Tomorrow Today

(This is my chapter from the new Creative Social book: Hacker, Maker, Teacher, Thief: Advertising’s Next Generation. More info on the book I also helped edit at the bottom)

Image: PBS
“Prediction is very difficult. Especially if it’s about the future”.
– Nils Bohr, Nobel Laureate Physicist

People are rightly nervous about making predictions about the future. As Ray Amara famously observed, we have a nasty tendency to overestimate the short term impact and underestimate the long term impact of new things. In our strange, little world of advertising and marketing this tends to lead to hyperbolic, sweeping assertions about how a shiny new thing will lead to the death of the thing before (apparently TV advertising should have died a few years ago and there shouldn’t be radio ads any more) rather than how it might alter and begin to transform the existing status quo. The slow stuff matters more than the shock of the new.

However, I feel more comfortable writing about how the advertising agency business needs to change and how it might look in the future. And that’s for a simple reason: advertising, as we know it, is simply not working. It has failed to change as fast as culture and as a result is becoming increasingly irrelevant to people, business and the talent we need to attract and retain. If we don’t change today, then there is not going to be much of a future to predict.

The march to irrelevance

People are not seeing the difference between brands and ads. As far back as 2000, Copernicus Consulting discovered that people saw the brands in 4 out of 5 categories as being increasingly homogeneous and only 7% saw a difference in ads. And not only are they not seeing difference but they are increasingly seeing little usefulness in the notion of the brand. Havas Media Lab has recently fielded global research that has shown that the majority of people couldn’t care less if 3 out of 4 brands disappeared tomorrow and only 1 in 5 brands are seen to make a positive and noticeable contribution to people’s lives. So we are failing the most basic needs of marketing: to forge differentiation and be useful and valuable to people.

As a result of this, clients are beginning to question the efficacy of marketing. One in four clients believe marketing is not boosting corporate profitability and in the world of packaged goods, for every dollar spent on brand building three dollars are being spent on price promotions. They are also aware of the lack of change in the advertising industry itself: only one in ten clients think the industry is doing a good job in evolving their services for the digital age.

Finally, the industry is not attracting or retaining the best talent. Talk to people who perhaps a decade ago would join the industry and they’ll tell you that it just doesn’t feel that exciting to them. It’s not the strong cultural force it once was and it isn’t about solving the ‘wicked problems’ that exist in other industries. So, the best talent is no longer joining the industry and the talent that does join isn’t being invested in the way it should be to grow and flourish and be remarkable. Andrew Bennett highlighted this by discovering that Starbucks spends more per head training their baristas than we spend training our talent.

Quite simply, in an era of massive cultural change (from putting a man on the moon to the Berlin Wall coming down to us walking around with our faces stuck in supercomputers) we have changed little, if at all. It’s unsurprising, as a result, that we need to change now if we are to have a healthy tomorrow. What follows are three of the most important things I think we need to do in order to build a healthier and more relevant industry for today and tomorrow.

1. Close the commercial gap

The great failure of the advertising industry to transform itself has been down to the fact that we’re excellent at the wrong type of innovation. We relentlessly pursue and celebrate the latest new and original ways of doing what we have done before. And it is rarely about imaginatively and daringly finding new types of things to do with our creativity and new ways to get paid for them.

Laurence Green, a Partner of the agency 101, summed this up brilliantly: “The task of any imaginative agency, any creative company, is to understand and serve its client’s business problem. Too often, our business has sliced and diced its tasks in the style of a sub-prime mortgage bundler. A corporate task set by the chief executive, reframed as a comms task by the marketing director, refined by the brand consultancy and reduced by the ad agency to the stuff advertising can do: grow awareness, nurture engagement. Too many links, too indirect and weak a connection between commercial possibilities and creative resolution.”

To do this we need to break the muscle memory of seeing every business problem as something that can be solved by the act of advertising.

Clients are asking us to grow their business and solve big, tough, complicated commercial problems. Yet our default behavior and niche obsessions with the ad makes the link between the commercial imperative and the creative solution far too weak and indirect. We have to become more obsessed by the outcome we create rather than the output we make.

Perhaps even more damningly than this there is, I would observe, an increasing lack of understanding about how business really works today. The industry tends to only understand business through the lens of advertising and, as a result, has little to no understanding of how companies really make money. There’s been tremendous innovation in business models that will be invisible to most agency people because they see the world in simplistic and outdated ways.

2. Put real people at the heart of everything we do

I sometimes wonder if we might be the most narcissistic industry on Earth. We look at award show annuals for inspiration. Our references in meetings are other ads. Competitive reviews are ads and nothing else. We even make behind the scenes films thinking we are making the next Quentin Tarantino movie when we’re not.

We think the world revolves around us. It doesn’t. It revolves around people. And those people really don’t care much about brands and the stuff we make on their behalf. They’re much more interested in their family and how their day has been, what’s for dinner, what’s on TV, how their job is going, what the football score is, etc.

So maybe we would be better off if we try to understand what people are interested in and work back from there. Maybe do something interesting around things they are interested in, rather than trying to wring out the last bits of commercial value from what we think is important.

This means we need to help brands have a point of view on the world, not just a position in their category. It means being people positive, not media neutral. I’m increasingly using a very simple yardstick — that of the bridge — when evaluating ideas. Great communication ideas act as a bridge. A bridge between what people are interested in and care about and what you make/ sell. A bridge between your world and theirs; real life/culture and commerce.

(By the way, you may notice that this piece uses the word ‘people’ rather than the more common marketing-ese of ‘consumers’. Give it a go. I guarantee you’ll start doing things that are more welcome in their lives just by treating them as real people, not actors whose sole role in life is to consume stuff).

3. Get experimental

Peter Sims wrote a fantastic book called ‘Little Bets’. In it he outlines the reality of how great cultural ideas are formed, from Chris Rock’s standup to google’s innovation process. It’s not about arriving at a perfectly formed idea, but rather a willingness to stumble upon greatness. And this mindset is something at odds with an industry constrined by the tyranny of perfection.

Let’s compare for a moment how two different types of creative companies work. Let’s take Pixar, the maker of amazing movies that push the boundaries of what’s possible with technology and an ad agency. Let’s call the agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Now Pixar has a simple motto that guides them: ‘from suck to non-suck’. Their driven to be wrong as fast as you can; to go from suck to non-suck as quickly as possible. They accept that mistakes are an inevitable part of the creative process, so they get right down to it and start making them. Their process is built around this and is perhaps best exemplified by their use of show and tell dailies where anyone can comment on progress and the day’s work, regardless of how rough the day’s work is. They fail forward. As John Lasseter, theur creative supremo put it: “Every Pixar film was the worst motion picture ever made at one time or another. People don’t believe that, but it’s true. But we don’t give up on the films.”

Now compare that to the process inside an ad agency or a marketing department: a siloed relay race, where we spend 90% of our time on the last 2% of craft.

In today’s ever accelerated culture we are setting ourselves up to fail every day we walk into work. We don’t move at the speed of culture and thus are becoming irrelevant. We have to try and remove the pointless quest for perfection.

Become hackers of commerce and culture

Quite simply, I believe that we are at our most valuable when we behave less like advertising people and more like a hacker. Now when you think of hacker, you often still think of people who break stuff and live outside the law. But that’s not what hacking is about. It’s about something much more powerful because, at it’s most fundamental, a hack is the most ingenious and effective solution to a problem. I believe orienting ourselves around this is more powerful for five simple reasons.

  1. Hacks, by definition, are more effective. They take big complicated problems and break them into smaller problems that can be more easily solved, whatever form that solution takes. As a result, they remove the gap between the commercial imperative and the creative solution.
  2. Hacks tend to to be people positive. They solve real problems for people and make their lives in some way better. So we make stuff people care about.
  3. Hacks simplify things for people and get out of the way. They don’t feel they have to interrupt you or get in your way in order to be noticed.
  4. Hacks are forward looking and imaginative; they have an inherent disdain for the tired solutions of today. They are true to the etymological meaning of technology : “a better way of doing things.
  5. Hacking is about a predisposition and bias towards speed. It’s about solving a problem in a better, faster and easier way. It fights the tyranny of perfection that far too often slows us down. It lets us move and experiment at least as fast as culture. (Lorne Michaels, the Producer of Saturday Night Live, captured this brilliantly: “the show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 1130 Saturday night”.)

We need to rediscover our healthy disregard for advertising

To become relevant today and thrive tomorrow, we need to have a healthy disregard for advertising, at least as we know it now. We need to break out of our paint by numbers mentality. A healthy disregard for advertising has always been a common thread in the best advertising people and clients: Phil Knight famously spoke about how much he hated advertising, google run a million miles away from stuff that ‘feels like an ad’ and I’m convinced that the best work we do in the industry stems from people who don’t see themselves as advertising people. We need to rediscover this disregard. Somewhat perversely, we need less advertising people in order for advertising to flourish.

We face today two interlinked problems. First, we are a cultural laggard — we’re less interesting and progressive than the stuff that surrounds what we do. As a result, we are less meaningful to people and less vital to brands. Second, we have forgotten how to understand and serve our clients’ business problems; we only know how to make the stuff we’ve grown up making.

The confluence of this means we are currently making the slow walk to irrelevance.

If we’re to stop this and seize the amazing opportunities open to us, we need to stop being advertising people, and we need to become much more like hackers.

Or, as Mark Shayler says much more succinctly: “It’s not sufficient to do things better. We need to do better things.”

The above text was taken from the new Creative Social book, Hacker, Maker, Teacher, Thief: Advertising’s Next Generation.

Hacker, Maker, Teacher, Thief is the latest book from Creative Social and features chapters from 35 leading creative directors and business owners. Some of the topics we cover are; what does the industry need to do today (not tomorrow) to stay valuable and relevant? Is digital collaboration the death of idea ownership? And should we make things people want rather than make people want things?

You can buy your copy on Amazon here. I highly recommend it (but as an editor of the book I would).

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