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Miles Young - Digital hasn’t killed the analogue star

Oxford Saïd’s Distinguished Speaker Seminar on 10 May 2018 focused on how the digital age has radically altered our way of life by creating new challenges and opportunities for advertising agencies and their clients.

‘Digital’ itself is not new, and certainly not in marketing, where the world’s first interactive group in communications started in the 1980s. What is new, according to Miles Young, ex-Chairman and CEO of Ogilvy and Mather, is ‘the pervasiveness of the internet, and its penetration into people’s lives.’

That is what has ‘revolutionised communications, that has made communications open to all and allows access, that allows two-way communication,’ and that is what has destroyed the notion that all you had to do to reach 80% of the population was run a television advertising campaign, possibly supplemented with a couple of posters.

Now, Young said, you have to think about communications in a different way. ‘You can't think of it just from the point of view of the brand or the service. You have to absolutely engage with customers and your stakeholders in the process.’ He admitted that he was ‘not a great fan’ of user-generated content, though, saying that whenever he had tried to use it, it was ‘ultimately disappointing’.

Communication so good you want to share it

Content in general, though, is important – as long as it falls within his definition of "communication so good, you want to share it.". So the concept of developing an advertising campaign has been replaced by creating a ‘content eco-system’ and becoming ‘editors of the internet’ – rather than the ‘old fashioned way of just lobbing stuff out into the internet.’

As FCB Worldwide CEO Carter Murray also discussed at Oxford Said in 2016, for advertising agencies this often means bringing in journalists who can think beyond the usual 30-second TV commercial mindset of many copywriters. And indeed, Young thought that the new digital world was making the old distinctions between marketing and communications disciplines ‘rather useless’. PR was better thought of as ‘influence’; advertising was ‘image’; and direct marketing was ‘relationship building’: ‘What digital has done is to substantially erode the barriers … what it means is that when you're faced with a communications problem, if you're digital at heart, you'll try to think about the solution holistically.’.

Another aspect of the digital revolution was the spawning of a whole plethora of small agencies. Even the largest companies, which might have about four ‘official’ large agencies, might have hundreds of ‘unofficial’ smaller firms servicing local offices all over the world.  And that leads to loss of control, especially as digital work often passes under the radar. Young gave the example of Dove, ‘which is a beautiful brand’, but which has suffered from reputation-damaging crises, usually due to work done by a small scale digital agency off the roster, ‘but immediately the work that it does goes global and has a global impact.’

Why we still need the ‘dinosaur’ agencies

So we are unlikely to see the end of the big ‘dinosaur’ agencies any time soon. Advances in digital mean that a lot of the programmatic work can be brought in-house, but the big agencies are still needed because they are good at producing creative ideas. On the whole, companies can't produce creative ideas, said Young; management consultants can’t, and nor – much as they would like to – can the big digital companies such as Google.

As Young said, that is down to people. ‘When people have asked me "what's it like running an advertising agency?", I say, “it's like running a football team.” As a football manager you live or die by the quality of your talent, and not just the quality of the talent but how they work with each other. So let's not forget that. It's people plus culture. Actually I've seen agencies that have had brilliant people but they haven't done very well because those brilliant people fall out, or don't get on very well. So there has to be a culture, in which great people work.’

He continued the football analogy in answer to a question about training people to be creative. ‘It's a bit like saying. "Can you train someone to be a brilliant soccer player?" You can up to a point, but then there's a point where natural ability takes over. So some people are just good writers, very brilliant writers. Some are brilliant visualisers. I'm not saying we didn't train people, but when we were training them we were training them to think more broadly or to think out of the box a bit, but not properly in the core nature of creativity.’ But he also said that there were different types of creativity: ‘In client service, the creativity is not so much coming up with the ideas, but recognising which ideas are really good and working out how to sell them, which is a creative process in its own right.’

Busting myths

Exciting concepts such as AI have their place in marketing, but they’re not about to take over, said Young. ‘AI is tremendously helpful for generating insights, and will become more and more important ... but when it comes to creativity I'm not so sure.’

Television is still important. ‘It's Google and Facebook who’ve said … "TV is dead",’ he said. ‘It's complete and utter nonsense. If you look from 1999 to 2017, TV has maintained its market share of 40%, absolutely constantly. It’s not dead, but the propaganda of Google and Facebook has persuaded you it's dead because they are sales merchants selling their own media space.’

And selling to Generation Z will be much the same as selling to any other generation, including Millennials. ‘I think a lot of people were led astray by the idea of millennial marketing,’ said Young. ‘Millennials are such a broad group that it's a meaningless term. So it's a way in which agencies find it sexy to market presentations and to attract clients, but it is actually genuinely nonsense. … You need to look at each target audience for each product or service in a very discrete way, and go directly to those consumers if you can rather than drawing general rules and then applying them to the problem.’

He warned against becoming seduced by ‘fads’ and by the idea of using digital marketing to the exclusion of other marketing tools. ‘Digital is at its most fantastic and transformative when its additive,’ he concluded. ‘It's not a zero sum game. It's very easy to be seduced if you go the zero sum game route to do digital work which is self-indulgent, and which doesn't scale. So the critical thing with digital is to associate it with scale. [And] don't think of it as digital or traditional, digital or analogue. It's digital and analogue still.’