Ad agencies and their new ‘competition’

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The advertising industry had it relatively easy for many decades when media clutter was nowhere near what it is today. The media choices were limited and commercial messaging did not try too hard to be clutter breaking. Ads which were pretty direct & straightforward (‘Surf washes whitest!’) were the norm, as they did not have to fight for the consumer’s attention. In an article originally published in 2013, HubSpot said that it took us nearly 400 years to emerge from a print-dominated media landscape, and 48 more years to emerge from period of pre-digital platforms such as TV and radio. However it took just 22 years for the next level of accelerated proliferation.

Since 2012, the media landscape has become even more complicated and cluttered. It is not just the proliferation of online properties but the emergence of new platforms and avenues aided by technology that makes the change fascinating and…scary. Traditional advertising folks approached the web as they’d approach a billboard as the advertising format was a ‘banner’. Subsequent digital evolutions including native mobile apps were treated the same way, through placement of banners – typically print ads reduced in size. Even with Facebook ads the format did not change for a long time.

In my view, the trigger for complete overhaul in thinking and forced change was Vine and its format of 6-second videos. While Vine disappeared it could be seen as the pre-cursor to today’s TikTok and Instagram videos.

Even before the advent of digital platforms and online advertising, the best of advertising creatives believed that the commercial messages must be as good as, if not better than the environment in which they are seen. If a viewer is watching a hilarious sitcom or an engaging movie, what follows in the commercial break should be compelling too.

What is different now is that what is compelling, creative and viral content is not made by fellow creative professionals (like in network studios or streaming services) but by rank amateurs using their smartphones and creativity. A lovely tweet thread by @ramkid captured it well.

An example of creativity which is all around us is this:

However, what is important to note is that while above examples are unbridled creativity, ad agencies have a business and strategic angle to their creativity. A lot of the youngsters who are familiar with new media tools, Instagram stories and YouTube videos may not have had the training to think strategically on brand building. On the other hand those with experience in brand building, positioning and investing in strategically sound creative ideas may feel out of depth with these ‘amateurish’ but lightning fast turnaround creatives.

Ad agencies seem to prefer hiring ‘digital natives’ to produce such creatives. Their competition is not just other network agencies but many freelancers, boutique digital and social media agencies. Not all of them will have a sound business-oriented leader who also understands the nuances of technology & new media to guide them and provide direction. In a way, that shows in how many brands are advised to join the bandwagon of social media hashtag trends, TikTok videos, long-format web films on festivals and moment marketing. I am not suggesting that brands should stay away from such but explore such opportunities only if relevant to the brand and if the creative is simply adding to the noise. Because a youngster somewhere is already creating his next likely viral hit with just his smartphone.

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