at the “city” as a metaphor for how we foment — or don’t foment — creativity in how we go about marketing to this very same, multicultural society?
Unfortunately, while the world around us continues to mix and remix, marketing has pretty much stuck to a siloed, “separate but (in)equal” approach to developing marketing plans and communications. While there is a lot of talk about the need for bigger, more holistic concepts that cross targets and disciplines, most of the examples that are shown look either retrofitted or like sets of “matching luggage” executions rather than breakthrough ideas.
In this latter-day ideological segregation, both marketers and consumers lose. Consumers — Hispanic and non-Hispanic, black and white — are gypped by being served up small ideas that talk to people one dimensionally, as if they live in parallel universes that don’t interconnect, leaving them feeling different and excluded rather than unique and included. Marketers lose out by not only by failing to truly engage people with a bigger brand idea; but also more pragmatically, by not getting the most out of all the creative resources their different agencies and marketing partners can bring to bear.
Instead of just pointing out the problem, I’d like to give a couple of concrete suggestions on how to do things differently:
Clients: invite everyone to the table, give everyone a say and let them decide the best idea. Cities thrive because there is no rigid order or hierarchy: everybody has a chance to act, interact and create. Over the last few weeks in Egypt, the world saw a fascinating demonstration of this: out of seemingly nowhere thousands of people — hailing from all parts of the country and walks of life, from doctors to street cleaners to students; secular, Muslim, Christian, congregated in one place, agreed on a goal and set up a parallel and highly functional “city” in Tahrir Square, with its own rules, procedures (garbage removal, security) and communications systems.
In less than three weeks, the Egyptians threw out a 30-year dictator; just imagine what marketers could achieve if they created an open, free, collaborative environment where all their marketing partners — internal teams as well as external “general market” (whatever that means anymore) and ethnic agencies — were given free rein to bring, debate and develop the strongest ideas. The collective work would be stronger, talk more relevantly and inclusively to each the brand’s consumers (Hispanic, non-Hispanic, Asian and African American), and be generated so much more efficiently and effectively. As a client, should you expect and demand anything less?
Agencies: Let go of “command and control” and embrace “collaborate and create.” While it’s easy to lay the issue on the client’s door, once the playing field is opened the onus will be on the players. You can’t create a Tahrir Square if the different parties don’t lay aside their different, smaller agendas at least temporarily for a greater goal; you can’t engage them in constructive debate if there’s a Mubarak who refuses to cede the podium for a while. If the floor is opened up, general market, Hispanic and other focused agencies will have to step out of their comfort zones and personal fiefdoms, not just bringing their respective expertise but also competing at the highest level in generating new ideas as well as building on other’s good ones to make them even better.
This may all seem somehow Pollyanna-ish — but it’s how the city-like organizations of the gaming and software industries have continually pushed the bar with bigger and better ideas — and bigger and better profits. It’s time that advertisers and their agencies tap into the same dynamic hotbed of creative energy.