Updated: Nov 3
If I’d tell you that 2020 has been hugely beneficial to me, even though my nascent business venture has ground to a screeching halt, would you ask me to get my head examined?
I launched MG Labs in early 2019 as an antidote to the traditional advertising agency model, focusing on what we felt was the most misunderstood and underutilized element of marketing: the power of story, and ways how to interact with a consumer in very different ways than before—all backed by a network of amazing creatives, data and progressive technology.
2019 was spent mostly test-driving the idea itself, and with the support of an angel investor (one of the pre-eminent storytellers in this world), the first few projects started coming in, with a couple of Fortune 500 companies leading the charge. We headed into 2020 excited at what was to come. Cut to early March, and within ten days, cancellation calls outnumbered project calls. Tried to keep the plates spinning, but by April, more broken plates littered the floor than at a Greek wedding. For all intents and purposes, it was “over.”
Launching a business is hard enough, and doing it in this time may have appeared suicidal. We didn’t care, because there is never a good time to “do something,” and when you believe, you are the only who can make it happen. But I am not hiding the fact that the fact that there were more stops than starts also started to impact me as a person. Often at times you don’t even expect it, and the negative self-talk set in. It got toxic.
After feeding at the collective trough of sorrow for a little while, I went for some unflinching self-reflection: what if this wasn’t happening because of the Covid crisis, but what if there was something else? Something that had been nagging at me personally for months when I didn’t see initial engagement translate into work: was “MG Labs” the reason why things didn’t move forward? Was there something wrong with the idea of the venture itself? Were we trying to solve a problem that didn’t exist? Was there real demand beyond the initial research that confirmed the validity of the business idea?
I swallowed my pride and asked a few people which produced a few honest, sometimes surprising and painful conversations. To those who had these conversations with me, thank you. We uncovered some of the underlying issues that prevented some from moving forward with MG Labs, and we are now working on pivoting the business to better fit the market, while emphasizing our strengths and unique value proposition. More on that soon.
As I went through this process, I also felt that my micro-cosmos was mirroring the matters at large. What if Corona just emphasized and uncovered issues that had lay dormant (sometimes for years), and forced us to stop looking away? Stuff that was important but not flashy—in society, culture, economy or business? This is the first time we truly don't have an answer to something that turns out to be an immediate, life-threatening issue. We are still in the dark, and we all have been so conditioned for immediate responses in our daily lives, the immediate availability and access to everything that the absence of that leaves us all confused, and the energy-zapping feeling of being powerless.
Corona mercilessly uncovered weaknesses in health care systems around the world, ranging from senior health care to the preparedness of the system in general, to the availability of beds in hospitals. It was a ruthless and jarring caesura--quick, hard to pin down and deadly. Those economies who heretofore were looked down on as being "too prepared for things that may never arrive" (Germany for example) suddenly found themselves offering hospital beds for those of their neighbors whose systems were totally overwhelmed.
Corona also exposed the "instant gratification" fallacy, one of the symptoms of societies turning towards being economies: everything to be available, now, and faster. The absence of an absolute nowadays breeds immediate doubt, concern, and leaves room for the wildest ideas, along with the loss of ability to truly analyze and look for solutions, free of dogma and polarization. Structures that have only one goal—to make the world a better place—are relentlessly suspected of having “another agenda,” and their support has eroded to dangerous levels when they need it the most.
The media, in their fight against discreditation and irrelevancy, is often reduced to click-wagering in the race for attention, throwing smoke bombs to see what sticks. Traditional media eats itself at an alarming rate, with a few highly-polarized megaphones the only ones left standing. The breathlessness of the media output and our appetite for destruction through consumption leaves little room for critical thought, as we are now conditioned to pay attention to stuff solely based on our fight or flight impulses. Is this new? Hardly. Has it become the defining quality of how we consume, evaluate and communicate? A lot of it. Ask yourself the very simple question:
When is the last time you listened to someone, instead of waiting for the other person to stop speaking? When is the last time we didn’t blame something or someone for a problem? “Yes, but…” is all too common.
Take the movie industry for example. For years, a bad year at the box office was explained away with the quality of the movies on offer. The studios never acknowledged openly the fact that audiences may find other sources of entertainment more interesting, and that there was an inherent need to not only improve the “soft offering” (the movie) but also examine the “hard offering” (theatre experience and customer interaction). Improvements were made, sure, but it seemed like an arms’ race for an ever-diminishing customer segment. This holds true in the USA, but even more so in other countries where movie-going is not as engrained in the culture as stateside. Did anyone ever really examine offerings of the movie industry like it was a consumer good? Because if that would have happened, the reviews would have been less than stellar.
I love movies, and they brought me where I am today. I am fiercely protective of the experience itself--the moment when the lights go dark and you don’t know what kind of a journey awaits you for the next two hours is pure magic. But I am hardly representative for the casual moviegoer. The consumer experience around the product is emblematic for an industry reluctant to change:
The decision-making process and pre-purchase experience is scattershot at best, and even the area outside the movie theater itself is often still a very transitionary space focused on the transaction of concessions--a major opportunity missed. Patrons are ushered into the movie theater, and post-movie, are often shown the proverbial backdoor, back into the harsh reality of life. There isn’t a follow-up effort to speak of, nothing that keeps the customer engaged beyond the initial hit. How many times has Apple called me to follow up on an interaction I had with them? Never gotten any kind of interaction from a studio, or an exhibitor that would make me not only feel good about the experience I just had, but also make me excited about what’s coming next. Make me a part of the process, and I am all in. But failing that, it’s back to spending anywhere between 15 and 30 dollars per person for the pleasure of watching something you may not like.
When and where will we see movie theatres that cater to all matters of entertainment, not just movies? When will we see these places become hangouts for people where they can safely interact and consume and produce content, any kind of content? Making movie theaters into places of encounters will bring them back into the fabric of a culture. Corona only accelerated what has already been happening, but was largely ignored: the threat not only from the streamers but other screens, the ability to have instant entertainment, anywhere, anytime at low or no cost. All the while the industry kept begging people to “come back” to the movies. People will come back, for sure. I will be the first in line when cinemas open again. The bigger question is: how do you bring “back” any of those who were only marginally interested in the movie theater experience because they feel that other screens offer a more rewarding entertainment experience? In a time when music concerts are using digital platforms to retain and build out their audience with true fan engagement, where video games have massively surpassed movies for entertainment and economic measures, where is the film industry’s much vaunted creativity? There are so many ways to breathe life back into what is a cultural necessity, but I haven’t seen any of this happen. Yet--and I am not blaming anyone for not seeing further than the closest parachute, as most find themselves fighting for immediate survival, which makes taking stock and planning for longer term all the more difficult. It would be interesting to analyze how individuals and societies that have been in a "survival" mode, and have managed to take the larger view to succeed beyond survival, were able to overcome. One thing is for sure:
This is the first, truly global stress test of our lifetime--a global pandemic. This is where humanity prevails, or fails. And we all must start with ourselves to help move the world forward. And we all decide, every day, every hour how to deal with what is being put in front of us. It's a choice. Everything else is an excuse. And especially on a momentous day like this, everyone's single action is important, as every vote counts. May the country find its footing again, and for us to believe in and support each other, and build a future together. Tomorrow, no matter what, will be a new day, filled with opportunities to change course.
I have to remind myself of this every day, even though my past year has been pretty much the shittiest of all shitty years in terms of work and personal economics.
On a personal level, I have spent a little time thinking about what keeps me going. Two things: 1) knowing that my calling has not yet been fulfilled, and no matter how much drudge I must wade through, I will do it and 2) everyone that reads this note. All of you have somehow contributed to who I am today, what I stand for and where I want to go. I still wake up every morning excited what the day may bring, even when we all must deal with incredible hardships due to the pandemic. I still want to make the world a better place, and if I can do that in one way or another, I am happy to.
Life is good,
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