Guest Post: Curiosity Is Fuel, Light Some Fires

This article is written by Peter Levitan, a Baby Boomer with a new book due this fall about Baby Boomers offing themselves before they go broke. Levitan has had time to think about such morbidly hilarious concepts since selling Citrus, his Bend, Oregon-based agency to Portland’s HMH.

About five years ago, I was at a New York advertising agency social event and walked around the room asking agency executives if they had ever placed an ad on Google AdWords. I mean, did they actually try to do this themselves. The overwhelming answer was no. OK, it was actually zero. I was dumbfounded. Google AdWords is not only a billion dollar business that reinvented advertising it’s one of the poster boys for advertising disintermediation. I mean, Google’s $40 billion in revenues had to come from somewhere in the advertising food chain. Don’t you think that advertising leaders would have the curiosity to at least go online to try this DIY ad tool? I thought so. I was wrong.

Let’s move to this year. A few times a year I sit in on Portland’s monthly standing room only Mobile Portland event. This mobile industry event usually has three speakers from our vibrant mobile development community. I find the discussions enlightening and a critical educational experience. Recently, I saw a presentation by the founders of Small Society, a mobile app company that was recently purchased by Wal-Mart’s WalmartLabs to be its in-house mobile development lead. Every time I attend, I look around the room to see if any of my advertising industry cohorts are in the room and usually conclude that except for a couple of digital marketing people, I am virtually alone as a representative from the world of traditional advertising. You would think that other advertising people would attend this hot event since mobile is, to put it mildly, top of our clients’ minds. You’d think so. But no.

Last week, I attended Portland’s PIE Demo Day that’s a showcase for six start-ups. PIE is a leading high tech start-up incubator that is supported by Wieden + Kennedy. This is a great example of an agency that supports digital startups and is smart enough to recognize that being closely associated with the startup community is a savvy business decision for its brand, employees and clients. The three-hour event was enlightening and stimulating for any one who wants to create and build new products or services. But, you guessed it. I looked around the room for ad people. Zilch.

What’s up with this? Are advertising people too busy to try AdWords or visit local marketing and digital events? Where is the curiosity? Could it be that today’s advertising people are just intellectually lazy?

Lazy is a very tough word and I’m sorry for even mentioning it, but lets think this through. I can think of quite a few areas where we have exhibited a lackadaisical approach to our industry. We all know that despite our branding expertise, there are probably only five or so core agency brand positions in use today; that most ad agency websites can be swapped with their competitor’s, without anyone noticing or caring. Most agencies missed the digital, mobile and social trends until clients started demanding these services. I am not sure why many agencies have low energy. However, I think that the current state of our industry with its reduced revenues, skittish CMOs, the rise of procurement departments and constant change can be emotionally debilitating for many of us.

That said, successful agency leaders must find a way to brush complacency aside because we are, without question, in the business of leading and stimulating our clients. Clients have always looked to us to be at the forefront of all new marketing trends, and we are expected to deliver big ideas. These big ideas must be driven by intellectual curiosity and the pursuit and love of innovation. There is an intellectual curve and agency leaders need to get ahead of it to stay relevant and valuable and win new accounts.

My advice, take the time to play with the new Apps, and explore the latest tools being talked up on TechCrunch. And get out of the office. Let the world be your teacher. Immerse.

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About Peter Levitan

Peter worked at Saatchi & Saatchi for 16 years. He was CEO and founder of Advance Publication’s New Jersey Online. Most recently he was CEO of the Portland ad agency Citrus which he sold in 2011. Peter also recently wrote Boomercide: From Woodstock To Suicide about Boomers “offing themselves” before they go broke.

  • http://twitter.com/andrew_goodman Andrew Goodman

    Interesting post. I know my clients and my colleagues a lot better than I feel I know “agencies” in general, but recently when I forced myself to sit down and study this subject, it hit me that agencies over their history have actually been reactive and conservative (catching up to trends, contrary to their trendy image). Clients hire them to shake things up, but both client schizophrenia and the business models of agencies (don’t build capacity ahead of demand, wait for contract then “staff up” etc.) conspire to make agencies “fake avant garde” (helps to get clients) while in practice being conservative organizations. It’s possible that individuals in the industry can be ahead and it’s also possible for very large conglomerates to innovate more, but most average agencies will be (inherently) risk-averse, IMO. The piece I wrote on it recently is called The Agency Mosaic – Follow the Shifting Tiles. http://www.acquisio.com/features/the-agency-mosaic-following-the-shifting-tiles-part-i/