Times are changing, but creativity stillrules OK

It is remarkable that an industry as navel-gazing as this one should find one of its proponents proclaiming that "advertising agencies seem unable to make the case for advertising".

But if you read Massimo Costa's comments on page 17 this week, there's a real sense of an industry in identity crisis. Costa says "agencies are falling over themselves to tick all the boxes of digital, direct and interactive marketing, PR and so on". And he reckons that advertising ideas - the stuff that actually puts the butter on the bread and keeps the bean counters in New York quiet for another quarter - is offered almost apologetically.

Now this might sound like a bit of posturing for the sake of a punchy opinion piece, but it's actually something quite tangible when you sit through as many agency presentations and chief executive lunches as we do here at Campaign. In an effort to not appear silo-ed, old-fashioned and one-dimensional, most agencies trip over themselves to push all the fashionable buttons; and, yes, I'd probably be one of the first to point the (written) finger if an agency failed to embrace the new digital, media-fragmented realities somewhere in its approach.

But Costa is right: too many agencies fight shy of positioning themselves as fundamentally a centre of great advertising. As he points out, there's a lurking worry that advertising is no longer a viable standalone business activity and, as a result, more and more agencies are trying to diversify their businesses into new areas of the marketing process that they are as yet/fundamentally ill-equipped to serve. And in doing so, they are in danger of taking their eye off the main ball: delivering the brilliant brand advertising ideas that create the bedrock for a brand's gamut of communications.

Of course, ad agencies are powerhouses of brilliant ideas and to confine those ideas simply to advertising executions is to squander their immense creative resource. But getting the balance right between sticking to the ad knitting and recognising that mainstream advertising is no longer necessarily easily achievable, efficient nor desirable is the real challenge. Quite what the modern advertising agency should be about is open to question and in the search for an answer the advertising industry is collectively flailing.

But that's what makes the ad business an exciting place to be. Yes, there may be fewer pitches, yes, clients' budgets might be tight, yes, internal cost-pressures might be crippling, but the industry is at a point of change and that's both challenging and enervating. Even reading through this week's issue of Campaign, it's clear quite how fast things are moving, from Omnicom's launch of a mobile marketing specialist to Google's deal with MySpace, ITV's search for a digital roster to help revive its fortunes, and how online consumer comments are redrawing the rules of brand marketing. And, thank God, agencies are still making brilliant brand advertising ("Sony Bravia didn't become famous through MySpace," as John O'Keeffe says on page 15).

I think David Bain's response to Costa's comments sums it up perfectly : "It's about offering clients something new and startling for them to say 'yes' to." That might not make the case for advertising per se, but it sure makes the case for advertising agencies.

My comments on the Evening Standard last week certainly hit home. The newspaper returned fire in a cheeky piece in its Londoners' Diary. What sport. Clearly the Standard is rattled and it's not hard to see why. Last week, it posted a 19 per cent decline in sales year on year. Personally, I would love London to have a strong, confident newspaper with all the quality you'd expect from a paid-for title. Can the Standard rise to the challenge? It's going to be fascinating to track the fortunes of the London papers over the next few months. Watch this space.

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