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Tombstone Blues: How agencies can avoid extinction


Tombstone Blues: How agencies can avoid extinction


I like history. Specifically Australian History. Especially the narrative variety as expertly practised by Thomas Keneally. Keneally can craft a story, rich with emotions and feelings. He can bring events and dates and facts to life. He does this because he knows that people absorb information better if it is wrapped in a story they can relate to. Which, when you come to think of it, is a bit like advertising. Facts and figures without a story is not advertising, it’s just information, and it won’t get absorbed easily. But be careful about how you use history…history is where people have been, not where they are going.

The advertising industry has been reflecting a lot lately on its own history and I’ve heard and read some wonderful narratives about the transition of our industry from where we were to where we are now. An historical perspective is indeed interesting for those that lived through it. But for those that pay us, our clients, I’ve not met one who has the slightest interest in how our industry got to where it is. They and us should be focused on one thing only – what value can we service providers add to our client’s future business?

Conclusions that the advertising agency is dead or that we need a ‘new’ version [again], or that some new insight, process or technology is going to change the world as we know it, is bullshit. Today’s clients can see through this thin veneer of self-serving positioning.

I’ve experienced the ‘full service’ model, the ‘creative consultancy’ model, the ‘boutique agency’ model, the ‘2nd agency’ model, the ‘global’ model, the ‘consultant’ model, the ‘big local’ model, the ‘unique creative resource’ model… And then add to that all the different ways we want to be paid – hourly fees, commissions, service fees, project fees, retainer fees, cost +, RFP’s, concept fees, licensing fees, mark-up’s, payment by results, scale fees + win… Exhausting isn’t it? Is it any wonder that our target audience is confused? And industry commentators are still trying to work out where it is all heading.

However, the advertising agency is not broken. Nor are the people who create and build advertising inside it. Never has and never will be. Sure, it might be delivered in wicked new ways by cool new people in the future. But, the simple fact is this. The best advertising – the stuff that lasts, that builds brands and great businesses that own these brands – is only done by talented advertising professionals who have been trained by and work in the agency world. Professionals who take a brief (or in a lot of cases even write the brief), understand the audience by finding the insight, and weave a compelling story around some often uncompetitive features and benefits.

Advertising agencies do not have a mortgage on ideas. No one does. That’s why, especially today, ideas come thick and fast from all over the place. Rap musicians, media planners, screenwriters, comedians, market strategists, radio stars, journalists, composers and film directors all get in on the act. Usually just once though. Skyrocket ideas, which fall quickly to earth, are often the outcome of one-off, shining brightly, brilliance.

But business demands more of you than this. Companies don’t stop when a skyrocket idea burns out. The brand is a living, breathing monster, which must be fed regularly. And this is where our ad agency warrior kicks in big time. The Year 3 and 4 Guy. The one who keeps the brand flame burning long after the original match was lit way back in Year 1. The ad woman or man who can keep the brand on track, aligned with its values and strategy. Often through the revolving door of client CEO’s/CMO’s/MD’s/MM’s, mergers, acquisitions, Gantt charts, MBA’s and BYT’s [Bright Young Things for the un-informed].

The skill to pull all this off is not a commodity. You can’t Google it. The people in this country who can not only write a demon strategy, create an outstanding idea, enthuse and excite the people who have to buy it and then produce it brilliantly (across multiple new, old, hard, soft, social and anti-social communication platforms) primarily exist in the agency system. And they are the ones who back it up year after year, so that long term, the brand’s identity and image is aligned.

It seems to me that the tendency of the ad industry for self-reflection stems from a kind of relevance deprivation syndrome. The communication landscape has changed dramatically (and will continue to do so). This new world has seemingly re-positioned advertising and advertising agencies as part of Palaeogene age. And as a result has consigned it to history and re-runs of ‘Mad Men’.

Too much time is wasted on what we are or how we want to be referred to. I don’t think it makes any difference if you call yourself an agency or a consultancy or a group or that you are new or not so new. Clients have always been, and will continue to be, attracted to quality, professional, intelligent, experienced talent. The kind that can launch a new brand overnight, or breathe life into something old.

And don’t be confused by the new communication world we now live in. Just because something is more measurable, doesn’t make it more meaningful. New media systems, processes and techniques to better engage with and manage a relationship with your customer do not mean a damn thing if that customer doesn’t like you or your brand. If your customer cannot easily identify what value your brand adds to their life, it won’t matter how many CRM systems or Facebook initiatives or cool videos and jokes you throw up on You Tube.

A message for our clients: sit down with the guys at your agency. Go back to basics. Get them to develop the brand strategy, plan the aligned tactics and programs. Have them create a compelling narrative around your product and service. You’ve got the best and most passionate advertising people in the world under your nose. They are inside your ad agency and they can do something no other business advisor can do. They can turn words into action. They can a make a big difference to the only unique thing you own: your brand.

For my industry colleagues: let’s stop trying to re-invent ourselves. Forget the history lesson. Focus on the future and our role in that future. We are in the best position to provide the strategic overview that our clients are yelling out for. If not, it won’t be some killer new digital platform that consigns us to the scrap heap. We’ll do it to ourselves.


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