The Thought Leadership Imperative for Ad Agencies

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what “thought leadership” means at agencies, especially in an age where the boundaries of what constitutes “media” become both murkier and more complex.  For creative agencies, does it mean a continuation of delivering a portfolio of works that are meant to inspire, humor, and persuade? And for media agencies, is it the really just the continuation of pursuing overall optimization and achieving maximum ROI?

As 2014 kicks off with the ever-growing Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the theme of the “Internet of Things” resonates stronger than ever.  While the notion of the connected home (where your living room, heating system, kitchen appliances and home entertainment section are all connected) is not groundbreaking and has been a presence at this show for years, we are reaching a tipping point where 1) the technology is affordable enough to be widely accessible and 2) the design and user experience have caught on in a way where many of the products we come across can be designed for this new age (think Nest) and  everything we touch is somehow impacted by data, information, and in short, media (check out this Kickstarter-funded smart cutting board that sends nutritional info straight from your cutting board to your phone).  Intentional or not, the media industry has been flung into the midst of this changing technology wave, and where “digital” used to be a differentiating factor, it is now an expected capability.  And with that change, there is a growing thirst and imperative to understand the implications of what it means for brands to more deeply engage and keep up with the evolving digital habits of their consumers.

And yet, in spite of this demand, thought leadership and what all this change and opportunity means still lies primarily outside of the purview of agencies, who  still hold the purse strings of the billions of dollars spent on advertising each year.  While there are one-off pieces and independent publishers and ad networks who publish their views (most often on relatively niche topics like RTB, Display networks, and attribution analysis), this space still remains largely dominated  by consulting giants and to some extent, tech publications (more oft than not, these are more geared towards the consumer than a business) .

Of course, having a working definition of ‘thought leadership’ is a challenge for any organization to define (just as it is a challenge for any publication to define its ‘voice’ in the initial stages), but demonstrating an active commitment to it should be a step that all agencies should consider taking.  Advertising is an industry that has always had a particular fondness for the glitz and glamour of the here and now, but perhaps now is the time to take a step back and think about the mid and long-term stories we want to tell about the changing face of media, technology, and its impact on brands and consumers.   Rather than being mere communicators of current trends, let’s help interpret what a future that is flooded by media means,

Here are some stories I would like to see told in the new year:

– Native advertising in the non-digital world — on our computer and mobile screens, native advertising has been the flavor du jour as we see the growing emergence and implementation of ad formats that mimic the environments they appear in (tiles for mobile apps, sponsored ‘likes’ appearing in social contexts on Facebook, etc.). The same can be said for the physical world, and pushing the boundaries of OOH advertising in a way that’s meaningful to their respective environments.

Examples: IBM’s ‘smarter cities’ campaign, billboard that transforms humidity into drinking water (campaign to encourage students in Peru to consider going into engineering)

– The Connected Retail Experience. Despite the rise of eCommerce, retail remains a fairly siloed experience (what you shop for in a store may not necessarily be reflective of your cCommerce behavior, and vice-versa).  Media (part. digital) can be that bridge (proof: Burberry) — how can we shape a better customer and brand experience by simplifying the retail experience? And with Burberry’s CEO Angela Ahrendts (largely credited for leading the charge in the fashion house’s digital revolution) recently announcing her departure to join Apple to lead the tech giant’s retail practice (physical and digital), this will be an area that is poised for change, if not disruption.

– Media & the connected home — a budding area still in its infancy, connected homes represent both a sea of opportunity and an ocean of murky complexity for media.  What screens will actually be useful? What feeds and content on those screens would actually make sense? How can we move the privacy conversation forward as think about letting data/technology into the most intimate confines of our lives?


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