This past weekend, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen published “It’s time to build”, a short essay calling for fixing what he sees at the root of America’s poor preparation and handling of the coronavirus pandemic and creating an even greater country. It was powerfully put, but it omitted a critical point–that we’ll need advertising to help us get there.
Marc blames the country’s poor response on a failure of imagination and an unwillingness to build what is needed – from the lack of a plan to the lack of critical material goods, whether personal protective equipment, testing kits for medical providers, or sufficient ventilators, hospital beds and medicines for the infected. Instead, the country ignored and outsourced. He points to deeper and broader challenges that this terrible pandemic has brought to light, and questions whether most in the U.S. can realistically achieve the “American Dream” in a country that can’t provide high-quality healthcare, housing and education to its citizens.
Unsurprisingly, Andreessen calls for entrepreneurial intervention: “We need to want new companies to build these things… even if only to force the incumbents to build these things.” He says we have to break the escalating price curves for housing, education and healthcare: “Building is how we reboot the American dream. The things we build in huge quantities, like computers and TVs, drop rapidly in price. The things we don’t, like housing, schools, and hospitals, skyrocket in price.”
I totally agree with him that building is critical to rebooting much of what is needed in America. As he says, our forefathers and foremothers built this nation on production, on building, whether it was the telegraph, railroads, cars, microchips or personal computers. But those things weren’t built in a vacuum. The US manufacturing-driven economy had a very able partner throughout its heyday – advertising.
‘Build it and they will come’ doesn’t work in real life. We need many tens of millions of people to create the demand for new products and services when we create them in huge quantities, since most may not even know they need them. That is where advertising comes in. Andreessen almost gets to this issue when he says “The problem is desire. We need to *want* these things.” (Asterisks are Andreessen’s.)
The Sears and Roebuck catalog. A car in every garage. A PC on every desktop. Think different.
It was advertising that created the appetite for the “American Dream,” which American manufacturing then satisfied. As then President Calvin Coolidge told a meeting of advertising executives in October 1926, “Modern business … requires publicity. It is not enough that goods are made; a demand for them must also be made. It is on this foundation of enlarging production through the demands created by advertising that very much of the success of the American industrial system rests.”
Can advertising, a practice lacking the nobility of fields like engineering, science or medicine, truly have an essential role to play here? (Forget for the moment that it provides almost 100% of the revenue for giants like Google and Facebook.) It was viewed much the same the first time around. As Coolidge called out in that 1926 address, “It seems to me probable that of all our economic life the element on which we are inclined to place too low an estimate is advertising.”
Advertising is a key part of the flywheel of product innovation, which Andresseen so values. It helps make small things big, particularly when it comes to creating awareness and positive product perceptions among consumers. This awareness creates demand and helps companies scale from serving a few customers to serving millions. That, in turn, enables them to further scale manufacturing and distribution, which gives them even greater economic leverage to grow and improve their product. They can then serve more people and provide more benefits, frequently at lower and lower cost. That is the story of the automobile. It was the story of the television. It is the story of the personal computer.
Following Andreessen’s lead, we have two problems to solve. First, we need to overcome a failure of imagination. We need critical stakeholders to understand what’s possible. We need the public, policymakers, and even entrepreneurs to see, feel and experience future potentialities. It’s not unlike what AT&T did back in 1993, when it introduced America to the Internet with its futuristic “You Will” television ads.
Second, we need to create the demand for all of the new products and services that we will build. Want more Americans to take advantage of new, massively-scaled preventive-care health technologies? Advertising taught people about oral hygiene and brushing their teeth regularly with fluoride-fortified toothpastes. Andreessen calls for universities like Harvard to educate millions, not just tens of thousands of the wealthy elite. Many in America in the late 1800s and early 1900s had no choice for specialized education other than early forms of distance learning–correspondence courses that were delivered by the U.S. Postal Service and promoted in magazines, trade publications and on the backs of matchbook covers.
I am very hopeful that America will heed Andreessen’s call to build. But I am hopeful not just because we the nation and our culture has the capacity to build great things. I’m hopeful because our country’s history is rich with building and supporting great things, even when the challenges were insurmountable or our attempts started out way too small to imagine that they could ever become big. We have always found a way. As Mark Twain told us, “Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.”
Dave Morgan is founder and CEO of Simulmedia, and previously founded two other advertising technology companies, TACODA and Real Media.