If the Neighbor’s Grass Always Looks Greener, Rip out Your Lawn and Plant Wildflowers

Everybody complains about the finance industry, but nobody does anything about it. Everybody complains about the advertising business, but nobody does anything about it.

I spend a lot of my time talking to people, meeting them, listening to their ideas and what they need to achieve them, making introduction, sharing information and etc. This week’s conversations caused something that has always bothered me to start to bother me: everybody wants to radically change some industry, but never their own. Bankers want to change healthcare. Academics want to change information management. Marketers want to change media. Media people want to change consumer packaged goods. Philanthropists want to change finance. And these are just the conversations I’ve had this month.

We need change. I look at the industries I am in and see that we need change. Not improvement, but fundamental change, a real rebuilding from the foundations change. But to change things we need to change the things we know. Any of us can look at another’s industry and see where it is failing. But the real work is knowing how to get from where we are to where we think things should be. Doing that requires a deep knowledge of industry relationships and interrelationships, of its microstructures and systems. That knowledge only comes from having worked in the industry for years.

Certainly I understand the draw of coming at an old problem with an outsider’s insights and another discipline’s techniques; trying something that has not been tried, the new tool. But if you’ve not been in an industry, you probably don’t understand how it and its ecosystem work and why past efforts to change it have failed. How can you address fundamentally complex issues that you don’t even know about?

Last night I was ranting on the phone to a friend about people not being able to see the systems they are part of, and she asked me “well, how would you change what you do?” I told her, essentially, that what I do is done really rather poorly, but as well as can be expected. I was more guilty of lack of imagination than the people I was ranting about. So, to be honest, I’m not writing this to change your mind, I’m writing it to change my own.

The finance industry has failed us again and again. In the past four or five hundred years we’ve probably averaged finance-system led contractions at least a dozen and probably a score of times. In that time, we’ve incrementally improved the system, regulated it, computerized it and completely changed it and we still have failures. But, in fact, we haven’t changed it at all. Anybody in today’s finance industry can read an account of the Medicis, the 16th century English goldsmiths or the 11th century trade associations and see that those protean systems are the same systems we have today. Finance plays an absolutely key role in society’s progress. Imagine how much better off we would be today if we had a more stable financial system for the past five centuries.

Similarly, the advertising industry has not had a notable success story since the mass roll-out of Grey Poupon in the ’70s. Since the sixties–at least, and excepting 1999-2000–the industry’s chatter about its own future has been focused on its dysfunction. Meanwhile, its entrepreneurs spend their time improving measurement, making transactions more efficient, collecting ever more personal data, and making in-your-face promotion even more in-your-face. As a result, while advertising expertise and spend becomes more and more crucial for companies trying to compete, advertising as a whole has become more and more a societal dead weight. Imagine how much better off we as a society would be if we could match consumers with the products and services that are right for them, spending more money on making the products and services better and less on targeting the gullible and wheedling the skeptics.

This economic disruption is an ideal opportunity to make fundamental changes, to change things for the better for the long term. But I think the window is short. In two years people will be making money again and see no reason to change. Now is the time to focus on real change, in our own industries. So, for me, no more incremental improvement, I want to talk about going back to basics and doing things differently, better.