Let’s do this….a manifesto for agency life


The top 5 opportunities and threats for creative agencies posed by technological change

The only constant is change. Heraclitus

Here is a quick go at a top 5 of the threats and the opportunities facing creative agencies that are created by technological change.


  1. Decline of Paid media models e.g. Newspaper ads revenue, Online Display CTR decline. Impact of on- demand/connected/OTT TV to linear TV ad revenue
  2. Platform brands (e.g. Google, Facebook etc) forging direct relationships with clients
  3. DSPs /programmatic buying taking up more client spend and therefore requiring less agency engagement
  4. Move from brands telling stories in paid media to brands creating value with their behaviour in owned and earned media and through utility and entertainment
  5. Media fragmentation leading to change in the role of agency partners as downstream providers of services/deliverables and the move of ownership of the idea towards clients. Ultimately leading to the “hour” we sell ever more commoditised


  1. Shareable ideas/memes and their manifestation in content, conversation, services and products are the currency of the web and creative agencies are all about ideas
  2. Fewer barriers to sharing/spreading ideas than in the industrial era means more ways of reaching consumers without huge spend
  3. Opportunity to use agency skills of understanding culture and what people need to better understand what people want from technology, and help clients shape their use of technology so that it is Open, Human centric, Diverse, Collaborative, Value based, Expressive
  4. Attention is more scarce than ever as media fragmentation overwhelms people with noise.  Creativity has never been more relevant as a way for brands to be the signal in all that noise
  5. New ways of demonstrating tangible added value and theoretically more ways to get paid more fairly for creativity – more on this in my next post.

Any more?

Last list-based post for while I reckon….

The rise of digital technology isn’t necessarily a story with a happy ending….a random list of worrying things

Let me start by saying that I am a rational optimist. I think that generally speaking things are getting better and will continue to get better. Whilst I rail against the technological determinist view, however I try to be realistic and rational about technology and avoid thinking every new thing is automatically great simply because it is new. I don’t believe that rise of digital technology is guaranteed to be a story with a happy ending. For me technology is a tool and we choose how to use it and we need to continually push to use it well. But here is a random list of some things that give off the impression that we could be choosing to use it better.

•Financial pressure on tech giants actually eroding customer service over time – decline in openness of services and interoperability, reliance on increasingly pernicious advertising formats and personal data exploitation

•Devil’s bargain of giving up personal data in exchange for free services results in decline of personal privacy and lack of trust in data security and platform brands

•Risks of our fragile economic system being shattered as a result of unintended consequences – e.g. Financial trading bots reading hoax Associated Press Twitter post and wiping billions off stock market

•Decline in the quality of information/news available to us about the world due to the massive rise in quantity – e.g. Boston bombings news coverage riddled with false rumours presented as fact in mainstream media due to pace and pressure of reporting a live event

•Fear of the impact of technology on livelihoods as many jobs become digitised shrinking overall market value or human workers replaced by computers and robots with no corresponding new job creation leading to mass protest/rejection of technological advancements

•Failure of most big companies to pursue disruptive innovation leaves them exposed and at risk of new entrants disrupting their marketplace with networkd digital technology which destroys marketplace value and impacts on shareholder value (which includes pension fund shares)

•Oh and threat to net neutrality from actions by bodies like the FCC stacking the deck against certain organisations by demanding fees for service or through the defacto favouring of big established business who can pay for faster services

I am sure there are more, but maybe I will write an optimists list next time….

“So modernity has brought with it an endless internal mental conflict between stern, rather parental inner voices and lazy childish ones. Unfortunately, these two voices, which have functioned as opposites, checking each other for centuries, have been confounded into idiotic agreement and collusion with the appearance of digital network technology…..both sides are saying that if technology makes life easier, it should also make you poor….. This is the stupidity of our age, a conclusion so utterly bankrupt that no single generation could muster a sufficient momentum of mental failure to express it alone. Only a collaboration of generations could manage to spread a dusting of credence over such a gaping, appalling, vacant falsehood.”
Jaron Lanier. Who owns the future

How brands are built in the digital age

This was going to be my Admap prize entry to answer the question “How brands are built in the digital age”. But of course life got in the way so instead it is this blog post. So rather than well reasoned and evidenced argument, you’ll be reading conjecture, opinions and hypothesis. But hopefully interesting none-the-less….

In a world of change one thing remains constant in the marketing industry, and that is the power of creativity to generate ideas that build brands. Brands are built in the digital age through great creativity expressed in new ways and in new channels by creative agencies and clients who have an understanding of what great creativity requires.

With all the debate around the changing media landscape and what it means for the industry it is easy to feel that everything about what we do as marketers and creative people is changing. And of course things are changing. But the core of what makes for valuable brands and famous marketing campaigns hasn’t changed, and it is easy to get distracted from that main task – the relentless pursuit of better understanding of what great creativity takes, and the value that it can create.

Creativity and brands

Creativity allows brands to be distinctive, taking greater than their fair share of people’s attention, and the ideas and meme’s spawned by creativity are one of the main things that are shared over digital networks. Just think about the amount of Buzzfeed content shared in your newsfeed right now. That is a brand that is build on the power of ideas. Perversely, mainstream marketing spends a lot of time worrying about the packaging of these ideas; is it a Facebook post? or video content? how long should it be? how much should we spend? which of our agencies should make it? – and comparatively hardly any time on the ideas themselves.

Brands need ideas more than ever. The digital age has brought something that has always been true into sharp relief – that brands exist in the minds of consumers. Brands aren’t the result of one great advert, they are like a bird’s nest, built from the scraps of twigs that a person encounters and bothers to pick up. And a lot of those twigs are digital. So it takes time to define or reinvent a brand and changes happen relatively slowly as a result of consistent quality creativity – as was often said during my time at Dare – every idea counts.

Creativity and agencies

Creativity also help clients answer their main problem when it comes to growth. Most clients face the same problem with their brand. To grow they need to convince a greater number of disinterested, disloyal consumers to purchase, ideally also more frequently. To do so they need to be distinctive.

Creative agencies can help clients do be distinctive by taking products with functional parity and add intangible values and meaning to them to make them more valuable to the people that use them. Which isn’t simply about trying to “make people want things” it is about helping them choose, as well as adding meaning and fun to their lives through the brands they experience.

But this isn’t by and large about “making things that people want” either – that is what client organisations do – they have the resources required to create customer experiences at scale. Rather, there is an opportunity to re-conceive the role for creativity and the agency in the era of digital disruption, to move away from the industrial era’s myopic focus on communications, messages and positioning as the sole means to make brands distinctive and add meaning to them.

A vision for what that could be was created 10 years ago by Mark Earls in his book Welcome to the creative age. Earls talked about the role of the “Purpose idea” in elevating the brand above empty positioning and image, and envisioned “interventions” – brands doing things to live their purpose rather than talking at people in their marketing activities.

The thing that has changed since Earls wrote his book is that the physical barrier to entry to having a direct relationship with the customers that existed in the industrial era has fallen away. Agencies can now manifest brand behaviour in digital products and services and don’t just have to rely on comms “channels” and advertising. We can encourage people to pick up a brand’s twigs by making them entertaining, useful, rewarding, shareable.

If creative agencies can combine their creative skills, with technical skills and an ambition to elevate marketing beyond comms to brand behaviour, and seek to develop truly disruptive innovation, they can continue to be a vital source of value creation.

Creativity as a skill

The digital age requires specialism , and having the right idea in the right place, not just sticking a press ad in a banner with ruthless cost efficiency. So it is easy to think that the future of agencies is big data, and heavy technical skills. But creativity is a skill and is not the same as the skill of executing in a specific medium. In a digital age creativity is a skill to be nurtured and prized regardless of the medium. Because it allows us to “do the right thing” as well as “do things right”.

Creativity is great at:

Making insights resonate
Making ideas into memes
Making the tangible or rational engage emotionally
Making the human condition a shared experience

Creativity is about understanding that all ideas are not born equal, and whilst there is of course some subjectivity, creating and judging ideas is born out of experience and talent. Absolutely not about luck or gut-feel, great ideas are hard to identify, they are hard to develop, identify and bring to existence.

Creativity needs the right conditions to flourish, talent, culture and environment are all key and creative agencies have remained relevant because they offer something unique. They are able to create cultures and attract types of talent that the client can’t. At its best this talent is informed and in tune with the commercial reality of the client’s business, and passionate about the brand and it’s role in adding value to the lives of customers. And at its best the agency is a team of people with the skills to think laterally about creative solutions to problems and has the perspective to think objectively about those problems. This objectivity is the main benefit of sitting outside the client organisation and are not being solely dependent on it, and its politics, received wisdoms, and inertia.

Of course creativity needs to change as well. Technical skills and knowledge are essential to great digital creativity, and they need to be upstream in the creative development process. One can’t separate the artist from the brush. This means a more collaborative creative development process is required to truly unlock the power of creativity in a digital age.

So, successful brands are built in the digital age with creativity. Creativity that inspires ideas for brand behaviour that can build the brand twig by twig. Creativity applied to business problems allowing brands to embrace the digital age and find new ways to live their purpose. Creativity that is nurtured as a skill by agencies, and clients who value its contribution. And ultimately, creativity is what allows brands to add value and meaning to customers lives.

Disrupt! – realising a new vision for the creative agency

This is a précis of an article that was published in the January 2013 issue of Admap magazine ©Warc. To read the article visit http://www.warc.com/admap. For a limited time a full version is available at the bottom of this post.

Creative agencies have always been good at innovation. However, the need for predictable growth has meant that creative agencies have been sucked into focusing on one type of innovation- small, incremental improvements to what we did yesterday. A slightly more original TV ad, a responsive website design and so on. We have become experts at Clayton Christensen’s “sustaining” innovation.

So this focus has meant that we have neglected becoming expert at “disruptive” innovation. We haven’t applied a disruptive innovation approach to our client’s business, or to our own industry or business model. And that is dangerous in an era of rapid change, there couldn’t be a more crucial time for a new vision for the role of the creative agency in an era of digital disruption.

But simply re-conceiving the agency role as about moving from comms towards digitally enabled brand behaviour on its own isn’t enough. If creative agencies take the same working approach as the one that is appropriate for creating “sustaining” innovation, they will fail at creating true disruptive change.

We need to combine a new vision for the creative agency with genuinely new ways of doing things that will realize that vision – that is a disruptive innovation approach. Through our work within Dare Labs we have identified some general principles and practices for any creative agency looking to disrupt, whether by tackling client briefs or by producing products themselves.

1. Starting with problems – To create disruptive ideas you have to start with the core problem not just a list of requirements and then imagine how to disrupt the status quo to create a new solution.

2. Following your nose – Encourage serendipity and let people follow their gut feel and what interests them, a tiny idea about a piece of code can lead to disruptive innovation if you let it develop.

3. Open and bottom up innovation – Open innovation creates combinations of talent, insight, data, and points of view that aren’t possible if an organization innovates behind closed doors. Bottom up innovation increases the chance of convex payoffs as the number of ideas trialed is greater.

4. Break the rules – The skills to create ideas and produce digital products that many agencies have need to be combined with the right mindset. How can we disrupt value chains and business models and how can we exploit emerging technology and consumer trends?

5. Creating magic – Asking the question “what is going on in the mind of the user?” can create magical user experiences from quite simple technology

6. The cult of done – A lean start up approach helps to create experiments, helps to get out of “thoughtland” where mistaken assumptions rule, and helps you to figure out what works and what doesn’t for real users.

7. Keeping it core – Sharing the things you learn and the technology you create to improve the overall quality of innovative thinking and keep it core to the business and the search for new revenue streams.

These 7 principles are a modest start in the attempt to find new ways of working that lead to disruptive innovation and unlock the true value of our creative skills.

This is a précis of an article that was published in the January 2013 issue of Admap magazine ©Warc. To read the article visit http://www.warc.com/admap

Retrospective- top reads from 2012 on technology, innovation, economics and the pace of change

Time for a cliched New Year top ten list! Here are the articles and posts from the year gone by that have stuck with me most. The ones that have shed light and new perspective on the topics I have been interested in this year which include technology and the pace of change, innovation, economics and living life with meaning.

1. Beyond Terrordome – The New Inquiry

What we unwittingly give away in terms of our personal identity when we use Social Media.

2. John Gray and Jaron Lanier in conversation – Tank Magazine

A meeting of minds on entropy, technology & social connectivity.

3. The Coming Civil War over General Purpose Computing – By Cory Doctorow

The challenges we face in holding on to the benefits of general purpose computers as computing power increases and devices miniaturise and proliferate.

4. The true fathers of computing – The Guardian

George Dyson’s new book challenges computing’s creation myth by highlighting the key role played by John von Neumann in attempting to create Turing’s “mansions for the soul” and the first true general purpose computer.

5. True innovation – Lessons from Bell Labs – The New York Times

What we can learn from Bell Labs, the 20th Century’s most significant innovation and research centre responsible for technology such as the transistor, solar panels and lasers.

6. Joi Ito, director at MIT Media Lab on innovation at the edges – edge.org

Fascinating interview with the director of MIT Media Lab, part a biography of a life well lived and part looking at the role of the lab in the context of the changing world, technology and innovation.

And as an added bonus Joi Ito on the next 100 years of technology and innovation from Technology Review

7. Antifragility and convexity – Nicolas Nassim Taleb (PDF)

Now an excellent book, this article summarises the concept of the antifragile – systems which benefit from uncertainty, and the resulting convex playoffs where the potential upside far outweighs the downside. Crucial new concepts for anyone interested in thinking differently about the right conditions for creativity and innovation.

8. Overthrow Yourself by Umair Haque – Harvard Business Review

The most pissed off economist on Twitter on redefining the role of business and your individual contribution and moving away from a myopic exclusive focus on maximising shareholder value.

9. The dangerous effects of reading – David Tate

Thought provoking blog post on how we are getting better and better at intellectually consuming information and opinion, and how instead how to focus on creating in order to avoid groupthink and the echo chamber.

10. Burial Unedited Transcript – The Wire

Finally, just for fun, a long interview with a favourite music artist and producer of mine, Burial. Rare insight into the creative process of an enigmatic and secretive musical genius.

Enjoy and have a great NYE and a wonderful 2013!

The slow death of Interoperability

Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 11.08.40You won’t see this image on Twitter anymore. This week this feature got turned off. In a world where most brands are constantly looking for a new feature or a marginal improvement over the competition it seems a bit weird but it is a sign of the times and of our reliance on walled, tethered ecosystems.

I suspect the change will be a minor inconvenience for most users, myself included. But the fact that it feels like a backward step for the user is symptomatic of long term threats to how we use the web and the internet. It is another reminder that in the war between the web giants, the ignored wishes of users are mere collateral damage in the pursuit of a return for speculators gambling on when the bubble will burst.

And it is another reminder that you are not the customer of Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. You are their product, to be sold to the highest bidding advertiser. It is somewhat ironic that the users who made the Web 2.0 companies great in the first place now have to simply put up with whatever changes are foisted on them. The recent changes to Instagram’s ToS (see bottom of the post) are a great example of that. Some brave souls have quit Facebook in protest of recent changes to privacy policy, but I suspect the majority have no desire to face being so socially out of the loop and to give up the free and useful services they are used to.

The balance between the needs of advertising customers and those of end users is becoming harder and harder to strike as the “everything on one platform” approach is seemingly the only viable commercial approach given active users on your platform mean ad revenues. And it partly explains the launch of photo filters on Twitter so you no longer have to leave Twitter to use that pesky Facebook-owned Instagram.

But this commercial battle damages interoperability. Interoperability is great for users and great for the web. Free flowing user traffic, Like liquidity in the financial system, makes the whole system work. Users can view the content they want and access the services they want and have it all work together in the way they want. And they can click on the ads and referral links they want too. It seems a bit doom and gloom but I suspect that when Facebook or Twitter or whomever win, all of us lose.