Budging advertising's organisational culture

/// Budging advertising’s organisational culture

November 14, 2012  |  Blog

When we think about how technology has changed the advertising and marketing industries, we tend to focus mainly on the internet – how we distribute messages via Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, rather than via TV, radio, newspapers and posters. This is, of course, both an oversimplification and underestimate of the change, as the biggest difference should be not in what we do, but in how we do it.

Organisations that change their technology without changing their culture will fail, while technological laggards who are bold cultural adventurers will prosper.

So why do more organisations need to change further, and what form should those changes take?

To define how to change, we must first define what we’re changing. The advertising and marketing industry has established ways of working coalesced over 100 years. When I entered the industry in 1994, little had changed since the days of Mad Men. TV was a minor tremor in the 50s and 60s, but the culture of agencies and clients remained the same and has changed only a little, very recently.

The defining feature of that culture is its sequential nature – clients write a brief (on their own), then agencies write a brief (on their own), then creatives write some ads (on their own), then the clients buy the ads (or not), the agency makes the ads (on their own), they buy some media to show them to their target audience. Then they stop the campaign and begin to prepare the next one.

The defining cultural value is control. At each point in the process, an individual organisation or department can work almost entirely in isolation, crafting its response and then passing it on to the next link in the chain. This control is then of course extended to media deployment, where campaigns (again, very telling language) can begin and end. Once you want the consumers to stop looking at something, you simply stop showing it, and it’s game over.

Many advertising and marketing organisations have made the mistake of trying to take this cultural approach in the 21st century. It doesn’t really work. It’s the kind of approach that leads brands to try to delete tweets and fear Facebook, or, as one client said to us recently “in this UK social media campaign, how are we going to manage the fact that we have different positionings in the US and Asia? Can you make sure they don’t see it?” Short of uninventing the internet, it was hard to know how to respond. The problem was so clearly organisational, not technological – if you’re a global brand, everyone everywhere can see what you’re doing. If you’re worried about it looking inconsistent, make it consistent, or learn to live with it.

The cultural and organisational solutions to this problem are now becoming quite well established, in discussion, albeit patchily implemented. So what needs to be done?

The defining values must be openness and collaboration. It is important to stress here that we are not looking for chaos (confusion and disorder), but instead aspire to anarchy (a system of governance that creates a productive outcome through non-hierarchical collaboration of a range of agents). In a world with as many complex transactions as ours, the search for ever more intricate control systems is futile. Instead, we need to create systems that enable us to understand and manage complexity.

The organisations and individuals that are thriving are those who are comfortable with sharing early and collaborating with many, understanding that being part of a team that achieves greatness is preferable to sole authorship of mediocrity. We can see this in the comparison between the slow decline of Hollywood movies and the rapidly rising popularity of gaming and HBO TV series. The Hollywood movie has long held to the role of the auteur – the tyrannical director who bends armies to his will – whereas the growing entertainment forms in gaming and on TV make stars of their platforms (eg Halo, Assassin’s Creed, The Sopranos), rather than their authors. These platforms require the creative collaboration of legions of writers and coders, rather than the direction of any individual. This is the emerging model in marketing and advertising, with the concept of “lead agency” increasingly anachronistic and influence more important than line management authority.

We are creating experiences, not messages. The cultural values of broadcast – ie “telling” people things – are becoming less and less useful, largely because messages are painfully hard to integrate across different media. Any media based on interaction and engagement doesn’t function particularly well when it becomes a controlled monologue. As an example, for our Mercedes clients in the UK, we create a series of brand experiences based on interactive platforms, like the immersive gaming of Escape the Map, or the Twitter-driven TV narrative for the A-Class launch. They are harder to execute but more effective in market.

We are embracing failure. With the old “control” mindset also came a blame culture, because, after all, if you’re in control and you fail, it’s your fault. Prolonged periods of preparation and prolonged periods of analysis led to caution and consequences. In the 21st century, successful cultures have learned to place lots of small bets, where failure is survivable and data analysis is in place to ensure that learning is rapid. The culture becomes one of failing fast, failing small on the path to winning big.

These cultural changes are not new, and a broad consensus exists among business and tech commentators, (Malcolm Gladwell, Jonah Lehrer, Tim Harford, etc). In addition, the world’s most admired creative businesses, such as Google and Pixar, have already shown the power of working this way. But advertising and marketing organisations are simply not grasping the need for change.

They focus on technology rather than culture, and it will be to their cost.

Fortune favours the culturally brave.

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