Sunday, June 1, 2008
Many years ago I was offered a job at a direct marketing agency. Even though the agency in question was part of a top five global advertising group I turned the job down. I just couldn’t see myself stuffing envelopes for the rest of my career.
The creative director wouldn’t take no for an answer. A Californian, with a striking resemblance to the singer songwriter Jackson Brown, he spoke to me about the arrival of what was then known as the information superhighway.
He lured me into the job with his predictions of the impending dominance of digital as the primary medium for consumer communication. For him, direct was not about envelopes and letters, it was about engaging people one to one and digital would revolutionise the way brands did this.
Suffice to say I was swayed by his vision and started work a couple of weeks later. Sadly, many of our clients at that time didn’t share his enthusiasm for all things digital. They saw the internet as a bit of a fad, something of minority interest at best.
Recently I stumbled across an unintentionally hilarious article on the internet, from a 1995 issue of Newsweek magazine. Its author, Clifford Stoll, also saw the internet as little more than an over hyped fad.
What follows are a couple of excerpts from what Stoll had to say in his Newsweek piece entitled; The internet? Bah! Why cyberspace isn’t, and never will be, nirvana.
“Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic. Baloney”
He didn’t stop there.
“Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we'll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the internet. Uh, sure.
Then there are those pushing computers in schools. We're told that multimedia will make schoolwork easy and fun. Who needs teachers when you've got computer-aided education? Bah.”
As we all know, everything that Clifford Stoll derided as hype back in ’95 has since become a reality. The way we work, communicate and consume has been radically altered by digital technology.
Advertising agencies however, have changed relatively little since that time. Sure everyone has a computer on their desk. Clients view word docs and PDFs via email rather than at meetings, but the day to day nature of the advertising agency is pretty much as it was in David Ogilvy’s heyday.
Iain Tait, from the British digital hotshop Poke, wrote a great post on his blog Crackunit recently, where he asked when we were going to see a truly next generation agency.
“There’s new agencies starting every week,” said Iain. “Most of these new shops are claiming to be some kind of new thing. But if you’re trying to hire people who work in other agencies (media, digital, design, whatever), the danger is that you’re going to end up with just another variant of an agency.”
In Iain Tait’s eyes, most of these new agencies seem to be built on well understood principles with well understood types of people working for them. For me, the term ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ springs to mind.
So how does Iain see the version 2.0 agency?
“Hire some digital natives. People like me who think that digital is ‘a thing’ are old-school. We might be able to help get you through the next few years, but unless we become less in awe of a bunch of computery things, we could end up making ourselves obsolete.”
To put that statement in perspective, consider this; Iain’s agency Poke was last year voted #2 digital agency in the UK. They had two pieces of work in the UK’s top ten digital campaigns. And Tait himself was ranked as one of Britain’s top ten digital talents.
Having watched a TV show on the golden age of British advertising, Tait noticed that, “The agencies who were producing great work were almost unquestionable.” So where, he asks, “Can you command a position of unquestioned god-like genius?”
In Iain’s mind, advertising and marketing would definitely not be at the top of the list.
Wow! The agency of the future wouldn’t have advertising or marketing as its primary reason for being. So what would this next generation of agency do?
I’d like to hope it would fulfill the vision of my old creative director, and produce great ideas and thinking that engages people rather than interrupting, shouting at or annoying them.
Here’s to the future.
STOP BY AND VISIT
Clifford Stoll’s Newsweek article