Why can’t digital people have nice things?


26 Aug 2017192 Shares

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Blockbuster. Image: trebomb/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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UX consultant Gareth Dunlop has a bone to pick with the author of a viral article – and he doesn’t mince his words.

Regular readers of this column might well have noticed an article on their social media feeds by Alberto Brea, executive director of engagement planning at OgilvyOne Worldwide, published on 1 June, titled Amazon did not kill the retail industry.

For reasons unknown to this reader, this speculative work of fiction has gone viral, with its dangerous and inaccurate conclusions somehow spreading like wildfire.

The key paragraph in his post reads as follows.

“Amazon did not kill the retail industry. They did it to themselves with bad customer service. Netflix did not kill Blockbuster. They did it to themselves with ridiculous late fees. Uber did not kill the taxi business. They did it to themselves with limiting the number of taxis and fare control. Apple did not kill the music industry. They did it to themselves by forcing people to buy full-length albums. Airbnb did not kill the hotel industry. They did it to themselves with limited availability and pricing options.

“Technology by itself is not the real disrupter. Being non-customer-centric is the biggest threat to any business.”

‘Like a couple of lovesick teenagers who think they’re the first to discover sex, his article harbours unhealthy inferences that business was invented in the 1990s, by digital people’
— GARETH DUNLOP

Brea is clearly a clever chap who holds a powerful and important job at one of the world’s most respected communications companies. But even he must know he hasn’t thought this one through.

So let’s think it through.

I’m going to skim over the obvious stuff like the fact that the article is supported with no evidence to corroborate his claims, much of the post is downright untruthful (eg the music industry’s full-length albums – did he never buy singles or EPs growing up? Or the taxi industry’s fare control – has he used Uber and experienced its demand-based, semi-arbitrary pricing?), and the suspicion is that he reached his conclusion first and worked backwards, as opposed to the other way round.

The thing that really bothers me, however, is the lack of humility and self-awareness reflected in the article. Like a couple of lovesick teenagers who think they’re the first to discover sex, his article harbours unhealthy inferences that business was invented in the 1990s, by digital people. There is no acknowledgement of the decades of innovation, creativity and brilliance in retail, travel, music and retail industries. Or of the fact that instead of dismissing them, we should be learning from them.

Blockbuster is not the only company Brea’s trite rant references specifically, but let’s look under the bonnet of that “non-customer-centric” multinational embarrassment.

Perhaps Brea is concerned that David Cook – who founded Blockbuster in 1985 in Texas, opened 1,200 stores by 1990, acquired a stake in Spelling Entertainment in 1993 and sold to Viacom for $8.4bn in 1994 – just didn’t understand or focus on his customers?

Maybe there is something about the Blockbuster Block Party – which was conceived and iterated with close feedback from customers – that sits uneasily with him?

Or possibly the innovation behind the dynamic stocking processes that Blockbuster introduced in the late 1980s – where each local store’s inventory was based on the predicted preferences of its neighbourhood, based on age, gender and social demographics – somehow feels un-customer-centric?

Consider how daft these claims would sound with historic innovations.

The aeroplane didn’t kill the ship and train. They did it to themselves by not being able to fly in the air at 600mph.

Electricity didn’t kill the gas light. They did it to themselves by being a bit smelly and awkward.

The car didn’t kill the pony and trap. They did it to themselves by shitting all over the road.

We reluctantly suffer the naivety of youth when every new generation thinks it is the first one to discover sex, but it is much more difficult to indulge Brea, who infers that the digital generation are the first to discover business, or the importance of customers. At his age and experience, he should know much much better.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy that helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing and customer journey-planning, web accessibility, and integrated online marketing. Clients include Three, Ordnance Survey Ireland, PSNI, Permanent TSB and Tesco Mobile. 

Blockbuster. Image: trebomb/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)