From combustion to electric comm engines.

The need for chance in communication agencies.

In recent months, the ‘digital agencies’ have been pronounced dead on several occasions. Traditional agencies have supposedly embraced ‘digital’, leaving the remaining ‘digital agencies’ to squabble over leftover budgets. At first sight, one can only concur with that conclusion. Still, it’s too soon to be writing the digital agencies’ obituary. Way too soon.

What this lively discussion does illustrate is the fact that both advertisers and communications agencies are struggling with the same question: what does the Agency of the Future look like? What competencies does an agency need to effectively meet the communication challenges inherent to our increasingly ‘connected’ world?

As is often the case, it’s interesting to take a look outside the confines of our small-scale communications industry. Regardless of how important and unique we may find ourselves, other more industrialised sectors are also struggling with similar challenges. Take the automotive industry, for instance.

Automotive is also teetering on the edge of a major transition from old to new technology, from combustion engines to alternative power sources. And here, too, every player is looking for the Car of the Future.

This is just one of several parallels between the car industry and the communications sector. Both industries are standing at a crossroads. And in both industries, quite a few players are desperately trying to keep their balance.

The growth years

First of all, both industries have experienced significant growth over the last few decades. During that period, both car manufacturers and communications agencies were constantly catering to temporary trends without introducing any truly fundamental innovations. Car manufacturers held fast to the combustion engine and communications agencies kept churning out traditional media campaigns.

The wake-up call

A decade ago, both sectors showed the first disturbing symptoms of what would revolutionise their business model.

While the social debate on air pollution centred on pollution from exhaust fumes, the increasingly digital consumer was starting to question traditional communication techniques. Neither sector seemed overly worried. Car manufacturers introduced the diesel particulate filter and communications agencies incorporated banners and promotion sites into their campaigns. These were short-term solutions that only countered the symptoms but did not address the actual challenges: finding an alternative for the combustion engine and catering to changing consumer behaviour.

Hybrid solutions

In recent years, though, the concept of further reducing air pollution gained widespread support and the internet now plays a key role in our everyday lives. As a result, both sectors were forced to take vigorous action. And they did, albeit within their traditional mindset. The car industry introduced hybrid engines whose electric motor takes over from the combustion engine for short distances. The communications sector formed hybrid teams whose digital experts took over small components of the campaign from the traditional teams.

Unfortunately, these hybrid constructions are more useful at demonstrating good intentions than they are at contributing towards a fundamental solution: just as the electric motor and the combustion engine usually work separately, genuine synergy between the traditional and digital teams is very rare.

So why, then, do most traditional agencies cling to such half-hearted solutions? There are a number of reasons:

1) their search for suitable solutions is based on necessity rather than conviction
2) they often have large structures built on competencies that are now being questioned
3) they need outside knowledge in order to make the transition
4) the organisation lacks the fertile soil to enable these competencies to reach their full potential
5) they are headed by managers who are not tuned in to the new communication channels

From an unexpected source

Unsurprisingly, the most promising answers in the automotive industry are provided by manufacturers whose very existence is inspired by these new evolutions (e.g. Tesla). After all, the answer is encoded in their DNA. It’s also remarkable that they manage to do so without lapsing into overly futuristic designs or barely usable cars. The new Tesla saloon looks like an ordinary car, even though its heart is fundamentally different. In the communications sector, we also have to look to the agencies with digital DNA for the most promising answers because ‘digital’, in the broad sense, is fast becoming the underlying and permanent foundation of the consumer relationship. Of course, these agencies are also home to creative minds that can develop classic advertisements but the fact remains there’s a major shift towards digital competencies.

Because just like the car of the future will be built around an electric motor, so will the communication campaign of the future be built around a permanent digital nucleus. And this calls for a communications partner for whom digital thinking is second nature.


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