Don't blame it on the creatives


Image courtesy of Mark Strozier.

It has of late become awfully fashionable to lay the many and varied problems of the advertising industry at the feet of creatives.

They are accused of many things including introspection, arrogance, irrelevance and rank stupidity.

And of all their crimes the ultimate is that they simply ‘don’t get it’.

Neither planners nor suits are collectively damned in this way.

Indeed in some circles, particularly the blogosphere, the ridicule meted out to above-the-line creatives borders on a kind of blood sport like hare coursing or bear baiting. In particular it is practiced by members of the new marketing mafia who never made it in proper advertising and consequently have a massive chip on their shoulders.

Well I’m getting a little fed up of this.

It is true that the caricature of the above-the-line-creative as preening popinjay, more interested in the podium at the Grosvenor than the commercial success of their clients has a basis in truth.

Many agencies do run creative departments that are cushioned and isolated from the changing world around us with the effect that the creative teams inside become institutionalised into a particular way of behaving. In particular some agencies still insist on segregating the creatives from the rest of the company on separate floors like oriental eunuchs might have been kept away from the rest of Court.

Many agencies do still use creative awards as the basis for rewarding their teams, so that winning gongs judged by people outside the agency with their own standards and agendas is the only way to get ahead in this business. The worst excess of this is of course the placement of an ‘award’ winning ad in marginal and often agency-bought media or editing the agency’s ‘cut’ of an ad for showreel purposes.

Many teams do have television touretts, capable of the rhetoric of ‘big ideas’ but not the ability to envisage them in anything other than script form.

Most teams still have a bizarre obsession with ads having ‘ideas’ despite the fact that they have no idea why these might or might not be important or work.

And many teams and creative directors still use moribund concepts like talkability and cut through to justify their work to the agency and client alike.

However, all this reprehensible behaviour is merely the result of a bunch of people trying to do to the best of their ability something that they have been trained to do from the outset of their careers.

If that is no longer what we want from them then we have to take some responsibility for changing the situation rather than simply making fun of the ‘old-school’ creative team, whether online or in the pub.

Many years ago advertising had a very simple task. To tell alot of people why a particular product or service was brilliant. Advertising amplified something good about the brand and ensured that enough people knew enough about it to make a purchase decision.

But things started to get complicated when the era of mass production and over supply meant that many identical products or services were now competing for our attention.

Advertising changed tack and started to differentiate identical products on emotional grounds. More than that, in the absence of difference or advantage in those products it started to believe it could be the difference. This lead to the ‘love my ad love my brand’ approach in which many of today’s advertising practitioners where schooled and which has dominated advertising discourse for 40 years. This view remains incredibly pervasive – the belief that an ad, or campaign can make the difference between two products, rather than it reporting on a quality of those products.

Indeed it is this approach that traditionally supported the high production budgets for TV advertising. Sure the ad might cost three quarters of a million to make but this sum paled into insignificance in comparison to the R&D and on-costs required to actually make the product better. In anycase a brilliant ad with an eye-watering budget might actually be more successful in getting the tills to ring.

And the approach does still work on occasion – but it has to be astonishingly good. Sony Bravia’s ‘balls’ is one such example where the ad succeeds in ‘making the difference’ between identical HDTV products with real commercial success.

That balls ad - always worth another viewing.

On the other hand what happened to Stella Artois must serve as a cautionary tale to anyone trying to pull this off. With Stella the whole ‘love my ads love my brand’ deal fell apart rather spectacularly as people continued to consume the ads with gusto but left the product on the supermarket shelf with equal enthusiasm.

The Original Stella 'Jean de Florette' ad and immeasurably better than the over blown indulgence of the ice skating priests.

My point in all of this is really only to suggest that we have trained generations of creatives to operate in an environment in which the products were identical and not necessarily any good. They had to make all the running if they were to make any difference.

No wonder they instinctively reach for TV - it’s the best medium, bar none, to pull off this conjuring trick. No wonder they have an awards system that values the advertising idea when that in effect was what people were being asked to consume – in other words there used to be a link to commercial success. No wonder they segregated themselves from the rest of the agency and from clients since neither party were actually a great deal of help in pulling off this endevour.

And it is for these reasons that creative departments are perhaps less fit for purpose in the new brand landscape where products have to have utility to survive consumer scrutiny, where brands arrive with fully formed and engaging ‘ideas’ behind them and where the products that are making the running are actually different not simply covered in an emotional veneer supplied by the ad agency.

That we now need advertising to perform different tasks and want new skills from our creative colleagues is a cause for restructuring the roles and relationships of people in the creative discipline not the opportunity for an outpouring of ridicule and derision in order for less talented people to score some short term points.


Au contraire Richard. The eunuchs had the ear of the King.

Posted by: Charles Frith at June 6, 2007 04:37 PM

may i suggest that it ill-becomes someone who held consecutive managerial positions at two agencies that both collapsed to spray accusations at anyone for not having 'made it' in advertising?!

apart from that, everything you say is on the money and well-put

Posted by: greg at June 6, 2007 04:50 PM

Touche Greg.

Posted by: richard huntington at June 6, 2007 08:36 PM

Or, is it that creatives are out of touch or the people who are advising the creatives? (or how they are advising them?)

Here I thought you were going to say that the fault of bad creative is shared with planners and suits.

Posted by: Herb at June 6, 2007 11:01 PM

clients, planners, suits, creatives, media folks and the tea lady all reach for what they know and are comfortable be it tv, a web site, dm or hob nobs. fear, laziness and a lack of curiosity are not down to your job title or agency discipline.

Posted by: giles rhys jones at June 6, 2007 11:44 PM

on the point of new brand landscape:

'products have to have utility to survive consumer scrutiny'

not true in international airports awash with overpriced high margin fragrances and whiskies; categories with derisable advertising in my opinion


Posted by: charlie robertson at June 7, 2007 10:54 AM

"Many agencies do run creative departments that are cushioned and isolated from the changing world around us with the effect that the creative teams inside become institutionalised into a particular way of behaving. In particular some agencies still insist on segregating the creatives from the rest of the company on separate floors like oriental eunuchs might have been kept away from the rest of Court."

The way you work with titles and job descriptions at bigger agencies in UK/US seem unhealthy to me. Restraining creatives down to be just creatives cannot be good in the long run. I believe that you always have to overlap each others field of work to have understanding for different fields within a process. As a Swedish cd at Fallon Minneapolis recently said in an interview: that his prior job as cd at an agency in Sweden covered 9 titles according to Fallon's title hierarchy.

Posted by: Name at June 7, 2007 01:52 PM

Eventually, natural selection will prevail. The agencies that foster the hothouse creative ethos you describe are going to have more and more difficulty securing new business.

Posted by: newbizdarkwiz at June 7, 2007 04:11 PM

One simple thing went wrong. Creatives became obsessed with peer-group approval - and acquired a pecking order, a media hierarchy and a value-set which became increasingly detached from the creation of business value.

This, I think, *is* their fault. Why is it reasonable for someone to spend 30 years of their working life doing something without repeatedly asking what they are doing it for?

And, in Richard's defence, HHCL completely and successfully challenged this belief-set: for instance they were the first agency to work in below the line media because they wanted to, not because they were told to. Much of their work was simply too innovative to be awarded.

Hence I would personally be more proud of having worked at HHCL solely for the two weeks before its collapse than to have worked for ten years at the prime of most other places.

Posted by: Rory Sutherland at June 7, 2007 05:54 PM

"More than that, in the absence of difference or advantage in those products it started to believe it could be the difference. "

I believe you hit something dead fast and true with this stroke.

I agree that it is an industry issue. And frankly we are all struggling with how to respond to a world that is not about command and control and division of labour.

Posted by: Sean Howard at June 7, 2007 08:45 PM

Very well put Richard - especially the part about the notion of collective respsonsibility for the problem. I would argue this is an an industry issue. In the US, for example, the account service function is struggling to define where it adds value and very often it is they who (imho) are the barrier to new media of communication.

I'd suggest that what is going to enable change in all of this is not the re-training or new ways to reward one part of the agency - it's developing an agency culture that values innovation and exdperimentation. I would hazard a guess that this is exactly what HHCL was like and what places like Wieden are like now (which is why so many people want to work there).

Posted by: mark at June 8, 2007 02:32 AM

I'm a big fan of Bravia's commercial but I think it's origins are a bit different from creative 'commitment' with a brand.

It never was about making a flat tv famous. It was about Juan Cabral's long time obsession with bouncing balls. And as it happens with artists, he had a patron with money to make his art happen: Sony.

So it's not really an idea. There's not a tangible creative concept there. Good for Juan but that's exactly why it is (and will be) so bloody hard for them to replicate that success.

Posted by: J at June 8, 2007 10:08 AM

It's hard to find another creative industry where there is a dedicated 'Creative Department'.

Look to Hollywood, for example, and there are no 'creatives'. There are directors, producers, editors, writers, etc. But no Creative Dept. Creativity is simply the result of collaboration, not a department.

So perhaps the first move should be to disband creative departments, and let writers and visualers (or whatever we want to call them) roam free, unencumbered by an absurd, antiquated, isolating tribal loyalty?

Just asking...

P.S. "This view remains incredibly pervasive – the belief that an ad, or campaign can make the difference between two products, rather than it reporting on a quality of those products... products have to have utility to survive consumer scrutiny... the products that are making the running are actually different not simply covered in an emotional veneer supplied by the ad agency."

P&G’s approach is to invent a great and differentiated product and tell people without irrelevant fluff and “emotional veneer” why it's so bloody good. I think they would agree whole-heartedly with you.

So I'm hope we count on you to defend its advertising against all those snipes and jeers from those who ridicule it for being so unimaginative, and ‘uncreative’.

While you're about it, will you be retracting all your praise for 'Dirt Is Good' - and acknowledge it for being pure emotional veneer that ignores Persil "product quality" in the pursuit of some self-indulgent theory about overturning cultural norms?

Posted by: Grumpy at June 8, 2007 12:36 PM

"It's hard to find another creative industry where there is a dedicated 'Creative Department'."

Too true Grumpy. Anyone who has spent some time with a digital agency will know that ideas are as likely to come from a technical person as a "creative"

While the creative department may be necessary for a good old fashioned ad agency, in those agencies who are genuinely addressing on and offline, ideas can and must come from all areas. And that is not just some exercise in deflating ego and listening to the junior account manager, its because the type of ideas we are now coming up with are very different from advertising ideas. Creating a running event for Nike is just as much an idea as setting up a self-esteem fund for Dove. Getting to such ideas does not need a finely tuned understanding of how advertising works, rather it demands insight into culture and behaviour and an understanding of what is feasible and what it will take to make it happen.

At the end of the day, the creative department has to be the whole agency.

Posted by: Phil Teer at June 8, 2007 04:35 PM

Remember Dave Trott's famous dictum 'we all drink from the well of inspiration but the planners get to piss in it first'. Everyone else (who of course is Not Creative) has had to endure years of this kind of abuse from creatives so if creatives are getting any,er, constructive feedback, these days well what goes around . . .

Posted by: Dominic at June 8, 2007 05:05 PM

well said dominic, creative deference is as much a problem as creativity was a solution

Posted by: jemster at June 8, 2007 05:59 PM

I remember a phrase from one of those business books. CREATIVE IS NOT A DEPARTMENT. So the whole description of problem show that it's not a problem of creatives but also suits, etc. You can't blame creatives and think than as an output you get perfect agency. There is need also a wise (it's so rare) planners, imaginative (it's so rare) suits, and of course last but not leasts businesminded (it's so rare) creatives.

copywriter from poland

Posted by: wojtek at June 9, 2007 10:02 PM

Its not that creatives are to blame for taking control, its more that the plenty of agency folk all too often cede every single aspect of creative input to the guys in the skinny jeans. In order to highten the sensation of creative excitement and mystique planners and account people seem increasingly happy to surrender any right to having a creative thought (as distinct from a creative execution) themselves. Even if it means taking work back to a client that is off brief, plain wrong or just not good enough far too many non-creatives seem to have stopped wanting, expecting or insisting on having a creative point of view or definite suggestion.
Whilst bottling out from engaging creatively means that we can have a clean pair of hands when we bitch about shocking work it doesn't mean we can have a clear consience about letting creatives & clients down...

Posted by: StuartB at June 11, 2007 11:30 AM

Hi Richard. I love you, but you've totally lost the plot on this one!

Have you ever run any of these points past a creative? I very much doubt it, as surely even the greenest placement team could have set you straight on a few things.

I'm tempted to cross most of your post out with red marker pen, but writing on the screen would be just silly!

Instead I'll pick you up on only a couple of points and hopefully by showing how wild you are on these I might convince a few people how off you are on everything...

"No wonder they instinctively reach for TV"

Derrr... it already tells me the medium required in a box on the brief, pal! All been decided before they even involve me. Talk to the client or their media people about that one.

"More interested in the podium at the Grosvenor than the commercial success of their clients."

Double derrr. Can you blame someone for doing what he's asked to do and paid to do? We're paid on awards. If you've got a problem with that, then you need to turn your fire on the people who set the remuneration criteria, i.e. creative directors and managing directors, not rank-and-file creatives.

p.s. still love you!

Posted by: Scamp at June 11, 2007 09:02 PM


Totally agree with the media bit. If creatives make TV its because the oh so media agnostic media chaps have already stitched that up. But I still find many creatives have a natural form in which they express their ideas and often that means the planner has to work hard (which is a good thing) to work back to an idea and help the creative team see its depth.

And to your second quibble - the point of this post is to ask people to stop blaming cretives for doing precisely what they are trained, asked and paid to do. the fault lies with the agency management.

Thanks for being the lone creative voice.

Posted by: richard huntington at June 11, 2007 10:14 PM

Richard, will you stick on your 'in defense of creatives' crusade after watching this?

Posted by: Napoleon at June 12, 2007 10:13 AM

Okay, I was a bit angry. Thanks for being gracious. And I misread that you were actually defending rank-and-file creatives (I still think there's a lot of slagging-off for a post entitled "Don't blame it on..." !)

Here's two questions for you.

1) Are today's products "actually different" like you say? What about beer, cars and sportswear (to name three of the biggest categories out there)? Or my favourite example, mobile phone networks... they're all just selling vibrating air, right? And it's down to the creatives to get people to buy Orange air or blue air (O2) or red air (Vodafone).

2) Even if they WERE different, why would that make creative departments "not fit for purpose?" Even the most unique and useful product will benefit from an imaginative and impactful expression of its advantages, no?

Posted by: Scamp at June 12, 2007 11:36 AM

Creatives still wear the trousers. Regardless of what the plannersphere would wish to believe.

Posted by: Marcus at June 12, 2007 02:09 PM

"More interested in the podium at the Grosvenor than the commercial success of their clients"

... so you're not in the business of encouraging us planners to be more concerned with the podium at the APG awards right now??

Posted by: jemster at June 12, 2007 02:18 PM

Did the cat bite off your tongue, Richard? :)

Posted by: Roadster at June 12, 2007 06:56 PM

Awards are good things in any industry. They put the best work on a pedestal for others to learn from and they recognise and promote talent. However, they work best as a retrospective view of achievement rather than the incentive to achieve.

The creative community in advertising has got itself into a pickle because awards are the currency of the community. It is how creatives get hired, rewarded and promoted. And not just more junior teams - ECDs will get rewarded on objectives like 'getting us up the Gunn report' which is usually the only measure of creative achievemtn senior agency managers can summon to mind.

The problem is then that this culture perverts the creation and production of the work. If a team knows that the only way that they can get a pay rise this year to make their derisory salary worth living on, is to get a clutch of awards - that is what they will set out to do. And when the work gets compromised thats when you get teams putting 'fake' work in for awards, making 'fake' work for free and paying for it to run in dodgy titles or dead airtime. And that is when the whole stinking edifice starts to seem corrupt and in no one's best interests.

We created this system not the teams that depend on it simply to get a few thousand pounds on their annual salary.

Thats why I'm asking people not to blame creatives for the mess we are in but to look to themselves a bit more.

Planners get awards for doing good work, and they can help in building a reputation that helps promotion and career prospects. But awards are only one way that planners get ahead.

Posted by: richard huntington at June 13, 2007 11:11 AM

That's true. I think we also have awards to convince ourselves that whatever we're doing has a 'deeper' meaning than the 'vulgarity' of just selling stuff.

After all I've never seen a creative showing off how an ad that didn't win a lion sold 40% more detergent the way I've seen creatives showing off a Cannes Gold.

Posted by: J at June 13, 2007 02:54 PM

Richard, couple of points:
using phrases like "Immortality beckons" ... "walk away with £10,000" ..."Even if you don't win the Grand Prix, being shortlisted in the APG Awards means can be a significant career benefit" to push the APG awards would make it seem like you're slating one set of awards currency while promoting another with the APG.

"Planners get awards for doing good work, and they can help in building a reputation that helps promotion and career prospects. But awards are only one way that planners get ahead."

Most creative directors would say the same about creative awards

Posted by: jemster at June 13, 2007 05:48 PM


Posted by: provato at June 14, 2007 09:28 AM

A lot of the blame should fall back on the shoulders of planners because it is our job to be the reporters (yes in a news reporting type of way) of what is happening in the world and to tear down the barriers between the creatives, the clients, and social realities. But before that we need to make sure the brand is built in such a way that people can love our brand and therefore the creatives can have a lovable idea. Because there still are commodities out there that are mostly differentiated by branding in the minds of people.

Posted by: Phillip at June 14, 2007 11:10 PM

My problem with a lot of the above is that much of it assumes a couple of things - that 'advertising' is still a viable term, and that 'creatives' are the source of ideas.

As the CD at what would be described as a 'digital' agency (LBi), I see my team blurring the boundaries, especially when it comes to communicating what a brand is about, and being able to communicate this through a whole range of experiences, be they media, in-field, service design, application, etc. etc.

The point is, they can't do this without the core members of what is the modern equivilant of the 'creative team' except that now, rather than being a duo, this core is often, thought not exclusively, a quartet (creative/EA/planner/developer).

The great thing is,that when I walk into a room and hear them talking, it's not immmediately evident who are the 'creatives' and who not. The point is, that successful campaign 'programmes' (everything that an agency might do with a brand) now demand this and nothing less.

Back to the beginning - the art direction (from a visual/aural point of view) will still (always) lie with the core creative team members (it's their specialism after all), but by this time the idea should already be well formed, in the knowledge that it will be big enough, flexible enough, smart enough, and ultimately exciting enough to not just grab attention in the short term, but hearts and minds in the long term.

Posted by: David Hurren at June 18, 2007 12:51 PM

Before you go too far Richard do remember that an Art Director and a Copywriter have roles because ultimately they take responsibilty for spending clients money.

You seem to be talking about creatives as a group of people playing pool in another room and taking the piss out of weak briefs, which is probably what you often see. But you won't be around for the actual execution.

A good Art Director will commission tried and trusted people, cast good actors, find great music (or write a song), approve and find locations, help with the editing but ultimately take responsibility for putting ALL of the clients money on screen. This is increasingly true of digital executions too.

When you come back from a production you then have to sell the edit and protect the work as it eases its way through multi tiered approval systems.

Two weeks in the Mondrain in LA is excellent if you don't have to worry about the responsibilty of spending £997,000.

We do sometimes actually work. So there.

Posted by: mark hurst at June 18, 2007 04:50 PM

Oh I forgot to say. I still love you too.

Posted by: mark hurst at June 18, 2007 05:32 PM

Well I still love you too, and it is a good point - that the suit and planner don;t actually take responsibility for spending the money. The planner is responsible for the work working and the account handler is responsible for keeping the show on the road but the creative team are the ones saying this illustrator is brilliant and we should spend the budget securing their services and are then in the firing line if hte decision was wrong.

By the way I never underestimate the role of creative practitioners in producing brilliant work, and in particular the craft that people like you bring to the process.

Posted by: richard huntington at June 18, 2007 06:07 PM

Amidst all the talk about planners and creatives, I'd like to see account handlers celebrated.

Keeping "the show on the road" is as essential as it is utterly unenviable.

I think they rock.

Posted by: Grumpy at June 19, 2007 03:52 PM

If we were to restructure then yes, the mocking of the 'old skool' wouldn't take place. This would be due to the fact they haven't the sufficient creative tool kit to justify their existence. So yeah, lets restructure ASAP.

Posted by: Tony at June 20, 2007 01:17 PM

Richard I do agree with you, although I think in some, hopefully a minority of agencies, it is still very much a case of certain creative leopards never being able to change their spots. Some will always believe that they are the star of the show and it is their ideas that clients buy. Forget about the idea behind the idea, or the fact you need to prove it works.

I have worked with CDs who have been open minded and fantastic at embracing todays modern agency environment and others who will always see account handlers as bag carriers and planners as 'non - creatives' who have no right to 'dictate' creative to such an esteemed individual. After all they have the awards to prove it.

Posted by: Carlm at June 20, 2007 02:00 PM

Fantastic analysis and great comments.

Advertising was borne of the design industry (proper design) and that's where it needs to return.

We have to get in with a brand early and embed the emotion *in* the product not just sprinkle it on later.

Posted by: Adam at August 12, 2007 12:39 PM