by Mike Hughes, President and Creative Director/The Martin Agency

At a crossroads (yet again). In the years I've been in advertising, there's never a month that has gone by where I haven't been told two things: one is, the industry is at a crossroads, and other is, this agency is at a crossroads. We are an industry that is perpetually at a crossroads, though we have trouble articulating exactly where we want our industry and our companies to end up. We're also an industry that neither budgets for, nor quite knows how to do the kind of R&D that might develop new kinds of expressions and new kinds of ideas. If you look at companies like GE and Sony, they are constantly doing R&D to figure out the next iteration of whatever it is they're going to sell. But we're an industry that doesn't quite know how to do that. We hope that somebody sitting in their office or taking a shower in the morning comes up with something cool and different and that will be our next development, but we don?t know how to make an organized search for it. That said, I do think that right now, we're surrounded by change and it is accelerating constantly. These days, non-traditional media seems to become traditional media in a matter of months. Almost as soon as somebody does something, the press reports on it as a new phenomenon and then a few other people do it and all of a sudden, it feels more traditional. And since we're an industry that thrives on coming up with what's new, we?re all feeling the pressure to find the next big thing.

Bill, where are you? Branded content is a case in point, before most people have even done it, it has already become a traditional medium. Yet we're still trying to figure it out. We are all waiting to see who the leaders are going to be in that area, and where they will come from. Branded content still needs its Bernbach, somebody to rise up and say, 'Here's an interesting, creative way to do this.' Right now, what we mean by branded content is stuff that's kind of palatable to people so they will actually seek it out, but we haven't figured out a way to apply creative thinking to it all the time. So what we have right now is really just traditional content that we have somehow squeezed our message into. It may take a while before we figure this out, direct response has been around forever, and it still hasn't found its Bernbach.

From BMW to XYZ. Another problem with branded content is that it has quickly become defined in a couple of narrow ways, it becomes BMW Films, or some tie-in with a TV show. And so, something attempting to be out of the box becomes its own box very quickly. And people start playing in those same fields, and already the novelty has begun to wear off. Within agencies, creative people look at something like BMW Films and say, 'I have XYZ brand so I'm going to do XYZ Films?' and then they're stuck in a quandary because they realize, 'I can't do XYZ Films because it's going to seem like I'm just copying BMW.' They're stuck in this rut of not knowing how to learn from and build on the innovation, without just duplicating it. The other problem is that it's hard for agencies and clients to get aligned on branded content, very few clients are built to do that kind of thing so agencies go in with ideas they feel good about, and they might even win the account based on those ideas, but then to get them executed is tough. Because the clients don't have a place for branded content in their system or their budget.

To read more about our interview with Mike Hughes, pick up a copy of the Winter 2004 issue of one. a magazine, available in February.

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