Was Siimon the original Gen Yer?
For the last quarter of a century, it’s been something of a national pastime to bag ad man Siimon Reynolds for being a wanker. But if Gen Y – a group who know a little something about being pilloried as superficial, materialistic, self-obsessed fame whores – were old enough to know who he is, they might be tempted to claim the 46-year-old as one of their own and insist he be treated with more respect.
Perhaps it’s time all of us — Yers, Xers and Boomers alike — rethought our attitude towards Reynolds.
For a case can be made that he is not the pretentious tool of the popular imagination, but rather a prescient pioneer who intuited where society was heading and adapted to the economic and social changes being set in motion by Thatcher, Reagan and, in Australia, Hawke and Keating, at the time he was coming of age.
Since Reynolds’ mid-’80s heyday, we’ve all been trudging down the trail he blazed. Before old two i’s came along, almost no Australian parent thought it socially acceptable to call their child Tiphani rather than Tiffany. Foreshadowing Gen Y’s enthusiasm for the casual hook-up, Reynolds was putting it about during an era when his famous Grim Reaper AIDS ads were scaring the pants back on to everybody else.
Like many of today’s thrusting twentysomethings, Reynolds expected to be rich, famous and at the top of his field before his 30th birthday. That’s a goal he achieved, albeit the old-fashioned way (genuine talent and lots of hard work) rather than through the less taxing approach of becoming a reality TV star. That said, in an age before Facebook and Twitter, Reynolds had a proto-Gen Y attitude to personal privacy, courting public attention and allowing his life to play out across the social pages.
Reynolds got with the free-market program right from the get-go. Consciously or otherwise, he recognised that in the brave new neo-liberal world, the path to success lay in relentlessly selling yourself – to a potential friend or sexual partner as much as a potential customer or employer.
Reynolds was possibly the first Australian to think of himself as a product to be advertised. He was almost certainly the first to develop an effective personal branding strategy. In recent years he’s devoted a lot of his time to giving motivational speeches and writing self-help books, in which he advises others on how they too can increase their market value by maximising their efficiency, regulating their moods, clarifying their goals and safeguarding their personal brand (“Decide what kind of image you want to project then make sure everything – the way you dress, what you say, how you conduct yourself in meetings – is consistent with that image”).
It’s a mindset that comes naturally to those who’ve been immersed in a market society since birth, less so to those of a certain age, who are still more comfortable viewing themselves as citizens rather than commodities.
It’s a given that those ahead of their time are misunderstood and reviled by those who fail to see – or just don’t want to accept – that the times are a’changing. But Reynolds’ detractors have no doubt had to make their own painful compromises with a world he acclimatised to long ago. If seeking to get on in life by marketing yourself makes you a tosser, maybe it’s time to stop pointing the finger at Reynolds and Gen Y and admit that almost of all of us have got our hand on it nowadays.
Nigel Bowen interviewed Siimon Reynolds for current edition of GQ.
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