Future still fuzzy for Communication Agencies?

03 Jan,2019


By Prabhakar Mundkur


2018 has been a bit of a watershed year for communication agencies.  The threat that has long been echoing in the corridors of the largest advertising agencies, “Is advertising dead?” finally seemed more real than ever before.


In some ways, Martin Sorrell who was responsible in the late 80s and early 90s for taking over some of the world’s best advertising agencies and changing their structure from the all-encompassing full-service agency to little unrecognisable bits and pieces by separating media, and other services might have been in some way also responsible for another huge second wave of structural change in the communication agencies of today with his exit at WPP.  The communication agency as it stood in 2018 was a shadow of what it was in the 80s, fractionated and decimated into several pieces that no longer made any sense together.


The surprise announcements by WPP in 2018 to merge VML and Y&R and Wunderman with JWT, I see as a brave and perhaps rash move, (of course time will tell) to kill some of the best-known communication brands in the world without adequate justification.


To take you into a bit of history, in the 60s, two erudite gentlemen called Stephen King and Jeremy Bullmore threw two buckets of hot water on the communication theories of that time, which believed that the harder you hammer a message into consumers’ minds the better it will work to convince consumers to buy a product.  Nay, they said. If you want someone to believe you are funny you don’t just say “I am funny” as expect someone to believe it.  Instead you would tell him a joke which is a stimulus. Then the response would be “Oh yes, he is indeed very funny!”



Is Data helping us design the Stimulus?


In the loud din caused by words like ‘digital’ and ‘data’ and the current narrative of how it has overtaken the importance of advertising I only have one question.  Can someone please show us some case studies of how data helped you to design the stimulus?  Is designing the stimulus an act of creation or has it been relegated to the world of algorithms?  In which case we wouldn’t need creative people at all in the communication business.  Also, I am suspicious of the word ‘content’ because it autosuggests that it is not as stimulating as creative or persuasive enough?  But someone told me that that is the idea. You might think I am old-fashioned.  But are you saying American citizens voted for Trump without persuasion?  And content works in hidden ways that only content makers understand?  Or data scientists understand?


The biggest hoo-ha about data stealing and how personal data was used to influence personal opinions at least for me was the Cambridge Analytica case.  But of course, after having read hundreds of reports on the subject, I still haven’t got a clue on what kind of stimulus did the Russians design on Facebook that made consumers in America vote for Trump.  If this would be revealed to the world at large, I am sure it would create another third wave in communications. A chance to duplicate another landmark just like Stimulus-Response did when King and Bullmore first spoke about it.   Is data only helping us understand consumers better?

(It always did! Now that data is digital perhaps that’s all) Is it helping us design the stimulus or only measure the response?  There are many questions that need to be answered here, which when I read the average local or international advertising weekly hides behind large words like data and digital without any specifics on how it really works, as if it is still a mystery, that cannot yet be revealed.  Or are the people touting this great advancement in communications not competent enough as communicators?


Whatever it is I don’t think all the questions have been answered. To me it sounds like a lot of gobbledegook.  I am reminded of Sir David Ogilvy’s famous words in “Confessions of an Advertising Man” when he said some individuals use statistics as a drunk man uses lamp posts – for support rather than illumination.  There is something in that.  After all I can’t forget that our own Piyush Pandey was recently elevated to the global creative head of Ogilvy but I can’t for the life of me remember who the head of Cambridge Analytica was! Oh, thank god you are around, Google.


I think the future is still fuzzy for communication agencies.  Hopefully they don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater!



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