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.

Advertisements

Strategy-Wategy

What do you do when you have a shitty creative that is to the brief and a kickass creative that is absolutely useless?
Imagine you need to sell a soap. Imagine that for the sales to move, “strategically”, the brand needs to say,

“This soap will make your elephant like skin into a soft and smooth love affair between velvet and cuttle fish”.

(Because research says so. Perhaps you are in 22nd century Japan and people are really into cuttle fish skin implants.) But the creative team is bored of soaps and they hate soft things. The like edgy things, like armadillo’s back. So they are not really inspired with the whole thought of ‘soft like a cuttle fish’ shtick. Just to get the servicing and planners off their backs, they create something. It says

“Remember that time when you got drunk and left your hand in a water jar for the night and the skin went all mush? That’s how soft your skin will be when you use this soap.”

But in 22nd century Japan, they don’t drink anymore and they don’t have jars anymore. So no one understands what the ad is saying. And the ones who do understand are violently retching. But hey, that was to the brief! “So shut your soft ass up, servicing people” says the creative guy.

The other creative route they prepare says,

“Your elephant skin is sexy as it is. But you can make it sexier with this armadillo fart scented soap that is totally out of this world. Wow. So. Much. Armadillo.”

For some reason, armadillo fart scent is all the rage in 22nd century Japan. Its not just a scent, it is a way of life for the young there. It is like #YOLO, but more chill. So you know the ad has the potential to go viral. The young (who are not the TG) would devour this campaign whole. It looks amazing. Fabulous. I mean, creative teams are crying over the beauty of the whole campaign. It is that good. But, our customers with elephant skin are older people. They are old school. They don’t even know armadillos or their farts.

But it’s a pitch. and this one client is excitable. easily so. You know he will love the second route. Because, remember, all our decisions are emotional. And the first route is not exciting by design. Perhaps he feels these are only two choices for him. Perhaps his guts are reactive and they have reacted positively.

You take both routes to the client to keep everyone happy. Client likes the second route. We get the business. In a year’s time, it will be agency review time.

And the client will keep on choosing armadillo farts over cuttle fish, because agency can’t always afford to push for the seemingly right solution at the expense of their business. Who knows what will work at the end of the day, anyways. You can only make educated guesses and hypothesis.

And pitches go on.

 

Ask me why askme ads suck

askme’s commercials here. There are 3 of those.

What is your impression of the ad after watching it?
Firstly, its an ad for an app that has a celebrity endorsement. Secondly, its also an ad for an app that apparently does many things. Thirdly, its a head-on competitor to leading single purpose apps.
But the real question that one is left asking askme is ‘WHAT DOES IT ACTUALLY DO?’

Error 1: Lack of proposition in a fucking launch commercial. :O

which makes me wonder why askme is burning cash with these ads. Why would someone posture, instead of actually communicating? Perhaps its a desperate dash to get the name out before the owners go out to woo investors.

But which investors would put their money on such shallow proposition?

Error 2: Wrong insight.

The apparent insight around which this campaign is strung together seems to be – “people are fed up with having to manage so many apps on the phone”.
What utter bullshit. Who in India is ‘worried’ about having to manage their cell phones.
We, Indians love to play with our phones. The cell phone is not just a gadget; its a fucking fountain of newness.There is so much to discover and so many things to fiddle with. Ringtones, wall papers, apps, settings.. everything is a game. We are constantly trying new things; seeing how things work; customizing experience endlessly. And none of it is bothersome. We want to do it. Give us more apps, I say. (even yours, even if only to uninstall an hour later).

Error 3:  No strategic perspective. (Wrong problem definition. wrong solution. please all. posture.)

I am guessing that askme intends to burn cash like quikr and myntra are doing. so quite possibly, they would get decent enough awareness numbers and even trials owing to people wanting to try new apps. once driven to the app.. would the consumer stay? 
The website looks ambitious in its scope.. from weddings to yellow pages to god knows what else.. it has ‘everything’. and  I guess, that is their pitch – ‘it has everything’. but why would I stop using Justdial or Sulekha and use askme instead? The product does not answer that.
There are a few billion-dollar-ideas buried underneath their ‘many’ness. But I think, they are largely oblivious to those. I can identify at-least 2 whitespaces that askme can exploit and hit jackpot.
The strategy should be to identify these white spaces to spring board from.

___
Originally published here.