Can experimental theatre, ready meals and data processing save the advertising industry?

Advertising is about to experience the same rule-changing devastation that is sweeping across other areas of the economy.

Deep restructuring will rumble through all media, leaving the advertising sector smaller by maybe a quarter and operating under radically altered structures.

Ad agencies are attempting to portray themselves as well-prepared for a future where their traditional business – creating 30 second TV ads – is a shadow of its former self. Brand owners will switch budgets out of TV into alternative media such as digital and live experiences.

Looking at those creative shops recently selected for “Agency of the Year” titles, one wonders how well prepared they are for the shocks which are about to shake their foundations.

In 2008, no agency has towered above its rivals either in new business or creating outstanding ads. But let that not detract from the plaudits heaped upon WCRS, Mother and Beattie McGuinness Bungay, each named Advertising Agency of the Year by three separate industry magazines.

Each in its own way has created effective strategies for clients and produced powerful ad campaigns that have boosted brands.

However, the agencies have all made some big promises for the future. Their claims to be ready for a world where TV ads lose their pre-eminence as a marketing tool to be replaced by a more holistic approach using different media need to be closely examined.

Some doubt that the above-mentioned agencies can seriously claim to have done much beyond their core skills of creating brilliant television ads.

WCRS has boasted of its status as part of Engine, a group of specialist marketing services agencies covering everything from digital to brand consultancy. Yet Marketing Week did not award Agency of the Year to Engine, but to WCRS. The holistic approach still needs to gain credibility.

Meanwhile, Mother has this year produced the Shane Meadows-directed film Somers Town, funded by and promoting Eurostar. Interesting project. Likewise, it helped produce and create the Edinburgh fringe comedy show Pot Noodle the Musical, paid for by Unilever. And the agency set up its own “experiential” agency. But compared to the storming insouciance of the agency’s “Here come the girls” ads for Boots, these escapades seem to be mere drops in the ocean.

And what of BMB, set up in 2005 with the promise to be “an awful lot more” than a traditional ad agency? “Why are we so fixated on TV and press?” wondered creative chief Trevor Beattie at the time. Yet three years on and it transpires that the agency’s main contribution to clients’ well-being is through TV ads. Yes it created (or “borrowed”) the iPint mobile phone gimmick. It designed the inside of a jet and set up a sponsorship division. But its greatest work is still seen on TV screens.

Meanwhile a previous agency of the year, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, has used its Zag brand creation division to create products such as vegetable ready meal “Pick Me” and a personal alarm called “Illa Dusk”. Again, such developments give the impression of change. In reality marketing directors go to these top agencies to make big TV ad campaigns, not to develop new products.

In truth, many marketing directors are of a generation that still remembers typewriters and milk carts. But when these executives, now in their early forties, are replaced by a younger generation in five years time, perhaps the move away from traditional television ads will really take off.

There’s no doubt the aforementioned agencies have done some preparatory work for this historic handover. To be fair, we will not know how suited they are for the future until it actually arrives. But as we head into the next decade, the question is whether advertising agencies can avoid going the way of other industrial remnants of the 20th century, such as car manufacturers, newspapers and tobacco companies.

They’ll need more than experimental theatre, ready meals (a sector where sales have fallen 40% over the past year, reports Asda) and a borrowed mobile download to save them. Time will tell whether the integrated approach, new product development or a few crafty gimmicks will emerge as the winning formula.

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