Ad agencies are really good at certain things. They’re masters of simplifying and focusing. They’re great at creating – or better yet revealing – a brand’s story. They know how to get attention.
But there’s a whole new set of skills and talents they ought to be developing as they encounter change in the form of new technologies (mobile), new engagement platforms (go ahead, pick one) and new agency models (think Victors and Spoils)
I recently had the chance to interview a number of my peers (a video is in the works) including Goodby’s Gareth Kay, Google’s Ben Malbon and Crispin’s Scott Prindle. We talked about our biggest challenges and how to address them. Five themes stood out.
Focus on innovation
It’s easy to stick with the tried and true, relying on traditional media metrics to make decisions about where we spend clients’ money and run ads. But playing it safe is the riskiest thing we can do. Agencies need to stay on top of changing consumer behaviors, master emerging technology and re-invent our own models in the process. Finding a way to make innovation part of the culture is key. You could set up a lab or skunk-works to experiment more as Ben suggests. Convince clients to dedicate five percent of their marketing budget to R&D as Gareth advises. Or attempt to invent your own new products and services as we’ve recently begun to do at Mullen.
“The faster we are the better we become,” declares Ben Malbon. Obviously such a sentiment runs counter to most agencies linear process – research, strategy, creative development, polish and perfect, present, produce, measure – but the fact is we should all learn something from software developers and the startup culture. Embracing agile, learning to prototype platforms and applications, and re-configuring teams and processes are changes we have to make if we’re to stay competitive. Look no further than John Winsor’s recent post on what CMOs would like to see from agencies.
Jeff Jarvis’s predictions that the middleman role would eventually disappear may not have come true, but the emergence of social platforms and the increased ease by which brands can engage directly with their consumers demand that ad agencies learn new skills and tactics– real time engagement, conversation strategy, crowdsourcing — if we expect to maintain our status. If we learned anything from the initial Old Spice Twitter campaign it’s this: creating experiences that earn attention will matter more than crafting messages that buy it.
Attract better talent
Last year I sat through presentations from the first graduating class at Boulder Digital Works, a program initially funded by an ad agency in order to develop more talent for our industry. When I asked the class how many of them wanted to go to work for an agency, even a digital agency, not one student raised a hand. They all want to work for a start-up company, or Google, or someone who makes things. It could be anything – robots, software, or digital services. We face a classic Catch-22. We need new, young digital talent if we’re to change our own companies. Yet we can’t attract that talent until we begin to change. Time to think about how we entice them. Do we mirror Google’s 20 percent time program? Or find some other way to show them that this is the industry to be in.
Liberate the next generation
EVB’s founder Daniel Stein likes to brag about how many of his company’s creations are the work of 23-year olds. Digital natives. Ben Malbon emphasizes that while agencies may think their employees are young, they’re not as young as those at Google. I recently watched two of Mullen’s 23-year olds make a presentation to the editorial staff of the Boston Globe on how the newspaper could do a better job of engaging Gen-Y. The duo did the research, shot and edited videos, created original content, recommended a business relationship and even crunched numbers to show how it would work. Now they’ve even closed the deal. As Rishadt Tobocawalla says, “we can’t teach this generation as much as it can teach us.” The sooner we give them the chance, the sooner we both benefit.
I have some pretty good video of Ben, Gareth and Scott (along with Matt Howell, Tim Malbon, Sheena Matheiken, Kim Laama, John Winsor and me) answering questions about innovation, new sources of inspiration, social media and talent. I’ll try to get it edited and posted soon. In the meantime, thanks for reading. And as always, feel free to leave your thoughts below.