Technology Is Not The Only Fruit

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As agencies continue to struggle for margins, and remain unable to successfully cope with the ongoing march of software, why is technology seen as the only way forward for innovation? Are agencies being blind to other more lucrative areas, and are we about to witness a mass extinction in the agency world as more and more of the services they offer are given over to machines.

I was lucky enough to be invited to attend Big Brand Week in London and spent time at their recent innovation event. While it was genuinely fascinating to hear how agencies such as Karmarama, and organisations like the Unilever Foundry and Telefónica, are getting together with startups, accelerators, incubators and similar collectives, the only answer appeared to be turning to technology for innovation. And it’s the same message they’ve all been saying for at least 3 years.

Agencies, by their own admission, are failing to get to grips with this new era of computing. Continuing to use the label of digital isn’t helping – them or their clients – yet are they paying lip service to the Trojan horse that will be their ultimate undoing? I think so.

Technology has become a mask, a way for agencies to hide behind their lack of knowledge. And while it’s true there have always been people within agencies who have made their career on a stack of BS, it now feels like a phenomenon that has become a pandemic. Talk about viral.

Advertising hasn’t really got to grips with how technology is changing more than just media, or the channels and platforms through which they pipe their messages. I’m not sure anyone on the panel had a convincing argument. Although stories from Collider and Unilever appeared to demonstrate that in some areas things are improving, yet there was much debate around how startups need to change to accommodate global businesses – very little about how that should be working the other way around.

The shift needs to happen
For my piece in Rudy de Waele’s excellent book, Shift 2020, I posited that agencies would become extinct within 7 years. A lot of people took me to task for making that judgement. Yet, more and more I see consolidation happening as a way to remain relevant and to generate revenues. Technology is not turning the tide. It won’t, either.

The shift required is fundamental. Advertising is still living in a linear world, yet the changes around them are exponential. And until that changes, innovation remains something people on panels talk about, or apply to ideas that are anything but innovative.

In one of Tom Goodwin’s recent AdAge articles, Specialization Was a Mistake: How Agencies Can Restructure for the Future, he presents his future for agencies. It’s a smart idea, one that Tom has obviously been thinking about for some time. It’s well worth a read.

There is a kernel of what I think the advertising industry can do to prevent my premonition coming true within Tom’s piece. Agencies and their ilk need to turn their backs on technology as the saviour, and use it as a tool. It’s coming for the majority of their work, so all that’s left it to get better at the one thing technology can only facilitate rather than create: ideas.

I’m not talking about a 30-second spot, or an idea expressed as a print advertisement. I’m saying we need to think big, to take organising ideas, ones that can change the course of a business, or even a sector. These ideas should be a well from which the brand can continually drink, to express through services, ethics, products, channels, media, tactics, internal communications, hiring practices… It has to be something that can be the fuel, not the exhaust.

Technology isn’t that. Partnering with startups isn’t that. Not alone. It’s time agencies woke up to the exponential changes happening, otherwise they’ll be the communications equivalent of the internet fridge.

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