Can Agencies Keep Up?

It took more than 50 years for the television era to be disrupted. From TV’s introduction in the late 1940s through the years of mass adoption, the migration to color, and the hegemony of the three networks to the introduction of analog cable, satellite and now digital cable, nearly three generations were influenced by this medium.

During those years, our entire industry was shaped around two factors: the medium’s ability to aggregate mass audiences and our ability to tell them brand stories. With the arrival of digital, the TV era ended and a new one took its place.

Compare TV’s 50-year life cycle to the Internet era. In a period of just over 10 years, the world has witnessed the birth of the World Wide Web, its mass adoption and ongoing evolution. Today, more than a billion people are Internet users, their lives forever changed by the sheer scope and scale and power of an IP-connected universe.

Over 60 percent of U.S. Internet households are broadband-enabled. In countries like South Korea, that number is close to 100 percent. The three networks that once dominated the TV era are now surpassed daily by audiences that flock to Yahoo!, Google and MSN.

Like the previous era, our new marketing era is fueled by technology. Whereas the technology of TV provided for a single kind of experience (linear video), the Internet fuels a multitude of experiences, from Web pages and digital video to instant messaging and social networks.

The powerful and flexible technology of its underlying platform yields the key marketing insight of the new era: velocity. The speed with which new forms of experience and engagement are introduced and then become commonplace is compressed so dramatically that it defies the conventional wisdom of consumer insights that drove the previous marketing era.

Trends then were generally slower to permeate the masses. A mere 18 months ago, few people had ever read a blog, listened to a podcast or subscribed to an RSS feed. Now these media formats are part of the common vernacular—and it’s actually hard to find people who don’t use these things every day.

When change happens with such velocity, it creates a monumental challenge for marketers to stay abreast of its impact on their customers’ lives.

Solving marketing problems in the 21st century absolutely requires new forms of planning and research to track the velocity of change and to measure its effect on businesses and brands.

It’s no longer a question of whether new technologies will become adopted, but how quickly they will impact people’s lives, and consequently our ability to insert our brands into their lives. Yet most researchers and planners focus primarily on brand insights that drive narrative storytelling, not on the kinds of anthropological and ethnographical insights that explain how lives are changing amid the torrent of technology—much less how we can exploit these changes to market and sell better.

Assessing velocity and exploiting change also require the inclusion of technologists on the agency team—not at just interactive agencies, but at all agencies. Yet how many traditional agencies have technologists on staff (outside of the folks who manage the internal network and fix crashed PCs), sitting side by side with creatives? The answer, alas, is close to none.

The velocity of change has yielded another critical insight for our new era: hide and seek. As we’ve all heard a million times, technology has enabled consumers to hide from our marketing messages. But the very same technology empowering consumers to hide is also empowering them to seek and consume unprecedented amounts of information and content in a myriad of digital formats.

In other words, the same digital technologies that enable ad blocking are the ones that power the on-demand world we now live in.

Yet we as marketers spend the vast majority of our budgets on the kinds of advertising consumers want to hide from, and precious little on the transformational experiences they are seeking in unprecedented numbers. This disparity in marketing spend is further evidence that our industry is broken, and we are struggling to make the transition from the previous marketing era to our brave new one.

Consequently, consumers have gotten ahead of us, in most cases. The velocity trend ensures that they will continue to stay ahead unless we take dramatic steps to catch up. And they will continue to embrace tools that enable them to hide better—while simultaneously seeking and adopting tools that will improve their lives.

Amid the trends of velocity and hide- and-seek, we must acknowledge that all the media formats our industry was once based on are now dead, or dying quickly. Television, radio and print, as we once knew them, no longer exist. They have succumbed to a slew of digital formats—video, audio and Web—that are on-demand, ubiquitously available (fixed and mobile) and powered by interactive technologies.

It’s nearly as likely today that a piece of video content placed by a user on YouTube will find a mass audience as a new program launched on NBC, ABC or CBS. And tomorrow (velocity, again), nearly any piece of audio or video content—or digital image—will find seamless distribution across PCs, mobile devices, digital TVs and anything else using a screen and a broadband Internet connection.

Will agencies find new ways to be relevant in the era of velocity and hide-and-seek? Or do we risk losing our place at the client table to Google, Microsoft or some new upstarts just raising their first VC round?

We’re at an inflection point where it could go either way. A previous generation of marketing geniuses seized its era’s key technological innovations and invented entirely new businesses to exploit the technology. Their names hang on the doors of places like Ogilvy, DDB, Leo Burnett and many others. But despite the velocity of consumers, our generation’s David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach and Leo Burnett have been slow to emerge.