Michael Maedel, President, JWT, speaks to Mariam Ali Baig about the role of the ad agencies in a digital world.
MARIAM ALI BAIG: Is JWT’s commitment to
MICHAEL MAEDEL: Absolutely. We are not a company that either jumps into a market or pulls out of one. We are here to stay. We have been present in many markets which have gone through troubles similar to Pakistan’s. I am not saying this because I want to be nice, but Pakistan is a market with enormous potential. Yes, the political situation has to be stabilised, but if you look at the size of the market, at the wealth of the country, I would be, for the mid to long term, absolutely positive about it. There is a good reason why Pakistan has been put in the group of the next 11. I think it will just take a bit of time. Talking to our clients here, there is an incredible sense of commitment and optimism about where their businesses are going. It struck me from the very beginning, and this time again, that there is not a trace of defeatism or of being downbeat. Yes, there are challenges and obstacles, but the sense in this country is that ‘we are going to prevail’. I think this is a terrific attitude.
MAB: When we met last, you mentioned that there would be an increased level of acquisitions by JWT in
MM: It is. The first challenge we face as an industry and as a company is the fact that we have to change. We need to think about how we can expand our service offering, and which categories are meaningful and relevant, and these are not the same in every market. The second challenge is the growth of digital because our whole business will become digital. Internet penetration is here to stay; social media has changed the conversation between consumers and brands. Manufacturers are no longer in full control of their brands. Consumers are talking to each other with the enhanced credibility of talking one-to-one and the ability to cover the world within a nanosecond. There is a force in play which we have to include in our thinking. These are the areas where we might need to bring in additional expertise.
MAB: Will the present generation of senior creatives be able to make the leap into the digital world?
MM: Funnily enough, more often than not, creatives are the most conservative people in the advertising world, because they hang on to what they are really comfortable with. Digital expertise is certainly not confined to the creative community alone. People don’t always have a full understanding of what digital really means. Digital does not mean making a quirky five-minute film and uploading it on YouTube. Digital allows a very measurable dialogue and one that provides constant feedback about a brand and managing this constant feedback is the challenge. In the past creating a campaign was like giving birth to a baby or baking a cake, once the campaign is out, the work is over. With digital I have constant feedback which forces me to keep fine tuning or adapting the work I have already done. It is about a conversation that is constantly going on.
MAB: In effect, the way of doing business in the advertising world has changed?
MM: Change will be the only constant, which is why I think that we are living in the most exciting period in this business since it was invented. Technology has opened up so many new possibilities. The question is how do we connect all these channels; how do we introduce brands? Look at how some of the major car manufacturers are launching their new models. In the past they did it through traditional media campaigns, shows and dealer promotions. Today they give 100 new cars to their target group and then ask them to write blogs, upload videos and use social media to communicate the benefits. This is what creates the buzz and the excitement. The approach has changed. The second thing that has happened – and I haven’t really sorted this out completely in my mind – so bear with me. I am trying to shed the terminology ‘consumer’, because it implies that over here is someone who has a product or is sending a message, and over there is someone who consumes it, and I think this is a pretty passive expression of the role. What you need today are brands that have an ideology, or a point of view that enables them to create a community. It is not a question of being a consumer; it’s a question of being part of a brand community and taking part in the interchange of ideas and the dialogue that is going on out there. This is creating a completely new dynamic in the relationship between a manufacturer, a brand and members of the community.
MAB: To what extent are the traditional structures of advertising agencies going to change?
MM: One of the characteristics of this digital world is that it is simply, completely and utterly impossible for any agency in the world to have all the talent under one roof at the same time; things are happening too fast. For example, I cannot start from the assumption that my resident creative director is the salt of the earth and he is the only one who knows everything. You have to open up. Then you have to battle egos, battle vanity, battle the fear of the unknown. This requires a group of very curious, well informed and well connected people who can act as producers in the sense that they are bringing different talent together, and that’s not easy because it requires different managerial skills. Until recently, agencies worked on similar lines to the old Hollywood studio model of the 1920s, where the studio employed the writers, the directors, the actors, everyone. What is the studio today? The producers have an idea and then they hire the best possible talent to help realise the product, and that is the way I see agencies heading tomorrow.
MAB: What will be the role of the advertising agencies in such a fast changing world?
MM: There is an important role for an agency. The boundaries between all these channels are blurring; where does the campaign end and the activation start? Where does the activation end and the media content come in? The art is to connect them, and this is where the new role of the agency lies. The more channels you have, the more important it becomes to ensure that the brand is rooted in an idea, otherwise you will end up with a dog’s breakfast. There is an underlying, clearly defined idea which is then amplified through the usage of different channels. Our core responsibility is the development and the ideation of that concept. When it comes to execution, some of agencies will do it in-house, others not.
MAB: Until about five years ago agencies were acquiring different specialisations. Is this trend reversing?
MM: Because digital has become such a dominant fact in our thinking, we tend to forget that we are not even one second into this digital journey. YouTube did not exist five years ago, and how old is Google? These are all very young companies, and the risk is that if you were to go and buy one of those companies, you might be buying something which is relevant today, but there is no guarantee in the world that it will be relevant tomorrow. While we are sitting here, someone next door could be thinking up the next big thing, and I want to have access to that person. So, although acquisitions will not go away, they will increasingly be replaced by a model of affiliation for a certain timeframe and then things will move on.
MAB: Given the multiplicity of channels, how confused are clients about what they should be doing?
MM: Everybody is confused at the moment, which is why companies like us have a very confident and important role to play. When you talk to individual channel specialists, they will tell you ‘mine is the most important and effective channel’. Clients are not interested in managing specialisation, all they want is one point of contact – which is the agency – and the knowledge and confidence that this agency is open-minded enough to bring in the best possible partners and not try to apply a do-it-yourself system.
MAB: Clients are also confused regarding whether the media house or the agency should be driving the creative.
MM: I don’t think it is necessarily a God given right of the agency to always be the one with the best possible idea. I think you have a bunch of really smart people on the media side who for good reason, are focusing on digital. However, what they will say is that because they have access to all the data, they know much more about consumers than an agency ever could and are therefore in a better position to deliver. Data is important, absolutely, but you also need this unique ability to take facts and then make this leap – which you cannot construct – it is, in effect, the ingenuity of a group of people who are able to come up with an idea which really connects and catches peoples’ attention. The best structure in the world cannot deliver an idea. It can get you to a certain level, but it will never be a big idea. This is where good agencies with the right kind of people will always have a role to play, because at the core of all we do sits this idea and the person who comes up with this idea.
MAB: To match these changes, isn’t a change in the recruitment profiles of agencies required?
MM: We are trying not to recruit out of the same pool. This merry-go-round whereby agencies hire from one another does not broaden the skills set. What I would like to do is to recruit sociologists and anthropologists. What intrigues me is the phenomenon of social media. I think it is a reflection of an underlying sociological change. What is it that makes it so intriguing for people to communicate, in many cases, under different identities? What is going on out there that makes them want to escape real life for this pseudo virtual world and live out their dreams there? Do they live in a society which they perceive as so oppressive that they need to save the world? Or is it just the fascination of a new possibility? I want to have that expertise to come into our thinking process.
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