The more I understand UX design, the more pessimistic I am about the future of advertising agencies

Our Separate Ways by Jukka Zitting

Our Separate Ways by Jukka Zitting

I am a keen voyeur when it comes to watching how people use computers. We have this undying faith that computers will allow us to produce better output, or same level of quality but in much less time. Yet time and time again we find ourselves feeling confused or frustrated because some apps or softwares are poorly designed, unintuitive, and thus hard to use.

Before jumping into the advertising world, I used to be the Head of Product Development in Indonesia’s first internet portal (yes, it was during the early days before the tech bubble burst). That was when I taught myself about web usability and information architecture. The bubble burst, and I found myself starting up Ogilvy Interactive in Jakarta. Now my day job revolves around crafting strategies for brands and campaigns. But my interest in this field —I realised later that it was called “user experience (UX) design”— never fades away.

Last July this year (2014), I took UX Design Intensive Course from New York University. This course ran for 3 weeks. Each day started at 9.30 am and ended at 5.30 pm, and most of the hours were spent on practice assignments rather than listening to lectures on theories. All the instructors were practitioners and most of the lectures are full of examples from real projects.

In a nutshell, I learned about discovering user needs and expressing what we understand using personas. I learned how to conduct research to test our hypotheses on user requirements. I learned how to write and use scenarios and do story-mapping when developing user-journey maps. Of course, no UX design courses will be complete without lessons on building wireframes and making prototypes from various levels of fidelity. I learned about user-testing, and lastly I learned about how we should present our ideas and prototypes to the likes of venture capitalists. For my final assignment, I presented a prototype of a mobile app that allows citizens to report the incidence of public officials asking for bribes.


UX Treasure Map by Peter Morville from Semantic Studios

I can’t say that I learned things I never knew before, but for me often the penny dropped when I was working on the practice assignments. In short, I find the course valuable although there are some rooms for improvement.


I found a lot of small similarities between campaign planning with UX design. Both are the work before the (development and production) work, both regard utmost importance on consumer or user understanding, and in both we employ the problem-solving mode of thinking.

Despite these small similarities between campaign planning and UX design, I become even much more aware of how big the gap is between traditional advertising agencies (the ones whose cash cows are making TV, print, radio commercials) and start-ups or digital foundries that are UX-centric.

For so long, the bigwigs of ad agencies have constantly been shouting about the need to “go digital” or “go integrated”, to diversify agencies’ capabilities or talent pools, and to innovate the way they do business because profit keeps eroding as clients’ procurement departments play an even bigger role. “Start-up envy” becomes contagious amongst ad agencies people.

The irony (or the tragedy?) is, the more I understand UX design and the more I am involved in it, the more I become pessimistic about the future of the traditional advertising agencies. It’s not because of ad agencies don’t have talents with digital capabilities —although it is a problem too. The biggest problem lies in the culture of ad agencies itself. This culture is perpetuated by the way agencies make money.

Of course, few ad agencies managed to build digital products like (micro)sites, social media pages, and even mobile apps. Usually these products are made as a part of “integrated campaigns” for clients’ brands. But on average how many people download this kind of apps? And on average, how many times are these apps used by users, and for how long?

Most of the times, the numbers are not palatable, especially for clients who are more ROI-minded. It leaves us with a difficult question: how sustainable is it for ad agencies to develop digital products like these? Until when are clients willing to consider this road?

Why do this kind of digital products have low usage rate? The way those digital products are made in the ad agencies differ significantly from how UX-centric start-ups or digital foundries build theirs. This is because:

Firstly, ad agencies are used to create “ideas that tell” stories on behalf of their clients. Meanwhile, UX-centric start-ups or digital foundries create “ideas that do”, or more precisely, “ideas that enable people do things” (read more about “ideas that tell” vs. “ideas that do” here).

When an agency planners asks, “What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?” she is referring to a brand’s business problems (while the mediocre agency people ask “What do the clients want?”). But when a UX designer in start-ups or digital foundries asks, “What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?” he is referring to users or people.

Secondly, the consequence of creating “ideas that tell” is, agency people have been focusing on storytelling (and the good ones on emotional storytelling) that usually takes place by interrupting people. Meanwhile start-ups and digital foundries think about utility that is provided to people who opt-in to use the apps or sites.

The first and second differences are about mindset. But can this be tackled by hiring new talents from the digital world? Sure, brave agency boss may bite the bullet and hire digital talents of the month. But as long as the culture hasn’t changed, those talents will fail to become the change agents of that agency.

At best, the true-blue digital superstars will work in isolation, perhaps unhappily and in frustration, until they move to a different place where they can fully flourish. At worst, those digital talents will be assimilated into the ad agency culture that prevents itself from innovating. After all, cucumbers get more pickled than brine gets cucumbered.

The ad agency culture (“the brine that pickles the cucumbers”) is strong not only because it’s pervasive. It’s strong because it’s the result of and therefore is perpetuated by the way agency makes money.

So the third difference between traditional ad agencies and start-ups or digital foundries lies in the business model that perpetuates the culture. Adam Glickman writes,”Tech startups exist to service an opportunity in the marketplace. Agencies exist to service a client’s opportunity in the marketplace… Tech startups begin with the big idea, then seek to monetise. Agencies start with a budget, then seek the big idea.”

Ad agencies make money by selling time (that’s supposedly used to develop ideas) of their people to clients. The agency bosses are incentivised to sell more billable time, and most of the times their incentives have nothing to do with the ROI of the ideas the agencies produce.

Murat Mutlu confesses that in his personal experience, “There is a extreme fear of failure and lack of desire to do anything innovative outside of paid client work which stems from the very top of the organisation.” This is not surprising because a boss in an ad agency must deliver the financial target set by his boss, and that his boss has to deliver the number to his boss, and so on.

And this is why I become more pessimistic. The billable time business model leads to risk-averse culture that perpetuates certain mindsets and habits of the agency people. And considering that many agencies are part of global networks, we can’t really expect changes will come from a solitary local office.

James Cooper writes extensively about different approaches that ad agencies have taken to behave more like start-ups. There are much more failure than success stories, and at the end, he concludes that it will take:

A budget. A serious budget. A stand alone team, that probably includes weirdos from outside of adland. No client work, not ever. Even that make or break pitch. And an agency management that stays 100% behind the team no matter how badly they fuck up.


So what could a traditional ad agency worker bee do? I don’t have the answer yet. I personally try to focus on helping my colleagues adopt the UX-centric mindset (solving people’s problem first not brand’s, “ideas that do” instead of “ideas that tell”, utility not just storytelling) when they develop digital products as parts of campaigns. I also have an intuition that developing digital products with UX design mindset may be easier in the context of behaviour change within the non-profit sector (more about this later).

Aside from that, for the time being I pacify myself by quoting John Mayer’s “Waiting for the world to change”:

It’s hard to beat the system
When we’re standing at a distance
So we keep waiting
Waiting on the world to change

Because of the content of this post, I believe I need to reiterate that the views I express here don’t necessarily reflect my employer’s, and that the examples I cite here don’t necessarily refer to my workplace. 


8 thoughts on “The more I understand UX design, the more pessimistic I am about the future of advertising agencies

  1. Pingback: The more I understand UX design, the more pessimistic I am about the future of advertising agencies. - Rafael Alex - Digital Designer

  2. interesting. i find that agency people want change and can grapple with the implications of making that change…but at the end of the day, you can’t apply software principles to marketing unless your client is willing to.

    that means building iterations into your scope/budget/timing, embracing and incorporating empirical observation with each iteration (which means admitting failure), and deeply integrating creative work with enterprise platforms so they can actually scale in a way that goes beyond “an integrated campaign” and reaches “a unified brand experience” – which means agencies & marketers need to hang with the CIO a lot more.

    most marketers have no clue how to do any of that. because it’s hard, political and complex. you start dealing with things like re-calibrating ROI, integrating with corporate IT and changing your organization’s ways of working (which are often habits that have been practiced for years).

    that’s why, at the end of the day, most marketers will be happy if they got a mobile app through, or a social page or a banner campaign – because that’s the only thing they’ll know how to ask to get budget for and successfully implement. agencies are just a sad shadow of a much bigger monster – bad and lazy marketers.

  3. Accurately observed BUT: leave away the first 5 paragraphs. From a user’s/reader’s perspective, this is not about you. I understand a bit of bragging is part of why you write but it’s a waste of my time. I kept reading because you depict the situation quite accurately, especially the resistance to change. It is quite applicable not just to advertising but to most traditional industries such as banking etc.

  4. arhcamt says:

    Thank you for writing this. It has been my personal frustration, so much so that I’m starting to think that maybe the advertising agency world is not for me.

  5. jeffrey lim says:

    I totally agreed to your article, this pretty much sum up the situation I believe not only at any advertising agency, but also at most of the IT agency. I’m a design lead in an IT solution company and often I find myself at the situation stuck between heavy functions over understanding the problem.
    It’s frustrating as you can’t conduct any user research as the timeline is tight, there’s no budget for that and so on. The outcome, you deliever something to clients, they come back to you after a while saying their users don’t like this and that. If only more time and efforts were to given to UX research, we will not have to face unhappy users. Agency needs to understand such Research importance over just sales and kpi.
    Thanks for the writing.

  6. Jeff Wible says:

    Thanks for the article. I’m thinking of taking the NYU UX Design Intensive myself. I come from a background of web application design for government customers. I’m not sure how much the user research aspects come into play in my case, but I need to develop apps that are highly usable and have uncluttered interfaces, as they need to pass rigorous user acceptance testing. Would you recommend the course for someone like me?

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