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BW Businessworld

Fifty-fifty: Advertising’s Tomorrow: Coders Or Copywriters? Consultants Or Creators?

Consultants have a great deal going for them – existing client relationships in most cases; many years of experience of operating at both global and local levels; great understanding of strategic disciplines and proven experience in strategy implementation; deep pockets that agency holding groups no longer possess, and last but not the least a huge talent base which can offer clients quick and impactful end-to-end services.

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WPP’s creative agency Ogilvy last month announced the appointment of Andy Main as its new global Chief Executive Officer. Main joins Ogilvy from Deloitte where he was global head of digital and will succeed John Seifert, who stepped down after 41 years at Ogilvy, including five as CEO. Main took the helm at Deloitte Digital in 2014. During his tenure, Deloitte Digital made the first significant move by consultancy firms into creative services with the acquisition of multiple creative agencies … Heat, Pervorm, Acne, Market Gravity, CloudinIT, Brandfirst … beginning a trend that has reshaped the marketing communication industry. Today, Deloitte Digital offers creative, technology and consulting services to many of the world’s leading companies.

One of the big stories in the marcom industry over the past few years has been the rise of the consultancies – PwC, Accenture, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, Grant Thornton, McKinsey et al – as major players in the mergers and acquisition space of ad agencies. Accenture’s Interactive division has been one of the most acquisitive … UK’s hotshop Karmarama, Irish agency Rothco, but most importantly New York creative powerhouse Droga5. In all, Accenture Interactive has acquired more than 30 agencies over the past few years. Interestingly, these have been in every conceivable discipline – full-creative, design, web build, search, SEO, branded content, CRM, production, data, media … on almost every continent, bar Africa. Accenture Interactive in fact spent USD 1 billion in 2017 on just acquisitions in the advertising space, signaling an aggression hitherto not known.

Between consultancies on rampage, or worse consultants moving in to run ad agencies, I don’t know what is more disturbing news for the advertising business. But before we get into answering that question, let us address a more basic question: why are the consultants trying to invade the advertising space?  Well, all businesses need to expand and grow, and extending a suite of newer services to clients (including advertising, marketing, strategy, media, design and allied services) has long been a temptation. And if those new offerings can leverage the organisation’s current expertise and footprint, then so much the better. Consultants have a great deal going for them – existing client relationships in most cases; many years of experience of operating at both global and local levels; great understanding of strategic disciplines and proven experience in strategy implementation; deep pockets that agency holding groups no longer possess, and last but not the least a huge talent base which can offer clients quick and impactful end-to-end services.

Most significantly, consultancies have the reputation of being cost-savers and problem solvers, whereas traditional advertising agencies have always been seen as cost drivers. The traditional business of consultancies is centered on known and proven methods and models into which they can efficiently deploy staff to collect data, provide reports, implement systems – which can be both highly profitable as well as almost universally replicable. Luckily for the consultancies, new-age requirements of the advertising business such as digital transformation, programmatic, performance marketing and more can be easily mechanized which is a skill consultants excel at. Creative agencies, by their very nature rely on individual talent to come up with new ideas for campaigns and market stimulus. These need intense human interaction and out-of-the-box ideation. And that has all along been the USP of the advertising business. But a USP that now seems to be losing competitive advantage and appeal.

Agencies too have reacted. Yes, reacted more than responded. TBWA, for example, created the Pirate Collective that has film directors, photographers, musicians, animators, illustrators, content creators, influencers, designers, writers, developers, technologists, art directors, strategists, producers and more, all under one roof to orchestrate the kind of creative output  that goes far beyond what the traditional agency can offer. Or consultants can even dream of offering. More and more ad agencies are ‘modernizing’ the traditional creative function by adding on  futurists, patent & IP lawyers, engagement & UI/UX strategists, ethical & governance advisors, behavioral scientists, psychological & qualitative researchers, data and trend analysts, experience specialists, green thinkers and, many shades of content creators in film, social, digital, and mobile.

So is the copywriter irrelevant? Is his partner, the art director, obsolete too? Well, my view is simply fifty-fifty. Why? Building a business is no longer predicated on the advertising industry’s biggest promise: The Big Idea. Today, the businesses themselves are The Big Idea. The very success of disruptive, fast-growing businesses like Uber or Airbnb or Netflix is the result of astute strategic thinking and mind-blowingly user-friendly customer interfaces, rather than high-impact advertising. Rather than pushing messages at consumers, marketing is today all about solving complex business problems and realising a brand’s strategic vision. The poor copywriter and the art director have just become inconsequential in the juggernaut of business ventures that bludgeon their way into creating markets that never previously existed by dint of smart positioning and opportunity maximization. Technology is at the heart of most such businesses. Advertising is but a reach extender, not a force multiplier.

So, will the coder replace the copywriter? No, that is also no solution. The coder is logical, technical and sequential. But not really ‘creative-creative’. He can be creative in his own way – the Googles and Apples of the world are more creative than any ad agency can ever be. But the kind of creativity that brands seek from ad agencies is still about creating awareness, and more importantly desire, for their offerings. The coder can make the journey more enjoyable, perhaps predictable too, but he can’t drive you to the destination.  

In the consultant versus creator battle, the danger is the commoditization of the creative product. If that is allowed to happen, the consultant will win. And, that will depend on who is made responsible for choosing the creative partner: the CMO, or the supply-chain team. Unfortunately, in most large clients today even when the CMO makes the choice, the veto is wielded by the bean-counters who ‘negotiate’ the creative offering as a service, much like plumbing and air-conditioning. That is when the ad agency, sadly, suffers the ignominy of moving from ‘partner’ to ‘vendor’. Pity!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


Dr Sandeep Goyal

The author was Founder Chairman of Dentsu India. He has authored Konjo – The Fighting Spirit and Japan Made Easy, both Harper Collins publications, on his 25 years of working with Japan.

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