“Ideas are not that special anymore”. This statement, appearing as a sub-heading in Louis Eksteen’s piece The new agency mindset, jumped off the screen and smacked me harder than an addict hits the tik after a week in the holding cells. My neck still hurts and my black eye glows purple at the astonishment of such bald hypocrisy from an agency leader. The reason is simple and resonates loudly with my ongoing issue with certain new-age agencies (digital/hybrid/social/integrated/take-your-pick-of-monikers) who’ve drunk the technology Kool Aid and present the notion that technology is the future of the creative industry.
It isn’t. Not any more than television or the Space Shuttle was, both of them being significant technological leaps. This sort of talk distresses me. Perhaps I take it too much to heart but the creative industry needs to be fiercely protective of the one and only thing that clients come to us for and which nobody else can provide – ideas.
Two decades ago management consultants moved into our turf and pushed us downstream from the board room to the marketing office. Around the same time the production houses moved upstream into our ‘factories’ while the bankers hacked off the media function. Creative agencies were left with nothing but their ideas and no business model under which to price them and be remunerated for them. Then the internet arrived and sages and futurists warned us we were the walking dead. Some committed suicide. Literally. Others sold out to the mediocrity of globalisation. Yet others carried the flag and built or rebuilt organisations with the sole purpose of creating and selling ideas; ideas that transform businesses from the mundane to the extraordinary, from the reasonably profitable to the exceptionally profitable, from the facelessly corporate to the emotionally deep-seated and meaningful. Some brands endure all manner of marketplace rollercoasters yet successfully maintain a consistent positioning in their customers’ minds. It sounds easy but it isn’t. Marketers, Chief Executives and agencies come and go, and with them consistency. Rare is the brand that rises above the ego of the new broom.
Some brands are distinguished principally by their marketing, others principally by their product. Few are distinguished by both. Apple is probably the best example of the latter. Nando’s is another. In both instances creativity was and still is central to their identity. Whatever the model a brand’s owners adopts, it is the responsibility, the challenge, indeed the privilege of the creative agency to contribute to brand success through garnering attention and shifting it to intention. There’s no more compelling or efficient a means of achieving this than the intangible kick-ass idea. Whether or not old media or new media or 32-bit encryption technology or paper planes is involved is immaterial, it’s the ingenuity that distinguishes greatness.
The irony is we refer to ourselves as trading in the currency of ideas, yet we have no mechanism by which to define this currency. And that’s a very good thing. Imagine if we did have a mechanism whereby ideas could be traded like medallions? That’s true commoditisation and we should be very afraid of it. Our industry will never crack a widely acceptable remuneration model because we deal and trade in the intangible. That’s another very good thing. Impose a valuation model and all we’ll achieve is a levelling of the playing fields where the mundane costs the same as the exceptional. In many respects that’s precisely where we are. We’ve been subjected to the procurement process which is primarily designed to reduce costs, not measure value. It’s better not to have a standard, for at least it provides the opportunity to the outstanding to fight for a premium. Remove that and we do become the walking dead.
Yes there was a time when we built brands through TV, print, posters, radio and the mailbox, because those were the only channels available to advertisers. Now we have so many more, including the target themselves (when the customer becomes the medium), but the principle by which we build brands remains the same – ideas that create interest and action. You can have all of NASA’s technology, but it will get you nowhere without creativity. Nothing’s changed, except, to paraphrase John Hunt, the size of the sandbox creative minds get to play in is that much larger. Technology merely enables creativity to play in a bigger arcade. Quit selling technology and go forth and create.
IMAGE: Kool Aid / Wikimedia Creative Commons
Justin McCarthy is group managing director of the TBWA\Group\Durban
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