An end to self delusion


The Trabant – Boy it must have seemed like a great car to the good people of the DDR until someone knocked down the Berlin Wall.

I have started writing a regular column on advertising for New Media Age in the UK.

In this first article (which appeared on 26th July 2007) I comment on the way immediate and free access to the world’s creative product has destroyed the cockyness and self confidence of UK adland by showing us we no longer lead the world in this arena. In part I lay the blame on the sterility of the London agency landscape.

As the soothsayers of the digital world are so fond of predicting, the internet will be the death of advertising.
But not in the way that they think and much faster than any of them hoped.
In fact the internet has already delivered the greatest blow imaginable to our industry. It has shown us in graphic detail that we are no longer masters of the advertising universe.
More than this it has revealed that nations we had always assumed were incapable of turning out decent advertising might be rather better at it than us.
This has come as somewhat of a shock. As a country we may have lost our ability to actually make stuff, sold all our utilities to the French and can’ t play international sport for toffee but we always thought we led the world in the dark art of creative persuasion.
Hell, it was the one thing that we were better at than the Americans.
And the blame lies squarely at the door of the internet and You Tube in particular. Just as the fall of the Berlin Wall exposed the East Germans to the shortcomings of their beloved Trabant, the internet has forced us to concede that we are no longer the best in the world at something we had long prided ourselves.
For the first time we have free and immediate access to the best advertising on earth. Ads that are recommended, served up and debated by a global advertising community now welded together by its blogs, wiki’s and social networks. And the result is there is no longer a place for our insular complacency to hide.
Of course we had half suspected what was going on, as foreigners started to scoop up international advertising awards and consumer affection for what we do collapsed. It’s just that You Tube has rubbed this fall from creative grace in our faces.
And what explains our predicament? Well, like the decline of any great industry there are many factors at play.
But a significant issue is the sheer sterility of the London advertising scene, once so innovative, self assured and lets face it flamboyant.
Not only have we lost most our most interesting agencies from HHCL to Simons Palmer, closed or sucked up into monolithic networks by multiple mergers. But they are not being replaced
The dynamo of creativity and energy in our business – the creative hotshop – has all but disappeared. Sure, there have been new ad agencies in the last decade but there has been nothing since the foundation of Mother with the ambition or creative passion to keep the flame of UK creativity alive.
It is a dark day indeed when the agencies that are most loved and respected in London, Wieden’s and Fallon, are outposts of US networks.
Maybe the hotshop mantle has been passed to the digital agencies that seem to have some of the vision, creativity and swagger that was once the preserve of the ad agencies. Maybe it is to these organisations that we should be looking for our creative renaissance. May be. In the meantime the ad agencies are left to lick their wounds.
Without that pesky internet we could have gone on fooling ourselves that we were the global centre of excellence in commercial creativity. We could have continued to pat ourselves on the back and dole out our own self-referential creative awards, safe in our cosy bubble of self-delusion.
In destroying the most important ingredient for success in our business, that of un-bridled self-confidence, the internet has already delivered a fatal blow to UK advertising.

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37 Replies to “An end to self delusion”

  1. Is it a fatal blow?
    To me it seems like a hefty kick whilst it is already down, but a death blow? I dont think so.
    I think this is the warning. The “pay up or next time we finish the job”, the “never cheat on me again”, the “If we lose this its Conference football for us”.
    Although the inspirational agencies are far too few, the fact that there are SOME, however small; shows that while the UK ad industry might be critically ill, it isnt time to turn off life support just yet.
    Lets also not forget that many of the agencies that would have been formed here have simply been taken elsewhere (especially the ex HHCL people). CPB for one, Cynic for two.
    Its our job to fix this. All we need is the determination and belief to do it.

  2. Britain, Britain Britain…
    I agree with this post for the most part, but I have to comment that there are British agencies (two in particular) which are trying to forge a new media landscape.
    Having met people from Iris, I like what they are trying to do:
    Especially the focus on experential marketing. It’s very innovative, and seems to be genuinely business building – not tacked on, as I worry it is with a few agencies.
    I also like Albion. Formed by ex Tribal DDB chaps and others – it’s a fascinating agency, which genuinely seems to want to see a future beyond just conventional branding. Check out the work they’ve done for Skype, Hard Fi and Skype (most notably):
    I’m actually really happy the Internet has opened up the creative landscape. It should drive us on, not make us cower into the background – governmental restraints aside.

  3. Hard to feel sorry for an industry that’s had its head up its provincial arse for a few decades.
    But where do we go from here?
    I’m in favour of a new Creative Revolution (just trying this thought on for size for the first time)…
    Revolutions are as much against something, as they are for something of course. Thus, Bernbach was against the shout-y, unintelligent, dull, patronizing advertising of the time… and in favour irony, understatement, intelligence and affection for one’s audience… Burnett was against the acres of type found in much of advertising and argued in favour of visual drama and iconography. Etc.
    Which leads me to wonder if what we need is two things.
    We need to identify the new enemy (and please, the enemy need not be advertising, or the TV ad, or all brand-generated film).
    And we need a creative visionary to lead the movement. Not a techno-geek. And not (heaven-forbid) a planner.
    Lest there be any misunderstanding, I do not hold creatives solely responsible for the sterility of the ad scene. It’s a bit more Murder on the Orient Express (i.e. we all did it) than that.
    But, until creatives lead the revolution it will remain merely coffee-house dissembling and blog-gossip.
    I want to hear from creatives how they want to change the world.
    Not sure if I believe in any of the above. Type then think, I say. What do you think?

  4. Oops, I meant to put ‘and Innocent’, rather than repeat myself.
    Grumpy – I agree with you about the Creatives point, but I suppose the problem is that all the natural points of creative rebellion (that Bernbach/Burnett were against) have been taken up.
    Perhaps then it’s advertising against mediocrity, or advertising against wider, more cultural problems?
    I don’t know…

  5. Yes, yes,yes what we are looking for are creative visionaries. Our industry has always been driven by creative people finding a new way forward. But where are they?

    We have no need of heroes any longer. In the words of David Fincher, director of ‘Fight Club’ – “There’s nothing to kill anymore, there’s nothing to fight, nothing to overcome, nothing to explore”.
    There are no creative visionaries in our industry any longer
    Creatives could be visionary but are too busy eeking out the last vestiges of the advertising stripmine for their own gain to give a damn about the future
    Planners are the new creative visionaries
    Creativity has been democratised. We’re all creative visionaires now
    Anybody involved in web 2.0 is a creative visionary
    Being a creative visionary is easy. All it takes is to recognise that all that advertising nonsense is so 1.0… and so dead
    Creatives today are all a bunch of pussies
    We don’t need creative visionaries and iconoclasts these days. We need technocrats and experts
    Accountability, consolidation, and short-term greed have stifled advertising’s radical spirit, the urge to find as Richard puts it “a new way forward”
    Personally, I tend to believe that scenarios 1 – 9 are largely bullshit.

  7. I want SCENARIO 11, to be honest:
    Creative visionaries who aren’t beholden to a holding network’s bottom line, and believe a creative solution could just as easily lie in building a bridge or a 30 second TV spot (yes, really).

  8. The assumption that by negating accountability and bottom-lines the path for radical creativity is automatically opened never ceases to amaze me.
    There is much talk about the evil of all of this, but never any thought about how to make it better. Arguing from the comfort zone of networked agency is obviously a difficult thing to do; they pay your the salary you would expect, and there is always toilet paper in the loo.
    We’re quite early on in the discussion here but we’ve still yet to answer Richard’s question. Again we spiral down into moans and groans about demonic networks and if a planner can be creative.

  9. Marcus – I’m not assuming that ‘all holding networks are evil’. But nor am I ignoring the tremendous financial pressure many have at the sharp end of one of these shops.
    Nor do I believe that creativity flows like a mountain stream when financial pressure is removed. God no.
    Well, how DO we make it better then? Recruiting from outside the typical channels of advertising recruitment, as you hint at earlier – get architects, composers involved?
    I’ll hold my hand up and say that I don’t know.

  10. Well I have a pretty good idea how I’d go about it and it wouldn’t involve either a planner or a creative parading into London waving an olive branch, riding on the back of a clapped out donkey while all the agency folk shout hosanna and plan his/her crucifixion.

  11. Well I guess in the time we’re living in there won’t be a REVOLUTION as in it’s established meaning. There won’t be a cut that changes everything. And I think there won’t be an agency alone that changes the way our business is thinking and doing. And it won’t happen where you expect it. There have been small cuts that “developed” thinking. The Mother’s Britart Campaign and CP+B’s work for Mini and Burger King. But in the global times we’re living in it got adapted by other agencies soon and therefore was a common way of working and thinking pretty fast.
    Now that this may sound very unidealistic but it’s not. There won’t be a planner or a creative to change as there simply won’t be one messiah who will revolutionize communication business and leads the herd into a glorious future (though this would be the fantastic way for the self-centred business that we are). And there won’t be a glamorous big new way to do things. There will be many planners and many creatives and many client service people to develop the thing that advertising is right now. And there will be many innovations that will change our business and the way we think. Not only one (that would have been slightly boring, wouldn’t it).
    But who knows, maybe the new messiah is working right next to us and we only have to wait for him to step forward.

  12. Sites like You Tube have not only opened my eyes to what creativity exists in agencies from South America to Shanghai. I’ve been amazed by what’s being created in teenage bedrooms around the world. Some of the short films, sketches and parodies that are posted put much of the output of adland to shame. These kids that are doing this as a hobby will be knocking on agency doors once they leave school and what a book they will have. Any headhunter worth their fee should be scouring these sites to find the Grand Prix winners of the future before another industy does.

  13. Messiahs, visionaries and all this self-flagellation? Jesus folks, what’s going on? I think you lot need a hefty dose of Dawkins and a bit of self love.
    I mean, what are you saying? London was once brilliant then the internet showed us some cool stuff from Brazil and we lost our confidence? Bollocks. London was good and then the dotcom crashed and a recession kicked in and things got tough for most of us.
    So what do we do? We embrace the net, grab at the latest thinking and trends and focus on making our next campaign legendary.
    Or we could just beat ourselves up.
    Richard, I’m only guessing here, but your beginning to sound uncannily like a planner who is in the midst of burning some bridges and recasting himself as a consultant.
    Am I wrong?

  14. Sorry to barge in.
    I have been away from the London advertising scene for some time but my thinking has been that since the creative standards in the UK have been so high for long, it just has further to fall before reality kicks in. But the angst is not exclusive to London. Everywhere I go (mostly North and South America) it seems people are worried. If creativity is no longer a department and ideas can come from anywhere (YouTube), the old (agency) hierarchies, fee structures and accountability agreements are getting more irrelevant by the day. Problems for some, opportunities for others- especially for planners. Sounds OK to me.
    London has a great talent pool and will, IMHO, be a significant player in brand communications and content creativity for some time. Look at the BBC – the recognized leader in online news and CA content.

  15. Why don’t some of you get together and start something up? Many brilliant clients are as dissatisfied with the lack of excitement in the UK “ad scene” as everyone on here seems. I don’t think every new “agency” has to be a major “start-up” with a £20m client in the bag, a story splashed on the front pages of Campaign, entering the New Biz League within weeks and earning you millions in an earn-out within 3 years. Maybe you could start small. It might not need a big office in the West End right at the start (what about setting up outside London?). Write to 20 clients you’d like to do your best work for. It’s ok to beg. I betcha you’ll get a project off one of them and then you’d be off and running. I seem to remember hearing that H, H, C + L spent months planning their start-up. Why pre-varicate like they did? Give it a go. It is possible to survive on less than £8k per month for a few months whilst you get things going. And if it fails, so what? Get a network job again. At least you’ll all have lots of new experiences to talk about on your blogs.

  16. Marcus,
    So your practical solution is…? Three posts on and we’re still waiting.

  17. Phil,
    Yeah… but if this blog were a repository of such reasonable thinking, it would be sooooooooo dull.

  18. Oh dear… Did we collectively reach a dead end on this? Richard… you raised the issue…. what’s the solution?

  19. apologise as kinda skim read comments, but picking up on a few points:
    – creativity has and will not be limited to London, look at the likes of LOVE (manchester) BIG (Leicester), Cogent Elliot (Meriden). Problem is most folk in london can’t look beyond their postcode, unless it’s via the internet
    – As i’ve mentioned in the past, the inane recruitment policies of ‘London Agencies’ has actually stiffled creative thinking. Just look around at some of the people who are actually paid by a client to provide profitable advise..scary…
    – Ownership of creative thinking at smaller, less rigid agencies is owned by everyone from support to creative director. And it works. Agencies in London/networks decided to funnel creative thinking between the elite few. Talk about passing round the noose…
    – the fact that people are surprised by levels of creative thinking outside the UK demonstrates the almight head up arse situation London suffers from
    – aside from those start ups profiled in Campaign, you might be surprised to hear that there are actually a bloody great number of start ups in the UK outside of London who are successful and are not only holistic in their thinking, but creative in their conversations..
    – problem with London Adland, is exactly that. It is the land that time forgot. Time to turn the sub around.

  20. I wonder whether the problem is actually London adland or just any big agency taht has adopted a traditional process model. Charles Handy in one of his books talks about the tendency of creative businesses to adopt very 20th century, Fordist models of production once they get big. A once organic and holistic idea generating culture gets broken down into a conveyor belt of individual tasks performed by different departments. Sound familiar.
    Maybe the thing that differentiates places like Love is not geography but size. Of course, there are many small and medium agencies which simply ape their larger counterparts which is something I find a bit sad and ridiculous. Why on earth would you want to create a culture of disengagement and alienation if you don’t have to?
    It seems to me that small is beautiful when it comes to the ideas business. In a small healthy creative culture questions like which department is the source of creative vision is pointless. Good ideas should and do come from everywhere, you hire people who are intelligent and imaginative. You worry less about military style account management and more about the uqality of insight all your people bring to the table. And your clients respect this because that is why they are with you in the first place. If they rigorous handling there are plenty of big shops who will be more than willing to take them on.

  21. I would say there might be some sort of delusion particularly for london, but i think London scenario vs adland scenario are really no different. No more breaking through achievement. Anything to do with passion?

  22. so are creativity, robust ‘ideaness’ and holistic comms limited to SMEs?
    Surely a collective organisation no matter what size can retain creativity in its purest and most efficient form? Can it?

  23. but client side organisations do not face the same problems….so why agencies..
    Does it come down to ego’s?

  24. Some brand owners manage to keep it small and holistic others don’t. Just compare Innocent with the Pepsi owned PJ Smoothies and the difference is apparent.
    Of course creativity isn’t limited to sme’s but large agencies do seem to struggle with it culturally. Experienced talent find themselves managing people rather than developing ideas. From a profit perspective it makes sense to have creative teams working across many accounts with limited involvement in each rather than getting deeply involved with one or clients and being able to apply their creativity to more than just the ad brief.
    The typical sme floorplan whereby everyone is in the same small space and involved in each others accounts becomes, in most large agencies, department floors and conversation by appointment only.
    I don’t think it’s about ego, it’s more likely the pressure to deliver efficiently and profitably.

  25. I dont think its any coincidence that agencies where all the departments seem to mingle and merge together are the ones that remain highly create despite growth.
    Big agencies (I would imagine) tend to get that creativity only when a particular team lines up and forces themselves to interact more.

  26. but the financial pressures of this business/industry are great deal harsher at the SME level.
    Most SMEs don’t have contractual agreements and retained accounts and tend to work on a project by project basis. They certainly don’t command the same hourly rates/fee’s and yet the salaries are comparable. What’s more margin erosion is terrible at SME level and there’s the inability to attract the best talent, because bigger global networks tend are more appealing..
    So the fiscal pressure at SME level is certainly comparable if not worse and therefore don’t buy this as a reason for sterile thinking within the traditional large advertising agency.
    As re-told by my wife via a TB talk, perhaps we are simply dealing with “can’t be arsedness”?

  27. We once decided at HHCL that the maximum size an agency should get to before halting growth or splitting into different business units was 125 – it was based on a study of optimum village size in pre-industrial societies (but then this was HHCL and we had our own Shamen at the time).
    Anomaly has clearly decided to cap individual business units and create new agencies instead of growth inexorably larger. And I think this was the model that Springer and Jacoby used in Germany (correct me if that is the wrong agency).
    Interestingly someone suggested that no agency in the UK had achieved more than 400 people in one business unit without implosion.

  28. I guess there’s a difference between size of the total company, and the size – and organisation – of the teams within it.
    My understanding is that HBO employs about 2,000 staff. But its creative content – Oz, Sopranos, Six Feet Under, etc, etc. – consistently rates amongst the very best in the world.
    Being a big company need not be an enemy of creativity.
    Perhaps what we need to organisationally strive for is being big on the outside, small on the inside…

  29. interesting point Richard. We were talking about this optimum agency size thing today. It was when we realised that LOVE has grown to 31 people (from 20 a few months ago). It’s already starting to feel a bit big, so we’re thinking of splitting it down into LOVE and BABY LOVE. This allows us to give the next generation of “Love Management” practice in running a little agency before they maybe “graduate” to running LOVE in a few years time.

  30. i accept to a certain degree the impact on creative business once shareholders are involved, but I don’t see why the essence of creativity cannot exist in a large organisation?
    I think it’s not about the size of organisation but the types of people in that organisation. The challenge must be to ensure its people are 100% diverse so that each person kind of presents a longtail approach to creative development. Lots of different individuals contributing to that goal/purpose instead of 30-50 similar/like minded people fighting each other..

  31. Not wishing to use a well worn example, but Grumpy’s ‘Big on the outside,small on the inside’ does resonate with the feelings I have about Wiedens, moreso than any other agency I know about worldwide (yes, it’s a bit limited by being/living in London).
    Having a diverse range of thinkers, as MM notes, seems to be of crucial importance, and not hiring more of the same – though, looking through the HHCL Show archives with Richard, it seems clear that getting big, hiring lots of people at once is not the way to do it; nor is hiring those who veer (Shamen?) too off topic.
    I can’t help but wonder that something like Jonathan’s doing, coupled with an intelligent piece of Web 2.0 software (I’ve already championed Huddle –, will allow us to realise this new agency model – and allow us to break away from the big agency, London centric malaise which seems to be a bit of a blight at the moment. (No, I’m not saying London is a bad place – just that being too London centric seems a bit narrowminded).

  32. I suppose it can exist in a large org, mm. Perhaps the problem is that once you get big, size begins to drive all your decisions. So you develop systems to deal with your size and hire people who can work with such systems etc.
    In terms of similar people, absolutely agree. Whatever your size, diversity is a real driver of creativity. Whether that’s people from different countries, social classes or professional backgrounds, it’s the melting point of difference that provides fresh perspectives on any problem.

  33. I think you boys charge too much! You could all move out of London to a place like Kelty, in Fife (admittedly, this might take some coordination); reduce your huge cost base and then take on some wee jobs from entrepreneurs that are just getting started (globally, of course).

  34. Yeah, that’s what I’d say if I could no longer get a position in an agency

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