Published in Nov-Dec 2018
Welcome to the all-new, ultra-modern and uber chic version of 18th-century slavery, launched under the slick new title of CORPORATE STRUCTURE; masterful in its detail, subtle in its design, it exerts an influence so powerful that it is borderline hypnotic.
An influence that says subscribe to this, fit in, smooth out those edges and belong. Sit in the glorious chair of ideas, think (from nine to five with a two-hour lunch break), but think what sells, think the formula, churn it out like good little cows and we will reward you with a pay cheque that will ensure you won’t feel the pinch of those chains around your feet.
Don’t get me wrong (actually please do) because I have been a part of the system for 17 years. Of course I did not fit in, labelled a rebel and an outcast – too stubborn, opinionated and arrogant. I think I survived because I was an oddity, someone they could handle in small doses but not someone they would want to emulate. Why I would ask? Their reply: because you can get away with it and we cannot.
The truth is, I got away with it because I refused to toe the corporate line (and paid the price by becoming known as a “difficult person to work with”) with myriad small rebellions; not clocking in, not filling in timesheets, not taking lunch hour, saying no profusely, not signing up for the official email and not giving two hoots about whether I was liked or not.
Given this background, here are my own very subjective (and proudly so) learnings on what it would take for new ideas, new entities and new light-bearers to flourish in today’s agency world. However, to get there, you need someone at the top who has the same vision. With this caveat, here goes:
1 Are you someone who does not give a rat’s behind about fitting in? Do you believe you are too cool to be boxed into preconceived notions of what a creative, an idea or a strategy should look like? Great, you are hired. Do your own thing. Bring you to work every day, not a title or a label or a textbook definition, but you, with your beliefs and ideologies.
2 Do you have a degree in biology rather than advertising? Great, you are hired. And, if you don’t have a degree, if you are a stay-at-home mom, a philosopher who spends most of your time looking at bees or a guitar player really into collecting old records – they are all great achievements and you too are hired. Idea people today are either too jaded or too indifferent to believe in something. It pays to not have any experience.
Can we start with a mega reshuffling of this deck we call advertising? To begin with, why are the numbers people running an ideas business? How can people, whose sole purpose is to make an extra buck from a production by saying “yes sir, no sir, two bags full sir” make a call on ideation?
3 Do you have opinions? Big, loud ones? Do you feel too much about stuff? Are you prone to emotional breakdowns when listening to a random piece of music or looking at the sky on Wednesdays? Great, you are hired. We have spent too long training people to be ‘professional’ (which roughly translates into: don’t get invested in what you do, you have your hobbies for that). Robots cannot create; people do. Messy, crazy misfits do. Step aside pipe-blockage! Let it flow!
Changing roles? Yes please. Can we start with a mega reshuffling of this deck we call advertising? To begin with, why are the numbers people running an ideas business? How can people, whose sole purpose is to make an extra buck from a production by saying “yes sir, no sir, two bags full sir” make a call on ideation? The current role of account managers and business directors is to evaluate what makes for a productive idea; forget creativity.
I recently had the opportunity to work as Resident Director at a well-established advertising agency. I found it exciting that a creative and a strategist had been given the chance to run the business. It lasted for a very brief period of time because in spite of the numbers proving that a creative can lead, the higher-ups were not invested in letting this new-age experimentation take off without calling for serious restructuring. This seven-month stint revealed a basic fact – account management is redundant and people who are in the business of selling creative should be led by creative and supported by business development/strategy. Not the other way around.
Which brings us to evolving roles in contemporary idea houses. What works? I will tell you what does not; pigeonholing creatives into cubicles and restricting their personal and creative growth by forcing them to hand over their babies to the ‘money people’ and get busy conceiving another one.
Creatives have to lead and be at the helm. They have to be trained to see their work through to the end; this is the only way real ownership is achieved. A creative who takes ownership of her or his work is a powerhouse to be reckoned with. Empower creatives and they will empower businesses. With this in mind, let us take a peep into how current creatives are perceived by the suits and positioned to clients.
1 Lazy overpaid minions who need to be whipped into shape. If we allow them to roam freely, they will drink all our coffee and invade the office with their laughter, music and smoke. They will waste time and energy talking (which they call brainstorming), and then who will do all the work?
2 What do creatives know about the painstaking work advertising involves? They have all the fun, while we have to take whatever the client dishes out at us and then take the same thing from the creatives. Sigh, the hard work that goes into writing an email and sitting with clients trying to understand the brief.
3 If we let the creatives interact with clients, they will become their best friend and then who will play with us? Creatives are best kept apart in their gilded cages, while account management keeps control on how things should be done.
Parting words: For goodness sake, bring in new blood in terms of ideas, roles and structures. When agencies are run by people who spend their days reminiscing about the way things used to be, we will never experience how things can be.
Madeeha Noor is a Creative Strategy Consultant and Owner of The Idealist.