September 28, 2021

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Laurence Green: why do ad agencies have such an uneasy relationship with innovation?

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It was one of last month’s smaller news stories but the launch of NCA’s Glasgow office is more than just a little gentle regional expansion. It’s there to build on the company’s relationship with the Glasgow School of Art, and to drive its CX and innovation practice. Followed quickly as it was by a similar initiative at Uncommon, there’s something stirring in adland’s waters…and it’s not advertising.

Despite at least some historical precedent – JWT was inventing Mr. Kipling from scratch in the 1960s, after all, and BBH unveiled Zag in 2006 – today’s ad agencies enjoy an uneasy relationship with innovation.

The very definition of advertising (“to describe or draw attention to a product, service or event”) seems to preclude any intervention that might directly enhance the underlying product, service or event. It’s one reason why ‘ad agencies’ increasingly eschew the word and style themselves more loosely as creative agencies, creative companies and studios.

When my partners and I started 101 – ‘a free-range creative company’, since merged into MullenLowe – we went to market with three services: brand design, brand behaviour and then (and only then) brand communication. We used to say we would only do adverts for people who asked us for something else.

Though the market would eventually pummel us back into more familiar shape, that launch intent seems still to hold water. For all the fun, the quick wins and the steady returns of the brand promotion business, there’s often a more fundamental answer to client problems to be found when viewed through the lens of product or service proposition, and it’s truer now than ever.

The past decade has belonged to the disruptors, and the underlying excellence or otherwise of the stuff we consume has reclaimed centre stage from an advertising era that at least sometimes provided creative lustre for otherwise mundane brands.

The shift from fmcg to services was booting us in that direction long before the digital revolution: your experience of a retailer or an airline is always going to matter more than their presentation in advertising, in a way that wasn’t necessarily true of canned fish.

But ‘digital’ has of course catalysed that shift towards things that are made well rather than just sold well. It’s no coincidence that businesses like R/GA and AKQA have such a heady mix of product solutions on their, ahem, ‘showreel,’ nor that my favourite recent work from MullenLowe isn’t advertising at all but a platform developed by Profero for Art Fund:

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Unbooked does what it says on the tin, matching a culture-starved audience with visitor-starved museums and galleries nearby with an efficiency, utility and permanence no ‘ad campaign’ could.

An answer, you could say, from the Glasgow school.

Laurence Green is executive partner of MullenLowe Group.

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