The trouble with account executives is that they don’t feel the same fear as we did when we first started."
You hear this a lot around the water-cooler these days, especially from senior account handlers who started out in the bigger, more famous shops. But what role does fear play in the modern agency?
Fear is natural in a recession. Downturns breed fear: budgets are squeezed and people who run brands take fewer risks. The 5 per cent innovation budget gets reallocated to search and progressiveness takes a back seat.
But, according to the latest IPA Bellwether Report, 2014 could be our industry’s best year since 2008. Marketers are feeling bullish about their company’s prospects and have more money to spend on advertising.
The combination of these two factors should clear a path for agencies to get braver, better creative work approved by their clients. But the kind of fear that begets bland advertising does not start and end with a brand’s marketing chief: it is deeply entrenched in agencies’ corporate structures and working practices. To really progress, particularly in a creative agency, we need to root it out at a more fundamental level.
The problem comes from years of professional and cultural conditioning. The best example of this is The Apprentice. Now, we’ve had a bit of experience of The Apprentice at Karmarama. Oh, how we laughed; a bit, anyway. But, at a cultural level, it’s more insidious. It shows us the ways people try to achieve influence over others. It’s the result of years of conditioning that competence comes from a blend of knowledge and skills through the application of strength. At school, we’re conditioned to achieve individual excellence. At work, we’re structured like the army, with hierarchy and job titles. One person’s opinion matters more because they’ve done it for longer and have a bigger job title. They then apply their strength to dominate and put down others in the group.
In advertising, it all goes back to the domination of the celebrity talent. The opinion of the few mattered more than others and they were to be obeyed at all costs. This cultivates a seam of fear throughout an organisation. People are scared to talk in meetings; they worry about looking stupid and being shot down by their more experienced bosses or specialists, so they keep their ideas to themselves.
But the era of domination by individual craft skills is coming to an end. What the creative industries previously saw as competence is becoming commoditised. We’ve now seen the rise of creative specialists and the project manager. Everything suddenly got very complicated. Our product has changed, the way we provide creative solutions to business problems has changed, but we’re not changing quick enough.
To display competence is now to deliver ideas that can thrive in this connected economy. It’s the ability to nurture and see them through to completion that matters and is what brands now require of us. The people increasingly qualified to have an opinion on this are not necessarily the most experienced. Competence is therefore shifting away from the established towards the native. However, our legacy structures and processes aren’t equipped to make the best use of them. Completely the opposite, in fact.
In advertising, it all goes back to the domination of the celebrity talent. The opinion of the few mattered more than others and they were to be obeyed at all costs. This cultivates a seam of fear
So we must not be scared of breaking down the old order of things. We need highly collaborative process and discipline specialists who aren’t afraid of working with clients and other agencies in purpose-built teams rather than the lead agency model. We need to look at new structures that allow this free flow of collaboration. The online retailer Zappos.com’s pledge to move to a self-governing holacracy with "no job titles and no managers" might not be the end solution. But I admire its desire to move to a role- and need-based structure.
More importantly, as individuals, leaders and skilled discipline experts, we need to take a close look at the way we behave. The celebrity talent or celebrity leaders with gargantuan egos all perpetuate this self-destructive culture of fear. As the author Jim Collins says, companies that succeed are led by people with a paradoxical blend of humility and professional will.
Our industry may be coming out of a fearful period but, to really create the conditions for better, more innovative work, we need to change faster. Ruthlessly editing anything that allows fear to fester, including our own behaviour. The devil may have the best lines and get all the press, but the nice guy you’ve never heard of is going to win.
James Denton-Clark is the managing director at Karmarama
What’s the bravest campaign of all time?
Andy Sandoz, creative partner, Work Club
Pot Noodle ‘the slag of all snacks’
"Creating huge fame and reach by buying an idea that damned your own product via a deeply inappropriate, sexist metaphor. Ultimately, tanking sales – as 14-year-olds don’t buy snacks, their mums do. Definitely of its time – the Loaded era. Just imagine the social media backlash if social media had existed."
Jonathan Burley, executive creative director, CHI & Partners
Pot Noodle ‘the slag of all snacks’
"It hardly takes Kong-sized conkers to make an ad, but I would suggest that, in its pomp, HHCL had bigger man-dumplings than most. The ‘slag of all snacks’ campaign for Pot Noodle (pictured above) would get my nomination for one of the agency’s finest moments. Gleefully celebrating the inherent vileness of the dehydrated filth it was trying to sell, it was a fine example of client and agency fully subscribing to the belief that there’s no risk in standout work – and that the only marketers who really put their love-spuds on the line are those who fritter away their budgets on polite campaigns that no-one notices. Balls to that."
David Kolbusz, deputy executive creative director, Bartle Bogle Hegarty
Three ‘the pony’
"In recent memory, the work that took the most guts to buy was Three’s ‘the pony’. And ‘gut’ is the key word here. It takes a special kind of client to trust their gut enough to say: ‘I want to see that, so others probably will too.’ The execution is so far removed from the product. I imagine that appealing to your existing and potential customer base by linking a dancing Shetland to your brand would be a hard thing for a client to get on board with. You would need to have faith in your agency’s ability to create a piece of communication so compelling that it would spread. And additional faith would be needed to believe that, by virtue of people’s interest in the campaign, you would generate the interest needed to up your numbers."