What Don Draper Knew (or How History Always Repeats Itself)

08/25/2010 10:59 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Magic Markers, Letraset, razor-sharp scalpels, studios thick with the fug of petrol, tobacco and various dangerous chemicals ... In some respects, to anyone who was around at the time, the 1980s don't actually seem like that long ago.

We remember The A-Team, black forest gateau, TV-AM and red braces. We remember Boy George, the miners' strike and the Falklands War.

But the day to day working reality of a 1980s design studio, as set out above, feels like an age ago: even to those who were there.

As part of our Class Act series of masterclasses, the Likemind folks were on Friday reminded of their heritage. Centered around a theme of the inevitability of change, and the choices that we all make in terms of how we deal with that inevitability, Likemind legend Stu Turnbull talked through the changes he had seen during his time in the business.

Effortlessly elegant and generous in his delivery, Stu poked fun at himself and his erstwhile colleagues, describing the laughter that greeted the grandiose claims of a kooky, little-known Californian called Steve Jobs.

The little beige box and its tiny screen that sat untouched in the corner would someday take care of pretty much everything that Stu and his colleagues spent their time doing ....

"But of course," thought some of the fresher Likemind faces around the table, "Surely that was all so obvious?"

Not as obvious as the rich irony that was being played out as Stuie spoke.

Because the iPhone/iPad/HTML5/web 3.0 generation is in danger of exhibiting the very same, very dangerous, very sanctimonious smugness that did for the Magic Markers and the people who used them.

It's true: right now, we are kings, we are the digerati, we rule. This is our time. But, to quote the great Gary Barlow, "someday this will be someone else's dream."

And, before too long -- and only if we're exceptionally lucky -- we'll be the ones taking a bunch of giggling kidults through why we thought the iPhone changed everything. Again.

Because the future doesn't care about iPhones and iPads, just like it didn't care about Letraset and manual typesetting.

Generation 2010's ability to describe the studio of 2040? It's like Tomorrow's World all over again. And likely to be about as (in)accurate.

Why? Because when human beings think about the future, they tend to focus on what will be different. Almost invariably, therefore, the conversation naturally centers around what is, perhaps counter-intuitively, the lowest common denominator: tools and technology. Hence the predictions of personal jet packs, the 'pills instead of meals,' the three hour journey from London to Sydney -- the dominance of Esperanto, even.

Futurology in this respect is no more reliable than economics: a black art, and a truly ephemeral one at that. Working out what might be different in the future doesn't have a great track record.

So as corporate communicators look ahead from 2010, instead of trying to explain how our world might look different, perhaps we should think about how it might look the same?

Because it seems to me, to paraphrase a more eloquent Jefferson, there are is a certain self-evident truth at stake here. And that truth is unchanging, holding as good in 2010 as it did in 1980, as it did in 1950, and as it will in 2040.

Like all truths, it is simple. People will always want to communicate, to be understood. If we accept that corporations have 'personality', then they are no different, and they want to communicate, to be understood too.

So to get wound up about whether a Magic Marker can or should be replaced by Apple's latest 'Paint' app is to miss the point. Because neither has ever been, nor ever will be, the star of the show.

That slot always has been, and always will be, reserved for something much more important.

Agencies obsess about channel. But Stu's presentation sets out the folly and futility of such an approach. Channels move on, develop, change, grow, become obsolete. As an agency, competence in different channels is, of course, required but that is not what clients are buying. Not the clients worth having anyway.

Because whether it's 1950, 1980, 2010 or 2040, clients care about their message, about being understood. The channel is just the vehicle. So the iPads, the HTML5, the Magic Markers, the Letraset, the Apps and the rest, are just part of that vehicle. And, whatever they say, clients really only care about the vehicle to the extent that it gets them to the right destination. Very seldom do they want to look under the hood.

Don Draper and his pals on Madison knew that.

And so does Stu Turnbull.