The Future of Brands And Channel Thinking - IPA Excellence Diploma Unit 3

So, mid way through the course and with 3 units under my belt, we’re moving quickly toward the big one - the 7,000 word thesis on my (hopefully) unified vision of the future of the comms industry. 

Below is my 3rd essay, concerning the future of brands and channel thinking.

As someone working in a media agency, i’m glad to say, it’s also the unit for which i’ve received my best mark so far. 

If you have any thoughts, i would be glad to hear them! 

The media plan is dead, long live the media plan! 

IPA Excellence Diploma - Module 3 - Brands and Channels - Tom Darlington

Where art thou future shock? 

[A short rambling inspired by Simon Reynolds Retromania, The IPA Excellence Diploma and the Critical Beats #3 panel discussion]

I’m currently reading [or should I say flicking through as I have about 10 books on the go at the moment due to my 21st century low attention focus] The Hacker Manifesto by MacKenzie Wark. This passage struck me as I’m currently developing thoughts on creativity for my latest IPA Excellence Diploma assignment.

I’ve been grappling with what creativity is and I was struck by the idea of hacking as “the creation of the possibility of new things entering the world”. It sounds interesting and analogies can be made with DJs and a similar thought of how they create new things from recombination [even improving songs through new context and combinations]. The movement from an analogue / linear song after song mixture of disparate parts approach has evolved into digital synthesis in which everything works beautifully through the Ableton platform. The medium has become the message. And dance musics evolution has mirrored this shift with the 90s being defined by its linearity (think house and how that was just stretched to an end point) vs. the noughties and lateralism (think the shifting order of dubstep and the myriad modular forms from the wobble to post-dubstep to dub-techno). 

Brian Eno’s description of artists could be reappropriated here: “An artist is now much more seen as a connector of things, a person who scans the enormous field of possible places for artistic attention, and says, what I am going to do is draw your attention to this sequence of things.”

But this also leaves me thinking about Simon Reynolds recent Retromania treatise and the thought that the future has become about small increments of the present [over William Gibsons contention that the future is already here]. Our obsession with the past [youtube for example essentially makes time and the concept of history flat] could mean that we soon run out of the past. What happens then?

All this makes me wonder whether creativity lies with Reynolds search for the “future shock” as he calls it. The shock of something being so amazing that it knocks you sideways in amazement. Think Donna Summer I Feel Love, think Radiohead Idiotheque, think Rhythm Is Rhythm Strings Of Life etc. He believes that this happens less and less these days (from a musical perspective anyway) but this analogy could be stretched easily across culture.

Modernism as a 20th Century movement also had as a central tenet “the shock of the new” and they had an intrinsic fear of repeating others. They became obsessed with deeming what was passe or obsolete. Indeed Nike could be deemed the ultimate modernist brand rewarding those who do what others haven’t done.  

However you look at it using the future shock as a barometer of greatness could lead to more dangerous and interesting thinking. And that can only be a good thing, right?

working workin' work in progress

Moving, Fast and Slow: Agency Structure

The traditional, and established hierarchical models of advertising and communications agencies are, in theory, geared toward delivering perfection.. Departmental structures and sign of processes are put in place to ensure that anything that ‘leaves the building’ is as near perfection as it is meant to be. Big, established and well-organised corporate structures are both a benefit, and a hindrance. These structures have memories, “organisational memory” (Govindarajan & Trimble, p. 51) , this is the source of the years of experience which we have access to. Much like a family, knowledge is passed down from one generation of employee to the next.

These structures become a hindrance because this ‘memory’ can prevent new ways of solving or thinking about problems. Irrespective of new recruits, an agency has “capabilities that exist independently of the people who work within them… capabilities (which) reside in it’s process…. And it’s values” (Christensen, 1997, p. xxii). Capabilities, which are of the time it operates in, not necessarily those of the future. Clients also play a big part in deciding the fate of a business, the demand they have for specific services and products means “it is a companies customers who effectively control what it can and can’t do” (Christensen, p. 101).

It is this older, slower structure, which is reliant on client income, which we must preserve – as it is where much of the value of our businesses lies in the long term. The question is how do we move this ‘structure’ along, evolving it’s capabilities in times of rapid change?

One solution to keeping an older, rigid organisation innovative has been the creation of a separate division of the company, a “Skunkworks”, as pioneered by Lockheed Martin. It is a division created to work on advanced and often secret projects, usually behind closed doors – in Lockheed Martin’s case, a separate building.  

Whilst secrecy and distance is a necessity when working on certain government contracts, communications agencies derive much of their strength from their ability to share knowledge amongst a number of different teams. An analogy I keep coming back to whilst thinking about this is the way a shipping liner works with a tugboat as it approaches a dock.

The shipping liner is where all the long term value lies, yet it is slow – it’s the least able to traverse difficult and unpredictable waters. The tugboat in contrast, is much smaller; it’s very fast and extremely agile – allowing it to explore uncertainty easy. Crucially, the vessels are linked – the tugboat is valuable only in context of the larger ship it works with, the shipping liner requires the smaller vessel to protect itself.