You can judge a book by its cover. Unless it’s the digital edition.

A story:

It’s 1955. A carpenter is wrapping up construction of a beautiful new staircase and bannister for a homeowner. The homeowner comes by, admires the carpenter’s handiwork, and then asks him a question: “Hey, Joe, do you know any electricians who know how to install those new TV antenna thingys up on the roof? My wife’s been after me to put one of those things up there and connect it to the new television console we just bought.”

The carpenter says, “Sure. Why don’t I have him drop by tomorrow?”

The next day, the doorbell rings and the homeowner opens the door to find this same carpenter, now outfitted with a ladder, electrical tape and wire cutters rather than saw and drill. “I thought you said you were sending someonewho knows about TV antennas,” the homeowner, confused and slightly irritated, said. The carpenter, who had spent years clambering around roofs, attaching everything from weathervanes to cupolas to (more recently) TV antennas, said to the homeowner: “I did.”

The homeowner looked at the tradesman’s truck parked in his driveway with the words “Joe’s Carpentry” emblazoned on the sides. “Sorry Joe,” the homeowner says. “You’re a great carpenter. But I need an antenna expert here.”


Change the date to 2012, change the new technology to digital advertising and/or social media, change the homeowner into a client, and welcome to the world of full-service advertising agencies.

Clients, desiring to take advantage of a new medium but too unsure of themselves and this unfamiliar new world to judge the actual work or the expertise behind it, are looking out at their metaphorical driveways to see if the word “Digital” (or 2.0, or X or something that sounds like a sixties band, like Virtual Noise) is painted on our metaphorical trucks.

Agencies, who know damn well that an idea is an idea is an idea, and that you craft the idea to be appropriate to the medium it’s in, are trapped. If they point this out to the client, they look defensive. If they don’t, they’re playing in the digital agency’s house. Either way, they lose. And clients lose, too, because any possibility of truly integrated work goes away when the traditional agency and Virtual Noise 2.0 split the account.

This is not to suggest in any way that clients are to blame. Let’s say, to take the homeowner metaphor into the present, you want to go off the grid and convert your home to solar electric power. So you’re the client. Who are you going to use to do the installation–Joe’s Electric who has been your go-to guy for putting in  new outlets and lighting fixtures–or SunStrong, whose motto (printed on all their solar-power trucks) is: “The Next Generation of Power Generation”?

Exactly.

Provenance counts.

Provenance counts in buying art and antiques because the product’s expensive and you’re afraid of being bamboozled. That’s why Gagosian, Christies et. al stay in business.

Provenance counts in buying healthcare because the stakes are so high and the subject matter is so beyond your grasp. So seeing the words New York Presbyterian or Mayo on a surgeon’s lapel pocket are very reassuring.

And provenance has always counted in advertising, where David Ogilvy has won more accounts taking a dirt nap than the rest of us have wide awake and pumped up on Red Bull, fear or other stimulant of choice.

But now it counts more than ever, trumping common sense, experience and trust.

These things have a way of working themselves out over time. No one has wondered for a very long time, as Procter & Gamble must have in the early 50s, whether their ad agencies, grounded in print, radio and outdoor posters, could make ads for TV as well.

And the day will come–trust me on this–when brands will be able to sample their wares via a texted code to unlock the customer’s 3-D printer or makerbot. When that day comes, the words “Digital Branding Strategists” on the business card won’t look so hot anymore.

Silly wabbit. Virtual is so 2012.

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