DANIELLE SACKS, FAST COMPANY

Advertising is on the cusp of its first creative revolution since the 1960s. But the ad industry might get left behind.

Twenty creative directors, planners, media strategists, and account executives from agencies across the country are down on all fours on the floor of a 100-year-old tenement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. They are each staring down at a blank poster-size sheet of paper, contemplating their most abject fears about their careers, their livelihoods, and their future. They have reason to worry. They are, after all, in the business of advertising.

This slight three-story brick building on the edge of Chinatown has been taken over by Hyper Island, a school based in Sweden renowned for producing the most coveted digital talent in the ad industry. That school is located in an old prison on the Baltic Sea, and students are taught that there are no boundaries when it comes to digital marketing.
Last summer, the Swedes at Hyper Island recognized that where there’s panic, there’s opportunity, and opened this New York branch. Like the many foreigners who settled in this downtown locale before, the school arrived with its own set of promises — to drag the denizens of Madison Avenue into the 21st century. While its students back in Sweden are “digital natives,” these elder New Yorkers are “digital immigrants,” who have gathered for three days of hard-core immersion in dealing with the chaos digital technology has wrought on their industry. “Something digital immigrants would do,” explains one instructor, “is make a phone call to make sure someone received an email.”

Most of the men and women here — average age: 38 — have worked at agencies for more than a decade. Such tenure used to be considered an asset, but these days it’s more of a liability. They’re all well aware that coding is now prized over copywriting and that a résumé that includes Xbox and Google is more desirable than one featuring stints at BBDO or Grey.
Step one of their therapy, of course, is admitting there is a problem. In this room where Swedish pastries litter a couple of Ikea tables, they have been told that their first assignment is to “put [their] digital stinky fish on the table.” So each supplicant finds some space on the floor and rolls out that big blank sheet of paper. Eventually, everyone writes something, and after a few minutes, the group gathers in a circle — a safe space — where one by one they voice their insecurities. The first person stands up. “I walk around in fear and loathing, dazed and confused,” he says. Another confesses, “I’m a person who’s petrified to fail.” One by one, they exhale the cold fears of an entire industry: “I feel like I’m standing here and there are a thousand baseballs dropping from the sky and I don’t know which ones to catch.” “I left my cushy job at a global agency. Actually, I didn’t leave; I was pushed out.” “I kind of feel like the digital world is a gated world. It’s wide open, but I don’t even know enough to walk in.” “This whole ‘collaboration, we’ll work together as a team’ breaking down of the creative director and art director team — I find it fucking difficult.”

Depending on how you look at it, the next 72 hours are either a communal hazing or a primer on today’s rules of marketing. Creative teams, the participants are told, now need to behave more like improv actors — “story building” instead of storytelling — so they can respond in real time to an unpredictable audience. Marketing actually needs to be useful — “use-vertising” instead of advertising — which means that you must think more like a product developer than an entertainer. While campaigns once promised glossy anthemic concepts, perfected before being shipped off to the waiting client, digital is incremental, experimental, continually optimized — “perpetual beta” — and never, ever finished. “Digital will fuck you up and the way your agencies are built to make money, staff things, price things,” says the instructor. “You guys have to change your DNA, and you’re going to have tough decisions.” Later, there’s an entire lesson on letting go of egos. Throughout the session, instructors remind the novitiates that these new rules are certain to change completely, and soon.

[ CHAOS ] Like a beetle preserved in amber, the practice of advertising has sat virtually unchanged for the last half-century. Before 1960, ad making was a solitary practice. Copywriters toiled away on words to pitch a product, then handed them off to an art director who translated them into an illustration or photograph. Creative director Bill Bernbach (the B in DDB) changed all that when he recognized that pairing wordsmith and artist could spark genius. That simple move ignited the industry’s creative revolution, raising the practice of advertising from sleazy salesmanship to some permutation of art.
The ad business became an assembly line as predictable as Henry Ford’s. The client (whose goal was to get the word out about a product) paid an agency’s account executive (whose job was to lure the client and then keep him happy), who briefed the brand planner (whose research uncovered the big consumer insight), who briefed the media planner (who decided which channel — radio, print, outdoor, direct mail, or TV — to advertise in). Then the copywriter/art director team would pass on its work (a big idea typically represented by storyboards for a 30-second TV commercial) to the producer (who worked with a director and editors to film and edit the commercial). Thanks to the media buyer (whose job was to wine-and-dine media companies to lower the price of TV spots, print pages, or radio slots), the ad would get funneled, like relatively fresh sausage, into some combination of those five mass media, which were anything but equal. TV ruled the world. After all, it not only reached a mass audience but was also the most expensive medium — and the more the client spent, the more money the ad agency made.

That was then. Over the past few years, because of a combination of Internet disintermediation, recession, and corporate blindness, the assembly line has been obliterated — economically, organizationally, and culturally. In the ad business, the relatively good life of 2007 is as remote as the whiskey highs of 1962. “Here we go again,” moans Andy Nibley, the former CEO of ad agency Marsteller who, over the past decade, has also been the CEO of the digital arms of both Reuters and Universal Music. “First the news business, then the music business, then advertising. Is there any industry I get involved in that doesn’t get destroyed by digital technology?”

Thanks to the Internet and digital technology, agencies are finding that the realization of their clients’ ultimate fantasy — the ability to customize a specific message to a specific person at a specific moment — is within their grasp. It is also one very complex nightmare. After all, digital isn’t just one channel. It’s a medium that blooms thousands of other mediums. Brad Jakeman, who formerly led advertising at Citigroup and Macy’s, says the explosion of platforms like search, geotargeting, the iPad, and mobile apps means fragmented media budgets and fragmented consumer attention. “The irony is that while there have never been more ways to reach consumers, it’s never been harder to connect with consumers,” explains Jakeman, now chief creative officer at Activision, the gaming company. The death of mass marketing means the end of lazy marketing. At agencies, the new norm is doing exponentially complex work. Think of the 200 Old Spice YouTube videos whipped up by Wieden+Kennedy in 48 hours. “Creating more work for less money is the big paradox,” says Matt Howell, president of the Boston agency Modernista.

And the Internet has turned what used to be a controlled, one-way message into a real-time dialogue with millions. “Our power has been matched and, in some categories, rivaled by user influence,” says Nick Brien, CEO of Interpublic Group’s McCann Worldgroup, who notes that sites such as Engadget and Yelp can make or break a product. The opportunity for marketers is that instead of having to pay for their message to run somewhere, they can “earn” media for free, via consumers spreading YouTube clips, Groupons, and tweets as if they were trying to saturate their networks with photos of their newborn. Says Jon Bond, cofounder of Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners who left his agency last year to launch a startup: “Marketing in the future is like sex. Only the losers will have to pay for it.” But the dark side of a transparent marketplace is that marketers have never had more of an opportunity to rub consumers the wrong way and be publicly skewered. The days of lathering on a brand message that a product may not live up to are long gone.

All of this has made life much more confusing for the client. At a time of shrinking budgets, chief marketing officers don’t know where to turn. They have little confidence that old-world agencies know how to navigate the chaos, and they don’t know which newcomers to trust. “It’s the most treacherous job in corporate America, blamed for everything and credited for nothing,” concedes Jakeman, who notes that the average CMO tenure is down to 22 months.

With clients in a tailspin, the very role of agencies is in question. Many CMOs are shunning “agencies of record” relationships — the plum long-term, retainer-based deals that have been the bread and butter of full-service firms. After an agency review last year, Angelique Krembs, marketing director of PepsiCo’s SoBe brand, opted to work with only shops that specialized in digital, PR, or promotional work, excluding all generalist firms. “I didn’t see it as us ditching a creative agency. We were going beyond traditional,” says Krembs, in words that can hardly be reassuring to the old line. “We realized it was unlikely we’d find everything we wanted in one place.” That’s apt to become the norm as a generation of senior marketers emerges from the digital side, rather than from classic marketing educations at P&G or General Mills. For example, the recently appointed president of marketing at Sears, David Friedman, was recruited from the digital agency Razorfish.

Squeezed by clients, agencies are also beset by a host of new competitors attacking from every direction. Technology companies have commoditized much of the “art” of that old assembly line. Producing an ad doesn’t have to be an expensive multiperson affair these days, given that commercial-quality high-definition video can now be shot on cameras that cost less than $2,000. Consultancies like Accenture and Sapient are branding themselves as digital agencies. Tech titans like Microsoft, IBM, and Google are rolling out tools that replace agency analysis with digital measurements that can predict the best targets for a campaign and quantify its success. Google, arguably the industry’s most polarizing frenemy, is helping agencies use its planning and analytics tools, while at the same time automating their media-buying jobs. “With infinite ad inventory on the Internet, you just can’t have people do [media planning] anymore,” says Dan Salmon, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets who covers advertising and marketing services. “It’s now being done by a piece of software.”
Technology startups also digitize away agency roles. MediaMath, DataXu, and X + 1 are racing to deliver automated ad-buying platforms; Buildabrand.com has reduced the branding process to an algorithm that produces customized logos in five minutes; Lotame is doing audience data management, which tracks every dollar spent and how it performs. Web 2.0 stars like Facebook and Foursquare are starting to work directly with brands, sometimes cutting agencies out of the conversation entirely.

The attack on the industry is also coming from agency expats. Former Crispin Porter + Bogusky exec John Winsor recently opened Victors & Spoils in Boulder, Colorado. Victors & Spoils has virtually no staff and “operates on the principles of crowdsourcing” — currently the most vilified term in the agency world. Since its launch last year, Victors & Spoils has lured marketers at General Mills, Oakley, Virgin America, and Harley-Davidson, which just ditched its agency of record of 30 years. “Many agencies are hanging on to this idea that creativity is theirs to own and sell,” says Harley CMO Mark-Hans Richer. “[Victors & Spoils] offered a great place to start versus sitting across from a creative who spent weeks crafting the perfect idea and gets upset if you want to change a word.” Says Victors & Spoils chief creative officer Evan Fry, who’s also a Crispin alum: “I think the new model is scary because all of us in the ad industry want to feel, at least from a creative point of view, that we have something no one else has. So if you’re really good at it, you had to go to Creative Circus or Portfolio Center; you had to pay for it. Then you had to toil to get into a good shop. Then you had to get lucky to get on the good briefs. For someone to come out and say, ‘We think a lot of people can offer great ideas’ means, ‘What, I’m not special?’ ”

For the enterprising client that can see clearly through the chaos, this new world holds promise. Kraft, for instance, has assembled a growing Rolodex of 70 new specialist partners. This isn’t some fringe brand — it’s Kraft, the country’s largest food marketer, which spends some $1.6 billion on marketing every year. The company is so open to new thinking that it recently hired a startup called GeniusRocket to develop a new campaign for the relaunch of its Athenos Hummus.

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