The Zeitgeist: Is It All It's Cracked Up To Be? 

13 Jan, 2023

In his first column for MAD//Insight, Head of Advertising for Virgin Media O2, Johnny Winn, asks whether marketers really need to be down with the cool kids.

Now let me tell you something folks. My finger is on the pulse. I devour the news. I eat fatuous industry trends for breakfast. I can confidently pontificate about the metaverse. My Spotify Wrapped places me in the top percentile for genres such as “Royalcore” and “Chill Moody”.

The other day my twin 3 year old daughters, (Gen & Alpha), asked me, “Daddy, where were you when the Harlem Shake went down?” Preposterous question! I didn’t even deign to give them an answer. And that’s because, well, it’s obvious. I work in advertising. Like my peers, I am one with the zeitgeist. I have to be. We make the zeitgeist for crying out loud. We are the zeitgeist!

…Right?

There comes a time in every marketer’s career when they are inevitably confronted with a dreaded thought. Have I still got it? Am I on top of the latest media innovations? Will ChatGPT help me explain what my TikTok ROI is? What is on Mark Ritson’s mind this very second? What the f**k is Gen Z actually doing to my brand?

In my case, rather more pathetically, my inner voice softly whimpered, Am I still down with the cool kids?

I still remember the exact moment it happened. It seems like an age ago. My team was planning the promotion of a massive artist’s UK tour, kicking off at The O2. The project was under an NDA, but those working on it were pumped. It was a coup. O2 customers would shower us in brand affinity! I was determined to suss out who it was.

“You’ve probably never heard of them,” sneered my colleague.

If there’s an emoji for facial contortion, imagine that as my face. One cannot outzeitgeist the zeitgeistmeister.

“How many Instagram followers do they have?”

“31 million.”

“There is no universe in which I don’t know who this artist is.”

It was the Canadian sensation, Shawn Mendes. I had never heard of him. I was 30 years old.

Are you down with the cool kids? Does it matter?

It was like that scene in The Sixth Sense when *spoiler alert* Bruce Willis realises he’s dead. Like when Pepsi solved racism by giving Kendall Jenner a can of Pepsi to walk around with, and then belatedly realised, oh no, they hadn’t. I was mortified. Humiliated. Paranoid. What else don’t I know that’s super cool and relevant to 18-34s? To the great British public at large? My superhero power was mastering the zeitgeist and wielding it to O2’s advantage. Yet there I stood, dumbfounded, bereft of it.

Years flew by. O2 somehow thrived. The longer I clung on to my career in marketing, the more it dawned on me that my own, (frequent), ignorance wasn’t an isolated case. I mean who the hell actually knows everything that’s going on? Liars, that’s who! There’s no way any single person can keep pace. That’s what teams are for. That’s why agencies are hired. We can and need to share the burden of knowledge between us. Don’t suffer in isolation, just because you don’t know that literally everyone worth targeting is on BeReal!

A wise man named Socrates once said, “the wise man knows he isn’t”. This inconveniently makes it unclear as to whether he was wise or not but, in any case, I seek comfort in it. Turns out the more you don’t know, the smarter you are. Allegedly.

Anyway, if you’ve made it this far, ignore everything I’ve just written and check out my top 10 marketing tips to nail the zeitgeist!

Johnny will be writing a column for MAD//Insight throughout the year.

 

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