Natural Selection

A TV documentary about a watering hole in the plains of Africa begins in flush times, the area brimming with water and wildlife. Creatures young and old drink with little fear in an atmosphere of civility, even complacency.

Soon, however, things dry up. The animals have to compete for the water. As they do, crocodiles leap out and snag them. By the end, only a few creatures remain—a couple of crocs and hippos, a lion or two. Nature has removed the weak, leaving the strong, clever and plucky to carry on.

We couldn’t help but think of advertising. Several years ago, the rains flowed. Big, small, smart, dumb, young, old, online, offline—we all enjoyed prosperity. Then the rains stopped. Now comes the ugly part.

In prehistoric times, climate changes were a catalyst for evolution. The biggest, wisest and fiercest were affected. Not even the Raptor could survive. In advertising today, we are witnessing an epic climate change. It’s time for us, too, to evolve.

Advertising, as we traditionally think of it, is diminishing before our eyes. The New York Times recently noted that major marketers now only spend around 12 percent of their total marketing budgets on above-the-line advertising. This is how fragmented communications have become.

Will ad agencies die? Our numbers will dwindle, but we won’t disappear. We’re too smart for that. We have the vision, tools, resources and expertise to evolve platforms and architecture to help brands compete. Most importantly, the best of us have that unique talent of creativity.

Agencies now agree that brands are bigger than just advertising. Many have renamed themselves accordingly. But few truly do anything about it. Witness how few interesting brand Web sites there are, and how fewer still involve an emotional brand concept.

A species succeeds by adapting, often to become a new species. Our core abilities will remain, but our bodies must change. We must embrace forms of marketing we’ve viewed as unglamorous and make them glamorous. Just as Bill Bernbach increased intelligence in advertising by coercing the art director and writer to work together as a team, we can improve the intelligence in Web, direct response, packaging, promotions, below-the-line, etc., by truly working together with these disciplines. Not just with “affiliations” or internal companies with separate profit-and-loss centers. We need to remove the boundaries—physical and mental.

Simply put, we must form a cohesive team to unlock insights, define strategies and apply art and instinct to create compelling ideas that can be used anywhere—not just in TV, print, radio and outdoor. As new technologies arrive, we will be able to lead the way with intelligence and creativity.

Companies will always need to be “brands” to consumers. And brands will require creativity to make them interesting. Today’s “ad agencies” will be the ones that can best supply that. But if we are to succeed, the term “ad agency” isn’t the only thing that should be extinct in five years. The limitations must die, too.

What the new term will be we don’t know. We’re sure the copywriters will come up with something.