Sunday 19 October 2008

Charlie's Angle - Not made for TV

I've been pussyfooting around what I think, the future agency model should look like, and I may have failed quite badly by alluding to things rather than getting to the point. I was trying to suggest that the future agency (in some way) was likely to have some sort of Black Swan meets transmedia planning as a fundamental approach to work, although I never really explained in simple terms how things would tick, and then I saw that Adrants wrote that Wendy's used the inefficacy of an ad to explain what I wanted to say, and so I thought it best to be brutally simple given that I haven't seen enough to support the article's main assertion and more importantly the one I wish to emphatically make.

These are fast moving times and so it's even more important to be professionally radical, given there are fewer chances as the money dries up, to do what ad agencies excel at under the right conditions: kick ass commercial messages, produced to the highest level with flawless scripting (something the US market leaves the UK in the dust for), micro second timing and creative touches that often are more emotive than the creative idea. I think the days of doing an expensive TV commercial as the shop window output of the agency, or ground-to-air communication missile for clients are numbered. There will always be room for this kind of work. A smarter agency-client relationship will coalesce that it's a lot more effective to deliver more frequently and more experimentally, then execute in Lo-Fidelity, responding lightening quick and making use of contextual dynamics such as what was on the news an hour beforehand. That's just for starters.

Easier said than done, as to embrace this communication ideology means making and accepting lots more mistakes, yes more inexpensively but creatively (statistically speaking) doing more surprising and successful work that is, by the potential of its breadth, much more internet sticky. It makes a lot of sense to do 20 to 50 different types of communication pieces for a brand knowing that one or more is destined to be a Black Swan viral than to do a one-off that is by any historical assessment likely to be a well-polished and quickly forgotten museum piece. Sure there will be times when it's not smart to use this route. But in principle, if a polished but unmemorable piece of work is the category modus operandi, then more variations (and predictably forgettable failure) make sense in much the same way that say the author of The Black Swan (Yes I know, his pecker is rarely removed from my chops these days) Naseem Nicolas Taleb espouses spreading risk over 50 biotech stocks rather than one blue chip as an investment strategy providing worthwhile returns.

We can see in the prevailing global financial topography, that mediocristan is not so safe or smart is now self evident. Actually it's dangerous but nobody took an economy down by doing mediocristan advertising to my knowledge. Or maybe just by beating any creative or intellectual pulses into submission we extinguished the likelihood of respect from our customers.

If we start to reorganise agencies around the idea that experimentation and failure make for much more interesting and effective work, as well as marrying the successes into transmedia execution -- or part of it -- I think a more robust case is made for spending marketing budgets today by deploying more unprecedented attempts at risky but rewarding ideas than are currently being implemented. There you have it. 50 scripts, Lo-Fi execution, one or more hits that get passed around, and a model that doesn't bank on the bazooka approach but takes a good idea and lets other media play around with it as Faris would espouse. I would love to know if any people disagree with this. There are lots of gaps that need filling but surely the status quo of risk aversion and forgettable TV commercials is a scandalous waste of money. Particularly in these belt tightening times.

Let me say that again. Most shit is scandalously shit and furthermore it isn't hard to figure out why it was so easy to get away with in the past. That media context is changing so fast I can't see many modern marketing/advertising types surviving a brutal employment cull. My only hesitation is that as the volume of output increases with the model I'm proposing, the attention intervention, isn't necessarily deserved. It's likely though that the old frequency metrics which shaped 'campaign' efficacy are nowhere near the levels I'm thinking of for Transmedia meets Black Swan. Even the best virals I've watched only a handful of times. Naturally this idea will piss off a lot of creatives, and scare the crap out of agencies and clients who have built whole careers on risk aversion, but there's a shed load of opportunities too, if any are suspicious of what ostensibly looks like random shot blast for marketing communications. It isn't. It's about playing.

I make no claim for coming up with something new. Just being a bit culturally recombinant about existing ideas and knowing how the system worked in the past. Those days are numbered.


  1. 50 scripts, lo-fi execution delivering one or more hits sounds terrifyingly like the music biz model of flinging singles against a wall and seeing which sticks. Surely you can't be suggesting that it's simply the job of an agency to produce stuff and leave all forms of qualitative judgement to the audience?
    You've got to hope that at least a part of the agency's remit is to provide some element of quality control, otherwise it's just quantity and who's got the biggest supply of wonks to simply crank it out and f**k knows there's more than enough quantity out there already that's bad enough to stop me ever wanting any more.
    Maybe it could work if the judging of the work was internal, but you've got to believe that the entire point of an agency as an entity is that it has an opinion and a creative spirit that allows it to create kick ass commercial messages that it believes will actually work for its clients. Otherwise why should the client trust them? They might as well go to a cut price chop shop and get 3 for the price of one. Ultimately if it's simply about quantity then creativity is obsolete and valueless that would be a sad situation indeed.

  2. Yo dude... brilliant article as always.

    Love the tying of Black Swan into the agency approach/relationship of the future.

    Mike Arauz was talking about Transmedia the other day and was bringin up how everyone seems to forget the role of Recombinant in transmedia.

    Know any creative people with a polished beautiful final product that want to actively support people to hack, mash and spin it? Now add in that most people like to do this and turn the ads back on themselves...

    Yet this is critical as well. Low-fi, many executions and then to work to enable and support people to craft their own messages on top of, inside of, around, or to rip it to shreds...

    If people weren't scared enough by your article... ;)

  3. Sam. I'm on a mobile so more quality later. I am definitely not saying throw enough mud. I am saying the idea of not having the Olympics/World Cup because most participants lose is preposterous. The patronising dung that makes the grade right now also does frequency like a pavlovian puppy on a crack pipe. My suggestion is more varied, interesting, authentic and is not about eradicating polished missiles. Transmedia is generous not binding. Let me return. This N95 sucks for comments :(

  4. Yo Chief. Big thanks for seeing a possibility. Will be back very soon to chip in. Quality celebrations to you for this top day :)

  5. The king is dead, long live the king! Really great post, and bang on the money.

  6. Word Mr Frith. Lovin' this. Finally we get to talk about the fact, known to all, that the emperor is naked.

    We don't know in advance what is going to work. The world is complex and uncertain. Always it has been so!

    This got me thinking a)about what is required to create an environment where Safe-Fail is the order of the day (rather than Fail-Safe). Dave Snowden has a bit to say on this here (different context but same principle).

    And b) on the nature of the client/agency relationship under these conditions.

    More thinking to do here.

  7. I'm not going to write much because I'll just reduce your brilliance to drivel - but you know how much I agree with you on a lot of this - so now it's time to make it happen rather than talk about it.

    Come on, you're ready and even if adland isn't, society is ...

  8. i've not the brain space to digest this properly (or your two other awesome posts), so i've marked 'em new in my reader for when i'm not stupidly busy. however, wanted to let you know that it's great to have you writing again..

  9. But won't it only happen if the client mentality changes? And sadly when the going gets tough, the flight to playing it safe increases. It's not the agency model that needs to change, it's on their paymasters that we have to focus.

  10. 3 things:

    1. this is a lightweight contribution to a heavyweight topic, so look at it as some extra ketchup to dip your fries in.

    2. I wrote a quick thingy about a high-frequency, lo-fi approach that you might find an interesting reference:

    3. I see a paradox in these conversations. (I think) your proposal is by its nature non-linear, complex, malleable and undefined - so when we try to button it down into a manageable thing we kill it. Isn't the point that if it could be distilled into a single formula then it would stop being what it is?

    Like Lauren, I need to re-read. I may return with mustard later.

  11. Hi John. It's our duty to impress upon our clients that we absolutely must bring our value set to the table or we perpetuate the mediocrity. Bigger fucking balls. Purge those who master self survival but not client survival. Resign accounts that are only about P&L as soon as possible. OK :)

  12. Mr Dodds - I think putting this all back on the client is missing the point a little. It's the nature of the relationship that needs to change. Shifting this requires agencies (and consultants) to question what they're doing to keep the current dynamics in place as well... what is the pay off for us in things remaining the same? (There probably a post required on that subject alone!)

    Bigger balls may well be (part of) the answer because if a relationship is going to change, someone has to take a risk shift it.

    And the feeling isn't comfortable, it risks rejection and ridicule... ask anyone who has proposed to their significant other.

  13. Absolutely awesome, Charles. I have been chewing over this for days ;)

    I agree with John. Clients are the challenge -- though the tough economy may provide a small window of opportunity. I have a feeling that we may need to embark on some serious business change programs before the client side are ready (or able) to comprehend what this means. Of course, Google may just step in and make the rest of us irrelevant ;)

  14. Food for thought indeed.I've been playing with the Black Swan idea in my head ever since I started reading it thanks to you.

    I like the thought of churning out multiple ideas in the quest of that brilliant one. But as Sam King said above, there should be some quality control. Agencies do need to revamp themselves, and most are scared to, without doubt, even if they don't say it themselves. What this industry needs now is bright, sparking ideas. Innovation. Mess. Chaos. The staid rules of planning from long ago no longer apply. Its up to the agency to convince the client. Out of 25, 5 may be ideas worth putting into action. And out of those, 2 are almost sure-fire hits. Better than 1 piece of crap for sure.

    I'll wait to see how you expand on this idea in the coming months/weeks.

  15. I was reading the wonderful tome on Sketching User Experience by Bill Buxton and I believe he referenced a poignant story I had often heard but pretty much forgotten.

    The story was about a ceramics professor who allegedly divided his advanced class into two groups at the beginning of the term. One was to be graded SOLELY on weight. The other on the quality of one pot of their selection.

    So one group just had to produce over a certain specified volume target. The other had to determine how to best achieve as close to "perfection" as possible in one single pot.

    As you may know, the volume group got higher grades. This was to be expected, as they had clear and known measurement critera - volume. What was a breakthrough in its day was that when the professor looked at the final pieces created by the volume group, they individually scored significantly higher from a quality point-of-view. ie: They made way better pots.

    One thing that stands out for me is the context and intent. This was a class where everyone DESIRED to make or learn how to make great pottery - exceptional pottery, even. Had this experiment been run with random people, the results may have differed.

    So both desired the same thing, but one group was given the freedom and the necessity to explore through quantity of ideas.

    The second group COULD have explored through quantity but it was not expressed as a mandate and they suffered as a result.

    It was interesting to see one comment saying that volume equates to low-cost crap. I think the opposite may actually be the case. Just reminded me of this story so thought I would share.

    Are not agencies united by a common intent? What would happen if quantity was a mandate???

  16. One of the drawbacks of mobile surfing @passitalong is that I get brilliant comments like these and then take an age to come back to them.

    I really like this story and the more I hear and read about the subject of letting people get on with making mistakes, the more I hear of the serendipity of success that goes with. Top comment mate. Thanks for that.

  17. Hey Charles,

    It's all good. I meant to make a post about your post those many days ago and am just now getting around to it today. Which is sort of funny as I now see you just replied to my comment 4 days ago. Serendipity at work? ;)