Moscow Rules: The Berlin Wall and the rise of digital


Earlier in November we were delighted to attend the Elman Wall Travel Summit at the Emirates stadium. The summit was titled ‘Beyond Borders: Against All Odds’ in recognition of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.


As business partners, we were invited to reflect on the theme of ‘Secrets and Lies’ in our industry, to see if there were any comparisons between the world of digital in 2019 and the Cold War.

We decided there were. And for a (strictly monitored) three-and-a-half minutes, and with our tongues relatively firmly in our cheek, we expanded on our theory.

1989 is remembered for the Wall, but in the same year, in politically neutral Switzerland, Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal for a linked hypertext system that became the World Wide Web. From an ideological point of view these two events were similar. The web would bring democracy of content, freedom of information and universal access. The internet would know no borders.


However, we suggested that the web nowadays had more in common with life behind the Iron Curtain. In the way that advertising for the Trabant worked as there was no alternative, we suggested that we’ve fallen for the ideology of digital, as though there is no alternative, or that questioning its efficacy is not permitted.


If we were to believe the 2019 digital manifesto, it would go something like this:

1. Death to Tradition

Digital changes everything, and overthrows all that has gone before. There is no need for old media, traditional marketing practices. Digital puts the user in control. Why waste time on bourgeois pursuits such as investing in your brand when you can target and personalise.

2. The Rise of the Machines

People are weak. Computers are all-powerful. Why rely on human frailty to be creative when you can optimise your business using Artificial Intelligence and algorithms.

3. Data is Everything

We have been empowered by access to vast swathes of data. No more guesswork, we can use data to make informed decisions.

4. Innovate or die

Technology changes at an astronomical rate. If your company isn’t innovating using Virtual Reality, Voice Search, Blockchain, you might as well give up.

Thankfully, it’s all nonsense. But we felt it was worth demonstrating the extreme view. Occasionally, it feels like the machines are taking over, and we are putting far too much store behind the power of technology when it comes to marketing and communications. And far too much time and effort into digital tactics that offer minimal reward.

We ended with a call to arms to return to Moscow Rules.


Moscow Rules were a set of guidelines drawn up (although possibly never documented officially) by agents working behind the Iron Curtain to help them survive. They are referenced in a range of Cold War fiction, such as John le Carré, and are noted for their simplicity and common sense.

We felt that a handful of the Moscow Rules could be used as a more reliable guide for marketers in today’s world.

1. Establish a distinct profile and stay consistent

For spy trying to remain under cover this makes sense. Build a personality, a routine, and stick to it. In recent years, creating a brand (and sticking to it) has fallen by the wayside, as marketers consider it to be a waste of money and can’t move beyond the short-term results of immediate sales to consider the long-term impact of brand.

You can target, re-target and personalise all you like, but you don’t stand out from the crowd and appeal it’s irrelevant.

2. Never go against your gut.

“If it feels wrong, it probably is wrong” is the warning to spies. But to the marketers in the room, we were reminding them that they are the experts of their businesses. Their customers are buying into their expertise and personality. Buying travel is as much an emotional as a rational decision. Relying on optimisation and removing the humanity is a race to the bottom.

3. There is no limit to human’s ability to rationalise the truth

Our message here is that you can make data tell you anything you want. More data doesn’t necessarily help, and access to more data means we over-rely on it and ignore our knowledge and experience, leading to the wrong decision.

4. Technology will always let you down

Hidden cameras, disappearing ink pens, lipstick guns: elaborate but fallible. Moscow Rules warns of an over-reliance on technology. We love technology, but in the world of digital, and our obsession with the new, we risk putting the innovative technology ahead of creativity, ideas, strategy.