New York Ad Week: The new agency model is a very old one

Cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken on why the agency's best value proposition is the commercial.

Strategy‘s executive editor Mary Maddever is blogging from New York Advertising Week. To read her Day One recap, click here, and read a breakdown of MEC’s mobile talk here.

Surprise! The 30-second spot is the saviour of advertising.

This news just in via former MIT prof, author and noted cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, who took the stage on the morning of day two of Ad Week in New York to present “Putting Humpty Dumpty Back Together Again.”

In a session that didn’t centre on breaking down silos or rethinking everything around tech and social change, McCracken, who describes himself as an anthropologist who looks at the intersection of economics and culture (and recently released Culturematic), looked at the bright side of the new, more demanding, more elusive media consumer.

McCracken says these days all media consumers – especially those under 35 – are smart, mobile and savvy, and because they’re so plugged in, “you can craft messages that are fabulously sophisticated and nuanced and interesting” because you have an audience that will get it.

Essentially, McCracken told the Ad Week crowd that consumers are good at getting “second look” creative, and since that negates the old model of beating the drum as loudly as you can, it’s good news for creative agencies.

Another factor is what McCracken deems “culture in commotion.” He says the folks who used to build the new business models are now saying “no models, we don’t know,” referencing the likes of the Black Swan theory and its ilk.

In this milieu, he says the good news is, “they need you, they really, really need you.” McCracken says as strategy fails and chaos grows, innovation matters more, since commercial success demands constant creativity. “We have to find a new way of doing things, over and over again,” so innovation is constant and valued.

He also outlined the “Enemies of Advertising,” saying the bad news is that business schools, C-suites, design schools (think Stanford Design), “all mean you ill,” explaining the first two don’t get creativity, and the last one thinks they can do it better.

And then there’s the big one. “Procurement is killing us,” says McCracken, adding that they’re tone deaf when it comes to creativity, and they’re ever more powerful.

He also points out that “small data will get worse,” and big data is coming.

While it may seem like an unlikely ramp-up to advocating the return of the commercial, McCracken sees this as the ideal time for an ad agencies to “take back your heritage, and reassert your value proposition.” And asserts that to do so “you have to have a model.” When it comes to an agency’s USP, creativity, McCracken says “you can’t black box it.”

“You have to show how you make value,” he says, stressing that he’s not talking metrics, he’s talking models, and proposed an anthropological one.

As per McCracken:

Proposition One: ads make meaning for the brand and consumer.

Proposition Two: meaning makes value for client and agency.

Proposition Three: nothing makes meaning like a 15- or 30-second spot.

Conclusion: “This is your unassailable competitive advantage.”

McCracken ran through all the compelling new ways to engage consumers, like transmedia, experience marketing, crowdsourcing and consumer collaboration, but avers that they don’t create meaning the way an ad does. “All of these matter, but none of them make meaning like an ad – the 30 is your unassailable difference.”

As to why that is, McCracken says meaning comes from some shared cultural cue or experience, which has to pre-exist in a consumer’s mind, and can be triggered by the sight, sound and motion of an ad, on TV or online, and that meaning converts it to value. And for those working on global accounts, McCracken says finding the right meaning from culture is a difficult task to make universal.

McCracken advised the ad community to start your models now and keep him posted. “Let’s build it as a collective model. Every time procurement phones and asks why in God’s name are you charging so much, you can show them the model.” He believes the industry can define what value they provide “with sufficient clarity to beat back procurement, and without tying anyone’s hands creatively.”

“We can go a lot further examining the dynamic of how creativity happens without damaging it.”

When asked does delivery matter, referring to ad or pre-roll skipping, McCracken’s ad optimism remained unfazed. As people become more sophisticated as viewers, “alive to the nuance we build into the spot,” he sees a future where ads can be more sophisticated and interesting, building a cycle where ads go from irritating to something that’s good, citing Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.”

“It’s earned media in a new sense. We’re paying attention to this stuff because it’s so freaking good.”