Media Forum: Can media agencies be truly creative?

ZenithOptimedia recently appointed a creative director. Is the agency having a joke? Alasdair Reid investigates

Few things reveal as much about media agency insecurities than their attitude to the "C" word. No, not Chelsea; nor even cocaine. We are, of course, referring to creativity. The media world has been hung up on all things creative for years but these days it is erupting into a full-blown obsession.

The mere mention of "creative agencies" can make sensitive communications specialists scowl. It's misleading, they say, to talk about the industry in such ways. The subtext being, of course, that "such talk" disadvantages media agencies right from the start in somehow implying they aren't able to think creatively. And media agencies are doing everything they can to wrest back at least some of the high ground.

They fret about their relationship with (sorry) creative agencies, working hard to spike assumptions about who naturally should be the senior player in the partnership; they watch and learn as the likes of Naked infiltrate crack specialist units right into the heart of (sorry again) creative agencies. They form high-concept planning (and lateral thinking) agencies designed not just to push the envelope but to reinvent it. Some of them even have the sheer bloody-minded effrontery to make the supremely defiant gesture - by appointing creative directors.

As ZenithOptimedia did last week when it appointed Lucy Banks in just such a role. She joins from Initiative where she held the same position.

Obviously, she won't be making ads or spending too much time with the coloured pencils - her job will be to generate "more creatively effective planning solutions for clients".

Antony Young, the chief executive of ZenithOptimedia UK Group, argues that the lines between creative and media are blurring. "It doesn't matter which side of the agency world you sit in, we all have a responsibility to fuel creativity. Appointment of a creative director is our commitment to deliver more effective marketing communications," he states.

The challenge for the creative director position, he adds, is to inspire and motivate bigger and braver media thinking and ideas across the agency.

He explains: "One of our core principles is to take a greater level of responsibility in communication effectiveness. To achieve this, we need to shift our emphasis away from just delivering coverage and frequency and focus more on how consumers receive media communication."

Does this sort of thing really work? It could be seen as superficial on one level and slightly desperate on another. And presumably it will be the client who picks up the bill for this extra creativity. How will they feel about that?

Jonathan Durden, the president of PHD Group, agrees that the industry seriously needs to embrace creativity one way or another - but he argues that if you're going to do it at all, you should do it properly. "This is not something you can do overnight. It can't be done by appointing just one person and it's difficult to do if you don't have a history of appointing people with creative credentials," he says.

However, he applauds anyone putting any resource whatsoever behind this sort of thing. He adds: "If we don't do this we are doomed to become procurement fodder - and the past couple of years have seen the industry going backwards. Some pitches recently could have been conducted on eBay."

But who pays? Andy Pearch, the chief executive of Billetts Media Consulting, doesn't see this as an additional paid-for service. "Instead, ZenithOptimedia will absorb this into its cost base and view it as an investment in customer service and acquisition," he reckons.

Basically, he sees this as a very positive move. The challenge, he says, is to embed creative thoughts within the media process and he also sees the opportunities to build new revenue streams, such as brand consultancy and client workshops.

Do clients themselves see it that way? Oliver Cleaver, the European media director of Kimberly-Clark, isn't ready to comment on this particular appointment, but admits to feeling scepticism about this sort of move in general.

He states: "Creativity is of immense value to advertisers and, of course, we are prepared to pay for outstanding creative thinking. There are even greater pressures on media agencies to make advertisers stand out. But creativity is a state of mind and it certainly isn't about appointing someone like Colin the Office Joker from The Fast Show - as you feel it sometimes is with some media agencies. Nor should it be about looking over the shoulder of media planners and saying: 'Don't forget to be creative today.'"

- "Upping our focus on creativity will increase our energy on the new currencies of media: interest, engagement and connection. The endgame for us remains better business results for our clients and that's how we will test the quality of our creativity." - Antony Young chief executive, ZenithOptimedia UK

- "The worry is that using this title just makes people smirk in wine bars. It makes people suspect this is window dressing - someone who is wheeled out for pitches in between trying to devise ways of using origami executions in magazine campaigns." - Jonathan Durden president, PHD Group

- "The best creative thinkers are able to turn current thinking on its head and rejuvenate brands and their media strategies. The task for ZenithOptimedia management is to build that into the media process." - Andy Pearch chief executive, Billetts Media Consulting

- "I'm afraid the immediate feeling is that this sort of job title is sometimes created by rather staid organisations to make themselves seem more interesting. It's a great new-business gimmick but the damage it can do is to make it appear that creativity is glib and easy." - Oliver Cleaver European media director, Kimberly-Clark.

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