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If nobody likes advertising agencies how come they keep opening them?

Illustration Minky Stapleton

“There is no bad whiskey. There are only some whiskeys that aren’t as good as others.”
Raymond Chandler

What is a creative department? It is kind of a stupid name. A bit like art regiment or idea navy. Actually, I quite like idea navy.

It is an amazing place to work. In a split second, somebody can put two and two together and all of a sudden you are staring at a beautiful idea. To get paid to come up with ideas is a great way to make a living. And there are days, that are so special, they stay with you for life. Those are the days when the invisible becomes visible. When the idea in your head is standing in front of you.

A great creative department doesn’t happen by accident. And they don’t happen easily. They are far more liquid than solid. Forever changing, moving in and out of greatness. What will the Lego people build today? Some days things that are magic and impossible, some days things that are shit. And the next day, the shit has become magic. That is the weird world of a creative department.

The reason I mention this wonderful place is that I have noticed these days literally everybody is starting a creative department. In essence, an ad agency. Tech companies, production companies, consultants, entertainment companies, media companies as well as clients. I keep hearing these two words. Creative capability.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of people think creating a successful creative department is purely a numbers game. If you have enough people you will be able to do what everybody else can do. You just need the factory that makes that invisible idea stuff. That’s not how this factory works. Ideas are invisible and so are the qualities and conditions that create them.

Let’s use a restaurant as an example. You have a favourite restaurant. A beautiful bistro. You decide you are going to make one just like it. You get another chef and get him the exact same outfit. You can’t get the same building, so you use the cafeteria at work which has a very modern kitchen. The brilliant French maitre’d doesn’t want to work there, so you get someone who also speaks french. On top of this, you decide what’s on the menu. How do you think that’s going to work out?

Yet, this is the approach for many in our business.

Creativity and ideas are not only about having enough people. They are also about environment and inspiration. The very fact that some agencies do work that is so much better than others proves this. Despite what self-help books say, talent is not equally distributed. There will be many cynics rolling their eyes. They will say these are soft issues. Well, if you have ever been through turning an agency around you will know these are the first things you try and get right. Without it, the place has no gravity. And ultimately without gravity, or belief, creativity becomes average and eventually dies. The sad part is it doesn’t die in a spectacular way. So nobody sees it happening. It dies imperceptibly, so very slowly, and then it is too late.

So, if you believe you can get a whole lot of creatives types and stick them in a room and get brilliant ideas think again. If you don’t believe me go and read some of the comments on a blog like agency spy. It doesn’t make pleasant reading. You will see what a messy business creativity can be. Ego, insecurity, loyalty, anger and fear all on display. Yet, what it also shows is what a human business the ideas business is.

The truth is, great work comes from getting the blend of people right. And you do that by trial and error. It is definitely not a science and there are days where it doesn’t feel like an art.  A creative department is never a single malt, it is a blend. And a blend, is not copied, it is created. A creative department is no different. You need the right ingredients and conditions. You need time. You need conviction.You need madness and some luck. You need talent. And, you need bravery because you hardly ever have all the things I have just said, at the same time.

In the next couple of years, we will see some massive creative department car crashes. This is because many believe creating a creative department requires no skill, just the correct amount of people to do the work.

Be very careful if you think it is that easy. It is not.

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2 thoughts on “If nobody likes advertising agencies how come they keep opening them?

  1. My 2 cents; because there are more folk running around with delusions of creative adequacy – and clients naive so naive who cannot tell the difference between a pencil and a strategy if it hit them in the eye.

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