Roses in the Wreckage

I like economists. Just like me, they are, as often as not, wrong.

So when I was reading Louis Uchitelle’s wonderful New York Times article, “Is a New Boom Somewhere Over the Rainbow?” I couldn’t help but smile.

Here’s a revealing excerpt: But so far the optimism entrenched in mainstream economics guides the forecasts, and they are persistently upbeat. “The consensus view sounds plausible to me; I have even been trying to get some funds back into the stock market,” said Deirdre McCloskey, an economic historian at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “Still, I do not believe that economists understand the business cycle. I say to my mom, ‘Don’t worry, there will not be another Depression,’ and she says, ‘Why not?’ And I say I don’t really know why not.”

Ms. McCloskey’s faith — and the consensus forecast — have their origins in the writings of Jean-Baptiste Say, a French economist in the early 1800’s, who gained fame as the popularizer of Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,” capitalism’s seminal treatise, published in 1776. A “law of markets” that bears Say’s name is still the theme song for those who count on the economy to repair itself. Say himself never wrote or uttered or fully subscribed to what came to be known as Say’s law, which is expressed in just five words: “Supply creates its own demand.”

Take the excerpt above, print it, and put it on your wall. It’s a testament to the equivocal nature of history, to the limits of our understanding and our methodologies, and to the fuzzy math and underlying optimism of those (like you and me, Magee) who have to sell stuff to make it in this economic system.

We capitalists must be optimistic and march ever forward to some better tomorrow. I know, that sounds really tiring and all — tragic, even. It is tiring, especially when no one’s buying. See Arthur Miller’s upbeat bit of candied fluff, “Death of a Salesman,” for reference.

In the unscientific spirit that makes the Uchitelle article so fun — and I really love the part about how “Say’s Law” was never written, spoken, or fully endorsed by Say himself — I hereby declare that it’s over. The recession, I mean. It’s sooooooooo over.

I have evidence. “Brand architects” (you know, those folks whose fees rival the gross domestic products of certain Central American countries) are starting to surface again. It hasn’t been a good year for them. Too many questions about measurement. Too many corporate financial types at meetings blathering on about revenues and other thoroughly yucky topics.

Just when I thought the majority of brand shamans were hanging out with Dick Cheney in some secret bunker (I am convinced that Cheney has a serious cache of Cheetos and Twinkies wherever he holes up), I’ve spied them. They appear tanned and rested. They always do. Now they’re staffing up with sword-swallowers, throat-singers from Tuva, and reformed members of the Taliban to bring the requisite dignity to their magic branding road shows. The economy’s rebound is surely nigh.

Seriously, though, I am seeing bits of good news, roses among the wreckage.

I am guilty of having misread many signs in the rush to All Things Web. For example, I thought I was witnessing one of those rarest of ages: a flowering of innovation on a scale that might never happen again in my lifetime. Yes, you’re right: narcissism.

Now I know that a lot of it wasn’t innovation at all; it was imitation. For example, to the extent that big business took to the Web, it wasn’t because they “got it.” It was because they were afraid of some mostly mythical garage band that might sneak up and get them. Or, they just knew their competitors were going to use the Web in far more interesting and valuable ways than they had contemplated.

Believe me, there’s a world of difference between adopting something because you clearly understand its value in the context of your overall business and racing toward it because you’re afraid of being left behind. It’s the difference between thinking and reacting. Fear is a great motivator. But it’s a lousy instructor.

I am happy to report that innovation is alive and well. I, along with quite a few others, fell in love with innovation’s early lyric poetry. (Most of it was bad lyric poetry… the worst kind.) Now, after a wrenching period, during which businesses have had to digest huge investments in enterprise resource planning (ERP) and supply chain management, it’s time for innovation’s prose. It’s through prose that bright kernels of ideas have their implications unwound and explored, either made to make sense in our daily lives or discarded.

You can see this in the way that purchasing and logistics departments (not exactly bastions of corporate agents of change) are now using the Web for strategic sourcing, procurement, and scheduling. Deflating the once-hot concept of disintermediation (translation: middlemen are dead), you now find distributors and other channel partners who have successfully re-invented themselves as providers of outsourced business processes. In fact, business process outsourcing has occurred faster than the arrival of the buzz phrase, “business process outsourcing.”

And, friends, the real revolution of e-marketing has just begun. You didn’t miss it. Some marketing organizations that sat out the first wave — suspicious of anything that loud, that cocky, and that fond of scooters — are now taking their first steps, learning from what’s transpired already.

It’s common sense to use email (as opposed to mass media) for business-to-business (B2B) marketing, especially when the universe of your most valued prospects and influencers numbers in the tens of thousands (at most), rather than in the millions.

Just like economists, IRTRTBW: I Reserve The Right To Be Wrong.

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