A year ago, I was in Muscat for the first time. I was in a white airport cab like those I had seen in a hundred images online. It was like an internet archive of images of nostalgic 80s deja vu.
From the journey, I remember two things. The first thing was that the suspension of white cabs in Oman often make you feel like you are driving in a large sand dune. The second thing I remember was the answer the cab driver gave me to my first question.
I was a little overwhelmed. We had driven for a while from the airport and the first time you arrive in Oman there is a lot to take in. The flat horizon, the simplicity, the culture and the unmissable perfume of potential.
My cab driver was an older Omani gentleman and he was listening to talk radio. The discussion on the radio was about wearing non-traditional outfits as a local and if that made you a fake. It was just one more detail I strangely still remember.
I leaned forward and asked him this question. What is the difference between Muscat and Dubai? He looked into the mirror and instantly responded.
Oman is real. Dubai is plastic. Yes, sir.
The perfection and simplicity of the answer hit me between the eyes. A year later, I still think it might be one of the best answers I have ever heard.
Since that day, I have always had conversations with taxi drivers. Recently, I was in Old Dubai and I wasn’t disappointed. The first guy, Ahmed, told me what it was like to be an Indian cab driving in Dubai Marina right now. How people are frightened of him and how he sometimes pretends to be different. The second was a Sri Lankan man. He told me about moving to Dubai in 1999 and how there was a large Sri Lankan community in of all places Deira. When I asked why, he said because there was a direct flight from Colombo to Dubai. It was the closest modern city you reached, so people stayed here.
I mention these stories because in each one there are fragments and details that make them interesting, specific and very human.
Interesting. Specific. Human.
I think about these words a lot at the moment. There are many articles and discussions about data, personalisation and process at the moment. We use the word insight in just about every presentation we ever make. We talk about storytelling and its importance.
A lot of words. A lot of questions.
My feeling is that instead of all this making the work more interesting and specific, it is making it more generic.
Now, it would seem other things are more important than quality right now. Cost and the ability to make a lot of stuff very quickly. Fair enough. But I can’t help but wonder. Where does this go? Let’s fast forward as an industry 5 years into the future.
We make content cheaper; we make more of it and we put it everywhere. This very process will make what is made more generic and boring.
Mark my words. There will be a sameness that will grow into an epidemic. What will be made will become less and less memorable. We are talking about a lot of work that nobody will notice despite all the measurement saying otherwise. It will also not sell anything to anybody. And when that happens, there will be three questions that will have to be answered. Firstly, is making thousands of things of average quality really the answer? Secondly, does memorability and distinctiveness matter anymore? Thirdly, if it does, what can be done to fix the situation?
It will be interesting to see what the answers will be. Things are pretty uncertain in this industry right now but if there is one thing I do know it is that clients never just want parity with competitors.
So, the first lever that can be pulled makes something cheaper. The second will make more of it. The question is what happens when everybody can pull these levers? The answer is you have to change the game. And creativity, is always the answer to that question. You only have to look at history to see this seemingly new paradigm has happened over and over.
Be distinctive. Be interesting. Be noticed. Have something to say. And say it well. Those things don’t change.
A memorable Indian taxi driver I will never forget taught me that just a year ago.