Not long ago, I was sharing a very nice lunch with a couple of multi-millionaires. The conversation covered the usual topics—sports, the current state of politics, and the economy. Both of the fellows were slightly older than I, wildly successful, and self made.
After a while, the conversation focused on long term energy alternatives and the U.S. national debt. I remarked about how worried I was about the enormous deficits, both trade and budget, that America was building up. One of the guys swallowed a hunk of salmon, poured another big glass of Sauvignon Blanc and told me not to be concerned. “Things like this will just work themselves out.” I was his guest so I gently responded that we had to pay the $11+ trillion down and start to do it soon. The response could be a slash in spending, higher income taxes or a national sales tax or a combination of all three.
My host said that higher taxes were not politically viable and spending could not really be cut significantly. He repeated that things will simply work themselves out. America had been good to both of my lunch companions and one of them was foreign born. For him, this has truly been the land of opportunity. So, I cut him some slack but do not give myself or most of you the same latitude.
In life, I think that it is true that many, many small issues do indeed “work themselves out.” But macro issues such as an $11 trillion debt that will continue to increase unless we take strong and maybe painful action. The possibility of a looming fiscal crisis cannot simply take care of itself. Some positive steps are needed to turn the situation around.
The same attitude of my affable host is in evidence in the media business. Last week, a reader whom I do not know wrote to me and mentioned that he was a broadcaster in a mid-sized market. He discussed how TV news was soon to make a big rebound in his market. I thought he meant that his station’s share would rise but he wrote back to me insisting that the changes in recent years had been sorted out and now local news was going to come roaring back in the ratings. Reading it, I did not know whether to laugh or cry. We went back and forth via e-mail and I learned that he was deadly serious.
Since late 2008, I have heard several broadcasters say that as soon as the auto advertising comes back to pre-recession levels, everything will be fine for years to come in local TV. People may be buying cars in record levels in a few years but viewing habits will continue to change and fragmentation can only accelerate. So, one cannot depend on auto advertising to bail a station’s sales out for much longer.
In the last few years, I have met dozens of people in the newspaper business and, to a lesser extent magazine industry, who have their own spin but the “things will work themselves out” syndrome is very much in evidence. Their companies are hemorrhaging cash but they smile and say that the future will take care of itself. This is said as layoffs continue, and young people get their news online and, increasingly, so do their parents.
In ad agencies, the line that I hear the most is that “we just need one nice new business win and everything will be back to normal.” I will admit that agencies are a bit like a movie studio and one big hit can bail out a firm for a while. But, the attitude is warped as it ignores the need to shift gears, have your people learn new skills and get your firm positioned for the future that is emerging almost daily.
Clearly, things are changing. The digital world is real and not a flash in the pan. Messages will get shorter in many cases and be accessed across platforms that none of us can imagine at present. And, importantly, the number of places that you will need to be to launch a brand or stay competitive in a noisy category is mind numbing.
So, in a sense, things will work themselves out. In a free economy, inefficient producers eventually get squeezed out and the imaginative and nimble survive and grow stronger. But if you simply sit there, and think that you and your company will be fine, the exciting future that many of us foresee will leave you not only behind but a lot poorer.
May I suggest that you take a hard look at your employer? Many people in conventional media are doing great things and finding new ways to generate revenue and are embracing instead of ignoring the change. If you work for a “things will work themselves out” type, do not run to the exits in this economy but start looking at other options today.
If you would like to write to Don Cole directly, you may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org