< back

Keith Richards and the New Agency Antenna

(Recreated from my old blog ) 

“People say they write songs, but in a way you’re more the medium. I feel like all the songs in the world are just floating around, it’s just a matter of like an antenna, of whatever you pick up.” – Keith Richards.”

“I never sit down and say, time to write a song. Now I’m going to write. To me, that would be fatal.” – Keith Richards

Keith Richards has an interesting view on songwriting. He believes that “all the songs in the world are floating around”. He doesn’t create them. He channels them through his “antenna”. He’s the medium. Over the years, his antenna has become more receptive.  He hears glimpses of songs more easily and more often, but has never or never will sit down to ‘catch’ them. He believes to do so “would be fatal.”

But what if you were employed to do so? And what if songs were becoming less effective at delivering your message and a whole new world of possible mediums had opened up?

This is the situation modern agencies are faced with.

Not only do we have to take the antenna and explore for solutions, which in Keith’s mind would be “fatal”, we now have to search for solutions in far greater areas.

If we choose to believe that the solution is “floating around”, then it’s our job to find it. And the only way we’ll find one that’s not “fatal” is to ensure that we’re receptive to the full spectrum of possible ideas beyond traditional advertising while making sure that our “antenna” is in full working order.

Upgrading the Antenna  – The hardware

An antenna that only produces ads is an antenna only receptive to one channel. No matter where it’s pointed, if it’s not receptive to signals beyond a certain channel, it can never produce them.

The same is true in an agency.

The only way to create ideas beyond advertising is by having people receptive to ideas beyond advertising.  And since an idea is simply a new combination of existing thoughts, increasing our receptivity is about broadening our scope. Having more of the right foundational inputs so we’re able to tackle a problem in its broadest sense.

For planners, this means moving out of the world of planning – which exists to inform what the advertising should be – and broadening their scope to the world of strategy –  which exists to inform the need for advertising.

Such a shift requires broader receptivity.  It requires the ability to take the antenna and scour the landscape for glimpses of solutions in disciplines spanning brand planning, comms planning and everything in between. And to be receptive to those glimpses, the updated strategist needs to have a strong underlying understanding in the mechanics of how the clients’ business works, how marketing and (modern) communications work and how human behavior works to be able to connect the dots back to the problem at hand.

It’s similar for creatives.

The best creatives have always been those who’ve had broad interests. In 1939, James Webb Young referred to them as “extensive browsers”. The difference now? The areas to browse or be ‘receptive’ to have not only become larger, but increasingly need to be viewed from a different perspective.

To keep up, not only do creatives need to be receptive to the opportunities inherent in the new tools and technology in the modern communications landscape, but also the shift from ‘saying things at people’ to ‘doing things for and with people’ requires receptivity usually reserved for commercial types – an understanding of the value exchange.  As a result, many have suggestedthat the updated creatives need to become ‘creative strategists’ or that they remained specialized and be pulled together in multi-disciplinary teams receptive to the right signals depending on the problem at hand.

Of course, with both planners and creatives, an understanding of the broader areas will not be enough to ensure ideas don’t, as Keith says, turn out to “be fatal.”  To push past this requires the best strategic and creative minds.  These are minds that can connect glimpses from increasingly broad territories to find strategies and ideas that push past the mundane towards the extraordinary. Idea connections that live in the boundaries of “The Adjacent Possible” as popularised by Steven Johnson in his book Where Good Ideas Come From. This may come from individual people, but it’s perhaps more likely (and sustainable) to come from an agency that sets it’s antenna in such a manner through a culture that encourages it. One of learning, innovation, collaboration and excellence.

Upgrading the Antenna – The Tuning Process

A more receptive antenna is a more receptive Keith Richards. One able to hear a greater variety of glimpses but one still waiting for the glimpses to sound. Agencies don’t have this luxury. We need to pick up the (now upgraded) antenna and start waving it about to find solutions for our clients.

Anyone who’s tuned an old radio or TV knows this as a two-step process. You wave it about looking for the strongest signal area, then you set it down and move in to the fine tune dials.

There is, however, a third part. One that’s crucial, but not thought of:  Knowing what you’re looking for and knowing when you’ve found it.

Unfortunately, the same thing occurs in agencies. No matter how receptive our strategists and creatives are to brilliant ‘non fatal’ solutions, if they don’t know what they’re looking for, they’ll never be able to find it.

This isn’t new, it’s something we’ve known for a long time:

“The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution” – Bertrand Russell

“A well defined problem is half solved” – John Dewey

“The freedom of a tight brief” – Adland

Even though we know this, we’ve never taken it seriously. It’s because we never needed to.

In an age where the answer to most clients’ problems most likely was “more advertising” (as it was the only efficient way to influence people at scale), the solution we were looking for was half solved. We didn’t need to worry about what we were going to do, we only needed to worry about what we were going to say.

Now that everybody and everything can communicate, interact and influence at scale, it’s crucial to work out the most effective way to do so. And since being effective is simply the ability to deliver a desired goal, the key challenge (and why it’s crucial that strategists now have a broad underlying receptivity) is to be able to translate business goals into actionable marketing and behavioral objectives, something tangible for those swinging the antenna to pick up.  A problem “that will allow a solution.”  

And if knowing what success looks like is key, knowing when you’ve found it is just as crucial.

While we’ve always had an ECD as the custodian of the idea, when advertising isn’t necessarily the solution, who operates the antenna? Who recognizes when the problem has been framed correctly, the right  ‘receptive’ team assembled and ultimately, the right solution found?

In the end, the person who operates the antenna is the most important person on the solution team. It could be anyone – a Creative Director, a Strategist, a Technologist or a Suit. The only thing that matters is that the person has a broad understanding and respect for how all the components of the antenna come together to work in the new landscape. These people, as well as those needed to upgrade the strategy and creative department, might be few and far between for the moment, but every day they’re not around, our solutions become more and more likely “to be fatal” for our clients.