If Don Draper were working in today’s ad business, there is a good chance his business card wouldn’t read Sterling Cooper but instead Google, Apple or Facebook. Mr Draper may have found enlightenment on a mountaintop but today’s creatives are increasingly finding their Zen outside the ad world. Seeking relief from the realities of today’s agency life, such as fighting procurement, dealing with difficult clients and continually proving your worth with creative jump balls, more creatives are looking outwards from their cubicles towards new possibilities.
To be effective, today’s creatives need to be superheroes with super-creative powers, simultaneously playing the roles of technologist, strategist, designer, entrepreneur, business developer, sales person and more. They often need to deploy this entire arsenal over the course of a few hours and with a very limited budget. Not only is it near impossible to find these super creatives, but it is even harder to keep them happy and healthy in such a hectic environment.
The exodus of talent that we have been hearing so much about at executive and director levels is now filtering down to smart, young, digital creatives, planners and account managers. Young creatives who were once inspired by the lifestyle of ad campaigns and cocktails depicted in Mad Men, now believe that a combination of technological change and the short-term drive for profit is killing creativity.
Over the past few years, it seems like we have been hearing the same conversation over and over again with friends in dozens of agencies around the country and it usually starts like this:
“Who do you think is the best agency at the moment? Is anyone doing good work?”
And ends with them explaining why they are thinking of moving on. The reasons why are always the same:
“I want to work on an actual product people want to use.”
“I want to do my own thing.”
“I want to explore more.”
“We never do any interesting work.”
“We only care about hitting targets.”
“I don’t feel like I’m learning.”
“We never push back and tell the client their ideas are s*#@.”
The respect, fun and profitability of working in what was once one of the most fulfilling and glamorous of industries now has become a grim sweatshop for the people who do the work. Not a day passes when you can’t go through your feed without avoiding a tweet, an article or a keynote speech telling us how we work in a dying industry and how we are all getting it wrong.
Despite the emergence of new paradigms, ad agencies are still approaching work as they did in the sixties when the creative revolution, led by Bill Bernbach, gave the creative department its now legendary binary structure of copywriter and art director.
We need fresher thinking, they say. Digital natives, they say. Googlers and Facebookers and Applers and people who are creative and ambitious and multitalented enough to shake things up. Seems like a sound argument until one realises the tragic truth: the talent we are looking for already works with us.
What is broken is not our people. It’s our process.
It’s a process that has been endlessly debated but not reinvented and it has not adapted to the changing world around us. All of this in an industry that prides itself on challenging the status quo. Agencies have become exceptionally good at wasting talent through antiquated structures that stifle fresh thinking and trivialise the true value of young talent who are uniquely positioned to dream up new ways to reinvent how agencies work. For many who do make the leap, the appeal lies in the opportunity to do work that requires a different level of thinking or can even change the world.
Despite the emergence of new paradigms, ad agencies are still approaching work as they did in the sixties when the creative revolution, led by Bill Bernbach, gave the creative department its now legendary binary structure of copywriter and art director. This binary model may still be optimal for the creation of traditional advertising, but when it comes to solving bigger and more complex business problems and when the desired output is not just creative advertising but creativity or innovation at large, the current approach is all too often limiting and archaic.
The people who generate the ideas and work are realising that they themselves could be reaping the rewards rather than the agency. Agencies on the other hand, are happy to keep trying to live in a world which is ceasing to exist. Clinging onto the same ideas, tools and ways of working with CEOs who are either oblivious to the current mindset or too frightened to instigate change. It’s the perfect combination of increasing entrepreneurialism, decreasing loyalty and an industry revelling in mediocrity.
Isolated from clients and account services, the average creative spends the majority of his/her day hiding out in the creative department, exchanging only the most promising ideas with their partner, ally and confidante. Those promising ideas are then shared with the creative director who makes his or her own selection. Next, the narrowed down and polished concepts make it to the account team for a quick sanity check. Finally, the selected ideas (two or three at most) are pitched to the client who has been left completely in the dark during the entire process. The centralised model puts immense pressure on creatives. Every day, we are the go-to people tasked with solving just about every problem in the agency – RUSH, ASAP or EOD with a big, red exclamation mark! This is a task that is not only exhausting but also overwhelming at times. In an ever-changing, ever-faster world where everything needs to be continuously reworked, it no longer seems sane or sustainable to grant creatives full authority over ideas. Not when the scope of our work has become so vast. Our product is no longer just creative advertising; it is big data, product design, innovation, business strategy, organisational design and more.
What bothers the young is that a bizarre paradox plagues our industry. The fear of the unknown resides in the hearts of the agencies. They want to be brave, have inventive thinking that will help clients stand for something and stand out in the world, but the young talent in advertising, which is full of a glorious mix of impatience, irreverence and speed, is held back. We tell them that it doesn’t work like that; we tell them to stop wasting time doing it differently; the work has to get out the door! The processes we have in place for working are smothering our people’s ability to dream and execute ideas that truly change the model. Advertising is so afraid to take risks. We are scared of the world we haven’t met yet and we are clinging to an antiquated model because it’s safe. And it’s crippling our capacity to innovate.
In a time-based compensation model, the generating of creative work moves along a familiar conveyor belt towards the end. Conference calls, check-ins, status updates. Click, click, click. We have meetings about meetings, the baton is passed and everyone hopes the moment of genius will strike the person to whom they are passing the baton.
The word ‘groupthink’ borders on blasphemy in an advertising industry that prides itself on independent, original thought. Outsiders imagine a creative process that must be as unique to each agency as the ideas they put out into the world. But insiders know better; the same cookie-cutter approach to making ads exist in every agency.
There is no denying it. We all operate under a set of unwritten rules. We use antiquated job titles to divide people into silos: account managers, strategists, creatives, production and so on. We strive to hire the most creatively-minded talent at every level but when people arrive on the job, we tacitly tell them to stick to what they know.
Then there is the unchallenged assembly line along which work is generated. In a time-based compensation model, the generating of creative work moves along a familiar conveyor belt towards the end. Conference calls, check-ins, status updates. Click, click, click. We have meetings about meetings, the baton is passed and everyone hopes the moment of genius will strike the person to whom they are passing the baton.
The pressure falls unfairly on the creatives and we have unwittingly disenfranchised all our talented people from having a voice in the creative part of the process. And today, they hate this. The creative minds whom we took great pains to find and hire, feel trapped, frustrated and unfulfilled. The unwritten rules are not necessarily taught by management, but they exist nonetheless. Unspoken, gently reinforced and subtly encouraged.
In all creative organisations, there is an unseen hand guiding the way of the creative work and all collaboration occurs inside the agency. Fear becomes the driving force; the fear of missing a deadline, disappointing a client or wasting time trying to find inspiration. It so happens that the work keeps churning out, but the creatives forget the reason why they wanted to be a creative in the first place.
The talent is there as is the desire, but agencies and the clients must strive to create places where talented people want to use their skills to build great things for clients and users; otherwise, they will take their passion and curiosity somewhere else, leaving only the deadwood behind.
Agencies and clients have become exceptionally good at wasting talent through antiquated structures that stifle innovation and trivialise the true value of young talent.
Sumaira Mirza is Creative Director, Spectrum Y&R Pakistan.