"If creativity is so important today, why are advertising agencies struggling?" - Chia Pi Wo - The Coverage

“If creativity is so important today, why are advertising agencies struggling?” – Chia Pi Wo

 A couple of months back, I met an Uber driver who used to own a Kodak photo processing outlet for 30 years. We spoke about a variety of stuff during the ride but I struck a chord when we spoke about the business he had to close down


“Back in the day, developing a roll of film was like an art form” he said.

“These days, people want things fast and they don’t know how to appreciate the beauty of a well-developed picture. People were willing to pay for your skills but now, they just pay for the machine. It’s like a blue collar job. It’s not sustainable”


If you were to speak to any advertising professional today, you would likely hear a frighteningly similar rant.


“Clients want things fast and don’t give time for ideation”

“Agencies are being treated like suppliers”

“The job isn’t as fulfilling as it use to be”

“We are doing a lot more work with a lot lesser money”

And “It is not sustainable”


For an industry built on creativity, it is quite alarming that we share similar struggles with a sunset industry. How did we get here in the first place?


  1. Most of the work that agencies do is increasingly removed from the client’s business realities

In recent years, we’ve seen how technology and digital services posed an unprecedented challenge to the modern day marketer. Services like Uber and Grab are changing the notion of ownership for the auto industry, fintech like Alipay and Google Wallet are transforming financial institutions, digital services and tech companies are reshaping the way telcos generate revenue.


In that context, the solutions provided by ad agencies are less consequential compared with the challenges the clients have to face. Unfortunately, agencies are also finding it difficult to focus on the client’s bigger goals because they are preoccupied in delivering larger volumes of work on shorter deadlines.


  1. Agencies haven’t really changed

Over the years, advertising agencies have spoken repeatedly about transformations but if you look deeper, little has actually changed. The job description of brand management, creatives and planning stayed largely the same while digital and social tend to be treated like new mediums (or an expertise that belong to a selected few) rather than a playground for innovation.


Instead of rewriting the rules for the new world, the industry responded to the changes by creating in-house content studios to create cheaper videos, hire community managers to manage 6,000 Facebook and spend hundreds of hours churning multiple variations of web banners – all of which are labour intensive and creatively unstimulating.


This is the agency equivalent to adding more RAMs to Windows 95 and hoping that it will run VR.


I know this sounds like a love letter from the apocalypse but the reality is far from it. We are at a time when our creativity is more vital than ever before… but this requires us to rethink our ‘product’ and what we should create for the 21st century.


  1. Building and owning our own IPs

I believe it is important for agencies to start investing or creating their own IPs. It could come in the form of acquiring or creating publishing platforms that we can monetize, create new consumer services that open up new distribution channels or even creating technologies that resolve a specific client need. All of these require incredible creative and problem solving skills beyond creating advertising.


Since man-hours have become such a commodity, we have to start using our abilities to develop new services that will make a genuine difference to the client’s business.


  1. A big idea for the big idea

Typically, an agency’s ‘big idea’ tend to exist within the realms of communication campaigns. However, given the speed of change around us, I believe that this practice is not only archaic but it assumes that consumers actually care for what we have to tell them.


Maybe it’s time that we stop thinking about big ideas as ads and start thinking in terms of services or/and even experiences. From something massive like Nike Fuelband in 2012 and Glade’s Museum of Feelings in 2016 all the way to something at a smaller scale like PSTC’s ‘Stop Nursery Crimes’ – all of which was possible because the agency stopped thinking about what they have to say but started thinking about ways to make people care.


These are just some random thoughts from a rogue planner. There are many people in the industry with better and smarter ideas that will move their agencies forward… and I think that’s awesome. If we live in perpetual beta and learn from each other’s successes and mistakes, we could collectively bring the industry forward.


After all, if there is anyone who is up to the task, it will be the mavericks, the obsessed and the creative minds that make up this wonderful business we call advertising.

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