The agency of the future: one year later

Or, stop worrying about it and read up on Mary Meeker.

Part one: The future has arrived, how are we doing?

A year ago I was reading about the Agency of the Future. There was much chatter over small versus big, digital versus traditional (whatever that means,) Chief Marketing Technologists and Chief Innovative Officers (because, in an agency, unless you're the CIO you're not innovating, right?) We'd have more freelancers and we would be unleashing the Digital Nomads with their liquid swords - just ask the GZA!

Or something.

At these new agencies, we were told, strategy should be lead from a pure technology side as client customers would be discovering the brand via the search box first. Why? Well because those customers were burning their TVs in the street, right? And they were blind to print and outdoor, no wait.., we shouldn't have been doing print and outdoor right? Or point of sale coupons. Nah, they were simply passé (excuse my French.)

I'm not exactly sure how all of this ended but the issue seems to have faded for now.

To be fair the authors of the posts and articles I read were well-meaning. Even some heads of agencies admitted in comments that they were up to their necks in the "digital" issue. Yet the biggest problem I could see was that the posts, and the comments that followed them, always fell into an either/or scenario. Out with the old in with the new. The Internet had sprung its well-oiled trap again. Digital tends to get its own silo in agencies yet some articles I read suggested that "integration" in agencies was a bad idea. I don't have a POV about that, but if we consider that the web is about people and perhaps we were to not treat 'digital' as totemic and almighty, as an alter upon which we can place the LED candles, we might spend more time with UI/UX creating a great experience for people, as many great shops now do, just too few.

It's always worth repeating that the web is its own thing. That doesn't mean we should approach the platform with a silo mentality, just as we shouldn't demand too much of anyone landing on a brand website (unless we've found that they want more.) We must always consider context and allow for easy navigation that leads to the fulfillment of visitor goals, not brand goals. Site visitors won't change their motivation or reasons to fit a brand's, so initiatives must be aligned with customer goals. In other words, use the platform to provide for people.

When brands don't provide that experience we get to suffer through this:

Ummm, what?

This is the disclaimer from the promo site for Carmelo Anthony’s new shoe.
(In) order to look at your site I need to fully QUIT any other applications I might be working in, not only switch which browser I’m using but also close all the other sites I might have open in tabs. THEN, I need to open my browser preferences to allow you to popup additional browser windows - which I’m not allowed to click. All this so you can….what?

But - it is HTML5, so…that’s a thing.

via This Is Violence

Whoever built that Carmelo Anthony site may have had the best intentions in mind, but somehow left usability as a guiding principle at the door. Perhaps they wanted to provide the "best website with the greatest content ever known to man!" Or someone decided that HTML5 is the future and was their best bet for garnering attention on the ever-crowded web. It just had to be "best!"

danah boyd has some thoughts about that:

Some people might immediately think, “Ah, but it’s a meritocracy. People will give their attention to what is best!” This too is mistaken logic. What people give their attention to depends on a whole set of factors that have nothing to do with what’s best. At the most basic level, consider the role of language. People will pay attention to content that is in their language, even if they can get access to content in any language. This means Chinese language content will soon get more attention than English content, let alone Dutch or Hebrew content. More here.

Which brings me back to agency, and the "futurists." Perhaps the authors of those articles and posts had never worked at an advertising and marketing agency? If they did maybe they were as confused as other agencies at what to do? If so, instead of asking how, they should have just been doing. Meanwhile, those who weren't worrying about the future were taking action in the present.

Let's take my hometown of Portland, Oregon for e.g. Small, forward-thinking shops were cropping up weekly over the last few years it seemed. Here's but a few off the top of my head: Small Society, CloudFour, Urban Airship, Fight and Uncorked. (Repeat after me, Mobile!) The folks at BankSimple are also here, busy reinventing banking. And we have the Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE) that is a partnership between the not-so-small Wieden+Kennedy and leading brands and technology innovators. While other agencies were apparently fretting about their future these companies were doing something positive and forward-thinking in the present.

A question: what is "agency" if not a gathering of people with a common cause? In philosophy, agency is acknowledged as the capacity to act. An advertising agency is something else. Quite a bundle. I prefer this: Agency (philosophy,) because it includes sociology. And therefore, people.

I'm trying to tread carefully here and not be the pot calling the kettle black; I work at a brand agency. Let's look at NORTH: we have designers, strategists, brand directors and brand managers, producers, filmmakers, editors, a technical director, musicians, sound engineers, a passel of contractors and a huge pile of dogs (yes, the animals..) and we are all creatives. People. We don't believe we are either too small or too big. We are not "de-centralized." We don't currently seem to need a Chief Marketing Technologist, and although I may fit the "role" of "Innovation Officer" I'd rather be hung up by my thumbs than take that title. We provide content for our brand clients. We understand the web as best as one can understand such a powerful, ever-shifting technology and how people use it. We are as excited as everyone else about the possibilities of the mobile platform and where it will lead us. Above all we like crafting stories in whatever medium the world can throw at us.

We've definitely evolved organically over the last two years but often that's because we've been provoked by new tools unfolding in front of us, tools that can provide our clients with ways to fulfill their brand promise while satisfying their customer's needs. We've never felt the urge to be "new." We are an agency. We don't need to zig as others zag. We are comfortable in our skin.

Sometimes you just have to do what you're really good at. Don't over think it. (<--- I think I've just booby-trapped myself.)

But seriously... one quick way to ascertain that your agency is working in the present would be to check that the following questions are being asked before you embark on client work - who, what, where, when; and how will they use it, access it and see it, in a mobile world?

Part two: Twitter as oral history - Keller, Tufekci and Plato on social media

When I'm with my students I remind them that I'm a stickler for the idea that there is nothing new in digital. By that, I mean the web is people-powered, not brand-powered, and by default has a decidedly anthropological streak that is often missed amongst the white noise of social media and the incessant interactive buzz. Networked computer connections started life as the Arpanet in the sixties. It was built by people (mainly professors, technicians and government folks) who wanted to share information. It was a network to connect the very large computers of the day, and with them, people. The early web. History is littered with examples of humans consistently creating methods of communication and the cognitive growth that followed.

The web is but one modern example of how technology shortens the distance between us but it isn't anything new of course. Prior to this digital hookup we had other distance-shortening technologies that connected people: the telegram, the Postal Service, the telephone, the motor vehicle and the ultimate distance shortener, the passenger jet. All of these technologies, upon their arrival, caused great disruption to prior industries. The Internet was no slacker when its turn came.

The newspaper industry certainly took a hit and those who had long careers within it were rather nonplussed. For e.g. Bill Keller, the former Executive Editor of the New York Times, spoke out against new technologies recently in The Twitter Trap. He found himself being schooled by Zeynep Tufekci. Here's an excerpt from Zeynep:

Bill Keller of the New York Times has just written a provocative piece lamenting that new technologies are eroding essential human characteristics. I would certainly agree that almost all technologies, especially those with a cognitive element, transform the way we organize, value and manage our intellectual and social lives–-indeed, such complaints were raised, most famously by Plato about how writing was emptying the words of their soul by disconnecting them from their living speakers.

Keller's main concern was this "The shortcomings of social media would not bother me awfully if I did not suspect that Facebook friendship and Twitter chatter are displacing real rapport and real conversation, just as Gutenberg’s device displaced remembering. The things we may be unlearning, tweet by tweet — complexity, acuity, patience, wisdom, intimacy — are things that matter."

This is Zeynep's response to that:

The key to understanding this is that while writing did displace the value of memory, the vast abundance of printed material did something else also, something less remarked upon, both to the shape of our public sphere and also to our psychodynamics. It replaced the natural, visceral human oral psychodynamics with those of literate and written ones. Most of us are so awash in this new form that we notice it as much as fish notice water; however, writing is but a blip and the printed form a flash in human history. Orality, on the other hand, is perhaps the most human of our characteristics, and ironically, the comeback of which into the public sphere is the one Keller is lamenting while worrying about losing our human characteristics. What he seems to actually mean is that, with the advent of writing and printing, we *acquired* these new cognitive tools and novel psychodynamic [and I should note that they never took that much root in most recesses of culture and thus remain fragile] and they are threatened by social media which re-introduces older forms which, of course, never died out but receded from public importance.

She eventually points out that Keller focused on the wrong technology platform in regard to "displaced remembering." It is Google that empties the "memory," while Twitter stores the "remembering." She finds Twitter "the most conversational, and thus most oral of these (social) mediums."

But this comparison between Gutenberg and Zuckerberg makes little sense unless you realize that Keller is actually trying to complain about the reemergence of oral psychodynamics in the public sphere rather than about memory falling out of favor. If the latter were the case, his ire would be more about Google; instead, most of his frustration is directed against social media, and mostly Twitter, the most conversational, and thus most oral of these mediums.

As we see, new technology disrupts Keller's worldview but inspires and informs Tufekci's. What Tufekci is saying is that Twitter not only revives human oral psychodynamics but stores them too. Much would be lost if technology simply had its way and people like Keller carped about these advances without fully understanding them. Tufekci brings a focus to Twitter that experienced journalists like Keller cannot comprehend, or don't want to, because they have a stake in the survival of newspapers. This won't hold.

As towns and small cities in America, of which there are far more than large cities, begin to see an erosion in their hometown news and media organizations, the idea of local news will soon be an afterthought, if it isn't already. Without reporters pounding the local beat, news will become increasingly fragmented and infused with national news piped in from centralized "news" rooms. A platform such as Twitter could play a defining role in helping keep alive the local oral history in these small towns and cities, as their citizens post to Twitter their everyday activities and share important local news. All tweets on Twitter, after all, are being archived by the Library of Congress. Disruption can be beneficial.

Part three: We've been here before - Back to the future

In Part one of this post I was looking back at how agencies had been attempting to look forward, to divine the future; the old and the new and the obsession with change. How the 'Agency of the Future' supporters had come across as shrill and were deriding larger, older institutions. It turns out they still are. I read this just this morning from Joseph Jaffe: The Agency of the Future which includes the line "the stumbling Goliaths of Madison Avenue." The article proves two things: I was wrong when I started out this post with the contention that the conversation around the future had died down. And provoking agencies with fiery posts about changing themselves is a non-starter.

Ironically, all that has been or is being said about the future can be summed up in one word: change. Change really upsets people and it really unsettles institutions. Jaffe sees an opening; he's demanding change. But talk is cheap (or these days posting is really cheap.) His only skin in the game is that of being a consultant, as he freely admits. (He's also a "Chief Interrupter..") He can rage until he's blue in the face but those "stumbling Goliaths of Madison Avenue" can remain deaf to his ministrations because embracing change is a scary proposition for them. He comes across as an outlier for sure, but not in the way so flimsily feted by Malcolm Gladwell. I sense the pinging in the echo chamber. It's not Jaffe's fault.

The thing is, change will be hard to come by if it is posited as "essential" as some have deemed. Change may be incremental or iterative, or ignored. One thing is for sure - change always happens regardless, it doesn't need to be forced.

The Greek philosophers took some extreme positions on the nature of change: Parmenides denied that change occurs at all, while Heraclitus thought change was ubiquitous: "You cannot step into the same river twice". I love that insight. Think about it. Heraclitus provides an argumentum a fortiori: If we agree that the river flows, then we cannot step into the same river twice.

Part four: Prehistory

Before we left the "Glyph Chamber" - Franklin called it the "Work Chamber" - he took us down to the far end of it, where he let us gawk at some four-thousand-year-old footprints. Left, right, left - a little fossilized sequence of movements. You half expected to get to the last one and find the heel of the foot leaving it with a sucking sound. Each toe mark was distinct. This footprint had been here for three thousand years already when the other one I'd seen - the one with the splayed toes - was left in the mud. There is, of course, nothing new about the New World. The Indians had their own prehistory. They used to pick up spearheads ten thousand years old and reshape them; a few of those have been found in graves. They had their own theories on who built the mounds.

Unnamed Caves by John Jeremiah Sullivan from Pulphead: Essays

Everything has gone before us. What Sullivan points out above is that by the time we discover three thousand year old Indian artifacts in caves and burial mounds dotted around the eastern states of America, the creators of those ancient artifacts had already been retooling spearheads that were 10,000 years old at the time. Which means there were on average 200 generations of aboriginal people (if the average lifespan was 50 years, and that's generous,) before the creators of those artifacts found in the "Glyph Chamber" entered the caves for the first time.

Attempting to divine the future condenses history to our detriment.

Dave Allen