Solve for X, or Else

Agencies need to prioritize solving new problems over the easy sell

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Rarely does a day go by without a jarring, technology-induced headline suggesting that too much change is happening way too fast. As Alvin Toffler predicted almost 50 years ago in Future Shock, a new, technology-altered reality and sense of disorientation is setting in.

As I write this, my newsfeed includes the following:

Tesla is said to be subpoenaed by S.E.C. over Elon Musk’s Tweet…a Denver Bronco fan starts a GoFundMe page to cut quarterback Paxton Lynch…selfie filters trigger cosmetic surgery epidemics known as ‘Snapchat dysmorphia.’…Alex Jones’s InfoWars ban continues the debate about free speech and social media…The World Economic Forum warns that AI may destabilize the financial system…a hacker posts Snapchat’s source code on Github…a new facial recognition technology will authenticate 300,000 people at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics…oh, and SpaceX is organizing an inaugural conference to plan landings on Mars.

The list could go on and on. And isn’t just stuff on the edges. These headlines signal deep changes in how society, warfare, markets and culture work.

I view these changes as someone working inside a global agency paid to make sense of implications for clients. Based on my experience in the industry, common reactions to these types of headlines are:

  1. They’re not relevant or too far removed from planning and current campaigns.
  2. It’s someone else’s job to interpret or connect the dots on implications for the work.
  3. In aggregate, they portray a highly complex picture to be simplified to do anything actionable.
  4. They represent trends that will pass and can be ignored.

This is reality distortion laid bare. And in that reality lies a stark choice for people in our industry: Go through the motions and face extinction, or move with urgency to rethink what value in this context might look like. That may include technologically relevant ideas, creative solutions or protective measures that reflect deep structural change unfolding in front of us.

We know at Weber Shandwick that we’re not immune to this reality. Given our global reach and work with emerging technology and new business models, we spend a lot of time on the forefront of change. We also help organizations of all types uncover new paths to drive value and execute programs that deliver it.

Our belief is that a new, high-stakes era in marketing and engagement is unfolding— one that requires agencies of all kinds to “Solve for X” or else.

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“Solve for X” will require a deeper, more intentional fusion of data, utility and emerging technology.

The “X” might be a more efficient solution to drive leads, sales or new businesses models.

It may be using new platforms or applications that connect people or advance important causes.

It might incorporate intelligence on how an unforeseen development or rogue interest group could damage reputation.

It might be a new planning or production method that blends computing power with creative insight.

And unquestionably, it will also force new ways of measuring the impact of marketing investments.

This set of solutions follows a somewhat predictable path. But to get there we’re dealing with a growing list of unprecedented considerations.

Like the fact that someone can build a billion dollar empire in 36 months off of snaps, stories and tweets. Or that soon we’ll need to manage reputations when anyone can Photoshop video and audio as easily as an image. Or need to decode how botnets and closet broadcasters communicating in coordination spike trending topics. Or be heard when news videos are produced algorithmically and distributed in as little 10 seconds or less.

Synthetic media in all forms is will recast how media is created, shared and interpreted

It’s now part of the gig to understand new phenomena, make it a priority to discuss them, and develop new frameworks for what is valuable — and moral. Following fading conventions or using new technology without forethought of implications is not only inconsistent with reality, it’s fraught with risk.

Technology seers like Joi Ito from MIT Lab are evangelical on the pace at which we need to view the world through a different lens, to hardwire an ability to adapt, and see things we would otherwise ignore because they don’t fit our current conditions.

To that end, we’re taking steps to expand the ways we help clients and accelerate our mission to Solve for X.

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This includes creating The X Practice — a move that fuses our global capabilities across data-driven intelligence, digital innovation, technology sector insights, and media R&D into a blended team model. The horizontal practice has already led to a range of new services developed on behalf of clients — encompassing new analytics platforms, digital commerce, lead gen models, and media forensics that guide media buying decisions, stakeholder engagement, and more.

But these advances might not take us far enough or as fast as needed with a move like this. As AI becomes more embedded in media and communications, we’re on the verge of a new era for agencies. As this happens, the criteria for assessing strategies and creative direction will change, along with the means to produce work and our talent mix needed to deliver it.

Broadly speaking, the urgency to take meaningful steps is ratcheting up quickly. Klaus Schwab, Chairman of the World Economic Forum, suggests the required levels of leadership and understanding of changes underway across all sectors are low when contrasted with the need to rethink our economic, social, and political systems.

There is tremendous opportunity and business risk for organizations around the world hanging in the balance.

We Solve for X, or else.

Chief Innovation Officer, Weber Shandwick

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