Looking in London's Rearview Mirror.

Does a death grip on the success of the past hinder the potential of the future? When it comes to the advertising industry it London, it seems to be so.

I had conversations with the creative leadership at Lean Mean Fighting Machine, RKCR Y&R, glue Isobar, St. Luke’s and Dare, and while each had individual, original insights to share about the market in London, all hit upon a shared theme: London is holding on to the prowess of the past and it is hindering the market’s progression into the present and future.

London is a mature advertising market. It’s been there and done that brilliantly when it comes to traditional media. And that’s exactly the problem; at times, it feels like everything in television, in print, posters or radio has already been done, and there is no room for innovation. Until the digital space came along.

“I’m so invigorated and so excited by the new world of digital,” former Executive Creative Director of RKCR Y&R Damon Collins told me. “It’s fantastic because technology is evolving and people are evolving with it, which means that there’s always something new that you can potentially do.  The technology is helping change people’s habits and there are so many amazing, fantastic, groundbreaking things that you can do with interactivity and digital. We’re all learning and you can see real-time results, which is brilliant.”

It’s the “we’re all learning” piece that makes the industry a bit nervous, and is holding London back from embracing a quicker shift into the new landscape. London had the market cornered on traditional media – especially television – in the eighties and into the nineties. Think BBH. With success comes international recognition. With international recognition comes pride and confidence.

By contrast, with uncertainty comes procrastination and in some instances, complacent reluctance.

“Procrastination is the killer of all original ideas,” glue Isobar’s Executive Creative Director Seb Royce explained. There are scads of brilliant creative people in London, Royce said, but with a spotlight on digital, everyone freezes. It seems more is at stake in the unknown, agencies become afraid of making the wrong move and the cog moves too slowly. “The industry in London is nervous about change,” Royce said, “but change needs to happen. You can take baby steps, as long as you’re taking them forward.”

But it’s not only uncertainty and hesitation.

“It’s economics again,” Dare Managing Director Toby Horry said. “In the eighties and nineties, the UK had a massive, vibrant economy, and there was money to make, to put into big TV campaigns.” That’s no longer the case.

Take agency Lean Mean Fighting Machine, for instance. In 2008, the pure play digital agency who founded their work on a niche in banner advertising returned home from Cannes as Interactive Agency of the Year. And then the economy tanked.

When money dries up, clients become very risk averse. They stick to the tried, true and past-proven, and marketing and media plans mimic years prior. Fresh ideas are held “for next year’s budget.” And innovation stagnates.

London’s competitive agency marketplace adds to client confusion. There are too many agencies telling clients they can do the same thing. As the industry simplifies in this new landscape, the work will be better integrated, but at the moment agencies are not fulfilling the potential that’s there and clients are not getting the best that they could, according to Royce.

How to fix that? “We’ve got to start having fun again,” Royce said. Fear not the spotlight of “digital” as a buzzword and instead, step fully into a realm of new possibility. 

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