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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Dysfunction Of The “Creative” Agencies



When people are looking for jobs from the creative-oriented ad agencies, the complaint I hear most is that they are disorganized and often dysfunctional.  Raises and promotions don’t come on a scheduled basis, reviews are not formalized, account people and planners are by-passed by the creatives.  Creative people belittle the account group and change strategy and executions without informing the account people or the client.  All this is probably true by the very nature of creative shops.  

Before I deal with this, I would first like to address a term I do not like and never have – “Creative” Agencies. By their very nature, all advertising agencies are creative.  Some just more so than others.
In the 1960”s and 1970”s the smaller agencies that were turning out great creative work were called boutiques by the big agencies and the trade press.  It was actually a pejorative term.  The intention of the bigger shops was to belittle the agencies that were turning out great work.  The top ten or fifteen agencies were highly process oriented and prided themselves on their ability to turn out work based on solid strategy and which scored well in copy testing.  All advertising people know that there is a difference between effective work which scores well in testing and good creative work. One of the big agencies, no name here, but if you are over forty, you know who it was, used the slogan, “It isn’t creative unless it sells” which was an apology (in my mind) for its bad work. It was a put-down of the creative agencies.

The myth has been perpetuated that if an agency is small, it cannot be strategic. It just isn’t so.  What happens is that as agencies grow and attract larger, more disciplined clients, procedure and process begins to interfere with their ability to do cutting edge work.  The late, great Jay Chiat had a wonderful saying, “I wonder how big we will get before we get bad?”.  That about sums it up.  Most of today’s successful agencies started out small and then figured out how to keep process from interfering with their creativity.

There is and always has been a degree of dysfunction at all good ad agencies.  That dysfunction is worse at smaller shops, by their very nature.  Ad agencies are generally started by entrepreneurial creative people who come out of larger agencies.   Their initial emphasis is only on the work and not on the functioning of these agencies and, consequently, these agencies often lack form and systems. As their agencies grow, of necessity, they add systems and process, but their emphasis is always on their ability to bypass the bureaucracy which prevents good work from getting done. To put it a different way, at the huge worldwide shops it is much easier for bad work to slip through.

The largest agencies have all kinds of departments.  I was shocked when I went from a smaller boutique to a big agency as a young account executive.  The big agency had all kinds of separate units which I had never seen – a music department, casting, strategy, research, a promotion department, even what was then called personnel.  There were set processes for everything.  At the smaller agencies, all that work was accomplished by the principals or by people who reported to them in the general course of their business.  They spent most of their time servicing clients and handling creative tasks and paid little attention to the processes of their business.  Best example is Mary Wells.  Anyone who knows knew Wells, Rich, Greene, knows that there were no systems whatsoever.  Raises might not be given for two or three years, but if an employee was doing well, they might get a 75% increase; the percentages which exist agencies today simply did not exist at WRG.  There is one story of a person who was distraught about his car dying and the next day a brand new Ford was delivered to his home, a gift from Mary Wells (they had the Ford Corporate business).

All smaller agencies have tended to be somewhat disorganized, especially compared to the big shops.  This is neither bad nor good. It is just a fact which can best be summed up by a comment made to me by an account executive who had gone from Grey (the old Grey, not the current incarnation) to Chiat/Day. This was in the early days of Chiat in New York. Computers and open space and the elimination of administrative assistants was just coming into being. This account person called me on her second day telling me she was leaving (I had not placed her).  When I asked why, her comment blew me away, “I can’t believe it,” she said, “I have to do my own Xeroxing.”  I said to her that if Jay Chiat could do it, she could.  She told me that she did not get a college education and train at Grey so that she could do this kind of menial work.  She left and went back to Grey.  

If process and structure are what drives you, stay at the big companies.

10 comments:

  1. Another great one. I find myself looking forward to your posts, Paul. Smaller ships can turn faster and more often, and this is key to their competitive advantage. In that sense, their strategic orientation should trump their process orientation more of the time. However, if an agency has a difference that client's value, that agency should be able to build an employee experience that team-members can rely on and that most can love. If an agency's only difference is that it is "creative" then that agency will tend to be viewed as a commodity supplier by most clients, which will create turbulence and downward pricing pressure, which leave little time and money for focusing on building a great employee experience. Ultimately, as in all service-oriented industries, employee experience becomes client experience. Therefore, it's the most important thing. And, you're absolutely right, finding the right fit is everything.

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    1. Mark,and I look forward to your spot on comments. This one is especially cogent.

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  2. What the heck is "Xeroxing?" Haha, just kidding (said the guy who was once a media planner at Y&R.)

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    1. Ed, it is amazing how things have changed in 25 years!

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  3. In addition to being in violent agreement with Mark, Paul, that great works doesn't lead to great relationships, it's the other way around, a great relationship leads to great work, I am reminded of what Martin Puris, the famed writer at the legendary agency Ammirati & PUris said when he hired me: "We don't want to be known as a creatively driven agency; we don't want to be known as an account-driven agency; we want to be known as a 'balanced' agency."

    Martin and his partner Ralph Ammirati were refugees of a creatively driven agency, Carl Ally, where one account would walk out the door as another walked in, and, according to Martin, they were determined to NOT be that kind of agency.

    We were, in many respects, a terrific creative shop, but we had a powerful strategy group led by the incredibly ssmart, intuitive, and nice Vivian Young. We had a crack production department, led by Ozzie Spenningsby. Finance and Operations were the domain of the remarkably gifted Phil Palazzo. Our amazingly talented media group was orchestrated by Mike Lotito. And our account bench was extraordinarily deep, with highly capable people at all levels.

    So yes, we were, in fact, a balanced agency, and one of the best places where someone like me, a direct response person, could find a home and feel welcomed and valued.

    The sad thing is, there are fewer such shops these days.

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    1. BTW, it's me Robert Solomon, who just responded to your post.

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    2. Ammirati & Puris was a wonderful agency (prior to its disastrous merger with Lintas).

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  4. Even as a highly accomplished SVP, Management Sup “suit” at SSC&B:Lintas many years ago, I first truly learned from Mal MacDougall that the key to working successfully with Creatives was simply to smooth their path. Yes, press on them about the details of the hopefully thoughtful and well-written Creative Brief you provided them, but then get out of the way. Have faith that they can make a leap you never imagined and transcend logic, yet still delivers the brand message in some unexpected way. When Creatives know you trust them, they will trust you. And with this, defending their work when presenting it to the client. That’s how you earn their respect. As for whom makes copies of things or other mundane operations tasks, I used to say to my SSC&B:Lintas account groups (and they were pretty big ones on Bayer, Nestle/Carnation, and JVC), “Everyone does windows!” From the top down, including me.

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  5. Smart account managers at "creative shops" need to recognize that they are offensive lineman. Critical to open holes and block but often without glory, other than their contribution to the team win.

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    1. Smart comment. Ironically, at creative agencies I won a gold Effie, was the copywriter on several commercials and helped to sell a lot of great work.

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