Even the Navy's changing

One of my all time favorite quotes is from Steve Jobs, Apple CEO and visionary. “Why join the navy when you can be a pirate?” It’s been a mantra around here, one I have used over the years to challenge our staff, inspire them about the possibilities of ‘digital’, and to have that one last awesome slide in winning pitches.

Pirates are quick, nimble bounty hunters. They go get loot, and lots of it. They’re romantic, they get movies made about them – and they’re pretty much an emblem for the ‘digital’ savvy, nerd, geek, entreprenuerally minded, i-Phone clutching new age guys. The new agencies. The guys who change the world. Guys who have 500 million friends. And a few enemies. You get the drift.

The navy is about big ships. Navies are about huge, widescreen, big scale, big corporate offices in ivory towers. They’re about large turning circles, routine, doing-it-by-the-book, mega budgets, massive media buys, sixteen departments, and an armada of suits. Navies are about big agencies. Big names, logos you’d recognize, people who are AdAge cover stories.

But not any more. The navy as we know it – the big advertising agency is about to change. Or has already, and you’ve blinked. In our industry (now is that advertising or engagement?) digital is no longer just a specialization. Digital is becoming core. No surprise there, because the very definition of mainstream media is changing. If people are spending more time and engaging in digitally driven activities, being social, searching, googling, texting, well, that’s going to redefine what’s mainstream. Does your target spend more time on facebook than watching tv? If so, is your agency properly equipped to communicate with and engage with that target? Or are they still turning around in big circles, not in high octane powered digital skiffs?

While there will always be specialists, always be catalysts who inspire and lead the others in the digital race, everybody today needs to grasp what digital is all about. The writer, the art director, account head, media planner – every one. And, vice versa. Those geeks, those digital savvy folk also need to understand how ‘traditional’ advertising works. Web content writers should understand copy writing for an ad. Digital planners need to understand GRP. And flash programmers need to understand consumer insight before making wow apps. Which means they need to work in one flow. One integrated solutions offering. One navy.

The big agencies that aren’t doing this are caught between the devil and deep blue sea. They’re themselves afraid of change, and they are standing back and watching the new ones, the nifty, nimble, new age engagement specialists steal valuable yardage. Yet, their inaction is what is the bigger fear.

Not that some of the agencies are not throwing digital into the mix. Digital is usually always on the agenda. In many cases it’s the last 20 minutes and 15 winning slides in a pitch. It’s there, but it’s a dummy. Unless digital is part of an integrated campaign, a real outcome, unless it’s driven through in the execution stage, what’s the point?

And the other big debate is what is digital? What are we really supposed to embrace? An iPhone app? A ‘like’ driver on facebook? A microsite? A blog? A tweet? Some of us seem confused. Let’s face it. In stark reality, it’s about using leading edge technologies and platforms to engage and interact with the consumer. And, in most cases, the more invisible the technology, and the more prominent the message and dialog, the better. Digital not as crutch or dependency, but as power, as catalyst.

Advertising is being redefined as we speak. The whole communications business model is shifting rapidly from mass media to micromedia for the masses. It’s moving from communications to engagement. From monologue and shouting to listening and dialogue. With user behavior tracking, deep insights available to us on individual likes and dislikes, it’s becoming more about individuality than about group behavior. More about you and me than about us as a demographic in general.

This means we need to understand the shift in how consumers are absorbing (or not) media. Trends like ‘snacking’ and ‘time-shifting’ are going to have a huge effect on media planning. The website as brochure and the banner as display are being seen as so 90s because today, it’s about how the consumer is controlling where, when and how they interact with a brand message – and how they’re reshaping that message, viralizing it, socializing it, or ignoring it.

We’re still in the ideas business, and we cannot forget that our business has always been about innovation. Decades ago, the VW Beetle Lemon ad was innovative. So is Jimmy Choo’s location based campaign today. The world’s second oldest profession isn’t going to be completely taken over by a Silicon Valley vc chasing a dotcom gold rush. The navy is still going to be around. But it’ll need to adapt.

Before I get blackburied by colleagues asking me to put my money where my mouse is, I’ll put my neck on the line. Yes, our agencies, are up for the challenge. We’re hiring pirates. We’re crowdsourcing. We’re turning vision into (augmented) reality. We’re recontextualizing at MCN. Yes. Even the navy’s changing.

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