Fast, Cheap and Out of Control

Wired magazine calls it the “MP3 effect.” It goes like this: Any audiophile can tell you vinyl records have the best sound quality. Then CDs were born, which sounded worse than vinyl, but quickly dominated the market because they were easier to play, more portable and cheaper. Then MP3s came along and they really sounded like shit — worse than CDs, way worse than vinyl. But most music purchased today is in the MP3 format. The lesson: We will quickly sacrifice quality for more functional things like speed, price, shareability and accessibility. It’s why the Flip camera, which shoots basic video, has no image stability control and produces horrible sound, is now the best-selling consumer video camera in America. You can put it in your pocket, shoot anywhere, then plug it into your computer and download everything to your Facebook page.

Welcome to the lo-fi, high-tech revolution. Where fast, cheap and out of control is the new way to do business. And we as marketers better get used to it. It’s why old-school agencies are laboring to keep up with their clients. It’s why once-booming production companies are dropping like flies and trying to reinvent themselves as “content” providers. It’s why big media companies that purchase their plans 18 months in advance are being laughed out of the room. In short, it’s why our industry is 20 percent smaller than it was a year ago. And, ironically, it’s why this is the most exciting time in the history of advertising.

Fast, cheap and out of control. Anyone in our business knows that time lines are shorter, money is tighter and expectations are higher than ever. It’s a time for renegade productions. Where smart, fast and fearless is winning over slow, safe and methodical. Where videos done for free with a Webcam or mobile phone can be seen by millions of people worldwide with zero media dollars. It’s a time unlike any other. It’s chaos. It’s anarchy. And it’s fun as hell.

Why fast? Because speed kills in this market. The rise of digital has amplified the speed of business exponentially. We’re no longer reporting things that happened, we’re reporting things as they are happening. Since we now get all our news in real time — online, mobile, texts, tweets — rapid response time for marketers is now at a serious premium. And things aren’t slowing down anytime soon. For agencies, production companies and media companies alike, the ability to think, move and execute at lightning speed is what clients and consumers expect.

Why cheap? The cost of execution these days is low. Blame it on the Flip. Blame it on YouTube. Blame it on the kids, for God’s sake. But how we view has fundamentally altered what we view. Most screens we’re watching these days are about 6 inches wide, so high production values are lost. We want to watch on any screen, anywhere and be able to send it to our friends anytime. It’s the MP3 effect, in video. This cultural/media shift is devastating an advertising production community built on the two-week, $2 million dollar, wet paved Icelandic road boondoggle. Confusing the hell out of media buyers who get their biggest bargains buying 30-second slots months and years in advance. And forcing agencies to reconsider where their profits are coming from.

Why out of control? Well, we could start by talking virals, blogs, chat rooms, parody videos and consumer-generated content. But let’s not. Suffice it to say we have less control over our brands than we ever have. Which is terrifying and wonderful. The best we can be is proud parents and the brand is kind of like our own little baby boy. We can raise him, dress him, teach him right from wrong and prepare him for the real world. But eventually he has to leave home. And then people are either going to be his friend, or kick his ass. Our brands face the same brutal reality once put in the hands of the digital world. Out there, your brand will be praised, punked, glorified and vilified. So make sure you raise it well. And like any good parent, be ready to jump in on a moment’s notice and help it navigate the stormy waters. Because in this wild media landscape, brands need our guidance more than ever.

The future of advertising is fast, cheap and out of control. And I personally wouldn’t want it any other way. We’re living in a time when quality of content, rather than quality of picture or special effect, reigns supreme. People are seeking out amazing stories over amazing production values. Shorter lead time means less focus groups and less overthink. Faster, cheaper productions mean more experimenting and more chances to shine. We live in a time when everybody has the means to shoot, upload and spread their message. And if it’s great, the world will listen. They don’t need an agency, or a production company, or a media buy. They are renegades, marketing their ideas with new tools and new rules. And we can learn a lot from them.

Tor Myhren is chief creative officer and evp at Grey, New York. He can be reached at tmyhren@grey.com.