Has tradition made creative agencies stagnant?

The current creative agency structure has existed for upwards of 75 years. Now might be the time to try something new, writes management consultant Henry Innis.

When you talk to most creative agencies about what they do, there’s a consistent theme that springs out. ‘The Big Idea’. ‘Creativity’. ‘Innovation’.

They’re little more than buzzwords these days.

But for a business built on creativity and change, they’ve changed very little themselves. Let’s look at their structure.

Art directors and copywriters still dominate the creative structure. Remarkably, this structure has existed for upwards of 75 years. Why? Mostly because they delivered well to certain mediums.

TV required images and message. So did print. Radio. Even banner ads. They all were well served, at least in many ways, by the traditionalist structure of creative agencies.

Photo by Pawel Kadysz on Unsplash

But it also creates a problem in traditional agencies. They’re encumbered by their culture and history. Their structure naturally creates a bias towards big, narrative-led ideas. Twenty years ago, that was the only idea worth having to create cut through.

Nick Law in his recent interview with Campaign speaks about this lack of innovation. He says that if you have the same atomic gene, it’s unlikely you’re going to get innovative.

It’s his point around ‘additive’ and ‘subtractive’ skills that resonate the most though. Most creative teams in big agencies are subtractive. They look to craft the simplest version of an idea when adding complexity, nuance and different platforms may make the idea work harder.

Law goes on to put some pretty damning comments on traditional creativity: “What I found is that if you had a team mostly of traditional storytellers, they didn’t innovate very well, and if you had more systematic and architectural creatives, they were good at generating possibilities but they weren’t very good at distilling those into a simple brand idea. The tension between those two things, those two ways of thinking, means you are more likely to get both innovation and clarity.”

Of course, creativity is so much more than narrative now as we know. Martin Sorrell recently made comments saying that the big idea used to be a majority of the business, but now that has shifted somewhat to distribution.

Distribution isn’t just in the media placement sense, but how an idea is communicated in various forms, whether or not media and creative are in harmony and how relevant an idea can be in different formats. In short, distribution is the convergence of experience, data and content into one synthesised challenge.

Traditional agencies again are notoriously obsessed with the big idea part of the challenge, and largely lack the skill sets to deal with the distribution challenge. The result is a lot of big ideas that often fail to land in today’s modern media landscape.

To remain relevant, creative agencies will have to change. Big ideas and their narrative bias will keep locking creativity into one stale, stagnant form. It will keep forcing brands and agencies to re-invent themselves with a new positioning every single year.

A very smart and modern creative, Emil Cholich, once said to me over a beer “big ideas are great, but it’s the activations against a big idea that build a brand”. I think he is largely right in that regard. We need to be willing to embrace existing brand platforms and activate them, instead of reinventing them.

This is an immense challenge for a bunch of creative thinkers who are trained to create something big, bold and new every single time.

But if creative agencies are to stay relevant, it might be time to start thinking about whether or not they truly understand creativity well. Because if we’re just creating big, narrative ideas — we’ve missed the opportunity to do so much more.

Henry Innis is a management consultant and strategy director advising brands, CMOs and executives on how to navigate the digital future, better partner with their agencies and get more value from their ad-tech vendors. 


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