asteroid approaches earth in space

Armageddon Has a Happy Ending

WE Communications Blog: Alan VanderMolen

— Alan VanderMolen 

PR – and marketing services, broadly – could use our very own Harry S. Stamper.

Stamper, played by action movie icon Bruce Willis, was the hero in 1998’s humanity vs. nature epic, Armageddon. US movie review site, Rotten Tomatoes, describes the movie like this:

"When NASA executive director Dan Truman realises that Earth has 18 days before it’s obliterated by a meteor the size of Texas, he has only one option…land a ragtag team of roughneck oil drillers (led by Willis’ Stamper) on the asteroid and drop a nuclear warhead into its core. Spectacular special effects, laugh-out-loud humour, great characters, riveting storytelling and heartfelt emotion make Armageddon an exhilarating thrill ride you’ll want to experience like there’s no tomorrow."

With the exception of “laugh-out-loud humour”, there are remarkable parallels between Armageddon and today’s marketing services/PR industries. Consider these meteors hurling toward us:

  • Three of the four major holding companies have their stock under severe pressure
  • That pressure has resulted in at least two of the holding companies (WPP and Omnicom) beginning to consolidate assets – WPP’s mega-consolidation of Burson-Marsteller with Cohn & Wolfe, and Omnicom’s mini-me consolidation of FH, Ketchum and Porter Novelli into Omnicom PR Group in Singapore and parts of Continental Europe
  • Rumours of further consolidation at WPP with a Y&R and Grey merger
  • Two weeks ago, hedge funds placed bets against the performance of holding companies 
  • On March 6, P&G CMO Marc Pritchard said his company wants to see agencies dramatically decrease account servicing talent, do away with off-sites and eliminate powerpoint presentations in favour of focusing creatives on brand-building tasks
  • Growth is either in reverse or severely challenged at the US$400 million+ agencies
  • The absolute number of journalists and traditional media titles continue to decrease, while hiring of journalists by digital-native platforms has plateaued
  • Reuters is now employing AI in the newsroom to generate story ideas for its decreasing number of journalists

All of that sounds like Armageddon to me. Here, however, we should note something very important. Armageddon (the movie) had a happy ending. Hollywood likes happy endings. Most of the people employed in marketing services also like happy endings.

To me, holding companies look a lot like NASA. Giant. Lumbering. Constrained by ownership (NASA by a struggling US government and holding companies by short-term, margin-demanding shareholders). Cost-cutting bias over innovation. Slow to react vs. first to problem solve.

What I see is incentives for holding companies have not been focused on innovation – they have been focused on consolidation. Playing defense instead of playing offense. In Armageddon, NASA woke up when a meteor was about to blow up the planet. And, they woke up by challenging convention. Finding a “ragtag team” from outside of its own ecosystem to problem solve for clients (in the movie’s case, humanity). The same cannot be said of holding companies.

To be honest, I’m not too concerned about the health of holding companies. I am very concerned about what will restore consistent, innovation-led growth to marketing services and, specifically, to PR. I believe the answers will emerge from the “SpaceXs”, not the “WPPs”. From small- and mid-sized agencies (likely independents) and from risk-taking clients that place incentives on innovating to grow vs. the behemoths who incentivise to deliver margin.

I think the answers to a happy ending are here:

Find and elevate “Harry S. Stampers”

We all know and have a “Harry S. Stamper”. The woman or man who we think is smart, but maybe a tad “out there”; and, we certainly would have to think twice about putting the person in front of a client. In Armageddon, NASA’s head was mortified to tell his clients about Stamper, let alone introduce him. We are in a different day. A technology-driven day. A day that still screams for humanity, but in union with technology. We (the “mainstreamers”) need to find our own inner “Stamper” or get out there and discover and then elevate “ragtag teams” that can drive growth-focused innovation.


Admit You/We “Simply Don’t Know”

One of my agency’s offices was recently in a pitch. The prospect said they loved the strategy and creative, but asked very hard questions about how we knew it would work. The prospect wanted data to back up the creative and execution. Fact is, on that occasion, we simply did not know. The prospect thanked us and asked us to go without finishing the presentation. Sometimes, especially in these new days of performance marketing and the ever-changing media ecosystem, we have to be OK with saying, “we don’t know.” Then, we need to quickly run and figure it out...very likely with our “Harry S. Stampers” embedded in the solution.


Try. Fail. Re-Try

Directly related to the previous point, be cool with getting it wrong. Then learn from it. Then try again. Failing is ok if your organisation is long-term and innovation-focused. Right now, I want teams I work with to get outside of their comfort zones. To try new technologies. To try “out there” creative. To defend innovation in order to progress with clients and within the agency. None of us can fly a spaceship the first time; however, the constant re-trying will very likely lead to a great flight and a very happy ending.

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Alan VanderMolen.