FUTURE BEST DOLED OUT IN THE CORRECT DOSES

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Have you ever noticed that when people try to get us interested in the future they start by assuring us that it won't be all that much different from the past?

Change is never an easy process. We get very comfortable doing things the way we've always done them-whether or not they work anymore.

You run the risk of freaking people out if you describe the future as holding radical change. What's more, they'll dig in their heels to preserve what they've got.

William T. Esrey, chairman-CEO of Sprint, told ad agencies what they didn't want to hear the other week when he said they "must stop considering their mission as one of writing great ads."

But ad agencies like to create great advertising. They feel comfortable doing it and they don't much want to do anything else. I'm afraid Mr. Esrey lost his Four A's audience when he opined that agencies "must look at their business broadly as one that uses various powers of persuasion-and various channels of media-to affect the behavior of customers."

That sounds scary, but it's not really such a monumental change. Ad agencies, since the beginning of time, have tried to affect the behavior of customers using various media.

All that's really different in the world of new media is that the ads may take a different form. But it's still the same process, and Mr. Esrey would have been wiser to reassure the agencies that their task always will be to come up with powerful ideas.

We publishers need assurances our traditional ink-on-paper business always will be around. But how to get us to start hedging our bets?

We all need to place our bets on the future, whether we think it will be radically different or much the same. As another Four A's speaker, Joel Garreau of the Edge Group, put it: "It's much better to be never wrong than to be exactly right occasionally."

Burt Manning, chairman-CEO of J. Walter Thompson Co., knows how to present the future in just the right doses. He told business press publishers last week that the value of our publications "will not be compromised seriously" by the new interactive media. He added that all of us-publishers, advertisers and agencies-"will have a terrific opportunity to make a business of the new media."

Now he had our attention. We can stay forever in our old business and build a new business without too much additional effort. Sign me up!

Burt told his American Business Press audience most people use online computer services for communicating rather than retrieving information.

"That's all that interactivity is. They may be using computers ....modems and phone lines. But what they are doing, much of the time, is [what] some gabbing people have always done over the back fence or at the neighborhood bar."

Describing the future in terms of what we feel comfortable with today makes the unknown seem nice and cozy, and that's not a bad way to back into the 21st century.

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