As we embark on our pre-millennial orgy of retrospection and clairvoyance, it's a tonic to look back a decade and recall how easy it is to get it right and get it wrong at the same time. The advertising industry seems peculiarly prone to these mixed bags of sooth since all it does, when you get right down to it, is send signals -- signals that can be misinterpreted almost at will. After all, who ever looks back and holds you to account for your prognostications?
Well, me. Just this once.
Based on a flurry of holiday-week interviewing in 1989, I came up with seven predictions for the '90s. Most of them -- OK, a few of them -- proved uncannily accurate.
Forecasts No. 1 and No. 2, for example, were that media would proliferate, and that new research technologies would enable advertisers to aim at individual consumers. At the time, the Internet, with its fragmenting force and pinpoint accuracy, was still little more than a gleam in some nuclear physicists' eyes. But desktop publishing programs, bar code scanners and Moore's law were already combining for a deadly assault on mass markets and mass advertising. Even as the mainstream media companies tried to deny it (hell, many still are), marketers and a few forward-looking agency executives were preparing for the tsunami.
Interestingly, it was a creative, Mal MacDougall, who saw most clearly the writing on the wall. "We'll have electronic monitoring of the ads we create," he told me. "The result of that will be more accountability than we've ever seen."
Prediction No. 4 was equally on target: "Many medium and small agencies will disappear." Indeed, independent, medium-size agencies, which back then generally referred to those with billings in the $250 million to $500 million range, have become as rare as eight-track tapes, pinched between clients' needs for more complex marketing services and their desire to reach beyond national markets. Small agencies, too, have felt the squeeze, especially since the stigma has been removed from free-lancing. With star creatives able to move in and out of high-paying consulting gigs, few today face the task of starting up small, overhead-laden, full-service agencies.
Which helps explain why Forecast No. 3 -- that the giant ad agencies would collapse -- didn't fully come to pass. With individual creative prowess now out there for the picking and smaller shops eager to be acquired, the large agencies have been able to remedy their deepest flaw, the lack of creative spark, while continuing to play to their strength, global reach. Although hubris and mismanagement did lead to Saatchi & Saatchi's breakup, the WPP Group survived its travails. And the well-run U.S. conglomerates, taking advantage of the pressures on the medium and small agencies, went on considered and continuing acquisition binges. Today, they are larger and stronger than ever.
Yet one big presence that failed to make itself felt was Japan, hence the bungle on Prediction No. 7 -- that Japanese agencies would become a force to be reckoned with. Hank Seiden was among those who believed that "American agencies will go to the Japanese to sell for top dollar." Wrong. Even before the collapse of Japan's economy, that nation's insularity kept its advertising companies complacently at home. Conglomerate power remains entrenched in America and Europe.
But the biggest predictive missteps were Forecasts No. 5 and No. 6 -- that advertisers would rediscover the importance of strategic ideas, and that slogans and brand imagery would make a comeback. The decadelong recession that Philip Morris USA's David Dangoor thought would reignite needs-based advertising was finished by 1993. And with it, for the most part, went deeply considered marketing strategies. No surprise: It's plain hard to place faith in a "reason-why" strategy when in your heart you know that your product is exactly the same as all the others in the category.
For that reason, imagery has surged. But pace, my Taco Bell Chihuahua, it's rarely of the memorable, brand-based kind. More likely, it's on the level of gerbils shot from cannons. Why? Go back to Prediction No. 1, the proliferation of media. With consumers developing virtually individualized media menus and the concept of reach and frequency now a nostalgic reverie, it's become nearly impossible to embed a lasting image or slogan in someone's brain. Better, instead, to go for shock value.
Which leads me to my predictions for the next decade.
Ha! Not on your life.