Advertising business is a messy beast. The mess is a function of different medias it caters to – TV, Print, Digital, OOH…
These medias are fundamentally very different
1. The way it is consumed –
TV – passive, lean back, long form
Print – scan, quick, purposive, linear
Digital – exploratory, non-linear, lean in, active…
2. The way its content is created
TV – relatively high production value, expensive, periodic but not very frequent (more frequent than cinema, less than digital), hi-def motion picture
Print – more frequent that TV, less than digital, static, still pictures
Digital – many kinds of messages (txt, gif, movie, sound..), many frequencies, all possible resolutions (from hi-def movies to low def gifs), variety is intrinsic to it.
3. It’s effect
TV – appointment, collective, shared utopia, modernist
Print – stand-in for truth, modernist propaganda, images to navigate life by
Digital – gives agency, enables to do more, individualistic, post-modern, post-truth, hyperreality
4. Time scale
TV – takes long to create and used to linger for long in conscience. Culturally significant still. A good TV ad campaign can run for years.
Print – Can be used to drive a certain imagery in culture. can sustain for long, but often used tactically for temporal claims.
Digital – impulsive, in the moment, of the moment, pulsating with the pulse of the world. it is forever adapting, moving, remixing. it is forever building over history. It is a never ending meme-machine growing ever taller, larger.
How can one business align its processes to cater to these different medias?
The answer is inefficiently.
There are integrated agencies for sure. But there isn’t much data forthcoming to argue that they are more effective and efficient than a brand getting its branding done through multiple specialist shops. My bet would be on the latter.
The business incentives, economies, ways of working are different for each of these medias. And advertising companies are a mess because they have to reconcile with these divergences.
More often than not, agencies do not have a thesis on how to tackle the issue of multiplicity of media modes. They simply go through the motions. The chaos gets romanticized and junior poor suckers end up spending needless nights and days getting artwork out for the brands. There is no easy way for one team to manage across these mediums.
The farce of integration
I have been working for one ‘integrated’ agency after another for the last ten years. But none has been truly integrated. DDB was the most enthusiastic of the lot who put their money where their mouth was. Theirs was the tried and tested strategy of divide and conquer – create departments and get the leaders of the departments to meet often. In my experience, they were the best at this game. The leadership truly made efforts in knowing each others work and syncing their efforts. It’s down to chemistry though. The structure itself is not amenable for true integration. And I witnessed DDB ten years ago when digital was a completely different beast. Big Data, AI, marketing services… the game is different now.
I am currently working in Wunderman Thompson. With the merger, Wunderman’s data capabilities were supposed to work seamlessly with JWT’s advertising capabilities. I am yet to witness this synergy. Perhaps it down to the fact that most of our existing clients’ scope of work is traditional in nature. We get digital content projects on an ad-hoc basis. Often the economies of these are very different, necessitating different kinds of contracts. It’s understandable.
Social media, for all the songs sung regarding its importance, still doesn’t earn much monies for agencies. TVC still do.
Marketing services and analytics is a whole different ball game altogether. Frankly, I don’t even have the capability to serve that need.
To create a truly effective TV ad requires thinking that is very different from the most effective digital campaign, which in turn requires fundamentally different kind of thinking to generate leads with AI and so on. One single person can’t’ possibly master and act on more than two skill sets. And one team can’t possibly orient themselves to serve the need of both social and data needs or social and TVC needs.
If a person can’t learn more than two capabilities and if a team can’t orient and shapeshift to service two different medias, why even bother?
Lastly, even if miraculously someone does it – what brand are you building? integrated is a much abused capability – everyone claims it, nobody truly delivers it. I mean, clients who spend more on TVCs, prioritise that expertise when they are looking for an agency. Clients who prioritise digital, likewise prioritise that skill. the other way of looking at it is, the ones who prioritise TVCs, compromise on digital and vice versa.
The pitch for integrated agencies is that of brand stewardship. People who are masters of branding will co-ordinate the work on the behalf of clients.
But why can’t that be sold as a specialist service as well? The question is does the integrated package deliver higher premium or would the un-bundled specialist services deliver higher premium?
So what does it all mean?
Mergers and integration is inefficient for branding. The future is fragmented specialism. Modern technology enables efficient co-ordination among multiple ‘vendors’. There’s no reason agencies will be exempt from this. For most other things, big corporations already have SAAS and teams to coordinate between thousands of vendors.
In this scenario, if I were a holding company, i wouldn’t be integrating. Instead I would be spawning small, agile, super specialist shops who can do what they do best. And on top of this layers of specialists, i will invest in code and brand leaders who can deliver the service of coordination and brand safety. Value unlocked.
I would bet the merger experiments to fail slowly and then suddenly in the next few years. I bet new smaller specialist agencies to pop-up to take up the space ceded by erstwhile global agencies if holding companies don’t invest in reinventing their business model.
Routines have a certain magical quality.
In my experience, good routines create a virtuous spiral – good routines increase efficiency, work quality and satisfaction with work. You feel in-control, you manage relationships well enough and manage to have fun while getting shit done.
The secret to forming these routines isn’t in our ‘will power’ or whatever the new-age gurus want us to believe. It is simply a function of good work atmosphere where we look forward to meeting co-workers and doing work together. (or at-least not actively hating the work or colleagues.)
In one of my earlier roles, I was handling in excess of 10 brands. It was made possible because clients were kind and considerate (so scope of work never was in doubt and we worked on actual problems, not manufactured ones. This was made possible by senior management setting the right expectations.), servicing team was smart and earnest (so I could delegate some amount of strategy work with them. This was possible because they were driven to grow in their career by the management.) and creative teams actually trusted me with my briefs and feedback (so we interacted more and more fruitfully. The agency had a culture of respecting the planner’s role. So when I entered the role, I did my best to preserve that expectation too.). The owner of the agency was instrumental in inspiring a hunger for success. He was a hard taskmaster but was generous too. All of these things allowed me to form a coherent routine.
I would start my day by writing for an half an hour – often this blog, or notes on a strategy project or a brief. This habit of writing everyday would intellectually stimulate me. Due to this, I would enter any new project with a charged up mind.
The second habit was to clarify the brief during the meeting itself. I was lucky to get some good clients who would engage in a dialogue and not misunderstand the questions with ego. Often, a well articulated problem statement is enough to kickstart great creative work. I would try to get that agreed upon during the first meeting itself.
The third habit was to write my brief as soon as I got back to office from the meeting, often on the way to office itself. I was usually excited by the brief, would have a few hypothesis already in my mind. Writing thoughts down helps find out errors in thinking. It helps build a coherent logic. So my argument/ ppt and briefs would be done on the day of meeting with clients itself.
Fourth habit was getting my brief vetted with the Chief creative officer. Thankfully, it was an excellent partnership where conversations led to interesting possibilities and ideation.
So essentially, good people enabled me to form good routine and consequently we did some great work together.
On the other hand, if there is no routine – chaos ensues. Chaos ensues because people don’t feel that they are in control. And that is a function of how badly the leadership runs the organisation.
At another place, we were forever fire-fighting – either imagined or real. Often because senior management had not set right expectations with clients or right processes internally. The work is forever delegated and junior-most person does all the work. this approach is bound to fuck up. A place where senior people do not deign to even write down their thoughts in an email or put together a slide or even think of an idea is bound to fail. The place was stratified – those who work as underclass, those who brow-beat (manage) the underclass during meetings/ email/ phone call as the ruling class. This kind of stratification cannot possibly lead to respect for work and hence creation of good work.
People would turn up late at work, because they were dreading what was going to hit them. So even a slow day would not bring a break, it only meant limbo.
There was a deep mistrust among people and leaders didn’t do much to change that. No one was celebrated, but blame was distributed handsomely. So people were busy avoiding blame, not chasing possibilities.
Which meant, I couldn’t depend on servicing team for basic things like competitive analysis, creative teams to listen to my briefs in good faith or have an honest conversation, leadership team to solve issues and not blame in return instead.
So we couldn’t plan our work well enough. Which meant no possible routine to build.
Without a drive to win, we kept on dragging. Projects took needlessly long time to get completed. There were numerous meetings that only served to break the flow and waste time. The agency was forever on backfoot.
The agency is on a downward spiral. The organisational structure ensures it. It is not led by owners but by ageing bureaucrats. They are whiling their time until they hit retirement. They hide behind hierarchies. They are jaded and can’t will themselves to learn new things. Which is not to say that they don’t know the buzzwords though. They throw meetings and new hires at new problems, instead of pausing, thinking and honestly changing something about the way they work. They have no thesis for their future. They are hurtling blindly into future and they won’t let the young unfetter their vision. They are doomed.
People are not idiots. They sense this. They call it bad energy. They call it a dump. The sincere most among them try to patch things over, work hard. The cynical merely enjoy the chaos. Neither can form a routine. Neither can work meaningfully.
Is candy no longer an impulse purchase?
Is the world still on the ‘liberal progressive’ journey?
Will Amazon/ Facebook ‘surely’ cede control to regulators?
Will they fight misinformation honestly?
From the trivial to the profound, I find myself in the midst of rushed debates where beautiful questions are raised and then summarily decapitated with bland certainties informed with nothing but an overactive ego propped up by a scrap of a half-baked notion. People in power build straw arguments on the back of one ill-informed notion after another.
Surely, candies are not impulse anymore because people are asking for leader brand by name. ergo….
Surely, people of the world still want freedom, liberty, equality. (they better be. my whole worldview depends on it. if they don’t, who am I? what would I do with my fractured beliefs?) Also, How else to justify the progressive brand shtick? Also, how else to win at gold tinged bubbles named Cannes/ Effies?
Surely, the big tech will cede control. (I don’t even want to imagine the alternative. The owners are heroes, someone that I could have been. I can’t imagine them as villains or worse as simple humans capable of pettiness, narcissism or greed.)
Meaning drowned under the deluge of notions
Questions are such beautiful things. They are an invitation to explore, to understand, to meditate. They tease us to dig deeper, to dive in the richer complexity of the world.
Instead, questions are increasingly treated as simply the setup for a punchline.
This is a profound shift. It is the curse of the information age. The deluge of information is so profound that we can survive only by surfing it, not diving in it. The victim of this is meaning. meaning doesn’t matter anymore. what matters is appearance of meaning.
Information theory X Modern day management
Successful Managers embody this. They confidently keep spouting intelligent sounding bullshit that they can get away with. In Trumpian times, the secret of success is to overwhelm the others with bullshit, the constant stream of bullshit rendering the logic / truth seeker impotent. It is the DDOS attack on consciousness. Overwhelm, confuse, slash and burn.
Bullshit is always faster than truth. Truth emerges only slowly, deliberately. Bullshit is not taxed with effort or intelligence. all it requires is confidence and ability to surf over one straw-man argument/ logic/ fact to next.
As the responsible one, as the people who actually get shit done, it is important to slow down, to break the stride of the bullshit surfer.
It is important to throw the lasso of reason on the question raised and hold onto it.
Why is Candy no longer an impulse purchase? or did you mean that they are impulse purchases but brand matters? so some kind of mints solve a problem (post-smoking masking) while some don’t? or has there been some fundamental shift in the way human desires are triggered?…
So world is actually much more complex now with the rise of right-wing politics? the David of progressive politics versus the Goliath of racism/sexism/…ism is the right narrative to build? So the statement is a political wish, not a fact?
So why would the big tech cede control? is it in their interest? has there been any historical precedent of people ceding control willingly? what forces have been successful in ensuring that powerful cede control to the less powerful?
If we are persistent enough (and polite enough) with our questions, maybe we can unearth the real questions to answer.
As a planner, it means to physically slow down the meetings, hold clients longer until sensible questions and answers emerge.
As a planner that means to say no to unimportant projects that keep you needlessly busy. Need to free up that RAM.
It means to point out bullshit from where ever it might be emanating from – senior management/ clients/ fellow planners/ creatives… and politely help them arrive at a sensible goal to chase.
“Man is born to inquire and create, and when a man or a child chooses to inquire or create out of his own free choice then he becomes in his own terms an artist rather than a tool of production or a well-trained parrot.”Wilhelm von Humboldt (Chomsky, 1970)
Creativity is a fundamental feature of the creature called human. It’s not a plug-in. It’s not a bug. It’s the defining feature. Take away her freedom, her creative pursuits; you might as well take away her life.
Even as the whirlwind of technological changes transform our lives, the creative spirit of humanity remains alive – adapting and changing perhaps, but never getting extinguished. In fact, new technologies and platforms are enabling people to be creative in new ways- giving people power to be producers and not just consumers. With new found power, people are creating new currencies, building guns in their garage with 3d printing, imagining new governance models and even editing their own genes with CrispR. The brave new world is full of possibilities.
This is truly a watershed moment in the history of human creativity. The world is going through a creative renaissance. But can the same thing be said about Creative Agencies? It seems as if the world is racing ahead even as agencies remain fixated on the rear view mirror, its glory days.
It has never been as convenient as it is now to create asymmetric disruption with creative innovations. By Asymmetric, I mean the disproportionate impact that a small group of people can have. Consider WhatsApp. The company that created WhatsApp consisted of a handful of people. The app they made now facilitates communications between billions of people across the world. Or for that matter, consider the alleged Russian hackers causing havoc with US democracy. Both are cases of relatively small groups of people creating big impacts in the world.
Historically, creative agencies thrived in a world where the asymmetry didn’t exist to this extent. The brands with more money hired better creative shops and spent more money on media to create culture defining commercials. They created a shared consumerist utopia that continues to shape our worldview to this day.
The organisational structure, the technology they used, reflected this reality. The tools of trade were inaccessible to common folks in proximity & capability. The structure was hierarchical, reflecting the importance of a few people’s expertise in the organisation. The organisation practically revolved around a few stars. This suited well for a world where speeds of culture dissemination were comparatively much slower and people had few choices when it came to consumption of content or brands.
The world has completely changed now, but the advertising industry has not. Speeds of cultural dissemination and tool of creations have accelerated, but we still think through the prism of slow-moving culture of film scripts & print layouts. The hierarchy and culture of hero-worshipping doesn’t always allow for younger talent to autonomously react to emerging cultural memes. And lastly, the tools and capabilities in an advertising company now are in no way superior to that of a successful group of Instagram influencers.
How can advertising industry excite its creative people if the industry is a laggard now and not a vanguard? What new roles can agencies assume in this amorphous, ever changing world that is as exciting at its fringes as it is at its centre?
To answer these questions, lets first get a sense of the nature of the beast we are talking about.
1. Shift focus from Titillating tech to Transformative Tech.
Digital technology has upended long established ways of working. People working in the industry are fundamentally confused about the impact of technology on the industry. There’s merit in revisiting the thoughts of the great Marshall McLuhan here. He famously said, “the medium is the message”. His statement suggested that a medium/ a technology, affects the society in which it plays a role, not by the content delivered over the medium, but by the characteristic of the medium itself. We shape tools for our ends and in the process, the tools mould us.
When we talk about Technology, we have been focusing on the ‘content’ of technology – ‘which tools should our creative partners use? Which Social Network are people using?’ The truth is – these questions are trivial at the broader level. Facebook, the social media platform, didn’t upend our business models, by monopolising attention of people. The secret weapon of the platform is its egalitarian promise of enabling people to do what was not possible before. New platforms like Uber, Amazon, Facebook, Google create fundamentally new ‘agencies’ for people – new capabilities that people didn’t have access to before.
Platforms are egalitarian spaces for enhancing one’s agency – in a sense uber provides hyper limbs on demand, google is a vast brain at our disposal and Facebook is the nerve-centre of our social lives. These platforms are enabling people to supersize their capabilities and be creative in new ways. That is the fundamental promise of platforms.
The promise is not just about ‘liking’ a brand or dancing to a Tik Tok track. The promise is that of building on top of the new freedoms, new ‘agencies’ that platforms offer. Consider the brand ‘Glossier’ for instance. It turns its packaging into an interactive canvas for users to personalise their products with stickers, designed for Instagram followers. On the other hand, consider Google search and Amazon Echo’s impact on Brands. L2 Inc.’s research suggested that queries for non-branded products increased in every CPG Category, at the expense of branded products! For everyday use product categories, brands might soon become redundant. One of the freedoms that people expect from platforms is the freedom to not remember brand names!
To survive in this rapidly evolving world, agencies need to learn from these platforms.
The tech that we should focus on is the one that helped them build the platforms: The tech that helped them create new agencies, new capabilities for humanity. To do that we need to first look at how they built their teams – the way they work, collaborate, take in feedback and improve.
We don’t need to ape them. But we surely do need to learn from them and identify the systemic changes that technology can help us introduce.
Creative transformation principle #1
FOCUS ON THE WAY TECH CAN IMPROVE THE ‘SYSTEMS’ OF OUR INDUSTRY: THE WAY WE WORK, COLLABORATE, RESPOND.
HOW CAN WE EXTEND AGENCIES OF PEOPLE TOO?
DON’T FOCUS ON THE PARTICULAR TOOLS OF CREATIVITY. THOSE WILL KEEP CHANGING.
From mass media manufacturer of desire
To Culture Creator among people
Unlike past, when a cultural content would last for years, big campaigns made sense. In an age where even blockbuster billion-dollar films get consumed and relegated to past in a matter of a few months, do planned campaigns with long gestation period and diminishing lifetime, make sense?
Brands might as well play lottery with that money.
Now, content is consumed and created instantaneously, built over, remixed & spread memetically. By the time an agency or a client catches hold of the coat-tails of the trend, the meme has transformed into something else. The MEME is ephemeral and yet leaves its imprint on the culture by letting others build over it. This duality of ephemerality and timelessness of memes is quite beautiful and intriguing. Even digital agencies, with their siloed structures, have not even begun to appreciate how to deal with this new beautiful beast. Agencies are simply not BUILT to host, curate or influence these memetic trends.
CREATIVE TRANSFORMATION PRINCIPLE #2
BUILD FOR INSTANTENUOUS CULTURE OF CREATION & CURATION.
BUILD FOR PARTICIPATING AND CREATING AT THE SPEED OF CULTURE.
3. FROM IVORY TOWER OF EXPERTS TO
FERTILE GROUND FOR DIVERSE INTELLIGENCE
Digital collaborations are increasingly frictionless, due to the zero marginal cost paradigm. This has enabled people from across the world to network and work together in new ways, that was not conceivable even a few years ago.
Take the case of FOLDIT for example. It’s an interesting experiment that gets gamers to solve complex long-standing scientific problems. Anybody can participate in these ‘games’ – some are high-school students, some without a science background. Yet, this collective of video gamers helped monumentally in a decade long effort in mapping the structure of an enzyme used by retroviruses similar to HIV. (This is references from Joi Ito & Jeff Howe’s book, Whiplash)
The experiment harnesses the superior abilities of gamers of recognising patterns, an innate form of spatial reasoning that most of us lack. The organisers of experiment filtered through hundreds of thousands of people who are experts at this very specific skillset. This they did, by using the data generated by the game, intelligently.
Big Data’s big advantage is in finding the precise capabilities, trends, insights that would have been simply not possible to find otherwise.
Among the many other implications that this has for advertising, I want to bring to your attention, one fundamental myth that ails this industry. The myth of expertise behind closed doors.
If gamers can help microbiologists in their very specialised tasks, why can’t salesmen & bus conductors help us solve brand problems? Why can’t agencies harness big data to find and match expertise in ways that allow it a greater play in culture? (And Publicis’ Marcel is not the way for it. I have a few ideas, will share it in a book I am writing now.)
The way we leverage expertise is counter-productive. The prevalent practice is to hire creative talent and make them work exclusively on select client projects. But history tells us that best ideas come at intersection of minds, in open fields of free association, when mind delves in diversity-rich societies. The closed doors of agencies only accelerate the decay of creative thought processes.
For effective creative transformation, agencies need to engineer greater diversity in our work-streams.
Creative transformation principle #3
ADOPT TECHNOLOGIES & POLICIES THAT ENHANCE DIVERSITY OF EXPERTISE.
4. FROM AUTHORITY TO EMERGENCE
Diversity leads to dialectic dialogue. The organisational systems and incentives need to be designed in a way that these dialogues build over each other and not end in internecine politics. For that to happen, the management needs to cede control strategically. The power must move away from the centre and towards edges, become fluid and transitional. An organisational chart of an agency should be closer to the participatory democracy of Switzerland rather than the iron fist of Soviet communist party.
Joi Ito & Jeff Howe, in their book Whiplash, make a persuasive argument for this shift. Traditional systems depend on decisions made at the top. Consequently, the processes are slow, encrusted in layers of bureaucracy and encumbered by a conservative proceduralism.
To respond rapidly, the organizational structure must allow for ‘emergence’. Emergence is the ability of a collective to do something that individuals couldn’t do on their own. Ants exhibit it when they navigate challenges to their colony or to source food, without a central decision-making body. They do so, by following a few simple principles encoded in their genes that guide their behaviour around certain stimuli.
There’s a lesson here. Organisations that institute simple principles which empower autonomous behaviours among its workforce can respond to new threats and challenges much more effectively. This is already happening to an extent with online tools that reduce much of the friction that defined business in 20th century – in raising capital (with Kickstarter), in communicating (with Slack/WhatsApp), in manufacturing (with 3d printers, Shenzhen supply chain) and so on. With on-demand manufacturing in Shenzhen, on-demand access to cloud with AWS, on-demand access to capital on Kickstarter/ VC, on-demand access to talent through gig-economy, anyone can respond to an emergent threat/ opportunity now and start an organisation.
It’s a brave new world out there. To navigate changes in these rapid waters, we must take a few brave decision and pivot towards being an emergent organization.
Creative Transformation principle #4
RESILIENT ORGANISATIONS ALLOW FOR EMERGENCE.
CREATE ENVIRONMENTS & SYSTEMS IN WHICH PEOPLE CAN BE FREE TO CREATE, INQUIRE & RESPOND AUTONOMOUSLY.
5. FROM WATER–TIGHT SILOS TO PERMEABLE SYSTEMS
The creative industry clings dearly to siloed structures. When traditional agencies were found wanting in their digital capabilities, they created a separate department for that. Now digital transformation is the talk of the town and voila! There’s a sister concern catering to that demand. It is almost a knee jerk reaction. Need to increase gender diversity – hire a gender diversity officer. The ideas have been lagging in execution? Create a position of chief delivery officer.
For every objective, the modern agencies simply hire a person whose headache it would be to run the agenda. Agencies these days are ballooning with senior level hires who seem to spend more time convincing clients that transformation/ diversity hire/ delivery indeed is improving, rather than systemically doing something to solve those problems.
The costly hired hands can’t do much anyways. In a global firm, how can a person or a department truly influence other departments? The problem is systemic, the solution too must be systemic. It can’t be anybody else’s headache. It has to be the CEO’s headache.
How does an agency CEO deal with this situation effectively? By enabling a more permeable culture – getting more people to work/ interact with people from other departments – agencies can improve diversity of thought and create more opportunities for emergence of creative opportunities and responses to threats. Intellectually, the most fertile grounds for innovations are the intersections of an organisation.
CEOs should work towards ensuring a permeable structure that rewards exchange of expertise, inter-departmental conversations and ability to self-govern.
Creative Transformation principle #5
USE TECH TO INCREASE THE OPPORTUNITIES FOR PEOPLE FROM VARIOUS DEPARTMENTS TO WORK/ TALK WITH EACH OTHER. INTELLECTUALLY, THE MOST FERTILE GROUND IS AT THE INTERSECTION OF DEPARTMENTS.
At the heart of the issue of Creative transformation of our industry are people who create and inquire freely. The industry will thrive as long as these creative heroes have an enabling, free and autonomous environment. For them to rise to the challenge of changing times, their environment must evolve along the following principles.
- Focus on the way tech can improve the ‘systems’ of our industry: the way we work, collaborate, respond. Don’t focus on the particular tools of creativity. Those will keep changing.
- Build for instantaneous culture of creation & curation. Build for participating and creating at the speed of culture.
- Adopt technologies & policies to enhance diversity of expertise.
- Resilient organisations allow for emergence. Create environments & systems in which people can be free to create, inquire & respond autonomously.
- Use tech to increase the opportunities for people from various departments to work/ talk with each other. Intellectually, the most fertile ground is at the intersection of departments.
It will do well to remember Ivan Illich’s famous words when we plan for creative transformation. People need tools that extend their freedoms, not limit them.
“People need new tools to work with rather than tools that “work” for them. They need technology to make the most of the energy and imagination each has, rather than more well−programmed energy slaves.”Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality
Flying over Kuala Lumpur, one can see huge expanse of palm trees, beautifully arranged in rows and columns. Fly over Thailand and you would see similar geometry playing out with rubber trees.
The human sense of geometry imposed on nature, seen from the human invented vantage of flight. It’s wondrous and beautiful and awe inspiring.
What you saw was monoculture in its full glory. Monoculture is beautiful for the bird’s eye, but it is destroying the biodiversity of this globe. We might wake up to a world tomorrow, skidding to a halt, when the rubber plants in Thailand are infected with deadly fungus. Say bye bye to tyres, grips, stethoscopes and condoms. It’s the end of the world as we know it.
Monocultures make us vulnerable.
A similar monoculture had been taking root in the 20th century. The memetic monoculture of TV and mass media.
We had shared cultural references – shaktimaan, ramayan, chandrakanta, hamara bajaj… it was easier for brands to be built with ‘campaigns’; one iconic campaign and you are sorted for the decade. agency leaders were celebrities and being in an agency felt great. After all, advertisers were the architects of the monoculture. One culture to rule them all, and advertisers were molding that ring. We wielded great power and we rue loosing hold of it.
21st century is different though. Internet is the fungus that has killed the monoculture of mass media. These days I am hooked to The Bugle podcast by Andy Zaltzman & Post Malone’s song, Sunflower. And no one knows of my addiction to these content pieces – not even my family! I am consuming that content mostly by myself. Unlike the 20st century where content was sparse and people welcomed content, we live in a world where we shield ourselves against the onslaught of it. I don’t want your forwards and in return i won’t send you links to podcasts and videos i like. 🙂
From mono culture to culture of one! The world has been turned upside down.
What does it mean for agencies? Isn’t it obvious? advertising was the powerful ring to rule them all. Now that ring is destroyed. You might create campaign that is creatively 100 times better than Fevicol’s legendary campaigns or Nike’s just do it campaign. But unless those efforts are now backed with content – retail – experience strategies, you are bound to sink.
The point is not that advertising is dead. But rather that it’s relevance is dwarfed now. It will always exist, but no longer in the spotlight, but it will grow in the shadows.
It will remain an important tool in attempting to create shared cultural references. But it’s ability to do so is being challenged with end of monoculture.
Strength in Diversity
Marketing gurus like Mark Ritson & Les Binet are ardent advocate of the notion that advertising, especially TV advertising, is crucial in creating that shared cultural reference, the brand. I don’t dispute their claim. But I wish they wouldn’t discount the opinions of people who feel that software will eat the world, beginning with advertising world.
Mark Ritson’s argument is simplistic – look at the number of people spending time on TV! Look at people talking about ads during superbowl! TOM Matters!
Yes it does. No one’s discounting it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have seen growth in ad spends.
What is being questioned is the primacy of mass media and TV in particular. And that is an excellent question!
With proliferation of medias, strategies, approaches… the diversity is strengthening the capitalist culture. The new culture might require more brands, perhaps fewer platforms and a billion segments of consumers who consume things in millions of different ways.
That is an opportunity to advertising agencies, not a threat.
A brand now needs to do more – engage in culture more, meet more needs, be more proactive, delight more often…
Why fight and complain about it?
It’s great that the ‘big idea’ is dying and marketers have to do more, improve faster to retain customers. this is natural in the paradigm of growth through fast feedback.
By fighting it, all we are doing is showing our ignorance, our inability to adapt. we need to Pivot.
Here’s how – Pivot.
Weren’t we supposed to be the good guys?
Advertising alleviated the pain of the Sisyphean tragedy of modern capitalism. Advertising taught the world how to want. Advertising gave the notion of free will and choices when it comes to consumption. It made the powerless feel powerful, that their choices, their consumption mattered. The consumptive soma that advertising created, filled the world with euphoria, making people forget about the differences that divided them, for a while. The promise of abundance, growth, prosperity united the world in a beautiful hope.
But in the process, it also helped wreck the planet, helped remorse-less industries harming people/ planet put up a human face, and generally aided the self-image and bad-diet crisis.
`And if that wasn’t enough, advertising world has to contend with its role in bringing humanity to the brink – there is growing consensus that unless we change our ways drastically in next 18 months, societies will collapse inevitable due to environmental catastrophe. And as of now, we are on the dark side. We are helping fuel the climate change denial by enabling smokescreens, we are encouraging consumptive behaviour, we are enabling companies ‘manage their image’ in bad faith and we are giving consumers the false hope of sustainable consumptive choices.
It’s time we reckon our role in climate change. Advertising industry has been instrumental in globalised capitalism. It was the soft power, that ensured that hard power was never needed to win new markets to grow like never before. But that project is over now. Same levels of growth for businesses will come at the expense of humanity’s probable extinction.
Capitalism is the creator and destroyer of worlds. And advertising is one of its most prized deputies. It is time for the deputy to check both sides of its master – unchecked creation IS destruction.
It’s time for its deputy to convince its capitalist masters that their survival is at stake, not just others’.
We now have 18 months for the great capitalist machinery of this planet to self-reflect critically and change its ways. The way the world is going, it is likely that not much will change in the next two years, apart from the climate of course.
“it is time we consider the implications of it being too late to avert a global environmental catastrophe in the lifetimes of people alive today.”Jem Bendell, Deep Adaptation
The de-stabilizing forces that we have unleashed on the planet are multiplying exponentially. The ensuing feedback loops of the chaotic system we call climate is going to leave most of humanity in tatters, soon enough.
We could plead ignorance in the last century. But what is the excuse now?
So here’s what we need to do.
1. Accept complicity in creating consumptive culture. Understand that it is not sustainable.
2. Accept that we have been opportunistic with interpretation of business goals – we help companies build opportunist narratives by leveraging humanist insights. we allow companies to remain inhumane by helping create humanist facade for them.
3. Accept that we have the opportunity to influence brand leaders and consumers in being more mindful and more active in our quest to increase probability of survival for most humans.
4. Accept that peddling tokenism, promoting purpose or social marketing – are counterproductive.
Check my denial
- Climate change is real. The change is not linear. As the situation worsens, it will worsen faster. And it is unpredictable.
So STOP taking projects that contribute to climate change denial.
- We will be seeing its adverse impact within our lifetimes. Our life is being impacted by it even now. There is more than enough evidence for it. Search at reputed sources of scientific information for it.
- Avoid conservative/ right-wing media. They might say what you want to hear. But it doesn’t make it true. They are becoming wealthy at the expense of our ignorance and our lack of courage to entertain truth.
- There isn’t a category of products that is untouched by issue of climate change. Any thing that is consumed – product/ service will have a footprint in environment. It is time to be mindful of your role in propagating consumption in any of those categories.
From clothes, soaps, liquor, social networks to hospitals and psychiatric clinics… growth in every category leads to consumption of resources which leads to environmental footprint – possibly detrimental.
- We advertising folks are masters of re-framing, reorienting the perspective for convenience. we can justify most decisions on moral grounds by bringing up other issues, by employing what-aboutery. Perhaps you can turn the question regarding consumption into an issue of free will – choice to consume freely, or into an issue of inequality – time for the underprivileged to consume now, or about gender issue – this face cream is about inner beauty… and so on. But know that these arguments are in ‘bad faith‘. (We really need to understand this concept.)
Understand bad faith and try not to do anything in bad faith.
- We cry insignificance and point to the might daddy corporate which really runs the show. we say, if not me, someone else will… and that’s how the world ends.
Clients are smart people. They aren’t always reasonable and they know the value in being so. After all, it is we who have cultivated the culture that entertains their unreasonable, no-questions asked poodling. They are used to people doing their bidding through the numerous agencies they hire. agency for manufacturing, for marketing, for R&D, for supply chain, for management…for everything. They are so far removed from the real world that they need research agencies to conduct researches to know their consumers. They are so far removed from the effect they cause in the lives of their consumer that they genuinely come from a place of ignorance. We agencies have a perspective though.
We shouldn’t selectively project ignorance to protect our culpability.
There’s no alternative to engaging with clients in ‘good faith’ about their impact on climate.
- Lastly, the world is never going to be the same again. The new world will not be about abundance and unlimited choices. Geo-engineering, genetic engineering, flying to another planet are not realistic choices. The new world needs a new perspective.
Resilience, Relinquishment & Restoration
I highly recommend reading this to start with – http://www.lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf
...what we face is a complex predicament beyond our control. Rather, I hope the deep adaptation agenda of resilience, relinquishment and restoration can be a useful framework for community dialogue in the face of climate change.Deep Adaptation
Resilience asks us “how do we keep what we really want to keep?” Relinquishment asks us “what do we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse?”
Restoration asks us “what can we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies?”
To survive as species, we need this new mindful approach. Exponential growth is not sustainable. We had it good for a while. But now it time for change. So how can advertising agencies change?
These questions can guide us in our brand building, comms approach by keeping the context of broader society in our minds. We can’t afford to see our work in isolation from the rest of the world.
The question of resilience helps us reflect – Is this project really something that we want to see existing in 20 years?
The question of relinquishment helps us appreciate that in the coming decades many among us will have to give up something important – perhaps someone’s home, livelihood, way of being… Are our actions helping other people or are they aggravating their situation?
The question of restoration helps us look back and see for inspiration in our past. What and How can we help restore?
What you read are my raw thoughts. I still need to read, learn and build on these ideas. I would appreciate any leads to help me do so.
I am looking for opportunities to partner with organisations in the space of raising climate change awareness. Again, would appreciate any leads.
Brown dwarfs are the universal in-between – neither a star, nor a planet. They were potentially stars, but failed short. They failed to shine. Unlike the sun, the nuclear reactions on a brown dwarf sputter unstably, sometimes being extinguished of that majestic fire altogether.
Its death is slow, degenerate. It contracts, cools, degenerates very slowly, forever.
Advertising industry is the brown dwarf of the capitalist 21st century.
It’s capabilities are falling short in the arms race for talent. It doesn’t pay to attract good talent at entry and mid-level. It won’t spend money to train the potentially great entry, mid-level talent either (almost every one is potentially great). So it’s stuck in a degenerative loop. It’s leaders spin furiously in their little cocoons at the top without affecting any change in the lives of people who actually get shit done. A lot of hot talk remains trapped inside air conditioned boardrooms.
Agency business is a good business with decent margins serving a need that is never going to go away. People will always need help with influencing others. But the ways in which people can be influenced changes with times. Other industries are stepping in and re-configuring the way people want, the way people seek and the way people connect. The tragedy is, the agency leadership still doesn’t get this. The margins are fat enough now for the leadership to remain complacent and live off the dividend. But the brunt of accumulating inefficiencies, incompetencies has to be faced by the entry, medium-level folks. As such, the best among them keep on leaving.
So this spinning circle jerk is contracting day by day, jettisoning the best and brightest among the young who feel – ‘i can do better than this’. This leaves behind the not-so-bright-but-cocky-enough-to-compensate folks at the center of accretion disk.
Unless agencies start paying, listening to and adopting ideas of its bright young folks, agencies are destined to deteriorate like a brown dwarf.
WPP is now a ”creative transformation” company.
I am cautiously optimistic about this facelift. I hope there is more to come. And that WPP will go beyond the facelift and the simplification. fingers crossed.
After Ogilvy‘s ‘refounding’ and Publicis’ marcel attempt and now WPP’s structural simplification & brand identity ‘reveal’, it feels as if the creative industry is in serious short supply of imagination & ambition.
I guess, it will be worthwhile to understand WHY these agencies feel the need to change.
Tumbling down the priority list
Firstly, mass communications’ relevance to fuel business growth is in decline. Digital has opened up newer ways of creating products and reaching, engaging and servicing consumers. So businesses now have far more levers to crank growth, whereas in past it had just a few – mass communications being the most ‘scalable’. Now distribution, service and even products are scalable.
So the obvious implication for advertising agencies is to –
a. Accept the reality that brand building remains important, but it is one among many things that a company needs to do. So premiumise our services, increase the value of creative offerings. After all, branding might not be essential to everyone, but it still remains essential to many. But we are not doing that.
b. Or accept the elevation of other service partners at the table. Consequently accept the declining share of client’s growth spends. And go find ways to ‘scale‘, reach more clients.
c. Or, grow capabilities to service newer needs of business growth.
The key thing here is to commit to a path – either of these three. If we try to straggle two paths, we are bound to falter. WPP, Publicis and the rest seem to be trying to straddle.
In this light, the ‘creative transformation’ doesn’t signal a strategy at all. It simply feels like an articulation to assuage fears of irrelevance. It is not committing to any one path. It is more of the same old. It is simply reducing silos, but still functioning with silos. It doesn’t understand true integration of capabilities. They seem to operate with the logic that to gain a capability, we need to simply add a department. But they have no point of view on enabling people with different capabilities to work together, learn together. This remains a crucial problem to solve.
The incremental evolution perhaps is in the right direction, but not big enough, not fast enough. WPP, Publicis and most other creative agencies are bound to be turned into second tier vendors in the new economy, unless they fundamentally change the way they work.
Theater of precision
Secondly, digital tools create the theater of precision. Data gets sliced, diced, bundled, anonymized, aggregated, dimensionalised, granulated, distilled, contextualised… and so on. Much of it is useful, much of it isn’t. For now though, data enjoys the hype among CxOs that advertising enjoyed in the last century. Advertising relished in the indeterminate and chaotic nature of human creativity, while data gives a false sense of certainty and precision. In absence of scientific temperament, a theater of rationality is stealing the show. Advertising industry’s reluctance to engage with scientific processes meaningfully has given rise to a generation of clients who feel that the industry is opportunist at best, incapable-of-reason at worst.
The advertising industry needs to rationally dismantle both, the theater of precision and the theater of mystic creativity. It needs to stop acting as an opportunist salesman that uses complexity and mysticism to its advantage. The time is up for that. Scientific temperament can help gain confidence & value.
So my question is, how exactly does ‘creative transformation’ take place? what is the thesis? what is the scalable process here to deliver this transformation? Is there a precedent to this approach? How do we know that this strategy is superior to others in helping clients grow?
Instead of starting with a brand identity & design exercise, I believe WPP should have started with a rational approach to define a new way of working together, a new way of being more consistent with driving results.
Start: The industry needs to focus on their ability to create real value for businesses seeking growth.
Stop: Focusing on justifying our existence, articulating our way into relevance, feeding the parasites.
This is in response to Mr. Rory sutherland’s article about targeting in advertising. Read that article before reading this one.
“By deluding everyone that the whole of advertising is reducible to “the efficient and inexpensive delivery of targeted messages” through the extensive use of data and algorithms, two companies have gained a multi-billion-dollar rent-seeking monopoly over the majority of advertising activity.”
– The extraordinarily persuasive Mr. Rory Sutherland in his campaignlive article.
Bang on. But right after identifying the problem correctly, he then completely misses the big picture.
1. Platforms are relevant beyond advertising. Agencies aren’t.
Yes, facebook and google create the illusion of measurable effectiveness of comms through targeting, even as it turns out, it is just as much a gamble as traditional media was. But Mr. Rory doesn’t comprehend the broader utility of these technological giants. They aren’t simply channels of communications. They are default platform of commerce, knowledge & social connections. They inform not just marketing but supply chain strategies, go-to-market strategies and even new product development. These platforms are fundamentally shaping the new era of business growth. The ‘sudoku’ like big picture consciousness needs to take this into account. It needs to take into account the fact that these platforms are fundamentally changing the way we work, we behave, we interact and we live.
So, my first moment of ‘wtf’ came when Mr. Rory thought that the multi-billion dollar rent-seeking was just about ‘advertising activity’. Either he needs to appreciate the far broader footprint of that ‘activity’ where creative agencies don’t compete or he should look for reasons within the creative industry for why we aren’t getting a share of any of that activity.
I don’t particularly like the tech giants myself. But advertising industry is no innocent minnow either. It has always been a morally grey industry. So for its statesman to target the tech industry while absolving itself of its failing fortunes, felt a bit weak. The sense one gets is “we don’t need to change, you should. we are not muddled in our heads, you are.” Which is horseshit ofcourse.
2. False duality of Targeting/ Creativity:
I wholehearted agree that obsessing about targeting is problematic, not just strategically but even morally and hopefully eventually legally. But with metaphors of sudoku and door man, he ends up creating a false sense of comprehensiveness with targeting & creativity. Indeed he talks about sudoku – the big picture consciousness needed to solve the problem, but doesn’t take into account the big picture of advertising operations. We are way too busy advising businesses about their transformation to notice the need for our own transformation.
He essentially creates a false duality about targeting & Creativity. Advertising comprises of far more acts than that of creative messaging and targeting. As a matter of fact, technology’s relevance for advertising is precisely outside of these two acts – servicing, client feedback, HR, research, basic analysis even creative inspiration … all these tasks that support creativity can be improved with technology. And they can improve only by ‘breaking-down-to-manageable-parts’ approach. The sudoku metaphor, though very enticing feels wrong. The sudoku metaphor is relevant for big picture strategy or pure acts of creativity. But no other process beyond it. and there are far too many processes beyond these two processes in advertising.
3. The untold story about the doorman: So in Rory Sutherland’s piece, tech company automates the door and boom – end of the hotel. But in reality, there is a story after that. Unlike our industry, tech industry is notoriously good at improving with feedback. They are famously ‘forever in beta’. They would recognise the error, and plan ahead. perhaps by creating gadget for the doorman to greet different patrons in different language. Perhaps, by creating a entry chamber that is even more secure and pleasurable to enter into. The possible improvements are endless with creative thinking.
What I am trying to get at is… tech will improve the processes that it can improve until no improvements are needed. And unless agencies get on with the ‘arms race of feedback led improvements’, we are doomed to get thrown out by the doorman like he would a bum.
4. Tech’s role in advertising:
Do clients want us to be more nimble, more responsive? how can it happen without tech?
Digital media is creating a Just-in-time and plug and play mentality for solutions. can we deliver solutions JIT and PnP without tech?
Agencies service just the largest corporates in the world. we can’t profitably service SMEs. Is that the world we want to be in where the biggest get unfair advantages of our talent? Can technology help agencies in servicing at scale?
Most of our time goes in idiotic tasks such as filling time sheets, arranging meetings, reworking forever due to bad feedback… Each of these tasks can be improved with tech.
We are using tech to reduce productivity actually – Take for instance the process of installing a font currently – raise a ticket, wait for technician, who installs it. the first two steps are completely unnecessary. but we do it, because we don’t take tech led improvement in processes seriously, even as we idolize Apple.
Most importantly, effectiveness of campaigns is still akin to picking a lottery ticket. There is no scientific algorithm to achieve right effectiveness. Similar to the problem faced by stock-brokers. But people like Mandlebrot have been suggesting scientific and a different approach to that problem. Maybe, there is much to learn for us from that approach. (Stochastic and as such programmable to an extent. but not anytime soon.
5. ‘Creativity’ has been agencies’ excuse for long to get away with their privileged complacency. Advertising agencies are too expensive, unreliable and inaccessible. Tech will disrupt advertising agencies soon enough, because industry leaders echo Rory’s myopia.
And here’s the blueprint for that disruption – Agency as a platform.