Uber and Adland’s shallow understanding of innovation and disruption

Innovation is not an end in itself and neither is disruption. Innovation tends to be inevitable and it often leads to something good or better than what was there before, but how do we define ‘good’? Does it have to be good for everyone? It can be good for some and bad for others. Disruption, a word we have come to understand as a positive in recent years, is often bad our unsettling for a much wider group of people. As we gradually slide into a reality where the ‘gig-economy’ is the norm for large sections of society, from the recent immigrant trying to navigate the treacherous roads of Knightsbridge on his bicycle with your Dishoom order in his thermo-bag, to the Graphic Designer following the next Upwork request to a busy agency during pitch-week, it’s important to understand that innovation and disruption are phenomena which come with a set of winners and a set of losers.

The recent Uber fiasco, whereby Transport for London announced that the companies operating license with not be renewed due to evidence that key health and safety regulations have not been properly complied with, is currently top-of-mind for anyone who lives and works in London. 730,000 Londoners have signed a petition to express their collective concern for the livelihoods of Uber’s 40,000 operating drivers in London and protest this bureaucratic affront to ‘consumer choice’ and ‘convenience.’ In a particularly striking ‘hit ’em where it hurts’ effort seemingly designed to provoke London Mayor Sadiq Khan, it also states that the ban demonstrates that ‘London is far from being open.’

Of course there are various reasons to take issue with the ban. Firstly, alongside Uber’s repeated failure to comply fully with regulations and keep its users safe, the company has also demonstrated an unsavoury approach to worker’s rights and fair compensation for drivers, built a corporate culture in which women are marginalised and had a tendency to wriggle out of its UK tax obligations. There is a strong case for saying that had TFL intervened earlier and more forcefully against Uber’s unsavoury practices, then we may have not got to this point where there are tens of thousands of individuals, many from the poorest strata of society, are in danger of losing their livelihoods and finding themselves up against the prospect of thousands of pounds of vehicle debt. Secondly, we should be careful not to put Black Taxi drives or a pedestal. Yes, the wanky Thatcherite moans against ‘cabbie cartels’ and ‘pleasing the unions’ are tiresome and often infuriating, but it’s absolutely necessary to note that the industry has historically had a disturbing relationship with women and ethnic minorities as both customers and colleagues and that this particular model is often lacking a relevant proposition for customer needs such as convenience and value. Thirdly, we should also note that many local mini-cab firms have a similarly sketchy record on worker’s rights and women’s safety.

Despite all of the above, Uber has hidden behind the infantile logic of the Silicon Valley capitalist culture and its glossary of empty terms.  In a collective act of projecting our insecurities about our place in an ever-changing world, where very few of us have solid guarantees that there isn’t a ‘disruptive’ technology ready to nudge us over the edge into redundancy, we have decided that Uber is king. It is making billions by making our lives easier. We are free from the shackles of greedy black cabbies and sleazy minicabs- to hell with worker’s rights, safety and other people’s shrinking livelihoods- it’s evolve or die baby! Anyone raising questions about any of this is a Luddite who hates innovation and the inevitable forward motion of time’s arrow.  Despite the rosy perception of Uber that lives in the minds of its staunchest advocates, we know that the company is in fact artificially keeping its prices down with investor subsidies, with the objective of monopolising via price disruption. The company is proven to have $2 billion in operating loses, more than any startup in history. In the increasingly unlikely-looking event that the company continues to operate within the next 5-10 years, we can all look forward to prices climbing back up to the market standard. With all of this in mind it is difficult to make the case for Uber being either a genuinely inspiring commercial innovation or a force for consumer and social good.

So what does this all have to do with the advertising industry?

It’s highly unlikely that you’d be unable to find a pitch deck or strategy presentation in most agencies without  an ‘Uber slide.’ The slide is likely only to have an Uber and an Airbnb logo, sitting smugly side by side against a bare white background, ready for a charismatic planner or creative director to start waxing lyrical about ‘disruption,’ to the delight of optimistic clients who believe that their new dishwasher-tablet is ready to change the game and revolutionise the way we think about clean dishes. We’re all been in meetings when agency teams are genuinely stumped by an obvious flaw or awkwardly ill-fitting attribute of a client’s product or service. ‘We could be disruptive with gravy-flavoured ice cream’ bounds out across the table. Heads nod and it seems like we should be in with a chance of getting this project off the ground, at least until it faces the dumbfounded glare of a focus-group in Nuneaton. Some digital agencies  are also guilty of obfuscating and abstracting in order to sell an idealised, supposedly consumer-centric vision of marketing which often serves to mask ineffective, and dishonest practices. TV and print, they say, are outmoded and not fit for purpose when compared to the innovative solutions offered by programmatic, social listening and various other hyper-targeting and engagement tools. This is why it is no surprise that, in this morning’s Campaign industry-vox-pop on the issue, it is the digital agencies that insist that the TFL ban ‘send’s the wrong message about London’ and that  ‘innovative businesses and tech start-ups might think twice about coming to London.’ Whilst thesis may be valid concerns, the lack of thoughts given to the adverse effects of companies like Uber, seems to betray a slavish adherence to the self-congratulatory mythos of the tech-set. Of course Adland mostly goes along with all of this. We’re all terrified of losing our purpose and place, and mostly importantly our talent, to today’s tech giants, so like a dad listening to his son’s Young Thug album on the drive to work, or a mum lingering for too long during pre drinks at your mate’s house, we try to rub up against our tech counterparts, aping their language, comparing everything we do to them, boasting of our start-up mentalities.

It’s fine to be excited about innovative technology and things that genuinely drive meaningful change in our day-to-day lives but if we bat away the real concerns of other people and fail to consider that not every stride forward is cheerfully welcomed by everyone, we will find ourselves looking increasingly foolish, unoriginal and pointless.