10 red balloons have been hidden around the U.S. and you have to find them.  How long would it take you? Could you do it in 4 weeks , 6 months, a year?  MIT Media Lab‘s Dr. Riley Crane took that challenge, which last month was presented by the Pentagon’s DARPA, and with his team, used social media to accomplish the task in just 8 hours and 52 minutes!

DARPA’s intent for the balloon study was to determine if “in the 40 years since the creation of the internet it could actually be used to solve real world problems. So what does this have to do with advertising?  Arguably, selling more Coke is not a pressing world problem for anyone but Coca Cola, Inc. But there’s an interesting parallel between the search for those 10 balloons and the advertising industry.

Ad agencies are facing real challenges to their value proposition and the outcome of the DARPA experiment is indicative of how social networks have changed the advertising industry forever.  DARPA’s experiment (and MIT’s approach) can offer clues about how agencies can make this industry shift work for them—rather than feeling threatened as the ground moves below their feet.  And it’s a cautionary tale for clients as well.

The new big idea

Social networks (and by extension, crowdsourcing) have helped bring about the democratization of the big idea, which is probably one of the biggest shifts to our industry in the last 50 years.  Marketers now know their agencies aren’t the sole generators of solutions.  This shift is changing how clients compensate their agencies—or at least the value placed on previously highly-valued goods—like the big idea. Traditionally, advertising agencies focused on finding balloons—the big idea—and clients paid handsomely for it.  In today’s hyper social-networked world, often the strategy is the big idea.

In the case of the DARPA experiment, strategy won the day.  Someone (MIT) had to devise the system or architecture that allowed the solution to be found. In other words, DARPA wasn’t paying for the balloons to be found (the apparent solution) they were paying for the creation of the process. Today many marketers are less interested in paying agencies for ideas—they would rather pay for strategy, for process, and the broad thinking to get to the solution.  How does this change the value of creativity?

Elton John famously wrote “Your Song” (one of his biggest hits ever) in about ten minutes after his lyricist partner Bernie Taupin penned the words over breakfast. By today’s valuation of creativity, Elton and Bernie would probably have been paid 25 bucks for that masterpiece. This strikes fear into the hearts of many creative people because if agencies can’t charge well for their ideas, what do they have to sell?

Clients should look to their agencies as strategic consultants, not just idea factories. Yes, clients still need ideas and good ideas still sell stuff, but the fact that ideas are likely to come from anywhere goes against having an agency if ideas are all you want your agency for. It’s like hiring a piano teacher to sit in your living room and play you tunes. Real agency value comes in having a partner with broad perspective and insight on your business, a team with peripheral vision, foresight and hindsight who is strategically responsible for making sure the whole plan and execution of that plan is greater than the sum of its parts.  To use another music analogy, if the CMO is the conductor of the orchestra, the agency is the Concertmaster. So in the search to hire your next ad agency, find an agency with demonstrated strategic ability–one that uses social networks to their advantage to tap creativity and good ideas, wherever they live, not the ones trying to be balloon finders.

There’s a story about a family who runs out of gas in the desert a few hundred yards from the only gas station around.  The station owner comes up with a gas can, and charges them $25 for gas, $25 for the gas can and $150 for labor.  The stranded travelers question “what labor?” The attendant responds, “All the thinking to add it up”.  The gist is this:  clients should be paying agencies to think, not necessarily execute. Agencies need to be willing to use all the tools currently at their disposal including sourcing ideas across social networks. Clients will more likely value an agency who is not threatened by, or needing to be, the only one with the big idea—because they aren’t anymore.

It’s tough out there for marketers on both sides. Agencies, in particular, are having a rough go of things amid a complicated mash-up of contracts, compensation, and collaboration.  So what does this shift mean for the future of the advertising agency and the clients who hire them? DARPA’s experiment and MIT’s solution may offer some clues:

  • Don’t hire an agency to look for balloons but instead, hire an agency who realizes that the solution is not always the end goal.
  • Hire an agency to think about your problem strategically, who when necessary can find solutions outside their own walls.
  • Hire an agency who realizes that the best solutions to your business don’t always happen inside the marketing department.
  • Then go find those balloons together.
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