EDITORIAL: Barker and Leeves must heed history

It's hard to escape a feeling of deja vu at the news that the long-serving creatives Larry Barker and Paul Leeves are setting up together as creative independents. The pair certainly have grand ambitions. Not for them the life of the creative carpetbagger. Their bag will be high-level creative problem-solving for which they will expect their customers to pay accordingly. What's more, Barker declares, this is a way of working whose time has come as agencies recognise the folly of retaining large creative departments when they can outsource.

For those whose memories stretch back to 1995, all this might sound a tad familiar. For a brief moment in time, creatives who, either through choice or necessity, were working outside the agency confines believed they had come of age. Fed up with being cast as a bunch of odd-jobbers, freelances began rebranding themselves as creative independents. They reasoned that recognition and respectability would be theirs because sizeable creative departments were becoming unsustainable.

There was even an attempt to form a professional association to represent their interests.

Eight years on, the concept of the creative independent seems to have lost much of its allure. Many of its leading advocates have drifted back into agency staff jobs, unable to convince clients of their ability to handle substantial assignments or agencies that employing them isn't to risk having cuckoos in the nest.

The independents never fully overcame the scepticism that they truly believed in their offering. A leading creative director at the time described them as "mostly old-school creatives who have lost highly paid agency positions". Such cynicism remains as widespread today.

Whether or not Barker and Leeves can be successful in their venture largely depends if the economic situation is hurting so much that this conservative industry is being forced to change. Logic suggests that major agencies could operate more efficiently by turning their creative directors into "commissioning editors" who act as quality controllers for largely outsourced work. Dave Alberts, Grey Worldwide London's incoming executive creative director, certainly appears to be moving in that direction.

They key question is how this will play with clients. They may resent subsidising creative department overheads but they like the comfort of a conventional agency.

Good luck to Barker and Leeves. But they will need to bear in mind the recent history of the creative independent phenomenon and learn from it.

As those remaining have proved, there's good and steady money to be made from clients keen to make the most of modest budgets. You just have to keep your expectations in check.

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