Just the other week I waxed eloquent about the never ending number of agencies which claim to have created from scratch, or miraculously reverse engineered, their rusting hulks into the next winking, blinking, throbbing and shining titanium “Agency of the Future.”
Sadly, many of them rarely manage to survive into the next week, let alone the future. Yet, for some reason or another, the advertising profession has always been obsessed by its pursuit of the tumescent future and the farfetched claims of various Big Dumb Agencies that they are able to divine it, manage it, and manipulate it to their client’s advantage.
For years studies conducted on behalf of the Association of National Advertisers have presented evidence that, yes, if you pump enough money into it, advertising can increase short term sales, but does absolutely nothing to boost long term market share or profits. Yet this is exactly the drum the Big Dumb Agencies continue to beat when persuading their clients to invest umpteen millions of dollars into such esoteric exercises as “Brand Creation,” – “Delivering Brand Value,” – “360 Degree Branding.” Or whatever the particular Brand Cliché of the Month is.
As I’ve discussed in previous writings, there are many disparate factors which can contribute to successful marketing, from pricing, distribution, promotion, beefing up the sales force, even giving the delivery trucks a new coat of paint, which inescapably leads anyone with half a brain to the conclusion that advertising might often be the least effective, and certainly the least quantifiable part of most marketing programs.
And yet, here we are at the beginning of the third millennium, and we still haven’t the faintest idea of what works and what doesn’t. It’s no different from famed screenwriter William Goldman’s wonderful definition of movie making, “In Hollywood, nobody knows anything.” I sincerely believe that this characterization of our efforts also applies to the adverati of Madison Avenue!
And yet, the advertising profession continues to claim that because it has some kind of infallible crystal globe, Ouija board, or Magic 8 Ball, it is able to see where we shall be in the future. In 2008, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA,) which is the UK equivalent of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA,) published a 60 page study, titled The future of advertising and agencies, which claimed to answer the following five questions…
- What will advertising mean in 2016?
- How big will the advertising market be?
- How will the competitive set change?
- What will agencies look like?
- How will agencies get paid?
Even I wouldn’t have the temerity to suggest I have the faintest idea where the ad biz will be in eight or nine years, yet the IPA, in conjunction with “The Future Foundation,” a think tank sporting one of the more grandiose names I’ve heard in quite a while, will slip you this 60 page report for a mere $600, which works out at $10 a page, most of which I’ll guarantee will be filled with stultifying Power Point charts and bullet point summaries.
Even worse, I’m sure it will make soporific generalizations you could have come up with after an hour in the pub, and for the price of a pint, let alone $600. And no, I haven’t read it, but I did sneak a look at a couple of reviews and was not surprised to read that
“The report indicates that by 2016 traditional advertising will shrink at the expense of consumer-influenced content and brand–influenced editorial so agencies will need to both innovate and evolve into new territory. New freedoms in the delivery of content, data and channels will provide new business opportunities whilst still maintaining the overriding focus on brand creation and development.”
Well, if you think I’m going to shell out $600 for boilerplate bullshit like that, you definitely owe me a drink.
The problem I have with all these pundits and pontificators is that they never stop talking about where they think we shall be in the future, and how, by following their advice, we’ll be able to prepare ourselves to work and prosper in this new world. I was recently sent a book to review which claimed to educate the reader into discerning what was “cool,” thereby enabling them to identify future shifts in consumer attitudes and purchasing habits.
But anyone with a modicum of intelligence realises that the whole premise of such a book is total crap, because by the time you’ve read it in a book, it’s no longer “cool,” and it has certainly ceased to be a forecast of consumer behaviour or what the punters are prepared to shell out their hard earned bucks for. Few of these advertising and marketing experts actually address the problems the ad industry is facing right now, most of which are due to the dramatic changes brought about by the growth of new media and the increasing stranglehold of the conglomerates, not to mention the amazing hubris Madison Avenue has suffered from for many years in continuing to believe the good times would roll on forever.
With new media’s expanding influence offering advertisers a growing choice of inexpensive ways to reach consumers, and the holding companies domination of the advertising business dramatically changing the cost of doing business, the building and nurturing of customer relationships, not to mention the structure, staffing and economic performance of their constituent advertising agencies…
It should come as no surprise that a study by Sapient Consulting, covering more than 100 Chief Marketing Officers of major companies in the US and the UK, showed that well over half of them believed large traditional agencies (BDA’s) were currently unfit to meet their online marketing needs, while over half considered BDA’s as having a great deal of difficulty thinking beyond traditional TV and print media via expected creative models.
While this is obviously a bummer for BDA’s right now, it will be a ball-buster of a problem for them in the future, particularly when you consider just how many consumers, especially younger ones, are getting most of their 24/7/365 communications, information and entertainment services through non-traditional channels.
You have to admit though; the futures business has been very good for many of the people in it. Checking in with the “Future Foundation” mentioned in the IPA report above, these people have been around since 1996 with a stated goal of ensuring “that their customers receive a tangible return on their insight investment.”
I suppose “Insight Investment” is a posh way of saying cash. I wonder if they realise that the real “Future Foundation” is where the various members of Marvel Comics’, Fantastic Four have been hanging out for the last dozen years or so. However, compared to Faith Popcorn, the grandmother of all futurists, these people are still finger painting in kindergarten.
Her company “BrainReserve,” which issues reports sporting such titles as, The Future of ageing, (isn’t that an oxymoron?) has been around since the future would involve the invention of the automobile. However, Faith has never been afraid of making outrageous predictions, some of which have been realised, many of which have not. But that’s OK, it’s like being a fortune teller or a mind reader, you only need a couple of hits, the rest can be like the generalizations you read in your horoscope. My favourite was her prediction that phone kiosks on city streets would be replaced by “Hugging Booths.” Mmmmm… Sounds suspiciously like Woody Allen’s “Orgasmatron” to me! Sad to say, it hasn’t happened yet.
One of the few companies I respect and use as a regular resource is “psfk,” which I prefer to think of as a “trends” company, rather than a forecaster of the future, because I think there is a distinct difference between the two. Trends being the monitoring of what is happening at this time, whereas, Futures forecasting requires the arrogance of believing you have discovered the secret of time travel.
(Full disclosure here: I have spoken at psfk conferences, and have written pieces for them; and they are also currently running excerpts from my book, “Confessions of a Mad Man.” They do not pay me for this. We simply get drunk together at their expense.) Identifiers of trends like psfk, do not claim to know exactly what is going to happen in the future; instead they sniff out individuals, companies and movements that are making a difference now, and may possibly have an influence on the future. But, with no pompous guarantees.
So, coming back full circle to the beginning of this diatribe, if the self-styled forecasters of the future cannot give me a hard and fast delivery date for my personalised “Orgasmatron,” how on earth can the evil practitioners of the advertising black arts promise me the “Agency of the Future?” Obviously, they can’t. But, sigh, undoubtedly they will continue to do so.
George Parker has spent more than 40 years on Madison Avenue. He’s won Lions, CLIOs, EFFIES, and the David Ogilvy Award. His blog is adscam.typepad.com, which he describes as, “required reading for those looking for a piss & vinegar view of the world’s second oldest profession.” His latest book, “Confessions of a Mad Man,” makes the TV show “Mad Men” look like “Sesame Street.”
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