The Chairman's Question
29th April 2009
My answer to him at the time was that I didn't feel there was any secret formula. It didn't seem that we were doing anything new or particularly different. But it did get me thinking about the department and how things have altered over the past few years. How our approach may have changed and whether those changes could explain some of the very positive feedback that we're getting from our clients, and what seems to be - for the moment anyway - a pretty healthy new business strike-rate.
One of the most important developments I've witnessed (and one that we have embraced agency-wide) is that every member of staff understands the clients' goals and that our 'raison d'etre' is to market and build our clients' business.
This may sound obvious, but from a Creative Director's perspective it's vital that his department are completely on-board with that. An awful lot of creatives are driven by awards and self-gratification first, and the selling of products and services second. I know this, because I've been there. And learned from experience.
Don't get me wrong, I'm still up for winning awards, but never at the expense of sales.
The good news is; most great creative work can do both. The fact that a message cuts through and stands out in the public arena means that it should be equally capable of captivating an awards jury. But we've all seen award-winning ads that were written with the awards ceremony in mind. To me this is nothing short of criminal. And shows a distinct ignorance of the business we're in.
Forgive my rant about awards - it's a minor bug-bear of mine. The point is, that today's creatives must be able to engage with, and be sympathetic towards, a client's business objectives to have any hope of using their creative skills to help achieve them. And I'm lucky enough to have a team who are just as comfortable conversing about ROI as they are discussing the merits of the latest 118 247 ads.
Another huge and very necessary skill in the creative role is the ability to think in a truly integrated way. I'm proud to say our creative department has developed this capability in spades. The Idea is still King. But it can, and must, be able to take many forms. It should be flexible enough to work across all media from TV to CRM, from a social networking site to 48-sheet poster and still be able to react to any unexpected new media.
It's some years since I stepped across the threshold of my first creative department, but one of my strongest memories is of a team of some repute, and whom I really respected, throwing a young account handler out of their room with the words, "Sorry love, we don't do folding stuff". What they meant by this was that they were far too important to do all those fiddly leaflets and DM bits, they just did the big, sexy things like TV ads and 48 sheets. (The fact that a DPS itself folds appeared to have passed them by.)
Thankfully this attitude has long gone. I don't think it exists in any but the most dinosaur agencies. The interesting point here, though, is that with all the new media avenues available, there is an increasing ability to be able to engage with consumers more accurately and effectively than ever before. The ever-increasing sophistication of online media, and an abundance of clever and innovative print production processes means that 'folding stuff' can often eclipse what was thought traditionally to be the more glamorous media.
Having teams that understand and who can tap into that 360-degree knowledge is more than a big advantage. It's vital.
Though there are a myriad of smaller differences in the industry such as swifter turnarounds and shorter deadlines, a final big point of difference is driven by, and in response to, the current economic situation. Today's creative department must have the ability to produce great creative work within a client's means, whatever they are. This can be really tricky when you have a great concept that you know will sell if only you could get 'that helicopter shot'. The trick here is not to give up on the idea but to look for other angles, (physically in the case of the helicopter). It's essential to look for ways of getting the job completed without losing any of the impact that the client has entrusted you to deliver.
This, at the moment, means digging deep and getting your hands dirty. For example: We've done stuff recently that I wouldn't have dreamt of doing five years ago. A week ago I found myself assisting the photographer on a shoot at the same time as art directing because, given the tight budget, the shoot would simply not have gone ahead unless I had (and for those who don't know what a prima donna I can be, let me tell you, this was some sacrifice - I even chipped a nail!). We've had agency staff out in the middle of the night building ambient installations, and a few weeks ago we asked a senior client to dress up in a seven-foot-tall foam suit and play the part of an important hospital consultant (Dr Hans Clean). To our amazement the client was more than happy to do what, traditionally, we would have got an actor or at the very least a drama student to do. In this case things worked well in our favour because, when our seven-foot friend was unexpectedly interviewed by the BBC, he had the medical knowledge that enabled him to give answers not even the best-briefed actor could have hoped to come back with.
I guess what I'm saying is that a good creative department doesn't give up on doing something that can cut through just because they can't throw tens of thousands of pounds at it. You may not be able to get an idea on to TV but, well, could it work as an online viral? Was that 48-sheet campaign that you couldn't afford the right way to go in the first place or could the money be used in a more focused and bespoke way? Sometimes being forced to search for a different answer out of adversity can work in your favour, and be a lot more satisfying to boot!
Punk rock and hip-hop were both born out of necessity. That 'lick and stick', 'do-it-yourself', 'can-do' work ethic was brought about by another recession. And, whether you like them or not, the sweeping changes they made still reverberate not only across the music industry, but across our entire culture.
So, in answer to the Chairman's question,
"What are we doing differently?". Well, I can't isolate a single solution, but whatever we are doing, it is made an awful lot easier by a department - and a whole agency - that believes in a grown-up, healthy working relationship with its clients. Having a mutual understanding about what the end game is. And by finding big solutions that are flexible enough to achieve it.