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SXSW: Is there such thing as an ‘ad nerd’?

by Farrah Bostic on March 13, 2011

This is the first year I’ve attended SXSW.  I’m not altogether sure I’ve been missing much, but it does provide an opportunity to see a lot of people you know, and meet a few new people, all in one place, over the slightly absurd period of 5 days.

Veteran attendees seem to agree that it ain’t what it used to be; people used to come to learn, they say, and now they come to self-promote.  It’s easy to imagine that this is a convenient nostalgia for a fictional time gone by.  But the feeling is so widespread one begins to imagine that things have taken a turn; the first day’s panel topics seemed to yearn for simpler times, when ad people were in the minority, and didn’t appear on panels.

The first day of the interactive festival squared up firmly against “douchebags” – and we all know who the douchebags are, right?  It’s marketers and agency people.  The ones who used to come to learn, and now have learned how to parrot back the same ideas they heard at last year’s conference, but this time in the context of brands.  How do these rehashed topics wind up on the docket? I suppose it’s got something to do with the conference organizers knowing who pays the bills – those same brands that subsidize the event send their marketing people, and the conference wants to make nice.

But it’s also clearly got to do with the cliquish nature of this gathering.  Panels are organized by friends and colleagues – almost everyone on the panels I’ve witnessed are friends or colleagues.  The collegiality can make for good panel theater, but it can also lead to a general sense of pointlessness and fake exclusivity – if I wanted to listen to ad people talk tech, I’d just stop by Tom & Jerry’s for a drink.

The first talk I attended was titled, “Programming and Minimalism: Lessons from Orwell & The Clash” and was given by Jonathan Dahl from Zencoder.  I chose this topic for a couple of reasons – it was a topic I was less familiar with (though I am learning Ruby!), it promised to reason by analogy to things I love (writing and music), and it wasn’t about advertising in any way.  It was a really lovely talk, and I’ll come back to it in a later post, because it was much more useful and thought-provoking than the panel I attended next.

“Do Agencies Need to Think Like Software Companies?”

This panel was packed, people lined the borders of the room, conference organizers admonished us not to block any aisles.  We were clearly in violation of the fire code.

The panel was moderated by Allison Mooney (Google, ex-Tribal DDB), and the participants were Ben Malbon (Google, ex-BBH), Matt Galligan (SimpleGeo), Rick Webb (The Barbarian Group), and Rob Rasmussen (Tribal DDB).  Yep, friends and colleagues.

The panel title was misleading, but scratch the surface of the SXSW Go app and the description was not:

How much do marketers (& their agencies) need to know about technology?  Advertisers and brand marketers are entering a brave new world — one where code is on par with content.  ‘Consumers’ are now ‘users.’  So should ‘marketers’ be ‘developers’?  Enter the hybrid marketer.  More and more agencies are finding they need to educate and cultivate a new breed of people who understand tech from a marketing and brand perspective, and who have a consumer mindset.  At the same time, agencies are adopting practices — agile development, continuous deployment — learned from the tech world.  But should they really try this stuff at home?  Should ‘marketers’ be worrying about, say, the video capability of the latest iPhone, or pushing the envelope with HTML5?  Or should they just stick to their core competencies and work with established software companies / dev shops to realize their ideas?  How else is technology affecting the agency model and the creative process?

This meandering description closely resembles the actual discussion. Any time they were in danger of approaching a meaty subject, they quickly demurred.  This avoidance of substance was made easier by the lack of definitions.  No one defined an advertiser v. a brand marketer (one assumes they are functionally the same).  No one identified the agencies who are adopting agile development nor continuous deployment – certainly the agencies represented on the panel are not dedicated to these techniques and practices. And what would they say are marketers’ “core competencies”?

The panel knew its audience. By a show of hands, it looked like an 85 percent agency, 10 percent marketer, and 5 percent software/startup audience breakdown. If you’ve ever attended a panel at Advertising Week, the 4As, the ARF, or Social Media Week that tried to address the future of advertising agencies, you’ll know they tend to float vague concepts or forced metaphors but rarely advocate for any one path, beyond what have now become platitudes along the lines of ‘innovate or die.’

Ben Malbon was perhaps the most provocative, noting that agencies “fetishize what they don’t know” – preferring the new and the shiny over the useful and the relevant. He suggested that agencies be honest with themselves about the state of their tech savvy, and find good partners who can best implement technology.  He said agencies need random crazy people, freewheeling, tech savvy strategists and creatives, untethered to an account or department, to bring the world of culture and technology into the creative process. He said that liberating tech experts from the tethers of departments or billable hours would not only improve the agency’s ability to utilize technology, it would avoid wasting the time of these tech sherpas.  He said agencies should deploy fewer people to work faster and get to proof of concept rather than worrying executions into perceived perfection.  He advocated abandoning what he called “The Masterpiece Mentality”, instead showing clients messier work faster.

No one took the bait.

Rick Webb was the only one to respond directly to Ben’s ideas, and came at it pragmatically.  He noted that unless agencies are willing to fund a lab, brands are unlikely to pay for experimentation and iteration, and agency models aren’t typically set up to allow expensive experts to roam the halls unattached to paying clients.  He rightly observed that clients don’t know how to visualize their own brand making use of a particular technology – they need to see it in action.  He said that existing client and agency management models don’t really make agile development and scrums possible. He also wryly suggested that we were just updating the language with new metaphors rather than talking about anything substantively new, that the business is now saying ‘platform’ when they mean brand, and ‘campaign’ when they mean product, and joked that if what ad agencies are making is anything at all like software, then it’s the kind of software that gets shipped on CDs.

The crowd chuckled, knowingly.

The conversation inevitably turned to what agencies tend to think are the important practicalities of implementing new business practices:  Who will be responsible for staying up to date with technology?  What will this person’s title be?  Which department will hire and fund them?  Do we really need tech experts as interpreters, or don’t we need implementers?  When can we omit them from meetings and when do we need them? Who can we hire that will help us tick the box of ‘understands new technology’, so we can sell this understanding as a value-add to our clients, but who won’t truly disrupt the way we or our clients go about the process of making campaigns?

An excellent question from the audience on the topic of talent – when agency cultures (defined by their compensation models) aren’t really about agile development, rapid technology adoption, or thought leadership, how will agencies win the war for talent that understands and implements software-like brand solutions?  Malbon countered that the answer was in the question – culture is what brings in the best talent.  He then suggested that agencies think hard about why those talented, insightful, technology savvy people would want to come to work in an agency – what would they really DO there all day, anyway?

But this wasn’t a debate – everyone agreed that agility, leanness, and the use of technology would be virtuous in the agency of the future. Nobody wanted to suggest they had nailed the problem; and nobody wanted to admit they weren’t really reckoning with it in a meaningful way.  The audience walked away believing whatever they walked in believing.  And SXSW rolled on.

Ad Nerds Don’t Make Very Good Nerds

Ad agencies are not, generally speaking, staffed by nerds.  Let me offer my working definition of a nerd: a person who is passionate about a topic or set of topics, to the degree that they have developed expertise not only in its theory but its practice, and actively engage in bettering both their knowledge of the topic or topics, and their participation in it. They immerse themselves in a subject or practice, becoming experts, implementers and teachers.

I just looked up ‘nerd’ – two definitions are offered, and I clearly prefer the second: “An intelligent, single-minded expert in a particular discipline or profession.”  People in ad agencies tend to see someone like that and think of the first definition: “A foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious.”

I’ve encountered people in ad agencies who aren’t even nerdy about advertising.  They don’t really love advertising, they don’t know it well, they don’t study it.  They pay attention to who wins awards, especially when it’s them or their friends.  They pay attention to which accounts are in play.  They worry about selling out, object to every note or critique from the account team or the client, and resist the structure or guidance of a strategy.  Creative ideas spring from their heads like Athena, and are then chiseled in stone for all eternity.  Only the pollution of opinions mar their work.  They are precious about what they do, yet are passionless about it.  They are, in Paula Scherr’s parlance, solemn, not serious.

Don’t Blame the Cool Kids

It should be clear by now that I am contemptuous of this attitude; but it should also be clear that these attitudes are the results of institutional incentives and biases towards coolness, generalizations, and palatability.  It is also the product of compensation – clients pay for ideas they like, or ideas they think will sell products, or simple obedience.  The examples of clients who pay for great craft, or revolutionary ideas, creative leaps and challenging agencies are so few as to make them outliers from which there is little to learn except that you want to work on their business at their agencies, and bask in the glow of their exceptionalism.

Examples of great work that showed agility or iteration or software-ness, according to our panel, were the usual suspects, and most were stretching even these undefined terms: Nike+, American Express’ partnership at SXSW with Foursquare, the Arcade Fire/Chrome demonstration, Google Maps, and that tiredest of tired examples, the Subservient Chicken.  Apple and Nike can always be relied upon to be the two brands everyone thinks of as experimental, smart, digital [disclosure: I’ve worked on Apple at Chiat, and at Wieden, though not on Nike, and yes, I sometimes feel nostalgic].

There are too few available examples of software company practices in advertising, because quite simply, advertising agencies are not software companies.  They are service businesses, not product businesses.  They don’t ship.  They hire people who can write or design or produce or manage or strategize, but who don’t want to or can’t or are scared to make movies, or write books, or make art, or start businesses.  They hire people who believe they are too cool to be in boring old business, mere cogs in the wheels of corporate America, soulless hacks who work in cubicles.  So they join up with enormous agencies, held by even more enormous holding companies, servicing Fortune 1000 clients, and working, more often than not, in cubicles.

The old agency compensation model charged a commission on the purchase of time and space in media channels, and on the costs of production.  The muscle memory of the industry devalues creativity and the process of creation; it places value on hard costs and handling fees or brokerage commissions.  Madison Avenue is essentially a used car lot.

Often, agencies simply produce what they think they can sell to clients; and their view of clients tends to be abysmally low.

But why should it be high? Most (agencies and) clients are not interested in, nor see themselves as in the business of, contributing to culture. They are marketers of commodities; culture is there to provide context.  So they borrow from culture references and memes, wrapping themselves in a flag of relevance. They come on too late, adopting photobombing squirrels, Fuck Yeah Tumblrs, and YouTube sensations as their own, borrowing interest from anyone who has any to lend.

I was once told, and have no idea if this is true, that Dan Wieden regarded spec ads that co-opted national, political or religious symbols as the work of sociopaths.  It doesn’t need to be the Statue of Liberty talking about discounts on mattresses for a Fourth of July sale to be hackneyed and unseemly; it can just as easily be the use of badges and points, or the Facebook like button, or Ashton Kutcher, if used solely for ‘borrowed interest’.

This isn’t the work of nerds.  It’s not even the work of fans.  It’s the work of those people you laughed at in Robert Altman’s The Player – people who pitch ideas as “Ghost” meets “The Manchurian Candidate” or “Out of Africa” meets “Pretty Woman”.  Except it’s “David After the Dentist” meets Crest; it’s Keyboard Cat meets Whiskas; or in real life, it’s Jay-Z as a spokesperson for HP; it’s The Beatles on the Apple Store; it’s Ashton Kutcher flirting with not-Demi-Moore in Nikon ads.  These people have done some simple math – that internet kid has a lot of followers, this actor has a big Q-Score, lots of people have ‘a twitter’.  Let’s hang out with them.  If we’re nearby, people who don’t know better will just assume we have something in common.  It’ll be awesome.

So What’s the Answer?

The simplest thing is that agencies, particularly when it comes to digital and mobile culture, need more nerds.  They need people who use and understand these tools, who are passionate about technology, who study it, who can explain it and teach it and get people excited about it, and who can help shepherd others through the process of making it.

But I think what they really need to do is embrace depth, alter their understanding of the meaning of the word “nerd”.  They need to learn to love intelligence and passion and expertise.  They need to defect from the Church of Cool.  They need to start caring about what they actually make, and how it contributes not only to the client’s need to market its wares, but also how it contributes to culture.  What utility does this platform or campaign offer? How does it teach and reward new behavior? How does it enable or simplify old behavior? How does it bring people closer to the brand in a way that both sides benefit?

Only people who truly love something – technology, people, culture, brands – can answer these kinds of questions.  Nerds have that level of passion; cool kids are a study in detachment.  Agencies are full of the latter.

But the best answer is probably much simpler: ad agencies will eventually lose out to companies founded by, staffed by, and built for nerds.  These nerds will be those partners Ben Malbon encouraged agencies to find; these partners will eventually beat out their traditional agency partners because they will bring the vision, agility, and passion only nerds possess to clients desperate to be loved.

{ 2 comments }

1 Drew March 13, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Really interesting piece Farrah. Part of me wonders if maybe the lack of “ad nerds” is partly due to the fact that, in most cases, nerds find their services better suited for other areas and industries. If I was a graphic design nerd, perhaps I’d be happier making posters for bands, starting my own apparel line, building my own web development company, or working freelance on my own terms. Needless to say, mocking up toothpaste print ads is probably low on my list of priorities.

At their core, I think nerds (and not just creative ones) work to serve their own purposes and interests in all they do, and maybe this is at odds with the traditional client-agency relationship.

I don’t think it’s the fault of ad agencies or their clients, but my feeling is that a lot of people, especially nerds, a) don’t understand advertising, or b) don’t respect it. To many, the advertising industry is the epitome of Bad Work for Clients Who Are Out of Touch.

2 Farrah Bostic April 4, 2011 at 1:29 pm

hi (sorry it took so long to approve your comment! wordpress settings all a little wonky after an upgrade, but all fixed now!)… i think you are quite right. if you’ve got good ideas and know how to make them, then why on earth would you be doing the often opportunistic work of an ad agency creative or developer?

that said, i think there are (or were?) some ad nerds out there – people who really dig on advertising – but even they are finding the pursuits of technologists/startups/etc more appealing or interesting. see ben malbon going to google creative labs rather than stay at BBH. maybe it’s all becoming a hodge-podge.

and i also think you’re right that nerds don’t get advertising (i’m not sure advertising gets advertising these days), and that they don’t respect it. perhaps it’s time to pivot. :)

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