A few days ago Aneta published — in her article Colaj 2018 (in Romanian, available on Facebook, Medium, Blog) — her thoughts on the year that has passed, a small year, even though it was, paradoxically, a full year. Full of such mixed things of uneven importance and value that although dense, it failed to register above a minimum threshold of consistency to be relevant.
I would argue that 2018 epitomizes a whole decade of busy irrelevance.
A decade that dropped right in its opening act a devastating economic crisis, that
- Brought to an end an Eastern European episode of tangible growth and optimism bordering autohypnosis;
- Decimated the large branding and rebranding projects generated by a whole generation of entrepreneurial business synchronously reaching — during 2003–2006 — the threshold above which a business needs investment founds, mergers or acquisitions in order to sustain growth momentum;
- Last but not least, imploded the acquisition talks (in order to fuel an Eastern European expansion) Brandient was engaged in at the time, with one of the large communications services conglomerates (goodbye yacht, lol).
We (my partners and I) started the decade full of hope with a pilgrimage to Berlin, where a new political rockstar, Barack Obama, gave Europe (us!) — on June 24 — his first speech. What a speech! Little did we know in just a few months, on September 15, Lehman Brothers will detonate like a dirty bomb, contaminating everything, everywhere.
In the following decade — 2008–2018 — a lot of things happened, albeit with a very low signal-to-noise ratio:
- The large rebranding programs (the ones taking over one year to develop) have all but disappeared;
- The notable design companies that folded or faded away outnumbered those that appeared;
- We lost colleagues to emigration. Brain drain — the second wave after the ‘90s one, driven by chaos, ex-communists holding power and violent repression of street protests — became a major threat to talent companies, like design studios and consulting firms (Brandient being both);
- We got sickened by how a bid for the tourism sector brand (where we teamed up with Wally Olins) was shamelessly forged and turned into a back-alley affair by President Băsescu’s blonde protégée;
- Then we lost our mentor, Wally Olins himself;
- And we were deprived of the model of favorable taxation — survivable taxation, I should say — which rightly supported the creators of IP (intellectual property) like designers, namers, copywriters and strategy consultants, and that further catalyzed talent brain drain.
On the other hand,
- We begun realizing what Brandient is capable of, so we started pursuing larger international projects;
- We did projects in North Africa (we got out of Tunis aboard one of the last planes that got permission to take off the day of the attack — September 14, 2012 — on the USA’s Embassy in Tunisia), Pakistan, Poland, Belarus, Malaysia (such incredible life and business lessons we learned in Kuala Lumpur — if Aneta and I will ever find the time to make a podcast, we would have some amazing stories to tell!), Singapore and the U.S.
- Aneta wrote Branding on the Eastern Front, a best seller of the business literature in Romania, then she rewrote it for the international market (Branding on the Eastern Front is available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk) — it was a proud moment when we noticed it on the shelves of Kinokuniya in Takashimaya, after the book launch in Singapore;
- We traveled a lot — too much, Aneta says. I estimate that we spent almost 1000 hours in flight, 200 hours per year in the last few years, 50 boarding passes in 2018 alone;
- We revitalized some neglected Romanian brands;
- We worked pro-bono for at least 5 political movements, but in the end it was just writing on sand;
- We made no compromises;
- We relentlessly refused to take part in free pitches or provide spec work, always militating against the devaluation of the work that design industry provides.
Enlarging the frame,
- We watched whole industries racing towards commoditization while still in denial;
- We watched the death of the phone as an object — its ghost is just an app now among others, and not even a popular one — Steve jobs killed it on stage, for everyone to see on June 29, 2007. Because we could not deal with the change, we named the emerging computers ‘phones’ and moved on, confused by satisfied;
- Then, as the small planet that we are, we lost Jobs, and — because we desperately need a champion — we picked Musk to carry both the flame and the burden;
- We were amazed how the death of the photo camera itself — it collapsed into the same gravity well as the phone did — was the supernova that gave birth to a massive photographic phenomenon — the selfie — and a new photography field — the computational photography;
- We watched Facebook — once a smart wunderkind — turning into the unscrupulous kingpin of the surveillance economy;
- We watched advertising shifting from information dissemination to information harvesting while becoming a satellite captive in a tight orbit around the Google–Facebook binary star;
- We watched AI transitioning out of SF books and Kubrick’s mind into everyday life — both as tech as well as a hotspot of ethics debate — yet we still refuse to properly acknowledge the incoming employment apocalypse that’s only 15 years out;
- We watched the brand manual’s shelf life cut from from 20 years to about 2 (kidding, it’s probably 5);
- We watched live, with bulging eyes and raging ambivalence, the patriotic indigens voting (with a little help from some friends) to set their country mega-brands on fire — it’s brand America and brand Britannia I’m talking about — brands that we, the Eastern Europeans, have put up on stratosphere-high pedestals. Debranding like crazy;
- As in industry we lost some glands we used to be proud of — some of the latest global ‘blanding’ projects look like they were performed using the same set of cooky cutters. My younger colleagues turned, for inspiration, to websites sporting logos from the times of Reagan and Gorbachev — back when the war was cold and the logos were hot.
Bottomline, still, I was lucky,
Lucky to be working with Aneta — after 16 years since we founded Brandient she’s still blowing my mind — and with Mihai, the resolute voice of reason.
Lucky to have colleagues that in this past decade have grown into better designers than myself, better than I’ve ever been — together we made some clients give us standing ovations, we labored together to see our work on the main street of every city (and we succeeded), we celebrated a ton of awards until we didn’t care about them anymore (well, except the big ones) and we’ve made — I don’t know who’s going to write it, though — some design history in Romania.
But hey, look, Keith is still grinning like a madman on stage and Mick is still running around for ninety minutes straight, just like 50 years ago.
The last one standing, wins.