Opinion

Despite doom & gloom at the Spikes Asia Festival, there is still hope for a new ‘intuitive’ ad industry to emerge

Against the backdrop of a gloomier than usual Spikes Asia festival in Singapore, Gyro’s Rhys Taylor wonders how many marketing leaders are making brave strides in innovation – and how many agencies are developing new service models to meet those needs

Industry events. They ignite ideas, are a cause to celebrate, and inevitably stir up speculation. And the ripples rebound for days and weeks following. The young and enthusiastic rush from stage to stage, and email countless photos of keynote slides to themselves for their next pitch deck.

But those with experience take things a little slower. They will tell you — they’re looking for value elsewhere: in the passing conversations in the hallways between those stages; and the serendipitous discussions at Gem Bar once we’ve put our network logos down, and picked up a beer.

And that’s why I’m worried. Because despite the lights and music, the inspiration and celebration — the sentiment of that undercurrent this week at Spikes Asia has been off. I’m worn down by tales of doom and gloom. And I’m terrified of what might happen when our clients start to feel the same way.

Quitting the blame game

I grew up with the view ‘the world doesn’t owe anyone a living’ drilled into me. That principle didn’t just stick in my mind, but has continued to apply in situations beyond personal endeavours.Whenever things look bleak, sound hard or feel tedious — there’s a chance to reframe the situation into an opportunity. Granted, that means rolling up your sleeves and breaking your current routine.

So how do we stop focusing on the squeeze from clients — budget, timings and expectations — and ambiguous career paths? How do we start seeing the positive?

It’s in our DNA to do so. Our industry was forged from disruption and opportunistic behaviour. It was led by the start-up entrepreneurs of their era, those so confident in their ability and proud of their philosophy that there was no more fitting way to brand your endeavour than with your surname.

Despite regular gripes about the reduced number of pitches, more arduous demands from retainers or people being replaced by smart platforms; we are still the ones best positioned to adapt — because we live our lives on the bleeding edge of innovation. Like a cat, poised ready to jump. And when we choose to, if we choose to — we’ll land back on our feet.

We can find ourselves in a position to do something about it. But only if we agree that our challenges have little to do with the fact that consultancies are coming (they have arrived now; let’s change the narrative), an increase in in-housing or off-shoring; and accept that it comes down to something much simpler than that: how the 4Ps of marketing have changed.

Product, Price, Place, and Promotion. Throw in Partnerships as a fifth, for good measure.

I agree with the current sentiment being shared by the likes of Mastercard’s CMO Raja Rajamannar that this framework for tactical thinking has become less relevant as we move from an era of aspirational brand image to data-driven, personalised brand experiences. But I still believe it’s where our problem begins.

In many corporations (perhaps with the exception of new economy businesses) matrix management models have developed around these P words, specialisations have emerged and KPIs have become so myopic that internal conflict is seemingly unavoidable.

And as a result of this, many of our clients — the marketing and communications faculty — have less influence over product development, pricing models and geographic spread (place). Throw in the increasing pace of innovation in data collection and analysis, and engagement products and services; plus the disgruntled sentiment about a lack of control exacerbated by a capability gap. This is well researched and acknowledged by the likes of Forrester.

I’m not the first person to bring this up. WPP CEO Mark Read shared his thoughts earlier in the year. But whether this is wrong, right or necessary — it is. And more importantly it is where our opportunity lies.

Getting into the driver’s seat

All relationships are a compromise. The healthiest involve meeting someone else halfway and not crossing that line unless you feel it absolutely necessary. And that’s the decision our industry needs to make. Are we going to stand there at the halfway line when we know our clients are several steps behind their own goal and wait for the projects to land, expect the briefs to be clear and the process of deployment to be a simple one?

Or are we going to hire new talent and skills, break old service models and focus on upskilling to develop new operating frameworks and implement processes with our clients — not just between us and them; but between us, them, and their increasing number of internal stakeholders and partners.

It’s not about over-exposing ourselves. It’s about an engagement model that focuses on swift diagnosis, and then moves into prescribing a course of action to restore operational balance. And positioning what we do as an investment, not a cost centre.

Agencies don’t need to push themselves into conversations they have no business being a part of. But we do need to go back to offering the same level of counsel we once provided CEO’s and their soon-to-be-their-successor sons when their appliances weren’t selling or their cigarettes weren’t being puffed. An era where we still advertised our own advertising services.

We’ve got perception on our side

‘Put yourself in your customer’s shoes,’ we say when we start a project. ‘Look at the influences and pressures in their life beyond your product.’ Perspective is the cornerstone of the agency planning process. But perception is what unlocks the meaningful solution.

So maybe it’s time for the agencies who are up for it to put a bit more skin in the game in recognition of the fact that the game has changed, and get on a new footing with their clients. As well as focusing on creating humanly relevant work, why don’t we help these complex organisations operate in an adaptive — or humanly relevant — way? So that they can produce that work more efficiently, and make that work more meaningful by making the most of increased specialisation in their business, while pushing the boundaries of innovation with data and products.

If there was ever a time to do so, it’s now. According to some, we’re only 10 years away from a world where 85% of the jobs that will exist haven’t been imagined yet. We need a new way of working. But what is it? And what do we call it? We could call it agile or responsive, but those words are already associated with the concepts of process and design.

Or maybe it’s not about what we call it, it’s about our attitude towards it. I quite like the word intuitive. Why don’t we help our clients build intuitive organisations? Just a thought.

Rhys Taylor is Asia-Pacifc head of strategy at Gyro and principal of Gyro EQ – he is based in Singapore

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