The 20,000-watt spotlight turned on Tim Ashton’s methods at Bates
Dorland has made Dave Buonaguidi and me think a little about our own
system. The contrast is interesting.
Before we were offered our job at Chiat Day, Dave and I were interviewed
by Jay Chiat who took us to a Japanese restaurant in Mayfair that was so
expensive the menu didn’t have prices.
After a minute or two of nervous smalltalk (all made by Dave and me),
Jay weighed in with his first question. ’So, in your opinion, what is
the job of a creative director?’ We coughed a bit and pretended to choke
on the green horseradish stuff, at which point he put us out of our
’Do you know what I think it is?’
We looked at him meekly.
’The job of a creative director is to make sure that no bad ads get
And there it was. It was crushingly disappointing. It wasn’t to lead
from the front. It wasn’t to create new standards of excellence for the
rest of the agency to follow. It wasn’t to be flamboyant and inspiring
at all costs.
It was to make sure that no bad ads get out. And the thing is, he was
An agency is really just a factory. It has a production line (research,
brief, creative work, research, creative development, production, final
ad - or something like that), and it has a product which, in the case of
the more interesting agencies, is creative and strategic excellence.
Being a creative director is like being the quality controller at that
So what do you do when you’re appointed to oversee a factory that’s
producing a poor-quality product, like Chiat Day in 1993 or Bates
Dorland in 1995?
Well, if an agency is used to doing poor work, then the first job is to
Because poor work is like poison. Its ’mitigating circumstances’ spread
throughout an agency and become precedents and excuses for poor work on
So the creative director/quality controller has to focus as much as
possible on eliminating the crap. It’s not the most glamorous route.
It’s certainly not a quick fix.
But once the agency can do quite good work as a matter of routine - and
once it fully understands what doing quite good work feels like - then
it’s in a position to raise its standards and do some reasonably good
And once the agency knows how to do reasonably good work, it’s in a
position to do some very good work. And then, after that, it can reach
After three years, that’s where I think we are at St Luke’s. Very good
work happens as a matter of routine. And just occasionally we produce
something wonderful. The production line doesn’t know what it feels like
to produce poor-quality work and so doesn’t produce it.
And I’m not joking. If you doubt me, then drop me a line and I’ll gladly
send you the five worst ads we’ve done in the past year. As long as
you’re prepared to send me yours. (No cheating. You have to dig deep
into your small-space stuff.)
But to return to Ashton’s approach. You inherit the dysfunctional
production line, gather the workers together, then tell them you’ll pay
pounds 20,000 to anyone who produces something special.
Sure, there’s plenty of motivation, but does anyone know how to do
That’s an observation. But I also have an objection. An objection to
that particular style of creative direction that sets as its objective a
couple of ’hits’ - one or two award-winners that will hopefully convince
the industry that you’ve succeeded - and also look good on the CV.
I mean, it’s one approach. But it’s no way to turn an agency around -
you have to do that the hard way.