By Invitation Only: Regenerating adland — brave leaders required
by Rowan Belchers (@ThePeoplePro) A bright but different future awaits those who are willing to drop what they’ve always known, and get excited about the vision of a reinvented sector. Leaders must do the hard work and make the tough calls that will make that vision a reality.
The downfall of the advertising industry has been predicted for as long as I can remember. It’s an oversimplified prediction: one that lacks an understanding of the nature of change. Advertising will always be around in some form; we may accept that with certainty. What is equally certain is that the sector is undergoing profound change.
For the many people I’ve been involved with in the industry, advertising feels hard right now. Squeezed for profits, their client relationships are being strained and agencies are losing their value in the eyes of those clients. Most people in the game know intuitively that the advertising sector is not ‘in flow’ — if flow describes something in the right form, in the right place, at the right time.
This, however, is a column of hope and encouragement for leaders in the advertising sector. It contains some observations, some learnings and some advice, all underpinned by positivity about a way forward and knowing how the path to change may be eased. My hope is to offer some ideas and perhaps some tools for leaders in the industry. The operative word here is “leaders”, as the future of the sector lies squarely in their hands. So, herewith my suggested toolbox: six pointers to help leaders navigate through the next evolution of advertising.
1. Developing the ability to ‘sense’
‘Sensing’ is the combination of observation, intuition, deductive reasoning, and insight. You will need finely honed skills to make sense of the very-complex changes that are afoot in the business world. You’ll need to form clear thoughts as to the external stimuli and your required response within your businesses. Without these skills, it’s like walking in the dark and opens up the possibility of a strategic blindside that may have immediate and calamitous results. With the advent of autonomous cars, imagine the sensing skills those in the automotive industry have to learn at the moment, for example.
There is no predictable way forward and so leaders are forced to look out over their landscape, take in all the changes in front of them and try to form a working hypothesis. This is not easy but is very necessary and you will need to draw on all of your senses in order to form this view. Practically, this means making space for time, dialogue, external exposure, deep thinking and self-observation — all anathemas to the advertising sector and its busy, deadline-driven nature. However, the price of not taking this time — to slow down, accessing other parts of your brain and your deep intuition — might be considerable.
2. Bravery in the presence of uncertainty
There is a horrible feeling that accompanies the dreaded, slow, downward creep: everyone feels the approach of an “ending”. I experienced this first hand in Silicon Valley in 2000 as the dot.com boom turned. Businesses kept plodding forward, though everyone could see the end in sight. There was a palpable sense of inevitability about the place. I recognise some of those sentiments currently across the advertising sector: fading optimism, creeping cynicism, and a sense of foreboding.
This is a necessary step in the evolution of the sector but it’s only useful if it elicits a positive response. And that response may be to get ahead of the story, potentially cannibalise your business, write some new rules and have a go at doing things differently. Crucially, this is going to require standing up to clients and stating your ongoing ‘wants’ without fear of recrimination.
Brands have had it coming for a long time now and they, too, need to recalibrate how they think about agencies. But it won’t happen without agencies making the first move and letting go of some big clients along the way.
3. Understanding the term “organisational development”
I refer to organisations as “vessels” in order to give leaders a more-tactile interpretation of the businesses they oversee. I find that the term “business” may dehumanise what is a very real, living, moving organism. We are learning more about the complex and fascinating nature of these vessels all the time, and this improved understanding is a source of great potential, performance and profit for leaders. Assuming, that is, that leaders also understand the topic of organisation-building — in my experience, most leaders don’t.
The vessel is the key to getting stellar performance from your people — and, as you all know, advertising is nothing without its people (the advent of AI notwithstanding.). How you build the vessel, the shape of the vessel, the beliefs within the vessel, and the habits of the vessel — these all either enable or disable your performance. How to shape performance is, therefore, an area that leaders need to know a lot more about.
4. Solving complex problems and the role of external expertise
The only antidote to complex problems is expertise: people who understand a topic at a deep level, who spend their days and nights thinking about it, reading about it, and figuring it out. This brings a new dynamic to the business sector. Consultants have always been considered useful, but the value of an external expert these days is going beyond being a ‘nice to have’, and is becoming a requirement due to the complexity of the topics: from block chain and AL, to machine learning and neuroscience, etc.
It is imperative for leaders to have a trusted core of advisors to whom they can turn. Advisory relationships must be free from the ‘grudge-purchase’ sentiment that hindered consulting-type relationships of old.
5. Welcoming a new kind of talent
It’s hard to adequately describe the rate of change that we’re going to have to handle in the near future. I recently worked with a Zurich-based outfit that prepares companies for the changes looming in the business environment. Its view is that we’re about one-third of the way along the ‘hockey stick’ change-curve. And this is the slow third! As we cross the halfway mark, things will quicken markedly as technology starts really starts to disrupt us.
Your talent set-up will need to look very different within a one-to-three-year horizon. Accept that and work with it. It’s highly likely that there will be no fixed job descriptions, offices will be flexible workspaces, most communication with be done digitally, and most of your people will hold down more than one position across a variety of companies. You should be making innovative moves in this territory right now, so that you’ve at least got the ball rolling. My recommendation is to make sure you have someone within your HR function who’s strategic, and is not purely administration-orientated as most HR practitioners are.
6. Applying digital learnings to your own business
The biggest favour you may do yourselves is to invest generously in the best tech available. It’s such an easily solved problem and instantly opens up possibilities that are hard to imagine from the vantage point of today. It’s like getting a (relatively) free jump on your competition by making sure you’re set up for the inevitably huge change that is coming our way fast.
In closing, I am constantly amazed at the exponential power of leaders to make moves that positively impact the prospects of so many people. This is a time in the advertising sector when leaders are being asked to step out of the shadows and act boldly. The disappearance of advertising is a myth but the undeniable downward slide is there for all to see.
Rowan Belchers (@ThePeoplePro) is the founder and CEO of Lockstep, a boutique consultancy specialising in CEO and executive leadership craft. Lockstep believes in developing “Leaders at their finest”.
“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on MarkLives.com. Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.