Another Reason The Traditional Agency Model is Under Seige

The Classic Adman's Cheese Has Moved

The Classic Adman's Cheese Has Moved.

 

Sure, convergence casts a long shadow over traditional agencies.  The proliferation of new media and its attendant audience dispersal create serious headaches for everyone searching for smart, responsible channel planning.

And every traditional agency must grapple with the need to not merely embrace but to master digital creative.  Yet, call me an optimist, but that doesn’t particularly worry me.

What worries me is that traditional agencies have spent decades ruining the market for what today’s clients demand over anything else: ideas.  Because since the middle of the last century, agencies have basically given away creative.  Which makes it particularly hard to start charging for it now.

Think about it: back in the glory days of television, a healthy percentage on a TV media buy paid for a whole lot of overhead.  The numbers were large and simple–agencies could afford to give away the ideas.  And so they did.

With the rise of cable and the first early signs of a splintering television audience, agencies could no longer count on percentages to cover their costs and margins.  So they moved to fees and contracted hours.  And still, they could afford to give away the ideas.  And so they did.

But today, we can’t afford to give away those ideas; the margins simply aren’t there anymore, due to both the rise of procurement drones and ever-shrinking budgets.  Today, clients turn to agencies for ideas and ideas alone.  Sure, some may want insights and media planning but if they didn’t get that from their agency, hundreds of other companies can provide that thinking.  All of which means that suddenly, the product agencies have long given away stands as their most valuable asset in a changing marketplace.  So we better figure out a way to charge for those ideas, and reimbue them with the value they deserve.

Agencies like to say they are in the idea business, and they are.  Unfortunately, most agencies have been in the Idea Management business.  Today’s agencies must be in the Idea Production business.  Emphasize anything else, and you’re not serving the clients, you’re serving an increasingly irrelevant business model.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Creativity Is Not A Manufacturing Process: Efficiency Makes A Lame Goal

A Reliable Source 

An article in the October 20th issue of Advertising Age highlights an eleven year old California-based “marketing operations management” company called Assetlink.  (to download a pdf, click here).  Assetlink promises to help clients track the productivity of their agencies, with specific metrics around staffing and ‘through put,’ all with an eye to maximizing efficiencies.  In one of the examples they cite, the information led to consolidation of work at a mainline agency–a fact that is decidedly countertrend in our increasingly specialized marketplace.  Now an optimist could take the half-full glass perspective that using Assetlink probably argues against a review, but the pessimist would recognize that’s only due to how operationalizing Assetlink into an agency demands serious labor and requires at least a year before producing regular results.

I don’t doubt the intelligence of the people behind ventures like Assetlink.  I don’t even question their intent: anyone close to the agency business knows “agency management” is nearly oxymoronic.  The more interesting question is “why is that?”

I would venture it’s because the job requires ‘managing creatives’ or at least ‘creativity.’  And while legions of flow-chart wielding, process fixated, left-brain eggheads peddle thousands of books, seminars and yes, on-line management tools all purporting to measure and ‘improve’ the flow of creativity, none of them are worth a tinker’s damn.  Sorry, but that’s the truth.  Look; Roger and his creative whack on the side of the head will definitely help non-creative people understand the process, but it won’t begin to get them even close to mastering it.  Creativity is something different, something decidedly non-linear.  And something practiced exceptionally well only by a select few.

Given my personal bias, I’m much more a believer in Tom Monahan and his theories on the role of the subconscious mind in finding creative solutions.  True creativity requires leaps of faith, even illogic, to create something thrilling and new amidst the prosaic.  We don’t always deliver it, but when we do, almost everyone senses it: a palpable energy, an undeniable introduction of freshness and inspiration.

For a truly insightful, painstakingly-researched and passionately-argued exploration on the topic of managing the creative mind, you won’t find a better primer than Gordon Torr’s Managing Creative People: Lessons in Leadership for the Ideas Economy.  Aside from the dullishly-direct title, every aspect of this book sings with intelligence and insight.  Gordon makes a telling comparison between the American mass manufacturing process mastered at the beginning of the last century and the almost unconscious application of that process into advertising agencies.  And it isn’t pretty.  As he puts it “You cannot manage the production of creative ideas the way you manage the production of tinned pineapples.”  Amen.

If you want to know how the creative mind really works, go buy this book.  And no, I don’t get a dime for shilling this, just personal satisfaction that great thinking will be rewarded.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Improve Your Writing Right Now: Use Active Voice

No Creative Director ever really knows exactly how much positive influence they create within their teams.  Practiced well, the CD’s impact works subtly to the point of imperceptibility, encouraging the personal growth of the individuals in their group.

That said, I strive to leave one lasting, public legacy with every writer under my direction: to shake the habit of writing in passive voice.  If they take nothing else from our time together, I want them to write with strength and vigor…to write with action and passion…to write in active voice.  Many years ago, I learned this lesson at the able hands of Mr.’s Strunk and White in their seminal “The Elements of Style” and to this day, out of respect to my high school English teacher Ms. Betty Bartles, I carry the flag for this small bit of writing hygiene.

Why is that man crying?  Too much passive voice...

Why is that man crying? Too much passive voice...

Why so obsessed over such a small point of grammar?

Because active voice feels muscular and tight where passive voice wanders listlessly.  Active verbs drive engagement while long paragraphs of passive construction creates a sense of distance.  “I write” carries an immediacy that “I am writing” lacks.  Fill a paragraph with ‘is working,’ ‘was saying,’ and ‘had been thinking’ and you can almost watch the reader’s mind untether from your argument and wander off in search of something more engaging.

Passive voice rings particularly egregiously when it appears in scripts.  At it’s lingual root, ‘drama’ means ‘to do,’ not ‘to be doing.’  You don’t ‘are sitting’–you sit.  Or better yet, you plop, you brood, you huddle; good writing uses colorful, choiceful language to paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind of interesting characters doing things.  Active voice makes your images, stories and captions both more powerful and more dramatic.

So please–for the love of God and all that is holy and beautiful and decent–please stamp out passive voice in your work.

Of course, since I’m already on this rant, never, ever, EVER use these phrases in your scripts either:
–We see
–Open on
–Cut to

If you describe visuals, of course we’ll see them, if you begin a story, of course it opens on something, and if your story moves locations, of course you cut to something.  All of these redundant phrases slow down the flow of your script, so excise them, ruthlessly.

Thanks for reading.  And writing.  Hopefully better.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

The Persistent Threat of Overthink

Sure, every marketing program needs a foundation of intelligence.  You can’t provide a solution unless you have a firm grasp of the problem, which requires at least some smarts.  But eventually, all strategies must come to life in creative executions.  All those thoughts have to turn into a few things, and those things better be attractive, inspiring, engaging.

Danger arises when people mistake continued thinking for continued improvement.  All too often, ongoing thinking devolves into OVERthinking: a fretting, left-brain nervousness that attempts to graft logic onto every last decision, right through creative production. 

This is a bad, bad thing. When well-meaning clients attempt to filter the instrumentation choices in the track or the color of the talent’s blouse through the demands of the strategy, something has gone horribly, desperately wrong.  Just like drinking and driving, someone has to help everyone know when to say ‘when.’  That’s what friends are for, particularly friends of the brand.

To illustrate how overthink threatens creativity, consider these three simple lessons drawn from everyday, non-marketing life…

1.  Intelligence does not always translate to popularity.  I mean, Paris Hilton vs. new-Keynesian economist Joseph Stiglitz: who you got?

2.   Logic requires linear thinking, and thus eliminates surprise.  Without surprise, other wonderful qualities disappear as well: magic, delight, engagement.

3.  Don’t assume your market will be intellectually engaged when they receive your message.  They might be watching “Biggest Loser” or Googling “Paris Hilton” (it’s doubtful they’re Googling “new-Keynesian economist Joseph Stiglitz”).

Overthink springs from nervousness, fear’s slightly more presentable sibling.

Because I’m relatively new to this game, I actually haven’t blogged it before but I’ll definitely blog it again: marketing should never be a con game, but it is always a confidence game.  

And when we build confidence around and for and in our brands, we’re doing the job right.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Client Engagement: Why Agencies Need a New Form of Golf

Golf Creates Frustrations.  But It Can Also Ease Them Between Agencies and Clients.

Golf Creates Frustrations. But It Can Also Ease Them Between Agencies and Clients.

Most ad people would consider an agency head taking a client out for an afternoon of golf a charming anachronism at best, and more than a few would view it as a disgusting display of expensive self-indulgence.  Golf is so…white male.  Imagine, ducking out of the office and spending five hours out on the course without cell phones or meetings or e-mail?  It’s almost unthinkable, which probably hastened this old pass time’s demise.  Who can work that into their schedule?

And that neatly sums up the issue: we no longer value getting out of the office and connecting on a personal level.  In our  “One Minute Manager” obsessed world, where curt Blackberry conversations masquerade as communication and most lunches happen at our desks, we can’t indulge that sort of inefficiency.  

But let’s be honest: connection planning and one-to-one interactions and social networking happened on the back nine long before the Department of Defense started building the whole internet thing.  Out there, away from the office and the distractions of the day, people open up about what’s really on their minds.  They talk about their backgrounds, their dreams, the politics in their offices.  And they give you warnings about problem areas and frank assessments they would never offer if it were merely an agenda topic.

If agency people are to weather the storms of musical chairs at their clients’ offices, they need to know their business.  And since marketing is a people business, that means knowing the people.  Deeply.

Believe it or not, you can get to know them by chasing a little white ball for five hours…  You can take them sailing…  Or skeet shooting, hiking, commuting between cities–any of a number of activities will work.  The key is to make it fun, keep it away from work, and spend enough time to get below the surface.  That’s where the real revelations always are…

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Ideas on Marketing and Advertising Come and Go…

To the creative mind, thoughts are like birds.  They come, they go, they swarm and flock and mess up the public statuary…  Okay, maybe that’s pushing the metaphor: regardless, I needed a place to let mine roost; a repository of thought and opinion for big ideas, little insights and total misses.  Some thoughts rarely stray from your synapses, returning to your consciousness time after time like swallows to Capistrano.  Involuntary thoughts, if you will.  But others fly off, never to be seen again.  Those are the ones that inspired this blog.

Consider this a Facebook for ideas about the advertising and marketing industry.  A little spot on the web where we can friend thoughts and then let them go off to live their own lives and chase their own muses…until that day comes when we want to contact them again.  And then, voila, we’ll be able to find them roosting right here, conveniently accessible in perpetuity.  Which is, you know, nice…

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79