You want a mission, advertising? Here’s a mission for you…

I love the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA).  They run the amazing Excellence Diploma course, for instance, which awoke my brain in the fashion Morpheus might’ve in the Matrix, and made me really think about things.  They do a lot of great things, and help a lot of people and organisations learn.

But when I first heard of the “Creative Pioneers” mission to Silicon Valley and Hollywood, announced as part of Nicola Mendelsohn’s (otherwise greatly inspiring) inauguration speech, it made me wonder, well, why?  Then I forget all about it.  What got me thinking about it again was this tweet from Lee:

I’m sure there’s a fair bit of that sort of sentiment around.  I would encourage you to read all about their trip here, and the Campaign piece, and learn more about it.

Broadly, I think there’s two main goals:

i) send UK ad people to show them we could partner up and do great things
ii) they’ve done great things, so learn how we can use that stuff in our businesses

It’s the second thing I want to concentrate on.


A learning expedition

By learning how West Coast Tech companies work, spotting insights, getting inspiration, and bringing that back to affect real change throughout the entire ad industry in the UK, the group could play a fantastic role in rescuing the industry from itself.

Some folk would argue that it would be the same old token phrases (‘agile’, ‘prototype’ ‘pivot’) that they could learn from any slideshare presentation, but I would disagree; there is something wildly intangible about being in a place that works in a certain way, listening to the stories, getting a sense of what makes it different.

So that’s a good thing.  A great thing.  Learn how they work, bringing back a practical guide on how to mirror it.

There’s a good bit of evidence in this video from the end of the second day…


What’s not so helpful is that if people just learn what those companies sell


Being sold the dream

The biggest temptation is falling for the story as a product, and it being a product to buy… “Hey everyone, we want and saw Facebook and Google and Twitter, and their stuff is great and we should spend more on it…”

As an industry, we invest a lot in these platforms already, and it’s probably enough.   Especially if 61% of the UK don’t want to engage with big brands on social networks (TNS November 2011)

In spending increasingly more of the UK marketing budget with the US West Coast tech companies; it’s a massive plughole down which money pours, being washed and rinsed out in Ireland en route:

“More than 75 multinational tech firms have now established an international base in Dublin, including Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Amazon and Intel, attracted by Ireland’s corporate tax (12.5%). By using accounting methods that see taxable profits routed through various European countries, companies can reduce their tax level to as little as 2.4% – though in the UK and US, corporate tax peaks at 28% and 35% respectively.”

The Guardian, December 2010

It helps those companies grown and expand in their home territories, innovate more, create more.

Sometimes, like with the Google investment in a tech research hub as part of Tech City, they put something back in.

Weirdly, I used to work in the building Google have leased for this, back in the earlier noughties… it was a market research agency, ironically.  We’ve stopped researching markets, and started researching tech…

But more often than not, all you have in the UK is a focussed sales team for the platform.  Which doesn’t help the UK come up with it’s own Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and so on.

But then again, as perhaps demonstrated in part by the mission to Silicon Valley, the UK ad industry is fairly hopeless at engaging and supporting the burgeoning UK tech industry.


South Coast UK, not West Coast USA

“We must reach out to other creative clusters – to the film industry in LA and the tech companies in Silicon Valley – to create new collaborations, and exchange ideas” – Nicola Mendalsohn

If the ad industry wants to reach out to clusters, they don’t need to jump on a plane to do it.

Until recently, two things were central to the way I worked; I was the innovation fella at PHD, and I lived in Brighton, which has one of the most interesting and talented tech-scenes in the UK…

…I hasten to add it’s I not just Brighton that’s interesting… lots of other towns and cities in between have vibrant scenes with brilliant people, it’s just I’m most familiar with Brighton… plus the internet means that geographical clusters are less relevant than before, surely…

So not only was I regularly exposed to lots of interesting and brilliant people, projects and companies, but a big part of my job was finding people like that, and bringing them in to talk to our teams, clients, partner agencies and so on.

And ninety-nine times out of a hundred, nothing would happen as a result.

It’s not anybody’s fault.  Everyone would realise the potential.  But because it wasn’t an established opportunity with a guaranteed audience, a clear way of making money from ad production or buying media, an easy way to buy that could be sold into a chain of command, nobody knew what to do with it.

Clients couldn’t buy it, ad agencies couldn’t make money from it, media agencies couldn’t guarantee numbers for doing it.

The advertising and media industry isn’t skilled or trained for different.  Save for the tireless efforts of the IPA and the poor, put-upon HR managers up and down agency land, everybody would be expected to learn on the job.  And all you ever learn on the job is how the guy before you did it.

Why is it important that we get better at working with the local tech talent in the UK?  Because it helps everyone eventually…


Buying British

You may have read Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent piece on Steve Jobs already, but I’d like to draw your attention to a core passage, one of the excellent Gladwellian jumps which transports you to a different place and time…

“One of the great puzzles of the industrial revolution is why it began in England. Why not France, or Germany? Many reasons have been offered. Britain had plentiful supplies of coal, for instance. It had a good patent system in place. It had relatively high labor costs, which encouraged the search for labor-saving innovations. In an article published earlier this year, however, the economists Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr focus on a different explanation: the role of Britain’s human-capital advantage—in particular, on a group they call “tweakers.”

They believe that Britain dominated the industrial revolution because it had a far larger population of skilled engineers and artisans than its competitors: resourceful and creative men who took the signature inventions of the industrial age and tweaked them—refined and perfected them, and made them work.”

Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker

I know from experience that the Britain of today is full of tweakers.  Maybe it’s the weather, it keeps people indoors longer and makes them wonder what would happen if you just attached this  to that.  Maybe that caricature of the great British eccentric inventor lives in all of us, and some people just let it out a bit more.

Because, despite what commonly held beliefs may tell you, we still make stuff.  Lots of stuff, and what’s more, complicated stuff…

The UK is the sixth largest manufacturer in the world by output and a leading exporter of high-tech goods. – via BBC

Yes, we’ve erred too far over to the ‘service economy’ malarky, but we are a highly skilled, experienced, creative and clever group of people.  Tech City wouldn’t be happening here if we weren’t.

It should be advertising’s mission in the country to support the British Tech scene, helping platforms, applications, companies and so on thrive and grow.  Because that’s what they do in the USA.


How Foursquare checked-in to NYC

I remember hearing about FourSquare in 2009, and trying for a large part of late 2009/early 2010 trying to get emails answered, phone calls picked up, a word in to say ‘would you like to try something over here’.

But they didn’t need the UK.  Because FourSquare, almost from the start, were supported by a curious, playful NYC advertising industry who grew the platform by risking a campaign here, an idea there, which helped fuel the platform.

They used New York as “a laboratory“, a petri-dish to grow an interesting (but by no means unique) idea into world-beating platform for companies, people and brands to play with.


For me, that’s the sort of mission that the IPA and advertising, media and digital agencies should be looking to undertake.



Ending with some starting thoughts…

I really think there’s a lot of things the IPA, and every agency in the UK, should be doing to engage the brilliant people we have working in technology in this country better, in order to create our own globally lauded equivalent of the West Coast Tech Giants.

This week of course is Internet Week across Europe, with lots of events happening that involve agencies in various different capacities.  Is it a big enough thing on the IPA/Agency radar yet?  Probably not, so how can that change for next year?

Digital Media and Design establishment Ravensbourne (where the IPA held a great event a few months back) are looking for more formal, long-term companies as partners – where better than to start talking to and working with the next generation.  There’s only so many English grads from Oxford one industry needs, after all.

Mr Ben Hammersley was today appointed as the Prime Minster’s envoy to Tech City.  Is there an IPA envoy, officially?  Should there be?  And what should they be tasked with doing that furthers Nicola’s Presidential agenda?

And finally, the IPA always concentrates on the agency members.  What about training and clinics for startups and tech pioneers – what agencies will expect, how to position something, who to talk to and so on.


That’s it, really.  I do hope the IPA mission come back and amaze us all with what they’ve now got that they can share and change the industry.

But, you know, perhaps everyone should look a bit closer to home first?

Massive thanks to HelenNeil for helping wrangle this thinking & post into shape.