Taking a shortcut is no way to get ahead in the advertising business
A view from Russell Davies

Taking a shortcut is no way to get ahead in the advertising business

The ad business loves business process novelty. New management techniques very quickly get sucked into the advertising maw and regurgitated as thin slices of PowerPoint manifesto. Differentiation, new news and a shiny new press release all off the back of an article in Fast Company. Fantastic.

I remember seeing this happen to ethnography. Planners and researchers, always looking for new insights into the same old markets, seized on ethnography as a tool a few years ago and delivered quite a few useful and revelatory insights. Quickly, though, it became clear that actual ethnography was slow and expensive. Not a problem for us, of course – we just invented a whole new version of ethnography unencumbered by conventional protocols or rigour.

So now there are two schools of ethnography – one means spending a long time getting to understand a particular community in depth, the other involves visiting someone in Reading and photographing their fridge. We’ve turned ethnography from a social science to a commercial tool. That’s not valueless, not at all, but it short-changes practitioners of both schools to pretend they’re the same thing.

There are two schools of ethnography. One involves visiting someone in Reading and photographing their fridge

And I bet we’re about to do the same thing with "Agile". Agile is a set of venerable (more than ten years old!) software development techniques. And it’s a set of project management ideas and protocols. There are manifestos, tools, variants and certification. There is a useful and distinguished body of knowledge – hard-won lessons about prioritisation and prototyping and group responsibility and iteration. It does not just mean being a bit quicker and flexible and doing some research online.

I know I’m being a bit picky here but, having worked a lot with Agile (and Scrum), I’m convinced it has a massive amount to teach creative businesses. But if we only pay it lip service, we’ll never see that benefit. Dig into it properly – find a software or web business that does it well and find out what they do. Go and see it in operation before you stick it on your website. You might find doing Agile is better than being agile.

Russell Davies is a creative director at Government Digital Service