The US series Mad Men is period drama; its chain-smoking 60s ad men are historical artefacts. But while 21st century creative agencies have swapped sharp suits and Brylcreem for distressed denim and no-hawks, they’ve largely retained the attitude that they know best: that an expertly-crafted piece of copy will fool pretty much anyone into buying pretty much anything.
Yes, there’s a certain arrogance to them (one character in Mad Men observes that Sterling Cooper, the agency at the centre of the series, “has more failed artists and intellectuals than the Third Reich”). There’s a lack of respect for their audience – and very often their clients as well. But there’s also a lie.
As everyone now knows, traditional advertising is broken. The recession has only accelerated the recognition of digital marketing as more controllable, more measurable and simply more effective. Hands up the guy who’s still searching for “advertising agency”.
Companies have begun shifting their marketing spend to digital. But what many brands are really shifting online are traditional content and old-school attitudes. Going digital is about more than PDFing your catalogue, popping a TV ad on your site or buying a banner on Wired. It’s about fundamentally changing the way you interact with your customers.
Because what is really obsolete is the concept of a polished message and a passive audience. Digital is not about telling people how great your brand is; it’s about them telling you how great your brand is. Or how terrible. It’s not about a single, perfect vision of your brand; it’s about thousands of ill-considered, un-grammatical, pointless, mad, passionate, but above all authentic tweets, e-mails, comments, blog posts and reviews.
As a brand, you can’t control this conversation. You may not like what they’re saying, but you can’t stop them saying it. You can choose only to ignore it or to join in.
As a digital agency, our first job is not to produce perfect copy or pretty websites (though we have built some doozies). We’re about creating opportunities for people to engage with your brand online and for you to engage back. And we’ve just inherited the Earth.