If you scan the media pages of any newspaper or industry magazine, you could come to the very swift conclusion that something called an advertising agency is in the final paroxysms of a long, drawn-out death, a victim of the headlong sprint of technological and media progress.
A combination of digital technology, new and fragmented media options, a lack of faith in the effectiveness of conventional marketing and the confusing array of new opportunities offered up to advertisers have somehow conspired to make the very term ad agency seem old-fashioned.
Is it true? Is advertising, or what we thought it was, dead? Or is its demise just the panicked screams of people within it who can't, or won't, change?
There is, without doubt, a very real revolution taking place that is bringing into question the economics, the structure and the effectiveness of ... let us call it Old Advertising.
In an ideal world, the digital revolution will take place and everything will settle back into some kind of new order where everyone in the business knows what their job is, what place they occupy in the scheme of things and what their core expertise is.
But this is not going to happen. The nature of this revolution is akin to the Chinese idea in the 60s of continuous change as a mechanism for resisting complacency and revisionism. Change will continue, mainly owing to the fact that technology is not done with us yet.
This could mean that the days when advertisers knew exactly where to go for help with their communications are over, a situation that affects just about every part of the Old Advertising mix. Indeed, one of the more unsettling factors of what is happening is that there are no established or recognisable parameters of expertise and, in the current turbulence, everyone seems to be straying in to everyone else's territory.
Brand consultancies tip up with ad campaigns and PR stunts. Research companies "recommend" wholesale changes to communications, as though sound analysis naturally begets brilliant creativity. Media companies come to the table looking for agreement to creative platforms, implying that they could execute them (which, by the way, they never could. I mean, what self-respecting creative person would ever work at a media company? "Ooh, wow. A big media company just called. It needs a creative director and wants to see me." I don't think so).
One below-the-line company even had the temerity to take one of our big ideas and come back with an answer to the brief that included a TV solution. It thought nothing of it.
This opportunistic parking of tanks on other people's lawns is, of course, only to be expected. Change nearly always creates angles for chancers and, let's face it, the world of communications has always attracted more than its fair share of people who are, let's say, light on their feet.
Then again, it is possible that the blurring of the old lines of expertise was bound to happen anyway, with or without the digital revolution, and that it is a good thing. After all, advertising is one of the last bastions of the closed-shop approach to business. So maybe some tired old practices can at last be put in the shredder.
First to go in is Old Advertising's cult of the prima donna creative: anathema to the genuinely talented, as the histrionics were usually in inverse proportion to the genius on display.
Idea generation has now been democratised, and why not?
Given the haphazard way most individuals enter the communications industry, who is to say who is creative and who is not? My point is that New Advertising has opened up the creative supply lines. Many of the creative voices stifled under Old Advertising regimes are now finding outlets in all manner of new-media start-ups. Which is all well and good. After all, the ability to analyse and conceptualise intuitively should never have been a restricted practice. The only criterion should be: is the idea great? Has it learned from research, understood the constraints of the budget, tailored itself to the geography of the brand? Is it wide and deep enough to stretch to all the places technology can place a message these days?
These comments could as well apply to a campaign restricted to text messaging as to a global event idea for a launch; to a 30-second TV spot as to a promotion. The medium should never govern whether an idea is great or not; and, for the record, it never did.
Great advertising people rarely made their mark by reserving their ideas for one medium. Although they might have chosen to specialise or preferred one medium over another, it did not mean they were not capable of having ideas that could stretch to all areas of a marketing programme. The late John Webster believed the best test of an idea was a 30-second TV ad. It did not stop him creating characters and books for the brands he worked on - the kind of properties that everyone ascribes so enthusiastically to New Advertising.
So if everyone is a creative now, how does a client or the managing director of an agency decide who to listen to? Who will guide them as they survey the unfamiliar landscape of new media and changing consumer engagement habits? Who will have the vision to see where a brand should and should not be seen? How it should speak when it gets there? What it should look like, particularly when it is reduced to a mobile phone screen?
The skills - and, to a certain extent, the ego to carry these intellectual and creative "burdens" with confidence - are not, I would suggest, to be found in brand consultancies, media companies or research companies.
They do not execute. So, in the end, the best they can do is theorise about creativity.
The mainly intuitive nature that can turn a brand vision into a brand-changing execution is rarer than is commonly appreciated. Indeed, the lack of knowledge about what makes a genuinely good creative person has given rise to any number of charlatans who have led agency managements and clients wildly astray.
The truly gifted (and I would contend that skill in mass communications is a gift, not something you acquire) are now more in demand than ever before. And guess what? Many of them live in Old Advertising companies.
So what exactly is the exciting new role for the New Creative? First, let us be clear about the difference between the Old and the New.
The former is stuck in the glorious past: mildly Luddite in disposition, diffident, protective and suspicious; someone who views KanYe West as an assault on their refined sensibilities, which, of course, have become attuned to the finer things which advertising salaries can buy with ease: old sports cars (done up meticulously), antiques, Tuscan villas etc.
The New Creative could not be more different. Open-minded, articulate, inspired by every gizmo; someone who would happily sign up for Richard Branson's loopy Moon trip; and, importantly, someone who wants to share their enthusiasm for the brave new world with clients.
Their interest in brands derives from being born into a time when business, normally the domain of rather dull, grey men, became mainstream and sexy.
Their instincts about communication come from being participants in it, rather than its hapless victims. Video gaming probably started it; now any form of technological expression is grabbed, reshaped and represented on behalf of a brand in the name of pop culture's penchant for reconstruction.
New Creative people are the front-runners in the entrepreneurial game everyone plays nowadays. Aren't we all just one web-based idea away from raking it in, like those Google boys?
So they spend their days sharpening their gift for communications on other people's businesses, believing, rightly or wrongly, that it is good training for their own day in the sun. All of this is good for New Advertising.
But there are other forces at work. Ad agencies have traditionally been used to leading any discussion about communication - it was the house speciality, after all. Account man holds hand, planner explains, media guy spends, creative hotshot sells the endline that sums it all up in three alliterative, hum-able words. It still happens. But the rapt client, chin on the table in awe of the collective intellects arraigned on behalf of his under-performing brand, is no longer there.
Clients, for the first time ever, are ahead of agencies in their understanding and use of new communication tools, and in their curiosity about the new opportunities offered by digital technology. Unlike their agencies, which can take their time unlearning, clients have to be up to scratch with any new tool that can inch them ahead of a rapacious competitor. Can you imagine any brand director not knowing the answer to an enquiry from the chief executive's office about a hot new digital initiative by a competitor?
So the harsh reality is that while agencies can try to busk it, clients cannot. That drives them into the arms of anyone who purports to be able to deploy digital technology on behalf of their brand. And that is unlikely to be an advertising agency.
So advertising must change. But that does not mean all the people in it are wrong-headed or redundant. In fact, inside those companies categorised as advertising agencies are many, many people with skills you will not find in any other company.
Yes, many need to readjust their horizons. Yes, the ones who cannot will fall by the wayside. But the nature of any revolution requires leaders, people who can see the future, are not scared by it, who believe they can shape it. In the ad revolution, those people are the New Creatives.
And, as befits a creative industry, they are not only found in creative departments.
There is another reason why these New Creatives are the people who clients will let guide them through the revolutionary rubble. Nowadays, clients simply refuse to pay for anyone who does not add value. Rather than accept the pyramid of account people and planners that customarily follows the winning of a piece of business, clients often hand-pick the team that exactly matches their business.
In Old Advertising, it was: "I don't like Jamie the account director." In New Advertising, it is: "I'm not paying for Jamie." In a recent meeting, one senior prospective client exclaimed: "I don't want anyone in the room who isn't creative." In other words, if you want that spotty, silent thing at the end of the table in the room, fine. But don't expect me to pay for him.
Tough, but the manifestation of a frustration about fees that has built up for years and that is now finding a more determined voice because, in the new environment, new models and ways of working (and ways of saving money) are on every client's agenda.
So the model may be changing. But the person who is least affected by these changes and is probably more valuable than ever is the New Creative - the one person in the room capable of coming up with an idea that can actually help the client.
Another compelling reason why the New Creative is so important to clients is their instinctive grasp of media. Having turned what used to be a skill involving bravery, nuance and economic subtlety into a commodity an O' Level maths student could master, media buying agencies are now trying to marshal their knowledge of new media and make coherent plans out of it. With some difficulty.
If numbers rule, then it is difficult to make those numbers stretch to the myriad of new-media opportunities and still claim total effectiveness.
Numbers do not tell you to do something dramatic, something category- changing. A New Creative can and will, given half a chance. They, and whoever rides with them, can see how an idea, a medium and a budget can bring a brand back from the dead, or at least breathe new life into it.
It is one of the reasons why a debate is raging in the US about bringing media back into agencies. Of course it should come back, in a new form: who wants to go back to oceans of number crunchers? While media options continue to mushroom, why would you want someone across town, having no part in the creative process, punching out plans when they should be sitting in a room hatching media ideas that do justice to the campaign theme?
As in all revolutions, the people who will survive are the people who are most willing to adapt. And all the old stalwarts of the advertising industry - stewardship, long-term relationships, brand guardianship, consumer representation - are, rightly or wrongly, being dispensed with. Ideas and the people who provide them are the only things clients want, or will pay for.
In the digital revolution, the New Creative is the one at the front of the crowd. Only it is not a flag he is waving - it is just his hand, with an electronic device implanted in it.
- Tim Delaney is the chairman of Leagas Delaney.