Defend Truth


The Me and We Generation


Mike Abel is a leading marketing and advertising practitioner. He is Founder & Chief Executive of M&Saatchi Abel and M&C Saatchi Group of companies operating in SA. He is former CEO of M&C Saatchi Group, Australia and before that, co-led the Ogilvy South Africa Group as COO and Group Managing Director, Cape Town. Mike has been awarded Advertising Leader by the Financial Mail and Finweek and his company was named Best Agency in SA in 2015. His company is home to The Street Store, the open-source, pop-up clothing store for the homeless which has become a global movement. He is a speaker and writer.

So many of the truths we tell ourselves each day are based on ill-informed perceptions based on historic behaviour. To succeed today, we need to base our decisions on what makes sense for us, not just based on past behaviour and past wisdoms.

The least popular article I’ve ever written was on promoting a “culture of sharing”. It focused on the point that given the stark differences between the “have-nots” and “have-lots”, by adopting true generosity of spirit and believing that one’s own talents needn’t be used exclusively for self-enrichment, but also to the benefit of many others. But people clearly don’t like to share; however, I would wager that a successful future, as defined in many different ways, will positively impact those who put non-ownership, non-exclusivity and sharing at the centre of their lives, orientation and business models.

It is oft commented upon that the largest taxi company in the world owns no taxis (Uber). The biggest hotel company in the world owns no hotels (Airbnb) and one of the biggest global retailers (Amazon) owns no stores – other than a few, new experimental and experiential ones – (which I’ll come back to later). And while some may think these business examples may not point to a fundamentally different future, business and social model, I strongly believe they do. And it’s a marvellous future if we choose to embrace it.

I was getting a lift to a business dinner last week when the Uber driver asked me if I had a car.”Yes’’, I replied,”but I don’t drink and drive.” He then asked me if I use my car during the day at work. “Very little,” I responded. “Other than taking my kids to school I don’t drive much.” So, he asked me why I own a car, and why don’t I rather call an Uber each morning. He said “think of how much money you would save on car payments, petrol, depreciation, servicing and insurance”. Needless to say, I was fascinated this young man was giving me such sage advice – and although I had considered the full cost of ownership from time to time (having spent 15 years of my life helping market cars) I had never really applied the maths to my own situation. The benefits of doing precisely this suggested the Uber trick would save me a lot of money each month. Extrapolated over a year – and then over the next 20 years – I wasn’t making a decision that equated to saving thousands of rands a month, but well over a million rand over the next critical period of my work life towards retirement.

The next thought which occurred to me is why do most people in office-based jobs have cars sitting all day in high-rise garages not being used? Why are these depreciating assets, should you feel the emotional need to own them, not working for you when you are not using them? Why don’t you arrive at work in the morning, hand your car over to a driver, and have you both working your asset, before you need to head home?

But then I thought, well, in 10 years’ time, self-driving cars will pretty much be the order of the day, so what does that look like. Very different. If you choose to own a car, it will drop you at work and instead of parking it in your office building, at say R1,700 per month, it can simply head back home – or it can be open-source to accept secondary taxi bookings throughout the day, go past a car wash an hour before you require it again, and then head back to the primary user (you). The impact of this little idea has many positive implications. Not only are you now sweating a depreciating asset, you’re saving monthly parking costs, providing transport for others, using tyres more (growing an industry), using car washes more (can be waterless), short-term insurance can be saved as there can be a nominal top-up charged for cover to each new passenger and here’s a biggie, parking garages won’t be as necessary any more. So, parking garages can be used for inner-city accommodation and growing urbanisation. It can help become an instant low-cost solution to affordable housing problems.

For a few years now, I’ve been wanting to put disenfranchised parties together: the elderly who may be lonely, no longer have jobs (but have energy, skill, wisdom, and often good values) and our many, many orphans who have youth, eagerness, need love, attention and to gain schools. I’ve wanted to combine orphanages and old-age homes into one solution that combines schooling and subsistence farming, very much like the Israeli Kibbutz system, whereby playing to each parties’ needs, strengths and weaknesses, you develop an ecosystem that works. Instead of Corporates donating funds to various charities they have little involvement in, they can play an active role in these ecosystems whereby even employees reaching retirement need not see it as a terrifying prospect of irrelevance and poverty but as a meaningful new chapter in their lives.

Advertising (mea culpa) can often position retirement as “the golden years” but as we know, very few can actually afford to retire well. And if you can, then with meaning.

Viktor Frankl, renowned psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, writes in his definitive book, Man’s Search For Meaning, that we need three essential things to be happy: someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to. Retirement often leaves us with only one or even less of these needs.

Here’s an interesting story – the point of which I’ll get to: My late grandfather, Dr Phillip Perl, told me many wonderful stories and shared many wisdoms. At the age of 16 he travelled with his Lithuanian immigrant father Sholom (a cattle trader) on their ox wagon from Uitenhage to Port Elizabeth, boarded a ship, alone, which took him to London to study at the Royal College of Dentistry. He would not see his family for another six years. There was no e-mail, there were no cellphones and no flights. You had to be a very brave young man to undertake such an adventure. But my great-grandfather knew his son was bright and wanted to provide this wonderful opportunity to him.

On returning to Port Elizabeth, he opened his dental practice and within a few months the drill-bit (a pedal-drill no less) flew off the machine and blinded him in one eye. With impaired depth perception, he considered what his career prospects held and concluded that if he concentrated on what he had, versus that which he didn’t, he could still have a long and distinguished dental career. He would just need to ask his nurse, or in more complicated cases, his dental partners, to help him compensate visually, if there was a particular issue regarding depth – especially for root canal and deep drilling. He also had decided to do more for society, so throughout apartheid he donated every Thursday to working for free at the Livingstone Hospital (an exclusively black hospital) as their honorary head of maxillofacial surgery for over 30 years. So, after a lifetime of working, he retired, on a Friday, at the age of 60 with my grandmother, Lily, to the Wilderness, the seaside hamlet along the Garden Route.

On the Saturday morning, he and my gran took a long walk along the beach and asked themselves if this was indeed what the rest of their lives looked like. On Monday morning, my grandfather was back in his surgery and practised another 21 years until the age of 81 when he finally called it a day. He then actively played the stock market for another 12 years, before passing on.

So, what is the point of the story? So many of the truths we tell ourselves each day are based on ill-informed perceptions based on historic behaviour. To succeed today, we need to base our decisions on what makes sense for us, not just based on past behaviour and past wisdoms. We don’t need to always own our cars, we don’t need to retire at 65, we won’t find fulfilment in assets and just owning things, but in meaningful connections and soul-stretching experiences. We can put two or three broken parts of society together so as to fix them all. We need to be far more flexible and creative about how we view the world.

I look at the way my sons (aged nine, 14 and 16) curate their media, connect with friends, confront a borderless world, consider their futures and in part, I’m filled with great hope – but also, fear. For society and even businesses to keep up with this generation, they’ll need to rethink so much of what worked before in business and everyday life, because they are short on rules and long on possibility. And they know how to share. Content, experiences, collaborate, cohabitate, co-create – it’s wide open if our generation starts to embrace a culture of sharing versus ownership and the mistaken pursuit of wealth creation as the destination in and of itself. DM


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