Jed Hallam

‘Millennials’ is a useless term

Like most of my posts, this is a hypothesis for something I’ve been thinking about for ages. By publishing it, I hope people will challenge or back up the hypothesis, and I can get smarter. I also covered some of this in a previous post, but wanted to expand on it a little more. 

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to go to our EMEA leadership conference in Berlin. There were a host of amazing speakers, and they were covering some astonishing ground. Everything from AI, through to the global news agenda, and ‘Millennials’. One afternoon I saw two talks that will stick with me forever. One inspiring, and one that missed the mark so spectacularly I left genuinely slack-jawed.

The conference

So, right after lunch we’re sat waiting for a spokesperson from Vice Media to take the stage. Eddy Moretti, chief creative officer at Vice, took to the stage. He spent 45 minutes talking about how todays youth (AKA ‘millennials’) have been misunderstood as being a self-centred, lazy, and uncreative generation. As the company he works for is built upon understanding this generation at an intimate level, it was an awesome talk. It was the first time I’d ever heard anyone talk at length about how fragmented and misunderstood this generation was. He got a standing ovation (and there were probably only about 20 ‘millennials’ in an audience of 150).

Next up, a senior figure at a large broadcaster rushed in, having just raced across town from the airport. After a few minutes of composing himself, he began to give a different talk from what was listed in the agenda. Instead talked about the ‘millennial’ generation. It was a shame he wasn’t their for the previous talk. I think he’d have maybe thought twice before he leapt into a 60 minute take down of ‘millennials’. He said we (and it is we, I’m officially a ‘millennial’) were lazy. Work-shy. We have an enlarged sense of entitlement. We have a total lack of care for ‘The Company’. He called us a lost generation that needed spoon-feeding by ‘generation x’ and ‘boomers’.

I had never seen such a perfect demonstration of why the term ‘millennials’ was so useless. Never had it felt so obvious that my generation was almost completely misunderstood.

How had this happened?

Millennials is a confusing term because it tries to apply a socio-demographic definition to a culturally complex generation.

Before I get in too deep, my use of the word ‘culture’ is in reference to the culture that people most associate with. Pre-1960s this would’ve likely been national, religious, or racial. Post-1960s, I believe that people more strongly associated with different types of culture. Punk, Cosplay, Casual. This is a way of defining people that I believe is a more useful definition of who people are, their beliefs, and how people behave. Culture is by and large what helps people to feel like they belong. It shapes their attitudes, and it shapes their behaviours.

What has made things complicated is the internet. Now cultures fire, develop, and transform like synapses in the brain. Every connection leads to new ideas and new understanding. Every new idea contributes to the culture that person belongs to.

The reason the ‘millennial’ generation is so misunderstood is because it is culturally complex. That’s not to say that previous generations weren’t complex, or that they didn’t have cultures. But this generation see more cultures. More cultural symbols. More people. More new ideas. Those all contribute to different attitudes. This is what makes this generation the most culturally complex and difficult to understand. Cultural membership and attitudes are now far greater ways to define how to communicate with someone than their age or salary.

The post-war culture boom

It’s safe to say that those born in the post-war years built the foundations of many of the major businesses and cultural phenomena we know now. Apple, Starbucks, Nike. Rock and roll, video games, drugs. Those foundations effectively birthed popular culture. Before the 1950s culture was mainly used as a term to refer to high or low culture. High culture was high brow. It was classical art, music, theatre, philosophy, and literature. Low culture referred to popular culture; radio, TV, newspapers and magazines, pulp fiction. So everything before the 1960s was an amorphous mess of mainstream, monoculture.

Pre-1950 the global population focused on winning wars, escaping poverty, and preventing financial disasters. The generation of people born in the 1940-50s had what their parents didn’t – opportunity. Opportunity to create things; businesses, or culture. Culture now had more people to drive it, and to create sub-divisions. ‘Boomers’ set our cultural foundations.

Then in the late 1970s, 80s, and the 90s, ‘generation x’ took culture to the next level. Sub-cultures began to develop on the foundations of the ‘parent’ culture. Kraftwerk gave birth to techno. Techno gave birth to acid house. Acid house gave birth to Jungle. Jungle to Drum and Bass. This is just one strand of the cultural impact that one band had. The same happened in film. Literature. Theatre. Art. Everyone is standing on the shoulders of giants, but each step up creates new directions. Each direction create new sub-cultures. Before you know it a thousand sub-cultures have been born.

It’s a cultural family tree. This is how punk (a primarily socialist, anti-facist, anti-racist culture) managed to morph into Oi! the soundtrack to the National Front. Different cultures become appropriated, re-appropriated, and developed (or in some cases devolved). This makes understanding ‘generation x’ quite complicated.

Then came the internet.

For many people born after 1980, they won’t remember life without the internet. Even if that oldest memory is of an awful dissonant dial tone. The internet is rocket fuel for culture. Every possible interest group had a forum. Every new trend had a blog dedicated to it. Every new culture had a network. This is where culture becomes accelerated and messy. It enabled people who associated to a particular culture to develop things together, regardless of their socio-demographic. When this happens, culture splinters and births more cultures.

Culture (and the cultural network someone exists within) becomes a part of self-expression. That self-expression shapes attitudes. Attitudes shape behaviour. Behaviour then shapes how people decided what they buy and the brands that they associate with. There’s a reason Vans is a the skateboard kids shoe of choice. Why Lemmy drank Jack Daniels. Why technology entrepreneurs drive Tesla’s. It’s easy to see, but difficult to understand.

“How do we connect better with Millennials?” 

If you were born in 1980, you are now 36 years old. ‘Millennials’ are becoming the primary audience for many organisations, and that will only continue. This presents a challenge if you’re a CMO who’s used socio-demographic audience data for their entire career. It’s human nature to respond to the unknown in one of two ways; learn about it, label it as ‘other’ and disassociate with it. ‘Millennials’ is, for the large part, a dissociative label.

The few organisations that have tried to get a handle on ‘millennials’ have done well. Nike, Apple, American Express. Massive brands, with huge target audiences. Where they’ve found competitive advantage is in understanding people at a cultural level. They have put culture, attitude, and behaviour before age.

So, let’s stop using ‘Millennials’ to describe people who were a certain age. Instead let’s focus on understanding the network of cultures that drive them forwards. If we’re ever going to mean something to people, we have to know more about them than their birthday and salary.

As Craig Stead, a colleague of mine, recently said, “given the data we have access to, it’s better to flip the way we build audiences. We should start from interest data, and then layer on socio-demographic and behavioural data”. Everything is there, right in front of us, we just need to flip how we think about things.

We have more cultural data than we’ve ever had before. The pictures I post. The forums I contribute to. The messages that I tweet. The films that I rate. The friends that I have. Everything that we do online is an sign of the culture that we are part of.

If we can look beyond socio-demographics, we can begin to understand culture. If we can understand it, we can contribute to it and become part of it. That’s how you build a brand.

This post originally appeared on AgencyVoices on LinkedIn.

The fallacy of brand fame and ‘the big idea’

Before I begin, I’ve been wrestling with this idea for almost my entire career. I’m still not sure I have it clear, but see what you think. 

Every agency loves the concept of ‘the big idea’. It feels like the original Pokemon Go. Planners, suits, and creatives all hunting it down, with sketch pads and PowerPoint as their tools. These rare ideas are seen as a route to brand fame. Brand fame is important because famous brands are memorable. People are more likely to buy something if they remember it.

The logic is pretty simple.

How often is a ‘big idea’ an actual Big Idea, though? Most of the ‘big ideas’ I’ve worked on, seen, or read about are often just a clever idea executed well, in a suitable channel. The insight is usually based on mainstream culture (and usually called a ‘universal human truth’), and the story is told well.

How do they make brands famous though? Fame is about being known by many people. You can be famous for good reasons. Bad reasons. You can have sustained fame. 15 minutes of fame. Presumably, most marketers want to be famous for good reasons, for a sustained amount of time. They want to mean something to people.

In my experience, often, marketers equate fame with exposure. Impressions. Eyeballs.

“It’s a killer ‘big idea’, we just need people to see it and it’ll take off like a rocket.”

So we whack an enormous media budget behind the campaign, and make sure it’s as visible as possible. As many people need to see this as we can afford. The X-Factor final, the Olympics, the Superbowl. Next year; Great British Bake Off. These are all opportunities to create brand fame.

Sometimes this works. But almost all the time, it doesn’t. Even more rarely does that ‘big idea’ create sustained brand fame.

There are few ‘universal human truths’

I spent much of my early career being asked by clients to write a strategy that would send some content ‘viral’. By viral, they meant famous online. Shared by millions. After a few requests like that, I thought I should try to learn a bit more about what made things famous online. I studied network science, picked apart case studies, and tinkered with my clients campaigns.

I figured something out, most viral ideas had one of two things. They had a huge media budget (Old Spice), or they’d started in a small network of friends, and then spread from friend to friend (ALS Challenge). Those that had a massive media budget were usually shocking or entertaining. Those that spread from friend to friend usually had an amazing subcultural insight. What’s interesting is when you look at the difference in results of these two types of campaign. Huge media budget famous usually generates a fair bit of ‘earned’ media – shares and word of mouth – but little in the way of sales. Networked, culturally resonant famous often generates sustainable actual impact.

“I was there at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in ’76”

There’s a decent analogy for explaining the differences between these two – musical artists. Manufactured pop artists often produce a series of hit singles, and maybe a couple of albums. They gain tabloid fame, and produce singles that fit within a meticulously planned framework. Through marketing and media spend, they buy their fame.

Grassroots artists tend to toil away for years and years, with a loyal fanbase, but not much more. One day a spark of magic happens and they ‘crossover’ into the mainstream, and become famous. They ‘earn’ their fame through authenticity and cultural resonance. That fame tends to be much longer lasting.

What I think many brands desire is cultural resonance that results in a mainstream ‘crossover’. They want to be authentic. They want to have a loyal fanbase. To steal from the Stone Roses, they wanna be adored.

Grassroots artists don’t begin with a mainstream audience in mind. They don’t start with multi-million pound media budgets. They definitely don’t start with focus groups. They start making stuff that they think is culturally important. They make things that they think contribute to their culture. They tell actual stories, and create things that make people feel something. They don’t do this for everyone though, they do this for themselves and people like them. They do it for their cultural network.

They are additive, not derivative.

Where this becomes interesting, is when you apply network thinking to culture. Cultures are just networks of people who have a shared interest. They all contribute to the development of their own culture. They have their own language, totems, celebrities, and moral codes.

The idea of the subculture was made most famous in the 1960s with the culture of ‘the teenager’ and the explosion of ‘Beatles Mania’. Art, music, literature, fashion, sports, religion – these are the DNA strands of different cultures. These strands of DNA often make the leap from one culture to the next. There are many, many talented people who spot things in one culture and transport them to another. Hedi Slimane. Jony Ive. Le Corbusier. Banksy. To get to that point though, you have to be a part of a culture, to understand it, to respect it, and to contribute to it.

Culture is a place for brands. Many cultures use brands as an emblem of their membership. The Nike Air Max (Grime kids). The Ford Fiesta XR2 (90s boy racers). The CHANEL clutch (the Knightsbridge fashionista). The AMEX Centurion Card (elite businessmen). Red Bull (extreme sports). Lurpak (the foodie).

Cultures elevate brands. Networks make them famous.

Brands that become famous in this way, become famous with the right people. They become authentically part of a culture. They sustain that fame for much longer.

So where does this leave us?

Well if we go right back to the start, brands want fame.

Create something meaningful

Sustained and authentic fame (that hasn’t been manufactured or paid for) is about contributing something to a culture. That doesn’t have to be a big idea, but it does have to be something that adds something. That demonstrates an understanding. That isn’t driven by the idea of fame. Cultural advancement is the goal, fame is the side effect. You can’t mean something to everyone. You can mean everything to someone though, but you have to pick who.

The way we advertise is going to force us in this direction too. Soon most media channels will be addressable and programmatic. When that happens, the opportunity to impact on and contribute to specific cultures will be huge.

When I first started researching network science, I found that if you could isolate people within a network, it was easy to propagate an idea. The catch was that the data wasn’t granular enough, and we didn’t have sophisticated media technology available to reach them. Those two things are now available. We have access to the culture, the network, the individuals, and the data. We have the means to communicate with them. We no longer need to pepper the airwaves with a ‘big idea’ in the vain hope that the members of the culture that might make us famous maybe see it. Now we can use a scalpel and a paint brush.

If marketing is a battle for mental and physical availability, then the balance has tilted. Physical availability has changed dramatically. Now almost everything is physically available within 24 hours. Yet mental availability has gone crackers. People are now exposed to more than 14,000 brand messages every single day. It has never been so important to mean something to people.

Fame is important, but who you’re famous to, and how you achieve that fame has never mattered more.

Strategists need to learn how cultures and networks operate. Whoever understands the networks, understands the culture. Understand the culture, and you can create ideas that build it. Support the culture and it will support your brand. That’s how you become famous.

This post originally appeared on AgencyVoices on LinkedIn.

AI and the media agency

This is long, so apologies in advance, but I think it’s important.

The advertising and media world has once again been set alight by new technology. This time, it’s artificial intelligence (AI). Campaign’s Gideon Spanier wrote last week that “Media agencies should be in fear of automation”, and Blackwood Seven (a widely tipped “AI SaaS media planning and buying service” – more on this later) recently launched a UK office. Both articles talk of the threats that AI poses to existing agencies and large networks (which, for full disclosure, I am part of). I’m not sure there’s as much fire as there is smoke.

First, lets address some of the terminology. Automation and AI aren’t necessarily the same things. Automation can include a basic form of AI, which is decision-making based on a set of rules or logic, but automation is a much broader church. It could be something as simple as automatically printing off a report on a Monday morning.

AI is broadly defined as a computer based system that performs tasks that would usually need human intelligence. This could mean understanding what a picture is, what someone has said, or making a decision based on a set of rules or logic.

The issue with using the two terms interchangeably is that when people see the term ‘AI’ they usually envisage an actual robot, like HAL from 2001, or Sam from Her. So immediately, we’re thrown into the future and everything is terrifying and scary. The reality is, well, quite different.

The development of AI is plotted across three major milestones; narrow, general, super-intelligence.

  • Narrow AI is where an AI engine is given a set of rules or logic and completes a set of tasks limited to those rules.
  • General AI is what most modern science fiction focuses on. This is where an AI engine can apply logic and reason to any subject – like humans.
  • Super-intelligent AI is where the AI engine learns to teach itself. At which point we’re all doomed (well, that’s what Elon thinks).

Narrow AI is where we are right now. We can design an AI to complete simple, repetitive tasks. The breadth of the tasks it can do is determined by the corpus of information it can work from. For this reason, customer service bots are great. We can train them to understand how people ask questions in different ways, and we can feed them FAQs.

However, the AI can only respond based on its narrow design. This is why Deep Blue could beat a chess grandmaster, but couldn’t make a cup of tea after the match.

For media agencies, let’s break it into two; first automation, and then AI.

For anyone who has spent more than a few weeks in a media agency, you’ll know that there are myriad manual tasks that can be automated. Reporting, analytics dashboards, timesheets…(!) The most obvious use of automation within agencies has been programmatic. This (arguably) sits somewhere between automation and a basic narrow AI. Even this basic form of AI has opened up more opportunities for creativity. Now we have strategists, buying specialists, and creative teams working together to tell sophisticated stories using this type of logic. We’ve barely scratched the surface with what’s possible.

Artificial intelligence is the next level up. Blackwood Seven launched in the UK earlier this month to much fanfare. It describes itself as a platform that helps “advertisers to predict the impact of, execute, and measure media more effectively than humans, using a combination of machine learning and artificial intelligence”. The industry press have lapped this up, presumably because the press release and interviews all mention AI a lot.

If I’m not mistaken, Blackwood Seven seems to offer what most media agencies do – except with a SaaS platform and a different pricing model. Predicting the impact of media is just modeling, and it can be done to different levels. For a narrow AI, it would need to be taught (by a human) how to analyse data, so I struggle to see how this would be better than human analysis.

Blackwood Seven claim to improve results by 25-50%, which falls in line with much of programmatic advertising. The data sources that are fed into the platform are the same that every agency has access to, and the same that they ingest into their platforms (accept we call our ‘platforms’ planners). From what I can see, the agency has just found another way to badge what every good media agency already does.

Our market is too complicated, and has too many suppliers to use a single, AI-driven platform to drive media planning and buying. For a start, there are no exchanges that trade TV, radio, non-digital OOH, or print – these are all direct buys.

When working with large volumes of data, someone still needs to identify the key insights from that data. An AI would still need to have been ‘taught’ the rules and logic of planning and strategy by a human. This is complicated stuff. Earlier this week DeepMind (Alphabet’s AI unit) announced that it had managed to solve a critical problem with AI. It had figured out how to give its AI engine a memory, so that it can make a decision, and then use the result from that decision to make another decision. Sophisticated AI media planning and strategy might be a way off yet.

So, if AI isn’t currently running any agencies, how could it in the future? I think there’s a huge opportunity for AI to augment how we currently work.

AI will mean we can run complex models of human behaviour. We’ll be able to test different hypotheses, rather than declaring a single strategic direction as the only direction to take. We’ll be able to use AI to help us identify killer differentiating factors between different cohorts of people. It should also help us spot problems, anticipating issues in advance, and avoiding unexpected results.

I want to work with an AI that can help simplify the data, so that I can do what I do best – working with clients to fix problems, build brands, and sell products and services.

Much of the conversation around automation and use of AI in media and advertising seems to be about optimization. Ensuring that media performance is as sharp as possible. Driving the highest possible return, for the lowest possible cost. Media planning and buying can be driven by AI, and the results can be exceptional (as shown with programmatic buying). But until it’s advanced significantly, AI won’t be able to demonstrate a nuanced understanding of how humans behave.

The best advertising taps into a human insight – it understands culture. Culture is an organic system very few people can understand, let alone teach to an AI. More so, it won’t be able to predict irrational behavior (for more on this, read Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan). So the power of AI-driven media planning and buying will be in the creativity and insight of a human-driven strategist. Human insight, and strategic thinking is what brings and idea to life, and lifts advertising above pure performance. If you sharpen your pencil too much, you end up with nothing but a stub.

Ultimately, I’m excited about integrating AI into our world. There are a whole host of people who like to talk about how automation and AI will replace 47% of human jobs (although if you take the time to read the report, rather than the headline, it’s not that this will happen, but that 47% of jobs contain tasks that could be automated), but I share the view of Barack Obama, who believes that AI will augment our jobs, rather than replace them (his talk with Joi Ito of MIT is eye-opening, Obama is both well briefed and incredibly insightful).

My personal dream? I don’t dream big, I just dream of a timesheet bot…

This post originally appeared on AgencyVoices on LinkedIn.

Your refrigerator is going to get me fired

There was news this week that a gentlemen in the UK had spent eleven hours trying to make a cup of tea via his newly purchase wifi-enabled kettle. For those of you who don’t appreciate the virtues of tea, that is ten hours and 58 minutes too long. The man in question had purchased the kettle, plugged it in at home, and found that it didn’t come packaged with any software or instructions on how to integrate it into his existing connected devices (in this case, Apple’s HomeKit, and Amazon’s Echo). So he had to code it himself, but rest assured, eleven hours later, he had his cup of tea.

This is technology that is very much in it’s early, novelty phase.

By most people’s reckoning, we’ve got about three to four years before these things become properly mainstream. So that’s three to four years before my gran has a wifi-connected toaster. There is, of course, a lot of excitement about all of this in the world of advertising. “Imagine what it’ll be like when we can pepper someone with radio advertising until they hit their Dash! Full attribution!” “Imagine all the data we’ll be able to capture from someone’s oven!” “Imagine how we’ll be able to adapt banner ads for kitchen mirrors!”.

As ever, lots of excitement.

I’m excited too, don’t get me wrong, but I’m a realist. If you read my last post, you’ll see that I think that there are many existential threats facing marketing, and that’s not because I like to mope about, or generate unnecessary fear, but because I actually bloody love my job, and I’d quite like to keep doing it. At least for the next thirty years, anyway. So on the other side of my excitement for our impending completed connected world, I have some mild trepidation. Again, in my last post, I mentioned the big four (GAFA) wanting to capture more time and attention from consumers, and using first party data to do that, and in turn that being a threat to marketing. As it stands, many large technology companies only have access to people (and their data) through communications hardware (the phone, the tablet, the computer), and software (OS, browser, shop, social network etc). When the time comes where there’s a bit of internet in everything, this will be different.

Earlier this year, Ben Evans wrote about artificial intelligence (or more specifically, it’s output applications, such as chatbots, virtual assistants, etc) as the third runtime. The first runtime being the browser, the second being the mobile application. The four horsemen of the marketing apocalypse (Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon) are betting big on artificial intelligence. It’s been in Siri forever (ever wonder how your iPhone knows what app you’d like to open?), it’s been improving search for nearly a decade, Amazon arguably created one of the earliest consumer facing AI’s with it’s recommendation engine, and Facebook is in the throes of launching ‘M’.

However, having a bit of internet in everything won’t be enough though – we’ve had connected devices for a long, long time now. To move past that, there’s going to need to be a step change. Those connected devices (be that a kettle, a home security system, or a pacemaker) are just outputs – the operating system will be built on artificial intelligence, and/or complex algorithms. The step change will be that those devices, driven by AI, will predict and / or anticipate your behaviour. You won’t need to press your Amazon Dash button, because your washing machine will know that you’re out of powder. Your Amazon fresh delivery will automatically include broccoli, because it knows you juiced the last lot this morning. Google will have a driverless cab outside your office to take you home before you’ve hailed one. Your iPhone will automatically cancel your plans when it knows you’re running late. You can see this already with Facebook Messenger alpha tests – in San Francisco, when you’re having a conversation with a friend, and agree to meet at a certain time, Messenger will pull Uber up, and ask if you’d like to book now. This is basic, but it’s indicative of where we’re heading.

Great, right? I’m not sure.

When you search for a product, be it on Amazon, Google, or Facebook, your presented with a selection of choices. Some of these will be organically listed (as they appear to be most relevant), and some of these will be paid listings (likely the product you searched for, as well as competitors). As a consumer, even when you search for a specific product, you’re presented with choices. This isn’t new. When you go into the supermarket, you’re presented with relevant choices on each aisle. When you test drive a car you physically see other cars, so you have an opportunity to change your mind. When you buy a house, you look at the one just around the corner that wasn’t on RightMove, because it had a local ‘for sale’ sign outside. You make decisions, thousands of them, every day.

When AI anticipates the decision before you make it, it will remove friction, and the sell will be that you have more time for living life. However, you’ll be ceding control to a company that makes those decisions with a commercial outcome in mind. These decisions are what created a space for marketing. We’re in the business of influencing those decisions, and reducing friction to purchase as much as possible. However, nothing removes friction as much as anticipative virtual assistants. Marketing has, for a very long time, made making a decision difficult, by demonstrating choice and highlighting benefits (and sometimes hiding drawbacks).

When this happens, marketing is going to have to work even harder in order to overcome the defaults, and not only influence a decision, but to actually create a moment for someone to realise that they can make a decision themselves. Everything we do is going to need to be actionable, direct, and effective.

Alongside being much more direct, and focused on effectiveness, arguably brand perception and image is going to become even more important than it is now. Many marketers see performance and brand as being diametrically opposed, but in the new world (and I believe, right now), we’re going to have to inextricably tie them together. We’re going to have to invest more heavily in brand to overcome defaults, but also establish your brand and product as a heuristic. We’re going to have to get a lot better at identifying intent – not just purchase intent, but intent to actually make a decision, and intent to consider that a decision must be made.

Ultimately, we’re going to have to make brands more desirable than every before, we’re going to have to understand what makes people tick, establish brands that play an active role in culture, and then make it as easy and frictionless as possible to purchase.

I’m still trying to figure out the answer to this, and where we fit, so please, let me know what you think.

This post originally appeared on AgencyVoices on LinkedIn.

The Future of the Media Agency

Tom Denford (co-founder of ID Comms) has published an interesting piece over on Campaign. It’s most definitely worth a full read, but for the short of time, Denford’s article is a call to arms for the leadership teams at media agencies. He believes that we’re staring into the face of five years of upheaval and change.

I don’t think Denford goes far enough, personally. I would go further.

Denford says management consultancies are a big threat but its not just that they want to lead marketing strategy they’re also acquiring advertising technology companies, design studios, creative agencies, and striking direct deals with media owners.

Salesforce buying Krux this week is a huge play for taking a more prominent role in shaping how business communicate. Commerce, CRM, and media, all connected – a dream for many organisations.

As far as many media owners are concerned (especially those that refer to themselves as technology companies) they feel too many people take a cut for advertising that is carried on their platforms. In a world where these companies run an increasing amount of the advertising market why should agencies exist? Is it too much of a leap of imagination to think that they dream of being the engine that drives all of a clients advertising? Squashing agencies that take a cut of that media buy in the process and unifying everything through their unique user ID (looking at you Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon)?

And while all of this is going on, the model that our industry is built upon is warping beneath our feet. We are innovating, but we’re doing it too slowly.

So these are the big challenges that agencies face over the next five years.

Having read all that, you could be forgiven for thinking that we’re in a tricky spot. You could probably be forgiven for panicking, if you work in a media agency. Worry not, though. We’re in a strong position, which can (perversely) be seen by the strength of our opponents. McKinsey, IBM, Google – these aren’t small companies nipping at our heels, and we can briefly stop to take that as a compliment, but let’s not fuck about: they’re coming for us.

We offer things that they can’t, though. We facilitate more daily interactions with people than they do, we have greater reach, and we work across every channel – not just those that we own. Our data is different, deeper, and it covers more than just someone’s digital behaviour – it also covers those without digital behaviour too (hi gran!).

Our advantage is that we don’t just have our data, but we have the data of all of our partners too. We can also have an impact on both distribution and content. In many cases we have the same level of access that management consultancies do, but we get to see the sharp end of our work too (rather than just the first 15 slides of the strategy).

Most of all, we have our people.

People who believe in the power of media and communications.

People that want to make and distribute advertising that matters, that has an impact.

People that want to partner with our clients to help them grow, evolve, and prosper.

People who want to invent the future, not just watch it happen.

There are four key things we can do that would put our industry in better shape for the challenges above.

  1. We have to realise that at the end of every ad is a person. To do this, ban the words ‘consumer’, ‘user’, and ‘audience’, and put people at the heart of your strategy and planning.
  2. Use the data we have at our disposal to learn from every interaction. If we’re going to stand tall against the likes of Google and Facebook, then we should learn from what makes them so successful. Media should be our newsfeed, and we should ensure that every single interaction that a client has with a person, improves the next experience.
  3. We have to stop talking about impressions as if it’s the only thing that matters. Reach matters, sure, but action matters more. If we’re to be taken seriously against the likes of BCG and Deloitte, we need to start thinking about the impact that we can have, rather than the impressions that we can buy.
  4. Let’s stop inventing new ways to talk about advertising and media. Simplifying complexity should be our business, not the other way around.

As Denford says, “it’s time to replace fear of the complexity of media, with a new excitement in the opportunity of media”.

Indeed, so let’s get cracking.

This post originally appeared on AgencyVoices on LinkedIn.