Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Boomer and The College Professor

His reading glasses, the remote control, some unpaid bills, a stack of business cards collected from a recent networking event, and a large Kleenex tissue box dispenser teetered on the side table next to the Queen Anne chair he bought in Joplin before the EF-5 tornado in 2011. Happy to be back in St. Louis, Will was, maybe for the first time in his life, starting to doubt himself. His 58th birthday was only two weeks away and, as always, he was not especially excited about marking the passage of time. Sue was working harder than ever running a coffee shop in Clayton and baking some too. “Sunday is Mother’s Day,” he remembered. He must think of something thoughtful way to thank her. The kids were gone, grown up and making their respective ways in the world. The house seemed so empty during the day.

Will knew he should be looking for a job but was coming to grips with the very real and very scary notion that he really didn’t know just how to work the system of online job boards. He was fearful that his skill set was becoming outdated. He believed in his heart that there was still room for an organized manager with a creative vision and an ability to get things done. But he was painfully aware of the pervasive chatter of social media and the digital age. As if everything that came before in marketing was now “old school” and irrelevant.

Berry seemed to be a dramatic illustration of where the world was headed. A professor recruited to UMSL to implement coursework in digital marketing was making tremendous strides. Will met him at the Remarkable Leadership Conference put on by the American Marketing Association – St. Louis Chapter at the Missouri History Museum in February. They became quick friends because, in part, Will was connected and Berry was seeking to build his local network quickly. Ironically, the world seemed to be buying what Berry was selling so much more than the basic “blocking and tackling” of message strategy and attention to the touch-points that telegraph the quality/design/promise of a brand. Suddenly, the soft science where “Art meets Commerce” that Will loved was about technology, crowd-sourcing and engaging the multitudes in conversation.

Last month Berry and Will sat for a while in the Starbuck’s Coffee Shop in Clayton. Berry’s Digital Marketing Conference was compelling proof that marketing is changing with big data, social strategies and new rules of engagement. Will could see it but, like many of his boomer generation, he was slow to embrace it. As a chapter leader for the American Marketing Association in St. Louis for more than 15 years he is the first to admit the changes brought on first by the internet and personal computing and now the plethora of electronic devices is puzzling to him. What does it mean? What happened to thoughtful planning? How are you supposed to manage marketing in this environment? Where is it all heading? Students, agency leaders, businesses (large and small) represented in the audience of 400+ filled the JC Penney Conference Center on the campus of the University of Missouri, St. Louis (UMSL) that afternoon. It was early April and the audience was hanging on every word for clues.

Will remembered a time when such a meeting over coffee with a professor was on a different footing. It was the professor who was living in the ivory tower and out of touch with reality. Now the tables have turned. The platform of rapid change in the marketplace offers a natural confluence of events for the campus setting. It’s a place for learning and discourse. Berry is a runner and he is pacing himself well in front of the pack. He’s old enough to be a part of a time when direct marketing offered the best chance for studies of stimulus/response. (But only after test cells were carefully constructed with a “control” module as a basis for comparison.) One wonders if there will ever be time for such experiments ever again.

“Colleges are for rhetoric and the hypothetical and still somewhat less than authentic. Nevertheless, we are living in a time that is unreal and fantastic at the same time. The world is connected in ways which only a decade ago seemed impossible.” Will reminds himself. “A marathon runner like Berry can only hope to record what is happening anecdotally,” He’s thinking. This is not a criticism as much as a frustrated acceptance of how he sees it.
The rush of runners crowding a finish line is a useful metaphor. Won’t there be slower runners (indeed some casual walkers)?  Some might be entirely disinterested in even getting to the finish line (never mind crossing first). But in this race the spectators are participants. They help shape the outcome.

Characters drawn here are intended to be fictional. Any similarities to real persons, places and events are unintentional.   

No comments: