Erik Ingvoldstad
Nov 27, 2017

'Burn the whole industry to the ground'

A former ad man suggests how to torch and then rebuild the ad agency model.

'Burn the whole industry to the ground'

The self-proclaimed “creative industry" is shaking at its foundation. Everything is changing around them, but the advertising agencies themselves seem to refuse to take any part in the transformation that is going on. Clients are challenging them to be more efficient, more accountable and more creative, not just with messaging, but with the entire approach to marketing. Unfortunately, advertising is one of the most conservative industries in the world, so not much has changed the past 10 years, despite massive changes in media consumption, in technology, and in the consumer culture. There is no real integration, no embracing of convergence, and very little change in how the process is managed, developed and implemented. That makes advertising one of the industries that is most ripe for disruption.

To pre-emptively counteract this inevitable disruption of the ad industry, I can only see one solution: We grab a bottle of lighter fuel, spray it everywhere, steal a Zippo from one of the creative directors, and burn the whole industry to the ground. Then we can rebuild something that actually works, and that helps brands really connect with consumers over time. But only after we’ve rid ourselves of the egos, the condescension, and the client-hate that lives in every single agency in every single city around the world.

Also by this author: 'Why I left advertising', a column from early 2017,
is one of the most-read opinion pieces we have ever published.

The ad industry’s aversion to change is not new. It’s always been like this. Yes, we’ve seen digital agencies pop up over the past 20 years, we’ve seen a shift from TV advertising to digital advertising. But the fundamental problem is this: The agencies don’t share their clients’ goals, or specifically, the creatives aren’t really interested in creating “work that works”, as most agencies claim. They are driven by ego, by awards, and by the lure of expensive and cool productions. If I were an agency client, I’d question the motives of every suggestion that comes out of my creative agency. 

But let’s not focus on everything that is wrong. Let’s instead look at a path to transformation, if the industry really wants to be around in the future. Here’s what needs to happen.

1. Change the culture

Create a culture of collaborative creativity. Let every team member have creativity in their job description. Build flexible, on-demand team structures, that can deliver broader solutions, with faster turnaround times. Tame the egos, forget the awards, and hire more diverse talent with diverging life experiences. Bring more women to the top, especially on the creative end. Provide strategic training for everyone—from the CEO to the receptionist. Put digital at the heart of every activity. Have fun at work, fight more for world-changing solutions, and make everyone feel like they can contribute to improving the clients’ results. Fight the good fight, with the right motives. Persuade clients to take risks on improved customer experiences. And stop using deflection words like “storytelling” and “customer experiences” if you really mean reactionary advertising.

2. Change the scope

Forget advertising. It’s a tiny fraction of what marketing represents. Embrace the convergence of industries. Hire PR people, engineers, business strategists, and boat captains (ok, maybe not specifically boat captains, but anyone who brings a different skill set to the table). Redefine the industry to drive real change, solving real-world problems and improving actual customer experiences (not the fake ones). Integrate every part of the business. Shut down specialist agencies, but don’t absorb them into the “traditional” agencies. Create entirely new entities with a different perspective and a different operating model.

3. Change the incentives

Ditch the old remuneration models. Charge for solutions, not hours. Today’s model actually makes it more rewarding for agencies to put as many people on a client as they can. That’s not good for the client, and it’s bad for the agency margins. Incentivise the team to deliver technology- and media-agnostic solutions that change people’s lives. Yes, I know that’s a big ask, but the alternative is to keep making stuff that people do everything they can to avoid. With the death of linear and analogue media, there is no other way to engage and communicate with consumers. 

Some ad folks will get defensive reading this. However, this process can only start when the industry admits there’s a problem. Right now, the networks are flogging a dead horse, and it is only when they fully realise that today’s revenue models will die that real transformation can happen. Who’s going to take the first step?

Remember the wisdom of Joe Strummer of The Clash: The future is unwritten.

Erik Ingvoldstad is founder and CEO of Acoustic Group. You can follow Ingvoldstad at @ingvoldSTAR and Acoustic at @AcousticGroupSG.


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