Will it blend? Will it end?

Advertising’s creativity industry continues to struggle with itself.

Image by markchadwickart via Flickr (Creative Commons)

The past ~20 years have documented a war about ideas, defined in short: What Are Ideas and Who’s in Control of Defining and Making Them?

While it may be, as Bob Hoffman labels it, “the tiredest, most wearisome cliché in advertising,” the decades-old “push-pull between technology and creativity” speaks to some deeper truths about what it is to be an Ideas Person.

On January 15 Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam’s Head of Planning, Martin Weigel, posted 80 Theses on the query “Is advertising radical enough?” under the title The Case for Chaos. Weigel’s glorious rant has a lot more to do with deeper issues, namely the challenge of creativity itself within the nature of corporations (slides/points 11–15, for example).

But Weigel’s Theses definitely speak to the push-pull between technology and creativity. He posts:

On January 19 the Wall Street Journal’s Nick Kostov and David Gauthier-Villars profiled more recent struggles occurring with the Publicis Groupe (paywall, sorry) — a current telling of the decades old war. For example:

“We’re now all about targeting and retargeting,” said one creative director at Leo Burnett who is skeptical of the digital overhaul. “Who’s thinking about what people are going to be dreaming about?”

I tend to agree with Hoffman that the Journal piece is an, “astoundingly crappy article.” It is amusing that this battle is still news. Still more amusing that the creative departments of some modern advertising agencies have maintained such a state of unhinged resistance for so many decades.

Why the war? Why haven’t Idea People within advertising embraced a universality?

The root issue is control.

It is often disguised on one hand as “craft” and on the other as “innovation.” But it is actually about Who. Who calls the shots. Who has final say. Who is the author, the creator.

It’s also (to a lesser degree) about What — what constitutes Advertising Ideas.

For the sake of context, let’s recap the two most dominant perspectives of this war. And for the purposes of not taking ourselves too seriously, let’s call them Olde and Nüe.

Olde (or traditional) Creative was birthed in the Mad Men era. It asserts the primacy of a few — commonly titled Copywriter and Art Director — as the sole authors of ideas. Ideas are Concepts. Conceptual thinking matters a great deal. And concepts are almost exclusively formed as words and images, still or in motion. The finding and articulating of Concepts is a Hero’s Journey, the spoils of which change culture, industry and personal fortune.

Code and inter-action are very rarely in the Olde toolbox. Targeting, proximity, automation, multivariate testing and agile process are anti-Olde. Developing Olde concepts often has a reputation for being expensive. The logic of “Good, Fast and Cheap: Pick Two” prevails. The Olde point of view prefers larger scale venues for ideas.

None of this is meant to diminish the Olde point of view.

The Olde approach gave us over half a century of vibrant creativity, launching every iconic agency you’ve ever heard of. It helped give us “brands.” It is not a wrong way to pursue ideas.

Then Al Gore invented the Internet.

Nüe Creative is born from software thinking. (Please read Paul Ford’s What is Code? opus.) It is equally vibrant. So vibrant, it has redefined what it means to be an advertising idea and an advertising agency.

The Nüe approach is agile and waterfall and is always in beta. Nüe Creative welcomes many kinds of makers to the scrum. This way of developing ideas is unafraid of information architecture, optimization and targeting. It’s a way of thinking about ideas that welcomes and nurtures Messaging as easily as Product and Experience. But let’s be clear, the Nüe journey is typically only a Hero’s if it involves a profitable Exit.

Nüe ideas could be code as easily as a headline. Nüe ideas have turned into platforms you carry around in your pocket. Which is why Facebook and Google and now Amazon (says Bloomberg) are as much advertising agencies as they are technology companies.

Reading the Journal piece, is it any wonder that efforts to marry these two perspectives have failed? You could almost pity Publicis’ CEO Arthur Sadoun. They appear, much like the political perspectives in Washington, to be un-blend-able.

On the one hand, we have Idea People who believe the best ideas take time; are few and large; are highly well funded per ad unit; are principally created through decades-old technique — mainly words and images on film; are (while based on audience empathy), in fact, one way communication; and are ultimately produced by a very few, highly valued and compensated individuals.

On the other, a perspective that the best ideas are shipped fast and optimized often; are empathetic because they are based on audience data; are much less expensive — per ad unit — to create; are made in volumes 100x greater than traditional ads; often use code to replace human skills; are built with the intent and purpose of audience inter-action; and are made by multifaceted teams with a diverse set of skills, in a landscape that evolves daily.

Bloomberg reports, “By 2021, advertising on websites and mobile devices will account for half of all ad spending in the U.S., capturing greater share than television, radio, newspapers and billboards combined, according to EMarketer Inc.” (Note that word “combined.”)

Is the Nüe perspective prevailing? Is that what incites all the hullabaloo from the Olde guard?

Does it really matter?

Perhaps the real mistake is seeing any of this as a battle to be won. Or as a battle to begin with. Or even as two sides.

I think it’s just a tale of fear. Humans being afraid of change, afraid to change. After all, mortgages and college funds appear to be at risk. The past 20 years of Advertising have seen more change — to roles, process, budgeting, media, measurement and definitions — than the previous century.

And yet it’s ironic that an industry who’s primary objective is to create change (in perspective, preference, action, belief) is itself at war over change.