Future of advertising: Agency as open source platform
Future of advertising: Agency as open source platform
I received a curious mail today from Campaign magazine. It was soliciting content. so far so good. I skimmed through it and was delighted. They wanted content and towards the end they had mentioned a huge sum of money, almost half a year’s salary for me. I assumed it must be honorarium for the ones whose content is selected. I was thinking, man, these guys are amazing – can they really afford to give away that kind of money to contributors? Didn’t make sense. Perhaps it is a way of cultivating the best talent?
so I read the whole thing – turns out, they are not giving honorarium, they are ASKING for the sum. In exchange, the contributor gets their photo published in the magazine.
This is some weird shit. All this while I thought their business is in getting free content and distributing it at profit. (which I find problematic anyways. Why should any labor be free?) But it turns out, their business is about validating the poor insecure idiots in the narcissist industry of advertising, who seek validation for their expertise.
I understand, for many small agencies perhaps, this is a way of getting noticed by the right people. For a down and out senior person, this is a way of getting back in the game. For a low esteem somebody, it is way of feeling secure about their expertise. and I am sure it is of positive utility to somebody somewhere, the use-case for which I can’t think of now. Nevertheless, what a scam!
The mice needs security and the vulture is selling helmets.
Advertising industry is plagued with this insecure-narcissistic game that drains its people of their money, their time and their esteem. The countless awards, the countless publications, the countless events – what good comes of all that masturbation?
Cannes, One show, Effies – what a fucking waste of money and efforts. It does curate some amazing work, but it is not available freely for all industry folks to learn from, now is it? It is available at a price and not readily usable. The learning, the cases, they are not turned into usable insights, usable learning tools for the young in the industry to learn from, freely. If it is behind paywalls, it is useless. It is unethical to first charge for entries and then again charge for accessing the end product. Its the most dick move ever. In the age of AI, why can’t knowledge gathering digital dust behind paywalls, be turned into an Open advisory for a world where businesses grow more efficiently and people don’t have to weather terrible ads?
I can see the parallel here with the pharma industry – companies that have recipes of wonder drugs that can cure TB, malaria – but won’t give it out to needy people. Well, the comparison is wrong – atleast pharma companies own their own IP, all that award shows do is massage a few egos. Its the most expensive ‘curatorial’ service ever.
Awards might help build agency credentials. But why does a company need new credentials every year? I mean, I don’t see volkswagen or Mahindra spending as large a proportion of their revenue towards awards, as agencies do. No other industry spends as much money on validation as percentage of its revenue as we do.
Look at Publicis. With a year’s worth of spends on awards, they are planning to build a AI assistant for their employees! (Shitty idea, but one must commend on trying to be relevant) I mean they could start new businesses every year with that kind of money, put it to far better uses than advertising awards.
With Unilever, P&G cutting down their ad spends, agencies will have to further tighten their belts. They better start with the awards, instead of employee raises.
Which other industry has so many ‘thought leaders’, so many publications and yet doesn’t move an inch ahead in the game of innovating it’s own value proposition?
What do adage, campaign, afaqs, thedrum etc add to the universe’s knowledge? Not much. These publications regurgitate same points of views over and over again. They keep discussing similar trends over and over again without critical analysis (programmatic is the future, maybe it is not. Native is the future, maybe not. Context is king. maybe not. where is the data to support the hypothesis anyways?) Never have I read an actual original point of view about media/ business/ culture/ consumer in these rags. They are mere propaganda vehicles for ad agencies and its career climbers.
Its quite possible that half the ‘views’ and engagement of ‘famous’ campaigns are generated by people in marketing only – readers of these publications. I suspect, the feedback effect is detrimentally strong in advertising. Shiny, smart ideas get propped up even if it might not be effective.
Lastly, I feel the publications normalise the alienating bubble of advertising. By repeating trends that are not actually trending, by idolising campaigns that are not effective, by giving trophies to agency folks… they are holding back the industry.
Agencies often have fairly smart people. People with ideas. People who can start their own businesses, create things of great value. Instead they get too comfortable by publication powered validations and publication powered point of views. They hold them back in the industry.
Well, I think, advertising people would gain far more if they went to art galleries, tech expos, civic issue seminars, political rallies, academic seminars even etc. There’s marginal utility in going to advertising industry events where you will bump into people exactly like you. (unless you want to network).
Traditional advertising agencies were essentially amoral tongues on rent. In the pre-digital age, where there was no other way of knowing the truth (or rumours) about products and brands, advertisements was the only major source of opinion/ information (after WOM) about the product’s usefulness/ efficacy/ likeability.
There was a role for advertising in the lives of people. It was global village’s emissary of good times. It was the window to a new lifestyle. It was the helpful aunt who knows solutions to all our problems. And it was all in good cheery humour. Oh, golly-gee. What a wonderful world advertising was building for people. In a media-starved world, people lapped up the shiny world painted by advertising. The modernist utopia was painted by advertising.
Internet broke that world. It made the world transparent. People could verify claims, could complain, could rally fellow consumes into shaming advertisers who were dishonest. Advertising just didn’t ring true any more. At best they were entertaining distractions. At worst they were insidious worry-mongers who amplified the worst aspects of humanity – misogyny, racism, greed…Mostly they were an annoyance best muted or ignored.
From a brand point of view, ads were not efficient anymore in telling consumers anything they didn’t already know or wanted to know. Advertising simply had lost the plot.
Then came Amazon, facebook and google. And boy did they take the life out of advertising. Many agencies are dead, they just don’t know it yet. They see pitches, dwindling margins as symptoms of economy, politics etc. They don’t see the picture. The disease is different. The disease is ‘death of brands’. And with it, traditional agencies.
People do not need ads anymore to inform/ educate/ convince them about anything. thank you very much. They have google, facebook for that. They stream their brand experience (mostly if it is bad) live on facebook. They pummel the brand social media handlers when brands do a faux pas. They’ve got the power and they know it.
People buy ‘products’ on amazon and flipkart now. They don’t care for brands anymore.
With Amazon’s Alexa and Prime, amazon will ‘seamlessly’ relieve the burden of choices and chore shopping for wealthiest of consumers. That means hello private labels and small players, bye bye big CPG brands.
Sure, some people might continue to believe that they must drink redbull and eat tacos and drive audis and exhibit iphones… but the vast majority of non-lifestyle CPG brands, daily use brands – brand on which we spend most frequently. They will see erosion in their ‘brand value’.
Go niche or go big. There is no middle ground anymore for most brands.
What that means for agencies? Forget the age of ‘lines’ and brand ethos. ‘brand with a purpose’ and ‘lifestyle defining brands’ can only be a handful. Most of agency clients are not these brands.
Agencies of the future need to help most brands become more ‘uniquely useful’ to the consumer. Agencies need to be able to create opportunities and harness unexpected opportunities for brands. Here are some interesting brief to work for.
‘How can we ensure that the consumer searches for my brand name and not the category name when buying on amazon?’
“How can we change the amazon prime habit and get the consumer to buy stuff at my store on his way home?”
How can my brand reach consumer better, quicker, more delightfully than amazon/ google can?
and so on.
The point it, days of ‘lines’ and ‘scripts’ are gone. We must be able to solve real business growth problems and be ready to leverage any medium/ expertise/ experience. If agencies remain married to ‘ads’, agencies are doomed.
Cannes is a time for grand announcements. Even if they mean nothing.
So DAN and Tencent signed a deal that apparently will ‘transform mobile marketing‘ according to Campaign asia and usher us in a ‘new era of future marketing‘ according to Yahoo Finance. Neither of the articles go beyond gibberish and jargon to suggest actual ramifications of the partnerships. One of the clearer outcomes is a ‘university’ to teach digital marketing. But that in itself is not very revolutionary, now is it?
Campaign asia talked about ‘exclusive’ partnership. So that’s how agencies are going to build superiority now – walled gardens, rent seeking. Damn, we are really out of ideas now aren’t we.
The deal apparently helps “gain valuable data-driven consumer insights” which essentially is an euphemism for collection of and selling of behavior data of consumers. I understand there is money in it. But damn, that’s a shady business to get into with a smile.
The truth is the mobile stack is just a gimmick to get clients to think that Dentsu ‘gets’ mobile marketing. I am sure some good will come out of it. But it certainly won’t ‘transform’ anything. The lack of vision in the PR article on two websites was indication enough of a clear lack of vision among agency leaders.
Sigh. I so wish for leaders in the industry to actually read, learn and think hard to actually become more useful to more people, more businesses. Instead we get these hogwash deals.
Publicis is trying to become a platform with ‘Marcel’.
PHD has ‘Source’ – another platform idea.
Ogilvy also has its OS – more or less a similar idea.
Every global agency wants to become an Operating system/ platform where it could efficiently put to use the thousands of creative minds, departments for its thousand clients across the globe. The idea theoretically is pretty awesome. Now that the agencies have grown to global proportion, how do yo make sense of the scale? How do you break the silos? How do you partner global brand’s global operations? A digitally enabled global platform sounds about right.
But will it actually work? There are two things that make an idea work. One is clarity of purpose. Second is people – Who is supposed to make it work and does he/ she gain anything from it?
And I think the agencies have lost the game on both fronts.
I think Publicis has potential but they have underestimated the power of AI or are shy of actually using its potential. The examples shown in the video are pedestrian. The queries showcased do not require ambitious AI. They can pivot to a bigger opportunity with a bit more of imagination and conviction.
Secondly, the people.
The value of a platform or a network is really in its ‘network effect’. Facebook is valuable because all my friends are on facebook and so are their likes and their suggestions. It is worthless if my friends were not there. So a platform is as good as the number of active people on it.
And I doubt there is strong enough an incentive for agency workforce to go digital – use that digital add-on of a ‘platform’.
Let me elaborate. Starting with vision.
Professional assistant sounds like an exciting idea. But the examples shown in the demo video for Marcel makes me think that they really haven’t thought it through yet. The potential of a professional assistant in my pocket is huge and I doubt they have the conviction, the drive and the ability to truly create a product that could help me with my work. The video showed examples of fairly simple queries (for reports, for teams, for projects… simple keyword searches) – something that a simple google search would yield an answer. If that is the ambition, then the product is worthless.
I imagine a professional assistant for a strategist to know up-to-date information of my client’s business performance, brand matrices, social listening etc. I will need it to analyse that social, market data for me.
For a creative professional, an AI enabled professional assistant could help fetch examples of a certain emotion being portrayed in movies, novels etc, or find the right cultural conversation to target, find right examples of older/ competitive ad that conveys something. From a coding perspective, it requires technology that can scan videos for emotions, scan novels for metaphors, suggest content that might be useful for my current project, scan global market indices, scan social conversations for expressions, not just sentiments.
That is a sophisticated product that I can use. And also, a sophisticated product that is technically very difficult to create. There is a reason it doesn’t exist yet.
It would be economically more viable for Publicis to sell these products in open marketplace with high margins, instead of restricting it to their employees and clients.
Euromonitor and their ilk have not yet shown a willingness to improve their delivery with AI. Understandably so, because of the economics of it and the coding prowess it requires to create an intuitive and powerful AI that will actually be useful. If Publicis or Ogilvy, has that kind of coding prowess, they would be better placed to monetise it for strategy projects rather than as value-adds, to advertising!
Why would you give away something more valuable for free with something whose value is depreciating. Would you sell a bicycle by giving away gold bars free with it?
The nature of advertising business demands close co-ordination, casual comfort in conversations, intellectual proximity… None of which will exist if digital becomes the primary interface for inter-agency/ or agency-client relationships. People like to meet, talk and see if they find others as being agreeable. Even within an agency, if a CD doesn’t like my (planner’s) attitude, he would simply not bother even reading my brief. In the ego chamber that is an agency, relationships determine if people even attempt at listening to other people. I have a hard time getting creatives excited about most of my briefs. I am sure they won’t get excited over anonymous briefs gathering digital dust on the ‘platform’ – a brief that doesn’t get an appointment, doesn’t challenge them intellectually, doesn’t provide them a startling new insight, doesn’t smile encouragingly, doesn’t empathize with their issues, doesn’t complement on their excellent creativity… is a dead brief.
Indeed, many business relationships are based solely on the merit of nothing more than strength of actual people to people relationships. What happens to those if digital platforms become the primary interfaces?
And if that is not the case and real world remains the primary interface with digital being an add-on, why would anyone want to invest extra time and effort on a platform that has diminishing returns for the primary purpose of fruitful relationships.
There are two kinds of clients – those that build a trust based relationship with an agency and works closely enough to grow their brands. Increasingly, however, trust is giving way for power tactics – clients who get agencies to pitch for every little project.
The ‘platform’ idea is more suitable for the latter kind of clients. It is in the nature of ‘open relationships’ to put out briefs that hide more than they reveal. The lack of transparency means that the planner has to work harder in ‘guessing’ the brand challenge and strategy, in absence of hard numbers and concrete objectives from clients. Which means, more possible ‘routes’ to work on. which means more work.
Do we really need to do more work that might not see the light of day, or less of it?
Consider a over-worked Creative Director with 5-6 projects (with at least one ongoing pitch) on his plate with deadlines of yesterday? That practically is every other CD in increasingly poor agencies (Look at retainers going down and businesses asking to pitch for every little project). Would a busy CD from China want to work on that superbowl commercial for a US client? I doubt it. Maybe interns and junior copywriters would like that opportunity. But typically the best creative brains with enough experience wouldn’t be going out to search for extra projects. They might do so, if they already have an idea/ script and need now a client to sell it to.
So perhaps, the platform will become a Craigslist for ‘idea in need of clients’.
This system, in a manner of speaking, is further fragmenting the whole pitch business. In a sense, every Publicis brief then becomes a pitch. Which planner/ creative director wants that?
Pitches essentially are blackholes for good ideas. ideas that titillate clients, but that have much smaller chance of seeing the light of day.
I have worked in multiple global agencies. All of them had strong internal ‘knowledge bank’ networks. I even oversaw making of one of those, long time back.
None of them worked. No one ever contributed answers, knowledge to the supposed bank.
Or rather, the same person who might spend hours writing a thorough answer to a question on Quora, would never write (or even read a question posed by someone else) in the internal network.
The reason – While both public and company networks can give you validation – only company networks might be unforgiving for your faux pas/ ignorance. You don’t want to be seen as an ignorant buffoon to all your global colleagues, do you? But if it happens on facebook or quora, your post just might get buried and no one has to point fingers at you for more than a few days at worst.
A stupid answer would brand you stupid among your peers. A career suicide.
Secondly, I have seen differences in the nature of questions. A Quora question may be fairly open-ended, it might seek opinions, experiences, expertise. As against, most of the questions on internal networks of agencies are boring specific asks for a certain requirement. Nobody wants to do the homework for you.
So while I maybe willing to answer your question, “What is positioning?”, I am absolutely not interested in answering your question, “How should I position xyz car brand in China which is dominated by abc?”
Do your work, don’t ask me to work for you! I don’t have time for that.
Lastly, I feel a freelance networking company has better incentive to create a platform like this. If it is going to be open, why not completely open? Anyways, senior creative rock stars are not going to search for briefs themselves. They want client and servicing team to come to them for briefs. So it is marketplace for junior talent. And if it is junior level talent we are talking about, might as well keep it open for junior level talent across the world.
So essentially, it might make your existing junior-middle level creative talent insecure. I doubt you want that to happen.
A better way to go about this process is with a different perspective – one not about technology as a stop-gap solution, but technology that solves a real problem. And the real problem is not ‘access to best talent’, or ‘access to reports’ – the problem is decline in value of our creative ideas, the decline in our growth. The answer is open source. Read about it here.
Update: I have since written about a better way of creating an agency platform.
Globally, Facebook and Google now dominate advertising dollars, not WPP or Publicis or other agency companies. (For comparison about the market muscle – Combined market cap of FB and G was $812Bn as of June 2016. How did WPP, Omnicom, IPG, Publicis stack up? The four combined were at $70 Bn. And the less said about the growth, the better.) So there’s that.
And now consultancies are entering the fray to steal the lunch from agencies. And agencies have largely been too busy in denial to notice their impending irrelevance and gutting of their margins.
Adweek recently wrote about the trend of Global consultancy goliaths buying up small agencies to make inroads into the branding industry. And similarly, creative agencies have also been trying to make inroads into consultancy businesses.
Who is more likely to succeed? Which industry will prevail, which will shake-up?
To me the answer is obvious. Why? Here’s why –
There have been attempts by agencies to get into consultancy shoes – most recently by R/GA. I wish them best of luck. I really hope someone cracks it and in the process, ‘pivots’ to a higher value service. But so far the trend has not been encouraging.
Here’s an idea for a better future for the industry – start putting your money where your ideas are.
Two strategies to improve agency prospects –
This is the interesting part. Nowhere in the consumer journey is the creativity itself automated. The community might help them brainstorm or find a smaller shop/ freelancer who could help the client. Or at max, the client will be redirected to agency office if the scope of work is large enough. The creative output is always through a human. So we can continue charging premium for access to agency rockstars.
Setting the right expectation should help a lot. At the start of consumer journey it should be clear that what they will get is an Agency process, not Agency creative.