The slow cull of experienced practitioners by many agencies has put the future of the entire sector in jeopardy, according to leading advertising thinker Tom Goodwin (main photo). Here he talks to Alex Hayes about a lack of “wisdom”, and why businesses aren’t set up to engage with a “better” agency business model.
“I sound a bit miserable here, but we’ve entered a bit of a spiral of decline,” admits Tom Goodwin when asked about the absence of ‘grey heads’ in most agencies today.
“When the internet came along we were very quick to think everyone that knew the world before it wasn’t as helpful as they had been before, so we asked a few people to leave,” he explains.
“But then we lost this wisdom and this context and this ability to see change relative to the past. And we lost the ability to talk to the CEO on the golf course, we lost quite a lot of gravitas.
“And because we lost that we then lost quite a lot of money and we lost our ability to charge a premium, we started giving away our services for free. And then that meant that we then had to get rid of even more wise, expensive, people.
“It’s hard to see how we can reverse that, because I think the weird thing about a lack of wisdom is when you don’t know what you don’t know, you don’t know what you’re missing.”
At the age of 39 Goodwin, who is head of innovation for Zenith across North America, admits he “feels quite old” in many agency situations today.
He warns this lack of experience is having a fundamental impact on the way agencies now operate, right down to short-termism in thinking for brands.
“If most agencies were to get a brief tomorrow for a company launching a new type of coffee capsule, they’d be very quick to go, right, let’s do something with Alexa, or let’s find a way to give them out in the back of an Uber for free. They’d be very quick to jump on these contemporary things.
“And actually if you are building a new type of coffee you probably need some sort of 55-year-old that says, when I launched one when I was 30 it was about provenance, and it was about status of coffee, and it was about the ritual of the grind, or something like that.
“They would likely think of it in terms of a long mission about brand building, and would probably be way more correct than most people.”
Over the last 16 years Goodwin has built a reputation in the industry for original thinking and challenging the accepted norms in business, earning him keynote speaking slots and the epithet of the number one voice in marketing on LinkedIn.
For Goodwin agencies should be thinking about how they help clients to transform their businesses, and that does not mean just embracing the shiny new toy of the moment. That is something he describes as a “Pimp My Ride” approach to transformation.
“I think for me we’re always looking to the next big thing and we’re always doing so on the basis that it’s going to be 3D printing or augmented reality or virtual reality,” he explains.
“We’re so excited about the stuff that’s not quite here yet and we’re so keen to kind of signal to the rest of the world that we’re looking ahead and that we get it. I think we haven’t really got the basics right yet.”
So for a man obsessed with helping businesses transform for the modern world, how does Goodwin think agencies should be structuring themselves?
“I don’t know, is the short answer,” he admits wryly before continuing: “I think for me we always come to things knowing the answer to any question is that thing that we just happen to make. And I think that means that we don’t tend to give particularly holistic advice.
“I think it would be quite interesting to have an agency that wasn’t really in the business of advertising, Naked [Communications] tried it quite a long time ago, but it would have to be even broader than that model.”
Goodwin thinks such a model would enable the agency to get deeper into a client’s problems, and escape the need to create a purely advertising-based solution for them.
He gives this example: “A company might say to you, we’re an airline and people don’t like flying with us, what should we do? It’s a brief that’s more holistic.
“It’s then open to a lot more innovative ideas in response. For example why don’t you have an app where it tells you when the flight’s boarding but it’s really accurate. When you get on the plane they give you a free Why is there not this thing where on your birthday you get to bring your friend for free?
“These are not really ideas rooted in advertising or experience design, they’re just empathetic, nice ideas.”
But while Goodwin says that is the “sort of business I’d like to set up” he is also realistic about the chances of it succeeding: “It wouldn’t work very well because companies aren’t really set out to buy things like that. They’re set out to buy the suppliers that already exist.”
Tom Goodwin is a keynote speaker at the NextGen in Business conference series taking place in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne in May, to help businesses prepare for the multigenerational future. To see the line up and save $150 per ticket click here.