The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]


Where Is The R&D Department In Adland?
March 31, 2008, 7:04 am
Filed under: Comment

Jerry maguire

Sometimes adland truly repulses me.

Yep, repulses.

I am sick to death of hearing agencies talking about things like big thinking and fresh perspectives when in reality they are either …

1 Small thinking with a snappy title [LoveMarks]

2 Someone else’s big thinking that they have just latched onto [Opening an agency on Second Life]

3 Perspectives that don’t figure in the agency output except for when there is a [i] PR opportunity [ii] Media press release

The fact is that in most agencies there is so little real new news, that we have to come to the conclusion that the well of new thinking has quite possibly dried up.

Except it hasn’t has it!

Nope, in every agency there’s a bunch of people who have fucking excellent ideas that truly could make a difference.

A difference to clients, communities, colleagues and the industry as a whole.

And why don’t we get to experience them?

Because for all their talk about moving forward and embracing opportunity of change – most agencies do nothing other than desperately cling onto the past.

Rear View Mirror Photo: Unwired Adventures

To be fair this is not just their fault, clients have a major influence in this situation given they all too often want ‘ads’ rather than ‘ideas’  [or should I say, will only PAY for ‘ad’s’ rather than ‘ideas’] – but my question would then be which came first – clients with specific demands or agencies with only one way of approaching a problem?

[I’ve talked about this previously and some of the comments were very interesting]

And please don’t give me that ‘but agencies produce ideas every day’ bollocks.

An ‘ad idea’ is very, very different to an ‘idea’.

What sold more iPOD’s? The shadow execution or iTunes?

Or put another way, the agency or the R&D Department of Apple?

And if you think agencies can’t or shouldn’t do that sort of thing, I would say that demonstrates how fucked the industry is.

Master of the puppets / Maestro de marionetas Photo: Victor Nuno

We are in the business of knowing and understanding what motivates people – their fears/hopes/wants/loves – which means we should be able to spot opportunities that [1] would make people do things and [2] make our clients wealthy – and yet in most cases our answer to every client brief is to do an ‘ad’ when the more effective – not to mention more creative – response would be to ‘create something’ – something that would make a real difference [both to client, consumer and community] rather than relying on ad’s that hopefully might encourage the right outcome.

I’ve said this many times agencies in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s were far more creatively pragmatic, inventive and ingenious than much of what we see today.

Sure the World was very different back then  – and there are some agencies around now who are genuinely breaking new ground – however I’m not just talking about ‘ad’s’, I’m talking about the overall inventiveness of agency thinking..

While not created in a specific ‘R&D’ department, the fact is decades ago agencies thought-up, developed, nurtured and invested in revolutionary [for the time] disciplines/ideas like advertising research … strategic planning … branding … product placement … and yet today we seem to have created very little that is fundamentally and/or universally new? [excluding web development, obviously]

Just like I believe if NIKE started today, they would end up a very different company to what they are now – I also believe if someone came up with the idea for strategic planning, they would be unlikely to ever see it reach the light of day, at least not with an agency backing and funding it.

Now while that might sound like a dream to a whole host of creatives out there – I think that is utterly, totally, frustratingly tragic – because our industry can only propser if we truly understand, represent and motivate the masses which means we have to look forward at what’s happening, not just always rely on the past.

To make matters worse, because we focus on the lives of the consumer, rather than just look for business efficiencies – I genuinely believe advertising has the capacity to be better than almost any other discipline – certainly management consultants – at idenifying and creating consumer motivating/business profitable ideas … so to see so many companies seemingly give up the fight for this right, just devastates me.

Empty Box 

Why isn’t there an R&D philosophy within agencies?

Why don’t agencies have an R&D budget?

Why wouldn’t most comms companies invest in nurturing an idea, even if they thought it had real potential?

Why do networks only spend money fine-tuning a past generations moment of genius or another industries hard work?

Why have most agencies embraced an attitude of ‘passive advancement’ when it was their spirit of ‘active discovery’ that made them famous and valuable?

Why does advertising treat marketing as a distant cousin rather than a close relative?

I’ll tell you why, MONEY – or more specifically – the desire to not spend any of it.

Look, I’m not advocating reckless spending in areas that have no value [they did that in the 80’s anyway], I’m talking about the investment in dramatically new thinking that could potentially change the nature of the industry like planning did or even research.

And of course, there’s that beautiful element of irony given agencies are forever slagging off clients for not being brave enough to embrace the opportunities they’ve identified for them when in the main, they are still far more progressive [and brave] than most agencies could ever hope to be.

Now I am sure people will now throw a whole host of ‘big ideas’ that agencies have supposedly produced – and that’s fine – but prepare for me to throw down the gauntlet, because as far as I am concerned, most of what has been chucked out in the past 10-15 years [note I said ‘MOST’, not all] has been nothing more than a re-hash of the past and if we are to continue with some sort of commercial value in the future, then R&D shouldn’t be a department only our clients have.


36 Comments so far
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Beats me.

Comment by John

I think the last truly brilliant idea was NIKE+ that was initiated by R/GA. Please, correct me if I am wrong.
But you are absolutely right. Most agencies don’t understand that ideas and not just ads are the solution to the client’s problem that most times is a business problem.
And these ideas can be nearly everything. A new design, a new product, a different distribution, a website, an ad, an event…the list is endless.
But you have to be brave to not only think but do it. Most clients come to an ad agency to brief them on what’s in the name. Ads. If you think that there is a better solution to their problem you literally have to ignore what they are coming for.
And that’s the problem I have in my agency. We think of better ways but our bosses are afraid to present them. Because the clients didn’t aks for it. That’s a thing that makes me unbelievable angry. And I don’t know where to go where I can work like the way you describe it. I just know I have to leave the place I am right now.
Anyway a good post. And I am first. Before Andy. So there is a chance to keep the topic. Haha.

Comment by Seb

John. How nice of you to be first.
If it’s not Andy, then you. Brilliant.
Brilliant Bollocks.

Comment by Seb

Fantastic post Robert. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms but I sadly have to agree with you.
With so many agencies looking to spend as little as possible on training, what hope has new thinking got to make the leap from brain to accepted discipline.
Looking forward to reading everyone elses comments.

Comment by Pete

You poor sod Seb – Andy is currently being mugged in Rio or something and you STILL can’t make the [only in your mind] important ‘first post’.

The problem is most agencies think that way Seb because [1] that’s the structure they know that allows them to make money [2] clients only see them as ‘executioners’ rather than business solution providers [via mass consumer movements] – hence a desire to ‘stay as they are’ outweighs all other opportunities.

It doesn’t have to be that way – and there’s lots of companies who are showing it can be done, from Ideo to Anomoly to Cynic – but it’s still quite early days though I genuinely think it will change, it’ll have to.

As Andy said a while back, as soon as the majors see too much money being given to smaller companies rather than them, they’ll go for fundamental change as regards their product offering so it will influence how the whole industry operates – which can only be a good thing for clients, consumers and advertising in general.

Well, until they decide they want to go back to lowest-common-denominator money making again 🙂

Saying that, this post wasn’t just about ‘marketing ideas that aren’t [1] traditional media [2] ambient media’ … it was also about the industries lack of vision and investment in areas that fundamentally improve the quality and value of advertising, of which I used planning as an example.

My view is that if someone developed this theory on ‘insights’ today, no agency would back it – or give it the time to develop – because most agencies today focus on cash maximisation rather than future relevance, a bit like marketing managers who only care about the 2 years they’re going to be in that position so do all they can to ‘not fuck anything up’ as opposed to trying something that could help them leave their mark for generations to come.

No one wants to be seen as failing, but at the rate the industry is going, no one is doing anything that they can ever fail at in the first place … because as much as companies claim they don’t mind their staff failing if they were doing something for the right reasons, the reality is very, very different – and again – anyone with shares is part of the problem, not the solution.

Comment by Rob

Being in the probably strange position of studying on an Advertising course that isnt part of a company’s training or anything, I’m pleased to say that our lecturers seem to echo this post.

In terms of an having an idea that can solve the clients needs being the main concern and that ads should only be made if they suit that big idea, then at least in my Uni’s case, this is what is being taught and actively encouraged.

Whether this is the same across all similar courses I don’t know, but I have cirtainly handed in many a project without what I would consider to be adverts.

In theory this type of thinking should therefore transfer to the industry, though whether we’ll have any more luck changing things than anyone else is obviously up to how stubborn and willing to be unemployed we are.

Comment by Dave Mortimer

Sure there are some good companies. That truly understand that without risks and radical thinking we are just a bunch of performing primates. But it’s hard to get in there for an unstudied monkey like I am. Haha.

But you are definitely right that what for us today is basic thinking most of today’s agencies wouldn’t support because it’s not cost effective. Short term. And here is their problem. The biggest inventions of our time were’nt cost effective in the short term. The car for example. Too expensive and only for a few people in the beginning.
But that only shows that most advertising people today are afraid to take risks and aren’t true visionaries. They only look out for cash and awards. It begins with most juniors I know. The just want to win awards and earn more money, be a coporate big head creative director and win more awards…they don’t want to change something.
And honestly I hope the big networks won’t get that too soon. I don’t like them. They are part of the problem. Because they kill revolutionary and radical thinking. Or buy it.

Comment by Seb

if companies truly invested in R&D (or content, as The Kaiser may put it), it might actually expose the big pink elephant in the room: that most of the advertising industry is a fucking waste.

and we couldn’t possibly have that, could we?

Comment by lauren

I don’t know if I totally agree with that Lauren – that’s more an issue with advertising research [or the current attitude in too many research companies] than advertising though I appreciate the two are inherently linked.

I love advertising – I genuinely think it can make a massive difference to organisations and society – it’s just that I don’t, and never have, subscribed to the opinion that it can’t also involve things like NPD / distribution / packaging etc – and I still find it amazing that people regard that as maverick thinking.

Saying that, I am very pleased to hear David is being taught both ‘reality’ and ‘vision’ on his course.

I must admit I find people who study advertising quite scary [ha] but if they’re learning things other than just the ‘accademic’ side of the discipline, then it can only be a good thing.

Comment by Rob

Great post Robert and it shows how agencies are continually losing out on huge potential revenues because people with entrepreneurial ideas will try and go it alone rather than run the risk of being exploited and ripped off by their employer.

Most employment contracts even state that any idea developed during the period of employment is owned by the company (rather than the creator) which naturally encourages people to be exclusive rather than inclusive.

Until major companies encourage “reward sharing” on matters of ingenuity, they will continue to only play in the area that they have created for themselves.

Comment by George

Rob, I agree with your post. I think there is another layer to this problem; most big agencies actually believe they’re developing ‘great tools’ / new / innovative / better ways working / ideas or what ever you wanna call it.

Sitting in their corporate headquarters, where they have a designated team of 5 who are thrust with the responsibility of taking the agency in to the future ……[the alleged R & D team] who actually think they’ve created something new and then others believing it.

They don’t consider themselves as ‘laggards’ when it comes to ideas and how to get ideas, they whole heartedly believe in their new ‘innovative thinking’ that’s just been developed. – this is the problem!!

After all that the biggies secretly crib that clients don’t come to them for ideas, and then ‘ideate’ on that! Ha !

Comment by bhaskar

I learn so much from being here.
I was having this conversation with my boss the other day – trying to push us to get more involved early on with product innovation etc – that was based purely on a post I read on this blog a while ago. Great stuff Rob, thanks.

Comment by Age

No one has the monopoly on new thinking so I find it amusing so many in advertising think they have. I have my theories on why this is the case but I don’t want to be accused of being Freudlike, I’ll leave that to Robert 🙂

Comment by George

What George is too polite to say is that too many people in advertising only work/socialise within the bubble of like-minded types because it helps them maintain their delusion of being important, valuable and relevant to the outside World.

While this behaviour can help develop ideas, they are still generally within the context of a specific discipline – whereas variety of discussion and experience tends to open the door to completely new opportunities which if nurtured, developed and embraced can make a much bigger impact on everyone directly and indirectly associated with it.

Comment by Rob

R&D Adland = A&R musicland
Steps = Artic Monkeys/Soulja Boy

R&D Adland does happen though, but the people doing it don’t get paid for by agencies. The guys from Method have a backround in advertsing (one is a planner even!!).

Perhaps the business-model for agencies does not allow for R&D. If agencies were more like VC’s, that would perhaps change. Playing with your own money does seem to bring out a lot of “small budget/big thinking + action orientated” ideas.

Stop calling yourself an ADVERTSING agency and you will stop making just ads. Perhaps very simplistic and Tony Robbins, but framing the issue correctly is half the battle. Let’s start by imposing a rule that 15% of a ad agencies revenue (forget margin for a sec) should be derived from non advertising related projects. From actual trading, inventing, patenting, royalties etc… should make for a nice award category as well…

Comment by niko

I get what you’re saying Niko, but I don’t think it’s about what you’re called … or even the business model [though obviously that has major implications] … it’s about what the company want to achieve and be known for and then working around that interms of pricing, hiring and clients – which is why I’ve been able to learn from a forensic profiler and design Jumbo Jet interiors when alot of ‘media neutral’ agencies have only been able to do different kinds of ads.

Comment by Rob

So u know everything about the interior of airplanes, and u know about the tricks the FBI uses to hunt down serial killers??

I am guessing that u won’t be stopping in the USA any time soon??

Comment by niko

If agencies were to remove the word advertising from their name, that might send a message of intent. They could even call themselves marketing communication companies. But, of course, they’d have to walk the walk and that seems financial risky, but soon enough they will have to do so anyway.

Comment by John

Great post Rob to which bhaskar adds a very valid point. The lack of self-criticism coupled with rampant complacency in agencies is a root cause to the problem. No doubt about it.

Love it when you put words in Geoerge’s mouth Rob: “What George is too polite to say is that too many people in advertising only work/socialise within the bubble of like-minded types because it helps them maintain their delusion of being important, valuable and relevant to the outside World.”

Comment by fredrik sarnblad

We are in an age where ‘creating something’ is cheaper and easier than ever before, but toofew agencies do it.

I wonder if there is a case to be argued that clients have too much power over ads now, and this a: makes producing original ideas harder and b: makes it harder to take risks.

Comment by Rob Mortimer

Lots of agencies say they’re not about advertising – they say they’re all about ‘communication’ – which means what they call themselves has no impact on what they think / what they do which also means they are as guilty of the situation adland finds itself in as the changing dynmaics of client power.

And of course I have to put words in George’s mouth – he’s far too nice to say anything too tough 🙂

Comment by Rob

This is the second time you have openly praised clients as regards what they achieve versus what many advertising agencies achieve and I have to say it is very refreshing to read.

Naturally I have my suspicions why you have adopted this stance, but it would be a disservice to our friendship if I didn’t enquire whether you were OK.

A truly excellent post and one I hope that gets widely syndicated and discussed.

Comment by Lee Hill

When I first met you guys I really liked that you actually wanted people to develop and learn so its fucking great that you didn’t turn out to be talking a load of shit.

You could still pay me more 🙂

Comment by Billy Whizz

What on earth would I do without your ventriloquist abilities Robert 🙂

Comment by George

fuck me a good serious campbell post. i agree, what you call yourself has fuck all with what you do, its what you believe that makes the fucking difference which is why hhcl will always piss on places like saatchis who talk a lot but do fuck all else except ads with “love” somewhere in the fucking strat.

billy youre lucky we pay you at all so stop whining, you sound like george who moans so much in private company that rob has to act as his spokesperson in public 🙂

Comment by andy@cynic

I didn’t mean changing the name woud change the behaviour – if I did, I’d buy into all your branding bollocks now wouldn’t I? What I meant was that it might send a message to the clients who are just as guilty if not more so than the agencies.

Comment by John

And Andy I saw through your April fool’s gag straight away – paying Billy – yeah right.

Comment by John

My branding bollocks John?

Have you read your own blog lately? 🙂

Comment by Rob

you and me are on the same wavelength dodds. now that is fucking scary.

Comment by andy@cynic

Great post Rob. It’s ironic isn’t it that an industry that has so many people devoted to planning and creativity finds it so difficult to plan and be creative about their own business.

Comment by neilperkin

Thank the fuck Neil is here to bring normality to everything ..

That’s a great point Neil – just like it’s funny an industry based [supposidly] on creativity and freedom of expression and is one of the most structured and conservative in business.

How the hell are you by the way???

Comment by Rob

That’s what happens when a creative industry is run by the bean counters.

I blame the Saatchis and their bid for the Midland. BBC Four says thats where it all went wrong for the mad men … 😉

Comment by Rob Mortimer

I think it’s all too easy to blame the bean counters. Sure they have a responsibility in what’s happeneing, but then so do shareholders who constantly want more cash.

To be honest, Accountants are probably far better at “creating” theories/philosophies regarding how to maximise wealth than most agency types …

At HHCL, Robin Price was very intergral in the agencies growth and development and without him, much of what HHCL wanted to do would never of seen the light.

There are a lot of reasons for this downturn in advertisings ingenuity but I think one factor is the lack of training.

It seems the only thing people get trained on these days is the agencies “proprietry tool” whereas in my day it was also about the attitude, philosophy, desire of the company and what it wanted to create and stand for.

Then when the most discernable difference in most agencies these days is the name on the door, what can you expect eh?

It will get better – it has to – but it’ll be driven by commercial loss [for big networks towards smaller shops] rather than any desire to get things back on track off their own back.

Comment by Rob

I completely agree with you Rob and with everyone here who says agencies are too afraid to actually change, though we’re constantly pretending to evangalise about it to clients.

However, I wonder if we would benefit from some postmortem, why is it that agencies have become what they have today? Why have the HHHCL and Howard Gossages disappeared? Surely it can’t simply be that good advertising people have all died or that creativity in people is dead (this blog proves otherwise), a lot of it is also because of how companies themselves have changed and relegated marketing to a cost instead of an investment.

And this isn’t about clients Vs Agencies, as I think we’re both far closer to each other in make-up than we’d like to admit, but simply that in the days of Bill Bernbach or even in the case of HHCL, the marketing guy you spoke to was seen as a critical component of making a product a success and hence had the ear of the top guys. Today you find that most marketing departments are seen as some kind of PoS providers for the sales departments and in some cases as a facade to the perceived heart of the company-the bean counters.

So, while I think agencies should have R&D, I also think that’s going to be a reality only when more clients are willing to pay for it. Currently the thinking is “If I pay someone to do R&D, why am I paying my R&D?” which is the reason why functions are treated as silos with each of the heads building empires instead of working together and being open to ideas.

I would be particularly interested in knowing what you think of this Lee, and why you think this is happening.

As Sir Frank Lowe said once in an interview a client told him he doesn’t think about building brands over time because in the short-term he has sales targets and in the long-term he doesn’t have a job.

So much for the problem, what’s the solution? I can think of a couple, firstly we need a generation of ad people who are actually close to the CEOs and have their trust to be more than ad suppliers. And secondly more important than an Ad School I think is a client school where we identify and nurture good marketing brains to be the future clients.

Just my two cents worth.

Comment by Hari

Fair enough, sounds logical to me.

That’s a good point about proprietry tools. If you are learning ‘ABC ad theory” and nothing else it will make it hard to change or adapt.

Comment by Rob Mortimer

Good points Hari … and in HHCL’s case there were many reasons for their slow decline/disappearence … however speaking for myself, I do know that after a period of time, running and building a business has the potential to lose its excitement because you end up doing things that are further and further away from what you were passionate about.

Not only that, but over time the people you are in business with change/evolve – often because of simply growing up or changes in circumstance – and that can add additional pressure to how the company develops/runs.

Luckily for me that’s not been the case, but my admiration for a brand like NIKE grows by the day because despite being around for years and years – achieving success after success – they still convey the same passion, hunger and energy as when they first started.

Sure that could be marketing brilliance, but in adland, I don’t know any agency that has been able to maintain that initial hunger over 10 years.

Well, until cynic that is 😉

Comment by Rob




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