The brown dwarf

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.

Advertisements

Advertising industry’s new ‘Pivot’

No planet for old businesses

Exhibit 1:

On 16 June 2017, Amazon.com Inc. announced that it is acquiring Whole Foods Market Inc., for $13.7 billion in an all-cash transaction.
By the end of that day, Walmart, Kroger, Target & Costco had lost their market caps by 5.8%, 7.1%, 9.1% and 15.7% respectively.
On the eighth day of the announcement, Amazon’s market cap had increased by $18.9 billion.

In a sense, not only did investors reward Amazon by funding the acquisition, they also punished the competitors of Whole Foods for not being acquired by Amazon.
The situation is such that as soon as Amazon enters any category, leaders in that category lose market valuations almost instantaneously. That is the promise/ threat of platforms like Amazon.

Exhibit 2:

“In 2017, almost 80% of every incremental ad dollar spent globally will accrue to digital. In their domestic market of the US, Google and Facebook are capturing more than 100% of this growth, up from 85% in 2015.” So read the 2017 Redburn Report titled, ‘Ad Agencies Marginalised.’
“More than 100%…”

If someone captures a share of more than a 100%, it means that that share came at someone else’s expense. Certainly, many digital advertising companies and ad exchanges saw decline in share of digital ad spends. Advertising agency holding companies too bore the brunt of Google and Facebook’s growth. 2017 perhaps has been the worst performing year for WPP since the recession of 2008-09. For the latest quarter Q3, the firm reported a 2% drop in organic growth.

Essentially, growth is almost a zero sum game now in which platforms are winning. This is in stark contrast to the nature of growth in the last century, where globalization created avenues for many to grow: It was not a zero sum game then. The monopolistic ‘Platforms’ are stealing lunch of legacy businesses – ours too.

Platforms are winning in today’s zero-sum game of growth. The monopolistic Platforms are stealing our lunch.

What are platforms?

A platform is essentially an enabling infrastructure/ environment that,

  1. Gives freedom to connect with others
  2. Enables valuable exchanges which were not possible outside of the platform
  3. Enables external applications/services to be built on top of it, (APIs)

Platforms like Amazon, Facebook, Google and Uber are enjoying unprecedented growth and consequently unprecedented investor interest, because they allow that egalitarian access to valuable exchanges that were not possible otherwise. By their very nature, the exchanges become more useful, more valuable with expansion of user base. Amazon is able to fine-tune its suggestion because it has access to purchase history data of billions of its customers across the globe. People use Facebook because all their friends use Facebook. This phenomenon, of increase in usefulness and consequently the value of a service with increase in the number of users, is called ‘network effect’.

The sinister consequence of the network effect is the potential of monopolies. The logic of Platform growth inevitably leads to hollowing out of existing market structures. The logical conclusion of Platform economy is a world of monopolies rising upon the ashes of old businesses.

Shift in client priorities

From ad spends to spends for innovations in product, supply chain or marketing.

As if the threat/ opportunity of ‘Platforms’ was not enough, companies these days also have to wrap their heads around 3D printing, Blockchain technology, CRISPR/Cas9 and so on. These are amazing technologies promising revolutionary changes. These technologies present new opportunities that we never knew existed before.  However, many legacy businesses are ill equipped to respond to them.

Thankfully, a whole industry has sprung up to cater to these needs – needs of business transformation in the face of existential threats posed by new technologies. Traditional consultancies have adapted to offer new expertise to clients. Specialist big data analysis agencies are helping companies make sense of their consumers. There is even an AI (Artificial Intelligence) agency now, that helps create ‘intelligent agents’ for brands. Market is demanding newer mutations of agencies like these, mutations that help them navigate the brave new world of the new economy.

Market is demanding newer mutations of agencies; mutations that help them navigate the brave new world of the new economy.

The question that we must ask ourselves is – do advertising agencies matter as much in these testing times? On one hand, the budget allocated by clients for marketing is under pressure. On the other, technological investments, specialist hires and consultancies are claiming an increasing share of the budget. Will this twin phenomenon erode the value of our services? Will the share apportioned to advertising shrink further?

Advertising agencies, if they remain what they are, will secede their privileged partnership status to digital transformation agencies, to business consultants and to platforms like Google, Facebook and Amazon.

One obvious yet terribly difficult-to-pull-off implication of this is – to become an advertising platform. I have discussed this in detail earlier. The reality though is, not everyone can win in that race to become a platform. For the majority of marketing services agencies to survive and thrive, we need a ‘specialist’ strategy, not a generalist one. Here is why.

Age of specialists

Creative agencies are made up of a unique set of people: People who can think laterally, think big, think informally. Apart from a few top tech companies, not many companies have the asset of free thinkers who are not stifled by hierarchies and suppositions. As such, creative agencies are uniquely positioned to create new solutions for brand growth, beyond branding ideas.

For marketers trying to make sense of a fast changing world, agencies need to adapt to remain the priority partners they turn to for help. Can the planner’s customer centricity help companies improve their business plans? Can the creative talent’s mastery over conceptualization propel a client brand’s product and service design?

Why not to be a generalist?

Advertising agencies help clients ‘position’ their products as distinctly relevant. But we forget to apply those lessons to ourselves.

Google and Amazon is fundamentally rewiring our brains – even our clients. The ‘search’ and ‘suggested’ result mentality means that for every emerging need, the client searches for services he/she needs with sharper definition. She is more likely to send out a specific query out in the world – either digitally or among peers – ‘Who is the best at product design in our category?’, ‘Who can help me assess Blockchain’s potential to disrupt our category?’

What results she might get? Would people respond with a generalist agency’s name even if they have the capabilities? Will a generalist be on ‘Top-Of-Mind’ for such queries?

Well, many private agencies can choose to continue doing what they do, with likeminded clients catering to traditional consumer segments. But that set of marketers is shrinking, the addressable opportunity is getting smaller. That means making peace with low growth.

However, for publicly traded advertising holding companies, coming years could be the years of transformation – either willingly or engineered by activist investors who demand growth.

Hence, it is increasingly likely for large advertising players to ‘Pivot’ to go for the biggest emerging opportunities.

What is ‘Pivot’?

The purpose of a pivot is typically to go after a bigger & sustainable growth opportunity in the market that can ensure companies’ prospects for near future. You do so by changing the direction of your enterprise if the need be, while staying grounded in your core competency.
Firstly, it requires reassessment of your old business in the context of emerging opportunities/ threats. The reassessment should ideally throw up useful insights about your clients, your product/ service relevance or the way you work. Consequently, you quickly test possible improvements to your service. When you hit on something that works, you scale it up and go to town with it.
You might end up changing something about the way you do your business, while keeping some aspect of the business constant. For example, it might entail shifting to new markets/ consumer segments/ new clients. It might entail prioritizing a different sales channel or to gain new capabilities. It might even mean reinterpreting a consumer need and creating a completely new offering.

At its core, it is about changing with an ear to ground. An ear to the ground tells us of seismic shifts in advertising industry with issues of trust (Pritchard, 2017), profitability, and marginalization (Bianca Dallal, 2017) posing threat to advertising industry’s prospects. Common sense tells us that something needs to give – something must change.

It is about time advertising agency business models change for the better.

The pivots of advertising agencies

At its most fundamental level, advertising agencies exist to help marketers grow (Purpose). They do so NOT by helping make the product/ service better, nor by helping reach more consumers. They do so by helping create consumer demand with distinctly persuasive communications. (Competency) The perspective to understand here is that of two variables: Core competency and Purpose of existence. Hence, to evolve, agencies can either look at radically reassessing their competencies or their purpose.

To evolve, agencies can either look at radically reassessing their competencies or their purpose.

Pivot 1. Core competency:

a.      Marketing services agencies:

Typically, creative agencies’ core competency is in their access to creative & strategy talent. W+K, Droga5 or Ogilvy are well known for their creative rock stars. Yet another agency might be built on the strength of decades old client-agency relationships. A media agency might boast about the scale of media spends that it controls and can influence. A research agency might have proprietary methods of inquiry or access to qualitative data.

The logic of pivot tells us that – for advertising agencies, there is an opportunity to pivot with their creative talent. What is the biggest business growth opportunity for the kind of talent they have? Beyond ‘advertising’ what high-value products/ services can this talent create?
Similarly, a research agency might look at its proprietary tool and reevaluate its potential. How can they augment the value of their intelligence the most? Would tabulation of existing qualitative studies help build an intelligent map of consumer behaviors? Who might be interested in such products? If ‘Big Data’ is the new oil, why are research agencies not making their big data usable at scale?

Here is an example of Pivot thinking applied to creative agency business.

The “If You Build it, They Will Come” agency:

This pivot is about keeping company’s people and their abilities at its heart and purpose. It seeks not to build radically new capabilities or hire radically disruptive talent. Instead, it seeks to find the biggest opportunities that the existing teams can deliver on, with greatest amount of satisfaction for the team.
For a creative agency, that means identifying the distinct talents of its teams and then finding the biggest possible commercial opportunities for them, may it be in advertising or beyond.
Creative talent remains the biggest asset of any creative agency. Yet, there is a growing sense of being overworked and underappreciated among the creative teams. There is a sense of ‘missed opportunity’ among people who see others creative people garnering fame and fortune with digital content. YouTube stars, Vice, Refinery29 and so on, have shown that there are bigger avenues for creative expression that could be financially rewarding too. There is a market for every conceivable creative style, expression, idea, app, activity or content. The creative team’s dilemma is – whether they will be better off with a career in advertising or in new age digital companies or by going solo with content creation, curation or aggregation?
Each creative person grapples with these choices. It would be in the agency’s interest to see the potential of its people before the people themselves do. If their team is passionate about a certain kind of creativity, find the biggest market for that creativity. This logic perhaps would not have been very sound 20 years ago. The surest way to make money with creative expressions and ideas was with advertising alone. However, today, a creative person can do much more with his/ her ideas.

If one looks at an idea objectively beyond the context of its birth, it looks much grander. Here is a thought experiment to prove my point.
Think of the last idea you had for a client’s campaign (or if you do not work in advertising, consider ‘what were they thinking?’ for any of your favorite commercial). Now think a logical conclusion to that idea divorced from the brand. Put that idea onto another stage/ context/ medium – see how it expands. If it is a good idea, it will always fill up the volume of your imagination – more than any brand can do justice to the idea.
For example, divorced from Dove, imagine the biggest expressions for the idea of ‘real beauty’. Can it be a movement? Who would like to contribute to it? Which brands would like to associate with it? Would the idea find place in the women’s marches? Would it lobby against skin whitening creams among policy makers? Would it run community centers? What would be the business plan, revenue model for the fullest expression of this idea?

If it is a good idea, it will always fill up the volume of your imagination – more than any brand can do justice to the idea.

Imagine an agency that has a set of issues/ themes/ ideas that it works on instead of set of clients. Will it be more interesting for the creative talent? Could it be more profitable? I believe it can be.

Ideas can translate to bigger things if you let them run free. The digital world has brought down the cost of realizing ideas drastically. It has given us the tools to translate and mutate ideas in infinite ways. Creative shops must make it part of their credo, to not let any good idea go to waste and to bring to life only the biggest expression of it.

The tragedy for many creative people is to see their magnificent ideas not reaching their full potential, being rendered impotent for a smaller cause, smaller venue. Instead, this new agency would recognize the bigness of ideas and put their efforts and capital in realizing those big ideas. The belief being – If You Build it, They Will Come.

b. Holding companies:

Unlike consultancies whose competency is in housing domain experts, holding companies do not have palpably distinct competency any more. A holding company is as good as the companies it has in its portfolio. The value of a holding company used to be in its ability to help portfolio companies to scale. However, it seems to have exhausted its scaling potential, evidenced by lack of organic growth.
Holding companies are trying a few things to improve their value. WPP is hedging its bets on ‘Horizontality’; Publicis is attempting to create an AI enabled personal assistant for its employees called ‘Marcel’. However, unfortunately, both attempts lack vision and conviction.
In an interview for ‘Strategy + Business’ in 2016, PwC Principal Deborah Bothun asks Sir Martin Sorrell, “How far can you take that?”, referring to Horizontality – the effort to get people from different WPP companies to work together for certain clients. Sir Marin Sorrell responds, “Not far enough.”
If the idea cannot be scaled across the company, is it even strategically relevant? At best, it seems to be a tactic to keep key clients happy.
Marcel too seems to be born of a narrow vision; it simply is an internal talent-sourcing tool. Wit AI, and the data that Publicis already has, it can be much more – but there simply is no evident will to create something groundbreaking.
Currently, the business incentives for a holding company are structured in such a way that they cannot radically change their course. However, many of their operating companies can.

Pivot 2. The purpose

In this pivot, we remain true to our purpose of helping client businesses grow. What changes is the ways in which we help them grow. The competencies become variable here. This means for this pivot to work, we must be radically adept at bringing in expertise for most growth needs of the client. If the client requires blockchain expertise, the agency must be capable and willing to provide that expertise. The key focus here is to become the de-facto growth partner of your client.

The “specialized business growth drivers” agency:

This pivot keeps the client base, the market, as constant and re-evaluates its options to seize the biggest opportunities in that market. Therefore, if your client base still feels that their biggest priorities are advertising/ branding to fuel their growth, continue doing the same. However, if your client base feels that their biggest priorities for growth are about leveraging emerging digital platforms or managing reputation in the age of instant outrage, adapt and train your teams to fulfil these needs well. The days for generalist agencies that could do everything for a client moderately well are numbered. Today, marketers need sharper, targeted expertise, which they can get most efficiently by looking at smaller, more specialized ‘vendors’. There is good money to be made servicing these myriad business growth needs. Specialize in driving growth for a certain kind of clientele with a set of competency they prioritize.

New age, new agencies

It is about time that agencies wake up to the reality of working in the digital world. It is not the time to be afraid and to be defensive. It is time to make bold new steps, to ‘fail fast’ and to ‘pivot’. It is time to start new adventures. The technological and societal revolutions are not threats, but opportunities for growth. It is time to grow magnificently with these new opportunities. Grow by either sharply adapting to emerging client needs or by investing in ideas you believe in. It is a brave new world, ready for the best of our ideas.

Stop feeding the parasites

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?

Awards

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.

Publications

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.

Events

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).

____

Essentially, stop becoming fodder for these parasitic industries that are growing bigger and bigger as the host industry diminishes. Get a grip on yourself, advertising industry.

If agencies remain married to ‘ads’, agencies are doomed.

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.

“That is the creative challenge”

If clients, planners, management folks and even creative directors make a habit of envisioning their idea before talking about it, we would be spared of a lot of bullshit.

So recently we presented an elegant campaign that was not ‘exciting enough’ to the client. They thrashed it mercilessly.

“Its a 20 seconder, we don’t have the time for a story.”
“Print needs to say ‘this’ and ‘that’ and ‘that’ and ‘this’. Make it all big. How will consumer know this. He needs to know that too……”

Essentially, they wanted to talk about five different things in an exciting manner in a twenty seconder ad that should also be clutter breaking since they had low budgets compared to competition.

I told them that the ad might work better if we concentrate on the most important thing – one thing to talk about. We might then have a chance of making memorable successful campaign. But nop. They wanted to say it all and apparently that is the creative challenge‘.

‘That is the creative challenge‘ is a phrase I have heard often enough. Its the lazy way out of having to make decisions. It is the lazy way out having to work as a team to arrive at better ideas.

It is precisely at this moment that one knows – the campaign is going to be  a dud. At a strategic level, the client has already made a mess and does not want to own up to it, to make sense of it. And no amount of creativity now is going to salvage it. And even if by the stroke of dumb luck, creatives come up with something workable, the idea will get ‘dialed up, dialed down‘ as the client tries to retroactively make sense of his / her strategy.

The antidote – Make people think along

If by some means you could inculcate a habit, inculcate this. For every meeting – briefing, brainstorming, client presentation etc., – make it a habit of visualizing the idea being presented. What could the idea mean actually? What are the best/ worst ads you can think of in that direction?

So if the planner gives you shitty brief with big words – ask him to give him an example of a ‘bad ad’. Give it a go. The planner has not thought through his brief if he doesn’t already have a few ideas himself.

So if the servicing guy comes back with client feedback that seems to worsen the creative work – ask him/ her to think along – how do they visualise it? how has the client visualised it?

so if the client asks to ‘dial up/ dial down’ or add this/ that – ask them to think along. ask them,

What should the ad say?”,
“What would the people remember from this ad?”

If no one has confident answers for these questions – there is no point in starting to work on a script/ idea. Get clarity about ‘what the ad needs to say/do’ first – not in abstract bullshit terms but words that anyone can visualise, actions that anyone can relate to.

Specific diseconomy

Win awards with scam
Fight competitors with self-destructively cheap pitches
Create walled gardens for petty rent seeking
Delude yourself by thinking that creativity is the sole preserve of your kind
Do not grow your people, nurse a few egos
Advocate brave disruption to clients, but do not attempt it yourself
And when someone does try innovating, fight them for petty egotistical causes
instead of thinking along for better ideas

This is advertising industry working against its own interest. This is the “Specific Diseconomy”* of  advertising industry.

Instead of communicating, we are fabricating hollow “purposes”.
Instead of inspiring certainty, the cumulative effect of advertising is that of overwhelming doubt.
The industry has set loose to ‘attention-and-trust-deficit’ monster that devours humanity’s time and resources, leaving everyone poorer emotionally and physically.

____

*It is a “measure of the degree of institutional counterproductivity that is occurring —referring to the exact degree to which, for example, the medical industry induces illness, educational institutions induce ignorance, the judicial system perpetuates injustice…”

 

 

 

Agencies as platforms – setting up for failure

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.

  1. The AI’s story

    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?

  2. Conviction: It is a platform if it is the primary interface for a defined purpose. Otherwise, it is simply an onerous add-on.

    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.

  3. Relationships vs projects: Should our industry incentivize the philandering behavior of clients?

    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?

  4. Best creative brains do not want briefs from elsewhere.

    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’.

  5. Every brief a pitch

    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.

  6. The knowledge bank – why quora works but internal Q&A does not

    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.

  7. How then is a freelance networking company different from WPP/ Publicis?

    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.