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Carl Chester Lloyd


Advertising and Agile

April 06, 2020


I am currently reading the Conquest of Cool by Thomas Frank, and in it he talks about the transition between the 1950s and the 1960s of the ad agencies hierarchical organization scheme into a more creatively controlled scheme. And a lot of the examples tend to be very small teams of proven, highly talented individuals laid out in the kind of democratic or communitarian framework. This reminded me of the agile methodologies and the resistance to the waterfall methodologies. Or I guess not resistance to, but the change over from waterfall to agile in many software shops and the software community at large.

The Creative Revolution

The 1950s of Madison avenue was dominated by rigid, systemic, process oriented, comprehensively documented, business negotiated, hierarchical structures. The ad agencies of the 1950s were large, and factory like. It was a system of cogs in the machine. The copywriters would request work from an art director who would spit something out to later be shown to a creative director. There was little if any relationship nor communication between these groups. Decisions were made based on studies, research, data, and precedent. Clients could come in, and change a campaign on a whim. Thereby dictating how the creatives worked, and what they produced. Account men were in charge of communication with the client, and respect for creatives was very low.

The 1960 saw the rise of the creative revolution in advertising. Many small firms of high creative, and talented individuals sprang up with the ideas of high communication, and creative talent being the drivers of the business. These firms had high impact, were outlandishly profitable, and very efficient with billings ratios that far outstripped the more disciplined counterparts. These firms were described, and run as democratic or communitarian in nature. There were high degrees of autonomy and collaboration between individual creatives.

By the 1970s the creative revolution had won, and this setup had become mainstream. This was epitomized by Rosser Reeves having been let go from his company after having been a major force of the pre-creative revolution days of advertising.

The Agile Movement

Does this sound familiar? It should. It very well mirrors what we as software developers have just witnessed in our own industry. In the 90s waterfall, and disciplined processes were king. So much so as to lend themselves to parody like in Office Space. There was steep separation between the software developer, and the business with intermediaries, hierarchical control structures, and a general lack of communication leading to an inability to respond adequately to change, and stifling of the implementation of better ideas.

Both the creative revolution of the ad agencies, and the agile movement were primarily started from those creatives that carry the industry on their backs. However, these wonderful movements did not stop there, and continued to change business, and management practices. The aughts saw the rise of the creative revolution in software development with the agile manifesto published in 2001. The manifesto pushed hard for communication, and collaboration among software developers. The idea was to allow skilled individuals to work together with a high degree of communication in order to deliver brilliant software. There was a tear down of the wall between the creatives, here the software developers, and the client allowing for a strong dialogue. This style was implemented all over the place at smaller, newer, daring companies with small teams leading to large success.

However, this became mainstream even at larger corporations following the financial crash at the end of that decade, and leading into the 2010s. Agile having been created by software developers for software developers had shown itself to be so successful from a financial, and productivity perspective that larger corporations adopted it.

Thoughts of the Future

What came after the mainstream of the creative revolution in advertising? Can we learn from this in software? There have been four more decades since the 70s came to an end. With such a stark parallel between industries I believe it is entirely plausible that the future of software development methodologies and business shifts could mirror those that took place in the advertising industry. Another thing to think about is which other industries have undergone, are currently going through, or are ripe for this sort of creative revolution.

Carl Lloyd

Written by Carl Lloyd. He spends his time playing with technology, and learning new things.