Friday, February 13, 2009

Break boundaries and the new ad agency model

It's an interesting time in the ad agency world. It will be in the next two to three years, I predict, that agencies will either figure out how to transform themselves to meet the new digital needs of their clients and position themselves for growth, or become specialists in mass media and risk becoming marginalized.

Of course, transformation is not an easy task. It was Marshall McLuhan who suggested that when a new medium arises, it takes on the attributes of existing media until it can, essentially, find itself. For example, back in the mid 1990's, we would create brochures online, almost copying the print medium. It was not until Web 2.0 that the Web really began to find its true, unique form.

From an agency model, we are experiencing the same thing.

We insist on "big ideas" and the sacred copywriter-art designer partnership. But what if these old ways of working don't support new forms of media development? Developing for TV and for the Web are very different things. Does it make sense to use the same working model? Or do we need a new model, or at the very least one that is flexible?

I think we are at what systems theory founder Kenneth Boulding calls a "break boundary," which is the point at which the system suddenly changes into another or passes some point of no return in its dynamic processes," as quoted by Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media (p. 38).

McLuhan says that a common break comes from the "cross-fertilization with another system." We are seeing this cross-fertilization happening today as a generation of native web professionals become more senior in their careers are crossing over into traditional ad agency environments. We are what systems theory might refer to as noise in the system, which is what creates change.

It's not about throwing out everything and starting from scratch but rather evaluating what really works. A big idea might be great for one project but not another. A copywriter-art director team who owns ideation might work fine for some workstreams but a more collaborative approach might work better for others. Big shoots in LA? Sure, as needed, but it should not be a requirement. Maybe a more web-savvy approach will produce better results for a lot less money.

All of these core assumptions must be questioned. There will be agencies who are brave enough to do this and others who are not. But this process of discernment coupled with the ability to make real change will define the future landscape of the advertising industry.

(On a side note, to me, it's an exciting time. In 1994, I had the opportunity to join a traditional newsroom as a clerk or join that same organization as an online community reporter. The online position paid a lot less and was a lot more risky, but I fell madly in love with the Internet and its ability to connect people in ways that mass media had failed. And so I took the online position and never looked back. I still carry that same passion with me today.)

Source: McLuhan, Marshall, Understanding Media, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2002.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Laura, Your 15+ year history in the digital space explains why you're so ahead of the agency curve. You're like one of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, where work for you is also a form of play. Thanks for getting the rest of us up to speed!