What Steve Heyer's war cry means for ad agencies now

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The only surprise in Steve Heyer's war cry is that no one has said it as forthrightly before. Then again, change is a frightening thing to contemplate in an industry-advertising-that historically is so risk-averse it still considers talking animals "edgy."

Speaking at Advertising Age's inaugural Madison + Vine conference on Feb. 3, Mr. Heyer, Coca-Cola Co.'s president, laid waste to a century of self-reinforcing theoretical trash, stating that "only the naive and foolish confuse presence with impact." With that one line, he challenged the ad industry to lose the legacy of Rosser Reeves, the 1950s-era Ted Bates & Co. agency chief, whose concept of the "Unique Selling Proposition" goaded advertisers into endless mass media buys for ads whose underpinning was annoyance.

That approach worked in those halcyon days of young veterans, new suburbs and three TV networks-which means it stopped working 20 years ago. Today's "hyper-fragmented world," to use Mr. Heyer's apt phrase, requires "ideas that bring entertainment value to our brands."

We've heard that philosophy before, of course-incessantly, I admit, in this column, and even from Coca-Cola, which has dabbled for decades with Hollywood. What's required are entirely new models for marketing. Mr. Heyer, a consultant, ad agency head and senior media executive before becoming a consumer-products leader, referenced how they might work. But let's take a deeper dive into where we're heading. Here are three things advertising people ought to be thinking about.

* Brands are now portals. Coca-Cola, Mr. Heyer pointed out, is a network with a larger audience than any 20 TV networks combined, available "for the right value proposition" to others. This expansive idea of what might constitute a network has been in front of us for a long time-the whole notion of a brand "borrowing interest" from a celebrity endorser is predicated upon it-but it's rarely been articulated so starkly. In effect, anyone or anything with reach can help launch or sustain a brand-if the product, strategy, channels and executions cohere.

* Creative collaborations are unlimited. Given the "brand/portal" phenomenon, ad agencies ought to search for appropriate synergies among their non-competitive clients, becoming, in effect, alliance managers, creating new forms of value in the demographic, psychographic and functional relationships possible in their client base, and between their clients and media producers/distributors. (Why can't "free" MP3 downloads be sponsored, e.g., turning my Ipod into a simultaneous product-sampling device and marketing channel?)

* Agencies ought to become studios. All infotainment competes with all infotainment. I'm going to decide whether to spend an hour with your show, her ad or my IPod. That means agencies have to find writers, artists and producers who can compete with Hollywood's best. The good news: With scripted TV drying up, there's a supply of writers on the loose. The bad news: Talent will need to be compensated accordingly, perhaps by offering points in the end product. As a result, agencies will have to adopt a whole new risk-reward ratio.

Will these changes occur? The agency business will only be saved by a new generation of advertising explorers who are willing to sail into an uncharted world rather than be frightened away by old maps emblazoned with "Here lie demons." Or, as Steve Heyer put it, "If a new model isn't developed, the old one will simply collapse."

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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