“Stop looking for advertising-sized holes to fill, but find real meaty problems to solve.”


What a shot to take in a room full of Canada’s top advertising agency leaders and marketing clients. But then, Gareth Kay, who spoke at the ICA “Agency of the Future” event in Toronto recently, is no stranger to a deadly insight or a juicy provocation. As Chief Strategy Officer at Goodby, Silverstein Gareth has created a laudable reputation for kicking ad agencies swiftly in the ass and asking us all to up our game.

His point is incredibly valid.

We remain an industry that looks to our peers for our inspiration and the Cannes reel as the benchmark for what is inspired work. And, to torture a metaphor, when your frame of reference continues to be a group of energetic hammer-wielding folks is it any surprise that our industry continues to see every problem as a nail?

From that opening bombshell, Gareth went on to say that our largest impediment is that we’re no longer moving at the speed of Culture. Another pithy soundbyte, sure, but a profound one. There was a time when we created Culture. Today most ad agencies feel like observers on the banks of the river watching Culture sail right past us.

So what cultural trends should we be watching?

And who are the real problem solvers that have usurped the agencies?

As a freelance Planner and Strategist, here are a few that are on my radar.


Be it new investment and funding models (Kickstarter et al) or genuine collaboration via crowd-sourcing , the power, passion and speed with which our audiences participate and engage in problem solving continues to accelerate. And not only problem-solving but actually acting as creative and communication agents in and of themselves.

Oreo’s deserves genuine praise for their 2013 Super Bowl tweet but genuine, insightful and noteworthy real-time-marketing examples still remain few and far between. By contrast, we were given a remarkable local example of the speed of culture when our mayor admitted to smoking crack. Within minutes, this Tumblr site was live, the hashtag InOneOfMyDrunkenStupors was trending on Twitter and the walls of City Hall started to be covered in graffiti. That’s the speed we’re up against.

Design Thinking or Service Design

What was once a niche offering is growing in momentum, cachet and prominence. Places like IDEO, Strawberry Design and Idea Couture are becoming the new vanguard of solutions for our increasingly complicated and complex lives. These folks aren’t concentrating on merely communications but they’re digging deep into the actual design of those systems to try make them easier, more intuitive and more useful. If you want a sense of how much traction this movement is getting, consider PepsiCo’s hiring of a Chief Design Officer in 2012. This is the type of problem solving I believe Gareth is alluding to.

Social Good

Sure its an obvious catch-all for the premise of solving genuine meaty problems, but the cultural speed with which social good – or socially-beneficial – business initiatives are blossoming cannot be ignored.

Trends like collaborative consumption are gaining momentum daily. I can’t imagine there is a global CEO who isn’t terrified of a world where goods and services are loaned, borrowed or shared briefly versus being bought outright. That would be keeping me awake at night. We’re seeing signs of this change in Canada via initiatives like McDonald’s Our Food, Your Questions and the growth of agencies like Montreal’s N/A, formed solely on the premise of creating socially-
6a00d8341c03bb53ef019affb3142e970bresponsible work.

And its not just McDonalds rapidly changing their business along more responsible lines, Patagonia recently caused a stir in marketing circles by running the ad opposite asking folks to not buy their product because over-demand would have an impact on the ecology.

It aint all doom & gloom folks. There are bright lights out there though.

Agencies looking at different ways to solve those meaty problems Gareth mentioned.

The delightfully-outspoken Rory Sutherland is heading one of them over at Ogilvychange. Channeling his passion in behavioural economics, Rory is creating the kind of insightful problem-solving environment that clients, I suspect, will soon be flocking to.

I remain passionate about our industry. It certainly has no dearth of smart, empathetic people who love a challenge. It just requires us to change how we define that challenge and how we tackle it. More advertising-like objects aren’t the solution IMHO.

And, if you’re worried that there might not be enough real meaty problems to solve out there, might I suggest you need only turn on your TV set and watch the evening news…

What say you Dear Reader? Can the ad industry change? Does it need to? Are we still the best tool to solve our client’s business problems? If not, what would you change??

I leave you with this delightful example of tackling real problems. Kudos R/GA.




About Hilton Barbour

Hilton Barbour has written 10 post in this blog.

Independent Marketing Provocateur @ HiltonBarbour.com