What Students Can Learn From the CES Non-Reality

It’s that time of year again and it could only happen in Vegas. Like a (post)modern-day World’s Fair journalists, geeks, techies and media and advertising futurists weave in and out of aisles of connected bling, Heath Robinson esque contraptions and “the next big thing”.

CES offers its eager attendees a promise of a glimpse into the near future, a not too distant market opportunity and above all a solution…finally, this gadget will do it. This will be the way to “brand loyalty”, “content relationships”, “attention”.

And as the delegates settled into their expenses-paid airline seats for the journey to Vegas, they could mull over that B2B media staple: the look-back, look-forward article. Just before Christmas, every B2B editor demands some poor hack does an overview of the closing year and drags out the Magic 8 ball to decide what will be the Next Big Thing. And there is nothing easier to muse over when it comes to the future of our industry than to think tech. As Bob Hoffman rightly points out, trying to predict business shifts is far more problematic. Better to look for the latest iteration of the smartwatch.

So, sure enough, Marketing Week considers AVoD and Podcasts as the spaces to watch. Ad Week gives space to a CMO’s end-of-year thoughts as she “find[s] it helpful to spend a little time looking back at what’s been working and gazing ahead at where we’re headed.” And of course what catches her eye is Voice and AI. Even lighter pieces can’t escape the presences of technology. The Drum’s “New Year’s Resolutions we don’t really expect” jokes about AR and Chat Bots.

Of course, technology and even gadgets are important. They are the context and spaces with(in) which we work; across which consumers play, create, live; and in which politics and culture are constantly remade. With that said, they are not the only important, let alone determining players. But there is little doubt that we need to deal with tech. The delegates at CES are there on expenses because their companies know they need to know this stuff. The question is what sort of technological knowledge and literacy should ad people have. Should they know how to programme? Should they know their protocols from their stacks? Should they understand server architecture alongside brand architecture?

Will our education system keep up?

The Guardian recently claimed that “Universities determine the future” and faced with what it identifies as the “fourth industrial revolution” it asks, “will our education system keep up?”. Unsurprisingly, seeing as this article was published in the paper’s Education section, the focus is on how universities can retain their position, relevance and power. The question for those degrees looking to work with not simply for industry (see my pieces for AW360 passim), is what should a New Gen entrant’s relationship to technology be? I would argue she needs to be literate, articulate and critical.

There is no need for a New Gen ad person to be able to code or be an engineer. Their job is ideas and content and creativity. Ad businesses should have engineers and coders on board already. What they need from their ad people is the ability to talk to those techies and geeks. They need a techno-literacy that means they can spot the BS from a contractor and can know the affordances of a particular technology or platform at the sort of scales that a coder works and thinks. She should know what protocols and standards an API uses and how her Big Idea could use them or needs to be rethought in light of them. When she’s sitting in a meeting with the engineers, she should follow the developers’ argument and perhaps rather dull PowerPoint slides. She should know enough to be able to contribute and see the opportunities as well as the pitfalls.

Ad students should be trying (and failing gloriously) to make things.

That literacy demands a down and dirty curriculum built around practice-research and prototyping. Ad students should be trying (and failing gloriously) to make things. They should be required to make Tech-experiences not simply think about them. They should be using drag-and-drop tools to prototype Voice, AR, even VR. It’s only by exploring through making that the ‘langauge’ of technology becomes real. Just as living in France will make you better able to talk to the gendarme, so speaking geek will better equip you to discuss with a coder or engineer.

And the New Gen ad person needs to be able to take that literacy and articulate, to speak clearly. She needs to be able to integrate that technical fluency into her ad work. When she pitches her Big Idea or contributes to the client meeting she needs to be able to clearly present that idea with and through that literacy. She can better manage her client’s expectations if she knows and can say that “actually that device can’t process a direct sale at the moment but the next iteration of the platform should be able to…” She can better get buy-in from the client, the developers and the rest of the marketing stakeholders if her Big Idea is feasible, manageable and presented in a way that a doubter cannot pick holes in.

It’s going to be hard selling the latest designer latte to the London hipster when their fixie is under 1.15m of water.

That power demands that crits on ad degrees change. They need to demand that a student presents work powerfully. An ad student’s pitch should be able to justify and sell her idea as strategically, creatively and technically sound. That doesn’t mean demanding that students play safe or have portfolios rooted in the now. They need work of the future but that future needs to be built on real knowledge, practice-research and an understanding of what is possible now and what could be done with the right creative thinking.

And that can and could should be addressed critically. The New Gen ad person needs a critical edge. She needs to know how here solution relates to issues of class, race, gender and power that technophilia ignores. She needs to understand and be able to articulate how the technologies she is proposing using relate to issues of surveillance, gender, race and the environment. This not just to sense-check the idea against the brand purpose statement the CEO made or to head off the PR disaster, nor simply because it’s the right thing to do but because her industry depends on the sustainability of business and the societies her consumers live and work in.

The new thinking that the industry requires has to be rooted in critical thought or that thinking is not grounded is the reality that is very real and material ways determine people’s choices, chances and purchasing powers. It’s going to be hard selling the latest designer latte to the London hipster when their fixie is under 1.15m of water.

The ad people with their noses pressed against the windows of the CES toyshop need a New Gen realist alongside them. That’s what our education and training industry should provide.

Dr. Paul Caplan

Course Leader for MA Advertising at London College of Communication
Dr Paul Caplan is a photographer, journalist, editor, consultant, teacher and the Course Leader for MA Advertising at London College of Communication.
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