David Billing of Above+Beyond: the party may be over but the fun starts now

“I’m comin’ up so you better get this party started”, as Pink once sang.

Except in my case it would be “I’m comin’ up so you better finish your drinks, tidy up, unplug the stereo, flush the drugs down the toilet and go home.”

Because in every industry I arrive in, the party’s always over.

For an ECD, my career has taken a slightly scenic route. I started doing PR in the City, and that one time my party timing was impeccable. PR agencies were getting fat off the dotcom boom of the late 90s.

So money flowed, as did the booze.

This would be the last time I’d be at the party.

The dotcom boom heralded the arrival proper of the internet – the world’s biggest party pooper.
The City tired of me and I decamped into the music industry. A young(ish) man, on the dollar of Universal Music, writing and producing tracks for some famous acts. And some infamous ones.

Rock and roll, right?

Wrong. Napster was hovering like a big cat-in-headphones-shaped cloud, but the record company bosses said CD sales weren’t going anywhere. File sharing is a fad, they said.

Soon P2P was peeing all over the labels’ margins and distribution models. Writers and producers, aided and abetted by the same tech-democratisation that was destroying the industry, were pumping out ever greater numbers of tracks into a bottomless, mostly uncaring void. There wasn’t much partying. But plenty of panicking.

Next, I worked in movies. Well, I started working for a film marketing agency. The agency that made that iconic Reservoir Dogs poster (left) and used to fly over to Studio 54 in New York every weekend in the late 70s.

But by the mid 2000s they were having a relatively crap time of it. Gone were the fat, lazy months of leisurely editing for a three-minute trailer. Anyone with a laptop could cut one.

By the time I left the business it was apparent that every mirror had been smashed and every last bit of smoke sucked up.

And then I started working in advertising.

I’d heard things about advertising. I reckoned I could dust down my drinking trousers and have a bionic septum fitted in time for my first Cape Town shoot.

A few months later, I was on a shoot. In Reading. There wasn’t much money, and I was sheltering from a rainstorm with a producer from a legendary advertising family. I asked him whether he thought I’d missed the advertising party. “Party? You even missed the comedown, mate.”

It became apparent that my new peers were more neurotic and apocalyptic than even their equivalents in music and film.

The same story that I’d seen play out in my former lives was magnified a hundredfold.

Harder. Faster. Cheaper. Better. It was like that Daft Punk song except no-one was wearing a helmet and no-one was having a good time. And the soundtrack was the repetitive thump of a hundred identikit agency content divisions banging out non-hits to empty dance floors.

The audience had taken over, the four horsemen of Adblockalypse were riding across the stormy skies of London and meanwhile we’d started an agency with one credit card and a lot of strange ideas about how to do things differently.

We made our home in the ravaged landscape that the internet has left in its wake. Where the audience are kings and we and our client brands are mere scuttling bugs there for their entertainment.

And I love it.

Because I’m not quite so stupid as to need the same lesson teaching a fourth time. As we build an audience-centric agency, I look back at the music and film businesses, and see that they’re making a go of the audience age. Netflix builds the next generation of binge-worthy shows from micro-segmenting its audience; the big studios harness the power of cultural properties like Marvel and DC; the trailer houses create more teasers and trailers as audiences and channels demand more content ahead of release.

Meanwhile music streaming services have given the kiss of life to the single song format (if not the album) and creation, distribution and discovery are everywhere.

And back here in what used to be known as adland, we’re moving at the speed of culture to the power of programmatic. The challenges that face us are the same – the end of “top down” distribution and the rise of “outside in;” the democratisation of creative production; adblocking and the movement to subscription models.

Like music and film, we’re crossing an event horizon. We’ll get a bit warped in the ensuing black hole. And we’ll get spat out in a slightly different shape, but more determined than ever to connect brands to audiences through culture. And with more means at our disposal to make that happen than ever before.

So I missed the party. But I turned up for the fun bit.

David Billling is executive creative director of Above+Beyond.

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