The very real Digital/ Mainline divide

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

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.

Perils of specialism

In the age of specialism, everyone’s an expert.
And when everyone’s an expert, no one listens to others.
And when no one listens to others, the human collective cannot work together consciously. It can only work together through the specialist narrow systems of incentives and capital.

Narrow systems of incentives are a recipe for disaster. For instance, when growth is the only incentive, climate & communities become the ‘externalised’ victims. And the bubbles of specialism do not let emerging threats and opportunities be addressed by humanity with an united front. Look at climate scientist crying hoarse with urgency, while wall street bankers go on griping about growth as if without a ‘skin in the game’ of human survival.

End of the world as we know it.

Specialism creates bubbles of concentrated wisdom that does not cross-pollinate with ideas from other stream and adoption of those ideas with appropriate urgency (or not). Any resilient system needs diversity, and specialism doesn’t allow for that diversity to bear fruits.

The only way out of current challenges of polarisation of societies, increasing inequality & climate crisis is through incentivising multiplicity of perspectives, capabilities, functions, goals and enabling cross – communications & intermixing of work streams.

Must embrace multiplicity and diversity in our lives, economic systems and work culture.