Collaboration: A blessing or a curse for the ad industry?

Is inter-agency collaboration the only surefire way to produce groundbreaking work? It's a question that divides the industry. Mumbrella's Abigail Dawson asks senior strategists and creatives if design by committee is the key to success - or a recipe for disaster.

Collaboration is a buzzword that stalks adland, with clients and agencies often crediting it with leading to successful campaigns. When inter-agency work fails though, the lack of co-operation,  collaboration and communication is often cited as the reason for the downfall.

The makers of the much-anticipated and controversial Meat and Livestock Australia lamb ad, for example, often attribute the ad’s success to the collaboration between One Green Bean, The Monkeys and UM.


Andrew Howie, group marketing manager at MLA said in July: “All agencies see the concepts and the work before we do, so part of the collaboration is all of the agencies being on board with the direction that we go in and the opportunity for them to then bring that core idea to life through their relevant channels, and it means there’s no commercially driven competition where they are trying to steal money off each other.”

At the 2017 Mumbrella Awards, Red Jelly, Affinity ID NZ, Mindhsare NZ and Countdown Supermarkets won the Award for Collaboration. Their campaign challenged brands and agency partners to merge two of the country’s largest loyalty schemes: Countdown’s Onecard and AA Smartfuel.

As a result of the campaign, one quarter of Kiwis now carry and use the Onecard regularly.

But what do Australia’s creatives and strategists think – should agencies be collaborating more?

Nicole Hetherington, creative director, With Collective:

Hetherington: “When you have minds wired differently on one project it can only make it stronger”

“Collaboration is key in creating a successful advertising campaign. Creative ideas can come from anywhere, so can strong insightful human truths or hilarious scripts. When you have minds wired differently on one project it can only make it stronger.

“While inter-agency collaboration can work really well, collaboration with the client is even more important. They are the gate-keeper to the brand, it’s their baby. Involving them as early as possible to involve them in the thinking and take them on the journey always seems to work best in getting some game-changing work.

“At the end of the day we all want the same thing – an awesome piece of work that makes us proud as humans and advertisers.

“I’ve seen agencies work really well together as well as not so well, I guess it all depends on the willingness to collaborate.”

Seamus Higgins, executive creative director, Havas:

Higgins: “The more we open up to collaborating the more exciting the world becomes”

“Great work exists at the intersections of unexpected disciplines and fields. Great advertising doesn’t feel like advertising, so we need to seek out and develop relationships with partners outside of our world. We would be kidding ourselves in this industry if we thought we were the experts of everything.

“If we are doing great work, we are constantly doing things for the first time. The more we open up our worlds to collaborating with partners in emerging technologies, finding new ways to connect with people, the more exciting our world becomes. To do this, you need to find people who are actually open to collaborating, not those who just talk about it. And mutual trust and respect is critical.

“To do something that hasn’t been done before always involves risk, and investment. Because you will share the success, but also the failure. If you can find someone who’s willing to take the leap with you, you’ve found a good partner. Or maybe they’re just as crazy as you are.”

Guy Marshall, strategy director and partner, Bashful:

Marshall: “Agencies are not good at collaboration”

“Agencies are not good at collaboration. There are two reasons for this. The first is the most fundamental element of a commercial organisation: self interest. Businesses are set up to further their own interests, and this isn’t such a bad thing because invariably the best way to further your own interest is to do a great job for your clients. But, quite often we don’t immediately see the benefit to ourselves from sharing the credit (or the blame) with partners, or allowing those all-important fees to filter out into other organisations.

“The second reason relates to the product that we sell: creativity.

“While I don’t believe there is any secret formula, I do think that one essential ingredient is an element of intimacy between those collaborating.

“In an intimate creative relationship people feel confident, share a common understanding and establish processes through which they can build on each other’s ideas. The ultimate expression of this creative intimacy takes place within the copywriter and art director relationship. Establishing that kind of intimacy between your agency, your clients and agency partners can be challenging, and its lack can fundamentally undermine the creative process.

“There is no question that collaboration is now more essential than ever before to create great work.

“The complexity of a campaign in 2017 requires a number of specialists, and inevitably they can’t all sit within one organisation’s capabilities. If we accept that collaboration with partner agencies and clients is essential for mission success, we need to overcome the two challenges outlined above.

“Firstly, clients need to be aware of the effects that collaboration may have on an individual agency’s remuneration. Transparent, honest conversations that make it clear where one agency’s responsibility begins and ends will create a playing field where everyone stops protecting fiefdoms and look to do their part well and in turn allow partner agencies to build and improve upon their work.

“Secondly agencies, clients and partner agencies need to do more to establish creative intimacy.

“Time needs to be invested in building relationships and realistic expectations set of what a group process can achieve.”

Hamish Grieve, freelance creative director:

Grieve: “Rival agencies will not work together to create work in the near future”

“I don’t see rival agencies holding hands to create work and sing Kumbaya any time soon. However, specialist agencies in the same network will always work as one to bring fully integrated campaigns to market. And we’ll continue to see communications agencies partnering with specialists like Finch to execute tech-based ideas – with a spike in these collaborations around three months before Cannes.

“Like pigs in a trough, rival networks have never been good at sharing. And while the multi-agency roster is now a fact of life, the jostling and lunch-cutting that occurs when this isn’t well managed by the client is evidence that agencies just aren’t good at playing nice. And to expect them to is probably unrealistic, they are in competition after all.”

Siobhan Fitzgerald, creative and writer, The Monkeys:

Fitzgerald: “Inter-agency collaboration is a tricky beast”

“I’m going to say no. And yes. Inter-agency collaboration is a tricky beast. It can get competitive and messy, and if there are examples of inter-agency collaborations producing groundbreaking work I haven’t heard of them (which isn’t to say they don’t exist!)

“Collaborating with clients, however, is another matter.

“As long as there is mutual respect for the others’ area of expertise, agency-client collaboration makes a lot of sense – especially because the greatest challenge is usually pushing the groundbreaking work through the business. If you’ve got a client who’s on side, you’ve got a much better chance of making that happen.”

Phil Watson, executive creative director, Momentum Worldwide:

Watson: “‘Designed-by-committee’ is a criticism rather than an accolade”

“I think most groundbreaking work tends to originate from the often perverse tenacity of an individual or small group of individuals. Hence ‘designed-by-committee’ being a criticism rather than an accolade, and the frequent belligerence of creative directors.

“When it comes to agency collaboration, it’s usually a thinly-veiled fight for influence driven by a client throwing a brief out to the entire agency village. While the agencies may all play nice in the briefing session, there is zero incentive to collaborate and scant evidence that it will produce better work.

“The best that can come of that scenario is that after the client picks a route, the various agencies ‘collaborate’ in its execution. The success of this depends on the client having firm rules about who gets to eat whose lunch and the suitability of the idea to actually work in various channels.

“So if groundbreaking work happens when agencies are asked to collaborate, it’s not due to the process creating ideal conditions, it’s despite the process. Creating the ideal conditions for groundbreaking work may therefore require also breaking some new ground. I think solving the issue of equal stakes and gains is a start, but perhaps something more radical is required – a fascinating area for some research I think!”


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