Brent Smart: “Agencies Don’t Want To Be Stuck In the Middle – Not Creative Enough Or Digital Enough”

Brent Smart: “Agencies Don’t Want To Be Stuck In the Middle – Not Creative Enough Or Digital Enough”
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Aussie and former Saatchi and Saatchi New York boss, Brent Smart, announced his return to Oz this week to take up a new position as CMO of Insurance Australia Group (IAG). Ahead of his keynote at the upcoming ad:tech conference in Sydney on the 14th and 15th of March, he dropped by for a chat with B&T in his only Australian interview….

For details, speaker info and ticket information for ad:tech, Australia’s leading marketing and media conference, check this link here.

You’re speaking at ad:tech on the 14-15th March in Sydney, what can we expect?

Lots of cultural references. Because what’s happening in culture is more interesting than marketing. And that’s the point, marketers need to stop using other marketing as their frame of reference, and look to culture for inspiration. Because brands are competing with culture for people’s attention and most of the time, marketing comes up short.

You boast an impressive resume – stints at M&C Saatchi Sydney, BBDO San Francisco, and more recently MD of Saatchi & Saatchi New York… in those last 15 years how have you seen technology change the creative landscape?

It’s changed forever. We have more data to know more about the people we are trying to reach, more ways to reach them and more canvases for our creativity; plus the ability to know whether things are working instantly and to constantly test and learn.

And yet it remains the same. The challenge is still to find a compelling insight amongst all that data, a new idea that will connect with people, and to execute and craft it in a way that will stop people and make them care.

There’s been talk that one of the martech firms (I believe it was Adobe) was creating an algorithm that could write the perfect ad. Do you ever see that happening? Machines replacing creatives?

Advertising is more art than science. And while there’s no doubt a lot of functions in the marketing services world will be automated, I can’t see ideas ever being one of them. Ideas are very human things, requiring intuition, gut, heart. The great ones do, anyway.

We did a cool experiment with last year’s Saatchi & Saatchi New Director’s Showcase. Every year the showcase gives a platform to emerging young film makers from around the world, it’s a real highlight at Cannes. This year one of the films was AI-created. It wasn’t revealed which film, we wanted the audience to experience all the films the same way and then see if they could tell. The AI film was visually striking, but it wasn’t even close to being one of the most powerful or popular films in the showcase. Like everything, the technology will get better and machine-created films will get better, but I don’t believe they’ll ever replace great film making, that requires heart. 

The role of agencies has changed tremendously in recent times. How do you see the agency/client relationship moving forward? And what does that mean for the sort of people agencies will need to employ? 

I’ve had some great agency/client relationships and some terrible ones. I’ve always believed that clients get the work they deserve. The key is trust. And right now, at a time of so much complexity and pressure, I’d be having more conservations with my agency, not less. I think some of the trends we’ve seen like the rise of project work and constant agency reviews work against that. Agencies can’t do their best work if they don’t feel trusted and supported. 

We’re seeing tremendous change in agency land. Your advice to Aussie agencies on what to do to adapt?

My advice to agencies is always the same – do great work. It’s the best way to become an indispensable partner for clients.

What’s clear from working in the agency business in the US, is that CMOs are looking for brand transformation. The great agencies stand apart from the average ones by consistently delivering either creative transformation or digital transformation for their clients. The worse place to be is stuck in the middle, not creative enough or digital enough. And that’s where a lot of agencies are finding themselves. And it’s not a fun place to be.

You’re a Melbourne boy but have worked in the US now for over seven years, have you kept an eye on the Australian advertising landscape? What’s your take on the current state of it?

I find the Aussie advertising’s sense of humor so refreshing in an industry that tends to take itself too seriously.

I think Australia is really good at idea-led technology. It might not have the most advanced technology or scale, but there is genuine ingenuity. Two of my favorite recent ideas are “Clever Buoy” for Optus and “Land Cruiser Emergency Network” for Toyota… incredibly creative uses of technology to solve real life problems created by Australia’s harsh environment.

Of course my Mum always tells me about the ads she loves. And mums don’t really care about advertising, so you should pay attention when they do. She loved the NAB Auskick spot (from Clems Melbourne) with the little kids who are dopplegangers for the real footy stars. I loved it too, great craft.

And that’s something that’s very strong in Australia – craft. How incredible that one of our top commercial directors just directed the movie Lion (Garth Davis). And working in the States, I saw how in demand top Aussie directors were and how loved can-do Aussie producers were. I’m looking forward to working with the local production community again.

Ad-blocking software dominated 2016. What’s your view on the perceived threats?

The greatest ad blocker ever invented is the human brain. It has always filtered out thousands of advertising messages every day that weren’t interesting or relevant. It’s always been a threat.

Now technology makes it even easier to block the ads. But if we make stories that are so good that people want to share them, talk about them and seek them out, then we can get around any ad blocker.

What should local agencies be investing in NOW so they’re not regretting it in three years’ time?

Breaking down the silos. Not just the digital silo, which just doesn’t make sense in a world where everything is digital, but also the media silo and the measurement silo. Clients want end-to-end solutions with less complexity and less people to talk to. Ideas need to lead, not process or models.

See Brent Smart and a host of foremost marketers and tech gurus present at the upcoming ad:tech conference at Sydney’s Hilton Hotel on March 14-15, 2017.

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