John Keeling of Grace Blue: why you just might need a ‘wizard of light bulb moments’ one of these days

Digital overlord, wizard of light bulb moments, dream alchemist, initiative officer* – all of these (and no doubt many more) are actual job titles for real people in the wonderful world of adland today.

Rather more usefully, so are heads of content – Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam appointed Joe Togneri as head of content a few weeks ago; heads of social planning – Grey took on Pete Durant to fill that role in April; and heads of social – well, you can count these appointments on a near-weekly basis.

These latter appointments all have two things in common: they are very senior leadership roles, and they are for job titles that basically didn’t exist five years ago.

Of course advertising is an evolving discipline. The methods and channels used to build brand awareness and encourage engagement (or whatever they called it back then) in the 1920s were vastly different to those of the 1960s. And the Mad Men approaches of that decade certainly don’t work for modern consumers in the 21st century.

However, the past five or ten years have seen an even more massive shift at the top of adland. The ways available to reach people have fragmented to an unprecedented extent. Digital, mobile, PR, social: all the below-the-line ‘add-ons’ have suddenly become core to the mix and a lot of traditional ad and media agencies have been left reeling. Clients have new demands and leaders brought up in the old school often don’t know which way to turn in this new, always-on creative environment.
Image: Creative Jar

We recently carried out research with some major players in the industry, and as one client-side marketing director put it: “We need to be where the consumer already is, not trying to drag them across to some other platform in order to see our brand message.”

Plus, a wealth of new boutiques and specialist agencies have opened to take advantage of this broader market – and they’ve been stealing away a lot of business that adland would once have considered its own personal preserve. Just Google ‘social media agency London’ and see how many hits you get.

Hence the raft of new leadership roles – and in a lot of cases, specialist sub-agencies spun off from the mother ship – to try and claw back some of this lost ground. “Adapt or die,” as the saying goes. In particular, ‘content’ was the buzzword of last year as media groups, agencies and brands began the swarm towards video; they grasped the need to become the producers and arbiters of their own distribution platforms and intellectual property.

The list of new players in this sector is already considerable and growing longer every day. Starcom has Liquid Thread, BMB has Neon, ZenithOptimedia has Newscast and Mediacom has Beyond Advertising.

What we’ve seen, unsurprisingly, is that the big networks and agencies need a new breed of leader; either to head up these spin-offs or to manage their in-house campaigns. And for once they can’t look to fish within their own little pool, as there are few in the industry with the skills and expertise needed. How can there be, considering most of these roles didn’t exist before?

To grasp the online, mobile and social media nettles, adland has mostly been looking to the pure ‘digital’ players: the specialist online marketing agencies that have been consistently cropping up for the past decade or so. Two points to make here: firstly, that ‘digital’ is as irrelevant a term today as ‘new media’; digital is simply the way the world is.

Secondly, when it comes to those even newer ‘head of content’ roles, the creative advertising and content agencies, both big and small, have had to take a significant step outside their comfort zones. They’ve had to look towards broadcasters, publishers and media specialists for the requisite skills and experience.

When it comes to creating branded, long-form video content, a television producer is going to know more about what works and what doesn’t and exactly how to achieve it than any traditional advertising specialist who thinks only in terms of 30-second bursts. In our research, the CEO of a major creative agency noted: “Where are we to make the money? We make more money on 30-second ads. However, this is a strategic investment.”

Working in a global business that places leaders right across the media and communications sectors, I’ve seen first-hand the changing face of this particular job market. It has always been the case that advertising groups could benefit from looking outside their immediate geographical boundaries to find the best person for a leadership role, but now these new job roles are encouraging them to look to other sectors and industries.

The pace of change in marketing communications is lightning-fast at present, and that’s affecting the nature of leadership. Along with new CEOs and ECDs, there are plenty of briefs floating around for new HOSs, HOMs and HOCs; however, let’s face it, the job titles are irrelevant. Agencies need the right people to fill all of these roles or they’re likely to be left for dead – or as one creative director puts it: “We live in an opt-in world. Get used to it.”

* In case you were wondering: Digital overlord = website manager; wizard of light bulb moments = marketing director; dream alchemist = head of creative; initiative officer = head of planning.

unnamed-2John Keeling is a partner at global executive search firm Grace Blue

One Comment

  1. The use of lightbulbs to represent innovation and the Eureka moment is such a sad cliche. It’s almost on a par with the maze, which hs been used on everything from morgages to IT. Apart from the internet, which is another distribution and marketing channel, most of the changes in marketing communications are based on nomenclature, as digital wallahs try to rename everything. So storytelling becomes content. Advertorial becomes native advertising.

    Remember digital upstarts, the Internet was invented by…Babyboomers.

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