The 4A’s inaugural CreateTech event on Friday was an eclectic look at the emerging “creative technologist” role, and the many ways technology is changing the ad agency business. An overarching theme was this: advertising is a relatively small part of what creative technologists do, and perhaps even a shrinking part of what many ad agencies do. As McKinney’s Group Creative Director, Glen Fellman, put it: “We don’t just make ads anymore, we make marketing platforms.”
Examples of non-advertising projects were abundant: McKinney showed an online RPG game designed to help people empathize with the homeless. Scott Roen of American Express showed how its OPEN platform fostered job creation by supporting small business. Gary Koelling of Best Buy talked about the significance of opening APIs. Kati London of Zynga (formerly Areacode) showed a variety of games with social and safety themes. At one point I asked Andy Hood, Executive Creative Development Director at AKQA who was describing the relationship among agency functions with creative technology in the middle, about the role of media planning, which appeared nowhere in the mix. His response was telling: he looked slightly perplexed and then said, “you mean, for advertising projects?” These were clearly not central to the business, and the related issue of close integration with the analytics department was still on the roadmap.
Andy Hood’s team structure presentation was also relevant in the light it shed on the relationship between “creative technology” (or “Creative Research & Development” – CRD – as AKQA calls it) and the traditional enterprise technology function, still known in some parts as “IT”. Creative technology at AKQA, as, I believe, at most ad agencies (pure-play digital shops notwithstanding), started in the creative department, and only more recently has begun interacting with the “technology” department.
I found a surprising number of IT people in the audience. I spoke with several of them – most were employed by large ad agency holding companies to support specific offices or account teams – and confirmed a theme I’ve been observing for a while: they are struggling with this transformation. Creative teams often look for ways “around” internal IT – and, yet, making “marketing platforms” often translates into unfunded mandates for IT. Issues of IP ownership and codebase continuity, maintenance, service levels, multiplatform QA, resource provisioning and so forth – areas usually more familiar to IT than creative – are difficult to fund as overhead in a fee-for-services advertising model, which is still how things still tend to get structured, even at digital agencies building marketing platforms.
This disconnect is reflected in background economic trends as well. Most analysts agree that, although marketing budgets are on a long-term upward trend, advertising’s share of the marketing budget is shrinking – although it’s still large – while direct marketing, PR, and sales promotion’s shares are growing. Digital, to the extent it’s considered a separate budget category, is certainly growing the fastest – and, on the agency side, where it is broken out, digital is now a major contributor to revenue, even at traditional agencies (at CreateTech Trevor O’Brien, Creative Technology Director at McKinney, noted that digital now accounts for 40% of that creative agency’s revenue). But where is this digital spending coming from? The lines are blurry.
In a few years I believe it will be a rare ad campaign that doesn’t include some sort of direct response mechanism (mostly enabled by mobile devices) as well as a social element to attempt to generate earned-media buzz, virality, and support for low-friction embedded transactions, ultimately connecting through metrics and data to CRM systems and dashboards for enterprise marketers. Agencies that can provide these “marketing platforms-as-a-service” will see increasing demand and funding from outside traditional advertising budgets, but will need to solve the problem of how to integrate IT into the “creative technology” culture as a full partner. And that will not be easy.
Of course, these issues aren’t new. But the stakes are rising quickly. At one point at CreateTech, Fellman wryly noted one benefit of putting [IT] technologists on the creative team: “you can bill them to clients on a fee basis.” Unfortunately, that’s no way to fund a marketing platform.
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