Over several decades, ad agencies created, perfected and propagated the self-serving notion of the ‘big idea’, magically born out of an unlikely combination of trademarked processes and creative inspiration, revealed to clients and consumers through smoke and mirrors, and finally taking a bow at industry awards ceremonies.
When challenged about the value of their work, they pivoted to an attempt to monetise their service, through billable hours.
Meanwhile, the world of business and consumers had moved on. People no longer want to be marketed to or talked at. They now had the tools, the power and the eagerness to talk and create. Through Twitter and Snapchat, Line and WhatsApp, memes captivated communities only to be discarded a few days, sometimes hours later. Within client organisations in-house content and digital marketing teams began taking charge.
The number and variety of content creators and aggregators exploded. Platforms like Program Exchange Tool—where marketers can share their campaigns: taking the structure, inserting content and producibg work much faster—began disrupting our business.
The agency business’s response has been a curious mix of bewilderment, hastily fusing data and creativity, and lamenting at the loss of creative talent. Dave Lubars, chief creative officer at BBDO says, “It’s all grey and blurry now.” In Harvard Business Review, Mitch Joel comments, “It’s a murky, unclear future for the marketing agency.”
Is there hope?
I believe there is, but we must make a few fundamental mindset changes; changes that strike at the very root of our past thinking.
Let’s admit that we are no longer in the business of making things. Creativity isn’t about the best-executed advertising idea. It is defined—by our clients—as innovative and effective solutions that meet their business objectives.
From that perspective, today and tomorrow’s creativity will be about two things: open, responsive innovation, and storytelling.
Open, responsive innovation
The consumer of today (and it’s a mistake to call her a consumer when she is actually creating and consuming simultaneously) is not the same when she’s on a smartphone as when she’s binge-watching TV. She is not the same person when she is reading a consumer review on Taobao as she is in a physical retail store. Each scenario, each consumer and each moment of engagement looks very different than the output of marketing messages that agencies have been responsible for delivering thus far. It is raw, in their language, and ever-changing.
With the shift from talking at the world to making people talk, the ability of a marketing agency to provide a higher level of R&D in terms of brand, product and service development and technological innovation will be core to success. This can only happen when the agency is able to look outwards and engage communities in the creative process and output. We should be helping brands create what they will sell, just as brands should be striving to create engagement and conversations at every consumer, advocate and employee touch-point.
There are numerous other ways that innovation can be applied: by adjusting business strategies, rethinking core competencies, and managing complexities.
It is also important to realise that when speed is a competitive advantage, waiting to perfect every new idea before releasing it to the world may simply kill it.
It would be suicidal in today’s environment to ignore the process of experimentation and education that needs to go into succeeding on each new product or service.
Remember that WhatsApp and Angry Birds appeared to be pretty bad ideas when they started. WhatsApp was conceived as a tool to help people update their social status until users discovered it worked as an internet messaging service without using mobile telephone airtime. There were 51 beta versions of Angry Birds. WhatsApp and Angry Birds both launched and learned quickly, so were able to turn this feedback into something useful, and in the case of WhatsApp, into an entirely different product than was first imagined.
So, tomorrow’s creative agencies will need to become connectors. They will connect brands want to people and to artists. Agencies will be the force that brings them together in partnerships that are rewarding to every stakeholder that’s involved in the new, open creation and sharing ecosystem.
The agency Crispin, Porter and Bogusky (CP+B) came together with venture capital firms Mahalo Capital and RSVP Capital to create a fund that supports new product development.
The agency’s teams have since created and launched Papa Pilar’s super premium rum and Angel’s Envy bourbon. Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s (BBH) innovation division Zag created piano tutorial software called Playground Sessions—inspired by the language learning software Rosetta Stone. Once they had come up with the concept, they collaborated with digital software form Rain and composer Quincy Jones to market the product.
However, innovation cannot be had for innovation’s sake. To be truly creative, innovation has to create value for the client. If it’s only a snazzy idea that doesn’t bring savings to the client in terms of cost or time, then it runs the risk of simply being a waste of resources.
We are already seeing creative energy shifting away from agencies and towards publishers and platforms. Creating content that is inspired by and resonates with people requires a speed of inspiration and production that ensures the idea is conveyed speedily and engagingly.
The key to success lies in brands seeing themselves as publishers of content—stories—in order to connect better. It is only when brands think of themselves as publishers rather than advertisers that they will be able to create content that is designed and optimised for conversation. Not content that is designed for broadcast.
But, as I have written previously, some of the brightest creative minds are abandoning standalone agencies for creative divisions of media companies and technology companies, because these are the places where stories are being created everyday. Stories that are impacting people’s lives in really significant ways be they about Modern Family, Glee, WeChat or Xiaomi. To a young creative mind, the buzz of breaking a story on Vice beats the long drawn out process of creating advertising copy any day.
How can tomorrow’s agency become the source and shaper of its client’s stories? How can the new agency push beyond the recently adopted buzz of analytics, data and insights to deliver stories that need not just be placed on some purchased media space?
The great news is that it’s happening already. There are agencies that are helping brands to create their own, authentic newsrooms within an organisation. Others are building newsrooms that are helping brands create more relevant and original pieces of content that don’t feel like a press release or advertorial. Content as media has the potential to become a natural extension of an agencies’ ability to help tell a better and more connected brand narrative.
David Mayo is CEO of Bates CHI&Partners. He will be moderating a panel discussion titled "How Our Industry Needs To Change. By The Bosses Of Tomorrow" on Wednesday 9 September at Spikes Asia 2015.