Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Agency of the Past

Gene Seligman, a non-advertising friend of mine, said something the peaked my interest the other day: "We're a unique generation. The only one that will be able to clearly remember what life was like both before and after the Internet." And that got me to thinking a bit.

Everyone likes to talk about the "agency of the future," myself included. I'll write about it in upcoming days. But now that I've been in this business for nearly 25 years, I want to take a moment to write about the agency of the past.

I took my first agency job in 1984, and when I look back at that now, I'm amazed at how simple the advertising world was. Most people who had cable TV had it because the reception was far superior than the antenna on their roof. Cable networks were just getting started. CNN, MTV, ESPN were trying to figure out their business models and trying to attract more than a few thousand viewers. Network TV was the undisputed media king. In offices, some people were starting to have "personal computers" on their desks, but they couldn't communicate with each other, and a whole lot of work was still being done on IBM Selectric typewriters.

Media planning on a national level was a pretty straightforward exercise. Lead with TV, measure by reach and frequency, determine how you wanted to manage network upfront vs. scatter and which markets should get additional spot support. For prestige products, use the national newsweeklies. Simple.

In the best agencies, creative was king. The creative "big idea" was the umbrella for a campaign. But the business model was manufacturing. We made units of advertising. Single page print ads. Outdoor boards. Thirty second spots. All to fit the campaign.

The advertiser, and the agency, were in complete control. We made nice, controlled little speeches to our target audience. The audience was a passive partner in the business of marketing. Like Top 40 radio, we just beat them over the head until they liked what we had to say.

Four things changed. Remote controls. Media fragmentation. Cell phones and other wireless technologies. The Internet. And advertisers went from complete control of the marketing dynamic to (at best) 50/50 conversations with consumers. It's been a remarkable generation. We're not living in the market of the past. Which is why we need the agency of the future. More on that next time.

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