Are advertising agencies and technology companies simply incompatible when it comes to collaboration, and if not, then why don't they work more closely together? That was the topic up for discussion during the second Collision debate, held on a cold London night at Kings Place near King’s Cross in London.
The ‘Why not?’ debate drew a group of around 80 professionals who pondered why the relationship didn’t appear to be working between the two sectors.
One of the hypotheses put forward proposed that agencies weren’t entrepreneurial enough and weren’t embracing disruption, while it was also claimed that start-ups were not great at marketing and selling themselves.
Those gathered included Tom Evans, executive creative director of TBWA; Hamish Nicklin, head of creative agency relationships at Google; Justin Cooke, CEO of POSSIBLE Europe and Catherine Gull, head of sales at Cable & Wireless.
Rod Banner, partner at Forgather, moderated proceedings that also included input from four ‘story tellers’ - Nicole Yershon, director of Innovation Solutions at Ogilvy; Andy Bell, partner at Mint Digital; Rahul Powar, head of mobile apps at Thomson Reuters and Charlie Pool, founder of HitMeUp.
The room seemed to embrace the idea of collaboration but ventured various reasons why it isn’t working - yet.
“What has become clearer as this community comes together is that advertising is in a state of disruption with an enormous amount of information eating at its revenue streams and the ‘old guard’ is trying to figure it out,” said Banner as he introduced the debate.
Banner would make this point again later in the evening when he went on to say that he had dealt with tech companies who had used agencies to sell their products to brands and clients. "A lot of developers don't feel that agencies do a good job of selling technology to brands, whereas if you have a discussion directly with the brand it's so much easier," he revealed, hinting at a discord between two sectors vying for clients’ attention.
Nicole Yershon relayed her experience of compiling a book of Rory Sutherland's blogs, explaining how she'd formed a direct partnership with a publisher and only spoke to the necessary people rather than all and sundry to make it happen.
“A person within a large corporation that takes direct responsibility for turning an idea into a profitable finished product needs to be assertive, risk taking and innovative," she advised, taking the conversation down a path that would continually raise the word 'disruption' along the way.
Offering insight into the operations of larger-scale clients, The Economist's former chief operating officer Alan Dunachie made the point that agencies are not in charge of their own destinies, in some respects, when it comes to innovating.
“Disruptive innovators have a different way of thinking and are not very good at running corporates," he said, stating that tech and creativity should be viewed as 'an ecosystem' with the 'symbiotic strengths' of both being utilised by clients.
As an example of one disruptive platform, Andy Bell put forward the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, which is transforming the business community but remains ‘another form of advertising’ that relies on technology in order to be a success. Bell presented his own company's Kickstarter-funded product Stickygram, an Instagram-inspired fridge magnet that raised $87,000 when the company initially asked for funding of $20,000 and has gone onto sell over 100,000 copies.
This example was surely the evidence that was needed that technology can be an incredibly powerful tool to relay a creative message or promote a product to an international audience, where marketing and advertising alone would have initially failed.
Banner would later come to the topic of how 'brave' advertising companies once were and ponder whether that bravery had been diminished over time, recalling how Saatchi & Saatchi had at one time attempted to buy London Midland Bank.
"That saw them become ‘inspirational in their own space," he stated, before wondering where such bravery and growth would come from within the digital agency sector. It wouldn't be long until the name of AKQA was raised, however, in terms of size and innovation.
With no client brands in the room, another conclusion drawn was that clients simply don’t encourage collaboration between the two sectors and marketers are in no position of strength in the current climate to spend money on anything other than proven areas of ROI.
Charlie Pool of tech company HitMeUp backed this argument but also offered a solution: "The big ideas come from 'adland'. That’s because our world is highly entrepreneurial. Being creative is about experimenting, which is expensive. Agencies get paid for acting for clients, therefore the money is just not there. Likewise we don’t that money to employ agencies – so there’s a mismatch there.
“How can you bring those two things together? The idea that struck me was spare space within agencies that could put tech start ups in there where we can make their ideas happen – start-ups in residence. We could then share ideas with the agency to try and make them happen."
A statement that drew applause from the room came from Rahul Powar, head of mobile apps for Thomson Reuters, who proffered that "Creativity is an attribute, not a job title" while talking about the structure of agencies, which he also said should be integrated without silos. "I sat a designer next to an engineer and within one month there was more productivity out of them than over three months apart," he would claim as evidence.
Google's Hamish Nicklin offered insight into how his company merges creative ideas with technology: "We work with agencies to encourage people to buy stuff using technology as opposed to just a 30 second TV advert. What we try and do is to say, you have a brilliant idea based on some insight, which historically would have been taken to make a 30 second advert. What we try and do is to express that idea through technology because it might not be that the advert is right… How do you use technology to add value and express the idea that keeps people interested but still helps sell a product, rather than interrupting people’s viewing experiences?”
Meanwhile, Renate Nybord, Edelman's head of mobile, bemoaned the number of companies, including Facebook, that claim to be mobile first but aren’t, citing the social media giant's recent announcement of Graph Search as not being mobile operational.
She claimed that part of the problem came from CMOs or CTOs taking individual responsibility for mobile within a company rather than working together, meaning the final product would either be branding or analytics heavy.
It seems there is no conclusion in sight to this long-running argument, and while all involved in the discussion agreed that collaboration between the two sectors help improve their offers, such a standard practice doesn't look imminent.
Photograph by Julian Hanford