Manifesto: the future.

The following is an expurgated version of the presentation I made last Friday, April 29th, 2011, at the Brandcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University to the Brandcenter Masters students, undergraduate VCU advertising students, faculty and local professionals.  While I spoke about my past and growing up in an advertising family and also explored a tangent about psychology (to be covered in a separate post), here I’ll focus on my philosophies about mobile and emerging technologies, and how their importance will inform the way the most successful advertising agencies will be constructed in the future.  In addition, I’ll cover how I believe changes need to be made not only on a departmental level and a creative team-structure level, but also on a personnel level; from entry level to C-suite, I believe the right kind of people will increase success without excessive human resource cost increases. 

First, let’s talk mobile.  It’s the future.  Period.  In my lifetime, it may evolve from a smartphone to a mini tablet to a wristwatch to a solid state drive and jack implanted in the back of my head—who knows?   What I do know is that it will be as small as possible, while still providing a positive user experience.

There was a time when the revolution was to be televised.  In the past six months, actual revolutions were socialized via twitter and Facebook.  In the western world, we’re constantly on the go.  Multitasking.  We value time more than ever.  One device that can function as the focal point for communication as well as content delivery, whether coming in the form of education, entertainment, news or utility?  Vital. In the immediate future this will remain the smartphone.  And though I mention the western world, make no mistake: the mobile device is a global device:

Seventy seven percent.  And nearly seventy five percent of those people have the phone within an arm’s reach, 24 hours a day.  How long until the majority of those phones are smart phones?  Well, with AT&T selling the iPhone 3GS for $49, it won’t be very long. Android will be no different.  And as the hardware becomes more affordable, more end users gravitate to the platforms, which stimulates platform development.  Brands respond by increasing their ad-spend exponentially.  Don’t think so?

Take a look at that chart.  Brands spent under $800 million on mobile in 2010.  That’s expected to triple by 2014.  And people aren’t only buying mobile phones in greater quantity to place calls; twenty five percent of internet users surf the web using mobile only.  A better experience?  No, a convenient one.  So users are out of the house, surfing the web, getting branding messages in the wild — near places they can spend money. And soon they’ll be using their phones to make payments; seventy percent of retailers are developing or exploring capabilities for mobile commerce right now. That’s nearly three in four.  Despite that increase, online shopping (via mobile) is going nowhere but through the roof, tripling from 2009 to 2010, from one to four billion dollars.  And some purchase and fulfillment never even leaves the phone; 350,000 applications are available in Apple’s app store alone.  Unbelievable.

What does this all mean?  Well, from my selfish POV, it means that if you’re a company like MIR that builds mobile ads or iAds, develops mobile sites, designs mobile apps and creates quality UX mobile commerce systems, you’re in pretty good shape moving forward.  But before I seem like I’m all code and no theory, I’ll say and underscore this:

Now I need to choose my words carefully, to avoid being misunderstood.  I do believe in the big idea.  Shh…don’t tell anyone, but I still love traditional.  I still love broadcast. And I still love print.  And I can see by saying these things, one might imagine I’m the anti-digital, the Lex Luthor to Michael Lebowitz’ Superman.  But you’re totally wrong. I’d imagine Michael and I agree philosophically on many things surrounding this topic (Note: Despite the laws of probability and outcome that would predict two people who interact with many of the same associates and friends would know each other, Michael and I have actually never met).  And I think we’re actually saying the same thing in different ways; Michael might say a mediocre idea made with great tech is better than a big idea sitting on the shelf that can’t be or never is made.  He’d likely also say that creativity itself often straddles both the editorial and technological ideating of what we do.  He’d be right.  I say no matter how advanced the technology, it will not succeed (from a branding standpoint) without a creative idea behind it.  I’m right.  And ultimately, I’m sure we both want the best brand storytelling married to the best technology.  We’re right.  And though mobile, digital and emerging technology is going to become the focus moving forward, the reality is that if you’ve cracked the brief for an overall campaign, the creative idea should be able to live anywhere.

Still, we have a big dilemma these days:

We have very forward thinking, digitally savvy technological people, and we have seasoned, track-proven traditional creative people.  It begs three very big questions:

And most importantly:

Back to question 1: Traditional agencies CANNOT survive without change.  The fundamental need for change relies upon EDUCATION.  More often than not, educating is the first thing I do when meeting with an agency or a brand partner, because they’re not familiar with how anything other than traditional advertising works.  They rarely know the difference between a wireframe and a comp.  And the first time you show a wireframe to a brand CEO who’s expecting to see full color comps because he or she doesn’t know the difference, you’re in for some shit.  Agencies and brands not familiar with digital and mobile processes need to understand what we do and how we do it.  It will better prepare them for what to expect at various stages of development, will provide them the ability to comment on work from a more confident position, and moving forward, it will allow them to be a contributor rather than an observer or burden.

Question 2: Can traditional and digital people co-exist in an evolving agency?  Short answer?  Without communication, not for very long.  Traditional ad people who refuse to communicate with technologists will first find themselves at a disadvantage, and ultimately find themselves unemployed.  I’m not saying the technologists shouldn’t be helping, by providing somewhat remedial instruction and exercising a great deal of patience, but the burden of learning the technical side of what we do (in greater amounts each day) falls to the traditional creatives.  And I’m not excluding non-creatives; strategists, account people and especially project managers must be proficient in speaking and understanding the language of tech.  Still…

This is a creative business.  The more we expand the channels in which we deliver stories and messages, the more vital it is to have a seamless communication between those who do the dreaming and those who nurture those dreams and turn them into emerging technology reality.  And until those out of the loop catch up, I believe there may be a new role at traditional agencies that will be vital for the next few years:

And that’s the bridge builder.  A hybrid traditional/digital thinker who can educate the pure traditionals in the language of digital, and play the part of conduit between the traditionals and the digital in everyday business.  Make no mistake: I’m not saying Martin Sorrell is going to shell out money for this new position.  This will likely fall to creatives within the agencies who can already play this role, making them even more indispensable.

The way creative teams are constructed will change as well.  They have to.  I think we’re already starting to see a change.  Before long, I believe the main structure of a creative team will change from the left to the right diagram, below:

That brings us to Question 3: What does the agency of the future look like? 

When it comes to agency departments, I think the siloed vs. integrated agency debate is over; integrated is the obvious way to go.  And we just covered teams.  But I believe that moving forward, agencies will survive and thrive not only based upon the structure of departments and teams, but even more upon the structure of the people themselves.  Because as long as the same types of people are put together in more or less the same kinds of teams, the results will be the same.Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results?  Know what that is?


Right.  Einstein’s definition of insanity.  So who are these people I’m talking about? Who should be leading agencies moving forward?  It may be a philosophy based in generalities, but it’s one to which I subscribe.  The great majority of people in this world can be divided into one of three groups when it comes to innate ability and the aptitude to develop specific advanced intellectual talents.  The two MAIN groups are left and right brain thinkers:

Left brain thinkers are rooted in fact and process, while right brainers focus on emotion and creativity.  I did say there were three groups.  The third group is exactly who I believe are the prime choice to be bridge builders today and the ideal candidates to be leading agencies tomorrow.  They are both left and right brained and have the capacity to not only understand exactly what the creatives and the technologists are doing, they can mediate between the two, and most importantly, they can explain all of it to a client who doesn’t know what the hell any of it means.  It’s part teacher, part counselor, part psychologist.  It’s not always fun, but it is absolutely vital for agency survival.

Now, I can imagine what you’re thinking. ruminating upon.  It’s nagging you:

Am I both left and right brained?  Let’s see…  

This is not a definitive test, but let’s look at a question.  Think honestly about how you react to it:

If your mind’s tendency is to think the above, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you.  But you might not be equally left and right brained.  However, it’s absolutely possible for one to develop a greater understanding and mastery of what was once a deficiency.  It behooves people to gain the knowledge they lack in order to make them more indispensable at the workplace.  And it’s essential for anyone contemplating a start-up of their own.  

There’s someone else who I imagine I’ll be at odds with based on my opinions presented here, and that’s Daniel H. Pink, author of the best-selling book “A Whole New Mind - Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future."  In it, Pink discusses how the Industrial Age of the 19th century was replaced by the Information Age of the 20th, which has now given way to the Conception Age of the 21st.  And though there is much in those pages that I agree with wholeheartedly, I still believe that much of its content and even the title (on its surface) seem to intimate a devaluation of left brain thinking, which I completely disagree with.  Professing design visualization as a pillar of the right brain future (which Pink does) without taking into consideration the mathematics inherent in spacial analysis, angles, symmetry and balance is just wrong in my opinion.  

Only time will tell if I’m even remotely prophetic and how agencies (and mobile technology) will evolve and flourish, or fail and be replaced by whatever’s next.  For now, survival depends upon knowing the rules and being able to play the game(s).  I made that plural because we do so much more than brand building these days.  The lines between what we do and what many in Silicon Valley now do have blurred tremendously.  Intellectual property is more on the minds of agencies today than ever; it has to be, simply because the buying public is so accessible and there’s too much money to be made via apps and platform development.  And to me, it’s just another piece of evidence in the argument for change on an organizational and personnel level that embraces digital and technological thinking and processes as an organic part of the creative process from the beginning rather than an appendage dialed up like a pinch hitter with two out in the bottom of the ninth.