Anyone following Engine’s twitter feed last Wednesday might have picked up a couple of enlightening quotes taken from Alain De Botton’s talk What Content Marketers can Learn from Philosophy, one of the most eagerly anticipated talks at the festival.

He  describes himself as a ‘philosopher of everyday life’. Along with writing and working as a business advisor, de Botton runs The School of Life, a place dedicated to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. The school addresses such issues as how to master the art of relationships or how to achieve calm. A number of people who seek therapy at The School of Life are there to find fulfillment in their work. A recent audit of ‘pupils or attendees’  having therapy on this issue found that the most common industry to be working in was – you may have guessed – marketing and advertising! So, de Botton wanted to offer his time to explain why he thought marketing was so revered and why he doesn’t think this will be the case in the future.

Despite WCRS striving to create great work that people DO genuinely care about, the reality is that most people don’t like being advertised to. They find it distracting, interfering and annoying. Advertising works by selling things that people don’t need alongside things they really do need. When we watch a Land Rover ad we see beautiful people feeling a sense of freedom in their new Land Rover. Land Rover are selling both a car and a sense of freedom- the combination of which looks to fulfil both our basic needs of travel and our self-fulfilling need for freedom. However, buying the Land Rover will only ever guarantee the satisfaction of our basic need of travel, the sense of freedom might be gained at times but it often isn’t.

The psychologist Maslow argued that people are motivated by needs, and that certain needs take precedence over the others. To map out this theory Maslow developed a pyramid with 5 layers of human needs. Our most basic needs are physiological such as food and sleep. When  these are satisfied we then look to safety and health, and so on, until all five layers have been fulfilled and we have achieved pure self-actualisation. The problem with Capitalism, dominated by the FMCG brands, is that it only looks to satisfy the bottom part of the pyramid- water, food warmth rest. De Botton says that 32% of life satisfaction is determined by our relationships with others (something quite high up the pyramid), but he estimates in reality only 0.05% of our economy is really geared towards us building good relationships. Our economy is great at satisfying the bottom of the pyramid, not so great at satisfying the higher levels.

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De Botton’s argument is optimistic because he believes that our current capitalist framework means we are advertising things which don’t satisfy any needs beyond the most basic ones at the bottom of the pyramid. However, as society progresses, we will develop products and services that do satisfy our higher needs, and when we do so we will need advertising just as we do now, to spread those brand messages.

So why aren’t we already doing this? Well, some companies already are. Two years ago Alain was approached by Joe Gebbia who had read de Botton’s The Art of Traveling. Joe agreed that the traveling industry is broken. Internal research suggests that most journeys fail in satisfying the deep self-actualisation reasons we go traveling for, namely romance, family bonding or to rest and be calm. Joe wanted to create a company that could deliver on all of the promises it made, i.e. satisfy not just our physiological needs at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid but our higher needs too. After two years of working together, Alain and Joe believe that the one they developed, Airbnb, is now starting to achieve their goal of creating a travel company that actually rests the soul.

De Botton suggests that Capitalism isn’t broken, it’s just getting started. We are all at times lonely, sad, unsettled- essentially living in a society where we can buy things that solve our physiological needs but nothing more. Alain remained positive that companies will start to find ways to satisfy all of our needs. Phone networks help us connect with people on a physical level, what could they do to help us connect in an emotional way? The power of advertising means that amazing ideas can be clearly defined and expressed in a way that connects and resonates with people. People don’t dislike advertising per se, they dislike that our current society is only geared to satisfying basic needs, despite adverts telling us otherwise. However, once companies are able to truly deliver on their deepest psychological promises, our industry will be well placed to communicate the brand messages that add real value to people’s lives.

Read Econsultancy’s recent article on how Airbnb are revolutionising the travel industry here.