In the Twilight of the Advertising System

One evening, an intelligent agent, armed with your specifications, scours the web looking for the perfect home entertainment system. The next morning, you find product descriptions and prices in your email box.

A marketing director for a multinational corporation, who is the client of a large advertising agency, sets about an experiment. She visits an electronic marketplace for creative services, puts out an RFP, reviews some online portfolios, then commissions various groups and individuals to pitch big ideas for an upcoming integrated campaign. One month and a total of $35,000 later, she has what she sought: ideas that can move markets.

In a time of intelligent agents, what roles will branding and advertising agencies play? Will their roles be more important or diminished? With the advent of e-marketplaces just one manifestation of the web’s continual remaking of buyer and seller relationships (from reverse auctions to aggregated buying and all stops in between) how long will it be before print-project markups, media commissions, and creative costs stop flowing into ad agency coffers? And how might another kind of e-marketplace, someday in the not-too-distant future, change the very way that agencies are selected to begin with?

I don’t have the answers to the questions above. But I have my opinions.

I think we are witnessing the first moments of the twilight of the advertising “system.” In another article, I talked about the signs that things aren’t working (especially when viewed from the client’s perspective): the average two-year lifespan of an agency/client relationship, the acrimonious splits, and the lack of any knowledge transfer or captured best practices.

It’s that last point that is, for me at least, most telling. The talking, taco-craving Chihuahua gets its walking papers. And, quickly, his pawprints disappear. Oh, but it will live forever on the reels and award shelves of agency-hopping creative directors, art directors, and copywriters. And in the risumis of corporation-hopping marketing directors.

Don’t you get it yet, friend? We’re all short-timers here, we restless, rootless, headhunted New Hellenes. Both client and agency folks alike find themselves in an accidental collusion that costs tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars. We can’t afford to worry about transferring knowledge and capturing best practices because that might interfere with building the brand that is “me.”

Now should you think that I consider myself an innocent and yourself a criminal in all of this, don’t bother. I’m much too equivocal for those sorts of characterizations. Plus, I’m up to my eyeballs in this profession.

It’s not an easy way to make a living. Those who work in advertising know it exacts a terrific toll on families and on one’s mental and physical health. And when you consider that an American child consumes 13 times more natural resources than a Brazilian child and we ad folks are in the business of encouraging this consumption well, need I say more?

(Don’t worry. I lack the soul and courage to make that case the case for less consumption stick for any time at all. I have decided that I can be comfortable with contradictions. Or is it just that I’ve decided to be comfortable?)

I need to backpedal a bit. I have tremendous respect for folks who work in advertising, especially those creative professionals, some of whom are not, technically speaking, creatives. But, I think we, both agencies and clients, find ourselves trapped in ossified roles that are in desperate need of reimagining.

I believe that one person with good ideas can be more powerful than the biggest agency on earth. I am convinced (from direct experience) that clients should be airing their business issues in front of an agency’s creative department and asking those creative professionals to draw upon the same faculties they use to arrive at “big ideas.” Given the right context, those creative minds are capable of redreaming business models, promotions, and public relations.

I have observed that what so often passes for “strategic thinking” is just a set of warmed-over platitudes. It is time to look for strategy in places that you’re not supposed to find it. Because, in this time of twilight, all the labels are misleading.

And, finally, I know that there is a tremendous waste at the heart of agency/client relationships: wasted money, wasted opportunities, and the needless reinvention of ordinary wheels.

You may think these are easy words to write. They aren’t. After all, the party boats are in full music and dancing. Never before has the advertising profession been quite so prosperous. And the following question needs asking: “Who is he to tell us anything?” Fair enough. Time to shut up for awhile and listen for some pings.

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