Me in The Drum talking about where Facebook needs to go over the next 10 years to develop its advertising offer:

The Drum asked me, and some other gobs for hire, to speculate about what Facebook needs to do over the next 10(!) years to develop its advertising offer. Here's what I said...

It's impossible to predict 10 months ahead, let alone 10 years. Facebook knows this, and so is constantly iterating its product, and its advertising product, on more like 10 week cycles. Only 18 months ago analysts were criticising Facebook's lack of focus on mobile. Now they're praising them for being a mobile first company, with 49 per cent of revenues from mobile. That is an amazingly nimble turnaround for a company with over 6,000 employees.

So what challenges are they dealing with in the next 10 weeks?

A first one is the unbundling of Facebook. They've just cracked how to really monetise their main Facebook app as a destination - but now they have to disrupt themselves and break that model. The momentum in social is single-purpose mobile apps - for example Whatsapp for chat, Snapchat for photos, Ding Dong for location, Vine for videos. This is because, for users, as @BenedictEvans points out, it's easier to go back to home and tap another icon than it is to navigate within an app. This is why a they've just launched Paper, the first of a series of standalone apps from their new Labs unit. But it has no advertising in its first version.

The second big challenge is how brands are using Facebook (and other social media). Facebook's advertising tools are brilliant, amazingly sophisticated. But most businesses are using them poorly - with poor targeting, poor creative, and really poor tone. Just look at the ads in your mobile feed - they all suck don't they? And look at the embarrassment that was the Super Bowl this year, with every low-interest FMCG brand having a 'mission control' to try and replicate Oreo's moment from 2013 - and yet collectively coming across as desperate and self-interested; a bunch of social media managers talking to each other. Most people don't reject advertising, they reject bad advertising, but unless Facebook solve their quality problem, they run the risk of people making a permanent association between their platform and schlocky crapvertising.

Feb 10, 2014

10 years of Skype

Here are my answers to some questions the BBC asked about Albion's role in building Skype (but never used, damn them).

What exactly is Albion and what is the link to Skype?

Albion is a creative business partner for entrepreneurs. We work with startups or high-growth businesses who want to innovate and change markets. We help them develop strategies, brands, products and communications.

We were appointed by Skype's founders, Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, in 2005 when they had a beta product, a one-page website, and just 100k downloads. We worked with them for 5 years, helping them grow to half-a-billion users, and an exit to eBay for $2.6bn.

We collaborated on many aspects of the Skype experience. We created two iterations of the branding. We created the famous homepage videos (that are now standard for any startup). We created the sonic branding (the sounds that the Skype software plays to indicate dialling etc). We helped create the price plans that saw Skype actually make money. We created the first ever big social media campaign in 2008 with Skype Nomad. We even made some TV advertising.

Why do you think Skype was important for Albion? How did it impact Albion?

Albion had already been around for 3 years when we started working with Skype. We'd already worked with great entrepreneurs at Virgin, Innocent and Lovefilm. But Skype was in a different league, in terms of Niklas's ambition to build an iconic new brand, and the permission he gave us to help them achieve that. It's fair to say working on Skype made Albion, it's still a great calling card for us today.

Is Albion using Skype now?

Yes! It's still our preferred way to talk with colleagues who are working remotely, but we don't use it as completely as we used to. When we worked with Skype, it was the hub for all of our communications, but it's not as easy to use as it used to be. Now we tend to use Google's Hangouts app for chat and Viber for voice on mobile because they're better user experiences.

What is the importance of Skype in terms of changing the way we communicate?

Skype changed the behaviour of hundreds of millions of people. VOIP had existed since 1991, and hundreds of applications were available, but none had any appeal outside of technology early adopters, because they felt so geeky. In fact that's how Skype felt before Albion worked with them - their strapline was 'p2p telephony that just works'. We helped them to understand that the barrier to use wasn't a technological one, but a behavioural and cultural one. We had to make Skyping into a cool new mainstream thing to do. People used to feel silly talking into their laptop, but Skype made it normal, and so opened the door for all the amazing apps we use today.

What do you think is the future of internet telephony?

Web 1.0 was about publishing static pages, about destinations. Web 2.0 was about services, like Facebook, distributed across the web. Now we're moving into the era of the Internet of Things, where objects are on the internet. As that happens internet telephony will stop being about destinations (having to go to Skype's software to make a call) and more about voice being a service that every internet-connected object could have. For example Silicon Valley startup Automatic make a dongle that connects your car to the internet, and one of the benefits of that is that your car can call the emergency services for you if you crash. Telephony API services like Twilio make it easy for programmers to build this voice layer into their software and hardware.

Do you think Skype is a good thing?

Skype is absolutely a good thing. It got the world communicating more, and better communication is invariably the solution to many of life's problems.

Is Skype secure enough?

That's a complicated question, technically and philosophically, and we're not security experts. From a marketing point of view, if its hundreds of millions of users trust that its secure enough, then its secure enough.

Sep 18, 2013

Glass, One, privacy & ads

Some thoughts I jotted down for The Drum earlier in the summer, just after the announcement of the X-Box One. Again, they didn't use them (damn them).

How much thought have you been putting into how brands could work with the advertising opportunities being made available by the technology in the likes of Google Glass and Xbox One?

Honestly, we’ve put no thought into advertising opportunities. X-Box One is 6 months away, Glass a year at least. We don’t work with the kind of brands who book trophy spot advertising in the launches of these things. However we are very busy thinking about how clients can use motion sensing, voice control, wearables and the other technologies that these devices will legitimise / popularise.

What, if anything, excites you about it?

I personally find Glass by far the most exciting of the two. Precisely because it’s such a ‘moon shot’ (as Larry Page describes it). The iPhone and iPad had computers become a lot less computer-y. Now they’re disappearing into the things we wear anyway, and losing all traditional input devices. The technology is starting to mature, starting to stop being technology. Like electric motors. Actually what’s should really be exciting isn’t the hardware but the cloud computing that links them all together in a really smart way.

We’ve heard a lot about how Google Glass could potentially offer a more personalised ad experience or how Xbox One could allow for real time ‘ad shopping’. What potential uses can you foresee in the future?

I don’t need to forsee any, because science fiction writers have done it for us, for decades now. But they always present this as a dystopian vision though, of megacorps interrupting me to sell me theoir latest sinister liberty-sapping product. What if we took a more optimistic view? Personally I’d love it if my car’s diagnostic system ordered a new part for my car before it fails, schedules its delivery for when I have a free Saturday afternoon, then I can use Glass to help me fit it myself – then I’d never have to visit a horrible corporate dealership or grimey railway arches mechanic again.

Any brands you know of that are already factoring it into campaign plans ahead of general release this year and next?

Who’d bet against Nike eh?

On a more general note, what are your thoughts on the obvious privacy issues it presents?

This kind of new technology has a yuck factor, precisely because we’re good as a culture at imaging dystopian applications of it. Like it or not we’re in the middle of a seismic change in how society views the concepts of privacy and. Privacy by default is dead. It was a long time ago actually. Every aspect of our lives is now connected up in ways that are difficult to understand, and we now have to work hard to opt-in to privacy. We’ll look back on the privacy by default era with the same curiosity we know reserve for the time when people were afraid to travel by train in case they couldn’t breathe.

So imagine a post-privacy era. What does that mean for brands? I think about two things. Tone and content. 1. The tone point is this. Most brands are awful at talking to people. The language they use is awkward, patronising, insulting. People tolerate the stupidity because it’s broadcast, it’s vanilla, it doesn’t matter. 2. The content point is this. The targeting technology is the easy bit. The resource to make all those targeted ads creatively good is the real problem. Adwords does it by a) crowdsourcing the effort to the millions of small companies using it, and b) having a an algorithm that rewards better ads. As an industry we need to start imaging the infrastructure that can fill the millions or billions of new targeted ad opportunities with content that doesn’t make people hate brands. We’re good at ignoring nearly all advertising. But every time a Council sends a dead person a bill, it’s a story in the Daily Mail. This is the future for brands who don’t get their content and their tone right in the hyper-targeted always-on new world marketers are imaging these technologies will deliver. Be careful what you wish for!

Sep 17, 2013

The record producers: Nile Rodgers

I’ve grown to really love Nile Rodgers. His book is one of the best music autobiographies I've read, and his music, from Chic to Madonna to Bowie to the new Daft Punk, is perfect pop, and insanely tight.

This Radio 2 documentary from 2007, part in their Record Producers series, is really good. The bit at 14.00 is amazing, when they isolate the drums and bass off the multitrack of Le Freak.

Apr 19, 2013

Agencies are like the KLF

This is my talk from Neil Perkins' Google Firestarters 8 event. It was one of eight provocations on the subject of 'The Agency Innovation Conundrum'.

I want to make the case that the reason agencies are obsessed about innovation is because our future is uncertain. And so I find it funny that the debate between us is often conducted in the most certain, combative and tribal way.

I just finished a great book about the KLF. It’s called ‘KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money’ by JMR Higgs. Well actually it isn’t really about the KLF. As one Amazon reviewer says “It's about the ideas that led to the KLF doing the things they did, and the ideas that led to those ideas.”

Part of the premise is about how everybody was certain that the KLF were master media manipulators. And that makes sense if you take their story at face value.

  • They first came to prominence when they made the best ever novelty record, Doctorin’ The Tardis, and got it to No. 1.
  • Then they wrote a book about how to have a No. 1, which many, including the Klaxons, have used successfully since.
  • Then they helped invent Trance music with the original ‘What Time Is Love’ and ‘3am Eternal’.
  • Then they re-made those tunes as ‘Stadium House’ pop music, and had No. 1’s right around the world.
  • Then they ‘retired’ from the music business, firing a machine gun at music execs at the Brit Awards, before dumping a dead sheep on the steps of the after party.
  • And finally they burnt their last million quid on the island of Jura – all the money that was left over from their pop career.

Surely a carefully planned art prank? Surely they didn’t really do it? And, if they did, surely that makes them arseholes? But the book’s conclusion is that, actually, they didn’t know what they were doing. They just looked like they did. (I haven’t got time today to explain why this stacks up, but I recommend you read it and find out for yourself.)

Which is why I think that agencies are like the KLF. We look like we know what we’re doing.

We have to because, in our industry, to quote from the KLF book (about the art industry actually, but it applies equally to advertising) “the importance of the strange magical glamours of context and reputation are paramount” We even convince ourselves that we know what we’re doing sometimes, with hokum theories.

The truth is that maybe once we did even know what we’re doing. Because things used to be simple. But they’re not anymore. Why? Because the simple things that clients used to give us agency for have gone away.

Putting posters on poster sites. Putting banner ads on the web. They couldn’t do it. Now they can. Now clients have in-house planners, creatives, production, even media. All the practical stuff they used to have to outsource to us, they can now do themselves. And it gets worse. Now adtech startups are busy automating what we used to do, and clients are busy acquiring them, accelerating our demise.

So how do we react to this uncertainty? By attacking each other in the most certain, ideological, dogmatic terms.

CantUnderstandNewTechnology is a new newspaper, from @camillastore and @planbstudio, which Design Week described as “a new gossip rag for the Silicon Roundabout set… riddled with swearing, childish humour and insider knowledge.”

I wrote an article in Issue 1 in which I attempted to satirise the debate going on between agencies facing this disruption.

This is how I characterised the debate from the ad agencies’ side:

Despite the advertising business growing rapidly and going through a period of tremendously exciting change, we’re going to distract ourselves by talking endlessly about how the ‘new frontier’ is designing products. We’re doing this because everybody who works in advertising pretty much hates advertising. And because we sense there’s money to be made, fast, by lowering standards.

And this is how I characterised the debate from the product design studios side. In a word: Angry:

I’m so fucking angry. I was into product design years ago when hardly anybody else knew about it. 17 years I’ve been in this game - 17 years of enduring endless, circular, whining debates about the difference between UX and UI. And Mr Jonny Fucking Adman thinks he can just steam in and take that all away from me. You haven’t paid your dues ponytail boy – now fuck off.

While it’s more fun to debate if you take intractable extreme positions, the right answer is invariably in the sensible middle ground. In a good compromise.

I think ad agencies can and should learn from product design studios' User Centred Design methodologies, to make their advertising more effective and more human. I think product design studios should learn from (the best) ad agencies, to make their products more imaginative and entertaining to use. I think that, if they could collaborate or join forces, the result might be very powerful. (Which is why, at Albion, we hired 12 product and service designers last year.)

But what strikes me more is that all this anger and energy is being expended on something that, for the most part, is no more than an ad agency making its own app. So small and inconsequential. Surely we’re missing the point? We’re not understanding how fundamentally the marketing services business is being disrupted and needs to change to survive. Chief Innovation Officer hirings and SXSW stunt products aren’t enough.

In fact they’re our version of Metallica suing their fans, desperately clinging on to how the music business used to work, wanting to believe nothing has really changed. The people on the other side, the AdTech startups, are laughing at us. “How feeble.” “How quaint.”

We have a desperate need to experiment, to try all sorts of new business models, services, products, ways of working. To make giant leaps, not token gestures.

I think we need to go back to first principles. Strip away 50 years of accumulated assumptions about what agencies are for, and go back to the basics of what companies want to give agency for, and why – TODAY - and build back up from there.

At Albion, no-one’s coming to us and asking for Planning or Art Direction. These days very few are asking us for Advertising or Branding. They don’t want to have to navigate the agency world’s arcane divisions.

What they are asking is for us to help them start and grow businesses. And the reason they’re asking us is because they’ve heard that we’re good at Collaboration, Flexibility and Imagination. We’re good business partners for entrepreneurs.

That’s what we’re building our business around. We’re focusing on an audience – entrepreneurs – and taking the time to understand what they want, and working hard to give it to them. It’s taken us 10 years so far, and I think we’re really getting somewhere now.

Now, in a world of bullshit agency straplines this can sound platitudinous, but we’re trying to really live by it. Our service isn’t advertising. Our service is helping to start and grow businesses. And one of the levers we use to do that is advertising.

It’s this is the kind of reinvention process, and the level of commitment, that we think it’s necessary to start to find your place in the disrupted marketing services landscape.

My final point it this. It’s tempting to think that one neat ‘new agency model’ will become clear in the next 2 or 3 years, and then we can all relax. But I think this level of disruption will be a fact of life for the rest of my working life.

In 1995 the KLF announced a 23 year moratorium on all projects, and further indicated that they would not speak about the burning of the million pounds during this period. They understood that neither they nor anybody else could understand why they did what they did until they had the benefit of some historical perspective.

So let’s stop all this talk about agency innovation and just get on with stuff. Then let’s all meet up then for a Firestarters Reunion in 2036. I’ll be 63 and, hopefully, about to retire, and we can then look back with some perspective and see what actually happened.

Thank you.

Apr 17, 2013

Random Access Marketing

I think Daft Punk have done a great job of building excitement for their new album Random Access Memories. Maybe it’s nothing really new, but they’ve used paid media to reveal bits of the lead single, ‘Get Lucky’, in a really smart way that has got music fans speculating, wanting more, and creating and remixing to fill in the gaps.

With thanks to Daft Wiki here’s what I can remember of it.

The ‘campaign’ dates back to February 2012 when legendary disco musician and producer Nile Rodgers said in an online interview that he was going to meet Daft Punk in his apartment in New York to discuss the duo's new album.

"Those guys are great,” he said. “They're coming to my apartment on Monday and we’re going to talk about making a new record together."

Rumours continued to swirl for much of 2012 but there was nothing more concrete.

In early February 2013, 4 tracks claiming to be leaks from the new album were published on YouTube, but they were later revealed to be fakes by an Italian duo called Art Institute.

At the end of February 2013, Daft Punk updated their website with a new image, confirming a new album and collaboration with Columbia records.

On March 2, 2013, Daft Punk released a 16” teaser through a Saturday Night Live advertisement.

Several artists went on to try and ‘complete’ the song from that fragment.


Near the end of March, it was reported that album artwork had appeared all over the world as posters (HT @LucianTrestler):

On April 11, 2013, Daft Punk played a teaser for their 4th album at Coachella (and later during SNL), confirming that Panda Bear, Julian Casablancas, Pharrell, and others are working on the album.

Which people have again attempted to complete (even passing them off as 'leaks'):

Also on that day, the website was updated with the third film in their special Vice/Intel Creators Project series, featuring Nile Rodgers.

On 16 April, Columbia Records released the tracklist on Vine:

On 18 April, someone posted a supposed leaked radio edit of Get Lucky. They then quickly removed it - but not before several radio stations had played it, beliving it to be the real thing. While this track has 2 verses that have never been heard on official Daft Punk teaser marketing, the quality of the vocal and mixing on those verses is dodgy enough to lead fans to believe it is a very good fake, or perhaps an early demo.

Apprently the actual single 'Get Lucky' will be premiered on April 19 on a radio station in Brussels:

The single was offically released onto iTunes and Spotify on 19 April:

And, according to Sky News (again HT @LucianTrestler) the album will be premiered with a playback at the agricultural show of Wee Waa, a town with a population of just 1,653 about 500km northwest of Sydney.

Have I missed anything? Let me know @glyndot.

Apr 16, 2013

Moving my blog to Markdown

I've never been a committed blogger.

I did something in Wordpress for a while, but my writing was forced and uninteresting, and the platform too featured and difficult to use.

I've had a Posterous for the last few years, and really enjoyed using that platform as it was simple and flexible. But my blog there never really had an identity - it was a mishmash of silly found bits of pop culture, links to worky articles, and a few writings from me.

Posterous being shuttered has forced me to change platform. I briefly considered Wordpress, Tumblr or Squarespace, as tools exist to automatically migrate Posterous blogs to them. But none of them have the simplicity that I'm after.

Also, none of them offer the future-proofing I'm after. I don't want to have to go through this again - it was a weekend's effort to do the migration properly.

Posthaven looks interesting, but doesn't actually exist yet, so it's hard to judge how they'll solve the permenance problem.

Markdown

But then I remembered about Markdown. @drcongo (Albion tech director) sends a regular internal email, including Pro Tips, and one of those had been all about this simple blog markup language and the some of the Mac tools that help you use it.

Markdown is a text formatting language. It's incredibly useful as it allows you to create plain text documents that can be transformed into almost any other format. For instance, these AlbI/On emails are written in Markdown using the Byword app, then output as HTML for your email reading pleasure. It's the future.

One of these that first caught my eye was Throwww. It's awesome, the very simplest blogging platform there could be. But it doesn't solve the trickier problem - what if Throwww shut down - my data would be on their servers.

But then I came across Calepin. This service renders blog posts from Markdown files stored in your Dropbox. In other words, you keep your data. If Calepin shuts down (which, in fact, it is doing) you can just point another service at the same Markdown files and, boom, your blog lives again, with more like 15 minutes work.

So this is how this blog now works:

  • I'm writing posts in Writemonkey, a lightweight PC app, that provides a distrction free writing envrionment and supports Markdown.

  • MarkdownPad or Markable are Markdown editors that can help while you're learning the syntax.)

  • I'm using Sciptogram to publish Markdown files from my Dropbox. It's an evolved version of Calepin, with an easier interface and in-beta WYSIWYG features.

What good about Scriptogram

Scriptogram supports custom domains, so I pointed glyndot.com at it. Sadly I'd never confogured this properly on my Posterous, so old URLs won't map accross.

Scriptogram has some interesting themes, and all of them (I think) have a responsive design option, so my blog now reads nice on mobile.

Images are simply stored in my Dropbox Public folder. In fact this is my only worry about the whole rig - Dropbox aren't giving new users Public folders by default, they have to be created. I'm concerned they'll turn off this feature at some point, and break my images.

I didn't move all the posts accross from Posterous, only those where I'd written something of value to anybody other than me (and had therefore ever got any traffic).

Hope this helps someone

I'm writing this up becasue I think the temporary nature of tech startups is a problem growing in people's concisouness and I reckon more barely-geeks like me will be looking for a workable and futureproofed solution.

Feb 19, 2013

Should people fear behavioual ads?

Me in Campaign Magazine talking about Online Behavioural Advertising (OBA):

"Any good mainstream brands should already be taking responsibility for this themselves, ensuring that their online behavioural advertising doesn’t feel freaky or haranguing. Sadly, some brands with less clued-in clients and bonus-chasing media agencies may have been overstepping the mark. So the reputation damage has already been done to an ad technology that, if used right, can be useful to users rather than annoying. It’s a pity the new rules don’t include mobile advertising. It would have been nice to see the Advertising Standards Authority getting ahead of the market and making sure that mobile ads don’t get schlocky in the first place."

Feb 16, 2013

My article in #CantUnderstandNewTechnology

I was chuffed to be asked by @CamillaStore and @PlanBStudio to write something for the launch issue of #CantUnderstandNewTechnology

Design Week described it thus:

Riddled with swearing, childish humour and insider knowledge, Can’t Understand New Technology (no, we shan’t be using the acronym) is a new gossip rag for the Silicon Roundabout set.

Just my kind of thing. What I did was attempt to satirise the debate going on between Ad Agencies and Design Studios about who has the right to design products. I did it in the form of two blog posts, from opposite sides of the debate...


ZOMG! It turns out products are designed! Who'da thunk it? But – and get this – the people who’ve been designing them so far are too stupid to get rich off it!

Posted January 18, 2013 with 7 Comments

After six years of fiddling with our iPhones, rather than paying attention in dull client status meetings, we in Adland have finally caught on. This shit is designed!

So, despite the advertising business growing rapidly and going through a period of tremendously exciting change, we’re going to distract ourselves by talking and writing about how ‘the new frontier’ is designing products.

We’re doing this for several reasons.

Firstly, because we sense there’s money to be made, fast, by lowering standards. We did it with digital agencies in the 90s. We’ll get some of our young kids who want to have a crack at product design, and set them up with their ‘own’ agency. Then we’ll then flog it to all our big clients by undercutting the ‘design studio’ muppets who’ve been plugging away at this for years.

Secondly, because everybody who works in advertising pretty much hates advertising. But rather than channel our self-loathing into making better ads, we’re going to now try and make another sector shit too.

Thirdly, because product design is cooler than advertising at the moment. I mean check out the number of Fast Company articles, there’s fucking hundreds of them. And if there’s one thing that people who work in advertising care about more than anything else it’s being cool.

We haven’t really given much thought to what’s involved in designing products, but it can’t be that different to writing press ads can it? And we’ve got some really funny references off YouTube for the launch film.


Everybody who works in an ad agency is a tosser and wouldn’t know a product if it shat on them, so how on earth are they going to design them? Pricks.

Posted January 21, 2013 with 11 Comments

It’s recently become achingly fashionable for big ad agencies to talk about product design. Like, as if. Let me tell you now that big ad agencies have no fucking right to talk about products. In fact, they shouldn’t even be allowed to use products. Yeah, that’s right. They should only be allowed to use commodities, services or experiences, but definitely not products.

Why?

Firstly, because big ad agencies are big. I mean, how clueless must they be if they’re big? They obviously have absolutely no idea about anything if all they’ve managed to do is build a huge, multinational agency network and sell it for hundreds of millions of pounds.

Secondly, people who work in big agencies are all, without fail, like the stereotypical 80s creative director: self-obsessed, lazy, talentless chancers who mistakenly believe they are making art. All they know how to do is make stuff that millions of people find entertaining. I don’t think you’ll find the Bauhaus was founded on that principle.

Thirdly, because big ad agencies cannot change. Look at them all, still sat on Madison Avenue, ‘writing’ and ‘art directing’ press advertisements for Hathaway Shirts. They haven’t even replaced all the native apps on their iPhones with cooler alternatives they found out about on Ars Technica. They’ve not managed to keep pace with the world we live in, they’re dinosaurs, and I hope they all die.

But mostly because I’m so fucking angry. I was into product design years ago when hardly anybody else knew about it. 17 years I’ve been in this game - 17 years of enduring endless, circular, whining debates about the difference between UX and UI. And Mr Jonny Fucking Adman thinks he can just steam in and take that all away from me. You haven’t paid your dues ponytail boy – now fuck off.

Feb 14, 2013

What if ad agencies and design studios stopped fighting and got together?

This follows up on the great posts from Matt Edgar, Jules Ehrhardt and Tim Dunn.

The debate about ‘should/can ad agencies design products’ rages on. Sadly it’s not always turning out to be a constructive debate, because it’s becoming increasingly tribal, with the two sides taking extreme positions.

I wanted to take a common sense view on the core arguments I keep seeing used on both sides of the debate.

Ad Agencies’ arguments about why ad agencies need to design products

Advertising is dying; we need to find a new business model

No, advertising isn’t dying. But it is being disrupted, so ad agencies do need to change - adjust their skills and working practices to the new world. But surely it’s easier to keep pace with your sector than jump into another one?

Product Design is the future

Well, yes it is. But it’s also the past. It’s been important for a long while, probably longer than advertising’s been around. Glad you’re finally catching on.

What is true is that there’s a much needed rebalancing between, as John Willshire has it, ‘Making people want things, and making things people want’. Ideally both work in harmony. In the last 50 years, the ‘making people want things’ became dominant, as TV meant big brands could hypnotise people into buying inferior products. The social web, and the removal of friction from the review process, has restored that balance.

So you do now need good products to advertise. Whether than means you have to design the good products is another question.

We need to design and market our own products

Really? With 50 years of experience in client service, wouldn’t it make more sense to help clients design their products?

Even great studios, with years of experience of designing products for clients, are finding it tough to create their own products. It’s expensive and risky. It takes you into all sorts of non-core areas, like 24/7 international support. And it requires total commitment to one product to make a success of it (whereas agency people like to work on several things in parallel).

Just because clients are no longer willing to pay agencies to do, say, banner resizing (taking this previously low-effort, high-margin business in-house), doesn’t mean they’re unwilling to pay agencies for anything. You don’t need to get out of the client service game; you just need to figure out what they want to pay for next, that you can do.

Design Studio’s arguments about why ad agencies can’t design products

Ad agencies are all dinosaurs and won’t be able to change fast enough

I think there’s a bit of cliché and stereotyping going on here. The truth is that, yes, all big companies find it hard to change. And some of the ad agencies have been successful enough to grow pretty big.

But some of the smaller ad agencies are adapting pretty quickly to the new world. And the smartest big agency groups are starting smaller ‘new model’ agencies to develop and prototype new ways of working, hoping that the mothership can learn from them.

Ad agencies can’t be user centred or agile

Again, look inside some of the smaller, smarter ad agencies, and you see them grappling with new working methods that own something to UCD, agile and lean – to design communications.

Of course they can’t implement those methodologies in a pure way, but you’ll see the breaking down of the ‘creative department’ silo, collaborative team working spaces, validation and iteration of prototypes, and smarter more objective research techniques.

Ad agencies’ experience gives them nothing to bring to product design

More enlightened studios acknowledge that, while great product design is user-centred, it also allows for lateral leaps and risk taking. That’s what UCD is when it’s done right. But some design studios are a bit fundamentalist about it, leading them to design highly usable but boring products.

Ad agency people, the good ones, are trained and practiced in making lateral leaps; in connecting two apparently un-connectable things in a way that makes us see something afresh.

Perhaps channelling those skills into the product design process could make for more iPhones and Nest thermostats?

The grey area

While it’s more fun to debate if you take intractable extreme positions, the right answer is invariably in the sensible middle ground. In a good compromise.

I think ad agencies can and should learn from product design studios, to make their advertising more effective and more human. I think product design studios should learn from (the best) ad agencies, to make their products more imaginative and entertaining to use. I think that, if they could collaborate or join forces, the result might be very powerful.

This (and here comes the self-serving bit) is our ambition at Albion. We’ve got great communications people, and we’ve got great product design people. We’ve designed one process (yes, drawing on UCD, agile and lean) that encourages them to work together. We haven’t cracked our first hybrid ‘one system’ solution yet, but I’m sure we will this year.

Thanks to the authors of some other smart posts that helped inform my thinking:

Jan 23, 2013