Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Loch Woebegone

Last summer, while vacationing by a Scottish loch, I felt a deep sense of unease as I watched the British reality show, “Who Do You Think You Are?” This was not only because I feared that yet another horrifying UK reality show was about to jump the Atlantic. It was because this particular episode touched a nerve.

It was about being part of an industry upon which the “sun is setting”.

The show traced the demise of one family’s fortune to a single economic event: the sunset of the hand-made walking stick industry, thanks to the advent of the machine-made version. Working in a traditional advertising agency, this really affected me, as I had been seeing more and more of my clients leaving for digital and other specialized agencies. As a life-long change agent, this was the first time it hit me that change doesn’t always lead to better circumstances.

My memory of the Scottish loch came flooding back as I read a recent
Vanity Fair article about the uncertain future of the New York Times. A key tenet in the article is that the company’s failure to fully embrace the digital world, combined with some bad investment decisions, led to its current financial downfall.

The author, Mark Bowden, contends that although the
Times has developed one of the most successful news sites, the site is emblematic of the company’s less effective “bolt-on” strategy for the Internet. He feels the Times merely produced a “digital edition of the product” rather than creating something that fully leveraged the new capabilities of the Internet. True innovators, he argues, fully “exploit the technology of a new platform.”

Bolting-on also implies that the new technology is cordoned off, its mind-altering impact unavailable to the larger organization. As Marshall McLuhan said, “media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.”

I stumbled upon this quote in an
Atlantic Monthly article by Nicola Carr, entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The article cites a number of examples of our brain’s malleability –from the development of different circuitry resulting from the study of Chinese to the change in Nietzsche’s writing style as his failing eyesight caused him to switch from pen to typewriter. The segregation in this case deprives the larger organization of the opportunity to learn how to think digitally.

Which brings me back to my moment of panic by the loch. I was reminded of all the traditional agencies that had employed this “bolt-on” strategy with digital rather than fundamentally changing what they thought and produced. They simply continued doing what they had always done – with TV and print executions as the centerpiece, but with a few widgets and micro-sites tacked on the side.

Since Mark and I formed Extrovertic, I can’t say that there haven’t been any panic-stricken moments. There are always those nagging questions: Will social media and other non-traditional solutions ever really occupy a central role in consumer health care communications? Sure, clients (and signed POs) are starting to accumulate, but never as fast or for as much as we had hoped. But at least we know that it's no more comfortable on the traditional side. So why not take a walk on the wild side? Using a machine-made walking stick, of course!

Let us know what you think. Have you seen a traditional agency truly transition successfully to the digital age? Have you seen a digital agency branch out to occupy a brand stewardship role?


Bookmark and Share

1 comment:

  1. The advertising industry is still trapped in an old fashioned mindset. Even the hip, new digital shops, social media companies and experiential agencies are trapped in outmoded ways of thinking.
    They’ve fallen in love with technology, forgetting that we are in the business of communicating ideas.
    Try getting a job in a digital shop if you’ve only ever worked in a traditional agency, working in traditional media like print, TV or DM. You will be told you’re not qualified because you have no digital experience.
    And an experiential agency won’t want you unless you have experience being experiential. Advertising is the most closed-minded industry imaginable.
    An industry like ours should be enlightened enough to understand that we are in the business of creating new ways to communicate with an audience. It doesn’t matter how you do it. As I write this, my laptop is on my lap, yet I’m also watching TV. My cell phone is five feet away. And ten feet from me is my landline phone. Next to it is a pad and pen, about as old fashioned a medium as you can get.
    A smart agency needs to be open to everything, not eager to put itself into a box. A niche is a great way to limit your potential.
    The radio was supposed to wipe out newspapers in 1920. It didn’t. In the late 40s, TV was going to destroy radio and the movies. It didn’t. Cable was going to destroy network TV. Yet we’re watching 30 Rock. We now have more ways to reach people than ever before. So why are we so eager to watch traditional advertising die. Is it because they rejected us? Are we just spurned lovers? I like the idea of flexibility. We think better when we have more ways in which to think. Quit waiting for your invitation to the funeral of the traditional ad agency. I for one want to have more options. I can blog even though I never have. I can write a banner ad, even though no one has ever clicked on one yet. I can write a print ad, radio spot, TV commercial or website. But I miss all those opportunities if I get pigeon holed as just one thing. The smartest thing we can do is market ourselves as thinkers. In any medium.