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Big data can't solve every challenge

No wonder the tech giants want to buy creative agencies - the very best independent shops are capable of things that big data can never crack

This is possibly our darkest collection of essays since we launched this publication ten years ago. 

The authors portray an agency sector facing many challenges: new technology, big data, rapid change and no place to hide. Full of possibilities, but rife with uncertainty. Marketers, struggling to learn radically different skills while reducing headcount, will recognise this picture too. Nicolás Pimentel draws a parallel with the surviving humans in The 100 – safe in their spaceship, but with only three months until their oxygen runs out. 

For sure, you will find optimism too, and determination to succeed. Independent agencies will always be more agile and adaptable than large holding companies. But agility is, at best, a tactical advantage. Our industry needs a strategy. And maybe, in today’s terminology, a purpose. What, and how?

 Check out the latest US agency rankings. The biggest traditional agency, BBDO, now only clocks in at number six. The top four slots go to Epsilon, Deloitte Digital, IBM and Acxiom. 

Two agencies that might have been featured in these pages – Resource/Ammirati in Ohio and Heat in San Francisco – were recently swallowed up. Not by WPP or Omnicom – but by IBM and Deloitte. These new players are hungry for growth.

But is acquisition the answer? If you put a creative genius in a grey suit, how long do they remain a creative genius? 

An agency needs to be like the oxpecker bird on the back of the hippopotamus. A symbiotic collaborator rather than snack food. 

This might work surprisingly well. Independent agencies have a lot of values in common with IBM and Deloitte. Curiosity. A mindset to challenge "business as usual". Experimentation. A willingness to learn, to share, to improve the planet.

But here’s the real question: what do agencies bring to the party that IBM and Deloitte do not already have? 

"Creativity" is too easy an answer. I prefer Eunice Tan’s word, "empathy". All the big data in the world has not yet cracked that challenge. Creative agencies do it every day.

So after you’ve snacked your way through the entire boxset of The 100, spend two hours with the amazing indie movie Ex Machina. You know, the one where Domhnall Gleeson falls in love with Alicia Vikander, the beautiful android.  And, maybe, she will fall in love with him. Or maybe not.

This is empathy. 

Could it come true one day? Perhaps. But, for now, we can be sure: Deep Blue did not write that screenplay.

Julian Boulding is the president of thenetworkone

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