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From the rise of the side hustle to the shift towards in-house agencies, a new breed of creative collective is shaking up the marketing ecosystem.
A revolution is afoot in creative working—with economic, generational, and technological changes driving a new era of freelancers banding together to form creative collectives. This is the generation who view their success, or lack thereof, through the lens of Mark Zuckerberg, and the growth of this new entrepreneurial spirit of freelancing has significant implications for marketers and creatives alike.
Airbnb is at the forefront of this changing approach to creative work. James Goode, managing director of the brand’s in-house creative team, said: “We consider everything as collective.” He explained: “Airbnb’s community is, by its very nature, a collective. We’ve always considered our community to be our first priority, and we aim to unlock their collective creativity in order to become the world’s first community-driven superbrand.”
This is not just a brand positioning, but a tangible approach to marketing. For example, the brand’s recent “based on a true review” content series takes real guest reviews from the platform and brings them to life as authentic video content series animated by creators from the Airbnb community.
The Democratisation Of Creativity
The shift to collectives is driving a new era of easy-to-access creativity. Rania Robinson, managing director at Quiet Storm, explained: “The democratisation of creativity through new, cheaper, and more accessible technology and the ever-increasing freelance workforce have made it easy for brands to get access to alternative talent who are able to provide a similar service to a classic agency at a greatly reduced cost.”
It has also sparked a wave of new collective agency models such as Brown&Co, a “virtual omni-channel” branding agency. Troy Wade, co-founder of the company, believes that creative collectives are a growing force across most commercial creative disciplines such as advertising, design, branding, and digital. According to Wade, while there are clear economic factors driving this shift, such as lower overheads and the pricing pressures of procurement, there is also a fundamentally more human factor at play. “We fundamentally believe that people are more productive and creative when they can work where, when, and how it suits them, and when they have good balance in their lives,” he said.
Breaking Free Of Bureaucracy
The rise of the creative collective is a response to the fact that brand, and business, organisational structures often don’t lend themselves to working in a highly creative way. According to Quiet Storm’s Robinson, there’s often too much of the hierarchy and bureaucracy that come with size and scale, making it very hard for the creative process to flourish. However, big networked agency partners provide a perceived sense of security for some brands—in that they have lots of resources to tap into and expertise. However, these networks often suffer from the same challenges as the brand organisations in terms of size, bureaucracy, and hierarchy. By modelling themselves on their client’s business, they sometimes become prisoners of the same process and learn to be skilled in efficiency rather than creativity.
However, brands should beware of viewing a random collective of freelancers as a one-stop shop to unlocking creativity and breaking through the restrictions of hierarchy and red tape. Emma de la Fosse, chief creative officer at Ogilvy & Mather U.K. group, warned that a brand takes a long time to establish and very little time to damage. “CMOs used to be in their positions for years, but the average tenure of senior marketers is now much shorter,” she said. “Today it is likely that the agency will have been the brand’s guardian for longer than most of the marketing department. So when clients go directly to collectives or, indeed, any external supplier, which party has enough real knowledge of how the brand should be speaking and behaving to lead the creative discussions?”
It is a state of play that means some believe that creative collectives cannot be a substitute for a major network for a global brand because of the complexity of the back-end creative management. However, despite this challenge, Christian Purser, CEO of Interbrand London, believes that doesn’t mean there isn’t a role for collectives in the creative process, especially for “set-piece” creative development such as a new product launch. Meanwhile, the rise of in-house agencies means that brands will need to buy in creative talent, as the best creative talent often eschews working full-time on the client side, instead preferring the diversity of working across brands and sectors to their own timetable.
The Future Of Creative Work
There is no question that hype surrounding this new breed of creative collectives will place more pressure on agencies to change the way they work in order to retain and attract a diverse talent pool. Uri Baruchin, head of strategy at The Partners, said: “Overall, the ecosystem is going through a period of change, but I see collectives and freelancing simply becoming more integrated within the existing ecosystem.”
Ultimately, embracing the skills of the creative collective should not be an either/or marketing solution. Sergio Lopez, head of integrated production at McCann Worldgroup EMEA, explained: “Major brands should become adept to creative collectives and make them part of the ecosystem of companies they work with. Dismissing network agencies and replacing them with creative collectives will require brands to take over roles around brand guardianship, recruitment, and management that would, ultimately, add complexity and be distracting.” He believes that brands and agencies need to work together to create a flexible, yet strong framework that has the ability to bring freelancers in at any given point without diluting the culture of the brand.
Diversity Drives Creativity
While it would be all too easy to view the rise of the creative collective as a new utopian era of marketing creativity, the reality is somewhat messy. Mark Eckhardt, CEO at Common, a collective creative accelerator, said that while the industry romanticised freelancing, the wrinkly underbelly of it was that most people were simply not fit to freelance, especially young talent. However, brands may well find themselves in the position of having to pay premiums for top talent, he added, who have gone out on their own as freelancers and have control over what they earn. Yet, ultimately, he believes that, when brands look to scale, they tend to hire agencies.
However, this does not mean the marketing industry should be complacent or ignore the creative firepower of the collective. For, at the heart of the rise of this new breed of creators, lies a simple truth—that making space for new voices is key to driving creativity. It was this reason that spurred Airbnb to head to Cannes this year in a bid to recruit more female creatives and people of colour. Goode said: “We believe strongly that the broadest possible diversity of creative perspectives, skills, and experience leads to the most authentic creative work.” If creativity is the marketing industry’s arms race, then adapting the mindset and model of the collective, which empowers creative individuals to work on their own terms, will be increasingly vital to success.