Tuesday, April 28, 2009
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?