Rebranding advertising: time for a resurgence of the creative agency?

Rebranding advertising: time for a resurgence of the creative agency?

I started my career in the London advertising industry in the summer of 2009.

At the time, adland in London was an exciting place to be. The city was awash with cool, young, independent creative shops – all making their mark on the industry landscape.

All making their mark on the advertising that entertained us, on TV, on billboards and in newspapers. All making their mark on culture.

Fast forward 10 years, and the industry landscape looks markedly different. One reason for this – one of the worst things that ever happened to the creative industry, in my opinion – was the addition of the suffix ‘tech’ to the prefix ‘ad’.

Adtech, programmatic and the arrival of addressable media has changed the shape of the industry landscape – and the meaning of the word ‘advertising’ along with it.

Advertising used to be about entertaining people; making them laugh; making work that connected with real people in the real world – and building brand equity in the meantime.

Today, the pressures on marketers have grown; ad budgets have shrunk; and every ad campaign has to drive demonstrable, measurable ROI to pass the boardroom test and for marketers to be seen to be doing their job correctly.

With that has come an obsession with measurability, and the smart data and progressive tech that allows advertising to be measured. But these metrics are reductive.

When you reduce the success of an advertising campaign down to the number of views it racks up, the number of click-throughs it generates and the number of sales it drives quarter-to-quarter, what you get is an ad with ‘tech’ on the end of it.

The result? An ad whose creative quality has been diluted, if not lost altogether. An ad whose primary purpose was never to make people laugh, or drive long-term brand equity.

Instead, you get an ad which will be dynamically creatively optimised, pumped through the programmatic machine, seen by millions of bots but hopefully some people too – but which ends its quarterly tenure generating a really fucking strong viewability report, with great click-through rates and hopefully a temporary uplift in sales too.

Impero specialises in revitalising tired brands, reconnecting them with audiences and allowing brand equity to flourish for the long-term.

This year, not for the first time, we took a look at the industry around us and asked ourselves: how future-fit really is adland? Has advertising become the ultimate tired brand?

We’ve seen our fair share of negative headlines over the past couple of years:

A long-term decline in public trust which last year saw us voted the least trusted profession in Britain.

A slew of scandals surrounding a sexist, toxic culture – and embarrassingly slow movement on diversity and the gender pay gap, to boot.

Perhaps, instead of pondering on how to future-proof our clients’ businesses – we should be turning the lens inward. Does adland itself need a rebrand?

So we decided to do some research of our own – surveying 1,500 consumers, 100 marketers and 100 advertising practitioners to find out what they really think of our shiny, Cannes-destined industry.

The results were interesting.

First off, our Rebranding Advertising report told us fair and square that, as an industry, we’re failing to adapt fast enough to the pressures on marketers. 64% of marketers agreed with this statement, versus only a quarter who said we were doing a good job of keeping up.

Secondly, it confirmed what we already know – that the majority of marketers are briefing their agency to focus more on performance marketing than brand-building – with 56% opting to save face in the boardroom vs only 44% who were more invested in long-term brand-building. Only to be expected, perhaps, when you consider the average tenure of a CMO is two years, and short-term success is more important to their CV than long-term brand equity.

Thirdly, when asked what type of agency is best-suited to meet their brand needs, it was slightly disheartening, if not hugely surprising, to see that the overwhelming majority of marketers (43%) said it was not an agency at all, but a consultancy with great data and tech resources, that best fit the mould for their agency model of the future.

Again, all things considered, perhaps this is little wonder, when you take into account the varying ways in which the industry has publicly embarrassed itself over the past few years, and combine it with ad-tech’s apparent potential to drive such fantastic short-term results to take back to the board room.

However it wasn’t all bad news for the creative industry.

One rather happier finding of our report was that, coming in in second place for marketers’ hearts and budgets, straight after the consultancies, was – not big multi-disciplined networks (19%), or inhouse agencies, for that matter (7%) – but small independent creative agencies with original ideas.

With a quarter of marketers voting in their favour, these are the shops, marketers accede, which can add that healthy dose of creative friction some marketers (again, a quarter) are still looking for from their agency.

So, take another look at the report, and things don’t look so bleak after all.

My prediction for the future of our industry? More big multi-discipline networks and slow, cumbersome holding companies making moves – however slow – to turn themselves into consultancies, emulating the data-and-tech-led models which have driven such success for the consultancies.

But, as these bigger shops transform themselves into increasingly data-and-tech-led business consultants for brands, the appetite for small independent creative shops with original ideas will grow.

These will become the homes of the creative talent of tomorrow – offering the freedom to create genuinely original work, to push back and fight for the idea in client meetings.

And it will be these types of agencies which deliver the big, brand-building, entertaining work that connects with real people, in the real world, hopefully picking up some Lions in the meantime.

Consumers want big, entertaining, empathetic work – that respects their privacy and entertains them. Our report showed that.

It also showed that 62% of industry talent has interviewed outside adland over the past twelve months – but not because of sexism, burnout or our lack of diversity (although all three came up). It’s because creativity needs saving – this is why they chose a job in advertising, and this is what would keep them here. Not adtech, not optimisation but creativity.

So here’s hoping adland conjures up some of the creative, entrepreneurial spirit it has lost over the past 10 years. Here’s to a resurgence of independent creative shops.

Michael Scantlebury is the chief executive officer of Impero.

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