For most of my career, I’ve been an ‘ad guy.’
My career in advertising began in June of 1998, when I had hopes of getting hired at one of the famous big agencies: JWT, TBWA, Ogilvy, BBDO, DDB, FCB.
After some healthy pavement pounding, I was offered a job at Ogilvy, but ended up turning it down for an entry-level position with Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners.
I chose Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners* not just for its breakthrough work as a creative boutique, but because I believed that a culture of innovation and creativity could not be manufactured.
Rather, it had to be embodied by the people around you. It had to be part of the leaders.
Today, I’m still an ad guy, albeit in a different form, working as Head of Marketing for multi-channel customer relationship & loyalty startup CrowdTwist. Regardless, I’ve paid my agency dues and I’ve earned the right to rant. I won’t get in to the failings of executive leadership or holding companies, illicit affairs, internal politics, overinflated egos or washed up talent collecting large salaries. That stuff exists everywhere and frankly, I’m over it!
Instead I want to talk about how it’s possible that an industry once widely lauded for its creativity has lost to a host of small boutique firms and incredible start-ups. Why did the agency business fail to innovate with the dawn of technology? I know what you’re thinking – I’m overstating the problem. But I’m not. Sure there are a number of incredible shops. I’ve worked for some, one is an investor in my current company, and more are rising everyday. I’m talking instead about the leaders who’ve largely lost their bearings and desire to lead.
I’d like to identify the five qualities I believe have destroyed agencies overall:
They failed to connect. The shift from traditional agency to the digitally capable took far too long. In the midst of sea change, agencies focused on what they knew rather than exploring areas that they didn’t. When they finally expanded into digital, they focused on integration rather than innovation, which translated into taking traditional assets and “putting them online”. I’ve seen the dysfunction of the digital vs. traditional side of the business. It should never have been a separate business. Marketing is about messaging. Messaging is not channel specific. Reach people everywhere. Well, you’ve failed.
They failed to innovate. RGA and their client Nike are true innovators. They’ve built leading ideas that extend online and off, even on-body and off. But they’re an exception. Agencies have preserved margins at the expense of their craft. Rather than rethink the possibilities of the digital channel, they’re still running banner ads that return .25% response. Really! Is that the best you can do? Innovating means rethinking, re-approaching, re-defining and not re-using. The next time someone suggests you re-use a deck from another business, refuse. Tell them you’d like to innovate.
They failed to listen to the new generation of workers. Young professionals entering agencies are the same people that have grown up with technology as appendages to their lives. Why are agencies not making new employees the most valuable assets on their pay role? Instead they’re underpaid and overworked so folks in the big offices can play Angry Birds on their iPhones or iPads because they sure as hell have no idea what else they can do with a mobile platform.
They’re over-complicating everything. I’ve worked for several leading “digital at the core” agencies and I remain in shock at how complicated they make everything. Innovation requires looking at a problem, assessing the solutions, deciding what to do and then doing it. The over-leveled, vertical structure of the agency business makes it impossible to move on a dime and that’s the speed of innovation. Every site they launch is still plagued by errors that should’ve been solved 8 years ago. It’s time to start moving not trying to figure out mobile app development.
The holding companies crushed moral, innovation and investments in progress. For years, holding companies have bought assets, labeled them ‘innovation purchases,’ then pushed leadership to sell those services under the guise of innovation to an existing client base. Selling clients on assets you own is a liability and a conflict of interest, especially given the innovation bleed-out process that happens every time these assets are purchased: invest, systems integration, re-alignment of priorities (aka layoffs), budget cuts (aka restructuring), spending freeze (aka no innovating). It happens over several years but the result is clear and consistent: things that once were leading now are bleeding.
Agency leadership should be setting their sights on integrating and learning from the amazing talent that’s in the start-up community. What’s going to be next? Where are things headed? How can you work with the next Facebook now?
New talent should be vocal about what’s hot and what’s not. Instagram… I heard about it two years ago from two incredible young creatives. Sold for $1 Billion dollars. They were onto something and the agency EVP couldn’t even consider including it in a pitch.
Look for new shows and innovation summits. AdAge Digital, Internet Week…sure they’re great, but try something different. Look for the small guys. The emerging shops that are building incredible technologies and are innovating across entire industries, not just channels. Enough with social or mobile solutions, retargeting, or pre-roll.
And that’s it. Well not really but if you start there and we can always reassess how well you’re doing in 12 months. Innovate or die. Seems like there’s only one option.
*In full disclosure, KBS+P Ventures is an investor in CrowdTwist.