Agencies are like the KLF
This is my talk from Neil Perkins' Google Firestarters 8 event. It was one of eight provocations on the subject of 'The Agency Innovation Conundrum'.
I want to make the case that the reason agencies are obsessed about innovation is because our future is uncertain. And so I find it funny that the debate between us is often conducted in the most certain, combative and tribal way.
I just finished a great book about the KLF. It’s called ‘KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money’ by JMR Higgs. Well actually it isn’t really about the KLF. As one Amazon reviewer says “It's about the ideas that led to the KLF doing the things they did, and the ideas that led to those ideas.”
Part of the premise is about how everybody was certain that the KLF were master media manipulators. And that makes sense if you take their story at face value.
- They first came to prominence when they made the best ever novelty record, Doctorin’ The Tardis, and got it to No. 1.
- Then they wrote a book about how to have a No. 1, which many, including the Klaxons, have used successfully since.
- Then they helped invent Trance music with the original ‘What Time Is Love’ and ‘3am Eternal’.
- Then they re-made those tunes as ‘Stadium House’ pop music, and had No. 1’s right around the world.
- Then they ‘retired’ from the music business, firing a machine gun at music execs at the Brit Awards, before dumping a dead sheep on the steps of the after party.
- And finally they burnt their last million quid on the island of Jura – all the money that was left over from their pop career.
Surely a carefully planned art prank? Surely they didn’t really do it? And, if they did, surely that makes them arseholes? But the book’s conclusion is that, actually, they didn’t know what they were doing. They just looked like they did. (I haven’t got time today to explain why this stacks up, but I recommend you read it and find out for yourself.)
Which is why I think that agencies are like the KLF. We look like we know what we’re doing.
We have to because, in our industry, to quote from the KLF book (about the art industry actually, but it applies equally to advertising) “the importance of the strange magical glamours of context and reputation are paramount” We even convince ourselves that we know what we’re doing sometimes, with hokum theories.
The truth is that maybe once we did even know what we’re doing. Because things used to be simple. But they’re not anymore. Why? Because the simple things that clients used to give us agency for have gone away.
Putting posters on poster sites. Putting banner ads on the web. They couldn’t do it. Now they can. Now clients have in-house planners, creatives, production, even media. All the practical stuff they used to have to outsource to us, they can now do themselves. And it gets worse. Now adtech startups are busy automating what we used to do, and clients are busy acquiring them, accelerating our demise.
So how do we react to this uncertainty? By attacking each other in the most certain, ideological, dogmatic terms.
CantUnderstandNewTechnology is a new newspaper, from @camillastore and @planbstudio, which Design Week described as “a new gossip rag for the Silicon Roundabout set… riddled with swearing, childish humour and insider knowledge.”
I wrote an article in Issue 1 in which I attempted to satirise the debate going on between agencies facing this disruption.
This is how I characterised the debate from the ad agencies’ side:
Despite the advertising business growing rapidly and going through a period of tremendously exciting change, we’re going to distract ourselves by talking endlessly about how the ‘new frontier’ is designing products. We’re doing this because everybody who works in advertising pretty much hates advertising. And because we sense there’s money to be made, fast, by lowering standards.
And this is how I characterised the debate from the product design studios side. In a word: Angry:
I’m so fucking angry. I was into product design years ago when hardly anybody else knew about it. 17 years I’ve been in this game - 17 years of enduring endless, circular, whining debates about the difference between UX and UI. And Mr Jonny Fucking Adman thinks he can just steam in and take that all away from me. You haven’t paid your dues ponytail boy – now fuck off.
While it’s more fun to debate if you take intractable extreme positions, the right answer is invariably in the sensible middle ground. In a good compromise.
I think ad agencies can and should learn from product design studios' User Centred Design methodologies, to make their advertising more effective and more human. I think product design studios should learn from (the best) ad agencies, to make their products more imaginative and entertaining to use. I think that, if they could collaborate or join forces, the result might be very powerful. (Which is why, at Albion, we hired 12 product and service designers last year.)
But what strikes me more is that all this anger and energy is being expended on something that, for the most part, is no more than an ad agency making its own app. So small and inconsequential. Surely we’re missing the point? We’re not understanding how fundamentally the marketing services business is being disrupted and needs to change to survive. Chief Innovation Officer hirings and SXSW stunt products aren’t enough.
In fact they’re our version of Metallica suing their fans, desperately clinging on to how the music business used to work, wanting to believe nothing has really changed. The people on the other side, the AdTech startups, are laughing at us. “How feeble.” “How quaint.”
We have a desperate need to experiment, to try all sorts of new business models, services, products, ways of working. To make giant leaps, not token gestures.
I think we need to go back to first principles. Strip away 50 years of accumulated assumptions about what agencies are for, and go back to the basics of what companies want to give agency for, and why – TODAY - and build back up from there.
At Albion, no-one’s coming to us and asking for Planning or Art Direction. These days very few are asking us for Advertising or Branding. They don’t want to have to navigate the agency world’s arcane divisions.
What they are asking is for us to help them start and grow businesses. And the reason they’re asking us is because they’ve heard that we’re good at Collaboration, Flexibility and Imagination. We’re good business partners for entrepreneurs.
That’s what we’re building our business around. We’re focusing on an audience – entrepreneurs – and taking the time to understand what they want, and working hard to give it to them. It’s taken us 10 years so far, and I think we’re really getting somewhere now.
Now, in a world of bullshit agency straplines this can sound platitudinous, but we’re trying to really live by it. Our service isn’t advertising. Our service is helping to start and grow businesses. And one of the levers we use to do that is advertising.
It’s this is the kind of reinvention process, and the level of commitment, that we think it’s necessary to start to find your place in the disrupted marketing services landscape.
My final point it this. It’s tempting to think that one neat ‘new agency model’ will become clear in the next 2 or 3 years, and then we can all relax. But I think this level of disruption will be a fact of life for the rest of my working life.
In 1995 the KLF announced a 23 year moratorium on all projects, and further indicated that they would not speak about the burning of the million pounds during this period. They understood that neither they nor anybody else could understand why they did what they did until they had the benefit of some historical perspective.
So let’s stop all this talk about agency innovation and just get on with stuff. Then let’s all meet up then for a Firestarters Reunion in 2036. I’ll be 63 and, hopefully, about to retire, and we can then look back with some perspective and see what actually happened.