For the sake of the ad industry, please think irresponsibly
A view from Ben Middleton

For the sake of the ad industry, please think irresponsibly

Data can make us smarter but greatness comes from being bold and taking risks, says Creature of London's founding creative partner.

Risk is a funny thing. What constitutes being risky is subjective and personal – but we all know what it feels like to take a risk. It can be exhilarating, it can be terrifying, it can either pay off big or make you want to hide from the world.

Like everyone else who’s done it, we took a big risk when we left our previous agencies to have a crack at running our own one. And it was terrifying. But we did it all the same. We took the risk and have never once regretted it: but it turns out that taking that first massive risk did some weird stuff to my perception of what risk means. Your idea of taking risks when you’re running a business is totally different to when you’re working within an agency. You have more responsibility to do it in some senses and less right to do it in others. Taking a risk on a script could mean a Pick (or a Turkey); taking a risk as a business owner could mean losing the client – and that’s people’s mortgages (or, more realistically, rent and beer money – thanks, London).

We’ve learned this over the past five years. In the sheer commercial terror of competing with the rest of you fuckers, we’ve found ourselves, at times, paralysed. And the reality is that we may have spent too much time making sure we’ve got work that we know is going to be good (note: not great), while protecting our client relationships and revenue base – and what has that produced? With a couple of honourable exceptions, five years of work that we’re hugely proud of but that we still believe could be better; and that often isn’t as good as what we’ve demonstrated we’re capable of when we’re insulated by the comfort of employment elsewhere. (And d’you know what? A couple of those clients still fucking left.)

Anyway. Point is: back then, we had nothing to lose and the work we were doing was better for it.

So at the tail end of last year, we decided that we wanted to be better. We called an all-agency meeting, in which we introduced a series of pledges to drive all of us to make a fuck-ton of famous, award-winning work that we hoped would inspire and galvanise every part of our gang – from account management to finance to office management to strategy to creative – into being fucking incredible.

Which was great: but the writing of the pledges freaked us out a bit. One of them was "I will take risks" – why were we having to tell people who’d chosen to work in advertising to take risks?

That was when we realised that our sense of responsibility had spread, and that we’d created a culture full of brilliant people where being "responsible and good" sometimes trumped being "risky and potentially great".

In short – fuck. 

But the thing is, I don’t think we’re the only ones. I suddenly realised that out there in industry-land there are very few risks actually being taken. Smart, responsible advertising has taken the place of great advertising. There are a handful of shops that don’t do this all the time. That sometimes take risks, have a punt and actively cultivate a culture of creative risk-taking. They’re the ones making the best work. But they’re in the minority.

Which leads me to "big data" – the lifeboat our industry is tethering itself to in increasingly choppy seas. I’m not saying that big data can’t help with advertising – but it’s not going to save our industry. Big data isn’t going to write Guinness "Surfer", come up with the idea for Nike+ FuelBand or turn December into John Lewis Month. The data giants scream "RELEVANCE", as if anyone’s ever walked out of a cinema shouting: "I loved that, it was so fucking RELEVANT." Data can make us smarter, but it can’t make us great. That one’s on us. And that one means taking risks; which is why we’ve tasked everyone in our gang over here at Creature with doing just that.

Because, to be blunt, if you’re not taking risks, then what are you doing working in advertising in the first place?

This year, we’ll be taking a lot more risks with our work – starting with this article. Our heads are definitively above the parapet, I guess. Inevitably, we’ll fuck up a bit, but at least we’ll know we’re trying. Please, for the sake of our industry, let’s all be a bit more irresponsible. Let’s misbehave. It might just be amazing.

Ben Middleton is founding creative partner of Creature of London
@Creature_Ben