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Edward Boches has written an interesting post, one that has required some time on my part to digest and to respond to with care. I say that because Edward is constantly curious and inquisitive, two attributes that should be prerequisites for anyone who delves deep into our ever-evolving social web; plus he always writes and talks provocatively. (It was no coincidence that when he visited a class I teach at the U of O in Eugene, the students and he came up with a pointed Twitter hashtag - #BuildShit.)

The digestive part for me is to actually not get indigestion over the title of his post - Five things ad agencies have to get good at. I write that somewhat tongue in cheek, but I do wonder when we'll get beyond this debate about "what an ad agency ought to be or be doing.." Maybe we should just get on with #BuildingShit?

Edward writes of "a whole new set of skills and talents they (agencies) ought to be developing as they encounter change in the form of new technologies (mobile), new engagement platforms (go ahead, pick one) and new agency models (think Victors and Spoils.)"

Given that technically the future is now, maybe we should consider first what an ad agency is or has been?

noun /ˈājənsē/ 
agencies, plural

A business or organization established to provide a particular service, typically one that involves organizing transactions between two other parties
- an advertising agency
- aid agencies

A department or body providing a specific service for a government or similar organization
- the Environmental Protection Agency

Action or intervention, esp. such as to produce a particular effect
- canals carved by the agency of running water
- a belief in various forms of supernatural agency

A thing that acts to produce a particular result
- the movies could be an agency molding the values of the public

You'll note that the descriptions above don't include the word "people." So we see business, organizations, transactions, department and body, but no people. Any agency's heart and soul are its people, and in advertising agencies the people are those who work in them and also those who populate their client's companies. And then there are the people who use or buy their client's products - at the end of the day, those people are the one's we "work" for.

We must always consider people.

It makes sense then that those of us who work at ad agencies need to fully understand the people-powered web and its disruptive powers, and we must constantly remind ourselves of how we use it. I'm not trying to over-simplify this, it's actually quite difficult.

Whenever the discussion of how agencies adapt to the advent of digital technologies and/or web tools, the authors of such screeds often generalize as if all ad agencies are one homogenous beast that can only move in one direction. Edward doesn't fall into that trap. He sees the possibilites that agile brings, he understands as do I, that by taking small, iterative steps and then constantly testing and analyzing our "products," as software developers do, is a practice that is beneficial to our brand engagement work.

And then he gets to the thorny issue of attracting new talent to work within our industry.

He says "We need new, young digital talent if we’re to change our own companies. Yet we can’t attract that talent until we begin to change." I agree, but not with the idea that we need to attract "digital" talent. We just need to attract young talent - they'll bring the cognitive skills with them whether they work in analog or digital.

Those thoughts then allow me to consider this paragraph from Edward's post regarding young, creative people that agencies ought to be hiring.

Liberate the next generation
EVB’s founder Daniel Stein likes to brag about how many of his company’s creations are the work of 23-year olds. Digital natives. Ben Malbon emphasizes that while agencies may think their employees are young, they’re not as young as those at Google. I recently watched two of Mullen’s 23-year olds make a presentation to the editorial staff of the Boston Globe on how the newspaper could do a better job of engaging Gen-Y. The duo did the research, shot and edited videos, created original content, recommended a business relationship and even crunched numbers to show how it would work. Now they’ve even closed the deal. As Rishadt Tobocawalla says, “we can’t teach this generation as much as it can teach us.” The sooner we give them the chance, the sooner we both benefit.

As Virginia Heffernan put it recently in an article about a new book by Cathy N. Davidson, co-director of the annual MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions, "We can’t keep ignoring the formidable cognitive skills they’re (students) developing on their own. And above all, we must stop disparaging digital prowess just because some of us over 40 don’t happen to possess it. An institutional grudge match with the young can sabotage an entire culture."

I just had to emphasize her contention that an entire culture is at stake as I don't consider it hyperbolic.

Cathy Davidson also writes - "fully 65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet."

As someone who works with "Digital natives" (isn't that a terrible description for young people?) at the U of O, it's extremely apparent to me that the cognitive skills my students bring to the table are as formidable as Heffernan mentions above. My course isn't about teaching, it's about helping the students to learn how to think - in other words how to craft and parse the inherent skills that they already have into meaningful, results-driven activities that can lead to real-world initiatives that inspire and actually create change - and of course it's also a constant, ever-evolving two-way conversation.

Which brings me to what I would describe as an intellectual failure at most companies these days: what Edward Boches and Rishad Tobaccowala say about the hiring of talented young people is entirely accurate, but I'd argue that the failure to hire them begins and ends in a company's HR dept.

As Cathy Davidson wrote, kids in future will be doing work that hasn't been invented yet, but in many cases it appears that that time is upon us now. Graduating students who haven't been hired yet are not sitting around waiting for us, they are more than likely creating those jobs that haven't been created yet. Yet when you still see job descriptions that require "a minimum of 4 years of experience in this that and the other" you have to wonder who the hell is writing them and who exactly they are looking for? The web is roughly 17 years young but 4 years is an eternity in tech/web time, so if HR departments want a candidate who's been around wrestling with all those new digital tools for more than 4 years, how about hiring from this year's graduating classes and grab a few 22 year olds, each of whom will have about 18 years of that kind of experience each?

And finally there's this: "Last year I sat through presentations from the first graduating class at Boulder Digital Works, a program initially funded by an ad agency in order to develop more talent for our industry. When I asked the class how many of them wanted to go to work for an agency, even a digital agency, not one student raised a hand."

Which suggests to me that if the kids don't want to work at agencies because we haven't adapted to be a place where they can apply their cognitive skills well, or we simply don't hire those that do, then they will probably end up working for our clients. They will then be challenging us to get things done in a leaner, cheaper, better, faster way.

What then for the idea of agency, digital or otherwise?


Thoughts on the Bandwidth 2011 conference