Image and title lyric courtesy the legendary Maccabees
Will agencies of the future exist on the strength of their creativity or their technical abilities? Which will clients prioritise as being more important: the deep dive pool of consumer insight or the fancy wave machine of data analytics and optimisation?
Back in January the IPA partnered with The Future Foundation to produce a report into the Future of Agencies. One of the conclusions was that the agencies of the future will need to assume multiple roles:
"agency as media brand owner; agency as joint venture partner; agency as content collaborator; agency as programme producer; agency as network creator; agency as data provider; and agency as data aggregator."
At least two of these scenarios are rooted in creativity. At least another two are rooted firmly in ad science. Two different ways. One is governed by algorithm, process, proceedure. The other talent, insight, humanity. One is boxed in, methodical, precise. The other reaches out, has no boundaries, transcends the traditional. One is all about testing and optimisation. The other is about new ideas, originality, progressiveness, new forms, methods and interpretations. One employs analysis, mathematics, statistics. The other imagination, inspiration, invention.
Is it really possible for both of these to co-exist in the same agency? I've been thinking about the tricky balance between the art and the science in advertising for some time. There's no doubt that ad science is here to stay. The potential for what it can do is amazing. And it is asking some questions of ad art that I donât know that we have answers for yet: if we target advertising by behaviour, how is it possible to produce the myriad number of creative treatments necessary to target the myriad differences in human behaviour? Should creative be that reactive anyway? If we are able to optimise our messages real-time, how is it possible to produce creative fast enough to adapt to rapidly changing behaviours?
There's an interesting parallel here between the ad industry and the "quiet revolution" taking place in the financial world. Investors are investing heavily in "algorithmic trading" systems that automate the process of deciding which trades are most profitable and can do it faster, and at a higher volume than the smartest city trader. One third of all US trading decisions are now reportedly made by machines. At Deutsche Bank in London, over 70 per cent of one category of foreign trades ("spot trades") are carried out without human intervention.
Such are the benefits that can be brought by such automation that there is a virtual arms race between investors for super-fast software systems supported by the best hardware with huge processing and data-handling capacity. Computers have a distinct edge over humans - concurrent capacity, speed, reaction times. Over time, the importance and level of investment in algorithmic trading software and the hardware that supports it has grown exponentially, moving the trading function away from the more instinctual area of human judgement to one where some investment banks have some of their prime office real estate filled with humming machines.
Is this the future for advertising? Econometric modelling, behavourial targeting techniques, ad optimisation services are getting more sophisticated by the day. Google has made no secret of its desire to apply its algorithmic contextualisation and optimisation based models to other media. But it is interesting that right now, it is the combination of human instinct and experience with sophisticated algorithmic trading which is right at the cutting edge of financial trading.
The future is one in which technology and its application will of-course be a bigger part of everything we do. But personally I hope that we never lose sight of the human side of advertising, the essence of what great advertising has always been good at - as eloquently summed up by Paul McEnany:
"It all makes too much sense, but I fear all the process removes the focus from the one place it should be. The people. And what CRM, customer tracking and all the rest can't tell me is why I just smiled, why I told my friend, why I chose pink over blue."
Let's not forget what great advertising can still be - what Bob Scarpelli calls: "a simple idea based on a simple insight communicated in simple ways".