WHILE media technologies like interactive television are undoubtedly new tricks, advertising agency executives are trying to reassure their clients that their shops are most definitely not old dogs.
"We should not fear obsolescence, nor should our clients fear our ability to adapt," Allen Rosenshine, chairman and chief executive of BBDO Worldwide in New York, said here yesterday at the final general session of the 85th annual meeting and business conference of the Association of National Advertisers.
"We will adapt," he added, "if we want to eat."
Mr. Rosenshine, whose agency works for marketing giants like General Electric, Pepsico and Visa International, attributed his confidence to the fact that "creativity is a function of human ingenuity that exists independently of time and tools."
"Could a da Vinci have learned to use a computer?" he said. "If I could use a computer, anyone can."
Mr. Rosenshine was addressing an issue that resonates along Madison Avenue with increased urgency as the pace of media change accelerates. The agencies that clients perceive to be unable to operate in the new environment face the loss of important accounts and eventually extinction.
Still, Mr. Rosenshine said, his affirmative response to doubts about agencies' abilities in the brave new media world is "not an automatic yes," because not all agencies have demonstrated expertise in contemporary media.
Asked how long it would take agencies to climb the new-media creative learning curve, he replied, "Five years." Then, with the timing of a Jack Benny or a Jay Leno, he paused and added, "the date of my retirement."
Rishad Tobaccowala, vice president and account director for interactive marketing at the Leo Burnett Company in Chicago, warned both agencies and advertisers to "get used to dealing with chaos."
"This is not an evolution, this is a revolution," he said. "In a revolution, kings and queens lose their heads; think like a peasant."
Part of that redirection of thinking processes, Mr. Tobaccowala said, must be a realization that there are few short cuts like making acquisitions to achieving new-media proficiency.
"Real talent will not be sold," he added, because such creative executives balk at relinquishing intellectual and property rights to products like software. "They'll sell you machines, but that's not what you want."
A former agency executive, Meredith Flynn, who recently left Ogilvy & Mather Direct to join U S West, offered another example of how agency thinking must change.
In producing advertising that runs on new media and offersconsumers interactivity, "it's a bigger challenge than ever to cut through the clutter and make the creative compelling enough for someone to actually select it," said Ms. Flynn, who is now head of content strategy for the multimedia marketing unit at U S West Communications.
"The balance of power is shifting," she added, "from the marketing and media side to the consumer side."
For all that, said Peter Sealey, the former senior vice president for global marketing at the Coca-Cola Company, there "will be a major role" for advertising agencies to play.
But "the advertising agency's organizational structure has to change," said Mr. Sealey, who is now a management consultant to Digital Pictures, an interactive entertainment software company.
"It's now constructed like a General Motors plant in 1960," he added. "It has to be flatter, with far more out-sourcing," referring to the practice of subcontracting tasks outside the core operations of a business.
Mr. Sealey agreed with Mr. Tobaccowala and Ms. Flynn that the new media were redistributing power. "Power is going up to the intellectual rights holder," he said, "and down to the consumer."
Mr. Sealey compared that with the world he found in his first job, in 1964, selling Crisco shortening for the Procter & Gamble Company.
"Three minutes of daytime television a week on Procter shows reached 80 percent of the women in America," he said, almost shaking his head at the nostalgia of it all.
Yet the new media will not completely end all that came before, the speakers asserted.
"Films didn't doom books," Mr. Rosenshine said. "Cable didn't doom the broadcast networks."
"Good old Gutenberg has more staying power than Chris Whittle," he added, referring to the new-media entrepreneur whose star has faded along with the success, and extent, of his holdings.