Mayhem on Madison Avenue The Future of Advertising
January 18, 2012 by Kevin Michael Gray
Today's feature article was originally published by Fast Company late 2010 as a somewhat 'prophecy' or reactive insight into the future of the advertising industry. It takes place in Manhattan with 20+ creative directors, planners, and media strategists all searching for the same answer... 'What is the Future of Advertising.' Read the story below:
This slight three-story brick building on the edge of Chinatown has been taken over by Hyper Island, a school based in Sweden renowned for producing the most coveted digital talent in the ad industry. That school is located in an old prison on the Baltic Sea, and students are taught that there are no boundaries when it comes to digital marketing.
Last summer, the Swedes at Hyper Island recognized that where there's panic, there's opportunity, and opened this New York branch. Like the many foreigners who settled in this downtown locale before, the school arrived with its own set of promises -- to drag the denizens of Madison Avenue into the 21st century. While its students back in Sweden are "digital natives," these elder New Yorkers are "digital immigrants," who have gathered for three days of hard-core immersion in dealing with the chaos digital technology has wrought on their industry. "Something digital immigrants would do," explains one instructor, "is make a phone call to make sure someone received an email."
Most of the men and women here -- average age: 38 -- have worked at agencies for more than a decade. Such tenure used to be considered an asset, but these days it's more of a liability. They're all well aware that coding is now prized over copywriting and that a résumé that includes Xbox and Google is more desirable than one featuring stints at BBDO or Grey.
Step one of their therapy, of course, is admitting there is a problem. In this room where Swedish pastries litter a couple of Ikea tables, they have been told that their first assignment is to "put [their] digital stinky fish on the table." So each supplicant finds some space on the floor and rolls out that big blank sheet of paper. Eventually, everyone writes something, and after a few minutes, the group gathers in a circle -- a safe space -- where one by one they voice their insecurities. The first person stands up. "I walk around in fear and loathing, dazed and confused," he says. Another confesses, "I'm a person who's petrified to fail." One by one, they exhale the cold fears of an entire industry: "I feel like I'm standing here and there are a thousand baseballs dropping from the sky and I don't know which ones to catch." "I left my cushy job at a global agency. Actually, I didn't leave; I was pushed out." "I kind of feel like the digital world is a gated world. It's wide open, but I don't even know enough to walk in." "This whole 'collaboration, we'll work together as a team' breaking down of the creative director and art director team -- I find it fucking difficult."
Depending on how you look at it, the next 72 hours are either a communal hazing or a primer on today's rules of marketing. Creative teams, the participants are told, now need to behave more like improv actors -- "story building" instead of storytelling -- so they can respond in real time to an unpredictable audience. Marketing actually needs to be useful -- "use-vertising" instead of advertising -- which means that you must think more like a product developer than an entertainer. While campaigns once promised glossy anthemic concepts, perfected before being shipped off to the waiting client, digital is incremental, experimental, continually optimized -- "perpetual beta" -- and never, ever finished. "Digital will fuck you up and the way your agencies are built to make money, staff things, price things," says the instructor. "You guys have to change your DNA, and you're going to have tough decisions." Later, there's an entire lesson on letting go of egos. Throughout the session, instructors remind the novitiates that these new rules are certain to change completely, and soon.