Another week, another blog post on the subject of “why creative advertising folk need to embrace ‘technologists and their geeky ways’” once again ignites vigorous debate.

The post in question is by Joe Mele, VP Client Partner at Razorfish, and received a great many comments and a huge number of re-tweets of the @BBHLabs‘ tweet that contained a link to it. The citizens of Twitter seem to react with a combination of self-loathing and schadenfreudian glee to the disruption that social technologies are wreaking on advertising. It’s a little bit dull and frankly misses the point – and it wasn’t quite (I don’t think) what Joe was saying.

Of course, how advertising responds to the digital challenge is a roasting hot topic. Joe’s blog post quotes a recent article from Ad Age provocatively titled ‘Agencies Need To Start Thinking Like Software Companies’ that talks about hybrid creative techies bringing digital know-how to Madison Avenue. If only it were that easy. It seems overly simplistic to claim that everything will be okay if they hire in some digital savvy, perhaps even ‘developers’ – let them attend client meetings and, you know, even help out with creative ideas and stuff.

Unfortunately, I think it’s a lot more complex than that – and whilst I totally agree with everything Barbarian Group Co-founder Rick Webb, says in the Ad Age article, I’m not convinced he *totally* nails it either:

What they should have been taking away all of this time — and have increasingly begun to — are the concepts of the constant beta and agile development. Marketers need to abandon the time-limited campaign online and start to think of it as a constant application of a rigorous discipline.

Rick’s completely right about needing an agile, adaptive, evolutionary approach, but I’m starting to believe that you need more than that to deliver the kind of long-term living platforms and platform-campaigns – and value – that clients need and agencies must get better at creating. I’m starting to believe you need four things, the first two of which are well-known and increasingly often quoted:

  • The right people – the right kind of digital savvy creatives, service designers not graphic designers, technologists and creative technologists
  • The right processes – broadly based in agile methodologies but this should not be limited to the development or production part of the job. To make it work in anything other than a single product, software dev context you need ‘agile’ thinking and adaptive approaches to everything the agency does – technology, production, strategy and planning, creativity, management, measurement and even contracts

Who would disagree with that?

Of course, it’s very difficult to get even this right but, we should still be trying to. I have no evidence for this but my intuition would be that not many agencies, digital or advertising (or software companies for that matter) are able to do this yet. Plenty of people are starting to talk about it though – as a quick search of the SXSWi 2010 Panel Picker list query for “agile” will reveal (we’re trying to do a talk about “Agile Interaction Design“.)

But there are two more things that are essential to pulling off the optimal platform job, as it were.

  • The right culture – by which we mean (in a nutshell) networked, open, collaborative, impassioned, obsessive active participants in our rapidly mutating media convergence culture. You need a culture where people are encouraged to understand this stuff from the inside – not looking in down from another disconnected world. It needs to be shameful for people NOT to be devouring as many social technologies as they can eat… not the other way around.
  • The right clients - this stuff isn’t for everyone, and not every product or brand needs to have a relationship with you. Some, like bread for example, should simply be eaten. Ultimately, we need to help clients who can to embrace agile thinking and take it into their own organisations. There is some evidence that this is beginning to happen, and every reason to believe that it will continue… once again, there isn’t really a choice.

So, to “the right culture.

There’s no doubt that buying in digital expertise, and getting down and dirty with hardcore tech and ‘the right process’ will move things along but, ultimately, it’s merely playing catch-up in a world where the pendulum of change is still swinging very rapidly. There’s no point in only trying to catch up – it’s a mug’s game. Instead,  you need to enter the chaos and *become the change*.

Henry Jenkins recently described the challenge like this in his monumental 2006 blog post, ‘Eight Traits of the New Media Landscape‘:

Our focus should be not on emerging technologies but on emerging cultural practices. Rather than listing tools, we need to understand the underlying logic shaping our current moment of media in transition.”

And this:

If anything, the rate of technological and cultural change has accelerated as we have moved through the 20th century and shows no signs of slowing down as we enter the 21st century. The turnover of technologies is rapid; the economic fallout cataclysmic; and the cultural impact unpredictable.”

In a world of continual and rapid cultural change you must immerse yourself in it and propagate that culture as actively as possible within your agency. However, that is not how big companies work. Machines are more often than not locked down. People are given rubbish, sub-standard, legacy gear to work on. Corporate IT is a barrier and employees are discouraged from networking with peers externally, and from talking about their work. Blogging and Twitter are still seen as provinces of the demented attention-seeker, or dismissed as “telling the world what you had for breakfast”. The prevailing environment is too often actively anti-digital and anti-innovation.

Anjali pointed me towards Grant McCracken’s ideas about the Chief Culture Officer, and his Ning site on the subject, which seems like a brilliant way to provide Board-level support for the kind of cultural immersion needed. Can’t wait to read his book.

Finally, to “the right clients, and I’m kind of reminded (again) of 37 Signals’ pamphlet Getting RealThe Smarter, Faster, Easier Way to Build  A Web Application. Right there on page 43 you have:

Hire The Right Customer

The customer is not always right. The truth is you have to sort out who’s right and who’s wrong for your app. The good news is that the internet makes finding the right people easier than ever.

God, that felt brilliantly subversive of the agency model when we first read it. But there’s a serious point here for agencies and clients. The kind of long-term platforms that clients want require clients to think and act very differently as well. There are signs that this is beginning to happen. We have used agile contracts on several large-scale projects now – a response to the very different model agile imposes. Fixed-price models of production are out and continual engagement and evolving iterative strategies require much more flexibility than the traditional, reductive, linear process of Strategic Planning -> Big Idea -> Engagement Planning -> Creative execution ideas -> Production.

And as I have been writing this Advertising Age published another provocatively titled article, ‘Why It’s Time To Do Away With The Brand Manager‘. In it, they refer to the publishing of some new Forrester research:

The new “brand advocates,” as Forrester suggests renaming the role, will be seemingly more powerful and consumer-centric, much nimbler, and more real-time-oriented than the brand manager of today — and they will be a lot more opportunistic in creating media partnerships, and a lot less loyal to their agencies.

Among the specific recommendations in its report, “Adaptive Brand Marketing: Rethinking Your Approach to Branding in the Digital Age,” Forrester suggests “brand advocates” be responsible for rapid adaptations of global brand platforms and programs, charging centralized global brand strategists with ensuring what local managers do conforms with the brand equity and strategy.

That sounds pretty agile to me.

So, forget trying to be like a software company, perhaps we should be asking about what the agile advertising agency looks like? And how we can we help clients to be more agile in the future? And do we inevitably get drawn into change management when we ‘do a platform’? So many questions…

Please try this diagram for size. Partly inspired by Battlestar Galactica, I call it the ‘Eye of Jupiter‘:

Made by Many 2009 licensed by CC Some Rights Reserved

Made by Many 2009 licensed by CC Some Rights Reserved

In writing this I sent various garbled thoughts to some colleagues at Made by Many. Stuart (@stueccles) contributed – as ever – to expanding the thinking about agile and innovation in general, and I think I should let him write about agile contracts himself: it’s a juicy topic well deserving of its own post.

Mike Laurie (@mikelaurie) and Anjali Ramachandran (@anjali28) both made the same point in different ways that agencies need people who are passionate about and immersed in the culture of the Web. They are both examples of that.

And Tom Harding drew up the Eye of Jupiter.

This is all difficult stuff and as I said above, it’s not like anyone has really cracked it. Suggestions gratefully received.

Tim Malbon

Tim Malbon Founding Partner

Tim founded influential digital product design company Made by Many in 2007. He’s a leading voice in the emerging practice area of product design and innovation, customer experience and business strategy. He’s the Webby Awards UK Ambassador and a member of the IADAS, and was recently named by Creative Review as one of the 50 Creative Leaders "driving change, not just within their organisation but in the world at large."