Agencies should become warriors, not worriers

Collaboration and innovation are key to the UK advertising industry, which still has much to boast about.

Agencies should become warriors, not worriers

"Death or glory?" The Clash asked in 1979, probably well before most of today's adlanders were even born.

My brief was to speak at the Advertising Association conference on the impending "death or glory" scenarios for ad agencies.

Death by technology, regulation, silo and indifference, or glory through creativity, engagement, innovation and collaboration?

The death scenario

Death predictions for ad agencies aren't a new thing, sadly. Back in 1994, Rust and Oliver were already predicting our demise, when they said: "Advertising is on its deathbed and it will not survive long, having contracted a fatal case of new technology."

New media will kill traditional media and agencies, the doomsters say. In a world where 60 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, anyone can find an audience, a fan, a consumer. Anyone can make an ad.

Who needs ad agencies? Who needs expensive TV advertising?

Agencies are getting kicked in on price too, the Marketing Agencies Association says. On top of this, the agency market is fragmented, overcrowded and oversupplied, largely working independently to individual corporate agendas, rather than in tight formation as an industry collective.

Our industry leadership is overcrowded, serviced by way too many industry bodies, and we're probably all too silo-ed, ego-ed and chicken to sort all that out.

It means that our agency dialogue with each other, with the broader client and business community and with government is weakened to the point where advertising's contribution to society, culture and the economy is poorly understood (even to us) and barely articulated.

And if we don't have the industry economic arguments at our fingertips, that spells certain death.

Worse still, according to the AA's attitudes to advertising survey, public approval of advertising has fallen from 84% in 1961 to 29% in 2009, with 45% having no opinion at all.

And when public indifference is high and trust is low, the value of both advertising and agencies diminishes.

Our detractors accuse us of bombardment, intrusion, poor creative, treating the consumer as stupid and preying on vulnerable groups such as children, young women and the financially disadvantaged.

Worriers or warriors?

We could so easily get swept away as worriers in this tide of disapproval, duplication and diminishing crumbs. But the industry is made of far stronger stuff and it's in our nature to be warriors rather than worriers.

So if we are to defy the death scenario and strike out for glory, we need a single, persuasive narrative for the ad industry. We have to articulate the value of what we do.

And we have to advance in tight industry formation, on the front foot, well-led, well-equipped with the facts, and confident in and coherent about our contribution.

The glory scenario

We have a big and talented agency army of 300,000 people working in our industry, making us the second-largest employer in the UK creative industries, creating jobs at double the rate of the rest of the economy.

Agencies are great places to work and we are still attracting more than our fair share of the best talent.

We also have an array of great ammunition as an industry.

In spite of the economic turbulence around us, UK adspend is forecast to grow by 3.8% in 2012, according to Warc.

We have huge international clout. Although we're the 22nd global advertising market by population, we're the fifth-biggest market by adspend.

Likewise on creativity, where analysis of The Gunn Report awards by country from 1999 to date puts UK agencies in second place after the US and in first place when you index the top ten awarded countries over that same period on population.

On ad effectiveness, we have 30-plus years of the IPA Effectiveness Award-winners to prove our commercial contribution.

Specifically, we can also prove that creatively awarded campaigns are 12 times more efficient at increasing a brand's market share than nonawarded campaigns. All too frequently dismissed as "awards luvvies", agencies now have the empirical evidence of the commercial value of awarded work - vital ammunition in pushing advertising up the business agenda.

According to Nielsen, 61% of UK consumers already agree that advertising drives business growth and 68 per cent agree that it drives competition between companies, leading to better products and lower prices.

Advertising contributes £7.8bn directly to the UK economy, rising to £15.6bn when you include the services advertising uses. It is the second-biggest contributor to the UK creative industries, which account for 3% of the total UK economy.

Advertising exports £1.5bn of services, nearly 2% of all UK exports.

On top of this, advertising is a catalyst for the broader UK economy through £16bn of annual adspend, funding the content and delivery of online, TV, print, radio, film and mail services media, without which all would cost us a lot more, or disappear altogether.

We can legitimately sock it to ministers that advertising is at the heart of UK plc.

Furthermore, our government work is among the most effective advertising we have done in recent years, saving lives and money and so, surely, the ultimate expression of glory over death.

The battle plan

Our mantra is by no means one of "Keep calm and carry on". Our industry focus has to be to collaborate and to innovate.

"Collaborate," Benjamin Franklin said in 1776. "We must all hang together or assuredly we shall hang separately." And it's the same front-foot necessity for ad agencies in 2012, when the new media landscape requires us to build more inclusive systems, partnerships, alliances and campaigns that work for and with people.

Collaboration takes more time, requires us to park our silos and egos, and focus on fast, inclusive creative delivery, both as an industry and within our own agencies. Where we collaborate well, it really shows.

The best agencies are encouraging their clients to do new, brave things.

The best clients are encouraging us to innovate fearlessly, on a scale where failure is survivable and you can learn from mistakes without getting sacked for them, and where creative success leads to approval, commercial results and glory.

Death or glory?

The death wish for the agency industry will only become real if we fragment, devalue, duplicate, produce indifferent or irresponsible work, or if we resolutely stagnate in our silos.

We need to sort out and simplify our industry leadership to deliver a single, sharpened narrative for the advertising business, clear about and confident in our vital contribution to UK plc.

Our road to glory requires us to be warriors, not worriers. To focus resolutely on delivering world-leading creativity.

To embrace the growth opportunities this amazing year will bring. To harness the talent and the powerful technology that enable us to target, engage and measure our work more creatively and more effectively.

It has never been more exciting to work in agencies with all this at our disposal. Let's pull together as an industry and go all out for glory.

Cilla Snowball is the group chairman and chief executive at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.