Do agencies really understand culture?

13 Mar 2018  |  Tracey Follows 
Do agencies really understand culture?

The evidence suggests agencies have become disconnected from society and are left unable to explain the changes within it, writes Tracey Follows. They now seriously risk being left behind

In the last two weeks we have watched whilst agencies have demonstrated their lack of understanding of the actual effectiveness of UK media (as shown by the recent Ebiquity/Radiocentre report).

We have seen one of the world’s biggest clients, Marc Pritchard of P&G, claim that agencies don’t understand their own product which is creativity not relationship management. He called for the eradication of unnecessary layers of people creating inefficiencies at both media and creative agencies.

And finally, last Friday as a planner departed his agency with an email zinger, later deemed intolerable by the agency’s management, we learned that ‘Top 5’ email lists, which rank female colleagues on attractiveness, are - or have been - part and parcel of agency culture.

In summary: agencies don’t understand the effectiveness of the media they use to communicate; they don’t understand the way their clients want to work or the solutions they require; and finally they don’t even understand how toxic their own internal cultures have become.

All of this and yet agencies will continue to wheel out the credentials presentations telling prospective clients just how much they understand culture, that they have insights into cultural belief systems and values and can create ideas and produce commercials that will become part of popular culture too.

Well, not all of these things can be true.

I have some sympathy for agencies. We all know there is not as much freedom, joy and margin in today’s advertising world - time’s have changed. Nevertheless, time’s also up for the perception that advertising agencies do a great job of understanding culture. Honestly, if they did, they would have addressed the lack of women in creative departments a long time ago. If they did, they would have anticipated the mood and motivations in a country wanting out of the EU. And finally, they would have recognised the looming war for tech talent and made themselves much more attractive to a new generation way before now.

‘Culture’ is a shorthand for cultural theory; the creative industries tend to believe that ideas are what gives society its ability to change. In general, culture is the sum total of knowledge, beliefs, values and attitudes, norms and conventions shared by a certain group of people at a particular place and time. The problem is, that most culture is about familiarity and stability. In fact, most societies throughout history have put more value in stability than in innovation and change. This flies in the face of every agency’s main offer of creativity and innovation.

The conclusion one must make is quite perverse. Whilst agencies were selling culture theory based on a supposed appreciation of innovation and change amongst consumers, their own culture was not really changing at all.

In the book I wrote with John Griffiths, which traces the origins of advertising account planning, we tell the story of Jane Newman’s first meeting on her first day working for Jay Chiat on the Apple account. As she says: “It was the launch of the Apple Macintosh. This small room was plastered with print ads and headlines. There must have been a hundred of them and Jay went through that room and took three ads out. One was ‘Why 1984 won’t be like 1984’. Another was ‘Why we’ll never call our product the AKZ1010’ and the other one was ‘Think of it as a Maserati for the mind’. I could see that those three ads were the strategic thought, which was ‘friendly’. In fact I think Steve Jobs talks about it in his book, how that became the strategy for Apple”.

What Jane was highlighting was friendliness as a cultural value in the face of technological fears, in the ominous year of 1984. And that deeper understanding helped create one of the world’s best advertising campaigns there has ever been.

Those who believe in a Technology Theory of change will argue that it is technology that undermines the prevailing culture to bring about something new. Those who believe in a Cyclical Theory of social change, will say that everything can be explained by cycles, rather than an upward, forward direction: fashions come and go, night follows day, we grow, we mature, we die...the world is full of cycles.

Market Theory explains that change occurs through conflict and competition and the need for productivity. And yet Evolution Theory believes that change is not directed by the entity itself but by the environment, which provides variation and makes a selection, of ideas, as well as behaviours. Which one do you think best explains change in society?

Agencies have got to get back to making the understanding of social change their business. And more than that, they need to articulate their theory not just place the word culture in every sentence of a presentation.

What is your agency’s theory of social change? What are the assumptions that underlie that theory? Having a theory will not only explain how a change has come about but also how change will continue to influence what will happen in the future. What is your agency’s theory of social change and how do they use it to explain the likely effectiveness of your advertising?

If an agency can articulate its theory of social change, not only can they explain the way in which they will approach clients’ advertising effectiveness, but also the type of media they should invest most heavily in, and the reasons they adopt certain behaviour and eschews others, internally.

This is not a mantra, not a tagline, not a soundbite. It is a deep appreciation and understanding of societal change with clear explanations of how change happens. Because one thing is for sure, if agencies don’t fully develop their theories of social change, social change will leave them behind.

Tracey Follows is the founder of Futuremade and writes on the subject of strategic foresight each month for Mediatel



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NickDrew, CEO, Fuse Insights on 14 Mar 2018
“mmm... so you've cited one client CMO working to get headlines, an industry study that actually demonstrates everyone in the media space (publishers, broadcasters, brands and agencies) misunderstand the public's media consumption, and one agency with a toxic attitude towards women. From there to "agencies (specifically) don't understand culture, society or brands" is a hell of a leap - it also doesn't help the industry to move forwards on the issues with which it may be struggling.
Without wishing to be uncharitable, we could draw the conclusion from this piece that "all authors don't understand the world of agencies"...”
BobWootton, Principal, Deconstruction on 14 Mar 2018
AlastairDuncan, CSO, Splash Worldwide on 14 Mar 2018
“Agencies are quite good at following culture, less good at anticipating. Cultural relevance is often a proxy for 'people are talking about our brand' which in turn is a proxy for effectiveness. Explains a lot, predicts little. We get asked how to we achieve high impact at low cost. I don't think there's a single answer.”


14 Dec 2018 

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