Tech, youth, chasing the ‘new new’: ad agencies don The Emperor’s New Clothes

Jeff Bezos greeted the digital era with the thought, “Shit’s going to change. Like crazy.”

So wrote Kiip CEO Brian Wong in his recent Linkedin article Focus on what won’t change.

In times of perceived change, the average person’s instinct is to try and understand the change, ‘own’ the change, ‘be’ the change, to go immediately to what one perceives as ‘the cutting edge’ of one’s own particular industry and start ‘living’ the change.

And barely a week passes when some new-fangled digital tech-led programmatic-wotsit Big Data-thingy or whatever becomes the latest savior of marketing communications.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is clearly no average person:

“…Bezos looked beyond the New and asked himself, ‘What isn’t going to change? Two things: (1) customers are going to continue to want the best possible bargain, and (2) they are going to continue to want it delivered as fast as possible.’ The corollary to this argument was, ‘the only way I can go wrong is if people (1) start wanting to pay as much as possible and (2) insist on slow delivery.’

His (Bezos’) brilliance is almost comical.”

‘Comical’ because it isn’t rooted in futurology but in something closer to good ol’ fashioned common sense.

Wong goes on to explain that, thanks to Bezos’ unique brand of common sense, Amazon continues to be “the whale in a sea of constantly shifting forces… while everybody else tries to stay afloat on the choppy waters of change, racing each other to the new new, and capsizing every time the wind shifts.”

If you want be like Bezos, concludes Brian Wong, “Tap into existing patterns of behavior. Classic will still be there long after the new new is old.”

As far as ad agencies are concerned, plunging fees led by behemoths like P&G are indeed “choppy waters of change”. And, just as Wong warns, the ad agencies’ response is “racing each other to the new new, and capsizing every time the wind shifts.”

For marketers — and thus for the ad agencies who copy their every move — Silicon Valley epitomizes the new new, particularly as embodied by its star denizens: Sergei Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg and a couple others.

These ‘genii’, most vociferously Zuckerberg, are sold on the pre-eminence of youth.

This had a powerful effect on marketers — and thus on their ad agencies too.

Consequently, the youth explosion is one the leading factors currently undermining the ad agency industry. It’s born of a narrow, one-sided kind of logic that reminds me of the at best limited thinking of Bishop Hugh Montefiore with his famous argument against evolution: Why should a polar bear need to evolve white fur for camouflage when it is the dominant creature in its environment and thus in no danger from predators?

To which the brilliant neo-Darwinist Professor Richard Dawkins replies (as if swatting away a gnat) that the camouflage is to conceal the polar bear from its prey (Doh! I bet he was tempted to add).

In the same way, the fact that a relatively infinitesimal number of brilliant young techies at Stanford and Harvard aced their studies and created the equivalent of the telephone in digitally-powered search and social media, doesn’t automatically make all young people in all disciplines the be-all and end-all. Of course a youth injection can be a good thing; but they’ll still need a good deal of pointing in the right direction, training and mentoring until they gather enough experience to be allowed out unaccompanied by an adult.

Alongside youth, the other ‘new new’ must-have is new technology. In his recent Linkedin piece, Why your company doesn’t need a digital strategy, the excellent Tom Goodwin has his usual fun debunking this nonsense.

Goodwin points out that technology, for all its wonderfulness, is a means not an ends.New technology represents new tools and new ways for tapping into existing, never-changing patterns of human behavior.

For Goodwin, calling Uber a ‘tech company’ is “not just frustratingly inaccurate, it painfully misunderstands the underlying reason for success…”

What busy human hasn’t experienced the natural craving to get from A to B quicker, smoother and with no hassle, no haggling over fees and tips, no paperwork? Uber has made that possible via a mere couple moments on your mobile. New digital technology has made Uber possible, but it’s the invisibility of the technology that makes Uber so pleasing, so frictionless.

No? Ok, was the abiding memory of events at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on the evening of August 28th 1963 the brilliance of Edwin Jensen and Peter Pridham? Or was it the powerful vision of Dr King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech? Who even are Jensen and Pridham? Why, they’re the inventors of the PA system, the technology that enabled Dr King to address the multitude that day.

Much of the world has collectively failed to learn… that when a technology really arrives, it blends into the background,” says Tom Goodwin.

The Bezos-ian view would be that successful technologies blend into the background because, as mere tools, their principal value is the brilliant accentuation of existing human qualities and behaviors, seamlessly helping people achieve fundamental desires. Such as allowing Martin Luther King to connect his vision with the masses.

Tom Goodwin goes on to make the comparison between digital and electricity: digital works in the background of Uber, precisely as does electricity in say your tv set or the elevators at your office. You don’t have a head of electricity and, Goodwin argues, a head of digital is equally preposterous. Hear hear!

And yet, precisely such universally-wrongheaded beliefs in the be-all and end-all of technology and youth and change for change’s sake currently pollute the relationship between marketers and ad agencies.

Talking to Marketing Week, Sir John Hegarty says, “People forget that a new business idea is more often a creative act.”

“Maintaining that idea and driving its success requires creativity to be at the heart of the business.”

For creativity to be at the heart of the business, its executor must have unimpeachable experience and ability, authority, status, gravitas, creative pedigree.

For Hegarty, Steve Jobs personified the above.

Jobs, the embodiment of Silicon Valley, was in his fifties when he ensured his place in the all-time technology pantheon with 2007’s introduction of the iPhone. (Oh, and I’m writing this on Linkedin, brainchild of Reid Hoffman, 49. No big deal: people getting better as they get older is another one of those unchanging behaviors lol.)

So much for the pre-eminence of youth.

Hegarty echoes Wong’s praise of Jeff Bezos, seeming baffled at some marketers’ inability to get the hang of the fundamentals that made Amazon what it is today:

“This has got to be the best time ever to be in marketing, yet we’re seeing very little that captures the consumer’s imagination. Big brand-driving ideas are few and far between. Constant change seems to be the dominating force…”

This universal pursuit of change for the sake of change, this concentration on technology, i.e. the tools rather than their product, the opposite-world of younger = smarter and better — what else is this all if not Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes made real?

But marketers are in the driver’s seat of their relationship with ad agencies.

They can elect to try and stay afloat on the choppy waters of change.

They can keep on buying lottery tickets to the next new new thing hoping that they’ll eventually find a winner. (Yes, the brands and companies they work for will one after another suffer at the hands of the Jeff Bezos’ of this world, but the marketers themselves will have long moved on by then.)

Ad agencies have far less room for maneuver — not least because their very existence relies on the munificence of marketers.

Agencies are at a critical stage of their lives right now.

It is their own fault to some extent. An institutional and industry-wide drop in courage, and the consequent ascendancy of a certain kind of account handler has led them to err across the line between client service and client servile: marketers employ ad agencies to fulfill a need; instead of delivering what marketers need, ad agencies give them what they think they want.

It’s a classic example of the easy wrong over the hard right: delivering against a need requires great intellectual rigor and superb creativity, giving someone what they want simply involves being good at reading and handling people and ferrying messages back and forth.

Thanks to the digital era, the latter no longer flies. Ubiquitous 24/7 content means ad agencies are no longer the sole gatekeepers of their clients’ access to relevant creativity. The client’s daughter is more likely to wow them with something wild and crazy and energizing from YouTube than is the agency with their latest ‘creative’ Powerpoint.

As your client fires you, the plea of “But we thought that’s what you wanted!” cuts no ice.

One last time: the job is to give clients what they need, not what you think they want. The latter contains an implicit investment of your authentic self, of what you truly believe is right, of your abilities to be creative not charming. If you’ve cut no corners in your effort you will at least provide a solution that’s unique because you are.

If you fail, have the courage and confidence to know that even is this client didn’t buy you, another one surely will.

Jeff Bezos is of course unique, but, as the first flush of the ‘new new’ digital era ends, all marketers are gradually coming to understand that certain behaviors have remained unchanged, regardless of the chop and change around them — and always will.

The result is more and more projects going to shops who have evinced a Bezos-ian spirit, split away from the skittish ad agency industry herd and held true to those behaviors.

As ever, behind those shops are thinkers and creative people whose salient quality is not being young or male or female or white or black or technology-literate or whatever, just possessing good, ol’ fashioned, timeless, immutable excellence.