by: David Armano

I thought I had found my dream candidate.  Someone who understood the language of both design and business.  Someone who could think in pictures and express concepts with prototypes.  A creative problem solver.  An individual with a firm grasp on “Web 2.0”.  Someone who saw the potential of emerging technology as enabling us humans to make the connections we've always desired.

I brought him in for an interview.  I showed him some of our own concepts.  Our prototypes and visualizations of better, more fluid interactive experiences.  He was impressed.  He didn’t think that marketing firms did this kind of thing.  He was curious to hear more.  So I did my best to articulate the role of the digitally-integrated agency in creating brand experiences.  The kinds of experiences that people reward with their time, attention and participation.

I knew he was being sought after.  He had just graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology, but he had that aspect about him—like a lot of people were in the process of pursuing him.  I sensed that I probably would not be successful in recruiting him—but it was still worth a shot.  He possessed a blend of skills that I was looking for.  Analytical.  Expressive.  Curious.  Empathetic.  He understood technology, but more importantly he understood why people behave the way they do.

In the end, he went to go work for Google.

Why am I sharing this tale of love and loss?  I’m sharing it because I think it’s time for Advertising to get serious about innovation.  Rumor has it that the Ad Industry is in it’s death throes.  I don’t think that’s completely true—but if Advertising doesn’t start innovating for real—they will be dead as a doornail.  Max Kalehoff of Nielsen BuzzMetrics recently featured a post that made the case for how the Advertising  industry model isn’t equipped to handle R&D.  In it, he cited the following reasons:

“1. The Deliverable. Advertising agencies produce content for a living; specifically, memorable stories in print ads and broadcast spots. Moreover, these stories are to be one-of-a-kind. Storytelling does not require R&D, nor does originality in storytelling.

2. The Value Proposition. Like all professional-services firms, agencies sell expertise, which by definition reflects what has worked in the past. R&D reflects an intention to try what hasn’t been tried before.

3. The Culture. Like all vendors, ad agencies are risk-averse. Proposing the untried to results-oriented clients is a risk with long odds, an unknowable payoff and a steep downside.

And more recent contributing factors include:

4. The Ownership. The big agencies that have the requisite resources are all publicly owned these days, and Wall Street has little patience with company spending that cannot be tied to short-term results.

5. The Environment. There’s been general erosion in R&D spending by U.S. businesses recently.”

Then I thought about my dream candidate.  The one that went to work for Google.  Google does R&D.  They experiment with new products, features and services.  They certainly innovate (though the case can be made that this is overstated).

Traditional Advertising at the core is still about telling stories.  T-E-L-L-I-N-G.  Not experiencing for yourself.  Hearing about it.  Reading about it.  Passively taking it in.  Now I’m all for good storytelling, but there has to be more in order to thrive in the world of creative, empowered, individualistic, fickle consumers who spend more time engaging the social network then they do watching TV.

OK, you heard me ramble on about my dream candidate.  The one that went to Google.  So what do I think the “Dream Agency” would look like? 

Hmmmm.  Well, right off the bat, it would need to stop acting like an agency.  That would mean replacing the Dog and Pony show with things like cultivating real customer insights and utilizing Ethnography.  My vision of a dream agency would be filled with people who think with both sides of their brains and visualize different solutions to the same problem.  The agency would need to have a toolbox of methodologies, but still be nimble enough to act quickly.  Maybe the dream agency will be part IDEO.

But it also has to be really creative.  It would need to know how to both tell stories and craft experiences.  It would need to be well versed in the multitude of digital channels and be able to execute in them.  It would need to be able to present brands in ways that are consistent with the lifestyles of the people who swear by these brands.  It would need to understand how to engage people as opposed to just telling stories to them.  So maybe the agency would be part R/GA.

But none of this is enough.  Sometimes you need more than creativity, strategy, design thinking, anthropology, and a good media plan.  Sometimes you just need some plain cooky, out of the box thinking that stops people in their tracks.  Sometimes you need to be one step ahead of the curve culturally to deliver something that’s never been seen before.  Sure, some of your efforts might be better then others, but you wouldn’t be afraid of taking risks and doing things like putting people in Chicken suits for all the Web to see (and interact with).  So maybe the dream agency is part Crispen Porter + Bogusky.

Food for thought.  I’ll be writing additional volumes about advertising + innovation.  In the meantime if you have ideas about this subject matter, please share them here.  Thanks.

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