Advertising agencies are dead! Long live advertising agencies!

Layout 1Advertising agencies are dead! Long live advertising agencies!

by Andrew Lok

In “The Long Tail”, Chris Anderson argues that with the democratisation of the means of production and distribution on one hand, and the ease of searching for and reviewing products and services on the other, the technology of the Internet and of low-cost manufacturing have empowered both producers and consumers with an infinite “shelf space”, where anything can be sold or bought, and every niche can be satisfied, and any creation has a fair chance of becoming a blockbuster.

(My English teachers who taught me how to summarise a book would be proud of me.)

Mr. Anderson has cleverly put a structure on how these technology trends of the past quarter century have impacted everything from original music to organic milk. So how have these same waves ripped through the advertising industry in which I ply my craft?

In the year B.C. (Before Canon) 5D Mark Two…

Remember when we used to venerate film directors? They were gods. But the 5DMk.2 begat a whole slew of DSLRs that changed the filmmaking landscape. Now with drones and miniature HD cameras (and the ubiquitous iPhone) and affordable stabilisation rigs, everybody with a story to tell can do so and make it look professional. And web video distribution platforms and social media have made dissemination costs effectively nil.

All of which makes me venerate GOOD film directors even more. The volume of video content uploaded every day is staggering, and most of it is staggeringly bad. I paraphrase my hero John Hegarty when he says that BBH, more often than not, focuses on getting the best talent money can buy to turn a great idea into a blockbuster, and then wait for it to catch on and be distributed by netizens. Honestly speaking, would you rather a consumer shared a video about your brand shot by Jake Scott and starring Jude Law or shared a video shot by her high school BFF about her cat struggling with scotch tape?

Advertising agencies have a valuable role in identifying and collaborating with the best creative talent out there to produce branded content. Like my old boss Miles Young likes to say, “We are not in the advertising business. We are in the talent business.” Let’s be the talent that works with the best talent.

When everybody can be creative, nobody owns creativity.

I couldn’t agree more. Nobody has a monopoly on what kind of creations appear on the plethora of screens consumers take for granted. They just watch (and play) what they want, when they want, in a seamless manner. And this has thrown ad agencies into a fluster, with just about everybody and their interns proposing campaigns that seek “audience engagement” and “user-generated content”.

For me, the creative process is like grasping at clouds or, as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it in her TED talk, waiting for your “genius” to pay you a visit. I find that the best ideas and stories often find themselves. They live in the ether of lives lived or observed or conjured up.

Take a look at Volvo’s Van Damme antics today or, if anybody remembers, Sony’s landmark ads from a decade ago for Playstation and, later, Bravia. Who’s to say the ad guy (or girl) is not a consumer or user who can create the kind of work human beings want to see and share?

Michelangelo and Da Vinci were polymaths in an age that celebrated the Man who could reach in all directions and be all things wise and wonderful. I believe we are in that age again, and the Internet is the Medici clan’s influence and power writ large.

As an advertising person under the patronage of brands, we can now be consultant, curator and creator. Let’s not sell ourselves short.

Technology and Big Data rule.

Really? Like the way the plough ruled? Or the steam engine? Or the printing press? There is a Chinese saying, “plans always fall behind changes”. I love how the wisdom of the masses has brought us unparalleled access to all the things we want. But we are not the “Borg” of Star Trek myth. The eternal debate and struggle of humanity over what is good and bad for an individual, and for the community we are a part of, will always call for people, and brands, to make a stand for what they believe in.

And if we as advertising people believe in ourselves, we will still be the flag bearer of the brands we believe in.