While they can add hugely to an agency's overheads, the quantity and quality of their output is bound to vary. That's inevitable when a breakthrough creative idea might take weeks to evolve or result from a single "lightbulb" moment. Indeed, a case has been made for paring down creative departments, turning creative directors into "commissioning editors" and farming out briefs to "creative collectives", who would organise themselves like lawyers in chambers.
Doubtless most agencies would baulk at such radical reform, fearful of a loss of control over the creative process. If so, then the alternative must be to make creative departments more productive. And that may mean moving beyond the next 30-second TV spot, the next print campaign or even the next burst of digital activity.
A fascinating insight into the way ahead comes from Mother. The agency, of course, created Monkey as the face of the doomed ITV Digital and, more recently, gave him a lease of life as the star of the current PG Tips campaign and mini film. It was an exercise in content creation. Now Mother has made a whole movie, with Eurostar and directed by Shane Meadows, called Somers Town (page 9).
Somers Town opens up obvious and exciting possibilities. Agency creative departments have a much more eclectic make-up than ever before. With such a wide range of talent - and with the prospect of ad budgets dropping in the upcoming bout of economic turbulence - can there be a more apposite time for agencies to be extending themselves into other forms of content? The only problem is the long-standing one of how they can make such a move profitably.
The answer is that they must take a more robust stance when it comes to protecting the ideas they used to give away for a pittance, knowing that the real money was to be made in the placing of their work. The time has come for agencies not only to take a more broad-based approach to creativity, but a more businesslike approach to exploiting it.