Escaping the Meh-diocracy trap

The tech and movie innovation of the 2010s seems to have lapsed into a dull morass of “me too” products. A downturn is the perfect time to re-ignite creativity.

In a gift to headline writers everywhere, Marvel’s latest film, The Marvels, has proved to be less than marvellous at the box office. It’s by all accounts a good film — not great, but solid entertainment — and those who have seen it have enjoyed it very much. But not enough people have, nor are they inclined to do so. Indeed, why bother, when you can wait a few months and catch it on Disney+?

A decade ago, Marvel movies were remaking cinema. A decade on, they’re boring. They’re a formula, done to death, and we don’t feel a rush of excitement to see a new one. We can wait. Well, at least some of us can. My daughters are champing at the bit to see it, but their only real MCU experience to date is the Ms. Marvel TV show that leads into the new movie. They’re not yet gripped by franchise fatigue the way that so many of us adults are.

And yes, this is about franchises and formulas, not about Marvel. Too many articles have already been written about the demise of Marvel Films as a powerhouse. They still make big movies, it’s just that cinema has grown small around them. As every studio tried to find its franchise, and create sequels or linked narrative movies, more experimental, more risky ventures fell by the wayside. And a balance of the innovative and the familiar is was makes an experience compelling. We really felt the lack of innovation.

The Barbieheimer effect

That is, until Barbieheimer. In a beautiful moment of synchronicity, two movies with opposing colour palettes but equally ambitious artistic intent hit the screens: Oppenheimer and Barbie. A dark movie about the creation of the atomic bomb, and a primary colours exploration of misogyny, patriarchy and great, great outfits make a strange pair. And yet, they strode side by side into the multiplex, re-igniting excitement for people about the idea of going to the movies. Hell, even for dressing up and going to the movies.

They were both big-budget creative risks in a sea of franchises — and they paid off. They will, almost inevitably, create their own wave of Meh-diocracy, as studios attempt to clone the formula and wonder why they didn’t have the same impact. The idea that Mattel has at least 14 other toy movies planned after the success of Barbie does not fill me with the enthusiasm that their accountants clearly feel.

But it’s difficult to blame them, isn’t it? The economy is shaky, we’re stuck in a polycrisis (or permacrisis), and making what seems like a safe bet is not something anyone gets fired for. But fear of judgement or failure rarely births great art — or even transformative business products.

The terrible burden of best practice

We are burdened by the terrible pressure of “best practice”. Best practice is, simply, cowardice. “I’m not doing anything until somebody else has proved it works,” is the mantra of the best practice obsessive, “because I would rather not be the one fired for the failed experiment”.

“What’s best practice for building a brand on Threads?” a nervous marketer will ask. And the answer will scare him even more: “There isn’t any.” It’s a brand-new social space, with new dynamics and new rules. There won’t be any best practices until the community has established itself, and then you’re too late. You’ll be late to the party, with a ”meh” outfit, and tired conversation.

The antidote: creative lunacy

The Accenture Song Life Trends report sums up the antidote to Meh-diocracy perfectly:

“A budget for lunacy is critical”

(Accenture Song is the parent company of the occasional lunacy that is NEXT.)

Or, to put more skin on those conceptual bones:

Creativity means hands-on time for creatives—time to ideate, experiment, develop and test. Creativity is expensive, and the investment usually pays off in richness of quality in the result. A brand is, in essence, a bundle of promises that creative work can help deliver—alongside a strong voice in the market.

Yup, it’s our old friend “speculate to accumulate”, back with more trendy glasses and an experimental fashion sense.

Meh-diocracy maintained

This is the flip side of the “Where’s the Love?” coin. Not only do we start skimping on customer service in an economic downturn, we also fall back on the old, reliable brands and services. When the economy feels risky, it’s time to play it safe with product, right?

Well, no.

It’s easy to forget that the smartphone accelerated during the financial crash of the late 2000s. And the path to social media was laid by the early bloggers, often laid-off technologists, during the crash of the late 1990s. Downturns are the perfect time to nurture a new wave of innovation, that might well help lift us from our current doldrums.

Anchored by analytics

And if ”best practice” is a burden, then poor use of analytics can be a trapped anchor that stops us from sailing the sea of creativity. There are equal and opposite dangers with analytics: you can ignore them, or you can pay too much attention to them. Follow the former path, and you never learn from your mistakes — or your successes. Follow the latter, and you never surprise and delight anyone.

And it’s surprise and delight that we’re missing.

The tech world’s ability to excite us has vanished under a wave of cynicism and bad experiences. It’s challenging to get excited about crypto when it’s all sold as a get-rich scheme, or about the metaverse when it’s sold by the charisma-lite Mark Zuckerberg as a better way of having meetings. No wonder some wag re-christened it the “meh-taverse”.

But then, these are businesses that have become beholden to optimising around MAUs — monthly active users — who have chosen to craft algorithms to keep people engaged, not to give people better experiences.

Silicon Valley companies that have user-facing platforms want, most of all, to keep people at their screens. Early on, they discovered that a good formula was to make users angry and then keep them with their own kind. When they were siloed, people could be stirred up into being even angrier at those with whom they disagreed. Predictably, this formula undermined the conversational attitudes that nurture democracy — above all, attitudes of tolerant listening.

From making a dent in the universe to making a dent in the body politic is not the sign of an industry riven with creative inspiration.

Escaping Meh-diocracy

No wonder people are unenthused by new products from these companies. Their own sense of themselves as innovators isn’t matched by the experience of their customers. No wonder, too, that there’s less enthusiasm than they might want for the post-Twitter competitors like Threads, Bluesky and Mastodon. They’re not offering anything fundamentally new, merely a different take on the same product that many had already christened a hellsite.

In the end, what inspires people is something new. A new style of moviemaking, a new way of connecting online — and even new interfaces. New products and services that meet — or create — real customer needs are needed more than ever in difficult times. When the news is beak, your monthly pay-check covers less and less every month, and the economy is stumbling, something exciting, creative and, fundamentally, creatively unsafe is the path to surging ahead of your competitors.

Be less Meh-diocracy. Be more Barbieheimer. You look good in pink. Or black.

This article is one of five linked pieces exploring the ideas in the 2024 Life Trends report: