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Creative Craft… Or Creative Crap?

A number of years ago, Derek Walker of Brown & Browner Advertising, Columbia, SC, wrote a great AdAge.com blog post on the state of agency creativity: “Doing That Crap is Going to Cost You – Agencies (and Clients) Pay More for Shoddy Work.” The relentless pressure on agencies to produce great work under quick-turnaround time constraints has yielded some unfortunate results. Client and agency-side financial pressures have also driven agencies toward the “just get it done” mode of doing business. But, as Mr. Walker states, there is hope for the future.

First, however, are the concerns for the here-and-now. Today’s crop of TV ads often sound, and look very similar to ads viewed last month… or last year. I know everything is derivative, and that every creative idea stems from some previous inspiration. But it seems as though creatives are working within a very narrow set of expectations, leading to a lot of look-alike, sound-alike ads.

Generation Generic
Ads targeted at parents or middle-aged people often have an acoustic, folksy guitar playing in the background. Every one of these “cute ’n cozy” ads sounds the same: generic. Often, you can hear an ad’s soundtrack and know the target audience without even seeing the visual images… or paying attention to the product being pitched.

On paper, most agencies’ mission is to help clients stand out from the pack, adding something unique and expressive. But this mission is being lost amid time and financial pressures from the client. Another issue is client insistence on doing things their way: the dreaded “advertising by committee” approach often squashes the seeds of creativity right at the start of a project.

Get Creative with the Budget You Have
Money makes the world go ’round, but when the work becomes too money-and-time driven, it ceases to be creative. It all comes back to the old question: Do you want good work, or do you want cheap work? Of course, you (usually) can’t have both.

What you can do to is to be creative with the resources at hand. Said Voyager360/bartman of Santa Fe, NM, in response to Mr. Walker’s blog: “Forcing a broadcast idea design for TV that the client cannot afford can be better done by taking the video idea to YouTube. Taking the billboard idea the client cannot afford can be better done if we go for a 9” X 7”- direct mail postcard and a month’s worth of radio ads. Use the client’s money for what you do best: Creating great ideas to help market or sell your client’s stuff. Get used to the idea that we all have to do the SAME work with LESS money.”

Build in Time Up Front to Be More Creative
Agency creatives need time to roll ideas around, talk about them, sleep on them, and look at them from multiple angles. Your clients need to be made very aware that rush deadlines will not only bump up the cost of a job, they will most likely bump down the quality of the work. Nobody wants to hear this in today’s “I want it now” culture, but it’s still true.

As Clio Hall of Famer Harry Webber (I Am Stuck on Band-Aid Brand, A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste, Quality Is Job 1) states: “You simply cannot accept the ‘not enough time’ excuse. Steal time. Borrow time. Wrestle time to the ground and sit on time. But whatever you do, commit yourself to taking the time to make it great.”

Mr. Webber is absolutely correct. Agencies often seem to consider time as a cost issue, rather than a creative issue. Take a look at your creative people. Do they seem relaxed, do they laugh a lot, or are they tensely hunched over their keyboards for ten hours a day? If it’s the latter, review their workloads and time demands, sit down and discuss how they feel about their work, etc. And by all means, make sure they have more time to be creative—your clients will eventually see the results, and thank you.

Are Your Relationships Creative, or Profit-Driven?
Naturally, any agency person is very pleased to land a big dollar account. You’d be insane not to be happy about that, right? Well, not always. Relationships matter, too. Be careful that the big account treats you as a partner and not just another in their long list of vendors. Being a partner can put your agency in the creative driver’s seat. Being a vendor puts you in that proverbial dog crate in the back of the SUV… and it’s not a great ride back there in the creative cage.

Consider the opinion of another AdAge commenter, Agency Babylon’s Neil Keilar. “Agencies at the highest risk of producing ‘crappy work’ …view new client acquisition, and even current client development, as transaction-based vs. relationship-based [and] believe that their talented team members are mere workers.” An interesting view, don’t you think? Unfortunately, this happens all too frequently.

Agencies get very excited about the numbers, and forget about the people they’ll be dealing with, clients and in-house people alike—and how they’ll be contributing to the process. Of course, staying within budget is often a matter of survival in our business, but keep in mind that long-term profits and quality work come from maintaining good client and in-house relationships.

Some final thoughts via Chris Arnold, of London’s Creative Orchestra (Creative Orchestra claims to be an entirely new take on the agency model, focused on creative and eliminating account service in favor of project managers); Mr. Arnold describes his organization as “a creative utopia.”)

“We adopted an ethos, DON’T DO AVERAGE, so we will say no to doing crap. As we set up as a CIC, we are legally bound to our defined mission. Which means we are the only agency in the world legally bound to doing good creative work… When we launched they said we wouldn’t last two weeks. Fourteen months later, we’ve done work for many top brands and are planning to launch in Spain. (New York next year, maybe.) …The key is stick to your values. Do what you do well and the money will come.”

If clients seek us out for our ideas, but then shut us down creatively, what exactly are they spending their money on? Remind your clients periodically that there is a reason they hired you beyond just needing any old vendor. If they disagree, kick your new business pursuit up a notch and find clients who do want the creative juice you can provide. This business is tough enough without working for clients who just want to be petty dictators, pushing blame on the agency when the client’s ideas fail. No one ever said being a great creative agency was going to be easy.

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