Sunday, August 26, 2007

Sunday Reading #2: Dis-Integration

I think I mentioned below that I try to spend a bit of every weekend reading something other than cross-tabs, but these selections--though designed to take my mind off work--often as not lead my thoughts right back to my daily concerns. I try to think of it as inspiration. In any case, this Sunday it was Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe which I picked off the shelf to bring along on a beach weekend.

If you didn't squander your youth in grad-school seminars you might think of Scott as a novelist of rip-roaring adventure tales, or source material for generally bad historical movies, but he is in fact also a literary innovator of the highest order, the inventor of the historical novel, a serious cultural historian of his own Scottish origins and a shrewd commentator on the politics of empire and colonialization. If you're interested, start with Waverly.

In any case, the passage that took my back to Adland was in the midst of his introduction, where he explains why—after a series of great successes on one theme--he has decided, somewhat anxiously, to try out a new subject:

The public are, in general, very ready to adopt the opinion, that he who has pleased them in one peculiar mode of composition, is, by means of that very talent, rendered incapable of venturing on other subjects. The effect of this disinclination…may be seen in the censures usually passed by vulgar criticism upon actors or artists who venture to change the character of their efforts, that, in so doing, they may enlarge the scale of their art.

(First of all: what a beautiful and grand ambition, “to enlarge the scale of their art.” If only we could all keep such high ideals in mind.)

But what really reminded me of work was this description of "the pubic's" strong impulse to pigeon-hole the ability of very talented people within the narrow range of their past successes. This rings true in my experience. The inclination to categorize is mighty strong in most of us (the smart one, the pretty one, the athletic one), and is only amplified among the talented and successful.

And as we all know, we tend to judge successful businesses just as severely. The literature of management is filled with cautionary tales on efforts to diversify—or “enlarge the scale of their art”—and are met with resistance from managers to Wall Street.

This impulse to believe in narrowly circumscribed talent is, of course, one of the core challenges faced by the “integrated agency” model. Agencies that provide multiple marketing services try to convince clients these days that they can do brand and retail and SEO and direct mail and PR, and whatever else might be on the docket. But those of us who have worked at integrated agencies know that clients tend to find this proposition unlikely. Whatever we did first and best--brand advertising, direct mail, PR--is what our agency does, our speciality, and all the other stuff is perceived to be second-rate, whether or not it measures up.

Marketers may buy additional agency services but, in my experience, it's less because they are convinced the agency is great at everything than because they believe the agency is good enough at a bunch of things and they don’t have the budget or manpower to pay for and manage multiple high-powered vendors. Or they hope--usually against hope--that the integrated model will lead to some mysterious synergies.

Just last week, I met with a potential client who said as much. To paraphrase: “I want X for branding, Y for web design, Z for acquisitions. But I don’t have the budget to pay for three agency overheads.”

Strangely and unfortunately enough, the one skill-set that most of us concerned with strategy (whether planners or marketers) wish stayed under roof, i.e., media buying and planning, is now frequently broken off, and housed in another building with another name and P & L.

I'm not suggesting that the integrated model is broken or even that some agencies don't pull it off, but that it's fighting against something deep in human nature that wants to see talent as potentially deep but not broad.

1 comment:

erin said...

Good post. I think your goal to read something to take your mind off work and yet find your mind right back at work as a result of a stimulating read only means that you're pretty passionate and interested in what you do. Kudos to you. :)

Pigeon-holing creativity...I don't really like this. If a great idea can be relevantly actionable in different channels, then either those channels need to be available under one roof OR there needs to be some serious bonding/conversations between different agencies to make sure the idea is carried out accurately. A brand/idea/message can be diluted with fragmentation.

Within the agency too, we need to figure out what we stand for and whether the sell-ability of specific terms ["engagement planner," "communications planner," "digital planner"] overrides the nature of planning to tie all the elements together seamlessly.

I understand an idea needs a lot of people working together to make it happen, but in a world of specific Spice Girls (Baby, Posh, Sporty, Scary & whatsherface), everyone wants to know what we bring to the table. One-size-fits-all seems to be an outdated concept, but yet it still sounds so comfortingly convenient. Dar.