The Race for Horizontality

I’m worried about uniting the sources of information our clients have by providing them with a real-time dashboard. And I worry about cooperation among our people. The problem with our people is that the better they are, the less cooperative they are. The biggest problem inside any organization is getting people to share knowledge, to break down the silos, and technology helps you do that. You can have a flatter organization. You don’t have to have regional managers. You can have global coordination and local focus, and the organizational complexity becomes much less than it used to be. This is not Alfred P. Sloan, General Motors, in 1929
Sir Martin Sorrell as interviewed in HBR.

Advertising is about persuading people to buy things. And to some degree, brand is about buying into the ideas about things. Don’t let anyone make it more complicated than this. Brand is nothing more than a mark of ownership that I or you, or anyone, chooses to participate in commercial activity with. Far too many people overcomplicate this.  The advertising world has long been castigated as an industry where a wild array of over-promises are made by verbose bullshitters. This is not exactly a new criticism. Many of us in this industry believe, (half-heartedly) that we have lost our way and walked away from advertising and the art of persuasion and made a sort of Faustian bargain with the new gods—technology, social media, and digital. There is a now a vast and growing army of "thought pundits" who have in effect created a bizarre lexicon to confuse us further. So let me set a few things straight. You see ad-people do not swill vodka all day and f-ck in broom-closets at the Christmas party. So as much as the world has been obsessed with “MadMen” it’s not even remotely close to reality.  In fact,  the industry is far more interesting and rewarding today. The challenges of a globalized market, technology, massive consumer changes are the real allure of this business.  That brands and their businesses adapt to so many different cultures makes it that more interesting.

Marketers make you buy--there is nothing inherently sophisticated about it.Wecreate demand. I can tell you this much--most of us do it because there is expression, intelligence and meaning to it. There is. However, when you encounter people that like to pretend they know every part of this business ( I am an awful creative for instance) want to rush a job through, or can't fathom why yelling into a mega-phone doesn't work anymore, or simply want to micromanage you and resist your ideas to see you struggle-well, yes, this is the nature of the beast that serves consumerism.

“Modern business must have its finger continuously on the public pulse. It must understand the changes in the public mind and be prepared to interpret itself fairly and eloquently to changing opinion.”  
―  Edward L. Bernays,  Propaganda

In recent years, advertising and marketing services or communications services people in particular-–seem to have lost sight of what we do for a living. Most of us seem endlessly engaged with either trying to be "all things for all people" or chasing after an ever-receding bottom line with half-assed, half-baked tactics that have no relationship to strategy, or actual, actionable data. There is a point we are approaching, (racing towards actually is better said) when we will simply defer to the notion that strategy and not creativity ought to lead and that only when insights can be communicated properly will the industry change. That horse is fast approaching the line my friends.  Watch. 

Agencies today are under tremendous pressure because many old-school senior executives are simply lost and have to rely on equally confused people qho do not actually understand strategy never mind  know how to run a business that now intersects data, creativity and business.  The notion that you can run anybusiness with absolutely no processes or procedures in place, with overworked staff who are positively miserable while being ferocious and clinical about a bottom line that is slipping away very quickly,  is absurd. For those units already under water, you cannot resuscitate a dysfunctional environment very quickly. Even if you had the absolutely best of intentions and gave up nearly everything to be do it—how would you do it? You would need strategic  leaders in the most pivotal place in the business--account management. 

Morris Hite, a lesser known advertising leader recognized by the American Advertising Federation and an early propagator of consumer research, had wisely said,  "No agency is better than its account executives."

Is it a coincidence that agencies are slowly dying and most account folks are running out the door in droves?

The advertising industry is filled with account people who are scared shitless. They are effectively paralyzed by special brand of incipient, creeping hesitance that creates a dual-culture of ass-kissing on the one hand and providing the lowest common denomination of marketing on the other.  I can tell you that it is now the new-normative for well intentioned senior executives to ask for “change agency” and hire for “innovation” and then quash the initiative once it begins to motivate anyone for fear of a deadly outbreak of collaboration!  God forbid.

Why? Because those exposed to the ideas--no matter how excited they might appear to be, are in immediate tacit, constant fear of losing their jobs and thier clients--who are just as petrified. And this fear creates a culture of conflicting analyses and POVs, of paralysis by data and of either knee-jerk creative revision that does not work—or another long tail revision of concepts inherited from somewhere else.  

I believe the primary responsibility of a marketer is coherency.  We are here to makes sense of only three things-the offering, the market and the consumer.  

"Isn't it ultimately ironic that marketers (and our clients) have very calmly accepted, very calmly acquiesced to entire modes of thinking that actually undermine coherency and create unnecessary complexity--namely the kind of business killing bureaucracy that dooms all businesses."

It is critical that we strive to respond correctly to most significant recent general trends in client behavior, and the demands of the hyper-connected world we now live in. Emerging markets, emerging media, "Big data" and last, but not least “horizontality” are the four horses in this race. I am saying we need to geteveryone and everything moving together so we can actually get something out of the analytics and insights we are swimming in--and actually do something useful with it.  The horse-race to horizontality has only two ends--oblivion or success. 

~

Louis D. LoPraeste is a global brand strategist with particularly deep experience in data-driven, digital and social environments. He can be reached directly at louisd@bigthinker.com.

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