It’s been fashionable lately to trash traditional ad agencies for being out-of-touch, out-of-the-loop, out-to-lunch, and missing-in-action on all things relevant to our unmistakable digital and “conversational” reality.
Agency bashing is like a sport, and darn it feels good. Finger pointing is a form of catharsis, and a common enemy makes for good targets on the dartboard. I mean, “You loser, you!”
But far from the too-easy conclusion that ad agencies will soon ride into the sunset (aided by the inevitable collapse of the :30 commercial), I predict they’re about to experience a reincarnation, renewal, and renaissance. Online video, I submit, is the catalyst and redeemer.
Indeed, the resurgence of online video is the lynchpin for traditional agencies to reassert center stage in creativity, authority, and overall brand leadership — provided, of course, they play it right, and use their newfound momentum to weave together other pieces of the marketing mix they typically ignore. It’s theirs to lose.
Yes, even in this era of age of media fragmentation, consumer-generated media (CGM), MySpace and YouTube, the agencies have the clear right to win and to reassert leadership.
In this era of “experimentation,” we often risk losing site of the core fundamentals of brand building: the big “brand idea,” reason-to-believe, and of course, emotional bonding. While the Internet provides plenty of expertise and precision around accountability and ROI, our breakthroughs to date owe more to “direct marketing” (e.g. page views, and clickthroughs) than to “brand” advertising. In fact, many of us have convinced ourselves such brand advertising is passe and irrelevant to this new environment.
Now, a powerful new video medium is exploding on the scene. It speaks to the traditional agency’s core strength: story-telling. Moreover, it’s a format that’s infinitely more malleable and flexible than the current unit of expression (e.g. a :30 TV spot) affords. That spells opportunity. Indeed, the current TV ad model has put most traditional agencies in an inflexible straightjacket.
The new on-demand video environment opens up a wealth of opportunities to push ad models, well beyond pre-and-post rolls. They include:
- From TV Spots to Branded Plots: Just as thousands of independent films are flowering a cross the Web, brands have the potential to bring their own direct and indirect forms of storytelling online at their own pace, and well beyond the constraints of “paid” media. Moreover, they can leverage their own consumer touchpoints (e.g. packaging) to cross promote such endeavors. The power of feedback loops to inform concept development has the potential to take this to an entirely new level.
- From Fat Middle Standardization to Long-Tail Customization: Too often, TV commercials have no choice but to maximize appeal to the largest number. This omits lots of value in the margins. A key opportunity for agencies is to craft more diverse messages to different audiences. Why, for example, can’t electronics firms give iPods or mobile phones to customers pre-loaded with customized or tailored content? Why can’t a brand produce multiple variations of an ad copy that speak to a range of cohorts? At P&G, we usually started with a host of excellent concepts, but typically had to boil it all down to one or two that maximized appeal.
- A New Day for Long Play: Who says brands should do their own infomercials, or that agencies are “above” such formats? Yes, there’s a stigma, but that’s partly because many respectable brands have stayed away from the medium, and we haven’t seen much creativity in it for a long time. Fact is, long-play does work, especially if consumers engage and core benefits really get across. At P&G, we’d exhaust huge resources trying to perfect four seconds of a side-by-side demo. We knew from experience such “benefit visualization” and “reason to believe” impacted the ad’s convincingness. Imagine the power of a real demo, and not necessarily with the constraints of always having to pay for the time.
- From Channels to Brannels: Beyond long-play ads, agencies have another extraordinarily unique opportunity: to transform Web sites into TV channels. We’re already seeing this with a few pioneers like Nike and Budweiser. They’re leveraging their brands as stand alone content channels. What’s the bigger long-term idea: P&G’s HomeMadeSimple porting to TV, or HomeMadeSimple becoming an on-demand advice and expertise video channel? If my baby blog can feature diaper changing videos, why can’t Pampers or Huggies? Why – please, tell me why – won’t electronics companies’ agencies start producing more compelling “how to” videos explaining how to use products? When I’m done with my current job, I’m starting an online channel entitled “UserGuideTV.com.”
- CGM as Partner in Catalyzing Change: Far from a threat, consumer-generated media may just be the best thing that ever happened to traditional agencies. Why not allow consumers to “liberate” the process? At P&G, we used interns to open up management thinking. At GM, the Fastlane blog also serves as a catalyst for far broader change and innovation within the organization. As agencies push “co-creation” campaigns, such as what we’ve seen with GM and Frito-Lay’s Super Bowl ad competitions, there’s real potential to liberate antiquated copy development processes. Consumer testimonials, properly employed, actually make branded messaging more persuasive. Agencies have always “borrowed equity” from third party influencers, from celebrity spokespersons to known authorities (“dentists recommend”), to make ad copy more compelling. Finally, CGM in particular tends to morph many disciplines in one, i.e. one-to-one relationships, influencer relations, interactivity, planning and research, and increasingly, video. That amounts to a healthy kick in the pants to move traditional agencies to a more integrated, cross-platform future.
The Watchouts: Despite my optimism about the potential for agencies to reassert leadership, there are big watchouts and barriers, among them:
- Perfection: Clients must cut some slack so agencies can experiment with new forms of story telling. That could mean temporarily abandoning hard ROI. Remember, much of YouTube’s content is far from perfect, but eventually, breakthrough content rises to the top.
- Overpricing: The biggest competition to high-overhead (e.g. NY office), high-salaried agencies is the Macintosh computer. Tools like iMovie dramatically lower the cost of putting experimental content online. The proof is all over YouTube and MySpace. Agencies will lose if they merely carry over the old cost structure from TV to video.
- Listening (lack thereof): Agencies also need to listen, and listen well, to the pulse of consumer sentiment if they’re to re-assert leadership. Much of our Internet monitoring business is anchored to PR firms or interactive shops, which intuitively understand the importance of monitoring and measuring real-time conversations. Agencies need to wire their ears both to external and internal listening pipes, especially consumer affairs.
I offer these rosy scenarios with a bit of bias. My father was a traditional agency guy, and a damn good one! The jingles and copy he brought home were all centered not on the notion of :30, but on very simple “big ideas” and themes. The spots emotionally connected with me in a way that still compels me to write about them. Accordingly, I’ve always agreed with Kevin Roberts of Saatchi & Satchi, who noted in an ad:tech keynote last year: “What makes stories compel, attract, and grip is emotion.”
In this exploding environment of self-expression, emotion truly matters. But emotion is also hard to ignite and manage. Will agencies please step up to the plate and show us how it’s done?