The gold rush for gadgets: Are we prone to repeat the same mistake?


Lee Foster

While by no means the first, it was the California gold rush of 1848-1855 that captured popular imagination, leading to the settlement of the state and inspiring rushes around the world.

Fast forward to today and instead of gold, it’s the mining of ones and zeroes that entices many to search for that most rare of things: the next tech unicorn. And for those lucky enough to strike a rich vein, the rewards can be astronomical.

Furthermore, such is the buzz generated upon finding a unicorn, that we immediately create a new lexicon around it. How many times have you seen, heard or used an expression along the lines of “the Uber of this” or “the Tinder of that”. And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it’s also likely to be the fastest way to a buck (or many).

Now, this is not to attack those companies who have found themselves bestowed with unicorn status. The creative destruction they are bringing to (often) stale and/or (often) monopolistic institutions is swift, brutal and long term. With a firmly capitalistic hat on, this can only be a good thing and one that leads to increased innovation, efficiency and improvement of product.

Instead, I posit that there is a knee-jerk impulse to jump on the bandwagon; a fervent behaviour whereby those proclaiming to offer something new are more often than not simply adding bolt-ons, additions or non-essential variation. In doing so, the ability to be first (or in tech-speak, ‘nimble’) is held up as the single highest virtue a company can have.

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Just look at the world of dating apps. Whilst the idea of online dating is not new, Tinder’s entry into the market in 2012 changed dating culture forever and, sure enough, copycats (who were able to claim a ‘first’) soon followed. There are now dating apps for bearded men (Bristlr) and for those who wish to connect over a mutual hatred (Hater). And in perhaps the ultimate expression of bandwagon jumping, short termism and gimmickry, US meat manufacturer Oscar Mayer released Sizzl, a dating app that promised to connect you with fellow bacon lovers.

Now, I’m by no means a Luddite, a laggard or a late adopter, but I am cynical of technologies or platforms that offer no more than a well-crafted PR story and that are ultimately gadgets competing for our attention (and cash) rather than addressing actual issues we are facing. Such gadgets often inspire a Pied-Piper like following, and to not follow the Piper is to fall victim to the appearance of being out of touch.

Let’s take another example of the modern ‘gold rush’, this time not so much a ‘me-too’ product, but instead a short term craze that promised to revolutionise marketing: Pokemon Go.

Such was the furore that accompanied its launch that agencies, consultancies and news outlets fell over themselves to publish their points of view on how this would change the future of digital marketing. And yet when we look at the data 1 , Pokemon Go came and went, and we moved on to the next thing.

And so as to not cherry pick dating apps or Pokemon Go to form the basis of my entire argument, you only have to look as far as Google Glass (which saw its consumer version shelved in 2015 2 , Snapchat Spectacles (where only 0.08% of Snapchat users bought a pair 3 ), or the much-maligned QR code to see the same story unfold: Each of these developments promised to change marketing, and each of these failed to live up to the impossible expectation placed upon them by an industry desperately searching for a silver bullet.

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So what do we do? How do we find the signal amongst the noise? How do we weed out the great from the milieu of ordinary?

I believe there are fundamental questions we must insist upon asking each and every time. Why is this better? How is this better? What problem can you help me solve? What is the science underpinning this? How is this relevant?

If this sounds obvious or overly simplistic, then perhaps that’s because it is. But with an ever-increasing number of channels, platforms, devices and data types, we must not only insist upon such questions, but also be in a position to truly understand and critique the answers.

There’s every likelihood that some of what we uncover may make us feel uncomfortable. It may call into question some of our central beliefs, knowledge and understanding. It will certainly highlight our biases. But this is precisely the reason why such questions are valuable. In the absence of this, we are prone to see history repeating itself. The gold runs out. Bubbles burst. Chaos ensues.

We must therefore hold a pragmatists view and avoid being seduced by the neomania that increasingly accompanies our industry. The almost fundamentalist belief that new equals better is naïve. Diligence becomes key, and a long term view becomes perhaps the most valuable tool at our disposal.

Let me leave you with this. Amazon didn’t report a full year net profit until 2003, nine years after forming. They played the long game. They avoided the traps that short termist behaviours would inevitably lead to. They learnt, unlearnt and relearnt, and in the ever-changing landscape in which we are operating, perhaps this is the type of nimble behaviour we should be rewarding and encouraging.

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Vizeum associate head of communications planning Lee Foster



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