Wednesday, May 6, 2009

My new adland manifesto. Sorta.

The ad agency as we know it: like many a good concept, it's bin-bound.

Many people I know are truly good at offline advertising. They produce some genuinely great work, some memorable, entertaining, thought-provoking, brand-building creativity for their clients. But ask them why their work slams into the glass wall when it comes to bringing that level of creativity to the online world and the fizz goes straight out of their bucks. Or maybe the bucks go out of their budget.

The manual is in Martian for a lot of agencies right now. The atmosphere is Martian. They are increasingly aware that clients need this work and are in many senses way ahead of them with their online familiarity and, more pointedly, their willingness to take work to digital specialists. So why the paralysis? The learning curve too steep? It's not. The public are driving social media, and they're doing it because linking and sharing have never been easier.

Clients meanwhile have very definitely decided not to place too many eggs in one basket. It used to be that you had an ad agency and a PR agency if you needed one. Back when I were a lad, the media department was in the attic or in the basement and toiled away thanklessly, until they got smart and decided to piss off and set up their own stand-alone media agencies from the late 80s on. The audacity! Some creatives ran with the ball at that point and set up their own outfits, delivering creative solutions only. The marketing-speak guffmeisters had no option really but to become that most maligned of c words, consultants. Fragmentation and reinvention, but at least it seemed driven by some entreprenurial chutzpah.

But things have gone much further now. Key agencies no longer think in terms of retainers for any client. That level of blind loyalty no longer exists, and this is, in Darwinian probability, no bad thing. Project by project, campaign by campaign, agencies have to fight for every month's work and justify every budget in a way we never dreamed of even in the 70s, when nobody had a pot to piss in or a window to pitch it from. I see several shark clients smelling the fear and cutting their way through the soft underbellies of once-were-fatter agencies. It's not edifying, because some very good people are getting stiffed along the way, but I console myself that Darwin was clued in all along, and this level of upheaval will result in a sleeker, more dynamic communications model for Irish companies.

Nonetheless, looking objectively from the outside, almost a year on since I went freelance, I can see scurrilous practice on behalf of some clients. (If the word clients even applies any more. In many cases I think it's now a misnomer.) They're using the difficulties of the times as a great excuse for swinging a not-always-justifiable axe. And in the meantime agencies are holding the inevitable at bay, until they hear about the results of that big pitch, or until that big retail client shuffles the core of its business to another media house, or the great and fearless international leaders decide to realign their local agency portfolio. That one, let me tell you from experience, sucks three-months-rotten eggs.

And the lay-offs continue, and the leaching of talent is ongoing, and the fear grows ever more palpable month by month. Adland is in the grip of it now. But you know what? That old Feel the fear and blah blah bullshit is utterly correct. Adland has no choice. The goalposts have moved. Hell, the entire game is over. Now what? New game, that's what.

Here's my new communications credo. Disregard it if you want to. I'm not particularly bothered. I believe it. That's why I wrote credo.

  • A massive disintegration is underway.
  • There is no going back to the days of Brett Easton Ellis-like excess.
  • An utterly realigned and forever fragmented adscape will follow.
  • A large serving of humility is being served to a lot of people at the top.
  • A new underclass of talented and unafraid people is rising.
  • The learnings of people who understand brands will NOT be lost.
  • Those who adopt the basic tenets of social media AND understand brands will thrive.
  • That thriving will not be to previous scales, but an altogether more modest beginning.
  • The web developers and digital experts already out there, who embrace and work with the best of those in offline adland willing to learn and happy to fuse their bank of brand understanding with newer media, will have the communications powerhouses of the future.

But first the pain.

Like the Wild West, anaesthetics are thin on the ground. I'd suggest clamping down hard on a piece of desk and watching some of the YouTube funnies. They can be ok.


  1. I love the credo Nick, perhaps in a slightly selfless way it's because I see myself as both a digital expert willing to embrace and work with the best of those in offline, and someone with an understanding of brands and a passion for social media. I do agree that the industry has changed and is continuing to change. What was once taken for granted (retainers, full service agencies etc.) has already changed and there are many out there that are already a league behind others. Some people are still fighting digital. Why?

    Could anyone make any sort of legitimate arguement as to why an advertising agency should not be focusing time, effort and money on making itself digitally savvy?

    The only thing that concerns me is that you're implying at some stage I'll have to get rid of my stylishly subtle off-white business card, which is tastefully thick and watermarked! I hope that doesn't happen ;)

  2. Really good post, Nick - a great summation of what is becoming increasingly evident out there in adland.

  3. hi Nick, I really don't think 'getting digital' is hard. I heard that there may be a lack of some of the digital technical skills, but don't think that's what you're getting at, right? So is it a cultural thing?

    I think most of the new good stuff that happens online is not advertising. Banner ads are hardly the big thing driving change.

    So is it a self-perception thing for ad agencies? Is it a bit of 'when all you have a hammer, every solution looks like a nail' kind of thing?

    I was asked recently to brief some people to look and think about at the inherent goodwill around at the moment, and see how digital might play a part here. When asked who I thought might be a good person to brief, I said I didn't know but am sure it should not be an ad agency.

  4. The upskilling part of it shouldn't be enough to put anyone off really. I agree that the new opportunities are not part of the current advertising mix, by and large, and banner advertising is probably the sum total of translating the old formats to the new medium. They hardly represent a deep exploitation of the potentials that come with online though. An awful lot of the good stuff IS advertising though, and it's been driven by large clients like Honda or BMW or Nine Inch Nails. Christian Hughes's website is a virtual non-stop stream of exciting things that brands are doing. In my mind it's all advertising. Just not necessarily with TV as its first choice for exposure. Oh, and as is increasingly the case, it's seeking interaction or feedback from the viewer/player.

    If I'm understanding you correctly, and I think I am, it's a sad reflection on agencies that they're overwhelmed right now with the struggle to survive rather than seeing the new horizon. Partly it comes down to chargeouts (PR is similarly struggling now with billable hours). The mindshift required is huge, I won't deny it. But it's not optional alas.

  5. I couldn't agree more Nick. The industry is digital. There is no choice. Everyone needs to realise that if they don't make the move, they'll be left behind.

    I also think there's a single simple reason for this. The rise of digital, as both an entertainment medium and a marketing platform, is because it can, more so then an other medium or platform before it, do both those things at the same time, and it is because of this that it has risen so fast as the primary tool in the modern marketing campaign. Consider the prolific rise of social media. People want to interact, engage and participate. We no longer want to sit and be spoken to. It won't work to simply tell us what to buy.

    Radio, TV and Press have all attempted to force themselves as interactive mediums. They've utilised text-in facilities, given direction to download stuff, but at the end of the day they all require the use of another medium to bridge the gap between the consumer and them. They are by their nature one way.

    I wonder, when TV came along were there people unwilling to make the jump from Radio and Print? Were their agencies convinced that it wasn't as important as it was?

  6. What we need is an agency made up of the guys who are most active in the Social Media space.
    They understand the space best because they eat, sleep and drink it and have done so from the earliest days.

  7. I agree wholeheartedly, Christian. I think the point you made touches on a keyword: entertainment. The stimulation that comes from the interaction is in itself the big draw. TV broke the mould in its day because it really harnessed the sense of vision. Ok, cinema was there, but not in the home. Television brought the reality on a notch. That takes a quantum leap however in this past decade.

    And Stiofain, treasonous though your words be, (insert smiley here) I think you're talking about the reality. It's getting ever closer too. How very exciting! All we'll need is a few pioneering clients to step- oh wait... (slaps forehead) We've already got them!

    It's all to play for, folks.

  8. If I was Renee Zellwigger< i would pack up my desk and follow you out of the office right now. Right now!

  9. Hi Nick, I cam across a piece in Business and Leadership that I thought you'd be interested in. It's in relation to Bord Gais's Big Switch campaign:

    "But what was unique about the campaign was the decision by Bord Gais's marketing director, Nicky Doran, to include bloggers in the press planning, against the advice of both the PR and advertising agencies employed by the company".

  10. Thanks for that, Kevin. Yes, Nicky, Stiofain and Eoin ran a very strong campaign, and took some new steps in the process. I was at that initial blogger meetup and it was very interesting to see the campaign roll out across the 'Irish' internet simultaneously with the ATL work. They've proved that the model works, and they will, I think, keep online activity ever closer to the core of their marketing. It demonstrates the need for organisations to have a firm grasp on the technology and to make sure that robust systems are in place, plus an ever watchful eye, to deal with customer communications in this new model.