The Rise of the Generalist in a Specialist Agency World
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By Sarah Ivey, Published in Strategy Online, November 28 2018.

The skills to pay the bills 

When I ran a global study onthe millennial generation in 2014, one of the biggest findings was that this generation learned the hard way to value skills over job title. The reality was the careers they were training for didn’t exist by the time they left school. 


You could argue that ad agencies are among the most extreme in terms of these whiplash changes in skill set and talent. It’s safe to say that between massive structural changes and the advent of artificial intelligence, no one’s job will be the same in three years. Maybe two. 

Stay in your lane

Are we entering a world of increasing fragmentation and specialization, or are we actually embarking on a large-scale effort at re-integration?

Unprecedented pressure is on marketers to find the best tool in the toolbox, leading to the rise of project work, rosters, in-house agencies, and consultancies. The irony is that this approach splinters the responsibility for a holistic brand experience across many players. From an individual agency basis, it puts far more pressure on each agency to see the problem as a whole. From the marketer’s perspective, although it’s significantly more complex to manage, it’s a talent godsend. They’ve got a whole host of brilliant brains who are all working on their business. It’s classic portfolio theory. The more bets, the more chances you have of getting it right. That’s part of the reason why you see the rise (again) of ideas-only agencies, who specialize in inspiration but not execution. 

Specialist ninja or MMA master?

The big question for agencies is what kind of talent is going to make or break their future. 

 For so long, agencies have been focused on implementation. That’s where the money is. That’s where procurement understands their value best. But in a world where consumers increasingly compare experiences across categories, the ability to see parallels across great work, to see where the brand experience falls down, is the view of a generalist, and those are in short supply. 

Will agencies still need ninjas? Possibly. Artificial intelligence is making the most strides in specialized applications. That’s what machine learning does. It takes a very closely defined task and refines it. Dynamic copyediting? Media buying? Video editing? All of these highly specialized skills are far more likely to be assisted or replaced by AI. The role of the specialist/ninja will evolve into something far more involved in judgement and taste, and frankly closer to a generalist.

Front door approach 

On a macro level, the developments that are happening at the holding company level are a sign for the entire industry. As laid out in Forrester’s Agency Holding Companies Need A Brave New Business Model, August 13, 2018,nearly every holdco is moving towards some sort of front door approach. There’s the Publicis Groupe Power of One…there’s the move to holdco level client P&Ls at Dentsu Aegis Network. Or there’s structural reorganization, like the acquisition of Acxiom by IPG and the merging of assets at WPP. It’s about simplifying client contact and becoming more integrated in their approach – and that requires more generalists. 

How can agencies of any size cultivate more generalists? 

1.    Creativity as a cultural habit: Ditch the “one person with a marker brainstorm”. There are loads of ways, from brainstorming techniques to client immersions to simple fixes around the office that can give the team full permission to think creatively.

2.    Build a better mousetrap: When the team is working so hard on a client’s business, they never stop thinking about it. Find a place – digital or physical – to capture all that great thinking. At worst, it shows the client your dedication  – at best it gives you more authority to pitch proactive ideas. 

3.    Take an acting or improv class:Don’t laugh. Actually, laugh. One of the core skills of being a great generalist is empathy, and there isn’t a faster way on earth to develop your empathy muscle than acting or improv. 

At its core, being a great generalist is not unlike being a great general – in the words of George S. Patton “Always do more than is required of you.” 

Sarah Ivey is the CEO of Agents of Necessity Inc., a global communication strategy agency. One of our big missions is to help agencies evolve into new business models and ways of being even more brilliant.

Want to know more? Check out our brainstorming training for teams, or just give Sarah a shout at info@agentsofnecessity.com.

Sarah Ivey
Ad Week NY 2018: Living in Uncertain Times

This article appeared in Strategy Online, October 5, 2018.

The mood at Advertising Week New York this year was a little uncertain - and it’s coming from every corner of the industry.

The consultancies aren’t as upfront as they were last year, the influencers less buoyant and the data and tech people are more interested in asking questions than answering them.

One moment, however, stands out for me. Bob Greenberg of R/GA stood in front of a packed house and said their agency now has to pivot every year, calling what we’re experiencing now “the deconstruction of our business model.” He sounded a bit at sea. And he was one of many.

My belief is this is good for the industry. We make the biggest leaps when we’re confronted with massive change. I’ve isolated three big areas where the discussion and tension between ideas was most intense and holds the promise of the most transformation.

The “New” Mass vs. the Intimacy of Personalization

The conference kicked off in the aftermath of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, which was apt on two counts: the diversity and inclusion debate was everywhere, and the testimony pulled in a whopping 20 million cable viewers -  the kind of numbers that put it in top network show territory.

Wieden+Kennedy’s Colleen DeCourcy was also everywhere, celebrating the momentum behind their rebooted Nike campaign with Colin Kaepernick, easily the most mass ad campaign this year. 

 Nike “Dream Crazy”.

Nike “Dream Crazy”.

Are we seeing the emergence of the “new” mass? These cultural moments are few and far between, but they leverage debate around the issues that drive serious emotional response, and they’re difficult for brands to ignore.

On the other end of the spectrum is the possibility of data to finally deliver personal, almost intimate messaging. It’s a big bet in the ad industry. On Monday, IPG completed its acquisition of Acxiom for $2.3 billion, and interestingly, their panel was a lesson in where data falls down. The panel, with great speakers from the financial and auto sectors where data is really robust, talked about the very fine line between personalization and “creepiness”. Joanna O’Connell from Forrester admitted that the most vital data, the emotions and mindset of the customer, really don’t exist in large datasets.

For brands needing to drive deeper emotional connections with their customers, there are some challenging choices to be made.

The Rise of Belief Brands vs. Brand Purpose

A couple of years ago, purpose-based branding was front and centre. This year, that stream of thought has been replaced by what I’m calling “belief-based branding.”

There was a real feeling that it’s simply no longer enough for a brand to be true to its roots. There’s an increasing impatience for change, both in society and within the industry. Taking a personal stand is no longer taboo – it’s welcomed.

At a panel with the team behind Saturday Morning’s work on gun violence and race, Keith Cartwright from 72andSunny said, “I think we’re living in a world where brands have more responsibility than governments.”

 Image from Peace Briefs campaign, Saturday Morning.

Image from Peace Briefs campaign, Saturday Morning.

Leadership within marketing departments and agencies also need to sit up and pay attention to what’s driving this movement. One of the frustrations expressed during the conference was the lack of progress in diversity across the ad industry. On one panel, Kathleen Hall from Microsoft outlined her mandate with her agencies to drive change in hiring, training, and retention of truly representative teams. It seems that she’s one of the few.

Play Nicely with Others vs. Not Sharing my Toys

All the client’s business. All the data. All the eyeballs. All the clicks. There was a real debate about whether monopolies and walled gardens serve customers and clients long term.

When CMOs took to the stage, their holy grail is a single view of the customer. What supports them is an agency ecosystem that makes their customer experience memorable. The marketer mandate is also shifting. Kristin Lemkau at JPMorgan Chase characterized her role as CMO as also head of product and head of growth. When marketers need to shift and collaborate internally, they expect their agencies to do the same.

There are those who think that mass integration and consolidation are the way forward. John Swift from OMG went on record to say, “The future belongs to companies who deliver three things: content, ad-tech and distribution. There will be only four, five, maybe six companies who can.”

That’s his point of view. The current reality is that complex agency ecosystems are by far the norm, and that best-in-class and playing well with others seems to be the current winning strategy. This is true of agencies, publishers, vendors, ad-tech, and data.

As Bryan Lesser from Xandr, AT&T’s new ad-tech unit put it, “the industry is fraught with egos. Thankfully I have low self-esteem, so I work well with these people.”

And that’s a wrap for another year. Uncertainty is afoot – and that’s a good thing. 

Sarah Ivey is founder and CEO of communications strategy agency Agents of Necessity.

Sarah IveyComment
Advertising is “so broken”. But should it be?

Here’s the irony: media usage has never been higher. People now spend a whopping 11 hours with media every single day¹. Advertising should work, at least with those numbers, right? But it doesn’t. In many ways, we’ve reached “peak disillusionment”. According to the Edelman Trust barometer, 2018 marks the first year that media has become the least-trusted institution in that study’s eighteen-year history.

And why is that? Well, at least some of the fault lies with advertising agencies. Yes, us.

Many have observed ad agencies are mired in old models and are slow to change. Why does creative thinking, in some cases, still start with a TV ad? Why do media agencies work with buying demographics that haven’t made sense in a decade? Why do agencies even need to be told they must show their ROI (and where the actual money is being spent)?

Advertising is at risk of a bigger reinvention than ride-hailing, hotel booking, or grocery shopping. Remember, none mourned Blockbuster when it was replaced by Netflix.

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And why are we at this crossroads? It’s because many agencies have forgotten that the tension that comes from change—social, economic, emotional—is the driving force behind our business and great work. Once you stop changing and being thrilled and interested in change, you stagnate. And you get replaced.

When did Change become something agencies fear?

You could point to the FAANGs of this world as the culprit, or the growing pressures from client procurement. But the awkward and uncomfortable truth is that we as an industry haven’t truly confronted the fact that consumers—no, make that people—don’t want to be advertised to anymore, and have the means and will to block advertising out of their lives.

Clients can smell the lack of confidence. They have tightened fees, demanded transparency, shifting to project basis rather than roster. Most concerningly, they’re looking to different models to address their needs: cue the rise of the hybrid consultancy-as-agency, or the creation of in-house agencies.

The “other” uncomfortable truth is that marketers are just as confounded by the speed of change as agencies. They’re beset by operational challenges, market saturation, a dearth of talent, and most importantly, stagnating growth. Their categories are just as vulnerable to reinvention.

In the midst of all this change, agencies and clients alike are searching for a strong point of view.

Clients are thirsting for an informed opinion about what to do next. It’s the reason why creative personalities like Bob Greenberg and Alex Bogusky still carry so much weight. They have strong opinions—the lifeblood of our industry. Or look at Nike’s recent work with Colin Kaepernick—love it, hate it, it’s sparking conversations. You have to put your finger on the tension point and have a POV to stand out, to evolve, to survive.

  Nike, “Dream Crazy, Wieden+Kennedy

Nike, “Dream Crazy, Wieden+Kennedy

And with the talk, comes the walk - it’s not enough to have a point of view. You need to commit to change from within, and have a strategy to evolve how you tackle your own business. In particular, R/GA continues to evolve, and—agree or disagree with their direction—they’re taking action.

Right. So what’s the strategy?

The funny thing about transformation and change is that it’s one of the reasons why many of us got into advertising in the first place. We need to lift ourselves out of day-to-day implementation mode and invest in the agency’s future. Here are just some of the big questions agencies are considering as they lay down the roadmap to change:

  1. What are the most exciting things about our business, and how do our clients benefit from it? Here consensus isn’t as valuable as having multiple perspectives and streams of thought. Embracing diversity of thinking and a habit of inquiry has an immediate and beneficial impact on culture. Better work and stronger revenue follow.

  2. What kind of agency/client relationship do you want? Agencies and clients must co-evolve how they work together. Frustrated by agencies’ efforts so far, clients are often the one leading this charge—witness how P&G has already piloted three new agency models. The key is to know what kind of work, clients, and relationships you think is best for your agency.

  3. Where is my revenue model going? The retainer is already on its way out, and project-based fees are increasingly popular. Cash flow may be your emergent problem. What kind of models and businesses—IP, rev share, incubators—can serve both your strategy and your bottom line?

  4. How do we make ourselves indispensable? The AOR is becoming a relic as clients seek out “best in class” agencies. The most successful agencies will be those that figure out how to do at least one thing superbly and most effectively coordinate their work with other partner agencies.

  5. Do we have the right talent and teams? Traditionally, teams have been organized by function, and projects shuttle from one to the next in a predictable (and boring) fashion. To get fresh ideas and help teams become more responsive, agencies must explore more cross-functional teams, and find ways to ensure all teams have skin in the game.

  6. How do we keep it fresh? To get the best ideas, agencies must be willing to collaborate, even to the point of bringing in new perspectives from different agencies and industries, to, at minimum, keep that culture of inquiry and learning alive. 

It’s a spectacular time to be in this business. The key is making a shift in mindset: to treating change like the transformative force and true currency of advertising that it is.

Because we like to live the advice we dispense, this piece was co-authored in a highly collaborative fashion between Sarah Ivey of Agents of Necessity, and Paula Cizek of NOBL. Agents of Necessity is a global strategy agency, passionate about the future of the marketing industry and strategy’s rightful place at its helm (we are biased). NOBL is a global change agency that trains leaders and organizations to adopt new behaviors in order to capitalize on market opportunities.

¹Q1 2018 Nielsen Total Audience Report, US

LandingSarah Ivey
The next generation of search will change, well, everything.

Last week, while the media world wove through canapé servers at the upfronts, and everyone had an opinion about the return of Will and Grace, the Google I/O 2017 event unveiled a completely new way of search. No, really, don’t yawn, because this innovation could (and should) change how the media world thinks and plans. 

The I/O event is a must watch for the media world. It’s an event that is less about devices and more about utility – and this year the launch of Google Lens was, in my mind, the biggest news. 

Imagine a world in which your phone’s camera replaces the text box on the Google search engine. Well, we’re nearly there. Here’s how Google Lens works: take a picture of a beautiful flower. Launched inside Google Assistant or the Google Photo library, Google’s image recognition cross-references what it sees with Google Search and the company’s other services, and in a text box on the photo, will tell you the species of the flower. Take a picture of a restaurant storefront – Google Lens will give you the most recent reviews. 

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Here’s where Google Lens gets especially tricky – it applies machine learning to your habits over time, and the services that you use, and customizes your search results accordingly. It will anticipate your question before you’ve even thought of it. 

GULP. 

It’s clear to me that if this scales, and chances are it will, media planning will have to cope with some fundamental changes. Here are three ways off the top: 

1.   The physical world (and mobility) rise again in importance: 

The implication of Google Lens is that typed search - particularly mobile search. will fade away, probably rapidly. Marketers (and media planners) must reconsider how their product/stores cope with pictorial search. 

·     Physical product and the retail space will become much more important, upping the value of packaging, experiential and POS in the mix; 

·     Out of home in all its forms, once connected, rises in value; 

·     The link between taking a picture and purchase is going to be direct and trackable. 

2.   Seamless and easy is the name of the game: 

Google Lens will make search the ultimate in easy and intuitive. The bar has been set high for the rest of the brand experience. The entire media plan needs to feel as connected and effortless as the initial search effort, otherwise conversion is at risk. My guess is that media plans will need to say goodbye to the “phased over time” approach to an “in-the-moment” fully integrated ecosystem approach (truly it should be there anyway). The degree of difficulty behind Google Lens – machine learning talking to AI seamlessly over multiple applications – is immense. Our job as media planners is the same – consumers should never see the wizard behind the curtain. 

3.   Machine learning and behavioural targeting will get married, and that will change probably everything in digital media. 

The ultimate implication of Google Lens is that different people can take the same image, and they will be served different results based on machine learning. 

For example, three people take a picture of the same car. One is an auto enthusiast – Google Lens will serve them links to expert reviews. One hasn’t taken a picture of a car before – they’ll get served links to local dealers because they’re probably auto intenders. One will get served local restaurant recommendations because the photo’s location is in another city – they’re probably on a trip.  

One clear implication for planners is that they need to be explicit on the needs state of the consumer they’re targeting. Based on that needs state – sharing, saving a memory, searching to buy – the media plan should pave that behavioural path. 

One other clear implication is that behavioural targeting will get much, much better – but the systemic impacts on the digital media complex are significant.  

We’ve heard this story before: search will never be the same. 

But is it hyperbole?  Why would the launch of Google Lens be any different than the prognostications around Siri, Alexa or Cortana? Well, for starters, it’s non-verbal, making it instantly and intuitively universal. As always, there’s a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to delivering on image recognition and machine learning, and admittedly, it needs some work. But secondly, and more powerfully, Google Lens is a natural extension to an already-scaled search universe. And, if Google does anything superbly, it is infrastructure at scale. 

Is Google Lens ready to roll out right now? Not yet – and that’s probably a good thing because the media industry will need to adjust to some new realities. Whether it’s Google Lens or the next new take on search, the text box’s days are numbered as we move to a new, more intuitive, media universe. 

Sarah Ivey
The fine art of detachment.

It’s been two years since I left the big agency world and started on my journey into entrepreneurship.

I’ve realized now that I’ve learned more in the last two years than in the last decade of my career. Has it been fun?

NOPE.

Fun is not the word I would use to describe the experience.

Character-building. Thrilling. Mind-blowing. Human. Humbling.

I realize now, as I do my round of coffees with colleagues and friends in the industry that they’re most interested in how I’m doing what I do. And it struck me that the lessons I learned could be really useful to other people who have or will walk the same path – coming from a successful career inside a large corporation to building a company from scratch. I’ve started calling it the Outsider Path. There’s a few lessons to share so I’m turning it into a series – call it Postcards from the Outsider. Or maybe Outsider’s Guide to the Galaxy? The Outsider Awakens? 

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You get the picture. Let’s get started with the first step that any Outsider must take: learning detachment – specifically detachment from one’s Ego.

Step away from that Ego and no one gets hurt. 

If you’re going to move forward with your new venture, you have to let go of what you were before. Think about it as taking your Ego to the dry cleaners and forgetting to pick it up for all of eternity.

You think you don’t have an Ego? Here’s a quick test for you. Click open the latest kudos piece for your industry - the Top 40, the Mavens, the Rising Stars, you know the kind - and see the face of a former colleague. Oh hello, Ego. Thanks for stopping by.

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You will never become a better sales person if you can’t step away from your Ego. 

You say you’re not a sales person? Guess again. As an entrepreneur you are always selling. And selling isn’t an “eat what you kill” scene from Glengarry Glen Ross or Mad Men – it’s far subtler than that.

Excelling at sales, in my experience thus far, is becoming the Best Listener in the World. Reflecting back on my worst sales “moments” made me realize that I thought I was, in my humble opinion, the Smartest Person in the Room. Remember how no one liked Hermione Granger at first? Like THAT. That’s Ego talking.

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You need other people. Ego needs to share her toys. 

As a corporate employee you tend to think of yourself as part of a team. The irony is, in my experience, is that being an employee teaches us to put ourselves first. The company’s going to look after itself, so you look after you.

Being an entrepreneur means that you’ve never needed other people more in your life. Accepting, let alone asking for their help means knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, and where other people can truly do a better job than you. Whether it’s a collaborator, a vendor, an employee, your bookkeeper (bless the world’s bookkeepers) they all have something to add and they know things you will never know.

Don’t be afraid to ask a stupid question. Don’t think it’s amateur hour because you don’t know it all. Do share your ideas. Do lean on other people.

Rejection. It hurts. And it’s probably the lifeblood of your business. 

Losing. Failure. Rejection. No one likes it. We spend most of our lives – personal and professional – trying to avoid it at all costs.

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When the “worst” happens you have to look at your business and yourself closely and clearly to see what’s not working. I’ll put it plainly. If your business fails, it is your fault. There’s no way not to take that personally. You’re supposed to take it personally – fix it and MOVE ON.

Being in the wrong burns off the Ego. It makes you sharper, better at assessing risks, and a stronger entrepreneur.

And really, you might actually end up liking yourself more as time goes on. Remember how Hermione Granger became the character you'd most want by your side as you fought evil? LIKE THAT.

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ThinkingSarah Ivey
Agency, disrupt thyself!

If CES is about getting your head around the latest technology, and Cannes is about the awards and the parties, Ad Week New York is about hustle: the unapologetic sales pitch from agencies, advertisers, platforms and technology.

Agencies of every stripe and specialism are here, and most of them are presenting. The agency world is very fond of self-reflection, but this year it seems to have hit a fever pitch. Here’s just a selection of seminar titles from Monday alone: “Self-Disrupt: Creating the Next Agency Model”; “Leadership and the Agency of the Future”; “Advertising Needs a Rebrand”; and my favourite, “Is the Agency of the Future Still an Agency?”

It’s self-evident that the agency world is feeling like it’s about to be disrupted – it’s becoming increasingly difficult to dispense that advice to clients and not see the warning signs yourself. The forces of change are manifold and accelerating: AI, machine learning, ad fraud, clients taking agencies in-house, the explosion and implosion of adtech, martech, fintech, three quarters of digital dollars being spent with two platforms, AR, VR, VCs…but maybe it’s the simple fact that consultancies are now some of the largest agencies in the world. Headwinds indeed.

There’s anxiety in the air. That’s probably a good thing, because it’s sorting agencies out into those who can think new school, and those who are stuck in the old thinking.

The marks of old thinking are easy to spot. They’re the speakers who describe opposites that aren’t, like claiming analytics and creativity can’t co-exist in the same agency system. There are the agencies that describe themselves as “digital first” as a point of pride. Then there are those who count sitting in the client’s office as a mark of integration. I have seriously contemplated issuing fines for anyone who still uses the phrase “consumer in control.” I could have made some serious coin.

New school agencies, however, are fascinating to watch – and none of their approaches are the same:

Accenture: scaling the creative class to large corporates.

I’ve been watching Accenture for a while – indeed, who hasn’t? Jeannine Falcone from Accenture Interactive outlined its strategy very clearly: Accenture has always been good at using technology and data to solve client problems, it has the authority to address the customer experience as a whole (rather than just the advertising) and it understands how to navigate decision making in large corporate environments. Add to that the company’s “sherpa” strategy for acquisitions – leave the agency talent and culture in place and scale up through multiple smaller, nimbler shops, and you have an ecosystem that serves large corporate very well.

R/GA: Moving the goalposts on startup culture.

R/GA’s approach to incorporating ventures into its organization is very well thought through. R/GA selects companies, embeds them in the teams, gives them marketing advice and directly connect them to the agency’s client base. R/GA gets an equity payout on companies that it has partially created and had a hand in proof of concept. Nice revenue stream – and monetization is clearly the lens being applied to many of its businesses.

Sub Rosa: Do one thing really well.

Empathy. How do you convert a buzzword into a solution for large scale client problems? Sub Rosa has scaled up an entire offer around that one question. That can range from a staff training workshop to ethnographic insight work to prototyping live solutions. Sound soft and a bit flaky? Once you see its work for the General Electric mammography equipment suite, you will change your mind.

What struck me, as these sessions rolled by, is how this intense focus on selling misses such a tremendous opportunity for dialogue. BIG topics of conversation – the growth of in-house agencies, what clients really want out of integrated solutions – just don’t get aired because everyone is focused on making their points, and panels rarely mix agencies and marketers.

Agencies are facing a lot of choices right now – some have chosen to merge and mix yet again and see what comes out the other side – like Wavemaker, whose CEO, Tim Castree’s mission is “to grow our share of the problems we are qualified to solve”. Probably the worst thing agencies can do right now is to sit on their hands. Right or wrong, having a point of view and trying something new, might in fact be the disruption needed.

ThinkingSarah Ivey
The next generation of search will change, well, everything.

Published in Media In Canada, May 24, 2017. 

 Last week, while the media world wove through canapé servers at the upfronts, and everyone had an opinion about the return of Will and Grace, the Google I/O 2017 event unveiled a completely new way of search. No, really, don’t yawn, because this innovation could (and should) change how the media world thinks and plans.

The I/O event is a must watch for the media world. It’s an event that is less about devices and more about utility – and this year the launch of Google Lens was, in my mind, the biggest news. 

Imagine a world in which your phone’s camera replaces the text box on the Google search engine. Well, we’re nearly there. Here’s how Google Lens works: take a picture of a beautiful flower. Launched inside Google Assistant or the Google Photo library, Google’s image recognition cross-references what it sees with Google Search and the company’s other services, and in a text box on the photo, will tell you the species of the flower. Take a picture of a restaurant storefront – Google Lens will give you the most recent reviews. 

 Here’s where Google Lens gets especially tricky – it applies machine learning to your habits over time, and the services that you use, and customizes your search results accordingly. It will anticipate your question before you’ve even thought of it.

GULP.

It’s clear to me that if this scales, and chances are it will, media planning will have to cope with some fundamental changes. Here are three ways off the top: 

1.   The physical world (and mobility) rise again in importance: 

The implication of Google Lens is that typed search - particularly mobile search. will fade away, probably rapidly. Marketers (and media planners) must reconsider how their product/stores cope with pictorial search.

  • Physical product and the retail space will become much more important, upping the value of packaging, experiential and POS in the mix;

  • Out of home in all its forms, once connected, rises in value;

  • The link between taking a picture and purchase is going to be direct and trackable.

2.   Seamless and easy is the name of the game:

Google Lens will make search the ultimate in easy and intuitive. The bar has been set high for the rest of the brand experience. The entire media plan needs to feel as connected and effortless as the initial search effort, otherwise conversion is at risk. My guess is that media plans will need to say goodbye to the “phased over time” approach to an “in-the-moment” fully integrated ecosystem approach (truly it should be there anyway). The degree of difficulty behind Google Lens – machine learning talking to AI seamlessly over multiple applications – is immense. Our job as media planners is the same – consumers should never see the wizard behind the curtain.

3.   Machine learning and behavioural targeting will get married, and that will change probably everything in digital media.

The ultimate implication of Google Lens is that different people can take the same image, and they will be served different results based on machine learning.

For example, three people take a picture of the same car. One is an auto enthusiast – Google Lens will serve them links to expert reviews. One hasn’t taken a picture of a car before – they’ll get served links to local dealers because they’re probably auto intenders. One will get served local restaurant recommendations because the photo’s location is in another city – they’re probably on a trip.  

One clear implication for planners is that they need to be explicit on the needs state of the consumer they’re targeting. Based on that needs state – sharing, saving a memory, searching to buy – the media plan should pave that behavioural path.

One other clear implication is that behavioural targeting will get much, much better – but the systemic impacts on the digital media complex are significant.  

We’ve heard this story before: search will never be the same.

But is it hyperbole?  Why would the launch of Google Lens be any different than the prognostications around Siri, Alexa or Cortana? Well, for starters, it’s non-verbal, making it instantly and intuitively universal. As always, there’s a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to delivering on image recognition and machine learning, and admittedly, it needs some work. But secondly, and more powerfully, Google Lens is a natural extension to an already-scaled search universe. And, if Google does anything superbly, it is infrastructure at scale.

Is Google Lens ready to roll out right now? Not yet – and that’s probably a good thing because the media industry will need to adjust to some new realities. Whether it’s Google Lens or the next new take on search, the text box’s days are numbered as we move to a new, more intuitive, media universe.

 Sarah Ivey is the founder of Agents of Necessity, a global strategy agency based in Toronto, New York and London. 

Is 2017 the dawn of belief-based branding?

Call me the eternal optimist. I’ve espoused the idea, for many years now, that corporations and brands had an unprecedented opportunity to serve more than just their business interests, to play an active role in society. We’ve all watched trust in institutions on a trajectory of decline for years – this year it’s at an all-time low. Many marketers and strategists – including me – are passionate about brands with purpose, brands that actively give back. Many consumers, particularly younger generations, not only encourage but expect brands to be an active “improver” of societal issues, from everything from fair trade to environmental stewardship to gender equality.

Yet, why, now, in the face of brands actively taking a stand on political issues, do I feel this creeping sense of discomfort?

I think it perhaps comes down to the difference between purpose and belief. Purpose to me is clear – it’s a manifesto, it’s what the brand exists to do – to help girls keep their confidence as they reach puberty, to prevent childhood disease in developing nations through teaching hand washing (name the brands, anyone?).

However, brands standing up for their beliefs seem to be on a roll in the last couple of weeks, peaking during the Oscars. These declarations, because they are exactly that, range from manifesto-style jumbotron-worthy films, from Nike’s “Equality”, Cadillac’s “Carry” from the Oscars, Audi’s “Daughter” spot, to taking decisive action, like Airbnb’s sheltering of those affected by the travel ban.

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That’s a wide range of issues, motives and methods. But what’s so interesting is that the lines are getting blurred between the personal and corporate. We’ve been operating under the long-held philosophy – beautifully elucidated in the seminal documentary The Corporation - that corporations are set up to operate in self-interest alone. They’re not supposed to take sides…are they?

One has to ask the question: are brands simply riding the wave of sentiment for their own benefit? If we’re honest, probably partially, but what fascinates me is that someone somewhere decided taking a stance was the Right Thing to Do – for the brand/corporation and for their consumers. That takes courage, because not all customers may agree.

And it may not always be the right decision, and it may be open to completely different interpretation. Case in point, Nordstrom dropping the Ivanka Trump line is commonly perceived as a political act – whether it was truly driven by a drop in sales, or pressure from #Grabyourwallet, or a helpful tweet from President Trump. Whatever the truth of the matter is, perception is reality in the era of fake news. It may be inevitable that circumstances may require nearly all brands to, at some point, take sides.

So if brands either choose to or must take a belief-based stance, how do they navigate these murky waters? Murky waters can also signal opportunity, if brands have the willingness to rewrite some of the rules. If the lines are already blurring between corporate and personal, then perhaps brands have earned the right to be the best of both worlds, to lead where career politicians fail. (Disclosure: I have my Eternal Optimist hat back on).

Here’s what I think the emerging guidelines are:

1. If you stand up for it, live it.

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This is a classic lesson from purpose-driven branding, but it’s perhaps even more important for belief-based branding. If you stand up for a value or belief, everyone in your organization and all brand experiences have to live it. If you stand up for equality, then equal opportunity has to be felt in every part of your organization, down to your supply chain.

2. Be prepared to defend it when you are right. Apologize when you are wrong.

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Taking sides guarantees that not all of your customers will agree with you – and they will get vocal. You must engage in the discussion because you started it – see Vox’s analysis of 84 Lumber’s Superbowl spot for a good example of how this plays out. And you will make mistakes – whether it’s in this discussion or in the execution of daily brand experiences. The true test of trust is in our moments of failure – take the opportunity to apologize like a human being, and not as a corporation.

3. Represent your constituents.

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This is one of the most critical lessons – personal beliefs don’t always reflect the people who are actually buying their brand. If you haven't represented the wishes of the majority of your customers, you run the risk of losing business and undermining trust. However, you have a secret weapon. Think about your own customer feedback ecosystem as your permanent Town Hall. Poll them frequently and with openness.

4. Go beyond the speech.

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There is no more powerful medium than a well-told film. We all love a podium. But as any disenchanted voter will tell you, delivering on promises through real action is a rare and beautiful thing. Airbnb’s gesture to house those travellers stranded by the U.S. travel ban wasn’t a bolt out of the blue – it was an action borne out of a longer conversation around diversity and inclusion. Months earlier Airbnb asked users to agree to a non-discrimination code of conduct – which some found overstepping and dictatorial. But just a couple of months later the brand followed it up with tangible help in a time of need. The lesson here is to go beyond the spot – literally – and empower your company to act on their beliefs.

Is this going to be a comfortable time? Unlikely. Interesting? Absolutely.

One of my core beliefs is that diversity of opinion will make us all better – as people, as brands, as businesses, as societies. If brands are willing to step into that role – bravo. I might not always agree with their points of view, but if they keep us all talking about the issues, and to each other, that’s a win. Which is my nice way of saying – comment please!!

ThinkingSarah Ivey