This article is possibly going to make me a few enemies. I'm a former advertising Creative Director and I'm about to tell you why I stopped believing in it. And share my vision of how marketers could work more effectively with their agencies.
When I started in the advertising industry in the early 90s as a lowly copywriter, the industry hadn't changed for nearly 40 years. Bill Bernbach's 'creative revolution' had shaken the industry in the 1950s - but there had been no big changes since. We were operating in the same media channels, we were following the same processes and most people would merrily kill their grandmother to work on the Volkswagen account.
Even now creatives harken back to this historical moment in their industry. They talk about Bernbach in the same awed way that guitarists talk about Hendrix. Yet few of them really understand why his revolution was important and what we can learn from it.
You see, Bernbach's creative revolution wasn't about placing his department at the centre of the industry. It was about doing work that got noticed by the public; and was therefore more effective. His motivation was good business rather than creative awards.
He was operating in a time when media was changing. The propaganda of the Second World War had created a new kind of industrialised mass marketing. Television was the new medium on the block. And Elvis Presley and James Dean were helping to invent a new phenomenon called the teenager. Society and media were being disrupted - yet the advertising industry was still churning out charmless schmaltz and all-American irrelevance. Bernbach understood that the only way to get noticed in this environment was to zig when everyone else was zagging. Creativity was the point of difference that made his ads stand out in a hum-drum marketplace. He was buying attention with clever ideas rather than massive media budgets.
And now back to the present day.
We're in an even bigger period of media change. In the last 20 years we've seen the number of available media channels multiply exponentially. We've seen the established media channels evolve into far more complex beasts. And we've seen the way people consume media change beyond recognition.
So we have a disrupted media landscape, we have an industry that on-the-whole doesn't understand the changes in audience behaviour and we have a public that trusts our messages less than they ever have.
If Bernbach had been born 60 years later, I'm pretty sure he'd be getting ready to kick some ass right now.
So what revolution do we need this time?
Well, I'd like to propose another creative revolution. Except this time it's not restricted to one department; it's a revolution everyone plays a part in.
Creativity seems to have been increasingly ghettoised until it's barely more than a stylistic flourish on the end of some pretty standard thinking. Layers of structure and process have developed over the years, increasingly separating the brand owners from the creatives. If we want to do work that truly solves marketing problems, we need to extend creativity all the way back up the marketing process.
As part of this we need to look at the kind of idea that goes at the centre of our campaigns. The majority of advertising agencies are good at executions - but in most instances their ideas don't work well across different media channels. As a result we end up brutally slapping the same images and headlines on every piece of media - TV, posters, press ads, internet banners, direct mail and point of sale - in the hope that repetition will beat the dumb consumer into submission.
However, a truly great creative approach has a strong central idea that can comfortably extend across multiple channels. And I don't believe agencies are the right places to come up with this kind of thinking.
Agencies have agendas. And they have areas of expertise that they feel comfortable working within. Most big brands still get their advertising agency to come up with the initial campaign idea. These agencies are experts in the field of broadcasting a message. They know how to work with a great director to produce a stunning piece of film that will help them pick up some more awards. Or how to create a beautifully crafted poster or print ad. But these ideas rarely work comfortably across other media channels.
The best place to come up with the right kind of creative strategy is before it's briefed to the agencies. That's the point where you can come up with a creative marketing idea that isn't affected by any media agenda (I'm working with a couple of brands on how to do that exact thing right now).
The current focus on 'best of breed' agencies may seem like a sensible decision. But having the best players on your team isn't worth much if they're still playing as individuals.
To make the situation worse, there are a growing number of disciplines asking for a slice of the marketing pie; social media agencies, content agencies, app developers, mobile advertising specialists, affiliate marketers. This list of specialisms won't stop growing any time soon.
Media may be converging but the marketing landscape seems to be fragmenting. And with each specialism adding their own creative and strategic spin, our marketing messages are becoming increasingly fractured and disjointed.
So am I proposing that we remove the roles of creativity and strategy from agencies? Not at all. But I am proposing we use them in a more effective way.
I'm proposing a new kind of creative agency; one that doesn't have an agenda.
It would come up with a creative strategy before the media is chosen and the jobs are divided up amongst the roster agencies. It would be made up of creative generalists with a media neutral approach. It would work closely with the marketing department. And it would help to manage the rest of the agencies to make sure all the executions fit the creative strategy.
It doesn’t sound that radical, does it?
It would mean that client/agency relationships can continue with minimal disruption. It means you’re still getting channel experts to ensure the best executions. And it would make the marketing function more effective, easier to manage and - with any luck - more enjoyable.
I think it’s worth a try. And if you want someone to help you, I’ll be the first to raise my hand.