Digital Marksman Takes Aim At Traditional Agencies, Hits His Target

Adaptive Path president Peter Merholz loaded his blog canon this week and put “ad agencies” in his cross hairs.

Ad agencies, in particular, are soulless holes, the precepts of whose business runs wholly contrary to good user experience practice.
While I would like to think advertising and marketing agencies can evolve their practices to appropriately engage in user experience problems, I believe that the industry’s DNA simply cannot support such mutations. I’ve witnessed 15 years of agencies flailing (and failing) in delivering good user experiences, so there’s no reason to expect them to change.

And that’s the nicest part of his argument.
Justin Spohn, a partner at Portland’s Fight doesn’t like it.

What could have been a meaningful outsiders observation on the state of advertising instead resorted to the type of hack-ish, hyperbolic rhetoric he’s ostensibly fighting against. And this is the real failing of the post, because the industry is sick. The culture is dysfunctional, and it does need to change. But the thing is, there are so many of us out there trying every single day to make that change. People who believe that there is a way help our clients put their products into the marketplace in different, helpful, and meaningful ways. People who believe in not adding to the cultural pollution that affects so much of marketing, but instead want to make the very products and services Peter is now claiming we cannot. In doing so, he’s just added another front to our war: myopic advertising d-bags on one side, and now myopic high-horse design firms on the other.

Merholz’s argument does not offend me like it does Spohn. I think he’s correct when he describes how some extremely privileged executives in well-heeled, old school ad agencies see the world. Only the wisest among them can see any reason to adapt to the rise of digital culture. The rest are content to go on making TV spots for what must seem to them like forever.
At the same time, I appreciate Spohn saying that there are many people pursuing purpose-driven marketing, or marketing with meaning. It’s the page I’m on. So, in part this is an argument lost in semantics. My firm and Spohn’s have next to nothing in common with the big agencies that Merholz’s is addressing in his post.
The thing that strikes me as important here is that Merholz feels confident enough in his position that he’s willing to strike. It’s a given that this isn’t just an argument, but also a chess move. Adaptive Path has to compete for business against traditional ad agencies. Adaptive Path also needs to work with a client’s other agency partners. This type of biting criticism is one way to distinguish yourself and your agency, for better or worse.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.