Future Moves: Rishi Dastidar, Poet + Writer

Future Moves – 4th April 2024

Why are brands trying to be everywhere?
Is it still possible to be distinctive in a shouty world?
Can Tech Bros really seduce their wives with bullet points?

I (Nat) met Rishi last year during a week-long residential poetry retreat in Shropshire as he was one of the tutors skillfully guiding us through 5 days of poetic exploration. Besides being possibly the most well-read person I’ve ever met, it was also a brilliant introduction to someone who also juggles the poetic and commercial writer life. So Rishi felt like the perfect candidate for Future Moves to dig into the role of the writer in an ever-more-online world, the role of brand in the future and to attempt to answer the question, ‘why are we all trying to be everywhere all the time?’

Note: Rishi is very much speaking to us on behalf of himself, not on behalf of venturethree.

Nat: Welcome to Future Moves Rishi; can you give us an intro to you and your work?

I've got parallel careers in brand strategy and copywriting, and poetry. So in the former, I'm currently a senior writer at venturethree, a strategic brand consultancy; and in my other life, I am a poet which I've been doing seriously since 2007. I've written three collections, edited a book of essays and co-edited an anthology of poems; and I review occasionally for The Guardian.

Nat: How did you first get into the industry and then how did the poetry come into the mix?

Rishi: I knew from about the age of 14 that I wanted to write for a living but I had no idea what type of writing. The most obvious thing that I landed on was journalism but I soon discovered that I didn't have a hard enough skin for that. So I quit what I was doing at the time, did my Masters and while I was doing that I discovered this world of copywriting and writing for brands. Then in 2007, just by chance I found a book in what was the Borders on Oxford Street called Ashes for Breakfast by a German poet called Durs Grünbein and I was just flicking through it going, ‘Why has nobody ever told me that you can start to mess around with language in this sort of way?’, and I was just completely hooked on it. So I pretty much booked myself for an introduction to poetry class that week and I've been doing both almost simultaneously since then.

Nat: How do you feel that the two sides complement or clash with one another?

Rishi: I think it's good conflict. I know there are a lot of poets who make most of their living from copywriting but shy away from talking about it. But I've always felt a responsibility to be as high profile as I can be in the copywriting career because there still aren’t enough writers of colour in the commercial world. As someone who's been doing it for 20-odd years now, I feel like it's important for me to try to be visible and actually say look, this is something that people from our background can do. 

Nat: What are some of the biggest shifts you’ve noticed in the industry over the years?

Rishi: I think one thing that has become apparent, and we didn't realise it when the internet started, but we're effectively trying to fill infinity. We didn't realise that there might be a situation where brands would have to try to be everywhere. And of course, we know that’s not humanly possible, right? So then you start looking for machines or templates to do it. That's why there's this rush towards automation. But it’s rare that you hear an agency take a step back and go, ‘Yeah we could, but is it right? Why do we show up here? Who are we trying to reach with this?’

The fundamental truth is you're trying to make this thing famous. Whatever it is, you're trying to make it famous enough that when your particular message lands, someone does something with it. And so then we're into ‘what does fame look like?’ Is it being everywhere? Or is it something else?

It’s likely the bigger risk here is we forget that ultimately you're doing this stuff for humans. So what we should really be asking is ‘where is the human in your process?’

Nat: And speaking of the human in the process, how do you feel about the rise of the machines?

Rishi: I think a lot of nervousness around what's coming is in part because of the fact that it's going to reveal another deep truth, which is that most things that most people work on, however broadly you want to define it are not unique. The dirty secret of capitalism is that most things are the same, right? A car is a car is a car with very minor differences between them. And so it's people like you and me who have to go and find that trivial difference and then build mythology, build stories and bright shining lights to try and grab somebody's eyeballs for five seconds. 

I don't think that truth changes even if you try and cut more and more humans out of that process. AI is fantastic at regurgitating the expected. Fantastic at delivering cliché. It’s fantastic at giving you what you'd expect the answer to be. If it does do new, it doesn’t realise, so in that case, your role becomes more of a hallucination catcher. Maybe you get something out of it but that's still fundamentally a human looking at it differently. 

Nat: How does that play into commercial creativity? 

Rishi: To place such a heavy burden on technology to replace the humans in the process is to accept the view that rationality is the main means of persuasion. This idea that to sell is to be rational and that's how you close a deal. I’m not sure whether it's arrogance, whether it's naivety but this idea that one rationally persuades someone that they don't know into a decision is insane, right? If you draw the parallel with any other sort of human interaction that you might have, yes, there might be facts involved, but it's all down to how you present them. The gestures, the feelings that you imbue with them. I mean unless a lot of these tech bros are going around seducing their wives with just bullet points? But throughout most of human history we have artfully mixed the two.

Nat: What’s your view on brands and storytelling? How much should they be thinking about their own tone of voice versus the voice of their customer? 

Rishi: I think this is one of those where my perspective has changed over the years. 20 years ago, in theory, it was possible to enforce a tone of voice that delivered consistency across all touch points. You could, in theory, train everyone to do that and be ruthless with it. I think now it's nigh on impossible.

So today I guess it's a question of where do you pick your battles to try and drive that sense of consistency. The people running social media accounts, mostly they're not primarily writers. They’re brilliant makers in some cases, but of a different sort. Makers who have been trained to make something that has to work visually as much as written and across multiple dimensions and mediums. So then it’s unsurprising that brands on Twitter, for example, all start sounding the same, because that's baked into what success looks like on that platform. Brave is the brand manager that tells their content team, ‘No, I want to sound different and I don't give a s*** whether we get any likes or not’. You can't imagine that conversation happening. 

I think it is possible to be distinctive. But only by going against the grain and just really pissing people off. Which quite frankly no one is going to invest time and money into doing. So then we come back to the wider structures. Too much to do in too little time with too little money across too many places – and if you've not strategically prioritised distinction, then distinction is going to get lost. Most brands are prioritising being everywhere. Fundamentally if you haven't actually truly identified the point of difference then it's no surprise that most of your s*** is going to sound the same as everyone else's s***.

Nat: That leads so perfectly into the final meaty question, which is basically, Why does it all matter? What's the opportunity for brands to carve out a meaningful space in the future?

Rishi Dastidar: Well, the big thing that we've not touched on that's hovering over all of this is the imminent heat death of human civilization on this planet, right? 

I don't think anyone has worked out what's really going to happen. It’s uncharted. We don’t necessarily know what the answer looks like but it is the job of writers to at least start to engage in and grapple with that stuff. Whether it is the very practical or painting the speculative, dystopian picture of a different sort of world, like John Lanchester did in The Wall. How do we engage with that? How do we begin to stretch people's imagination? That's fundamentally our role. It could be the role of some brands too, perhaps.

I think you have to be optimistic in the sense that ultimately humans are persuadable. And this is where it gets interesting. There are some facts. But those facts on their own haven't been enough to persuade people to take more action.

This is where the writer comes in. How do we take those facts, those data points and weave them into such a way that people think, ‘Okay. I must do something. I must think about it, I must act on it.’ 

So yeah, there will be a role for us still, but you should probably check if your typewriter works underwater.

Section Two: Moving Forward

Nat: A book podcast or cultural movement that's made you think differently

Rishi: The Whole Equation by David Thompson, which is still the best book that I've ever read about Hollywood in part because of reveals the complexity that goes behind the making of any film

Nat:  Who do you follow for ideas, inspiration + advice

Rishi: Mary Ruefle. The world would be much better if more people read her.

Nat: What tech, or application of existing tech are you most optimistic for? 

Rishi: Wind turbines

Nat: Your hope for creativity in the future.

Rishi: That the incoming Labour government actually commits to proper funding and resources for creative education, boosts budgets of arts colleges, and universities. I think that's a surefire way of unlocking more creativity

Nat: One word to describe your hope for the future

Rishi: Evolution – I hope that we will

More of our thinking...