The creative agency setup is not fit for purpose, so why aren’t we innovating?


The advertising industry is constantly urging its clients to innovate, so why are so many ad agencies not changing the way their creative departments operate asks Steve Coll.

Malcolm Turnbull is creating government for the 21st Century. Department stores are trialling robots. Builders are 3D printing houses. So why are many creative departments stuck in the 1950’s?

Our new PM seems to be a man with an eye on the future. Undoubtedly, the other will squarely be on yesterday’s opinion polls. But his talk of the future and our place in it is timely and provocative for many Australian industries.

After a month in a new gig, I’ve spent much of my time examining the make-up of the modern agency. I joined With Collective partly because Justin and Dom, the founders of WiTH and my new partners, have a laser-like focus on the future of our business. And, as I contemplate how the industry needs to re-shape and respond for the future, I can’t help thinking that we, the creative community, have been amongst the slowest to embrace change.

I appreciate I am making a generalisation. But I think its largely fair.

I got my first job in an agency creative department almost 20 years ago. That job would have been best described as ‘Glorified Tea-maker’, even though my business card said ‘Junior Copywriter’. Fast forward to today and its hard to find words to describe the change in the world of advertising.

The brands we love, like Uber and Airbnb build relationships through utility and UX, less and less through big brand advertising. Customers are using social media to exert more power than ever on brands and companies. Data makes our ability to measure and understand individual customer behaviour increasingly sophisticated.

Virtual Reality is virtually a reality. And robots and driverless cars look fairly close to being part of our lives.

In that time, the set up of creative departments doesn’t seem to have changed much at all.

Creativity is unquestionably a vital part of the future of our business. So why do our departments seem part of the past?

The set-up of copywriter and art director teams is overwhelmingly how most departments are shaped, both in Australia and elsewhere. This structure has existed for decades, the legacy of how creative departments operated in the Bernbach days at DDB in the 1950’s.

Now, to be clear, it’s not that I believe the idea of teams is the problem. It’s more that we seem scared to challenge a status quo that was established over 50 years ago. We have developed a received way of doing what we do and who does it.

It’s formulaic. Which seems very odd.

Because messing with formulas and coming up with amazing results is what the best creative people are supposed to do. In fact, its what creative people love to do. The old (and not very funny) joke goes “How many creatives does it take to change a light-bulb? Does it have to be a light bulb?” Again, not the best stand-up material, but it illustrates the kind of relentless questioning that goes hand-in-hand with good creative thinking and has often delivered incredible results for clients.

But the successes of the past is not necessarily a blueprint for the future.

My overwhelming impression is that the average creative department feels like a legacy. It seems strange to me that we aren’t questioning our own model.

More urgently, if we don’t change fast, then smart, energetic creative thinkers in agencies are going to leave or get left behind.

As I said, I am writing this as an observation about the industry at large, and indeed there are a few interesting agencies posing a credible threat to the traditional model, particularly in the US. But we aren’t having the wholesale re-invention you would expect.

Our creative agency process seems equally retrospective.

Smarter people than me describe the creative agency method as a waterfall process. The brief is carried, as a client once observed to me, on a velvet cushion in a solemn procession from the account service team to the planning department and then into the creative team.

Isn’t it worth at least experimenting with how we do what we do?

I am not talking about hiring architects into the creative structure like some misguided London agencies famously did in the early 2000’s. But I look at areas like customer experience (something I’m becoming increasingly fascinated by) as a relevant, impactful and interesting inclusion in the creative process. How are we changing to account for that?

Same for data. I now find myself working closely with an economist and full-time data nerd (as I am sure Justin won’t mind me saying). We’re looking at new ways to solve business problems, different ways to blend the smart and the crazy together, think fast, get more brains in the room, and involve our clients from the beginning. I’ll be honest, it’s more exciting than you’d believe anything featuring the word data could ever be! Can’t we experiment with how the right brain and left brain work together as part of the creative process?

I don’t pretend for a second to have all the answers. And perhaps I’m not getting out enough to talk to fellow creative leaders. But I do believe we need to re-look at how our departments are set up to meet the whirlwind of change in the world of mobile, data personalisation and customer comms. Also how we collaborate with clients and outside experts to get the best results.

I feel the argy-bargy we should be having over different methods of thinking, as well as who and what makes the modern creative department tick, is strangely quiet.

Creative people consistently ask clients to be brave. Maybe its time we took a dose of our own medicine.

  • Steve Coll is creative partner at With Collective

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