“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” goes the old adage. But Ross Chowles thinks it is broke – the advertising agency as we know it, that is.
In an interview with Chowles last year, the co-founder of The Jupiter Drawing Room Cape Town spoke about what he thinks is wrong with the current model: "The ad industry is in crisis. We are going through a digital revolution during a five-year recession. Clients are paying us less, but want much more and quicker. There is no time anymore to really think things through."
Expectations are at an all-time high, yet income is at an all-time low. Something is going to break, Chowles says.
Fast-forward a year, and Chowles predicts the solution is the number 15.
Yes, you read that right: 15, says Chowles, is the ideal number of people an ad agency needs. Not only will downsizing traditional agencies mean occupying less space and lower overheads, but – most importantly – it will make them more nimble.
Agencies with workforce numbers in the hundreds are becoming hamstrung by protocol in the name of “following the system”. Industry conventions such as “job-bags” and “traffic managers” designed to streamline production are increasingly being recognised for, in actual fact, hindering it.
To illustrate, Chowles refers to South Africa’s watershed Battle of Isandlwana – the most notorious defeat of the British by the Zulus in the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. It’s toted as the British Army’s “worst defeat against a technologically inferior indigenous force”. Chowles jokes about British soldiers waiting for sign-off on bullets before their distribution was allowed (which isn’t too far from the truth), exemplifying how “the system” does not always serve the bigger picture.
In Chowles’s agency of the future, the 15 members are composed of three creative leaders, three project managers, one agency PA, one low-end digital member (a technical specialist), a cameraman/video editor, and six pairs of “useful hands”.
Out go the ECDs (executive creative directors), MDs and most other major abbreviations and middle management found in most agencies.
He envisions that everyone will need to be a multitasker and that the agency’s key role is “big thinking”. "We do creative strategy," he says.
Half the business – smaller jobs such as brochures, social media and retail – should go in-house, says Chowles. Internal services such as HR and finance should be outsourced. Collaboration will be key when it comes to specialisation (skills such as retouching), which could entail partnerships with external parties (freelancers, specialist agencies, etc).
Where’s digital? asks Chowles. It’s everywhere. Everything is digital.
What else does the future of advertising hold? “Content creation. Analytics. Poor spelling.” Not to mention “new tech and social-media shit that we can’t even imagine”.
Design Indaba sat down with Chowles to chat about his career in advertising. Read our Q&A with him here.