In an age of disruption, what are we really disrupting?

David Sable: the chief executive of Y&R
David Sable: the chief executive of Y&R

It's time for "disruption" to be consigned to the business world's overflowing bin of buzzwords, writes David Sable, the chief executive of Y&R.

Disruption is in the ether. Barely a seminar, a white paper or a creds document passes by without mentioning how our access to data and digital technology is disruptive and thus, in their view, transformative.

In fact, the word has become so overused, that it’s in danger of losing all of its real meaning. According to the Guardian, "the Silicon Valley buzzword [disruption] has the aftertaste of a sucked battery. It doesn’t even mean anything anymore".

If we are to believe all that we are hearing and reading, disruption is swirling all around us – every moment, every action, tearing up the business rulebooks, and gaining credence and momentum from the endless stream of data and the massive proliferation of technology. All of which results in "never before seen" innovation.

According to the Guardian, 'the Silicon Valley buzzword [disruption] has the aftertaste of a sucked battery. It doesn’t even mean anything anymore'.

But is this really the case? The New York Times makes a strong point: "The impulse to conflate toothbrush delivery with Nobel Prize-worthy good works is not just a bit cultish, it’s currently a wildfire burning through the so-called innovation sector.

"Products and services are designed to 'disrupt' market sectors (aka bringing to market things no one really needs) more than to solve actual problems."

Let’s step back and look at some sectors where disruption is taking all the credit.


While companies such as Amazon have changed the way that people buy products, is it really disruptive in the truest sense? Has it really interrupted a status quo?

Take a look at its mission statement. It bares a remarkable resemblance to the 1897 manifesto of the venerable retailer Sears published at the end of the 19th Century.

"Supply[ing] the consumer everything on which we can save him money, goods that can be delivered at your door anywhere in the United States for less than they can be procured from your local dealer."

Sounds familiar, no? So while Amazon is using technology that some might call disruptive, I call it evolutionary because their practices – Prime, subscriptions and same day delivery – are, in fact, age-old retail best practices made more efficient by technology.


What about the claim that digital disruption will replace people? You only have to look at the rates of productivity, globally and in the US, to see that the growth rates have slowed to a 20-year low.

According to the Financial Times, "global economic growth has been below the 20-year average in six of the past eight years. Productivity growth has slowed around the world amid talk of a secular stagnation."

Little sign of disruption going on there then.

App-based economy

In 2009, Apple famously declared "there’s an app for that" and so begun a rush of app developers who vowed to change our lives and the way we work.

Vanity Fair said it best: "San Francisco tech culture is focused on solving one problem - what is my mother no longer doing for me?"

In fact, evidence indicates that the usage of apps is on the wane. In June, Business Insider reported that on average the volume of downloads from the top 12 app publishers across both Apple iOS and Google Android devices fell by 20 percent year on year in the previous month.


So-called digital disruption was supposed to lead to a transformation in educational achievement. Yet, MIT researchers found use of devices had a "substantial negative effect" on students’ performance, and removing technology from the classroom was "equivalent to improving the quality of the teacher."

Many are finding, in fact, that reliance on too much technology in schools is more likely to be a distraction rather than a disruption. A New York Times article reported it was no coincidence that so many of the Silicon Valley offspring went to schools that eschew technology for books, paper and pencils. "Those who endorse this approach say computers inhibit creative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans."

Our ability to predict

The science of psephology, or polling, is also seemingly ripe for digital disruption – or so conventional wisdom goes. But the failure of technology to accurately predict results has been embarrassing election after election.

From David Cameron’s 2015 election victory to the recent Brexit vote – to the US presidential elections – despite the huge amount of data, pollsters are at a loss, and as one New York Times piece described the November elections, "where you peg Hillary is hazier than ever."


If data can’t predict elections, which are binary, how can we expect it to predict our purchases? Algorithms, which were supposed to be disruptive too, have been shown to be incredibly blunt tools based all too often on one-off past behaviour rather than rooted in deeper insight and understanding. Disruptive? I think not.

That’s why it’s time for "disruption" to be consigned to the business world’s overflowing bin of buzzwords – it has become broad brushstroke shorthand to describe short-term trends that are far from changing the world. And masks missed opportunities and real challenges.

No matter how big the data trend, none is infallible enough, inclusive enough, inspired enough to ignore the human factor. There needs to be a new focus for innovators – one based, I’d argue, on Dissidence – something that actively challenges an orthodoxy — that calls on brands to think people first, that breaks convention and has an impact on the world in real and meaningful ways.

Dissidence is not about putting technology first – whether that is digital, mobile, wearable or gaming. These are mere platforms that allow us to communicate in new ways but are not the piece of communication itself. Dissidence is about creativity not the application of technology and not the substitution of technology for a real idea.

Dissidence is decidedly averse to Digibabble (which I define as "the use of the words digital, mobile or social that assumes new, never before seen, radically different")and acknowledges the phony metrics that are still sadly so prevalent in the digital arena.

But here’s a recent example I think is dissident. Every Tuesday, Facebook’s engineers can opt-in to their Tuesday 2G connection. It simulates the slower 2G connection that is the online experience of most emerging markets. It encourages their developers to make Facebook more accessible, more usable, more palatable to people everywhere in the world because, sadly, the disruption here is our self-centered view that everyone in the world has a full-feature smartphone.

Innovators, time to shift focus. Don’t get caught up creating the next best delivery app that you think is disruptive – after all, pizza stores have been doing immediate delivery service since the past century.

Don’t worry about the cool factor that disruptive claims to offer up. In fact, the pizza delivery model should make us pretty humble. Think about the impact of your idea on the world, on its ability to change the status quo – and believe me, you will see a direct correlation to your business success.


David Sable is the chief executive of Y&R.

Start Your Free 30-Day Free Trial

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free