Published in Sep-Oct 2020
Clients and agencies. Oil and water. Tom and Jerry. No matter which side you work for, there is no denying the strained relationship that has long existed between these two polarised forces.
Like an old bickering married couple, agency folk and clients just cannot seem to live with – or without – each other. So it is always intriguing when you hear about people switching from one side to the other; defectors who put aside their differences to play for the opposing team. As a creative director of 15 years, I never understood how someone could make such a drastic U-turn in his or her career. The mere thought gave me whiplash. I knew client service people and creatives who absolutely hated working with clients and ended up leaving their agencies to become clients themselves. It was perplexing to me. Hypocritical. Betraying. I could never do something like that. Or could I?
In mid-2019, the ad industry took a nosedive. Agencies went into survival mode, some even plunging into darkness. Marketing budgets were slashed. Big TVC campaigns dwindled down to budgeted DVCs. Agency teams were trimmed, split and shuffled like buckets of shrimp. Business was slipping through the cracks and there was very little that I (or anyone else) could do about it. Even clients, with whom I had great terms, were funnelling work to smaller agencies without so much as a courtesy call. Times were tough and I could feel the walls closing in. So, with a heavy heart, I decided to leave the agency racket in search of something more stable.
Less than a month later, I received a call from a client who heard about my departure from the industry, inviting me to join them as a creative head. It was odd. I expected other agencies to call but never a client. The more I weighed my options, the more the idea appealed to me. A few months later, I did the unthinkable and joined the dark side. I did what I had judged so many others for having done before: I became a client. And although it has been less than a year, I can safely say that my leap across the great divide was a rewarding decision. In fact, it has given me an incredible perspective on what it is like to work on both sides of the fence and how things could be improved between agencies and their client counterparts.
The first thing that struck me when I moved to the client side was how much easier it was to come up with insightful creative campaigns and have them approved. It is like playing a match on your home ground: you are already familiar with the ins and outs of the company, how things work, what the limitations are and the temperament of your stakeholders. You have direct access to information you could never possibly have while working on the outside as a third party. You are living and breathing the brand day in and day out, so not only does it make it easier to focus on ideas and communication, it makes them much more likely to get green-lighted in the first go. This said, in a client setup, you may not be surrounded by many like-minded creative thinkers, so it is really up to you to carry the creative torch through to execution.
Working on a brand from the agency side is quite different. Chances are, as a senior creative, you are probably pitching and working on more brands than you can count, while dealing with skimpy briefs, short deadlines and irate clients on a regular basis. And that is just the external pressure. Internally, agencies are notorious for overcrowding and overcomplicating the ideation process. Scores of unnecessary people are involved in brainstorming and review sessions, many of whom have a varying understanding of the brief and the client’s long-term objectives. Ideas are often over-scrutinised and run through a gauntlet of approvals, which ends up diluting and dumbing down creativity. As Executive Creative Director, John Long (Ogilvy USA) said: “Great work is rarely done by committee. It’s a given that the more people weigh in, the more the work will revert to the safe, the expected, the bland.” Agencies unfortunately have yet to understand and overcome this counterproductive habit of cramming too many cooks in the kitchen.
The other benefit of working as an in-house creative is the quick turnaround time. On average, it takes me about 24 hours to crack a big campaign idea, about two days to plan the exploitation with the team and roughly eight to 10 days to have it produced and put on air. Instead of written briefs, we usually have a meeting with key stakeholders, ask questions, take notes and get to work. There really is not much else to it (nor should there be). In the agency, however, no matter how fast we worked, it would usually take a week or more to first get through the internal rounds of approvals before we could present to the client. Add that to the delays caused by back and forth, and campaign development could (and often did) drag on for months. Unfortunately, a lot tends to get lost in translation between brand teams and agencies at the time of briefing. Very few brand managers are good at writing inspiring briefs, just as very few creatives are good at interpreting them critically, which leads to a lot of lost time and frustration on both sides. As a third party communication partner, time is just one of those things that never seem to be on your side.
For true creative people, creative work is never difficult. Well, at least it is not supposed to be. For 15 years, I always assumed that ad agencies were the ideal place to produce creative work. It was only when I switched to the client side did I discover a new environment that was perhaps even more conducive to drumming up big ideas. It may not be teeming with creative people or have that laid-back agency vibe, but working within a client’s setup certainly does empower creatives to produce amazing work. Of course, it depends on which agency or client you work for and how progressive or nurturing their cultures are. It also depends on what sort of team and management you have, how experienced they are and how much they get involved in your work. For me, the ideal environment has to provide the space, the time and the inspiration to produce. It has to know where your expertise begins and ends. And most of all, it has to trust your judgement and input. Whether you find that in an agency or on the client side is a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
Taimur Tajik is Creative Head, Interwood.