Richard Exon: Creativity is reliant on shared ambition, just ask Mary Portas

By Richard Exon, campaignlive.co.uk, Thursday, 27 October 2011 08:00AM

I had pretty low expectations of the Channel 4 show Mary Portas, Queen Of Frocks.

Richard Exon is the outgoing chief executive of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

Richard Exon is the outgoing chief executive of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

Nothing personal about Mary, of course; it just sounded like a less-than-original idea featuring somebody I don't particularly relate to. Little did I know the last episode would be as fine an exposition about managing creativity though a commercial organisation as could be imagined. It should be prescribed viewing for all of us in creative industry. One thing in particular stood out - creative ambition.

The premise of the show is that Portas creates a new collection for tired-old House of Fraser on Oxford Street. In doing so, she gets to ruffle feathers, reformat the store and hire new sales staff. To her eternal credit, it works. An overlooked demographic (women over 35 who don't want to dress like their daughters) flock to the revamped store and the cash pours in.

All pretty impressive, but what was extraordinary was to watch as a kind of institutionalised mediocrity at House of Fraser then tried to reassert itself. Nobody in management was being intentionally malign, but even as they saw their sales targets smashed, there was an overwhelming sense that they couldn't wait for this whole thing to be over.

Creativity is messy, disruptive, exciting and, in this case, hugely profitable. But, my God, we could hear them think: it's tiring, uncomfortable and challenging.

Like a lot of client companies, House of Fraser had briefed Portas with a business problem to which it wanted a creative answer. Again, like a lot of clients, it wanted something big, bold, brassy and, most of all, transformational. But it hadn't realised how much such a breakthrough would ask of it. At one ludicrous point, somebody explained to Mary that the lack of restocking was all to do with internal systems, which hopefully would recover once "normal trading" resumes (ie. everything will be fine once we get back to normal without all these pesky new customers). Extraordinary.

Anybody, client and agency alike, who has ever had to defend an idea as it gets chipped away, or who has delivered radical new thinking only to be asked to "dial it back a bit", will have felt sympathy with Portas towards the end. It was galvanising to see uncompromising, applied creativity have a demonstrable commercial effect on a business. But there was an ambition gap, and it made me realise how often our best work comes when client and agency have a shared sense of creative ambition.

It's a crowded world out there, and it's a fair bet that the stuff that really stands out, the stuff we love, cherish and remember, only happens when everyone involved is willing to move heaven and earth to get to the right answer.

Richard Exon is the outgoing chief executive of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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