The thin line between ‘experienced’ and ‘jaded’

Or, how I have to start getting on board with mobile web development

Back in 2000, I was one of the dotcom-bubble people we joke about now:  After a few years of working in ad agencies, I’d been recruited to a big internet consulting firm to do ‘branding’.  I had the Aeron chair, the Hermann Miller cubicle (well, at least part of the time – the offices moved so often that sometimes I was working on a foldout banquet table in what amounted to a closet), and an enormous salary that was more than twice what I’d been making at my previous job.  

rolling my eyes about mobile advertising

Like so many dotcoms, we had hardly any clients.  But that was okay, since I knew hardly anything about the internet, and I spent my days learning the difference between ASPs and ISPs and hoping that one day I’d understand why a relational database was fundamentally better than a hierarchical one.  I got a cellphone, a Palm Pilot and an Apple G3 Powerbook (this was pre-iPod, so Macs were still niche, expensive, and more effective than black turtlenecks at announcing you were a ‘creative’).  

I also spent a lot of time listening to self-styled experts talk about The Future of the Internet.  Sometimes these experts were right on the money (I remember where I was when I first heard someone say that it wouldn’t be long before everyone had their music, PDA and cellphone in one single device); other times, they were flat-out delusional (“Within the next 2 years, all software will be thin-client, and no offices will use paper any more”).  I was so far ahead of the technology curve I was practically living in San Francisco.

If there was one thing I heard about more than any other, it was ‘mobile advertising’.  I can’t begin to tell you how many times I had to sit in a boardroom while some amped-up sales guy (and it was always a guy) presented yet another PowerPoint deck outlining how by 2002, you wouldn’t be able to walk by, say, a Subway store without receiving a coupon for said store, delivered right to your cellphone!  Automatically!

Given that at the time, typing a 5-word message on your (keyboard-free) cell took longer than actually calling the recipient (I knew precisely one person with a Blackberry, and he was a geeky coder type who didn’t have anyone to send messages to anyway), I thought this sounded a little far-fetched. But I was young and stupid(er), and since everyone else in the room was nodding sagely, I dutifully got on the bandwagon. “Mobile everything!”, I chorused.

And then 2001 arrived.  The dotcoms imploded, the amped-up sales guys went back to selling technology that actually worked, and we all agreed that maybe we’d all gotten a little ahead of ourselves. The mobile dreamtime was over, and it was okay to admit that some of this stuff was ridiculous (who the hell wants a mobile Subway coupon, really?).

Which is why I almost made a fool of myself in a meeting with a client last week.

I’m helping to develop their new website, and we were talking about technical specs.  “We definitely want it to work on all mobile devices,” the client said.  “It’s definitely got to work seamlessly on iPhones, Androids, iPads, Blackberrys – make sure you test it across every platform.”

“Well…” I said, “I don’t think – “.  And then I stopped.  Because I’d been about to say that it didn’t matter whether it worked on mobile devices.

Now, I’m not a Luddite.  I know that these days, almost everyone has a smartphone, and almost everyone under 50 has a tablet computer in the household.  I know that mobile browsing is ubiquitous, and I know that mobile advertising has finally started to deliver on the promises it made in 2000.  But in the post-dotbomb years, I’d become so used to putting the brakes on mobile-related stuff for B2B clients that I almost forgot, for a moment, that the marketplace really has changed in the past 12+ years.  Of course my client’s site needs to work on mobile devices – to advise them otherwise is practically a breach of fiduciary duty.

And therein lies a classic challenge for all marketers:  You need enough experience to enable you to accurately and critically assess the new ideas and technology that are being touted as The Next Big Thing, but when you get too jaded and cynical, you run the risk of looking like an out of touch dinosaur who proves the “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” adage – and that spells career suicide for marketing types, who are expected to live on the cutting edge all the time.

Luckily, I didn’t complete my sentence when I was speaking to the client.  And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read TechCrunch, in an effort to remind myself to be both jaded and credulous at the same time.