Marching backwards into the future

Columnist Will Novosedlik considers at the challenge of integrating new technology with traditional media, and whether one agency can truly do it all.

If, to quote Vladimir Nabokov, “the future is the obsolete in reverse,” is the agency model obsolete or just getting started? The technological upheavals and channel disruptions of the last 15 years have certainly caused no end to industry hand-wringing on the subject. If Nabokov was right, let’s hope the model is now obsolete, because if the opposite of obsolescence is innovation, then there’s hope for the industry.
Gallows humour aside, perhaps the more apt aphorism in this context was penned by Marshall McLuhan: “The future of the future is the present.” That’s our only possible frame of reference. Therefore, he said, “we march backwards into the future.”
This image certainly characterizes most of the arguments on the future of advertising, whether they are vitriolic critiques of the “traditional” model, or enthusiastic predictions of its brilliantly technological days to come.
The consistent thread in this debate over the last 10 or so years has been the impact of technology. Whenever a new medium of communication bursts on the scene, the immediate response is to declare the old one – and all its practitioners – dead.
But inevitably, the more mature media never die. They just keep on doing what they do, some losing their prior status and others maintaining or even gaining. It’s the practitioners who are challenged to stay alive in the midst of an increasingly dynamic media landscape, not the media in which they ply their trade.
These days it’s social media that is supposed to blow traditional one-way advertising and, presumably, the agencies who produce it, out of the water. For sure, this is a powerful new form of engagement the likes of which we have never seen, but it’s not replacing anything. How could it? It’s not radio. It’s not TV.
And it’s certainly not print.
It can’t do any of those things, and none of those things can do social media. It does its own thing.
The challenge is to integrate and leverage this ineluctably complicated mess of channels to build brands. Confronted by a growing mass of specialists, the so-called “traditional” agency’s response has been to buy up channel expertise and build a full-service model to keep as much of their clients’ business as possible and diversify their revenue streams.
On the face of it, that seems to make good business sense. But while an agency may be successful in constructing the model, it is not necessarily capable of delivering the same level of quality across disciplines. Biases are inevitable. This is the weak flank most commonly exploited by the specialists, and their argument has gained support in the form of a recent study by Forrester Research.
As depicted in the chart (left), the study purports to demonstrate that no one agency can do it all. Some are good at channel planning, some at brand strategy, some at analytics and some at creative.
The ad agency gets good marks for creative and brand strategy, medium marks for communications strategy, channel planning and channel execution, and poor marks for technology and analytics.
The interactive agency is strong in technology, as well as digital channel planning and execution. It’s middling in creative and analytics, and poor in brand and communications strategy. Doubtless you will argue with some or all of these claims, depending on where you work. And obviously there are exceptions to the rule.
But if integrating and leveraging the channels is challenging for agencies, and a client chooses to assemble best-in-class specialists, the challenge for the client is integrating the agencies.
Even assuming the best of intentions, inter-agency rivalry is inevitable in these conditions. It can be healthy or it can be disruptive. Naturally, all agencies believe they are creative as well as strategic, and therefore perfectly capable of being the lead brand steward. But the client is the only one who can play that role.
The proponents of the full-service model will say that is exactly why they are the right choice. Whatever. In the end, clients need creativity and top-notch execution from all disciplines. And while I may not agree with some of the metrics in Forrester’s chart, I do agree that no one agency can do it all. The landscape is too complex and dynamic for a one-stop shop, thanks largely to the ruthless pace of technological change.
On the other hand, those who claim that the “traditional” agency has no place in a future where social media, user-generated content and smart, mobile, location-based technology will make them extinct, are dead wrong. They are overlooking the point: a great agency is all about great creative, not great technology.
Give me great creative. The channels will take care of themselves.

Will Novosedlik has 30 years of experience working with brands in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. He can be reached at