The New Mix

At virtually all industry conferences these days, discussions turn to the evolution of advertising and how clients are seeking smarter, unconventional marketing solutions. But while agencies agree they must respond to client needs, some are finding that they are ill-equipped to do so.

At the Adweek Creative Seminar at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Miami last week, creatives from agencies large and small contemplated how traditional agency structures and compensation arrangements need to change to accommodate a variety of advertising platforms.

“We are really in the content business,” said Robert Rasmussen, cd at JWT.

Developing and producing long-form products like The Gamekillers show on MTV that BBH, New York, produced for Axe Dry takes greater investment on the agency’s part than a traditional ad effort. “We lost our shorts on Gamekillers, but we knew we were going to,” admitted Kevin Roddy, ecd of BBH, a panelist on “How Do You Develop and Sell Client-Sponsored Content.” “I had a discussion with the CEO of the company, who came in and said you can’t run a business like this. And I said that you have to think of this as an investment. The learning we will get will be invaluable, and it’s absolutely proven [to be] the case.”

However, he added, “the model of how an agency works and how it’s compensated has to change. … It’s the future of where we want to go. We just have to figure out the best way to get there.”

In the forum “Creative Model of Today and the Future,” panelists discussed how agency cultures are built around profits, not creativity. “The whole thing is completely siloed, deeply miserable,” said Carl Johnson, a former TBWA executive who co-founded Anomaly in New York two years ago. “It’s all about money. If you sat in a room and are debating how to sell this product and there is a PR guy, a direct-marketing guy, a digital guy, an ad agency guy, are you truly free to recommend what you think the answer is?

“Although it shouldn’t be, money is at the heart of the silos,” he continued. “You have to unhook money from the creative process. You have to be able to recommend what you truly believe is exciting and will capture people’s hearts and minds. The biggest thing you need is a diverse skill set and one P&L.”

Interesting projects outside the conventional realm of the ad agency can be done with the right resources and management support, said Rasmussen, pointing to the work his agency has been able to produce for JetBlue. “The agency pretty much agreed not to make money [at the start],” he said.

The centerpiece of the JetBlue effort is a traveling booth in which consumers can record their JetBlue stories. The agency then turns these into TV, Web and in-flight content. The agency funneled about three-quarters of the ad budget into the booth itself, he said, spending it on things such as an architect and video designers. Rasmussen explained because the money went into the booth, the agency invested some of its own funds into the making of the first round of work. “Now the money is coming back in,” he said.

The enduring question of how agencies should be compensated for their ideas was also contemplated. During a talk titled “What Consumers Want Now,” Joyce King Thomas, CCO of McCann Erickson, shared her agency’s experience on Staples, the advertising campaign of which is hinged on the Easy Button. Consumers have responded so well to the concept, she explained, that Staples is producing the buttons and selling them in their stores. “[Staples] sold a lot of products and made plenty of money from this idea,” said King Thomas, adding that the agency did not get a percentage of those profits. “We are really going to have to refigure out our models so that we are paid for the ideas we have.”

David Baldwin, ecd of McKinney in Durham, N.C., during a talk on “Immersive Creative,” sounded the same note. He said that Travelocity’s roaming gnome, a character that began as an advertising spokesdoll, has become a popular product in its own right, but the agency sees no financial return from the sales.

Multiple platforms mean multiple players, of course. And the dissolution of the creative ego that has traditionally permeated the business was also on people’s minds. Bruce Bildsten, a former ecd at Fallon in Minneapolis, who last month started “Brew: A creative collaborative,” echoed a common theme throughout the two-day event: the importance of collaboration and the inclusion of creatively minded people from all disciplines.

Whether key players are going to be the creatives with traditional advertising experience or digital expertise was debated in a panel called “The Digital Divide.” Panelists, including Keith Anderson, director of interactive and design at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, and Jeff Benjamin, interactive cd at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, agreed that digital creatives are currently enjoying the spotlight, but that, in a perfect future, no one will take center stage.

No matter the perspective, said Benjamin, the work is still about “putting your ego aside and helping other people come up with great ideas. … A lot of talented people would have gotten further if they welcomed that.”