The Biggest Mistake Ad Agencies Make

May 30, 2018 | blog | By Tina Tackett
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It’s all Bill Bernbach’s fault. Or, at least, that’s where the problem started.

Before Bernbach led the creative revolution in the 1960s and transformed the way agencies, clients, and consumers thought about conceptual creative work, advertising agencies knocked out hard working ads created by account people and copywriters. If art was used at all, it was usually in a supporting role. The copy was written to explain a company’s USP – their Unique Selling Proposition – and the ads usually sounded about that interesting. But Bernbach and his agency Doyle, Dane, Bernbach (DDB) changed all that.

Where once ads just gave it to you straight, post Bernbach, advertising became a creative playground where concept was king and where art and copy became equals, working together in total concert.

In the 50s, auto ads like this print ad from Dodge talked about things like roominess and smoother rides.

A few years later, DDB stopped people in their tracks with self-effacing headlines for Volkswagen that completely changed how people thought about advertising. Remember, they were trying to sell German cars in the U.S. just 15 years after the end of World War II.

Before DDB, bread ads focused on the goodness of the product.

Bernbach decided to go after the consumer and address the bigger elephant in the room – why they WOULDN’T buy the product.

In the 50s, Scotch ads often featured a picture of the bottle with a line about where it came from or how smooth the taste was.

But, for Bernbach, creativity was about being more conceptual. Playing with words and employing fun double-entendres that were more engaging to the reader.

No one will argue that advertising was forever changed for the better by the creative revolution authored by Bill Bernbach and the likes of David Ogilvy, Ed McCabe, Mary Wells, George Lois and the other titans who roared through Madison Avenue. It’s an influence that created a movement of creative agencies coast to coast from Hal Riney, Howard Gossage, and Jeff Goodby in San Francisco, to Dan Wieden and David Kennedy in Portland, to Roy Spence and Stan Richards in Texas to David Martin and Harry Jacobs in Richmond. Generation after generation, the bar has been raised. And as it has, consciously or unconsciously, so has an idea that’s been limiting advertising agencies for more than 60 years.

CREATIVITY IS NOT A BIRTHRIGHT

Day in, day out, are creative people better at coming up with creative solutions to problems than other people in the company? Probably. And there are a number of reasons why that’s the case.

  • They are naturally talented creatively or artistically and that’s why they are in the job they’re in.
  • Their thinking naturally leans toward the creative and the abstract.
  • They went to school to study the creative arts.
  • They are gifted problem solvers and drawn to creativity.

Or, most importantly:

  • Creatives have the opportunity to focus on thinking, creating, concepting, problem solving, writing, art directing, and designing 40 to 50 hours a week.

That’s 2,000 to 2,500 hours a year. For a veteran who’s been in the business for 20 years, that’s 50,000 hours – five times the 10,000-hour rule Malcolm Gladwell suggests we need to achieve world-class skill.

When you consider an agency’s division of labor, it seems obvious and logical that creative work would come from the creative department. It should. The problem is not whether creatives should generate creative work. It’s the notion that ONLY creatives can generate creative work.

Admittedly, some agencies give more energy to this thought than others. But when producing great creative is woven into the DNA of the mission, values, and reputation of an agency, there is often a tendency to place greater focus, attention, or perceived value on the creative department and the people in it. For creatives, that can be good and bad. It can be a source of pride, but also a burden knowing so much rides on the quality of the work and that where glory comes, so too, comes blame.

In some agencies, there’s a sense that creatives are arrogant or territorial about their work. While that may or may not be the case, the feeling is certainly more easily propagated by the siloing of departments and honestly, may be misunderstood. Producing great creative work requires extraordinary vulnerability and, often, the perception of arrogance is really a matter of emotional defense and survival.

There are generations of reasons why the relationship between creatives and the rest of your company may be complicated and challenging. But to take your company to the next level, the answers don’t lie in looking behind you to try to figure out why that is. It’s looking forward and realizing the power of great ideas doesn’t just lie in the creative department. It’s in every corner of your company and in every person on your team. The opportunity to be creative isn’t a birthright. It’s something that can and should be shared by your entire team.

That’s not to say you give up structure and make everyone one big creative department. Division of labor certainly has its place. But what it does mean is setting the expectation that every person in your agency is capable of generating great ideas and is welcome to share them.

In Daniel Coyle’s book “The Culture Code,” he lists three things every leader has to provide to create an extraordinary culture – a feeling of safety, shared vulnerability, and established purpose. Not coincidentally – those are the same things that build the foundation for great creativity. The unlocking move is convincing your entire team that everybody’s welcome.

PUTTING CREATIVITY IN A SILO ONLY LIMITS IT

Granted, this is all easier said than done. 60 years is a lot of history to change in a blink. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It turns out author Robert Fulghum was right – everything we need to know, we learned in kindergarten. The answer lies in opening up the sandbox to let everyone play.

Today, most agencies still follow a siloed model with departments for creative, account service, media, and financial. Depending on the size of the agency you might add an art department, a production department, a proofing department, or others. Some agencies are so big these departments are on different floors and, were it not for the holiday party or the summer picnic, those folks would never see each other. Agencies that big provide a whole list of other challenges.

But for agencies like LOOMIS – those of us in the 30 to 75-person range – there is a real opportunity to disrupt the traditional model and do things differently. For us and for many other agencies that meant shifting from a departmental structure to a team structure — where creative, account service, and media people integrate into teams both physically and philosophically. Rather than walling off departmental thinking only shared in bits and pieces, we literally tore down the walls to open up the collaboration between all of our best thinkers, regardless of discipline.

Think of it as the difference between the relay and the tug-of-war. Where once we were running as hard as we could individually and then passing the baton to someone else to carry alone, now we are all pulling together, each empowered and inspired by the collective effort.

It’s still unfolding. But a funny thing happened when we shifted to the team approach. We realized how much thinking the siloed approach had been keeping in the dark. It wasn’t intentional. It was departmental. “I’m going to focus on what I do and let the experts in the other departments focus on what they do.”

Turns out it’s a lot more fun and productive when we play together.

7 WAYS TO SPARK CREATIVITY THROUGHOUT YOUR COMPANY

As it’s been said, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and you won’t transform the quality and quantity of your creative overnight. But there’s nothing keeping you from taking baby steps today. Start the process. Get the flywheel started and momentum will come.

To give you a starting point, here are seven ways we’ve sparked great creativity at LOOMIS. Try them and see which ones work best for your team.

SHIFT FROM DEPARTMENTS TO TEAMS

Clearly this is a big one, but do not underestimate the power that comes from collaboration. There’s an intellectual intimacy that comes from sharing the same work space and working toward a common goal. Many agencies with a traditional structure often experience this intimacy when they’re working on a new business pitch. Why? Because the “new business team” is more collaborative and tends to work in closer quarters. Not surprisingly, the results are often a step above what the agency normally produces. So why not find a way to shift to that approach for everything?

TEAR DOWN THE WALLS

Literally tearing down the walls can be expensive and difficult. But if you can, do it. Creative juggernauts like Pixar and Apple have extremely open offices and have wished in retrospect that they’d made their campuses more so. If physically removing walls isn’t possible, consider ways to at least facilitate collaboration. Convert larger offices into meeting spaces. Hold project meetings at a coffee house, microbrewery, or nearby park with open space. Places that don’t feel territorial puts everyone on equal footing.

CREATE A COMPETITION

Note, this says “create A competition” not “create competition.” Trust me, there is already plenty of competition going on in your agency — spoken or unspoken. Many agencies like the idea of pitting creative teams against each other in a conceptual battle royal and that certainly has its place. But day in and day out, it is more freeing for creatives to own their projects than to constantly be looking over their shoulders. That said, one of the best ways to spark creativity is to create a competition within the agency and encourage everyone to participate. Make it fun and simple. If we had an agency mascot, what would it be and what would we call it? What’s the concept for the agency softball team T-shirt? The theme for the holiday party? What should the agency give to clients for the holidays? What should be our next great playlist on Spotify?

CHANGE THE VIEW

Altering your view — not your perspective, but physically where you are sitting and what you’re looking at — can be a fantastic way to stimulate new thinking. Just as your thoughts change when listening to different styles of music, changing your environment and what you’re seeing visually can spark great creative thoughts. It’s also an incredibly affordable tactic. All you have to do is get up and move.

RALLY EVERYONE AROUND A PHILANTHROPIC EFFORT

Some of our greatest agency bonding moments over the past 18 years have come from joining hands to do good for others. We sorted food at the North Texas Food Bank. We boxed up thousands of shoes to benefit Buckner Children’s Home. For years, a small team at the agency organized quarterly outings where we could serve together, and they were always some of our favorite days of the year. Great creative thinking comes from stronger collaboration – even when that collaboration has nothing to do with creative.

LIVE YOUR BRANDS

In the midst of the agency grind, it’s easy to think about the brands you work on as a series of projects, or the advertising messages we create for consumers. Unconsciously, we start to think about our brands “on paper” and not as they really are. To snap us out of that mindset and to spark creativity, there is no substitute for experiencing the brand in its environment as a consumer, not a communicator. If it’s a restaurant client, go eat there. If it’s a bank, open an account. If it’s packaged goods, go to the grocery store. What does the surrounding environment look like? What are the touchpoints and obstacles to get to the brand? What are the barriers keeping consumers from seeing the vision for communication you had at the agency? Often experiencing your clients in the wild is a big eye-opener and there is no substitute.

CHALLENGE YOUR YOUNG PEOPLE

Your youngest people may often be your least confident, but, if you’ve hired well, they can potentially be your most talented. Challenge them. Give them a special project to work on with clear direction and plenty of time and see what they come up with. Young people come to challenges like this with what Adam Morgan, the father of challenger branding, calls “Intelligent Naivete.” For those of us with experience, intelligent naivete means looking at a challenge as though we know nothing. For those just out of school, it’s not a technique. It’s their reality. Challenge them to think big and they just might.

TINA TACKETT is the Executive Creative Director at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency. For more about challenger branding, subscribe to our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog

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account serviceadvertisingadvertising agencyBill Bernbachchallenger brandingcreativecreativityExecutive Creative DirectorLoomismarketingmedia firmteam modelteamworkThe Loomis AgencyThe Voice of The UnderdogTina Tackett

Tina Tackett

at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency

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