Anti-heroes in marketing

03 May 2023

Anti-helden in marketing

1,400 marketers gathered in Brussels last week for their trade association UBA's annual trends day. While recession still lurks around the corner, inflation remains abnormally high, and the war in Ukraine rages on unabated, participants braced themselves with fervent pleas for innovation, creativity, and yet a little more humanity. For a right-minded marketer, the proverbial glass still remains half full. An eyewitness account.

It was a happy reunion for the marketing community in our country after 3 corona years. By the way, the pandemic was very far away during the congress. The many hugs, the cohesion, up to and including the collective singing together to the tunes of Coldplay were heartfelt and heartwarming. Whatever the merits of video conferencing at times, nothing beats a physical gathering. And marketers are people.

Two speakers caught my particular attention, mainly because they dared to color outside the lines of the marketing profession, and also did not shy away from adding a critical note to their interventions.

Well-known economics professor Paul De Grauwe perhaps stepped outside his comfort zone the most for this audience. He politicized his belief in the merits of the free market, but critically pointed out that the sum of individual interests does not automatically guarantee a common good. After all, businesses and consumers do not take into account external costs of services and goods, such as climate impact or social inequality. There are winners and losers from capitalism, he added. It risks becoming a self-destructive system in the absence of self-regulation. De Grauwe has already taken an economic turn many years ago: the neo-liberal of the 1980s has given way today to a professor who advocates higher taxes to slow the impact of global warming, wealth redistribution and strong social security. As a drain on the trends day could count. It was a rude awakening for quite a few participants. In the corridors, someone characterized him afterwards as a "crypto-socialist".

Who also did not mince his words was the American marketing professor, Scott Galloway, who a few years ago lashed out at the Internet giants in his bestseller "The big four" (Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon). Since then, the economic crisis has significantly shaken the world of technology giants. Today, he believes that Google in particular has missed the boat of technological progress, especially when it comes to applications of AI. It got very quiet on some of the chairs in the room.

Nor was he mild to Twitter where new owner Elon Musk has fired as many as 80 percent of employees. Less costs and more revenue seems to be a tried-and-true recipe for passing the shareholder in Musk by the till. Galloway warned the audience in attendance that this approach by Musk may well inspire shareholders of many other companies, including those outside the technology sector.

Also notable: Mark Zuckerberg's metaverse was barely worth a footnote during the day. There are more question marks than answers today. Is it a revolution, or hype? The future will tell us.

But a trends day worthy of the name in 2023 could not, of course, ignore AI and, in particular, ChatGPT. Professor Galloway - expertly put to the test by Steven Van Belleghem - spoke of the most important technological leap forward in a long time. In line with what I also wrote here last week, he does not believe in a pause button, but did make a plea for government regulation. In this, the EU is playing a pioneering role that could inspire the US.

Much sharper, and self-deprecating, was Galloway for TikTok which is nothing more or nothing less than a propaganda weapon in the hands of the Communist Party of China. "TikTok is part of a military strategy," he warned the slightly bewildered audience. That just moments before, they laughed heartily at the TikTok persiflages of Taylor Swift's "Anti-hero."

Perhaps De Grauwe and Galloway were such anti-heroes for some.