Agencies need to get over the idea they have a right to exist

Big agencies retain some advantages, but need to learn to adapt their employment and payment models.

I thought writing about the future would be easy. And, in one sense, it can be; just say a few sensible things about trends in the industry, chuck in a bit of blue-sky thinking around the latest hot topics such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality or drones, and job done.

That’s the beauty of futurology: who ever remembers what you said? But, right now, trying to be even vaguely practical about what the future is likely to hold for us all feels quite hard.

Why’s that? The consultants call it "Vuca": the fact that we now have to cope with extreme levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (you might have heard the term already). It's everywhere and I'm not sure I even need to give examples; you'll have plenty of your own.

But one of the problems with this topic is that we always tend to think of change from our own point in history and assume we are experiencing the greatest change. Would things have felt calm and ordered back at the turn of the 20th century, one of the most tumultuous on record? What's ever truly new? My mum was getting her groceries delivered in 1962.

Change is indeed a constant, as that somewhat portentous and overused cliché goes. But it is not so much that change is always with us but that the pace of change is increasing, is hard to cope with and the impact so great.

What's next for creativity

One of the many "laws" of the tech industry was coined by researcher and scientist Roy Amara, who said that we tend to "overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run". Those of us who were around for the original dotcom bubble might see the truth in that.

This illustrates one of the other problems with much future-gazing: that it tends to be technology-focused rather than user-focused. There are still a lot of very important "analogue" businesses out there. Technology might be impacting them, but much of the basics remain the same.

But, chancing my arm, what can I see in my crystal app 10 years hence? The agency model debate will no doubt continue and, as long as it is constructive, it can be helpful – and every industry and profession has a tendency to gaze at its collective navel. Agencies just need to get over the idea that they have a right to exist.

Many of the issues are to do with how we define and manage media and creativity. Digital will continue to advance, but there will be more scrutiny around its effectiveness and use of personal data.

Creativity will continue to be redefined and the problem will continue to be how you get paid for it. The "big idea" is just one element in the mix that clients require.

And big agencies aren’t doomed; in a world of scale and globalisation, they may even have some inherent advantages, not least in dealing with equally big media. But all agencies will need to adapt, for example with different employment and payment models.

Meet the cyborgs

And what about the humble consumer, assailed on every side by all this change and on whom much of our work is focused?

There are cleverer people than me to speculate about that, but it feels like we will continue to "shop" differently, increasingly valuing services and experiences. We’ll continue to be a bit selective and conflicted about things such as the environment – worried about plastic but happy to fly – and the trust we place in the businesses we deal with. We’ll be social through technology but maybe feel more isolated in reality and, perhaps not surprisingly, we’ll be more interested in our overall well-being as we and our society age.

It used to be said that basic human behaviour and motivations don't really change, and recent developments in behavioural economics have given us helpful new insights into what makes us tick.

But what could really be set to change is the whole concept of being human, as AI (see, I mentioned it) and genetic engineering continue to develop, making possible totally new kinds of "beings". The predictions are for a new "singularity", a sort of big bang where all human meaning and reference points in the world are fundamentally changed going forward.

It might be more than 10 years away, but it is coming and probably with a bigger impact than we can currently imagine. As the saying goes: we live in interesting times…

Chris Macleod is customer director at Transport for London and a member of Campaign’s Power 100

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