From Mad Men to Middle Men, by Mark Fiddes

Posted on 21st October, 2014

Mark Fiddes is a huge talent and an awesome human being.

I consider myself really lucky to count him as a friend.

And I am frankly honoured that he has chosen to guest blog here.

NPJ 21/10/14



What with AdForum and AdWeek , it’s junket time in New York for journalists and business-to-business match makers.


Like the UK Political Party Conference season with which they coincide, these events give our industry’s big beasts the chance to show off and look cool by introducing some of their younger new friends.


As a former pitch-guy for a couple of the networks now presenting their monogrammed socks off, I know how much preparation goes into the show. First, to own the future you must mint some new jargon like Return on Ideation, Consumerology or HyperInteraction. (Apologies if any of these concoctions have actually been presented this year.)


Then it also helps if you can present some creative work: those long films you could never afford to put on TV which make you cry or laugh. These you might well have briefed to your South American agencies as “Cannes specials” (production costs paid from your central marketing budget). This is what in the industry we usually call “brave” work. 


If your reception is good, it’s Revivalism of the highest order - you’re the new faith in town and you’re on all the pitch lists.  If it’s bad, you’re somebody’s Dad pulling on the Lunar Rod Nikes.


But behind the glittering Madison Avenue shop windows, the classic ad agency business model has not changed. The way clients buy the ideas is still largely industrial. A brief goes in at one end of the factory and many months later a campaign comes out.


Sure, this may involve many more experts under one roof than formerly, in everything from PR to events, but the agency still makes its money the old-fashioned way. The longer the work takes to work its way out of the door, the more profit is generated, and the less likely the shareholders are to demand the head of another Adland CEO.


The clearest indicator of the manufacturing mindset is that “digital” still stands for stuff, denominating whole departments and even job titles. As Lazar Dzamic of Google Zoo commented recently in The Guardian, “Digital was the first ‘meta-medium’ we ever had…. like electricity, it stopped being new and just became ubiquitous.”


Yet advertising by gaslight still has eminent champions who continue to exploit the tensions between the old polarities: data versus creativity, ATL versus BTL, media versus advertising, suits versus creatives. This paradigm works, of course, because the only way for clients to resolve these conflicting agendas is to rely on a single factory to do it for them. Once it was called Integration. Now, it’s often the only way for cost-shackled hierarchies to make a decent margin.


And as for new ways of making ideas, there’s always more smoke than fire among agencies; the real change is happening elsewhere.  Clients really are installing creativity into their own organisations. General Mills have even appointed their own Chief Creative Officer in the inspiring Michael Fanuele, one of the most innovative and inspiring planners of our generation.


Media companies too, like Hearst and Condé Nast are establishing their own “Creative Solutions” departments, drafting in the brand expertise of ad agency creative directors (like our team at IdeaMotel). Only last week Trinity Mirror announced their desire to “solve not sell” in order to “produce valuable marketing answers to all briefs.”   Throw in the exciting creative output of new style production companies like Radical Media and Reel B and a clearer picture emerges of what “disintermediation” means today.


Faster and smarter has never favoured the middleman.  And yet, in this age of accelerated consumer expectation, the agency networks are nothing if not wily. Let’s see what they do before the next AdForum to flatten their structures and speed their responses.


If the answer’s another pseudo-tech buzzword or global mega-merger, I’m personally re-instituting the three martini lunch.