We used to resemble Old Masters, slightly. We worked in set formats, our subject matter was predictable and so was our modus operandi. Where the Old Masters had portraits and still lifes, we had 48 sheets and 40 second TV spots. Where they had aristocracy and bowls of fruit, we had hired celebrity and product demonstration. Where they were studio-based, we were Soho-based.
As new technologies came along, the Old Masters gave way to new styles and new genres until, with the advent of photography, the whole purpose of the visual arts was thrown into uncertainty. One response was Impressionism. This school of, largely, French painters decided that they would tear up the rule book. They no longer aimed to capture the visual reality of a scene, they sought to capture the impression that the scene evoked.
As a direct result, the scenes they chose had to change. They had to be captured on the spot, spontaneously, often out of doors. Their method changed too. There were few, if any, preliminary sketches. Things were more improvised and immediate.
Technique evolved around the capturing of light rather than the delineation of an object. It was all very new.
The parallels with our business are plentiful. We too are responding to a game-changing technology. We too are seeing the upheaval of format, method and subject. We too are beginning to recognise that the creation of a brand in the eye of a beholder is better seen as a composite of many little daubs than one overarching schema.
It has probably been thus for longer than we care to admit. But at least we are now facing up to the new reality. We now all talk collaboration and, if pressed, horizontality. We espouse integration and, if pressed, cross-pollination. We talk about the importance of media neutrality and the rise of omnichannel.
Too often co-creation can end up as no-creation
The trouble is that, while we may be there in the spirit of the law, fewer of us are there in the letter. I hear of pitches where the supposedly integrated team mistake each other for the client, for the simple reason that they have never met before. And this is on the day of the pitch.
I hear stories of creative directors from one agency being asked to work with planners from another with a freelance account director shipped in from HQ to make up the numbers. What could possibly go wrong? Everything, obviously. Too often omnichannel works in theory, but becomes omnishambles in practice. Too often co-creation can end up as no-creation.
But we have to plough on towards an often distant, elusive destination. As media continues to fragment and splinter, there is only one North Star left for us to follow. We must work towards a point of utter singularity, with absolute cohesion and clarity. This is the new impressionism. Every daub and micro-interaction that our brand has, on a website, search engine, behind José Mourinho's shoulder on a sponsorship board must create a unified "brand impression". This is the new artistry.
We are no longer plying our trade in the secluded calm of our studios. We now have to be in amongst it at the point of customer contact; creating events, designing experiences, enlisting customers in content production, transforming the brands we work for from advertisers to media owners and broadcasters. This all requires new skills, new aptitudes, new capabilities.
More scarily, it also involves new competition. There was a time when the classic pitch short list for VCCP would be us alongside the likes of Mother, CHI, AMV, Grey, JWT and, if we’d been tremendously well behaved, Adam & Eve. We still come up against these hardy perennials, of course.
But now we are just as likely to come up against Accenture, RGA, Wavemaker, AKQA, WeAreSocial et al. Two of the last big pitches I was involved in didn't include any competitors from adland. It's a sign of things to come.
Adland's back to school present for January should be a whole new canvass, a whole new set of paint brushes and a whole new way of seeing the world. The success stories of 2018 will be those who have both the right tools in their satchels and the experimental attitude required to join the new school of brand impressionism. Which reminds me of a Christmas cracker joke; the police arrested an art thief, he told them that he couldn't Renoir because he didn't have any Monet to buy Degas to make his Van Gogh.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all.
Charles Vallance is the founder and chairman of VCCP