I am biased and I admit it. I place agency efficiency on a pedestal. I don’t believe ad agencies can remain competitive when their payrolls sag under the weight of thumb twiddlers. I have witnessed time and time again how bureaucracy waters down smart work, how layers halt forward progress and how the quality of opinions decreases as the number of people expressing opinions increases. Efficiency seems like a no brainer. Still many agencies lumber under the weight of excess. They argue that bigger is better, that staff size and capitalized billings result in greater ability to attend to clients’ needs. Perhaps. However, there is little question that the rise of technology is putting the “bigger is better” mentality to the test by forcing agencies to work faster than ever before. It’s difficult enough to get good work produced when large groups of egos need to constantly weigh in on ideas. Throw technology into the mix that shortens deadlines, and suddenly there is no time left to actually develop ideas. That’s what’s really at stake. Protecting the time it takes to develop ideas. When an agency’s big ideas go away, it’s only a matter of time before it does too.
Print production has gotten faster.
Art for print ads used to be printed onto veloxes (high resolution black and white glossy proofs) and iris proofs (color negatives). Remember those? Funny to think the highest quality ads were second-generation copies. Agencies saved files on floppy disks they trafficked out to specialized film shops that processed and couriered high-res hard copies back again. The Traffic Manager would then FedEx the ad to the publication. There were more steps in the process, and it could take a week or more from the time an ad was approved to the time it landed in the publisher’s in-box. Today, publishers accept high-resolution, digital PDFs via e-mail, a process that takes seconds. Printers offer digital printing, a much faster process than traditional offset printing. Vendors own technology that gets the job done quicker and they sell speed to clients, who in turn expect greater speed from agencies.
Flip the date on the time machine back a decade further to the Art Directorsaurus Period of advertising. It was a time when art directors cut individual letters from font sheets and placed them one by one to craft the words of the ad copy. Art direction was a time-consuming profession. Art directors hate long copy ads to this day, a holdover mentality from a time that once was. And copywriters carpel-tunneled copy on typewriters with double spaces between sentences and all. Back in those days, advertising was less technological and more mechanical. Print-ready comps were, in fact, called mechanicals. The process of crafting advertising was slower and more methodical. There was more time to think. Grass grew faster than ads could be created, at least in context of the speed at which advertising moves today.
Broadcast production has gotten faster.
Today, high-def digital cameras are forcing film cameras the way of the Dodo bird. Digital cameras shorten production and post-production time by removing time-consuming processes like film transfer and telecining. In film edits, buttons and dials now replace razor blades and scotch tape. Radio talent doesn’t have to be in-studio to record spots. They can record spots via ISDN lines in their undies from their home studios 500 miles away. Finished TV and radio spots can be uploaded directly to stations, sans digi-Betas and courier services. Even FedEx is snail mail. Finish a spot today and you can air it on a hundred different stations tomorrow.
Computers have gotten obscenely fast.
Ad agencies, specifically creatives (we all know AEs get the clunkers), have the biggest, slickest and fastest computers available – monster machines turbo charged with extra RAM cards and Terabyte-sized hard drives, and loaded with the latest and greatest cloud-sourced ADOBE C Suite software. Agencies have high tech printers that churn out reams of Guggenheim quality prints faster than trees can be felled. They have enough suitcase fonts to write their names a thousand different ways with the click of a button. They have high-speed, broadband Internet T1, T2 and T3 lines to mainline content out into the world in nanos of nanoseconds. Technology has equipped agencies to create ads faster than ever before, and pushes speed over quality. And when ideas must also be run up a hundred-foot flagpole for approval? Good luck getting anything decent out the door and on time.
Therein lies the rub: Technology has sped up. The time it takes to develop big ideas hasn’t.
The most sustainable asset an agency possesses is its ability to consistently deliver compelling creative work. Ideas don’t work on technology’s schedule, and agencies that still value good ideas find themselves in a pinch. On the one hand, technology puts them under the gun to get ads out the door more quickly than ever before. On the other hand, strategic and creative development needs nurturing and editing and starting over time. When you toss in more lost time due to the inability to move projects through the agency efficiently – whether it’s due to too many processes, too many approvals, too many meetings – you have a recipe for failure.
“Most people know from experience that the fastest way to lose focus, squander valuable time, and water down great ideas is to entrust them to a larger group. Just as we know that there is equal danger in putting ideas at the mercy of a large group of approvers.” (Meetings Are A Skill You Can Master, And Steve Jobs Taught Me How, Ken Segall, Co.Design, Fast Company)
Efficiency removes obstacles that constipate the creative process.
As technology speeds everything up, how do agencies protect the time to concept ideas? Here’s what we do: We remove office politics and bureaucracy. We get rid of redundant and unnecessary processes. We cancel unnecessary meetings, unnecessary people in meetings, unnecessary people’s unnecessary assistants in meetings. We consolidate briefs. We go wireless. We go paperless. We take an exacto knife to the company org chart. By maximizing efficiency, we create more time to think about our clients and the projects in our agency. No matter how big Apple became, Steve Jobs was adamant about keeping meetings limited and only to a handful of people. He valued efficiency and recognized that entrepreneurship and innovation was critical to being on the cutting-edge of technology and products. You can’t be on the cutting edge if you’re stuck in a meeting.
“Individuals who brainstormed alone generated 21 percent more ideas, and their ideas were 42 percent more original than those that originated from groups.” (A Creative Peek, Leigh Thompson, Spirit Magazine, March 2013, author of Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration)
Agencies can debate whether or not they really are efficient. But they can’t argue that technology has placed a “get it done now” expectation on our industry that is at odds with the creative process. This is worrisome to agencies that place their work above all else and value the time it takes to develop good ideas. Efficient agencies will survive by remaining fast, flexible and adaptive. They will get more done with less. They will fight for the time needed to deliver high quality work as our industry moves faster than ever before. They will understand the importance of operating efficiently.