If you're a business out there, and an agency representing said business, if you're focused simply on storytelling or creating communications, you are going to fall behind. I don't think this will happen so slowly that you don't notice at first, I think it is already happening so fast that a lot of folks are missing it. They're blinking and when their eyelids pop back open, the whole landscape is going to have changed. I believe if an agency is going to succeed they must move closer to the product, help change the business and industry their clients are in, build the types of relationships required to do so, and be inventive. Yes, inventive in how/what they communicate but literally inventive—as in inventing things that didn't exist yesterday.
I've been fortunate enough to teach at the Miami Ad School while in San Francisco, and most of the quarters have been a class called, Everything is Media. It's designed to get students to think outside the normal mediums and look at everything as a potential element in a brand's communication. Of course, this doesn't come without issues, as I even tell them to think of the class title as a question. Should Everything be Media? We have to be responsible about what we put where, but beyond that the class is a really good chance to practice being inventive. Inventive in mediums, story, product, distribution, digital, you name it. What's going to be frustrating for them is that most of the agencies they'll go work for are not ready for that type of thinking. Heck, most clients are not ready either.
I won't embarrass anyone and pick a project from my class, as that may seem self-serving. But here's a student project I had nothing to do with that I think fits this kind of thinking. The Chimney for Kingsford. Sure, they could have produced some great ads for Kingsford, but they invented something new instead (and the ads for this little thing could be great too, so that's a win-win.) This was published via The Dieline earlier this week, and credits go to design team, Michael DiCristina , Chris Yoon , Peter Smith, Meredith Morten, Blake Sanders, Vivian Rodriguez. (For some reason, their school isn't listed, but they seem to be from Atlanta. Portfolio Center perhaps?)
The Kingsford Chimney:
We don't have to look too far to see examples of this type of business rebellion, in real business. If you're Gillette or Schick this week had better been an eye-opening experience for several reasons. First, a new company has come in and disrupted how your business is being done. Dollar Shave Club is now selling $1 razors and delivering them to your customers door. (Sure, the real business model is selling the $6 or $9 razors, but I digress.) Secondly, how that business is communicating to your customers, or what used to be your customers, is more human, interesting, compelling and honest than all the junk you've been putting across the airwaves for the last, oh, say 60 years. Gillette could have done this, if they and their agency had been courageous enough and proactive enough to think ahead. "Where is our company vulnerable?" "How could someone come along and change our business?" "What can we do to be the razor company of the next 25 years?"
Dollar Shave Club:
That's the kind of thinking required now. And that's the type of relationship required between a company and an agency, whether in-house or not. The agency must not only function as communications firm, but also the conduit to the consumer and be constantly inventing new ways to do business. And the client must be willing to use the agency in this way, or at least have people inside their company do so. (The agency is best-suited in my opinion because of their unique skill set and ability to see outside the business.) We're really good at redefining a company, and sometimes that's the first step. Restating the problem from, "How can we promote this?" to "What can we do that is worthy of being promoted?"
Another great example of this disruption, if you will forgive me for using jargon, is what Warby Parker is doing to the prescription glasses industry. If you want quality glasses, you'd normally have to go to an eye doctor or specialty optometrist's shop and pay a lot of money. If you wanted cheap, you'd have to go to a drug store and get the 2 for $10 a pair deal. What Warby Parker is doing fits somewhere in the middle, quality; dare-I-say-designer glasses for $99; plus the additional pair they donate to those who can't afford them. Another disruption is their service of shipping five frames to your door so that you can try them on for free. (They even give you the shipping label and box to send them back in 5 days.) This is incredibly convenient. I actually did this, because it was so easy. The only issue I have with their glasses is that they are made in China and felt slightly less refined than I had hoped. If they were made in California or New York, felt a bit more sturdy, I would have already ordered them in a second. I'm still thinking about it.
Warby Parker's 5 Day Trial:
What's stopping Lens Crafters from doing this? Nothing. Nothing but the imagination and foresight to try. How can we make our customers lives better? What can we do for them that will add value to their experience with us?" Some of this responsibility lies with the agency.
That's a lot of pressure, but if it were easy anyone would be doing it. I have a feeling a lot of agencies are going to become more like production houses, making money on producing thousands of variations of banner ads and retail signs. There's nothing wrong with that. Me, I'd rather help a client change their business for the better and help them thrive in an ever-changing corporate, consumer and communications landscape. There's a lot of fun to be had there and that's the future of the agency. At least the good ones.
Here's a relatively new idea that demonstrates the type of thinking an agency can provide their client. Beyond communications, and more in line with this inventive, bettering the lives of customers ethos: The kick-open hatch being unveiled by Ford for the Escape. If your hands are full (which they often are if you are needing to put something in your trunk/boot), you simply kick the bumper and the lid opens. Of course, I don't know where the idea came from—who personally had the 'ah-hah' moment—but this is the future. Check it out.
Hands-free Tailgate from Ford:
I'm not taking credit for this 'idea' of course. Lots of folks have talked about the new role of the future agency. It's also way more difficult to do than to say, but it has become more and more real to me lately. Personally, I want to be able to produce digital and ambient and beautiful film, but I think a far more valuable asset is to be able to be invent new ways for a company to connect with their customers, new ways to make a product and service better, and just new things in general. To always be thinking on behalf of the clients we represent, but also for the people we sell to. How great would it be for a client to think of you in those terms? I bet they'd be really slow to open up the account for review.
Again, three of these examples are from this past week alone. Relatedly, I'll leave you this thought from Lee Clowe concerning ideas, from the :30 MBA series on FastCompany.