Ad agencies are discovering products like Columbus discovered America

SPOILER ALERT: It might not end well for the natives.

Having spent more than a decade with job titles alternately containing the words “product strategy” and “customer experience,” I’m all for the sentiment behind John Willshire’s slogan: “Make Things People Want > Make People Want Things”. And when I hear this thought presented as some kind of revelation, I usually bite my tongue and smile at the zeal of the new converts to the cause.

But over the past year or two, I’ve sensed a growing momentum behind the trend for marketing agencies to engage deeply with the world of products and services, and I’ve come to the conclusion that they could actually get quite good at it.

Like the first Europeans arriving in America, agency people meet with natives, the product management community, who have a rich and complex culture but lack the fire-power or expansionary mindset to meet the challenge of the newcomers.

First the fire-power. Despite the lip-service paid to innovation and new product development, many consumer organisations routinely devote far bigger budgets to the Make People Want Things side of the equation than to Making Things People Want. There’s a reason for this – making things people want is hard, it takes time, and it depends on listening to the voice of customer, not just to the loudest voice in the boardroom.

Moreover, marketing budgets tend to be more liquid, to flow more rapidly, than budgets for product and service development. The marcomms team can blow millions on an above-the-line rocket launcher in the time it takes product development to make the business case to take a better pea-shooter to market.

So it’s little wonder that some of the most innovative things I saw in my time in telecoms came from advertising campaigns and sponsorship deals that succeeded and grew. Top of the bill would be Orange Wednesdays, a tie-up with the Cinema Exhibitors Association which brought real value to mobile customers, involving text messaging, point of sale integration and mobile app fulfilment mechanisms. By sticking at it through the tenures of multiple marketing directors, Orange UK bought itself unrivalled brand recognition in film.

Which brings us to those expansionary tendencies. The product tribe often gets tied up in knots over its “right to play” in a new or changing category. Think of all the people who sagely declared that Apple would fail if it tried to move from music players into mobile telephony. If you limit your core competences to the flat earth of your existing category, it becomes difficult to respond to customer needs just over the horizon. Not so the agencies, who tack happily from client to client and sector to sector. They can see opportunities where in-house teams may not dare to reach.

What’s more, advertising people understand, more than any other tribe, that needs do not have to be rational. In the pursuit of Making People Want Things, any fragment of culture, art or fashion is fair game. They understand that sometimes fast and different beats slow and better. While the product tribe labour methodically towards feature-based superiority, their counterparts in advertising throw so much mud at the wall that sooner or later some of it must stick.

Superior access to rapid funding, boldness in exploiting adjacencies, a willingness to try lots of stuff – all of these are supremely transferrable to the iterative, customer-centred practice of Making Things People Want.

But before they send in the smallpox-ridden blankets, the newcomers to the products world might find they need the natives to help them through the first few winters.

Making things is hard, especially things to last, things that people will find useful in their everyday lives. And often people used to marketing things underestimate this. Take the story of the Ford Key Free Login App. Ogilvy Paris thought it would be cool to accompany the launch of bluetooth vehicle unlocking with an app that stores your social networking passwords. Except that, instead of encrypting the passwords the way Lastpass or 1password do, the Ford app stored everything in an easily accessible plain text file. The app was hastily pulled.

And even when they do get the basics right, agencies soon learn that while a campaign may be just for Christmas, a product or service is for life. Only the best of them are set up to handle the on-going issues of release management, customer support and so on. If a product is created unexpectedly out of a campaign, sooner or later it needs to make the tricky transition into long-term in-life support, either in-house in the client organisation or staying within the agency but on a footing very different from the usual campaign-centric ways or working.

Product and service managers know this territory, and they know where the traps are hidden. If the newcomers from marketing-land are prepared to befriend the product natives in the new world of agile service development, they could, together, make a winning combination.

6 thoughts on “Ad agencies are discovering products like Columbus discovered America

    1. Thanks Imran, I don’t think we disagree really. There’s an opportunity that requires the best of agency and in-house skills and working practices. The design-led start-up, like Instagram or Flipboard, is definitely one way of exploiting that opportunity, but far from the only one. There will still be many businesses that outsource their product and service development either out of conscious choice or through campaign-to-product scope creep. I don’t see this as a good or bad thing, just a reality that we can work with and optimise around.

  1. There is close to zero chance to any of the big guns pulling ‘product’ off without completely gutting and refitting themselves, which would take till 2020 if it was even possible, by which time their model will begin its extinction cycle. Ad agencies are dinosaurs in terms of size, agility and long term prospects. They had a blast in the Triassic (50’s to 80’s), a boom in the Jurassic (90’s to 00’s) and now we are at the start of the Cretaceous (2010 to 20??). We are witnessing them lumbering towards extinction as the environment around them changes and slowly starves them of food.

    Your choice of the words ‘lip service’ are apt as I believe in 2013 we are going to be seeing a whole lot of posturing from Ad and marketing agencies pretending they are anything other than ad and marketing agencies. We will be seeing, incubators, product, experience, UX whatever pose they feel they need to strike to stay relevant in the next age, whilst nothing will in essence change. Regarding the inevitable in-agency incubator trend, personally, I wouldn’t trust an ad agency to design the product or service of my startup, maybe maybe to sell it later, but not to design it.

    Nike Plus is heralded as the future of the brand / agency model. It is truly a wonderful fusion of product, brand and lifestyle. However, name another example of something of its calibre, just one. Ad agencies simply cannot do it. Having just about gotten their heads around building websites (in the context of useful product, let us ignore Facebook fan pages, micro sites and pointless branded apps – see they can’t even ‘do’ mobile without screwing it up.

    So are we to assume they can now handle UX and product? Good product and service design requires a bottom-up grounding in an absolute understanding of and respect for the end user. Marketing and advertising relies on a top down ‘big idea’ approach all pushed by a Creative Director mega ego. Cue girl on roller-skates with puppies on a leash showing us just how much fun the menstrual cycle can actually be. Ad agencies hide the people actually solving for the client’s needs, the creatives, behind bloated layers of account management to ensure maximum billing whilst everyone plays agency snakes and ladders, to the client’s detriment. Their choices and actions are driven to win awards in a big Cannes industry circle jerk, when the ultimate truth and reward for those in Product is numbers of end users and real user ratings and feedback.

    The ranks of Ad agencies are populated with generations of individuals who only know how to peddle ideas to their clients, like drug pushers. They are packed to the rafters with generations of marketeers who have only ever known one way, certainly not user centred method or product design. The new ways scare them and they won’t risk their pensions and mortgages and get off the wave. These people are unwilling and incapable of change.

    As institutions, ad agencies are geared to make money, to bloat projects, to burn hours. That makes them money. No doubt the media groups will continue to reel in billions in the mean time, raking the money in from the core-collapse supernova. They are the masters of selling with their intoxicating theatre and they will sell for years to come to clients who equally have built careers cosseted by their side of the same cycle. Working light and agile, minimum viable product, iterative design, product budgets, user centred design are all foreign concepts. Ad agencies will never risk the golden goose, and why should they, except that the goose has a terminal prognosis. They will be found out.

    The sad truth is that the Ad and marketing industry represents possibly the largest cohort of enabled, young, creative, talented, problem solving people in the developed world. Imagine what amazing things these people could achieve if not focused on selling the latest toothpaste brand? If people want more, to help build products and services, real things, useful to real people then leave the industry and go to an industry that does this. Clients are sobering up to what they hell they have been spending hundred’s of millions on, they are seeing through and beyond and demanding more. That process is beginning to take place and will only gain momentum.

    Product and service design is the work and world of design studios (note, not agencies) who have been doing this thing for decades, IDEO , Continuum, Frog, Cooper as well as the new generation of digitally focused product and service design studios. Product design is a different industry, not a subset of the media industry. It is not a part of a 360, integrated, full service, (insert any media group cliche here) service offering. You might as well be asking lawyers to perform brain surgery by asking Ad agencies to ‘do’ product’.

    Dinosaurs. Cretaceous.

  2. The correlation between product and price is the more quality a product, the more expensive the price. Advertising agencies are working in groups and they handle different customers with different services.

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