There is a clash of ideologies in modern PR agencies claims Ogilvy & Mather’s Leo Ryan

Date: 30 March 2012 15:19

The new agency story is a perennial issue; changing technology and resulting consumer behaviour requires different communications models from brands and different agency structures to support them.

The latest is only one in a long line of models that makes communications an innovative and exciting place to work. Except that the changes occurring now are fundamental, and the response required to meet them quite different to anything we're used to deploying.

I'm not talking necessarily about the technical skills per se; we still need good illustrators, video editors, games designers, UX specialists and copy writers. Rather the changes we are experiencing now in terms of the rise of social media, the fragmentation of traditional media and the radical changes in media consumption means that they ways we currently plan, create, produce, track and charge for our work are not entirely fit for purpose. But, more importantly and excitingly, the ways that we conceive of communications need to change.

In 2006 I worked with a team to help a broadcaster to develop a new online product. This broadcaster had recently bought a blog network which had cost an arm and a leg, an online service which it was struggling to integrate into its product portfolio and it was also was spending a lot of time kicking tyres on other possible digital acquisitions. We reasoned that the alternative to this expensive, time-consuming and slightly random approach was to develop a product; one in which it would own the IP and the resulting upside, one that was a perfect fit for its brand and could integrate into existing properties.

As a global developer of content it had the wherewithal and processes required to develop complex multi-partner projects. So we assembled a crack team of developers and designers and set about using agile development and project management methodologies to get to minimum viable product stage for a beta release to the target community who would then codevelop it with us. Except that we never did. It never went live. Ever.

Each time we went back to the new product manager, an intelligent and experienced producer of new TV products, he would say “not yet, it needs a, b and c fixing“. This went on for months through countless sandbox iterations until the new product manager left the organisation, the senior sponsor moved departments and the project died. We were heartbroken; this project would have made our fledgling agency. How could it have died?

On a long walk with a friend I replayed the sequence of events; we were sure we'd done everything right; we'd looked at the product development process and growth paths of all kinds of online services from Flickr to Last.fm, Squidoo and Odeo. They had all followed the same path; start with a kernel and then grow as the community dictates; what they use, build more of, what they request, add on. What they ignore, drop, what they criticise, remove. And accordingly the usage grows as the product develops; an exponential curve. And then a phrase that the product manager had used to explain yet another round of internal changes returned to me; "We're X, nothing goes out of here until it is perfect".

I then understood that it was never going to have been released; this creator of exquisite and finely crafted content experiences was never going to just let something stumble out of the primordial swamp of code, GUIs and user journeys and evolve it's way to perfection. It would either be born perfect, or strangled in its cradle. What we had encountered was a fundamental clash of cultures; creationism versus evolution.

As an industry we believe that we are the producers of perfect brand messages for our clients, we even use the term “brand guardians“. But if we don't get that we're actually operating in an evolutionary environment, we're going to suffer a very Darwinian fate. Brand messages are no longer ours to create; they are for the audience, the user, the customer and the masses to evolve. Our role is to provide a fertile petri dish and to keep adding nutrients.


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