The Drug Of "Next"

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The ability to focus is an ability laden with complexity.

I’m staring at my iPhone 3GS and wondering why I didn’t bite the bullet and get an iPhone 4. Because I didn’t line-up for an iPhone 4 and waited so long, it seems silly to get one now. What’s the point? I’m sure the iPhone 5 is just around the corner, right? To my left is my iPad. I should probably get an iPad 2 at this point as well. Right?

Do you see what’s going on here?

While it’s not as destructive as a heroine addiction (and not nearly as important in terms of something that needs treatment), Moore’s Law seems to be picking up pace and our ability to focus on what’s currently in-market (and how it’s working) is being clouded and confused by our constant pursuit of what’s coming next. It’s becoming a huge issue for Marketers. For those who lead the brand and for the agencies that lead them, the great marketing divide between the tried and true traditional marketing tactics is very much clouded by the new and emerging channels. It wasn’t that long ago when Marketers truly believed that the Internet and online advertising would be/could be a fad. Some might still argue that it’s still unproven when compared to traditional mass media advertising.

Nearly twenty years into the Internet and it’s still new media?

The struggle is very real. Make no mistake about it. Last week, I attended the Mirren New Business conference in New York City. It’s a very niche event where marketing agency owners converge for three days to talk about new business development. What it takes to win new business – from credentials and presentation skills to dealing with procurement and adding new services into your agency model. As you can imagine, the real discussion and interest was about what’s coming next. What can an agency do be viable and profitable in the coming years? What’s the next "iPhone" of the advertising agency model?

Everyone was tapping the vein.

The three big revelations about the what’s next for advertising agencies were around:

  • Digital innovation – the ability for agencies to not only offer digital marketing services but being able to deliver them with award-winning results. And, while the conversation is no longer about websites and more about Facebook and iPhone apps, it’s still the same conversation about relevance and context.
  • Pricing models – how can these services-based industries move from an hourly rate to one that truly encompasses the actual value that this marketing work brings to the overall economic value of the companies that they serve?
  • Product development – no longer beholden to selling big ideas to a brand, now agencies are both developing their own products to put into market or they’re creating venture capital funds to both invest in new product development or newer companies developing unique advertising solutions.

So, how’s that working out for you?

With some of the hottest advertising agencies and some of the most talked about up n’ comers in the room, the answers were quite startling (and yet, not surprising at all): there are still no new models that work. Agencies are – for the most part – struggling with their digital marketing success when compared to the traditional results they were delivering when this whole Internet thing didn’t disrupt the model of people passively sitting by and letting TV, radio and print wash over them. They’re struggling with finding a groove where their digital marketing work and results can be compared to the excitement that a Superbowl ad delivers. While some agencies are adding in additional fee structures based on sales results (or other metrics), the majority of marketing agencies are still working by headcount and the hours-per-day that their employees are working. Lastly, there has been no proven example of a marketing agency that has developed a product with tremendous success in the market.

We should not stop trying.

While some may read this and shake their heads, the message should not be taken as all doom and gloom. We’re an industry that is trying. We’re willing to look at all of of our sacred cows and question them. This is a good, moral and right way of being progressive in business. We have the most creative, irreverent and thoughtful people working on these problems, but true success in the real world often looks very little like our thoughts or pontifications. We also need to be very cautious of spending too much time on the drug of "next." The answer will, inevitably, be simpler than anyone of us could have ever imagined. We’re quick to say that Quora is the next big thing. We said this about Cuil too (remember when Cuil was the Google killer?). We’re sometimes right… but we’re often wrong.

The answer?

  • Have a passion for the present.
  • Solves real world business problems.
  • Add real economic value to the brands you serve.
  • Create platforms that truly allow people (brands and their consumers) to come together.
  • Be interested in innovation (allow for a small percentage of the overall brand budget to tinker with new channels and tactics).
  • Recognize what success looks like.
  • Use the analytics available to you to truly drive new directions and opportunities.
  • Let people from all angles of the agency think and create new ideas.
  • Technology must be a critical part of the process (along with the creative and client services department).

This may not be as fun as chasing the dragon, but being a "Presentist" in a world of this much opportunity, diversity and room for change seems much more future-focused than trying to be a pure "Futurist."


  1. Very good post and right on point for all of us charged with strategic thinking for our shops as well as for our clients. Living in the present is great advice for staying focused on our clients’ needs today. The risk is that we’ll eventually be playing catch-up with those that succeed in seeing around corners.

  2. Well put Mitch!
    We’re past the point of over-saturation on many of the points you raise, mostly stemming from “me too” companies fighting for that extra sliver of market share. (Think BlackBerry Playbook, 378 different Android Phones, GroupOn clones out the ying yang…)
    I have a feeling we’re trudging out way though an area of complexity (meaty part of the bell curve) and will soon arrive to a point of simplicity, if for no other reason then just for our own brain’s sake.
    What that simplicity looks like… is up to speculation, but would boil down to doing more of what you do really well and leaving rest of the “stuff” for other brands to work on.

  3. Great article Mitch. Interestingly, I am not in the Agency space, but in professional and business services (currently Law). I was surprised how many of the same discussion points apply! Most important is
    “Solves real world business problems”. If we can all stay focused on that, as well as trying to improve people’s lives, its all good.

  4. If you’re doing innovative work with a keen eye on the new platforms and experimenting with them as well (which can be both cheap and not that time consuming), there is a fairly good chance that you’ll always be ahead of the curve.
    The trick is in not dismissing new platforms simply because they look and act funny when compared to what we know.

  5. Marketing messages will still be marketing messages. Some will be more like broadcasting while others will be more like branded content. It’s going to be about the platform (Web, mobile, touch, etc…) and the accessibility of the brand (how much engagement and conversation they’re willing to take part in).

  6. Agree! Is it possible that where creativity used to be the key agency differentiator we’ve come to a place where creativity has been marginalized by procurement practices, but innovation can still set us apart?

  7. Funny thing is you do not have to be that ahead of the curve to win. Certainly not as far as many fear. I was part way through your piece when this thought prompted me to go straight to the comments. I should not have been surprised that as I started to navigate down I ran smack-dab into your “have a passion for the present” and then simply continued to read. Cheers.

  8. I guess I’m just blindly adding to the problem. I’m deliberately waiting for the iPhone 5 to come out before I upgrade my junk stick phone. I love chasing the dragon – after all, using the latest shiny objects makes the work a lot more exciting. Me helping clients with this MacBook Air is a lot more fun than using a Windows Vista OS.
    You know, this blog goes a lot deeper than most. I better tread carefully here. πŸ™‚

  9. People forget how good of an indicator the present actually is of the future… IF you can keep you eyes not only wide open, but focused with a diffused vision. It’s like driving: don’t look at the tip of your hood… watch the full road, etc… the indicators are everywhere. And, that’s the end of the road for this car analogy.

  10. You know something? I don’t mean to be critical here, but you’ve not optimized the logo on the mobile edition to accomodate the iPhone 4’s retina display. The image is pixelated. Might get your developers onto that. I mean, seeing how immaculate you are on good design and everything (this is the second most beautifully designed blog on the planet).

  11. Mitch,
    I am with you 100%.
    I read this post and couldn’t help thinking about how visionary science fiction author William Gibson believes that the future is right here, right now. To quote from a specific BBC News article that, I believe to be similar and relevant to the subject matter of what you are describing in this post: “The rapid rate of technological and social change means the future comes crashing towards us faster than ever before.”
    The rest of the article is here ( ) and I’d recommend taking a moment to read it, William Gibson is credited with coining the term Cyberspace and is typically decades ahead of most people in his vision of the future.
    How we parse the onslaught of continually adding devices and emerging technologies into our daily life is quite interesting and certainly can make the present feel irrelevant once we get used to living in the future.

  12. This is a great, thought-provoking post. You articulated what a lot of folks are feeling right now. I just had a conversation about this with two colleagues yesterday. I think the industry is getting twitchy as we all look around for the next big thing. Perhaps, instead, we need to focus on how to simply do things better instead of chasing shiny objects.
    It’s quite the conundrum – we do need to live in the present, but also don’t want to get left behind when the next “big thing” comes along. It’s a balancing act for sure.

  13. This is so cool Mitch.. I’ve been always wondering about how to have a greater future for my self and my business. There are topics out there like this but you’ve explained it well here.

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