I got rather lost in Fitzrovia searching for the CHI&Partners office; I thought I’d been there before, forgetting that in fact, the business and its affiliates are slowly but surely colonising the area around Rathbone Street, and I was at the wrong building.
This time I was meeting Sarah Golding, CHI’s chief executive – hawk-eyed readers may recognise her from these very pages just last year.
But I wasn’t there to talk about the business. On its centenary year, Golding has stepped into the prestigious role of president of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), with a bold mandate for the next 100 years.
But it nearly didn’t happen. “I said ‘there’s no way’, literally – I was gobsmacked – like, ‘really?’”, Golding says, adding that she was at once flattered, flabbergasted, and touched by her nomination.
“I said: ‘look I’ve got a really big job to do. I’ve got an active role – I’m not a figurehead, sitting in some office and having lunch – I’m running a big agency and I just don’t have time to do it’.”
However, a twist: “they said ‘you have to say yes, because we don’t have a backstop – you’re the person everyone wants.’ I joked ‘have you all gone mad?’ It was quite overwhelming.
“But I thought about it – and I was obviously hugely flattered – and I thought ‘well, if everyone wants me to do it, there’s a reason why.’ And I feel like this industry has been very good to me. I don’t feel like I owe it anything per se – I’m doing it because I genuinely give a sh*t… maybe don’t write that.”
Sorry Sarah. Further justifying her taking an honorary role that will double her workload, she adds that the advertising industry is always looking inwards, and that, on the centenary year, “whoever is president in the first two years of the next century has an opportunity to change the conversation, be a breath of fresh air, and say ‘let’s look outwards and forwards, stop being defensive, stop talking about weaknesses, and think about the next 100 years.
“Also, there’s only ever been one other woman. There’s a board at the IPA, it’s a long list that goes from ceiling to floor, and as you go down it, it’s: bloke, bloke, bloke, bloke – woman – bloke, bloke bloke. It’s just ridiculous; it’s shameful.”
Each IPA president picks an agenda for their two year term – the last, Tom Knox, positioned the advertising industry as a “progressive force for good”.
Banal, if you ask me – I far prefer Golding’s. She has challenged the creative industries to face up to the central roles AI and automation will play in the future of advertising. What makes it even more interesting, is that it’s a subject she frankly admits knowing little about. So why choose it?
“Gosh, I’m no expert, and I’ve said: ‘I want to learn from the front, not lead from the front’. I think it’s just too important an issue for the whole industry not to embrace. There’s a little bit of fear, and a lack of knowledge, particularly at the top of our industry, about creative tech, automation, machine learning. And I feel that I want to use myself as a test case. Because if I’m learning from the front, and if at the end of two years, I feel that I have got more of an understanding, and more enthusiasm about the potential of automation in our industry, then I know that others will too”.
I ask Golding if she’s listened to Rory Sutherland’s excellent series presently on Radio Four – Marketing: Hacking the Unconscious – in which a guest opines that data, targeting, and other technologies are all very well, but without outstanding creative to back it up, they are pointless. So does she think that technology will impede creativity?
“No, quite the opposite actually. I think that machines will start to do some of the myriad of daily activities that go on in agency life. I think they will be our colleagues, doing the more functional things especially, like legal checks, competitive reviews, and image searches, which will free us all – humans – to give more time to focusing on the creation of brilliant ideas, a lot of which will be brought to life through emerging technology.”
Golding is certainly no luddite, despite her self-deprecating insistence.
Discussing the changing face of the industry, I ask whether the new tech players – the Googles and Facebooks of the world – whose primary function is advertising, could discredit the industry as a whole through a constant negative media focus.
“Yes, I do. That’s why an important part of my agenda is trusting the machines, and monitoring the machines. I do think there is a dark side that I want the IPA to protect agencies from. Because, if agencies are associated with the misuse of client’s money, then our industry will be seriously damaged: commercially and reputationally. We’ve done some research which shows that 20 per cent of the $32bn spent on digital display advertising is being spent fraudulently. So we have to do something about that. And I am encouraged by what Google did, when it said it will work with outside companies to verify where ads appear on YouTube – I thought that a good, smart move. And I’ll be interested to see how that plays out.”
Still on the changing face of the industry, but moving away from tech, we get onto corporate acquisitions of agencies from vested interests outside of the creative industries – Karmarama and Accenture, for example. Is it a dangerous precedent?
“I don’t mind it, I quite encourage it,” says Golding. “Businesses like Accenture, what they’re doing is working on delivering even better client service. And by acquiring companies like Karmarama, I think they’re acknowledging the strengths and skills of advertising agencies in delivering better client service. So I see that as a positive.”
We end on the million dollar question: what will advertising be like in 100 years? “Amazing” she says, adding “it will be even more powerful force in the UK economy, leveraging our inherent creative and technological skills to lead the world in developing commercial communications. What we will do will be unchanged from today... but how we do that will be unrecognisable. The tools and tricks of our trade will change for more and far faster than they ever have over the past 50 years or so, it will be the most exciting and rewarding era of advertising ever: that I can promise you.”