Has the entire paradigm changed or are we just experiencing extended suffering from "the downturn"?
I had an interesting portfolio show with a creative director at a smaller agency here in Austin. He and I have worked on fun projects with the agency and he's always been a proponent of my work. I showed him a bunch of new photos. Things I'd done in the months between our meetings. He looked thru my large prints (please, everyone, keep showing your work on iPads while I drag around a box of 16x20's. I don't mind wiping the drool off the protective sheets.....) and he said very nice things about my work.
And then we put the images aside and he became philosophical in the way that creative directors can be, sometimes. He wanted to discuss the future of the advertising industry. And as we spoke it reminded me very much of the earlier decay of the market for commercial photography. While we had bread and butter assignments to sustain us the ad agencies had the profit from large media buys to wallow around in. Over time the consolidation of media and the demands of clients have eroded what was once the profit center for every major agency into.......nothing. Agencies can still charge retainers or by the hour to figure out where to place the media but no longer get much or any cut of the media buy. That leaves the agencies two or three profit centers: Traditional creative concept and production, marketing strategy and branding strategy, and social and viral marketing. And most of these charges are based on hourly expenditures/charges at various rates. Which flies in the face of what Andy Warhol always advised; "Charge for the art, not for the labor". And it also negates the model of doctors and entrepreneurs which is all about, "Charge for what you know, not for what you do." After all isn't a great idea worth a lot? Even if you think it up in a heartbeat? You know the brain storming might last weeks until the epiphany hits.
As the profits decline the agencies also find themselves smack up against the same kinds of market killers photographers have encountered. There are fewer big placement, national ad campaigns because the demographics have become so splintered. If the total market buy is fractionalized by multiple demographic customizing then the percentage for each ad production budget drops enormously. There may be more ads than ever before but they've been, by necessity, cheapened and loaded with homogenous and warmed over concepts and given budget resuscitation by the use of dirt cheap stock instead of (sometimes) more appropriate custom assigned images. Then it becomes an ever cycling and self fulfilling race towards the bottom. And, with a decline of people with wide ranging (liberal arts) educations there are fewer on the client side who can tell good from bad, funny from banal and so on. I remember trying to tell a client about an ad concept based on "The Rites of Spring".....He'd never heard of it. Didn't think anyone else would have either.....It was a sad testament to the decline of western civilization via business schools.
If the ads only have to be "good enough" and "cheap enough", and if everyone else is doing good enough and cheap enough then gradually the whole industry succumbs to wretched visual and verbal deterioration. At some point the clients will decamp toward in house suppliers, stock design templates and home made solutions. It's easier now to make a website than it is to change the oil in your car. The great middle of the market is seeking independent web designers who reject the overhead of the big agencies. And yet I can remember the days of the half million dollar websites. With Canon 5Dmk2 cameras every photographer who stumbles thru a client's front door is ready to do a "TV Commercial" and at prices that make traditional television producers shudder.
What was my colleague's position? He firmly believes that traditional, big broadcast, mass market advertising is on the way to the graveyard. He believes everyone will eventually spend their days glued to one screen. This one screen will bring them all of their content, become their workspace and their entertainment. It will also be the de facto communications center. Everyone will rush to create "killer apps" in order to cement their brand in the minds of loyal customers and would be customers.
Imagine this bleak, 2016 (riffing off George Orwell's 1984, or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World) future where it might actually be illegal to go around without your personal screen device. It might the nexus of all your commerce. All meetings will take place as conference calls on your screens. All news and even television programming will flow to your device. The apps you use will be branded in a frenzied attempt to keep your loyalty in a sea of cascading images and offers. From the moment you wake till the moment you turn out the lights----and beyond--- you'll be locked to the screen. Earbuds jammed in hard. Oblivious to everything but the content.
No more shared experiences. No more face to face socializing. Oh sure, you might virtual "face to face" with someone while you wolf down a dinner your GPS enabled screen sourced from the crowd sourced food approval list. But probably nothing beyond that. And since no one will want to read anymore all the programming will be moving pictures, video. And rock music and more video. Books as we know them will be used as fuel for power plants desperately churning out juice for a zillion battery chargers. By 2020 everyone will have reading glasses from the 18 hours a day of screen viewing. Exterior decoration will be a thing of the past. People will no longer care what they or their surrounding compatriots look like because no one will be inclined to look up from the screens.
Of course this is such a cynical point of view. The other way to look at this is to understand that the ad agencies are trying to find their footing much the way photographers had to a few years ago. I think that the economic slowdown is much to blame for a lot of what ails the advertising communities. Surely it is always profoundly changing but the more it changes the more it stays the same. The new concept and the new idea kicks out the old. Only the delivery methods change. Everything will recover in lock step with the money. The basic currency will always be the value of the human connection and the power of the ideas.
Looked at from a third point of view the destruction of traditional paradigms of ad agency/client relationships means that the agencies are no longer such powerful gatekeepers for their clients. Clients understand that creative ideas and productions can come from almost anywhere. The barriers to direct client assigned work are being torn down, campaign by campaign. If the photographers and video producers focus their pitches they can supplant much that agencies control now.
It's all mixed up and it might get worse before it gets better. I think the conceptualization of the app as the next step is overstated and will, in fact, be no more than a small tool in a big tool kit. I think HD TV and other re-creations of technology mean television is just coming into its golden age. Enormous clients will still want enormous agencies to handle a cohesive look and feel to brands. And the photographers with vision and staying power will remain.
When the economy recovers the creative campaigns will return. They'll be different. The media may be different. But we'll figure it out. We always do.
Bottom line? Follow the money.