Metaphors help us to connect abstractions, to find the links that guide us to an idea - in marketing, they are fundamental in shaping the work marketers do and how they understand themselves, writes Faris Yakob. 

The global CSO and CCO of RG/A, both lovely and brilliant people, recently unveiled their new point of view on brands, which is that they should be considered operating systems. Historically, RG/A is well known for changing their primary model every seven years to adapt to changing market demands. 

Famously, in its first iteration as a production company the agency made the opening credits for the first Superman movie (1978). The idea is not a novel coinage, various strategists have used the expression in published work since at least 2016, but readers familiar with my ideas will remember the name of my company and our foundational belief that originality is a myth. 

Nothing comes from nothing, to quote Shakespeare, who was quoting Lucretius, who was paraphrasing Parmenides. If you’ll allow me just one more, director Jim Jarmusch, who shares our belief that “nothing is original” went on to explain that “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to” (quoting Godard). 

Brands are defined in a multiplicity of ways because they are an abstraction. This means that they aren’t like anything concrete in the world, but they are a bit like lots of things in various ways. This is the essence of abstraction, which is the beating heart of creativity, to see similarities in wildly different things. It is this skill that makes metaphors (thanks Aristotle), because they imaginatively connect diverse domains of thought in order to say something. 

The utility of business metaphors lies in their generative ability. To use a famous example from The Experience Economy, the staff at Disney Parks are called “cast members”, which reminds them never to break character in front of the audience. The Subway sandwich makers are called “artists” in obvious conflict with their need to manufacture sandwiches exactly the same way every time. 

In this sense, brands are generative metaphors that guide what a company should and, perhaps more importantly, should not do. As you may remember in my last article, Roger Martin recently described brands as a promise to the customer. This anchors brands in the old world of signs, of linguistics, because a promise is a speech act– and it helps us remember that we must fulfill those propositions, or rather that our clients must cash the cheques our ideas write. 

The operating system metaphor connects the world of advertising to the world of technology, the intersection all agencies now claim to work at. As described by R/GA, an operating system has four components: it’s a guiding force for all functions, that manifests in interfaces (where their biggest skills lie), allows others to build upon it and continually iterates. 

The Omnicom media group (OMG), the subsidiary which oversees the holding company’s media agencies (like OMD), recently discussed their new positioning in a similar attempt to connect media buying to technology. Its proprietary OMNI technology is referred to as an operating system that guides their advice and investment. 

The agency goes on to say: “This change is part of a larger strategic shift.” OMG’s leaders told Adweek it is not just a media agency, nor is it necessarily a group of media agencies. Instead, they’d like the industry to recognize OMG as a platform. They even call their new strategy an agency as a platform (AaaP) approach.” It is not a group of consolidating media agencies but rather an agency, which is a platform. The changing market demands mean media agencies need to adapt rapidly to automation and become technology partners for the increasingly confusing techstacks clients have bolted together, lest they get their lunch eaten by systems integrators that have bolted on agencies services. 

This metaphor connects to a more recent technology than operating systems, one that has until recently been the darling of Wall Street: software as a service (SaaS - see?). Here in Sydney, I cannot but help marvel at the Salesforce tower in all its grandeur and glory, even if when working with the clients that use it, the product itself never seems to quite live up to the promise. 

What exactly is a pre-qualified lead, no one seems to know. The promised success of these “growth partners” as digital performance media agencies now sometimes call themselves, is in scaling. This terminology is derived from Facebook, under the leadership of an early salesman, now billionaire, called Chamath Palihapitiya. Sheryl and Mark asked him in 2007, “What do you call this thing where you help change the product, do some SEO and SEM, and algorithmically do this or that?” Heaven forfend we simply call that marketing, which is wasteful and abhorred by early stage technology companies. He responded “I don’t know, I just call it, like, growth, you know, we’re growing to try to grow. I’ll be head of growing stuff.” And thus the modern era of marketing was born.

Metaphors tend to get updated as technology changes. The human brain was an enchanted loom, then steam engine, factory, computer, software. Today the technology everyone is most excited about is artificial intelligence, which isn’t intelligence, it’s a metaphor, but nonetheless it already has seeped into agency language and ideas, in various forms and places, and will continue to do so. 

Thus it is inevitable that the metaphor of brand as AI will emerge, fully formed like Athena from the mind of Zeus. However this time it won’t be a metaphor. One can imagine, brands will develop, or be sold, custom ‘BrandAI’ platforms with endless agents that will function like algorithmic brand guidelines, target and deliver media, optimize it, fill it with ‘content’, model the results...and thus absorb lots of agency functions along the way. Agencies will perhaps adapt to take on other roles and manage the AI for clients. The AI will then indeed become an operating system for growth, an adaptive learning machine with only one goal, because it can’t understand metaphors.