Published onDecember 10, 2018

Livin' la vida VUCA: How the advertising industry can find its rhythm.

For the past several years, the military acronym VUCA – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous – has been a handy shorthand in business leadership circles to describe angst about how the world is changing. Every time I see it, I can’t help but hear Ricky Martin’s 1999 hit “Livin La Vida Loca” – a swishy dance number about a complicated woman who will make you live “the crazy life”. Ricky croons, “She takes away your pain. Like a bullet to the brain.”

The lyrics feel apt; in business (and in life) we are all ‘living la vida VUCA’. In my work, nowhere is this more dramatically obsessed about than in the advertising industry. Every day a new think piece appears diagnosing where agencies went wrong. Certain firebrand personalities in the business will tell you that agencies’ peril is come-uppance for too many years of hubris, lack of diversity, and patriarchy. The other blogging cognoscenti will declare advertising fell victim to procurement, social media, and CMO’s prioritizing ad tech over ideas.

What we have is an entire industry feeling a bit wobbly or on its heels, mildly resentful of being beholden to the tech giants. On this matter, I agree with Yuval Noah Harari in his recent New York Times feature, “it’s much worse to be irrelevant than exploited”. So much pundit patter in the advertising industry makes all this VUCA even more exhausting.

The industry press stating the obvious. Like Ad Age Next breathlessly reporting that a theme of their recent New York conference was “the need for brands to build human connections, despite all of the technology in our lives”. You don’t say? Not helpful.

Consultants pronouncing death of advertising. So much prognostication, so much dystopia. So many Don Draper references. C’mon, we have an ad supported internet. Again, not helpful.

The ad blogger defensive. After Cannes Lions last year, agency CEOs and CCOs took umbrage to the “death of” conversation and doubled down on the “advertising still matters, look at this amazing creative and the metal it wins!” rebuttal. Of course, compelling words and pictures appearing on surfaces still play an influential role in business and in culture. This response is stubborn and beside the point. Still, not helpful.

It’s time to stop diagnosing and criticizing. It’s time to start daring and doing. The very infrastructure that media and advertising rests upon is shifting.

As the tech mogul and enfant terrible Chamath Palihapitiya said at a conference I attended, “trying to make hard work easy limits you to base level thinking. We now need to spend time on hard things…to make things the world needs.” Amen, brother. It’s time to start building the change we want to see in the industry and in the world.

 It’s time for marketers and their agencies to become systems thinkers.

After all, this is the CEO’s expectation of the C-Suite – to anticipate and orchestrate the ripple effects of the interconnectivity that brands and business have to our culture. But here’s the thing – we are thinking too narrowly about what constitutes a “brand decision”. As Mark Wilson of Fast Company so deftly put it back in 2016, “the brand is undergoing a paradigm shift. It’s no longer a mark. It’s not even a voice. It’s an intelligent entity, a personality, an algorithm capable of learning”. When you think of  what it means to be a brand in the digital enterprise, you realize that brand decisions now occur at computation levels and in unexpected places.

It’s a brand decision when a financial services Chief Product Officer has to consider whether the default in the UX design is ethical. It’s a brand decision when a retail CIO purchases customer service automation software that instructs reps how to respond to customers. It’s a brand decision when a hospitality CHRO uses biased machine learning to scan resumes for hotel personnel. It’s a brand decision when an airline CFO uses an algorithm to determine what food to offer in-flight.  Or as Seth Godin recently mused, “Is there a marketing person leading the IT team? Because the IT team is interacting with your customers. And they call them ‘users’.”  

When you start to think of brands behaving in fluid, ambient, and invisible ways, one begins to truly internalize just how much the CMO role is changing. In a recent Forbes piece, contributor Avi Dan speaks to the new growth accountabilities of the CMO and the void that has been created in the traditional agency/CMO relationship: “While in-house agencies and consultancies are on the rise, the former lack agency-grade talent and the latter lack creative or media capabilities for marketing campaigns.” He urges agencies to put the client back at the center. I completely agree – agencies should be shift shaping to help the CMO be a systems thinker and to get funding for this critical, anticipatory thinking.

We must address the interdependence of every discipline in the organization – brands don’t live singularly in a marketing silo. More so, we must address the interconnectedness that advertisers have to larger social systems beyond economics, and extending to politics, ethics, environment, policy, and culture. When you recall that a phone store became a voting booth, that a pizza company is fixing potholes, and a media brand is suspected of actually breaking democracy, this imperative to become systems thinkers gets easier to wrap your head around.

It’s no longer enough to simply be aware of your client’s business, you must have a discipline to know the whole of its place in the world.

But in order to do this, agencies must augment their capabilities with the type of talent that is hardwired for systems thinking: anthropologists and ethnographers.

Marketing has never been in a faithful relationship with anthropology and ethnography. There was a hot minute in the early 00’s when having an anthropologist in the network was a sort of intellectual upstream luxury item. They’ve been a nice to have, not a need to have. Their contribution wasn’t expected to be billable (like strategists and planners were). Back then, marketing execution only moved at Mach 1 and “digital” meant banner ads and AdWords. But once ad tech exploded, the agency gaze whiplashed to capture the new money in messaging distribution, iteration, and speed. Social science theories and their methods for understanding human relationships to the world were deemed irrelevant in comparison to all the delicious new so-called “behavioral data” pouring in from ad networks and social media. And, the powerful method of ethnography got reduced to “we spent a couple of hours with customers”.

 Anthropologists and ethnographers, by training, are systems thinkers.

They resist easy reduction of complexity (like, say, an MBA might be prone to do). They are as interested in differences as they are patterns. They are more interested in beliefs and cultural codes than simply questioning “what happened”. They are more interested in “what does it mean” than “how do we replicate it”.  Anthropologists and ethnographers frame situations in ways that consider multiple mental models and draw upon deep human history, social theory, and cultural knowledge to see relationships to systems.

So here we are, within the span of just a decade, we find ourselves confounded by so much information and so little meaning. So much predictive modeling and so little gut instinct. So much measurement and so little organic growth. So much hand wringing and so little will to invite other kinds of thinking to help.

It is my opinion that a cornerstone of consumerism is, and always has been, this: if you get the people wrong, you get the market wrong. It’s time to start building the world and the companies that any of us want to spend our lives in. Not to mention, the companies where young talent can rightfully believe they may have impact on the world. In order to do this, agencies must:

-Have the courage (and humility) to look outside the existing agency structure for bridge builders who can integrate applied anthropology and systems thinking into agency leadership. It will also take courage to tell stakeholders we might also need to "move slow and fix things". 

-Stop thinking of consumer insights as something limited to marketing communications and begin thinking of human insights as anticipatory sensemaking for business strategy

-Help CMOs get funding for applied anthropology and ethnographic research projects because brand decisions are systemic -- and systems are interdependent. 

-Change how we reward behavior in organizations. If short term thinking and nonstop optimization are the primary behaviors that get someone a raise, then there is no way to expect that person to put energy toward the necessary curiosity and critical thinking.  

Agencies have the business acumen and creativity to navigate the marketplace but are short-circuiting the deep thinking around understanding all the humans in the business equation. Anthropologists have social science tools and temperament to codify how humans relate to the world but have little experience commercializing their value. In my imaginary pop hit “Living La Vida VUCA”, advertising agencies reach out to seasoned ethnographic thinkers to bring the pieces together and put the rhythm to the beat. Want to dance?

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