The business of opinions.

And why a difference in one is still better than having none.

“You’re very opinionated.”

This is something I’ve had levelled at me throughout my career, in both a positive and negative sense. As both an acclamation, and a criticism. (A trophy that makes you question what you’ve won. Like the Paris-Roubaix.)

It’s something that’s always sat uncomfortably with me in the latter. Because, as far as I can gather, from the very first day I set foot in an agency, I’ve assumed it to be the very thing that we’re in the business of.

Having opinions.

We are sought out, engaged, judged, and most importantly, paid, to provide an external opinion on the communicative resonance of brands. Despite being sometimes criticised for it, my opinions have made my career. My willingness to fight for what I feel is right, to push the work to where I believe is a better place, to question what I sense is clearly not working. I’ve admittedly probably pissed a few people off along the way, but I’ve never once been out of work in my entire career. Which, given the turbulence of this industry, seems a fair indicator that those opinions were worth sharing. And as bullheaded as I might occasionally appear, I’m always open to being wrong if someone has a more captivating thought.

And while the guys sliding into my LinkedIn DMs offering to 10x my business if I have 20 minutes free to jump on a call this Thursday might claim it so, we’re not answering mathematical equations here. We don’t deal in absolutes. We’re in the business of subjectivity. And subjectivity requires discernment.

When you strip away all the fluff, what is a strategist’s role other than to provide a strong opinion as to where a brand should go? What is the role of a creative, other than to provide strong opinions as to how we might get there? What is the role of a creative director, other than to provide the ultimate opinion as to what THE way should be? (I could keep going with this but I honestly don’t know what a deputy global chief creative officer does.)

Our opinions are our reason for being. Our perception, our taste, our interpretation of the world around us, these are the things in an agency that hold intangible value. At least, they used to.

Over the years, I’m sure we’ve all witnessed agencies gradually begin to mimic their clients. Adopting their language, their jargon, their processes, their wardrobes, their presentations, and perhaps most dangerously, their ideas. The role becoming more of an expendable supplier that nods their head at any and every request, rather than a critical partner to provide creative solutions that could, and should, challenge the status quo.

This is not good for either party. Because it renders the relationship redundant. An external opinion is the one thing that can’t be internalised. It’s incredibly valuable, and why companies still use outside consultants, lawyers, accountants, to look at problems from a different perspective than their own. As such, when an agency stops having an opinion, there’s no need for them. It usually goes one of two ways. New C-level powers enter and put the account up for pitch, or the work goes in-house. And as difficult as differing opinions are, nothing is more demoralising than bending to every single whim until you’re inevitably broken in two.

Like the proverbial frog in the boiling pot, the advertising industry has been dying a slow death by aggregation. Vast amounts of quantitative research is ultimately aggregation. Obsessive historical data analysis is aggregation. Adopting the same ‘best practices’ is aggregation. Following the same trends is aggregation. Decisions made by committee is aggregation. Presenting too many concepts and executions is aggregation. Agreeing to include options on options on options is aggregation. And what you generally get out of aggregation is an acceptable average. When what we really need, agencies and clients both, is a big, huge, lateral leap AWAY from these aggregated averages. We’ve somehow made ‘what not to do’, ‘the thing to do’.

Which brings us to the monstrous, looming threat before us:

AI.

The most powerful aggregator the world has ever seen.

That’s basically what it is, at its core. AI scrapes the world for information, rolls it up into a ball, and spits out an averaged result of everything gathered. (Sure, you can manually adjust it’s parameters, but it’s still an aggregator by nature. It doesn’t ‘feel’ greatness ripple through its bones.)

In a recent interview, Billy Corgan was asked about his thoughts on AI. His response was initially quite pragmatic. He said that, in a way, it’s not so dissimilar from what we do now when composing music. We look at different riffs, bridges, hooks, lyrics, and then we use our discernment to select what resonates. (We’re aggregators, in a sense, too, but we output what makes us feel alive, and by extension, our audiences.) The big difference with AI, of course, is volume. What might’ve been 20 riffs, could be 200. Or 2000. But without a level of human discernment, you still don’t actually have anything of value. And because of this, he finished by saying, ‘If you think there’s a lot of bad music coming out now, just you wait’.

The abdication of having strong opinions has been bad for the advertising business. Trading our innate ability, taste, and hard earned experience for templates and processes and systems has left us empty. Soulless. And for what? The work has not gotten better. The environment has not gotten better. The enjoyment has not gotten better. Everything has slowly kind of flatlined into a consistent, repetitive… well, aggregated average, hasn’t it?

And to pull ourselves out of this, what’s becoming abundantly clear is that when AI really hits, I mean REALLY hits, we’re going to need those opinions we’ve been harbouring more than ever. We’re going to need taste. We’re going to need discernment.

Because if you think there’s a lot of bad advertising coming out now, just you wait.

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