The agency world and a new value proposition

Leo_1 [The ad]  business is moving from a culture of ads to a culture of ideas. 

So says John Condon, the new Chief Creative Officer at Leo Burnett. 

He sounds a little like Dan Wieden, as quoted here in November

it turns out — thank God — that the idea is king. At the end of the day, one individual with one good idea can trump an entire network of thousands who don’t have an idea.

Is this the new model?  Is the ad industry saying, "We don’t make ads, we make ideas"?   

Bully!  It’s about time.  The rise of the new consumers, new channels, new media indicate has badly damaged the old business model.  The ad world has found another value proposition.

But horrors!  The "idea" formula leaves the ad business without a difference. 

Lots of people can supply ideas, and lots of people do, strategists, consultants, brain stormers among them.  What’s more, idea production is being democratized in the hell of a hurry.  Even little blogs like this one presume to show where ideas come from.  There are lots and lots of players in the creativity game.  (And now that BusinessWeek has declared that we’ve left the knowledge economy for the creative economy, there will soon be plenty more. )

I can’t help feeling that the better proposition for Madison Avenue is "we make meanings."  The fuller statement: advertising builds brands and brand proposition through the careful, clever assembly of cultural meanings.  We source these meanings from every corner of contemporary culture.  We invest the brand, or the brand proposition, with meaning through the judicious choice and combination of sound, image, language, and media (i.e., advertising, point of sale, direct marketing, on-line advertising, consumer co-creation. etc.) 

In the meanings game, the ad world has few competitors.  There are the design firms  There are the creators of the various forms of contemporary culture (music, film, journalism) who sometimes "sub in."  But almost no one has the depth or the range an agency does.  More important, the meanings game makes the ad biz absolutely bullet proof when it comes to the Google challenge.  Google can wrangle information.  It is clueless and clumsy when it comes to meanings.

But what I like best about the meanings value proposition is that it allows the advertising world to take its true skills, its real accomplishments with it as it enters the new world of new media.

There is some small evidence of panic in the agency world, as if some now believe that "everything they know is wrong" and that the agency world must reinvent itself in every detail.

Oh, please.  No one in the world of business understands the process of meaning management as an agency does.  It would be a pity, no, a tragedy, if this great strength got lost in the stampede to new models. 

Ideas are quite wonderful.  We would be poor, mere beasts without them.  But in the world of marketing (to say nothing of the creative economy), ideas matter because they are the way we manage meanings. 


McCracken, Grant. 2005.  The Idea is king (if sometimes Charles I). This blog sits at…  November 9, 2005.  here.

McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Google versus Madison Avenue: no contest here.  This blog sits at … November 1, 2005. here

Vranica, Suzanne.  2005.  Questions for … John Condon.  Wall Street Journal.  December 14, 2005, p. B3A.  (no url available)

The image is Leo Burnett. 

5 thoughts on “The agency world and a new value proposition

  1. Peter

    I like this viewpoint, Grant, of Advertising companies making meanings. I would go further and say that the value proposition for Marketing as a whole is the management of meaning, of which advertising is just one part, and in which (as you’ve argued before) customers may have a role in creating, re-creating and disseminating meaning.

  2. Jens

    Posted by Grant for Jens (the Typepad malfunction continues)

    agreed, grant.

    “making meanings” – that’s what it is – at best – but here advertising also has to share the merit with the likes of pr, event marketing etc.

    the prime function of advertising – as in “ads” – nowadays is to cause attention. that’s it. – creating meanings like in the heydays – well maybe some can tell marvellous stories…

    but do these stories give meaning to products and services?…
    or do they work more as an indirect indicator of an overall quality – following a logic like “he who entertains me can most probably also satisfy my needs”?

    my feeling tells me that great marketing right now is much more like “…this olympic discipline where you compete in ten different fields..” (…) than delivering that famous “consistent” message.

    that means: a lot of room for different narratives – because, let’s face it – your audience does not take you seriously anyway – they do not want to be told the truth, they do not want to be lied at – they want to be entertained.

    and if you happen to have some air time and claim to be a first class brand – clients will expect first class entertainment. nothing less and nothing more.


  3. Todd W.

    That the ad world continues to be taken in by this sort of “we make ideas” drivel is probably the number one reason that clients are leaving old-time agencies like Leo Burnett in droves. Changing that to “meanings” is just s emantics game. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Execution is the hard part, and traditional agencies are set up explicitly to remove themselves from the execution process, hiring production companies to turn their “big ideas” into living breathing ads. This is where the hard work is and its been my experience that the big agencies have absolutely no idea that this is where the value is or how to capture it.

    The fact is, agencies don’t “make” anything. They provide little or no value, so coming up with a new value prop is going to be quite difficult. They don’t make “meanings”. Meaning is created by a combination of product and customer. Google is your best example. The meaning of Google is based wholly on its product and customer intereaciton with it, not advertising. A good ad can communicate that meaning to someone who hasn’t experienced it, but can’t create the meaning all on its own. We saw that in the dot-com era where new, untested comanies flushed their VC funding down the advertising crapper when they had no product or customers to generate any foundational meaning to be communicated.

  4. Anonymous

    Peter, absolutely, there are lots of meaning makers in addition to the agency: event marketing, PR, product placement, and as you say, the consumer him/herself. (This is a partial list.) Too rarely are these used in a coordinated manner. Thanks, Grant

    Jens, I have heard creatives and other agency people say things like the function of the ad is to create attention…and this is why I think some ads are all about the anomalous. But I object to the notion that advertising should be seen as an exercise in lies. This is the intellectual’s most common mistake. And the way out of this trap, in my opinion, is to see that advertising is, to use the famous classical distinction, is not about “logic,” its about rhetoric. This means it is not about logical proposition that are true or false, its about arguments that are more or less persuasive. But that’s just me (and Aristotle). (“Me and Aristotle,” watch for it at your local book store!) And I am not crazy about the notion that ads create narratives (not meanings). Narratives are bound by the laws of story telling, and advertising is much more about the deployment of meanings, sometimes in the form of stories, but often not. Thanks, Grant

    Todd W. Thanks for your post. It is, for me, a perfect symptom of the crisis in the agency world, a crisis that stems from a loss of nerve, and/or a failure to understand what ads are, how ads work, and the value that the advertising agency makes for the brand, the client and the consumer. And once nerve goes and understand fails, there really is no way to defend the agency against its many competitors and that growing world of skepticism. Creative, save thy self. Thanks, Grant

  5. Grant

    Posted for Jens by Grant

    “i would not want to argue with you or aristoteles – nor would i want to unwrap the old “advertising is a lie or not” discussions (that has always been nonsense). sorry for expressing myself not clear enough.

    from my point of view “giving meanings” is truly that advertising can do extremely well.
    if i look back at the eighties and early nineties culture – wow! … the world exploded in semiotics and meaning. product designers were tracing the origins of an innocent espresso maker down to the otoman kingdom – architects were transforming water kettles into singing bird houses. everything was turned into meaning and signs of every kind were taken extremely seriously – especially so in the youths cultures.
    everything had a meaning – everything wanted to have meaning. everything needed to have cultural significance of some kind or another. – postmodernism was the philosophy that went with it. and advertising did the best job ever in its short history.

    sure advertising is great at creating meanings.
    yet i also think the market has to really want this.

    market communication has lost its innocence.
    it is losing its innocence again and again – and it is finding it again and again – because just like fashion it moves in changing tides.
    after meanings came authenticity – after authenticity came brand – after one-voice brand comes many voices narratives…. – why not?

    it was actually you grant who triggered that thought. i like it.
    hope i could make myself halfway understood.
    if not – please accept my apologies – and in any case my best wishes for christmas and new years.”

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