TBWA's digital leader says advertising is out of sync with the changing consumer
You don't need to push past the “A” list in the alphabetized client roster to know that TBWA Worldwide is one of the most muscular and disruptive agencies on the planet.
Absolut. Adidas. Apple. Colleen DeCourcy, described by Adweek as a “free-spirited Canadian” – aren't we all? – runs the agency's worldwide digital group from New York. We caught up with Ms. DeCourcy recently at the annual Future Flash advertising conference, sponsored by The Globe and Mail.
Advertising at the speed of culture. Is that your phrase?
What are you trying to capture when you say that?
Advertising at the speed of culture is very much about pulling ourselves away from just always talking about technology and digital and how it's changed the industry, and actually looking at what's really changing are our consumers. They now move differently, absorb differently, learn differently.… Our advertising is out of sync with our consumers. And so moving at the speed of culture is a combination of … every day is new, and how do we maintain a viable business and outlook and perspective and offering?
Are consumers saying you are not effectively addressing them?
Yes, I believe they are. There's this great levelling of who gets to talk to who and what matters. We're also seeing this new transparency between consumer, brand and products, where everybody can say something about what you sell.… I think we'll go through how to make the advertising more transparent into how do we make the product better.
In that scenario, then, you play a role in making that product better?
Because why? Because advertisers become the link between what the customer wants and what the advertiser can provide?
I think so.… I think when people love a brand, they want to feel as connected to it as I might be connected to you because you're my friend on instant message or because we text back and forth all day. They expect their thoughts to have an impact on a product. You start to see that happen with things like Nike iD – create your own shoes. Walkers crisps in England. You know, let's create a flavour together. It's this co-creation activity that I think is the next stage of social media.
I s there not, though, a risk in some of those activities becoming very contest-like? And then the risk is the consumer becomes cynical about that. I hate to use the word authenticity. It's so overused.
And yet so underdone.… We've been doing a lot of authenticity work with adidas, going from placing athletes on pedestals – which in the '80s and early '90s was very authentic … to hooking those athletes up with cameras, Twitter accounts, forums, to talk about the products that are named after them.
It becomes tougher, then, for advertisers to align themselves with any kind of a spokesperson because they have to be transparent in every regard.
But that doesn't mean they can't have flaws.
You know, it's true. I think flaws are okay. I think it's going to be a brand by brand play now to decide whether it's an icon or whether it's consumer as king.…
It's interesting times and nobody really seems to know what to do with it. What do you do with media? What do you do with your budgets? What do you do at a time when this technological shift is happening to agencies and there's a massive economic upset and everything you've been slowly working toward with your brand is on a super speed-up or stop, because people are cutting budgets, drastically.…
Everything's upside down. Clients and agencies still have a below-the-line mentality about interactive. That it will cost a lot less. That social media is free.… Forgetting that you need just as big an idea in that medium and that it can cost just as much and take just as many people if not more.
Monetization of digital? Yeah … we have monetization problems.… Media agencies aren't really set up to charge for social media.… We've got all this bad online media, which is really just a rapid commoditization of the real estate.… Then you've got independent platforms going out and doing amazing things and taking forever to, as you say, to monetize, to work, and then you've got, how many people are you really reaching and how can we tell what they're doing with it?
…After the tech bust, we would go in as digital people and say … we can tell you exactly what people are doing, we can tell you how many people click. We can tell you that when we changed it, they did click and then they didn't click. We can do all these things, which drove the medium as an expressive medium into the toilet.
Now we find, actually, all those metrics don't mean anything when it comes to predilection to purchase. I think when you start to see it really have more value is when you start linking it up with retail and outdoor, actually. I'm finding this magic triangle with online, out of home and retail.
Can you give an example?
Some of the adidas stuff we're doing in Europe: There's an idea we're hoping to have installed for World Cup. … Between an RFID chip in the [athlete's] shoe and the surround circle of cameras that all the networks are using anyway, you could actually create a map of where that athlete moved.
And that could be captured and visualized almost immediately, with the shoe that the athlete wore, linking the shoe to the playing style.… [and then] pop up digital out-of-home shows that track with the shoe and you can either touch it and see a replay of that moment that was the impossible moment, or it tells you you can go to the URL when you get home from school and download that as a screen saver.… We'll push every game then to your computer post haste. It's like a gift.
Is there a demographic barrier to the effectiveness of these types of approaches?
Technology is becoming a form of literacy and I think we spend a lot of time looking backward and going, ‘Oh, you know, it's all about young kids,' and, ‘Oh, this isn't the way they used to do things.' … I think that retrospection is a kind of blindness that's killing the industry.
Killing the industry? Are you suggesting that this is going to be a turning point where some won't get it and thereby some won't make it?
Yup. Definitely. But you know … if you go back and create a list of the ad agencies that were in existence 50 years ago, a lot of them don't exist any more.… It is a bit of an adapt or die. I do believe that. I don't believe that TV is irrelevant. I don't believe that radio is irrelevant. I don't believe that print doesn't matter. I don't. … How do you manage people and speak to them and what does our business need to be shaped like to do that? That's where we get killed.
What role has the economic meltdown played?
Massive. And you know, I think it may turn out to be our friend and not our foe when you look back on the transition process.… In the last two years, it was about doubling the size of agencies while everyone halves their fees. Whoo That works.… Let's hire a bunch of digital people and have them run alongside the traditional people so the clients can pay half as much for twice as many people. And we're still not getting it. Yeah … I think the downturn will hasten the transition of our industry.