Every time something goes viral—such as Old Spice’s “man your man could smell like” campaign—other marketers grow envious, seeing millions of “free impressions.” But the work that goes into digital campaigns is far from free. It’s downright laborious, in fact. Unlike a finished ad that is simply submitted for airing on TV, the Internet is a flexible publishing platform. Clients expect to be able to tweak campaigns on the fly to respond to engagement data and viewer responses.
For all the digital work they do, the young creatives are not necessarily behind the push to online. Before a brief ever lands at an agency, media buyers often figure out the spending breakdown on a campaign, with a certain number of dollars allotted to a Facebook campaign, for example. Many of the young talents at agencies bemoan the fact that they don’t have the opportunity to work with clients from scratch, to figure out the best media mix. Agencies have come to dread marketing executives who ask them to “make us a viral video,” thinking that randomized mass popularity is simple to concoct. The industry spent years convincing clients that digital was worth paying attention to. Now clients barely ask for anything else.
“Hashtags on everything,” says Matt Michels of TBWA Toronto disdainfully. “Has anyone ever clicked on a Facebook ad? Not that I know of. And yet they’re going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on Facebook ads. No one here is telling them to do that.”
“There is that pressure to do what’s new—even when it isn’t the best way,” adds John St.’s Hannah Smit. “This agency is good at saying, ‘Don’t use a hashtag if it doesn’t make sense. Don’t use a QR code just because you can.’ ”
Still, agencies have a powerful incentive to focus on all things digital and social. In 2007, global spending on digital advertising was $48.2 billion (U.S.), or about 10% of overall ad spending. By last year, the share was one-fifth, by media buyer GroupM’s reckoning. And it’s continuing to grow. In Canada, advertisers are expected to spend just over $3 billion on digital this year, up 7% from last year, which itself was a 10% jump from 2011.
Meanwhile, print-media ad revenues are dropping. While television still commands the lion’s share of spending, its growth has stagnated and digital is catching up. The balance of power is shifting.
THE MARCH OF TIME
Dave Thornhill started out in advertising late, in his early 30s. And he had a liability: greying hair. He thought the “Just for Men” commercials were mock-worthy. But as he set out to land internships, he dyed his hair to help his chances.
After all, he was warned that he was demographically wrong for the ad business. “I was being told, ‘You’re crazy, as soon as you turn 30, you’re kicked to the curb.” Now 37, he scoffs at the ominous warnings he received at Humber College about how age can make you irrelevant. Still, there is no doubt that the career path in this industry is truncated—Steve Persico at Leo Burnett sees a parallel to the life cycle of an athlete.
When youth is a commodity, hipness can get competitive. When he worked at Rethink in Vancouver, Thornhill tells me, there was a secret folder on the computer server that only a few select people knew about. This little cabal would all drop tracks into the folder—a friendly competition to find the next Feist.
Chuck Porter, chairman of the legendary agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, says young hires have always kept agencies fresh. “They don’t come with any preconceived notions,” he says. “The leadership of the agency are mostly people in their 40s. They consume and think about media in a different way than people in their early 20s. It’s not like someone can’t project themselves [into a younger point of view]. But it’s great to have kids around. They’re kind of a pain in the ass, but they’re smart and good.”
In the late ’90s, David Droga famously made creative director at the age of 22 in Australia, was hired away by Saatchi & Saatchi, and was key to the agency’s transformation; he was executive creative director at the head office in London by 29.
The youth premium is reflected in the diminishing numbers of people who remain in the industry into their late 40s and 50s. Some—like the founders of John St., Taxi, Rethink and Zulu Alpha Kilo—ascend through the ranks and then start their own shops. Some go on to sell those agencies to multinational companies. Paul Lavoie did that, building up Taxi into Canada’s hottest agency and then selling to U.K.-based WPP. Earlier this year, John St. was also absorbed into the WPP fold.