Advertising agencies make a profit on deliverables: press ads, web sites, 48-sheet posters and so on. But they justify that profit on the basis of intangibles, things like ideas, cultural awareness and taste. The importance of these invisible assets cannot be underestimated. They’re the real difference between VCCP, BMB, BBH and CST. They’re what the client wants, doesn’t have and is going to have to invest a great deal of money and faith to get hold of. For something that styles itself as an industry we charge lot of money for je ne sais quoi.
This is fine, obviously, but it has at least one unfortunate side-effect. Agencies have to convince people that they have knowledge worth paying for, even when they patently do not. They suffer from the eternal problem of the Smart Alec: knowing everything makes it very hard to learn anything new. This is why new media are often quickly colonised by charlatans. In fact the term ‘new media’, previously used to describe the internet, is designed to imply ‘media that you’ll need to pay us to explain to you’.
More than words and pictures
Being massively patronising is only one of the possible techniques that agencies can deploy in a knowledge vacuum. In fact, new media are emerging all the time, generally we just ignore them. Consider two examples from the past couple of years: digital billboards and ads on the iPad.
Yes, says the agency, they are technically ‘new media’, but don’t worry, they’re not all that different from things we do already. Well no, not when these small differences have a huge impact, for the creative department in particular. Press and posters are difficult precisely because they offer that strange combination of limited parameters and infinite possibilities that characterises all the most rigorous forms of expression. We’ve been writing printed ads for something like 100 years now. All of us looking for the best, most impactful use of words and pictures, all of us with the sense that the task was getting more difficult with the passing of time. To go from words and pictures to words, pictures, location and movement is a very big deal. An exponential increase in creative possibilities, you might say.
Likewise the iPad, which, yes, I mocked in these very pages when it first came out. But what I was really registering was a kind of stunned admiration at Apple’s ability to make us want something we didn’t even know how to use. In fact, the iPad does offer a genuinely new platfrom for advertising. iPad ads compete for time on equal footing with other content, they can look beautiful, the acceler-ometer can make them playful, hell, if you could find a way to hijack the GPS you could even know where the ad was being looked at.
It’s worth seeking out these briefs, often squirreled away at the end of the media plan and making a massive fuss of them. Sure, you could just animate the press ad, or run a web banner, but you’d be missing a trick.
Look back at the web work that was winning awards ten years ago and you’ll notice how rudimentary it all seems. The best thing about new media is the reason your agency is hiding from it: no-one really knows how to use it well.