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November 24, 2004
Aching for Innovation

As a newly minted MBA, I find myself falling into the same trap that lures every other newly minted MBA—trying to introduce everything we learned in business school to our new agencies. But I'm afraid I might actually be worse than the typical MBA. Unlike many of my fellow graduates, I "chose" to return to school in my thirties and am even more impatient now to leave my mark on the business world than I was just five years ago. Additionally, after a self-imposed, four-year exile from advertising that included brand strategy and design, independent consulting, and two years in graduate school, I am all the more surprised at how little advertising appears to have changed in my time away. Sure, advertising is coming out of one of its worst slumps in many decades. And yes, many of the talented individuals in my field of account planning are no longer even working for agencies. (I just spoke with a former colleague who is enjoying the more relaxed and predictable field of commercial real estate speculation.) Still, I find myself aching for innovation in advertising.

Granted, our industry has been around so long that radical change was hardly likely to have occurred in the four years since I left. But enough seems to have changed in the lives of our suppliers and customers that I assumed we would have changed as well. For example, many advertising agencies are still building themselves around the TV execution. I admit I get the biggest kick out of seeing ads I've worked on appear on TV. I especially love it when I hear people on the street talking about some ad in which I've played a role. But with the introduction of Tivo, I'm seeing fewer and fewer of those ads. So while TV ad supporters continue to trumpet the belief that "breakthrough creative" will make people stop fast-forwarding, and that live events, like sports, are fairly "Tivo-proof," I've become skeptical of the future of TV as our most useful medium. And I don't think product placement or "integration" is going to be our savior either. Consumers have wised up to the fact that their favorite characters, shows, and movies are getting as "pimped out" with name brands as the hood of a race car.

What's more surprising is that most of the people I know who work in this field pride themselves on thinking creatively. So maybe it's time to take what we do best and apply it to our own vision of the industry. We all know that truly radical thinking—the idea that rocks the boat, challenges long-held notions, and becomes truly "sticky"—is often the hardest to sell to clients. It's not because clients are small-minded or conservative, but because breakthrough thinking often doesn't fit our clients' current paradigm. Most agencies recognize this as a formidable impasse. They also realize that there are only two outcomes in this situation: to figure out a way to sell the client on something you really believe in—or not to. Quite often we don't sell it in and business continues as usual. However, in those cases where we are really smart and do a great job selling in the work, we're usually met with something wonderful: huge sales. Market shifts. New business opportunities. You name it. This is no surprise because breakthrough thinking does that. Big risks lead to big payoffs.

Now it's time to apply that same thinking to our own industry. Service firms are notoriously shaky when it comes to innovating around their own businesses. We are tied so intimately to our clients and their vision of us that rather than explain why we're choosing to look at the world in a new way, we continue to do what got us the business in the first place. Advertising agencies need to leverage the things we do best to help our clients do what they do best. Communication. Creativity. Strategy. Consumer knowledge. Tactical implementation. Motivation. These are competencies that our clients will be able to use in more ways than the development and placement of the next round of television spots. Maybe we should become more closely linked to product development. Maybe we should partner with HR and operations to build strong internal brands that our clients can take pride in. Some of us already do these things and some of us don't. Regardless, we will definitely have to find ways to better engage clients and their customers as they both become more immune to the message.

Will it be hard? Of course it will. Will it be worth it? It has to be. I recently read an article reporting that 10 million people signed the "Do Not Call" registry within the first four days of its existence; 62 million signed up within the first year. The world is tired of the marketing intrusion, and it's only a matter of time before our current approach gets Tivoed and the rest of us end up in real estate as well.

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Chuck Greene is a busy guy. He’s honed his planning and strategy skills at some of the top agencies, and prior to joining Brokaw, ran his own market research and strategy practice while earning his M.B.A. Greene brings more than a decade of experience in market research and analysis to his position as director of Brokaw's Insight Planning Group.
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