This is a guest post by Craig Adams, strategist at Naked Communications. 


When you spend a week listening to some of the world’s most progressive businesses talk about the future at SXSW, you can’t help but walk away feeling immensely excited, extremely concerned and humbly grateful. Excited because the world is changing at lightening speed. Concerned because as an advertising agency, the future of our industry has never looked so uncertain. And grateful because you’ve being given a heads up.

I know there are a lot of industry folk disappointed and dissatisfied with the event, however I’d like  to offer my perspective – a perspective focused on the implied radical change to our industry. Change that will be driven, not solely but largely, by the fact that anyone will able to make anything, data will have the final say on everything, and brands will no longer need to be one thing to all people.

An advertising agency is essentially a go-between that connects brands with people. We’re an intermediary in a well-established chain that runs from the creator to the consumer. And we’re sitting in a dangerous position, a lesson that the publishing and producing industries have learnt. Take, for example, the explosion of books entering the market via self-publishing and Amazon, rather than the traditional channels.

Now apply that to the world of product manufacturing. In a session entitled ‘The 3rd Industrial Revolution’, Chicago-based company Inventables launched – a free web app that makes 3D computer aided design and manufacturing as easy as building a PowerPoint presentation. Not only is it easy, it’s rapid and cheap too – as Inventables also sell the 3D Milling Machine needed to turn the designs into real-world products in minutes. And thanks to Amazon Marketplace, or good old eBay, there’s little to stop one from launching a consumer facing business in less than a day.

In both cases, the means of production have been made cheaper and faster, and thus more accessible. Equally, the path to consumers is now open to all, entirely measurable, and conversational rather than simply transactional. The result? Anyone can cost effectively invent, produce and distribute at speed. What’s more, they can listen, iterate and re-produce too. All in a day.

So, what’s to stop this from happening in advertising? Absolutely nothing. In fact, it’s already begun. Consider these three points:

1. The accessibility and affordability of ‘raw’ creative assets today – illustration, photography, video.

Getty Images has recently launched an innovative, yet simple, way to use their entire inventory; rental. So rather than paying for a production company, and the associated entourage, to fly from Sydney to Buenos Aires to shoot a 30″, one could simply get a video editor to it piece together using footage that already exists, and then the client simply pays-per-play. And this is just Getty. What about the millions of amateur photographers and filmmakers in the world, sitting on a wealth of content of their own?

2. The growing body of Generation Y’s in the industry.

Having grown up with user-generated content, they are arguably more comfortable with expressing themselves and critiquing what might constitute ‘creative’ work. It’s also suggested that Gen Y don’t always see ‘experience’ as a signifier of ‘capability’ – there have been too many examples of bedroom geniuses in their time to believe that success can only be reached by climbing the ladder. The result is a new wave of  confident creators, finally blurring the lines between creativity and strategy.

3. A growing proportion of commercial creativity today has the added dimension of data to it.

Soon, the days of putting work out into the world and moving on will be well and truly over. As such, rather than relying on the intuition of an individual to help decide which ad is better, A or B, we’ll simply run both and let the performance data have the final say. Again, we’re already doing this in digital display, online video and SEM – but the more connected our world gets, the easier it will be to do this across the board.

Individually, each may seem like an incremental change, however together they paint a picture of a faster, cheaper more efficient industry. As the cost of production plummets, some may cry out over the death of ‘quality’ work. However, shouting louder will be those that have embraced the new way to cost effectively and quickly make measurable, effective work. Where some will persist in spending huge amounts of time and money crafting and producing one creative approach, others will be making ten, firing them out and killing the weakest performers. Data will have the final say on everything. In place of creative directors, will be creative optimisers. In place of large agency teams, will be software and a capable few.

As alongside changes to the world of creative production, we can expect a wave of equally as disruptive changes in the planning world. For example, with rapid, cheap production capability why would we encourage brands to focus on one, core target audience? If brands had more money, and we had enough time, then why only talk to one group of people? Why not identify a broad set of audiences that are distinctly different yet all disposed to purchase the same product, and hit each with a host of messages (again, optimised in market to arrive at the most effective mix)?

But let’s not limit our thinking to messaging. Joshua Klein’s new book ‘Reputation Economics’ explores how our increasingly data-driven world will enable brands to be far smarter in their approach to pricing. Essentially, taking consumer’s online reputation into account before giving them a price. For example, why should an engaged and active Facebook fan pay the same amount for their coffee as someone visiting the area on holiday?

As the ability to command the attention of a ‘mass audience’ dies, so does the necessity for brands to be one thing to all people. With a more agile advertising engine at their disposal, brands have the freedom to become more flexible to the individual they’re seeking to build a connection with.

So what now?

It’s time we behaved a bit more like scientists, and a little less like artists. Our workspaces need to become labs, rather than studios. They need to be more experimental, rather than definitive, with our work, recognising the importance of failure in getting smarter and closer to solutions. We need to become less precious about reaching ‘perfection’ before we share our work with the world, and more concerned with finding the smartest way to arrive at the best result. But above all, we need to get fast. Because the longer we spend being slow (and thus expensive), the sooner we will be replaced by a free web app that makes creating advertising as easy as creating a product in your bedroom.