There is a lot of discussion today about the future and evolution of the advertising agency. There is a growing sense that something significant needs to happen if it is to, in some manner, survive as a creativity driven enterprise. Much of that talk dwells at the level of new tools and tactics to meet a new world of emergent technology platforms.
The problem is, that at the level of tools and tactics, it isn’t about evolving into something new, it’s about equipping something old in the hopes that it will look, feel, and act new.
If the industry was to take the idea of evolution sincerely, it wouldn’t be looking at the level of tools and tactics — things that the technology platforms can offer brands directly in the form of AI and algorithms that are already performing the lion’s share of advertising today.
Instead, advertising agencies would be looking at the level of role.
Given the kind of massive creativity and strategic smarts that lies within them, what evolved role can agencies play for brands in this new world?
Some context that might provide a sense of trajectory:
In the last century the post-war world desperately needed something to fill the space of the cavernous industrial machine that had been erected to serve war in order to provide both sustenance and new meaning to a world in need. Business rose in a big way to fill that space. To serve its mission of rapid growth and scale, a satellite sector of business emerged called advertising agencies. The ad agency sector served that mission for almost one hundred years and has succeeded in a colossal way — today business exists as behemoth global platforms and for all practical purposes have taken the place of government, religion, and tribalism as the organizing systems in our world.
In that success, more and more leaders in those global businesses are now looking up and seeing that there are real challenges in the world that also affect them and their business, and with those sniffing salts, are waking to the power they have within their platforms to positively impact those challenges. Concurrently, they are getting feedback from their employees, their consumers, and even now their investors, that if they want to continue in relationship with any of them, they need to reorient their missions to include positive change.
Perhaps within this historic and real-time context lies an evolutionary opportunity for the advertising agency.
If the ad agency emerged in the 20th century to scale business success, might it evolve in the 21st century to scale the positive impact those now global business platforms can be making?
Might the satellite sector of ad agency give birth to a new sector — the impact agency — its output not advertising per se, but positive impact in both society and business?
Might the promotional “campaign” evolve into real-world cultural initiatives and new product innovations that create both societal and business elevation?
If this sounds fanciful, it is important to note that it is already happening.
Brand-initiated cultural interventions like REI’s #OptOutside and Amex Small Business Saturday, and new product lines like Barbie Project Dawn, are driving both social change and business success, and are emerging rapidly.
There is also literal writing on the wall even from some of the world’s most prominent capitalists. The following quotes are, consecutively, from the holder of the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professorship at Harvard Business School, the now famous letter to the world’s CEOs from the chairman of Blackrock which at $5.9 trillion manages more money than any investment firm in the world; and from the CEO of Unilever which will generate $61B in revenue this year:
“Companies that are breaking the mold are moving beyond corporate social responsibility to social innovation. These companies are the vanguard of the new paradigm. They view community needs as opportunities to develop ideas and demonstrate business technologies, to find and serve new markets, and to solve long-standing business problems.” — Rosabeth Moss Kanter
“To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.” — Larry Fink
“If I project ourselves out five or 10 years, then I don’t see Unilever as an advertiser, I see us as a solutions provider. I see us as a co-creator, with the consumer, of mainstream sustainable living. Neither the word, nor the accounting line of “advertising”, means anything to me.” — Paul Polman
Will ad agencies look at evolution from the level of tactics, or from the level of role? Will they continue to compete with, and default to design for algorithms, or will they evolve into impact agencies using systems-level creativity to guide visionary brands in cultural initiatives that create a truly new world?
And regardless if you are a creative or strategist on the agency side, or a brand director or CMO on the brand side, to which of the above would you rather dedicate your heart and soul?