The future of advertising isn’t advertising

by Robin Grant in News Google+

There’s been a lot of debate this year about what the future holds for agencies, culminating in this in depth look at the future of advertising in Fast Company.

As you might guess, it’s a subject that’s pretty close to my heart, and during Internet Week I talked about the evolving agency landscape at the Results International event ‘Time to ‘reboot’ and prepare for growth’:

As you can see from my deck above, I talked about four trends:

  • the convergence of advertising and digital
  • the convergence of earned and paid media
  • the agency singularity
  • a new kind of agency

Some of these theories aren’t particularly new (for example Mark Cridge eloquently talked about the convergence of advertising and digital back in Jan ’09, Todd Defren heralded the creative destruction of public relations a couple of months ago and digital agencies are increasingly realising that they’re the new dinosaurs), but I was struck by the similarity of my overall thesis to that of slides 7-12 of William Owen‘s recent talk at the APA:

Those slides present a similar vision in a different way, and I love his networked media model on slide 10 (in fact I had so much deck envy I stole his much better title for my post), but his conclusions stop short of revealing the bigger picture:

What’s emerging is a clear and simple separation between selling stuff and making useful stuff, people pitting experience design against messaging, a new model versus an old model.

It’s not that I don’t think the idea of ‘branded utility’ is useful in certain contexts, it’s just that that sort of thinking is reminiscent of a past, non-network, era (one where the idea of building a ‘destination’ was more relevant).

The important thing to remember is the nodes you see in networked media models such as William’s are people and the connections between them are conversations.

Meaning the need for a ‘big idea’ is replaced by the ability to have an ongoing conversation with different audiences in multiple different places. So to compare and contrast, I’d offer up our work with Clothing at Tesco as a counter to the Art of the Trench case study William uses.

So, he is right when he says the future will be inherited by “agencies that don’t call themselves ad agencies”, but wrong in that they won’t be experience design agencies like Made by Many or Adaptive Path (although they’ll still have a role where experience design is required), just as much as they wont be ‘advertising agencies’, ‘digital agencies’ or ‘PR agencies’.

My thesis (as outlined in my deck above) is that the future requires a new kind of agency (and remember, that future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed).

Whether they pitch themselves as a ‘conversation agency’ as we do, an ‘engagement agency’ as Deep Focus, Engine Group’s first US acquisition, does, or use the more generally accepted shorthand of ‘social media agency’, the key is they are designed from the ground up for the age of social media, able to facilitate and create conversations for their clients.

If you liked this post, why not subscribe to We Are Social by or ?

  • Robin Grant

    Hey Eaon

    I'm railing against the complacent view that nothing has to change – we just need to keep doing what we always did.

    The world, and people's behaviour with it, has fundamentally changed as a result of social media. And agencies that don't recognise they need to change too, will go the way of the dinosaurs.

    However, it's clearly better for me and We Are Social if they don't get it, so I'll shut up!


  • simonbigpicture

    But it's so much more than a stunt – it's an idea that demonstrates the product benefits, gets people to buy and gives them a social object to talk about. It uses ads, sales promotion, word of mouth and PR too – and demonstrates ROI. That's just a good idea that solves a business problem – how do get people to give a damn about a type of suet
    The key point is that once upon a time people embraced big picture thinking rather than jusyt trying to sell their particlular discipline

  • eaon pritchard

    First your 'railing against' me and now I'm a complacent dinosaur?

  • Robin Grant

    Sorry Eaon. On reflection I was feeling slightly frustrated at myself that I didn't seem to be getting my point across, and railing against a view that you articulated but I feel is a common one in the industry. It was not aimed at you personally.

  • Daniele Fiandaca

    Sorry for coming so late into the conversation but overall great post with some excellent commentary. I saw a presentation by Robin Wight (President of the Engine Group) earlier this week (recorded at Likeminds) where he said ‘The Future is bright, the future’s social’. In this he says that ‘brands only exist because they help consumers make buying decisions without using too much brainpower’ (as apparently we are lazy). If this is true you have to question what the role of the brand has become in this social world given the easiest solution for many now is to tap into their networks to find out about a product rather than rely on their advertising and the ‘brand’. It also means that the product itself is more important than ever and maybe our creativity should be focused on making the product better itself. However I think it would be churlish to dismiss advertising completely. Having for much of my career sniffed at the future of tv advertising, social seems to have bred life back into the tv spot especially as we move from a world of story telling to one of story building. Just look at perhaps two of the most successful social campaigns of the last few years, Comparethemeerkat and Old Spice – both led by a tv ad. I suppose what I am saying is that it is not black and white and for me, the agencies that will succeed will be the ones that understand that social has changed the landscape completely (Mark Earls, @herdmeister, sums this up well when he says ‘We need to move from a world where we are marketing to people to one where people are marketing to each other on our behalf), provide a good environment for talented people and are agile enough to constantly evolve. As a result I wonder whether the communications landscape over the next few years might look a little like this –…/

  • Alastair Duncan

    Robin, thanks for referencing my ancient blog on Brand Republic :) 'all about advertising that isn't advertising' and thanks for asking me to comment.

    The framework within which agencies operate has been creaking for some time, driven by client demands – more for less – and consumer behaviour – more social – and a proliferation (balkanisation as Simon references above) and indeed oversupply of offerings at every level throughout the comms supply chain – more confusing.

    As in any time of disruption, the old scaled models continue but simply make less money, as is happening to all the big networks, whilst the new 'pirates' nibble away at their lunch until they are bought or sold, or mature themselves.

    Looking at our own industry – the issue is not really social v traditional but in what services clients buy and how they buy them. There are two extremes – they buy nothing, (the top 50 luxury brands don't use agencies at all, Google began to only recently) or they outsource everything (Brother Printers need an agency as nobody in the organisation can write or place an ad.) The battle for the middle will rage on…

  • Pingback: Il futuro dell'advertising non è l'advertising |

  • Graeme Wood

    Great post Robin – ok, so i'm a bit late to add anything to this one, but for what it's worth I think there's some truth in the model you are proposing. Not in the sense that a new type of 'conversation agency' will eat the traditional types, but more that I can only see two types of agency – good ones and bad ones. As Beavis and Butthead relentlessly pointed out, there's only two kinds of music, music that rocks and music that sucks. So agencies that rock will put the right things at the core (as in your slide) and base their communications on what has and hasn't changed. Maybe i've been reading too much of Bud's stuff recently, but I'm also struggling to see this in any sense other than evolutionary. As Shirky says, behaviour is motivation filtered by opportunity. While opportunity is changing faster than ever, motivation is hardwired into us – and as a species we are more interested in each other than we are in content. Agencies making Stuff are in the content business, and content is just something to talk about.

  • Robin Grant

    Hey Graeme – it's never too late… 😉

  • Pingback: The Art of Conversation « Digital Discoveries()

  • Mel Exon

    I suspect I agree with George, that clients will need experts who are equipped to see the whole marketing picture AND – as that landscape continues to mutate – people who truly specialize in emerging behaviours and tools. Ideally so brands can experiment and learn with confidence, rather than wait for the world to settle down. Clue: we know it's not going to.

    I'm with Bud in the sense that crystal ball gazing always feels awkward, but I guess we can work on this premise of constant change. As a result, what feels “new” now will either fall away or become so fundamental it becomes part of the core. When the latter happens does the specialist win or the generalist? History says it doesn't really matter – you just have to be very good.

    Actually presuming we know what will be the central driving force in marketing in future makes me feel uneasy.. It follows I'm not convinced by your argument that “social agencies” in particular hold the key. I'd be more convinced if you said that understanding networks and conversation on the web is important and will undoubtedly give us clues about how brands can thrive in future. Either way, the social web is still just one input, a rich one, sure, but there are others. Manufacturing methods, the structure and location of workforces are two. In our immediate world, bought media still has a huge role to play in raising awareness and – as uncomfortable as this may feel to admit – when done right is still the quickest way to *persuade* people to talk with and about your brand in the first place. For a fairly hardcore defence of “messaging”, check out what Ben Kunz had to say on a recent post on Edward Boches blog:…. Likewise, platforms that allow people to coalesce around a shared goal together – in effect marketing as a community service or product – are another consideration.

    In short, it feels foolhardy to stick a stake in the ground and say one of these will “rule” the others in future. The agencies that may win big in future will have a mindset that allows them to shapeshift and evolve, whatever their specialist skill(s) may look like now. For my money, I'd forget trying to gaze over the horizon with a pair of binoculars with a flag in my hand, and think instead about how to develop an agency's mindset so that it's comfortable being agile, capable of delivering today with one eye on whether that will work tomorrow. Along the way staying smart and nice enough that other parties (agencies, software partners, clients, people – whatever) will choose to collaborate with them. Either way, it's trite to say it, but these are exciting times. As ever, thanks for the thought provoking post Robin, it's been a pleasure reading your blog all year. All the very best for 2011.

  • Robin Grant

    Thanks Mel! And likewise…

  • Pingback: How is the Social Web Disrupting the Agency Ecosystem (in India and China)? | Gauravonomics Blog For Marketers, Entrepreneurs and Activists()

  • Stefano


    my short reaction is: I think you're (at least partially) wrong.
    The longer feedback is: if we look at it this way, we confuse cause and effect.
    Talking about a “social agency” is no different from talking about an “effectiveness agency”: that's the result we all want, but how we do get there?
    If you think we do that by focusing on the relationships, you again look at the process and not the cause: people are still inspired by ideas, talk to each other about ideas, take action because of a compelling idea that they get behind.

    So the agency of the future still has to create that compelling idea (a concept, a product, a service…) AND share it in a way that best optimizes the network age: but unless the idea is relevant, people won't care.
    And yes, the idea must be devised in a way that lets people carry it around, but that only works if the idea is genuinely interesting.

    P.S. I intentionally steered away from the word “conversation”, partly because, once again, that's the effect, and partly because there are many instances when people have no interest in “engaging in a conversation” with our clients, and we shouldn't force them to. By placing this view of the world as the pillar of our work we take an ideological stand on advertising (or whatever it is we want to call it), and our work is everything but ideological…

  • Stefano

    By the way,

    here's a more fundamental question: if you think that engaging in regular conversations with your customers is the most effective form of marketing (and I might agree with it, depending on the industry), why do you assume that an agency of whatever kind is in a better place to do that than the company itself? :)

  • Robin Grant

    Hey Stefano

    I've sort of had the same argument with Eaon in the comments above, but for clarity, I disagree. Here's my thinking:

    People are still inspired by ideas, talk to each other about ideas, take action because of a compelling idea that they get behind.

    So the agency of the future still has to create that compelling idea (a concept, a product, a service…) AND share it in a way that best optimizes the network age: but unless the idea is relevant, people won't care.

    I suppose this is the received wisdom I'm railing against. I genuinely don't think some of this is true. The Advertising/Digital agency world view of “making stuff” is fundamentally wrong, or at the very least only part of the truth.

    Yes, you need something to activate conversation, but that isn't, in the vast majority of cases, a “big idea” or a “social object”. It's usually something much, much smaller, local and topical, and most importantly, initiated by an individual, not media spend putting a piece of video content in front of someone. Jonny Stark articulated this much better than I in the comments above:

    The relationship starts by making the connection – which can happen on the lowest level, without some whizzy bangy creative or stunt. You don’t have to do 100 backflips to start talking to the postman, or your local baker. We over complicate and overthink our approaches time after time regardless of discipline.

    Advertising and digital's biggest problem is both think about trying to build that relationship, still, by cramming everything into one hit – be it a digital ad, app, TV spot, or outdoor poster. Connections and relationship building are a longer term play. But that’s not to say paid for doesn’t have its place. Just the way it is executed and approached needs to shift.

    Actually having real conversations with real people is a much more powerful (and cost-effective) approach. My point above is that most agencies aren't set-up to have those conversations, and a new model is required.

  • Robin Grant

    Hey Stefano

    Good question – and you're not alone in asking this. The short answer is that I don't.

    Most companies will need strategic and creative help with getting set-up to do this, but depending on their circumstances, some will then implement with in-house resources while others will out-source this to agencies like us (and of course some will start with an out-sourcing model and move things in house over time). If you look at the services we offer you'll see we're set up to deal with all of those scenarios.

    Agencies such as ourselves will always be valuable, even to those looking to do things in house, due to the experience we can bring to bear across a multitude of clients and sectors, and, just like any other agency, being able to apply a swarm of strategic and creative thinkers to a problem – with the difference between us and other agencies being one of worldview (and therefore likely outcome – see my comment immediately above).

  • Stefano

    I read your comment above, and I agree with you when you say that we don't need a “big” thing all the time, but I don't think all agencies are trying to cram everything into one hit: that's what traditional agencies do, but they will soon move beyond this, at the very least because it's getting more unlikely to have access to the budgets required for “big”.

    I believe in the power of relationships but with two premises:

    – before you establish a relationship you have to introduce yourself; that's done with an act of communication, and you have to make that interesting otherwise people won't care about you. This is not about brands, this is something every junior high student knows when approaching his new classmates. So, it's still about the appeal of an “idea”, as defined as a thing and not the network that thing travels through. And that “idea” must be interesting and be able to stand out in a very crowded environment, so it can't be considered marginal, or be left to “someone, anyone” to come up with.

    – There are many instances when consumers don't care about having real conversations: my mobile operator is incredibly important for me, but all I care about is tariff and reliability of service. I don't want to engage in a relationship with them, and I won't in the future, unless they change their business model (ie., what they do and who they are). In that case, I will reassess their role in my life.

    As for your final point, I agree that most agencies aren't set-up to have those conversations. I believe that no agency is: such a conversation is so critical for the business and so rooted in it, that it can only be had from within the business. It's not something you can buy outside.

  • Stefano

    Having said that,

    the received wisdom is what you stand for.
    It's buzzwords like “join the conversation”, and “consumers own brands” and “be an open brand”.
    It's “user-generated content”.
    It's companies building up social media departments, hubs and buzz rooms.
    It's clients asking you for “a Facebook strategy” or “a Twitter strategy” or “a conversation strategy”, instead of a brand strategy, that defines your presence on facebook and twitter and what you converse about.
    It's “let's start talking to people” expecting to find millions of folks out there that were just waiting for a chance to tell you the story of their life, because it's all about “their story” and not yours.
    This is the received wisdom.

  • Robin Grant

    OK, fair point. There's certainly a lot of received wisdom on our side of the fence too. All I can say is that we're just as skeptical about it as we are of that from the advertising side.

    A lot of people have drunk way too much social media Kool-Aid – you will not find us among them…

  • Stefano

    Then we're on the same side.

    I think we're all in need of 30% more skepticism…

  • Robin Grant

    Yey! I'm glad we are agreed… 😉

  • Dino Demopoulos

    If I wasn't on vacation, I would articulate all the reasons why Mel is right.

  • Robin Grant

    Hey Dino – I guess I should count myself lucky… 😉

  • Greg Satell


    I don't have anything against social media, digital media or any other kind of media. In fact, I think it's all very exciting and cool (as is your presentation).

    Unfortunately, your basic also a bit off in that if affirms the consequent.

    If I understand the argument:

    If social media is succeeding, then traditional media is failing.
    Social media is succeeding, therefore traditional media is failing.

    What if traditional media isn't failing? Big agency margins are holding up very well. Traditional media companies are booming, TV viewership is at all time highs.

    Meanwhile, while social media successes get trumpeted, the failures are swept under the carpet. Everybody talks about Facebook, but what about MySpace, Friendster and all the others that never got on anybody's radar?

    While Yahoo is getting rid of Delicious, they are partnering with “Big Agencies” on demand side platforms (as is Google, Microsoft and AOL).

    None of this is meant to devalue the innovation that's going on or the work that you do, but your argument is more than a bit myopic. You use the facts that you like and ignore the ones you don't.

    – Greg

  • Jim Dowling

    Thanks for the invite Robin. It's taken me to December 23 to have a look, and I've now got cramp scrolling down through the comments. This is clearly giving many folk cerebral pain judging by the length and duration of the conversation – so I'll attempt to do what I always do, and dumb it all right down.

    The one thing that we agencies all have in common is that we exist to make money for ourselves. We all have logos, mission statements, brand positionings and points of view – but we do it all to get fee income so we can buy our kids toys for Christmas. Anything else is secondary.

    Clients spend money with agencies of whatever colour or creed, for one reason only. They think we can help them sell more of their products or services.

    Whether we all compete more or collaborate more, clients spend their big money with the agency that understands how to, and then ultimately persuades a customer to open their wallet and buy more stuff.

    The understanding part is planning. The persuasion part is ultimately the craft – making a nice film in 60 seconds, getting a story on the news, designing a piece of direct mail or whatever it is your agency does. Lots of people do the latter, and some are better at it than others. But ultimately, in the grand scheme of things, they are the arms and legs. This includes the 'ongoing conversation with consumers' craft. It may be new, but without interpretation of what goes in customers' heads it's cheap.

    There may be more planners and strategists around these days, but there aren't more bright people. The marketing and communication industry will always be built around people who understand what goes on in peoples' heads and then have the ability to communicate to them. Budgets follow brains, whatever building they are in.

  • Robin Grant

    Hey Greg – I'd like to think my argument was a little bit more nuanced than that, both in my original deck above, and in the comments.

    For example, my deck talks about four different trends I see happening. The convergence of earned and paid media being one of them, and you're right, I do talk about traditional media agencies 'failing' in a sense, in that they're being forced to diversify (slide 17) – but I'd say there's pretty good evidence for that, both on that slide and elsewhere.

    But you're right when you say that my argument is myopic, certainly my last point about 'a new kind of agency' is – quite deliberately and provocatively so. This comment thread would have been boring otherwise…

  • Robin Grant

    cerebral pain – that's exactly what I was aiming for 😉

  • Pingback: Who said "the best advertising isn't advertising" ? - Quora()

  • Gareth Jones

    Great post Robin and some good insights, thanks for sharing the decks. However, i would pick up on one point that you mention which a lot of agencies are guilty of and which i think needs pointing out. You say “…able to facilitate and create conversations for their clients.”

    You cant create a conversation for a client. Not one that has any longevity or authenticity anyway. Just like you cant have a meaningful conversation with someone who is important to me on my behalf for any length of time, if at all. You may be able to facilitate one for a short time, but it will not be sustainable. ‘Emperors tailors’ as someone recently referred to some of the new breed of agency are peddling a dependency that is false. The organisation has, ultimately to have its own dialogue, otherwise it will fail spectacularly.

    This is the fundamental shift that many, especially those in the agency world (including the new breed social media/conversation/engagement agencies) just don’t get. Pre SM, it was very much about the agency creating the brand, delivering the message and being behind the interaction. Not any more. The consumer (And increasingly the employee) is demanding and authenticity, intimacy and honesty that cannot be outsourced.

  • Robin Grant
  • Gareth Jones

    lol ???