AAAN: Into the Sunrise or Twilight- A Speech by Jimi Awosika
A Keynote Address to the Annual General Meeting and Congress of the Advertising Agencies Association of Nigeria holding at the Orchid Hotel & Events Centre, Lagos on Friday 20th September, 2019.
Good morning dear colleagues.
Coming with the conviction that we should today be talking about thriving, not survival, I find the theme I have been asked to speak on at this Annual General Meeting and Congress rather ominous. I therefore imagine that we all came to this gathering with a sense of foreboding that indeed, there is an existential crisis in our practice.
I feel so because the stated theme of our discussion “The War Within: Solutions for Survival” is outrightly ironic and timid in its tone; if we contemplate that such a phrase “solutions for survival” is coming from us, people in the business of finding creative solutions to problems in business and society.
This irony if I may suggest,seriously demands that we task to the utmost, our intellectual and emotional capacities as we may ever have had to do, so that our conversations and the ensuing solutions can give us new verve to take the bold new world of limitless possibilities that are inherent in the death scare confronting our received “advertising agency” categorisation today.
Well, our name says it; we are the Association Of Advertising Agencies Of Nigeria!
I seriously ruminated on this and it got me to the point where I considered if it would be out of place, for the AAAN to change its name in order to be fit for the age.
I am persuaded that if we must retain our name, we must first of all introspectively appraise and assimilate our own existential meaning and communicate such to business and society, so that we can find our mojo in the midst of the complexities assaulting businesses in this age.
But before I elaborate, please let me share my musing in recent times, on the issue of the unprecedented complexities of the age and the dis-intermediating effect on businesses.
What is the age?
It is the Post Digital Age, which has framed an emergent digital economy, the result being incredible economic output arising from the influence of digital technology.
Like many players in business around the world, I have been more than a little amused by the spat between two globally recognised business titans, the one being the investing legend Warren Buffet and the other, the prolific technology entrepreneur, investor and engineer, Elon Musk.
Warren Buffet it is who has, in recent times popularised the term ‘economic moat’ a term which refers to a business’ barrier that serves to fence off disruptive entrants to the industry it plays in.
Just like a medieval castle’s ability to protect those inside the fortress and their riches from outsiders it is the ability of a business to maintain advantage over its competitors in order to protect its long-term market share and profits.
Considering the age in which Buffet operated and largely prospered, the just ended Industrial Age, where control of the supply chain largely guaranteed market dominance, there is merit in his thinking. And one would therefore be tempted to ask, AAAN, where is your moat and how do you continue to re-create it?
But on deeper reflection on the issues of the new epoch that is the Post Digital Age, one is better advised to appraise Elon Musk’s quip that a business moat is only nice in “a sort of vestigial way”. A critical element of his thinking is “if your only defense against invading armies is a moat, you will not last long. What matters is the pace of innovation. That is the fundamental determinant of competitiveness.”
In my view, this is flawless thinking!
And why is this so?
It is because the age frees and enables everybody and so to get ahead and stay ahead, you need continuous thinking, an adaptive mindset and non-stop innovation.
The object of the discussion of this Buffet vs Musk spat as a business lesson is that it posits the thinking of both of the business titans at different epochs.
Please observe two key points:
First, Warren Buffet is eighty eight years old. Aged forty four, Elon Musk is exactly half Buffet’s age, which means that we are experiencing mindsets framed by two markedly different epochs.
The second, a fallout of the progressing difference in what makes better economic value between both eras is that Buffet’s play has majorly been in the more familiar terrain of stocks in older industries than in technology, until recently in 2017, when he acquired stocks in Apple. Musk’s field of play is technology and even more so of the outlier, future-determining kind.
Musk’s head is in a world where incredible computational power is making it possible to actualise so many feats that were erstwhile improbable, to the point where ‘fiction’ now means nothing when written alongside the word ‘science’. That is why he can casually label as “vestigial”, the position of Buffet; the revered sage of investing who has been acknowledged as having such wisdom that he has been conferred with the status of an oracle.
“Vestigial”, as we know, means an insignificant remain of something that used to be greater.
So, sorry colleagues if we are thinking about fencing off predators so we can survive and not thinking of thriving by morphing into adaptive organisations that promote generative thinking for phenomenal and sustained innovations in the face of the volley of complex issues coming at businesses at velocities faster than Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, then there is no hope. For sooner than we think, some of us sitting here today may not be doing so at other iterations of this annual gathering.
While not deprecating the thinking of the older one, greater value today can be mined from the younger’s mindset- a mindset that all within the space of two decades, birthed such revolutionary and industry-altering businesses like the Tesla electric car, SpaceX a company with ambitions for man to live on other planets, PayPal (e-payments), Zip2 online city guides, SolarCity (solar power systems), Electric Jet etc.
That mind dictates that innovation is the key.
That mind is also blind to categories because it recognises that in an age where everybody is enabled by digital technology, your competitor can come from anywhere.
In essence therefore, industry category thinking is so yesterday and dangerous to any business that wants to thrive in this new age.
The core issue therefore is that the need for the day is about definition; whether you allow definitions of categories or industries to hold you to a fixed position, irrespective of whether the offerings of those categories or industries are declining in relevance.
It is also about meaning. And whether or not you are designed to deliver on that meaning?
So as a practice, who are we?
What do we mean to business and society?
How do the recipients of our value perceive it and now rate it?There is so much talk about the disruptive effects of digital technology but I should be quick to submit that what we really need to address is the mindset that is confined to restrictive definitions of what we mean or should mean to business and society, which to my mind is Propulsion.
This goes beyond customer or audience cohorts, categorisations of “millennials”, Gen Z (shorthand for Generation Z) etc; factors which affect every business everywhere and therefore, not peculiar to advertising.
So, the first step out of our self-inflicted constraint is adaptivity. And on this score, I posit that the effort must be intellectual, providing an objective guide as to what we will mean to business and society, how we will organise the practice, what new skills are required, what the output will be and the expected outcomes. This, is what will see us thriving instead of merely surviving.
his must start with a new theory that enunciates design-driven innovation as different from needs innovation and it is the only way to take advertising out of the constriction of tactics for enticing consumers and paying for space to promote products and services.
The foregoing Warren Buffet-Elon Musk anecdote I made, albeit a long one, makes an expanded definition of our value to business and society in this new age the core determinant of our continued existence going forward, so people can make sense of our relevance to their lives and businesses.
It is the reason that advertising needs to truly go human-centric and not market-centric, beyond the mantra of consumer- centricity that practitioners keep mouthing.
The core of this demand of human- centricity vs consumer-centricity is the imperative of addressing the soft issue of the spirituality quantity of the soul, which is the characterising distinction of the human, as opposed to all other creatures.
Appraise the issues growing around production and consumption today and going forward and you will see that it is all about humanity seeking to establish equilibrium with his being and creation.
So, I tell you without any fear of contradiction that there is a formula to win in our business today. Go human-centric and you will see exponential market demand.
We need to develop metrics for measuring this and innovate technology for measuring those metrics.
The Chief Marketing Officers and Chief Executive Officers are asking, ‘Adman, how do you help me out of the situation where new technologies and changing human needs are making my current offerings irrelevant, resulting in weakening demand, stagnant or dipping revenues, single digit margins and near non-existent net profits?’.
We have to give Clients the new marketing message as baked-in marketing, that is one that emphasises the marketing must be baked into the product content and character.
Note the issues around two products from the same company Innocent and Coke. While one is being celebrated, not that much can be said for the other….all on account of content and the perceived effect on the consumer.
We have to transform into advisors to our clients on everything about their business and how to they drive propulsion.
This is the way that they- and ourselves- would escape obsolescence, commoditisation and the ire of the empowered post digital age consumer.
The gain for advertising practice is that it will inevitably raise our businesses to the much talked about “upstream” premium, with the benefits of relevance, resonance, better margins, profits and sustainability not to talk about the reinforcing reputation benefits. It is the reason that I have come to the conclusion that it is a peculiar kind of innovation – design-driven innovation- that is the real answer.
This is innovation that entails the introduction of a radical new meaning to our reason for being and which thereby creates new value that will help the situation in which our practice now finds itself.
This is what I propose should be the substance of our conversation at this general meeting and congress.
If there is agreement on this, then the first need is the courage to question received definitions and delineations, that the challenges that businesses will progressively experience can only be solved by systemic thinking.
We have to continuously and consistently question the system itself, thereby having continuous redefinition.
Worn out thoughts and theories of advertising and its practice just do not cut it anymore; not for the relevance, effectiveness and impact of the advertising businesses and the Clients that we should be serving.
We have to get off the treadmill of existing advertising business fundamentals, structures and processes for any change that happens here, if at all, can only be incremental and is not sustainable because of the speed and scale of disruptive technology on one hand and the changing human mindsets, consumption and interaction patterns on the other.
Design-driven innovation is the reason for the ascendancy of design thinking today- a designerly approach to problem solving.
Why capacity for this is needed in our market
(or any market in the post digital age) is that it takes what is needed in the market context, merges it with what is economically viable and then what is feasible by way of the level of technological development in that environment.
It is this way that new value is created; at the confluence of new thinking, new technologies and new meaning.
This is how, for example, a bank you know has broken out to ideate an e-commerce shop, content creation, music streaming with more still coming.
This again, for an example is how Uber has expanded into the food delivery business, an epiphany that birthed Uber Eats, an offering that the company did not venture out to offer the market when it began as a ride hailing app.
If you truly engage in design- driven innovation, you need not fear competition because you are playing in an uncrowded space, a road less or not travelled.
Think through this, is a tattoo media? Or is it the person wearing it that is media?
If so, imagine what the tattoo of a brand message on a personality with millions in their sphere of influence will do for a brand.
This example is a simple but certainly not simplistic case for the need to explore solutions that are unusual to our legacy offerings but that are highly effective in the light of new consumer needs and cultures.
In the context of this example, we can see that media will always remain a need as a channel therefore our mind set should be “media is media, even though the medium can and will change”
It is those who are thinking this way that are eating our lunch today.
It is sad to see that our response is the recourse to the time-worn culture of entitlement in a very traditional industry mindset, where we give clients same old, same old; with the same high charges so we can cover our invested vestigial situations, forcing us to pass our inefficiencies as cost to a market that is already wary of our relevance.
We tend to think in terms of “I have the Client so he must bring the business to me”
We fail to realise that today, what makes you have a client is in what you do for that client that makes him relevant to take tomorrow and not yesterday.
We now have to think through from message to consumption and not just messaging, ensuring that the message idea is baked into the product in the first place and we design the consumer journey strategy that ensures we deliver at the cash register.
This is a higher order beyond the traditional agency relationships with clients where the agency comes in to deliver service only at the last mile, after the product has been made irrespective of whether it is relevant to its market and whether it makes the cash register ring time and time again.
Simply put, the new message is the product, making branding come to its true spirit of the concept of reputation reflex at the core of conversations, that is the memories and emotions that a product or service excites in a consumer that ensure they reward the brand with patronage and advocacy.
This implies that we must in addition to messaging, delivery, business transformation and mastery of the consumer journey now develop capabilities for product design, as communication must begin from the integrity of the product and the fidelity to its stated reason for being.
This is important as we should expect very blistering consumer activism, going forward and this will shake business to its roots. The fast growing ethical revolution is empowering consumers to leverage technology and we are beginning to witness a situation where people are now getting tired of communication that simply sprays perfume on a pig.
This will lead to clamour for more regulation and consumers will win.
This revolution is now percolating boardrooms and it is gaining acceptance that communications practice that has inherent in it, capabilities for business transformation, product design and engaging consumer experiences are the most crucial needs of clients today.
The trend will present very far reaching implications for business models as Client and Agency will need to enter into deeper engagements.
This design-driven innovation imperative, is also informed by the growing demand by consumers for authenticity which can only be achieved by brands helping consumers build relationships with the culture they participate in.
So, the understanding and interpretation of culture is one of the biggest contributions required of the Agency today.
That is, we have to become students and interpreters of culture.
This is essentially about spiritual and cultural intelligence and is the reason that more and more, the communication that is getting celebrated are those that are culture and values based.
This is extremely difficult to produce in just only mere copy and graphics. It is calls for a deeper collaboration between messenger and designer, between the hardware of the product and the software of the appeal of the brand and this is one of the driving motivations behind the growing trend of in-housing of legacy advertising capabilities by clients today.
The implication of all of this is that as we are moving from the received definition of creativity more into the new definition which is more about solutioning for brands to command better relevance, better pricing and margins.
It is therefore time for us to stop our narcissism of defining what we practitioners, and not the market calls creativity.
We also now have to tune into the larger context of the economics of the times in which we live by understanding what makes higher economic value than any other factor today.
I need to explain this so we understand how society has travelled.
Man evolved through the agrarian revolution where commodities were the valued economic offering of the day.
Then came the industrial revolution which made it possible to manufacture commodities into goods, which then resulted in the surplus of goods, thereby necessitating distinction on the basis of value-added and the service revolution was born.
To add distinction to services, some more value had to added, which led to the staging of the delivery of services in order to create an experience, hence the experience economy.
But the era of transformations as an economic offering where value is more conferred and appreciated when the buyer herself is changed by the product at the high level of the soul has now come. Sentiments, especially those of spirituality and provenance have come to the fore as the leading sources and motivators that savvy businesses tap into, to create value for the consumer, as this is the weapons of the new consumer.
The Meaning Revolution is therefore in full swing, and at the fore of brand thinking.
Note that each of these levels of economic offering sits at a higher order that the preceding one, in the sense that each impacts the consumer in different ways that stimulate her to consider the value that the offering brings to how she makes sense of the world.
In essence man has moved from commodities that are fungible, to goods that are tangible, to services that are intangible, to experiences that are memorable and transformations that are effectual, in that they effect the very essence of consumers.
While commodities, goods, services and experiences impact the physical senses, transformations affect the soul.
Today, even the demand for transformations is being elevated to eternalities- values that have appeal to spirituality as man is striving to glorify some cause through the purchase and consumption choices he makes.
The basis on which he does this is his appraisal of the effects that the composition, process and content of those choices make on the collective good of people and on their physical world.
Creative thinking and enterprise will do well to tap into this spirit of the times, if our output is to resonate as soundly as possible with a market that has a population of 63% below the age of 28 years and a median age of 18.
We can now see how the problem of legacy advertising practice which comes into the conversation at the last mile in the form of an ad is a stage that is so late that its relevance is diminished and our clients are becoming weary.
We need to stretch our minds, to lead this age for our market no matter how far-fetched new thinking may seem because I see that we currently underestimate the reality of the globally aware consumer who is being shaped by the globally democratised media. Just observe young people dressing in sneakers with buba and sokotos and agbadas and you will see the effect of globalisation on proceeding consumer culture.
So, what do I suggest as the key take out of my keynote?
It is that we must adapt to build the capability to prophesise adopt the mindset that modulates the faculties to be tuned for prescience.
Ask, what the issues framing proceeding thinking are.
It is the mindset and not technology. The technology is available to you as it is to the predator that is eating your lunch. It will help for practitioners to develop the capacity for scenario planning as they navigate the rapids as the world goes full speed along.
Speed is also important as it calls for capabilities that facilitate people to be predictive in thinking because the biggest mistake that practitioners can make while thinking about these issues is that “it can’t happen here”.
This is what really makes me nervous about the relevance of our offerings and by extension, our practice today.
I see no need to mention specific technologies in this keynote because we all know that before we single one out for distinction, it will have been replaced by another technology that does the job even faster, better and cheaper.
Remember Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel who said that an expert is only expert at what happened yesterday. This underscores the need for a mindset for fast, continuous and humble learning and adaptability.
This is why the current buzz of “the holy trinity”, so termed to underscore the importance of first-party data, content and programmatic will shift in conservations to other issues coming along.
The age-old alchemy of tastes, timing and technology will guarantee that those who adapt it will thrive. So here, we are talking of better margins and better overall business performance from new forms, not just survival for the day.
The meaning that man makes of his life, relative to whatever spirit is prevailing at the time is what holds the key to a business or industry thriving.
Technology is only an enabler to deliver that meaning.
We can see that we are in very unfamiliar territory, almost akin to what happens to man when thrown out of his depth in times of anomie, as norms and values of advertising have changed drastically and are mostly no longer valid.
By way of winding up, the question that this association should ask itself and answer therefore is “is the knowledge reposed in the mainstream of the practice relevant to make the practice thrive- or even grow today?”
If no, then what are we doing about it?
The reason people commit suicide in times of anomie is because they lose the capacity to cope and therefore see no reason for continuous existence in a perplexing order.
We can extrapolate this to businesses.
My own observation is that the skills and capacities especially that of critical thinking, required to deliver on the new order have yet to be evolved within our industry.
The AAAN must take the production and delivery of relevant branded learning for this purpose seriously, if we are to justify the reason for the existence of the association, because no matter our posturing, as long as our legacy practice still stays frozen at a simplistic mindset, its relevance will only keep diminishing.
One cannot repeat this enough.
The new talent required for the new age advertising practice is actually a different animal altogether. And yes, they exist.
Only that you have to know what to look for. And please don’t look in the familiar places.
Understand and deploy generational cues. You actually need talent with transcendent disposition who in addition to being tech-comfortable, understands how to interpret soul into marketing and communications solutions.
We have to adapt a corporate anthropology mechanism and train for curiosity. This should be the task for the Secretariat and the leadership of the Association to drive.
The Marketing Communications business does not stand a chance of survival if the practice does not carve out a distinctive offering that it can promote as a unique space that it holds for the profitability and overall viability of businesses.
I should also note that we have yet to appreciate and embrace the concept of the extended corporation and the demand for collaboration with entities, people or corporate, with evolved competencies and specialisations that is required to raise our game. No one business, in its traditional definition can deliver on the complex needs of clients and businesses today.
The outcome of this aggregation will involve new structures, new ways of working, new remuneration models and will challenge the mentality of the so-called of “agency of record”.
The resulting issues from this position I suggest, should constitute a good part of conversations at the deliberations that are about to start after this keynote.
So, my suggestion at the outset of this keynote which I deliberately did not expand on, i.e. that we change our name is actually a tactic to jolt us to think really smart and hard about what we tell businesses and society that we bring to the table and it is in this regard that I concede that a rose by whatever name will smell as sweet.
Facebook for example, has refused to define itself as a media company, despite the fact that everyone sees that the business is making huge revenues from advertising and media.
It defines itself as an online social media and social networking service company.
Its revenues and profits tell us that it is not struggling for survival. It is thriving profusely, at least for now.
Wisdom to be derived from this therefore is that we must stop and close our eyes to dream and open our eyes to see opportunities and define ourselves by what we see.
We now need to define the future of our industry”, not let the industry define us.
So again I ask, who are we?
If it is “advertising practitioners”, can we lead the market to understand the expansive space of advertising and take the fight to dominate the next space x, where x is anything we define as advertising?
We surely remember that we spoke about the disparate innovations of Elon Musk earlier on.
Is it a coincidence that the fearless, literally out-of-this-world business founded by Elon Musk, with the goal of reducing space transportation costs to enable the colonization of Mars is named SpaceX…. X being any value you want to give to it.
Are there strictures presenting as structures, models and laws that we need to destroy in order to win in this war?Are there allies and alliances that we have to cultivate and engage?
In conclusion, let me reiterate the three key issues that will help us move towards this brave new world of advertising excellence.
First, we must become solutioning experts whose value offering starts from product conceptualization with the client to the delivery of the physical product to the consumer. We cannot continue to be a small part of the process. We must become an integral part of the entire value chain that delivers value to our clients’ customers. We need to move upstream and always think business propulsion first.
Second, we must become more human-centric rather than consumer-centric. We must learn to separate people from their consumer habits and view them as cultural and spiritual beings who only consume to meet specific needs. Our job is not just to sell to them. It is to understand them conceptually so that we can help meet their needs before they even know that those needs exist.
Finally, we must create a new design-driven innovation model that eschews our dated ways of thinking about creativity while embracing the realities of a new technology-driven world. We must hire new people, develop new processes, and create new models that respond to the challenges of today while transforming our agencies and our clients’ businesses.
I sincerely hope that, next year, we will not be here talking about the same issues, with a far diminished membership and audience.
Let the discussions begin, so we can leave here with confidence that “No we won’t”.
I thank you for listening.