As the ad industry continues to debate its place in the media landscape, the Glue Society sidesteps the issue to focus on creating content across all media
Concern within traditional advertising agencies is reaching critical mass. Even as everyone within the industry acknowledges that the business of marketing is changing at warp speed, no one seems to have any idea where it's heading. And despite a report which put worldwide advertising expenditures for 2006 at $599.5 billion, up 5.3% since 2005, there's a fundamental problem, according to Robert Coen, the author of that report and senior vice-president, director of forecasting, at Universal McCann.
"New technology is affecting basic advertising strategies, and there is considerable confusion about what is happening in marketing communications," he writes. "The economic outlook for 2007 is not great, and if present cautiousness persists, the climate for U.S. advertising could get even worse…. There are plenty of reasons for pessimism…."
One thing is clear, while the agencies may have a problem, advertising itself is by no means dead. According to Coen's report, many U.S. corporations have enjoyed double-digit profits over the past five years, and they clearly still need marketing and branding help. It's just that the old order of things won't cut it any more. Or, as Kevin Roddy, executive creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York, puts it, "The term 'advertising agency' will become obsolete fairly soon. The very definition of advertising is changing," he says.
The Creative Collective
As agencies struggle to come to terms with this new reality, a new business paradigm has been developing on the sidelines. A number of years ago, so-called "creative hot shops" sprang up to forge a different model of advertising. Led from London by the likes of Mother and St. Luke's and soon joined by agencies such as 180 and Strawberry Frog in Holland, these agencies regularly broke with the status quo to create integrated, cross-media campaigns (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/18/06, "Amsterdam's Red-Hot Ad Shops").
Now another type of company has emerged that pushes that idea even further. Exemplified by Sydney/New York-based creative collective, the Glue Society, these companies reject both the title "agency"—and the very idea of having retained clients. They're creative-content providers, pure and simple.
Ready and able to be employed by anyone who will have them (brands, agencies, even individuals) they work solely on a project-by-project basis. There's no long-term account management, no planning, no media buying. And yet as an entity, they're able to deliver more than the individual creative types (such as photographers or directors, for instance) historically commissioned by more traditional advertising.
Put simply, the Glue Society and its ilk are teams of ad-savvy, cross-media thinkers. As such, they're free to go wherever the budgets are, and can work on a wide range of projects. In the past year alone, the Glue Society has worked on projects that have included sculpture, graphic design, Web sites and viral campaigns, traditional TV advertising, print, short films, and even— in conjunction with BBH—a 60-minute TV show which was entirely sponsored by Axe and which was broadcast on MTV (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/24/06, "Bet You Can't TiVo Past This").
The Glue Society was formed in Sydney, Australia, in 1998 by Jonathan Kneebone and Gary Freedman, who were then working as a traditional art director/copywriter team at global ad giant Young & Rubicam. Branching out to form a startup company was really Rupert Murdoch's fault.
"We produced a book for News Limited," remembers Freedman, who moved to set up a New York City office mid-2005. "The idea was to persuade marketers and agencies that newspapers were an exciting medium, but we didn't want to create a series of print ads to say as much." Instead, they published a book which featured provocative designs by artists and designers wholly unconnected with advertising. It caused quite a stir.
An Uncertain Life
"But even though Y&R were very supportive of the project, it was very apparent that they weren't in the business of making books—they were in the business of making ads," says Freedman. "It was quite a burden for them to have a creative team spend such a large amount of time doing that, however successful it was. So partly as a result of that, we set up the Glue Society so we could do precisely that type of project."
As far as Kneebone and Freedman were concerned, starting their own company has allowed them the latitude to do what they do best. And while both acknowledge that the hand-to-mouth nature of their approach makes life uncertain at times, the arrangement has so far proven successful. With around eight employees in the Sydney office (Freedman is currently the only full-time employee in New York), every member of the team is a creative in his or her own right—a writer, designer, or director who takes full responsibility for any project undertaken.
"Gary and I run New York and Sydney. We take individual responsibility for making sure we have the resources to fulfill all the various projects we take on, but we're as involved in our own projects as everyone else," explains Kneebone. "The company needs some management, but not so much that it prevents us from getting our hands dirty. In this setup, wanting to control your own creative destiny is a necessity, and being able to manage your own projects is something that takes a little while to get used to."
45 Cent Discount
And Freedman's move to Manhattan, prompted by a desire to be close to the industry's production and direction hub, prompted the idea that they might start similarly sized satellite offices in locations around the world—Kneebone mentions London, Tokyo, and South America as likely outposts. "The ability for people to move around those offices would make for a truly exciting and stimulating creative collective," he says.
Even as the future advertising landscape remains uncertain, clients and agencies are responding well to their concept. "We have had a very positive experience with them," says Dave Cain, Brand & Communications manager for Virgin Mobile Australia, for whom the Glue Society has created a range of work, including TV spots, viral campaigns, even a character called 5 Cent, a miniature version of rapper 50 Cent intended to promote cheap phone rates, since October, 2000 (three of their ideas subsequently won Lion awards—in different categories—at the prestigious Cannes Advertising Festival).
Work is created through Virgin's agency-of-record, Host, which has no creative department at all, in itself another business model shift. "The Glue Society remain much less likely to toe the line, and so there's even more healthy debate on what might be the best creative solution than with an internal creative agency," continues Cain. (Click here for a selection of recent Virgin Mobile TV work.)
In the case of Gamekillers, the Glue Society collaborated with production company, Radical Media (which represents them as directors and from whose offices Freedman works), agency BBH, and men's grooming brand Axe to produce a one-hour show for MTV. The spoof reality show depicts the trials and tribulations of the dating world, and while there were no references to Axe in the show itself, the breaks were stuffed with ads showing the product, while the Glue Society also developed a comprehensive surrounding campaign, as well as directing the program itself.
"The characters in the show are featured in the advertising, the art direction, and the craft of the show is in the ads," details Kevin Roddy, who describes the process of working with the Glue Society as "tremendous." "We wanted someone to do the show, the commercials, the Web site, the print—to do all of it. But we had to be careful. If at any point people felt like they were being sold to, they would shut down. If you want them to be involved with your brand for a whole hour you have to play by a different set of rules. And that's where the Glue Society played a model role: Everything had to link, and it did. That's the future of marketing."
Whether or not the Glue Society's business model will flourish as the advertising landscape continues to shift and evolve remains to be seen. One thing's for sure, however, as more and more types of screens and formats become available, the demand for compelling, appropriate content for all of them will only continue to rise. And that in itself can only be a good thing for the creative talents ready and willing to fulfill that demand.