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What could advertising look like in 2020?

Topic 1: What could/should advertising look like in 2020?

No one will be talking about advertising as the first line of offense in a typical marketing plan by 2020. The ever-expanding facets of marketing communications will have evolved exponentially from where we are today, and “pure” advertising—the kind you watch on TV, listen to on the radio, pass on a billboard, or read in a printed magazine or newspaper (remember those?)—will have gone the way of the buggy whip and tear-out coupon.

The impact of this on the old conventions of ad making? Let’s start with the basics, like the classic “advertising reel,” the historical calling card of ad agencies everywhere that invariably features cute and clever 30- and 60-second spots strung together to demonstrate creative prowess to a targeted prospect. These will become increasingly irrelevant. Yes, that award at Cannes was terrific, but did it favorably and relevantly impact customer perceptions and/or, gods forbid, actually help them sell something? And how did that funny and “disruptive” ad idea with the flying dogs work within and across all of the other communication vehicles at the client’s disposal?

“We are responsible for connecting with people in ways that are instructive,not disruptive…disruption is over,” Kimberly Kadlec, worldwide vice president of marketing for Johnson & Johnson, said last October at the Association of National Advertisers’ Masters of Marketing conference in Orlando. Clients and prospects are already seeking more comprehensive success stories about breakthrough programs, built around a meaningful brand idea that drives integrated social, experiential, and earned and paid media initiatives in ways that enhance brand equity and provide demonstrable results. How did the agency orchestrate the client’s overall marketing efforts behind the launch of its new product or service, how did it serve its overall brand value, and what did it ultimately accomplish? Maybe the Effies will finally get the full esteem they deserve in our industry—it’s not what you promise, after all, but what you actually deliver that counts in the end.

Where does creativity fit into this new, more collaborative world? Does it die if we all become slaves to exclusively delivering measurable marketing results by 2020? Marc Pritchard, the well-regarded global marketing and brand-building officer of Procter & Gamble, also spoke at the recent ANA conference and observed: “Insight without creativity is boring, but creativity without insight is worthless.” We already have more data at our disposal than we can usefully assimilate as marketers—and this will only grow by quantum leaps in the decade to come. The challenge is how to discern the information that has the most relevant value and what to do with it.

As the search for meaningful insight clearly becomes more challenging, the demand for exceptional creativity among all of us—“suits” and “creatives” alike—does not diminish. Rather, it will be up to our emerging leaders in advertising, public relations, digital and direct marketing, event management, and social media specialties to coalesce around great thinking. It is they who will need to identify, craft, sell-in, activate, and infuse a compelling brand idea and story into a fully encompassing marketing program that engages customers and motivates results.

The ad agency of today must therefore become the “marketing maestro” of the future—leading the vast communications industry as curators of best-of-class ideas and their implementation. Successful practitioners will be “communications customizers,” creatively and confidently assembling the multiple tools at their disposal in the service of client brand and business-building initiatives, be they tactical or strategic. No one size—or tool—will fit all, and it will be the ad agency of the future’s opportunity and, frankly, obligation to understand and orchestrate all of these tools as efficiently and effectively as possible if this industry is to stay relevant and vibrant.

But in a digitized world where barriers between countries, clients, customers, and collaborators start to break down and the lines blur, there is now an historic opportunity for ad agencies to again lead us to exciting high ground and make sense of it all!

Topic 2: What does the industry need to do now to prepare for this future?

If ad agencies intend to maintain a leadership role in the marketing services industry of the future—and if they don’t, they will most certainly be trailing behind it—they may want to start by reconsidering what they plan to call themselves. “Ad agency” as a term may be familiar and one we’re fond of, but it implies a one-trick pony, for which the solution to virtually every marketing communications challenge ultimately resides in a piece of advertising copy. Sadly, this too often remains the mindset of many of today’s ad agency professionals, particularly among the young and less experienced in the industry.

So the first step toward preparation for a brave new world of marketing communications is arguably education and training. Are middle managers and their teams familiar with what a PR firm does, or how digital media, direct marketing, or events marketing works, or how and when a branding and design agency best serves client needs? To effectively wield these tools with clients, young ad agency professionals must come to know them as well as they know how to evaluate a media plan or create a copy platform. Is there a more effective and appropriate way to seed a new branding idea than via a 30-second TV spot on prime time network or cable? What is the total customer journey when making decisions about a given product or service, and how do we best engage the consumer at the most opportune and efficient moments? How best to disseminate a message across multiple hard-to-reach audiences without expending a mass media-sized investment? How can earned media be employed to add credibility to a client’s advertised product claims, and what is the best way to engage the customer in a full brand experience, whether online or in person?

These are the issues our clients are thinking about every day, and they need help from communications professionals who get the whole picture. Today’s ad execs must become as much the curators and molders of great marketing ideas as they have been historically hooked on being their supposed originators. Clients will be looking for maestros who will be knowledgeable in all the standard and burgeoning fields of marketing communications, comfortable in giving others the lead as opportunity and success require, and willing to park egos at the door when it comes to championing new ideas, wherever they’re sourced. This is new turf for most agencies, but it is the only way to construct a cohesive, breakthrough marketing effort that takes full advantage of all the arrows in the quiver.

Ford CMO Jim Farley has been an early and passionate advocate for just such a model with his marketing communications agencies, which in the United States is WPP’s Team Detroit. This is an agency without borders—walking its halls, a casual visitor has no real idea where Wunderman (direct marketing) meets JWT (advertising) meets VML (digital) meets public relations. This is completely by design: “The agency and client practice ‘TRAIN’: talent, resource, and insight network, which means they find the best resources for any given project, whether within the Team Detroit-WPP construct or outside,” says Farley. Team Detroit then brings its curated selection of best-of-class talent in for whatever the project or challenge requires.

This philosophy and structure provide Ford and Team Detroit access to top people and a highly collaborative creative environment while still contracting with a single agency. It ensures a ready supply of great creativity while maintaining single agency control and responsibility. As a result, the process breeds innovation and cooperation, focusing the team on the best solution possible versus the best solution available within traditional agency confines. As Farley notes, this requires a strong creative director, secure in his or her abilities, who has the client’s best interest at heart. It is not a role for easily bruised egos.

Can this agency model work for every situation? Undoubtedly not, but it is a far more forward-looking approach than what most traditional ad agencies are even willing to contemplate these days. The notion of branded skill sets and internal compartmentalization is fast becoming a burden, not a selling asset—just as speaking of our “digital department” will soon become the equivalent of talking about our “TV Department,” as ad agencies once did back in the 1950s.

It is an increasingly seamless, borderless world we are living in, and it is time agencies again led the conversation and the solution. The clock is ticking.

This article was first published as a contribution to the Wharton Future of Advertising Program’s Advertising 2020 Project (21 February 2013); visit the site and join the debate.


Hayes Roth, Landor New York

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