Consider the changes hitting (or about to hit) advertising. On the one hand there is ever more globalization, crying for creative solutions that might have to work from Minneapolis to Mumbai. In such situations, all locally relevant cultural signs become invalid - which rules out many of the ingredients of an interesting narrative, or references to commonly shared history and culture. Coke is our guide on this one: however clever its advertising gets, those global ads can never get all that interesting. Lumped altogether, humanity can only take in some basic brand messages, as we don't have a very sophisticated global language to work with. At least, not yet.
Simultaneously, there is a massive fragmentation of media: an explosion of television channels is happening worldwide, which suggests the detonator has already gone off in the aforementioned bomb. The mass is becoming a mess, at least as far as trying to hit them neatly with your message at 8pm EST. Only the odd sports event, embarrassing news about the president, or national disaster draws us together around the mock hearth of the TV.
Along with this, information overload undermines the ability of anybody to read a magazine or newspaper for more than about three seconds before wondering if they should read something else. They certainly won't be wondering about faithfully reading an ad, so those brand messages will have to reach them some other way. Of course, they could be driving past a billboard, in which case they have lots of time because of the traffic congestion. Then again, there's probably a truck in the way. And so they can turn the radio on, and get deeply irritated by the failure of most radio advertising to rise above being a thorough irritation. In goes the CD. Selected content will be king, and so advertising - by its requirement to interrupt and be a kind of parasite on other media - is rarely likely to be a preferred choice. It will be edited out at all opportunities.
That's a cynical take, you might say. 'We know that's not the whole truth,' you might cry. 'Our ads are loved and cherished and they always will be.' Yeah, just like cinema advertising used to be - may it rest in peace. Remember movie theaters when they were a major social gathering point where great commercials could hit the public right between the eyes? You probably don't, if you're still at work. Even with something of a post-modern renaissance, the full-fledged, big-brand cinema commercial is a rare beast, usually a long-form driven out of a TV spot. Now imagine if big TV audiences shrink, and niches open up everywhere. Imagine if our clients' quest for targeting drives us down a road of low-budget, specific-information spots for smaller, more precise audiences. Imagine that it also prompts the new technology to deliver locally driven print so that we can't even look to magazines to allow the luxurious waste that makes generous room for creativity in our communications.
And all this gloom before I mention the dread word 'Internet!' No one should dispute that soon, the Web will come together with TV to push a rich flow of moving and still images with sound, interactive as-much-as-you-like-it, to various audiences. Will this audience be demanding a clutch of commercials instead, or a block of print-like ads? Not a chance. People will expect and receive something more targeted, interactive and responsive. Advertising as a territory of communication will always be with us - or at least as long as capitalism is - but it is clear that the methods are due for radical change. It's already happening, but the mainstream advertising industry is continuing to resist it, quite possibly because its business fundamentally consists of selling TV spots and print ads.
From the creative point of view, there's a remarkable polarized split in creatives' opinions during 'new media' discussions I've followed. Typically the older, more managerial creatives harp on about the poor production quality over today's Net connections; they're concerned more with what they've been doing than getting the point of what is possible. They complain that not everybody wants to be interactive all the time. It may be a valid point - but not one that changes the incredible offer of interactive communication for the individual, or for the seller. Meanwhile, fresh-faced junior creatives are typically dead eager to work in interactive media, but they often find themselves in an organization with little real enthusiasm for selling into such areas. And they are further squashed by the innate conservatism that can take over any large, successful organisation: the general bean counters are happier to look at the certainties of statistics drawn from current performance, than to dwell on the imagined statistics of new revenue streams.
It's not only agencies that are blame, though. Clients, too, have yet to consistently integrate marketing functions so that their communications can connect in such a way that they carry and build an idea across conventional and new media.
Despite the monumental changes, it's still naptime back in adland. Conclusion: the world is going to pass the ad business by, and all those snappy little new media companies and other jumped-up so-and-so's are going to be the New Gods of communication. That's where the creative scene is going to be, if it isn't already.
Am I scaremongering? No, it's happening. Just take a company like Razorfish. It has acquired an international network to make a distinctive international new- media service. More of those will come along, but there's not much sign of success from the agency world in addressing this need. Look down a list of the major players in the new media business and you'll find a lot of newcomers. Among the larger traditional agencies, many set up teams with cost structures and skill bases that didn't hack it as credible new media offers, which meant they got their fingers burned as they tried to burn those of their clients. Now they're increasingly making headway by acquisition. They have the resources for it, but that doesn't get over the basic failure of their creative vision.
For perhaps the past three years, any presentation of the most creative communication in the world would require a look at the Web and at multimedia projects, and also at other 'ambient media' work. From where I write in London, it is agencies such as Mother, Circus, St. Luke's and HHCL & Partners, working across media and often doing their best work in odd 'ambient media' corners, that have done much to set the creative pace. Significantly, all the above companies have at times called themselves something other than an 'advertising agency.' To these add Kessels Kramer, an Amsterdam creative shop that seems to draw no lines between advertising, design, new media and other creative consultancy. Their outlandish work is great fun, but the principle out of which it comes is seriously interesting: communication in which the medium is always as much part of the message as anything else. It's hardly an original thought (Marshall McLuhan got there a long time ago), but agencies that are wedded to producing and selling traditional media inevitably resist such ideas: they're all set up (with TV departments, typographers, art buyers, and so on) to sell commercials and print ads. Behind these companies are a host of smaller creative operations, many of whom have intriguing ideas about commercial communication.
So, there is no shortage of inventive ideas out there. Interest in new media, coupled with cultures where there are good programming skills, could see many of these ideas emerging from unfamiliar communication origins, such as Eastern Europe or India. In the new millennium, if the traditional ad industry remains slow to appreciate the opportunities of new media, then others will. The cluster of avant-garde agencies, new-media consultancies, and assorted other creative advisers will forge a new discipline over the next few years - with or without the conventional ad organizations. Perhaps 'advertising' will become a word associated with the old agencies, and the new shops will appropriate something different, something that more easily suggests the wide variety of ways in which they might communicate. As part of our move to a global language, that will be just one more word we'll have to dream up.
Lewis Blackwell is the author of several bestselling books on design and communication, including The End Of Print, G1 and Whereishere. He recently resigned as editor-in-chief of Creative Review magazine in London to become