Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Agency of the Future

I've been daydreaming lately about what the future of my industry will look like.

Speculation is always laughable when you look back at it, but when you're looking forward it's still fun to imagine: What will the ad agency of 2020 be?

This is particularly interesting to me, because I think the seeds of the new species were planted more than 10 years ago, when stories started circulating about agencies abandoning the office structure for a virtual workplace of cell phones, laptops, and video conferencing. (My boss at the time, Bob Corrall at The Bytown Group, was seriously considering following suit.)

It didn't happen. But I don't think it's because the concept was wrong. Rather, the time was. Technology has a habit of outpacing people's ability to absorb change. People then (and to a large extent, now) still favoured face-to-face meetings over naked text or voice — or even the weird delays and wandering eyes of primitive Internet video conferencing.

Fast-forward to the new, and the fundamentals of the technology haven't changed – only improved. The real revolution has been a cultural one, as older people now cling to their PDAs as they once did to their cigarettes, and younger people live in a world where text messaging someone sitting next to you is not considered odd.

So, why do we still come to the office? Well, telecommuting is steadily rising where permitted. But once again cultural change moves slowly. Business owners like to see their workers at work. And I have to admit that there are some situations — like strategic or creative brainstorming — where you really need human interaction to be efficient.

So my vision of the agency of the future is less office, and more meeting place. It's where teams agree to get together to hash out ideas, and where the ideas get presented to clients. But deskwork? I think it will be for the home office.

And who will do this work? With the decline of massive mainstream media channels, traditional advertising is seen to be failing. I don't believe advertising is dead at all. It just needs to keep up.

For over 50 years, advertising has been driven by massive spending on mass media. The old rule of thumb for ad budgets is 20% for creative and production versus 80% for the media buy. You needed it if you were even going to be seen in primetime.

Well, it's time to think differently. Not only online and social media, but also the million-channel universe, video on demand and timeshifting, have made audiences much harder to find. To borrow a colleague's metaphor for attempted Facebook hookups, it's gone from machine-gunning a message to sharpshooting it.

Sure, there are still media placements to be bought, but they'll be way more targetted and economical — smart online ads and specialty media. What will be needed instead is a big investment in research, strategy, content and a good blend of paid/earned media planning... with maybe 20% left over for actually buying space.

Media departments will change. I see them becoming a hybrid of market research, media planning, and public/media relations. The emphasis will be on defining, finding, and reaching highly-targeted groups, rather than making massive buys. They do the intellectual legwork now. They just need to get paid what it's really worth, since commissions will dry up.

The good news for creatives is that when you have to earn people's attention (rather than buying it) great ideas will still win out. But rather than the old-school Copywriter/Art Director team, I see the next generation of Creatives being more like a sitcom writing team with the ability to design, lay out, and code their own work. Ad schools are already turning out multidisciplinarian graduates. Once we old folk can embrace a blurring of creative and executional roles, the world will be theirs.

I also see these future teams as independent units, maybe even contractors or hired guns. Right now, many teams specialize in specific brands or industries, as do agencies. I see these future teams specializing in target markets, able to speak to them credibly on any subject, and work for any agency or brand. They could be located anywhere, but would have to share a meta-culture with the audience. And agewise, probably a few years older than them so that they are insightful yet self-aware and capable of cultural leadership. (My anecdote on this is always that The Beatles were not technically Baby Boomers, but U2 are.)

Understanding of the brands and industries will be the job of Client Services, as always. But I see them being much more in the role of a Producer in the TV broadcast world, setting the course, lining up the players, performing project management miracles, and internalizing the creative product that they can present it to clients and defend it as their own. (This is a big part of my virtual office, which would mean Client Services people could operate independently in major markets for face-to-face meetings, and deal remotely with far-flung Creative Teams.)

Will this all happen? And when? I have no idea. But things have to change. This isn't all about social media, either. Media come and go, and the ones that work just work. I was reminded of this as I walked to Acart this morning — rather than driving a flying car or being sucked through a pneumatic tube — and saw rows of one of the oldest ad media, hoarding posters, catching my attention the way they always will.

Technology doesn't change us. It just opens up opportunities. It's up to us to take advantages of the right ones — at the right time, and in the right place.


  1. Ah, machine gun poking. Those were the days...

    But what does it say about the advertising industry when our future (in your estimation) is to basically catch up to the traditional TV series model (itself an industry in crisis)? Producers and writing rooms are just as much in danger of being pushed aside by DIY products and reality series - just look at how TV execs were laughing all the way through the writers strike when content still poured in and ratings didn't dip...

  2. Oh, I'm not talking about copying the industry, just the idea of creative teams being more of a small, independent group. In our industry, they'd have to do more than write.

    DIY has made media accessible to everyone, but it has not made everyone a creative genius. The ideas marketplace has been democratized, not flattened. So you can choose to be funny, insightful, shocking, or sexy, and you'll have a chance to earn viewership. But the vast majority of DIY stuff out there will remain lame, irrelevant and unloved. That's why clients will still need professional creative help if they ever want to compete.