Sometimes, particularly at the start of a new year, I look back at readers’ questions that, for some reason, I didn’t answer when they first arrived. My most common reason for failing to come up with an answer is because I couldn’t think of one and didn’t want to expose my ignorance.
That was particularly true some ten years ago when every second question was about something called Digital. No two people agreed on what Digital was or, indeed, wasn’t; nor whether it was going to take over the planet or settle down as just another useful part of our available palette. Prudently (some would say chickenly), I more or less kept out of the Digital debate until it lost both its upper-case D and most of its buzz. It seems to me that familiarity and usage have seen digital settling in quite comfortably – though I’ve still no idea why it’s called digital.
Below, to mark the start of another new year, are a couple of old questions I’ve previously ducked.
Dear Jeremy, Is it possible to be big and highly creative? A look at the international agencies’ London offices suggests that it’s a real challenge.
I’ve always ducked this one because all my experience, itself now a distant memory, was of a big agency; and we managed to produce our fair share of work that was judged by others to be highly creative. I knew I was biased – and expect I still am – but I’ve always found the unspoken assumption behind this question truly puzzling.
If it were true that a large agency finds it more difficult to be highly creative than a small one, then why precisely should that be? The real working unit in an agency, irrespective of size, is the account group. And account groups can be as nifty and nimble as the smallest hotshop. In fact, I’m pretty certain that size, of itself, need have no direct bearing on an agency’s ability to produce highly creative work. But it does have a definite indirect effect.
Almost by definition, a small (especially a small, new) agency is much more likely than an established large agency to have a discernible house style. With a relatively short client list, it’s easy for outsiders to detect similarities in approach and execution. But as small agencies grow bigger, which they do in part by demonstrating their ability to develop an almost infinite number of brand styles, house style becomes far less apparent; as indeed it must. It follows that good small agencies will always have a more clearly defined profile than good large agencies.
So it further follows (ask any intermediary) that many a client, when hunting for a new agency, will be attracted to agencies widely known to have been responsible for highly visible work – of a kind that the potential client, rightly or wrongly, believes his business needs. It could well be that many larger agencies could show work at least as inventive (and almost all can) – but since such work contributes far less proportionately to overall agency reputation, it attracts less attention. High-profile agencies with a clearly defined creative reputation are, deservedly, more likely to attract new clients hoping for a similar approach (occasionally too similar).
So while it’s unquestionably true that a higher proportion of a good small agency’s work will be self-evidently "highly creative", it’s not simply because it is small. It’s because its portfolio of work isn’t yet as varied in style as a good large agency’s has to be.
It’s useful to remember that the fabulous Doyle Dane Bernbach of the 50s and 60s – they of Avis and Levy’s bread and Volkswagen and El Al and Chivas Regal – never managed to be of any value to Lever Brothers.
A look at the output of international agencies’ London offices today suggests that highly creative work can, indeed, come from anywhere. But then I’m biased.
Dear Jeremy, Why are so many media people going to Australia – is it the equivalent of media retirement?
I didn’t answer this one because I didn’t know that a lot of media people were going to Australia, let alone why, and I didn’t think you’d be particularly interested in my answer even if I had. Are you?
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