Agencies Must Find a Way Out of the 'Innovation Spiral'

Business is too Reliant on Borrowed Ideas, Needs More Original Thinkers

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You've heard of a "debt spiral," a term used to describe the financial situation of Greece, Italy and, potentially, our own country if we can't turn things around.

To oversimplify a very complex macroeconomic phenomenon: The cost of rising debt motivates governments to cut spending and increase taxes, which slows economic growth and shrinks the tax base, leading to more government borrowing -- and then the whole cycle repeats ad infinitum, shrinking the overall economy until the government can't pay its bills.

The same thing is happening in our industry -- but with ideas instead of money. We are becoming increasingly dependent on borrowing ideas instead of coming up with truly new thoughts.

I know I might sound like a curmudgeon who doesn't understand the post-modern culture of remixing and appropriation, but I would submit that agencies have become far too comfortable making excuses for each other's lack of genuinely new ideas. Contrary to what you may have heard, true genius doesn't steal. It may find sources for inspiration, it may collaborate with like minds to break new ground, it may synthesize and recombine -- but true genius will always find a way to contribute something new to the conversation. True genius is embarrassed if it's only repeating what came before.

There's a reason why "Mad Men" was based in the golden age of advertising rather than contemporary times. And it's the same reason that the producers of the reality show "Pitch" are having a hard time signing up agencies to show them behind the curtains of our daily process. Why? Because we're not as proud as we once were.

Advertising in its heyday was a regular font of cultural icons, a critical part of the tapestry of everyday life, a force that moved people rather than simply distracting them. It's not that this doesn't at all happen anymore -- it's just that it happens a lot less, and we don't seem as bothered about that fact as we should be.

Granted, there is a fuzzy line between a really clever remix and a genuinely new idea, but I would suggest that you know it when you see it. For true genius, check out "Welcome to Pine Point," an interactive web documentary about a former Canadian mining community created by Michael Simons and Paul Shoebridge -- ironically enough, two former creative directors at Adbusters.

This may not sound like the most obvious topic for what may be one of the most moving interactive experiences I've ever seen, but when you see it, you'll know that you're experiencing something new. Yes, it borrows themes from scrapbooking and yearbooks; yes, it's basically a long-form Flash site; and yes, it was produced by the National Film Board of Canada instead of a consumer packaged goods brand -- but I couldn't help think what might be if the same kind of dedicated craftsmanship was applied to telling the story of a brand instead of an abandoned mining town.

The consequences of agencies' profligate idea borrowing are much the same as the dwindling economy of Greece; relying on existing ideas means less idea capital we'll have to borrow from in the future. And, on a less academic and more immediate note, less visible and public innovation today means that we'll be inspiring less young, talented minds to see advertising as an industry where they can develop their own ideas, talent that we need to capture if we're ever to get out of this hole.

It may be cold comfort, but rest assured that this crisis isn't limited to the world of advertising. A casual glance at this summer's crop of films reveals the usual cast of sequel characters from previous films, and Lady Gaga's appearance in drag at the VMAs only confirms our collective suspicion that a once remarkable performer has found a Madonna playbook from the early '90s and is following it verbatim. Lack of originality is a systemic problem.

For us advertising folk, there are two choices. We can either accept this as a the new order -- it would be the expected path of least resistance -- or we could try something different and forge an industry that fulfills our best hopes and youthful expectations. Let's choose the latter. Creative solvency is key to the future of this business. It's a critical moment and we should challenge each other to think new, and think big.

Matt Herrmann is exec VP-director of strategy at BBDO, San Francisco.
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