From a radio spot for Hoover vacuums sixty years ago to the E-Trade baby at the Super Bowl, the underlying premise is more or less the same: Take a broadcast platform with a large, captive audience and interrupt the regularly scheduled programming with a product message.
Because the formula for creating ads has remained intact for over a half century, the agencies that produce these ads haven’t evolved much either. Agencies still silo off creative, production and media buying as entirely different disciplines — or even different companies. They still pair a copywriter and an art director to form the creative nucleus of a campaign. They still hire a small army of account people to interpret the needs of their client. And, like any business that has been operating under the same model for decades, ad agencies have become rigid and increasingly slow to adapt.
With brands moving more of their overall spend to digital every year, traditional agencies have tried their best to keep up with the times. The big four holding companies that dominate the mainstream advertising world — IPG, Omnicom, WPP and Publicis — have trimmed the fat, shuffled teams and hired chief innovation officers by the dozen, but these cosmetic changes have not altered the fundamental threat that all large agencies face in an era of rapid technological change and audience fragmentation.
The broadcast model is being upended and brands are discovering that in this new media landscape, it’s better to be fighting alongside David than Goliath. It’s the reason we created a video production company.
The future is in content, not ads
Unsurprisingly, most large agencies’ first attempt to advertise on the Internet was to treat it as a broadcast platform. That’s why early online ads were digital copies of their analog counterparts — flashing billboards on web pages, interruptive pop-ups and TV commercials repurposed as 30-second pre-rolls.
But as the Internet exploded into a network of sites, platforms and apps delivered across a growing number devices, it became clear that this was a fundamentally new way of disseminating information. In the digital era, ideas spread not as a one-to-many transmission, but through the sharing of individuals and groups between one another.
As such, the web required a new model for earning an audience’s attention — one driven by content. Brands want to build audiences and communities online, and the best way to do it is with stuff that people will actually seek out, talk about and share.
For large agencies that have been beating the interruptive drum for decades, the transition to becoming a content company runs against decades of ingrained process, culture and creative approach.
Speed is not just a virtue, it’s a necessity
So much of what we find entertaining is driven by relevance and in the age of digital, the pace of what is relevant to us accelerates every day.
Just think about Twitter, Vine or Snapchat, where a meme captivates the community, only to be discarded hours later. Creating content that resonates with people requires a speed of production to ensure that the same idea you had in the pitch will still carry weight when it sees the light of day.
No matter how loudly agencies trumpet their ability to be “scrappy,” their size and structure is simply not conducive to moving at the speed of digital.
If you’ve ever been in an agency production meeting with 30 “stakeholders,” you know that big groups are rarely conducive to making creative decisions on the fly. The only thing that is truly able to cut through online white noise is authentic, relevant content that feels unique to the web and its culture.
For this, brands need lean, collaborative and flexible teams that are all committed to the same goal: Entertaining their audience.
For every platform, a unique strategy
Ten years ago, no one had heard of YouTube. Now it’s a community of a billion users that influences mainstream culture more than any single TV network. The same could be true for thriving new social platforms that seem to sprout up every month; these communities go from a blip to a cultural force in the blink of an eye. As they grow, their users form a set of rules, expectations and language conventions.
When agencies roll out “cross-platform” strategies or repurpose ads from other platforms, they’re ignoring the process of experimentation and education that needs to go into succeeding on each one.
The most flagrant example of this is when agencies take their 30-second TV spot and slap it on a YouTube channel or Facebook page. To the community, it feels foreign and out of place, a signal that the brand is an impostor.
Before our company started building our branded content business, we spent three years experimenting on YouTube to test out a range of theories that would shape our philosophy on how to reach that specific audience. Without that learning curve, we could have never gained the insights we needed to authentically communicate with the YouTube audience.
All is not lost
If agencies are ill-equipped to handle the demands of digital, where does that leave brands who want to make an impact online?
Luckily, there are plenty of partners out there who are ready to rise to the challenge. Brands can partner directly with digital influencers who intuitively know how to speak to an audience. Influencer networks specialize in playing matchmaker between brands and these creators, and can help coordinate a broader campaign. Then, there is a new breed of creative shop — lean, specialized and engineered to meet the demands of the digital landscape.
At the end of the day, your large, traditional agency can still oversee your broadcast campaigns. After all, it’s what they were built for.
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