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Eyeballs and the end of the creative agency?

Opinion, 26 October 2010

A speaker at the recent CMO conference in Zurich performed a witty experiment on his audience.  Telling us to cover our (analogue) watch faces, the task was to describe the 6: was it a Roman or Arabic numeral, a dot or a mark or something else? 

Faces uncovered, he then asked who got it correct.  Only a small clutch of hands went up from this senior and surprisingly honest audience. 

Not much of a result given that, on average, a person probably looks at his or her watch 10 times a day. This means that the 6 has had 3,520 ‘opportunities to see’ in a year. 

Research has also shown that even frequent fliers are unable to remember the sequence of in-flight instructions.  (I failed the watch test and am not entirely sure I know what to do in case of an emergency landing – except to remove my stilettos in the unlikely event I am wearing some.)

The point this illustrates, of course, is how much information goes unregistered unless (rather like my stilettos) it is personally relevant.   Media sellers have traded in this unreliable marketplace for decades by selling eyeballs - opportunities to see. Indeed the entire structure of the advertising industry has been built on this suspect currency and millions of pounds have been spent refining the measurement of eyeballs - a classic case of measuring the measurable rather than measuring the meaningful.

Gradually though, the tectonic plates are shifting in the marketing services world as the as the media marketplace fragments to such a degree that the delivery of eyeballs seems more than usually primitive.  

As media agencies, spun off from their original low status (but high value) role in the traditional ad agency, continue to enrich their staff with highly intelligent and sophisticated media planners, the offer they make to clients is more and more irresistible. 

They have recognised that the service clients really want is integrated media thinking that understands the role that each of the many different channels now plays.

It will not be long before the brains that are going to media companies to analyse media data will be supplemented by the kinds of creative account planner brains that can analyse consumer data and eventually, who knows, some copywriters and art directors may come too.

This combination will present a serious challenge to the so-called creative (only) agency. Perhaps not in my lifetime, but it’s easy to see the entire advertising industry eventually coming full circle, back to where it began over 100 years ago when media sellers hit on the bright idea of filling their pages with persuasive copy. Ironically, the end of eyeballs may also mean the end of the individual creative agency.

About the author

Judie Lannon is a world-recognised expert in the field of market research and marketing strategy. She was appointed by J. Walter Thompson (JWT) London to establish their Consumer Research Department, then appointed to the Board of J Walter Thompson as its Director, Research and Planning. In l989, she became Research & Development Director for JWT Europe. She is extremely experienced in all aspects of consumer research and brand communications strategies through work with major international companies.

She established her own planning and research consultancy in l991, and in addition to this consultancy work, Judie designs senior management courses in the marketing communications, brand positioning and market research realms. She is particularly interested in the evolution of brands and the development of communications beyond advertising.

Judie Lannon is also a recognised writer, editor and speaker in the field of marketing. She serves as Editor of the Strategic Marketing Journal and Market Leader magazine (the Journal of the Marketing Society, Great Britain) and is Features Editor of the International Journal of Advertising.