"He not busy being born is busy dying" (Bob Dylan).
Strange as it may seem in the midst of tough times, could it be that we are, in fact, witnessing the birth of a new golden age for our industry? An era when we too chose not to be stuck in an old story but opened up the new story of the future?
Now, golden ages are usually only retrospectively recognised. But there's enough evidence around us now to see that we, in creative agencies, are indeed witnessing a golden era of great emancipation (dictionary definition of emancipate: to release from control or restraint, to be less bound by social conventions or intellectual prejudice). Those who grasp this will do great things. Be proud of your past but don't live in it.
Here are some of the signs we have witnessed in just the past year:
We have created (almost) unmediated access to consumers and their communities. This was impossible before the past few years and became accelerated in 2010. Thanks to a post-analogue environment and some helpful tools from iPhone, Twitter, Facebook and Google, among others, brands can now interact directly with consumers, create participation and leverage consumer networks with speed and little impediment.
This is mind-blowing. It makes the old model, the old revenues and the old linearity seem, well, old. It means the best ideas can literally come from anywhere (24 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute) and ideas move free and far, untethered by a media buying schedule.
The new reality is that a campaign ends when people stop talking about it, not when a brand owner designates it. In a word-of-mouth world, our ideas create the gold dust that is word-ofmouth recommendation along the lines of: "I tell my friends about your brand not because I like your brand but because I like my friends." People upload their experience of a product or service even after they have consumed it, so that the purchase moment is no longer the end of the marketing cycle. Conversations run continuously, and as The Economist ad observed: "On the edge of a conversation. One of the loneliest places on earth."
Creative means connected
Creative agencies have not withered and died in the face of the pure-play but have successfully absorbed new competencies and immersed them into the core. The best creative agencies operate across the breadth and depth of the communication offering and remain strategically connected to the step-change agenda of their clients' businesses.
This may mean multiple work streams, multiple skillsets, multiple perspectives, but one guiding belief in the exponential power of a good idea.
There is a whole new universe for brands to inhabit.People are now willing to spend just as much time with brands as they previously did with entertainment providers or community members. If the content is right, people are willing to spend hours and hours engaging with it. People accept the value exchange and are largely comfortable with it. However, this means we need to display far more insight into the context and behaviour of consumer networks, what they're thinking and doing rather than to perfect an overly introspective understanding of the brand in an ivory tower.
Once upon a time, we amplified benefits. Now we create engagement by developing ideas that are personally relevant, have transparent value and are entertaining. The commercial benefits follow. So, I've tried to distil this into a few tips for the year ahead:
Build bonfires and firework displays
John V Willshire's brilliant analogy perfectly captures the emerging communications environment. We need to invest in communities and give them things to fuel the conversation (bonfires and fireworks). It's not one or the other, it's both. It means you need some new people with a new mentality and some new systems to accommodate a new workflow.
Free the entrepreneurial hostages from the organisational prison
Inspire people to get excited and make things. Fund sparky initiatives quickly and effectively. If we want to create open and dynamic engagement platforms for brands, we need fewer rigid structures inside our agencies. Process-light, people-centered systems are vital. This way, we can move fluidly rather than hold on too tightly to the old command and control way of getting things done with fixed and intractable cost structures. New revenue streams are opening up even as old ones are diminishing.
Culture beats strategy every time
What you believe as a company defines the culture of your business. Have confidence in who you are as a business or have the boldness to change it, recognising that cultures are built over time and generations, not overnight. Our business is created by daily interactions our people have with our clients, our suppliers and our partners. An empowering culture means these interactions always go in the right direction (and suck up less supervision time from the leaders of your business as cultures are self-correcting). Culture can delight and surprise you or kill you. But work out what it is and what you can do with it before you even begin to consider what strategy to adopt. Make time to harness and reward the cultural standard bearers, whoever they are, inside your agency.
Collaboration is the new integration
I really enjoyed meeting a West Coast agency called 72 & Sunny recently on a new client assignment. People coming together with the right chemistry make good things happen. New partnerships, alliances and joint ventures will prove to us how quickly one plus one equals three, if you get it right.
Inside the agency, I enjoyed a recent meeting where TV producers doubled up with digital producers to illustrate a shared agenda and everyone left the party with a balloon. Can't resist including the motto of Arsenal here: "Victoria Concordia Crescit" - Victory through harmony.
Put 'play' back into the workplace
At every level and in every department, we do our best stuff when we bring play to our work, which, let's face it, is an essential ingredient in the creation of that elusive thing called the big idea. Play is infectious. Its value as a bonding mechanism for everybody involved is incalculable.
So, whether you're a boutique startup or an established player, I think we creative agencies are united by a big challenge. We can enter the new era with a wonderful sense of optimism and opportunity because, make no mistake, we're busy being born.
It takes courage to be born. But as Nelson Mandela once said: "Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it."
Farah Ramzan Golant is the executive chairman of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.