One of the things we always admired about the old sales promotion industry – and to a lesser extent it’s offspring, shopper marketing – was how intrinsically it was involved with the actual logistics and distribution of the products clients made. One could spend an entire career in traditional advertising, and certainly in its digital descendants, with absolutely no idea how products got from the factory floor to the customer’s hands. And we felt that this deeper relationship with the client’s business actually gave the practitioners of sales promotion a better understanding of what made their clients special, distinct, unique. Revealed nuances about the company – how it solved problems, and the very problems they were facing internally, externally and with that middle ground involving vendors and partners – that never showed up in briefs for tv spots or organic posts, but affected them nonetheless.
We admired this distinction because it reminded us that the effort to speak to customers, no matter how vital to the survival of the client’s business, was only one small fraction of what the client was dealing with on a daily basis. Or, as our friend Neil Kimberly once said to us, “you must remember that at best a brand manager is thinking about the advertising maybe only 10% of the time.”
We were reminded of this as we read John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay’s fascinating, disturbing, and robust Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next which describes the things clients are thinking about dialed up to 11 and on a global economic scale.
Mr. Lindsay begins by describing the era we live in as “The Instant Age”, in which we expect that every item we see on our tvs, on our phones, in our neighbors’ yards, will be ours within minutes of us coveting it. And that thus, success for businesses is increasingly to those who can put those things into our sweaty little hands before someone else can. For, as Mr. Lindsay writes:
The pace of business, and of life, will always move faster and over more ground; and … we must pledge our allegiance if we want our iPhones, Amazon orders, fatty tuna, Lipitor and Valentine’s Day roses at our doors tomorrow morning. If the airport is the mechanism making all of these things possible… then everything else – our factories, offices, homes, schools – will be built accordingly… [creating] a new kind of city, one native to our era of instant gratification.
This is where the aerotropolis of the title comes in — the, as Mr. Lindsay writes early in the book, “urban incarnation of this physical Internet”, or as Mr. Kasarda explains to a roomful of desperate Detroit-area government officials “an airport-integrated region, extending as far as sixty miles from the inner clusters of hotels, offices, distribution and logistics facilities.” Or said in a way that those of us who don’t have advanced degrees in urban planning can understand, a vision of a city in which the airport – the fastest means we currently have for transporting goods – is at the center (and not on the fringes like in most cities you can think of) and is surrounded by factories that produce goods which can be shipped out instantly, or warehouses that store the goods that customers want NOW. And which are further surrounded by whatever is needed to support those entities – be they workers’ homes or schools or whatever.
Sound absurd? Well, that’s how Memphis is set up to handle Fed Ex. And that’s how Louisville is set up for UPS – hell, that’s why UPS moved there in the first place. It’s why Zappos has its warehouse there (despite its headquarters famously being in Las Vegas). And why Geek Squad is there too. But more importantly, that’s how cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou are set up in China, to manufacture all the things you can order on your iPhone (including, actually, your iPhone). And it’s what China is using as a model for creating hundreds more just like it.
And it’s how the medical world is reconfiguring itself, as medical centers construct themselves at the feet of runways just like Zappos and Fed Ex did. For as Lindsay writes:
Medical hubs will become different stops on the same assembly line: Brazil and South Africa for plastic surgery, Mexico and Hungary for dentistry, Costa Rica for a little of both, and Southeast Asia for the body work of heart surgery, organ transplants and orthopedics. Patients needing new hips or hearts will be the first sent overseas by their doctors for the same reason medical tourists are headed there now: the procedures are safe, low margin, and high volume – always the first things to go in any globalization scenario.
Lindsay and Kasarda go much further into the repercussions of some of these ideas than we can discuss here, even touching on some of the geo-political challenges that they lead us to. For example, would it surprise you to learn that so thoroughly rethinking the nature of cities is not something that happens efficiently in democracies, and that the nations who are producing the most effective aerotropoli tend to be the most authoritarian ones? No? Us either.
But so what? We are advertisers and marketers, not logistics engineers. Why is any of this relevant to tv spots and SEO?
Because agencies serve at the pleasure of their clients and clients serve at the pleasure of their customers and customers serve at the pleasure of their needs. And if what Lindsay writes early in Aerotropolis is true, that “individual companies no longer compete… their entire supply chains do” then it behooves the agencies who serve them to understand that. To understand what is really driving the decisions their clients are making, even if those clients can’t articulate those forces to them. Even if it means that the distribution we thought, in our hubris, was the tail of the dog, is in fact, the dog.
And especially if it means that we are now the tail.