We Can Be Rock Stars

I signed up to attend TED over a year ago, with the fears and insecurities of anyone in our business. I had come to believe that TED was full of entrepreneurs and activists who put the likes of people in our business to shame. For those of you who don’t know TED, it is a conference where the great, the good and the famous share their latest and greatest thinking in 20-minute slots, with 50 or more speakers crammed into three days. Everyone from Stephen Hawking, Bob Geldof and Al Gore to particle physicists, deep space and deep sea explorers, anthropologists, hackers, inventors, poets, musicians, spiritual leaders and fashion designers, all pondering who we are, why we do what we do and what else we should be doing. In my mind, the only reason to attend TED was to get inspiration from everyone else. I never believed anyone in this elite, world-changing community would think I could be valuable to them. But, I was wrong. Towards the end of the conference, a well-known innovator and entrepreneur (who made more money last year than some of my clients) turned to me and said, “Wow, you probably have one of the coolest jobs of anyone here.” This was the point when I started to believe that maybe advertising was in fact not the lame dinosaur many of us have come to believe it is, and that perhaps there was hope for our business.

Let me explain this renaissance.

When I first arrived at TED, they gave me a big badge with my name, a rather unflattering photo and the initials JWT. As I met a few people, they would ask what I did and when I replied “advertising,” I saw the haze come down and their eyes dart quickly round the room, looking for other, more interesting networking opportunities. I understood this. In their minds I did advertising for other people, and even if these were the biggest or coolest brands in the world, my stories were not likely to be of much help to them, or very interesting. Talking about other people’s advertising is like talking about other people’s holidays or children.

So, when they asked the inevitable next question, “Which clients do you work for?” I was ready with an answer: “We don’t really start with clients anymore.” Then I paused to give their eyes a chance to flick back in my direction.

“More and more these days, we look for ideas we think people will be interested in and help to get these up and running,” I continued. “Some of these we create from scratch and some of them we find in places like this.”

This was the turning point, not just for my audience but also for my faith in the future of our industry. At this point I had their attention. Rather than being a guy who does ads for other people, I was a guy who could help them get their projects up and running. I had my finger on the pulse of popular culture. I had a good and current understanding of the strategic objectives and aspirations of some of the biggest blue chip companies in the world and, most importantly, I had influence over how they choose to spend their millions of advertising dollars.

Now, I know agency-generated and owned intellectual property is nothing new, and JWT is only one of many agencies exploring this business model as an alternative to working for clients and handing the intellectual property over to them. My recent experience with JWT’s innovation and incubation venture, called Sector 64, had proven to me that we can successfully create intellectual properties which we license to clients, retaining or sharing the intellectual ownership of the idea. What struck me at TED was that in doing this we have to compete with the current rock stars of these forums-the venture capitalists who have entrepreneurs buzzing wildly around them (like the proverbial bees around a honey pot), spewing brilliant, well-thought-out and executable ideas.

As I spoke more to this entrepreneurial audience I realized that our industry has much more to offer than the VCs. We have access to funds through our clients and our media partners. But more than this we have interest in the strategic value and integrity of their entrepreneurial venture. One of the biggest complaints about VC funding is that they are only interested in the financial multiples they make on a relatively short-term investment. VCs are also often criticized for their lack of “big thinking,” preferring to fund ideas that are similar in nature to other successful ventures. Anything totally new, that has never been done before, forget it. The majority of VC’s are not that visionary.

This is where I think we have the competitive advantage. Advertising agencies that are exploring IP business models tend to be looking for genuinely new ideas that can help to differentiate clients who choose to license or sponsor them. These agencies have a vested interest in the strategic value, rather than just the financial value, of the idea. And unlike the VCs, it is important for us to create ideas with longevity and the potential for mass social and cultural impact. These are, after all, the kinds of initiatives that hold the greatest value, over time, to our biggest and most valuable clients.

My experience at TED was amazing, not just because of the inspiring speaker line-up. I was equally inspired by the quality and quantity of projects that were relevant to my clients’ businesses and the enthusiasm with which these entrepreneurs embraced a different type of business partner. It was easy for the TED audience to understand that the advertising industry was changing, and like them, we were focused on creating new ideas that people would be interested in. They saw how a shift towards IP business models made the advertising industry interested not just in short-term financial reward but in the long-term strategic value of their idea. Add to this the ability to bring blue-chip sponsorship and funding to the table, and they could not leave me alone. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I got a sense of what it would be like to be a rock star…and I liked it.

William Charnock is co-head of strategic planning at JWT.