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Too much stuff, not enough brainpower

3The single biggest long-term issue facing our clients in most industries is overcapacity. In fact, it is difficult to find many cases where the opposite is true. Tequila, perhaps, where it takes seven years to grow the herb, or high fashion companies like Rolex and Hermes where supply is limited. It is also true that commodity-based industries, such as oil and steel, no longer face overcapacity issues, being overwhelmed by Indian and Chinese demand. But most industries face situations similar to the car and truck industry, where companies can make 80 million units and consumers buy 60 million.

Overcapacity issues are particularly difficult to deal with in politically sensitive industries like automobiles. Governments are not enthusiastic about shutting down capacity and increasing unemployment. They also like to increase capacity by offering inducements to locate new production facilities in development regions. Thus the best thing for the European car industry would probably have been for GM to absorb Fiat's production capability. But Silvio Berlusconi (welcome back!), then Italy's Prime Minister, could not countenance more unemployment in the Mezzogiorno. The same issue faced the British government with Rover – particularly during an election, resulting in subsidising workers to stay in work during the campaign.

The critical issue in the 19th and 20th centuries was how to produce goods and services, and to make sure they reached the consumer. In the 21st century, it is convincing the consumer to choose between products, services or brands.

In such circumstances differentiation becomes critically important and differentiation is what our business is about. Historically, maintaining technical or product differences was easier. Today keeping a technological lead is difficult. Product life cycles are being shortened and brand cycles lengthened. Again, an example from the car industry. Less than a decade ago it took, perhaps, five years to design, produce and market a car. Today, it can be done in 18 months. Facing faster and more aggressive Japanese, South Korean and German manufacturers, the Americans have been obliged to play catch-up. In future, Chinese and Indian manufacturers will stimulate further response.

So intangible differentiation is becoming more important. Psychological, lifestyle and emotional differences are significant. The suit or dress you wear, the car you drive, the holidays you take, how you spend your leisure time – all say a lot about your personality and preferences. Some say such intangible appeal is immoral or at least unsavoury. Preying on people's vulnerabilities, it is argued, is unethical. Not so. We believe that fulfilling people's desires or dreams is almost always justifiable and satisfying for the consumer – and it is a key role for the advertising and marketing services industry.

While there is certainly too much production and capacity in general, what resource is in ever shorter supply in the 21st century? The answer is human capital. Every statistic points to a reduction. The slowing birth rate, declining marriage rates, higher divorce rates, the cost of divorce, more single-parent families, smaller families, ageing populations – all these factors are reducing the supply of talent. Even countries with strong, younger demographics, such as Mexico, will face similar situations by 2020. Some governments are trying to stimulate the birth rate. Even the Chinese government is said to be reviewing the one-baby policy and the Russian government is worried about its ageing 142 million population.

Western Europe and Japan face significant economic growth issues as a result of the declining proportion of young people and an overall population decline. During his election campaign, the recently elected and then rejected Prime Minister Abe of Japan wanted to stimulate the Japanese birth rate, as one way of strengthening the economic growth rate. That is one of the reasons why the rapid inclusion of Turkey into the EU is so important: another source of population growth, as well as immigrants to stimulate economic growth and access to the Muslim world.

All this points to the growing importance of attracting, recruiting, developing, training, motivating, incentivising and retaining human capital. In a less differentiated world, it will become more and more important for companies to stand out through the quality and responsiveness of their people. Making sure that your people buy into your strategy and structure will be increasingly important. Living the brand – operationally – will be critical.