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Forward to the past: Lessons from Back to the Future

Happy Back to the Future Day! Great Scott etc. Yes, we’re finally here: 21 October 2015, the day in the future that Marty McFly travelled to. Cars don’t fly, boards don’t hover, and we need roads – but I do now employ someone to tie my shoelaces, so that is progress of some sort.

But you don’t care about that. You want to know what this has to do with TV. Allow me to help. It strikes me that today is an arbitrary excellent excuse to draw some lessons from Back to the Future.

Lesson 1: Think long-term

When Marty travelled to 2015 from 1985, it felt like he was leaping into the unknown – hence why the film-makers could easily dress people with extendable arms and put them in cars fuelled by trash; anything could happen. But here we are and the film feels like yesterday; the future snuck up on us.

If advertising is about anything it is about the future – building a better one for brands and a stronger economy. To do this you have to think long-term.

I had a conversation with someone recently who thought marketing directors should have a minimum tenure – say, 5 years – so that they have to be around to see the consequences of their decisions. Their idea was that any obsession with short-term results would be balanced by efforts to build something substantial for the long-term.

Good luck getting that to happen, but as Binet and Field’s research for the IPA has shown [link] you ignore the long-term at your peril: long-term (3+ years) investment in advertising delivers double the profit of a short-term approach (less than 1 year) – although investing in both delivers even better returns.

Lesson 2: Take tech predictions with pinch of salt

Predictions are seductive; they are the stuff of headlines. ‘Sun expected to rise again’ isn’t as exciting as ‘Sun won’t bother tomorrow’, however unlikely it is. Remember the Millennium Bug?

At Thinkbox we try to avoid predictions other than those based on weighing up the evidence from the present and past. Where will TV be in 20 years’ time? Tricky, but we can tell you that humans will still enjoy watching high quality, long-form content on big screens while sitting on sofas with other people and that much of the content will be ad-funded. It will be delivered to them by whatever technologies are capable of doing it. ITV could be available to watch via Facebook (if Facebook is still popular). Who knows?

More than fundamentals of human behaviour, I won’t go further because media predictions have a habit of not coming true. Nothing ages faster than future predictions. Don’t forget we are now supposed to be curating all our viewing. TV – currently the most popular medium for all age groups, by far the biggest form of video, home of the most effective advertising and with ad investment levels breaking records for the last 5 years – is supposed to be over, trampled by other technologies. Remember the scene when Marty meets his family in 1955:

  • Lorraine Baines (Marty’s mum): It's our first television set. Dad just picked it up today. Do you have a television?
  • Marty: Well, yeah. You know we have... two of them.
  • Milton Baines: Wow! You must be rich.
  • Stella Baines: Oh, honey, he's teasing you. Nobody has two television sets.

These days we carry TV sets in our pockets. Who knew?


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