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March 31, 2004
Buh-Bye to the Ad Business

Considering the masters of strategy, positioning and creativity that we profess to be, it’s shameful that we’ve allowed our work to still be categorized as the “advertising business.”

It’s time for a new definition. Because if we’re worth a lick, the ideas and strategies we’re bringing to our clients should go beyond advertising to encompass all the ways a brand can connect to its customers.

We’re in the idea business.

If we’re really pushing ourselves to help our clients, that means ideas that make full use of the Web, relationship marketing, viral marketing, events, packaging, collateral—literally everything that is part of the brand experience. Instead of lumping strategies and creative into above the line and below the line, it’s time to blur the line. In fact, it’s time to obliterate the sucker.

The buzzword for all this is integration. Lots of people say they’re doing it, how many have really put it into practice?

If we’re going to become true idea people, instead of just advertising people, we’re going to have to get out of the strategic and creative boxes we’ve put ourselves in. That’s right, the boxes we’ve put ourselves in. Boxes that come from siloed organizational structures. Boxes that separate the branding and advertising teams from the interactive and relationship marketing teams. Boxes that align the planning and account teams with strategy and creative and media teams with tactics and execution.

Let’s start about who does what.

How does strategy work in your company?

My experience is that conventional approaches to strategy, lead to more conventional solutions. Some combination of account and planning gods bring the strategy from on high, frequently leaving the creative and media teams disconnected. Creative and media people should have a seat at the big strategy table. (Not be put at the kids’ table.) We need to appreciate the different perspectives that people from different disciplines bring to the table. Accomplishing that is a big step in itself. I suggest pushing it further: bring in thinkers from outside the advertising, marketing and client worlds. What does a college professor think? A consultant? An industrial designer? An engineer? An organizational psychologist? Be brave enough to expose your ideas to people who see things through different filters. From there, be selfless enough to actually incorporate their ideas into the solution.

How about creative?

Here’s some heresy: Who says the campaign has to start with the advertising? Think about it, when an agency starts with a project the ad campaign inevitably comes first, with everything falling out from there. Budgets are allocated to cover the traditional media plans. Production budgets are weighted towards the needs of the ad campaign. Interactive and direct teams are frequently asked to repurpose material—MacGyvering together what they can from “table scraps” budgets. Why not start with an idea driven by the best way to solve a client’s problem. Maybe an idea driven by e-mail marketing is in the lead role. Maybe it’s an event. (And, yes, maybe it’s advertising.)

Related to all this is who owns the concept.

Who says the big idea has to start from the traditional creative team? (Or even from the creative team at all.) Instead, work to collapse your creative teams into a single team with a goal of uncovering the best ideas to solve the problem. The goal is developing a great core idea that meets the needs of each unique vehicle. Don’t just make this a one-off experiment -- institutionalize it. Force a behavioral change. While you’re at it, make sure there’s a free exchange between media and creative as part of this process. In interactive, the technology is changing so quickly that the next great-thing may be driven by a new interactive ad unit.

So, where do we go from here?

Our industry is showing the signs of a comeback after an incredibly rocky number of years. I’ve been through at least three major down business cycles in my career. Every time as the economic pendulum has swung toward recession; work has swung toward what critics call “hard-working” and away from “creative.” When optimism and budgets return, the industry quickly returns to the old ways of doing things. I think this down-cycle has been different. I think the smarter clients and creative companies have found new, more inventive channels to make a connection with customers. We should build off the integration and thinking that came during the lean times, moving ahead as idea people, not just ad people.

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The Lone Star state can be proud of Gay Gaddis. Over 10 years ago, She blew up her ad agency and gave birth to T3 (The Think Tank). Today Gay is the president and founder of a 120-person shop with dog-friendly offices in Austin and New York and a client list that includes Dell, JCPenney, Marriott, and Baker Botts.
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