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Why Advertising Agencies need a Think Tank department

Posted by Clyde Desouza on December 28th, 2009 at 12:00 am

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Modern Advertising agencies have standard departments that work in sync with each other to formulate an ad campaign and service their clients. There is the Creative department, Account Services and Media Services. Each advertising agency may also have more departments that are unique to them. Some newly formed divisions in traditional agencies will include the Digital Division that has now become a must have, as technology and Online Digital advertising is becoming a message delivery vehicle to the masses and a platform not to be ignored.

It is this fact – Technology and Digital, becoming entwined with advertising in the recent years, that has actually opened up the need for a more high level "Think Tank" division to be implemented for the benefit of an Advertising Agency. Nowhere in the past few decades has technology been so central to influencing the method of advertising as has been in the past decade or more precisely the past 5 years. As Marketing and Ad agencies start off the new decade in 2010, it is certain that two terms; "technology" and "Digital" will be the buzz words that drive the success of forward thinking agencies.

Media Delivery Platforms – Old and the New:

Television, Radio, Newspapers and Billboards were the traditional and well established advertising and media platforms to the masses up until the past decade. There was an initial spurt of online advertising that suffered a heavy blow during the dot com bust. It's after that, very slowly and cautiously that the online digital platform started picking and soon started becoming a force to reckon with. Today's online digital influences that cannot be ignored are phrases such as "Social media marketing", "Twittering" and "Mobile marketing". These new media delivery platforms have opened up a whole new methodology for advertising and influencing consumer behavior and reaction to products, brands and services.

Traditional ad agencies who had the past platforms all 'figured out' are suddenly finding themselves scrambling to come to terms with how to effectively use these soon to be de-facto platforms of media delivery.

A Think Tank department in the AD Agency:

Why would an Advertising agency in this Digital age need a Think Tank, and in what capacity is a Think Tank to function within the agency? After all, the Creative department of the ad agency is assigned to come up with creative thinking for ad campaigns are they not? Looking closely at the functioning of the creative department within different agencies there is either a subtle or big difference in what the department does, i.e create an ad campaign or brand building exercise, versus what a high level Think Tank in an ad agency would do.

The use of the term high-level can actually sound misleading, but has been borrowed for this article from old computer programming terminology, where the easy to learn programming languages such as Basic were termed high-level and the more hard to learn languages such as 'machine code programming' was a low-level language.

So a High-level Think Tank in an advertising agency would actually be an idea lab that leverages today's heavy dependence on technology, an understanding of the creative use of this technology and today's cutting edge technology offerings, to formulate a frame work on which individual Ad campaigns can be crafted. This is a brief description of such a proposed department, so let's take a deeper look and see if such a division is justified for the Ad agency of today.

What would an AD Agency Think Tank do?:

Most creative heads in Ad agencies have a gift going for them. Their quicksilver and artistic streak. Call it eccentric if you will, but that's what gives both the Creative head and the Ad agency it's USP. Of course a creative head and department is nothing without grade A copywriting and a flawless execution plan for the campaign that depends heavily on the account services and media teams. So far the playing field was even, the platforms were print, television and billboards to a very large extent, thus the entire effort in creating an ad or marketing campaign was to rely on creatively implementing the "play out" on these media platforms. There is also BTL advertising, that gives rise to "experiential marketing" and advertising campaigns, but nowhere, has Technology played as much a part in advertising as is evident today.

So the main core duty of a Think tank in an Ad agency would be to stay on-top of all the technology advances that are hitting the world today at an incredible speed, and to:

  • Share knowledge with the Creative Dept, on devising leading edge Ad Campaigns (giving the agency first mover advantage, e.g: using Augmented Reality)
  • Anticipate the pulse of where Social Media is heading and the Technology that is making it possible
  • Be on top of Mobile Technology
  • Understand and utilize Visual Communications Technology (Ad Agencies talk about eye-balls, do they know anything about where peoples eye balls are now? – read below)
  • Introduce Mixed Reality Advertising – A technology savvy Creative dept. is needed to use Augmented reality effectively and in semantic context to the client's product, brand or service. Not the haphazard way AR is being implemented now.

The common denominator is creative use of Technology. This is what a high level Think Tank division would do in an Ad Agency. They would work with the Creative Department and recommend cutting edge technology to enable or power the ideas of the Creative team and in some cases formulate campaigns based on new technology – Relevant to the Agencies client – that makes use of the new media delivery platforms – Online, Digital, Mobile and Mixed Reality – A mix of the Real world and Digital world. This would give rise to a whole new meaning of experiencing advertising, or "experiential marketing 2.0"

Case Study Examples:

3D Advertising, that's where the eyeballs are

All of a sudden, and without warning, 3D movies have descended upon us. The biggest Hollywood studios and TV channels are swearing by 3D movies and 3D entertainment. Television manufacturers such as Sony and Panasonic are racing to launch their new range of 3d enabled flat screen displays for homes. Cable TV networks such as BSky-B and others are set to launch 3D programming to the home.  The launch of the movie AVATAR has been a resounding success, with people rushing to Cinemas and grabbing a pair of 3D glasses, to be entertained. That's WHERE the eyeballs are!

But where is the 3D advertising?

Does an Ad Agency, even one of the big respected ones from the 4A clan have a clue what goes into producing 3D advertising? They could go out and hire a 3D production house right? Wrong! It seems that even Hollywood has an acute shortage of Cinematographers that can "think" in 3D, much less devise an exciting, ground breaking AD campaign in 3D. This is where a Think Tank in an Ad agency would have seen the trend rising and created a framework that would involve honing the skills of in house Story boarders, visualizers and be ready for creating the first 3d ads for Cinema and 3D television. When audiences have a pair of 3d glasses on, the interiors of a car come alive – you can almost smell the leather trim, and the depth of a scene from a tropical island paradise can be felt, all the way to more gimmicky yet acceptable advertising such as a splash of Soda pop coming off screen. That's brand recall.

Mixed Reality – Mobile and On Location advertising


An in-house Think Tank would be the department to turn to for technology fueled ideas, while competitors think of Digital interaction on mobiles as just flash games, or primitive implementations of Augmented Reality- such as aiming a card at a webcam and seeing a dancing 3d character. Digital advertising on mobiles needs to move to "on location" interaction and be in-situ or in context! Who says Digital Interaction has to be limited to a PC or webpage or Mobile screen. – Why not combine traditional Brochures, Newspaper ads and books that give the tactile feel of real paper combined with the dynamic nature of digital content?

This is where a technology clued in Think Tank division can initiate and introduce cutting edge technology, and more importantly – the creative use of it, to the other departments within the agency.

What if the client of the Ad agency was the Town planning division of the government or an Environmental agency? – the Think Tank within the Ad agency would be suggesting the use of statistics and data-sets on CO2 emissions combined with visualization graphics, all bundled into an Iphone app, that let's people aim their camera at any part of their city and witness in real time the kind of pollution their city is generating. This is the proper use of Augmented Reality in creating a user experience that is in context and a relevant ad campaign- for the Ad agencies client.

In-Tangible Think Tank output:

The core area of work for a Think Tank within the Ad Agency would be to keep their ear to the ground for signs of new technology and how to effectively and creatively use it to advantage in creation of Ad Campaigns, and brand building exercises for the agencies clients. The Think tank can also ideate and recommend brand building ideas to diverse clients. In the case of a client such as a Trade Show brand, seed ideas from the Think tank can be combined and further refined by the Creative Department for effective brand strategy, that can show measurable ROI (in this case, increase in attendance to a trade show that is falling in numbers).

A Think Tank can also provide valuable input that the R&D division of an end client may not have paid attention to. For example, if the Ad agencies client is a Camcorder manufacturer, valuable input can be provided by the Think Tank conducting independent tests on user preferences of location of buttons, intuitiveness of menus on the camcorder. Such input will be valued by the client and may even result in firmware updates to the product. The agency thus goes beyond the call of duty, but provides the client with service, commitment and builds the brand image, thereby retaining loyalty of the client.

These are a few reasons for justifying the in-corporation of a dedicated Think Tank department within an Ad Agency. The interesting outcome of this is, that soon after the birth of such a department, it self sustains itself and grows off the very reason for it's existence – Fueling new ideas for the Ad Agency, based on the creative use of technology.

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