Never say 'Never' again

  • Voices
  • April 17, 2018
  • Regan Savage
Never say 'Never' again

"James Bond is the best example of how brands should evolve."

So said the illustrious elder statesman of great British advertising, John Hegarty, at this year’s Cannes Lions Festival. Evolving from twinkly-eyed delivery of titillating puns, to dead-eyed fatigue from years of suppressed inner turmoil. From preposterous villains to gangsters, hackers and terrorists. From pure fantasy to something altogether more credible.

Our profession is experiencing tectonic change; imperceptible until you one day find yourself staring across a new passage of water at people who were unmistakably on your island a matter of months ago. And the change is not without a protagonist – it is that same sleek, alluring force that is driving social and cultural upheaval across the world: Technology.

Brands are being relentlessly targeted by marketing-tech providers, and the tech promises targeting, integration and accountability for investment that are lifted straight from the KPIs of any CMO. What brand owner, discharging their responsibilities to their employer, would not want to divert funding and resources into subscription-based software that delivers efficiency and revenue?

Technology is truly the third wheel in the traditional agency-client monogamy that has shaped the advertising industry over the last 70 years. Like any other relationship, agency-client relationships are riven with human frailty, including a reticence from both sides to have the conversation that needs to be had, for fear of accelerating the demise.

At the same time, given the perpetual barrage of messaging coming at us from all sides, powerful creative ideas have never been more important. ‘Graham’ from Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission and Clemenger BBDO Melbourne, and ‘Fearless Girl’ from State Street Global Advisors and McCann New York, both awarded Grand Prix at Cannes Lions Festival 2017, demonstrate the compelling force of strong creative ideas. The ability to imbue a simple visual with so much meaning is not one that brands – distracted as they are in algorithms and spreadsheets – should lose their ability to value.

No-one is to blame for this tension. Well-led brands are doing what is incumbent on them, as the James Bond franchise has done: to achieve perpetual evolution in step with the changing needs and tastes of their target audiences – the consumers who respond to their surveys about customer satisfaction and brand appeal, and of course drive their profit and loss.

And nor is there any solution, aside from an appetite to evolve, and a level of curious enthusiasm for what’s around the corner. Creative agencies need to accept that there are different gears to the contemporary marketing model – and they need to become adept at generating an array of creative solutions from data-driven briefs, refining those ideas through testing and prototyping, as well as generating the majestically singular ideas that can only come from the chemistry of human creativity. Who knows? The latter may even improve by doing more of the former.

As our sector grinds through the gears of change, and agencies evolve their product and build up the talent pool for the new breed of data-driven creatives, it is inevitable that not all agencies can cover all the bases they’d like to. Which is why I believe we are seeing big changes in how brands are running their agency partnerships. Monolithic retainers are being withdrawn, and replaced by contracts for services, and/or smaller retainers with a variety of specialist partners who collectively can bring all the necessary skills to the table.

Where will it all end? In almost all spheres, be it politics or fashion, or marketing for that matter, changes appear to be pendulum swings, and anyone who thinks they’ve discovered the formula for stability is likely to be disappointed. Over time, the collaborative specialists will undergo changes in personnel and ambition, and competition will come to the fore. By which time, enlightened large agencies will have reshaped their talent pools, and integration will again start to predominate.

In the meantime, it’s my view that large agencies simply need to take it on the chin, and re-think their business strategies to ensure they are serving a business need that will exist in five or ten years’ time. That means diversifying the types of people who work in creative agencies – data scientists could become pivotal, as they have within their client organisations. Technology anthropologists may be a new breed of planner, who can infer future trends from the ways in which cultures and sub-cultures are influenced and shaped by the intermediating effects of technology.

Ultimately what matters is the work, and enabling brands to tell their stories in the most relevant, compelling and authentic ways that they can, using the media platforms that their audiences use, and embracing technology to minimise waste and maximise return. And to enjoy the process by eschewing a loss mind-set, and instead focusing on the entirely new revenue streams that could augment the old. 

After all, how can an agency look its client brand owners in the eye and tell them they are their best chance of relevant evolution in the eyes of its often fickle consumers, if they can’t evolve their own business? Shaken by change agencies may be, but stirred they should also be to make it work for them. 

  • Regan Savage is the marketing director at Trade Me.
  • This piece was originally published in the 2017 Marketing issue of NZ Marketing. ​

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