Joy and the promise of a brighter future
Before I spend my allotted word count on spewing invective and moaning about X or Y, let me pause for a second to tell you how excited I am about the state of the communications industry right now.
I believe we’re primed for another creative renaissance – a fertile period of unparalleled excellence bolstered by a generation of talent inspired by possibility, armed with a new set of tools and with fresh stories to tell.
The fear-mongering and pant-shitting and nervous faces quivering with concern have given way to a renewed sense of energy, optimism and hope.
Change is in the air and I, for one, couldn’t be happier. Take a whiff. If what you smell is your own farts, step out of your hermetically sealed echo chamber and breathe in the glory of tomorrow.
Reasons to be cheerful (with apologies to Ian Dury):
1. Most agency heads seem to be up for trying something new, interesting and different. Whether this is because of changing attitudes or a changeover in leadership, I’m having fewer conversations with shrugging chief executives who are searching for a plan.
2. Diversity initiatives are real – they’re not going away and they’re remaking the shape of agencies and the work they produce. We’re standing at the precipice of systemic change and, with a little effort, the momentum will continue.
3. People are starting to grow tired of campaigns that put acts of social good at the heart of their messaging. These cynical attempts to win awards are becoming more prevalent so it’s becoming harder to manipulate the emotions of jurors. When every brand is appearing to do good in the world or educate its audience through heavy-handed messaging, the end can’t be far.
So if change is afoot and everything is about to get amazing, we have nothing to worry about, right?
Spewing invective and moaning about X or Y
The biggest impediment to progress in the communications industry right now is semiotics. Image and appearance is our bread and butter. We are experts at creating shiny veneers on behalf of brands. But when we start to apply the same tactics to how we run our businesses, problems arise. All too often we are overly concerned with appearing to be doing the right thing, rather than actually doing the right thing. To create meaningful change, the change cannot be totemic.
This is how we do it (with apologies to Montell Jordan):
1. If we collectively acknowledge that there is no new agency model to be established and that the future is unknown, we can refocus our efforts on important shit like ideas. And craft. Please let’s just stop talking about format. The delivery mechanism of your communications is rarely ever as important as the work itself.
I get it. The best ads don’t even look like ads any more. Blah blah blah. Shut the fuck up and make one, then. Stop worrying about doing something different and start worrying about doing something great.
Dream irresponsibly. And if the walls of the agency can’t hold the size of your dreams, there will be someone out there to help you produce them. The biggest mistake a shop can make is to try to do everything. If you’re overly reliant on what services you offer in-house, your output will be limited by your own capabilities. Some of the most interesting work being produced right now is the stuff that stretches beyond the limits of control. Partnerships and collaborations are key.
2. An agency with a diversity agenda is a wonderful thing. But it’s just a start.
While it’s an initiative born of goodwill, all too often it’s a benign gesture that stops short of actual institutional change. It’s not enough to just hire people who look different. You have to alter your own bad habits. Brave work demands tension. By taking the time to educate diverse young talent – to invest in their professional development and learn what unique perspectives they have to offer – your agency’s output will get better. More surprising. And, as a bonus, you’ll be nurturing a new generation of leaders who can reshape the industry’s future. Make what we do relevant again.
3. Let’s agree a second premise: all too often we facilitate demonstrative acts of goodwill on behalf of brands so they can feel better about themselves and we can line our shelves with awards. If we’re actually trying to help our clients evidence progressivism and a desire to make a difference, we can learn a lot from Hollywood. The entertainment industry is flourishing with an incredible array of new material by a diverse community of voices.
Atlanta. Lady Bird. Black Panther. Girls’ Night. The Big Sick. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. The Last Unicorn. American Horror Story. If brands want to instigate change, they can give people from diverse backgrounds the tools to share their experiences in the most creative ways possible.
The potential for positive change is upon us. But intent is nothing without action.
We are at a point of rebirth in the life cycle of our industry. The old guard giving way to the new.
Done right, we could be looking at a return to genuine creativity in a variety of unexplored formats from a diverse chorus of young new voices. And the only thing any of them will have to worry about is one day being replaced by the next wave of change agents.
Because every generation has to deal with its own inevitable irrelevance.
So it goes (with apologies to Kurt Vonnegut).
Reluctance to accept a future that doesn’t belong to you
Interior: retro, shared workspace/coffee bar. June 2048. Day.
Two advertising creatives in their early fifties, Sarah and Dipesh, sit in a work pod sipping hemp milk flat whites and intermittently taking draws from their vape pens.
DIPESH: I think we should go freelance.
SARAH: I’m not so sure…
D: I don’t want to care as much as I do any more. We care way too much and what does it get us?
S: Clients don’t want ideas with impact any more.
D: They’re only interested in work that reduces data space.
S: You know Miranda took us off the Tesla Mars Colony brief? Said she was tired of seeing physical and digital concepts. She only wants campaigns that can be transmitted through osmosis.
D: So who’d she put on it?
S: She gave the brief to Janelle and Kieran 7.0.
D: This is bullshit. Why didn’t you tell me?
S: Because I needed five minutes without your bitching and complaining about the state of the industry.
D: Quiet – here they come.
Janelle and Kieran 7.0 enter the room. Janelle is in her early twenties, Kieran is a hologram of a young man, similarly aged.
KIERAN 7.0: Hey guys. What’s happening?
DIPESH: We were just mourning the death of experiential advertising.
SARAH: Those were the days…
JANELLE: You guys were the best at matter-based communication. I’ve seen all your case studies.
S: Thank you.
K: Of course, most of the creative work we’ve been making lately can be integrated into your consciousness through your cerebellum so…
D: (under his breath) Fucking AI-powered hologram.
K: What did you call me?
S: Dipesh, don’t be species-ist.
K: My algorithm is based on a real person, who has made a conscious decision not to take on a corporeal form in an effort to better the planet. That doesn’t make me any less than you.
J: Come on Kieran. Let’s leave these two senior creatives. We’ve got a Tesla brief to crack.
Janelle and Kieran 7.0 leave. Sarah opens her Moleskine touchscreen and starts to sketch.
DIPESH: Unconscious assimilation-based advertising is just a fad. Consumers are going to start interacting with physical objects again.
SARAH: And I’ve got a whole bottom drawer full of product innovations for when they do.